Perfume Genius: No Shape

Generally, a record benefits from having structure and order that help to build upon each and every track into a more complete experience.   For No Shape, the thematic elements that encourage individuality go hand-in-hand with the formless song structures that always begin disjointed but find their place in bombastic chorus and melody.  Mike Hadreas has once again reinvented himself for the better and brings an abundance of fresh ideas to explore in a brief 43-minute segment.

If 2014’s release Too Bright is considered Hadreas’ pop record, No Shape is certainly an expansion of those elements set amongst varying rhythms and diverse instrumentation, setting itself apart from anything the effeminate maestro has released so far.

The first notes of the record play descending piano intervals and place the bar at a low point before exploding into a shimmery; bass-engulfed chorus preceded by Hadreas’ delicate vocals.  After repeating this twice, the transition into the next track is abrupt and greeted by spongey guitar strings that begin in a dark and gritty context but eventually develop into a track that effectively serves as a “part two” to the opener “Otherside” with its similar use of hefty synth basslines.

Part of the love I hold for this album is within its excellent track placement and the way the record ultimately resolves itself into a steady rest, as the BPM noticeably decreases consecutively in the last three tracks and feature a lurking marimba instrumental that propels the empty spaces on “Run Me Through” and finishes strong in Hadreas’ arguably most passionate piece “Alan” which accentuates his normally light; airy tone into a throat-sung and flat inflection that appropriately suits the line of “how weird” at the end of each chorus.

The centerpiece of this album is undoubtedly the track “Wreath” and serves as my favorite song on here.  Everything about it rings so perfectly in the context of the other tracks, it’s no surprise that it fit right in the middle of the album.  From the fade-in intro consisting of bright bells and echoing piano movements, Hadreas paints a hopeful picture that hardly even needs words to express the apparent feelings of this piece.  At the peak of the track, the almost-yodeling vocals harken back to Ezra Koenig style melodies that stick in your head and induce singing along (or at least attempted singing).

If there are any drawbacks here, it’s that some spots feel like additions could have been made to create an even better album than the one delivered.  “Every Night” is a light and moving track that holds a sound resolve but also seems like only a little more than an unmarked interlude that was included for an extra time bonus.  The pacing of “Just Like Love” also feels slightly normal compared to the other chaotic moments on this record and therefore suffers some mundane qualities in the verses but are almost ignorable.

As a whole, “No Shape” forms into a truly solid album that showcases an even furthered look into Perfume Genius’ range and songwriting ability.  Through its narrative-esque structure and dynamic instrumentation choice, there is a lot here to experience for both new fans and long-time listeners of the fabulous chamber-pop icon.  My honest opinion of this album is a 9/10

Gorillaz: Humanz (Deluxe)

Back after a lengthy delay, Gorillaz’ latest album has led to being one of the most anticipated records of the year but ultimately proves to be a somewhat hyped collection of songs that struggle to support one another both thematically and sonically.

In hindsight, I suppose my reservations about this album are not surprising to myself considering the thoughts I had about the early singles.  Specifically, the track “Hallelujah Money”, a song that still remains one of the most obtuse and directionless tracks from the group and the somewhat recent showcase of the song “Saturnz Barz”, an incredible VR music video but a track that (for me at least) began to dwindle in catchiness over time due to overly saturated autotune that lost any appeal after the fourth or fifth listen.

To clarify, this is not any sort of admittance that I wanted or specifically anticipated this album to be bad.  As a longtime Gorillaz fan, it pains me more than anything to say that I feel like this record is anything short of incredible.  Even Plastic Beach, an album with many critiques felt like a stronger effort than the entirety of this latest release.

The biggest flaw to be said of Humanz is within its overtly long tracklisting.  Sitting at a whopping 26 songs for the deluxe version, (which released alongside the standard 20 track edition) this record suffers from the notorious ‘more is better’ fallacy that so many comeback albums tend to practice to no avail.

