SZA – ‘CTRL’ (Review)

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TDE (2017)

On her first full-length, SZA pieces together her wistful, fully-realised R&B aesthetic like an art student’s scrapbook. It’s a twisting mosaic of whizzes, moans and jaunty percussion, all of which serve to enrich her wonderfully candid, sepia-tinted descriptions of lovers gone by. It perfectly encapsulates the unchecked mental states of youth – love, lust, envy and loneliness – and puts her own unique stamp on the genre like no one else since, well, Frank Ocean.

Back in 2014, SZA released ‘Z’, the second in a supposed trilogy of projects which would eventually spell out her name. It still exhibited her charm, and the various goofy musings which we’ve come to associate with her song writing, but ‘Z’ was too jolty for her true character to resonate. She played around with conflicting styles, wearing it a while before tearing it off for the next track, much like an excited toddler rifling through Christmas presents. However, ‘Z’ was a mixtape, and like many mixtapes, this sort of muddled experimentation is to be expected, if not encouraged.

‘CTRL’, on the other hand, is not a mixtape. And, although it taps into a variety of styles, each one is harnessed for a particular effect, and underlined with hazy guitars that tie it all together. ‘Prom’, for example, utilises a Katy Perry-esque pop shimmer to frame her struggles with immaturity, which works on a number of levels: the song itself is likely to be championed by those who share the same struggles and, sonically, the track’s clear pulse allows SZA’s teen-like angst to manifest as a series of moans and cries that glide over the delicate percussion. How else could you audibly capture the youth’s inability to express themselves properly?

Perhaps the album’s most affecting feature, though, is the personality with which SZA coats her various anecdotes. On the opener, ‘Supermodel’, SZA triumphantly boasts, ‘Let me tell you a secret / I been secretly banging your homeboy / Why you all up in Vegas on Valentine’s Day?’ This particular line was met with a barrage of tweets from disgruntled men, most of which consisted of the word ‘savage’ followed by a string of emojis which better expressed their incredulity. This I didn’t quite get. Future kicked off his self-titled album with, ‘Your baby mama fuck me better when the rent’s due’ , but you can’t get upset about that line because ‘it’s just trap music, man’.

Anyway, what’s important here is that, regardless of whether Future was really Atlanta’s landlord from hell, SZA’s anecdote was actually true. When speaking about the event in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, SZA added that ‘CTRL’ will be ‘the first time he hears about it’. It’s these sorts of personal plot twists which add a very real depth to the album, and find SZA’s vocals playing more like an open letter than a series of verses and hooks. Similarly, on ‘Drew Barrymore’, we find SZA cooing, ‘You came with your new friends and her mom jeans and her new Vans and she’s perfect and I hate it / Also glad you made it’. This shameless, emotional fuck-fest of a digression plays out bang in the middle of a bar, planting you right in SZA’s mind as she quickly steadies her course and adds a pleasantry. SZA constantly colours outside the lines when she sings, allowing her stream-of-consciousness, youthful neuroticism to spill all over ‘CTRL’ – and all for the better.

It’s not always that easy to spot, however. ‘The Weekend’, one of the album’s silkiest R&B efforts, boasts about sharing a boyfriend with a number of other women, with SZA’s allocated slot being the weekend. The track itself walks a very fine line between sexual freedom and sexual desensitisation; even the piercing vocal embellishments occasionally wilt in sadness. That said, SZA certainly left this one up for debate, and covered it in so many sensual, melodic elements that you’ll struggle to ever work out whether it’s truly liberating or not; you know, in case you miss the hook.

In summary, TDE’s First Lady has delivered one of the most exciting and unabashedly personal debuts in ages – a debut which constantly pulls and prods at the elastic boundaries of alt-R&B, and implores men and women the world over to embrace their flaws.

Bryson Tiller – ‘True To Self’ (Review)

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RCA (2017)

‘Trapsoul’ has been out for around two years now, and I imagine the plethora of babies that were conceived to its dulcet melodies are now well on their way to walking and talking. Bryson Tiller, on the other hand, does not share the same progression on his second full-length, ‘True to Self’; his mission, with respect to his sound, is one of retention. Amongst the uniform, economical and rather misty sonics, you’ll find him singing over trap beats, rapping over trappier beats, and attempting to reconcile issues of love and fame with those of his own identity.

