Ah, it's good to be back on the wagon (felt ill yesterday, didn't do all that much, that's basically the reason this review is as late as it is). So yeah, Lorde - great ideas, not perfect execution. Alan Jackson's coming up next. Stay tuned!
About a year ago, a critic that I like made an interesting statement regarding the evolution of the pop charts. He commented that due to the success of 'Call Me Maybe' by Carly Rae Jepsen, the return of the boy bands, and the fact that Justin Bieber could finally claim to have real chart hits, that indie rock wouldn't be the music that took over - instead, the next few years would be dominated by what he deemed 'teeny-bopper crap'. This statement, in its own way, was rather prophetic, as it did predict the chart success of Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and Miley Cyrus over the course of this year, but I wouldn't quite say indie rock has been replaced either. On the contrary, I'd make the argument that considering the rise of digital music and the greater prominence of indie acts, the charts are somewhat split right now between acts moving towards smarter and more mature music and those moving in the exact opposite direction, to mixed success on both ends.
But could there be a possible act to rise up from the intersection of both worlds? Enter Lorde (real name Ella Yelich O'Connor), a sixteen year old New Zealand singer who released her debut album this year titled Pure Heroine, and who has achieved a shocking amount of chart success with her first single 'Royals'. And while I have a healthy amount of skepticism regarding the quality of teenage stars, Lorde has accumulated a certain degree of critical acclaim and praise for her 'razor-sharp lyrics', and her claims to be inspired by Lana Del Rey and Kanye West. And I was even more intrigued by the fact that she actually turned down Katy Perry who wanted to recruit her as an opening act, so I picked up Pure Heroine (heh, good pun) and gave it a spin. What did I think?
In the year 2000, two of the greatest country acts of the decade teamed up to perform a song formerly written by bluegrass artists Larry Cordle and Larry Shell. The song was never released as a single, but received significant airplay anyway due to its controversial nature in the country music industry. It was a song about how traditional and neotraditional country music - and the performers who made it - were being shoved to the sidelines in favour of mainstream pop crossover success. The song spoke of how artists like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and George Jones would never have had success in this industry climate - they, and the culture and history that they represented, would have been ignored. The legends, the icons of the genre, would have been likely been forgotten. The song was titled 'Murder On Music Row' and it was made a hit by Alan Jackson and George Strait - and the situation of which they were singing... Well, it's happening again. On September 12, The Nashville Scene published a breakdown of the lyrics on the top 20 songs of the country music charts, indicating the common lyrical threads and the genre's shift towards party songs centered on beer, trucks, and girls. The case the article made was not to highlight the individual successes or failures of the songs on said list, but to point out the astounding similarities between the songs in terms of subject matter, theme, and even lyrical content. Furthermore, given that the extreme majority of acts on the list were performed by solo male country acts, the argument could be made that the average listener would not be able to tell these men apart. There is only one songs fronted by a woman on this list - Carrie Underwood, and I would have a hard time calling the American Idol winner a country singer over being a pop star. On the list of songs, the noticeable outliers come from Tim McGraw - a stalwart of the genre who has been around for decades - and a song penned by Bob Dylan sung by Darius Rucker, the former frontman of Hootie & The Blowfish! Neither song was in the top ten. On September 19, Billboard magazine released an article showing how a growing number of country acts are showing concern regarding the sameness of their peers' content. Zac Brown of the Zac Brown Band said, 'there is not a lot of the country format I enjoy listening to. If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, Daisy Dukes song, I wanna throw up. There's songs out right now on the radio that make me... ashamed to even be in the same format as some of those artists.' Think about this for a moment: the frontman of a critically acclaimed country act from rural Georgia, from a town of just over 5000 people, made the statement that he is ashamed to be in the same format as these artists. He goes on to call Luke Bryan's 'That's My Kinda Night' 'the worst song he's ever heard.' He goes on to target the country music industry, saying it puts 'songs and people on a pedestal that have no integrity to them whatsoever', and to the writers of these songs, 'you can look on song credits and see some of the same songwriters on every one. There has been, like, ten number one songs in the last two to three years that were written by the same people, and the exact same words, just arranged different ways.' Zac Brown is right. So is Gary Allan, who, in an interview with Larry King, said 'I feel like we have lost our genre.' So is Kacey Musgraves, who said in an interview with British GQ when asked about what trends in music need to die, she replied, 'Anyone singing about trucks, in any form, in any song, anywhere. Literally, just stop - nobody cares! It's not fun to listen to.' Unfortunately, Miss Musgraves is likely wrong on this front, at least in comparison with the programming that Nashville has been pushing for country radio over the past few years, because it has become abundantly clear that a growing audience wants it. Incidentally, Kacey Musgraves released an album this year titled Same Trailer, Different Park, a controversial yet critical acclaimed debut album where she spoke openly about topics such as deteriorating rural culture, religion, and even same-sex marriage. It is one of the best albums of this year and will beat out Daft Punk, Kanye West, Vampire Weekend, Deerhunter, and a slew of other critically acclaimed acts on my Top 10 list. Outside of major professional publications, Robert Christgau, and AllMusic, it was ignored. In most top ten lists by mainstream critics, I suspect it will be forgotten. And while it has sold better that you might expect, reaching #2 on the Billboard 200 it was far from a smash hit, with the lead single only reaching #14. Oh, and the album it was up against that week, the major competition the label was setting Miss Musgraves against? Justin Timberlake's comeback album The 20/20 Experience, which proceeded to sell approximately 968,000 copies that week alone. That week, Kacey Musgraves sold about 42,000. For a more fitting comparison, the previous week Luke Bryan sold 150,000 copies with a compilation album, a glorified spring break mixtape. Now I'm not here to make a value judgement on whether I think the trend towards the mainstream is a bad thing - as much as mainstream modern country in all of its varieties isn't really my thing, I can acknowledge good music when I hear it and there is some there. But what is a much more worrying trend is the sidelining of promising new acts like Kacey Musgraves, a female singer-songwriter with incredible chops, fresh ideas, and an excellent sense of solid country music, in favour of meat-headed, practically interchangeable male country stars who have pop crossover success by catering to the lowest common denominator. From a business point of view, Nashville is making a killing on these country acts, but it does not reflect a sustainable business model when you put your most promising and intelligent new singer-songwriter in a decade up against Justin TImberlake. But at the same time, the country music industry is a business, and if they want to milk and oversaturate the market with mainstream male country acts to roll in the dough until the world gets sick of them, that's their choice. But there's a much bigger issue at stake here, and that is reflected in the comments made by Kacey Musgraves, Gary Allan, and Zac Brown: the loss of culture in country music. A loss of flavour and texture and the feeling that the songs are informed by authentic real emotions and songwriters who know their history and the place country music has played within the United States for nearly a century. At this point, Nashville seems to have forsaken this, presumably under the belief that nobody in