Contemporary R&B music has explicit physical pleasure covered, but what about genuine emotion and relationships?
An up and coming voice in R&B by the name of August Alsina released his full-length debut album entitled Testimony. Testimony is street-savvy, sporting titles including “Porn Star”, “Fml”, “Ghetto”, and “I Luv This Sh*t”. Rightfully, Alsina, a rough-and-tumble artist with a difficult background, delivers an album based on his life experience. That said, perhaps using examples other than Testimony, R&B in general seems to be trending more towards the ‘dark side’. If you ignore the stylization and write the genre out, you get rhythm and blues. The blues are naturally dark and historically, are fretful. Even if R&B has become more ‘extreme’ by conservative purist’s standards, then given the aforementioned definition focused on the ‘blues’, R&B is not that far out on its limb right? Well – sort of.
First let me say that I love R&B. Being the old-soul that I am in spite of my age, I grew up listening to a lot of classic soul – R&B in its heyday. Even as eclectic a music listener as I have developed into today, I personally have a special place in my heart for R&B. That said, even as much as I respect the genre even today, I also am skeptical. The artists can still sing and many times have more powerful voices compared to other artists in different genres, but the material has become questionable. Anyone who denies that they enjoy a dash of risqué in their R&B probably has looked past the overtness that late acclaimed artists such as Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass incorporated into their music (“Let’s Get It On” and “Turn Off The Lights” being prime examples). That said, a dash of risqué has turned into music that as of late has grew incredibly oversexed. What’s even more shocking is it’s not just the dudes and their love for pleasure – but also the gals too.
Taking a gander at the iTunes R&B section, many of the new offerings – single or album – have the once infamous parental advisory label gracing them. Personally, being in my twenties and still possessing the liberal swagger of my past college years, some stronger content within a song or album’s going to do little to faze me. That said, for the better good of the genre and perhaps the future generation (I sound like my parents), perhaps R&B artists have carried things too far. Strike that… R&B artists are relying too much on physicality and brash language to fuel the fire. Yeah, f-bombs have become commonplace whether they should or shouldn’t, but does that mean that this ‘say exactly what’s on my mind’ mentality is necessarily the answer to relevancy? While I’ll ignore the profanity in itself, I will further examine the predominance of a three-letter word.
Going back to August Alsina, many of us expect him to ‘push the envelope’ and those very familiar understand. But now it seems as if everyone is going there. Sure, British R&B/hip-hop artist Estelle was always a bit ‘rough around the edges’ (“Just A Touch” being a perfect example), but her latest single “Make Her Say (Beat It Up)” just lays it all out there – “make her p***y say…” SMH! Sure, it’s an interesting joint and Estelle has seductiveness vocally, but I’m not sure that it’s naturally sexy. Much of Jason Derülo’s new album (Talk Dirty) ups the ante sexually, with the singer trying to add an extra edge to his image. Sure, “That’s My Shhh” was the first hint of this (Future History) while “Talk Dirty” confirmed it, but other joints like “Wiggling” and “Bubblegum” are nothing short of sinful, leaving little to the imagination. Similarly, SoMo, a newbie by way of YouTube throws sex throughout his official self-titled debut. That isn’t to say that there aren’t some naturally sexy moments, but the emotional component of the genre is being sold way short.
Ultimately, I question if R&B artists are overdoing it… no pun intended. I mean, when Teddy Pendergrass wooed with “Turn Off The Lights”, his idea of risqué was “Let’s take a shower, shower together…rub me down in some hot oils baby.” Marvin Gaye did make a bold statement with as he sang “let’s get it on, sugar”, but today “get it on” has been supplanted with let’s… you catch the drift. These are different times and innocence has been stripped from every angle, but with the value of the emotional aspects of love and specifically the dying of the dedicated relationship in the songs, how far can empty songs about meaningless hook-ups really go? Yes ‘booty’ is very much part of the genre – most genres for that matter – but does the subtler approach ultimately pay more dividends? Definitely, this should be food for thought for R&B artists and fans alike.
R&B newbie August Alsina shows tremendous potential on full-length debut Testimony
August Alsina • Testimony • Def Jam • US Release Date: April 15, 2014
The moment has finally arrived for up and coming New Orleans contemporary R&B singer August Alsina to take center stage. Sure, the 21-year old represents the new generation who prefer boldness to subtlety, but ultimately the brasher style suits the hardships he’s enduring in his personal life. “Through the pain”, Alsina seems to find the positives, even if it seems overcome with pessimism on full-length debut Testimony. A true testimony the LP ends up being, Alsina builds off the momentum of 2013 EP Downtown: Life Under the Gun, upping the ante.
