Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life

Lust for Life is the first Lana Del Rey album I’ve ever really listened to, although I had been generally familiar with her sound and aesthetic ever since “Video Games” made the rounds back in 2011.  Enough ink has been spilled (or more realistically, bytes of storage space allocated) over Lana’s said vintage 70s Los Angeles vibe to warrant me skipping that aspect of her artistry, but I will say that I tend to respect and admire artists that do stick to a well-defined aesthetic vision, and Lana’s latest only ratchets up that process filter Hollywood nostalgia another notch.

Lust for Life is 72 minutes of slow, atmospheric, moody ballads about romanticizing relationships that feel real only in the way old polaroid photos do; they approximate reality, but there’s something too inherently dramatic about the colors and lighting to ever see them as real scenes.  Take “Groupie Love“, one of two A$AP Rocky features (whose verses pair surprisingly well with Lana’s apathetic choral intonation), where Lana’s protagonist ignores the reality of her typically low-stakes groupie relationship and replaces it with something far more loving and intimate – “It’s so sweet, swingin’ to the beat / When I know that you’re doin’ it all for me.”  As the star, Rocky allows himself to be seduced by the fantasy (“you and I, so who do we trust? / You and I ’til the day we die”), and the cinematic strings and reverb effects complete track.  The song perfectly represents the juxtaposition of emotions on Lust for Life; every word on the track is inherently positive, but within the production exists the dreaded truth that relationships framed this way exist only in Lana’s imagination.

The wonderful and gorgeous opener, “Love“, sounds entirely sincere, remarking on the inherent desire to squeeze every last ounce of pleasure and happiness out of youth (“You get ready you get all dressed up / To go nowhere in particular / Back to work or the coffee shop / It don’t matter because it’s enough to be young and in love”), but the fact that Lana is devoting the better part of her album as an ode to perfectly capturing the feeling before it becomes heartbreaking nostalgia infers the other side of the coin.  The title-track, featuring The Weeknd, follows up with an almost identical sentiment, but magnified down to a single night, and with the threat of death (or worse, adulthood) rearing its head a bit more transparently (“We dance on the H of the Hollywood sign / then we run out of breath, gotta dance til we die // And a lust for life keeps us alive”).  And “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind” sounds very much based in reality, but the inherent extravagance and escapism of the modern day music festival is about as far from real life as one can get within their local metro’s city limits, and Lana seems to realize this as she steps back and observes the scene from an older, more objective place (“What about all these children / and all their children’s children? / And why am I even wondering that today?”).

The record’s excellent front side is rounded out with the stories of relationships breaking apart at the seems (“Cherry”, “In My Feelings”) in overwrought, dramatic fashion (“Is it real love?  It’s like smiling when the firing squad’s against you”), lamenting over a summer fling in which our protagonist is essentially Tired of Sex (“Summer Bummer”, which features a great A$AP Rocky verse), and perhaps the crashing back to earth that spells the death of the relationship with the musician from “Groupie Love” on “White Mustang”.  By the pretty, optimistic, 10th-sequenced swan song “God Bless America – and All the Beauitful Women in It”, the closest thing to a ‘fist pumper’ we could ever expect from a Lana Del Rey album (I can just see the giant projected flag waving behind her at the live show), it feels like Lana has delivered her message and her vibe in a timely, succinct, and effective package.  There are absolute highlights, good features, and a nice push and pull of youthful excitement and world-wearied lamentation.

But the record isn’t 10 songs.  It’s 16 songs, and the final 6 feel both unnecessary and somewhat betraying of the album’s fairly insular perspective.  “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing” is an unnecessary political statement from an artist who works best as a blissed out blinder to my daily newsfeed, and it offers far from an innovative take on the current state of geopolitical affairs (“Is it the end of an era / Is it the end of America?”)  Similarly, “Heroin” feels like an unnecessary foray into the familiar-to-the-point-of-cliche rock song staple subject of using drugs to numb one from the harshness of reality (though to be clear, this song remarks on the tragic usage of another person, and it does feature a pretty intense ‘screaming’ section – “It’s fucking hot! Hot!”).  But to me, most egregious is “Tomorrow Never Came”, a riff on The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Comes” and a duet with John Lennon’s son, Sean Lennon, in which the production, melody and specifically Sean’s attempt to imitate his dad’s vocals so poorly represent The Fab Foursome it verges on parody even before the lyrics take a cringeworthy turn into self-reference- “Lennon and Yoko, we would play all day long / “Isn’t life crazy?”, I said now that I’m singin’ with Sean”.  (Vomits.)

