REVIEW: Flume | SKIN

Three years ago today, on May 31, 2013, Disclosure released their debut album, Settle. The UK duo’s record came out of nowhere to be one of the defining releases in contemporary electronic dance music, with its guest-centric tracklist and extreme class in making beats and songs that were at once supremely danceable and musically compelling. It’s the standard by which all modern dance records of its ilk are judged, and recently, Flume (aka Australia’s Harley Streten) has taken Disclosure’s approach to highbrow house and fused it with Skrillex’s & Diplo’s dubstep maximalism. It’s a combination that sometimes leads to transcendent greatness; at other moments, it’s gratingly awful. If Flume’s 2012 self-titled debut introduced him to the world of electronic music, then his new record, Skin, is his attempt to take over the world of pop.

My introduction to Flume was his collaborative track with Vince Staples, “Smoke & Retribution”. The song, which also features English vocalist Kučka, is a hood love song that fits in with Staples’ aesthetic nicely. The booming bass drums and glitchy synths on the verses are a cool contrast to Kučka’s silky smooth vocals on the hook. This track is a prime example of how to make a great EDM track with guest vocalists — mold to them, don’t make them mold to you. Flume has never been afraid to add hip hop influence to his records, so it’s no surprise to see rap chameleons Vic Mensa and Allan Kingdom show up. While Mensa’s track, “Lose It”, is underwhelming, it’s Kingdom and Raekwon on “You Know” that really steal the show. Raekwon’s verse is violent and vivid, while Kingdom has really shown a knack for chorus-writing, as seen on not just this track, but collaborations with Kanye West and his own album. But it’s not really Flume that makes the track great, it’s his guests.

The rest of the record is pure pop, and just like the hip hop-influenced tracks, some are far better than others. Lead single “Never Be Like You” is an absolutely stunning dance-pop song, one of the best I’ve heard in recent memory. Flume taps previously unknown Canadian singer Kai for the track, and she ends up breaking through with one of the sweetest and most emotive vocal performances on an electronic music track since Sam Smith’s turn on Disclosure’s “Latch”. Her vulnerability on the chorus (singing “I’m only human/ Tell me everything’s okay”) is undercut with these irregular pulsating synth chords that evoke the image of a nervously beating heart. Look for this single to dominate American Top 40 radio later in 2016.

More pop gold reveals itself in the Tove Lo collaboration “Say It”. The first verse of this song is a deft description of a sexual encounter for Tove Lo, and the hook is incredibly intimate and sexy. Then, in the second verse, she reveals that it was all a figment of her imagination, and the hook takes on a much sadder, desperate tone. Tove Lo’s been an excellent pop star for a couple years now. Just about everything she puts out is solid. The closing track, “Tiny Cities” (featuring indie folk deity Beck of all people) is a twinkly love song. There’s a great musical decision on the hook, replacing what would normally be a synth lead with Beck’s own vocals. It’s a whimsical little pop song, and a great ending to the album.

Unfortunately, Skin has a lot of filler and skippable moments. The instrumental tracks just aren’t quite interesting enough musically to keep me engaged, especially without lyrics or a story. “Helix” is fine enough as a grand, expansive opening track, but “Wall Fuck” and “3” just don’t add enough to the album — which is already an hour long. In fact, the only instrumental song that I truly enjoy is the jittery, cute “Pika”, but it’s over in under two minutes, leaving me wanting more. In terms of vocal tracks, the only real disappointment is “Innocence”, with AlunaGeorge. This song is awful. There’s no established beat to it, no danceable groove, and the vocals are entirely anonymous. I understand wanting to utilize a big guest like AlunaGeorge, but at a certain point, Flume needs to understand that it’s not worth it to put such a misstep on what will likely be his breakout album.

