Head in the Clouds – Album Review

Head in the Clouds.jpg

88rising is the pet project of ex-Vice reporter Sean Miyashiro, that continues to defy traditional roles in the music industry, while remaining a powerful promotional force. In an unprecedented move, the company itself has released Head in the Clouds, a showcase of their associated acts, which includes Joji, Rich Brian (formerly Rich Chigga), and Niki to name a few. Thematically, the glossy, sugar-pop infused trap beats are consistent, which sustain the bouncy summer vibes that the predominantly Asian cast populate, while a range of features provide some much needed variety.

From the outset the album opens strong, with one of Niki’s most nuanced and angsty performances on La Cienega, and the effortlessly cool Red Rubies, complete with flutey synthesisers and tame bass. The solid opener is maintained on Swimming Pool, which was left in the capable hands of the Higher Brothers, a Chinese quartet who are proving to be the rising stars of the quasi-label. All four maintain punchy flows while switching effortlessly between English and Mandarin, and the Trippie Redd-esque delivery from MaSiWei in the chorus carries just enough edge to contrast with the almost surgical beat perfectly. 03 Greedo has perhaps the most forgettable performance of the project, with his feature being relegated to the last verse, and ultimately, it begs the question; was he needed? Unfortunately, this question becomes more and more prevalent as the listener continues down the tracklist, with tracks like Peach Jam and Japan88 being the most notable offenders. The former totes a cringe inducing attempt from BlocBoy JB to deliver several melodic lines on a fruity, saccharine beat which couldn’t be further from his comfort zone. While Peach Jam is particularly bad, it’s the rule and regrettably not the exception, with almost every other feature ranging from forgettable to straight immersion breaking.

Features of Head in the Clouds has been one the most confusing elements of the project, as the team effort format that’s being displayed inherently lends itself to be independent. There’s a nagging thought that has proven to be impossible to ignore, that suggests that the features could suggest some apprehension from 88rising about the acceptance of a predominantly Asian hip hop album. Indeed, 03 Greedo and BlocBoyJB certainly would top most lists for most authentic new rappers, with 03 alone having recently been sentenced to 20 years in prison. If nothing else, a lot of the features are redundant, as all of their parts on their respective tracks could have been filled by a member of 88rising, but fundamentally it seems to be a symptom of a larger failing on the part of the record; an inability to properly use the talent provided. Niki and AUGUST08 are largely relegated to their own tracks, while Joji is presented as the main male vocals despite access to significantly more talented singers. It’s perplexing.

Continuing our focus on the main talent, Joji’s performances throughout are dry and forgettable, with a very two dimensional delivery and bland lyrics, with Rich Brian proving to be both filthy and frank in his lyrics, although his delivery can carry a infectious energy. Again, the Higher Brothers stand out in a positive light, with consistent flows and balanced performances, and AUGUST08’s smooth crooning manages to find it’s niche, with the track ‘I want in’ being a highlight due to his vocals.

As an album, Head in the Clouds is certainly a mixed bag, and it’s bloated tracklist isn’t helped by a selection of out of place features, or by a cast that seems lost and misaligned, despite their individual talents. This lack of synergy is a definite low point for a concept that is reliant on the entire record. There are plenty of insatiably catchy highlights and singles, but in return the album’s structure seems to have been an afterthought, an example being that the project questionably closes on the title track, which is totally devoid of any energy; not the strongest lasting impression for a summer project. Fundamentally, Head in the Clouds is a slightly above average bubblegum/trap fusion that should be perfect for the sun, yet is plagued by strange structural choices and a lack of identity. Regardless of the individual success of Head in the Clouds, I really hope this trend of record wide albums catches on.