“Testify” sets the tone for Testimony exceptionally, with August Alsina portraying a snapshot into his life. While “Testify” isn’t necessarily the best track from the LP, it is a vital one because of how it fits into the concept. Calling it relatable might be a stretch as the only one who has experience what ‘August Alsina’ has experienced is August Alsina, but it does allow for the audience to connect. “Make It Home”, featuring Jeezy, definitely extends upon “Testify”. “I don’t always do what I should, but I do what I gotta do,” sings Alsina on his first verse, later adding “See I done dodged a couple shots, served a couple blocks / hit a couple corners tryna shake a couple cops.” Knowing the potential repercussions of his risky actions, Alsina adds “If I don’t make it home tonight / tell my mama that I lover her…take some money to my sister.” As realistic and dark as it is, “Make It Home” is a great showing; there’s something alluring about the no BS approach.
“Right There” has a difficult act to follow, but continues to convey a painful, candid narrative. The repetition of the chorus is gimmicky, which takes a smidgen or so away from the cut. Still, Alsina shows off his nuanced pipes and makes you happy how he has ‘came up’ from the bottom. “You Deserve” makes brilliant use of an L.T.D. sample (“Love Ballad”). Alsina states on the intro “This is for the girl down the hall / misused and abused…pick your head up love, smile / this is for you.” Even though “You Deserve” is another song with pain behind it, Alsina spins the message positively: “But I’m just saying / you deserve better, I’m saying, you deserve better.” Women who have been battered and bruised should truly embrace the prudence that Alsina shares here.
“No Love” is actually a fascinating ‘anti-love’ song. It is actually semi-romantic, but because of August Alsina’s reservations towards relationships (“Believe we had a great night but I ain’t the type to tell you that I miss you, sh*t”), there truly is “no love” in the relationship sense. Alsina’s ideas of love lacks refinement in many eyes: “So just wrap a couple of bands with a n***a like me / Loving ain’t the same with a n***a like me / you use to them but ain’t no loving me / I hear what you would say and girl it’s clear to see.” Companion and follow-up “Porn Star” definitely asserts and confirms Alsina’s physical contributions, avoiding love. Face it, “She ride me like a porn star” is definitely nowhere near the definition of chivalry. But you can’t knock A.A., he already made it clear it’s all about hooking up, not steady and certainly not marriage.
After riding like a “Porn Star”, things return to an even darker mood on “FML”. Pusha T kicks off this notion with his opening verse: “Wake up feeling like f*ck my life / life’s a b*tch, she better f*ck me right…” Alsina plays off of it, proclaiming “Let me tell you ‘bout myself, I’m not scared to die / Been through so much sh*t, sometimes I wanna be in the sky.” As much a negative noodle as Alsina is, he ‘testifies’ on the chorus: “I never thought I would be here, I never thought I would get this far / If they say life’s like a beach chair, why am I sitting in the dark.” Generally, those who employ the overused acronym use it too loosely with little support to back it up; Alsina seems to have a case.
“Grind & Pray / Get Ya Money” continues to champion both the street and the power of prayer. Alsina appears to be spiritually driven, but he also seems heavily invested in the streets as well. The “Get Ya Money” portion exemplifies this where Alsina doesn’t fault ‘her’ for being on her grind, despite how many others will judge her: “You work hard for it, it’s yours / work that body baby it’s yours / I ain’t judging you, go and get your money.” Fabolous further chips in, “My little mama hustle harder than a lot of these n***as.” Yep, that definitely nothing to do with the church – at least the one with pews, and altar, and a pulpit…
On “Ghetto”, Alsina shows a sense of pride that his girl is from the ‘ghetto’. While the singer may over-glorify the ghetto – at least to those clueless about the ghetto – there’s plenty of redeeming qualities and takeaways from “Ghetto”. With his own rough and tumble life, perhaps Alsina respects the same street savvy in his own relationship, hence loving that his boo epitomizes the ghetto – they relate to one another. After all, he does sing “Ain’t afraid to let it show / baby, go on let them know / you out the ghetto / better let them know, you from the ghetto…” On the version included here, Yo Gotti assists, setting up “Ghetto” (“She got a Bugatti body, yeah she a beast in the streets”).
“Kissing On My Tattoos” gives Testimony a slow jam that possesses more substance than its title might suggest. While tattoos have become much more socially acceptable, there is still the sentiment that they represent edginess. Even though “Kissing On My Tattoos” goes softer than the majority of Testimony, Alsina still wants everyone to understand he keeps it hood. Rather than merely having her ‘kiss on my chest’, he has her ‘kiss on my tattoos’, a symbol of being a bit of a bad boy – or bad dude. Keeping love and sex on the mind, “Ah Yeah” finds Alsina going even softer – no tattoos to cling onto this time! Dedication seems to be a dominant factor on his mind as he sings to his girl: “You shine with picture perfect beauty, show it off.” “Ah Yeah” is no new concept, but it is great to hear AA concede some of his edge.
“Mama” definitely shows Alsina has some substance to back up Testimony. On the verses, the singer lists the teachings his mother instilled within him: “Mama said stay out of trouble / Mama said don’t be a fool / Mama said stay in somebody’s church / Mama said boy stay in school.” While “Mama” isn’t the most electrifying track from Testimony, it is hard to deny how meaningful and touching it is, particular the chorus in which Alsina sings, “Mama I made it… I ain’t gonna stop now cause Mama I made it / and I hope I made you proud.”
