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I’ve had all these struggles and more. The only way we can make it as individuals is to make it together. As humans we need each other, and we persevere through our struggles together. I hustle every day to change the aspects of my life that need change, and part of that hustle is so others can see where I came from and where I go, to know it’s possible to make it through the struggle.
With his butter-smooth two-octave vocal range, megawatt smile, and candid, sincere commitment to portraying millennial love—replete with boozy Uber rides and text-message mind games—Khalid has swiftly become a pop fixture, carving out a place on the Billboard charts. But there’s a sense of guardedness, an almost antiseptic quality, to the 21-year-old singer’s produced-to-perfection R&B. And on his sophomore effort, Free Spirit, he can’t seem to shake that predilection for playing it safe, despite the album’s calls to lose our inhibitions and be free.
Whereas his 2016 debut, American Teen, played like the soundtrack to teenage romance and misadventure, Free Spirit sees Khalid embracing more mature self-inquiry, albeit to hackneyed effect, as he does on “Self”: “I’ve ran away for miles, it’s gettin’ hard for me to breathe/‘Cause the man that I’ve been runnin’ from is inside of me.” And no less inspired are lyrics like “So if you’re gonna love me/You gotta love all of me” (from “Bad Luck”) and “Life is never easy when you need it to be/Try to knock me down, but I get back on my feet” (from “Hundred”).
Free Spirit brims with potential radio hits, like the broody, laidback “My Bad.” The Disclosure-produced lead single, “Talk,” is bright and electric, with a galaxy of heavily textured synths underpinning the track’s buoyant chorus, in which Khalid shows off his seemingly effortless falsetto. Multiple tracks, however, feature the same reverb-drenched guitar and airy synths, sucked dry of vitality by too-pristine production. For a burgeoning artist still establishing his signature style, Khalid settles into a surprising complacency here, failing to experiment with the template of his debut.
Perhaps it’s because, at 21, his journey is just beginning. But with all of the lyrical platitudes that abound on the album, the cover art of which depicts the artist overlooking a desert from the top of a dusty van, Khalid’s coming-of-age odyssey feels more like an American Eagle ad than a documentation of an authentic transformational experience.
P!nk's eighth album, Hurts 2B Human, finds the singer peddling the same boilerplate pop-rock songs about self-empowerment and existential angst that have defined her career for almost 20 years. The album opens with two decidedly upbeat numbers—the brassy “Hustle,” featuring Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons, and the Auto-Tune-heavy “(Hey Why) Miss You Sometime,” produced by Max Martin and Shellback—before quickly settling into a torpor of self-examination that never rises above 120 beats per minute.
The album’s expectedly earnest lead single, “Walk Me Home,” reunites Pink with co-writer Nate Ruess, who lends the song his signature brand of rousing, if nondescript, pop pathos. Co-penned by Sia, “Courage” is another power ballad in a bizarrely enduring genre seemingly based entirely on Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” The understated “My Attic” is marred by an on-the-nose metaphor, while tracks like “Circle Game” and “Happy” drown in self-help platitudes that attempt to mask self-pity: “I had a hard day, and I need to find a hiding place/Can you give me just a second to make it through these growing pains?” Pink pleads on the former.
From Khalid’s socially conscious ruminations on the schmaltzy title track to Chris Stapleton’s raspy bellyaching on the ‘80s-indebted “Love Me Anyway,” the contributions of a litany of guest artists largely fail to add much more than mere texture to the proceedings. The sole exception is singer-songwriter Wrabel’s Vocoder-enhanced harmonies, which, in a nod to Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” give the minimalist “90 Days” a stirring, otherworldly quality. The album’s closing track, “The Last Song of Your Life,” is a similarly poignant acoustic ballad with reverb-soaked vocals reminiscent of early-‘90s folk and a contemplative performance from Pink that transcends the rest of the album’s turgid introspection.
The fourth album by Marina Diamandis, and her first without the mantle of “Marina and the Diamonds,” arrives after four years spent battling depression and self-doubt. Her first priority in composing Love + Fear seems to have been returning to a place where music could be enjoyable, and generative, and healing; in a word, safe.
