So about eight months ago, I covered Alexander The Great III, the newest record from Brazy Da Bo$$, a hip-hop MC from Baltimore that actually conducted himself with some civility when he hit me up to cover the album and, hell, it was the middle of January, what else was I supposed to talk about? And I reviewed the album and it was decent enough, from what I can remember of it, mostly holding up on better-than-average production to compensate for subject matter that didn't really impress or interest me. It was laid back and chill and it did have 'All Dogs Go To Heaven' which showed there was actually some rapping talent and creativity if he had emotionally compelling subject matter... but I'll be honest, I haven't touched Alexander The Great III in months outside of that one song, and I'd struggle to remember any other cut from it. Fast forward to now, Brazy Da Bo$$ has a new album, and it's titled Habitual Lyrical. This caught me off-guard immediately, mostly because in looking forward to describe this guy, 'lyrical' wasn't really one of them. He wasn't a bad rapper, but his content never struck me as immediately complex or lyrics being the most important element to his music. But on the flip side, he's also from Baltimore, and when I see songs called 'City On Fire (Pray For Baltimore)' and I think back to the nightmare there earlier this year, maybe something inspired him. Of course, he could be sticking with the same regular subject matter, and the fact that his album is around forty minutes for fifteen tracks did raise a little concern for me. But hey, I was curious, and it was either this or Five Finger Death Punch or Disturbed and you couldn't pay me to cover either of those, especially when I have Slayer and Iron Maiden coming down the pipe. So, what does Habitual Lyrical deliver?
So let's talk about Satanism. I dunno about you guys, but I went to a Catholic school growing up and I remember being fascinated by the sections on the occult near the back of our textbooks - mostly because I did the research and was amused to discover how much early Christianity appropriated from pagan faiths. But Satanism in and of itself, the "worship" of Lucifer, is something altogether different and in modern sects tend to revere Satan as a symbol of individualism more than a distinctive deity. They most often show up in the news not so much as a murderous cult but as countercultural trolls pointing out the hypocrisies in fundamentalist Christianity. And speaking as a Catholic... yeah, I can't disagree with that, given the mutated state of modern evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, especially in the United States. But one of the things I always found hilarious in those old Catholic text books were the accusations that besides role-playing games like D&D leading to Satanism, there was also heavy metal music. And here's the thing: with the exception of certain black metal bands, most heavy metal acts especially in the 70s and 80s only utilized Satanic imagery to add a sacrilegious air to their music, more for image and less for message. And given I'm quite secure in my own faith, I've never had an issue listening to music that falls in this vein - it's entertainment, people, I don't exactly take much of this seriously. So on that note, let's talk about one of the more openly sacrilegious bands, Ghost, formerly known as Ghost B.C. in the States. They're most well-known on tour for their stage presence - all of the members are consider Nameless Ghouls but for the frontman, who dresses like a Satanic Pope, is called the Papa Emeritus, and who is 'replaced' for every album. And if all of this feels a little kitschy, their first album confirmed it, with a defiantly 70s-inspired sound that calls back to Black Sabbath, Pentagram, and maybe a bit of Rainbow or Deep Purple. And since I like a lot of that style of hard rock, their debut album Opus Eponymous in 2010 really did work - not quite as crushing or heavy as most modern metal, but making up for it with potent grooves and some rollicking guitar chops. They got cleaner and heavier on their 2013 album Infestissumam, but simultaneously traded in more potent grooves for cleaner tones and theatrical bombast that only made their satanic lyricism seem goofy as hell - definitely a disappointment. But with buzz suggesting the group was going to get darker and rougher for this next album, I had reason to hope for quality, so how does Meliora turn out?
So outside of the terrible hair in the screenshot, it's been a pretty crazy night, as I was featured in the new WatchMojo list on Top 10 Music Critics of YouTube! Thanks for recognition there, I really do appreciate it. Meanwhile, the new Ghost album awaits - stay tuned!
