J Hus – Big Conspiracy

26 Feb

I feel like I’ve been waiting for the breakout British rap album for a while. J Hus’ afroswing music is a compelling choice. His blend of genres is incredibly smooth and very, very listenable.

There’s absolutely nothing to object to with Big Conspiracy. Everything flows effortlessly. In this though, is my issue with the album. There’s nothing that memorable either. The whole thing moves too easily and, while extremely pleasant, it leaves nothing that sticks.

There are places where it flirts with greatness though. He’s good at his horniest in “Reckless”, great at his most introspective in “Deeper Than Rap” and simply excellent in the absolute standout “Must Be”. The sax is infinite fun, the storytelling is on point and the song is catchy as hell. It’s just that the album as a whole just does nothing transcendent. Even the politics, whic could have been the source of some choppiness, mostly stays submerged.

This is still the kind of album that it’s impossible to come away disappointed with. This is very good music and an extremely fun listen. J Hus’ ability to meld together so much into his music is incredible even hours in and there’s always something more to see in here. It might not be the masterpiece I’m waiting for, but it’s still an album well worth taking the time for.

Eminem – Music To Be Murdered By

5 Feb

I was really excited with the first couple of listens of this album. Like everyone else with a tape player and a bedroom in the early 00s, Eminem formed a big part of my youth, and like with everyone else, he’s mostly disappointed me since.

This album has the seeds of change in it. Em goes hard here. The clever lines and the top-tier flow are a given. He’s long established himself as unparalleled in technique. It has just come off as empty of late. There are plenty of technical rappers, but technique in itself isn’t enough to make music to be listened to.

Here, there are some interesting ideas. Going so technical over a Juice WRLD chorus in “Godzilla” is a lot of fun and his flow in “Unaccomodating” is intriguing. “Stepdad” showcases his strength in storytelling, even if the chorus, and honestly the material, almost drags it into farce. Anderson .Paak is always fun and plays well against Em.

The problem is just that the album feel meaningless again. Where the pure skill was once a vehicle, now it’s a crutch. He used to be relaxed with it. He would use it where it helped the song. Now, it just forced in.

There’s also just no real single or even anything really memorable. He’s got jokes, he’s got flow, but he just doesn’t have any meaning behind it. Where any of his first three albums would be an instant classic now, even with the dated references and the poorly-aged skits, I’m going to forget this one completely in a month.

The Top Five Albums of 2019 – Nikhil’s List

31 Dec

There was a lot of music in 2019 that caught my ear, but surprisingly for me, when it came to putting together a list, things came together quite easily. There are just some albums in particular that I want you to hear.

5. Ariana Grande – thank u, next

This album is my choice for the biggest surprise of the year. For someone as big, as established and as much of a star as Ariana Grande to take so large a step forward is startling but that is just what she did.

Key to this is the title track. “thank u, next” could have easily come off poorly, but she handles it with a grace and maturity that really mark the growth that we see here. Her voice was always strong, but here it’s sincere as well and that lets her keep a powerful song fully under control.

For all of the headlines of that centerpiece, the rest of the album is just chock-full of ideas and well-executed ones at that. She’s kittenish in “make up” and sneering in “bloodline”, fun in “NASA” and imperial in “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored.” The music goes from hard to soft and back again and does it with flair. Her voice is nothing short of stellar.

Ariana has done a lot over her career to reinvent pop, but this is the album that guns for the top. It’s fun, it’s exciting and it looks effortless doing so, just like Ariana Grande herself.

Read our full review here.

4. Jamilia Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!

From a no-caps album, now we pick up a full caps one and the difference is clear. Where Ariana was free-flowing and so honest, this album is clearly the product of immense thought, but is no less sincere for that.

Jamilia Woods takes a panorama of black excellence and uses it as a lens through which to examine current events and herself and makes spectacular music in the process.

It’s just such a smart album. There are some arrestingly clever lines here. I love the starkness of “Are you mad? / Yes, I’m mad” and the cleverness with which it is twisted in the magnificent “BASQUIAT.” It’s even preceded by the equally noteworthy “MUDDY,” which has a beautifully dirty blues-rock riff reminiscent of its namesake.

LEGACY! LEGACY! does a lot and does it all with awe-inspiring levels of quality and an astonishing coherence as well. This is an unquestionably ambitious album and one that pulls off that ambition dazzlingly.

Read our full review here.

3. Tyler, the Creator – IGOR

Continuing the theme of all-caps records, we have Tyler, the Creator with IGOR. With 2017’s Flower Boy, it seemed like Tyler had found his voice and IGOR continues that clarity. He has matured and that maturity has brought focus to his always prodigious talent.

