Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy

23 Dec

Chances are, you’ve heard Cardi B rap at some point this year. Maybe you’ve heard her chart-topping hits, “Bodak Yellow” or “I Like It”. Maybe you’ve heard her guest spot on Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You”, or her collaboration with Bruno Mars on “Finesse”, or her verse on Migos’ “MotorSport”. The point is, she was everywhere this year, and for good reason: Invasion of Privacy is the best debut album of 2018.

Part of Cardi’s allure is her stranger-than-fiction, modern-day origin story. At 19, Cardi B (born Belcalis Almanzar in the Bronx) was fired from her humdrum job in a supermarket, and turned to stripping to help pay her way through school. The stripping job led to a buzzy social media persona, which landed a spot on a VH1 reality TV show, which in turn opened up an opportunity in rap. This extraordinary series of events, combined with her livewire personality, have created a brand so strong that sometimes it’s unbelievable to think that Cardi’s been a rapper for only two years.

Of course, as anyone with fifteen minutes of fame can tell you, brand alone is never enough. On Invasion of Privacy, Cardi B pairs this outsize brand with a gift for great beats, amazing delivery, self-confidence and playful wordplay. The result is a fun and surprisingly repeatable album.

Let’s get the famous tracks out of the way first. Unless you’ve been living under a rock this year, you’ve heard “Bodak Yellow” and its numerous instant-classic lines (“I don’t dance now / I make money move”, “These expensive, these is red bottoms / These is bloody shoes”). With its mystical lilt, gunfire flow and inimitable accent, this is essentially Cardi B’s warning shot to the world: “Lil bitch, you can’t fuck with me, if you wanted to”.

The other ubiquitous Cardi B hit, “I Like It”, switches it up with a Bronx take on a classic Latin American vibe. In between the infectious earworm of a chorus, Cardi B lists out some of her favorite things, like a garish, contemporary Maria von Trapp. Any two-bit rapper can list their choice luxury goods – Balenciaga and what-have-you – but Cardi takes it a step further by listing out her favorite power plays: “I like texts from my exes when they want a second chance / I like proving niggas wrong, I do what they say I can’t”. True wealth is power, and Cardi – the self-confident stripper, the viral social media sensation, the reality TV star – is all power.

At all points of her chameleon career, fascinated eyes have fallen on Cardi’s body – and she knows what works best. On “Money Bag”, she gives herself the best compliments: “With them pretty ass twins, you look like Beyonce”, she brags in third-person, following it up later with “I’m like a walkin’ wishlist”. It’s a breath of fresh air from other female rappers whose brags seem to focus solely on bedroom performance (lookin’ at you, Nicki).

All braggadocio aside, however, the best moment of Invasion of Privacy lies perhaps on the stripped-back “Get Up 10”. At over 800 words long and with hardly a repeating line, this is Cardi’s life story told through a raw and passionate voice. From the opening couplet (“Look, they gave a bitch two options: strippin’ or lose / Used to dance in a club right across from my school”) to the chorus (“Knock me down nine times, I get up ten”), Cardi paints her remarkable backstory in equal swathes of motivation, humor and outright defiance.

In his 2008 book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000-hour rule: once you put in 10,000 hours of practice into anything, you suddenly start to notice incredible results. Even though Invasion is a debut, Cardi knocks it out of the park because she’s clever enough to laterally combine bits and pieces of her past into that magic number. She’s already got 10,000 hours of sheer self-confidence, of succeeding under long odds, of monetizing popularity in the digital age. If “Bodak” was the warning shot for Cardi, then Invasion is the warning shot for her entire career. We’re going to be hearing much more from Cardi for sure.

Best songs: “Bodak Yellow”, “I Like It”, “Get Up 10”

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The Voidz – Virtue

20 Dec

Over the years, there have been numerous side projects of The Strokes’ members. Lead singer Julian Casablancas had a short-lived solo act, while lead guitarist Albert Hammond Jr has had a string of well-received albums (including one that we loved this year). However, the most intriguing project has consistently been the New York group known as The Voidz.