Speaking generously, there are probably 5 songs provided here that I would not skip outside of a review setting.  The hardest part of reviewing this album was definitely within my ability to focus on the copious amounts of lackluster and overly expository tracks that could not lead to anything noteworthy.

Tracks such as “Momentz” attempt to bring a new direction to classic acts such as De La Soul by throwing in rare uses of vocal filtration (autotune) to the typical jazz rap trio.  This effect does not fair too well and creates an awkward sound that feels too left field as if the writing process this go-around was centered around being as random as humanly possible.

The lyrics on this song as also rubbish and downright confusing.  A sample being:

Got a girl who’s up for the matin’
I sense the need in her grammar
Her nose has never been skatin’ (Uh-huh)
But she’s sippin’ star constellation (Shit)
For real, her squirt game was so like 2Pac out of court run towards camera (Uh-huh)
Her response to that was just, “Check please”

In most cases, it would seem like the most ridiculous complaint in the world to claim that Gorillaz’ sound is too dynamic, a feature that is often niche to every piece that band has created.  Unfortunately, Damon Albarn’s efforts to continue his dynamic group begin to reveal a tired formula that is beginning to show signs of being milked too far.

Even the tracks that I somewhat enjoy on this album feel like they will only amount to short-term listens.  “Ascension” shows a fast paced introduction that roused my attention upon the first several listens but can feel slightly repetitive after hearing “drop that ass ‘fore it crash” after a number of times.  Even the Danny Brown song “Submission” starts off with an unfitting vocal lead that hardly prepares the audience for the rap verse during the latter half of the track.

“Andromeda” is another song that is enjoyable but feels like a silly excuse to tack on another extra ‘culturally relevant’ feature of D.R.A.M. that will slip past your ears if you are not focusing attention at the exact moment of his short chorus.

When looking at what went wrong with this album, the clearest reason is in the approach that was taken with each track.  It’s as if the writing followed the guidelines of ‘the song must either consist of a simple; repetitive chorus or a meandering series of verses with a passable chorus line’.  What happened to blissful hook buildup of “Empire Antz” or the introspective yet playful lyricism of “19-2000”?  Almost every track here feels like there is more to be said or a sound to expand upon.

I wish I could like this album a little bit more but my overall feelings post-listening leave me underwhelmed, confused and even more fearful of comeback records in general.  My honest opinion of this album is a 4/10.

Kendrick Lamar: DAMN

Introduction

At this point in contemporary music culture, it’s no radical idea that Kendrick Lamar is considered by most to be the best rapper alive.  Numerous articles, video essays, and even prominent artists have revered the man in almost every way imaginable, almost to the point of cliché.

Regardless of whether or not Lamar has become a cliché, it is futile to try and discount his work for being anything less than outstanding.  His course from Section.80 all the way to To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) has been a rapid ascension of his talent and writing that every artist in the world should aspire to mimic in their rate of progression.

The problem with releasing such a monumental hip-hop album such as TPAB arises when you sit down and think about the sheer amount of effort it must take to best a work that already appears to be near perfect.  Obviously, an artist wants to say that a new record will be better than the last but anyone and everyone know that eventually, creativity begins to wane at some point or another.

In early hindsight, DAMN was an essential album to release at this point in Lamar’s career.  Going back to the claims made at the beginning of the article, Lamar had already established himself as the greatest rapper alive at the peak of his last record’s limelight.  That being said, his last album was also VERY narrative heavy and required a small amount of patience to get through the interlude and spoken word moments before one could enjoy the music.  To casual music listeners, this could be considered off-putting and provides unjust fruit for potential arguments such as, “Drake had a catchier hook” or “That BIG SEAN track went way harder than ‘How Much a Dollar Cost'”.

These are obviously outrageous hyperboles and comparisons but everyone knows ‘that guy’ who would fill this stereotype and the massive numbers of people out there that continue to follow this illogic.  DAMN is Lamar’s answer to the pop calling that the masses have been coaxing him towards.

