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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

Slowdive – Slowdive

Slowdive is one of a trio of influential and acclaimed British shoegaze bands from the genre’s heyday in the early 1990s to release a record 20+ years after their last one (the other two being My Bloody Valentine in 2013 and Ride this past week).  The group’s beloved Souvlaki is one of shoegaze’s defining albums, and while the band has moved only in subtle new directions in the time since its release, their new self-titled LP is proof that the group’s signature ‘huge wall of textured guitars’ sound still comes across as fresh, inventive and beautiful in the 2017 musical landscape.  On the some of the album’s softer and more derivative moments, however, the group’s direction can feel awkward, leading to a generally strong but at times inconsistent listen.

Shoegaze, by its nature, is a genre about adding as many effects and reverb pedals as you can to as many guitars as you can and creating an ocean of endlessly deep, distorted sound over which you sing soft, incomprehensible lyrics about loneliness, and Slowdive does not often attempt to diverge from this formula.  Instead, the band stakes their edge and originality on great melodies and song structures that worm into your head, making sure that every track’s collage of synths and guitars sounds as epic and titanic as possible.  Opener “Slomo” comes in close to seven minutes but doesn’t overextend, riding echoing shotgun snares behind looping synth and lead guitar patterns, never complex, one after another until finally vocalist Neil Halstead’s voice enters in a familiar wash of effects, singing a looping melody that almost sounds like another instrument piled on atop the giant sea of sound.  When Rachel Goswell’s voice finally pierces the fray to loop the same melody an octave above Neil’s, the song (and maybe entire album) has reached the peak of what it intends to be – a magnificent, swirling whirlpool of sound, all the individual components adding up to something far greater than the sum of their parts.

“Star Roving” kicks things into an uptempo, even dancey groove that doesn’t sacrifice carefully laid layers of washed out guitars, but does move into a wonderful central quiet section, an eye of the hurricane, before the track rushes back in with even greater energy and conviction.  These first two tracks are Slowdive at their best, and similarly enormous second half cuts “Everyone Knows” and “No Longer Making Time”, the former dancing amidst a falsetto Rachel vocal, the latter featuring the album’s best back and forth, loud and soft dynamics and vocal melody from Neil, who at times even leaves bare his now raspy, aged voice, injecting a certain human element into songs that typically convey emotion through their guitars.

But in the album’s center, “Sugar for the Pill” similarly exposes Neil’s vocals and cadences amid gently delaying guitar lines, but the melody and voice feel strangely out of place within song’s spectral ambiance, and I can’t help feeling like the song is a mid-album letdown, especially following the lilting and energetic “Don’t Know Why”.  The penultimate “Go Get It” has an almost Pearl-Jam like grunginess to its chord progression and call and response chorus, but doesn’t really add anything new to the wall of sound formula that is exercised with far more emotion on “Slomo” and “Star Roving”.  And the album’s final track, “Falling Ashes”, is unfortunately a failed experiment; a slow, mostly barren piano elegy that sees the vocalists repeating the phrase “Thinking about love, thinking about love” ad nauseum.  I get it; he’s thinking about love.  Thinking what?  Where does this song go?  What was the idea here?  This isn’t Tim Hecker haunted piano beauty– it’s just an end of the album bummer.

At it’s best, Slowdive is as good as anyone could ever hope Slowdive to be after a twenty-year absence.  But at its worst, while far from unsophisticated or uninteresting (aside from “Falling Ashes”, that is), the group feels strained, their ideas not the meddling of a new band defining their sound, but an old band trying to put eight tracks together that can at least stand up with their previous work.  And five out of eight times, they succeed, which is a more than good enough batting average for a late-career album.  There are times where Slowdive sounds like the best thing that’s come out this year, but as a whole it can be inconsistent and is never novel or revolutionary.

Score: 8 / 13

Phoenix – Ti Amo

Hey look it’s another classic indie rock band with a classic album that has gone full disco! (Looking at you, Arcade Fire.)  Although anyone that’s been plotting Phoenix’s trajectory over the last decade or so could see this one coming from a mile away.  After their most guitar heavy album, 2006’s underrated It’s Never Been Like That, the band became the best indie act of 2009 (maybe outside of The xx) on the back of their bonafide masterpiece Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.  I’ve written about that album before and will probably do a ‘Rank The Songs’ feature on it as well, so stay tuned.  2013’s Bankrupt! was met with mixed reviews, as most critics simply shrugged and delivered the typical ‘well, it’s not as good as their last album’ response.  Not that they were wrong, but Bankrupt! is another underrated effort by a band that hasn’t ever made a sub-par album.