Consisting of six musicians (and led by Casablancas), The Voidz are perhaps an alternate-reality version of The Strokes: one where the immense mainstream success of the latter’s debut Is This It did not stop them from fully exploring their musical capabilities. Quirky, eclectic, and mind-numbingly creative, Virtue is perhaps Casablancas’ most inspired music since the matchless Is This It.

What stands out the most on Virtue is the vast number of musical styles that it manages to touch. The band has mentioned in interviews that their creative push comes from the members’ wide-ranging tastes – and it’s easy to see that here.

QYURRUS” can perhaps be described as Arabic Autotune, with Casablancas’ literally unintelligible vocals often sounding like a foreign language (and / or a cult leader). Strangely, though, the song’s freakishly morphed melody gets stuck in your head; sort of like musical Stockholm Syndrome. On the immediate next song, The Voidz swerve with “Pyramid of Bones”, featuring hard rock verses that devolve frequently into a full-on death metal chorus.

Pink Ocean” is something else altogether: a slinky, vaguely pessimistic number that relies on Casablancas’ famous falsetto (see: “Instant Crush”). Toward the end of the album, “We’re Where We Are” frazzles the soul with its barked-out political commentary (“New holocaust happening / What, are you blind? / You’re in Germany now, 1939”) and hell-raising anger.

Not to say that all of Virtue is crazy stuff, either: Casablancas thankfully dips into Strokes-y brilliance once in a while. Album opener “Leave It in My Dreams” is an instantly nostalgic tune with clean guitars, sharp drums and some of Casablancas’ most emotive vocals. “ALieNNatioN” is more sinuous and mysterious, but has many of the same broadly pleasant elements. There may be a lot of strange sounds on “All Wordz Are Made Up” (cowbell, anyone?), but the classic dance-pop beats push the marker from weird to fun. “Wink” and its cousin “Lazy Boy” could make frequent rotations on your favorite pop station, with lush rhythm guitars, laconic vocals and beautiful melodies.

There are fifteen songs on Virtue, and frankly, each of them deserve their own page-length homage. This is an album that rewards you with something new on every single listen. Highly recommended, no matter what your tastes are.

Best songs: “Leave It in My Dreams”, “QYURRYUS”, “All Wordz Are Made Up”

P.S. The album has generated many great music videos, but perhaps the best is the one for “All Wordz Are Made Up”. If it’s this interesting while sober, we can only imagine…

88Rising – Head In The Clouds

19 Dec

88rising is my pick for the most exciting label around right now. There’s a lot of talent in East Asia and some truly excellent music is coming out of the area. Some people have already seen some amount of crossover appeal and Head In The Clouds is a solid attempt at expanding that reach.

A good amount of the album is quite good. Most of the music with the headliners of Higher Brothers, Rich Brian and Keith Ape are quite good. “Disrespectin” is a really interesting cut with a fascinating trap / world beat, a great chorus from AUGUST 08 and excellent rapping from DZ and Maswei that mixes Chinese and English. The polylinguism is one of the coolest things about the album. Many of the artists are fully capable of smooth transitions from one language to another and it makes for quite impressive listening. Keith Ape switches both language and flow on a dime in “Japan 88”, although unfortunately the chorus and beat both drag a little too long in that song.

Unfortunately, past the main attractions, the music is largely a little weak. Some of the guests, like BlocBoy JB do nothing and I’m not into “La Cienega”. Even “Midsummer Madness” is just unlistenable due to the terribly trite chorus and beat. The rapping is solid in parts, but not solid enough to save the song and it’s actually bad in the rest.

However, much of the music is excellent. “Nothing Wrong” is solid Higher Brothers and “Lover Boy 88” is quite fun with some excellent crooning. It’s not a flawless album, but it is a very worthwhile look at some really interesting music coming from contemporary East Asia.

