Jay-Z: 4:44 ALBUM REVIEW

You’ve probably heard a little bit about the life and times of the one and only Jay-Z since that incident in the elevator a handful of years ago.  Ever since the rap statesmen’s debut “Reasonable Doubt,” he’s talked up his game with the ladies and unfortunately this continued into his relationship with Beyoncé which of course inspired the earth-shattering Lemonade last year.  4:44 features Jay talking openly about all of it and more, even reaching back to the unhealthy start of the pair’s relationship.

Recorded seemingly within a stretch of a couple weeks leading into its release date—those Al Sharpton selfies that he references happened less than 2 weeks prior—the album is simple.  No I.D. throws together a reliable collection of soul-sampling beats and Jay raps his ass off for a quick 37 minutes, yielding an impeccable change of pace from the not-so-effortless blemish of an album Magna Carta Holy Grail.  Jay is a man with endless resources and to hear him just stick to his roots makes for a fantastic late-career highlight in a career full of victory.

The heart of the album lies in the title track—the fifth song in the track-listing.  Jay supposedly woke up in the middle of the night and wrote out everything he needed to say to his wife and he really holds nothing back.  Beyond divulging the threats he’s posed to his family and kids with his antics: “I apologize, often womanize,” Jay even dives into his immature mistakes throughout the relationship: “I said ‘Don’t embarrass me,’ instead of ‘Be mine’/That was my proposal for us to go steady/That was your 21st birthday/You matured faster than me, I wasn’t ready.”

This is Jay-Z at his most mature and raw and real, there are no excuses, no half assed apologies, Jay takes a step back and admits the problems he’s caused and promises to make a change for the future.  With the sample “Never gonna treat you like I should” from Hannah Williams sharply looming in the background, the track is truly a big emotional moment.

Surrounding the centerpiece are the album’s best standout tracks.  In the four slot, Jay talks about seeing through the fakeness into one’s eyes with a catchy-as-hell Frank Ocean chorus.  Sixth yields an empowering, forceful number with harmonized Beyoncé samples complementing Jay’s case for black people and culture being stronger together than apart.  “And old ni**as stop actin’ brand new like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring too,” is a personal favorite line.

Following that is likely the best feature on the project from Damien Marley as Jay reclaims his territory in the rap game.  These songs aren’t necessarily as huge and radio friendly as “Empire State of Mind,” but between the killer bars and the fun hooks and sampling, they’re just as addicting.

Besides the string of killer tracks, Jay remains reliably solid.  “Smile” talks up the life of Jay’s mom, who had kids living as a closeted lesbian.  Again, Jay is divulging parts of his life that I don’t think he necessarily would’ve in the past, making for a deep emotional work.  “The Story of OJ” talks about how no matter the circumstances black people in the United States, they’re still not treated equally: “Rich ni**a, poor ni**a, house ni**a, field ni**a/Still ni**a.” “Legacy” serves as a great send of as well, with Jay-Z talking about how he wants to combat the gatekeepers by setting his kids up with money to support their dreams.  I’ve found myself singing back some of the choruses of the hits from the middle of the album, but the warm soul sound of the more laid back tracks, makes for a rewarding front to back experience.

Here and there Jay does show his age in a bad way: “That’s like sayin’ I’m the tallest midget/Wait, that ain’t politically correct.” Jokes about political correctness aren’t my cup of tea and this just feels a bit unnecessary.  Also, the chorus of “Moonlight” is a bit puzzling. “We stuck in La La Land/Even when we win, we gon’ lose” is a great start and commentary about how even when black greatness occurs, something gets messed up in the reward process, but then he talks about the younger generation of rappers: “Y’all got the same fuckin’ flows/I don’t know who is who.” The proximity between the monotony of the whiteness of reward shows and the monotony of triplet flow runs a bit too close to comparison, especially for the guy who just said “nobody wins when the family feuds.”

Besides a few luke-warm lyrical moments, however, the album remains truly fantastic.  Jay-Z never lost his ability to rap—obviously—but this is the most raw he’s felt in a while.  It’s great to see an artist a bit past his prime still laying it all out on the line.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Kara-Lis Coverdale-Grafts: Album Review

Montrealer Kara-Lis Coverdale has an impeccable ear for ambient music and sound composition.  At 22-minutes, “Grafts” is one of her more condensed projects and although works like “A-480” and “Aftertouches” certainly offer blissful sublimity from beginning to end, “Grafts” is certainly her most no-moment-wasted work to date.  Housing three different designs—“2C,” “Fluttering,” and “Moments in Love”—the work has just enough time to develop each idea to its fullest extent before the next idea gradually gels into place over the course of a one or two minute transition period.  The road map is logical and Coverdale’s unbelievable melodic sense nails the execution.

