The long and oft-delayed BraveHeart is a much better album than expected…
Ashanti • BraveHeart • eOne/Written Entertainment • US Release Date: March 3, 2014
R&B Ashanti’s career began much more promising than it has been as of late. Two number one albums, a Grammy win for best contemporary R&B album (now best urban contemporary album), and some notable hits. While third album Concrete Rose would yield another platinum-certified album, its number seven debut signaled the first notion of Ashanti’s former commercial success taking a hit. This hit was more pronounced on The Declaration (2008), which debuted a slot higher at number six, but sold considerably less copies. Ultimately, The Declaration would fail to go gold and her fifth studio album, BraveHeart, would only materialize after numerous delays, which would total just shy of six years. Six years is an eternity, particularly given the fragility that has become Ashanti’s once fruitful career. Regardless of the setbacks, BraveHeart ends up being a much better than expected album, particularly from an artist who has received plenty of criticism vocally. It’s neither the best album of the year, nor the best R&B album either, but Ashanti gets many things right on BraveHeart.
“Intro – Braveheart” is more than just an interlude; it also includes the album’s title track, an actual full-length song. The intro rightfully exhibits ‘strength’, which establishes the tone and exemplifies the album title. The attached full-length continues to showcase the aforementioned strength, relating the idea of possessing a “BraveHeart” to love (“I’m so lucky to have you by my side / I know it ain’t easy baby”, from verse two), later confirming it on the refrain (“…We both gotta have a BraveHeart”). “Nowhere” follows up nearly perfectly, confirming strength once more through a rock solid commitment: “I ain’t going nowhere, you ain’t gotta worry / ain’t nobody perfect, but what we got is worth it.” Ashanti still isn’t what you’d characterize as a powerhouse vocalist, but unflashy as she may be, she sings “Nowhere” soundly. On the bridge and towards the end, the singer shows a bit more grit and nuance vocally. The message and song don’t feel new by any means, but definitely tried and true.
“Runaway” continues the consistency, delivering a commanding, incredibly enjoyable number. Like the opening “Intro – Braveheart”, “Runaway” is set in a minor key, with a darker sound suiting the hard, old school hip-hop soul beat perfectly. “I try to make it work,” sings Ashanti on the catchy, emotional chorus. “I try to make it work, but I just end up hurt / I tell you it’s okay cause I don’t wanna leave / but you make it so hard for me to stay so I run away.” More so than “Nowhere”, Ashanti ‘lets it rip’ a bit more vocally. “Count” has a more modern R&B edge, with its thumping 808s and gimmicky chorus (“Baby don’t make me / count, count…count”). “Count” is by no means ‘the second coming’ of anything, but it definitely possesses the swagger of a solid club joint. Don’t call it a masterpiece (it ain’t), but it’s not too bad. On “Early in the Morning”, Ashanti taps French Montana for the assist. Again, Ashanti thinks contemporarily and about love. Ultimately, “Early in the Morning” is thoughtful, but lacks lyrical depth.
If nothing else, “3 Words” benefits from its exceptional production work. Still, aside from the production itself, it has its thoughtful lyrical moments. Certainly deeper than either “Count” or “Early in the Morning”, “3 Words” has more momentum working in its favor. “There’s only so many words I could use to tell you whatchu do / to me physically, sexually penetrating my immunity,” sings Ashanti, later going on to say “I just can’t explain it / Picasso couldn’t paint it / but these three words say it all / I love you.” On “Love Games”, Ashanti gets another assist, this time from Jeremih (known for hits “Birthday Sex” and “Down On Me”). Given Jeremih’s sensually driven past musically, he matches up well with Ashanti on this ‘sex’ joint. While calling “Love Games” tasteful would be an overstatement, it certainly isn’t as raw as some contemporary cuts that come time mind. Ultimately, it works out well for Ashanti.
Still, “Scars” works out even better, with its hip drum programming, slick synths (and production in general), and overall attitude. Sure, there is still a cool energy about Ashanti vocally, but that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change. Perhaps she lacks the same bite that a Mary J. Blige or Fantasia might deliver on this cut, but Ashanti still ends up with the desired effect (“You could have kept the pain / my heart is slain / nothin’ remains, no more / but scars”). The outro at the end of “Scars” is definitely a thoughtful way of ending the standout by all means, even if the cut ends up clocking in just shy of six minutes in duration.
“Never Should Have” gets the incredibly difficult task of following a juggernaut. The cut contrasts “Scars” sporting a more enthusiastic, and pop-driven R&B sound. Think bright, adult contemporary-oriented R&B that ends up being just as effective as “Scars”, centered in a major key. Still, Ashanti shows her reservations despite the optimism in sound: “You never should have loved me / you never should have touched me / you never should have / never should have told me you loved me and you would never leave me / ‘cause everything that you would do / it made me fall in love with you…” “Never Should Have” is easily another #winning moment for Ashanti – a sister’s in it to win it.
“She Can’t” is filled with attitude, evidenced by lines like “You gotta let him know what he got on his hands / and if he tend to forget, betta remind his a$$…” (Verse one) or “Long as you keep me on a pedestal / and nobody ever made you feel like I make you feel” (verse two). Is Ashanti overconfident on “She Can’t”? Nope! She’s just a strong woman with a “Brave Heart” – did you expect something different? On “Don’t Tell Me No”, Ashanti’s confidence continues to factor in, as she knows he still want her: “I still look in your eyes and / I can tell that you want it / Baby, don’t tell me no / give me what I’m lookin’ for…” There it is! Oh and by the way, if Ashanti is turning the table when she puts the ‘desire’ all on the man’s plate, she sort of takes a back step when she states “Baby, I just want that old thing back.”