their audience wants it. But more and more evidence is coming to light to me that that is not the case. Recently I reviewed the newest album released by country singer Justin Moore, titled Off The Beaten Path. Now that album was terrible and I stand by everything I said about it, but it was something in the comments to that video that both concerned me and got me thinking, because people jumped to the defense of Justin Moore and not just because they thought his music was good, but they thought his music was relatable. They could connect with it, they saw in the offensive pandering nonsense that was that album moments with which they could connect - it was something. And they gravitated to those songs about small town USA and God and rural culture and all of that not solely because they were something they could relate to, but because mainstream country music has nearly completely abandoned that demographic. Or worse still, they attempt to appease that demographic with shallow, vapid pandering that sounds and looks utterly soulless, and yet the audience will take anything they can get. And frankly, I can empathize with their concerns - their defense of Justin Moore, who at least appears to believe the crap he's selling, is pretty much identical to my defense of Kacey Musgraves, at least on basic principles - we're both looking for culture in country music. So what happened? How did we get here? What led Nashville to throw their history and culture under the ties of a Chevy truck lining up for a tailgate? Well, there's a lot of factors in that. One I can definitely pinpoint is within the country music industry itself - they've always gunned for the mainstream audience, with country pop rising in the late-70s and 80s and the explosion of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain in the 90s. But in those climates, there were still traditional and neotraditional country stalwarts like Alan Jackson and George Strait who fought to preserve that history, and there was an audience that bought it. But when Nashville found out they could appease that demographic by pandering to southern pride and small town nationalist spirit and patriotism, those that fought for culture and history were forced to the sidelines. And how can Nashville get away with that? Well, that's a twofold problem, and here's where things get ugly, because one of the groups that deserves blame are modern music critics, particularly those who are my age or a little older. The majority of critics outside of major publications like AllMusic and Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, who must cover country by obligation, have ignored and marginalized country music for a long time now, preferring to cover the newest underground hip-hop mixtape or independent album that nobody outside of a very, very small community of music nerds will ever care about. I could go on about how this attitude betrays the spirit of populism which the best critics have always embraced, but that misses the meat of the message: by ignoring country music, the critical press shut down the artistic conversation with country music. They made the implicit statement that there is no artistry or craft or intelligence or meaningful commentary in country music. And I would be remiss not to mention the political angle, where certain people, ignorant of country music as a genre, dismissed it as music for small town, right-leaning white trash rednecks who were incapable of appreciating 'better' music. This sort of thinking and dismissal is cowardly, shameful, and utterly despicable, and it shows most critics as narrow-minded as the demographic they dismissed. But the country music industry heard it and realized they didn't need critical acclaim to sell records, unlike other genres like metal and indie rock and occasionally hip-hop. They didn't need us. So instead they started catering to the lowest common denominator more aggressively than they ever have before, putting money and professional songwriters behind anyone with a hint of talent, and they reaped the rewards, particularly considering the culture of anti-intellectualism and victimization that was being adopted by the stagnating and unfairly ignored rural population of the United States. And while I will not claim that country music was directly responsible for shoving large tracts of the United States towards the right politically, you can't deny that with the success of acts like Jason Aldean and Justin Moore and libelous songs like 'Have You Forgotten' by Darryl Worley that it didn't happen. And with the role country music played in the aftermath of 9/11, things got even worse - as much as I never liked The Dixie Chicks, they didn't deserve to have their careers ruined because they were right about the War on Terror before everyone else realized it. Like it or not, country music did contribute to the increased polarization of America, and the critics not doing their jobs by ignoring covering country music only made things worse, because the cultural conversation stopped. So thus I wasn't surprised that I get comments on my country music reviews saying that I shouldn't even be covering country music, because I'm a Canadian city boy and thus must be some sort of privileged white-collar Commie homosexual - even though I've been listening to country music for about twenty years. Even though I know more about country music than I do about most hip-hop and metal and electronica. Even though I'm the only critic on Youtube who has even bothers to cover country music and review it fairly, to give it a goddamn chance. And sure, YouTube is an echo chamber and any critical opinion gets pounced upon, but there was something different about this, because it reflects the fact that there is something seriously wrong with the shape country music is taking, that acts like Justin Moore are making money simply because they can pander to rural pride and the starving audiences will take anything they can get. And as Zac Brown said in his interview, 'country fans and country listeners deserve to have something better than that, a song that really has something to say. Good music makes you feel something.' So what's the solution to this? Honestly, I have no idea - if I could solve the increased polarity of America, I probably wouldn't be reviewing albums on the internet. What I will say is this: the increased popularity of country acts in the mainstream won't last. At this point, the market is nearly saturated, and when trends shift and the mainstream public gets sick of country, it's going to ruin a lot of careers. Right now, however, I'm significantly more concerned about two groups: the artists whose careers are suffering now because the industry is sidelining them and whom might never get another chance for the spotlight; and those concerned about American culture and history, particularly those who love country music and who don't want to see the genre implode in the same way other oversaturated musical genres collapsed, like disco and prog rock and punk and hair metal and grunge. But country is unique because so much of it is linked directly and is informed by American culture and American history. If you forget where your culture comes from, and the people who represent it instead of those who are looking to profit off of it in order to make a quick buck, you lose something you can never get back. Alan Jackson and George Strait understood this when they recorded 'Murder On Music Row' back in 2000 - and really, the only reasons pop country imploded at the end of the 90s are the near-simultaneous failures of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, and 9/11, where Nashville correctly realized that the USA needed a connection with its culture and its roots more than ever, or else the blow to the nation's spirit would never heal. But this time, things are different, and I don't see a good ending for traditional country music. Or, to put it another way, Alan Jackson released a new album this week: how many of you have heard it? That's what I thought. I don't want to see another murder on music row. And why do I care? Well, the same reason Alan Jackson and George Strait and Zac Brown and Gary Allan and Kacey Musgraves care: I love country music, and there's room on the charts for both culture and partying. To quote Zac Brown again, 'I'm opinionated because I care so much about the music and the songs'. He's not alone.
Yes, I know it's late, but I do have a social life to keep up, and I went out before I could do any proper promotion. It happens. So, coming up will either be Lorde or Alan Jackson. Probably the latter, because nobody else touches country, but you never know. Stay tuned!
