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

Big Sean Is the Underdog on ‘I Decided’

– Prem Sylvester

big-sean-i-decided-album-cover-art-640x640

Big Sean is an uncommonly positioned rapper – by all metrics, he’s a commercial success, familiar to even casual listeners, but he hasn’t been accepted into the elite of rap; his rapping skills still have plenty of detractors, and he doesn’t have that singular body of work to prove them wrong. This is, in his own eyes, Sean’s biggest hurdle – feeling like the underdog despite his success, like he has something to prove – a hunger that has driven him from his earliest days as a musician. He’s had his ups and downs, but the one-two punch of Detroit and Dark Sky Paradise, his two strongest projects yet, have given listeners reason to pay attention to what he’s doing now, and to not underestimate his ability as a rapper and, more importantly, an artist. Coming off No More Interviews and Bounce Back, two of his best songs yet, I Decided is Sean’s musical litmus test.

// Countin’ money never felt as good as countin’ blessings //

This lyric from the very first track, Light, acts as the basis for Sean’s new perspective – while he once rapped “ain’t nothin’ more important than the mula,” Big Sean is no longer content with the money he’s raking in, but looking at the bigger picture. I Decided works as a loosely conceptual album, with Sean looking at his life through the eyes of his older self, reflecting on his mistakes and where his choices have led him. In tempering his material pursuits, he’s also toned down the braggadocio of his signature punchline-based style in favour of more introspective music. He explores nearly every aspect of his life, from his come-up, to his professional success, and his personal failures and growth with the maturity of a man truly coming into his own, but mindful of his status as an entertainer. He explores his story more deeply than he ever has, and it’s never boring.

The section dealing with his position as a rap star is aggressive, but it does something few other rappers of his stature do in their work – acknowledge his shortcomings, and push forward. In the tracks about his love life, he is acutely aware of his baggage, and he makes a decision to be detached from the vulnerability. The wind-down, recognizing the success he’s had and what we can make of it, inspired most prominently by his mother, is a pointedly personal affair, and some of his most poignant. Each of these segments of this album have some superb individual songs, but falter in delivering his message consistently. His pen is still not quite razor-sharp, and the emotional weight of the subject matter thus suffers in spots.

The production is atmospheric and thematic throughout, with some stellar beats couching Sean’s continuously varying flows. The production and flows are often Sean’s calling cards, and neither can be faulted throughout. Luckily, Sean sounds more confident than ever in his ability to capture the listener’s attention with a solid flow – and just when he gets comfortable, he switches it right up, ensuring a track never quite sits still. He consistently proves that while he may not have the strongest lyrical game around, he’s worthy of being noted as a skilled rapper based largely off his ear for beats and the flows that will work on them.

What sets Big Sean apart now, is his growth as a storyteller and musician, who’s very much capable as crafting cohesive albums – the gorgeous Flint Chozen Choir-assisted Bigger Than Me is a perfect closer to the album, and reaffirmation of the path Sean vows to take henceforth. This is not the Sean Don that made Dance(A$$) – although he hasn’t quite dropped the ass references – his playfulness reduced significantly in favour of the ambition to be accorded the same respect of the greatest of his rap peers. Whether that ambition is ever fulfilled remains to be seen – he’ll probably never reach the penmanship of a Kendrick – but I Decided is proof Sean will never settle for anything less.

Big Sean Is the Underdog on ‘I Decided’

Process by Sampha

Sampha is an enigmatic musician, working from the shadows with the upper echelon of the industry (Kanye, Drake, Frank Ocean) – he doesn’t have much music out, but he’s left an indelible mark on everything he’s been a part of. But it’s clear that he’s taken his time finding his voice, so to speak, opting to quietly work on a body of solo work that wears its heart on its sleeve, delving into heavy introspection with a maturity rarely seen in debut albums. Sampha’s confessional songwriting style is wistful, exploring his anxieties and regrets with imagery that can be disarming and affecting in turn. Few songs have the emotional brevity of tracks like (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano, a melancholy reflection on times gone by, or the strange, listless sensuality of Under. His vocal range is effortlessly expansive, with a knack for coaxing out vestiges of emotion in the listener, while making his own explicit. The music should sound familiar to those who have listened to his work with SBTRKT, and his (slightly underwhelming) Dual EP, maintaining an atmosphere of evocative electronica with smatterings of delicate piano.
The process that the title refers to then, seems to be one of contemplative reconciliation, a conversation with himself and the people in his life about his growth as a person, and where he seeks to go from here, ending with an assurance to himself that he can “always come home,” a sentiment which we all aspire to.
Process by Sampha