“I Got It” brings in Rick Ross, who unsurprisingly drops a line about money (ever heard that Gucci Mane track that Ross guests on, “All About The Money”?). Staying in character, on his guest verse (verse two), Ross brags about all the lavish things he can give his girl as well as plugging his latest album, Mastermind (“Mastermind coming, still running from the fed”). That’s promotion. Don’t call “I Got It” a tour de force, but like the majority of BraveHeart, it’s definitely enjoyable and worthwhile. And ultimately, as Ashanti alludes to, “if you got it, flaunt it”. “First Real Love”, featuring Beenie Man, closes the standard edition of BraveHeart with a mix of reggae and R&B in mind. It is manic, but much like the album as a whole, it ends up being much better than anticipated. The iTunes deluxe edition of BraveHeart features two bonus cuts, “Perfect So Far” and “Never Too Far Away”.
Ultimately, BraveHeart ends up being a surprising affair. It’s by no means perfection realized, but its also nowhere near being a train wreck of any sorts. BraveHeart is a solid and enjoyable R&B album with truly little pressure on it. Honestly, what did Ashanti have to lose after a six-year hiatus? Nothing. BraveHeart won’t reignite her career commercially, but critically, it finds the singer in a much better spot than she was before. Perhaps the biggest flaw of BraveHeart is the lack of ‘selling it’ – better promotion certainly brings better awareness. It is what it is though.
“Nowhere”; “Runaway”; “Scars”; “Never Should Have”; “I Got It”
Kid Cudi’s surprise fourth LP is both ‘creative’ and ‘off-putting’
Kid Cudi • Satellite Flight: Journey to Mother Moon • Republic • US Release Date: February 25, 2014
Describing Kid Cudi as merely “one of a kind” might be the biggest understatement ever…change that – it is the biggest understatement ever. Album release by album release, the left-field/alternative rapper (or singer or both) continues to deliver music that is, well, completely different from everybody and everything else out there. Kid Cudi’s surprise fourth album, Satellite Flight: Journey to Mother Moon, is no different from previous Cudi albums in regards to the fact that the artist is in his own world, beating to his own drum. Satellite Flight is different than previous Cudi albums in regards to the fact that it is only ten tracks long and of those, four are instrumental. Non-standard and unconventional, Satellite Flight is a true-fans type of album that is more mixtape than studio album worthy. Hardcore fans will ‘eat it up’ while the more casual listener will find it off-putting.
“Destination: Mother Moon” initiates the effort, opening unsurprisingly mysterious with ‘Cudi-ness’ written all over it. One of four instrumentals (40% of the album), it is exhilarating and interesting to listen to. The real heat comes with “Going To The Ceremony”, the first vocal track of Satellite Flight. Opening uniquely itself with spoken word intro (“Now certainly we all recognize the extremely, extremely low probability / of life existing on the moon”), the track dives right into the rock-rap, left-of-center approach that Kid Cudi as well as WZRD has come to be known for. This includes the typical humming, the repetitive lyrics (“But I don’t know where I’m going / where I’m going, it’s all happening / I’m going, it’s all happening”), as well as the driving, minimalism. “Going To The Moon” is familiar fare for the artist. So is its follow-up, “Satellite Flight”, an equally alluring, oddball offering that is as cosmic as the title. “Satellite Flight” is all about ‘vibe’: “Com on don’t be shy / let your guard down and work it.”
“Copernicus Landing” continues with the ‘vibe’ and all things cosmic. It is the second instrumental of the effort. Ultimately, a few minutes gives you the idea while the totality of the cut may overwhelm you with its minimalism. From a classical or electronic music perspective, the techniques are legit. For a mainstream album, maybe this isn’t what you’d expect. Atonement arrives with “Balmain Jeans”, which is by far the freakiest track of the album. Face it, it’s all about the three-letter word, with the confirmation coming on the clever, but salacious “Can I come inside your vortex…” Vortex? I’ll leave that one alone, but I’m sure it’s being used as a substitute for another word… But even subtler, having Raphael Saadiq guesting confirms that the Cudi isn’t that extraterrestrial… he’s still a man who enjoys the things men enjoy… yeah…
“Too Bad I Have To Destroy You Now” is even better, even if it Cudi sets aside pleasure in favor of more direct rap. Kid Cudi is a rapper, but he’s definitely not a gangster. “Too Bad I Have To Destroy You Now” doesn’t change his lot, but it does find him spitting with a mad, agile flow. The hook hooks, and he has some memorable verse lyrics to match, including “All hail King Wizard in the f**kin’ house / been chill for a minute quiet as a mouse / now I got the juice, call me Bishop when you see me round / I be showin’ love / showin’ love baby…” The evolution and pacing of “Too Bad I Have To Destroy You Now” contributes to its success. Unfortunately, “Internal Bleeding” which proceeds isn’t quite the triumph. It’s not bad, but it is definitely more a B than an A grade cut. Still, lyrics like “Cut me down / slice me deep / I dare you / burn my crown / spit on my grave…I’ll haunt you…” makes it worthwhile.
“In My Dreams 2015” is a variation on Cudi’s track from Man On The Moon: End of Day. Lasting under two minutes, it’s a pleasant instrumental. The proceeding instrumental and penultimate cut, “Return Of The Moon Man” (Original Score) should’ve been a drag, particularly at over five minutes, but it is actually an enthralling listen. The best of the four instrumental cuts, “Return of the Moon Man” sports jagged, rhythmic lines and thrives off its minimalism. Very much in the Cudi style, “Return Of The Moon Man” doesn’t feel out of place in the least; it fits the album’s off-putting narrative. Concluding cut “Troubled Boy” is appropriately placed, particularly given vibe, but don’t call it a classic. It fits, but it doesn’t rival the top echelon juggernauts.
So, how does Satellite Flight: Journey to Mother Moon stack up? It is a solid, but ultimately off-putting album. Give its incredibly ambitious, yet easily forgettable title (I continually must check the title on my iPod), the contents work perfect contextually. Title aside and accessibility considered, well, Satellite Flight is all-over-the-place. Cudi’s albums are ‘all-over-the-place’ naturally, so in that regard, he’s still “In-di-cud”. But perhaps where a standard, accessible effort is concerned, Satellite Flight is more jumbled. Again, this album will appeal most to hardcore fans while those who want a ‘cohesive’ taste of Kid Cudi’s work may be better served with his earlier efforts, particularly the Man on The Moon series. I’m onboard for the most part though, but I’m not hailing it the ‘second coming’.