Okay, let's try this again. For those of you who don't know, I've already said my lengthy piece on Justin Timberlake earlier this year, and as much as I was hoping that my views would evolve or change, I'm still not the biggest fan of that album, and the majority of my issues with Justin Timberlake have unfortunately persisted six months later. For a brief recap, I did like some of the elements of The 20/20 Experience - the production, most of the instrumentation, and the fact that Justin seemed to be actually trying - but to me the album fell short because of serious bloat and the fact that the lyrics simply weren't up to the task of sustaining longer songs. These problems seemed to be linked to a few issues that have always stopped me from really liking Justin Timberlake, for as much class and swagger and professionalism he brings to pop music, I've never liked his towering ego or the fact that he never seemed to care as much about his art as other artists. Some acts seem like they make pop music because they want to enhance the medium or express deeply held emotions that they can't articulate any other way - Justin Timberlake, on the other hand, seems to make pop music just because he can, almost on a whim, and he's good enough to get away with such nonchalance when it comes to his career because he's seriously talented and supported by some of the best acts in the industry (particularly Timbaland, who is filling the role of Quincy Jones to Justin's Michael Jackson). But that wasn't to deride the elements of The 20/20 Experience that worked - and really, it was an album that worked better in pieces than as a whole. I was happy to see 'Mirrors', the best song on the album and a favourite of mine, rise to chart success, but at the same time, it was also a song that was criticized for being a prime example of Justin Timberlake's hubris. And while that was certainly true, the bigger example of that arrogance for me was his sudden announcement in May that he was going to be releasing another album later this year, the follow-up to his March release called The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 (man, that's an awkward title - that 'of 2' doesn't fit well there), reportedly composed of extra material from the original recording sessions. Now to me, this set off all kinds of warning bells. For one, it smacked of a cash-in - given how well The 20/20 Experience sold, it wasn't entirely surprising that Justin was looking to terminate the label obligations he clearly loathed by dropping a second record that year. But from an artistic angle, it also was a massive warning sign for me, because not only did it mean that Justin took the same recording methodology into the studio with him with the bloated songs and lack of restraint, but it also looked like these were the leftover tracks that weren't strong enough to make it to the first album (and judging by the disappointing chart performance of 'Take Back The Night', the first single, the public might agree). But even if they weren't and were grouped for the second album during the initial recording process... Jesus, JT, did you not learn the lesson that Billie Joe Armstrong and Green Day suffered through last year, releasing three albums of material in the space of months when they all could have been trimmed of the chaff and compressed down to a single, much more solid release? Furthermore, the element of expectation is completely gone here, and any element of wonder garnered from the return from hiatus is absent. To me, this album was a bad idea from the start, and I went in with low, low expectations about how well it would materialize. So, how did The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 turn out?
The first of two videos coming out today (well, today as I measure it, which means the day ends as soon as I crash), and it's the worse of the two first. Can't imagine this review'll go over with much controversy whatsoever... Second one is CHVRCHES - stay tuned!
It's always interesting delving into new synthpop acts, at least for me. Even though I was not born in the 80s, I've always had a certain affection for the synth-driven pop and rock of any age in its various permutations. Whether it's the experimental synthesizers of the late 70s and early 80s, adding currents of unearthly unease to post-punk and early synthpop, or the surging, moody darkness of darkwave, or even the mutated hybrid of everything that's popular now, which draws upon pop traditions, the mainstream rise of EDM, and every genre in between, synthpop has always remained an attractive genre for me. Yes, even with the evolution of vocoders to Autotune. Now for me, I tend to gravitate to synthpop that attempts towards organic instrumentation, like electronic rock (I have my limits here, though, and you can define that boundary at electronicore) or where the synths support and augment the singers rather than swallow them. And while I have a passion for weirdness, I'm also very much aware that additional dynamic is a little harder to capture, especially when you have some performers who choose to have their unearthly electronics operate as the basis of their weirdness. Incidentally, that's been one of my consistent issues with The Postal Service - I understand their appeal, juxtaposing the very emotionally-driven lyrics with the highly synthetic delivery and instrumentation, but I don't quite connect to it in the same way I did with Deathcab For Cutie's other work. That lack of connection, incidentally, is why I like Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak as much as I do - it's an album about isolation and retreating inwards, and the autotune Kanye uses perfectly encapsulates his attempted separation from his own humanity. So with those thoughts in mind, what did I find on the debut album from Chvrches, a new synthpop act who released their first EP last year to some critical acclaim and have presented a full-length debut with The Bones Of What You Believe?
So, approximately six months ago, back before I was regularly doing these reviews for every album that came underneath my nose and browsing Pitchfork for the ones that slipped the net, I heard a song on the radio that had apparently been connected with Snooki and JWOW's spin-off show and had yet received critical approval from a certain majority of critics. And considering those two facts are rather disingenuously paired together, I took a deeper look at the song and discovered that it was called 'I Love It' by Icona Pop, featuring Charli XCX. To be completely honest, at that time I wasn't a big fan of the song, mostly because it sounded like fuzz-saturated house music with ephemeral lyrics and maybe one clever line, but I discovered that the song had been a big enough hit to help propel Charli XCX's debut album True Romance out of development hell and I figured that I might as well give it a look. And I actually did review that album and found it rather lacking, a expansive and well-produced darkwave-inspired album that threw out the hooks, the interesting lyrics, or absolutely anything compelling courtesy of Charli XCX. It was thoroughly below average, and outside of rave reviews that made no sense to me (seriously, for the most part the lyrics were completely worthless and Charli XCX either sounded vapid or too disconnected to care), I've spent the larger part of this year forgetting it existed. Now 'I Love It', on the other hand, stuck around a little longer in my mind, mostly because the pop charts for this year have absolutely sucked. Compare this year to 2012, which had songs that at least seemed to have some staying power in the popular consciousness ('Gangnam Style', 'Call Me Maybe', 'Some Nights', I could go on), and you'll see charts that have no idea what style or genre is popular and thus a whole lot of junk (often really boring junk) rose to the top. So perhaps it was the benefit of lower standards that caused me to warm to 'I Love It', but then again, I can't deny it does have certain merits: the dual voices give it some real populist appeal, it has a lot of energy to match the crackling instrumentation, and the sheer wild abandon of the song, particularly in the bridge, is definitely infectious. So on those qualities, I figured what the hell and I picked up the international debut album from Icona Pop. How did it turn out?