“Benediction” proves to be even stronger and equally touching. Throughout the narrative, the audience is given an account of the hardships that Alsina has endured. If one was to question Alsina’s edginess, “Benediction” gives and understanding as to one Although the hook is from a dark place, it’s nothing short of addictive: “Started off in the streets / we would take collection from the fiends / People dyin’ all around me / So I gave you my testimony…” Rick Ross provides a sound assist, spitting superbly over the soulful, churchy production work. Sure its not all from the ‘good book’, but it is what it is (“Pray for benediction, pretty women on my premise / Condo out in Cabo… Gold around my neck I’m ballin’ for these final minutes.” Amen… I think.
Although “I Luv This Sh*t” previously graced Alsina’s EP Downtown: Life Under the Gun, the monster single featuring Trinidad James (“All Gold Everything”) never grows old. Sure, we could’ve cut the molly-loving MC, but his guest verse suits the vibe. Alsina continues his foul mouthed-ness (is that even a word), but the real talk mixed with the slower, horn-accentuated production is a match made in heaven, albeit quite blasphemous (“God dammit I love it, I love it… So I’mma keep on smoking cause I love this sh*t / I’mma keep on grinding cause I love this sh*t / she tell me keep f*cking cause I love this sh*t and I love it…”) “Numb” concludes the standard edition of Testimony – club style. Alsina trades Trinidad James for B.o.B and Yo Gotti. While the cut is slickly produced, it is a bit more ‘swag’ than substance.
Ultimately, Testimony showcases the great amount of potential that August Alsina has to offer as an artist. Vocally, Alsina easily has the pipes to succeed. Additionally, he has the backstory to truly fuel the fire. Sure, Testimony isn’t a perfectly crafted album, but it’s better more often than not. There are plenty of notable songs – filled with pain as well as the triumph of resolve. Maybe it’s not beautifully poetic, but isn’t grittiness a different take on beauty (or something like that)?
“Make It Home” ft. Jeezy; “FML” ft. Pusha T; “Ghetto” ft. Yo Gotti; “Benediction” ft. Rick Ross; “I Luv This Sh*t” ft. Trinidad James
Well, another week and another chart and guess who’s on top – yep you guessed it, the Frozen Soundtrack. While sales aren’t exactly hot across the board, the additional 133,000 copies that the unstoppable soundtrack sold are solid, particularly compared to the rest of the albums. How sound is 133,000 copies? Well according to Billboard, Pharrell ascended back to his peak position (no. 2) this week, selling 29,000 copies. Talk about April being the month of the music sales drought!
Honestly, the news on the charts isn’t good, particularly since a holdover like G I R L outsold the new entries. MercyMe bring little inspiration where sales are concerned, dropping Welcome to the New at no. 4 and a modest 26,000 copies. Black Label Society isn’t too far off, as Catacombs of the Black Vatican lands at no. 5. SoMo, t
he third new offering in the top 10, seems to have a small ceiling given a no. 6 bow with 23,000 copies sold. Still, there is prestige in claiming a Billboard top ten album – some better known/veteran R&B artists have yet to accomplish the feat. Saddest in regards to numbers is Martina McBride, whose soul covers album Everlasting sold a scant 21K. While the no. 7 bow isn’t shabby, the numbers aren’t impressive. Ultimately, it seems the four newbies in the top 10 underwhelmed in regards to their impact. Then again, everything is underwhelming – save for Frozen.
On the Hot 100, Pharrell Williams continues to sit pretty at no. 1 with “Happy”. Keeping R&B locked up at the top, John Legend continues a remarkable run with “All of Me” at no. 2. As far as albums that should make some sort of impact next week, August Alsina (Testimony) and Jason Derülo (Talk Dirty) are among the group. Ingrid Michaelson is also in the mix with Lights Out. Still, April seems to be absent of a true blockbuster album with commercial footing.
Jason Derülo • Talk Dirty • Warner Bros • US Release Date: April 15, 2014
It has been a minute since “Whatcha Say” had this music enthusiast excited about new pop/R&B artist Jason Derülo. Nah, I wasn’t a ‘fan girl’ as any number of YouTube personalities might put it, but I did think ole boy had something fresh about him. Judging by the uniqueness of that number one hit, it seemed he was well on his way to conquering the music industry. Things didn’t quite work out that way for a number of reasons. Sure, Jason Derülo hasn’t exactly set the Billboard 200 on fire (understatement), but nor has his music since his debut truly stacked up either (no shade – or at least not that much shade, I promise). Future History, Derülo’s second album (first full-length technically), was the first sign of an artist with a connections problem. The album just didn’t have the personality or substance to make much noise. Here on his latest effort, Talk Dirty, Derülo is in much better shape; he has a big hit on his side. Even so, Derülo’s over-reliance on sex and swagger holds the album back at times.