“Going To The Ceremony”; “Satellite Flight”; “Balmain Jeans”; “Too Bad I Have To Destroy You Now”; “Return Of The Moon Man (Original Score)”
Rick Ross keeps a good thing going strong on LP number six
Rick Ross • Mastermind • Def Jam • US Release Date: March 3, 2014
Six albums in, the best way to describe Rick Ross is that he ‘is what he is’. Ross’ high watermark artistically was his fourth LP, 2010 masterpiece Teflon Don. Up until Teflon Don, it seemed that Ross was just trying to find his artistic identity – his niche if you will. After finally finding himself, Ross spent fifth LP God Forgives, I Don’t ‘flexing’, something he carries over into Mastermind. Mastermind ultimately is another sound, enjoyable Rick Ross album, even if it lacks some of the excellent, luxurious rap of Teflon Don or even the exceptionalness of the best moments of God Forgives. Quibbles and nitpicks aside, Mastermind is another welcome addition to Rozay’s discography.
“Intro (Rick Ross/Mastermind)” opens familiarly with the “Maybach Music” intro – surprise, surprise. The intro as a whole references being a ‘mastermind’, hence setting the tone for the album. Sure, a brief interlude doesn’t equate Mastermind with epitomizing or embodying its title, but it does foreshadow Ross’ point… sort of. Apparently, Rick Ross’ idea of being a ‘mastermind’ is not synonymous with being an intellectual. This is confirmed on first full-length joint, “Rich Is Gangsta”. As to what that even means ultimately, who knows. Regardless, on the hook-less number, Rick Ross is “all about the Benjamins.” “I just upped my stock, f**k them cops,” he brags on the first verse. “If you love hip-hop, bust them shots.” Later, he even manages to brag about his success as a rapper: “Cocaine worth much more than gold, n***a / so what’s your goals n***a? / All my sh*t when gold, n***a.” Sure, Ross is overconfident with his bravado, but he does tell the truth… all his sh*t did go gold.
While “Rich Is Gangsta” sported exceptional, lush production work, sophomore cut “Drug Dealers Dream” features the MC more on ‘autopilot.’ He continues to count his stacks, evidenced by the intro (“Your checking account available balance is $92, 153,183.28”). Even though Rick is rich, the means is questionable by all means, yet Ross rides it for all its worth: “Murder, a mother f**kin’ murder / no you didn’t see it but I know you b**ches heard it / blood on the corner, damn I miss my dawg / I’m just thinkin’ ‘bout his daughter, in another life he ballin.” One relates to the sympathy that Ross has for his fallen comrade, which could be any person stripped of their life, yet on the other hand, the game of drug dealing, violence, and “I get shooters on clearance…” is just ugly. Unsurprisingly, interlude “Shots Fired” proceeds, with Rick Ross being alluded to (“We’re being told by people here on the scenes, specifically the manager that a famous rapper was riding in that car when someone opened fire shooting at the car…” Dark stuff – quality though.
“Nobody” didn’t appeal to me personally the first time I heard it, but it grows on you. French Montana continues to appear on every one’s track and here is no different as he delivers the hook: “Mama’s tryna save me / but she don’t know I’m tryna save her / man, them n***as tried to play me / man, ‘til I get this paper / you’re nobody ‘til somebody kills you.” Essentially, the theme of doing wrong and dangerous things to achieve riches continues on this track. The tone is aggressive, not merely because of Diddy’s pointed interludes, but also thanks to Ross’ unapologetic rhymes, including “The mortician, the morgue fillin’ with more snitches / we kill ‘em and taking their b**ches, R.I.P.” Ultimately, “Nobody” eventually reveals it’s magic if it isn’t apparent the first listen. Don’t let the Notorious B.I.G. sample (“You’re Nobody (‘Til Somebody Kills You)”) dissuade you.
“The Devil Is A Lie” benefits from sampling, maybe more so than “Nobody” did (“Don’t Let Your Love Fade Away”). Don’t call “The Devil Is a Lie” a song of praise… there plenty of blasphemy. “Big guns and big whips / rich n***a talkin’ big sh*t,” raps Ross on the hook, “…Bow your head cuz it’s time to pay tithes / opposition want me dead or alive / motherf**ker but the devil is a lie / the devil is a lie, b**ch I’m the truth…” If that’s not enough, Jay-Z’s religious beliefs are, well, unique: “Is it true or it’s fiction / Is Hov atheist? I never f**k with True Religion / am I down with the devil cuz my roof came up missin’ / is that Lucifer juice in that two cup he sippin’…” Well, regardless of where either MC stands spiritually, both acknowledge, “the devil is a lie.” It is up for debate whether that makes Rick Ross “the truth” though…
“Mafia Music III” keeps the momentum top-notch. Sporting unexpected reggae production, “Mafia Music III” seems to really fuel Rick Ross into some inspired rhymes. Not only that, Ross references Kenneth Williams (gang member), Bill Belichick, and Farrakhan – go figure. Mavado’s hook contributes to the overall success of the track as well, solidifying the tropical vibe. Keeping it G, “War Ready” brings in Jeezy for the assist, who seems to have dropped the ‘Young’ as a of late. Obsessed with ‘shooters’, Rick Ross continues to reference them for the millionth time as of late: “War ready / you got shooters, I’ve got shooters / we’ve got money / let’s do what them other n***as can’t do…” Mike Will Made It gives Ross and Jeezy magnificent, relaxed, yet malicious production work to do work over, which both do. Surprisingly, it is Jeezy who references the ‘Box Chevy’ (“Box Chevy hit the block, run the whole 50 shots / you just poppin’ ‘til you know you can’t pop ‘em no more…”) “War Ready” keeps things 100 and consistent.
