Alternative R&B

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

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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

Sampha – Process

This Sampha album, his debut full-length, is great.  There’s not a bad song on here, Sampha does interesting things vocally and from a production standpoint, and his lyrics are thoughtful and personal while staying wrapped in deep metaphors and double meanings.  And because it vaguely fits into the ever-expanding genre of R&B (with Sampha’s sound tinted more by synthesizers and effects ala Frank Ocean or fellow British contemporary James Blake), the songs are pleasant, melodic and listenable as background, dinner-party music in addition to being compelling close listens.  And with close listens comes the revelation that this is very much an album about grief.

Like many, I first heard of Sampha through his vocal work on SBTRKT’s wonderful first album.  His voice has been compared, favorably, to James Blake (and for good reason), but Sampha can dig into softer, more personal territory, and it shines through on some of Process‘s best tracks.  After kicking off with the building, atmospheric “Plastic 100° C”, which extends an outer space metaphor to include spoken-word Neil Armstrong samples and blast-off noises, the album finds true form in second sequenced “Blood on Me”.  Sampha has spoken extensively about where the song’s anxious, paranoid lyrics come from, and the trip-hop drum beat, rattling cowbells, jangling piano and panting vocal harmonies serve to build a nightmare surrounding Sampha’s voice, which sounds like it’s running through the song, losing breath, as he sings “I swear they smell the blood on me / I hear them coming for me!”  This attention to detail, to be sure that all elements of the song contribute to its lyrical themes, are part of what puts Process a cut above its peers.

Ditto for “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”, which, after the claustrophobia of the first three tracks, takes the album into minimalist piano-ballad territory.  Sampha is singing about how “Know one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home”, therefore the song is stripped back and the piano is featured prominently, not doused in effects but sounding like it’s coming straight out of his mother’s home.  But the piano is a greater metaphor for Sampha’s late mother’s love, as he sings on the chorus “You know I left, I flew the nest / And you know I won’t be long”.  The album continues with another stark piano ballad, the two-minute, “Take Me Inside”, to finish the front side, before switching gears again with “Reverse Faults”.  The track uses reversed synthesizers to engineer a beat over which Sampha rattles off metaphors about his own faults – “Took the brake pads out the car / and I flew”, “I shot the blame and it scattered / Now there’s bullt holes spread across the walls”.

Across the album, Sampha sings with an anxious edge, worried less by the actions of others but by his own potential to fall apart, and it isn’t a stretch to suggest he is haunted by the recent losses of his parents.  Never is this more apparent than on “Blood on Me”, but on the second half “Under”, Sampha buries himself under a chorus of vocal harmonies chanting “under” as he sings “Waves come crashing over me, I’m somewhere in open sea/ I’m gasping for air”.  “Timmy’s Prayer” follows suit, a writing colab. with Kanye that takes the latter’s penchant for big, slow-jam drum beats and pairs it with Sampha’s séance-inspired address to his late parents – “If ever you’re listening, if heaven’s a prison / Then I am your prisoner”.

The record concludes with its most ambient track, “What Shouldn’t I Be”, which lacks percussion and is led by harp and soft, spacey synthesizers.  The track ends the record in the present, as Sampha sings “I should visit my brother / But I haven’t been there in months / I’ve lost connection, signal / To how we were”.  This album does not end on a happy, forward-looking, cathartic note.  Rather, Sampha is just as unsure as ever, singing “Family ties / Put them ’round my neck.”  The album title seems to refer to Sampha’s process of coping with his grief, or processing what has happened in his life, but the record’s fleeting happy moments occur only in the past, and the process seems, at the moment, to be ongoing.

Tight thematically, sad but intriguing lyrically, well-arranged and well-sequenced, Process is certainly a success.  I kind of want the record to perhaps take a few more risks, include a few more high energy tracks ala “Blood on Me”, and shoot for some bigger, more bombastic, grandiose moments, but given the content that inspired the lyrics, those moves might not have suited the record’s emotional palette.  Still, I anticipate this cracking many a year-end list, and for good reason – Sampha has delivered one of the best albums of the young year.

Score: 10/13