Melodrama by Lorde

About the sixth time I listened to Melodrama from start to finish, I was walking along shaded roads, the sky settling into swirls of faded orange and yellow, set against a vastness on the cusp of turning from blue to black. As Green Light swells and bursts into life, its chorus rising and consuming the moment, it was all I could do to not burst into song and dance right there, a la Lorde herself in the song’s music video.

Seguing perfectly into Sober, the conflicting examination of a relationship under the club lights, the universality of the album hits. A 20 year old in a part of the world could relate to what a global pop superstar straddling two hemispheres was singing about, purely through the shared failings and tumbling forward of a frantic youth. Surrounded by alcohol and heartbreak, which 19 year old hasn’t indulged in their early parties feeling like they would be “blowing shit up with homemade dynamite”? But before you know it, you are hurled into the unfamiliar, yet tender and vulnerable time of first love, singing “I’m just the sucker who let you fill her mind” on The Louvre. One of the best songs on the album, the rich bassline and spacey production perfectly complements Lorde’s extolling of her partner, and that wonderful chorus that is so self-assured even through its use of onomateopia.

Therein is the beauty of Lorde’s music. She has grown through times and sorrows so intimately familiar to so many of us, but she refuses to turn cynic while growing up. She’s vulnerable in a way few musicians are, particularly in the mainstream arena of manufactured, marketable personas and brands. As she bares her soul on Liability, the painfully subtle piano nudges Ella’s voice into the foreground, as if she’s reluctant to still fully embrace putting her emotions on display.  When she lets the listener into this fractured part of her soul, it’s impossible for you to not dig up those pieces of yourself. Once you do that, there is no escaping the trance of the album, with all its kissing and killing and fucking melodrama.

The enchantment of Melodrama is in large part to the fact that there is very definite sound to it. The album replicates the mood of the drunk nights spent at parties, as well those spent crying alone in bedrooms, not only through Lorde’s own lyrics and vocals, but through the production. The maximalist, sometimes psychedelic electro-pop production is the perfect nocturnal soundtrack, lit up by strobe lights and disco balls. It shimmers, rather than floods. And when the album does shift into intimate piano ballads, it never feels jarring, but necessary for the powerful emotions to shine through.

It’s also evident that Ella’s synthesia played a huge role in the creation of this album – the silken, dark blues and blacks are prevalent, with flashes of fireworks. There’s also a visual element to the album – thanks to her vivid, poeti imagery, it often feels like you’re with Lorde, in her studio, on her nights out, in her bedroom, in her head. This vulnerability plays out like its own little movie along with the music.

There is a subtle, yet definitive shift in tone once the album reaches Sober II(Melodrama). Ella has reached the turning point in the period post the breakup – the pain is very much alive, burning, but she’s more certain in her strength to move forward. Another of my absolute favourites, Writer in the Dark, is incredible in its emotion, Lorde’s vocals finding a tone she’s never found before – a devastatingly raw tenor that drops all pretenses – it feels well and truly like a punch in the gut that leaves you reeling and lost for words. As she declares her undying love, one that’ she unflinchingly says will last even when he calls the cops on her, she also stumbles on the power to be without him – not his love, perhaps, but him. It’s nigh impossible here on forth to expect Lorde, let alone yourself, to recover, but she does. She turns pragmatist, unravelling the fantasies of her love, the Supercut, finally, firmly telling her ex-lover to “leave.” She’s a realist, not an optimist.

While this is clearly a breakup album, unlike so many other (inferior) albums, Lorde explores the other elements of her life that have intertwined with, and affected her personal relationships. She has the ability to explore her psyche in revelatory ways that unravel an array of sentiments, where her romantic relationship acts as the center of gravity.  On album closer Perfect Places, Lorde acknowledges the indulgent life she’s leading, the travails she’s aware this life has brought her, but questioning “what the fuck are perfect places anyway?” In the midst of all the chaos she finds herself in, she realizes this is her new normal – and she’s determined to make the most of it.

