Wednesday, July 10, 2013

album review: 'don't look down' by skylar grey

The more I think about it, the more I believe that being labelled the 'protege' of a popular artist is a lot worse than one might think.

Sure, you get the immediate hype and buzz from association with your more popular and successful mentor, but like all popularity, it can be replaced by backlash the second you make the slightest mistake. And this backlash tends to be harsher than if you struck out on your own, because there is the implication that you had the backing of a great artists and still struck out. Sure, that might be unfair, particularly when the general public doesn't really know how much influence or control said great artist had over your work, but there is a grain of truth to it.

But if even if you succeed and rise to your mentor's level, the comparison with said mentor will always be invited, particularly if there are stylistic similarities. At best you'll be deemed a 'copycat', an act permanently confined to their greater's shadow. At worst you'll be branded a rip-off, a soulless copy of something greater that came before. And even if you manage to surpass your mentor (as I'd argue Drake and Nicki Minaj have occasionally done with Lil Wayne), there will always be that asterisk associated with your work, that it isn't quite entirely your work and thus ever so slightly not as good. 

So it's not entirely surprising that it's fairly rare a protege of a popular musical act rises even close to the level of their mentor. Sure, Justin Bieber might be more popular amongst his fanbase than Usher is right now, but Bieber certainly isn't getting Usher's level of critical acclaim. And even though 50 Cent definitely had his moment in the spotlight in the early 2000s (his publicity heightened even further by his gutting of Ja Rule's career), he has mostly faded from public view in comparison to his 'discoverer', Eminem (which, frankly, is something I'm okay with, because 50 Cent was never that talented anyway).

Now I'll admit right out of the gate that Eminem remains to this day one of my favourite rappers, and I'm definitely looking forward to his new album later this year. That said, I can't help but notice he has a rather poor reputation in recreating his level of success with his collaborators and proteges (outside of 50 Cent, obviously). As much hype as D12 had in the early-to-mid 2000s, the band never took off with the same notoriety as Eminem had, and while his influence has been a boost to Slaughterhouse's careers, they certainly haven't had that mainstream breakthrough to match their critical praise. Even Yelawolf, who was once praised as the 'next' Eminem, hasn't had the nearly same degree of success (then again, that might have something more to do with his bizarre collaborations with Travis Barker and Ed Sheeran (?)).

And I've got to be honest, I was more than a little skeptical when I heard he was the executive producer behind Skylar Grey, a rising female singer who you might recognize as a co-writer behind Eminem and Rihanna's 2010 collaboration 'Love The Way You Lie', a song I really like but don't quite love. in fact, going back through the writing credits and vocal performances of Skylar Grey, I can't exactly say I've been impressed. I'll acknowledge that her touch is recognizable on her featured tracks ('Coming Home' by Diddy, 'I Need A Doctor' by Eminem & Dr. Dre, and 'Words I Never Said' by Lupe Fiasco), but while I like all three of these songs, I don't quite love them. But I'm fairly certain I know why: Skylar Grey, at least on these tracks, has absolutely no vocal personality.

Now that's a steep charge to level, but go back and listen to all of those tracks. Sure, she's an adequate singer, but outside of a harsher, semi-darker vibe, I don't get much idiosyncrasy or force of personality behind them. There's none of Rihanna's sultriness (well, back when she was good), none of the mostly convincing innocence in Taylor Swift or Carly Rae Jepsen, none of Lady Gaga's haughtiness, none of Ke$ha or Pink's brash attitude or Avril Lavigne's brattiness. She doesn't even have the raw energy that can occasionally make Katy Perry tolerable. Basically, if I'm going to draw a comparison to R&B, Skylar Grey reminded me of Keri Hilson: an adequate singer, but devoid of the flash of the visual presentation, not much more.

But I'm always one to be fair here, so I picked up her major label debut Don't Look Down. Did she manage to grow a personality while I wasn't looking?


Well, sort of. Unfortunately, it wasn't nearly enough to save her album, which unfortunately can be dumped in the same bucket as I deposited True Romance by Charli XCX earlier this year. Believe me, I'm as disappointed as anyone, particularly because there are enough elements and talent behind this album to potentially make it work, and the fact that it doesn't is a goddamn shame.

