It’s near the end of April, and as a music journalist, I have been privy to listen to a number of albums in differing genres. Even so, I have a soft spot for R&B, but am also very hard on it. Despite my criticisms, R&B and I have a relationship like a Whitney Houston song written by Dolly Parton: “I Will Always Love You”. That said, after listening to a number of R&B albums, I ranked 20 from 2014 (EPs and mixtapes included) in order from favorite to least favorite. Here goes nothing!
It took a juggernaut to knock John Newman from the top spot of the R&B rankings – his Tribute is a sensational album. However, SZA’s Z, an alternative R&B effort too is a truly special album with quite the innovative spirit, something so often absent from R&B these days. If anything, SZA needs to be receiving her just due. Previously of SZA I penned:
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”
Brit-soul definitely has something special about it – it’s as if overseas, the idea of retro-soul isn’t far-fetched or considered un-trendy or ‘old school’. While Tribute doesn’t have the abstractness of alternative-R&B or the trendiness and gimmickry of contemporary R&B, it does have legit authenticity, carried by an artist who can just flat out blow. Previously, I summed upmy review of Tribute as follows:
Ultimately, Tribute epitomizes musical excellence through and through. In an age where many question ‘where the soul has gone,’ Newman shows that soul music is still very much alive. For any further questioning if the British soul movement was a thing of the past in it self, well, question no more. John Newman is legit as they come and he has top-notch material working in his favor on this affair. For pop and R&B fans alike, Tribute should easily tickle your fancy.
“Tribute”; “Love Me Again”; “Losing Sleep”; “Out Of My Head”; “Cheating”; “Down The Line”
G I R L
Pharrell Williams second solo album G I R L eclipses his debut (In My Mind) easily. G I R L is one big ball of fun ultimately, with the quirky, incredibly talented artist flexing his muscles (and they’re big my friends, LOL). While it leans more danceable/groovy as opposed to relying on ballads, the material is solid and definitely enjoyable. When I had the pleasure of reviewing G I R L, this is how I concluded the review:
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.
“Brand New”; “Hunter”; “Happy”; “Come Get It Bae”; “Gust of Wind”
As I continue to listen to August Alsina’s full-length debut, despite giving it plenty of accolades, sometimes I think I should’ve bestowed even more. A 3 ½ star rating is a great one in my book/most critics, but perhaps Alsina’s Testimony deserves at least 4 stars. Here is what I previously wrote about Testimony when reviewing it:
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 Shit” ft. Trinidad James
Verdict: ★★★½ ★★★★
Days & Nights
John Newman may be the Brit getting the most buzz, but Daley shouldn’t be slept on – dude can flat out blow. Sporting a piercing, soulful tenor, Daley has some sick pipes. Daley can definitely count this music lover as a fan, something I attempted to convey enthusiastically in a previous review:
All in all, Days & Nights is an exceptional full-length debut from Daley. What is unfortunate is that there isn’t more buzz surrounding the Brit R&B standout. With such mad pipes, Daley deserves much more recognition. Regardless of his commercial lot, Daley has it going on strongly on Days & Nights.
“Time Travel”; “Blame The World”; “Love And Affection”; “Alone Together” ft. Marsha Ambrosius; “Pass It On”; “Broken”
Lift Your Spirit
“Go ahead and tell everybody…I’m the man, I’m the man, I’m the man”. Aloe Blacc may not be “the man” in regards to the second coming of R&B, but his big-time hit was enough to bring some added relevancy to the genre. The album Lift Your Spirit ultimately was quite appealing, a sentiment I conveyed within my final thoughts of my review:
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.
“The Man”; “Love Is The Answer”; “Chasing”; “Ticking Bomb”
2014 is the year of Brit-R&B, and this music journalist is digging it. Sam Smith is the most ‘pop’ of the big three (Smith, Daley, and John Newman), but maybe British pop is naturally more soulful, at least in recent times. Regardless, Nirvana definitely builds some serious buzz for Smith’s debut album. Of Nirvana, I summarized it as follows:
All in all, Sam Smith sets his career up soundly on this introductory EP. Vocally, Smith joins a talented class of British vocalists in 2014: John Newman (Tribute) and Daley (Days & Nights). Smith more than holds his own in such elite company, making him one of the artists to watch closely this year. Nirvana EP receives my blessings for sure.