Much of Skin is a satisfying and engaging listen, and the highlights (“Never Be Like You”, “Smoke & Retribution”) combine the best aspects of the guest vocalists with Flume’s own talents as a producer. These moments, unfortunately, only make up about a third of the album, making the rest sometimes feel like a slog, longing for the next transcendent moment. While Flume is a much more creative and interesting producer than pop mainstays like Avicii, Calvin Harris, and David Guetta, he still frequently falls into that trap of commercialism that prevents him from taking many risks. The hook of “Never Be Like You” goes “I’m only human, can’t you see/ I made a mistake/ Please just look me in my face/ Tell me everything’s okay.” Skin is very human and contains many mistakes, but just about all of it is still at least okay. He’ll never be like Disclosure, but to be the pop star he wants to be, he really doesn’t have to.

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REVIEW: Ariana Grande | Dangerous Woman

Ain’t you ever seen a princess be a bad bitch?

Pop starlet Ariana Grande asks this on the immensely boring “Domino” clone “Bad Decisions”, the first of four entirely skippable bonus tracks on Grande’s third full-length album, Dangerous Woman. The thing is, Ariana, is that we have. Many times. From Miley Cyrus, the former country-pop child star turned sexually ambiguous inciter, to the inseparable Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez adding explicit, powerful sexuality to not just their music, but their identities as well, pop princesses have been turning into bad bitches for years. And I haven’t even mentioned the biggest example: the criminally under-appreciated Britney Spears, whose “Baby One More Time”, “Oops I Did It Again”, and (especially) “Toxic” have set the stage for these women to reinvent themselves into something much more mature than your average Disney child star.

Here’s the thing: Ariana Grande doesn’t have it in her to be a dangerous woman. She just can’t convince me of it. That’s not to say that she’s not among the best that pop has to offer today, because she is; it’s just that her desired transformation into a Britney-like figure just hasn’t hit its stride. And that’s fine, because when Grande’s at her best, there’s nobody better in modern pop music. But her best has never been tracks like “Dangerous Woman”, an admirable effort that falls just short of the Aguilera aspirations it had. No, Grande’s best has been something entirely different.

That’s not to say that there aren’t highlights on Dangerous Woman; quite the contrary. Right off the bat, we have the lovely “Moonlight” (which would have been a much better title for the album), a moving ballad about the beauty of love. I adore this song. Absolutely adore it. It’s the cutest piece of music I’ve heard since Sophie’s “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye”, which is saying something. The strings (both bowed and plucked) on the refrain, the synthesized bells that open the track, and especially the way that Grande sounds like she’s smiling throughout the whole thing make this a highlight in her short discography. Soon after, we have “Be Alright”, an immensely classy piece of tropical house which features Supremes-like harmonies on the chorus. When the subtle drop happens after “We’re gonna be alright!”, it genuinely feels like I am, in fact, going to be alright.

The guests were hit-or-miss on Grande’s previous effort, My Everything, but on Dangerous Woman, there is not a single guest appearance that I truly enjoy. The closest, surprisingly, is Lil Wayne, who is at least likable in his verse on the icy “Let Me Love You”. The great talents of Nicki Minaj and Future are wasted, and Macy Gray’s whiskey-soaked contralto is far too raspy and out-of-control for the track’s good. It’s really too bad that the album’s producers couldn’t get better/more appropriate/more engaged guests for the album; a sequel to the powerful Weeknd-featuring “Love Me Harder” was among my hopes for the record.

Nonetheless, we don’t listen to Ariana Grande albums for the guests, we listen for her voice, which is still the very best in pop music. Calling her a “talented vocalist” is a gross understatement. Grande is at once sweet and powerful, with ridiculous range and perfect pitch location. The album does a pretty good job of highlighting her vocal talents, especially on centerpiece “Greedy”, a Bruno Mars-core romp with loud, funky horns and swelling synthesizers that add up to a whole lot of fun. This is the only time on the album where Grande lives up to the Dangerous Woman tag, and it’s because she doesn’t say that she’s dangerous; she simply is. The record’s only real clunker is “Sometimes”, a cheesy campfire tune that belongs on a kids’ album. Thankfully, it’s followed up by “I Don’t Care”, a Donnie Trumpet-indebted R&B/soul slow-jam that doubles as a sly send-0ff to those who have criticized her over the years. It and “Moonlight” are great bookends to the record.