The qualities that so endeared her to fans—her vulnerability, her appetite for risk, her unflinching handling of misogyny —are absent here. “We don’t have the time to be introspective when there are more important things happening,” Marina recently told Fader. Without introspection, the lyrics of Love + Fear feel fully incidental to the songs swirling around them.
When Marina’s vocal delivery allows a glimmer of personality to shine through the genericism, the results are lovely. “Baby,” a collaboration with Clean Bandit, stands head and shoulders above every other track. On “No More Suckers,” Marina’s bratty, schoolyard-taunt delivery recalls Cher Lloyd’s 2011 single “Want U Back,” elevating standard break-up fare into something witty and winking.
Elsewhere, though, Marina finds herself unable—or maybe afraid—to offer any originality. “True” is little more than a string of bland body-positivity slogans, too stale for a Dove commercial a decade ago. Marina has called “To Be Human” the album’s “most political song,” she resists making any definitive statements. When she sings, “There were riots in America/Just when things were getting better,” she doesn’t deign to place the lyric in context. Which riots? What was getting better, and for whom? By contrast, “Savages,” from 2015’s Froot, offered a blazing indictment of human aggression that demonstrated Marina’s strength as a songwriter: “I’m not afraid of God/I am afraid of man.”
In the past, whether Marina was working in a diaristic mode or a fictive one, she never caved to normality. That Marina—the lyricist who wasn’t afraid to detail the taste of toothpaste on a lover’s tongue, the vocalist who wasn’t afraid to punctuate a sentence with a feral shriek—has gone missing. The temptation of safe is undeniable, but mononyms are earned by embracing risk.
It works on paper. Combine three star musicians whose names make for an eye-catching acronym and whose varied talents seem to have kept half the charts afloat for the last decade, throw in some psychedelic imagery, then watch those streams roll in. There are moments when this streaming era supergroup hit the mark, as in the doo-wop laced Thunderclouds and glitchily absorbing Angel in Your Eyes. Widescreen pop moment Genius, which kicked off the LSD project last May, still packs a big punch, though perhaps not to such an extent that it warrants two inclusions, one in the form of a perfunctory Lil Wayne remix, on a slim volume of whose 10 tracks seven have already been released.
Elsewhere LSD underwhelms, even if you accept that three of the world’s most interesting musicians would always struggle to create something greater than the sum of its parts. It would be unkind to think of this as a total vanity project – it’s clearly intended to sell. Mind you, at least vanity projects generally carry a sense of artists finding space to spread their creative wings. Not an entirely bad trip, but not one its makers should be in any hurry to repeat.
Indie music has been snuggling up to all things orchestral for decades. But the textures on Titanic Rising, singer-songwriter Natalie Mering’s fourth studio album under the pseudonym Weyes Blood, are worlds away from Belle & Sebastian’s twee chamber-pop or Arcade Fire’s sweeping bombast. The musical style is anthemic piano pop highly reminiscent ofTapestry-era Carole King, particularly on the stirring tracks “Everyday” and “Something To Believe.” But while comparing anyone’s songwriting to King’s is the highest of compliments, simply evoking the sensibility of Laurel Canyon in the early ’70s is inadequate to describe this musical swan dive into the underwater forest of Mering’s mind.
The key term when attempting to put Titanic Rising into words is “layered”; “Wild Time” builds on Mering’s clarion alto with piano, strings, trumpet, and even a full-throated French horn solo. The tape warble that overlays lead single “Andromeda” tacks a smooth yacht-rock sheen onto an already complex arrangement, and even the sparest song on the album, penultimate track “Picture Me Better,” adds an overlay of velvety strings before hitting its one-minute mark. Where traditional orchestration is absent, cascading synths—and, in the case of “Mirror Forever,” electric guitar that blasts through the song like the tractor beam of a UFO—come in.