However, it’s the issues of love which really constitute the bulk of Tiller’s attention. In fact, whether he’s convincing his beau to chill the weed over a gruff sample of Travis Scott’s ‘Backyard’ (‘Don’t Get Too High’), or resigning himself to a failing relationship (‘Somethin Tells Me’), it’s difficult to discern just how many women he’s actually addressing. Usually an album with more sexual story arcs than Game of Thrones would amount to frustration, yet this is not the case here: the sincerity in Tiller’s delivery and the subtlety of his descriptions anchor you to each and every footnote. Sure, there’s a slight whiff of Drake’s daddy dom complex here and there, but I’ve always believed these psychological idiosyncrasies add a bit of texture to the narrative.

Speaking of Drake, it seems ‘True to Self’ really cements Aubrey as Tiller’s closest vocal relative. That is to say, at this point, the pair both seem as comfortable rapping as they do singing (a comparison I withheld up until Tiller’s latest), they both share a penchant for breaking into melody halfway through a sixteen – and they’re even using the same producers. Tiller and Boi-1da’s menacing ‘Money Problems / Benz Truck’, for example, includes one of those “holy fuck” beat switch-ups that you’ll struggle to find on anything but ‘IYRTITL’, and even T-Minus gets a placement on the lead single. All of that said, Bryson Tiller is certainly not biting; his aesthetic is too polished to be considered borrowed. Even their tentative approaches to fame push their respective sounds in different directions: Bryson – into disputes with friends, and Drake – into the arms of various women. But, in fairness, this isn’t 2011, and Drake isn’t ‘having a hard time adjusting to fame’ anymore. If anything, he’s bathing in it – and why not?

Anyway, one of the biggest strengths of this album, by my lights, is that it doesn’t have a truly standout single. You may think that’s a bit strange; this is not something the labels would consider a win. But that is not how Bryson Tiller operates. He deals in subtle changes in mood rather than jarring changes in tempo. Once the ambience is set, different rhythms and emotions are brought in delicately to create something truly immersive. No features are necessary. Even the (now non-negotiable) Caribbean cut, ‘Run Me Dry’ – despite its hit power – swells gradually and slips away into ‘High Stakes’ without breaking the spell. ‘Trapsoul’ ran a similar course, and all for the better.

But this isn’t just a ‘Trapsoul 2’. Although ‘True to Self’ exploits abstract nouns in its title in a similar manner to Bieber’s ‘Purpose’ – unlike ‘Purpose’, ‘True to Self’ is actually concerned with what the title suggests it is. Throughout the project’s nineteen tracks, Tiller constantly tackles problems concerning self-authenticity, ending relationships that don’t sit with him right, attempting to sustain ones that do, and ultimately clarifying just what kind of artist he wants to be. On ‘Before You Judge’, he’s as poignant and self-critical as a young Marshall Mathers: ‘So many times I second guessed myself I never wanted to be an artist nahh / I don’t wanna be the centre of attention but I guess I do this shit for lil’ Harley nahh / If you know me you know I just wanna be able to walk inna Target and people not be astonished / man let me do my shopping / but this is my job I asked for it I got it let’s goo’.

Above all, ‘True to Self’, demonstrates Bryson Tiller as robotically consistent, and perhaps the next great hip-hop/R&B amphibian – and we could definitely do with some more of them.

P110 – ‘P110 the Album’ (Review)

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OZ Records (2017)

After racking up over 100,000,000 views on their broadcasting channel, it was only right that P110 released an album to showcase their limitless pool of talent. Featuring a select bunch of MCs from all over the map, ‘P110 the Album’ demonstrates that a mixture of gritty and soulful soundscapes serves as the perfect platform to reconcile the various dialects, accents and flows that the UK scene has to offer.

Consisting of eight tracks, eight MCs (plus some accent vocals from Shadow) and a run-time that falls just short of half an hour, each member works overtime to make sure their personal stamp is left on the tape. The initial sequence – as you can imagine – is a declaration of biblical proportions. Jaykae, undoubtedly Birmingham’s most passionate MC, spits tenaciously amidst eerie choral lines and soft bongos, flipping the script on one of P110’s more popular digital features: ‘Hood’s hottest I’m the hottest in my hood / You best believe because I’m not misunderstood / You’re not a shotter not a thug’.