The uniqueness that defined him is as strong as ever, but he’s somehow more versatile now as well. He can go hard in “NEW MAGIC WAND” or soft in “GONE GONE / THANK YOU” with equal ease and he’s still able to drop thought-provoking beats and unexpected sounds in at every point.

This is the best version of Tyler, the Creator that we could have hoped for and the realization of all of his promise. This is scintillating, singular music and quite easily one of the best albums of the year.

Read our full review here.

4. Kanye West – JESUS IS KING

There are some Kanye albums, like Yeezus or MBDTF where you know that they will be the album of the year as soon as they come out. JESUS IS KING isn’t that kind of album. I would have been shocked to see it place this high when I reviewed it.

And yet, on coming back to it, it’s just better than the other albums on this list. Listening to “Closed On Sunday” after a while, it just hits you that this is really strong music. It’s no surprise that going back to gospel would work well for Kanye, but to his credit, he’s done a lot more than just the gospel beats of his early work or even the heavy gospel of “Ultralight Beam.”

He committed here to the idea of Christian music. This is not the most sophisticated take on religion, but it is honest and personal and true and so manages more real commentary than any amount of sophistry. Talking about fighting with his father or the quickness of Christian disdain for who he is are topics that many would avoid, but that’s not what a Kanye album does.

It’s in the music that the most interesting ideas emerge though. The choir playing against hard bars in “Use This Gospel” and then the following Kenny G solo that goes back into the beat is the kind of thing that you would just never see anywhere else. The military-grade choir in “Selah” is undeniable. Even in terms of rapping, Kanye has taken a step forward. Something like “Follow God” showcases things that he just could not do before.

JESUS IS KING is a new stage in Kanye’s career and while it may not be as immediately promising as his first set of albums or as groundbreaking as 808s or Yeezus, it’s still fascinating music and some of the best of the year.

Read our full review here.

1. FKA Twigs – MAGDALENE

With MAGDALENE, one finds oneself immediately reaching for superlatives. Gorgeous, intricate, a masterpiece all come to mind and are all apt. There’s just so much of note here.

First of all, the production is stellar. There are just so many small details here. There are little sounds everywhere, little evocative fragments that build out a cathedral for her voice to fill. It’s ethereal as always, but so very strong. There’s an intensity here that almost scalds as it enervates.

FKA Twigs was always one of those talented artists, one of those who seems an effortless polyglot in musical languages and even in dance. She does so many things so well, it just feels unfair when it all comes together this well. This is the greatest work yet of an extraordinary artist and a comfortable pick for the album of this year.

Read our full review here.

The Top Five Albums of 2019

31 Dec

Another year of great music closes out today. Read on to see our editor’s picks for the best albums of the year – and be sure to let us know if you agree!

5. Peter Cat Recording Company – Bismillah

Delhi’s own Peter Cat Recording Company has been a mainstay of Indian music for a while now, but it’s with new album Bismillah – and a new record label – that they have started receiving the praise they deserve. Bismillah is, in its way, a slice of Indian life, from the glitz and glamor to the corruption and chaos, set to a dizzying array of musical styles. The album is packed with biting criticism of Modi’s India; the band personally encouraged Delhiites earlier this year to vote for an opposition party, on a music video release note no less. But even beyond the political, Bismillah is truly, wholly Indian.

Read our full review here.

4. slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain

Some art – whether it’s movies, music, and so on – truly captures the ethos of a specific place, time and people to a tee; a zeitgeist, in short. For 2019’s United Kingdom, roiling through a nation-splitting Brexit crisis, that zeitgeist is the debut album from a 25-year-old Northampton rapper, called, succinctly, Nothing Great About Britain. The album is intense, personal, and nearly flawless – a perfect slice-of-life from the wrong side of the tracks of today’s UK.

Read our full review here.

3. Fontaines DC – Dogrel

Dogrel, the debut album from Irish band Fontaines DC, is a middle-finger to those who think rock – and punk rock in particular – is dead. Over a tight, 40-minute runtime, the lads take us through Dublin life like only locals can. There’s anti-British sentiment (“He spits out, ‘Brits out’, only smokes Carrolls”); Irish legends (“With a face like sin and a heart like a James Joyce novel”); tales of cabbie woes – and that’s all on just one song. Dogrel is almost a perfect package from start to finish, and we are heartened to hear that there’s already more incoming from Fontaines DC.