Which brings us to Ti Amo, a love letter to Giorgio Morodor and schmaltzy 70s Italian disco.  This is the kind of record most people expect to be terrible.  And if you go into this project looking for an indie rock album, you’re going to be disappointed.  But honestly, the 10 songs and 37 minutes Thomas Mars and co. deliver here, while far from their most interesting or intricate work, is consistently catchy and enjoyable, and I think the vintage, sun-drenched summer sound is actually somewhat refreshing given the current climate of dark, frigid, minimalist R&B we find ourselves in.

Opener and first single “J-Boy”, despite the asinine title and a handful of asinine lyrics (“Then inside an alley you’re out of words / Well I thought it was radium at first”) is bristling with layers of colorful keyboard lines all over the channels, and Mars’ smooth, too school for cool, autotune-assisted vocal delivery is right in his wheelhouse.  Spoiler alert – the lyrics on Ti Amo are some of Phoenix’s worst, and this is a band that tends to only sound profound by accident (the language barrier probably doesn’t help in that regard).  But I find that they rarely detract from the listening experience – dance music has never been deep lyrical territory, LCD Soundsystem notwithstanding.  “Tuttifrutti” (it’s painful to even type that) rides the same pulsating 1-2 beat that persists throughout the whole album along with some funky guitar and flute lines before the tropical, slow and grandiose “Fior Di Latte” arrives, a song that somehow works (credit the strong choral melody) despite being part Jimmy Buffet and part 80s power ballad.  Mid-album cuts “Lovelife”, “Goodbye Soleil” and “Fluer De Lys” flow so effortlessly into one another the record can at times imitate a DJ set.

While none of these tracks are bad (although some lyrical moments – “So let me control, regret that I broke our thing”, “You’re numero uno, ready for the win” – are patience testing), few of the tracks stand out as highlights.  My choice for the album’s best cut is actually the final track, “Telefono”, which carries some of that deeply cathartic longing that made Wolfgang such an incredible album.  The chorus and melody are classic mid 2000s Phoenix, re contextualized for the band’s current disco obsession.  The song fades both in and out, like a passing idea from a past age, and that’s sort of all Ti Amo is – a fleeting moment, a passing phase.  But for a band as talented as Phoenix, and for a frontman as charming and confident as Mars, the seemingly effortless project still manages to succeed.  None of these tracks are really anything close to groundbreaking, and few pack novel, interesting ideas, but the record works for what it is, and I think spending some time with it reveals that it’s as solid a piece of unabashedly disco-obsessed pop music as you’re likely to find this year.

Score: 8 / 13

 

Passion Pit – Tremendous Sea of Love

Talk about overlooked – Passion Pit, the project of Cambridge’s Michael Angelakos, had huge synthpop hits and lit up the the album of the year charts on 2009’s debut LP Manners, then failed to slump on the sophomore followup, 2012’s Gossameryet the group’s newest LP has to date only be reviewed by two blogs and has made close to zero waves on the 2017 landscape.  That’s likely because it was released for free, on YouTube of all places, and was largely produced, mixed and mastered by Angelakos himself.  In a lengthy (and slightly obnoxious) announcement, Angelakos described his process as making something quickly, with human mistakes and errors rather than polished revisions, so that he could show his true, human self.  I don’t know how much I buy the excuse of doing something hastily for authenticity’s sake, but nonetheless, Angelakos has put together a solid collection of tracks here, with very cohesive themes and ideas, and I think the project succeeds and even points in the direction of a return to form after 2015’s underwhelming Kindred.  It comes as no surprise, however, that the album’s Achilles heel is in the production.

After a swirling and bombastic opener filled with all the typical Passion Pit synths (fun, sprightly, bouncy synth lines in all directions), the album opts for its most ambitious track in the number two position, the six minute “Somewhere Up There”.  A three-parter that begins like something off Manners, the album discusses Angelakos’ depression and insecurity regarding his divorce (and subsequent public coming out), a recurring theme in Passion Pit music.  The opening passage is catchy and dynamic, but the vocal take is rough and could have used with some cleaner production or the chorus effect that Angelakos likes to frequent on his melodies.  But unmistakable is the emotion in his voice, and I think the abrupt switch up halfway through to a soaring half-time track with crescendoing vocals works.  I even think the two spoken word passages (one from Angelakos’ mentor and another in the form of a voicemail from his mother) play into the deeply personal songwriting the album is going for.