“Safe With Me”; “Nirvana”; “Together”
Give The People What They Want
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
Traditional soul is hard to come by in 2014, particularly as R&B takes a more physical, less genuine turn. Give The People What They Want doesn’t follow this script, and even if it isn’t innovative given its inspiration from the 60s and 70s, the album feels incredibly refreshing. Of the superb Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings effort, I previously wrote:
Ultimately, Give The People What They Want is a fantastic album period. Brief at only 34 minutes and consistent from start to finish, there is truly little to criticize. Sharon Jones sounds superb throughout, as do the Dap-Kings. It’s not innovative, but the fact that Jones and company hearkens back to the classic sound, that is refreshing enough in itself.
“Retreat”; “We Get Along”; “You’ll Be Lonely”; “People Don’t Get What They Deserve”
Though it is neither flashy nor heroic, Recovery is a sound and enjoyable R&B album. Perhaps the biggest flaw of the album and artist Algebra Blessett is neither is well known or highly publicized. Still, my closing thoughts on Recovery were:
All said and done, Recovery is a fine R&B album, particularly to be released in a quiet January. There is a classiness and coolness about this effort that is appealing. Algebra never over sings; she always gives just the right amount of oomph and emotion to connect with the audience. Recovery is nothing flashy, but it doesn’t need to be. It is what it is – a narrative that a many of folk have experienced in real life, not merely an R&B album. Kudos Algebra – kudos.
“Recovery”; “Nobody But You”; “Struggle To Be” ft. Q. Parker; “Paper Heart”; “Mystery”
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.
“I Blame You”; “Rock With You”; “Lose Control”; “Like This”; “88 Boxes”
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”
M&O isn’t a household name, but perhaps the duo should be
M&O • Almost Us • US Release Date: April 3, 2014
In an age where many of us music listeners are searching for the next ‘big-thing’ – aka the next breakout artist/band – too often WE think ‘too big’ and end up missing out on a treat that wasn’t so far-fetched to discover. There are a number of independent artists who offers just as much, if not more than our ‘idea’ of what and who the next big-time major label artist should be. Among those artists – the “lesser-known” artists as they could be categorized – is a duo that shouldn’t be slept on by the name of M&O. Formerly known as Milo & Otis, Jamila “Milo” Woods handles vocals/vocal arrangements while Owen “Otis” Hill handles instrumental/production duties. After releasing an EP in 2013 entitled The Joy (it’s available digitally), the Chicago duo return (new name intact) with a second EP entitled Almost Us. Generally credited as an R&B offering, Almost Us is eclectic and definitely transcends R&B and labels in general. Available digitally and physically via music bandcamp as of April 3, 2014, Almost Us won’t leave the listener disappointed.
“House” opens Almost Us, exemplifying the popular, newfound alt-R&B sound that is breathing new life into the R&B genre. Like major-label contemporaries including Jhene Aiko or Miguel, the alt-soul cues are definitely in play from both Milo (vocals) and Otis (production). “House” has a chill vibe, alluringly lazy vocals, and exceptional production. Referencing those ‘lazy’ vocals, M&O’s sound reminisces back to Erykah Badu in her prime (Baduizm). On “Run”, Milo definitely has strong opinions lyrically: “I would rather run, far away from you / I would rather run.” Besides another well-penned song and hypnotizing vocals, “Run” features a hard anchoring beat that propels the track forward. The overall production thrives from its creativity and minimalism. A variety of tasteful synths and sound effects once more provide a compelling backdrop for Milo to paint with her voice. The use of cool, soulful background vocals doesn’t hurt the cause either.
“Jimi Savannah” has more of a pop/rock-oriented sound about it, definitely contrasting “House” and “Run”. Milo’s voice is incredibly versatile, so the shift from more overt R&B to pop/rock is by no means drastic. As always, Otis is there to lockdown the production exceptionally. Perhaps even more than “House” or “Run”, minimalism plays a driving force, specifically courtesy of guitar and bass lines. “It Was The Song”, featuring Donnie Trumpet, gives Almost Us some tempo to work with aka it’s quicker than “Jimi Savannah”. Additionally, after a brief stint with pop/rock, “It Was The Song” returns M&O to R&B/soul fare. “Hollow” features some of Otis’ most adventurous production as of yet, completely abandoning a specific style or niche. Because of the initial unpredictability, “Hollow” has the listener sitting at the edge of their seat just to see what’s going to happen next. The vocal production on “Hollow” definitely shines, playing into the minimalist sense of the overall production. A slow, grinding cut, “Hollow” ends up being one of the most alluring.