Yeah, I can't imagine this review will have the slightest iota of controversy whatsoever... Eh, even reflecting on the album after relistening, writing, and filming this review, I think I stand by my opinion. Next up will either be Chvrches or Icona Pop, so stay tuned!
Okay, time for a bit of disclosure: I live in Toronto, Canada. To quickly get over this part, I don't care about the Blue Jays or the Leafs - I didn't grow up in Toronto so neither was a favourite for me growing up. I've only been living in the city for about a year, and there's one thing I've noticed about this town that I find both perplexing and somewhat hilarious: this city wants to be the Canadian version of New York so bad it hurts. I swear, there are whole neighborhoods, particularly downtown, that are trying to replicate some of that NYC experience. And yet, since this is Canada, there always seems to be something of an underlying insecurity, a fragment of perspective and self-awareness that informs us in the back of our minds that no matter how hard we want to be New York, we aren't New York. And when I look at Drake as a hip-hop R&B act, I see a lot of that same self-awareness, at least in regards to his fame. While I've never been the biggest fan of Drake on anything he's done, he does seem to have a certain degree of perspective, particularly when it comes to the fleeting nature of fame. He knows that his time in the spotlight has an expiration date - and what becomes interesting is that self-awareness has leaked many times into his art. A lot of critics have considered it a very 'Canadian' sensibility, and I kind of buy that: there has been something of a lack of ego that can feel resonant throughout Drake's work that does reflect a view that's counter-intuitive to the majority of rappers south of the border; and whenever he does brag, it can come across as very hollow and empty. This, if anything, was both one of the great strengths and great weaknesses of Take Care, Drake's critically acclaimed second album of which I wasn't much of a fan. It popularized a certain bleakness in modern hip-hop (which has had mixed-to-negative results in my opinion) and while it fit the more subversive and intellectual songs on the album, it really didn't fit the tracks where Drake and his collaborators were trying to prove they were unironically awesome. On top of that, the traditionally 'Canadian' sensibilities of his instrumentation and production - atmospheric, sweeping, kind of pretentious to the point of reaching tedium - didn't always pay dividends. It was rather analogous to some common criticisms of Canadian art films, interestingly: Take Care might have had things to say, but it was bleak, depressing, somewhat pretentious, and at points very boring. And as much as I like Drake - and I do - this lack of energy was a bad fit for him because it didn't play to all of his strengths, namely his rich, emotionally compelling vocal delivery and one of the reasons I think he'd be a great R&B singer if he chose to ditch rap entirely. But that being said, I was mildly impressed with Drake's verse on 'No Guns Allowed' from Snoop Lion's album earlier this year, and I was curious to see what he'd deliver on his new album Nothing Was The Same. Is it an improvement on Take Care?
Man, this took way too long to get online. In any case, here's the new video talking about Jessie J, and the first of the last heavy wave of September releases. It's going to get crazy here, folks, stay tuned!
It really sucks to be branded a wannabe, particularly when it's not fair. That's always been the thought that's played in my head whenever I think about Jessie J, who many critics very early on branded as a Katy Perry wannabe, and which I've always considered patently unfair. To this day, I still have a hard time understanding why Katy Perry got incredibly popular and Jessie J has not, and in the end have been forced to concede that it's thanks to Dr. Luke's gift for writing catchy hooks and good melodies for Miss Perry - because, let me tell you, it sure as hell wasn't for her live vocals or superb lyrics or strikingly original personality! Jessie J, on the other hand, while she has worked with Max Martin and Dr. Luke, also takes a major hand in writing her own material and, unlike Katy Perry, has a personality and great voice away from the Autotune. Coupled with her real feistiness and her desire to connect with her fanbase, I've got a ton of respect for Jessie J and I genuinely like her music. Hell, I nearly put 'Domino', her big hit from early last year, on my year-end list of the Top Ten Best Hit Songs of 2012! I want her to be more in the modern pop landscape than the UK's version of Katy Perry, and I seriously think she's capable of getting there. So, the question that I've always pondered is why doesn't Jessie J stick out more than she does already? Working the middle ground between Katy Perry and Pink, I've liked Jessie J's songwriting for the most part, but I suspect if I were to get a little closer on my issues with her, some of them might come down to the fact that she doesn't quite do enough to stand out from the pack on either a songwriting or instrumental basis. Sure, she's got some odd lines in her songs, but this is 2013, you can almost expect the weird, off-kilter lines in music these days. No, to me I think if Jessie J wants to distinguish herself, it'll have to come from the instrumentation, perhaps following along the line of Ke$ha and Natalia Kills going towards a rock style, or perhaps returning to the classier R&B of her roots. So, what do we see from Jessie J's sophomore effort, Alive?
Damn, it's late. Had to rerender and reupload after I left one of my audio cues at the beginning of the video, and now I'm exhausted. But at least it's here, and I stand by the fact that this might be one of my better ones. And now the rest of the week will be absolutely nuts. First up is Jessie J. Stay tuned, folks!
The year is 2009, and you're a record executive, and you're staring down at your newspaper with pictures of Rihanna's bloodied and bruised face. You later get confirmation in the day that said injuries were caused by Chris Brown, who is facing charges. You also hear through the industry grapevine that Jay-Z is infuriated by the attack on an artist he discovered and helped turn into a pop star, and has vowed to quietly torpedo Chris Brown's career, at least ensuring his new album Graffiti flops and flops hard. What do you do?
Well, in this case, you would immediately start searching for new artists to fill the niche that Chris Brown did, and you'll grab anyone who can possibly hit a note or who can dance. And that is why, throughout 2009 and 2010, we saw a surge in pop/R&B acts looking to take over Chris Brown's shoes - and there were lots of them. Taio Cruz, Jay Sean, Iyaz, Trey Songz, might as well throw Jeremih into the mix as well. And to top it all off, we have the artist who we're going to talk about today, a young man named Jason Derulo.
Now I have to be honest: throughout the summer of 2010, I really liked this guy. I have his album. By no means I thought he was a great pop star, but he had a ton of energy, he seemed genuine, and his beats (courtesy of oversampling hack JR Rotem) tended to be pretty decent. But my liking for the guy faded in record time when I started taking a look at the lyrics, and I started noticing the fact that Jason Derulo can only really sing with autotune, and that he shouts out his name at the start of every single song. In my eyes, he very quickly went from a pop star I could say I liked to one I definitely said I loathed. To me, the second album struck as the low point, with Jason Derulo hitching his fortunes to the dying club boom and his opening single 'Don't Wanna Go Home' being a nauseating open theft from multiple songs I really liked. 'Don't Wanna Go Home' ended up topping my list of the worst hit songs of 2011 (yes, even beating out LMFAO's 'Sexy And I Know It'), and to this day, I don't think I can ever forgive Derulo for it.