The lyrics on Titanic Rising contribute to the album’s daydream quality: Throughout the first half of the record, Mering makes references to falling down, breaking down, and getting “a case of the empties,” all of which fade into oblivion in the middle section of Titanic Rising before coming back down to the human realm of feelings in the final stretch. Ironically, the bleakest lyrics accompany the perkiest melodies, as when Mering sings, “True love is making a comeback / For only half of us, the rest just feel bad” (“Everyday”).
Titanic Rising closes with an orchestral coda that incorporates snippets of Mering’s gently off-kilter melodies from throughout the album, one that bleeds seamlessly into opener “A Lot’s Gonna Change” when you listen to the record on repeat. Like the cycles of despair and hope mapped out in Titanic Rising, it’s endless.
From Venice to Ventura, what you see (and hear) is what you get with Anderson .Paak. Such is the life of a genre-straddler in the modern music world; you can't please everyone. If .Paak goes hard on his hip-hop credentials, the people want to experience more of his softer, soulful side. And vice versa, ad lib to fade.
The Dr. Dre-produced Ventura — an ode to the town outside the stomping grounds of his gritty Oxnard hometown that fuelled his more soulful sensibilities — was apparently conceived around the same time as the adequate Oxnard. It functions as the "pretty" to Oxnard's "gritty," as he said in a recent interview.
Ventura is clearly fuelled on star power — scooping Pharrell, André 3000 and Nate Dogg on a single record in 2019 is no small feat. "Make It Better"comes through with its Quiet Storm OG co-sign in Smokey Robinson, the always on-point songstress Lalah Hathaway gives her own smoke with the classy "Reachin' 2 Much," as does Jazmine Sullivan, playing the side chick gig for "Good Heels." Much will be made of the Nate Dogg collab "What Can We Do?" but it's not that uplifting, outside of the initial nostalgia feels.
The smooth opener "Come Home" offers up a typically strong verse by André 3000, who can toss these A-plus lyrics in his sleep at this point (and probably did). "Winner's Circle" barely suppresses the rawer version of .Paak, but hits the mark and the Sonyae Elisa featured "Chosen One" slaps, its Prince-ly influences displayed on its silky electronic boutonnière.
It is just good enough to be good? That's the existential question for .Paak and fans to suss out. Ventura is super but not superb, a statement that could apply to a lot of .Paak's recent output. It's a super-charged R&B record, laced with throwback Motown/Philly grooves, that hits hard but fails to land a knockout blow. It seems to be a case of not being able to fully satisfy the hip-hop heads, the R&B fans and the amorphous genre-less Venn diagram in between.
Whereas last year's MASSEDUCTION was an a Friday night out - all-encompassing, all-consuming, and all-arousing. MassEducation, however, is the complete opposite – despite being constructed of exactly the same songs. Annie Clark. MassEducation is an evening drive, a neon-light in the darkness, a cocktail bar on a Wednesday. It’s the aloof, debonair younger sibling to its bloody-minded, red-blooded sister. MassEducation smokes outside. It prefers white wine to red. It’s an antidote to modernity where the original adhered to all of the rules of ‘now’. There’s no confusion: MassEducation is pure, emphatic. Clark strips all of the excess from MASSEDUCTION and bestows upon the new versions her own, sincere power.
Let’s talk about the new versions. “Los Ageless” is the standout on both records. On this record, it’s a dainty, soulful piano ballad that doesn’t mess with that brain-tickling hook. By resisting the urge to change it completely, Clark shows that her instincts have remained just as sharp despite the fact that she’s spent the last year touring the hell out of these songs.
The “Savior” here is, surprisingly, sexier than the original. It starts slowly, longing and aching, before building to an incredibly intense crescendo. “Pills” takes on a frazzled, deranged angle that makes you think of the earlier St. Vincent material – specifically the drugged-up Disney of Actor.
On the cover of this new version, we see Clark with her back to the camera, seemingly naked: Look a bit deeper and it’s more than that. It’s actually her this time: the legs and ass on the cover of MASSEDUCTION belonged to her friend. This is Annie telling us that this version is closer to the real her, but she’s still keeping something back. She’s nude, but covered. The photo is revealing, but not necessarily erotic. It’s a magnificent cover to a magnificent record.
