Tag Archive | album reviews

Review: August Alsina, ‘Testimony’


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R&B newbie August Alsina shows tremendous potential on full-length debut Testimony

 August Alsina • Testimony • Def Jam • US Release Date: April 15, 2014

August Alsina-PFR-010102The 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.

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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)?

 Favorites:

“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

Verdict: ★★★½

Review: SoMo, ‘SoMo’


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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.

Favorites:

 “Show Off”; “Fire”; “Ride”; “Red Lighter”

Verdict: ★★½

Review: Mac Demarco, ‘Salad Days’


41CKDmzB+RL._SL500_AA280_ Salad Days easily proves to be one of the year’s elite albums

Mac Demarco • Salad Days • Captured Tracks • US Release Dates: April 1, 2014

“Oh now, you’ve done it again / no use when you already know how it ends.” Throughout Salad Days, singer/songwriter Mac Demarco seems incredibly down – there is the sense of the constant ‘bummer’. The aforementioned lyrics, excerpted from “Treat Her Better”, would suggest this extreme pessimism from the Canadian artist. However, even though Demarco gets down within Salad Days about various things, he also offers atoning words of wisdoms and relatable truths. It sounds deep…and honestly it is, even when Demarco’s lyrics seem childishly simple (“Blue boy, blue boy”). There is a magic about Salad Days that makes the 11-track, 34-minute affair among the best of 2014 – it’s almost hypnotic.

Salad Days” opens the album abruptly, but makes perfect sense once it settles in. Nonchalantly performed by Demarco, the approach is part of the endearment of the track as well as the album as a whole. Essentially, Demarco delivers the song from the perspective that his life is done, despite his young age: “Salad days are gone / missing hippy Jon / remembering things just to tell ‘em so long.” Even if the “salad days are gone”, Demarco seems like he still has plenty of livelihood left personally. “Blue Boy” seems less concerned about life moving too fast, but trades that concern for being “worried about the world’s eyes / worried every time the sun shines.” “Blue Boy” is incredibly relatable, particularly to the worrywart who is too fearful of any and everything. The realistic and relatable nature of “Blue Boy” is definitely part of the allure.

On “Brother”, Demarco continues to sing in an undertone, definitely part of the ‘script’. “You’re no better off, living your life and dreaming at night,” the singer/songwriter sings both memorably and prudently on the standout. The production has soulfulness about it, even if it isn’t an overt soul cut. Besides stellar lyrics and a fantastic performance, the guitar, particular during the “Go home” portion of the song, is superb. “Let Her Go” follows up sensationally, as Demarco waves the finger about leading “her” on: “Tell her that you lover her, if you really love her / but if your heart just ain’t sure, let her go.” The style/approach remains easygoing and somewhat mellow if you will, but definitely meaningful. “Goodbye Weekend” proves groovier than “Let Her Go”, sporting funkiness about it. Demarco shows some jazziness within his vocals, which is definitely a fine touch. In addition to the jazziness, Mac has swagger too: “Goodbye weekend, so long darling / Macky’s been a bad, bad boy.” Get it Mac!

Let My Baby Stay” is the lengthiest song on this brief affair. Perhaps it rides out a bit too long at the end, but overall, Demarco gets things just right. The rhythmic intensity of the guitars here in particular stands out. A better track is “Passing Out Pieces”, in which the sound is incredibly assertive, despite the lyrics suggesting/questioning otherwise: “Watching my life, passing right in front of my eyes / hell of a story, or is it boring?” Here, Demarco seems to continue to lament his humdrum life, confirming how even the closest people in his life don’t understand: “What mom don’t know has taken its toll on me / it’s all I’ve seen that can’t be wiped clean / it’s hard to believe what it’s made of me.”

Treat Her Better” offers advice that many men could stand to heed to: “Treat her better, boy / if having her at your side’s something you enjoy”. The guitars are dreamy sounding and out of tune – all part of the sound/vibe. “Chamber of Reflection” is definitely a change of pace from everything else, featuring a hard, heavy beat and synths. Bass punctuations brilliantly anchor things down, while an exceptional harmonic progression exemplifies R&B/soul music. Further praising the instrumental aspects, Demarco makes excellent use of space and pacing. The vocals continue in understated fashion, making the listener truly listen closely and think about the lyrics. The chorus is nothing ‘special’ on paper, but perfectly sums up the track contextually: “Alone again, alone again / alone again, alone”.

Penultimate track “Go Easy” contrasts the reflective “Chamber of Reflection” with a slightly quicker, medium groove. Demarco is still relaxed, but his words continue to carry weight whether its “I’ll be right behind you / to pick you up until you come around” or later instance “Honey it can be tough, without your friends beside you / you build it up, just to knock it down.” Moving on definitely isn’t easy, and that seems to be Demarco’s messaging here. “Jonny’s Odyssey” closes Salad Days with ranch dressing – well not literally! “Jonny’s Odyssey” is an enjoyable instrumental cut.

