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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Crack-Up by Fleet Foxes

Describing music with shimmering instrumentation and rich vocals as ‘beautiful’ is easy. But rare is music that sounds beautiful, as much as it feels beautiful – music that captures the many intricacies of our world and emotions in its own flourishes. This music is not superficially pleasant – often, it might deal with powerful themes that ordinary men and women are left to grapple with. But the result is immensely evocative, vivid in its detailing.

Musicians that can create truly beautiful music, then, are to be treasured; Fleet Foxes is among them, and Crack-Up is a stunning work of music, and art. Robin Pecknold is a wonder – his esoteric, poetic lyrics are incredible in their ability to defy the rigidity of time and place. His vocals resonate through every emotion he can capture. The band’s music takes instruments that so many others have used, and conjures new soundscapes with them; their sound is gorgeous and soaring, and the arrangements immaculately conceived.

Album opener I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar is a sprawling song that unravels in the manner of an internal monologue, tugging between doubt and faith, shifting between hushed-up whispers and exuberant proclamations. Third of May / Ōdaigahara, the lead single and one of the band’s best songs, is similarly a journey all in itself, contemplating nearly every nuance of relationships through grand swells and falls of music.

Kept Woman is ethereal, the kind of song that leaves you with a lump in your throat for no discernible reason other than being struck by its beauty. Fool’s Errand plays like a melancholy anthem, with driving percussion but strings that make each step forward feel a tad too heavy – “It was a fool’s errand/Waiting for a sign/But I can’t leave until the sign comes to mind,” Pecknold rues.

True to its name, album closer Crack-Up acts as a microcosm of the album – a jigsaw puzzle of a song that would sound disjointed in the hands of lesser bands. Much like the introductory track, it’s a meditation on the chaos of our self reflected in the song’s structure. According to Pecknold himself, “the beginning presents a question that is briefly solved and then there’s this sort of ecstatic burst of energy at the end like enlightenment or something and then it all kind of cracks up but in this really ecstatic way and then it kind of closes into closeness.” It might seem like a wonky explanation coming from the man who penned such evocative lyrics, but that’s the beauty of the music he helped create.

Crack-Up reveals a depth of humanness in our lives that might seem mundane if described any other way. Each track on here is worthy of praise in its own way, tied by the sentiments that bind us all. Fleet Foxes are the tools to coax these sentiments out of us – and for that, I am eternally grateful.

 

Crack-Up by Fleet Foxes

Pretty Girls Like Trap Music by 2 Chainz

Atlanta has been hugely responsible in influencing the sound of hip hop for decades; from the funky, rich bassline-driven smooth raps of OutKast, to the gritty, straight-talking trap of T.I. and Jeezy, to the mood- driven sing-rapping of Future and Young Thug, the city has kept evolving its sound, and consequentially, that of the genre.

2 Chainz, having blown up somewhere between the aggressiveness of trap and the melodies of ‘mumble rap,’ has had an unsteady career path from dropping the (unfortunate) Tity Boi moniker to the present day. With Pretty Girls Like Trap Music (PGLTM), however, 2 Chainz seems to have hit upon a winning formula – his trademark punchlines are intact and often strikingly clever, and so is the sneer from his trap origins, but it’s complemented by great, memorable harmonies in the production and vocals that clear some of the grit. The result is the best album of Tauheed Epps’ career, and possibly one of the best of the year.

From the introductory Saturday Night, the mood of the album is clear. A guitar riff that sounds straight from the days of glam rock drives the track from underneath trap 808s, and 2 Chainz sounds more purposeful than he’s ever been. He establishes the dichotomy which defines PGLTM, of the trap and the club, the danger of the streets and the wealth, from the get-go. And surprisingly for a 2 Chainz project, the LP remains impressively cohesive.

When Epps decides to really make a trap song, he sounds focused and more confident than in his past work. Unlike the many pauses that unfortunately stunted his past flows, he fills out every space of the song here, and with much more heft. It’s not filled with empty boasts and threats; they’re weighted with the words of a man with more than a few years in the game. Riverdale Rd. is imposing and detailed, Door Swangin is that rare good filler and the run from the classic Southern Rolls Royce Bitch to OG Kush Diet is trap like few mainstream rappers do nowadays, particularly for deep cuts in the age of singles. 2 Chainz tackles his trials and tribulations in the trap, as well his successes, and makes it clear that his concerns are personal, rapping “I’m no Black activist/
I’m a Black millionaire, give you my Black ass to kiss.” It might make for a contentious statement, but it’s an odd authenticity – 2 Chainz isn’t here to be Kendrick.

Where the LP truly stands out though, is in its crossover potential without compromising its street appeal. Good Drank has proved its worth as a single, with a hypnotic Mike Dean beat that the rappers on it turn into the smoothest banger – that Quavo hook is an absolute earworm. Following it up with 4 AM is a one-two punch, it’s sinister, with one of Travis Scott’s better hooks, and Epps bringing his best in the lyrics department. Realize is definitely not what you expect from a 2 Chainz song with a Nicki feature, but its psychedelic beat and stellar verses make it a contender for one of the best songs on the LP. The only misstep in Chainz’ hitmaking attempts is the Pharrell-assisted Bailian; the instrumental sounds out of place here and both P and 2 Chainz sound rather bored.

