An Outsider’s Ode to Hip Hop – Part 2

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Part 1 is here

Nas is indisputably one of the greatest MCs to ever grace the mic, as hip hop as rappers go. From what is widely considered one of, if not the best rap album ever, the gritty, streetwise Illmatic, up to the grown-man, nuanced, elegant hip hop on Life is Good, his discography is a play-by-play of the evolution of the genre through the eyes of one of its finest.

When he declared, then, that his beloved form of expression was “dead” halfway through his career on Hip Hop is Dead, then, the outburst of conversation was understandable. Fast forward 10 years, and Nas declares himself a proper fan of Future, the divisive rapper scores of hip hop heads declared as antithetical to “real hip hop.” He’d go on to explain his history with the genre on the watershed DJ Khaled track, Hip Hop with Scarface.

This dichotomy might seem contradictory to some, but to me, it’s where the spectacularly complex appeal of hip hop lay. There was a voice for every listener, and a listener for every voice. I was able to thus appreciate music across eras and stylistic evolution, and I grew to connect the dots linking a range of rappers.

I heard reflections of Tupac in Kendrick, Nas in J. Cole, Common in Kanye. But I also witnessed artists who’d carve out their own distinct places in hip-hop – Future, Mac Miller, Vince Staples, Childish Gambino, Young Thug and Chance the Rapper. The diversity of thought and sound in each of these musicians is perhaps lost on those ignorant to the genre’s nuances, but I had found a genre with an album for every mood, an artist for every day.

The street tales of Nas and Jay-Z drew me in with their vividness, with evocative descriptions of neighborhoods and lives completely foreign to me. Southern rappers such as T.I. offered another perspective towards the life of someone often, by their own admission, caught on the wrong side of the law. At times, it almost felt voyeuristic, but I was always educating myself about their circumstances – ghettoization, Reaganomics, racist power structures and police brutality. They led me to discover parallels between racial prejudice in America and casteist and communal politics in India.

It might be surprising to many, I attribute a significant base of my sociopolitcal awareness to trying to understand the contexts of the music I was listening to and its reflections in the contexts I was more familiar with. They were often revelatory, and as I dug deeper, I explored powerful voices such as The Roots, Black Star, Pharaohe Monch, and Killer Mike, who furthered my drive to understand the things they rapped about with such incisiveness.

But I was still a teenager – I had very adolescent emotions, and music was my go-to outlet for solace, sometimes for answers. Fortunately, by the time I was exposed to it, hip hop had begun embracing its sensitive side, thanks to Kid Cudi, Kanye, and yes, sometimes even Drake. Whether they be angst, heartbreak, or even anxiety and depression, I found a straightforwardness towards them in hip-hop that many other genres sidestepped.

Mac Miller’s Macadelic, Watching Movies With the Sound Off, and Faces were some of my favourite albums from that time because of the unabashedly unsure, and complicated way Mac rapped about the addictions, insecurities and weirdness he was plagued by. I couldn’t relate to his exact situations, but they felt similar; genuine.

Cudi and Childish Gambino helped me through my bitter lonely teen phase with their own candid confessions of the same feelings – they might’ve often come off as immature, but to someone who desperately needed a sense of belonging in that time, they were kindred spirits.

So I grew; learning, failing, learning some more, all the while accruing a select, and colourful cross-section of rappers whose music I loved and always looked out for. As I shed my inhibitions and childish notions of ‘real’ hip hop, I also began to develop a taste for music that was just fun – bangers. Chance, Rick Ross, Future, and Young Thug quickly filled those gaps, and I found I had times where I just wanted to turn up. Depriving myself of these joys of the genre felt increasingly pointless.

Through all of this, I also grew to be acutely aware of the language employed in hip-hop. I learnt only on of the painful history and powerful reclamation of the n-word; it reminds me of the Dalit identity in India. Colloquialisms littered throughout hip-hop were finding its way into pop culture, and I tried to be consciously aware of their usage. It helped me understand just how much White America owed to the section of the population it had oppressed for so long, and discover how language, often used as a tool of the elitist classes, could be subverted. It contributed immensely to my love affair with writing too, and my cherished belief that words were only as good as the messages they conveyed.