So, just how good is this Salad Days album? Well it’s definitely not anywhere near the ‘bore’ that Mac Demarco describes his life as within it. Salad Days is one of the most intriguing albums of the year because of its subtlety, thoughtfulness, and overall creativity. Demarco definitely isn’t best vocalist I’ve ever heard, and I would wager that few would strike this assertion down, but his vocal style and tone is perfectly suited for this style of music. Most important, the songwriting and overall sound and craft of the songs on Salad Days is exceptional. I’m onboard!

Favorites:

“Salad Days”; “Brother”; “Passing Out Pieces”; “Chamber of Reflection”

Verdict: ★★★★

Review: YG, ‘My Krazy Life’


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Overall, YG delivers a compelling debut with My Krazy Life

YG • My Krazy Life • Def Jam • US Release Date: March 18, 2014

YG-KSR-015031YG is the latest rapper on a long list of hopefuls to release his major label debut, searching for his ‘come-up’. Judging by its title (My Krazy Life) as well as the content enclosed, Y.G. has good reason to eye stardom and the hope for a ‘better’ life. Throughout this dark 14-track set (18 tracks on deluxe editions), YG tells the story of his life, in all its explicit details – sometimes its even TMI. Overall, YG ends up delivering a compelling effort, though it’s not perfect. While the MC has a sensational flow, he’s not as quite alluring (yet) as the very best in the game. Still, for his first album, this west coast effort is more thrilling than not and shows tremendous potential.

Momma Speech Intro” definitely foreshadows and establishes the tone: “…I hope you ain’t outside hanging with them gangbangers / you gon’ end up in mother f**king jail, like your damn daddy.” A heavy way to kick things off, it’s truly just a facet, a piece of YG’s Krazy Life. The following “BPT” is brief, and continues to find YG sort of introducing him self and the way he has/does live. “I’m from BPT (West side)…400 Bruce Street”, he raps on the hook. On the verses, he delivers incredibly agile rhymes with a rough and tumble sentiment: “That 40 Glock snap like Insta, ain’t no need for a caption / I got put on by four n***as, wasn’t need for no bandage…” “BPT” ends abruptly, sort of like a cliffhanger – you must keep on listening to discover what’s to come essentially. “BPT” sort of confuses early on taken out of context, but it makes perfect sense later on.

I Just Wanna Party” can be considered to be the first full-length cut. Here, YG, assisted by Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock, spits “But I just wanna party, I don’t wanna hurt nobody”, but also states “I’ll beat the f**k out of a n***a.” YG definitely talks some trash, but if you can get past the street savvy, he’s also being trill, particularly rapping “All these hoes f**kin’, but they don’t wanna seem like a ho / so you gotta hit ‘em on the low…” Schoolboy Q handles the second verse, boldly bragging he “could sell a key to God”, referencing drugs, specifically kilos. Jay Rock, who takes the third verse is all gangster: “I ain’t got a stunt double / you ain’t got no hands so you might let the gun touch you…” “I Just Wanna Party” is certain edgy, but also the first standout from My Krazy Life.

Left, Right” (featuring DJ Mustard) ends up being an exceptionally produced club banger with booty on the mind. YG is definitely in full-on salacious mode, leaving few elements of sex to the imagination. “…She can divide her legs on this d**k like a fraction,” he naughtily spits on the first verse, “right, right, left, hit ‘em with that right, left”. Of course, “Left, Right” is nothing more than physical as YG could care less about his partner: “… if you cheated on me, I won’t care, right?” He follows up his emotionless hook-up with the eye-catching “Bicken Back Being Bool”. Why such an odd title? Apparently, the Bloods, a prominent gang in California, avoid the use of the letter “C” or words using “C”. This would be because of the rivalry with the Crips. So, if you can rewrite the title of the song, it’s likely “Kickin’ Back Being Cool” (“K” would have the same sound as “C” and wouldn’t be in true Blood style likely). Another enjoyable cut, among my favorite lyrics were “Wifey don’t like SEGA, I don’t play that b**ch.”