I tend to think that music evokes (and this is a huge generalization) three main emotions: elation (happiness, joy), despondence (sadness, introspection), and aggression (anger, flamboyance). Grande is exceptional at the first two, and her best songs either exhibit elation or despondence. Unfortunately, Dangerous Woman largely aims for the latter, leaving me grasping for something that brings me joy or makes me cry. The songs here don’t quite give me the emotional highs of “Piano” or the pained lows of “Why Try”, her two best songs. Even with the handful of good-to-great tracks here, I know that Grande is capable of so much more. Hopefully this is her wake-up call; so many other artists have done the “dangerous woman” schtick so much better. She’s got her own niche: her unwaveringly loyal fanbase. But for them, another album that’s simply “good” overall might not be enough.

shoutout to Cara ❤

ALBUM REVIEW: Chance The Rapper | Coloring Book

He said let’s do a good-ass job with Chance 3
I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy
Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard
That there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet

***

Ever since 2012’s Acid Rap, Chance The Rapper has been billed as the Next Big Thing, a genre-transcending successor to Kanye’s Chicago throne. He’s Kanye’s protégé, but has never existed in Yeezy’s shadow. Chance’s talent has never been in question — but to date, it hasn’t quite translated into full-length projects that are quite on the level of hip hop’s greats. 10 DaysAcid Rap, and Donnie Trumpet’s Surf have all been excellent affairs, but there’s always been something off. For 10 Days, it was the muddiness and unrefined production. For Acid Rap, it was the complete lack of cohesiveness in themes. And for Surf, well, Surf wasn’t really a hip hop album, so much as it was a neo-soul jazz record. Once Chance started promoting Chance 3, we all speculated: could this finally be his definitive rockstar record that firmly cements him in rap’s upper echelon?

Coloring Book isn’t quite there yet, but it’s the closest Chance has come in his short career. Keep in mind, despite his already massive discography, he’s only 23 years old. He still has decades of work in front of him, and I can tell he’s perfectly content to keep dropping incredible features and releasing his music for free. And as long as he’s comfortable with that, I am. It’s just that because of his immense personal talent, his releases will always be graded on a curve. And that curve tells me that Coloring Book isn’t Chance’s creative peak, unlike Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly.

Highlights are plenty on Coloring Book, whose gospel theme helps cement an aura of spirituality around the mixtape’s 15 tracks. More specifically, themes of family and fatherhood pop up all around the album. Chance is in a place of extreme personal peace — he discusses how he’s been clean from his Xanax habit for a long time now, how his daughter is his everything, and how his daughter’s mother is re-entering his life after a long time apart. “Angels”, the mixtape’s lead single, is a joyous exclamation of Chance’s love for Chicago, even with its flaws and shortcomings. He talks about how he needs to “Clean up the streets so my daughter can have somewhere to play.” He shouts out local radio stations that he listened to waking up. He and frequent collaborator Saba bust out some local lingo (“woo wop da bam!”) and compare it to the bustling cities of Alexander the Great’s empire. It’s a lovely tribute, especially in today’s hip hop scene, where city boundaries are breaking down every year.

The gospel-oriented “Blessings” (both of them — there are two tracks titled “Blessings) and “How Great” are genuine church-gospel hymns that have more in common with Byron Cage and Marvin Sapp than they do with anything that showed up on Acid Rap. The latter track, especially, is so genuine in its love that even if the listener has a lack of faith, they can still relate and enjoy it greatly. “How Great” is bookended by two of the best moments on the entire tape: at first, a soulful rendition of the classic church song “How Great Is Our God”, and at the end, perhaps the best verse of Jay Electronica’s young career. He could genuinely hold his own with today’s great Christian rappers, should he want to go in that direction. Later, T-Pain adds some classic soul on “Finish Line / Drown”, providing one of the best features I’ve heard from the formerly AutoTuned crooner. Like all of hip hop’s best artists, Chance always has had a knack for getting the best out of his guests and features. Coloring Book is no different.