Track Review – Clout Cobain

Denzel curry.jpg

Having waited for over a year, it appears that the Southern Florida rapper Denzel Curry is finally ready to release TA1300, a supposedly monolithic album that will be divided into three parts, Light, Dark and Grey. While the two previous singles released this year, Sumo and Percs, have been revealed to be teasing the Light and Dark sections respectively, Curry’s latest release ‘Clout Cobain’ is our eerie first introduction to the elusive ‘Grey’ third of the album. Immediately the track differentiates itself from the former singles with its ethereal J Gramm beat, and significantly more measured and restrained vocals from Curry. Lyrically, Clout Cobain strays from more conventional topics and explores expectations placed on artists and the heavy strain that places on their mental health; it’s a powerful and refreshing topic to explore, even if the writing isn’t particularly nuanced. Hinting at Curry’s trademark aggression, the rumbling baseline prowls between the chilling piano melody, boosting the melodic chorus and playing a large part in the track being incredibly hummable.

Curry’s careful cadence and more melodic delivery are flawless, although they appear muddy and dull due to poor mixing, which is really unfortunate, as it’s a rare glimpse into his impressive singing ability that we haven’t seen fully utilized since ‘Skywalker’ last year. Our first glimpse of the Grey section of TA1300 is dark, vulnerable and creative; I can’t wait for the rest.

Track Review – 1999 Wildfire

Wildfire.PNG

Out of the metaphorical fires of their recent controversies, a new era of Brockhampton has emerged, marked just by several singles, the most recent of which being 1999 Wildfire. Trademark ethereal production and an insatiably catchy hook are almost all that links this new track to the previous songs of the Saturation trilogy, with ex-band member Ameer’s gravelly flow noticeably absent. Joining the traditional vocalists of the group, including Kevin Abstract, Matt Champion, Joba and Dom McLennon is Bearface, the Irish wildcard who has typically been reserved for more angelic tracks like Waste and Jesus. His boyish vocals flow well over the woodwind dominated beat, and Kevin’s own Andre 3000 esque delivery leaves Joba and Dom some breathing room to be lyrical, even if the former comes off slightly corny at times. However, the lack of Ameer’s edge and Merlyn Wood’s own animated performance combined with a tame Joba leaves the track feeling slightly homogenized.It’s an infectious track with a healthy amount of summer vibes that conclusively proves that Brockhampton possess a versatility that cynics previously questioned.

A Defense of Modern Pop Music – A response to Thoughty2’s video essay

Almost a year ago today, Arran Lomas, known better by his Youtube moniker ‘Thoughty2’, attempted to pass off his own dislike of modern music as an objective critique of a subjective medium, titled ‘The TRUTH Why Modern Music Is Awful’. Within his video essay, Arran raises a number of points and justifications that are really a thinly veiled attempt to pander to an large, archaic minority that despise and demonise modern music. The bedrock for Arran’s conclusions is an arrogant assumption that complexity has a direct correlation to the quality of music, and in the next 1300 words, I’ll attempt to explain just how ludicrous this is by dissecting the video point by point.

  1. Modern music is too simple.

Arran begins the body of the essay with the bold claim that ‘music is getting worse’, to which he justifies with the Spanish National Research Council’s 2012 study ‘Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music‘. In his own words, the ‘most shocking result was that timbre has dropped drastically’. He goes on to explain timbre as the ‘richness and depth of sound’, when in reality, it is simply the character of the music. The study itself is deeply flawed, with just three weak and undefined variables being analysed, and completely ignoring all contextual factors that different genres of music have. He goes on to claim that ‘timbral diversity peaked in the 1960’s and has been steadily declining ever since’, due to a mass homogenization of modern music. I have one question; how can that be the case? Does that mean that Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles are ‘definitely’ better and have a greater timbral range than some of the most renowned composers like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, who used full orchestras of dozens of instruments? I simply can’t see how that is possible.