It’s now been several years since I first started listening to hip-hop, and I’m as fascinated and enamored by it as I ever was. Listening to a song like 1 Train fills me with an inexplicable joy – pure lyrical acrobatics over an amazing beat, by a range of rappers each with their own distinctive styles. It’s why I listen to Joey Bada$$, and I listen to Lil Uzi Vert. I listen to Vince Staples, and I listen to A$AP Rocky. I listen to Big Boi, and I listen to Run the Jewels. I listen to Black Milk, and I listen to Big Sean. I love all of their music. I have never had to choose, and I never intend to.

I do intend to keep learning about hip-hop, and the environment it draws upon, and playing YG’s Fuck Donald Trump as loudly as I canHip-hop is now the most popular genre of music in the USA, and for this young adult across the world in India, its gospel is one I will never stop preaching.

 

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An Outsider’s Ode to Hip Hop – Part 2

An Outsider’s Ode to Hip Hop – Part 1

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Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 masterpiece good kid, m.A,A.d city was, by any measure, one of the best albums to come out in years. Kendrick is one of the finest MCs to ever grace the mic, and he’s aided by production that complements his lyrical detailing stunningly well. It’s a supremely engaging work of music. But most importantly, it’s a meticulously told tale of Compton, California. It’s a lens into the life of a community and a people away from mainstream discourse, where the primary voices are those of the talents that emerge from within the community.

It seems that GKMC provided an image that most in the USA were themselves under-educated on. To a middle class high-schooler from India, then, it was a fascinating, complex, almost frighteningly voyeuristic insight into a life thousands of kilometers away from me.  But somehow, the music spoke to me. It intrigued me. It made me want to delve into the intricacies of the lives of the people – such as Kendrick – who lived these lives every day. It goaded me into educating myself on issues of race, class, crime and culture that have always been a source of keen interest for me. The album, to me, wasn’t just music. It was a focal point in understanding a culture to which I was an outsider. And that, has been a compelling reason why I’m drawn to hip-hop, and why it’s been so important to me.

I began my dive into hip-hop, like most Indian teenagers, with Eminem. I’d heard a few stray tracks over the years, thanks to friends discretely passing on USB drives containing his biggest songs. They were laden with the kind of expletives that would get us disowned by our parents – and that was part of the thrill. Every time Em cussed (which was a lot) felt like an act of rebellion against our overly-strict upbringing. And it sounded good.

Most of my initial exposure to hip hop was thus limited to being an entertaining and edgy form of music. I remained mostly ignorant of the social and cultural elements of the genre. This began to change, however, as I dug into the discography of the rapper who’d go on to become one of my favourite musicians – Kanye West. I enjoyed his music, but a few songs piqued my curiosity, Jesus Walks being among the first. As someone who was raised Christian, the intersection of faith and race identity was wholly a novel idea, and one that set me on two paths – one, of understanding the role religion played in society and individual lives, and two, how hip hop went beyond music. I picked up on the themes of racial and social injustice and inequality littered throughout Kanye’s work. It was, to put it mildly, a revelation.

At this point, I was intent on understanding the social background from which hip hop came, and the vocabulary of a genre that depended on cultural contexts hugely different from my own. The credit for this next step lies largely with the community at Genius – which when I was active, was still known as Rap Genius. The annotations, both the ones I read and the ones I wrote and edited myself, helped me dissect and understand the language I was listening to. Appropriately, the first song I read the annotations for was a Roots song. I began to understand the particular slang, the pop culture references and the weight of so many of the words. Kanye continued to be the focal point of most of my interest – from the intersection of Black America and personal journeys on The College Dropout and Late Registration (All Falls Down, Diamonds From Sierra Leone), to the grandiose superstardom of Graduation (Can’t Tell Me Nothing)the heartbreak of 808s… (Heartless) and the masterpiece of human emotion that was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Runaway). 

Thanks to Ye’s reputation as an iconoclast who also shaped mainstream music’s contemporary direction with every release, I was able to understand the many facets of the environment Kanye made music in. Through him, I was introduced to the music of several other rappers, many of whom went on to become favourites, including Jay Z (yes), Pusha T and Common. But what I also discovered, was that I was missing out on two distinct phases of hip-hop: one, its gritty past, and its hyper-evolving present and future.

I was prepared to undertake a deep dive into hip-hop. Fortunately, I had several guides who would come to symbolize and expand on what I loved about it.

Part 2 is here 

 

 

An Outsider’s Ode to Hip Hop – Part 1

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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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

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