“Talk Dirty” kicks off the album alluringly with its sinful brilliance. Calling the joint heavenly is blasphemous considering its suggestive lyrics and equally ‘dirty’ production. By the way, “Talk Dirty” owes a ton to Balkan Beat Box’s “Hermetico” – like the majority of the production! Face it, that seductive sax comes off as nasty as Derülo’s opening lyrics from verse one: “I’m that flight that you get on, international / first class seat on my lap, girl, riding comfortable”. Nope, Jason D. is not really talking about a plane! If Derülo is a bit subtler regarding sexual endeavors, 2 Chainz is more explicit, holding little back about the ‘pleasure’. Even if you’re the type waving the finger at the shallowness Derülo and 2 Chainz exhibit, the addictiveness of the chorus section is undeniable: “Been around the world, don’t speak the language / but your booty don’t need explaining / all I really need to understand is when you / talk dirty to me”.
“Wiggle” doesn’t add any greater sophistication to Talk Dirty, as Derülo uses the song to talk about booty (“You know what to do with that big fat butt…wiggle, wiggle, wiggle”). Matching the slinky nature of “Talk Dirty”, “Wiggle” is another track concentrated on getting down without ever citing genuine, authentic emotion. With Snoop Dogg assisting, confirmation is provided that it’s gotten “Hot” and X-rated. With fantasies being Derülo’s bread and butter, on “Trumpets” he sings “Every time that you get undressed / I hear symphonies in my head…yet the drums swing low / and the trumpets they go…” Right on cue, the trumpets enter, in all their brilliance. While “Trumpets” is catchy, ludicrous lines like “Is it weird that I hear / angels every time that you moan” are questionable, near – if not – deal breakers.
“Bubblegum” brings in the king of sexed-up, minimalist rap these days, Tyga. “Bubblegum” of course couldn’t possibly retain any sense of innocence – even it becomes a naughty, raunchy reference. “She just wanna pop, pop, pop, pop, pop that bubblegum.” Yeah, what kind of bubblegum Jason? SMH. “Vertigo” arrives in the nick of time to deliver Talk Dirty from being completely overexerted. Duet-ing with boo Jordin Sparks, “Vertigo” has something the opening quartet of the LP lacked – substance. Sure, no one expects total ‘abstinence’ from Derülo or R&B in general, but “Vertigo” balances physical and emotional without just piling on, well the three-letter word. But of course, “Kama Sutra”, featuring Kid Ink, returns Talk Dirty from whence it came… no pun intended. Even though it is Kid Ink rapping here, the listener could totally picture Tyga on this track. Like the other risqué songs, it is what you make of it.
Personally, “Zipper” is a turn-off, specifically thanks to Derülo’s opening lyrics: “I’mma mark my territory / shawty I’m an animal, slowly digging into your / spread you like a bad story…” If that’s not enough to raise an eyebrow, the stupid hook accomplishes the task: “up and down like a zipper”. Even if Derülo were solely referencing his fly, “Zipper” would be nasty. “The Other Side” provides atonement, finally toning things down a might. “The Other Sides” straddles (Ha “straddles”) modern pop and contemporary R&B. Derülo shines on the big-time chorus: “Tonight, take me to the other side / sparks fly like the Fourth of July / just take me to the other side / I see that sexy look in your eyes…” Don’t call it the ‘second coming’, but it is easily among the cream of the crop of Talk Dirty.
Unfortunately for “With the Lights On”, the momentum fades as the song has only occurred “x” amount of times in the past. Honestly, look no further than this album itself – everything is about “the do”. “Stupid Love” at least sports more of an air of being refined, but that doesn’t make it truly notable by any means. “Marry Me” closes the standard edition of Dirty Talk trading the hook up for matrimony – quite a 360 huh? The thing is, contextually don’t “Stupid Love” and “Marry Me” both feel like departures among the clubbier cuts that ignore the emotional aspects of a relationship? Still, if you need a kinder, gentler cut, “Marry Me” is it.
Ultimately, Talk Dirty is average at best. It has its moments, but it also seems to put its eggs too much into one basket – specifically booty. Much like Derülo’s Future History, Talk Dirty seems to lack cohesion; it’s missing something. There is nothing wrong with Jason’s voice – he can sing – but his music just doesn’t lend itself to making a genuine connection as a listener. That said, nothing eclipses “Talk Dirty”.
“Talk Dirty”; “Vertigo”; “The Other Side”; “Marry Me”
Martina McBride balances soul music and her country roots soundly on Everlasting
Martina McBride • Everlasting • Vinyl Recordings • US Release Date: April 8, 2014
Veteran country superstar Martina McBride’s 12th album, Everlasting, is certainly a surprise. No, McBride doesn’t go radical and become a pop artist or anything like that, but rather than opting for new original material, she hearkens back to the past. What specifically from the past one asks does Mrs. McBride hearken back to? Soul. While a country artist singing soul music seems somewhat far-fetched given the contrasts of styles, Everlasting proves to be an enjoyable and effective album. McBride isn’t suddenly Aretha Franklin mind you – both artists possessing different vocal skill sets – but McBride does straddle R&B and her country roots well.