@murthynikhil

Lil Peep – Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2

15 Dec

Lil Peep was the best of the emo rappers. The shape of music to come has been altered by his absence.

This posthumous album doesn’t really change or expand the legacy that Peep was able to leave behind, but it does a lot to consolidate it. Songs like “IDGAF” and “White Girl” continue the drowned, sluggish sound he broke out with and “Broken Smile” is also a standout track.

The highlight though is “Life Is Beautiful”. This might be the dark anthem for a whole generation. It is able to both be completely sincere in the titular chorus and completely honest about the pain he describes. There’s a lot more to this than the sophomoric point of finding beauty in the pain that every emo high schooler has thought original to themselves. He found the humanity in the sentiment.

This is an album that is completely open about what it feels. Lil Peep cut straight to what he was feeling and straight to your heart with the same stroke. I just wish he had more time.

@murthynikhil

Albert Hammond Jr. – Francis Trouble

14 Dec

Albert Hammond Jr. is perhaps best known for being the Strokes’ lead guitarist, and later for three decently-received solo albums. On his fourth album, Francis Trouble, Hammond Jr. knocks it out of the park with a record that rivals the his best output with Julian and the boys.

The story behind Francis Trouble is fascinating, and perhaps hints why Hammond’s fourth outing is, so far, his best. According to Rolling Stone, Francis was Hammond’s twin, but died in utero while Albert survived. In a way, Francis Trouble is a posthumous rendition of this long-lost, never-found twin’s personality: boisterous, spirited, and not bogged down by the baggage (positive and negative) that might plague his more-famous sibling.

In between the frenetic drums on “Muted Beatings”, we hear Francis’ hesitant but passionate claims of not caring about his lover (“Like awaitress, too good to forget”), if he had the chance to be around for that sort of thing. “Screamer”, with boastful snarks and heady solo, is practically a rambunctious theme song for the hell-raising Francis “Trouble” Hammond.

However, the best songs on here are – no surprise – the ones where Hammond meshes this newfound inspiration with his Strokes-esque sensibility of structure and rhythm. On album opener “DVSL”, he affects a punk rock scowl that Julian Casablancas would envy, over an almost trademarked perfect-fit between drums and guitars. The intro on “Tea for Two” even fits the famous Strokes formula: one guitar hits downstrokes, another guitar explores a melody, and the vocals form a third, complementary layer. He mixes it up enough, though: the bittersweet chorus reminds the listener of the Police, and the jazzy interludes are a true touch of genius.

But none of these songs come close to “Set to Attack”, a gem that falls squarely between jangly early Beatles and Room on Fire-era Strokes. Hammond alternates between old-timey verses, sung through what seems to be a 1940s radio broadcaster’s microphone,and an impossibly catchy chorus, with a signature, neat solo at the end.

What makes the Strokes so enduring is their ability to structure tight, upbeat music as a foil to Casablancas’ tone – sometimes remorseful, sometimes angry, always passionate. On Francis Trouble, Albert Hammond Jr. takes all of that and makes it much more, in a dramatic re-discovery of his enormous talent. 

Best songs: “Set to Attack”, “Muted Beatings”, “Tea for Two”

Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

13 Dec

In many ways, the Arctic Monkeys’ sixth studio album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is the antithesis of their break-out debut (Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not).

For starters, Tranquility is much slower-paced, relying heavily on dreamy piano bits and understated bass-lines, while the debut practically rewrote the book on fast-paced guitar riffs. Lyrically, Tranquility has lead singer Alex Turner making circuitous, often self-important statements, differing vastly from the sharp observations on “From the Ritz to the Rubble” or on “A Certain Romance” – and ironically becoming the same person he lambasted on “Fake Tales of San Francisco”.

And that isn’t the biggest irony. The Monkeys’ debut propelled to instant fame partly because it was precisely at the right point in music history to become one of the Internet’s first “viral” hits – but Alex Turner, in an unfortunate turn toward the geriatric, devotes many lines on Tranquility to the supposed evils of a connected world.