He continues by coming to the conclusion that this supposed decline in timbral diversity is as a result of a lack of variety in the instruments used in contemporary music, and cites one of the Beatles’ most colourful songs in comparison to Robin Thicke’s single ‘Blurred Lines’, which was a critical flop and is (thankfully) unrepresentative of the majority of modern music. Perhaps the most infuriating moment is when Arran explains that the vast majority of modern pop music is made with four instruments; a keyboard, a drum machine, a sampler, and finally, computer software. His dismissive tone hides the fact that samplers and ‘computer software’, which is a vague term designed to appeal to an older audience who are suspicious of technology in music, unlock a perhaps unlimited amount of potential creativity. In the hands of a talented musician, these two devices alone can reproduce hundreds, if not thousands of different instruments. Besides, it’s not even true, with ‘Everyone’s At It’ by Lily Allen and ‘Gypsy’ by Shakira, which prominently utilize a xylophone and sitar respectively, representing the many billboard songs that do use unique instruments . The takeaway from this first point is that to agree with Arran, you have to agree that the quality of a song directly correlates with the complexity of a song; if so, why not make a song with literally thousands of instruments, as it would be supposedly better than any music ever made.

  1. Modern music all sounds alike

Here’s where Arran’s title stops being representative of the video. A rhetorical question is asked of the viewer; ‘do you ever flick through the radio and feel it all sounds the same?’. But this isn’t the issue that the video proposed originally, as now we are being lectured on why all modern pop music sounds homogenized, and not modern music: An important distinction to make.

So why exactly does all music sound the same? Arran simply points the finger at an easy scapegoat, namely leitmotifs. The bulk of the reasoning comes from a blog post that demonises the ‘millennial whoop’, which is one of thousands of leitmotifs that populate modern music. While yes, it is a mildly annoying leitmotif, it is in no way a part of a larger conspiracy theory designed to ‘comfort’ us.

Finally, a second finger is pointed at a less obvious target; songwriters, namely Dr Luke and Max Martin. While I’m in no way thrilled to have to attempt to defend Dr Luke, it once again appears that Arran has become disconnected from his original aim, and is assuming that modern pop music is representative of all modern music. Yes, some professional songwriters are extremely prevalent in popular music, but that shouldn’t mean that all modern music should take the blame.

This entire point is about songs in a certain genre sounding similar, which is literally the point of having music genres.

  1. Modern lyrics are awful

A part of this supposed homogenization of all modern music is a decrease in the complexity of lyrics, and this is once again where Arran makes the fatal assumption that complexity is the same as quality. He supports this with the Flesch Kincaid Readability Index, a test designed for application such as college essays, not music lyrics, pointing out how lyrics are shorter, less complex and more repetitive in modern billboard chart songs. Frustratingly, the examples chosen, Bob Dylan’s Rolling Stone and Duck Sauce’s Barbra Streisand, are so laughably cherry picked, and again presented as representative of all popular classic and contemporary music. Bob Dylan’s rock ballads are of course going to have better written lyrics than a house track, due to context; one is a focused mode of storytelling, the other a form of entertainment designed to be enjoyed in the background, such as in clubs.

If complexity of lyrics is representative of the quality, let’s add in some of the longest jargon that we can find to our fictional one thousand instrument track.

  1. The reasons for the decline in music quality

The original video offers several explanations for the theorised decline in music quality, one a conspiracy theory, and one a completely naive understanding of the state of the wider music industry. Firstly, Thoughty2 seems to believe that we are actually brainwashed through repeated exposure, and thus, learn to like something. I’m unsure if he has any scientific basis for this claim, but my own reason would state that exposure to an unlikeable thing would perpetuate those negative feelings, and any positive enlightenment or change in feelings is a result of genuinely learning to appreciate the ‘subtle nuances’ that he was keen to mention previously. Not only is his opinion unfounded and likely nonsense, but it’s also contradictory to his previous point against the accessibility of music; does repeated listens brainwash you, or does it allow you to appreciate the ‘subtle nuances’? It’s clear Arran hasn’t decided.

