Monday, April 27, 2015

album review: 'bills ep' by lunchmoney lewis

I don't tend to cover EPs.

And believe it or not, there's a reason for that. As I've said in the past, I like records that are full-length album statements, mostly because they're the ones that give me a ton of material to work with in these reviews - and sometimes I don't even get that. So slice it down to four songs and I've got even less to talk about, so unless I have reason to believe this EP is going to be insanely good, I hold to this as a rule.

Today I'm going to break that rule, because the more publicity I can give to this guy, the better. Viewers of Billboard BREAKDOWN probably aren't surprised that I'm going to talk about LunchMoney Lewis, but for those of you who don't, he's something of a hip-hop artist from Atlanta and the son of a member of Inner Circle, the Jamaican reggae band that wrote the Bad Boys theme. He's been behind the scenes for a bit now, working with Dr. Luke as a producer and songwriter, but now he's striking out for himself, rounding up a couple songwriters who work with Dr. Luke for a chance in the spotlight. And I have mixed feelings about this. I've been following the legal nightmare unfolding between Kesha and Dr. Luke as she quietly works to rebrand and rebuild her career after her nightmarish 2014, and considering Becky G's debut album is nowhere in sight, signing to Kemosabe to drop a new hit seemed like an extraordinarily bad idea. But his leadoff hit 'Bills' convinced me I needed to hear more from LunchMoney Lewis, so I found his debut EP and decided to listen through it? Was it worth it?

Well, it was worth it, because if this was intended to get me hyped for an upcoming album it definitely succeeded... but it also revealed some moments that didn't work nearly as well and show things that probably could afford to get ironed out before he drops a full debut record. In other words, the Bills EP is pretty damn workable and has a lot of great moments, but there are enough moments that make me feel uneasy enough to prevent the one hundred percent endorsement.

So let me start with LunchMoney Lewis himself, and the comparison that everyone seems to make between him and Cee-Lo Green, mostly because they've got a knack for retro soul leanings, great melodies, and are very portly gentlemen. But to me, Cee-Lo's always been able to balance his goofier tendencies with an air of ridiculously slick cool, and LunchMoney Lewis isn't quite playing on that level. Instead, he's aiming for something closer to one of the most respected and beloved figures is the history of hip-hop: Biz Markie. And the comparison is a lot stronger: the hip-hop style of both men is drenched in the back-to-basics approach of the golden age, and both of them fall more into the role of the hapless, genuinely earnest underdog who has a bit more of a comedic tone. A bit of a clown, but one with enough genuine talent to be appreciated, even if he doesn't have the strongest voice.

And let me make this clear - if we're looking for an area where LunchMoney Lewis handily outstrips most of his peers, it's as a producer, because this guy is a find when it comes to melodic composition and production. 'Bills' is the most obvious example: a ridiculously catchy piano melody to anchor the entire track that has so many little quirks that I'm honestly looking forward to learning it, some squanky sound effects, lightweight clap percussion, hints of organ, and of course that trumpet interlude is just wonderful. And this attention to detail on bright, ridiculously fun tracks translates across the entire EP - 'Mama' takes a slick, funky and bubbly bass line, pairs it with a simpler piano melody, and an organ flourish that fits surprisingly well with the breezy, island feel with the backing vocals. 'Love Me Back' takes some of the island feel, another bouncy piano line paired with some subtle percussion punch, horns, and some glossy synthesizers along the edge - and then we get a key change because... why the hell not? Probably the most experimental track on this album is the slick 80s funk of 'Real Thing', anchored in a great guitar and bass line, ridiculously silly backing vocals that really are the reason this songs works at all - I'll come back to this - and even a rattling guitar solo that sounds like it was pulled straight from the smoothest track Ty Segall never made. If I were to criticize anything about the instrumentation - and really, it's a stretch - it'd probably be that the mix can be a little busy on a few tracks and might be a little too slick than I'd prefer. But beyond that, instrumentally I can groove to everything on this EP and it's ridiculously fun, recalling Andre 3000 and Dungeon Family in the best possible way. 

But now we get to lyrics, the spot where I feel if there are mistakes or areas for LunchMoney Lewis to improve, they'd be here. The big caveat that hangs over the majority of this album is that LunchMoney Lewis is going for a lighter tone, not really trying to be taken all that seriously - it's what makes the working class schlubby nature of 'Bills' so goddamn likable. And 'Mama' would be the sort of ridiculously corny track that'd make anyone roll their eyes, basically like 'The Perfect Fan' by The Backstreet Boys except even lighter and sillier, but it's so earnest and with enough little details to help you buy the sincerity. Where things get trickier is on the last two tracks - 'Love Me Back' seems to be set from the context of a guy stuck in a loveless relationship and not quite the friend zone, but the whole 'I took you out for dinner, now I'm entitled to sex' attitude did rub me a bit the wrong way, even though LunchMoney Lewis doesn't play the song with any real ammosity or bitterness - he's just confused and he's trying so damn hard, it's easy to feel bad for him, especially considering he does want to leave if things don't improve. But then we come to 'Real Thing'... and it's a song where LunchMoney Lewis is taking a girlfriend, the sort of song I normally can't stand. And here's the thing, I'm not quite sure how much of a joke it is - the ridiculous backing vocals and the fact LunchMoney Lewis is still a hapless romantic in the first verse and never really gets explicit does help, but still, the prechorus of 'I'm turning your girl to mine' just rubs me the wrong way and makes the song feel a lot more mercenary, which is not a good look for him. 

But you know, even with that, I can't deny that I enjoyed the hell out of this EP. LunchMoney Lewis is the sort of hip-hop performer who's not afraid to take a lighter tone and actually make fun music within an easy pop framework, and yet there's enough subtle details and flair as a producer to show off a ton of as-of-yet-untapped potential. Compared to the wild exaggeration or bizarre non sequiteurs or just outright mean-spirited sniping that often serves as humour in hip-hop these days, LunchMoney Lewis gunning for everyday populism is a great twist, and while I can see moments where he could slip by playing to some of the uglier lyrical trends of today, for the msot part the instrumental framing and style can redeem it. For me, it's an 8/10 and a huge recommendation - folks, I've been saying it for weeks because I want 'Bills' to be a massive hit for 2015, but this EP cements it. You all need to check this out - you won't regret it. 

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