MassEducation hangs together better than its predecessor. It’s precise where MASSEDUCTION was deliciously sloppy. However, they’re both as near to perfect as a record is going to get these days – incredibly perceptive, personal and inviting with clever lyrics sitting on beautifully inventive melodies.
Back in 2017, the music industry was lit up by a rainbow of Scandinavian pop. It speaks to the absolute affect of Sigrid's music that she stood out: aligned enough with her peers to ride the populist wave, but immediately distinguishable, brilliant.
In Sucker Punch, we see confidence crystallised. A concise package of recent singles and flawless new material, the debut LP just confirms the obvious: Sigrid is a total gift to pop music. And the songs on Sucker Punch radiate her particular brand of empowerment: not the sweeping, air-punching kind we might expect from her counterparts, but a more modest commitment to self-love – especially when life throws its inevitable right hooks.
Each track here glitters. "Sight of You" is the sweetest take: an anthem about how, despite gruelling schedules, AWOL luggage and almost-permanent homesickness, Sigrid feels saved by the sea of adoration that awaits her on stage. "Basic" conjures that first flush of romantic infatuation: Sigrid nails the lyric here ("Let's be real, I'm just saying, If you feel it, don't cage it, Ooh, I wanna be basic") before pulling out the catchy big guns with a brazen 'nah nah nah nah' refrain. And over the skipping '80s vibe of "Mine Right Now," we hear her talk herself out of sabotaging a new relationship by overthinking.
On the technical side, Sigrid's arrangements surpass the genre she rode in on: there's a core of deftly-orchestrated electronic pop, sure, but more classical features abound too – the ringing electric guitar solo that lifts "Sucker Punch"'s final bars; the thunderous strings carrying "Sight of You"'s melody; the piano chords that transform "Basic"'s middle eight. With pop currently consumed with references to trap and dancehall, hearing these delicious deviations is a thrill.
Again, it all comes back to Sigrid's character, and how her beaming confidence gives her arrangements a stand-out flair and her stories a relatableness. Aside from being a near-perfect collection of belting pop, Sucker Punch also carries a message of triumphant grace: if you can try to be your own best friend and love yourself a little more, wonderful things will happen.
Gary Clark Jr. was born in the wrong era. In the 1960s or ’70s, he could easily have forged a career as a first-rank guitar hero: a Texan blues-rocker who can step on any stage and bring the place down with a searing guitar solo.
In 2019, with This Land, the Austin guitarist and songwriter captures the essence of a bygone era.Through his fluid interactions with accompanying musicians, the artist illuminates another vivid set of original songs like “What About Us,” often including co-producer Jacob Sciba. But working with the latter at Arlyn Studios in Texas, Clark was also wise to regularly enlist the rhythm section of bassist Mike Elizondo and drummer Brannen Temple, in addition to guests such as Sheila E. on percussion. Notable too, as a acknowledgment of Gary’s roots, the appropriate songwriting references populate the credits, in the Woody Guthrie and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings on the title tune, blues icon Elmore James on “Don’t Wait Til Tomorrow” plus r&b saxophone colossus King Curtis on “Home Cookin’.”
It’s an effective blend superior to earlier attempts at versatility, during the aforementioned “What About Us,” comparable to the absorption of musical elements present on previous efforts. And during the r&b-drenched “I’ve Got My Eyes On You,” the falsetto vocal chants so reminiscent of Prince as well as Curtis Mayfield only slightly camouflage the heavy riffing and a series of wailing guitar crescendos that drives home the impact of those emotive lead vocals.
The edgy Chuck Berry guitar at the heart of “Gotta Get Into Something” is indicative of Clark’s correct prioritizing of the range of musical components on This Land. Gritty horns on “Gotta Get Up” that turns jaunty on “Feed the Babies,” arrangements that might sound repetitive over the course of the album if it were not for the presence of the other players who bring a distinctly human feel, a/k/a swing, to the proceedings. It is then, at just the right time, the man chooses to emphasize the acoustic elements at which he excels: with an abbreviated cut called “The Governor,” in combination with “Dirty Dishes Blues,” Gary Clark Jr. finishes this album with a flourish.