Another theory that Arran has created is that music is steadily getting more similar as it becomes ‘more risky’ and ‘more expensive’ to sign new artists. This is plain wrong. In a world full of platforms such as Youtube and Soundcloud, it’s infinitely easier to self promote and gain a following independently, prior to a record deal, with artists from Justin Bieber to 5 Seconds of Summer, Shawn Mendes and Carly Rae Jepsen all becoming established on Youtube prior to their record deals. Subsequently, it is fair less risky for record companies to sign new talent, as their public acceptance had already happened.

Closing Points

While I myself don’t have a natural attraction to modern pop music, I can appreciate that the very nature of music is subjective, and unlike Thoughty2, have no delusions that music can be objectively better due to an arbitrary factor as to when it was made. There were plenty of terrible chart toppers in the 60s, but they’re forgotten about and instead the very best music of that generation is compared to all modern music. It’s infuriating to be exposed to such a pandering and closed minded view that insists on demonising all modern music. We live in an age where there is more diversity, more independent artists, more creativity and accessibility in music than ever before. Music is in no way dead.

Is there room for Kanye and his ego on Astroworld’s latest ride?

watch.jpg

Although Texas rapper Travis Scott may have grown a reputation in recent times for his more mediocre features, Watch, the first single off his hotly anticipated release ‘Astroworld’, brings the same chilled vibe and monumental beat that put him on the map.

Serving as a fruity, colourful canvas for Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert and Travis to project on, Pi’erre Bourne’s beat is a beautifully erratic cacophony that encapsulates the fairground imagery that Astroworld is based around; it’s busy and vibrant, and once paired with the opening sample, provides is thematically perfect. Lil Uzi Vert tackles the first verse, with his trademark melodic autotuned tinged vocals, and while lyrically he appears to take the title very literally, it’s enjoyable and energetic. Travis also has a powerful performance, benefiting significantly from having a gaudy beat that compliments his usual dry flow, and although it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, it’s compelling and done to a high quality.

Despite being the mastermind who introduced Travis to the world, Kanye’s verse feels amateurish and rushed, with references to his recent antics confirming that his addition can’t have been recorded more than a few weeks ago. His nasally flow and and awkward breaths fail to synergise at all with Uzi and Travis trading autotuned bars, and the flat delivery comes across as a weak grab at capitalising on the controversy he’s recently created.

Cactus Jack’s first single from Astroworld is incredibly promising, with a dense beat and above average delivery, even if Kanye’s contribution hinders more than it helps.

Album Review – Godfather II

godfather.jpg

Is it really here? For real? Fans of the East London grime giant, Wiley, have been patiently waiting for the sequel to his 2017 studio album Godfather. And while his return last year may have been praised by some as the savior of grime, this new release, Godfather II, see’s Wiley taking a break to try and save pop instead?

Initially, the album’s main flaws are almost unnoticeable. Serving as an introduction to the project, Merkers is punchy and urgent, with Wiley’s crunchy vocals drip energy; it’s exactly the start the project needed. Continuing to channel that same moody London strength is a spew of singles, including I Call The Shots and the violin filled beat of Remember Me, which both manage to depict Wiley with a healthy balance of humility and ego. Switching between claiming the title of Godfather and lobbying fans to remember his legacy, the lyrics throughout the project adopt a sense of self awareness, perhaps as a result of his peer Stormzy’s recent releases that have found incredible success with a similar conscious tone. Fellow Boy Better Know member JME spits a witty, distinctly British verse, on I Call The Shots, even managing to reference Ofsted while outperforming Wiley’s mediocre lyricism.

Less aware listeners may feel betrayed by Spotify autoplay for playing Wiley’s pop hits from the noughties, before it hits them; these are tracks on Godfather II. For someone who claims that any grime number one hit is a pop track, sixth track, Certified, is a textbook stab at a summer hit, with a fruity, tropical beat and melodic vocals from Shakka. If it was released by an an artist who prefers to dominate the Billboard charts rather than the streets of London, it may be a decent summer single; but it’s not. Instead, it’s a sweaty, anxious flashback to a previous Wiley that created cold, soulless tunes like Heatwave and Wearing my Rolex. Proving it’s a standard, not an anomaly with tracks like Over It and Still Standing, the final two thirds of the album sags, significantly.