Still, I find myself returning to Lust for Life over and over, thanks in no small part to the fact that because of it’s length I don’t often get past the ninth or tenth track, but also because I really like Lana’s vocal stylings, I really like the production, the album is easy to have on in a variety of scenarios, and the lyrics are almost always good and often filled with interesting takes on the fantasies that are historical relationships.  I don’t think this album is doing anything really original – Lana’s three previous LPs serve of evidence of that- but it completes its mission admirably, and I can forgive the glaring lack of tight editing on the track list (seriously, very, very few albums really need to be 72 minutes or longer).  If you didn’t like Lana Del Rey before, Lust for Life isn’t gonna change your mind.  But if you wanna feel like your drunk on lust and melting on the beach in some instagram-filter world, Lust for Life just might be for you.

Score: 9 / 13


SZA – Ctrl

Listening through Top Dawg Entertainment’s (label home of Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q and Isaiah Rashad) only female artist SZA’s debut full length, Ctrl, I’ve found myself thinking back to Frank Ocean’s masterpieces, Channel Orange and Blonde.  I think this is partially because these are among the best ‘R&B’ (if you can give Blonde a genre) albums I’ve heard over the last few years, partially because the production work of both records is so outstanding, and partially because both artists mine Forrest Gump for sexual innuendo.  But I think the true tying theme is the deconstruction of the complex emotions entwined with physical intimacy; power and control (from which the album takes its name), desperation, self-doubt, moral questioning and ambiguity.  Ctrl is absolutely a sex album, but, in the style increasingly common in today’s nuanced R&B writing (see FKA Twigs or The Weeknd’s older stuff), it’s also an incredibly personal record about what these encounters, these physical transactions of sorts, mean to SZA and her complex relationships, and how that empowers her as a woman in 2017.

Take third-sequenced “Doves in The Wind” (one of the many highlights that grace the album’s near-perfect opening side), where SZA and Kendrick Lamar thoroughly investigate all the connotations of ‘pussy’.  SZA asserts the importance of her sexuality (“You can never trivialize pussy”) and throws shade on anyone who attempts to diminish it (“Your dick is weak, buddy / It’s only replaced by a rubber substitute”), while Kendrick pitches the heterosexual male’s irrational take on the subject (“Niggas’ll lose they mind for it / Wine for it , dine for it – pussy / Pussy got endless prisoners, pussy always revengin’ her”).  Both artists complement each-other in a two-sided but refreshingly female-empowered take on sex.

But then on followup “Drew Barrymore”, SZA can relax into the perfect casual sexual encounter that can exist purely for pleasure, outside of power dynamics – “I’m so glad you could come by / Somebody get the tacos, somebody spark the blunt / Let’s start the Narcos off at episode one”.  This 360 evaluation of relations are part of what gives Ctrl heavy lyrical depth that also tackles depression (“We get so lonely, we pretend that this works/ I”m so ashamed of myself think I need therapy”), body image (“I know you’d rather be laid up with a big booty / You know I’m sensitive about havin’ no booty”) and aging into adulthood (“Hopin’ my 20 somethings won’t end / Hopin’ to keep the rest of my friends / Prayin’ the 20 somethings don’t kill me”).

But aside from its lyrical maturity, Ctrl‘s excellence is deeply indebted to how incredibly appealing and effortless SZA’s flow and cadence is throughout.  From her reggae inspired lilt on “Doves in the Wind” to her sinusoidal rap singing on opener “Supermodel” to the Destiny’s Child-like quickfire of “Wavy”, pretty much every vocal turn on the album is a home run.  She moves between singing, speak-singing and rapping with unexpected contours and emphasis on tracks (such as the Travis Scott-featuring “Love Galore”) like a surfer riding the curl of an endless wave.  And the production techniques applied to the dense and many harmonies that pop up throughout every verse and chorus of the record, including falsettos, echos and left-right panning (perhaps most notably on standout “Prom”), add even more dynamics and dimensions.  Through it all, however, SZA is never reaching, never shouting, constantly maintaining a cool level-headedness even on the record’s most emotional moments.  This choice to stay chill aligns perfectly with the album’s uninterrupted easy-going and minimalist arrangement choices.

Production-wise, Ctrl is full of interesting bells and whistles that tend to stay true to low-energy, bass and drums based arrangements, allowing subtle touches like the woozy, underwater synths on “Drew Barrymore” or the “Hotline Bling”-esque Trop-House notes on “Love Galore”.  As previously mentioned, the harmony and vocal overdub work account for many of the album’s most impressive moments, though crisp instrumentation like the snare drum that finally rolls into the final third of “Supermodel” are as satisfying as they are essential.  SZA makes room for four guest features, which feels like the perfect number, and packs them in toward the beginning and ends of the record, allowing her the space to solidify an identity through the record’s middle third.  Travis Scott and Kendrick both historically bat a high average on their features, but their voices here go above a good verse, syncing perfectly with SZAs relaxed but sexually-charged aesthetic.  Less so, however, for the abrasive Isaiah Rashad on “Pretty Little Birds”, the album’s penultimate cut.