Melodrama is the unparalleled portrait of a young woman finding her way in a world that’s intensely unfamiliar to her, but one she stubbornly stumbles through. The gaffes of youthful naivete are there, but so is the maturity that comes with the failing of first love, when the illusions shatter. She’s no longer coyly sipping orange juice at the tennis court, but letting her wardrobe slip to the bedroom floor at the end of a night on the town. And she owns it all. And the beauty of this album isn’t that you need to live Lorde’s life to understand and relate to her; you just need to co-habit the same cracked parts of your heart that Ella does.

Melodrama by Lorde

RELAXER by alt-J

alt-J are a band of their time and place – they’ve got more than a bit of hipster aloofness, but their music sounds volatile enough to be earnest – their indie-gone-global catapult is reflected in their need to make music that is ‘true’ to themselves, yet appealing enough to their wide audience. With RELAXER, while they have created quite a bit of music that reflects that mosaic, along the way, they seem to have have lost the plot.

alt-J’s music has been characterized by harmony and subtlety, sharpened by rougher elements that lend form to the music, lest they wander into inoffensiveness. That balance is often disrupted on RELAXER – there are moments of sheer beauty, and moments of guttural, primal aggression, but not enough of the right blend of the two extremes. The singles remain some of the best tracks on the album. 3WW’s intro immediately intrigues, with subtle textures that nevertheless don’t recede into the background. The vocals are clean and appropriately moody. And then there are bursts of crackling synths that surface when the lyrics indicate a tonal shift. It’s impeccably produced, and a perfect introduction. The next track, and the second single, In Cold Blood, is a contrast; with its pointed soundscape, and lyrics that are rather incongruent, the track is a display of alt-J’s interpretability. But while both these tracks work great by themselves, their sequencing is questionable. The lack of cohesion in sound is repeated throughout the album due to its mere 8 tracks, as if a singular sound that the band wants to home in on has been deconstructed and its individual parts scattered across the length of the album.

Other tracks take alt-J’s notorious self-indulgence a little too far.  House… is melodically beautiful, where the strings create a stunning atmosphere as they pitch up and down with lyrical tone. But there are wordless sections that would benefit from an additional element, but are left hanging. Lyrically, while it’s an interesting take on an old folk song, the chorus is cloyingly ironic. Last Year is overlong and dull – it has probably the strongest narrative on the album, but the production is the boring side of simple, and there’s nothing memorable enough to keep the listener hooked. Adeline picks up and makes a pretty great track about halfway through, but the first half is simply too long. Hit Me Like That Snare, meanwhile, is downright terrible. alt-J simply isn’t a band that can create a great punk track; there is an outright lack of melody, Jon Newman’s nasally voice is at its most annoying, and the outro is baffling – it’s unclear whether this is the band’s attempt at being ironically self-aware, or an attempt to capture the bluntness of great punk, and it fails on being either. Which is a shame, because lyrically, this is the most intriguing track on the album (save the outro.)

The best tracks, then, are the ones where alt-J’s newer ideas are polished and come together perfectly. Deadcrush is dark and foreboding, the production combining a noticeable edge with impeccably earworm-worthy melodies – the hook succeeds with Newman’s nasal inflection what failed in Hit Me… Overall, the song is just fun – something that can’t be said for enough of the other tracks. Pleader is an ethereal, hymnal track that is an absolute joy to listen to despite its length, thanks to the many sections the track flows through effortlessly – it’s dynamic, but never jagged. And it’s the perfect closer to the album.

alt-J hasn’t really changed. Their esoterica is thankfully intact – who else would open their track with a lyric in binary?! There are musical choices that few other bands can pull off – the marching rhythm of the “ya, ya, ya” choral bridge in Adeline shouldn’t work. but it simply does. But the band is having something of a crisis of faith. They are unsure of their direction, and have faltered along the way. To their credit, they’ve definitely made some bold choices. Some of them don’t work, but when they do, the reward is immensely enjoyable. If they take their successes, and remold and improve them, alt-J’s next album will truly be a worthy payoff. Till then, RELAXER has enough great music to tide us over.

 

 

RELAXER by alt-J

All The Beauty In This Whole Life by Brother Ali

Brother Ali is a rare voice in hip-hop, one of positivity and thoughtfulness, delivering personal and social commentary through lucid lyricism. Given the uneasy social climate prevalent in the USA, this album comes as a shining beacon of light and optimism that acknowledges Ali’s trials, but focusses on seeing ‘all the beauty in this whole life.’