“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” opens the covers album excellently for a couple of reasons. Though it is soulful (and soul music primarily), the sound of the production sounds ‘country’ enough that it truly plays to McBride’s strengths. Perhaps it is a bit sleepy given its tempo, more so than not, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” sets the bar high for Everlasting. The quicker “Suspicious Minds” also finds McBride capably handling the renowned Elvis classic with a touch of country to accompany its bursting horns. Sure, the bridge where things switch-up could’ve had a bit more punch – a bit more ‘oomph’ – but it’s definitely no deal breaker.
It definitely takes confidence to tackle one of the greatest soul classics of all time, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”. Many do take up the task, but few accomplish the feat. Face it – none can do it like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, specifically one incredibly soulful Teddy Pendergrass. Martina McBride certainly doesn’t attempt to emulate Pendergrass’ passionate take, but she does seek to deliver a compelling interpretation herself. Vocally, she sounds smooth and on one of the few instances on Everlasting, she ‘frees herself’ to give a bit more vocally in terms of adlibs and nuances. “Little Bit of Rain” proceeds, finding the country veteran benefiting from a backdrop that once more successfully preserves the soul styling while playing well to the country sound. Brief but notable, “Little Bit of Rain” lays well.
“Bring It on Home to Me” is another sensational fit for McBride. While McBride lacks the grit of soul artists, her gentler approach takes nothing away from the song. It doesn’t hurt that McBride receives a truly soulful assist from Gavin DeGraw, who possesses the more edgy, ‘cutting’ voice of the two. The chemistry between to two is sensational. After the slower “Bring It on Home to Me”, McBride accelerates the tempo with a sound take on “Come See About Me”. While she still fails to break a sweat, her cool take easily exemplifies the tongue-n-cheek vibe of this classic. Adding to that tongue-n-cheekiness is the backing vocals whom are like the cherry on top.
“What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”, much like “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” has certainly got to be one of the most covered soul charts. As to why it is so popular is easy to see – it’s exceptionally written and incredibly memorable. McBride does a solid job, though perhaps a bit more assertion on her part in addition to a slightly sharper production may have taken this performance to another level. It’s good, but there is just the yearning for a touch more ‘authenticity’ that few covers can yield. What better way to follow up a ubiquitous classic with yet another, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”. Where “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” lacked some of its own distinctness and separation from the original, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” benefits from its restraint. While no one will ever match the Otis Redding version, McBride is able to make this version more true to her country music roots/niche.
“Wild Night” kicks the tempo back up after slowing down for the previous cut. Again never forced vocally, Martina McBride eschews over-singing. With plenty of ‘goodies’ within the production on her side, including vocal layers, McBride once more pulls off her more soulful side perspiring little. Joined by the big-voiced Kelly Clarkson, unsurprisingly “In The Basement” ends up being a highlight. Clarkson definitely takes an antithetical approach to McBride – in other words, she likes her adlibs and pop/urban vocal runs. It’s ‘all good’ though! Everlasting ends strongly. Penultimate number “My Babe” has countrified soul written all over it, proving to be the perfect joint to piggyback “In the Basement.” “To Know Him Is to Love Him” closes soundly, showcasing McBride in particularly good voice given the relaxed tempo. Not overproduced yet also not under-produced, “To Know Him Is to Love Him” feels right.
All in all, Everlasting is a solid effort from one of country’s preeminent voices. Sure McBride’s popularity has waned in recent times (unfortunately), but she’s definitely still got the pipes. There are times when she could’ve ‘dug in’ more given the style, but for the most part, McBride delivers soul and remains true to herself and her style. It’s no reinvention, but at this point in her career, there’s no shame in dropping a covers album.
“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”; “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”; “Bring It On Home to Me”; “In The Basement”
Future Continues Relying on Autotune on Latest Single “I Won”
Future featuring Kanye West • “I Won” (Single) • Epic • Release Date: April 8, 2014
Future has to be one of hip-hop’s more divisive artists – and NO I’m not throwing any shade. It’s not because of the content of his music, but rather his reliance on such a heavy dosage of autotune. The use of autotune is a divisive topic in itself, but even more so in hip-hop circles. Future definitely has developed his career around relying on the effect, but other artists have used it as well. Even though Jay-Z proclaimed “D.O.A.” (‘Death of autotune) on Blueprint 3, he threw in a dash of it himself. And we know that Kanye West made an entire album, 808s & Heartbreak, not to mention the epic “Blood on The Leaves” from Yeezus. Still, it’s hard not to form a strong opinion one way or the other in regards to Future. I was on “Same Damn Time” as well as “ Bugatti” (Ace Hood), but the MC/pop-rapper still hasn’t established himself in my eyes as a hip-hop force or an artist with strong appeal to my sensibilities. I wouldn’t doubt others feel the same way.
