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.

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!

Migos -Culture (Review)

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300 Entertainment / Quality Control (2017)

During his acceptance speech for Best Television Comedy at the Golden Globes (Glover won two awards by the way, both for ‘Atlanta’), Donald Glover had the following to say: “I’d like to thank the Migos – not for being on the show, but for making ‘Bad and Boujee’”. That track (along with that speech) has created quite the buzz for the trap trio as of late. It’s not surprising really – although remaining fairly formulaic – it’s not any old trap anthem; Metro brings his most mesmerising synths to the table, and the Mac-11 cadence of Offset’s triplet flow demonstrates just how punchy “mumble rap” can be – when left to the professionals, that is.

Full review here!

The Weeknd – Starboy (Review)

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XO / Republic (2016)

In late 2012, The Weeknd (Abél Tesfaye) released ‘The Trilogy’, a compilation project that blended his initial three mixtapes – ‘House Of Balloons’, ‘Echoes Of Silence’ and ‘Thursday’ – into a two-and-a-half hour odyssey characterised by its desperate melancholia and wraith-like vocal lines. Abel took R&B, shook her up, put her in knee-high leather boots and had her doing lines of coke the size of Santa’s eyebrows in a dimly lit room. He – without wanting to sound too cliché – changed the game.

Full Review here.

Tinashe – Nightride (Review)

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RCA (2016)

‘Nightride’, then, her second full-length LP, finds Tinashe amalgamating elements from both of her previous projects, yet framing them in a manner that is altogether darker: Mustard’s summery synths are traded in for Metro Boomin and Boi-1da’s menacing instrumentation, while the dream/reality dichotomy manifests as a form of harrowing escapism. The consequence of Tinashe’s change in direction and artistic development is extremely impressive: ‘Nightride’ is tightly focused, poignant, deliciously dark and oddly insightful – one of R&B’s rarest currencies.

Read the full review on Nation Of Billions here.

Joe Budden – Rage & The Machine: A Timeline of One of Rap’s Most Beloved Outcasts

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Mood Muzik (2016)

Joe Budden is currently many thing to many people: Rap’s PewDiePie, Captain Twitter Fingers, VH1’s Romeo and most recently – the incessant Drake disser. Regardless of your knowledge or opinion of Joe Budden, his latest and one of his most triumphant offerings, Rage & The Machine, is ultimately a demonstration that he is one of rap’s estranged OGs. With the aid of frequent collaborator araabMUZIK, Rage is cohesive, pensive and – as always – lyrically compelling.

To properly put this album in context for the readers who are unfamiliar with the enigma that is Joe Budden, I will give you a (fairly) quick timeline of his “hand-me-downs” (“More Of Me”) discography, before getting down to the nitty-gritty.

It certainly wouldn’t be an understatement to say that Joe’s rap career has been a bit of a rollercoaster. After sending a banging demo tape to Def Jam consisting of tracks like “If You Real,” he was snapped up quickly. However, for major labels in the early Noughties it was all about getting up-tempo club bangers to resonate – Just Blaze being the most sought-after curator of such anthems. Thus, on Budden’s debut LP, his infamous, radio-pandering single “Pump It Up” was born; every DJ who was anybody was spinning this track. Thereafter, it seemed Joe’s fate was sealed: His name would always be inextricably bound to that song; he was ‘that “Pump It Up” rapper.’ This, however, was a bit of a shame. Anybody that had listened to the entirety of his self-titled debut (despite its flaws), knew tracks like “Walk With Me” were an exhibition of anecdotal articulacy, and perhaps more importantly – raw emotion.

Alas, Budden’s relationship with Def Jam turned sour and his sophomore LP was shelved, leaving Joe to wander the mixtape wilderness for almost a decade. Sorry – did I say wander? I mean stomped on: Joe’s Mood Muzik series received widespread critical acclaim. On these tapes, Joe did it all. He elucidated impossibly intricate hood tales (“Three Sides To A Story”), littered tracks with every conceivable literary device (“Dumb Out”), and had the uncanny ability to spit for eight minutes exhibiting unparalleled intimacy, yet never boring the listener (“All of Me”). In fact, Mood Muzik 3 was so good it became an album. The songs were the same; they merely amputated DJ On Point’s obnoxious tags (thank fuck!).

Despite Joe’s often poor ear for beats, his overzealous DJ hosts, his sartorially-challenged wardrobe and his inability to find and stick to a particular sonic strategy – he was still lovable. If you liked Joe, despite his flaws, it was for two reasons: 1) He could spit like a fucking champ, and 2) He put all his cards on the table – digging up and revealing some of the most harrowing fragments of his fucked up psyche.

Moving forward, then, off the strength of his tapes, Joe’s cult fan base continued to grow. Meanwhile, he started a rap supergroup: Slaughterhouse. Royce da 5’9, Crooked I and Joell Ortiz linked up with Joe on a track that would soon denote the quartet, culminating in an alliance glued together with a shared hatred for skinny jeans – and a penchant for lyrical bravado. After signing to Eminem’s Shady 2.0 imprint, their first lyrical exhibition was in a 2011 BET cypher – one which I will never forget. Spitting over East Flatbush Project’s “Tried By 12” instrumental, Budden delivered an exquisite collection of bars (which I urge you to listen to here).