The tone is set on the opening track, Pen to Paper, that acts as an accelerated trip from his childhood to Ali’s current time in life.  Immediately, he explores the ideas of using rap as an outlet for his ideals, while touching upon the troubles that this activism brought upon him and his career. As if to indicate to the listener that he does not intend to dwell on his past, the next track is a celebration of life, with Ali’s animated flow and warm guitar riffs and bright instrumentation courtesy of longtime collaborator Ant (who produces the entire album). It’s impossible to not be affected by Ali’s infectious joy. His Muslim faith is a cornerstone of Brother Ali’s music, and he explores the role it’s played in his attitude towards life and himself in a manner that never comes off as preachy or moralizing, instead showing the listener how it’s been essential to his optimistic worldview.

This isn’t to say the entire album is a saccharine affair – there are sober moments that offer a nuanced take on America’s racial problems in a deeply personal context. The incredible Dear Black Son is a beautiful letter to his titular son, offering advice on navigating the trenches of America’s societal and police discrimination, and wisdom on what it means to be a parent. It’s a wonderfully all-encompassing song that explores the psyche of a minority parent. Before They Called You White is thought-provoking, laying out the origins and consequences of race prejudices and ‘whiteness.’ There is the danger of such a song turning into a sermon in the hands of a less-capable MC, but Ali handles it with grace, extending a hand to the oppressors and seeking peace. What distinguises these tracks is a sense of optimism and looking towards the future, despite the powers-that-be, in whatever form, attempting to bog people down.

A few other standouts include Uncle Usi Taught Me, a fascinating retelling of Brother Ali’s trip to Iran, resulting in legal tangles and a hurried escape from the country. No spoilers, but it’s a testament to Ali’s storytelling skills that the track keeps the listener gripped throughout. Similarly, Never Learn is an absolute winner, combining braggadocio with Ali’s signature appreciation of those ideas greater than himself. The beat is alive, while Ali soars over it with a melodic, dynamic flow. This will be on loop for a long time.

 

All The Beauty in This Whole Life is a truly beautiful album, expressive in the range of human sentiment. Coupling Brother Ali’s powerful lyrics and creative flows with partner-in-crime Ant’s complementary production, with its lush, live-instrument based sounds, has birthed one of Ali’s best albums to date, and easily one of the best of the year. It’s telling that the album is not explicit, with the rare cuss being bleeped out. Brother Ali had clearly set out to create a source of hope in a time that sorely needs some, and he’s succeeded in leaps and bounds. This is hip-hop at its finest, and worthy of every accolade that comes its way.

All The Beauty In This Whole Life by Brother Ali

5 Artists Who Prove the Future is Genreless

With the way music is consumed continuously changing, the way it is created changes too – artists have found new and exciting ways to destroy the limitations of genre, meld an array of sounds together and shape it into music that pushes boundaries, while still retaining the core of musicality. This charge into a genreless future is being led by a few stellar artists, each in a class of their own while defying categories.

#1. Danny Brown

Danny has been a flag-bearer of irreverence since his breakout XXX mixtape, melding punk rock aggression and energy with hardcore punchline rap over harsh electronica. His drugged-up vocals had no real melody to them, but he flows over any instrumental through a form of controlled chaos, like a hulking rugby player bouncing off the punches of a musical pinball machine. His form of vocal delivery might be rapping, but his music has brought together aspects from an array of genres – from EDM to industrial to electropop – to form a genreless hybrid.

Also listen to: Dip25 Bucks 

#2. Bon Iver

Bon Iver began as Justin Vernon’s intimate acoustic project, expanding his sound on the next album with more layered production, alongside delicate, beautifully measured vocals. But the biggest left turn came with his decidedly weird 22, A Million. Legitimizing ‘folktronica’ with an unconventional blend of acoustic guitars and soft keys with ambient synths and electronicized percussion, the album is this generation’s Kid A. It’s quintessentially indie in its disdain for mainstream genre conventions, and Bon Iver has thus made music all the better for it. 