French Montana makes his second appearance of Mastermind on “What A Shame”, a brief cut produced by Reefa and Stats. The production is excellent though the track itself could stand more development and ‘meat’ you might say. Unsurprisingly, Ross once more references those shooters, and they aren’t shooting jump shots. On “Supreme”, Rick switches from ‘magazines’ to “Clean Maybach, but it’s filthy as sh*t / they partitioning for the women, how busy we get…” So, you guessed it, with Keith Sweat lending his soulful new-jack pipes and Scott Storch infusing some soulful, swagger-laden production, “Supreme” is about the ‘fun’ things in life… I’ll leave it at that. “BLK & WHT” does have a play on race, but it’s not merely what you may think it is before listening. Here, Ross talks about ‘slanging’: “Young n***a black, but he selling white…N***a crib so big, it’s a damn shame / n***a sellin’ white for a gold chain.” If nothing else, “BLK & WHT” has a hypnotizing quality about it.
After the silly “Dope B**ch Skit”, The Weeknd drops a joint featuring Rick Ross… or at least that is how “In Vein” comes over. Sure it’s lush, and in the emo-alt R&B style that The Weeknd has come to be associated, but it doesn’t really show off Rick Ross himself. That said, standout “Sanctified” is more of a team-effort from Betty Wright, Big Sean, Kanye West, and Ross, but the overall product is satisfactory. Let’s face it – where would this track have been without Betty Wright’s soulful, un-credited vocals? No disrespect to Mr. West, but few of us need another “Yeezus” as he refers to during his verse – another My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, perhaps. Ross’ best line on his verse: “Soldiers all in gators, new Mercedes for cadets / Balmain uniform, you know Donda designed the vest…” Like “The Devil Is A Lie” though, I wouldn’t invest too much spiritually into this track, particularly with Big Sean’s hook (“All I wanted is 100 million dollars and a bad b**ch…”) At least he admits his sins.
“Walkin’ On Air” has a difficult act to follow after the ‘sanctification’, but it’s definitely not a shabby penultimate track. Again, the blasphemy can’t be good for Ross’ spiritual being: “Baptized by the dope boys, ordained by the a**holes / my salvation is the cash flow / whoa, oh I’m walking on air.” Even aside from misinformed spiritual allusions, lines like “She let me f**k early so she trustworthy…” certainly has no relation to the church. Meek Mill confirms this song is, um, sinful (“Make a call, call Papi for a brick / and papi call José, cause José got fish…”). “Thug Cry”, featuring Lil Wayne and produced by J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League closes Mastermind soundly. Don’t call the multi-sampling work a classic, but it definitely closes an overt album a gentler than it was throughout its course.
All in all, Mastermind turns out to be another well-rounded, enjoyable album from Rick Ross. There is more than enough wealth to please more casual and hardcore Ross fans alike. It won’t supersede the top two albums of Ross’ collection, but it definitely can hang. Not sure why the banging “Box Chevy” was omitted, but it is what it is. Not perfect, but well played, well played.
“Drug Dealers Dream”; “The Devil Is A Lie”; “Mafia Music III”; “War Ready”; “Sanctified”
Singer/songwriter Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) delivers big-time on St. Vincent
St. Vincent • St. Vincent • Loma Vista/Republic • US Release Date: February 25, 2014
After several albums, St. Vincent (Annie Clark) still isn’t what you’d call a household name. It’s a shame given the singer/songwriter’s most recent self-titled effort is nothing short of captivating, filled with some truly exceptional material. On St. Vincent, the groove seems to propel every track, and there’s not one thing wrong with that. The songwriting throughout isn’t too shabby either, making this alt/indie-pop affair quite the musical treat. St. Vincent isn’t perfect (“Perfect Isn’t Easy”), but there are very few flaws for even the most nitpicky of nitpickers. You could say being ‘different’ pays off for St. Vincent, like big-time.
“Rattlesnake” captures the ears from the onset, delivering quite a unique sound. The mix of distorted guitars, drums, and synths definitely highlight. As previously mentioned, the groove itself is killer from the onset, inviting the listener to ‘move’ to the music. Sure, “Rattlesnake” is by no means an alt-dance song or club-cut, but the music itself gives it a pop sensibility. Lyrically, its all bread and butter with lyrics like “I see the snake holes dotted in the sand / as if the Seurat painted the Rio Grande / am I the only one in the only world?” If that’s too ‘abstract’, perhaps repetitive lyrics like “Running, running, running, rattle behind me…” are more lighthearted and fun.
“Birth In Reverse” would capture anybody’s attention, if for nothing else than the title itself. St. Vincent isn’t literally referring to ‘birth in reverse’, but she does seem to be figuratively playing on the idea of ‘death’ or sort of the predictability and boringness that can be everyday life. “Oh what an ordinary day,” she sings on the first verse. “Take out the garbage, masturbate / I’m still holding for the laugh…” Essentially, it’s as if there is no change of pace – the routines remain the same. Because St. Vincent captures this lyrically, “Birth In Reverse” shines marvelously.
“Prince Johnny” doesn’t let up off the gas, delivering a moody cut that proves to be equally beautiful. Lyrically, St. Vincent’s lyrics are ingenious, as she sings through numerous allusions and metaphors. The character Prince Johnny ends up being incredibly complex, but then again, St. Vincent relays that lyrically at the onset (“Prince Johnny, you’re kind but you’re not simple / By now I think I know the difference”). Among St. Vincent’s most clever allusion is to Pinocchio, in which she sings “Saw you pray to all to make you a real boy…” “Huey Newton” proceeds in hypnotic fashion, with an air of mysteriousness. Lyrically, St. Vincent continues to allure, whether its overt moments like “F**kless porn sharks / toothless but got a big bark / live children blind psychics / turned online assassins…” or more poetic ones such as “entombed in the shrine of zeros and ones / you know, you know /with fatherless features, you motherless creatures.” Annie Clark, you’re truly something!
“Digital Witness” is a definitely standout, with its soulful, groove-laden production work. St. Vincent definitely criticizes social media/networking, and how it’s affected traditional social relationships. “People turn the TV on, it looks like a window.” Basically, St. Vincent seems to suggest that real-life interaction has been supplanted with any number apps and social networking avenues. “Digital witnesses / what’s the point of even sleeping,” St. Vincent sings on the chorus. “If I can’t show it if you can’t see me / what’s the point of doing anything?” Does she overreact to the power of social media? Perhaps or perhaps not, but she makes one awesome song in the process.