But let's try to be fair here, because for some reason, Jason Derulo is still around, and to my absolute bewilderment, he's achieved some degree of chart success. To me, it's rather reminiscent of the success Flo Rida has achieved, as Jason Derulo is very much an 'anonymous' pop/R&B star: a guy who is going to have multiple charting hits, but nobody is going to know or care about him among his peers because he has so little distinctive personality. As I said, there's a reason he shouts out his name at the beginning of every song - because, in the case of the majority of audiences, you would have no idea who this guy is otherwise. And just because he has made songs I hate doesn't mean, like Flo Rida, he can't make songs I like: Flo Rida made 'I Cry', and Jason Derulo made 'Love Hangover', so there is a chance for improvement here.
And that's ultimately the reason I chose to shove back my nascent contempt for this fellow and give him another chance. Could I potentially recapture some of the positive feelings I had for Jason Derulo back in 2010?
So even though this post is several hours later, I've already managed to get flames and threats. Fun stuff. But yeah, this album is complete crap and should be avoided like the plague. No recommendations from me here. Can't say I've got a recommendation for the album that comes out next either. Want to know what that is? Stay tuned!
Now, as somebody who listens to music that is shamelessly commercial and designed to appeal to certain demographics, I'm very much familiar to acts attempting to pander or cater to their unique fanbase, who will inevitably lap up whatever they put out. Now, I'll admit that part of this is a testament to the feedback relationship between artists and their fans, which has only intensified with the rise of the internet, as pop stars and musicians seek the approval of their fans and vice-versa. And before you know it, you get diehard fanbases who completely subsume to the artist's point-of-view, regardless of common sense or any form of sane criticism.
But there's a nastier version of this, and that's not just in the pandering towards the fans themselves, but towards their lifestyle and ideology. This is when some acts will make art designed to reinforce the fan's personal beliefs and preferences, make them feel justified in their lifestyle choices. And here's where I have to be brutally honest: we all have favourite acts in this category, the acts that don't really challenge us, but produce art that seems specifically designed to reward us for caring all the same. Hell, The Backstreet Boys made one of their greatest hits off of this premise with 'Larger Than Life', which was a song that spelled out that feedback relationship between fan and artist in explicit terms.
And look, art designed with fans in mind isn't always the healthiest - it's the equivalent of musical comfort food - but it doesn't mean this sort of material has to be harmful, as long as said fans keep their critical faculties engaged and are aware of the messages behind said art. It's not exactly a natural response, but then again, engagement with art isn't always designed to be easy - hell, some would make the argument that art that is challenging to engage with is the best kind of art, as those added hurdles on your part push you closer towards the artist's headspace.
But too often, that critical faculty gets shut off, and you get legions of Beliebers and Directioners and Juggalos, people who will say and do insane things because the artists have cultivated a fandom that reinforces their decisions, good or bad, so long as it supports the artist in question. And when you start including this sort of pandering towards lifestyle choices or ideology or political beliefs, elements that have a real impact on people's lives, you're treading in questionable territory, and if the artist isn't conscientious of that fact, things can get even worse. Or, to put it another way, there's a reason Eminem wrote songs like 'Role Model' and 'Who Knew' and 'Sing For The Moment' - he knew people empathized with the anger and fear and real emotion in his music, and in songs like 'Stan', he revealed his fear that his art could be used to justify dangerous lifestyles.
But then you have artists who don't nearly care as much, or whom actively seem to want to encourage people to buy into their music, or whom are too lazy or stupid to notice the potential consequences of their art - and with that, we finally come to Justin Moore.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Justin Moore is one of the most rancid and terrible country acts working today, and if Kacey Musgraves represents everything right with modern country, Justin Moore represents everything toxic and wrong. Not only is his instrumentation completely devoid of texture and flavour and his vocals make my skin crawl, but the premise of his material is centered around pandering to his country demographic. And it's not just directed at his fans, but at his fans' lifestyles, ideology, and political beliefs, music that seems clinically designed to reinforce the worst possible impulses of his fanbase. Songs like 'Bait A Hook' and 'This Is NRA Country' are tracks that are explicitly aiming to cultivate the sort of backwards, contemptible, anti-intellectual horse manure that plays to the FOX-News watching, Limbaugh-listening, Obama-hating types, all mixed with a heavy dose of masculine swagger and privilege that should have died decades ago.
And you know, I'm not one to attack art for its subject matter - except when there isn't a shred of authenticity in Justin Moore's delivery or presentation. It's too clean, it's too polished, there isn't a shred of humour or real feeling here besides smug, stupid obnoxiousness. Let's throw up a comparison with The Zac Brown Band, an act that has their fair amount of southern pride as well, but it's clear from the rich texture in their vocals and instrumentation, and the emotional heart in which they sell their material that it's at least coming from somewhere real. In contrast, if it wasn't for the accent and the grating oversinging, Justin Moore would come across as a shill.
But I'm willing - for some ungodly reason - to give this guy another chance. After all, people can change and grow and given that he didn't write quite as many songs on his new album, maybe the Nashville machine managed to strip away enough of the elements I found reprehensible. So, with that in mind, what do I think of Justin Moore's new album, Off The Beaten Path?
So, new camera. I have to be honest, I'm still trying to get a handle on it with focusing and lighting, but it's a good set-up (and hopefully one I won't have to sink much more cash into). As it is, I dug this album. Certainly a lot more than the other two disasters I listened through today... oh yeah, the storm's coming. Stay tuned!
