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

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

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

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 narrative concept album, was, besides far and away the strongest album in a strong year, the second rap album I ever got into (the first belongs, perhaps surprisingly, to Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris).  After a few listens, I proclaimed, to no one but myself, really, that Kendrick was the best rapper of all time, and that GKMC was something like The Beatles’ Revolver – so far above every other contemporary album that nothing else even registered as competition.  Clearly this was a brazen position, but after following up with 2015’s consensus album of the year (To Pimp a Butterfly) and now DAMN., which is sure to top many a 2017 year-end list, I feel pretty darn smarmy and pretentious as I watch writers and critics start to gingerly test the waters of ‘greatest of all time’ claims.  To me, DAMN. is Kendrick saying ‘hey, I don’t need an 80 minute concept album to still kick the shit out of every other rapper out there.  I can do what y’all do better than you can, but you can’t even touch what I put out when I’m on my game.”  Thus, DAMN. isn’t a masterpiece the way Kendrick’s last two LPs were, but it’s still the best rap record to come out since his last one.

As many have pointed out before me, just because DAMN. doesn’t hit you over the head with one big, central concept doesn’t mean its at all lacking in themes or motifs.  Just look the all caps, single word track listing evocative of the seven deadly sins or ten commandments.  Songs like “LOVE” and “LUST” or “HUMBLE” and “PRIDE” aren’t sequenced next to each other by accident.  This is an album about the wide range of emotions Kendrick feels after sitting on top of the rap world for nearly half a decade now, contextualized by his status as an influential black man in post-Black Lives Matter, post-Trump America.  It’s political because being Kendrick Lamar in 2017 is inherently political.  It’s dark and maddening, revealing and honest – a glimpse behind the curtain at a rapper who most prominently shows himself through relaying the stories and experiences of others.  “Niggas thought they wasn’t gonna see me, huh? / Niggas thought that K-Dot real life was the same life they see on TV, huh?” he confirms on “ELEMENT”.

Each of these tracks tackles an aspect of Kendrick’s complex personality represented by the title.  On the aggressive thumping “DNA” he flashes boasts tracing back to his African roots – “I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA”, but also makes mention of the violence his family tree has witnessed “I know murder conviction / Scholars, fathers dead with kids / Yeah yeah, soldier’s DNA”.  On “PRIDE” he checks himself and the relationship between his actions and intentions – “I wouldn’t blame you for mistakes I made or the bed I laid / Seems like I point the finger just to make a point nowadays”, but he follows up with “HUMBLE”, the album’s single and biggest banger, in which he instructs every other rapper (*cough Drake cough*) to “Sit down, little bitch, be humble.”  Kendrick is perceptive and introspective enough to rip his own flaws out of them and display them under a bright light like a science experiment, but still human enough to revert back to his own greed for unilateral recognition as the best rapper alive.

The production all over the album is excellent.  The choruses and hooks often feature guest soul singers and see Kendrick dipping into one of the many voices he commands (high pitched, slurred, low and drugged, robotic), effectively creating a subconscious backdrop to the true Kendrick present on the verses.  The arrangements are more minimal and straightforward than much of To Pimp a Butterfly, but I think that only serves to strengthen the tracks, focusing them more singularly around Kendrick’s voice on the album on which he delves the deepest into himself.  Accordingly, there are no guest verses (just Rihanna, Zacari and Bono on three of the hooks).  The low key, chilled-out tracks like “YAH” and “FEAR” (which refer to one another) ride great slide guitar riffs, spacey, echoing vocals and 90s boom-bap beats.  “HUMBLE” and “DNA” hit harder than just about everything since Danny Brown’s last album, and they don’t really make any attempt to conform to the trap zeitgeist.  The Bono feature, “XXX”, goes over way better than anyone probably expected (which was probably a bad bet – it is Kendrick, after all).  “ELEMENT”‘s hook of “Imma make it look sexy,” is already a universal catchphrase.  Even the ‘corny’ love song that takes a break from harrowing self-surgery rides a sweet, catchy hook and Akon inspired flow that would have been a top five single for someone like Drake. (Sidenote: does anyone else miss Akon?)  In short, Kendrick can do any style, any tempo, and any aesthetic better than anyone else can, and on DAMN. he manages to do it while simultaneously peering deeper into his soul than Drake’s managed on all six of his albums combined.

No review of DAMN. would be complete without mention of “DUCKWORTH”, the final track.  This is a story song in the truest sense – it’s the true story of Kendrick’s father meeting Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, the owner of the record label that’s had his back since the beginning.  Kendrick flashes legendary story-telling skills for only a single track, but it’s enough to recognize just how far he’s come since GKMC.  How many internal rhymes are in “That’s when affiliation was really eight gears of war / So many relatives tellin us, sellin us devilish works / Killin us, crime, intelligent, felonious, prevalent proposition with 9’s”?  How does he manage in four lines (“Southside Projects, Chiraq, the Terror Dome / Drove to California with woman on him and 500 dollars / They had a son, hopin that he’d see college / Hustlin’ on the side with a nine-to-five to freak it”) to do justice to one young man’s courageous life-changing decision?  How does he have the vision to foresee his life’s alternate path (“Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg would be servin’ life / While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight”) and then tie that all back to the album’s introduction, where Kendrick is killed, perhaps rendering the entire record a concept album after all?  Because it’s fucking Kendrick Lamar, the best rapper of all time.

Score:  12/13

 

 

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