The following two tracks continue in a similar vein. Fredo, who dropped a monstrous trap hit in the form of ‘They Ain’t 100’ last year, delivers another gem for the DJs to shell down functions with. ‘Nothings New’, with its schizophrenic, arpeggiated synths and thundering bass, finds Fredo firing off more effortless bravado, ensuring each bar’s final syllable comes slapping down on the kick drum for added drama. Back in Brum, however, Tempa whips up some 140bpm sorcery for ‘Who Said’. Clanging cymbals, plucked strings and distorted bass generate an unparalleled urgency for his relentless vocal assault: ‘Went to the bar with ya ting / Says she wanna hold six shots like I carry the beatah / One of Birmingham’s ‘ardest spitters and I don’t need to do no feachahhh’.

Staying on the topic of Brum, Stardom puts in a solid performance on ‘Lizzy’. However, his efforts are slightly marred by the mix: Stardom’s vocal is a little too low and constantly jostles for space with the 808. As a result, attempting to dissect his lyrics amongst the raucous instrumentation becomes a pretty strenuous task. That being said, he’s clearly got bars.

Moving forward, however, Nottingham’s Splinta sands off the edges with his beautifully soulful cut ‘Getting Mine’. Featuring a gorgeous sample of Submotion Orchestra’s ‘All Yours’ (also flipped by Bryson Tiller), Splinta uses this poignant ambience as a vehicle to exhibit some of the darker elements of his psyche: ‘I’ve been stressed / I’ve been depressed and I’ve been broken / I ain’t lyin’/ Fallin’ down but I keep gettin’ back up and I keep on tryin’. Similarly, Ard Adz blesses us with ‘Thinking’ – a pensive, acoustic guitar-driven track that offers a refreshing counterpoint to some of the tape’s darker cuts.

The best two tracks on this thing, however, have to go to Aystar and Mist (it’s worth noting that Shadow on the Beat gets behind the boards for both of these). Hailing from Liverpool, Aystar’s throaty, warbly flow glides effortlessly over Shadow’s plucks and snares; never has such a softly spoken Scouser sounded so menacing! He can be funny too, though: ‘Pull up at the drive-thru at Maccies casually’. Mist, on the other hand, has his bouncy Brum-hop on lock, and doesn’t disappoint with ‘These Days’. Shadow dials in a bendy bassline which is juxtaposed perfectly with some pitched-up, hypnotic vocal yaps – and all Mist has to do is go in: ‘These days man are broke out there rude boy no salary (ahh) / Niggas can’t fuck with my squad nah nah can’t fuck with my faculty (nah nah nah nah) / Cah man a ride out real late rude boy boom bang cause casualties’.

What is it about Mist’s delivery that’s so mesmerising? Is it hearing a Birmingham MC spit with the articulacy that you’d expect from Skepta? Is it how comfortable he sounds behind the mic? Or perhaps it’s the catchy phrases he uses to pad out his cadences? It’s probably all of the above, however, one thing is for sure: Mist and Shadow on the beat are a match made in sonic heaven.

REMIX: Dave East – ‘Free Smoke’

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EASTMIX (2017)

While the many flavours of ‘More Life’ are still permeating our collective palates, Dave East has decided to give his fans a Harlemized version of the album’s opener – ‘Free Smoke’. Needless to say, East blesses Boi-1da’s drums with some heavy bars.

You ever wonder where that eerie sample from ‘Free Smoke’ came from? No, me neither, until I stumbled across it the other day. It’s actually lifted from the opening track of Danny Brown and Tony Yayo’s collaborative tape ‘Hawaiian Snow’. It was at the time when Danny just dropped ‘Hybrid’ (his first LP) and, upon meeting Yayo, nearly signed to G-Unit. Bet we are all glad that never happened. Anyway, it’s called ‘Roll Up’. Listen to it. (End of digression.)