I've written a number of times about how modern country music, particularly that which has had some appeal to the mainstream, has lost something of its edge and texture in favour of catering to a larger audience. Now, I've reviewed a few of these acts who have either gone straight towards pop country (this is your Keith Urban or Taylor Swift) or towards what's been branded 'bro-country' (this would be your Luke Bryan and Billy Curringnton, for example). Now what needs to be stressed is that, in country music, this shift towards the mainstream has happened a few times before - it happened in the 80s, it happened in a big way in the 90s (although there were a lot more factors in that particular shift, given the rise of alternative rock and Garth Brooks) - and it's happening again today. And at each point in these shifts towards popularity and a subsequent loss of culture, there has been pushback in the form of what some have deemed 'neotraditionalist country'. This is country music that harkens back to the bluegrass and traditional country of the 50s and 60s, and there have been some highly successful acts who have led the charge here, like Alan Jackson, George Strait, Randy Travis, Tracy Byrd, and (to a much lesser extent) Vince Gill. Now as somebody who likes country on both sides, both moving towards the mainstream and those who would prefer to maintain the homegrown culture of the past, I can see both positives and negatives in the neotraditionalist country movement. After all, it's a good thing to know your history, and I certainly prefer this sort of culturally-minded country music compared to the offensive pandering put forward by the Nashville album-producing machine. That being said, if you stay too close to the well of the music of the past without innovation, you can occasionally run into stagnation. Fortunately, this hasn't happened (a big sigh of relief from me), and thus, it goes without saying that I'm fond of the neotraditionalist country movement. But for a while, I was starting to get concerned that there wouldn't be that push back in country music against the mainstream that would achieve sort of success. Would I be forced to retreat into alternative country or outlaw country to find any country music with texture and culture and quality anymore? Fortunately, outside of the mainstay stalwarts, we do have a newer country act who's willing to bear the torch of neotraditionalist country music, and he comes from an unlikely source: Chris Young. For those of you who don't know, Chris Young started his career quite young when he was encouraged to try out for Nashville Star, a country-oriented version of American Idol. And when he won, it'd be the reasonable assumption this guy would immediately start making the sort of polished pop country that gets popular... And that didn't happen. Chris Young pulled something of a 'Kelly Clarkson' in the country music scene and began working to take control of his own career, particularly in songwriting and artistic direction. It definitely helped matters that Chris Young has a great voice that is born to sing traditional country music: rich, powerful, impressively deep, and loaded with heartfelt emotion. And after several assorted successes (including several number one songs and the critical hit 'Gettin' You Home'), he's finally come roaring back with his new album A.M. this year. So, how did it turn out?
Jesus Christ, this took way too long to upload. The internet has been terrible all evening, but finally I got it up and working in order to get this review up. Honestly, I'm kind of really happy with this review - it's more free-form than ever, and I'd like to think that there's some decent emotion here too. And for good reason, because Dream River is incredible. Returning to country tomorrow, stay tuned.
You know, I can't believe I'm saying this, but here it is: I think I might be softening my opinion on white guys with acoustic guitars. I know. Believe me, I'm as shocked as you guys inevitably are. But really, it's not quite as simple as my tastes changing but more in line with a hunt for something I've had some trouble finding in music: texture. Keep in mind this isn't a reflexive hatred of pop music either, even though pop can have some of the least amounts of texture in music as a genre, but rather a search for music that has feeling and is organic and comes from a place of real emotion and depth. And while I doubt I'll ever have enough passion for acoustic music that I'll teach myself guitar or something, I have realized that more instrumental texture tends to survive the sanding process of the music industry if one goes to the independent scene. Because when it comes down to it, I'm a guy who cherishes honest emotions and well-written songs rooted in those emotions. That's one reason I tend to like country and folk over the general 'acoustic' scene - if you're just writing songs to pick up chicks and get laid, you're going to be dismissed as a hapless novice by songwriters who have a real story to tell. And if said stories can be paired with rich, gripping instrumentation that deftly accents and emphasizes the elements of the story... well, that's ultimately where I find plenty of my favourite songs from acts like Bob Dylan and Nick Cave and Richard Thompson and others. So with that in mind, let's talk about Bill Callahan.
Now for those of you who don't know, Bill Callahan has been around the edges of the indie acoustic scene since the 90s, often performing under the name of Smog. Only in recent years has he chosen to perform under his own name and release a series of critically acclaimed albums steeped in folk and Americana. So, as somebody who likes both genres and who was seeking some great instrumental texture from a man who has spent over 20 years making music, I was interested to see how his new album Dream River turned out. And...
Geez, the white balance on that video didn't go well at all. Ah well, it happens. Think the video looks halfway decent, though. Might take a break between the country reviews and go for the Bill Callahan album, though. Stay tuned!
Here's something about modern music that the majority of you know: there are a lot of singers and musicians who do not write their own songs. In some cases, they might be the primary songwriter or they might compose the lyrics, but they typically have somebody helping them with the melody line or the instrumentation or other elements of the song. It takes a supremely gifted songwriter who is able to compose every single element of the song, and particularly in pop music, you don't see them as often anymore. It's not often you find guys like Prince or Beck, for example. However, you used to see singer-songwriters a lot more in country music, and one of the big frustrations of the movement of modern country towards the mainstream is the fact that most country artists don't write their own songs in the same way anymore. With the rise of Garth Brooks, there are some country musicians who don't even write any of their own material, simply relying on the Nashville country song generating machine to crank out song after song. And I realize this isn't exactly a new thing, but it is something that frustrates me as a critic, because certain songs can lose something when you know in your mind that these songs don't have that direct, intimate connection with the singer in the same way. That being said, I'm not exactly about to condemn the practice of other people writing musicians' songs for them - some people aren't good songwriters, it happens, and thus the job of the singer and performer changes - it's now to sell us the song, to make it their own not through composition, but through their delivery. I know that Garth Brooks didn't write 'The Dance', but his delivery is so damn good on that song that you can associate it with him forever in your mind. It transcends the fact that he didn't write the song and he makes it his own in a big way. And that's one of the big reasons when I look at pop music and country music that I don't mind the fact that producer-songwriters like Max Martin and Dr. Luke exist - in the best cases, I don't associate Max Martin with 'I Want It That Way' or 'Since U Been Gone', I associate those songs with the acts that made them real, The Backstreet Boys and Kelly Clarkson. But even with all of that in mind, a big warning light tends to go off in my mind when I hear that a guy who used to write the majority of his own material is now only performing songs written by other people, which is the case of the new album by Billy Currington We Are Tonight. Now for those of you who are having trouble telling the various modern male country acts apart, Billy Currington has been, in my mind, one of the better ones, mostly because he's something of a traditionalist, harkening back to the country of guys like Alan Jackson and Tim McGraw and Brooks & Dunn. It also helps a little that this guy is a little older and isn't exactly a great singer, relying more on soul and honest delivery. If I'm going to describe his vocals on previous albums, he's got something of a 'hangdog' style of delivery - not exactly polished in the vein of a singer like Keith Urban, but having the same sort of honest likability. Unfortunately, it's a bit hard to tell if some of that likability is an act, given that he's currently facing charges linked to his poor response to a tour boat buzzing his island home (he got in his own boat and chased away the tour boat rather recklessly - might be the reason all of his marketing for this album vanished). Despite that uncomfortable incident, I was looking forward to his newest album, even though, as I mentioned, he didn't write or contribute to any of the songs on his album. So, how did it go?