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Review

Yes, DAMN is Lamar’s pop album without any doubt.  It’s been a strong thought in my mind ever since I heard ‘HUMBLE’ and the appeal that it had among hardcore and casual listeners of his music.  Unlike previous records, Lamar leans light on the inclusion of a narrative between songs and focuses more on blending a story into the music itself.

‘BLOOD’ starts the album with a Western-inspired instrumental, creating a sense of calm unruliness as Lamar narrates a seemingly nonchalant encounter with a disoriented woman.  As he helps the woman, he finds that this situation is actually a trap and he is immediately gunned down without warning.  Many speculate what exactly this woman represents but for the sake of the narrative, being gunned down is Kendrick’s alternate fate had he not have entered the rap game through his connection with Anthony ‘Top Dawg” Tiffith.  The track also poses the premise of the whole album through the single-word song titles that are either the spawn of wicked or weak nature.

This album design fits in with the nature of other conceptual ideas in Kendrick’s past but feels like the most fragmented address he has ever made.  On the surface, it’s intuitive that Lamar uses this method to add variety between his heavy; gritty deep cuts and some of his softer more melodic centered pieces but deep down, I feel like this could be an excuse to insert more pop elements throughout; some of which work flawlessly and some that stick out like a sore thumb.

‘LOYALTY’ and ‘LOVE’ are two culprits for this example.  Both songs include a highly interesting fusion of top 40s pop elements twisted with Lamar’s conscious lyrics for a medley that has not been seen on any of his solo releases yet.  These tracks add a great amount of reach potential for Lamar’s growing audience but fall flat compared to a majority of the better tracks featured here.  Rihanna’s feature track starts out with a neat mashup of Lamar’s niche ‘reverse’ effect but her singing portion doesn’t amount to anything remotely outside of her typical role on songs like this.  Zacari was a fantastic choice for the type of song ‘LOVE’ aspires to be.  My issue with this track lies primarily within the placement and substance of the song.  It feels forced when put between the two exceptional songs ‘LUST’ and ‘XXX’ and lyrically could be Lamar’s most surface level release to date.  I understand that the appeal here is to be a catchy pop tune but something feels very off about this song in retrospect to the rest of the album.

Ignoring the two or three outlying songs on this album, the rest of the release is nothing but pure goodness.  ‘PRIDE’ is a total dreampop/ hip-hop crossover that is full of lyrical gold, “I can’t fake humble just because you’re insecure” being only the tip of the iceberg.

‘LUST’ takes the cake for having one of the sickest beat drops on the album, as well as clever lyrics painting the metaphor for Lamar’s ‘thirst’ ex. “I need some water”.  The song also diverges into a Euro grime section once or twice, even furthering the genre range of this album.  It’s almost as if Lamar wrote each track on this piece to appeal to a variety of bodies, furthering the number of people that can possibly appreciate at least one or two songs provided here.

 

The production on DAMN is up to par with previous releases.  The sample dropping in ‘DNA’ on the second verse pairs nicely with the aggressive flow happening in the vocals, along with a dirty bassline that must be enjoyed on a quality home speaker system to understand its true glory.  One of my few complaints lies within the song ‘XXX’, the U2 featurette where Bono’s grunting vocals can be heard around two minutes into the track.  To me, this feels like one of those moments that was meant to sound really cool but truly comes off as corny and pseudo-edgy.  Having said that, this isn’t a terrible issue but only distracts from an otherwise decent song.

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Verdict

It would be an understatement to say that there is a lot happening on DAMN.  Kendrick takes the theme of weakness or wickedness down many different paths, each with their own ideological message that can be taken or left, but at least respected nonetheless.  He does all of this while creating some of the deepest accessible music that can be found on the top charts and does it all with the same grace his fans have come to know and love.  For me personally, I view this album as Lamar’s answer to stubborn listeners that weren’t sold on the lyricism and musicality behind TPAB or those that still think Drake is still the best rapper.  Lamar has offered a variety of different sounds for fans to pick and choose what they love or hate, which explains why everyone seems to have very differing opinions about which tracks are hot or not.  I believe DAMN is a good album and could arguably be Lamar’s most important album from a business viewpoint but it most certainly is not his best.  I can understand those that think this album is flawless but specific areas listed above keep me from being completely sold.  My honest opinion of this album is a 7.5/10.