Not everything on Coloring Book is entirely gospel. “No Problems”, with 2Chainz and Lil Wayne, is a challenge to those who don’t believe in Chance’s greatness. It’s also a warning to record labels, an entity that Chance has generally managed to avoid so far, but still has to deal with in issues of guest appearances and sampling. The hook (“You don’t want no problems/ want no problems with me“) is among the catchiest I’ve heard all year, and even with the hostile lyrics, Chance sounds like he’s grinning the entire time. Later, “Juke Jam” is bar none the sexiest damn song Chance has ever put out. It’s a bona fide slow jam, and the vocals from Towkio and Justin Bieber(!) are deft and sensual. Variety has always been a little bit lacking from Chance’s full projects, so it’s great to hear him explore some different sounds.

Still, I’d be lying if I said that the project is without flaws. “Mixtape”, with Atlanta’s Young Thug and the infallible Lil Yachty, is a pretty solid track on its own, but it would have fit far better on Thugga’s and Yachty’s recent Slime Season 3 and Lil Boat. The track exhibits trap production, themes of personal independence, and Atlanta features, none of which fit very well on a community-based gospel album. It’s an outlier. Many of Coloring Book‘s tracks have great moments, but there’s just something about them that feels off or unfinished. The first half of our opener, “All We Got” (featuring Kanye himself), is stunning! It’s a throwback to Acid Rap‘s “Good Ass Intro”, but when the hook rolls around, Kanye sings in these horrid vocoder vocals that completely take the soulfulness out of the song. “D.R.A.M. Sings Special” is beautiful and emotive, a solo effort from D.R.A.M., one of rap’s great up-and-comers. But it’s so short, and had it been a full song, with two verses, a bridge, and a hook, it had the potential to be one of my favorites of the year. The first “Blessings” sounds like it should explode into a full orchestral symphony at the song’s center, but the final chorus just sounds anti-climactic. There are moments like this all over the record, where I feel like if they had used just a couple more weeks on the project, it could have been transcendent.

My favorite track on Coloring Book is “Same Drugs”. It’s the only track on the entire mixtape that is almost entirely Chance, and it’s an absolute heartbreaker. An extended Peter Pan metaphor is used to show what it’s like when people who were once so close (friends and lovers) can grow apart. “What did you do to end up back here? What did you do to your hair? When did you forget how to fly?” Chance implores. Songs like these show why Chance isn’t your average up-and-coming rapper; he’s destined to be a pop star. He promised to do a “good-ass job” with Chance 3, and in Coloring Book, he has. It’s just that for someone with Chance’s talent, “good” is a slight disappointment. It’s not a bad project — in fact, it’s one of my favorites of the year. But Chance has yet to reach his full potential. Here’s hoping that with Chance 4, “good” can turn into “great”.

Coloring Book is available for free at Apple Music.

ALBUM REVIEW: Drake | VIEWS

The cover art for Drake’s fourth LP, Views, shows him perched atop Toronto’s most famous landmark, the CN Tower. Cheesy photoshop aside (according to some calculations, Drake is 22 feet tall in the photo), it’s a telling portrayal of how Drake sees himself in relation not only to his home city, but the hip hop landscape as a whole. He’s on an unmatched stretch of rap excellence, from single-handedly jumpstarting the careers of The Weeknd, Migos, and iLoveMakonnen (among others) to absolutely eviscerating Meek Mill in their beef last year. He’s got his own Jordan shoe line and is the official brand ambassador of the Toronto Raptors. For my money, he’s indisputably the biggest rapper alive, and no other rapper (save for Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar) comes even close.