YG-KSR-015028Meet The Flockers” seems like a titular play on the Ben Stiller movie Meet The Fockers, but more relevantly, it’s a joint about robbers (“flockers”). If normal people think of “flocks” referring to geese, YG is using “flockers” as slang for robbing in groups. “Meet the mother f**king flockers / make some noise if you ever stole something in your life…make some noise if you ever stole a dollar out your mama’s purse,” YG spits on the hook, “When she wasn’t lookin while y’all was in church.” He gets an assist on the second verse by Tee Cee. “My N***a” ends up being one of the album’s highlights, despite its overuse of the controversial African-American reference to “homie” or “bro”. A Slickly produced skeletal cut impacted by punches of 808, “My N***a” really says very little, but it doesn’t need to say much to be successful. Jeezy and Rich Homie Quan come along for the ride contributing verses, with Rich also handling the hook (“I said that I’mma ride for my mother f**kin’ n***as…”).

Sex becomes the focus of the next two cuts, “Do It To Ya” (featuring Teeflii) and “Me & My B**ch” (featuring Tory Lanez). “Do It To You” isn’t a love song given its physical nature, but it sounds like one from YG’s perspective. A standout it is, the obligatory “Face down, a$$ up / that’s the way we likes to…” definitely is nowhere in the gentleman’s handbook and eschews chivalry. “Me & My B**ch” also fails to be the traditional love song, but deeper examination makes one relate to YG’s sentiment. Tory Lanez’s sung hook explains part of YG’s lot: “Used to have a girlfriend / now all I got is hoes / just looking for a down girl / but she was f**kin’ on the low.” Basically, YG’s “ride or die” wasn’t being faithful (“…Damn she was with him last weekend”), despite how much he cared and invested in her (“I was claiming her when we was … wasn’t using condoms no nothing…”). In the end, YG’s chick tries to use possible paternity to get him back because he’s rich now. It’s a twisted tale, but a compelling one.

Who Do You Love?” brings in Drake, who definitely steals the show – no disrespect to YG, who also has some sound lyrical moments (“I’m that n***a on the block / police pull up, I’m tryna stash the Glock”). “I’m the general, just makin’ sure my soldiers straight,” raps Drake on verse two, “Had to leave my n***a, homie got an open case / But I’m big in the south / so we gon’ pay some people off, we gon’ figure it out.”

“Who Do You Love” is followed by arguably the album’s best cut, “Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)”, featuring Kendrick Lamar. Not one for subtlety, YG speaks his mind without a filter from the onset: “I woke up this morning, I had a boner / I went to sleep last night with no b**ch…I was a loner.” While YG keys in on ‘not getting any’, ultimately the MC is actually referencing the stress of various things on his mind, and smoking and drinking help to alleviate that stress. As for KL, well he goes H.A.M. as usual: “I swear this industry sh*t, to me is one big a$$ lick / I walk inside of a buildin’, tell the A&R n***a strip / Tell ‘em I need all of my chips, my life been on Section 8 / I’ve been a welfare case, AFDC pump fake.”

YG-20140307-1471AM” has a difficult act to follow, but handles the pressure well. Another autobiographically driven number, YG references the lack of discipline he received in his youth, specifically from his mother. Hence, such irresponsible actions including unprotected sex and empty relationships make perfect sense. “Thank God (Interlude)” features singing from Big TC (verse one) and rapping from RJ (verse two). RJ’s rapping alludes to jail time/making bail for Y.G., going back to his ‘flocking’. On sincere closer “Sorry Momma”, where YG is assisted by Ty Dolla $ign, Y.G. takes responsibility for his own actions and apologizes to her. Ty Dolla $ign conveys this superbly via the hook: “I’m sorry Momma / let me take some weight off your shoulders / I’m singing to momma / you ain’t gotta worry now, them days is over.” The production for the closing cut is lush and simply beautiful.

My Krazy Life isn’t quite comparable to the epic nature of big-time debuts like Kanye West’s The College Dropout, Drake’s Thank Me Later, or Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, but YG definitely has a compelling story to tell. The fact that My Krazy Life can be examined so analytically beyond the overt nature of its rhymes is a testament to the potential of YG There are truly no misses to be found as every track has a relevant role to the larger narrative. Perhaps it’s not the next rap classic, but it’s definitely one of the best rap albums of the year as of yet.

Favorites:

“I Just Wanna Party”; “My N***a”; “Do It To Ya”; “Who Do You Love?”; “Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)”

Verdict: ★★★★

Review: Shakira, ‘Shakira.’


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Shakira. is a sound, enjoyable effort, misses a “Hips Don’t Lie” caliber hit

Shakira • Shakira • RCA • US Release Date: March 25, 2014

hakira-20140325-35Latin-pop star Shakira returns following a five-year hiatus between English-language albums (she released Spanish album Sale el Sol in October 2010).  2009 LP She Wolf was Shakira’s previous album of such vein, but failed to match the success of 2005 effort Oral Fixation, Vol. 2, an album fueled by a monster single (“Hips Don’t Lie”).  Despite critical acclaim and a successful single in “She Wolf” (peaked at no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100), She Wolf wasn’t a commercial triumph in the U.S.  Shakira is likely anticipating better fortunes with latest album Shakira., led by another big-time single in “Can’t Remember To Forget You”.  All in all Shakira. proves to be a well done album  that finds the artist restlessly shifting styles.  It’s not perfect nor is it innovative, but Shakira. is no slouch either.