 

 

Childish Gambino: “Awaken, My Love!”

The multitalented comedian, actor, rapper, and recently adopted funkadelic star Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) has finally graced anxiously awaiting fans with his new album “Awaken, My Love!”.

With this new record and genre identity, Glover proves once again that he is not afraid of tackling a new and challenging art, as many were even skeptical after his rap breakthrough on his first release titled Camp, which was quickly followed up by the highly acclaimed Because the Internet record.

While Gambino’s ambitions soar above and beyond what anyone could have imagined on this album (mostly due to the complete absence of rap), the tracks seem to fall flat due to a lack of vision that was so prevalent on his previous release.  Aside from Me and Your Mama and Redbone, the record’s two hit singles that released only a few weeks ago, the rest of the songs seem almost misleading to the style that the previews initially lead on.

The song Zombies is probably the perfect example of when this album begins to feel translucent because even the lyrics featured on here are within the subpar range.  Take the opening verse for example:

“All I see is zombies

Walking all around us

You can hear them coming

(They come to take your life)

You can hear them breathing

Breathing down your spine”

Sure, zombies are a popular metaphor used throughout media and in poetry, but the simple and bland rhetoric paired with a vocal delivery that tries just a little too hard to be weird or “artsy” actually comes across as quite adolescent, or at least undeveloped from a career artist that has made so much better, like his verses on Zealots of Stockholm or Telegraph Ave.

This mistake would be excusable too if it were not for the fact that he does the same thing again in California, but on a much grander scale.  The vocal delivery in this song is so bad, it is comparable to singing through a paper towel tube with a half-closed throat.  That being said, this song does attract positive attention regardless of the odd choice of voice filtration, and that is because the track offers a peppy reggae melody within the first five seconds to distract from the horrendous singing.

The main problem that this album faces is that it cannot decide what audience it is performing to.  Gambino gave his fans a taste of what was to come through the single Me and Your Mama, a progressive piece that builds upon itself through layers of harmony until it explodes in Glover’s fiery roar that truly set the bar for everyone’s hype prior to this release.  From that standpoint, many were expecting to hear a more melodic funk album that everyone could get into.

In reality, Gambino created something much more experimental, but not in a good way.  Decisions were made to keep this record sounding weird, unfinished, and chaotic and that is ultimately what it is.  There are far too many songs that fade out instead of having a direct ending, which comes across as slightly lazy when there is not a sufficient enough reason or motive to end a song in this way.

Other tracks in the latter half of the album end abruptly and at inopportune times, which also seems like an intentional decision that backfired upon public reception.  The point is, this album has all of the creativity but absolutely no direction.  It’s as if Glover woke up one morning and decided he needed to release a funk record as fast as possible.  The new sound and genre for his music was a welcome surprise, but unfortunately “Awaken, My Love” is too ambitious for its own good.  My honest opinion of this album is a 5.5/10

 

Bon Iver: 22, A Million

When the first singles from 22, A Million released online, I was immediately hooked on the next evolution of the critically acclaimed folk outlet, Bon Iver. In the past, the group’s work has always been enjoyable, but never anything that has really stood out as much more than well-written tear-jerker folk. That being said, this album still has many sonic allusions to past works, yet still, manages to keep the music interesting through experimentations with vocoders and other interesting effects that will appear relatively new to a broader audience. 22, A Million is a 34-minute experience of the complete abstract compromising on satisfying melodies, and an interesting account of the conflict that Justin Vernon faces between divinity and humanity.