If I had to nitpick, I’d say the more formless, down-tempo songs at the album’s center, “Garden” and “Broken Clocks”, hem closer to a traditional, less unique sound than what preceded and follow them, and the record, while in no means too long (50 minutes and 14 tracks) probably could have afforded to and benefited from their cutting.  Still, “Ctrl” succeeds lyrically and sonically, and in particular SZA’s unique vocals and singing style make it hard to go back to listening to airier or less distinctive vocalists.  As for standouts, “Prom” is a catchy-as-fuck low-key banger and “Love Galore” and “Doves in the Wind” are instant classics (also a big fan of the former’s music video).  I think Ctrl is by far the strongest R&B record of the year, and deserves to be seen as a shining example of the genre’s continued transformation come the end of the decade.

Score: 11 / 13

Gorillaz – Humanz

God this album is bad.  Every year there’s bound to be one massive disappointment from a critically revered artist, and thus far this year Damon Albarn’s beloved Gorillaz project is winning (losing?) that race by a landslide.  The first Gorillaz album since 2010’s solid Plastic Beach, Humanz arrives two years after Albarn reunited Blur for The Magic Whip, a so-so album that sounds exactly like you’d expect Blur to sound 15 years after their heyday, and three years since his sad, grey, lonely and boring solo album, Everyday Robots.  And it’s a mess in all the worst ways possible.  It’s dense in songs, features and ideas but next to none of them succeed.  It’s way too long, a 20 track, 48 minute slog that feels much longer.  There are six needless, corny interludes.  The vocal features are all over the place; verses from solid performers sound completely out of place on the instrumentals Albarn has built for them, and others are just awful regardless of what they’re rapping / singing over.  There is no trace of personality or presence from the imaginary band that the project takes its name for; rather, Humanz sounds like a collection of unsuccessful demos that should have been titled “Damon Albarn writes subpar, half-baked songs for people he thinks are cool and wants to work with.”

Humanz, like other Gorillaz releases, is a pseudo concept album about the slow, deliberate destruction of humanity at the hands of greed, warfare, deceit, inept government and late stage market capitalism.  And for the most part, the featured vocalists adhere to the theme in their lyrical content.  The album also has a cohesive production aesthetic; dark, heavy, bassy tracks with little in the way of colorful synthesizers or guitars.  And those are the only compliments I can give Humanz.  It’s sort of remarkable that Damon Albarn wrote hits like “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.“, but couldn’t manage to put together one catchy song anyone would remember five minutes after it’s ended.  It’s perhaps even more remarkable that he wrote beautiful, melancholy ballads like “El Manana“, yet not a single song here pulls at any heartstring or impresses with synthetic production.  The instrumentals are incredibly boring, repetitive and lack imagination completely.  Every track is just a 4/4 pounding bass rhythm with a few low, ominous synths, a rap verse or speak-singing passage followed by a ‘hook’ or ‘chorus’ that sounds almost exactly like the rest of the track, like the rest of the whole album, except with some sad, faux-tragic female vocalist or Albarn’s own voice singing banal, nondescript lyrics about how much the world sucks.

The proper opener  is Vince Staples on “Ascension”, probably the best song here (Vince Staples can’t really deliver a bad verse), but the production fails to impress, an uptempo, vaguely dark, vaguely electronic haberdashery featuring a canned gospel chorus sample chanting “higher”.  Things only get worse after that.  “Strobelite” is the worst combination of Albarn’s dancey, techno impulses and inoffensive 80s disco pastiche.  “Momentz” is practically unlistenable, not because De La Soul isn’t spitting as fast as he can, but because the underlying bass pounding out every quarter note sounds fucking awful, the chanted “Momentz!” vocal sample spliced in every 12 seconds or so sounds fucking awful, and the shrieking, wailing “Plastic on the ceiling!” bridge sounds fucking awful.  All the interludes are heavy-handed and completely unnecessary, such as “The Non-Conformist Oath”, where the ‘irony’ of a crowd repeating in unison “I promise not to repeat what other people say!” makes 50 Cent’s fellatio reference on “Candy Shop” appear subtle in comparison.

No song is pretty.  No vocal take is especially memorable or enjoyable.  Danny Brown probably has the best verse here (another rapper who rarely fails to be exciting) but the droning techno R&B number he’s paired on compliments his vocal style like salad dressing compliments ice cream.  There’s a track called “Sex Murder Party” that’s as bad as a song called “Sex Murder Party” could have been (yes, the chorus whispers “Sex murder party”), but far more boring – nothing fucking happens on this song at all!  The record stumbles and face-plants out the door with the penultimate “Hallelujah Money”, which features a bizarre baritone vocal from Benjamin Clementine reciting revolutionary lyrical content expressing the concept that money is the root of all evil (Gasp!).  But the closer is miles worse; an upbeat, positive song that sounds like it was Albarn’s attempt to write for Sesame Street (“We got the power to be loving each other no matter what happens!  We got hte power to do that!”) before Savages’ Jehnny Beth (yes, you read that right) shows up with an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable, nearly campy vocal take that makes me want to kill myself.