Because of this, Views is a decidedly individualized affair — a monolithic collection of tracks that show Drake breaking little new ground thematically or sonically. There are no bangers anywhere near the level of “0 to 100”, “Energy”, or “Forever”, and there aren’t any pop moments that hit the same highs as “Hold On, We’re Going Home” or “Hotline Bling”. Despite its inclusion on the album, “Hotline Bling” feels like a separate entity entirely; it’s been out for almost a year now, and it’s marketed as a bonus track.

Instead, Drake relies on the same OVO sound (no pun intended) that he’s made a living off of for years. Unfortunately, over the 82-minute run time for Views, Drake rarely breaks out of that sonic field. There are some Jamaican dancehall-inspired instrumentals, and some Chicago chop-up-the-soul moments, but these don’t break the mold hard enough to feel like real sonic variety. We’ve heard all of these electronic keyboards and 808 drums before. I really do like Noah “40” Shebib, Nineteen85, Boi-1da et al. as producers, but for an hour and a half it gets exhausting.

Take “Fire & Desire”, for example, which drops by at the tail end of the record. This pure 2000s rhythm and blues song is so generic that you could put any modern R&B vocalist in there (The Weeknd, Bryson Tiller, August Alsina, etc.) and the song wouldn’t be any better or worse. Other tracks like “Childs Play” and “Controlla” are so redundant that they really make me question why Drake made Views so lengthy. Taken by themselves, many of these songs are pretty smooth — Drake’s singing has improved by a ton since his debut, and the OVO production is pleasant and easygoing. But they don’t give the listener the same emotional highs that even lesser-known Drake cuts that “How Bout Now” and “The Real Her” bring.

Drake has never been a great rapper, but as he’s shown on tracks like “5AM in Toronto” and “Fuckin’ Problems”, he can spit when he needs to. That’s why it’s so dumbfounding that Drake provides some of the worst rapping not only of his career, but of any rapper I’ve heard in recent memory. Lines like “Your best day is my worst day/ I get green like Earth Day” and “I turn the 6 upside down/ It’s a 9 now” are terrible! And not even in the sappy Drake-is-so-cute-and-lovable way — they’re bad in the this-sounds-like-my-terrible-amateur-rapper-high-school-classmate way. Only on a couple tracks here (“Hype” and “Views”) does Drake provide decent flows and impressive charisma over great beats. It’s these highlights, along with the pop-oriented “Feel No Ways” and “Too Good”, that prevent Views from being a total wash.

The start of last year’s beef with Meek Mill was Meek’s accusation that Drake uses ghostwriters for his music, and doesn’t create his own art. For many, that’s a death sentence in hip hop. But Drake isn’t a rapper: he has no stake in “the game”, no credibility to his lyrics. He’s a pop star, first and foremost, and the absolutely horrible lyricism on this album makes me think that Drake tried to do a record on his own, writing verses and directing the project with little outside influence. Just like the cover art shows, Drake exhibits a lot of pride on Views. I just think if he swallowed some of that pride, he could make something great.

Album Of The Month: Kendrick Lamar | untitled unmastered.

On “Mortal Man”, the closing track to last year’s hip-hop masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar conducts an interview with the late Tupac Shakur on the state of black life in America. At one point, Kendrick asks, “What do you think is the future for me and my generation?” Tupac responds gravely. “Next time there’s a riot, there’s gonna be bloodshed.” He paints a dystopian future of interracial fighting, referencing the Nat Turner riots of the 1830s. It a genuinely frightening and shockingly poignant statement; Tupac gave that response in 1995, and the recent tragedies involving Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, and so much more make it seem like Tupac was a genuine visionary.

Kendrick’s newest project, untitled unmastered., seems like the epilogue to that conversation. The dystopia described in this latest release is terrifying. The creative imagery of these eight untitled tracks is violent and foreboding to match the music that comes along with it. “untitled 01” is a four-minute track with a three-minute verse; it’s the best rapping we’ve seen from Kendrick since his “Control” verse. The setting is post-apocalyptic. “The tallest building plummets, cracking, and crumbling/ The ground is shaking, swallowing young woman/ With a baby, daisies, and other flowers burning in destruction/ The smell is disgusting, the heat is unbearable,” Kendrick spits. It seems to be the result of these riots that Tupac described, but the listener is left unsure of whether Kendrick is condoning this revolution or not.

