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Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

13 Apr

If you were still wondering whether disco has truly made a comeback in 2020, look no further than Dua Lipa’s sophomore album, Future Nostalgia . With a stark departure from the dance-pop sensibilities of her eponymous debut album, Dua Lipa brings her modern spin on retro-fabulous to the table. Yet somehow, it’s not all disco. Lipa has managed to concoct a dance album that simultaneously draws inspiration from three decades of pop music – yet feels fresh, fun and timeless.

Dua Lipa has always been a Cool Girl™. She’s suave, she’s a sharp dresser, and she’s seemingly stolen Lady Gaga’s spot as a pop queer icon (at least until Chromatica drops later this year). Future Nostalgia feels like the first time that she’s dropped the image and just had fun with it, for a change.

If you’re looking for deep lyrical content on this album, then you’re barking up the wrong tree. Most tracks on this album are sexually-charged love songs or radio-pop anthems peppered with cookie-cutter feminist slogans. But there’s no denying that Dua Lipa knows how to make a good pop banger that gets you moving.

The album opens strong with “Future Nostalgia”, a song that clearly spells out Lipa’s thesis statement for the album (“You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game”). “Don’t Start Now” is an upbeat heartbreak anthem, a strange juxtaposition of themes that shouldn’t work, but somehow does – and incredibly well, too. With “Physical”, a dancercise-style synth-pop track, Dua Lipa embraces the retro sound to her advantage. The chorus is a direct reference to Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 hit “Let’s Get Physical”, and she employs a classic 80s song structure, complete with a hand-clapping bridge section. Yet somehow, the track feels modern and light, all while giving you the intense urge to throw on a pair of spandex and (poorly) follow along with a Jazzercise VHS tape.

Out of the eleven tracks on the album, the first ten of them could be individually released as successful lead singles- it’s just one frenetic synth-pop disco dream after the next. The stand-out pieces, though, are neatly nestled in the middle of the tracklist. “Levitating”, an interstellar-themed track with deceptively simple vocal work, sounds like it was copped straight from The Weeknd’s repertoire. Not surprising, since Lipa herself names Daft Punk (along with Madonna, Gwen Stefani and Kylie Minogue to name a few) as one of her muses for her new “retro-futuristic” sound. With the heavy pounding choruses and dreamy verses on “Hallucinate”, Dua Lipa explores Europop, a frequently overlooked relic of the 80s and 90s that hasn’t seen much traction since the Spice Girls era of pop.

That isn’t to say that this album is perfect. “Good in Bed”, a Lily Allen-style bop, has some of the worst rhymes we’ve seen (- bad – sad – mad -), and will incessantly annoy you with how catchy this objectively trashy track is. That’s another bone to pick with Dua Lipa’s work: the vacant lyrical content.  Sure, most pop stars have always stuck to a handful of topics – usually love, romance and heartbreak – but you’d expect something more, thematically speaking, from a modern feminist pop icon like Dua Lipa. However, the one time she does try to explore a different subject matter on “Boys Will Be Boys”, it falls entirely flat. Dua Lipa means well with this number as she attempts to speak up about women’s rights and gender roles, but she ends up putting a sudden and final damper on an otherwise fun, upbeat and perfect pop album.

But maybe, given the state of the world in April 2020, a groovy dance-your-way-through-the-decades style pop album is what we need right now. There’s a reason disco makes a comeback every few years- it’s fun, it’s uplifting, and most importantly it’s infectious! Dua Lipa has truly perfected the art of a perfect pop album. You can throw it on, dance it out and take her advice to heart: “Don’t take yourself too seriously and just have fun with it!”

Lil Wayne – Funeral

9 Apr

At this point, it’s nothing short of ridiculous to argue against Lil Wayne’s importance. Music today has his fingerprints all over it and his absence has been nothing short of criminal. Weezy’s singularity, his energy, his unexpectedness and creativity, and the fact that he has prodigious enough skill to pull off his more absurd tricks with all of the above are things that rap has sorely missed.

Funeral has Wayne return to something more of a mixtape sensibility and the return to mixtape Weezy is welcome, even if it’s not 2006 anymore. He’s loose and having fun here and there’s some quite good music that comes from it. Right at the beginning of the album he goes hard in “Mahogany.” He has a velocity with his raps that always feels breathless, but he’s in such control throughout.

When he goes hard here, he does really well. “Ball Hard” really stands out for what he can just do as a rapper. He just drops a stream of consciousness on the listener, but he’s so good a rapper that it grabs you the whole way. Throughout, when he just lets go and raps, the album shines. “Bing James” and “Not Me” showcase him as just a rapper and are highlights.

His experiments are more of a mixed bag though. “Dreams” is interesting and it’s a very Lil Wayne song. This is the kind of thing that we’ve been missing without him. However, while “Sights and Silencers” might be interesting for its inclusion as a slow R&B jam, it’s just not good enough to warrant that inclusion. “I Don’t Sleep” has a solid flow, but the venture into pop-trap with Offset ends up forgettable overall. “Trust Nobody” with Adam Levine is just unfortunate.