And through it all, where the hell are the Gorillaz?  The fictional band is nowhere to be found, no guitar lines from Noodle, no acoustic bass lines from Murdoch, minimal live drumming from Russel and only occasional vocal takes from 2-D (aka Albarn himself).  Albarn stated in an interview that he has 40 more Gorillaz songs that didn’t make the album (there are also six ‘deluxe edition’ songs you can get on iTunes or something).  If these were the 14 best songs he could put together, I can’t even begin to imagine the steaming pile of shit that are those other 40.

Score:  2 / 13

Rank The Songs – Contra

Track list, for reference:

  1. Horchata
  2. White Sky
  3. Holiday
  4. California English
  5. Taxi Cab
  6. Run
  7. Cousins
  8. Giving Up the Gun
  9. Diplomat’s Son
  10. I Think Ur a Contra

Until the emergence of one Car Seat Headrest, I considered Vampire Weekend to be the best working guitar-based band since I started following music closely (circa 2010).  Ezra is an insanely talented lyricist, Rostam’s arrangements and harmonies are endlessly interesting and beautiful, and the band as a whole seems to approach their image and aesthetic, as well as the crafting of their songs and albums, with both grounded cool-headedness and an expectation of excellence.

Of the band’s three studio LPs (2008’s Vampire Weekend, 2010’s Contra and 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City), Contra is probably the one that gets the least attention.  Vampire Weekend started it all, identified their erudite, preppy aesthetic, established their signature culturally aware yacht rock sound and contained longtime fan favorites like “Oxford Comma“, “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and the ubiquitous “A-Punk“.  Modern Vampires was seen as their ‘mature, adult’ album, won them a Grammy, killed the year-end list bonanza, etc.  Contra served as the confirmation that the band were indeed ‘for real’, but I’d also argue that it’s the most conceptual and aesthetically cohesive record in the band’s discography, and also their best arranged and produced.  An album about cultural opposites and juxtapositions, and how they fit into navigating reflections on a failed relationship, Contra has grown on me steadily over the years, and at this point I’d say its a dead-heat between it and their self-titled as my second favorite album of all time.

10. “Holiday

Easily one of the most well-known Vampire Weekend songs (owing in no small part its appearance in car commercials and perennial existence on winter holiday corporate playlists), its also the least interesting song on Contra, melding solid dueling guitar work with a chorus I unfortunately find slightly insufferable.  The album’s signature arpeggiated synths or woahing harmonies are nowhere toe be found, and the lyrical content is less subtle, clever or referential than just about anywhere else on the album.  The song’s true saving grace, however, is the bridge, which is far more inline with the tone of the rest of the album and features the wonderful typeface-referencing lyric “She’d never seen the word ‘bombs’ blown up to 96-point Futura”.

9.  “Run

Opening the album’s second half, “Run” has been called “Springsteen-esque” for its depiction of a young couple running from their boring domestic lives, chasing love, freedom and hedonism.  But I’ve always found the lyrics uncharacteristically straightforward for Ezra (“Every dollar counts / And every morning hurts / We mostly work to live / Until we live to work”), and although the couple’s description is romantic and even poetic, I feel like Ezra could have done the subject better justice with the more complex nuance he’s known for.  I have never really cared for the Latin-tinged horns or the song’s generally triumphant tone, though I’ll concede that the presence of young wealth and aristocratic ennui plays well into the album’s aesthetic motifs.

8.  “California English

From here on forward, every song on this list is great.  “California English” is one of Vampire Weekend’s most dizzying efforts, including a string section playing complex syncopated melodies in a round and an echoing delay on Ezra’s vocals.  A song composed of one liners about California, there is no shortage of clever references (“Funny how that little college girl called language corrupt / Funny how the other private schools had no Hapa Club”) depicting the state’s inherent culture clashing.  But despite the excellent harmonies on the chorus, the song seeks a relatively streamlined arrangement and doesn’t pack the emotional punch of the album’s standouts.

7.  “Giving Up the Gun

One of the band’s two best music videos is also home to their discography’s most unique and distinctive song.  “Giving Up the Gun” features furious sixteenth note bass lines and the band’s danciest back beat, along with four choruses over nearly five minutes, creating the group’s closest thing to a synthpop crossover.  The production is dense and very rhythm heavy, though still features tasty production notes like Rostam’s “Tokagawa-style” guitar riffs on the second verse, the beautiful harmonies sung a third over the melody on the chorus, the delicate glockenspiel twinkles throughout and the huge angel choir that builds the bridge from the ground up.  The track’s inherent balladry and sincerity (“And though it’s been a long time, you’re right back where you started from / I see it in your eyes, and now you’re giving up the gun”) hearken back to 80s power ballads from Peter Gabirel and Phil Collins (if they were a little less corny and rocked a little harder), capturing a piece of 80s culture the entire album evokes in a way not seen on any other track.