“2C” opens with a church-like aura.  The droney, keyboard undertones have the clicking of the keys sound of an old organ as more unclear source material plays around with a simple melodic loop in the high-range atop a lush pillow of sound. Coverdale has some pauses in the beginning phrases to immediately develop the sonic environment.  Eventually, less predictable plucks of melodic sound play around as the first melodic source finds a groove-like state pulsing between two or three notes with swaths of harp-like sound adding more ambiance.

“Fluttering” maintains some of the undertones, but also builds a circular storm of melodic ideas above the slightly less brooding pillow of backgrounds. There’s the crystals of big pulsing sound; the fluttering textures of electronics; and again harp-like rotating—it’s a bit more top-heavy than the first piece and more short lived but it’s within the same sphere for sure.

The final section is a more typical aquatic, ambient environment with a grace of the church-like hum of the beginning of the album.  There’s a slowly arching keyboard sound in a relentlessly subdued space.  The detailing is impeccable.  For instance, there’s an audible shift in white noise around the start of each background loop—almost as if the room noise changes.  Also, the piece finds a bit of tension in a super soft, pulsing industrial sound that remains hidden in the background.  As opposed to the second piece playing with the balance of for and background, this one brings everything down and forces the listener to find tiny details within the mix.

The project finds a certain singularity.  Restarting “Grafts” at the end is logical, as if the spirit of the initial melodic idea was beneath the surface the whole time.  Part of this cohesion comes from the brilliant transition moments as the formal sections of the piece come to a close. Around 6:22, “Fluttering” offers its first sentiments before the slightly more formal 8-minute time slot. Coverdale begins to run the whole groove-state of the first section of the piece through a fade out and eventually through a high-pass (?) filter as spastic flutters of harp and electronic noise play around in the foreground.

Here, there’s a complete stop in movement around 7:54, but in the case of “Moments in Love,” the transition is even less pronounced. It almost feels like the high-melodies of “Flutter” fade out for 3 or 4 minutes and at around 12:30, the final wandering melodic idea begins to take shape.  Both of these transition point make the project ridiculously cohesive, while also turning into a slightly new direction.

Coverdale is certainly a fresh voice in ambient music. There’s traditional aesthetics in the mix, but she looks forward with a particularly lively approach to musical phrase and instrumental mixing. A return to a more “full-length” format is likely and she’s sure to amaze, but these 22 minutes are nearly flawless and impossible to put down.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Vince Staples-Big Fish Theory: ALBUM REVIEW

Vince Staples’s persona is perhaps most well explained by his case for pandas as his favourite animal: “He thinks they all wanna die. It’s true that zookeepers often have to force them to procreate. Vince cites that—and the fact they just look so sad—as evidence they hate being alive. They’re his favourite animal.”  The world is dark and terrible, but Staples also sounds like he’s half playing around all the time as if the concept of thinking the world is gross is “corny”—one of his most used words.  On “Big Fish Theory,” Staples maintains his usual drawl speech and coy attitude as huge, biting electronic-influenced beats explode beneath him and hooks talk up his come up, moving from little pond problems to “countin’ up hundreds by the thousands.”

The album opens in murky territory with whistling wind and sparse electronic melody.  Vince uses a dog-eat-dog type metaphor with “Crabs in a Bucket” to discuss the ruthless world of underground rap shows.  As becomes common on the record, he tosses in a line about the black-entrepreneur experience in the United States: “Feds takin’ pictures doin’ play by play/They don’t ever want to see the black man eat,” but he hasn’t yet reached the “bitch I’m going all in” snarl of the back half of the record. “Big Fish” sees Staples lock into first gear.  He still talks about getting past the little-town problems of his neighborhood, but as the hollow bass rolls through and Juicy J recites the boasting, robotic hook, the album alludes to a more commanding attitude.

An interlude follows to keep things under control, but Staples pops out some more fierce bars over the dance-vibe of “Love Can Be…”  Admittedly, his first verse—which follows a cheeky, fast-paced Kilo Kish verse and a rather violent build-up of electronic static—is a bit underwhelming.  For a three-minute track, the wait for a pummeling set of bars is a bit long, but after spouting off some quick phrases, Staples commands that biting electronic line with a verse about choosing money over women.  Again, this whole “chase a check never chase a bitch” attitude seems a bit half-sarcastic considering that Staples doesn’t exactly seem to be all that interested in wealth.  There’s just always some sense of Staples thinking all this rap shit is ridiculous while falling into certain tropes—it makes the record fun to sit with and reinterpret.