There is undoubtedly some air in this album, but it still has a lot of solid music. It doesn’t really have anything that’s a must-listen and that’s what really holds it back from being a full return to Weezy’s peak, but it’s still fun and a good reminder of who exactly Lil Wayne can be.

Christine and the Queens – La vita nuova

5 Apr

The new Christine and the Queens EP is good upbeat pop. It’s fun, uptempo music and eminently danceable. It’s infectious and very consistent. I don’t think there’s a single moment here that could be considered a misstep. The quality is startlingly high throughout.

For all of that though, there isn’t anything here that truly elevates the album either. I’m very much enjoying listening to it right now, but I don’t think that I’m going to return to it again. If you’re looking for something entertaining and lively, this is perfect for right now, even if it maybe won’t be as perfect tomorrow.

Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony

1 Apr

A Written Testimony is a surprisingly pleasant listen. You don’t expect a rap album right now to be something so bracing, but this is like drinking the first good cup of tea in a day.

The first part of that is the Nation of Islam theme that runs through the album. It’s honestly pretty understated, but it’s still an important touch and one that sets the tone for the album. More than that though, the album is at its best when it’s laid-back, unhurried and clean. Jay Electronica’s rap in “Ezekiel’s Wheel” does this perfectly and the beat takes its time underneath it and then Jay-Z comes in to close the album with quite as much tranquility as the rest.

Hova shows up for no less than nine of the ten tracks here and he’s in form. The serene raps and quiet beats work really well for him. He’s very fluid throughout. His singing in closer “A.P.I.D.T.A.” is halting and soft and really gets the emotion through. Electron then comes in and takes his time with the verse to get it to land well. Between their deliberateness and the interestingly twangy beat underneath, the song feels like folk-rock despite clearly falling under fairly traditional rap. It’s very well done.

Similarly, they trade good, leisurely bars on “Universal Soldier.” Jay Electronica’s punchy, heavy flow features well throughout. His lines are haymakers, they’re ponderous, but land with weight. Jay-Z is of course Jay-Z. We all know who Hova is.

The sound is no monolith though, “Ghost of Soulja Slim” has strong Dan Tha Automator vibes. It reminds me of a Deltron cut and Jay-Z goes hard in it. Jay Electronica has done strong work on the production throughout. He has clever, stripped down beats like in “Shiny Suit Theory” that elevate the sound.

There’s still a little filler here though. The Swizz Beatz-produced “The Blinding” feels too much like an outtake from Watch The Throne. It’s pretty solid once it hits its flow and there are some interesting pieces in there, but it doesn’t fit and it doesn’t do much by itself either.

This is a strong rap album though. It’s good to see Jay Electronica finally release his debut album. I don’t know if he still counts as a newcomer, but it’s close enough and it’s good to see him come out so strong. It’s just as good to see Jay-Z keep showing us that he still has it and his elder statesman era is an excellent, exciting evolution.

Overall, A Written Testimony doesn’t quite do anything breathtaking. It’s not a classic. It is very good though and worth checking out for something that is straightforward about what it does and skilled at doing it.

The Weeknd – After Hours

25 Mar

It’s still a little hard to come to terms with the end of the Trilogy-era Weeknd, but he’s left that mixtape period long behind him. What we have now is less consistent and less directed, but more accessible and definitely much more appropriate for the star that he has become. The man is even doing movies now.

The music is still good though, perhaps the best that he’s made since ascension. As always, his voice is his greatest strength. It’s high pitched, but strong nonetheless and very richly textured. And, as always, the loucheness of his character works very well with it. When he yelps “But if I OD, I want you to OD right beside me” in “Faith,” his voice is what really sells the point.

“Faith,” in fact, works as a good showpiece for the more modern Weeknd sound. It uses a heavy, pulsating Metro Boomin’ beat to drive it forward while Abel’s voice dances above it. His dissipated storytelling matches both the griminess of the beat and the etherealness of his voice. He even has the genius to cut the beat for things like the line above and also for the outro, giving his voice that much more time in the spotlight.

This is the same general formula that he’s used for a while now, and it works well for a fair bit here. The 80s-style upbeat journey through a too-early-to-be-early city of “Flashing Lights” is excellent. “After Hours” is a banger and a testament to his strength as a singer. He hits all his points flawlessly and effortlessly. ‘Too Late” is similarly strong. “Escape From LA” could have been something of a cliche, but he works well in well-trodden scenes and he can pull off lines like “LA girls all look the same / I can’t recognize / Same work done on they face / I don’t criticize.”

Some of it is just too close to straight pop though. “Scared To Love” is just painfully predictable. “Save Your Tears” is boring and goes on for far too long. “In Your Eyes” has a sax interlude that should be fun, but instead goes too far into the uninteresting side of old school pop.

“Snowchild” should have the same problems. It goes on for too long and needs more twists. His voice is able to save it though. He is just that good a singer. Besides, he has the line “She like my futuristic sounds in the new spaceship / futuristic sex, give her Phillip K. dick.” in it.

It all really comes together in “Heartless” though. It’s the same formula as above, but done so very well. It’s frenetic, it’s self-loathing and it’s self-destructive. It’s ominous and sexy for it. It’s even danceable. It’s absolutely as good as the best of what he’s done before.