Future’s latest single, “I Won” doesn’t change up the formula from the rapper’s debut, Pluto, the album housing “Same Damn Time” among other standouts like “Parachute”, and “Turn On The Lights”. “I Won” is single from Future’s upcoming sophomore album, Honest, which arrives April 22, 2014. While the notion of “winning” is a chivalrous message – particularly by rap standards – don’t think that Future doesn’t ‘get down’: “Get to f**kin’ on the dresser just to make that p***y wetter”. Folks, that’s the opening line from his first verse – geez! He calls on Kanye West to provide the assist on the second verse, where the MC suggests “Baby, we should hit south of France / so you could run around without them pants.” Slick Mr. West, very slick. Even if Future “won…a trophy / a trophy”, it appears to be one who satisfies his physical hungers… like let’s get “Physical” (Olivia Newton-John).
Ultimately, it isn’t all/that bad considering who Future is artistically, but it certainly doesn’t supplant edgier rap that eschews the effect, nor does it supplant a good ole contemporary R&B joint. Still, to each his own is the best way to deliver the verdict about “I Won”. Some will like it, while others will proclaim “That’s that sh*t I don’t like” (“I Don’t Like”, Chief Keef). Personally, my opinion is somewhere in the middle.
SZA leaves a superb first impression on her full-length debut album Z
SZA • Z • Top Dawg Entertainment • US Release Date: April 8, 2014
For many up and coming R&B artists, alternative R&B seems to be a sound choice for establishing artistry. With R&B going through an identity crisis (not unlike other genres to be fair), the more eclectic-based alt-R&B style allows more flexibility and crossover. It contrasts the crossover of more pop-based R&B, generally feeling more true to the innovative spirit that characterized classic soul – R&B in its heyday. 23-year old SZA, signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, embraces alt-soul like a boss on her full-length debut, Z. Z certainly sounds little like other contemporary R&B efforts, choosing to pave its own path through ten consistent and enjoyable songs. The lack of a true misstep makes Z one of the year’s most fascinating efforts from an ambitious artist that few are aware of. Calling Z a masterpiece or a game-changer may be an exaggeration, but its hard not to praise this captivating effort.
“UR” (a stylized version of “You Are”), opens the effort mysteriously, utilizing a slower tempo. The production has its quirks, which seem to be a perfect match for SZA, who seems to be a unique personality in her own right. The chorus of “UR”, sporting lush and smooth vocals, is quite simple: “U R, U R…” The verses are what contain the true lyrical meat, such as “Type B personality / extrovert, introvert, commonalities / A Type A Personality / just dumb enough to lie to me”, from verse one. As odd as “UR” is, once it settles in and the listener feels the ‘vibe’, its nothing short of exceptional.
“Child’s Play” is not shabby in the least either. Where “UR” is a bit off-putting initially, “Child’s Play” embraces the groove from the onset. Again, the ‘vibe’ and mood of the cut plays a pivotal role. SZA delivers clever lyrics, using childhood toys as a comparison point for the bigger picture of relationships (“Stuck in Nintendo, get the controller / Street Fighters and such / I’ll finish him…”). Adding odd-ball rapper Chance The Rapper only further strengthens the cause of “Child’s Play”, particularly with rhymes like “Ash on my skin, when the record low temps for the wind blow / only write rhythm to the tardiest of tempos”.
“Julia” shows no loss of momentum, and proves to be the first track with a quicker tempo. The groove has a 80s pop/R&B quality. Even though there is more enthusiasm with the quicker tempo, the lyrics still possess weight: “Loving alone is what you make it / stay for the storm if you can take it / but pray for a rainbow…” SZA goes on later to say “I didn’t know you tried / cause you wanted more…Things don’t happen the way you hoped to /I’m just keeping my little hope baby…” SZA’s vocals on the refrain in particular are stunning.
“Warm Winds”, featuring Isaiah Rashad, is a two part song. Beginning slower, and more lethargic in tempo, there is still a notable groove. The vocal performance on the first part is performed in undertone, again fitting the moody, alt-soul vibe. Lyrically, there is no shortage of analyzable songwriting, notably “Watching over your every mistake / digging out of graves is never easy / handing you my shovel, here to take…” Later, on the second part of the song, where Rashad assists on the chorus, SZA states “Quit clipping on your feet / quit clipping on your wings / sometimes we hate to leave somebody / what’s happening to we / warm winds on a space ride…” Still yet, SZA’s most creative, if painful line might be “Sometimes, I crack my veins so bad / just to see if it’s blue…” All the audience can do is listen in awe, hearing the high level of musicianship being employed.
On “Hiiijack”, the production is filled with electronic touches, giving it an even more contemporary sound. Even so, it certainly doesn’t compare to generic electro-R&B – there is more substance and investment. “Young savage girl, lost among the lily pads…” While “Hiiijack” is another winner, “Green Mile” is definitely the showstopper. Moody from the get-go, the second “Green Mile” begins, the identity of the track is easily perceptible to the listener. Dramatic lyricism with references of shooting truly makes “Green Mile” as captivating as it is. “Sharpshooter in my backyard / killed a small boy once, never told no one,” sings SZA on the second verse, “If it wasn’t for my shotgun, he’d be alive and I’d be in heaven”. “Green Mile” can be interpreted in a number of ways, but regardless if you take it literally or figuratively, it is easily among the top echelon of Z.