The chants of “Pimp pimp, hooray!” on “untitled 02” add to the themes of revolution. It seems like Kendrick is leading his followers to some sort of battle. He describes his experiences of rappers existing as tools of their white labels, being “enslaved” by their contracts. “I see jiggaboos/ I see styrofoams” is a shot at the codeine-soaked state of mainstream hip-hop today. It’s an interesting entrance into rap elitism that we don’t see very often from Kendrick, but it suits him well.  “untitled 03” is the track that Kendrick debuted on the Colbert Report in early 2015 leading up to the release of To Pimp A Butterfly. He describes interactions with his label representative; “You’ll lose your core following/ You’ll win it all” is a criticism of how great underground rappers abandon their distinct sound in an attempt to make it big commercially. Thank goodness that Kendrick hasn’t fallen into that trap.

Jay Rock gives the appearance of his life on “untitled 05”, where he and Kendrick discuss their respective hometowns — both suburbs of Los Angeles (Watts for Jay, Compton for Kendrick). They give their laments about a capitalist system that monetizes prisons and proliferates stereotypes in the name of profit. “untitled 06” has a beautiful CeeLo feature, although this is the one track on the record that overstays its welcome. It may have been a decent interlude in the vein of “For Sale?” from To Pimp A Butterfly with a little fat-trimming, but the reality is that Kendrick holds tight to the untitled unmastered. title.

The crux of this album, “untitled 07”, is an eight-minute opus that has a trap flavor that reminds me of the more commercial sound of good kid, m.a.a.d city. Even with that sound, it’s still far more experimental than anything on that album, with its trilling keyboards and woozy synthesizers. The repetitive verses and refrains are intoxicating and are a hip-hop fan’s dream. I haven’t mentioned much about the instrumentals and production of the album, but they’re about what you would expect. That’s not to say that they’re not exciting — quite the opposite. This is beautiful jazz music with hip-hop beats. Kendrick’s collaborators (most notably saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington and bass virtuoso Thundercat) remain at the top of their game, and help to create cohesiveness in an album full of B-sides that didn’t make it onto To Pimp A Butterfly.

untitled unmastered. is a statement from the best rapper of our generation. Kendrick has never really set out to be a black leader, but he’s exhibited that quality better than most. I think he knew what he was doing with this album title; I can think of at least two black leaders throughout history who dropped their titles in the name of inclusivity and equality. That would, technically, make them untitled. What do you call a slave that’s been freed? “Unmastered.”

Album of the Month: Kanye West | THE LIFE OF PABLO

“Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” challenges Kanye West on “Feedback”. Over the weeks leading up to the release of The Life Of Pablo, Kanye treated fans and doubters alike to a seemingly endless string of updates and controversy — mostly through Twitter. From beefing with Wiz Khalifa (where Kanye brutally insulted Khalifa’s music and style), to tweeting that alleged rapist Bill Cosby is innocent (which may have been a prank pulled by his sister-in-law Kylie Jenner) to showboating an ever-changing list of collaborators and tracks on a notepad, where many of the signatures, including A$AP Rocky and Pusha T, didn’t even make it on the album at all. All in all, this added up to perhaps the most compelling album rollout of this musical era, put forth by the most compelling artist of his time.

And thank goodness that the album is this great, considering the exhausting process of keeping up with Kanye’s antics. While the record didn’t really gel with me during the viewing process of the Yeezy Season 4 event at Madison Square Garden, after a few listens, you start to get a feel for the cohesiveness of the album. I’ve seen people call The Life Of Pablo a “mess” or “disjointed”, but I really don’t see that at all. This is no less cohesive than Graduation or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Yeezus; Kanye has always toyed with different samples and sonic statements throughout his seven LPs. There is something to note: I’d go into the album considering tracks 1-13 (up to and including “Wolves”) the “meat” of the album; after the Max B intermission, I consider those songs bonus tracks.