I do have some praise for the album, mostly in the instrumentation and production. I said earlier that Eminem was the executive producer of this album, and you can definitely spot the grittier, nastier touches that tend to crop up whenever he produces an album. The man is a seriously talented producer, able to extract a grimy, bleak element that permeates the album at its best and really creates a tangible atmosphere. However, he's not the only producer on the album, as he is joined by frequent collaborator Alex da Kid, who is something of a rising star in production. 

Now unlike some, I actually kind of like Alex da Kid's production - it can be cluttered and a little repetitive in spots, but he has a distinctive sound and a real talent for creating a rough-edged soundscape that adds a lot of texture and personality to the mix. And when paired with Eminem or B.o.B. or Imagine Dragons, for whom he produced a major label debut, he can really provide a great balance for the lead artists' force of personality. He knows how to make songs feel expansive and potent, and matched against Imagine Dragons' lead singer Dan Reynolds or Eminem, he's a perfect fit.

But we don't have Eminem or Dan Reynolds here, we have Skylar Grey, and it's here where Don't Look Down completely falls apart. In short, Skylar Grey just can't match Alex da Kid's production, even with multi-tracked vocals. I'm not saying she's a bad singer, but she just doesn't have the force of personality and energy and intensity to match her instrumentation, and more than once she's overwhelmed by it. It also doesn't help matters that Alex da Kid didn't really bring his A-game with this record, and more than once I found myself spotting areas where he was repeating himself.

But let's turn to Skylar Grey, who was supposed to be the main star of this album. This was supposed to be her major label debut, with Eminem pouring his considerable influence and marketing power behind. Hell, he even shows up for a guest verse on the rather ludicrous 'C'Mon Let Me Ride', a ridiculous song where Skylar Grey attempts to parody the expectations of vapidity that are expected of modern pop starlets. Granted, his guest verse isn't anywhere close to his best, but Eminem is smart enough to let Skylar Grey take the majority of the spotlight...

...which might have been part of the problem. You see, Skylar Grey is at her most interesting when she seems slightly unstable, seeming like she's just on the edge of snapping and going flat-out ballistic on whoever did her wrong. It's this dead-eyed, semi-psychotic persona that most of the time puts forward a Stepford Smile, but hidden behind that smile is someone who'll stab you in your sleep. And it works because it plays with the listener's expectations, making us wonder whether or not it's all a mask or that she's actually going to lose her fucking mind and do something crazy. And completely unsurprisingly, it's the same line that Eminem walked on his earlier albums.

But here's the problem: Eminem had a sense of humor and was arguably one of the best lyricists and most compelling personalities in music, at least in his heyday. He knew the material he was delving into was bleak and dark and more than a little uncomfortable for some listeners, so he balanced it out with lighter material and wit and the occasional comedic bit. Sure, more often than not it was pretty low-brow humour and too often he was reaching for the punchline, but it kept the balance of the whole affair.

Skylar Grey, unfortunately, doesn't have this. I wouldn't call her a terrible lyricist, but she's definitely not a great one, most of the time coming across as hopelessly bland, which her vocal delivery unfortunately supports. Where Eminem balanced his darkness with humour or wit, Skylar Grey just seems to fall back into sullen resentment, and she's not witty or interesting enough to make that compelling. And if I was being brutally honest, I'd argue her more 'dangerous' bits aren't even properly realized - sure, casual references to violence in her lyrics might be a bit unsettling, but there's no poetry and very little follow-through in her songs. 'C'Mon Let Me Ride' might be stupid, but it ends up being a high point on the album simply because it is a lighter moment, and it stands out against the tedium.

And really, at the end of the day, I'm left more than a little bewildered by Don't Look Down, particularly when it comes the lyrics and theme. While I get the sense Skylar Grey is more of a 'singles' artist than an 'album' artist, very few of the songs carry any real weight or stand out against the crowd, and with Alex da Kid's production occasionally repeating itself, the album quickly becomes crushingly bland. I wouldn't call it obnoxious or even all that grating, but it's definitely incoherent and completely lacking in standout performances from Skylar Grey. One thing's for sure, I certainly understand why this album was shelved and only released now, because as a debut for a new artist to establish a presence, it's a complete failure.

And in the end, while I feel sorry for Skylar Grey and disappointed I don't like her material more, I can't recommend Don't Look Down. It's not terrible, but it's painfully mediocre and really not worth your time. Skip this one.

1 comment:

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