“I Prefer Your Love” is another meaningful moment from St. Vincent. Written about her mother, Clark confidently sings, “I prefer your love to Jesus”. Lyrics throughout give away the fact that it is a dedication to her mother, including “Mother, won’t you open your arms and forgive me of all these / bad thoughts I’m blinded to the faces in the fog”. Relaxed, yet still rhythmic, “I Prefer Your Love” is easily one of the year’s most touching ballads. “Regret” is a contrast to the slow tempo of “Love”, incorporating more of a ‘rock’ nature about it, driven by the distorted guitar. “Regret” doesn’t quite have the same oomph of the cream of the crop, but there is still plenty of lyrical and instrumental personality exhibited. I mean, lyrics like “I’m afraid of heaven because I can’t stand the heights/ I’m afraid of you because I can’t be left behind…” will always standout regardless of the song itself.
“Bring Me Your Loves” thrives on lyrical repetition as one of its weapons. Unusual sounding at the onset, “Bring Me Your Loves” is also quite appealing. “I thought you were like a dog / I thought you were a dog, but you made a pet of me…” Wow, St. Vincent, wow! She goes on later to say “I took you off your leash / but I can’t, no I can’t make you heel.” She can’t control her man – he’s controlling her? Seems that way. Then there’s “Psychopath”, which is consistently rhythmic throughout. The use of acoustic guitars gives the cut a nice timbre. Still, the lyrics certainly aren’t what you would call ‘warm and fuzzy’: “Wanna make a bet whether I can make it back cause / I’m on the edge of a heart attack.” “Every Tear Disappears” benefits from its quirkiness, a pro that characterizing the entire of album. Simple, yet clever lyrically, that’s just the way Annie Clark rolls apparently. “Severed Cross Fingers” closes exceptionally; the harmonic progression shines, the groove anchors, and St. Vincent is, well St. Vincent.
Ultimately, St. Vincent ends up being a superb album. It is creative, quirky, and incredibly enjoyable. St. Vincent doesn’t go for the ‘humdrum’, but instead is forward thinking and truly thoughtful from both a lyrical and musical perspective. Sure, the singer/songwriter has been a round for years and the premise hasn’t changed, but St. Vincent continues to think outside of the box and plays against clichés rather than playing into them. Because of this, St. Vincent is one of the year’s best.
“Rattlesnake”; “Prince Johnny”; “Digital Witness”; “I Prefer Your Love”; “Severed Cross Fingers”
Schoolboy Q • Oxymoron • Top Dawg/Interscope • US Release Date: February 25, 2014
Schoolboy Q keeps things 100 on Oxymoron – he keeps it real “from the jump” (catch the Drake reference?). In fact, the MC keeps things so ‘real’ that at times Oxymoron is a truly difficult (polarizing) to listen to. Sure, the old saying “honesty is the best policy” applies here and the candidness and frankness of Schoolboy Q is appreciated, but Oxymoron isn’t exactly the most endearing rap effort because it is so grimy and raw. Schoolboy Q’s intentions seem to be emphasis on his machismo, his demons, and a trying, difficult life. As always, the rap album (his third) serves as the ultimate ‘come-up’, with the rapper’s daughter playing a central role in his life-changing experience, judging by numerous references throughout. Ultimately, Oxymoron, an album that is confounding yet impressive, ends up showing the range of abilities of the rapper. It’s not perfection realized, but there are plenty of exceptional moments working toward that goal.
Schoolboy Q is a “G” from the get-go, as his daughter asserts on the intro of “Gangsta”: “Hello…hello? F**k rap, my daddy a gangster.” If the idea of being a ‘gangsta’ wasn’t firmly planted, Schoolboy Q ensures on the hook he repeats it a million times so that you know his status. While merely stating a description of himself wouldn’t make him a ‘G’, Q backs up things with brash rhymes that he spits over incredible production work. He also asserts he’s a pimp…he gets it in, easily.
As much as a bang “Gangsta” is, “Los Awesome” is better, sporting more agile rhymes and sick production courtesy of none other than one ubiquitous Pharrell Williams. The hook slays from a first listen: “I’m a groove type n****a, rather two-step with you / pants sagging, rag dragging, rather gangbang with you / triggers squeeze, throw a palette, throw them thing-things with you / hot degrees, anti-freeze, chilling cool-cool with you…” Q doesn’t stop on the hook as he also spits ether throughout his verses: “Looking like a reaper in your driveway / strays through your living room / liable to drive-by on a summer day / July 4th will be in June…” He also gets the assist from Jay Rock, who complements the violent tilt: “N***as that’ll murder ya, steal you like a burglar / seemed the soul was long gone before I got them / he was dead before I shot him, it’s the reaper.”
“Collard Greens” proceeds in top-notch form, retaining its greatness since being released as a single back in 2013. From the opening groove by the drums, to the gimmicky, infectious hook, “Collard Greens” is quite distinct. “Oh, oh luxury / chidi-chidi-ching could buy anything, cop that / oh, oh, collard greens / three degrees low, make it hot for me drop that”, Schoolboy Q raps on the hook. Schoolboy Q is on autopilot, rapping “Kush be my fragrance, we love marijuana / function on fire, burn the roof of this mother f**ker”. Kendrick Lamar captivates on the second verse, providing a little bit of everything including Spanish and his signature gun sound effects. Among Lamar’s best lines is when he proclaims, “I’m more than a man, I’m a God, b**ch, touché, en garde.” Stoners and non-stoners alike can indulge in the greatness of “Collard Greens” – the song itself that is!
Anytime 2 Chainz is featured on the track, well, you know there is probably an element of perversion and stupidity about it. “What They Want” doesn’t go too dumb, but it is also sort of what you would expect – driven by sex. The hook sums up Q’s intentions: “This the sh*t that they want / this the sh*t that they need / tell me where are you from / drop you pants to your knees, girl I’m capital G…” Even so, Q has his moments, like the clever “Might cop the Phantom, get ghost…” He ruins it with a line about his… and what he plans to do to her… but it is what it is! As for 2 Chainz, he goes the blasphemous route: “Oh Lord, she in Christians, all gold on my Adventist / pull it down and she kiss it, all gold where my wrists is.”
