Tag Archives: 2021

Emma-Jean Thackray – Yellow

29 Aug

There are some really interesting pieces in Yellow. The chorus of “Third Eye” is a very interesting progression. The haunting in “Spectre” is also very well done. Unfortunately though, the whole doesn’t add up to anything quite so interesting itself. The genre-spanning music here has a lot going for it. There’s plenty of technical skill and some really clever moments, but there’s just not enough to grab attention or really reward it.

“Yellow,” for instance, would fit well on an Erykah Badu album, but not as one of the stronger cuts. The voice is a little weaker than it should be and the music doesn’t do enough. Overall, it’s just not interesting enough. It fades too easily into the background. It’s also not helped by the bog-standard spirituality either. The Hinduism in particular feels like a shallow reading.

Yellow still ends up a pretty decent album though. As it turns out, good jazz is good jazz and this is definitely good jazz.

Vince Staples – Vince Staples

9 Aug

Vince Staples has always felt like the most straightforward person in rap. No matter how honest someone may come across in a song, we only fool ourselves when we think we know the person behind the music. Nevertheless, it just feels like Vince Staples makes fewer concessions to marketing, to a persona than anyone else out there. It comes through in things like putting out a 22-minute album with no weak spots instead of the bloated albums built to top streaming charts that are now de rigeur. It comes through in how much this album just lets him rap.

The thing about letting Vince rap is that he is very good at just rapping. You can see it in “THE SHINING” or “SUNDOWN TOWN” or “TAKING TRIPS” and you can really see it in cuts like “MHM” and “LIL FADE.” His flow and his control are nothing short of superb and are enough to carry an album in themselves.

It’s true that Vince Staples maybe takes that a little too far. I would have liked some more variety or a couple of particularly inspired cuts. There’s nothing here that is less than excellent, but there is also nothing here that truly transcends.

Sometimes though, you can do without the egg in your beer. It’s just such a pleasure to hear Vince rap. Any album that gives you more of that is more than good enough.

Tyler, The Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST

23 Jul

I don’t know if you follow the sport, but NBA season just finished. I follow the NBA fairly closely and one of the things that keeps coming up is the “if X would do Y” pattern. If Ben Simmons would shoot the three, he’d be unstoppable. If Joel Embiid could stay healthy, he’d dominate the league. For years, it was “if only Tyler would mature a little, he would make some of the best music out there.” This is Tyler’s third album in his more mature vein and all three have been excellent.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is strong music with the kind of freewheeling variety that you expect from anything out of Tyler’s mind. Songs like “CORSO” and “LUMBERJACK” just go hard. Pairing with DJ Drama works really well for Tyler. He brings a little extra fun, a little extra chaos and a little extra energy to the album. It’s not that Tyler is ever short of these, but having someone else to bounce off adds fizz. Similarly, bringing in Weezy for “HOT WIND BLOWS” makes for a standout track. Wayne just adds so much pace to the song.

He also does well for getting so personal in this album. Learning about his mother in “MASSA” is a strong moment and recontextualizing an old feud in “MANIFESTO” is a very interesting change in perspective. He doesn’t really have anything to say in his political jaunt in that song, but I appreciate the honesty he brings. The song has a sick beat too.

It’s in “WILSHIRE” though that he really has the scope to tell his story. A lot of what makes for Tyler’s best work is just letting him be himself. He’s very smart and very sensitive and when he’s just talking to you those come through. His story about his friend’s girlfriend is the strongest thing in this album. When he drops lines like “And they say, “Bros over hoes,” I’m like, “Mm, nah, hey/I would rather hold your hand than have a cool handshake,” it’s really hard not to agree.

This trilogy from Tyler has been brilliant throughout. He’s always had the talent, but now that he’s got the direction as well, he’s just making really good music. There really is nothing that this man cannot do.

Jihye Lee Orchestra – Daring Mind

11 Jul

This album does a lot to recommend itself. It’s got substantial pieces of good, strong, aggressive jazz. “Dissatisfied Mind” is fun and energetic and delivers on the chaos promised by the title. “Relentless Mind” has some great moments that grab attention and complex, rewarding subthemes behind it. There are some interesting thoughts made more interesting for their interweaving, but they suffer a little from slightly predictable conclusions. It’s a very fun piece though and that does a lot for it.

Even where the album is not as strong, such as in “Suji” which is overlong and a little shallow, it’s just such lovely music that my complaints are minor. Similarly, although “Unshakeable Mind” is too placid and doesn’t do anything of interest, it doesn’t really need to for it to still be a pleasant listen. I may have preferred an album that did more to stand out, but this is an album that left me with a smile after every play. I’m glad I picked this one up.

Monthly Playlist: Jun. 2021

3 Jul

We are officially halfway through 2021 – somehow that feels too short yet not long enough. It’s been a rough year for some, a better year for others, but no matter where you are in life, these five tunes are sure to set your daily life on pause, even if for just a little bit.