This particular freestyle comes after a string of others East’s dropped through SoundCloud, all in anticipation for his forthcoming project ‘PARANOIA’; which, if these freestyles are anything to go by, is going to bang.

As far as the track goes, East hits us with the usual criminal bravado which, at this point, he has down to a fine art. After claiming that ‘Ross got the hardest album out’, he flips Drake’s chorus nicely, paying homage to an incarcerated friend: ‘Free Loaf, free loaf / We blow, we smoke’.

Keep an ear out for more freestyles by Dave in the run up to ‘PARANOIA’ – they’re only gonna get better.

NEW VISUALS: Danny Brown – ‘Ain’t It Funny’

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Warp (2016)

‘Atrocity Exhibition’, Danny Brown’s fourth solo album, was arguably the most agonising trip into Danny’s psyche – and quite possibly one of the best LPs of 2016. At the epicentre of this whirlwind of shrewd introspection and schizophrenic babbling was ‘Ain’t It Funny’, the instrumentation of which wouldn’t sound out of place at a circus. Probably not a normal circus, though; think less Cirque Du Soleil, and more Pennywise hoovering up a gram of coke and skipping around like a nutcase.

The visuals are pretty strange too. With the direction duties handed to Jonah Hill, the pair reimagine a (slightly) fictionalised version of Danny’s life in the aesthetic of an 80s sitcom. The video features legendary writer Gus Van Sant as the ‘dad’, Growing Pains’ Joanna Kerns as the ‘mom’, Lauren Alice-Avery as the ‘daughter’, some ‘fucking kid’ as the ‘kid’ (you know, the stereotypical twat that the laughter-track goes extra crazy for), and Danny Brown as the fucked-up ‘Uncle Danny’. Hopefully the irony isn’t lost on you: Danny is just playing himself.

Anyway, the clip itself just sets out to emphasise – in some form of narrative – what the song, and in fact the whole album, is trying to explain about Danny Brown: we, the listeners, find joy in Danny’s suffering; yes, he frames his tales of narcotics and mental health in a humorous light, but when you peel back the layers – it’s not funny at all. This is made quite clear when the ‘fucking kid’ (who, like the rest of cast, act as additional mouth-pieces for Danny) says, “He’s DYING and you people are LAUGHING. You DISGUST me”.

The thing is, it may seem that, on the face of it, Danny glamorises drugs, but in reality – he does the opposite: he makes them seem fucking scary; I’m pretty sure that if you were to play ‘Ain’t It Funny’ or ‘White Lines’ at the end of a D.A.R.E. convention, kids would run for the hills. So, with that in mind, give the guy a break.

Drake – ‘More Life’ (Review)

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OVO Sound / YME / Cash Money / Republic (2017)

With the arrival of ‘More Life’, Drake’s debut playlist, a lot of the questions regarding Aubrey’s alliance with British musicians have been answered. It’s not about OVO expansion. It’s not a question of whether the UK ‘needs’ his help or not; ‘More Life’ demonstrates that the relationship, and what it has culminated in, is entirely symbiotic.

But to think that ‘More Life’ is primarily concerned with the UK would be blinkered (and besides, if you want to explore this aspect further – Semtex has you covered with that and a lot more). With ‘More Life’, Drizzy spreads his musical net wider than ever before: grime, hip-hop, pop, house, dancehall, R&B and British drill all coexist on one project. And geographically, he’s on some Michael Palin shit; Drizzy enlists artists and sonics from all over the world. That’s the beauty of a labelling it a playlist – you don’t have to do anything crazy thematically, you don’t have to worry about the run-time. It’s a vehicle for exploration and fun, and ‘More Life’ demonstrates an abundance of both.

Just take the first half of the project. We start somewhere between Atlanta and OVO HQ with ‘Free Smoke’, moving swiftly on to meet Giggs in London for ‘No Long Talk’, then to some lounge in Ibiza (‘Passionfruit’), South Africa (‘Get It Together’), Nigeria (‘Madiba Riddim’), Jamaica (‘Blem’) and finally back to London for Sampha’s poignant ‘4422’. For this stretch of the album, Drake becomes a musical chameleon, deftly altering his dialect, attitude, cadences and melodies to suit each cultural adventure.