Yeah, I suspect that many people will likely take issue with this particular review, but I stand by it. Now comes the influx of country reviews - three coming up over the next few days while I work to get through Manic Street Preachers' discography in preparation for that album. Stay tuned!
You know, psychedelic rock might be one of the most frustrating genres of music I've ever encountered, at least on the level of songwriting.
Keep in mind this is speaking as a fan of psychedelic rock - as anyone who saw my Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros review can testify, I'm a sucker for 'old hippie rock' and those attempting to emulate it (even if they don't completely manage to recapture it). And bands that dive straight into the weird, acid-tinged swirl of psychedelia often create some indelible imagery and powerful songs to support it. The Flaming Lips are often the band I'll point to who have managed to capture the raw insanity that birthed psychedelic rock in the mainstream today, and one of the reasons that particular band is so damn good is that they managed to capture more than just the flash of acid hallucinations, but the fragments of deeper meaning lurking behind said illusions, which they then fused together into compelling wholes.
But here's my big issue with the themes and bands often present in this genre: they either go for complete, uncompromising sincerity towards light or darkness (like Edward Sharpe or, if we're going over to the progressive side, acts like The Flower Kings) or they flip the script, using upbeat psychedelia to contrast with twisted, grotesque imagery or incredibly dark lyrics. It's a rictus grin, a painted smile used to conceal the horrors beneath. Instead of the acid high, it's the acid freakout. The really frustrating fact is that the majority of psychedelic rock is lodged within one of these two camps and nowhere else, with the latter growing more and more popular today in this age of increased irony and general cynicism, particularly for the hippie ideal. And as I have mentioned before, I don't respond as well to bands playing that dichotomy, because I feel a certain purity of theme is lost. Yes, psychedelic rock can plunge into darkness (The Flaming Lips proved that this year with The Terror, one of the best albums of the year and one that scares the crap out of me), but when bands seek to play the dichotomy, I can't help but lose a certain deeper connection to the material in a lot of cases, most of the time because too many of the bands seem entirely too self-satisfied with coming up with the idea.
So let's talk about MGMT, a neo-psychedelic indie rock act that amassed a certain amount of critical acclaim by playing that dichotomy very well - and yet one with which I cannot really feel a connection. Now, let me make it clear that I don't think either of their first two albums are bad (Oracular Spectacular is better than Congratulations, though), but I have a hard time truly getting invested in them because the band is very much enamored with the concept of exploring, taking upbeat melodies and delivery and fusing it with some pretty dark lyrics all things considered, with the glaring contrast being one of the grandest selling points of the album. It doesn't help that it's very clear their albums are draped of layers of irony and sarcasm which makes any shred of authenticity very hard to find in the whole experience - which I suspect is part of the point, but it really doesn't resonate with me. However, I'm not entirely sure that MGMT plays to their strengths as much as they should. Their first album gained a lot of press and acclaim due to their fusion of psychedelic indie rock with complex and yet catchy rhythms that had a striking amount of populist appeal - so when the band made a left turn into art rock with their second album, they alienated a lot of fans. For me, that wasn't quite the issue, as it basically felt like a less catchy, more backwards-looking version of their first album, returning frequently to the fount of late 60s and early 70s psychedelia and prog rock and not doing a lot beyond that, particularly lyrically. That being said, as a fan of progressive rock, I can say that MGMT's attempts here are well-intentioned, but more than a little overstuffed, and their better tracks are their simpler experiments. So, with all of that in mind, did MGMT manage to make something that I found compelling on their third swing, with a self-titled album three into their career (something I always take issue with, by the way)?
Well, I'm not the biggest fan of this review, but that's mostly because I'm working to transition from a more heavily scripted review to something a little more free-form, and I'm not quite sure I've gotten there yet. Plus, it's a great album and thus I don't have a lot to really complain about. So, the next wave of September albums is about to crest upon me, with MGMT, Justin Moore, Billy Currington, and Chris Young. Also, I need to do some serious catchup on my Dream Theater before that album drops... these next few weeks are going to be goddamn nuts...
Some of you who have been following my reviews are probably wondering why, in comparison with most music critics, I don't tend to cover a huge amount of hip-hop or rap music, that outside of the major releases (and sometimes not even including those), I don't tend to hit up every single mixtape or underground album that gets dropped.
And believe it or not, I do have a reason for this: I simply do not have time. I'm serious here - given than I want to cover other genres besides hip-hop or rap, I simply do not have time to cover everything that gets dropped. If I chose to dedicate myself to just covering hip-hop or rap I'd have a better chance of tackling most things, but I bet I'd still be utterly swamped.
But here's the other, unfortunate fact, and that is that I'm kind of getting tired of the direction that modern rap is taking. I've mentioned in previous videos that I don't think trap instrumentation is a good fit for modern rap music, how the dour, humourless, often creepy beats are a bad tonal fit for brag rapping, and much to my frustration, they don't really seem to be going away. And sure, while the retro direction Eminem appears to be going in looking intriguing and I'm cautiously optimistic, I'm also aware that The Marshall Mathers LP II will likely never live up to the high, high expectations Eminem is trying to create.
So perhaps it was the best possible time for me to go back to the underground and check out the newest album from LMNO, a very prolific white rapper from Long Beach signed to Up Above Records from the hip-hop crew the Visionaries. LMNO has been around since the mid-90s, and he has released a ton of material over the past several years, particularly in 2010 where he dropped ten albums. And while I highly doubt all ten of the albums were solid, it does point to a rapper who has a lot of experience and who has refined his flow into something truly potent. So, teaming up with producer Evidence (from Dilated Peoples), he released After The Fact this year after taking 2012 off, and on a recommendation, I decided to take a look. So what do I think?
Hmm, surprised how well this turned out. I talk about the newest Echo Bench album and address a few criticisms from previous videos. Outside of my reviews, I've been working to catch up on MGMT and am working on bringing together my opinion on LMNO's new album. Third wave of albums is coming up, so it's going to get crazy here in a few days.