“Blue” builds off of the tremendous vocal arrangement of “Hollow”, opening stunningly with layered vocals. The best way to describe the opening is lush and fluffy – think of a baby kitten (Aw!). After making an opening statement with its vocal salvo, “Blue” develops into yet another compelling, alt-R&B number. “Blue”, like the majority of Almost Us, lacks in vocal histrionics that much of R&B possesses, which reduces some of its heart-wrenching, spirit-filled edginess. That said the vibe and the intensity built from the production sort of makes up for the gospel-tinged runs.
Penultimate track “Neighbor” opens mysteriously as anything else, perhaps even a bit off-putting (if you have preconceived expectations). Vocals once more serve as a gargantuan, unavoidable piece within the production. The difference here is that initially, the vocals aren’t layered like “Blue”. With pacing once more serving as a pivotal characteristic, “Neighbor” eventually rounds out into form as the pieces meld together. If the duo of “Blue” and “Neighbor” seemed bit ‘too far out’, “When Pigs Fly” is more accessible. Even so, “When Pigs Fly” definitely doesn’t supersede the album’s two best cuts, “Home” or “Run!”
Ultimately, Almost Us offers the listener a wonderful exemplification of the new school of R&B, with all its ambitious eclecticism. All eight songs have redeeming value, which is a testament to the musicianship of the duo. That said, sometimes it could be argued that M&O play it the slightest bit too ‘cool’ throughout the effort – sometimes it is a bit too ‘chill’. It is nitpicking – nitpicking that could be easily fixed if there were bit of a ‘push’ or extra bite. Still, if you enjoy your music with some unpredictability and incorporating a couple of styles, Almost Us is certainly the right listening opportunity. Hey, it definitely receives my praise and blessings.
“House”; “Run!”; “Hollow”
Shvona Lavette • “Holding On” (Single) • LUNEVEDI Inc. / Ocean View • US Release Date: Nov 5, 2013
Could Shvona Lavette, an alternative R&B singer/songwriter, be the next big thing? You just never know! Perhaps only time will tell, but the talented New York musician offers great promise on single “Holding On”, which precedes debut album It Was Fun While You Lasted. If nothing else, the creative title of Lavette’s forthcoming album – due in late January – definitely deserves some attention. After all, isn’t a notable album title half the battle? Previously, Lavette has released two EPs.
On the restrained lead single “Holding On”, Shvona Lavette simply allows her radiant voice to shine. Lavette never over sings retaining poise, naturally delivering her performance without breaking a sweat. While so many R&B artists rely on powerhouse histrionics to propel their performance to the next level, Lavette’s cooler approach is in line with the new school of R&B, which delivers performances that leave ample ‘breathing’ room you might say.
Lavette may be at home with alt-R&B, but that doesn’t completely explain her approach on single “Holding On”. Why does she show such restraint on “Holding On”? The reason is because the song is about a breakup and its aftermath. Anyone who has experienced a relationship, male or female, can relate to the vulnerability and varied emotions that its conclusion can have. “Holding On”, although poised, sounds like Lavette is trying to sort everything out and come through the unfortunate situation.
In addition to the moving original, a live, acoustic version of the single strips the simplistic original down even more, with Lavette truly delivering an organic performance. Artistically, Shvona Lavette seems like she possesses a great, artistic upside. “Holding On” should only be the beginning of what could be a brilliant musical career. SL is off to sound beginning, regardless. It Was Fun While You Lasted should definitely be a treat!
Jhene Aiko’s cool, calm, and collected approach to R&B is quite alluring
Jhene Aiko⎪ Sail Out (EP)⎪ Def Jam ⎪⎪ US Release Date: November 11, 2013
It’s too bad that a certain song named “Beware” from Big Sean’s commercially bombing sophomore album Hall of Fame (ironic title right?) didn’t blow up. Not soley for Big Sean’s sake, but for talented guest vocalist Jhene Aiko, who has seen her stock rising through a couple of collaborative efforts as of late. “Beware” was the big-name single that should’ve sent Jhene Aiko soaring to the next level, but it wasn’t to be. Despite the setbacks, a collaboration with Drake on Nothing Was The Same (“From Time”), certainly presented the R&B/pop singer in an excellent light. It doesn’t hurt that Nothing Was The Same is one of the largest commercial triumphs of 2013. Aiko’s own EP Sail Out finds here cool, but biting brand of R&B surprisingly alluring. She rarely breaks a sweat, but more amazingly, she doesn’t need to.