I've got a complicated relationship with Beach House. Hell, it's the same sort of complicated relationship I have with most dream pop that indulges in airy, hazy production, half-heard lyrics, and focuses much more on vibe and feel than driving groove or melody. It's not that I dislike it - hell, I'd argue Beach House hasn't made a bad album, and Teen Dream and Bloom would easily be in the running for the best of their respective years - but for me it's music for a specific time and place. A big part of Beach House's appeal is the relaxed slow burn, and to be very honest, there aren't many moments when I can appreciate that mood as much as I'd like because of my schedule. But I reckon it runs a little deeper than that. I revisited all of Beach House's albums prior to this review, and while there was a progression that enhanced the band's melodic sensibility, I've never been all that enamoured with their songwriting beyond it. And even as they cleared away more reverb with album after album and expanded their instrumentation and mix to build more momentum, I started wondering where the band's progression would lead. Because let's face it, Beach House can cultivate a very intimate atmosphere with their material, and even though their material can repeat itself in lyrics and composition, push it too far without clear creative direction and you can run into losing what made your duo special. And some of the mixed reviews I had seen going into this album prepared me for the worst, suggesting that the band had returned to their quieter roots but along the way had lost some of the thick but gentle atmosphere that made their music so enticing. And as someone who has never really fallen completely for Beach House, I was genuinely curious how it was all going to pan out, so what did we get?
Well, it's been quite the road to get to this point - because if you had told me the guy making bleak, shamelessly debauched party songs revelling in self-destructive nihilism now has had a fair few of the biggest hits of the past year, I'd have called you crazy. But now here we are, and now it's time for me to make a definitive statement on The Weeknd, Canadian R&B star who surged through the underground with his goth-tinged debauchery before getting recruited by Drake to break into the mainstream. And to say The Weeknd is a complicated character is kind of understating it: in the process of preparing for this review, I revisited both the mixtape compilation Trilogy and his debut Kiss Land, and putting aside the fact that they're both way too long and underwritten to really support themselves, The Weeknd is an odd sort of artist. On the one hand, I like when his production steps into pummelling, groove-heavy darkness, the sort that dominated the second and third mixtapes in Trilogy, the excellent Thursday and the quite strong Echoes of Silence - on the other hand, if it didn't have that momentum or atmosphere or grit, the songs nearly all went long and could start to blur together, even despite some nifty sampling. I did like that most of his songwriting did improve to tell more complicated stories as Trilogy proceeded that owned their framing of The Weeknd as a shameless, sex-and-drugs-depraved artist spiralling out of control - and the women that would be drawn to that persona - but it was very easy for that melodrama to lose some of its dark, enticing flavour as it repeated over and over. As I've said, nihilism just gets boring after a while if you don't vary the formula. I think my biggest hangup on The Weeknd has always been his voice, but I think that's an issue of him actually sounding engaged on a song - when he tries, he can be a potent presence behind the microphone. Either way, enough of it came together for The Weeknd to get signed and release his debut Kiss Land, a prime example why it can be a dangerous thing for acts like The Weeknd to get a major label budget. The record sounds opulent and huge, but it pitches so much of the atmosphere and grit to get there that the tracks become nowhere near as immersive, mostly courtesy of The Weeknd leaving behind the producers that got him to the top, especially Illangelo. Coupled with lyricism that seemed to devolve straight back to his oldest material and were again repeating subjects he had tackled before with an even more delicate falsetto - again, not the best fit for this subject matter - I couldn't help but consider Kiss Land a real disappointment. And then two things happened in rapid succession that took The Weeknd to the top: he collaborated with Ariana Grande on the absolutely stellar song 'Love Me Harder', and Fifty Shades Of Grey happened, where he landed on two songs including the smash hit 'Earned It' - which really wasn't any good, if I'm being honest. That said, I had reason to believe Beauty Behind The Madness would at least be interesting. For one, he pulled Illangelo back on board, and for another, his features and producers list suggested some obvious collaborations - Lana Del Rey and Kanye West - and a few surprising ones, like Max Martin and Ed Sheeran. It also looked to be less bloated than his mixtapes and Kiss Land, which was only a positive step, so did we find actual quality behind Beauty Behind The Madness?
You know, I wish the summer months would just make up their damn minds if they were interested in being slow or not, it'd definitely make my scheduling a hell of a lot easier! Because this week, so little happened on the Hot 100 - no recurring entries, barely any shifts in the top 10, five new songs, and only a few changes - that I was seriously considering whether or not I should include the Canadian charts. And you know, it might have been close - we have returning entries from Drake and twenty-one pilots, and a charting hit from the Cold War Kids that was pretty decent - but then I saw we also had a song featuring Chris Brown and I think I filled my quota for that about six months ago.