After Hours is still more commercial than I would have wanted from The Weeknd. It’s also just not the classic that I’ve been waiting for from the new-era Weeknd. It is however still very good modern R&B and, while there is some undeniable filler, there’s also a lot of absolutely top-tier music in here.

Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake

20 Mar

Uzi just keeps moving the music forward. There’s just so much in Eternal Atake, so much cleverness, so much fire and so much that’s unexpected. Uzi’s new album is urgent, energetic and unmissable.

Firstly, he just goes so hard in this. He puts so much pace on “Homecoming” that the song steams with sweat. It’s relentless and tireless. “POP” is frenetic and “You Better Move” is almost punishing and yet the two only serve as a launchpad for “Homecoming.” Even then though, they have highlights of their own. His chant of Balenci’ is breathtaking in “POP.” It holds a white-hot intensity for so long that it puts you in a lather just to listen to it.

“You Better Move” has a yelped shout-out to Yu-Gi-Oh! that just sticks. This is the other thing about the album. Uzi is just really likeable. I love the random call-outs. I love the space themes. Uzi has that charisma.

Above all though, he just has the ear for music. He puts together sounds fearlessly and pulls in the most unexpected sounds with impeccable smoothness. This is showcased by his going back to his break-out “XO Tour Llif3” with “P2.” This could have gone very poorly, but he manages it cleanly and his take on “That Way” actually works well. His crooning is maybe a little grating, but the sound is just so clever that it’s more than forgivable.

He’s got such versatility here. His crooning works, I love his hard raps and he’s fantastic in the more traditional songs like “Futsal Shuffle 2020.” He traps excellently in “Secure The Bag” where his hook of “This is a game” is sublime. He yelps perfectly against the sublime Asian-inflected trap beat of “Pieces.” He changes flow fluidly in “Bigger Than Life.”

This album feels like the bebop of the trap world. It’s challenging and demands your focus, but it has so many rewards for your attention. It’s deeply textured and there’s so much to provoke thought in the details here. His yelps, his ad-libs, the pauses in his raps all can catch you by surprise. It’s all just so clever.

This is an excellent album and if it only had a truly stand-out single, this would be a masterpiece. As is, it’s merely fantastic and something that you should definitely listen to.

Tame Impala – The Slow Rush

12 Mar

Nearly five years after mainstream-breaking Currents (2015), Australian psychedelic rock act Tame Impala is back with a new album. With a fuller ethos and nods to a wider palette, The Slow Rush finds Kevin Parker, the one-man driving force behind the act, at his most accessible – and the jury is out on whether that’s necessarily a good thing.

Comparisons to Currents are of course expected. That album was packed to the brim with endlessly-playable mega-hits, interspersed with wisps of ethereal fillers (see: “Gossip”, “Nangs“). It had instant classics like “The Less I Know the Better” and “Let It Happen” that redefined what a mainstream psychedelic rock song could sound like, taking back the mantle from the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Pink Floyd. You knew Currents was a magical ride from the first song – no matter how many times you heard it all the way through.

On The Slow Rush, there are definitely a few such stand-out moments. One of our first tastes of the album was “Borderline”, released almost a year ago to high praise. The song see-saws constantly between cautious synth-rock verses and a feverish chorus, as do the lyrics – “We’re on the borderline / Caught between the tides of pain and rapture,” he says. Accentuated by Parker’s signature Doppler-effect fades, the result is almost a Moebius strip of sound – happy, sad, pained, rapturous all at once – coiled inside one “loner in L.A.”. And even better than “Borderline” is “Breathe Deeper”, a dreamy gem hidden halfway into the album. We’ve already lauded this song, but it honestly deserves all that and more – an intoxicating mix of R&B, house and cool indie pop filtered through the distorted mess of Kevin Parker’s mind.

Beyond these two tracks, though, the roster varies quite a bit. There are tunes like “Instant Destiny”, where Parker comes across, well, boring. “This traffic doesn’t seem quite as annoying / quite alright, quite alright, sittin’ here,” he intones, on what’s essentially a fuzzed-out pop song about L.A.’s I-405. “Tomorrow’s Dust” sounds like he dialed it in with a generic falsetto over a borrowed Vampire Weekend guitar layer. “It Might Be Time” has some neat drums on the eponymous sections, but largely sounds like it could be filler music on an 80s-themed sci-fi show (we’re thinking Stranger Things?).

So what changed? Domestic bliss, we surmise. In the inter-album five-year-stretch, Parker has gotten married; with that change, he seems to have welcomed some much-needed contentment with life. Unfortunately, his music is best when the tension between his anxiety and genius is at near-snap tautness – and some of that has perhaps slackened with the arrival of Mrs. Kevin Parker.

The Slow Rush finds Parker at a personal best but a professional middle. He’s figured out some of the bigger pieces in his core psychological struggles, and the end-product is, with some exceptions, somewhat staid (for Tame Impala). And it doesn’t help that this comes after Currents, one of the best albums this side of 2000. All in all, give The Slow Rush a whirl – but this one’s probably for the fans.

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