On “Seventeen," the opening number of her 2015 debut album Know-It-All, the then-19-year-old Alessia Cara sang of wishing she could stop time and savour her teens, with a newfound appreciation arriving a little too late.
Now 22, Cara’s self-written sophomore effort finds her grappling with adult life from the perspective of someone in the midst of it. Thematically, The Pains of Growing depicts a stark departure from the confidence that ran through most of Know-It-All. It's a shift Cara herself addresses on powerful first track “Growing Pains”: “and I’ve always been a go-getter / there’s truth in every word I write / but still the growing pains, growing pains / they’re keeping me up at night”.
For the majority of the album, sadness is the central emotion – and it’s one that seeps through to nearly every song. Cuts like “Not Today” and “I Don’t Want To” even depict this distress as a strange comfort, a constant in her life that Cara can’t quite picture being without. She possesses a latent hope for a future where these times have passed, but it is often disregarded as too distant to inspire real change.
Through it all, however, Cara’s lyricism is sharp and self-aware enough to elevate The Pains of Growing above any strains of monotony. “And I talk in circles / but at least I say what I mean” she sings on “Girl Next Door," while on gorgeous single “A Little More," she tells a partner “I’m sorry that I’ve been emotions galore / am I crazy for wanting a little bit more” – even encouraging others to embrace the full weight of their less convenient emotions on “Easier Said."
On “Trust My Lonely” she flips a lyric from “I’m Yours” (“some nerve you have / to break up my lonely”) to move on from a relationship. Her declaration of “oh my, we’ll be alright!” from “Wild Things” is revisited as a burst of relief on “My Kind” – a sort of follow-up to “Here," in which Cara finds herself in a situation that brings her the joy and comfort she craves. It’s a brief period of bliss on an album that makes no apologies about its struggles, but it’s one of many moments that confirms Cara’s journey is as authentic as it is unpredictable.
Saba’s cousin was stabbed to death in Chicago after a brief scuffle on the train. The way Saba raps about his cousin—born Walter Long Jr. —you’d think he was magical, kissed by fortune his entire life. He was Saba’s mentor, his wingman, dauntless and deathless until, suddenly, he wasn’t.
To be young is often to be fixated on your own presumed indestructibility. Saba’s gorgeous, meditative new album, CARE FOR ME, begins with him singing the words “I’m so alone.” Isolation and trauma go hand-in-hand when you lose someone close, especially when that someone served as your shield for so long. “Jesus got killed for our sins, Walter got killed for a coat,” he raps. “I’m tryna cope, but it’s a part of me gone and, apparently, I’m alone.”
CARE FOR ME processes grief and its attendant loneliness, the paradox of feeling secluded during the most connected era in history, and having to manage that misery inside the social gratification matrix. So much of CARE FOR ME is an ongoing conversation trying to reconcile a cruel, unforgiving world with God’s plan. “FIGHTER” is submerged and glassy, its watery sheen glistening like it’s catching sunlight; Saba surfaces from this shimmer as if cresting in a wave pool. “It’s harder to love myself when all these people compliment me,” he raps, conflicted. It’s brutal moments of vulnerability like this that make CARE FOR ME such an enveloping experience.
Saba’s stunning exploration of loss builds to a restorative climax: the one-two punch that is the dewy-eyed odyssey “PROM / KING” and the skyward-bound drifter “HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME.” His writing is so dense yet free-flowing, so delicate and tactile. The drums crescendo into a frenzy on “PROM / KING,” to the point that Saba keeps his own time, untethered to rhythm, while never missing a single beat. The song is devastating, but it would feel almost hopeless without “HEAVEN,” a glowing conclusion to the saga that imagines a reborn Walter ascending to a better place, looking down and after Saba. It’s a remarkably powerful scene, a moment where Saba comes to realize that, despite everything, he was never alone and he never will be.