Not sure anyone really gives two shits about this album, but I thought it was pretty damn good. Next up, one of the lightest Billboard BREAKDOWNs yet - which is good for me, gives me time to get Beach House and Ghost reviews ready, plus a little something special. Stay tuned!
So I've talked a bit before about the Nashville songwriting machine, the group of songwriters and producers that churn out songs or even entire albums for our country stars, sometimes with those stars not even having a single writing credit. For a critic, this can be pretty galling, especially in determining an artistic voice behind the music, but to be fair, it's not like pop or R&B or even rock and hip-hop are much different. Which is why an artist like Kip Moore stands out as something of an anomaly, because his debut album Up All Night was released in 2012 and he had writing credits on every single song. And to go a step further, his material fit completely within mainstream radio, even at the genesis of bro-country - songs about girls, beer, trucks, nothing in the writing you haven't heard before. But remember how I said that bro-country can actually be good? Well, I'd add Kip Moore to the very short list of acts like Jake Owen or Billy Currington who can make this work while still maintaining a defiantly country sound with prominent melodies, grittier yet atmospheric production that reminded me a lot of a rougher Dierks Bentley, potent grooves, and a lot of raw passion from Kip Moore. The fascinating thing is that Up All Night seemed to draw more inspiration instrumentally from Americana-inspired rock like Bruce Springsteen, even as the subject matter rarely rose above bro-country standards, although thankfully delivered with enough heartfelt sincerity to rise above. And yeah, there were points that were a little too synthetic to really work, but what raised Kip Moore above the pack were the details... And as such, it's no surprise that after a few strong singles, Kip Moore struggled to land hits on country radio - something which didn't surprise him, given his visible contempt for the songwriting by assembly line process in bro-country. Two non-album singles flopped on the radio, and I suspect part of it was just a flooded market, where if you played things with more restraint and class, you weren't going to stand out, even if your writing and production were a cut above. As such, I was a little worried when I saw the list of cowriters that Moore had brought on - he still had primary writing credits, but there were more hands in the pot and that did raise a certain amount of concern. But hey, I really liked Up All Night, and if Brett James was still handling production, maybe it'd still have that quality. Does it deliver?
I rarely cover EPs. I almost never cover mixtapes. So why the hell am I talking about this? Well, in this case it's the artist himself having a reputation for dropping projects that really should be full albums at this point. I might have been skeptical when I covered Chicago MC Mick Jenkins' mixtape last year The Water(s), as I didn't exactly love his earlier mixtapes, but that tape caught me by surprise by how startlingly fully formed and articulate it was, exploring its themes surrounding water with a depth that I never could have expected. It was a potent release and very nearly missed my year-end list of albums, but even with that the song 'Jazz' was one of my favourite songs of 2014, and I'd have to be crazy to pass it up. That said, I did have a bit of pause before approaching this EP, which is just under a half-hour, which has been longer than some albums I've covered this year. I heard it was more jazz-inspired and more eclectic, and while I've been appreciating the revival of this brand of hip-hop, Chance The Rapper's project with Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment Surf proved it could go wrong if there wasn't a clear artistic direction, and that can be tricky to sketch out on a shorter project, at least to the same depth. But Mick Jenkins is still a great rapper, so I dug into Wave[s] - what did I find?
Yeah, I know, I was planning on dropping this yesterday, but I discovered I had plans/a social life. It happens, folks. Next up, let's see if I can get this Mick Jenkins out of the way before another crazy week ahead - stay tuned!
So I think I was one of the few critics who cover pop music who didn't love 'Rather Be' last year, the breakthrough single from electronic music group Clean Bandit. Yeah, it was very elegant and very pretty and had a vibrant clarity to the sound that reminded me of Imogen Heap in a good way, but it was one of those tracks that just fell completely flat for me. Maybe it wasn't weird enough or that it never reached those transcendent moments it kept gunning for, or maybe because it felt bizarrely overmixed and the songwriting wasn't all that great, but it didn't do much for me. One person I won't blame here, though, is Jess Glynne, the guest singer on that track who was actually pretty solid and who was steadily building herself a respectable career in the UK while everyone on this side of the Atlantic had no idea who she was. And let's make this clear, she's big over there right now, with multiple songs cracking the top ten and even one taking the #1 slot for three weeks - and considering the turnover of the UK Official Charts, that's saying something. So who is Jess Glynne? Born in the UK, she grew up working music management and record labels before a few chance collaborations, the biggest being with Clean Bandit that netted her a Grammy before she had a full debut album. Reportedly drawing on soul, R&B, and house music, it promised to be interesting at least, so I made a note to check out I Cry When I Laugh when it finally dropped - how does it turn out?