5. “You Right” by Doja Cat feat. The Weeknd

Honestly, we are surprised that it took this long for Doja Cat and The Weeknd to collab. Both of these massively popular artists have a similar low-key, 80s-influenced vibe, and the confluence plays perfectly on this surprisingly poppy track from Doja’s new album Planet Her. Doja Cat carries the bulk of the first half of the track with her slightly raspy rapping style, and then The Weeknd steps in for his trademark wavering vocals. The entire track is a back-and-forth between two folks who are still in love (or at least lust), despite the fact that one of them is in a relationship. A tale as old as time, but not a bad version overall.

4. “LAW OF AVERAGES” by Vince Staples

Most people would have heard LA-based rapper Vince Staples from his star turn w hen a remixed version of his song “BagBak” soundtracked the landmark trailer for Black Panther. Since then, Vince has released his third studio album FM! in 2019, and is now set to release his next album – apparently self-titled Vince Staples – sometime in 2021. The first track from the new album is “LAW OF AVERAGES”, a meditative, slow-burn of a rap track that covers everything from bad friends to the heaviness of sudden wealth. You’re hooked from the first line: “Fuck a friend, I don’t want no friends with no open hands / Count my bands, all alone at home, don’t you call my phone / Everyone that I’ve ever known asked me for a loan.”

3. “Lost Cause” by Billie Eilish

The latest single from Billie’s upcoming sophomore album Happier Than Ever is very much on brand with the image that she’s beginning to cultivate. Earlier this year, Billie unveiled a newer, more adult, more body-confident version of herself, one that has outgrown the teenage angst and errors of her Apple TV documentary-era self. “Lost Cause” is a sneering goodbye to an ex that, in hindsight, was just not good enough for her. As always, props to Finneas’ fantastic, trip-hop production that amps up the cool detachment in her vocals.

2. “Venus Fly Trap” by MARINA

Welsh singer-songwriter MARINA (Marina Diamandis) has been leading up to her fifth album Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land for quite some time. Back in November 2020, we loved her track “Man’s World”, which was apparently the first single from this new album. Like most of Marina’s songs, “Venus Fly Trap” features her throaty vocals and a distinctive sense of outsider self-awareness that’s very unusual for a pop artist. “I never quite fit in to that Hollywood thing / I didn’t play that game for the money or the fame / I did it my way, baby / Nothing in this world could change me,” she boasts – although you could be forgiven for not paying much attention to the lyrics on this dance-pop track.

1. “Solar Power” by Lorde

Lorde is back! The young New Zealand singer first burst onto the scene with her debut album Pure Heroine, featuring the smash hit “Royals”. We quite liked her sophomore effort Melodrama as well, so we were excited to learn about her new track “Solar Power”, from the eponymous upcoming album. What we love about this track is the totally synchronous sunny vibe, from the title to the subject matter (“I hate the winter, can’t stand the cold… But when the heat comes, something takes a hold”) to Lorde’s bright yellow outfit on a sunny beach. This is a summer ditty about the simpler things in life, which hits particularly well after the bracing past year or two that most folks have had.

Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Tyshawn Sorey – Uneasy

22 Jun

Uneasy certainly delivers on the title. This is jazz that is very good at putting you off your ease. It’s always got something to surprise you with. It’s very skilled jazz and very listenable for all the sharpness. It doesn’t thrust itself on you, but it always has something interesting to say and when you pay attention to it, it’s very good at sweeping you away. You’re just compelled to follow it from point to point and see what comes next.

There’s a wonderful loudness in “Touba.” It makes you sit up straight and enervates you. “Drummer’s Song” holds a single pattern for an unsettlingly long time while threading lots of different things around it. It’s a startling and captivating effect. There’s great chemistry too. There’s a wonderful bass solo by Linda Oh in “Night and Day” that transitions smoothly a piano solo that moves smoothly into a drum solo that stretches into an excellent play with the piano and some very understated bass work. It lets everything settle for a moment and then picks things back up with excellent energy and finally ends beautifully.

Uneasy takes this intelligence and sharpness and it’s ability to disorient the listener and uses it for meaning. The political statements running through this album are powerful and reinforced by the shock of the music. It elevates the album and takes it from merely an excellent jazz album to essential listening for anyone at all interested in jazz.

J. Cole – The Offseason

14 Jun

At some point, if you want to be a conscious rapper, you have to actually say something smart. With J. Cole, that moment has passed. It’s time to accept that he is never going to mean anything as a rapper. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen quite as shameful a waste of talent.

I’m going to start with the talent though. We all know about the triple double, no assists of 2014 Forest Hills Drive and while I wasn’t the biggest fan, there was at least promise in there and sometimes that promise is undeniable. I loved “MIDDLE CHILD” when it came out because it was great music and because I thought it signaled J. Cole figuring things out. When he can put things together, he makes absolutely top-tier music.

With “a m a r i”, he has something. The “made it out, gotta mean something” of the hook hits hard and he shows here why his flow is probably his best strength. He does need to give up on DSJ though. That man doesn’t even play for the Knicks anymore. It’s still clearly the highlight of the album though and a single well worth checking out.