Starting out, one of the biggest and most notable subjects of this release is the production that went into its creation. By now, most are familiar with Vernon’s tendency to blend electronic vocal changers into his traditional sounding folk tunes, which truly is an iconic move by this point. While that style is still ever present, the band takes it one step forward by infusing muddied synthetic percussion sections like the one featured on 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄, a track that most definitely takes the cake for being one of the heaviest sounding pieces of the ten tracks. Along with that, Vernon’s vocals are masked by a relentless prismizer that exemplifies true passion throughout the tracks’ main chorus. Following that song, the album gives an a-cappella section to Justin for a Kanye-esque autotune moment of raw emotion. Each pause is thought out and well placed, and even a slight breath is altered with a heavy electronic filter that contrasts the lyrics that reflect nature with such a robotic sound. With no other instruments carrying the track, the vocoder provides enough support to emulate a choral effect that carries the song.

For those looking for a more classic sounding Bon Iver with traditional instrumentation, tracks like 29 #Strafford APTS and 00000 Million completely satisfy that desire. With less effort placed into electronic production and more into the analog sound, it really does harken back to the days of For Emma during certain moments, like the vulnerable yodel-falsetto that flows very nicely on the tail end of each chorus. Instruments such as the banjo and saxophone actually hold a great amount of influence during crucial sections of songs and are always used creatively. Specifically towards the end of 21 M◊◊N WATER, where the sax begins to glitch away from the melody at hand and transition beautifully into a Phil Collins like ballad on 8 (circle). The only con that I can truly give out is that “21″ feels like too much filler, especially when it lacks many memorable parts.

When diving into the lyrics on this album, it is important to understand that much of the titles and lyrics are inspired in some way by math or just numbers in general. Justin has a specific importance set aside for each number on the record, and it is somewhat relieving that they all aren’t arbitrary or void of any significance (for an in-depth analysis, check out his New York Times article). Even with that, it can still be a challenge to discern just what is meant in certain verses, let alone an entire song. The best way to go about developing an understanding of this record is by reading into the thought process and mindset of Justin during this recording. A good way to think of it is that if places and location held any weight or meaning on past releases, that entire ideology might as well be out the window. After all, the line “these will just be places to me now” is quite blunt and chilling.

22, A Million is truly a welcome surprise. While I expect no less from such an acclaimed band, it is always nice to see a record that shoots for ambitions far beyond anything that a past release could even hope to attain. Thought, care, and a heavy burden or two were all key elements in the creation of this album, and it triumphs because of it. My honest opinion of this album is a 9/10.

Vince Staples: Prima Donna (EP)

Vince Staples’ latest project proves to be one of the most ambitious extended play albums in recent years. With production contribution from James Blake and iconic features from Kilo Kish and A$ASP Rocky, Prima Donna sets the bar higher than most small releases but manages to only rouse our musical taste buds and assure us that more is on the horizon.

Right from the very first track of this piece, Vince makes sure that the audience clearly understands the underlying tone of his latest work. While he is known for his depressing lyrics and rhetoric, this opening song expresses an even more apathetic side of his character, as he sings a monotone cover of This Little Light of Mine. This style continues to show up at different points in the EP, typically at the rear part of each song. While I do appreciate the effort to provide some sort of concept to this artwork, I regretfully say that it does become slightly annoying and redundant after only three listens, and loses its overall impact as a result. If there were ten more tracks on this release, then I could see it working much better.

Moving on to the actual meat of this collection, I have nothing but fantastic things to say (aside from a few minor cons here and there, such as the brevity of War Ready). For starters, Loco is undoubtedly one of the best tracks. Vince’s delivery matches the insane instrumentation provided in this song, and Kilo Kish’s collaboration in the hook sounds like something straight out of a Massive Attack record, what with its dark-gritty bass section. Another fantastic song is Big Time, which contains a heavy influence from James Blakes’ typical sound, combined with chiptunes that create an overall unique experience.

One attention to detail that I truly appreciate is the effort that was placed into the references and homage from Staples’ previous album Summertime ’06. Samples such as the seagull sound on Prima Donna (track) that harken back to Norf Norf or the Spanish spoken words that remind me of the song Loca. All of these small details help to contribute to the idea that Vince holds an intentional agenda within each of his releases and that listeners should treat these records as sequels that build upon each other.