“Babylon” proves to be another winner with SZA getting the assist from the unstoppable force that is Kendrick Lamar. Perhaps “Babylon” didn’t strike me as much as the other magnificent joints, it still easily receives a grade of an ‘A’ in my book. The crucifixion references are definitely bold (“Bring on the thorny crown / crucify me”). “Sweet November” is equally, if not more notable than “Babylon”. Soulful sounding, “Sweet November” hearkens back to neo-soul. Couple that with SZA’s knack for intelligent lyrics and “Sweet November” is a match made in heaven. Well maybe not quite: “Jesus called me collect last night / it took all of me not to answer it / Daddy warned me of the perils of play / hard to deal God’s standards.” Verse two gets even better – or more explicit: “Heard you f**king with Tommy again / Remember where that landed you last time / That n***a don’t really love you girl / He just f**ks you ever night it’s his past-time.” Oh $h*t!
“Shattered Ring” has a difficult act to follow. The more pop-rock oriented cut (still alt-R&B) is solid, though not the best of the best. Still, hard to deny moments like “Giddy up Goldilocks, you took too long to save me / Bumping that Jadakiss is dangerous for sanity.” On “Omega” the closer, the mysteriousness that characterized the opener returns to close the album. Filled with spiritual references, “Omega” seems a fitting conclusion.
Ultimately, Z is a home run. With so many R&B albums that come and go lacking that ‘extra special something’, Z has it. Weird, yet beautiful, Z seems like a step in the right direction in which R&B should go. That isn’t to say that an alternative R&B album like this is the perfect blueprint, but it also doesn’t confine the genre to clichés or limiting trends. SZA is definitely a supremely talented young artist to watch.
“UR”; “Child’s Play”; “Julia”; “Green Mile”; “Sweet November”
5 Seconds of Summer, the new Australian teen band, has nothing to hang their heads about; debuting at no. 2 with 143,000 copies of a four-song EP (She Looks So Perfect) is definitely notable. Settling for that no. 2 spot behind the unstoppable Frozen Soundtrack (149,000 copies sold) – well that should boost confidence even more considering no one can end Frozen’s run. After the slim margin separating album nos. 1 and 2, there is a huge gap. Chevelle’s La Gargola sold 45,000 copies, good for the no. 3 spot. Former “Jar of Hearts” pop singer/songwriter Christina Perri debuts at a familiar spot (no. 4), but does so smaller numbers for sophomore album Head or Heart (40,000 copies). Country gets its representation from Dan + Shay, who sold 29,000 copies of Where It All Began (no. 6). Nickel Creek also get a top ten berth, selling 27,000 copies of their first album following a lengthy hiatus, Why Should the Fire Die? Hey, they don’t call it lucky no. 7 for no reason, right?
On the songs chart, specifically the Billboard Hot 100, Pharrell Williams continues to make us all “Happy” for yet another week, according to Billboard. What is most shocking to me is that John Legend’s “All Of Me” is so hot, though I felt the hit potential when the underappreciated Love in the Future arrived in September 2013. For R&B and for Legend, the popularity of the rather conservative track is awesome.
Next week doesn’t seem electrifying as far as notable new releases. Still, albums arrive from Martina McBride (Everlasting), MercyMe (Welcome To The New), James Durbin (Celebrate), and SoMo (SoMo) among others. “It is what is”.
SoMo’s major label debut leaves the listener underwhelmed
SoMo • SoMo • Republic • US Release Date: April 8, 2014
YouTube has become the ‘it’ means of being discovered as an artist these days. Honestly, the art of self-promotion is truly savvy, aggressive gameplay personally. Where so many talented artists don’t have the confidence or the moxie to put them self out there, those that use a platform like YouTube deserve success. Even so, that doesn’t mean that what they have to offer is necessarily exceptional or laden with swag. SoMo, a burgeoning R&B/pop artist, takes his stab at fame with his major label debut, SoMo. Being signed to Republic is definitely a come-up from YouTube uploads. While SoMo shows the potential SoMo has to offer, it doesn’t prove to be fully cooked. Much of the cons with SoMo is the lack of an identity for its singer. SoMo doesn’t do enough vocally to necessarily impress on his official debut. No, that doesn’t mean he can’t sing – he can – but he also doesn’t come off as a superstar persona in the least.
“TMWYKAL”, which stands for “Tell me what you know about love”, initiates SoMo. If there had been more development, “TMWYKAL” could have actually been an enjoyable, full-length song. Instead, it’s merely the minute-long intro that precedes “I Do It All For You” with some solid vocal production. “I Do It All For You” unsurprisingly plays off of “TMWYKAL”, with SoMo doing whatever he has to please his baby. SoMo has a nice voice, but both song and vocalist leave more to be desired. In other words, there is a lack of distinction. “Show Off” isn’t bad – pleasant by all means – but it also is plays upon tired clichés. Many times, listeners have been subjected to the sexual reference of teacher/student (“I’mma be your teacher, you gon’ learn the details / then I’m on a test, you’ll just follow the leader”). Again, there’s nothing wrong with it, or “love hits like rocket ships from outer space”, but it also doesn’t give SoMo an artistic edge.
