Thursday, April 19, 2018

album review: 'COSMIC' by bazzi

I'm not going to deny how weird it feels when a record like this winds up on my schedule.

See, it's been very well-documented that I was no big fan of the Vine dance crazes that dominated entirely too much of the Hot 100 in the mid-2010s, and while there were a fair few Vine stars that found careers after the platform collapsed - some of which I like a fair bit, such the David Dobrik vlog squad or Gabbie Hanna - the only one associated primarily with music I came close to liking was Shawn Mendes, and even he has had some gross low points. But Bazzi's meteoric rise might be even stranger - he also started on Vine, but the breakthrough of his song 'Mine' was linked to a Snapchat lens going viral. Now considering Snapchat is in its own dire straits right now, I couldn't help but feel surprised to discover that not only did Bazzi have a record ready to capitalize on his sudden success - seemingly backed by Warner and Atlantic to boot - but that it looked like a fully fleshed out project: sixteen tracks, self-produced with only a assist from duo Rice 'N' Peas, and getting a surprising amount of buzz to get up my schedule remarkably quickly. And considering 'Mine' was a pretty good song, I was inclined to see if this guy was truly ready for the big time, so what did we get with COSMIC?

So here's the thing: I feel like I'm caught in between two generations even covering this debut, because the vast majority of mainstream outlets that lean towards an older demographic haven't covered this, and the younger independent critics seem to have either also ignored this or have dismissed it pretty harshly. And in a sense I think Bazzi might feel similar: his sound calls back to a brand of pop and R&B that's more reminiscent of the early-to-mid-2000s with a gentle modern update in some of the production, all blown up off a Snapchat lens. And while memetic overexposure might be the reason so many have turned again him... I'm not going to be part of the crowd, because against all of my doubts I actually enjoyed COSMIC a decent bit. Yeah, that might be surprising to some, but while it is certainly flawed, I'd make the argument for what this is, it mostly works if given the chance.

And we're going to have to start with Bazzi himself, and a comparison vocally that probably won't help my case: early Chris Brown. It's more in his vocal timbre than his presentation - he certainly doesn't have that nasal mugging quality that Brown never could back up well - but I can certainly hear what many find appealing in that tone, with maybe a dash of The Weeknd's cadence and Jason Derulo's pop sensibility. And while that does mean his range can feel a tad limited even in falsetto and autotune creeps in more often than I'd personally prefer, like with Tinashe Bazzi gets a lot of work out of some pretty well-arranged and layered vocal harmonies, eschewing pitch shifting for a richer vocal pickup that only serves to amplify his presence. Unlike Tinashe, however, Bazzi's production gives him the space and shimmering atmosphere to amplify his presence and give many of these songs a certain swell you wouldn't expect without a much larger production team. Sure, on a few tracks like 'Honest' there can be judicious use of reverb, but more often than not there's a little more poise and care in crafting more elegant arrangements, from the chimes on 'Mine' to what sounds like a fluttering harp on 'Beautiful', from the elegant synth layering on 'Gone' to cooing vocal samples and pianos behind 'Fantasy'. Now you could make the argument that it might even seem a little too well-assembled, but to Bazzi's credit there's more texture and subtlety to many of these arrangements that you'd otherwise expect, from a rougher piano pickup on 'Mirror' that builds some great bounce to the tight, thrumming low-end groove of '3:15', from the heavy groove on 'Honest' to even the sharper bassline on 'Myself' that with its keyboard choices reminded me a lot of early-to-mid 2000s R&B restraint. If I were to nitpick the production, it'd primarily come in the inconsistent percussion choices - yes, many of the fizzier snare and hi-hat choices blend fine against the more muted synth tones and the bass beats do fine, but some of the skittering scratches or accent choices can't help but feel a little flat or inadequately blended, like on the opener 'Dreams' or the clicking of 'Star'. 

On top of that, while I could make out some guitar blended well into the mix, the moments that cut back to acoustic guitar for contrast can't help but underwhelm, but that leads to what will probably be the most controversial thing about COSMIC: song length. Now as I've said in the past, if you can fully encapsulate a great melody or idea within a tight framework, time spent becomes less of a factor, but part of that is also conditional upon tonal choice, which leads to the weird dichotomy of this record: for as richly melodic as many of these tracks are, how much they want to soar and sparkle, not a single track on this record is longer than exactly three minutes. And while I do respect brevity, you have to wonder how much more the production and songwriting could have evolved to make use of more space - hell, with as many tracks end abruptly, you get the impression some songs could have easily used more room to breathe and build, earn their swell and weight. And this leads to a larger question of scope and intimacy: with his broader tonal choice and delivery you'd think Bazzi could use more time to flesh out these pieces and give them greater gravitas, but with how short they are you get the impression he was trying to capture more intimate snapshots, two distinctive stylistic choices that don't always mesh.

And a big part of that unanswered question lands in the songwriting and lyrics, where again, it's important to stress that given the short track lengths we rarely get the sort of detail and texture to really flesh out much of a scene. And the details we do get... well, if Bazzi has any serious shortcomings on this debut, it's writing that would make him stand out, because his songs fall into one of three molds: opulent, half-faded sex jams full of cigars and Hennessy and brand names that can be genuinely pretty but are kind of vacant, more earnest love songs that that feel a bit more grounded and tend to hit harder such as 'Mine' and 'Soarin' and 'BRB' and '3:15', and moments of darker introspection where it's a shade too earnest to feel manipulative but not quite self-aware enough to back up its nuance. At best you get songs like 'Mirror' - pretty straightforward confrontation with his own bad tendencies and a desire to change, one of the best cuts on the record - or even something like 'Honest', where he can credibly sell the melancholy at his girl betraying him for his best friend and how even if the answer wouldn't have been great, he'd have appreciated the truth. And I'll admit 'Why' worked for me more than I thought it would: by all of his admissions he was a huge asshole and likely the reason for the breakup, but she's still very much in love with him, and while a song like this could be seen as self-serving, it's more bemused in wanting her to move on. No, if you want the songs that feel self-serving and kind of obnoxious, look at 'Changed', which definitely treads into emotionally manipulative territory in playing the blame game with its passive-aggressive posturing, and while you see hints of similar behavior on 'Cartier' and 'Somebody', even with framing that doesn't really imply he's in the right, he doesn't really have the space for the complexity to earn it.

But at the end of the day... look, let's not deny what this album is. Bazzi is a good performer and he knows his way around some catchy melodies, hooks, and credible production, but many of the ideas he presents here are undercooked or lacking more distinctive character to really separate him from his contemporaries and influences. I'd probably listen to him over Chris Brown and if you're looking for a pop/R&B fix in that lane I'd argue he delivers, but it's one of those projects where you find yourself wishing for a little more development - or maybe a song longer than three minutes that can earn those grander strokes. And yet even with that I still think this is a good record, but to acknowledge what needs to improve, I'm giving this a very strong 6/10 and a recommendation, but I definitely think if Bazzi can sustain his momentum and develop his compositions a little further, he has the talent and potential to make something great. In the mean time... yeah, this is definitely worth a quick listen, check it out.

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