Aside from a few flaws, this EP truly stands out amidst a sea of other hot releases this month. It may not be perfect, but Prima Donna serves as a prequel to an inevitable full-length album that is sure to build upon this already genius sound. My honest opinion of this album is a 7.8/10

Frank Ocean: Blonde

Oftentimes when an artist prolongs the release of their next catalog of work, the hype behind it ascends too far into the cosmos to truly meet what was expected. With Frank Ocean’s Blonde, the hype extended as far as the heavens, and has since descended back to Earth bearing the gift of complete fulfillment, and an underlying message that Frank truly did see the future first.

Starting off, it is important to know that while this is the follow up to the beloved Channel Orange, fans should not expect more of the same this time around. Ocean opens his album with the track Nikes, and brings along with him a familiar sound but with a much more somber tone. His pitched up vocal delivery creates suspense as spectators await the moment they hear his raw and unaltered glory. Upon reaching that moment, the song shifts gears as a soft guitar accompanies a voice that starts off impregnable but transcends into falsettos of pure vulnerability.

Truly, the guitar (and other uses of acoustic instrumentation) is what pushes this release onto the next level of R&B. Other examples of this technique reside in songs like Skyline To, that feature introspective lyrics dealing with the brevity of life that would not stand out as prominently without the sheer emotion that acoustics can provide. On the flip side, the guitar is also used in a way to create jarring or abrasive effects to an otherwise traditional sound. Towards the end of the bridge in Nights, the electric guitar plays a descending riff that contrasts from the overall melodic smoothness we are used to from standard R&B. It is elements like this that further the notion that “perfect music” is going out of style, and that experimentation is the future.

From the very first slew of rumors, it has been known that the overall structure and production on this project would fall under legendary standards, and the rumors would happen to be right. Features like James Blake, Pharrell, Beyoncé, and many more prominent figures hold tidbits of influence throughout this record and showcase that this is not only about Frank himself, but a testament to the talent of our time. One of the best examples of this outside guidance comes from the track Close to You, which happens to be a cover of a song that Stevie Wonder covered himself. In this song, Frank mimics Wonder’s voice modifier by using an effect that is most closely related to the vocal sound of James Blake/ Bon Iver. This tribute serves as a nice double homage to both classic and contemporary influences.

When looking for common patterns within this release, I noticed that no hook or chorus seemed tiring or monotonous, rather, careful thought has been placed into each song to provide the listener with just enough catchiness to rouse the interest, but exits the scene early enough to avoid any level of annoyance and therefore leaves the listener wanting more. Hooks like the ones on Nights, Self Control, and Pretty Sweet all maintain the same standard of brevity mentioned before, but deliver melodies and beats that could stand completely independent of pre/post context and may be an attempt to emulate the pursuit of Nirvana, which is a theme that is brought up within tracks like Siegfried on the latter half of the album.

Undoubtedly, the best quality of this artistry resides in the lyrics themselves. I could go on and on about the double meanings, word bending, post-ironic product placement and metaphysical significance behind this work, but ultimately the best way to experience Blonde is to listen to each track with the lyric sheet wide open and determine the meaning behind these words independently. That being said, it is worth mentioning that while this record contains more than one inherent explanation, a crucial note to mention is that this is an effort to explore inhuman possibilities; to relinquish oneself of stereotypical programming such as “boys don’t cry” or “man up”. Frank’s references to his bisexual orientation are not a mere statement of sexual preference, but an attempt to seek love on all levels of the spectrum and free himself of the bonds and restrictions that inherited roles can possess. Hence, the dispute between the title Blond (masculine) or Blonde (feminine). Frank chooses to take the middle ground and beckons, “Why not both?”.

There will never be enough words that can be said about this dense piece of art. Every track (besides interludes) stands out on their own and presents a cornucopia of sound, innovation, and meaning that could stir up enough conversation to last a whole night, and then some. It may have taken four years, but our countless hours of prophecy and speculation has lead to an unfathomable glimpse into tomorrow. My honest opinion of this album is a 10/10.