“745” continues the discussion of women in his life and the desires he was fed as a child and how they’ve led him down the wrong road: “All my life man I want fast cars, NASCARs/All my life I want runway stars, Kate Moss… All my life pretty women done told me lies.”  Considering his later lyric “This is for my future baby mama/Hope your skin is black as midnight,” there seems to be an element of race involved: “Eyes can’t hide your hate for me/Maybe you was made for the Maybelline.”  Brands like Maybelline have told him to desire rich white models for his whole life, but at the end of the day he can’t relate to these people and they’ve wronged him in the past.

After another quick interlude, the album starts a continuous string of savage.  Produced by PC-music weirdo SOPHIE, “Yeah Right” hits as hard as just about any rap track has this year with a huge distorted 808. Vince offers a series of questions “Do the trap jump? Is the plug right? Got your head right?… Pretty woman wanna slit the wrist/Pretty woman wanna be a rich man’s bitch” then announces they’re full of shit with the repetitive chorus of “yeah right.” Kendrick Lamar then shows up for a traditional “I can put rappers on life-support/everyone wants to kill me” feature. It bangs.  Some other highlights include the boiling bass-line of “BagBak,” the percussive energy of “Homage,” and the sludgy industry of “SAMO.”

Vince Staples has his cards in the right place. With voices like Stormzy and Skepta starting to gain traction in the US, Staples seems to be incorporating a bit of UK-grime influence, while also wearing his American rap influences on his sleeve.  “745” sounds like an electronic version of some west coast rap slow-jam from the 90s and his bars could seem fit just about anywhere as quick-tempo jams also find place on the record.  His songwriting is like punk-rock jabs rather than the lengthy jazz freak-outs of Kendrick Lamar or the wacky post-punk fusions of Danny Brown, but with the help of producers SOPHIE, Flume, Ray Brady, and Zack Sekoff, Staples combines new and old to look to the future.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Clark-Death Peak: Album Review

Deep into his career on Warp Records, UK’s Chris Clark is still surprising.  “Death Peak” continues his long streak of placing sound-art leaning material over a strong sense of rhythmic drive, but in terms of sheer length of songs this is his most ambitious project to date and the album’s early techno-induced numbers make for a new connotation to his sound.  The drama at the end of the work is huge to say the least with giant, shimmering stabs and Pink Floyd child-choirs coming into play as pulsing tracks bleed into one another, but the album holds onto fun dance-ability for the whole front half.  There’s a great deal of variety in the project and the logical march from light to mean makes it digestible and addicting.

Clark alludes to the violence that will inhabit the end of his project in the ominous first track.  After sparse melodies in a light, metallic texture, larger melodic motions start to inhibit the space with frightening vocals pushing towards a dark sonic landscape.  Although the next two tracks spend a lot more time on light-hearted material, this opening track helps prepare the taste buds for what’s to come.

“Butterfly Prowler” follows with a bouncy synth melody that remains in the equation throughout as the surroundings change color about 50 times.  Vocal pops on the twos and fours add a quirky dance vibe, before throbbing echoes add a dark smolder to the middle of the track.  “Peak Magnetic” picks up where “Prowler” left off with more jolting energy, this time a looping keyboard line remaining central throughout.

 

The album never has a moment where a song isn’t logically incorporated, but “Hoova” certainly heralds in a shift in mood.  The tracks very first moment is a big industrial explosion before relentless percussive noise takes over for the front-half of the track.  However, whereas songs like “Slap Drones” or “Catastrophe Anthem” only rev-up the storm, “Hoova” strives for a bit of a different ending.  Around the four minute mark, the song takes a turn to the atmospheric with soaring melodies and delicate vocals making for a break from the chaos.

“Slap Drones” is driving from the very beginning, but not in a completely violent manner.  Light shades of snare sound open before an abstract but club-worthy beat sets in.  Around the last 20 seconds of the track, the pummeling industrial sound is all-encompassing but again, Clark showcases an example of momentary clarity within the hectic intensity of the back half of his record, which makes his ploy into violence dynamic and palletable.  The album continues to amp things up for the next few tracks until the last number, “Un U.K,” offers a 10-minute reprisal of sorts of the path of energy on the whole album.

Clark is never one to offer an uninteresting project, but “Death Peak” is certainly an important work that utilizes his previously explored sonic talents while showcasing his ability to shine in the six to ten-minute long track format.  As he nears the second decade of his career behind the boards, it’s clear that his ambition is still strong and his talents are enough to execute his plans.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Kelly Lee Owens-Kelly Lee Owens: Album Review

The fact that Kelly Lee Owens spent time soaking in influences by working in record stores is clear on her debut full-length.  With hand-drums, droning strings, and varying vocal approaches all coming into play, the album taps into ambient and drone traditions while also delivering a constant stream of danceable bass lines and bouncy synth arpeggiations.