The album’s front side continues the hot streak, with both “Hey K” (another divorce track, this time sung to Angelakos’ ex-wife directly) and “You Have the Right” being cut from the same cloth as Gossamer’s R&B-tinged standout “Constant Conversations“.  The vocals are clear and crisp, and the slower tempos, clicks and soft synthesizers providing a cushion to the jagged edges of the first two tracks.  I do think the album loses some steam by opting to sequence the instrumental title track, a four minute ambient piece that resembles the waves on the record’s cover, at the halfway point, clearly breaking the album into two distinct movements.

The B side boasts the biggest issues with production.  The chopped-up and glitchy “Inner Dialogue” is a mess, neither catchy nor pleasant, and “I’m Perfect”, which is filled with energy and features an excellent chorus, suffers from the same demo-quality production that haunts the entire record.  Passion Pit music is so dense and bombastic that it benefits more than most genres from crystal clear vocals and synths, and the quick mixing that Angelakos went for truly is a detriment on songs like this.  The eighth- and ninth-sequenced “The Undertow” and “To the Otherside”, while solid and featuring good melodies and piano/keyboard riffs, fail to really get big or go in as hard as you’d like, as hard as Angelakos did on Manners favorites “Make Light” and “Sleepyhead“.  The record ends with the largely instrumental “For Sondra (It Means the World To Me)”, a swelling instrumental that ends with a bare, raw acoustic guitar and voice take that features the record’s most intimate lyrics (“But mother you knew / Your love kept on hurting me / But you’re my family / Why would you?”).  It’s an appropriate ending to a cohesive, thematic and personal record.

Tremendous Sea has a few really good tracks and I think the low-stakes project succeeds in what it was shooting for.  But excellent LP this is not, partially because it’s quite short (36 minutes, including two instrumental tracks), and partially because a couple of the tracks are weak, but mostly because it sounds like a demo.  The extra flourishes, vocal harmonies, solos, layering and impressive production touches that other Passion Pit records relish in are largely absent, leaving us with a relatively stripped back collection of songs from a project that built itself on over-the top maximalism.  Still, this record is proof that Angelakos can still write great Passion Pit songs, and it instills hope that the next LP could move the band back in the direction of their creative peak.

Score: 8 / 13

Drake – More Life

On More Life‘s “Gyalchester”, in reference to where he ranks among the planet’s current crop of rappers, Drake states “I know I said top five, but I’m top two / And I’m not two”.  I absolutely believe Drake thinks he’s the best rapper on the planet – he smashed the Spotify streaming records twice! – but most familiar with the rap game would fail to see things that way (especially when the undisputed king recently murked him on back to back tracks).  I’d put Drake somewhere around 10th myself, probably after Kendrick, Danny Brown, MC Ride, the guys in Run the JewelsVince Staples, A$AP Rocky, Chance and Earl Sweatshirt.  But one thing is for sure – Drake is the most listened to rapper on the planet, and not for no reason.  He puts out a new project every year, often twice a year.  The list of collaborators on his albums reach to every corner of the hip hop sphere.  He has built up an image and actively maintains it and evolves it, moving from sad boy to asshole and back again on a semi-annual basis, all while being a genuinely funny SNL host.  And he puts out both catchy, poppy songs that land all over the charts as well as deeper cuts that see him exploring new styles.  Drake’s not top 5, but he’s not, like, Kodak Black, either.  His music is generally likable, even when it’s a massive disappointment.

The majority of the criticism I’ve seen about More Life stems from two general camps.  The first is along the lines of “Oh, Drake called this a “playlist” rather than an album or mixtape because it lets him use half-baked ideas, over-stuff the track list, and include Views b-sides under the guise that it’s still original content” (though I’m pretty sure all the Views b-sides still made it onto that record).  The second is that Drake is co-opting a bunch of foreign styles and ideas, white-washing them, and presenting watered down versions to the masses, specifically dancehall (Jamaica), grime (England) and trap (Georgia, state, not country (though that would be awesome)).