Can’t Remember To Forget You” opens Shakira superbly, assisted by urban-pop “it” girl, Rihanna. Initially, “Can’t Remember To Forget You” didn’t appeal personally, but after multiple listens, my opinion has shifted; the joint is definitely enjoyable.  Part of the appeal is the fact that this pop single doesn’t sound like everything else on the radio – it doesn’t rely solely on being trendy or showing off the cliché bag of pop tricks and gimmicks. “Empire” follows soundly. While it may lack the ‘bright lights’ that grace the opener, “Empire” ends up being exceptionally well done.  Initially, the cut is a bit off-putting, particularly given the unique quality of Shakira’s voice with its one-of-a-kind nuances. As “Empire” progresses, it evolves into something special – sort of a ‘diamond in the rough’ of sorts. As simplistic as it is, one of the highlighting moments of “Empire” is the nonsensical chorus: “And I’m like / Hooooooooo, Hooooooooo…” Maybe those lyrics seem even sillier taken out of context, but all the listener needs to know is Shakira is referencing love…

hakira3-20140325-10After speaking of her man ‘touching her’ and a reaction of “Hooooooooo”, the fine “You Don’t Care About Me” finds Shakira knowing the man doesn’t care about her.  The lyrics confirm that her relationship was one-sided: “Before you came along / it was all beautiful / I have nothing left in my heart, in my soul / should have never help you become / so powerful / but I saw a champion in your eyes.” If that excerpt wasn’t enough, Shakira sings the titular lyric repeatedly, emphasizing the “non-love” as Alicia Keys might put it. After the avoiding trendy pop, “Dare (La La La)” gives in fully – yes, that means it is produced by Dr. Luke, who gets some help from J2, Cirkut, Billboard, and the star herself. Max Martin co-writes, sealing the danceable electro-pop deal. “Dare” is by no means the ‘second coming’ nor the best dance-pop cut of the year, but it’s decent. “Cut Me Deep” switches genres, opting for reggae. A more natural fit, “Cut Me Deep” eclipses “Dare”. She gets a solid assist from Magic!.

Shakira-PRN-10840723” once more delivers contrast, with an acoustic guitar-driven sound.  Shakira sings “23” particularly well (not that she doesn’t sing everything else great), something that the clean sound/production allows for here. The groove that enters upon the second verse is certainly a highlight.  Besides the vocals and sound itself, the lyrics shine, specifically a genius agnostic/religious reference: “I used to think there was no God / But then you looked at me with your blue eyes / and my agnosticism turned into dust.” “The One Thing” has more “oomph” perhaps than “23”, keeping things interesting.  A gargantuan pop chorus makes “The One Thing” stand out: “You are the one thing that I got right / it’s a fickle world, it’s a fickle world / you turned the darkness into sunlight / I’m a lucky girl, yeah I’m a lucky girl.”

On “Medicine”, Shakira brings in The Voice colleague Blake Shelton. Christina Aguilera did the same thing on her previous album, Lotus. The results are positive, as this country-pop combo actually works.  Neither Shelton nor Shakira have to leave their respective comfort zones; this is a balanced song.  “Spotlight” is more pop-minded, inciting head nodding from the opening tip.  “Spotlight” is good, but it doesn’t quite match the best cuts – the truly elites. “Broken Record” also suffers a similar fate, perhaps more so than “Spotlight”, which has its more addictive groove to propel it. “Broken Record” is more of a singer/songwriter-oriented cut, co-written by Shakira and busbeeShakira-PRN-108421The production is light, which is a mixed blessing.  Shakira’s voice becomes the feature (pro), but the production feels as if it could use an additional spark, even with the use of strings. Penultimate track “Nunca Me Acuerdo De Olvidarte” provides the Spanish version of hit-single “Can’t Remember To Forget You”, while a second Spanish track, “Loca Por Ti” closes the album beautifully, if not necessarily electrifyingly.

Ultimatley, Shakira. is a fine addition to the artist’s discography.  After having hesitance in purchasing the album, after listening, I’m happy that I did. While Shakira. isn’t the ‘album of the year’, it also isn’t a ‘one and done’ either; it definitely is worthy of some spins.  Shakira – well, she does some things!