6.  “Taxi Cab

Arguably the album’s most personal song (assuming Ezra is referencing his own past) and certainly its most skeletal, “Taxi Cab” is an unassuming but beautiful lament on a failed relationship with an old money debutante.  The image of a girl who travels “Compound to compound” behind “Uniformed clothes outside the courtyard gates” thoroughly paints the subject without ever explicitly describing her, and the narrator’s recollection of a naive optimism envisioning their adulthood together (“Like the future was supposed to be / In the aisles of the grocery / And the blocks uptown”) makes all the more heartbreaking his inevitable acceptance of their fundamental differences (“I was questioning and looking back / You said ‘Baby we don’t speak of that’ / Like a real aristocrat”).  Ezra’s genius as a lyricist is akin to Hemingway’s iceberg theory; he can give the minimum and most interesting possible description necessary to capture the range of meanings he’s attempting to translate.  The song never wavers from its down-tempo beat, buffered by sawing violins and careful, polite piano and harpsichord arpeggios, and never explodes into a final chorus or coda the way “Hannah Hunt” and “Giving Up the Gun” do.  Instead, like the relationship, it marches toward its end unceremoniously, not with a bang but with a whimper.

5.  “I Think Ur a Contra

The album’s other lowest-energy track and its closing number, “I Think Ur a Contra” uses the album’s titular phrase, previously employed to describe cultures on opposite coasts (“California English”), to capture the internal struggle within an individual.  A successor to “Taxi Cab”, Ezra moves away from objective reflection into subjective bitterness – “I think you’re a contra / I think that you lie”, “You’re gonna watch out for yourself / And so will I”.  The song’s angelic production and meandering guitar lines, creeping in from either channel, make it one of Rostam’s most impressive pieces, and the slow build of instruments and boat-swaying tom drums culminate the album in a similar way to how “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” did Vampire Weekend, but with a more beautiful melody and far fuller, lusher production work.

4.  “Horchata

“Horchata” succeeds as an opener by laying out exactly what Contra intends to do; tinkle with synths and vibraphones, coat choruses with ‘woah’ harmonies, move between empty space and swirling crescendos through roller coaster string arrangements, make mention of pretentious cultural touchstones, and create an undeniably catchy song propped up by excellent melodies composed of equally subtle and interesting lyrics detailing the end of a relationship.  Probably the most conceptually difficult to decipher track on the album, Ezra juxtaposes hot and cold seasons (“Winter’s cold is too much to handle / Pincher crabs that pinch at your sandals”) to capture the feelings before and after the breakup, contrasting pleasant memories where his ex’s “lips and teeth that asked how my day went” are now “shouting up through cracks in the pavement”.  Ultimately, the narrator opines for even the simplest of times, mere “Chairs to sit and sidewalks to walk on”, the representation of the narrator’s “Nosalgia for garbage” on “Taxi Cab”.  But beyond the depth of its lyrics, “Horchata” is a masterpiece of arrangement, kicking the shit out of every piece of production on Vampire Weekend right from the get-go.

3. “Cousins

The album’s true banger, the band’s set-opener, and Ezra’s most poignant dismissal of the band’s haters, “Cousins” is a whirlwind of self-reference and chaotic guitar lines.  The opening lyric (“You found a sweater on the ocean floor”) both references two Vampire Weekend tracks (“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “A-Punk”) and represents Ezra’s aesthetic vision for the band; taking discarded prep school aesthetic and turning it into a unique and kick-ass personal brand.  Every line on the song is ripe with double entendre, and led by Chris Thompson’s machine gun snares and Rostam’s ridiculous vibrato picked descending guitar lines, “Cousins” structure and performances help make it the band’s best rock song.

2.  “White Sky

One of the album’s simplest arrangements, merely an arpeggiated four chord synth progression, a clapping drum beat and bouncing bass line, Ezra’s best description of New York moves from blissful to euphoric with the grace and ease of settling into a wonderful ecstasy high (“It all comes at once”).  Cultural juxtaposition, perhaps the album’s most central theme, abounds, between the “Ancient business” and “Modern piece of glass work” to the “Horses racing taxis”, painting a captivating portrait of New York, as does the visual of “A pair of mirrors that are facing one another” reflecting “A thousand little Julias” and the skyward gaze of the narrator and his girl as they fantasize about living among the wealthy in the city’s high rises – “Looks up at the buildings, imagine who might live there / Imagining your Wolford’s in a ball upon the sink there”.  The song’s structure builds a growing sense of elation to climax, beginning with two verses that catapult into the first chorus, then to an instrumental, another verse into another chorus, and then directly into the last verse before the biggest and most satisfying chorus, evoking the center of a great drug trip or a toe-curling orgasm.