Puberty 2 by Mitski

– Hanan

Discovering Mitski was one of the best things that happened to me last summer. She’s lulled me to sleep during several of my early morning hour-long commutes to Uni and it’s even lovelier to wake up to her, especially to her brilliant fourth album Puberty 2. (Not that it’s sleep music – I’d fall asleep to anything in the morning, even Children of Bodom. Can I call it my superpower?)

       Puberty 2 is a fitting title because it revolves around the second coming of puberty; a first, second maybe even a third foray into adulthood and still not being quite ready to leave all the adolescent angst behind, is a terribly relatable feeling. It’s about realizing the fleeting nature of happiness which is cleverly sung about in the album’s first track “Happy”, where a lover is used as a metaphor – he comes over with cookies, then comes inside her, and leaves while she’s still in the bathroom (how rude!)

It is also about pursuing happiness in the smallest of things, such as wearing your favourite outfit, a white button-down in Mitski’s case, as she says in “A Burning Hill”. “My Body is Made of Crushed Little Stars” is another one of my favourite tracks off this album which is about wanderlust, paying rent, not having enough money for either, existentialism; basically a homage to the classic notion of adulthood with really satisfying dissonant guitar riffs as a backdrop (personally, I only relate to the wanderlust bit, which gets very palpable sometimes. Also shout-out to Indian parents for letting us live in our own rooms instead of the basement, and mine for still paying for, well, most of everything.)

Besides being one of my all-time favourite albums, Puberty 2 is also the perfect soundtrack for my current phase in life. Her sound, to speak of it broadly, may be classified as indie rock/pop, but to put her in such a box would be a disservice to her. It spoke to me in a way little else does, and that to me, seems to be the purpose of music,

Puberty 2 by Mitski

Culture by Migos 

The omnipresent DJ Khaled yelling “How the fuck you fuckboys ain’t gon’ act/Like Migos ain’t reppin’ the culture?” over the intro to Culture might come off aggressively, but it’s an oddly fitting tribute to the Atlanta trio that have come to be some of the most creative and successful of the new generation of trappers. After introducing their signature Versace flow back in 2013, Migos’ sound has found its place in the repertoire of several other rappers, and has been a major influencer in the last couple of years of hip-hop. Their flows have been evolving in diverse ways ever since, as evident on this album -the melodic edge to the #1 hit Bad and Boujeee is terribly catchy, but strangely, so is the staccato phrasal flow on T-Shirt, while the soaring sing-song of What the Price makes it one of the best tracks on the album. Coupled with synth-and-key driven production that walks a fine line between somber and energetic, Migos have captured the soundscape of the moment. The Khaled mini-rant is also one of the most explicitly aggressive moments on the album – Culture is largely a product of the street life, but its grime is offset (no pun intended) by the endlessly entertaining lyrics – creative pop culture references and punchlines that will elicit a chuckle at the very least are littered throughout. But none of this would be as effective without the charismatic personalities behind the music. Quavo is the cool and collected star, flowing effortlessly over every manner of sound. Offset sneers and taunts his competition, dropping one-liners left and right. Takeoff is possibly the most lyrical of the three, flipping cliches with ease, landing punchlines with heft. They play off each other like a well-oiled machine – they are related – creating music that maintains its firmly unique voice nevertheless. 

It’s evident, then, that naming their album Culture isn’t an overstatement by Migos – they’ve got hit after hit, and their style has left a strong imprint on rap – but a self-assured recognition of their influence. Migos is here to be a part of the culture, making great music along the way. 

Culture by Migos