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.

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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.

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.

Future – ‘HNDRXX’ (Review)

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Epic (2017)

I don’t want to seem like a yes-man, but Future’s not putting a foot wrong; ‘HNDRXX’ is gorgeous, a hallucinatory pop/trap/R&B whirlwind that balances pleasure and pain – even innocence and arrogance like they’re the same damn thing. Well, innocence might be a little too strong (we’re talking about a guy who kicked off his last project with, ‘Your baby mama fuck me better when the rent’s due’). Nevertheless, this thing dazzles. ‘HNDRXX’ trades in the unadulterated, head-bopping grit of ‘FUTURE’ for falsetto-led victory laps, decadent anecdotes and heartfelt confessions – bathing them in the melodic warmth of R&B instrumentation from a variety of eras.

I shouldn’t really have to fill you in on Future’s last album, I mean, it dropped last week for fuck sake. Anyway, it turned out to be the best version of what, I imagine, we all expected: a Super Future trapathon. Everything about it was relentless, and I suppose, in some ways, conclusive. He could have left it there. Alas, that’s really not his style; a follow-up was announced. Despite the fact that ‘FUTURE’ managed to colour inside the lines of his well-recognised formula and still keep things interesting, a further seventeen tracks of pure bass and bravado may have triggered some thumb-twiddling. So, a change of pace was pretty essential.

Full review here!

THEY. – ‘Nu Religion: Hyena’ (Review)

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MOAG / Warner (2017)

THEY., as a duo, jut out sonically and sartorially from our ’17 On The Frontline Series’. The former, with their audacious blend of punky flecks and R&B textures – and the latter with their stonewashed denim jackets and head-wrapped bandannas. Both of these characteristics make quite the statement – and they don’t shy away from verbalising them: “This is a new agenda we are trying to push, we want to be alternative, we want to blend different genres together and take little pieces of what we like and fuse it together.”

And that’s exactly what they do with ‘Nü Religion: Hyena’: the drums clash, clang and flutter quite unlike the more rigid patterns of today’s R&B; the ghostly, harmonised vocals constantly morph and modulate, drawing on a plethora of geographical influences; and the upshot of these artistic chess moves is extremely impressive. ‘Nü Religion: Hyena’, then, is less of an experimental project, and more of compelling argument: R&B, hip-hop, rock, funk – these are merely categories that we confer upon particular albums and artists because we – as fans – like to make sense of them. They don’t belong, intrinsically, to the sounds themselves. So, if we spend less time compartmentalising and more time listening – we can start appreciating these projects for what they really are: carefully moulded sound.

After that little rant, you’re probably wondering why, in the second line, I implied that the album in question was in fact R&B – well, that was really for ease of reference; ‘Nü Religion: Hyena’, as the duo themselves assert, is ‘alternative’ – but not the kind of not-quite this-not-quite-that kind of alternative that many acts fall into. Alternative, in this context, is more about amalgamation. ‘Africa’ for example, utilises tweaked trap drum patterns in service of a culturally cathartic groove with jaunty synths and layered crooning; ‘Motley Crew’, with its recurring, Nirvana-esque guitar riff, culminates in a triumphant call to arms with thumping bass that Future would be proud of; and Dante dials in some James Blake electronica for ‘Truth Be Told’ just to keep the listener honest.

However, despite the far-reaching influences and daring musical chemistry employed by THEY on ‘Nü Religion: Hyena’, the tracks aren’t simply bolted together. Dante’s zippy, complex drum patterns keep the project tightly focused, and Drew Love’s ghostly falsetto – although operating in a variety of ways throughout the project – preserves a semblance of homogeneity to keep the record’s vision intact.

‘Nü Religion: Hyena’, then, is not merely an excellent project – it’s an important project for music moving forward in 2017. Don’t get too caught up in the gorgeous melodies and the compelling rhythms – this album (and this duo) come with a message: don’t just push the boundaries – knock them down. Create something new.

Link to article and album!

Future – ‘FUTURE’ (Review)

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A1 / Freebandz / Epic (2017)

People seem to be arguing a lot about Future’s hot streak: when did it start, when did it end, or even when – if ever – will it end? Well, it’s safe to say that it started late in 2014 with ‘Monster’. After a messy split with Ciara, Future decided to become a caricature of his new public persona, creating a project typified by three things: desperation, punishing low-end and crushed auto-tune.

The upshot: some of the most emotionally compelling hip-hop in a while – somehow managing to convey despair at 95 bpm. Following this came a slew of albums and mixtapes, namely: ‘56 Nights’, ‘Beast Mode’, ‘DS2’, ‘Purple Reign’, ‘What a Time to Be Alive’ (with Drake) and ‘EVOL’, all of which stuck to that same aesthetic more or less – and all of which were homeruns in their own right. With his latest album, then, the streak’s still intact; ‘FUTURE’ doesn’t reinvent the wheel, however, it’s an excellent demonstration that the Atlantan has his particular brand of punch-drunk trap down to a fine art.

Full review here!

 

 

NoMBe drops the latest: ‘Young Hearts’

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Self-released (2017)

Hailing from Los Angeles, NoMBe (real name: Noah McBeth) has been tucked away for a while now, honing his conceptually ambitious sound – electric soul. Fusing together the slow, evocative whispers of indie folk, Noah 40 Shebib’s feather-light drums and a plethora of jazzy guitar riffs – NoMBe’s been marching all over the musical map to bring you these psychedelic love ballads.

What’s more, he plans on drip-feeding these tracks – one-by-one, each month – until his debut album, ‘They Might’ve Even Loved Me’, appears as a fully-formed playlist on his SoundCloud feed. A novel move, and perhaps an ingenious way to combat the average fan’s impossibly short attention span. Either way, he’s making some beautiful music.

The album’s second track, ‘Young Hearts’, just hit SoundCloud recently. A smouldering cut concerning adolescence, and, in particular – an adolescent’s inability to reconcile the emotional with the rational. Here’s NoMBe’s personal, and very lucid, take on the track:

‘Like the rest of us, the first time I was in love was the most pleasantly painful experience of my life. There was no point of reference for how to cope. When you are truly obsessed with another human, you are convinced that you have everything to offer to this significant one, but can only marinate in confusion over the fact that she (or he) just isn’t able to see it. You may want to die for this person, you may want to abandon everything. This may even seem plausible in that given moment because you simply can’t fathom life without them. This feeling evolves over time and I think love becomes more complex as we get older. Young Hearts is dedicated to that unadulterated feeling (pun intended) that we only get once. Raw, uncontrolled and unexpected.’

The vocals, although minimal, convey a real longing; the gentle knock of the wooden snare is extremely satisfying; and the core, tropical house-like melody that drives the track manages to embody the oxymoron written by NoMBe himself: ‘pleasantly painful’.

Go listen below or watch the video above and stay tuned for next month’s!

Check the link here!