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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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.

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!

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!