1.  “Diplomat’s Son

Forever standing as the best combination of Ezra and Rostam’s many talents, the album’s overarching climax, sequenced pen-ultimately after the rollicking back side run of “Run”, “Cousins” and “Giving Up the Gun”, tells the story of a homoerotic tryst between an adventurous protagonist and his old money classmate.  Featuring lyrics from both members, sexual tension builds (“With my car keys hidden in the kitchen / I could sleep wherever I lay my head”) before Rostam takes a rare lead vocal turn on the gorgeous half tempo reggae bridge, where he sings as the diplomat’s son (“I know you’ll say ‘I’m not doing it right’ / But this is how I want it”) before we’re shot back into the narrator’s recollection (“That night I smoked a joint with my best friend / We found ourselves in bed / When I woke up he was gone”).  There are so many wonderful components of this song; the M.I.A. vocal sample that serves as a backbeat, the faux-African vocals, the woozy, lilting strings, the half-tempo bridges, the lyrical imagery of the diplomat’s son’s house.  But it stands as one of Vampire Weekend’s all time greatest songs and their creative pinnacle on Contra because of how effortlessly the songwriters blend a meaningful and carefully paced story within the contours of the song’s production backflips.  The outro scene of the narrator contrasting the warm, drugged up night he spent with the diplomat’s son with a cold, windy riverside is a picturesque ending with a lasting and ambiguous final image – “In the dark when the wind comes racing off the river / There’s a car all black with diplomatic plates”.

Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls

Young Thug is one of the most interesting rappers to emerge this decade.  Ostensibly an Atlanta-based trap artist, his signature squealing, half singing, notoriously incomprehensible vocal style gives him easily the most unique voice in the game, a voice that’s been (deservedly) championed as well as condemned and imitated ever since his breakthrough single, “Lifestyle“.  He gets featured all over the place (most recently on two standout tracks from Drake’s latest mixtape), wears amazing and provocative outfits, features in a few wonderful music videos, and puts out mixtapes at a clip of two per year or so, his most recent being last summer’s solid Jeffery.  His newest mixtape, Beautiful Thugger Girls, is his biggest departure to date, away from both trap and rapping in favor of slow, smooth pop, sultry R&B, prominent singing, harmonies and acoustic instrumentation (the guitar on the cover isn’t entirely a red herring, despite the fact that Thugger’s holding it upside down).

Of course, for many (but not all), Thug’s Achilles heel has always been his lyrics.  Basically, every Young Thug hook and couplet remarks on one of the following subjects:

a) his desire to have sex with a woman

b) his desire to receive a blowjob from a woman

c) his desire to have anal sex with a woman

d) his request of a woman to let him ejaculate onto her

e) his desire to ejaculate onto a woman

f) his desire to ejaculate inside of a woman

Thus the album’s title, while not especially an apt description of the way Thug talks about women on the record, at least doesn’t seek to eschew the thought and intention behind every Young Thug song, album, mixtape, or what have you.  The record’s opening lyric is “Let me put that dick inside of your panties” (over a pretty sweet reversed acoustic guitar, however).  A sampling of the album’s hooks include “Fuck me, suck me”,  “Gimme the threesome, three three three threesome,” and “You said you gon’ fuck me to death when you see me, you said that you said that!”.  Granted, Thug definitely hedges far more toward admiration for women than misogyny (unlike nearly all of his peers), but aside from a head turning line here and there, Beautiful Thugger Girls contains exactly the vacuous sexual desire and bad puns you’ve come to expect from a Young Thug project.

Which of course doesn’t doom the album whatsoever.  No one’s going into this expecting Kendrick or Vince Staples, and if they were… lol.  But sonically, Beautiful Thugger Girls is for the most part a really nice listen.  Very few of Thug’s peers, especially within trap, can claim a song as pretty musically as opener “Family Don’t Matter”, with its acoustic guitars, tambourine and melancholy choral vocals.  “You Said” features some impressive guitar arpeggios (a sample, but still a good choice) and more harmonies, and “Me or Us” is basically a Bright Eyes song featuring Young Thug.  As far as melodic, singer-songwriter rap is concerned, Thug is setting the bar pretty high.

The low points come when tracks revert to derivative trap formulas, such as on the Future featuring snoozefest “Relationship” or the familiar dark, ambient flute stylings of “Tomorrow Til Infinity”.  Still, Young Thug’s vocals are truly all over the place on all of these songs, singing in a wide variety of voices, high and low, nailing vibratos, falsettos, interesting melodic turns and intricate harmonies.  Listening to the project is like riding on a Young Thug melody roller coaster, and closer inspection to what he’s doing with his voice, such as on the hook of “You Said” or spitting within the peaks and valleys of the latin-tinged, horn-featuring “For Y’all”, never fails to impress.