Favorites:

“Can’t Remember To Forget You”; “Empire”; “You Don’t Care About Me”; “23”

Verdict: ★★★½

Review: Ledisi, ‘The Truth’


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Ledisi unleashes more contemporary R&B moments on The Truth

Ledisi • The Truth • Verve • US Release Date: March 11, 2014

Ledisi4-20140110-222Ledisi Young is one of more talented R&B singers of present times, period.  Honestly, the 41-year old artist has nothing short of extraordinary, soulful pipes; the passion translates easily. Even so, being talented doesn’t necessarily convert to exceptional commercial fortunes, as numerous artists – particularly urban artists – know all too well.  Ledisi did manage to debut in the top ten of the Billboard 200 Albums Chart when 2012 LP Pieces of Me bowed at number eight with 36,000 copies sold.  How her sixth studio album The Truth will ultimately be received commercially after it’s all said and done is questionable, but critically, The Truth is another well-conceived effort from the singer.  In fact, Ledisi opts for more contemporary R&B tunes here, something of a departure.  Don’t get it twisted, she’s not suddenly morphed into Beyoncé, but Ledisi keeps things fresh.

I Blame You” opens with album with an adult contemporary R&B sound, not completely dissimilar stylistically to “Pieces of Me” or much of her previous album of the same title as a whole.  It isn’t until the bridge of “I Blame You” that shades of jazziness appear into the picture, where the harmonic progression truly drives the sentiment.  Vocally a ‘beast’, Ledisi is always most potent when she kicks into her soaring upper register, something she does here to bring home the accusatory opener.  Nearly matching the level of quality, “Rock With You” is the first notion of more contemporary fare from Ledisi.  It’s not quite the tour de force of the opener, but its well produced and does give the artist a different look.

Ledisi1-20140313-70That Good Good” is even more of a stretch stylistically, employing gimmickry from the onset, also conveyed through repetitious lyrics: “I’m the type of woman, woman, woman…” A legitimate question asked while listening to this is, has Ledisi ever sung over an 808 before?  Where this is or isn’t her first time, “That Good Good” ends up being more effective than one would expect judging Ledisi’s earlier work.  Even if one is secretly thinking “sellout”, there is plenty of excellent, sassy lyrical moments to absorb, whether it’s “I’m the type of woman / know what she wants and / ain’t afraid to say what I need” (Verse one) or “Your time your touch boy give me that affection / I need your attention” (pre-chorus).  Honestly, since Ledisi is referencing lovemaking, is a grooving banger so far-fetched?  If it is, the slower, seductive “Lose Control” is more of Ledisi’s niche – artistic lane if you will.  She’s still talking about sex, but she’s classier on “Lose Control”.  Hey, she’s a grown woman!

Like This” switches gears to a more neo-soul approach, with the throwback vibe perfectly suiting the singer. Even though it references the past it is no anachronism; it still retains hipness.  In addition to a sub-style switch, Ledisi also trades the physical for the emotional side of the relationship: “I can’t love you like this…when we argue like this… I can’t love you like this.” Again, Ledisi let’s her upper register shines and cut through exceptionally on her ad-libs.   Neo-soul doesn’t last for long as “Anything” shockingly begins with enthusiastic synths – unexpected by all means.  While the synths are off-putting on a Ledisi album, eventually things settle in.  Again, the ‘look’ is fresh, giving Ledisi a pop-R&B vibe.  “Anything” isn’t the cream of the crop of The Truth, but its no deal-breaker either.  If nothing else, there are some special lyrical highlights, most notably “Love means anyone who tries to curse you / by default they’re cursing me too.” Oh and the electric guitar solo is definitely on-point.

Ledisi-ZNV-002513Titular track “The Truth” is worth the wait, landing at number seven on the track list.  “The Truth” benefits from its production, which includes synthesized vocal synths at the onset.  The harmonic underpinnings also make “The Truth” special, particularly the colorful quirks.  And what is the truth – “I don’t wanna be lonely / don’t wanna spend a lifetime to make you mine / it’s time to face the truth / the truth about me and you…”  “Missy Doubt” is definitely interesting, giving the singer an in your face sort of a track.  Ledisi does awesomely with funk, though “Missy Doubt” isn’t a personal favorite. Conceptually though, Ledisi has something working here despite slightly flawed execution.

88 Boxes” more than atones for the question marks left proceeding “Missy Doubt”.  If “Missy Doubt” had a good concept going, “88 Boxes” has an even better one.  Basically, Ledisi feels as if her relationship – her life – has become nothing but bLedisi-ZNV-002440oxed-up memories.  It’s over and it’s done – she wasted her time. “88 Boxes I counted / my life it went from years to 88 boxes,” Ledisi sings on the chorus.  If The Truth were lacking in innovative spirit, “88 Boxes” infuses some using familiar, authentic scenarios.  “Can’t Help Who You Love” ends the album solidly, but certainly is a shade less enthralling than opening punch “I Blame You” or the top echelon of The Truth.  Still, the messaging is relatable: “You can’t help who you love / the heart’s just got a brain of its own.”