I can't imagine what it might feel like for a rapper who loses their hype, especially one who made it big for a second in the mainstream before it all fell apart. And the more I've reflected upon the career of B.o.B., Atlanta MC that was once being compared to Andre 3000 for his flow, eclectic fascination with other genres, and guitar skills, the more I'm starting to think this is the case. After a series of well-received mixtapes he smashed into the scene with The Adventures of Bobby Ray, which despite being pretty uneven did show off a rapper with real chops, a unique brand of production, and a fair amount of charisma that could play to the mainstream. Which of course was what happened, with huge songs like 'Airplanes' and 'Nothing On You' and 'Magic'. He followed it up with Strange Clouds in 2012, which was just as uneven but still had some solid songs I really love to this day, including 'So Good' and 'Where Are You (B.o.B. vs. Bobby Ray)'. And then it all fell apart. His buzz seemed to evaporate without good singles, and as hip-hop went for the darker trap sound he struggled to keep up. But 'struggle' might be the wrong word, because I reviewed his 2013 record Underground Luxury and it sucked, not just because of messy trap beats but because B.o.B. was just wallowing in lazy, badly written hedonism. For a rapper who once had such imagination to devolve into that was incredibly disappointing for me, and for once it seems like everyone else agreed, with many critics trashing the album and the sales being miserable. So what do you do when you're a rapper who has lost your hype? Well, from my point of view you've got one of four options: you retire; you slink back into the indie scene and try to rebuild your cred, you stay signed to the major label and hope to God you can follow trends well enough to churn out hits at the expense of your identity, or - and this came out of nowhere - you decide to title your next record Psycadelik Thoughtz and drop it with no promotion or lead-off single in the hopes surprise will draw curiosity, especially with a rumoured change in sound: go big or go home. And I was worried here: Tyga already tried this strategy with his long-delayed surprise release, and nobody seemed to care, and he had hype going in. What was B.o.B. going to deliver?
So the reason this is late is because my computer decided that it no longer wanted to render the correct file format - for no adequately explained reason. I suspect it's an issue as my computer constantly tries to update to Windows 10 despite the fact that said update will not promote properly on my particular machine, but fortunately I have ways around this. Next up... I dunno, probably B.o.B. or Mick Jenkins, just to get them out of my system and try desperately to get back on schedule. Stay tuned!
Right, so let's explain why this didn't drop on its regular Tuesday timeslot. Well, believe it or not, I suspect it wasn't Billboard's fault the charts were delayed, mostly because the sales data that they got from Nielsen surrounding a certain song was wildly inaccurate, originally placing its debut in the top ten instead of midway down the chart where it belongs. This frantic revision - which other chart analysts had already estimated properly earlier this week - caused Billboard to delay a day to make sure the numbers are in properly on what was otherwise a pretty regular week.
I've been looking to do this episode for a long time, and I'm happy I had an excuse to finally get it out (even if it does mean my review schedule got more complicated, but I should expect that at this point). Next up, the real episode of Billboard BREAKDOWN, so stay tuned!
So on regular episodes of Billboard BREAKDOWN, a frequent tagline is that the Canadian charts are always better than those of the United States, and that has drawn responses from curiosity to outright skepticism. I mean, this is the nation that gave the world Justin Bieber, Celine Dion, and Nickelback, surely anything that charts there must be bland, derivative junk that was clearly not good enough to make it south of the border, right?
Well, you could argue that might be the case, particularly Canadian acts are jumping on trends that American acts already started, but it tends to be more complicated than that, and the place to start would be the Canadian Radio-Telecommunications Commission, otherwise known as the CRTC. The idea behind it ties into the preservation of uniquely Canadian content - given our proximity to the US and the fact that sheer size means the US market is so much bigger than ours, there was a desire to give Canadian artists a boost nationally so that they wouldn't have to rely on international hits to succeed. It's a bit of a controversial system, as any sort of regulation tends to be, but when you look at the bigger picture, I tend to support the CRTC for a few key reasons. It's not like it's preventing the massive hits from the States getting huge up here with very rare exception, and in the mean time it gives a greater audience to Canadian creators who might never get it in the States, especially with increased consolidation of radio.