Beautiful Thugger Girls doesn’t have the best Young Thug songs (that’d be Barter 6) or make the loudest, most inventive Young Thug statement (Jeffery), but it is both his most cohesive and prettiest album yet, capturing an aesthetic and theme and sticking with it (despite that theme being, well, girls Young Thug is into).  At 14 songs and 55 minutes, it could have used with some pairing of the more uninventive tracks, but it’s still far from the trials of listening through his 18 song, 70+ minute Slime Season mixtapes.  As far as pop music is considered, Thug’s vocals are way more interesting than anything else out there, and as R&B, the tracks sound pretty good and Thug’s flow and acrobatics are typically impressive enough to make up for less interesting song structures.  I’d say this album is about on par with Thug’s two best records and continues to show development, which is a great sign.

Score: 8 / 13

Lorde – Melodrama

The first time I heard Lorde (outside of “Royals” on the radio in passing) was on a bus headed toward Austin City Limits in October 2013.  I had downloaded her 2013 debut album Pure Heroine and was ready to rip into it for a review for my college newspaper.  But one minute into opener “Tennis Court” I was completely blown away.  The lyrics and production were equally sublime.  The songs were catchy but catered to no pop music standards.  Pure Heroine did something few albums ever can; introduce a new artist with huge crossover hit potential who can also reshape the entire pop landscape.  Suddenly, dark, spacey minimalism was very in.  She wasn’t the first to hone this sound – see xx from 2009 or The Weeknd’s 2011 trilogy– but she successfully paired it with accessibility and personality without compromising any artistry.  In the four years since its release, Pure Heroine has only gotten better with age, and the fallout of its wake can still be seen on the charts.

Four years is a long time to spend on the followup to a massive commercial and critical debut, but Lorde isn’t a traditional pop artist, and she was right to think long and hard about what statement she wanted to make on her next LP.  Songs about the trivialities of being bored and sixteen probably won’t play well over two albums, but the classic “Im famous now and I’m still jaded” sophomore trope is played-out and lacks the idiosyncratic detail Lorde puts into her lyrical work.  Instead, for Melodrama, she chose similar themes to Pure Heroine, aged a few years, with renewed emphasis on contemporary party culture underscored by the paradox of the album’s titular expression.

Production- and writing-wise, Lorde turned most prominently to Jack Antonoff of Bleachers and Fun (who a few weeks ago released by far the worst album I listened to all year).  His penchant for “bombastic”, “feel-good” choruses burrows its way into opener “Green Light”, the most obvious play for dance-floor ready radio pop (where it seems to have been quite successful) and probably the record’s second weakest track.  Lorde still bites with a practiced cattiness, but the chorused vocals shooting for empowerment lack personality.  The production takes a turn for the better on the second-sequenced “Sober”, which returns to Pure Heroine’s spacious, bass- and reverb- heavy arrangements and antichorus structure (punctuated by sharp horns), and while the sentiment (the emptiness of partying) is classic Lorde, I find the refrain (“But what will we do when we’re sober?”) awkwardly straightforward.  “Homemade Dynamite” is the best of the dancey, “I don’t know how I feel about the banality of millennial club culture” three-song opening, letting a boom-clap beat and understated synths do the heavy lifting under Lorde’s practically whispered too school for cool delivery (“I guess we’re partying”, “Know I think you’re awesome, right?”).  Thus Melodrama‘s opening movement is effective at setting themes and a mood, but its “bangers” hardly bang and it doesn’t follow through lyrically.

“The Louvre” is another semi-successful attempt to make a minimalist anthem, and does feature a couple of nice lyrical turns (“They’ll hang us in the Louvre / down the back but who cares still the Louvre”) which see Lorde turn her attention to love interests, where she has a knack for striking a nerve.  But the refrain of “Broadcast the boom boom boom and make ’em all dance to it” feels like further rehashing of all the record is saying up to this point.  The album’s best song and centerpiece, “Liability”, succeeds by pulling away from all the tricks, featuring only Lorde’s capable voice, a piano, a couple organs and an excellent melody.  The image of Lorde returning home alone find comfort in herself (“So I guess I’ll go home into the arms of the girl that I love” / “All that a stranger would see is one girl, swaying alone”) is visceral and haunting, the emotion in the song’s lyrics and delivery feeling more real than anything that preceded it.

But the record loses me again on “Hard Feelings / Loveless” – I don’t care if its sarcastic, I just can’t get behind a refrain of “This is what they call hard-feel-ings”.  The production features some of the record’s best turns, again relying on anti choruses and huge harmony sections but bringing in bizarre and unexpected synth noises that give the some an anxious edge.  But Lorde is effectively a singer-songwriter, and so her lyrics and in particular her refrains are of capital importance.  Couplets like “Cause I remember the rush when forever was us / Before all the winds of regret and mistrust” are more than capable, but I struggle to find any more specific interpretation of her plethora relationship woes when they’re all built on the backs of similar poetic couplets evoking only a general wistful nostalgia.