Owens sounds grown up on here. The sonic fingerprint of the project maintains a certain white sheen, Owens never throwing in tone colors popping or obnoxious.  Her melodic sense is impeccable, yet she doesn’t shove it down her listener’s throat.  Songs like “Lucid” or “Keep Walking” allude to a possible jump into the electronic pop world, whereas “8” alludes to some left-field experimentation.  Owens could explore either in more depth in the future, but her self-titled album strikes a great mix of light drive and ruminating contemplation.

A constant theme on the record is the crafting of mood before the allowance of rhythmic drive.  Songs like “Anxi” and “Lucid” gradually find a clubby groove by the end, but Owens takes time at the beginning to paint their sonic identity.  With Jenny Hval in tow, “Anxi” kicks off with a simple, low melody with a lot of delay effect before subdued drum patterns gradually settle in under the stringy vocal lines.  Around the halfway point, the track focus in on a driving drum groove with lightly touched keyboard pecks complimented by a bassy melodic line making for rousing momentum.

“Lucid” follows with a more pronounced initial vocal melody and again spends time landscaping before the crunchy synths that jump in around the two-minute mark.  Owens isn’t one to offer infectious hooks or even super structured songs, so these stark shifts in energy make the project memorable and dynamic.

Elsewhere—namely “Arthur” and “Keep Walking”—Owens elevates simple instrumental environments to enlightening heights with huge washes of vocals.  Apparently Owens’s tribute to Arthur Russell, “Arthur” opens with some textural noise and distant vocals.  The track gradually picks up a bit, but the instrumental remains rather stagnant as vocal countermelodies crash into one another over top.

Admittedly, “Keep Walking” is a bit brighter than my personal preference—I find Owens to be at her best when she’s aiming to smolder—but the end of the track is undeniably enlightening as the simple drum part and shimmering instrumental melody underpin the pillow of “oohs” and empowering main melody.

The kinship to drone music is most obvious on the ten-minute jam “8”—the tune on the record that contains the most gradual build in energy.  We open with some Alice Coltrane-esque string drones, which never really leave the equation as the whole sonic space swells over the sparse percussion.  Around the two-minute mark, Owens introduces a simple, high melodic device that doesn’t develop a whole lot, instead looping a handful of times, making for a numbing hypnosis.

Kelly Lee Owens has all her taste in the right place.  Her self-titled record carves out a nice niche in the electronic realm with killer grooves and pillows of beauty holding equal weight.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Buddy- Ocean & Montana: EP Review

“Ocean & Montana” finds a sensible vocalist/producer relationship as Kaytranada and Buddy both strike a balance between melody and rap in a hip hop setting. The EP kicks off with “Find Me,” a tune where Buddy passes for an R&B singer, but he follows that up with some blistering bars on the quick “Guillotine.”  To this day, I would argue that Kaytranada has never released a shitty beat, but on his debut “99.9%,” the lead singer/front-person changed hands a lot, making for a bit of inconsistency. At only five tracks, one could argue that consistency should be a given here, but still it’s nice to hear Kaytranada focus his energy on one muse for a whole project.  Buddy has proven himself to be a force to be reckoned with on this EP and once again Kaytranada shows promise as the hottest young producer in hip-hop today.

After the somber, crooner tones of “Find Me” and the funk drum kit of “Guillotine,” “World of Wonders” is sweet (even though Buddy just talks about fucking).  Kaytranada throws in a bit of his cotton candy melodic ideas over another classy drum part.  Again, Buddy finds himself floating in cloudy melodic space with a bouncy pop hook to compliment rhymes in the verses.  “A Lite” carries over the lyrical bluntness (pun intended), talking about weed for three minutes.  This track is a bit more mellow but Kaytranada gives enough bite in the drum part to keep the momentum going before “Love or Something” rounds things out nicely with a return to the sharpness of “Guillotine.”

Every track is digestible and biting, making for a super fun handful of songs.  Buddy’s vocals remind me a bit of Donald Glover’s in the Childish Gambino persona.  No so much in the sense that the two sound similar, but they both have such a god ear for inflection to add a bit more of signature sound to the straightforward melodies.  On “A Lite,” Buddy goofily spits off a bunch of lines in falsetto, acting as his own backing vocalist: “OG we smoke never know street…”  Perhaps as Buddy grows up a bit, his lyrical ideas should strive for more maturity, but his personality is big enough to spread itself across this whole EP.