It isn’t all bad news, though. “Four Out of Five”, with its bass-laden brilliance, details Turner’s fascinating album concept. Apparently, the very real Tranquility Base now houses a hotel and casino on the moon, complete with a house band (Arctic Monkeys as the Martini Police) and a taqueria on the roof. There’s also a hint of a futuristic dystopia (“Since the exodus, [the moon’s] all getting gentrified”), which the music video builds upon with intrigue.

Batphone” is another stand-out track, with a subtly sexy bass and an old-school thriller vibe that perhaps makes the Monkeys great contenders to soundtrack the next Bond movie. The title song also shines through O’Malley’s bass-line, and a dollop of magical realism (“Jesus in the day spa / filling out the information form”). By the time you get to the chorus, you almost feel like you are, indeed, at the Monkeys’ hotel and casino complex.

However, the album betrays a steep decline in Turner’s lyrics. “Technological advances / Really bloody get me in the mood”, he complains on the title song, and seconds later beseeches his lady love, “Pull me in close on a crisp eve, baby / Kiss me underneath the moon’s side boob”. Yuck, on both counts. On “She Looks Like Fun”, he descends into simply yelling out non-sequiturs (“Good morning” / “Cheeseburger” / “Snowboarding”) – apparently, they are all references to his now-ex-girlfriend Taylor Bagley’s Instagram feed, but that knowledge cannot excuse these lyrics (and somehow makes them worse). On “Batphone”, he talks about using “the search engine” and the time he “got sucked into a hand-held device”. Perhaps the technological ignorance is meant to be quaint?

Apart from the lyrics, the album’s other big travesty is the criminal under-use of Matt Helders’ drums. Other than Turner’s (erstwhile) quick wit, Helders’ drumming was perhaps the key reason to be a Monkeys fan. On Tranquility, he is relegated to simple beats that a drum machine could have probably provided, while Turner takes front stage with an often-rambling persona. On the music front, the silver lining is that Nick O’Malley really outdid himself on the bass, practically carrying otherwise-unmemorable songs.

With Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, the once-cool Arctic Monkeys have taken a worryingly avuncular turn. Hopefully, Alex and co. will be able to take the best parts of this album for a livelier seventh output. This one, though, is a dud.

Best songs: “Four Out of Five”, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, “Batphone”

The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships

9 Dec

For an institution to survive, it must adapt. IBM doesn’t sell hardware anymore, Sony makes its money through life insurance, and the grand old genre that is Britpop looked like it was heading due The 1975. This album came in with a lot of hype as the next big thing of the once big genre and I’m not sure if it has pulled it off. As an album, it skews good if not great, but some of the songs here are nothing short of magnificent and that may be enough.

Both “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” and “Love It If We Made It” are excellent singles with great music videos that I’m sure have already seen heavy rotation. However, the rest of the album is blameless, lacking both in major defects and in memorable qualities. It’s solid music and has some decent points, but lacks any elevating factor. It’s unfortunately tame.

The singles are very solid though. They skew hard to pop, even for a band that was already on that side of the pop-rock spectrum. “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” is catchy and infectious and “Love It If We Made It” is anthemic and relevant. Its grab-bag of current events is blazed through at a hectic pace and its recasting of the Trump tweet on Kanye deserves awards.

There’s a few other points here that stick out. I like “Give Yourself A Try” and while I find “The Man Who Married A Robot / Love Theme” terrible, it at least fits into the album. It’s dumb and self-important and pretentious but an occasional moment like this was always the price of admission for an album like this. Something like “Surrounded By Heads and Bodies” is pleasant, but lacking in ideas, and the album lets a few too many slower songs like that in near the end. This gets to the point where “I Couldn’t Be More In Love” is bland enough to be an actual misfire.

However, the album has defined a different, more eclectic direction for the genre, even if only off the back of a couple of singles, and that’s noteworthy in itself. Now it’s on everyone else to catch up.

@murthynikhil

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