“We Can Make Love” opts for the overt approach, which delivers questionable results for the singer. “We can make love / or we can just f*ck…” doesn’t necessarily scream ‘romantic’, as SoMo references. Sure, every male R&B artist these days thinks it cool to supplant ‘sex’ with the f-bomb, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily should. Here, SoMo sounds more desperate than anything. “Head first, chest hurts / never thought it get worst” opens “Crash” embracing the modern R&B sound. Drenched in a drunken, druggy vibe, the coolness of “Crash” appeals yet doesn’t exactly send chills or thrill; there’s just something extra missing. Distinct lyrics “Her fingers are coiled on my skin / what is this whole that I’m in / taking my clothes off again / feeling her warmth, but it ain’t warm,” catches the ear on “Blind”. Like “TMWYKAL”, “Blind” is a teaser, serving as only a minute-long interlude.
“Back To The Start” is a rhythmic slow jam, focused on sex – shocker. Like everything else, it is pleasant and works, but doesn’t scream “wow” by any means. Even if SoMo lives “for the rush” he sings about on “Back To The Start”, the audience doesn’t get the same effect – aka the climax is anticlimactic. “Fire” may only inform the listener that SoMo’s girl “got that fire, fire, fire”, but it is actually one of the better cuts from the album. SoMo’s interpretation of a club cut isn’t exactly the ‘banger of the year’ (it still feels incredibly generic), but it does provide a slight spark. It’s the little things – the tiny victories.
“Hush” lifts from “Hush Little Baby” cornily within its chorus, but it is what it is. At least it has a nice contemporary soul groove working for it. Still, there is an air of generic. Maybe it’s the over repetition of “hush now, hush now”. Penultimate cut “Ride” is filled with innuendo – yet another shocker. “Naughty, let’s get naughty / Girl, it’s only on or two,” SoMo sings towards the end of the first verse, “fever’s f**king running / feel the heat between us two.” Of course SoMo provides details, including how he’s gonna “Kiss your body from the tip top / all the way down to your feet.” ‘Course, when a song opens with moaning (“Whoa”), what do you expect? For a sex song, it’s not bad but again, it’s also not revolutionary. “Red Lighter” closes the album solidly. A bit more developed compared to many of the other cuts, “Red Lighter” has more depth and potential.
Ultimately, SoMo lacks an emotional connection. Sure, SoMo sings of very relatable topics in love and sex, but something about the delivery as well as the material leaves the listener feeling empty. The cupboard isn’t completely bare on this album, but it’s definitely nowhere near full. Next round, SoMo will need to step up his game to make a truly thrilling, distinctive artistic statement. Here, he settles for trendy urban music that leaves its audience with a sentiment of “so what”. Now, it is time for the YouTube star to develop into his own.
“Show Off”; “Fire”; “Ride”; “Red Lighter”
Ah new release Tuesday, where dreams come true and are broken for many artists who hope their album will sell these days. This Tuesday, April 8, 2014, the releases aren’t exactly star-studded – that would be an understatement. That said, there are some possibilities to choose from, whether you’re looking to go vintage, be spiritually uplifted, or want to stomach an immature pop star’s life…
Ronstadt doesn’t release new music anymore, but the vocalist has released more than enough classic material to solidify her veteran musician status. Duets is a compilation featuring some of Ronstadt’s most notable collaborations with others including “Don’t Know Much” with Aaron Neville and “Somewhere Out There” with James Ingram.
Catacombs of The Black Vatican
Black Label Society
The title should be enough to allure the potential listener – or drive them away (whichever comes first). Catacombs of the Black Vatican is the heavy metal band Black Label Society’s fourth release for mega indie label Entertainment One and their tenth studio album overall.
Welcome To The New
Fair Trade/ Columbia
Jesus freaks everywhere should be rejoicing as one of the preeminent contemporary Christian bands releases their follow-up to 2012 LP The Hurt & The Healer. And yes, I do realize “Jesus Freak” was the title of a dc Talk album and song, not MercyMe – LOL.
Martina McBride’s latest album definitely isn’t your standard country album. McBride covers soul classics including “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”. On a rendition of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home” she brings Gavin DeGraw along for the ride while she gets the assist from Kelly Clarkson on “In the Basement”. If there were a country artist to pull it off, McBride would certainly be the one to do it.
Love & Hate
Entertainment One adds yet another album to the April 8th release date with Joan Osborne’s latest album, Love & Hate. Love & Hate marks the Kentucky-born artist’s eighth studio album. The album follows up 2012 LP Bring It On Home.
Justin Bieber’s Believe
My advice would be to proceed with caution here…really.
The former American Idol contestant drops his sophomore album Celebrate, albeit with little fanfare. Celebrate follows up 2011 debut, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster.
After releasing My Life digitally in 2013, burgeoning R&B artist (another YouTube discovery), release his ‘official’ self-titled debut via Republic.