As a project, Godfather II creates more questions than it answers. If the first five tracks were an EP, or if it wasn’t named after such a legendary project, it may have been less egregious. But as it stands, Wiley’s twelfth studio album is a soulless cash grab that is peppered with a couple of hard singles, and is ultimately let down by an onslaught of sub-par pop tracks. The seventh track ‘Still Standing’ ponders “How am I still standing here?”, and spoiler alert; Godfather II won’t be the answer.

Album Review – K.O.D

JColeKOD

K.O.D is North Carolina rapper J.Cole’s latest attack on his personal demons, a crusade that was conceived during his 2016 project ‘4 Your Eyez Only’, in which he sets his sights on his largest obstacle; addiction. Dropped on 420, from start to finish the project is a scathing attack on the glorification of drug abuse in the hip hop community, and the culture that it has perpetuated.

An introduction to the album saunters into existence, comprising of a disembodied female voice warning of the dangers of being unable to cope with life’s challenges, and a Miles Davis esque saxophone melody. It sets the message of the album well; almost too well, to a degree where some listeners may find it obtuse due to the lack of subtlety. Cole’s title track also suffers the same problems, as it establishes the little vignettes of female vocals that will punctuate most of the album, although the aggressive delivery that drips attitude and defensiveness makes it at least very listenable. The lethargic trap drums that make an appearance on Photograph are another demonstration of the counterculture that Cole attempts to curate, yet with more subtlety, and remains relatable and modern.

Speculation about the unknown rapper kiLL edward’s features is resolved on The Cut Off and FRIENDS, turning out to be a pitched down version of Cole’s vocals, which provides the self confessed ‘platinum with no features’ rapper with the perfect voice to bounce of off; himself. Lyrically, it’s nuanced, with Cole using the voice of his alter ego to become self aware and acknowledge his weaknesses, his temptations and his failings, but it’s let down by the dreary production. Obviously aware to the unpalatable soundscape, Cole injects a little energy into the album with the ATM, a catchy song with delivery that swells and flows well, and is reminiscent of 2014 Forest Hills.

Perhaps the weakest element of K.O.D is the production. There’s two sides of the coin, and for every listener who enjoys the conceptual and minimalist approach, they’ll be another who’s deterred by it. Gone are the lush and fruity sounds of 2014, replaced by flatter sounding piano and somewhat apathetic jazz elements. More mature sounding? Maybe. Less likely to create a radio hit? Almost definitely.

And that’s where my problem with J.Cole’s fifth studio album lies. It suffers from the exact same sleepy cohesion that made 4 Your Eyez Only sound sonically like one single, drawn out song. While the message is commendable, how many less people will hear it because they’re put off by the unapproachable beats? J.Cole may be the champion of old heads who like to be nostalgic about how much better past rap was, but he’s managed to create forty two minutes of minimalist music that disregards all of the culture that rap has spawned, for better or for worse, depending on the listener. It’s unapologetic and stubborn, yet if Cole was able to wear his influences on his sleeve less, and compromise on a couple of features, K.O.D could have been a timeless classic. By no means is it a bad release, but it will continue to fail to convince past critics that J.Cole is creating anything that Kendrick Lamar hasn’t already done. Kid On Drugs is a powerful, sincere release that’s hindered by its uncapitalised potential; and I fear that’s what J.Cole wanted.    

Single Review – CLOSE

rae

Mississippi rap duo, Rae Sremmurd, who dominated the airwaves last year with their hit ‘Black Beatles’ are back with their latest single, CLOSE. Signed to Ear Drummers Records, the pair have access to the production talents of Mike Will Made It, which they’ve once again utilized here to create a moody, melodic trap beat.

