Goodbye, Chester Bennington

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Listening to Breaking the Habit for the first time as an 11-year old is one of my most vivid, and important musical memories. Playing through earphones I’d borrowed from my dad, off a cheap MP3 player, Chester Bennington’s impassioned voice stunned me. The raw emotion, sung with his melodic clarity, shattered every notion I’d had till then of what music could be.  I was still young, and couldn’t wholly grasp the power Chester’s words held. But something changed in me – with his soaring voice, he cracked the shell holding in amorphous emotions. What poured forth came to define me, and the music I came to invest in.

Reading about Chester’s death – more specifically, his suicide – now, about 10 years after that first tryst will go on to become another of my defining musical memories. Something cracked in me again – but this time, what poured forth, was unbridled pain that came in waves. Cracked might not be the right word – a part of me broke. For a while, I refused to believe it was real. I looked for some hope that this was some fucked-up hoax. But it wasn’t. It was real. He was gone. The myriad emotions that Chester had helped me deal with, had defeated the man. The voice that made me believe I was not alone in my insecurities, my sorrows, my lowest points, had felt alone himself.

Chester’s searing vocals has soundtracked some of my darkest days. In the depths of my depression, I spent countless nights curled up in bed, his music giving me reason to believe there were others as lost as me, and I found some comfort in shared loneliness. Chester always found a way to soothe my insecurities when he crooned, and then unleash a cathartic wave of frustration and rage when he screamed, his voice shattering the maddening mix of pity and annoyance that I was often met with.  His incredible music had helped the darkness feel less oppressive.

I remember how real Somewhere I Belong felt. I remember One Step Closer being a vent for my rage. I remember Numb giving form to my helplessness. I remember My December echoing my pain. I remember No More Sorrow being the screams in my mind. I remember Shadow of the Day being my antidote.  Meteora was the first CD I bought, and it was during this time.

Over the years, Linkin Park became a band I had a distant relationship with. I loved a lot of their music, but I also…didn’t. Chester lingered on, his voice would always be carved into my psyche, but it seemed he was in my past, and I accepted it. But now that he’s no more, it hits me with an unbearable weight that the man who often kept me alive would have to be consigned to my memories, whether I liked it or not, whether I wanted to accept it or not. I didn’t even fucking listen to One More Light in its entirety, and now it feels like I did not even give Chester’s last cry a chance. I feel immeasurably guilty. I will never hear him sing anew. And I cannot stop the tears from flowing.

I wish there was some way I could repay him. I wish there was, as so many others have put it, some way I could’ve saved him the way he’d saved me so many times. I wish I could tell him how much he meant to me, and so many like me. I wish I could return the hope he’d given me. But there’s nothing I can do now to have him back.

The words in Leave Out All The Rest now ring heavier than they ever have:

When my time comes
Forget the wrong that I’ve done
Help me leave behind some
Reasons to be missed
And don’t resent me
And when you’re feeling empty
Keep me in your memory
Leave out all the rest

I can only honour Chester’s memory. The lives he touched. The music that will live on.He deserved a lot more love when he was alive, love that I wish I could give him now. I will have to live with that, even if he couldn’t.

In his final whispers into the world, Chester sang, “Who cares if one more light goes out? / Well I do.” And I do. Your light will never go out, Chester, I promise.

Thank you, and I’m sorry.

Goodbye, Chester Bennington.

 

Goodbye, Chester Bennington

4:44 by Jay-Z

The hyphen in Jay-Z’s name might be back, but 4:44 isn’t really Jay-Z. For possibly the first time in his career, it’s an album by Shawn Carter, the multimillionaire businessman, the African-American man, the family man. In shedding the larger-than-life image of the rapper in the very first track, aptly titled Kill Jay-Z, he owns up to his past failings and in a lyric unprecedented for a rapper of his mythology, implores himself to be emotionally vulnerable (“Cry Jay Z, we know the pain is real/ But you can’t heal what you never reveal”).