Calling The Truth Ledisi’s best album would be an overstatement.  Don’t get me wrong, The Truth is no slouch, but comparing it to juggernauts like Lost & Found or Turn Me Loose may be a bit much.  Still, the ten tracks that grace the LP are generally all worthwhile and do show Ledisi ensuring she doesn’t box herself in as only one type of artist.  Maybe “That Good Good” (for example) is exactly the right answer, but it’s not that far off or too ‘left-of-center’ either.  Overall, Ledisi gets it right once again.  We (the fans) wouldn’t expect any less.

Favorites:

“I Blame You”; “Rock With You”; “Lose Control”; “Like This”; “88 Boxes”

Verdict: ★★★★

Review: Aloe Blacc, ‘Lift Your Spirit’


41Gjnw1dUPL._SL500_AA280_ Aloe Blacc’s third album Lift Your Spirit does just that

Aloe Blacc • Lift Your Spirit • Interscope • US Release Date: March 11, 2014

Aloe Blacc-GHR-000602R&B singer Aloe Blacc is not in his first rodeo; he had an outstanding single out in 2010 entitled “I Need A Dollar” that should have foreshadowed what was to come.  Still, things only break for an artist when it’s the right time, and 2013-14 has proven to be the 35-year old singer’s time.  Two gargantuan singles have truly given Blacc ‘wings to fly’ on his third album, Lift Your Spirit: “Wake Me Up” (Aviici) and “The Man”.

The momentum that is on his side – specifically crossover success into pop from urban music – carries over into this overall fine ‘introduction’.  Sure, the singer, who has been associated with the Stones Throw label, has previously release two albums, but for many, this is their first impression of Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III.  That impression is a favorable one ultimately.

Aloe Blacc-LMK-060235The Man” is nothing short of enthusiastic and proves to be a sensational opening cut.  “Girl you can tell everybody…I’m the man, I’m the man, I’m the man,” Blacc sings passionately on the pre-chorus, before proclaiming “I got all the answers to your questions / I’ll be the teacher you could be the lesson…” on the chorus.  The throwback vibe hearkening back to R&B’s prime just makes “The Man” that much greater.  Throw in the lifted “Your Song” sample (Elton John) and soulful vocals from Blacc and “Everything is Sound” (Jason Mraz song reference FYI). The Pharrell Williams produced “Love Is The Answer” keeps things moving exceptionally well, again relying on the inspiration of the past.  Sure Williams’ typical production cues are in play, but he doesn’t mess with the soulful script.  In fact, “Love Is The Answer” sounds quite comparable to Williams’ own retro savvy on his own album G I R L.  The chivalrous nature of “Love Is The Answer” is nothing short of admirable (“Just look around the whole wide world / so many beautiful things to see / take my hand and come along spread love with me.”).

Wake Me Up (Acoustic)” is well placed given the popularity of the original Aviici single from True.  Still, the argument against what essentially is a reprisal is that “Wake Me Up” has experienced its peak already, so why feature it once more? There is nothing wrong with the acoustic version – it’s a quality recording – but moving forward beyond the track also wouldn’t have hurt Blacc in the least.  “Here Today” may not be among the best, but what is notable about it is that here specifically, Blacc truly channels the sound of Bill Withers.  Whether it is intentional influence or not, “Here Today” shows the beauty of Blacc’s pipes.  Additionally, much like the incredibly popular “The Man”, “Here Today” can pass off as an R&B or pop single.  On “Can You Do This”, the sound is likened to Bruno Mars’s soulful throwback joint “Runaway”.  They are clearly two different songs by different artists, but the sound is a modern day capture of retro-soul.  Halfway through, things still remain ‘all good’ overall.

Aloe Blacc-AES-109170Chasing” sports another funky groove and contrasts “Can You Do This” with a slower tempo. The use of horns adds another dimension, truly accentuating the song.  The refrain is a ‘feel good’ one with Blacc singing of “girls chasing the boys” and so on.  One specific highlighting moment is when the groove switches briefly to reggae, which is a sound contrast to the rest.  “Chasing” isn’t revolutionary (nothing is on this album), but it is definitely one of the singer’s best songs.  “The Hand Is Quicker” doesn’t lose a bit of momentum, with a hard, stomping groove and magnificent use of electric guitar, horns, and organ.  Retro-soul is written all over this cut, with the backing vocals truly sealing the deal.  “You know the hand / is quicker than the eye,” sings Blacc on the refrain, “Sometimes the truth / ain’t no better than a lie.” The sweetest spot of Blacc’s voice – when he ascends into his upper register.