The pinnacle, however, has to be the Jorja Smith and Black Coffee-assisted ‘Get It Together’. Black Coffee dials in a wonderfully minimal 4×4 beat with pulsing polyrhythms, and litters the track delicately with African percussion and ominous piano stabs. What makes this track so special, though, is how sparingly Drake utilises himself: Jorja’s gorgeous, husky vocals glide solo over the beat for a good minute-and-a-half before Aubrey joins, whose harmonisation with Jorja on the hypnotic hook is made all the more mesmerising by his prior absence.

What’s really important about these songs, and the whole playlist for that matter, is that Drake is having fun. And when Drizzy’s having fun – everyone’s having fun. On ‘VIEWS’, though, despite its staggering commercial success, Drake was playing defence. His bars were cagey, bitter and worryingly introspective, and he acknowledges this more than once on ‘More Life’. As ‘Can’t Have Everything’ draws to a close, Aubrey’s mother has some choice words for him: “I’m a bit concerned about the negative tone I’m hearing in your voice these days… That attitude will just hold you back in this life”.

Similarly, on the project’s closer ‘Do Not Disturb’ – where he manages to exhibit more about his psychology than most rappers could in an album – Drake offers, ‘I was an angry yout when I was writing ‘VIEWS’/ Saw a side of myself that I just never knew’. This kind of apologetic reflection is what made Drake so universally likeable in the first place, however, it doesn’t stop him from throwing the odd barb here and there. ‘How you let the kid fighting ghost-writing rumours turn you to a ghost?’, he taunts on ‘Free Smoke’ (obviously aimed at Meek), but when Boi-1da’s drums are slapping and Drake’s four-minutes deep into a vocal assault – you let him off.

Anyway, moving on, what other benefits does Drake reap from labelling his project a playlist? Well, given the digitalisation of music and the rise of streaming services, it demonstrates a fair degree of business acumen from the OVO boss, but more importantly, it allows him to delegate some of the workload to a generous array of featured artists. Skepta makes the most of his two-minute slot by detonating his self-titled interlude, Giggs bludgeons his verses on ‘KMT’ and ‘No Long Talk’, and Kanye and PARTY feature back-to-back on ‘Glow’ and ‘Since Way Back’ respectively for the project’s final quarter – generating a dreamy ten-minute slot.

Young Thug and Drizzy’s chemistry, however, steals the show. On both ‘Sacrifices’ and ‘Ice Melts’, Thugga shuns the vocal filters, trading bars and melodies with Drake as if they were frequent collaborators (it’s a shame the whole Cash Money drama stopped that from happening). But my favourite’s got to be ‘Ice Melts’; raps and melodies blur into an impressive feat of vocal acrobatics, as the pair skip gleefully over Supah Mario’s warm, bouncy production. I can only hope their musical and personal relationship goes from strength to strength.

So, in short, ‘More Life’ is about a global artist generating a global sound. Drake is an omnivorous consumer of music, and his music is consumed by pretty much every demographic imaginable. Acknowledging and reconciling these two facts, then, is Drake’s master stroke.

Rick Ross – ‘Rather You Than Me’ (Review)

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Maybach / Epic (2017)

Many fans (especially the youngsters) are quick to count Mr Rozay out – especially now he’s sitting on the wrong side of forty. However, anyone that’s been keeping tabs will know that his last LP, ‘Black Market’, is arguably one of the most polished projects in his canon, so, you know, he’s still got it. ‘Rather You Than Me’, on the other hand, while not hitting the peaks of releases like ‘Teflon Don’ and ‘Rich Forever’, establishes the MMG boss as a decadent host – a host that can invite important figures from up and down the hip-hop timeline to a seat at his table.

I think it’s funny when fans scald Ross for invariably rapping about luxury – you know, islands they’ll never go to, cars they’ll never drive and clothes they’ll never wear; sure, it’s annoying when some rappers do it. But when Rozay gets it right – you can see the white sand, smell the leather on the inside of his new S Class and feel the new bed linen with the mad thread-count that he meticulously notifies you of to pad out his cadences. In other words, you don’t get mad when Ricky does it because the nature and specificity of his bars allow you to experience it vicariously.

Full review here!