To the first point, I say simply, Drake put out a collection of original music, I’m going to evaluate it the same way I evaluate any album, EP, mixtape, soundtrack, etc.  He could have put it out exclusively as a video laserdisc and called it a ‘laserecord’ and I wouldn’t have given a fuck.  If there’s shit on it, people will call it a shit playlist.  I don’t believe in raising or lowering expectations based on if the release is free or physical or what have you.

To the second point, I’ll say yeah, Drake draws from styles that he had no part in helping form, and delivers his own version.  Is that a problem?  Music is a art – no one owns trap music.  If Drake makes shit trap music, then call it shit, but don’t get on his case for making trap music to begin with.  Did George Harrison ‘whitewash’ traditional Indian music?  Did the Beastie Boys co-opt ‘black music’?  God, who the fuck cares if Drake raps in a fake patois or a fake British accent – no one is being exploited here, there are no victims as a result of Drake messing around with silly accents.  The only one at risk is Drake himself – if the music is corny and sucks, then he’ll lose cred and play counts.

More Life, at least to me, is interesting and cool because it is a record of Drake trying on other people’s ideas.  Just when his trademark ‘style’ was getting stale, Drake took the opportunity to throw it all at the wall to see what sticks, with a few traditional Drake tracks thrown in, and a ton of traditional Drake themes, tying the whole project together.  “No Long Talk” is a grime song.  Drake raps about his ‘tings’.  “Passionfruit”, “Madiba Riddim” and “Get It Together” draw from the same low-key, tropical house vibe that fueled “One Dance“, and Drake similarly abandons rapping for singing.  All three songs are warmer, chiller and catchier than similar outings from Views.  “Portland” is basically a Migos song, with Quavo delivering the same style of ad-libs on the chorus that endeared me to “Get Right Witcha“, the flute riding the beat throughout sounding like a perfect match for the production on Culture.  Similarly, “Sacrifices” is a fucking Young Thug song, not just because it features Young Thug and a trap beat, but also because Drake imitates Thug’s cadence and vocal styling to a tee.  Honestly, it’s probably my favorite song here – the beat dropping out in favor of solo piano on the hook is amazing.  2 Chainz’ verse is great, and Thug’s verse brings some nice energy at the end.

“Fake Love” is “Hotline Bling” 2.0, but I don’t really mind, I think the beat is catchy enough, and I like the use of the “Pick up the Phone” sample (great song, btw), I just wish it arrived earlier in the track list.  Ditto for “Ice Melts”, another Thug feature, which is the funnest, sunniest song here but unfortunately arrives in the penultimate position of an 82 minute album.  Kanye on “Glow” is kind of awkward, and I think the album could have benefited more from aggressive Kanye than sing-songy Kanye, but his inclusion adds to the album’s theme of being a showcase for some of rap’s biggest names, including SamphaTravis Scott and Mercury prize winner Skepta.

Lyrically, its the same old Drake bullshit.  There’s a fair bit about women (I especially like “I drunk text J-Lo / Old number, so it bounce back”), but mostly Drake is talking about his paranoia regarding and distrust of those he surrounds himself with.  This concept was most thoroughly explored on the best song on Drake’s best album, “Energy“, and the fact that Drake still obsesses over it, after years of fame fame and more fame, is worth noting.  The whole message of the record is summed up in a voicemail from his mom at the end of “Can’t Have Everything”:

“You have reason to question your anxieties and how disillusioned you feel, as well as feeling skeptical about who you believe you can trust. But that attitude will just hold you back in this life, and you’re going to continue to feel alienated.”

Never before have I seen Drake’s trademark internal struggle so concisely summed up and slain before, and by his own mother no less!  Similarly to how Frank Ocean’s mother’s voicemail warning him about using drugs fit perfectly within the story of Blonde, so too does the voicemail from Sandi Graham.  But there is additional destruction to the fourth-wall when considering that Sandi is likely referring to the same songs that bookend her speech, and because Drake sings about communicating with her so often.

There are plenty of negatives to More Life.  It’s too long.  A lot of the songs (specifically on the back half) are boring, lag behind and feel like filler.  It’s all over the place (though as I said before, that’s somewhat to its benefit).  The sequencing doesn’t really make sense (which you think would be of paramount importance for a ‘playlist’).  Drake’s not saying anything new or inventive, his bars and flow aren’t always tight, and his voice can sound tired after awhile.  But I find myself truly enjoying listening through this thing, and with some editing, it could have been a very strong album.  The good songs are better than the best songs on Views, the hooks are catchier, the structures, beats and features more varied and colorful.  This isn’t a bad project, it’s just way too loose and scattershot to be a great one, either.  Which no one, probably not even Drake, believes it was meant to be.