Unfortunately, despite the experience of the group, their producer, and Travis Scott, who handles the opening verse on the track, it’s an underwhelming experience. Travis’s verse is dry and repetitive, and it’s a sleepy opener to a track that already has a lethargic beat. It’s disappointing considering his past performances, notably Trippie Redd’s ‘Dark Knight Dummo’, was was practically crackling with energy. Sonically, the beat is moody and clean, but lacks any intensity, which curates an atmosphere that’s hazy and murky.

Swae Lee’s verse is a little better, but the delicate delivery fails to rectify the underwhelming guest verse, and the incessant ‘C-L-O-S-E’, which punctuates almost every verse and chorus, becomes grating after very few listens. On the other hand, Slim Jxmmi’s verse is crisp and features lyrics, that while  very typical of the genre, are interesting, such as ‘I’ma stack up the cake like Obama told me’. Sadly, it’s lost within the mundanity of the track, with the last minute of an already short performance being filled with an awful bridge of ‘ So many, so many drugs/
You only get so many, so many drugs’ over, and over again, before the song closes with another bout of Swae Lee spelling close out.

As a single it’s underwhelming, and Travis Scott  desperately needs to rekindle the energy that we know he’s capable of to retain the hype for his upcoming album, Astroworld.

Single Review – Disappointing Diamonds are the Rarest of Them All

misty.jpg

There’s listening to Father John Misty’s love songs. And then there’s listening. Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest of Them All is the Rockville crooner’s latest single off of his upcoming album, which is set to release at the beginning of June, and is a brief showcase of his wit and talent.

Glitzy and glamorous production disguises the track’s obscene metaphors, that subverts listener’s expectations surrounding love songs, a formula Misty perfected on his 2015 release, ‘I Love You, Honeybear’. So severe and clever is the juxtaposition between similes such as ‘Like a carcass left out in the heat/This love is bursting out of me’ and the triumphant saxophone that dances throughout the short track, it will surely be missed during a cursory listen. It’s upbeat and insincere, with a chirpy, memorable piano driven melody that makes the track incredibly listenable.

Father John Misty has once again flexed his lyrical muscles to create an experience that is so deeply nuanced that it would be an injustice to casually listen to. If you were remotely a fan of I Love You, Honeybear, don’t miss God’s New Favorite Customer, dropping June 1st this year.

Single Review – Gotti

gotti

Is it a coincidence that the release of Brooklyn rapper 6ix9ines latest track, GOTTI, has lined up with the emergence of the first rays of sun this year? Perhaps, but between the calmer, melodic vocals, the healthy dose of autotune and the fruity beat seems like a tactical decision by 6ix9ine’s management, who posted the track, to capitalize on the summer market with a more radio friendly song.

Gone are the obnoxious gun samples and aggressive vocals which characterized his debut album, Day69. In their place is a strange introduction of autotune assisted harmonies and spaced out synths, which is surprisingly an unwelcome change. While it may show 6ix9ine’s somewhat ability to switch up his style, it lacks his signature aggression that made his other tracks, such as GUMMO and BILLY listenable and somewhat catchy. The newfound clarity to 6ix9ine’s vocals is ultimately a waste of time, for he continues to say nothing that listeners haven’t heard before. Making sure to use every trap lyric stereotype possible, the track is packed wall to wall full of boasting, about success, riches, how he can take listener’s girlfriends, and a shopping list of his drug habits. With the inclusion of three references to Scum Gang and a couple of mentions shouting out his testicales to increase his internet fame, GOTTI’s lyrics are as formulaic and unoriginal as any other of 6ix9ine’s tracks, except they’re unfortunately easier to hear.  

Thematically, the beat, which is likely created by Flamm, fits the hazy, dream world aesthetic of the full length project. The sugary, glittery synths and piano chords combined with the xylophone pattern are fitting, although the obvious sample loop can be a tad jarring at times.

At this point, it would be a blessing if 6ix9ine is unable to record bland, boring tracks such as GOTTI for the next three years, especially when they lack any of the qualities that made their predecessors somewhat catchy. Yuck.