But here's the thing: since the Canadian Hot 100 debuted in the mid-2000s, it's increasingly departed from US trends to fall somewhere between them and international audiences. And this means that more off-beat oddities will land on our charts - a smaller population means that a song doesn't need to appeal to the increasingly massive audiences required for US hits. And since hip-hop and country radio tends to be a fair bit smaller simply thanks to demographic demand, what fills in the blanks is an odd assortment of pop rock, electronica, and indie songs that defy categorization - and the hilarious thing is that a fair chunk of them aren't even Canadian! Since our market has become more accustomed to weirder stuff, it's meant that where songs like 'Come With Me Now' by KONGOS barely had an impact in the US, it was a top ten hit up here!
And all of this got me thinking: there's a whole swathe of music that as of this date has not hit the US yet or likely ever will - to qualify for this list, it must not have charted at all on the Billboard Hot 100 in the past six months - so let's put some of it on display, shall we? Prepare to get mostly Canadian up in here, let's get this started! In no particular order...
Fairly solid release, fairly solid review, no complaints there. Honestly hope my throat feels a bit better, Billboard BREAKDOWN is always crazy. And speaking of that... whoo boy, get to talk about Lana Del Rey tomorrow, joy...
On some level, punk is always going to be a young person's genre. The raw anger, the focus on passion and energy over meticulous craftsmanship, the vitriolic power with maybe the nuance coming later, all of this shows up most in the heady rush of youth. So what happens when a punk grows up and encounters the crushing weight of adulthood?
Well, any number of things happen. Some will keep the faith, some will fade out of the scene naturally, some will even double down and rage all the harder, and some will opt to refine their simple songs into something with a little more weight or maturity or complexity. As such, it's not all that surprising that some punks will drift towards folk rock or rock operas or even alternative country, trading explosive energy for tighter songwriting or more grandiose presentation. And one of the best examples of that is Frank Turner, who initially started in post-hardcore before going solo and making highly lyrical and yet no less passionate folk rock drenched in the grubby pub tradition that drew upon Celtic folk, disillusioned punk, and even hints of alternative country and piano rock. And there's a lot to really like about his brand of abrasive yet confessional songwriting, his clever knack for a great hook, and his eclectic hodgepodge of influences that are half tongue-in-cheek and yet often completely sincere. For me, my favourite album of Turner's is easily his second Love Ire & Song, as it felt like it brought the most instrumental flavour and excellently crafted songs to the table while still maintaining that punk edge. If I can find areas where Turner can stumble, it'd be some of his material can get a little sleepy and lacking in momentum, which would probably be the biggest criticism I'd have of his third album, or that his newest albums can occasionally feel a tad too polished, especially in his vocals. But none of that was going to stop me from reviewing his newest album Positive Songs For Negative People - does it live up to its title?
I've been getting requests to cover this artist since 2014. And if I'm judging at all by the cavalcade of requests begging for me to cover Melanie Martinez, the hype has reached critical mass and it'd be questionable if I didn't cover her... even though she's never had a charting single off of any material that wasn't from The Voice. Yeah, for those of you who don't know, Melanie Martinez was once on that overexposed show and got eliminated midway through, and yet to judge by her buzz and following nowadays she's easily eclipsed many of the winners, thanks mostly to viral success off of her EP last year and her videos. And after a few listens, I got the impression she was the sort of artist I wanted to like more than I did, with the striking lyrics, shattered porcelain persona, brittle instrumentation, and creepy videos. But the more I listened to Melanie Martinez, the more I was convinced that the image was eclipsing the actual music, which really wasn't as interesting as the ideas behind it. I didn't think she was a bad singer - somewhere between Lana Del Rey at her most tolerable and Natalia Kills - but she wasn't great, and a lot of her instrumentation and production didn't impress me. I could go a step further and say that most of her image and style both Marina & The Diamonds and Kimbra did with better actual music, and if I were to admit I listen to j-pop or k-pop I'd say that Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is considerably weirder - and better - but the larger issue is that the whole faux-lolita to emphasize girlish creepiness just doesn't appeal to me whatsoever. And yeah, I definitely know I'm not the audience for any of this, but at the same time I wasn't buying into the hype machine. That said, when you get down to the songwriting, outside of some minor technical issues I'll admit Martinez has ambition and big ideas, and she's got enough personality to make up for a lot. I was significantly more skeptical when I heard it was a concept album - which is certainly bold for a pop record, and even moreso for a debut album - but I figured this would at least be interesting, even if it was a trainwreck. So what did we get with Cry Baby?