Score: 8/13

Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator

Hurray for the Riff Raff is the folk/rock/Americana project of Alynda Lee Segarra, a New York native and member of the city’s Puerto Rican diaspora before leaving home at 17 and moving to New Orleans, from which her band is based.  Her newest album, the third for major indie label ATO, is a blend of folk rock, country and Latin American music, and acts thematically as a cohesive effort focusing on cultural identity, appropriation, and overcoming from within a minority community.

The record begins with an a cappella folk ballad, complete with barbershop harmonies, singing “One for the navigator, get on board!” Segarra thus acts as the navigator on a passage across her own identity and the America as she sees it.  The second sequenced “Living in the City” is the record’s catchiest song and one of its most satisfying, with its colorful harmonies and overlapping guitar riffs, while Segarra describes her vision to escape the city  – “Well I”ll lock my dreams away / I’ll watch the city quiver”.  It’s followed by “Hungry Ghost”, which takes a vocal and melodic page out of Mitski’s book as a dark, bass-led rocker, which at first seems to show Segarra dissing an ex-lover, but within the context of the album reveals itself to be one of many songs about her own identity – “I been nobody’s child / So my blood’s starting running wild”.  This record is a political one, but it is clearly from one singular point of view.

Many of these tracks borrow heavily from folk tradition, not just in their instrumentation and cadence, but in Segarra’s use of repeating phrases, timeless metaphors (“Oh it’s getting lonely / Oh, at the bottom of a bottle”) and traditional structures.  The unique and interesting spin Navigator puts on Americana, however, is the infusion of Latin American and Caribbean salsa and calypso music.  While the record’s first four tracks don’t show sings of deviation, the mid-album title track opens with a recording of Spanish dialogue before plunging into a modern tango ballad, featuring guitar licks reminiscent of Santana, as Segarra positions herself as a navigator of her people, leading them out of the darkness of today toward the optimism of tomorrow.  “Rican Beach”, another sultry, Caribbean track (complete with bongos and steel guitar) is the most pointedly political song here, but unfortunately offers some of the clunkiest lyrics (“And all the poets were dying of a silence disease / So it happened quickly and with much ease.”)  Of course there’s a Trump reference – “The politicians, they just flap their mouths / They say we’ll build a wall to keep them out” – because how can you make music in 2017 and not reference Trump?!  Segarra is perhaps better positioned than most to express disdain, but it still doesn’t score any points for originality.

Two of The Navigator‘s best tracks come in its final third.  “Fourteen Floors” is an anticipatory piano and drum affair where Segarra describes her father’s struggle to reach a country that has made life so difficult for those like him, singing “My father said it took a million years / Well he said that it felt like a million years just to get here” while numerous vocal overdubs whisper the same phrase around her.  The song builds tension but ultimately never collapses into a huge moment the way I want it to, which is one of my major gripes with the record.  The penultimate “Pa’lante” does better in this department, featuring a heart-filled and passionate coda as Seggara raises a toast to “All who lost their pride / To all who had to survive”, but again doesn’t ever break down into the mass of guitars, pianos, drums, etc. that the build teases.  The record does end with an interesting conceptual moment, as the group reprises the opening track but in markedly Latin American fashion, suggesting a transformation of traditional American folk into the style of the country’s fastest growing minorities.

The Navigator is focused, well-produced and well-written, but its melodies are often more folksy than catchy, and it seems to consistently content itself with easy-going arrangements and passages instead of reaching for epic climaxes, the highs and lows that the content seems capable of inspiring.  None of the songs are bad, and the lyrics are personal and relevant.  But while the record successfully fuses two traditional styles of music, it still doesn’t feel like a major breakthrough because it rarely shoots for the stars.  I also think Segarra is capable of more nuanced and detailed lyrics, and while it may be a stylistic choice to opt for simpler, folksier lyricism, I think her instrumentation and vocal twang do enough work on that front.  Still, I think the record is a success, and wouldn’t fault anyone from enjoying the hell out of it.  I can see it being an anthem for Latin American communities in the Trump era, I just wish it was more anthemic.

Score: 8/13