Throughout the album, this sense of being brutally honest reveals a side of the man, the myth, the legend that few would expect the notoriously insular Hov to see, 13 albums into his epic career. On Smile, he acknowledges his mother’s homosexuality in a disarmingly sensitive moment – he doesn’t linger on it, simply expressing his support and admiration. Coming from a notoriously homophobic genre, it’s a powerful statement by one of the most influential voices in the community. On the title track, and the crux of the album, it’s clear that Shawn’s marriage with Beyoncé, his infidelity and his relationship with his children weigh heavily on his mind. He’s realized that his rap superstar lifestyle and image is untenable if it adversely affects his personal life.

The parallel track on 4:44 to Jay-Z’s maturing as an individual is his commitment to being rap’s elder statesman. Far more than on his last album, the frustratingly myopic Magna Carta Holy Grail, he confidently delivers sermons on his rags-to-riches story, wealth accumulation and distribution, and generational wealth in the context of being a Black man in America. Jay’s brags aren’t merely exhibitionist – they are repackaged as lessons to financial success, and rewards to be reaped. The Story of O.J. is a treatise on Black capitalism, delivered succinctly in a manner only Jay can (“I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99”). Family Feud and Legacy reiterate the need for uniting under the umbrella of Black excellence, and pushing the people forward on their own terms. Even as an outsider to the culture, it’s inspirational in its aim of inclusiveness and hardened determination.

With everything that’s going on in 4:44, it could’ve easily been a rather boring, draggy album. But it seems being Shawn Carter has broken the rapper’s chains (shit, the wordplay’s rubbing off). Jay weaves vivid tales with storytelling ability we haven’t heard since American Gangster using some of his best flows – the kind that gave him his legendary status – over painstakingly tailored production, all of which comes courtesy of No I.D. Clearly, Jay has been incredibly invested in this project, explicitly picking out and building songs around specific samples he grew up with. Jay’s brevity is well-documented, but applying it to such personal stories ensures we’re hooked on every word, and they hit with their full weight. When he turns up the aggression, like on Bam and Marcy Me, it’s with the cool head of a man who knows his power, and his confidence is evident in the many instantly-quotable one-liners he drops (“Before we had A&R’s, we had AR’s too”), his pop culture references on point (“Put that drum in your ear, don’t get Srem’d/I’ll Bobby Shmurda anybody you heard of”).

4:44 is the 13th studio album of a rapper with nothing left to prove – so he proves himself as a musician/businessman, a successful Black man with a complicated personal life. He sounds rejuvenated both as Jay – Z and Shawn Carter, and hence delivers one of the finest albums of his career. It’s an impeccably crafted, lucid elegy that will go down as proof a 47-year old rapper doesn’t need to rely on his stereotypical image to make waves in the culture.

4:44 by Jay-Z

Quick Thoughts – Imagine Dragons, Calvin Harris and Young Thug

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#1. Evolve by Imagine Dragons

Imagine Dragons are at the forefront of the wave of pop/electronic rock bands that can make some great anthems and fill up concerts with their sing-alongs, but cannot for the life of them, put together a great album. Every track on the mercifully short Evolve is driven by stadium-sized drums and vocals, and poppy synths that are earworms at best, and ear-gratingly bad at worst.

Dan Reynolds is a talented vocalist, and puts up an earnest performance throughout. He can lift songs to incredibly satisfying highs when done right, such as on the epic Believer, Whatever it Takes, (where Dan employs a hip-hop cadence on the verses) and Rise Up. Whether these songs are good is debatable, but they accomplish what they set out to do – fill your headphones with an overwhelming passion, that stirs something in you, like it or not.

Where Dan, and Imagine Dragons fails, however, are when they veer into electropop territory. Whatever It Takes sounds straight out of the OneRepublic discography, but worse. I’ll Make It Upto You and album closer Dancing In The Dark are atrocious pop songs that sound like Chainsmoker ripoffs (yes, that bad) and criminally misuses Dan’s vocals.