Read our full review here.

2. Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 2

2019 may have officially been the Year of the Pig, but for us it was the year of Foals. With two astounding, back-to-back albums over the course of seven months, the Oxford lads knocked it out of the park this year. Although Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 1 had some great hits – “Exits” being chief among them – Foals really stuck their landing with Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 2. The entire double album is built around the idea of an apocalypse: the emotions and the music that would come out in that not-so-far-away scenario. One thing’s for sure: when that day comes, we’ll be sure to have this record handy to soundtrack us there.

Read our full review here.

1. Ariana Grande – thank u, next

At this point, Ariana Grande is pretty much pop’s reigning queen. More importantly, she rules for all the right reasons. It’s an understatement to say that she has the voice for it; but she also offers a playful and positive view of the world despite the tragedies in her life. Like any savvy pop star, she of course sells the idea of herself to her legions of fans – the high ponytail, the thigh-high boots, the oversized sweatshirts – but unlike many others, she sells something else too: self-love. Amazingly, that self-love seems to come from within – not manufactured by some marketing execs over at her record label. With thank u, next, Ariana Grande finally takes over as her authentic, spirited, wholesome self – and turns out, a lot of people dig it. Oh, and it helps that the music is just pop gold, too.

Read our full review here.

-NP

The Top Five Songs of 2019

31 Dec

If making a great album is one unique combination of skills, making a great song is another – sometimes complementary, sometimes not – skillset. Below is a look at the top five songs that defined our editor’s year. Let us know if you agree!

5. “Tokyo Drifting (with Denzel Curry)” by Glass Animals

“Tokyo Drifting”, an unlikely collaboration between British psych rockers Glass Animals and Southern rapper Denzel Curry, is – even more improbably – the best trap song this year. Hazy beats and Curry’s swaggering verse make this the perfect soundtrack to a nighttime chase through a city that never sleeps – just as the title suggests.

This song also appears on our Nov. 2019 Monthly Playlist.

4. “Exits” by Foals

With its slightly off-kilter beats and the lead singer’s enigmatic vocals, “Exits” casts a hypnotic spell on the listener’s mind. This lead single from Foals’ Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 1 also offers a trippy synth solo, cryptic music video, and much more. Don’t miss out!

This song also appears on our Mar. 2019 Monthly Playlist.

3. “Dexter & Sinister” by Elbow

Much like Travis Scott’s “SICKO MODE” last year, this opening track from British band Elbow’s eighth studio album is actually several songs in one, stitched together by impeccable production quality. Over six minutes, “Dexter & Sinister” skips from bass-heavy alt-rock, to ethereal pop, to meditative guitar – apparently as a musical metaphor to Brexit.

This song also appears on our Oct. 2019 Monthly Playlist.

2. “Inglorious (feat. Skepta)” by slowthai

If there is a zeitgeist for the political minefield that is today’s United Kingdom, it is slowthai’s debut album, Nothing Great About Britain. And the core of that album – the zeitgeist of the zeitgeist – is this track, featuring another UK man-of-the-moment, Skepta. “Inglorious” is about what it means to be poor and overlooked, and how that feeling sticks with you whether your fortunes change or not. This is the essence that informs and guides the rest of the album, which sees slowthai peeling apart the layers to Brexit with snark and irreverence. Rap with the spirit of punk.

This song also appears on our May 2019 Monthly Playlist.

1. “The Runner” by Foals

 “The Runner” is Foals at their finest: cryptic lyrics, heavy-hitting riffs and sharp production turned up to the max. It’s also just great music: endlessly listenable in all moods, whether it’s on the radio or on a superfan’s 500th spin. Foals have had a great year, but this song may be their best work ever.

This song also appears on our Sep. 2019 Monthly Playlist.

Honorable mentions: “CHARLIE” by Malfnktion feat. Shayan Roy; “Juice” by Lizzo; “7 rings” by Ariana Grande

Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 2

31 Dec

There are few double-whammies quite like the one that Foals dealt us this year. They released a career-defining album, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 1, in March of this year. The conspicuous “Pt 1” in the title left many wondering when the next part would be released. Little did we know that it would be a mere seven months later, with October’s Everything Not Saved Will be Lost Pt 2.

If Pt 1 produced fantastic hits like “Exits” and “Café d’Athens”, Pt 2 takes it one step further. Here, practically every song is a bonafide hit. The album opens with an atmospheric, one-minute intro called “Red Desert” – a palette of echoing synths that conjures up a mystical Marrakesh adventure, perhaps. But the atmospherics immediately segue into Foals’ best song of the year, “The Runner”. Heady, heavy and more than a little apocalyptic, “The Runner” is probably the best arena rock this year – with a killer chorus to boot (“When I, when I fall down, fall down / then I know to keep on running”).