Man, I wish this album was stronger - it always kind of stinks to not give stellar reviews for artists you really like, but it happens. Next up, either Frank Turner or Melanie Martinez. Either way, both will be out in the next few days, so stay tuned!
You know, considering how much indie country I cover and especially on the Canadian side, I'm a little astounded I've never covered Lindi Ortega. Maybe it was poor timing - her last album Tin Star dropped in late 2013 where I was still very much getting a handle on my reviews - but let's make up for lost time and discuss one of the more fascinating indie country acts you'll hear. Born in Toronto, she spent most of the 2000s trying to land a deal through a selection of independently released albums and EPs before signing with Interscope through Cherrytree in 2008... and if you know anything about Cherrytree and a rising star named Lady Gaga affiliated with that label, it was perhaps the worst possible timing for her. It wasn't long before Lindi returned to the indie scene and signed with Last Gang - the label behind K-OS, Lights, and Metric - which proved to be a much better fit and gave her more flexibility to drop records.
And starting with Little Red Boots in 2011, she did just that. Blending a dusty brand of alternative country with a vintage rockabilly image and jazz-cabaret inspired vocals, Lindi had a theatricality that might have felt broad if it wasn't for the great textured production and sharp writing. She followed it with the dustier snarl and general all-around awesomeness of Cigarettes & Truckstops in 2012, which started earning her some serious critical acclaim - and for good reason, as Lindi's sultry vocals had a lived-in reality that belied the smoky glam and dark lyrics. Lana Del Rey wishes she could appropriate vintage flair this well, it's stunning. She followed it with Tin Star in 2013 working with producer Dave Cobb, and while he definitely brought his brand of vintage production that worked wonders for the atmosphere, I missed some of the smoky, noir darkness and ragged edge which was replaced with a gentler, more neotraditional sound. And frankly, with Dave Cobb handling production for her newest album Faded Gloryville, I expected more of the same. And of course it'd be good, but would it reach the greatness she hit with Cigarettes & Truckstops?
Well, this record took way too long to cover. Brutal album, and a hard one to cover, but glad I did it. Next up, probably Lindi Ortega. Then Melanie Martinez, Frank Turner, Jess Glynne, and apparently B.o.B. decided to drop an album from out of nowhere, so this could get interesting... stay tuned!
It's weird, I think I'm simultaneously growing into and growing out of gothic music.
Because like most teenagers who listened to a lot of metal and who later went on to listen to Sisters Of Mercy, Bauhaus, Depeche Mode and The Cure, I've got more than a passing familiarity with the bleak, hollow-eyed chill of most gothic-flavoured art. And while I never really went through an angry white boy phase, I found the appropriation of religious and horror iconography, icy darkness, obsession with death, and provocative sexuality fascinating.
But as I got older, a lot of the 'glamorous' side of goth culture lost its appeal to me - not entirely, but the more adolescent whinging that focused on brooding darkness for its own sake just got tired, and you should all know by now how I feel about nihilist art that can't innovate on the premise - just kind of gets boring after a while, to be honest. But at the same time, the gothic material that aimed higher, for something more primordial and existential, that added more texture to the tragic stories and added the ugliness of humanity to the mix... ah, now that's a lot more fascinating to me. It's one of the reasons why I've always liked Nick Cave, for instance.
But what about an act like Chelsea Wolfe, an LA singer-songwriter who began her career in lo-fi folk that added sludgy and brittle riffs and drone-saturated soundscapes to create a particularly bleak brand of music that showed up on the haunting The Grime and the Glow and the slightly cleaner but no less creepy and outright excellent album Apokalypsis. Her 2013 album Pain Is Beauty cleaned things even further, added more strings and operatic instrumentation, and while the improvements in writing, melody, and Swans-esque crescendos definitely stood out and I really do like that album, it also left me wishing more of the grime and edge could return. As such, you can bet I was looking forward to her next album Abyss, which reportedly was diving deeper into the howling doom metal-inspired nightmare that always lurked around the corner in her music - what did we get?