The most interesting track on Evolve is Yesterday. The way the percussion and keys are arranged is quite different from the other tracks, and the vocals sound much rawer and more emotive. And that monster of a chorus is unabashedly optimistic – it’s just so much fun; the sort of fun too much of the album is missing.

Evolve has some truly enjoyable songs that would make for great singles – some already have – but that’s the niche in which it seems Imagine Dragons will forever be stuck in. Quite simply, this album is not greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a shame, really. I thought I’d be true believer at the end of this LP.

#2. Funk Wav Bounces Vol.1 by Calvin Harris

Listening to Slide, the first single off Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, was quite the surprise – this was not the kind of massive EDM/pop club track that Calvin Harris typically churns out. It’s a warm, funky track, the Frank Ocean – Migos collaboration worked splendidly, and the result was the sort of summery vibe that his past superhit, Summer couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be. As the singles kept coming, it was clear that the superstar DJ had a sonic shift in mind. Thankfully, it’s a sound that he seems to know to do well.

Schoolboy Q’s opening line on Cash Out ( party like it’s 1980″) reiterates the direction of the album, throwing back to the post-disco and funk elements of the late 70s and 80s. There’s some thick basslines inspired by the era of G-funk , such as on Holiday, with one of the OGs of the sound, Snoop Dogg. John Legend and Takeoff may not be the first collaborative choices for a song like this, but they sound perfectly at home.

This curation of the right features is Calvin Harris’ greatest asset on Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1. Heatstroke has three vocalists with wildly different styles, from Young Thug’s sing-rapping, Ariana Grande’s pop stylings and Pharrell’s falsetto, but it all comes together surprisingly well. I’d never have expected Travis Scott to indulge the bounce of Prayers Up. There are missteps, such as the awful Skrt on Me with an autotuned-to-hell Nicki Minaj, and Pharrell’s vocals on Feels are a questionable inclusion.

What’s truly surprising about this album, is that despite its star power, there are no mechanically constructed surefire hits. It sounds fairly organic, and one of the best tracks on the album, Hard to Love, has the relatively-obscure Jessie Reyez delivering some memorable, earnest pop over subdued guitar licks. The song has the sort of lowkey appeal to it that is wholly unexpected of a song with Calvin Harris on the boards. With just 10 tracks on here, the album doesn’t run the danger of getting repetitive. It makes for a worthwhile album listen, but nearly every track on here would still work as a single.
Be prepared for Calvin Harris to once again dominate the airwaves for the next couple of months.

#3. Beautiful Thugger Girls (EBBTG) by Young Thug

Young Thug is a musical anomaly – boxing him into a sound or genre is quite simplistic, with his grasp on melody, incredibly versatile vocal ability and ear for production. But how much of an auteur can Thug truly be with his generic lyrical themes? It’s an odd dichotomy that shows once again on Beautiful Thugger Girls. 

This is Thug’s “singing album,” and it shows. He might not be the most technically proficient vocalist, but whether it be his deep serenading or high-pitched falsetto/squeals, it all sounds so good. There’s some strangely tender acoustics throughout, picking up elements from pop, RnB and even some country (like when he yeehaw’s on album opener Family Don’t Matter or the acoustic-guitar-driven You Said).

Listening in a little deeper, however, takes away some of the sheen of the music. There are some hilarious punchlines, and some unusually emotional one-liners (“I’m so busy it’s making me feel like I’m in and out my kids’ lives off Daddy’s Birthday), and the featured artists are used sparingly, and perfectly. But there’s only so many interesting ways to describe one’s sexual exploits, and Thugga seems to be circling the same ideas.

Beautiful Thugger Girls isn’t the sonic leap forward for Young Thug that JEFFEREY was, but it’s a solid LP that gives us more of the eccentric, and immensely fun music that Thug is so good at making. It might come off as superficial in places, but it’s important to understand that listening to Thug is about enjoying the music without thinking about it too much. And as unexpected as it is for me to say it, I’m a fan.

 

 

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