Also listen to: Skinny LoveHolocene

#3. Flying Lotus

FlyLo is the definition of a musical autuer – he can envision cohesive, stunning genre-melding like few other musicians can, and reject every notion of genre to create niche subgenres all his own.  From instrumental hip-hop, to IDM, to ambient electronica,  to contemporary jazz, he takes existing sounds and infuses them with his own contrarian tendencies, creating experimental music that is never comfortable sticking to established tropes. Flying Lotus represents the rebellious voice of this generation of music, thus laying the foundation for the future.

Also listen to: MmmHmmPutty Boy Strut

#4. Young Thug

Young Thug is a divisive figure, earning as much hate from hip-hop purists as love from the newer generation of the genre’s fans. But restricting him to the genre of hip-hop itself might be a mistake – his singsong voice is unlike any other, and he modulates it to be hilariously fun, a crooner or noticeably sneering. The production matches his tone – fromn trap bangers to smooth, glittering pop and RnB jams, Thugga’s repertoire of musical talent defies every box fans and critics alike have tried to put him in.

Also listen to: Best FriendDigits

#5. Kaytranada

Kaytranada, unlike FlyLo, has a definite sound – dominated by deep bass and hip-hop sensibilities, his base template acts as a blank slate into which Kay paints in strokes of a number of genres. He draws from soundscapes that date back decades, and brings them into contemporary music in a decidedly revisionist manner – he doesn’t assimilate funk, RnB and soul into his music as much as breathe new life into it while respecting its roots. Kaytranada makes music like a true fan – acknowledging the past while looking firmly towards a creative future.

Also listen to: Holy Hole Inna DonutDrive Me Crazy

5 Artists Who Prove the Future is Genreless

Divide by Ed Sheeran

es-divide-final-artwork-lo-res

When the lead singles off Divide came out, I was torn. I’m a huge Ed fan, but there was a glossy layer here that I did not expect. Castle On The Hill was lyrically beautiful, with doses of wonderful nostalgia, but was overproduced. Shape of You was the worse offender, with generic pop production and basic lyrics that I thought Ed to be better than. It is with quite some trepidation that I waited for Divide to come out. And while the album is far from his strongest work – the shadow of commercialized pop looms heavy – there are quite a few memorable songs on here that satiates the Ed fanboy in me.

Much of the album is Ed Sheeran at his sappy best – or worst, depending on how you feel about it – with tracks like Perfect and How Would You Feel (Paean) being unabashedly saccharine. These are songs that you cannot help but give in to when you’re the right kind of mood – it’s pretty much a given that Perfect is going to play at weddings everywhere, after Ed’s very own Thinking Out Loud. But you can’t help but feel like you’ve heard these songs before from him; there’s a certain spark missing, the one that you felt when you first heard his music. The production has gotten safer, and the lyrics a tad more pedestrian. I’ll certainly be listening to these songs quite a bit, but I doubt they have the memorability of some of his earlier work.

Dive and Happier, for example, are moving songs and personal favourites that have echoes of some of Ed’s best songs. The former has Ed imploring the woman of his affections to be true to her words; he’s falling for her, but is unsure if he should be. The hook makes for a perfect sing-along, and the intensity with which he sings them stirs up emotions locked away. The latter, meanwhile, is a melancholy recollection of nights at the bar and happiness from times past, on a song that speaks to all the cracks in all of us. They’re passionate, emotional songs – but it lacks the visceral sadness that came with listening to Give Me Love or Photograph for the first time.

It’s also at this point that you realize that Ed is trying to appeal to every part of his fanbase, albeit unevenly. Tracks like Galway Girl, New Man and Nancy Mulligan are catchy and a lot of fun, and represent the range of Ed’s influences, from his Irish roots to disses worthy of a modern rap track – unfortunately, they are rather incongruous with the rest of the album, worsened by the track sequencing.

Ed Sheeran has clearly stuck to a formula with Divide – there isn’t much here that Ed hasn’t done before, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the new music isn’t worthy of your time. Even the biggest detractors will find a couple of songs here more than enjoyable; and for a fan like me, there are enough great songs here to keep me satisfied till the next album cycle.

