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.

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.

NEW FILM: The Weeknd – Mania

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Grant Singer (2016)

In anticipation for his third studio LP, ‘Starboy’ (which should be with us by tomorrow) The Weeknd has just dropped a short film, ‘Mania’, comprising snippets from various tracks slated to appear on ‘Starboy’. These include ‘All I Know’ (feat. Future), ‘Sidewalks’ (feat. Kendrick Lamar), ‘Secrets’, ‘Die For You’, ‘Party Monster’ and ‘I Feel It Coming’.

Link to article here.

A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (Review)

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Epic / SME (2016)

It’s been eighteen long years since A Tribe Called Quest released an album (‘The Love Movement’), however, their latest offering, ‘We Got it From Here’, makes it abundantly clear that the spaced-out jazz-rap aficionados still know how to kick it. Despite sticking to their rock-steady blueprint of pensive rhymes and groovy soundscapes, the contextual poignancy of Phife Dawg’s death and the volatility of the American political landscape imbue ‘WGIFH’ with an urgency unlike any other Tribe LP.

With that in mind, ‘WGIFH’ plays like a funky self-help audiobook for the post-electoral apocalypse and beyond; causes for concern and celebration are well balanced, demonstrating that the Tribe’s verbal proficiency is one that transcends age.

Full Review on Nation of Billions.

Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition (Review)

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Warp (2016)

Rap’s favourite psycho, Danny Brown, has released another album. For those that don’t know, Danny Brown rose to fame on the strength of his sophomore LP – XXX, seemingly kick-starting a run of projects that would have a profound impact on hip-hop. Atrocity Exhibition, a title lifted from a Joy Division track, is the third instalment in Danny’s depraved adventure and a firm nod towards the LP’s sonic flavour. However, it should be noted that the title also belongs to an experimental novel by J.G. Ballard, a key theme of which is psychosis. Now, I wouldn’t put it past Danny to read such an obscure novel (there is a chapter called “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan”), and I can assert without hesitation that psychosis is a theme shared by both works.

Anyway, Danny Brown can arguably (and perhaps impertinently) be summed up in the following manner: a drug-abusing, drug-slinging maniac with a devotion to hip-hop, and an uncanny ability to generate an unparalleled range of noises with his vocal chords; a new listener may simply mistake him for six different iterations/reincarnations of ODB. You don’t have to listen to too many tracks before you discover that he likes it raw.

After flirting with a gaudy, electronic sound that had many listeners wide-eyed and stiff-jawed on Old, Danny and frequent collaborator Paul White extend their musical net much further this time. Electronic production is fused with everything from punk to jazz, framing his tales of narcotics and poor mental health in a new light. Instrumentation from tracks like “Ain’t It Funny” and Alchemist’s “White Lines” 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 freak.

One of Danny’s strengths, and perhaps what affords his schizophrenic yapping a degree of clarity and order, is the intricate manner in which he weaves his projects together, elucidating them through reference to each other. On XXX’s opening track, Danny raps: “It’s the downward spiral / Got me suicidal.” On Atrocity Exhibition’s opener, Danny takes this harrowing bar and puts a magnifying glass over it. However, there are no mentions of “Squidward” or “his clarinet;” instead we are left with pure anguish as Danny howls, with a seemingly increased psychotic inflection, over dissonant guitars and plummeting bass. The significance of expanding on this microcosmic bar, then, is that it demonstrates from the get-go that Brown is still firmly on the descent – or perhaps in a crumpled heap at the bottom.

For the most part, we find Danny hovering at the nexus between shrewd intelligence and pure insanity. A feat that might seem illogical, or even impossible, before listening to this LP. Bars like “Some people say I think too much / I don’t think they think enough” on “Rolling Stone,” and the manner in which he flits between Danny Brown and André 3000 while encapsulating and rationalising his whole reckless philosophy on “Today,” demonstrate Brown’s genius. Both of these tracks, however, sandwich the middle third of the album, some of which arguably belongs in a mental asylum. On “Dance In The Water,” Danny babbles frantically over drums and vocals ostensibly sourced from a samba festival, sounding like a nutcase trying to tame a Rottweiler. At times, he sounds as though he is two bars away from an actual breakdown; if XXX was a concept album about desperation, Atrocity Exhibition is surely a concept album about full-blown insanity. That being said, these tracks certainly add something to Brown’s enigmatic catalogue, and at no point over-stay their welcome; just as you think he’s losing the plot, he’ll reel you in with one of his pearls: “So much coke / Take a sniff need a ski lift” (“Ain’t It Funny”).

Moving forward, let’s talk about the singles. On the latter half of the rave-centric Old, the singles “Dip” and “Smokin & Drinkin” playing back-to-back sounded a bit like an extended cut of the crackhead’s “Harlem Shake,” throwing Side B a little off-axis for me. Atrocity Exhibition, however, is bolstered with all the right singles in all the right places. The Black Milk produced “Really Doe” is perfect: Earl, Kendrick and Ab-Soul trade bars triumphantly over eerie bells, proving themselves as the ideal trio to support Danny. On the Evian Christ produced “Pneumonia,” we find Danny doing a rare bit of peacocking over raucous clanging, interspersed occasionally with Schoolboy Q’s signature ad-libs. “When It Rain,” however, steals the day: White and Brown generate a beautiful, brand-new piece of wack-jobbery, while still remaining true to “the old Danny Brown.”

The album draws to a close on a strange note (no surprises there). “Hell For It” begins with stuttered piano runs, Danny quick to condemn anyone who has questioned his art. He reiterates a bold statement from his first album, Hybrid: “Tell myself everyday / The greatest that’s alive.” However, more interestingly, he brings to light a purpose to his music that he has omitted thus far: “I lived through that shit so you don’t have to go through it / Stepping stones in my life hot coals walk with me.” It’s funny – although Danny doesn’t shut up about topics like drug addiction, he never makes them seem glamorous – in fact, he makes them seem fucking scary; I’m pretty sure that if you were to play “White Lines” at the end of a D.A.R.E. convention, kids wouldn’t touch coke with a barge-pole. So, with that in mind, perhaps there is method behind his madness.