Ticking Bomb” is a treat; it contrasts its contemporaries on Lift Your Spirit and possesses certain intensity about it.  Soulful, clear, and nuanced vocals by Blacc continue to be the story of the LP; he’s a man on fire.  What’s equally remarkable is the fact that Blacc never over sings, giving just the right amount to draw the desired effect.  “Red Velvet Seal” truly buys into vintage soul with its six-eight groove, a common cue of classic soul.  Though the two songs are unrelated by all means, “Red Velvet Seal” hearkens back to Lenny Williams’ “Cause I Love You” given its over sound and feel.  “Red Velvet Seal” is a strong penultimate track, even if it just misses the glory and notability of the top echelon.  “Owe It All” provides the album’s obligatory spiritual cut, with Blacc thanking God for everything.  An appropriate closer, the enjoyable “Owe It All” caps off a soundly conceived R&B album.

Ultimately, Lift Your Spirit does just that – it makes you feel happy.  There are no deal breaking moments to be found, with consistency characterizing the album overall.  Calling Lift Your Spirit an innovative affair would be an overstatement, but praising it for its solidness wouldn’t be in the least.  Vocally, Aloe Blacc is a balanced singer who knows when to pull back and when to flash, which helps to make Lift Your Spirit so appealing throughout.   It is the sensible R&B album that is ‘pop’ enough to crossover – just look at “The Man” for proof of that.

Favorites:

“The Man”; “Love Is The Answer”; “Chasing”; “Ticking Bomb”

Verdict: ★★★★

Review: Pharrell Williams, ‘G I R L’


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G I R L easily one-ups Williams’ 2006 debut, In My Mind

Pharrell Williams • G I R L • Columbia • US Release Date: March 3, 2014

Pharrell Williams-20140303-0Arguably, no one had a better year in 2013 than Pharrell Williams.  A longtime veteran of the music game in a numerous capacities, things had become considerably slower for one of music’s brightest beacons.  But then the music heavens delivered some big-time juggernauts via “Get Lucky” (Daft Punk) and “Blurred Lines” (Robin Thicke) that clearly reinvigorated the producer/artist’s career.  William’s accomplishments would be celebrated by a couple of notable Grammy victories and an Academy award nomination for “Happy”, his infectious, number one single from the animated feature, Despicable 2.   Pharrell is no dummy – he knows that you’re only hot for so long and then demand dwindles.  Because he’s ‘hot’ right now, it’s the perfect time to drop his second solo album, G I R L.  It’s not merely a strategic thing either, as G I R L has the quality to back it up.  Compared to In My Mind, G I R L is tons more fun!

Marilyn Monroe” initiates G I R L with a sophisticated, classical-sounding string flurry. And NO, those aren’t MIDI strings, but the real-deal, arranged by – get ready for it – Hans Zimmer (among others, with Bruce Fowler serving as orchestrator).   The overall sound and vibe is ‘Pharrell-ean’, given the expected cues characteristic of the artist, but also incredibly soulful.  As sensational and classy as the production is, Williams’ flawless falsetto seals the deal, particularly given the gentlemanlike tone of “Marilyn Monroe”.  “Not even Marilyn Monroe / Queen Cleopatra please / Not even Joan of Arc,” sings Williams on the refrain, “That don’t mean nothin’ to me / I just want a different girl…can’t another good boy keep it this through.” Essentially, Williams is hopelessly in love, and not even another ‘dime’ could atone for his affection towards ‘her’.  Chivalrous as albeit.

Pharrell2-20140305-72The chivalrous spirit continues on the Justin Timberlake assisted “Brand New”, which may be best summed up by its chorus: “Honey, you got me feelin’ (brand new) / like the tag’s still on me…jumpin’ round in your bag…” Essentially, the boys are saying ‘she’s’ changed them and reinvigorated them; they are renewed.  Sure a lyric like Williams’ “A winner never quits / a quitter never wins / I thought about what I wanted / and you were on my list” is sort of schmaltzy, but it is memorable.  Ultimately, “Brand New” proves to be a pop-soul track that’s clearing #winning.  “Hunter”, the follow-up isn’t too shabby either, though Williams allows for a bit more naughtiness.  Post-chorus lyrics like “My love has come…sex has come” clearly switch from the emotional side of the relationship to what goes down in the bedroom.  Still, Williams keeps things classy enough.  Again though, the falsetto is so ‘nasty’, William’s sensual thoughts can be heard audibly in that upper vocal register.