Kanye frequently described The Life Of Pablo (née Waves, née SWISH, née So Help Me God) as a gospel album, and the album-opening “Ultralight Beam” is about as gospel as they come. It features both chicken-soup-for-the-soul vocals from Kelly Price and a heart-stoppingly delightful verse from Chance The Rapper, who many have deemed as having the potential to be “the next Kanye”. His Kanye-isms and throwbacks (“I made ‘Sunday Candy’, I’m never going to Hell/ I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail”) beautifully express Chance’s love and inspiration from Kanye’s music; he seems legitimately thrilled to be a part of this record.

Interestingly enough, that’s where the gospel influence ends. On “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”, the beat is fine enough — it sounds like it would fit most at home on 808s and Heartbreak. Kid Cudi’s hook on this song is pretty sweet, but it also features maybe the single worst lyric of Kanye’s career, as I’m sure you’ve heard by now: he’s upset about potentially getting bleach on his shirt from the recently-bleached asshole of a model he’s trying to have sex with. It’s bad, and these moments are the rare times on the album where Kanye’s eccentricity is truly puzzling and off-putting. Luckily, “Pt. 2” is a bona fide banger; it’s essentially a remix of G.O.O.D. Music signee Desiigner’s “Panda”. Desiigner’s verses on this track are hard yet easygoing; mark my words, he’s going to be a superstar.

It’s fun to place tracks on this album into where in Kanye’s discography they fit most sonically; “Famous”, with its expensive samples and Rihanna feature, could’ve been an outtake from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, while “Feedback” and “Freestyle 4”, with their grinding industrial instrumentals, sound like they would be right at home on Yeezus. All of these tracks have tiny vignettes of Kanye’s life, generally referring to his wife Kim and his children, North and Saint. Also of note: for a Kanye album, the tracks on The Life Of Pablo are very short; most don’t go over the three-minute mark. This fact, and some of the lyrical choices (referencing Steve Harvey and Bill Cosby), make it seem like Kanye recorded this album very recently, standing in opposition to the drawn-out recording processes and perfectionism that we expect from him.

The best stretch on the album is “Waves” to “Wolves”. These are the songs that are most difficult to place within Kanye’s discography; they are distinctively from The Life Of Pablo. The features on this stretch are, to put it lightly, overwhelmingly strong. The Weeknd’s affecting, vulnerable hook on “FML” harkens back to the pre-Top 40 days of Abel Tesfaye’s music. Kanye and The Weeknd have always had similar self-loathing narcissist tendencies, and the lyrics here are no different: “Even though I always fuck my life up/ Only I can mention me”. “Real Friends” which features silky smooth vocals from Ty Dolla $ign, exhibits Kanye’s struggles with family, and brings up the clichéd but apt question: When somebody asks you “How are you?”, and you respond with “Fine.”, what does that mean? Finally, we get to hear the return of R&B savant Frank Ocean with a coda on “Wolves”, yet another peek into Kanye’s family life.

This is Kanye’s family album, a look into the life of genius; from Picasso to Escobar to St. Paul, we never got much of a personal view of these visionaries. Kanye is no different, so he’s given us The Life Of Pablo, yet another group of songs to dissect in the years to come. On “Waves”, noted woman-beater Chris Brown gives us the vocal performance of his life. It’s fitting that a song so focused on positivity and the power of redemption would allow somebody so vilified to shine through; Brown’s lyrics were penned by Chance, who’s collaborated with legitimately terrible people like R. Kelly. Both Kanye and Chance show that even people that could be considered “bad” or “harmful” can be redeemed, in a way, through music. Maybe we were looking at the “gospel album” point the wrong way. It’s clearly not a gospel album sonically, but thematically, The Life Of Pablo is as gospel as it gets.