The album’s back half has some of the record’s strongest moments – “Sober II / Melodrama” more successfully conveys the bitterness Lorde was shooting for on “Sober” (“All the glamour and the trauma and the fucking melodrama / All the girl fights and lime lights and the holy sick divine nights”) and “Supercut” makes a strong case for the record’s second best track, capturing a mood with detailed lyricism (“In your car the radio up / We keep trying to talk about us”) an excellent metaphor (“It’s just a super cut of us”) and a truly anthemic bridge into coda.  The song is successful where earlier spots on the record fail because it feels personal; this is one specific relationship, and not a blanket statement about a culture Lorde has surprisingly predictable ideas toward.  And “Liability (Reprise)” pivots successfully to Bon Iver style autotune, rehashing similar sentiments to “Liability” but with renewed cynicism.  And “Writer in the Dark”, despite being somewhat of a zero lyrically, is the only place where Lorde really lets an unexpected hysterical wild side let loose vocally.

But after a strong back half, the record chooses to close with its worst track, “Perfect Places”, which feels exactly like the record’s opening third, full of “big, theatrical” Antonoff choruses crowded by too many harmonies voicing the dopey “Trying to find the perfect places!” kids bop refrain, without any trace of the emotion and personality Lorde has displayed she’s capable of owning.  It’s a huge disappointment but also not atypical of a record as inconsistent as Melodrama.

Overall, I think this album has some excellent lyrical and production moments, but its play for a more generic dance pop sound does not go over well, I really don’t care for Antonoff as a co-writer on a lot of these tracks, and the lyrical themes frequently overlap and fail to stand out on their own.  There are plenty of catchy moments, playful moments and uniquely Lorde moments (I think like three or four songs feature full instrument cut outs so she can saying something clever and sarcastic), but the record utterly fails to capture a specific time and place without any more than an expected amount of nuance.  A lot of people already love this record, probably because they can really relate to that “God fucking damnit partying is so vacuous!” sentiment that shows up on pretty much every chorus here.  And after all, the album is called Melodrama, so cheers to cohesiveness (I also love the cover art).  But seeing how Lorde’s bassy minimalism has since been co-opted, I think that, aside from a few standout tracks, Lorde’s appealing personality and unique vocal stylings are the only things that save this record from being another generic pop album.

Score: 8 / 13

Forest Swords – Compassion

Forest Swords, aka England’s Matthew Barnes, is an experimental electronic and ambient composer who, on the back of his head-turning 2013 breakthrough Engravings, has entered the sphere of similarly styled and admired artists such as John TalabotDarkside and Jon Hopkins.  His newest album, Compassion, feels like the crumbling of civilizations on the edge of mythical apocalypse; not a bad aesthetic for the current day and age.  The songs feel ominous but filled with energy; not a calm before the storm, but rather a revelry.

Titles like “The Highest Flood” and “Panic” from the album’s opening third are apt descriptions of the sounds within, which are evocative of communal unease and paranoia.  The clipped, non-lyrical chanting vocals and clacking of wooden percussive instruments of the former feel ritualistic, while the tribal drumming and weaving synthetic oboe of the latter are intoxicating.  “Exalter” follows as the actual sacrificial ceremony, the sound of a prehistoric Central American civilization filtered through distorted electronic vocoders and drum machines.

The album takes a respite in its center third, as “Border Margin Barrier” and “Arms Out” move into more lulling, ambient territory.  “Sjurvival” is a brief comedown, taking a chapter from William Basinski’s book by incorporating the sad sounds of muffled, dusty brass instruments floating in reverb, before the huge strings and chants of the penultimate “Raw Language,” end the scene with a bang.  Closer “Knife Edge”, led by glitchy pianos banging out minor arpeggios feels like an epilogue, a credits roll moment following an intense psychological thriller.

Compassion is thematic and well-sequenced.  But while the songs consistently feel appropriately dramatic, the mood they create is fairly static, and few individual tracks standout (“Sjurvival” being a notable exception).  Forest Swords is clearly a talented composer and his soundscapes are dense, but the constant buzz of reverb, use of glitchy editing and intentionally choppy vocal production leave me desiring for some crystal clear, beautifully synthetic moments.  This album sets a mood and sticks to it, and the overall trajectory works, but there’s nothing in it that strikes me as particularly risky, novel or compelling.  I find the darker ambient trance of Talabot more gripping, and the detailed production textures of Visible Cloaks more interesting.  Some ambient and electronic fans will really dig this release, but for me it was at best fine and at worst repetitive.

Score: 6 / 13