It’s followed by “m y . l i f e” which is solid, but cannot help but be unfavorably compared to “a lot”, the earlier and excellent 21 Savage / J. Cole joint. “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l” also has moments. The hook is good and he flows into the rap well. It’s not smart, but it’s not dumb either. Choosing that song to stunt about wealth though is almost parody.

This is the issue with him. He keeps bucking for the absolute top tier of rappers and yet he’s just nowhere near as intelligent as Kendrick and, for all of Drake’s Drakeisms, at least Drake knows exactly who he is. J. Cole wants to be dumb and still be treated like he’s smart.

The fact is that there’s a ceiling you hit as a rapper if you have nothing to say. Someone like ScHoolboy Q is never going to be a rap superstar. J. Cole has too much ambition to relax into a role like that though, so he pretends. It’s just hard to take him seriously as a thinker when he doesn’t seem capable of thinking of anything other than himself.

It feels like he raps more about being rich than Drake and Drake wallows in his shallowness. At least “God’s Plan” showed Drake giving out money. J. Cole just keeps stunting instead. The worst part of it all is that he doesn’t even seem to enjoy being rich. It’s all material that’s not quite strong enough to make the jump from his diary to his album, but it’s all here anyway.

This just runs into the second issue though. He’s just not good enough to carry an album without a concept. Snoop Dogg could do it because he’s such a pleasure to listen to. Uzi can keep you engaged with just his flows. J. Cole is not either kind of guy.

The most compelling thing about his music to date is in his naked attempts to be part of rap’s pantheon. The clarity of his struggle to be an all-time rapper at least gave him a point of interest. It was often also the weakest part of his album. KOD attempting to show him as a deep thinker made for its worst parts and they dragged the whole album down. However, letting go even a little of the legacy for The Offseason just leaves the album empty. There’s really not much more to J. Cole than the ambition.

He claims verses that I will “forever playback” in “a p p l y i n g . p r e s s u r e”, but doesn’t actually drop any. There’s a lot of talking in the song that he never backs up and his clowning a millionaire line is just out of touch. The outro is just embarrassing. Some of the verses also just don’t work. That awkward twisting to fit in birthday is far too forced.

He wants to play at being a fighter in “l e t . g o . m y . h a n d” as well, but we all saw him get bodied by Noname and it wasn’t close. It was also just because he chose to be an idiot. No one asked him to make a fool of himself like that. I will say that this song has a great beat though and his talking about the beat was excellent pensive rap. That’s a vein that he really should explore more and so most likely will not.

This is not an album worth spending time on and it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the same is true for J. Cole himself. Maybe after The Offseason finishes, I’ll check him shooting hoops in Rwanda instead.

Rubén Blades with Roberto Delgado and Orquesta – Salswing

21 May

I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything like SALSWING! The album takes Latin Jazz and Big Band standards, places them side-by-side and calls it a day. You’ve got standards like “Pennies From Heaven” and then it’s immediately followed by the Tito Puente classic “Mambo Gil” and both are done very well. There’s naturally tremendous similarity between the two styles and between that and the band’s clear competence, it only makes sense how comfortable they are in both styles.

It’s a fun album both ways too. “Contrabundo” in particular is a highlight. It is bright and sharp and has great Latin percussion and an excellent piano solo. Meanwhile, “The Way You Look Tonight” is a classic rendering of a standard.

If you’re looking for either some Latin Jazz or some Jazz standards, this is good and if you’re open to both, this is great. There’s nothing particularly surprising in it and there’s no interesting intersection of the two styles, but as a collection of top quality music from both, there are no complaints to be had.

Xiu Xiu – OH NO

11 May

I’m so used to feast-or-famine with Xiu Xiu that it’s kind of hard to deal with OH NO. This certainly has none of the sheer brilliance of Fabulous Muscles or A Promise, albums which can define a career and forever make a fan. It is however listenable, something that can’t be said for at least half of Xiu Xiu’s music. OH NO is strangely relaxed and surprisingly likable. There’s nothing that tries too hard and so nothing that just falls flat. Instead, it’s just a solid collection of experimental pop.

There are definitely moments that stand out. There’s a percussive crash to echo the line “don’t trip on your skates” that then melds unexpectedly with the song. “Rumpus Room” is unironically a lot of fun and “Fuzz Gong Fight” is a beautifully edged evisceration. It’s a song with weight behind it. It has nothing for me to return to in the way his best music does, but it was a pleasant listen and as such a mildly unexpected surprise.

The Weather Station – Ignorance

18 Apr

It’s not hard for pleasant to be a pejorative. Ignorance is, like many other albums, a nice listen. The music is all fairly reasonable. The vocals are the center of the album and it tends to be quite good singing. She has the occasional promising jaggedness, but it too often ends up predictable. The lyrics are also just not that clever. “Warm” comes close to coming together when the strings swoop and her voice comes close to breaking, but the whole just ends up uninteresting.

Finally, that’s where the album lands. It has neither the jazzy cleverness of a Norah Jones album nor the fun pop of a Haim one, despite the occasional feint towards both. It’s unobjectionable, and again, it’s quite a pleasant album, but pleasant is not exciting.

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