Budden, then, along with his new gang, were back in the limelight. He released a brilliant (and slept on) tape, A Loose Quarter, followed by the Love Lost series: Two albums and a mixtape that continued to detail his struggles with depression, drugs and of course – women (mainly Tahiry). However, there was an underlying issue that the Love Lost series shared: The songs were too formulaic. From the bait pop-crossover tracks on No Love Lost, to the desperately sad cuts on All Love Lost – they nearly all contained sixteens followed by, often jarring, eight bar R&B hooks. The reason for this was arguably twofold: Firstly, Joe was still trying to adjust to the ever-fluctuating hip-hop landscape. Secondly, Budden’s infamous “emo” fan-base simply couldn’t stand him being happy; the esteemed poignancy in his tracks was often a manifestation of his poor mental health and the various tribulations that plagued his personal life. Therefore, these contemporary structural blueprints were a simple way in which Joe could generate affecting songs, while catering to a broader demographic.

So, we arrive at Rage, a project that deviates somewhat from Joe’s recent offerings. Now 36 years old, Joe eschews the bait pop-crossover singles, the gaudy trap cuts and the A&R-adored song structures – even the hopelessly melancholic introspection. Instead, with the aid of MPC master, araabMUZIK, the duo formulate more nuanced iterations of such tracks, punctuated with Joe’s patented stream-of-consciousness storytelling and astute, satirical observations. Above all, the duo prove one thing: A happy Joe and a happy fan-base can coexist.

Initiating his career at the end of the “Golden Era” of hip-hop, Joe has spat through a fairly volatile fifteen years – but on Rage he’s not playing catch-up anymore: He understands that much of his current fan-base are young, but instead of pandering to them – he chooses to educate them, yet this rarely comes across as preachy or overly-nostalgic. On “Uncle Joe,” Budden wrestles with the fact that he is now considered “an old rapper,” ultimately deciding to wear that label with pride. Over wistful piano riffs, Joe sets himself apart from the youthful fan-base he addresses by elucidating their disparate frames of reference: “Supreme,” to Joe, is a gangster from Queens; similarly, “B.M.F.” denotes an infamous drug-trafficker from Miami – Big Meech – not a song by Rick Ross. Realising he’s probably going over their head, he bursts out with: “Different from what they sellin’ y’all / Fuck am I tellin’ y’all?” However, instead of remaining flustered, he chooses to be democratic: “I’m with the turn-up / I just like Biggie’s shit.”

Joe revisits his droppin’-gems-on-the-porch mode of spitting for various tracks on Rage. On the skit-like “Forget,” araab flips a gorgeous sample of the Stylistics’ “Your Love’s Too Good To Be Forgotten,” while Joe details the number of rapper’s names he can’t remember, blaming it on his age. However, the irony is palpable: Joe has clearly grown weary of the industry and the shoddy artists that constitute it. As the sample fades, we move seamlessly into “I Gotta Ask,” where the vocal samples go up a few octaves and Joe gives a little stylistic nod to Hov. Interestingly, he uses this space to give a frank, albeit rather tongue-in-cheek, explanation of his recent string of Drake disses: “How many MCs must get dissed / In the great words of Buckshot / My answer’s ‘Why the fuck not?’” Joe is fundamentally hip-hop’s equivalent of a xenophobic pensioner who says what he likes because at his age – who the fuck cares? This is what makes Rage so special.

A great deal of credit, however, must be given to the man behind the boards: araabMUZIK. The young beatsmith slaved away with Joe in the MC’s New Jersey hideout for months, which probably went a long way to building on the duo’s already evident chemistry. Despite his luscious samples and the unique swing on his drums, it is araab’s ability to keep the whole tone of the album on an even-keel that really shines through. The singles “Flex,” “By Law,” and “I Gotta Ask” don’t jut out like before (Love Lost series), neither do the explorative synths and crunching bass on turn-up anthem “Wrong One.” Rage finds Joe flitting between a variety of song structures and archetypal styles, yet araab makes them all cohere with ease – correcting the key flaw with recent Budden records.

As the album draws to a close, Budden delivers a tear-jerker for the Stans in the form of “I Wanna Know.” Over a beautiful, albeit recycled (Freddie Gibbs – “Shame”), Manhattans loop, Joe triumphantly reconciles himself to the personal issues that he has detailed throughout his career; the problems with his mother, his exes and son are all put to bed, leaving Joe at peace: “Right now I stand in a place I never stood before / Finally filled the void in my life / I wasn’t good before / Fuckin’ with these hoes / that energy I was puttin’ forth / God this is more like the fuckin’ love I was lookin’ for.” In light of this track, the artwork makes a bit more sense: A big “Thank you” to his Deity, and a little “Fuck you” to his critics (probably me included).