“Hoover Street” is one of those difficult moments to listen to as Q expresses his ‘story’. It is insightful, but certainly is an experienced that not everyone will relate to. “I got that work, f**k Labor Day, just bought a gun / f**k punching in, throwing rocks, no hopscotch / Bet my 9 milli hit the right spot…,” he spits on the intro. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the narrative of “Hoover Street” comes on verse two, in which Q spits “Gangbanging was a ritual and grandma would help / should’ve never left her gun on the shelf.” After “Hoover Street”, Q switches gears for a bedroom-joint, “Studio”, featuring the vocals of BJ The Chicago Kid. Rather than focusing on shooting someone or violence, Q thinks with his pants (“See I’ve been in the studio just trying to get to you, baby / all night laying verses though I’d rather lay with you baby…”). Ultimately, it works, providing a nice change of pace from the violence and darkness of “Hoover Street”.
“Prescription/Oxymoron” proves to be an exceptional two-part track. The first part, “Prescription” is all about being on drugs. Throughout, Q alludes to addiction, epitomized by rhymes “Prescription drugs, I feel in love / my little secret, she gon’ kill a thug / my body numb, she like to give me hugs / I love her touch, I get a rush.” While the line doubles as a sexual reference cleverly, Q is clearly under the influence of drugs, not love. “Oxymoron”, the titular track, is truly an oxymoron as Q spits “I just stopped selling crack today…O-X-Y, a moron…” So he’s been addicted to drugs as well as sold drugs, which he was addicted to? That seems to be the sentiment of one of the better tracks of Oxymoron. Not sure that it is compliment worthy given the danger of drugs and demons in general…
“The Purge” is a beast, produced by and featuring Tyler, The Creator. Again, Schoolboy Q’s daughter establishes the tone: “My daddy said drown, n***a.” The significance of the line seems to be “the purge” that Schoolboy Q references within the title and song. “Coming in for yours / n***as got them choppers and they knocking at your door,” Tyler, the Creator spits on the hook. “The sirens getting louder when the bodies hit the floor / why you look confused? Mother f**ker this is war.” Schoolboy Q plays right on the maliciousness, referencing kilos, drug money, and guns. Q’s most notable moment comes during a bridge between verses: “Bust my gun all by myself / rock cocaine all by myself / poured propane all on myself / go so hard might harm myself.” Oh, and did I mention Kurupt also guests on the third verse? “The Purge” goes hard.
“Blind Threats” proceeds, but lacks the oomph that “The Purge” possessed. Sure, having Raekwon guest on any track raises it up a notch, but as a whole, “Blind Threats” is a tad less enthralling than the best. Still, “Aim that, shoot that, pledge allegiance / kill mine, kill yours, make it even / soul need saving, Mr. Preacher…” is a pretty awesome lyric. “Hell of A Night” is more ‘down to earth’ compared to edgier cuts like “Hoover Street” or “The Purge”, which makes it feel ‘looser’. It isn’t that Schoolboy Q is giving up on his street savvy, but he’s more about having some fun, popping some bottles, and “making it do” as opposed to shooting someone or selling drugs.
On penultimate cut “Break The Bank”, Q keeps things ‘street-smart’, claiming its “My time to show out, finally the illest Crip / and I guarantee, I spit harder than concrete.” He does spit pretty hard, so Schoolboy Q seems to be honest. “Man of the Year” concludes the album superbly, coming over more accessible than some of the edgiest cuts. Still, he’s not forgotten where he came from. “Fast forward getting real tell me now / every dog need a cat to meow, every once in a while,” he raps on the second verse. “I see hands in the crowds / see whites, blacks blazing a pound, jumping around…” Hey, he’s the ‘man of the year’, and by having a unified fan base coming out to see his shows, he’s really came up.
All in all, Oxymoron is a fine introduction of Schoolboy Q to many. He shares what life has been like for him before becoming an up-and-coming MC in the rap game. He’s honest, and seems to adhere to a no BS approach, which is something not all major label MCs can attest to. Still, there’s a lot of grime and brutal honesty to sort through at times, which might be something Schoolboy Q may want to better balance out on his fourth studio LP. Still, Oxymoron is well played.
“Los Awesome”; “Collard Greens”; “Prescription/Oxymoron”; “The Purge”; “Man of the Year”
Phantogram • Voices • Republic • US Release Date: February 18, 2014
If you haven’t heard of one incredibly talented duo named Phantogram, well, peeps, you are missing out on a treat! Recently, Phantogram, comprised of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter, released their sophomore album, Voices. From start to finish, it is a sheer pleasure to listen to, using a combination of various samples and electronics to establish its musical identity. Sure, different people have different opinions in regards to sampling, but it is incredibly difficult to deny how masterfully all things work together on Voices. I mean, this duo put it work… not the kind that A$AP Ferg was referencing though, LOL. Normally, a full-length review would’ve been ordered up, but with time scarce, I chose to share and reflect upon the tune nearest and dearest to my heart – “Bill Murray”.
Simply put, “Bill Murray” never sounded so gorgeous… I know it sounds totally wrong, ha! The point is that this ballad is arguably the set’s strongest showing – it’s simply stunning and strange. It’s not merely the lyrics or the overall haunting air about the song, but the elements from “The Coldest Days of My Life”, a classic soul song courtesy of The Chi-Lites. Sure, “The Coldest Days of My Life” may not get the same love that “Have You Seen Her” or “Oh Girl” gets (not many could trump those), but the inspiration of the soul classic drives “Bill Murray” and reminds people just how important and everlasting old-school joints really are.