...I'm starting to think the summer lull is a complete load of shit. Because right after another fairly reasonable week, we get one of the most crazy weeks I've seen in a while. Major shifts up and down, a considerable chunk of new songs, and new top ten debuts, and even a new number one! And while some of it I could reasonably predict - the One Direction debut was no surprise - I wasn't expecting the return of the Drake show or the arrival of a slew of Disney songs! I mean, seriously, what the hell is going on?
At some point we need to ask the question how it came to this point. At some point music historians are going to look back at bro-country and its legacy and ask how on God's green earth we let this happen. And inevitably the focus will swivel to Luke Bryan, who has arguably profited the most from this trend by being the A-list talent to rode bro-country to the very top, partially through his series of spring break mixtapes and partially through hauling in so many of the songwriters who would become staples of the genre behind the scenes.
But about midway through the fourth single dropping from his 2013 album Crash My Party, I came to the realization that the music in a Luke Bryan concert is functionally irrelevant. The fans probably couldn't care less that the album production was increasingly synthetic or that Bryan himself was writing fewer and fewer songs with every release, or that his subject matter was a grabbag of country cliches rattled off with obnoxious efficiency. Because it wasn't about the individual songs or the increasingly haphazard albums: it was about the image and live show experience, Luke Bryan on stage and shaking his ass to get the girls screaming. In other words, this isn't new: what Luke Bryan did in 2013, Billy Ray Cyrus did in 1992, and history repeats itself.
And thus on some level reviewing this record is pointless. To those who have turned on bro-country, Luke Bryan is everything wrong with modern country, while to his fans he's everything right, and the latter's presence means this album is guaranteed to sell. But as somebody who has always held the belief bro-country can be done right - and someone fascinated by the slow-moving trainwreck that I predict many will consider Luke Bryan's career in a decade or so - I figured I might as well cover Kill The Lights. After all, he did discontinue his Spring Break series of mixtapes - considering he's turning forty next year, it's not a bad decision - and considering he wrote six of his new album's songs in comparison with the one he wrote on Crash My Party, I had reason to believe this might be marginally better. Was I right?
If it was up to me / you motherfuckers would stop comin' up to me / with you hands out looking up to me / like you want somethin' free / when my last CD was out / you weren't bumpin' me / but now that I got my own company / everybody wanna come to me / like it was some disease / but you won't get a crumb from me / 'cause I'm from the streets of...
Compton. South of downtown L.A., it's a area that has become synonymous with hip-hop past and present. DJ Quik, The Game, YG, Kendrick Lamar, and - of course - N.W.A., the rap group widely hailed with the founding of gangsta rap. Hell, their first album is called Straight Outta Compton, a rap record seminal in gangsta rap but bizarrely has not been one to have aged particularly well - I know, heresy, and it's a great record, to be sure, but it's an example of how hip-hop was able to build on a rock solid foundation to new heights. And given that hip-hop is arguably better than ever right now, having a downright stellar year with several excellent records, it's almost fitting that a biopic is being released with the same title discussing the rise and fall of N.W.A.. And inspired by the creation of that film, we got something special that I don't think any of us saw coming: Compton: A Soundtrack, by none other than Dr. Dre himself, heralded as his final album.
And I don't think I need to stress how big of a deal this is. Dr. Dre has been touting his long-awaited Detox project that it's become one of those projects nobody really expects will happen, like that J.Cole/Kendrick collaboration album or Jay Electronica actually dropping a studio album. And from reports, this isn't Detox - according to Dre, that's been shelved permanently - but instead something new, complete with an arsenal of collaborating artists from across Dre's history in the industry. But after the wave of excitement cooled - holy shit, we're getting a new Dr. Dre album after sixteen years, the doctor who brought us G-funk and one of the most forceful voices inn hip-hop is back - I did have a little trepidation. Hate to say it, but having revisited The Chronic and 2001 in preparation for this release, they're both albums that as a whole hold up more on vibes and personality than they do on wordplay beyond a few iconic songs. Plus, it's been sixteen years, and the songs he's released over the past five years haven't exactly made a new album from Dre all that appealing. Plus, Dre has always been a more interesting producer than rapper, and even though his best bars have been ghostwritten by other MCs, a full Dr. Dre project might not be as high quality as we all wanted it to be. In other words, my expectations were tempered going into this album - I prayed for this to great, but I expected the worst. Sixteen years after 2001, can Dre still deliver?