I'd like to start this review with a necessary clarification that I really didn't was necessary until fairly recently, specifically in some of the comments that were posted on certain videos. This is not a response to these comments and I won't be naming any names, but I do feel I need to get something off my chest before I get into the meat of this review. And here it is: one of the big reasons that my reviews are so long in comparison with others is that I want to ensure that people going through them are completely informed regarding my state of mind before I dive into what I like and dislike about music. I want all of my cards to be on the table in full view, and since I prize honesty, I want to make sure that you're aware of all of the factors that could influence my opinion, one way or another. Now this has led to a criticism I didn't really expect: the comment that since I went into said reviews with expectations, I was thus unfair to the artists in question. And there's a simple response to this: yes, I did go in with ideas and potentially even expectations regarding what said albums might entail - I'm a human being, and it would be intellectually and emotionally dishonest for me to curtail those expectations and not speak without a fully informed opinion that is uniquely my own. That being said, there is a marked difference between expectations and keeping an open mind, and this is where I feel the majority of said comments missed the point. Sure, I might have gone in with expectations, but I was open and willing to believe that I might be wrong in some capacity. I never go into reviews 'wanting to hate' something - if anything, I want to be proven wrong, I want the artist to step up and smash all of my preconceived opinions about their work. Is it the artist's job to prove themselves to me exclusively? Well, of course not, but it is the artist's job to make art that is compelling or is informed by some purpose, and it's my job as a critic to interpret that purpose and pass judgement on whether it works or not. And thus, when it comes to every act, be it country or hip-hop or metal or indie rock or even the shallowest of pop and EDM, I try to keep an open mind and try to understand their appeal. And while I might have creeping feelings of dread opening up some albums, I'm always willing to give them a fair shot, and i'm constantly seeking to improve my knowledge of acts so I can make my judgments fairly. And yet, I'm going to get excited about some albums, and I'm going to dread reviewing others. I'm not going to stop having expectations, because said expectations inform my opinions and thus my reviews. And since I am an optimist, I will reaffirm my commitment to go into albums with hopes for the best. And so when I got a copy of the debut self-titled album from all-female post-punk trio Echo Bench and was informed they were reminiscent of acts like Savages (who I reviewed very highly earlier this year) and Joy Division, I was excited. I made sure to temper my excitement with some measured forethought - indie rock debuts are tricky things, and the high, high standard Savages set should definitely not be the same for every act in their vein - but I was excited and intrigued just the same. So, how does the Echo Bench album turn out?
So here's the final video in the second wave of albums from September. I'm going to spend my weekend catching up on a few other little things that shouldn't take long to review - or at least I hope they don't - before the deluge gets altogether too huge (which starts at around September 17 with a trio of country albums that I'm likely going to have a hard time telling apart - joy). Stay tuned!
There are certain acts to which I don't feel qualified in reviewing, often for a number of reasons. I don't touch classical music or jazz mostly because I'm largely unfamiliar with the genres and I don't feel remotely qualified to talk about them. Similarly, there are whole swathes of heavy metal that I would like to review, but I just haven't had the chance to become familiar enough with the best and worst of the genre to speak definitively on the subject. Sure, I'm working my ass off to catch up, but until then, I don't think I'm the best reviewer to speak to, say, the new Motorhead or Carcass albums (Motorhead more because I'm not as familiar with their discography as I'd like to be), or that Deafheaven album that came out earlier this year and has received a ton of critical acclaim. And of course there are genres like metalcore and electrocore of which I've listened to a fair bit and thus cannot be remotely objective when talking about these acts (it's a hatred thing).
And for a long time, one of those genres I hesitated to talk about was EDM, partially because I felt I wasn't familiar enough with the genre, partially because I didn't particularly like most of what I had heard, and partially because, as a critic, I tend to spend a fair amount of time analyzing lyrics - I'm a published author, that's one of my big strengths. And since most trance and house and EDM don't have lyrics, I find myself guessing more than I'd like when I review those albums, because the review is less based on solid content and more based upon mood and emotion. And thus, there'd be a limit to how much analysis I'd be able to provide when reviewing the act.
But as of recently, there's been something of a shift, mostly due to EDM-inspired music moving more towards the mainstream, with the success of acts like Zedd and Swedish House Mafia and David Guetta and Calvin Harris. What I find as a significant relief is that a lot of this music has vocals and lyrics - often not very well written lyrics, but they are there in order to better court the mainstream.
And thus, when I heard about Swedish DJ Avicii's debut album not only containing vocals and lyrics, but also an exploration of folk and country, I was seriously psyched. Not only would I have some lyrics to examine, I'm also significantly more familiar with folk and especially country music. For once, I felt that there was an EDM album that fit within my area of expertise, and I was really looking forward to reviewing Avicii's TRUE. So, what did I find?
I feel like I'm the only guy who bothered to review Sean Kingston, but here it is anyways. What's more annoying is that I'm not satisfied with how the lighting is working out. Sure, it's brighter, but it's inconsistent between videos, and I'm starting to think it's an issue with my webcam. Ugh. Guess it's getting close to that time when I actually have to invest money in a good camera.
There are some performers that you can look at once and immediately know that they're going to be a pop smash hit - and sometimes, it doesn't even rely on their music. They have the look and sound and natural charisma and you just know in your gut that on image alone, there is serious potential for them to become huge. The great producer songwriters have a knack for spotting these types and then giving them everything they need to become chart smash hits, whether it is songs or enormous overproduction to overlook the fact that they can barely hit a note - they smell money, and they're going to make a killing. With all of that in mind, Sean Kingston does not seem to fit that mold - at all. Not to be offensive, but the fellow kind of looked a bit like a doofus back when debuted with his self-titled album in 2007, and he just seemed to have some of that wide-eyed naivete that didn't exactly strike me as the look of a professional. Now there was a reason for that - he made those first two albums when he was a teenager, and it shows - but he seemed like the kind of performer who was very much aware of the fact that he didn't quite belong in the pop landscape, and was just riding out his time in the spotlight for as long as he could. And really, that was kind of a shame, because he wasn't a bad performer, particularly for his age (his first album came out in 2007 when he was seventeen, when he was my age). He had a distinctive voice and some occasionally interesting (if amateurishly written) songs. Furthermore, he brought a welcome touch of reggae to the mid-to-late years of the first decade of the 2000s that I definitely appreciated - it gave him some personality and helped him stand out. Yes, most of his songs had the reek of JR Rotem behind them, but I thought that with time, he might be able to transition into at least a successful reggae act, if not a pop star in his own right. But after his second album didn't sell all that well, Sean Kingston seemed to vanish from the public eye for a good four years, with only occasional public appearances (most in Africa), a series of mixtapes that nobody cared about, and a pretty traumatic jet-skiing accident (he made a full recovery) to mark his time out of the spotlight. But now he's back with a new album Back 2 Life, heralding his return to the spotlight once again. Did he put those four years off to good use and have something great for us?