Not only is it the music of “The Coldest Days of My Life” that inspires, but also the lyrics. Take a lyric as simple yet as emotionally stirring as “Lord take away the pain…” – that says it all. Lyrically from the Phantogram end, “Bill Murray” can be considered both simple and complex. The lyrics are poetic, spaced out, and mysterious, still embodying the sentiments of the classic. What isn’t hard to decipher is that love and loneliness definitely have their roles (“Am I lonely…wave goodbye and your heart’s not in line”), and perhaps references to that Bill Murray film that also had Scarlett Johansson in it called Lost in Translation. Hey, it’s perfect inspiration for any indie-pop/rock act…
Ultimately, “Bill Murray” is just one of 11 great pieces that makes Voices a truly sensational album. Still, it’s hard to deny a true ‘ace in the hole’ as this one, particularly when one of the cooler comedic-actors provides the title. But don’t just go purchase “Bill Murray” with all its lushness; buy the entire album Voices. It doesn’t disappoint.
“Nothing But Trouble”; “Fall in Love”; “Howling At The Moon”; “Bill Murray”; “Celebrating Nothing”
20 Feet From Stardom • Anchor Bay Entertainment • 91 minutes •US DVD Release Date: January 14, 2014
Executive Producers: George Conrades, Art Bilger, Peter Morton & Joel S. Ehrenkranz; Director: Morgan Neville; Producer: Gil Friesen
20 Feet From Stardom is a music documentary that shines a light on the oft-unheralded beings of the music industry: the background vocalists. Music without background vocalists – particularly back-in-the-day – would’ve have been incredibly plain; blasé. Personally, I believe that background vocals are like the frosting on a cake. To be an exceptional recording or to have a truly moving, authentic performance, the background vocalists truly aid in propelling musical momentum forward. That same vital part of the music arrangement though, has been unfairly overlooked over the years, particularly when many background vocalists historically have had solo career capable voices. The aforementioned documentary serves the purpose of telling the untold story of the background vocalist, a viewed through the eyes of famed backing vocalists Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, and Voice contest/Michael Jackson back-up singer Judith Hill.
The documentary gives a historical account of background vocals and how the role of the background vocalist evolved. That historical account exceptionally begins with the white background vocalists who merely read the musical score accurately, to the evolution of black background vocalists taking freer, more emotional roles. Most interesting is how much British rock truly enhanced the role of the background vocalist, particularly artists like The Rolling Stones and Joe Cocker. Being a musician and being so knowledgeable about music, I found much of this history to be quite educational, teaching me things I hadn’t previously researched or was ‘green’ about. The musicological aspects of 20 Feet From Stardom are top-notch.
Also included within 20 Feet To Stardom are the struggles of the background vocalist – the plight if you will – particularly those wishing to breakthrough. Darlene Love’s powerful vocals were featured on numerous albums and singles throughout the 1960s, but often credited to someone else. Merry Clayton, a commanding ‘lead’ background vocalist (called a “diva” by her contemporaries in the film), recorded three solo albums, but despite a high level of quality, they failed commercially. Lisa Fischer tasted success, managing to win a Grammy in the process, before the horrid sophomore album slump killed the vibe. Fischer admits, “I waited too long.” As for newbie Judith Hill, she tries to avoid background vocal gigs given her pursuit of being a legit solo artist (and an appearance on NBC’s The Voice), but admits she has to take background vocal gigs to support her dreams.
Going along with that ‘plight’ of the background vocalist, 20 Feet From Stardom explains the reason for a lack of success, taken from the perspective of established artists and the background vocalists themselves. It all seems to deal with the notion of truly having that “hunger” and the “drive” to promote yourself at any cost. It truly makes people think truly evaluate the question, “what lengths will you go to become a star”?
Finally, 20 Feet From Stardom highlights the artistry and abilities of each of the background vocalists. Performances and clips of each background vocalist are included to continue to ‘give flowers’ to those unfairly underrated. This aspect of the documentary showcases just how exceptional each of these women were, despite not achieving the solo success each should.
Ultimately, 20 Feet From Stardom educates us all about how tough it truly can be to accomplish a dream. It also expresses that merely being talented is not always enough ‘fuel for the fire’ to truly be successful. As realistically depressing and discouraging as that sounds, for the truly hungry musician, this documentary should encourage one to never be passive in achieving your dreams.
After much delay, Candice Glover finally delivers her debut album
Candice Glover • Music Speaks • 19 • US Release Date: February 18, 2014
Honestly, it seemed like an urban-sounding artist might never win American Idol again, let alone a female contestant after a string of victorious males. Candice Glover became the first female victor since Jordin Sparks, though bad timing kind of killed her vibe. Glover was brilliant throughout a season where everything seemed dead WRONG. The judges’ panel lacked chemistry (and sometimes tact) while many of the contestants seemed, um, blasé. The ratings were down and despite a set summer 2013 release for Glover’s debut, it was pushed back to the Fall. After being pushed back to the Fall, well, the album again was pushed back… until 2014. Finally, Glover delivers Music Speaks to her fans. Unfortunately, what little buzz surrounded her or the show seems nearly mute, and winning single “I Am Beautiful” doesn’t even make the album cut. Still as Lupe Fiasco would say, “The Show Goes On” and Glover definitely shows she has considerable talent throughout Music Speaks.
Promo single “Cried” opens Music Speaks incredibly. A well-written, heart-wrenching track (co-written by R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan), “Cried” showcases the power, finesse, and nuance of Glover’s voice. As far as being a single that truly elevates Glover to stardom or commercial aspirations, “Cried” is likely not the answer. Another minor rub against the notable cut is its specific placement within the track list; perhaps it could’ve been even more effective elsewhere besides the opener. Regardless, Glover gives her all on the incredibly underrated single.
“Die Without You” isn’t a shabby follow-up in the least, sporting a “cool, calm, and collected” sensibility about it. “Die Without You” succeeds at being both modern yet old school. “Die Without You” has enough swagger that it falls in line with the tenets of adult contemporary R&B, but also has that ‘grown folks’ sexiness (“I’d die without you”). If there is one nitpick, it is that Glover could have even freed her voice more on the ad-libs. Still, that falsetto towards the end is pretty sweet. Two tracks in, Glover is on the right track.