Album of the Month: Anderson .Paak | MALIBU

Malibu, the affluent Los Angeles suburb, has constant pop culture appearances that sometimes paint the town as a place of relative nirvana. The sunny beaches and lively nightlife express a feeling of carefreeness, as shown in both reality shows and sitcoms: from Million Dollar Listing to Zoey 101, Malibu is a place you want to be.

Unfortunately, any meteorologist could tell you that Malibu’s geographic location makes it as vulnerable as any other California city when it comes to natural disasters. It’s been affected by at least 25 wildfires over the past century, including the “Corral” fire of 2007, which caused nearly $100 million in damages. The destruction of vegetation makes Malibu a frequent location for mudslides, and its place along the San Andreas fault leads to recurrent earthquakes. While on the surface, Malibu seems to be an ideal living place, that façade crumbles after experiencing one of these disasters.

Los Angeles native Anderson .Paak has had firsthand experience with the dual sides of the Malibu coin. His upbringing was one of immense struggle. .Paak’s mother, a South Korean immigrant, was a compulsive gambler; his father, a former Air Force member, was sent to prison when .Paak was just a boy. He gives us an idea of his upbringing, describing the behaviors of all he was close to going up, then descending into cynicism of the cliché: “We never had to want for nothing/ All we’d ever need is love.” Try telling that to an impoverished child.

.Paak’s pain is a common theme in his major-label debut, Malibu. He grew up just minutes from the bright lights of L.A., yet struggled to find his place. He struggles to find his place musically, as well. Malibu is an incredibly smooth combination of neo-soul, R&B, and hip-hop, with an impressive list of collaborators who all seem to accentuate the music by adding to it but never overshadowing it. Two, in particular, stand out: Rapsody, who adds a pained verse on “Without You”, and BJ the Chicago Kid, whose deft crooning has left me stunned me for some time, especially on the Madlib-produced track “The Waters”.

Very little of his is left undiscussed on Malibu, where .Paak shows off his versatility as a vocalist and songwriter with ridiculous variety on song structures and topics. He discusses his entire life timeline in “The Season | Carry Me”; the two-part song talks about his childhood (“Six years old, I tried my first pair of Jordans on“) and his adult life (“‘Bout the year Drizzy and Cole dropped/ Before K.Dot had it locked/ I was sleeping on the floor newborn baby boy/ Tryna get my money pot so wifey wouldn’t get deported”). He later sings romantically on “Silicon Valley” and “Waterfall”. The latter track has a sexy groove, and .Paak’s deft vocals are the perfect compliment to the instrumentation. He occasionally falls into lyrics that are amateurish (“Lemme see wha’s under them tig ol’ bitties“), but the sheer genuineness of what he sings overshadows any brazenness.

Malibu is a musically and sonically consistent yet versatile album. The superstar cast of producers (Madlib, DJ Khalil, Dem Jointz, and 9th Wonder, to name a few) all add their own specific touches to make the music recognizable while still keeping in the cohesiveness of the record. 9th Wonder takes cues from 90s R&B and soul on “The Season”, and Madlib returns to his jazzy signature on “The Waters”. .Paak seamlessly switches from Kendrick Lamar-style rapping to scratchy, soulful balladeering on a number of tracks, giving him a sound that’s thoroughly unique in today’s pop landscape.

The instrumentals and production are beautiful; brassy call-and-response refrains complement deep grooves from the bass. But just because the album is a satisfying listen doesn’t mean it’s an easy listen; .Paak bares it all, revealing himself to the listener just like the best folk singers would. It’s no wonder he named the album Malibu: despite the pleasant exterior, the potential for self-destruction is there.

Here’s Anderson .Paak on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert:

 

January’s 5 Best Songs

Rostam | “EOS”

Wet | “Island”

Chairlift | “Moth To The Flame”

Savages | “Adore”

David Bowie | “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”