Rather than just being the star of the first half, “The Runner” is actually the first of four absolute beastly tracks. “Wash Off”, is a powerhouse of drums and guitars that goes from frenetic to downright crazy – before all the layers convalesce into a blissful 30-second ending. “Black Bull” is a maddening, murky blitz that lends total credence to the song title (also: see music video). And finally, “Like Lightning” is almost reminiscent of the Black Keys, with Dan Auerbach-esque vocals and a sluggish, bluesy feel – but a banger nonetheless.

It’s not until the slower-paced “Dreaming Of” that the listener is allowed to catch her breath. After the brief piano interlude (“Ikaria”), we are led into the final stretch of the album, and that’s when things really pick up to an unexpected level.

10,000 Feet” is a dramatic, rock-opera version of the myth of Icarus. “Into the Surf” is a dreamy track that highlights Yannis Philippakis’ vocals and a spindly piano. But Foals have saved the best for last, with the complete masterpiece of an album closer, “Neptune”.

At ten minutes and eighteen seconds, “Neptune” is no radio-friendly hit (unlike most of the rest of the album). From start to finish, it’s Technicolor, multi-faceted and visceral; the swansong at the end of the apocalypse just as humanity finally perishes in an arduous battle. There are simply too many elements of the song to describe in words – you have to hear it with your own two ears – but we’d like to highlight in particular the driving bassline and Philippakis’ vivid vocals.

You may notice that, in the course of this review, we didn’t focus too much on the lyrics. That’s not to say that they are not important or well-written; they are both of these things. It’s just that the force of the instrumentals on this album outweighs everything else.

As Foals themselves have stated, Everything Not Saved Will Not Be Lost is two-piece locket. The two albums, when considered together, paint a picture of a Mad Max-style apocalypse: broken, wild but exciting in its own way. Both albums are great, but it’s with Pt 2 that Foals really stick their landing. And for that reason, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 2 is probably their best album so far – and maybe even one of the best albums of the year.

Lizzo – Cuz I Love You

31 Dec

We have to admit: we kind of slept on Lizzo until early this year. The pop powerhouse – born Melissa Jefferson, stage name Lizzo – has been active for a few years already. Her first two albums, Lizzobangers (2013) and Big Grrl Small World (2015), were followed by a well-received EP entitled Coconut Oil (2016). But it was this year’s album, Cuz I Love You (2019), that broke Lizzo into the mainstream – and thankfully into our playlists.

Eagle-eyed readers will be aware that Lizzo first caught our ears with her lead single “Juice”, just around the time that an interview with Ellen brought her international attention. Happily, though, despite its irresistible beat and playful lyrics, “Juice” isn’t the only great track on the album – far from it, in fact.

At her essence, Lizzo is self-confidence in all aspects – personality, body, relationships and so on. And it’s when that self-confidence takes center-stage on Cuz I Love You that the singer really shines.

Take, for example, “Tempo”, an excellent collaboration with living legend Missy Elliott. “Slow songs, they for skinny hos / Can’t move all of this here to one of those / I’m a thick bitch, I need tempo” the duo declare. Sure, it’s an anthem for body positivity, but don’t overlook the killer beat or Missy’s seamless inclusion. “Exactly How I Feel”, her collab with Gucci Mane, showcases the wholesomeness of her positivity over funky, bouncy beats. “Can’t hold back my tears, that would be a crime / ‘Cause I look pretty cryin’, oh, they ain’t tell you?” she sings in her glass-busting voice, and ironically you can’t help smiling along.

But there are of course more layers to Lizzo. On the eponymous opening track, she talks about a man that she can’t quite forget: a memory that shatters her otherwise perfect poise. “Got me standing in the rain, gotta get my hair pressed again / I would do it for you all, my friend, ready baby? Will you be my man?” she wonders, before breaking out into an earth-shattering, introspective wail: “I’m crying ‘cause I love you”.

If there’s one negative to this album, it’s that it is too short yet not tight enough. There are some flatter songs on the album, which naturally stand out on the short ~34 min runtime. On the whole, though, Cuz I Love You is a great entry into the annals of this decade’s pop music. Lizzo is on her way to becoming a pop star (Doing SNL! Those red-carpet looks! Twitter friendship with Obama!) and there’s so much more that we can expect from her in the future.

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