Also, “Find Me” shows promise in his lyrical future.  Addressing the concept of finding oneself, Buddy battles with wanting to feel loved and needing alone time—away from his girl—to clear his head: “lost and alone/come find me/I just wanna feel love/come try me…she been trying to kick it all the time but I’m just posted chillin all by myself.”  Especially in the social media age, this is a relevant and accurate take on the 20-something experience.

Buddy is a seriously fresh face in the hip-hop scene and “Ocean & Montana” shows his promise as a rap/hip-hop personality, able to throw together some super fun tracks as well as others that capture specific emotions.  I’m excited to see him grow up and hope to hear more collaboration between him and the great Kaytranada in the future.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10

 

 

Perfume Genius-No Shape: Album Review

Solo project of Mike Hadreas, Perfume Genius has been prolific throughout the current decade and never fallen short of staying true to their songwriting footing.  “No Shape,” their latest, isn’t earth shattering and doesn’t mark a dismissal from Hadreas’s glam-baroque pop (with a dash of heartfelt ballad) background, however, it’s a logical step forward and never falters in delivering entertaining, emotionally moving material.

The album opens with a great sampling of the dynamic range to come. We open with a tiny, twinkling piano line as Hadreas sings esoterically about how our true self is bound to come out eventually: “Even in hiding/Find it knows you.”  As he rounds the corner of his chorus, a huge explosion of instruments and vocals soars to the moon and back.  The album continuously bounces between soaring hugeness and subdued tenderness and right from the get-go Hadreas gives his listener a taste of both sides of the spectrum.

“Slip Away” follows with one of the best standalone tracks on the record. Percussive bass sounds open before Hadreas unleashes infectious catchiness with each passing lyric. The chorus flies in leaps and bounds with pounding drums, rattling cymbals, and some huge plucked melodic motions. The lyrics bleed empowerment, touching upon loving the way you want to love: “They’ll never break the shape we take/Baby let all them voices slip away.” It’s a true anthem and maintains all the momentum suggested in the introduction.

From here, the album operates in groups of songs a bit more. Ideas grow over handfuls of songs with ups in downs in energy and dynamics carrying over from track to track as well. Lyrically, “Just Like Love,” “Go Ahead,” and “Valley” continue the notion of “be yourself,” but hone in on feeling confident and effortless in public. First, Hadreas encourages a child to ignore those who judge him: “They’ll talk/Give them every reason/For child, you walk,” then “Go Ahead” takes a mission statement of ‘go ahead and judge I’m unbothered,’ before “Valley” wonders “How long must we live right/Before we don’t even have to try?”

These three tracks are all connected sonically by some slightly more subdued grooves—in comparison to the first pair of tracks—that don’t quite reach the balladic levels of later tracks like “Alan” or “Braid.” Hadreas generally works in pretty small cells with songwriting—most of his tracks don’t run much longer than three minutes—so, having three or four of them intertwined in theme and sonic pallet makes the album’s momentum rather effortless.

Later, some of Hadreas’s most breathtaking moments come when he places his voice out in space completely untethered. The final track, “Alan,” is the most straightforward example. His flying high vocals reach a blissful purity as he sings to his lover: “You need me/Rest easy/I’m here/How weird.” Elsewhere, Hadreas doesn’t completely let his listener in on his plan. “Valley” is has a nice little chugging guitar line, but all of the sudden the space is cleared for a pillow of strings (and organ?) with Hadreas crying out over the top.  He’s got the delicacy to execute these floating moments and the various approaches he takes to them makes for a varying listening experience.

Admittedly there are a few tracks here and there that are less notable than others. “Choir” and “Die 4 U” are particularly left field lyrically, but the minimalism in the sonic material suggests that the lyrics should be the main focus.  The result is a bit of stagnation, but luckily things pick back up a bit to finish the record strong.

A review of this record would also be incomplete without mention of the fantastic Weyes Blood feature.  The song “Sides” takes up a thesis about the balance between alone time and letting one’s significant other into one’s world in times of trouble with Hadreas and Natalie Mering each sharing a verse.  More than just adding her voice to the equation, Mering seems to take over the sonic fingerprint of the song as her voice comes into play, making for a complementary yet welcome change of pace.  Perhaps Hadreas’s next record could look to recreate this a bit more often.

Yet again, Perfume Genius delivers with “No Shape.”  It’s a sonic tour de force with biting lyrics and moments of tender heart-wrench provided solely by Hadreas’s voice.  An occasional weak spot falls relatively unnoticed as the boundless momentum pushes energy forward from beginning to end.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10