BONUS:

I live-tweeted my first listen of the album. Check it out:

 

 

Divide by Ed Sheeran

Lorde is Vibrant and Passionate on ‘Green Light’

It’s been a long time since we really heard from Lorde. A couple of one-offs aside, her stellar debut album came out way back in 2013. For a young artist just starting out in music, this might have been a serious risk, considering the short term memories of listeners today. But Lorde is not most artists. In her own words, she took a couple of years to live her life, and to grow up, and to present a more mature version of herself to the world on her sophomore album. And make no mistake, Green Light is not the same Lorde you knew from Pure Heroine.

What Lorde has been, and continues to be, is one of the most interesting musicians around. The necessity of having producers on her team who have helped shape her words and in turn, crafted a musical identity with her, is evident on this track. The glitzy techno-pop instrumental sets the tone for a night of drunken dancing, before the intensity of the lyrics set in, which is where Lorde truly shines. She is unambiguously one of the finest songwriters in pop music, and the duality of wanting to move on from an ex while still aching for the past is conveyed with stunning honesty. The many waves of emotions associated with such an experience of disorienting heartbreak are brought out with the earnestness of someone who has truly lived it, and her vocals – which are some of her best – moves between the spectrum of her feelings effortlessly. The result is, as Lorde says herself,

[…] very different, and kinda unexpected. it’s complex and funny and sad and joyous and it’ll make you DANCE

When Lorde first burst onto the scene, we were both of the same age; 17 year olds on the precipice of adulthood, yet not quite ready to move on from our heady teen years. Pure Heroine, then, was a wonderful, relevant reflection of that time. But 4 years is a long time in this phase of our lives. And despite the evident world of difference between us, the emotional growth and changes are universal. This is what makes Lorde one of my favourite artists – she captures the moment beautifully, and expresses it in a language that feels like mine. It’s a testament to the power of her art, and I cannot wait to hear what she’s got in store for Melodrama. 

Lorde is Vibrant and Passionate on ‘Green Light’

India Needs Hip Hop Right Now

In February of 2016, the ‘JNU incident‘ rocked India, and laid bare, among other things, an insidious campaign by the government to clamp down on voices of protest and dissent – voices such as that of Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and more. In the aftermath of their own struggles against the system, support poured in from multiple avenues, including one that hasn’t been prominent since the days of the freedom struggle – the protest song. Local producers Dub Sharma and MojoJojo turned the slogans and speeches of the movement – by Kanhaiya and Umar, respectively – into revolutionary anthems. The songs were earworms, with appropriately rousing production, which went viral and turned into protest tools themselves. The sampling and instrumental reminded one of the foremost anti-establishment musical genre of our times – hip hop.

 

Hip hop is rooted in sociopolitical struggle, as a way for minorities and the disadvantaged to express themselves. Spoken word legend, Gil Scott Heron, whose work is often credited with laying the foundation for hip hop, and rap’s lyrical themes, had explicitly political pieces, such as the seminal The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. 

 

Possibly the first ‘conscious’ rap track, the classic The Message by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, continued this tradition, relaying the reality of the ghettos millions of Black men and women were stuck in, to the radios of White America. Groups such as the unapologetic Public Enemy were far rawer and angrier, directly speaking to the powers that be, and vowing to tear them down – sample this lyric that’s gone down in hip hop history:

I got a letter from the government the other day
I opened and read it, it said they were suckers

 

This represented a blunt attack on the institutions that sought to blur the line between patriotism and toeing the government line. It refused acquiescence to the majority view, of false nationalism. This is a stance that many in India can relate to right now, despite the prevalent fierce authoritarianism and majority-appeasement. And in such an environment, musicians are a critical voice, one that can represent, and reach large sections of the population. And fortunately, unlike Scott Heron’s time, the revolution need not be televised for it to reach the masses – social media, YouTube, SoundCloud and more have democratized the spread of music.

Luckily, Indian hip hop has taken advantage of this ecosystem to develop a grassroots movement that is slowly but surely seeping into the mainstream. Way back in 2007, Blaaze put out Ban The Crooked Police, an indictment of the corrupt police force that was a singular political moment in Indian music. Unfortunately, the song never gained the traction it should have. But it was an important moment, and one that many familiar with the Indian rap community recognize as a classic.