Some of you are probably wondering why I'm covering this. Because given the hip-hop I'm known to like, this probably seems like going straight through the bottom of the barrel to the dregs. And I can already see the comments: 'dude, you don't like ignorant hip-hop, why the hell are you going after Migos?'
Well, let me clear up a few things first. For one, I honestly don't have that much of a problem with hip-hop being shallow, accessible, and fun - provided, of course, the hooks are solid, the flows are cohesive, the performers have some charisma, and there's at least a modicum of wit behind the bars. And while I'd argue that there's enough hard-hitting hip-hop that's both smart and anthemic - I can only point at Doomtree so many times, folks - I get that party music doesn't have to be that lyrical if they can make up for it elsewhere.
All of that being said, to say I had trepidation approaching this record would be understating it. Migos broke with the viral track 'Versace' in 2013, a piece of repetitive brand name porn where I kept feeling the track was shutting off every few seconds. But what Migos were able to do over the next several mixtapes was established a distinctive staccato triplet flow that quickly flooded through hip-hop. And I'll admit I wasn't really a fan - sure, it was distinctive and catchy, but it often felt jumpy and lacked a decent groove. Beyond that... well, what else do you say about Migos? Everything I heard from them was shallow, hedonistic luxury porn of the basest variety, to the point where I've seen YouTube comment sections filled with admissions that, 'yeah, this sucks and the lyrics are garbage, but I still like it anyway!'
So this review is more an experiment for me: I wanted to see if there was actually anything more beneath Migos' idiosyncratic style, so I took a deep breath and dug into their debut album off Atlantic Yung Rich Nation - what did I find?
And I'm glad to have this out of my system. Tough review to write, but definitely worth it. And next... whoo boy, the descent into the abyss... and unfortunately not the Chelsea Wolfe kind, although that's coming too. Stay tuned!
Let's talk a little about poetry. Now you'd think this would be a concept that gets discussed more frequently in hip-hop culture, but it's a lot less common than you'd think that you could describe rappers as poets with a straight face. Putting aside the technical considerations - which tend to be fluid with poetry anyway - that label, fairly or not, tends to imply a level of writing sophistication that hip-hop can occasionally fall short of, especially in the mainstream and especially nowadays with the greater focus on production over lyricism. But if you start digging deep into the underground, you'll actually find a fair few artists who have an established background in a more literary circle, and it shouldn't surprise many people that a few of these poets I'd also identify as some of my favourite rappers, like Dessa or Sage Francis. And if you want to go even deeper, you need to talk about B. Dolan, rapper and spoken word artist from Rhode Island, affiliated with Sage Francis and who broke into the scene in 2008 with the harrowing and absolutely fascinating record The Failure. And for a hip-hop traditionalist, The Failure is far from an easy listen - the beats and production is minimal, much more focused on the words themselves, and when they are there it's abrasive and nasty as hell. And yet the bars themselves earn that harrowing production, an incendiary record targeting politics, religion, and philosophy with naked abandon that chars everyone in its path, including B. Dolan himself. And thus it's not exactly surprising that his 2010 record Fallen House Sunken City was a slightly more conventional hip-hop record in terms of its construction - still politically charged, still with abrasive and nasty production, still with fiery and intense wordplay... but I dunno, it didn't quite have the same unbelievable moments of visceral intensity that came with songs like 'Kate' and 'Joan Of Arcadia' and 'Skycycle Blues' with the sole exception being the haunting story track of 'Marvin' about the death of Marvin Gaye. Worse still were the elements of conspiracy theory nonsense creeping into his material on tracks like 'The Reptilian Agenda' - yeah, I appreciate the shots at Cheney and Bush as much as anyone, but that Illuminati horseshit is patently ridiculous when a far more dispiriting and honest explanation is that people are lazy, stupid, overwhelmed, or incompetent, stuck in venial sins than grand conspiracies - think The Wire instead of House Of Cards. But even beyond that, I was in the mood for some hard-edged politics, and right now, rap has all the more reason to get political, so how does Kill The Wolf turn out?
So I think last week was a bit of an anomaly when it comes to the summer slowdown - a glut of new tracks and very minimal changes within the chart itself. This week made more sense - a whole slew of shuffling and not many new arrivals, which reflects the pretty sparse release schedule right now, especially when it comes to mainstream album.