Pretty Girls Like Trap Music is an unexpected album – it’s 2 Chainz at his most confident, lyrical and focussed. And he’s grown up – he’s settling into the self-assured role of the middle-aged rapper with more grace than I’d expected. The Louis Farrakhan sample on Burglar Bars speaks of Tauheed Epps’ not merely as a rapper, but as a presence. With this album, 2 Chainz has laid his claim to those words ringing truer than ever before.

Pretty Girls Like Trap Music by 2 Chainz

Boomiverse by Big Boi

When Big Boi gets on the mic, you know you’re going to get some of the best flows around, with lyrics that effortlessly switch between the playful and thoughtful, and punchlines galore. The Southern drawl is unmistakable, and so is the swag. Set aside him being half of OutKast – Big Boi aka Daddy Fat Sax aka The Son of Chico Dusty aka Antwan Andre Patton deserves every accolade that comes his way as a solo MC. With his debut arguably being a classic, and a solid follow-up, Boomiverse sees Big returning to his roots and proudly waving his flag. This is an album from a legendary MC his strengths that puts on display, and it’s almost good enough to forgive that atrocious album art – for like that cover, there are a few questionable choices Patton makes here that undermine the strength of the project as a whole.

The songs that work the best are where Big Boi taps into his years in the rap game to ooze swaggering confidence – In the South is a classic Atlanta banger, with a slow-burning, bass-rich beat that see Patton assert his status as a Southern icon, along with a hook by Pimp C, gone but never forgotten. Big Boi always brings out the best in Gucci Mane, and that shows here too. The sneering Made Man with Killer Mike and Kurupt, and Follow Deez with one of the best hooks on the album courtesy of Curren$y and another Mike similarly feature self-assured, braggadocios raps brimming with quotables. Kill Jill has a thumping, war-ready beat and some of the best rapping on the album – save for that terribly unnecessary Bill Cosby line (just, why, Antwan?). Get Wit It has a delicious funk to it, and Snoop Dogg rapping like he hasn’t in a long time.

Then there are the tracks where Big Boi takes on the role of rap’s elder statesman, such as on the decidedly pragmatic Order of Operations, where he traces his financial and business decisions throughout his career and offers up advice to the youngsters. Overthunk, one of the best tracks here, sees Big take stock of his environment and the lessons he’s learnt with an excellent Eric Bellinger hook and laid-back (if slightly weird) production. These songs are lent credence by Big Boi’s many years in the game, and might come off preachy in the words of several other MCs.

Unfortunately, besides the extremely catchy and hedonistic Freakonomics, there’s a lack of great ‘playa anthems’ here. All Night and Chocolate sound rather obnoxious in their production and hooks, which are the key components of these songs that are supposed to be fun; although the former fares a tad better. Mic Jack has a rather bland beat, and an atrocious hook – another song Adam Levine ruins.

There’s little quibbles too. Some of the sequencing is messy – Freakonomics is weirdly sandwiched between two bangers. Da Next Day is probably Big Boi’s weakest intro track, even with Big Rube’s deep, gravelly voice sounding as purposeful as ever.

Rap is not nearly the same genre as it was in the two-odd decades since Big Boi first started rhyming. But he has continued to stay relevant in the chaos of its changes, evident in the fact that new music always gets hip hop heads excited. Boomiverse may not be Daddy Fat Sax’s best work, but there is enough great hip hop here to remind us why there are some MCs that we would do well to always exalt in rap’s history books.

 

 

Boomiverse by Big Boi

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

Five Songs for the Weekend – VIII

A weekly series where we pick 5 songs that we think you’d like to listen to over the weekend

#1. Sober – Lorde

The theme of Melodrama is pretty clear now – post the fame of Pure Heroin, Lorde was thrust into a world she didn’t recognize, and it took a toll on her. Sober continues the brutally honest examinations of modern hedonism, the often-contradictory dichotomy of the party culture and alcohol binges, over a pulsating beat. It’s going to be intriguing to see how it all comes together on the album, which is just a week away.

#2. That Far – 6LACK

After blowing up off the back of some great singles, most notably, Problems, and an album, it seems like 6LACK doesn’t intend to take his foot off the accelerator. Keeping to his hazy production and vocals, 6LACK thematically focuses up. Looking firmly to the future while dismissing his distractions, he makes it known that his only purpose is success.

#3. Not Enough ft. THEY. – Lido

There aren’t enough upbeat tracks that are a fuck-you to an ex. Vibrant and fun, with lots of great little harmonies, Lido and THEY. come together for a song that will be a lot of fun to sing along to – possibly a little drunk.

#4. Rain Come Down – Vince Staples

Few rappers can do truly dark, gritty music like Vince Staples can. With a beat that’s haunting and menacing despite its bounce, Vince delivers his trademark descriptive bars, unflinchingly narrating the ruthlessness of the streets. Ty Dolla $ign delivers a great hook, his gravelly singing a perfect foil to Vince’s monotone. Big Fish is shaping up very well.

#5. Someone to You – BANNERS

A great pop-rock song is always welcome. With an absolute anthem of a hook and rousing production, BANNERS is clearly targetting the same audience as Imagine Dragons and Bastille, and doing a pretty good job of it. Watch out for them

Five Songs for the Weekend – VIII

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