 

Fortunately, two of the biggest names on the scene right now, Naezy and Divine, belong to a breed of rapper that rep the communities they come from, and present intricate details of their lives, while continuously working their way upwards. This parallels the rise of rappers in 90s America, whether it be Nas, Biggie, Jay Z on the East Coast, or N.W.A, Tupac and their like on the West Coast – who told gritty tales of the environments they were a product of, and hence vividly brought into the public consciousness the lives of people who were glossed over for decades. They were angry, they had something to say, and they wanted to claim glory. Take the song that is largely responsible for Naezy and Divine’s status in music, the stellar collaboration, Mere Gully Mein. 

The language employed is important – the vernacular is straight from the streets they’re from, and is a lyrical trip through the narrow gullys and tiny houses they grew up in, and refuse to abandon. There is pride in what these places, and the people in them, have given them, with the occasional nod to the institutionalized corruption; a favourite line is

Chor mere gully mein, woh toh saala mantri hai

The music video enhances the verbal imagery, providing visual context to the music, with glimpses of everyday life, as well as shots of celebration of how far they’ve come, hip hop dancing and all. It’s an honest representation of the rappers’ lives, in a manner reminiscent of the roots of the genre in sound and theme, such as the classic Nas track, NY State of Mind. What Nas accomplished was an exercise in lyrical painting, presenting imagery that rang true for the communities it came from, while challenging the preconceptions of the white majority in the rest of America. Similarly, Naezy and Divine are fresh young voices for people that were subject to one-note stereotypical representation in popular culture. It’s only when these tropes are broken and rewritten that the monotone narrative of governments and privileged voices can be challenged, and attacked.

These new narratives are being written right now – Naezy’s latest track, Azaad Hu Mai, is an aggressive declaration of freedom from oppressive forces, with a stunning flow and lyrical acrobatics that put him among the best, irrespective of language, rapped over production that harkens back to the glory days of NY rap. But possibly the most important of this release is its form, as part of the popular music streaming app, Saavn’s Artist Original Program, of which Naezy is the first to be a part of. This represents a merge of his music into the mainstream, a blow to the grand old forces of generic Bollywood music, thus making for a fierce, revolutionary statement. Remember, this is a guy that started off recording music on his iPad just a few short years ago. Naezy has come a long way, and it’s an essential rebuff of the status quo – a role he acknowledges and owns, with lyrics such as

Vyaktigat koshish se bhi kraanti ka aagaz hu mai

Divine, meanwhile, is firmly grounded in the streets, and his Gully Gang, his music expressing the passion of someone who’s had little to his name. This music is released through Sony Music Entertainment India, one of the biggest record labels in the country, and one that usually restricts itself to Bollywood. This integration of underground hip hop into the mainstream reflects the rise of major label hip hop in the US in the 90s; mistakes were made then, but with that precedent, it seems likely that Divine and his ilk will fight to retain creative control. It’s heartening, then, that his latest songs stick to his roots.

 

And there are the rappers who are using music purely as an activistic tool, such as the indomitable Sofia Ashraf. Since her most famous song, the anti-Unilever Kodaikanal Won’tSofia has taken a stand on multiple other political issues, including most recently, the infamous Sasikala.

 

Sofia and her band take their message against divisive politics literally to the streets outside Sasikala’s residence, before they’re stopped by a cop. It’s a small, yet powerful moment – it’s hip hop as protest, a voice for those deemed voiceless. It’s a testament to the necessity of music existing outside traditional avenues of music, away from the privileged avenues of movie industries that forced political correctness into Indian music. This is art at its truest, its purest.

Indian hip hop is just beginning to come into its own, but it has already ensured that it’s a force to reckon with. There are dozens more rappers other than the ones mentioned here who are making their presence felt, and will continue to contriubte to the burgeoning scene. Their very act of creating music for their communities is political, and as their music evolves, it is sure to find ways to make far more explicit statements. There is hope that our rappers, in the words of the Mighty Mos Def, will take

Hip-Hop past all your tall social hurdles

India Needs Hip Hop Right Now