“Same Kinda Man” benefits from its retro-soul production, which proves to be a perfect fit for Glover. Glover feels as if she’s found her niche here; it doesn’t seem far-fetched that she’s an old soul. Something about the ambience of horns and a compelling, powerhouse voice makes “Same Kinda Man” extremely appealing. “Damn” is equally captivating, even if the full production of “Same Kinda Man” is traded for a more stripped, piano-driven backdrop. Regardless of less instrumentation, Glover truly sells the “I love another woman’s man” narrative. Sure, the concept is ‘tried-and-true’, if not completely cliché, but even if Glover doesn’t seem to be the type to experience what she sings of, it’s still a treat. “Damn, damn, damn / I fell in love with someone else’s man,” she sings on the simplistic, but addictive chorus. So far, so good for Candice Glover.
“Passenger” from a first listen comes off a bit of a bore; its length certainly doesn’t help either. After a couple of spins though, the adult contemporary track has some magic about it, specifically the chorus (“I’ll be your passenger / I’ll go where you want me too / I’ll let you navigate / just let me ride with you”). By the end, Glover’s rousing ad-libs certainly atone for any miscues. Perhaps it isn’t quite as ‘elite’ as the opening quartet; “Passenger” is another solid, love joint. “Forever That Man” and “Kiss Me” also lack the same fire/intensity of the opening tracks. Both are solid listens ultimately, but they don’t necessarily separate Glover from other artists in the same vein. “Forever That Man” gives Glover a pop-oriented ballad, which does at least open the door for crossover appeal. Even so, it isn’t quite a perfect match. “Kiss Me” lacks a bit of excitement, though Glover certainly performs it well.
“In The Middle” is a surprise once it begins playing, particularly following somewhat more conservative cuts like the trio preceding it. The interpolation of “Ting A Ling” is obvious, but it definitely works contextually. If anything, compared to the previous three cuts, “In The Middle” has more sass and personality. Worth noting is that former American Idol champ Fantasia serves as a co-writer. The personality of “In The Middle” also translates onto “Coulda Been Me”, a six-eight cut using some chopped-n-screwed vocals for flavor. Don’t worry folks; Glover’s talented pipes remain intact and flawless.
Penultimate cut “Thank You” has a vintage nature about it, given its main idea and production, but it shows Glover truly in her ‘zone’. Like “Cried”, “Thank You” may not be the lift to propel Glover to commercial success, but it is definitely enjoyable and inspiring. “Love Song”, Glover’s ‘ace in the hole’ on American Idol, concludes the brief 11 track affair. The performance is solid, but similar to Fantasia’s cover of “Summertime” is a performance that just can’t be perfectly replicated in the studio setting. Still, “Love Song” caps off Music Speaks sincerely and appropriately.
Ultimately how does Glover’s Music Speaks stack up comparatively to former Idol debut albums? It’s respectable, though not classic. There is enough solid material and magnificent vocals from Glover to make the album sound and enjoyable, but there is nothing that makes it a contemporary masterpiece. The greatest pro in regards to Music Speaks is its potential; that potential is certainly grand.
“Cried”; “Die Without You”; “Same Kinda Man”; “Damn”; Thank You”
Sam Smith’s Nirvana EP serves as a sound preview of his upcoming debut album
Sam Smith • Nirvana EP • Capitol • US Release Date: January 28, 2014
Every year there are a number of new artists looking for their breakthrough. Sadly, only a few hopefuls have their dreams realized. Sam Smith is the latest newbie who looks to break through. One of several standout British soul/pop artists, Smith definitely has the pipes to shine and deserves success to knock on his door. Whether or not his commercial aspirations actually come to fruition, critically, Smith is already there; he’s surpassed the test. Nirvana EP is Smith’s springboard, and even at just seven songs, it’s a pretty good springboard at that.
Nirvana EP opens with the experimental R&B track, “Safe With Me”. The track is characterized by its highly rhythmic, pummeling drums and its overall mysteriousness. Vocally, Smith sounds exceptional, delivering a nuanced, complete performance. The refrain finds those soulful vocals transformed through vocal effects – specifically pitch effects. “Don’t you know your secret’s safe with me / all your worries can be put to, can be put to sleep,” Smith sings on the refrain. Regardless of the experimentation, the identity of the track is steeped in R&B while having crossover abilities.
Title track “Nirvana” very much embraces R&B in its lush production and lyrical content. Essentially, Smith can’t get over a past flame, and has decided to stop running from his feelings so to speak. “Its too late to run away from it all,” sings Smith on the pre-chorus before eventually giving in, “I’m done with running so I give it to you.” He goes on to pour emotion on the cleverly penned chorus, where he believes his ‘heaven’ (Nirvana) is too good to be true: “This moment has caused a reaction / resulting in a reattachment / girl, you take me to Nirvana / I don’t think this will last / cause you’re here in my arms.” Deep and thoughtful, “Nirvana” is a second straight knockout punch for Nirvana EP.
“I’ve Told You Now” (Live at St. Pancras Old Church, London) continues to find the British singer flexing his pipes, particularly on the hard-hitting chorus. Accompanied by piano, guitar, and strings, Smith’s performance is highly inspired. It may not match the more liberal “Safe With Me” or the clever “Nirvana”, but “I’ve Told You Now” continues to show the newbie at his best. On “Latch”, Smith’s former collaboration with Disclosure, the production is set in a beautiful acoustic setting. Unsurprisingly, Smith continues to perform at a high level vocally.
Three more tracks conclude the overall sound EP. The electronic funk of “Together” is fueled by Disclosure, making Smith sound something of a contemporary D’Angelo, falsetto and background vocals intact. “Money On My Mind”, Smith’s ‘ace in the hole’ follows compellingly, even if the notable British hit doesn’t necessarily supersede a stacked opening duo. A remix of “Nirvana” (Harry Fraud Remix)” is the final statement and it is definitely a ‘fresh’ one.
All in all, Sam Smith sets his career up soundly on this introductory EP. Vocally, Smith joins a talented class of British vocalists in 2014: John Newman (Tribute) and Daley (Days & Nights). Smith more than holds his own in such elite company, making him one of the artists to watch closely this year. Nirvana EP receives my blessings for sure.
“Safe With Me”; “Nirvana”; “Together”