Saturday, October 26, 2013

album review: 'my name is kay' by kay

As those of you who have been following this series for a while probably know, I'm Canadian - and what you probably don't know is that Canadian radio and charts are a little bit different than the charts you find in the States. First is that outside of a few acts, hip-hop doesn't really have a huge amount of groundswell on Canadian charts - sure, we get the big names, but not a huge amount outside of that. Secondly, outside of Alberta and Saskatchewan, we didn't normally use to get a lot of country music either - which changed this year, thanks to the heavy mainstream push with regards to country music, with heavily mixed results. Thirdly, and most importantly, we have something called the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission, otherwise known as the CRTC. This government-backed commission is responsible for making sure Canadian content has a chance on our radio in the face of American competition. So in other words, Americans, if you thought you were sick of Nickelback and Justin Bieber - well, you haven't heard anything yet.

But if I'm being honest, I actually support the CRTC regulations a fair bit, mostly because there's a ton of great Canadian content that most people south of the border will never hear thanks to the overwhelming amount of American material. And the fact that bands like Metric and Marianas Trench can occasionally land some chart success here not only means rock didn't really go away up here, but that the charts maintained some of that genre diversity that can get lost on the American Hot 100. Our charts are probably a little bit closer to the British charts, in that we tend to have a bit more international crossover with upcoming trends and we get more chart oddballs (although most of ours have a distinctly Canadian bent).

So with that in mind, I think I have something of a duty to cover at least some Canadian content that passes by me, so let's talk about the debut album from Kay. She's a pop/hip-hop singer who initially got some viral buzz back in 2011, and a little more success courtesy of a collaboration with Pusha T last year. She's had some difficulty getting a breakthrough hit, but hey, she got picked up by Universal so she must be doing something right. So, with that in mind, how does her debut album My Name Is Kay turn out?

Ugh. Goddamnit, I hate doing this. I really wanted My Name Is Kay to be a great album, but the reality is that despite a token few highlights, this record is pretty forgettable. It's not bad or aggressively worth hating, but it definitely shows the seams of a troubled assembly and it is yet another album that shows how most of the industry has completely forgotten how to put together a strong pop debut album. So instead of threshing this album in my usual manner, I'm going to use it as a object lesson, to explain how future pop artists (and the executives working behind them) might want to structure their albums going forward.

Firstly, you need to define what the role of the debut album is: to put forward the new artist and establish the brand. You can save the crazy experimentation for the expansion or the follow-up, you need to show with the opening album what the artist has here that doesn't already exist in the pop music scene. And you know, My Name Is Kay starts pretty damn well in that regard, opening with a title track that had a distinctive funky edge that I really dug, and it shows Kay as having some attitude and presence. And if the rest of the album had continued in this pattern - instead of only taking it up haphazardly throughout the rest of the record - I suspect I would have enjoyed My Name Is Kay a lot more. But no, very quickly the instrumentation takes a turn for generic Eurodance pop that sounds about two years out of date. Sure, there are occasional touches of modernity, but it really squanders the spark of momentum coming off the first few tracks into interchangeable dancepop beats that come across as album filler - and on a ten song debut LP, you don't have room for a lot of album filler.

This takes us to our second point: make sure that your main artist is placed in the best possible light. Kay has attitude, to be sure, but her voice isn't as strident or forceful as Ke$ha or Miley, so she needs have the support of her instrumentation and production. And here's where we run into the first big issue with this album: what I like to call 'Calvin Harris production', fusing heavy, fuzz-saturated beats into the instrumentation that overwhelms the main vocalist. Granted, it's not quite as bad as Calvin Harris' 'Sweet Nothing' (where he manages to overpower Florence Welch, which shouldn't even be POSSIBLE), but there are points in the instrumentation where you can tell that the guy who mixed this album considered Kay's voice the least important element, and I could swear her volume is turned down at a few notches. What's worse is the overproduction - this is an album where somebody thought it'd be a good idea to overload the songs with unnecessary electronica, and while it doesn't sound cheap, it doesn't add anything to the mix either, especially not personality or uniqueness. Now granted, this isn't all the time - in fact, there are several points the 'drop' in these songs is a lot lighter in a mid-90s Eurodance style, and it works pretty well - but the overproduction is here a lot more than it should be.

And now we reach the third point: establish personality. This is different than creating a brand because while less-discerning individuals will flock to good instrumentation, people who love music and especially critics will be looking for differentiation points between the debut artist and her peers. Now, to be fair, it's a debut album, and you'll always tend to get the songs about how said artist 'made it'. And I'll give Kay this, there are some distinctly Canadian moments in her music that put a smile on my face. But outside of that, man, there's not a lot of lyrical personality here. 'Bus Stop' brings in Ryan Tedder to bring an exuberant edge to a rather desperate song which works well, but then we have Pusha T delivering a whole new level of caustic bitterness in his verses on 'Strangers' that really make the song not particularly pleasant to listen to. And outside of those (and the oddball track 'Whatever', which makes for a fun listen), you get a selection of pop tracks that really don't have a lot to them lyrically that makes them stand out. Of course, it doesn't help that nearly every song is jacked up with a dance beat, but there could have been some redemptive moments here to really give Kay some distinctive presence, and this album... it just doesn't have that.

So in the end, while My Name Is Kay is harmless, it's not especially strong. Yeah, Kay steps up to the plate with a fair amount of energy, and there are idiosyncratic moments that stand out in a good way, but there isn't enough distinctive character to get me to come back, mostly thanks to lackluster lyrics and a metric truckload of bad decisions in the mixing booth. If you're looking for album highlights, the title track, 'Bus Stop, and 'Whatever' are probably the songs I like the most here, but otherwise this album doesn't do a lot to impress me. Then again, it doesn't really do a lot to offend either, and for the most part the dancepop is danceable and never aggressively bad (except on the incredibly irritating track 'The Thrill'). So with that... eh, it's a 6/10. If you're interested, it's worth a look, because My Name Is Kay is passable, but if you don't care one way or another, it's just another burst of silly dancepop, and there's nothing wrong with that.

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