So much for classy! “Gush” is not referencing ‘gushing’ ocean waves by any means.  But rather than stick that god-awful parental advisory sticker on G I R L, “Gush” has been edited, even if ubiquitous lyric “light that a$$ on fire” slyly remains intact.  The jazzy, soulful harmonic progression is clearly in Neptunian style, aka The Neptunes production.  That said, Williams was the driving force behind that production style, and he produces the entirety of G I R L.  But any who, Williams admits his perverted side didn’t come from his momma: “I don’t know what’s come over me / my momma didn’t raise me that way.”  Still, the continuation of the pre-chorus seems like an excuse only by a man possessed by the three-letter word (“…You lit a fire, from inside of me / that’d light your seat ablaze, girl…”), only confirmed by the chorus (“Tonight I wanna be dirty, girl…do you wanna get dirty girl? Let’s go”). Well, Williams is saying what most guys are thinking, right?

Pharrell Williams2-20140210-66Atonement for improprieties or being a ‘D-O-G’ comes with the undeniably enthusiastic “Happy”.  Sure, many knew that “Let It Go” from Frozen was going to be difficult to beat for an Oscar, but didn’t everyone have sweet spot in their heart for arguably the year’s most positive song? Throwback soul never sounded so relevant in a time where soulfulness isn’t the dominant trend.  That said, “Happy” is so addictive and infectious, that it is undeniable to want to move your body to it and smile.  Really, there’s no more to say – it’s classic.

Come Get It Bae” gets the tall task of following the gem, but the sick grooving number does a good job.  Williams enlists the help of Miley Cyrus, but to hers and his credit, it works.  Sure, the cut isn’t what you’d declare intelligent, but it is irresistible – and sexual. Yep, probably a perfect reason for ‘new Miley’ to guest… “Come get it bae, come get it bae… you wanna ride it, my motorcycle / you’ve got a license, but you got the right to,” Williams sings on the chorus, “Gonna pop a wheelie, don’t try too high / take it easy on the clutch, cause girl I like you.”  That motorcycle certainly can’t be a Harley… just an observation!

After getting riled up on “Come Get It Bae”, Williams settles things down with the help of Daft Punk.  “Gust of Wind” is amongst the albums’ best, featuring exceptional production work, driven by its groove.  Williams’ vocals are clear, soulful, and nuanced, among his best performances of the entire effort.  The chivalrous nature returns, contrasting the freakiness of “Bae”: “When I open the window / I wanna hug you / cause you remind me of the air / I said yeah / cause when I’m feelin’ real low / I remember I love you / I put my hands in the air / and you were there.”

Lost Queen” is lengthy, but that is because it features a hidden track (I won’t reveal it).  Like the rest of G I R L, “Lost Queen” is enjoyable and well conceived, but it isn’t quite as valedictory as the top echelon, which includes “Brand New”, “Happy”, and “Gust of Wind”.   As for that hidden track that I won’t name, it’s worth the listen.  “Know Who You Are” brings in Alicia Keys, who ends up collaborating well with Williams.  Like the rest Pharrell Williams-AES-121317of the LP, production remains top-notch, but the overall song/songwriting matches up well here too.  G I R L closes with “It Girl”, in which Williams’ falsetto is ripe from the jump.  It’s not as dominant a close as “Marilyn Monroe” opens, but it holds its own.

Ten tracks deep, G I R L benefits from its brevity and overall lack of filler.  Sure, it’s not a perfect album, but ultimately, Pharrell Williams delivers an effort that plays to his musical strengths and is pleasant to the ear.  He doesn’t over-sex R&B like so many of his contemporary and younger male artists tend to do; he keeps things classy.  Mature and enjoyable, G I R L is definitely a winner worthy of numerous spins… or a high play count on the iPod, LOL.

Favorites:

“Brand New”; “Hunter”; “Happy”; “Come Get It Bae”; “Gust of Wind”

Verdict: ★★★★

Review: Rick Ross, ‘Mastermind’


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Rick Ross keeps a good thing going strong on LP number six 

Rick Ross • Mastermind • Def Jam • US Release Date: March 3, 2014

Rick Ross-20131008-27Six 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.

Rick Ross-20131126-35While “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.

Rick Ross-SIN-000357Nobody” 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…

Rick Ross-SIN-000262Mafia 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.

Rick Ross-SIN-000261After 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.

Rick Ross-20131202-36Walkin’ 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.

Favorites:

“Drug Dealers Dream”; “The Devil Is A Lie”; “Mafia Music III”; “War Ready”; “Sanctified”

Verdict: ★★★★

Review: St. Vincent, ‘St. Vincent’


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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

St Vincent-PKE-000033After 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.

St Vincent-PKE-000034Prince 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.

St Vincent-PKE-000035I 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 St Vincent-PKE-000036throughout.  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.

Favorites:

“Rattlesnake”; “Prince Johnny”; “Digital Witness”; “I Prefer Your Love”; “Severed Cross Fingers”

Verdict: ★★★★

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