“The Vapors” comes off almost cold from an initial listen; nonchalant and stoic in tone. A second listen unveils the totality of its magic. Numerous memorable lyrics shine, beginning on the first verse when Aiko sings “You been on my mind / I been tryna let it go / I been tryna find / somethin’ as incredible / as you and I…” Those rather simple, but telling lyrics lead to chorus that’s both suggestive and ‘druggy’ in sentiment: “Can I hit it again? / can I hit it again?” Essentially, Aiko seems to reference getting high off of weed and simply can’t get over the sex with her former flame. Vince Staples expounds upon Aiko’s situation via his rap verse (“Memories fading faded help you not to remember / the trials and tribulations, eyes red from crying / the perfect way to disguise it you was blinded by your fate”). “Vapors” is definitely jam-packed regardless of its apparent simplicity.
“Bed Peace” certainly doesn’t ‘kill the vibe’. As refined as Aiko sounds vocally, she’s unafraid to inject contemporary lyrical swagger (“Gotta get this paper, get this cake up…”). Like on “The Vapors”, Aiko embraces the ‘higher’ side of life with stoner-alluding lyrics like “Wake up, wake up, bake up…let’s get faded / gotta call your job tell ‘em you won’t make it.” Irresponsible it may be, but Aiko’s chill vocals and ad libs float atop the production as if she is smoking blunt after blunt. Childish Gambino is her Vince Staples this time, adding a kind of alt-rap touch. His best moment is when he states “I don’t wanna be around a baby so dumb high / I don’t see the beauty of a momma on inside…” Yet another play on words on another home run for Aiko.
With two triumphs prior, “Stay Ready (What A Life)” doesn’t need to adhere to the mantra of ‘third time’s charm’ – it just continues the brilliance already set forth. Anytime you see Kendrick Lamar as a guest collaborator, you can go ahead and write ‘FIRE’ besides the cut. Indeed, this double-track continues to show the best attributes of Aiko artistically as well as finding Lamar continuing to flex his prodigious rap muscles. Explosive and explicit lyrical moments like “Tell me find your spot with the warning that I might slip / and when you climb on top that’s the ultimate road trip” or “And triple through triplets of babies right now / and that might break the record and no, that don’t mean you’re fertile /that means we’re f*cking reckless, plus we don’t use protection” fit perfectly. Aiko shines with her truisms on change of pace “What A Life”: “I been through some sh*t man / but I be on my sh*t man / I decided / that what you give / is what you’re given…” Guess that’s why she sings “what a life.”
“WTH” certainly takes on Juicy J’s philosophy to “stay trippy”. Over spacey and mysterious production, Jhene Aiko continues to strike a chord with her broken romantic, faded tales. “I am Alice / I’m in the Wonderland,” she proclaims on the first verse, “Where’s the rabbit? / he is late again…” After such a bold allusion to waiting for a man who seems long gone, Aiko both confirms “I might / I might’ve been too high” (playing once more on words) and that “I cannot recognize / what’s the difference / in pretending and / living a real lie?”. Ab-Soul plays right into Jhene’s ‘trap’ on his guest verse: “My what a ride, real trippy sh*t / I glimpse with a squint but I can see a whole grip / my retinas are red, my vision is crystal / didn’t use pencil but it’s true I led…” Lyrically, it’s hard to deny the creativity and cleverness of Sail Out, that’s for sure.
After toying with the ‘lame-o’, on “The Worst”, Aiko finally seems to talk some trash; a woman scorned. The first go-round it’s not so bad for the dude: “And don’t take this personal / but you’re the worst / you know what you’ve done to me / and although it hurts I know / I just can’t keep runnin’ away.” The second time, it’s not so pretty: “Please don’t take this personal / but you ain’t sh*t / and you weren’t special / ‘til I made you so….” Even with all the anger and raw emotions unveiled, Aiko can’t seem to let him go: “I don’t need you / but I want you…” How often does a girl fall for the wrong guy? That’s what makes “The Worst” so relatable. It works similarly for guys getting the wrong girl btw, just for clarity.
Penultimate cut “3:16am” continues on in Aiko fashion, meaning multiple meanings and interpretations from different listeners. Even though the lyrics are open-ended, they remain sound, such as personal favorite “I do not feel the fear of falling / thought I could fly / it didn’t go well but oh well / what do you know.” Closing cut “Comfort In Ending (Freestyle)” is more profound, featuring some of Aiko’s most real, unapologetic lyrics. It is a ‘soap opera’ of sorts. Regretful, Aiko details an affair (“And I should’ve never took you on a boat for your birthday / and I should’ve never f*cked you on a boat on your birthday…”) where ultimately “‘Quis found out and then I had to leave him / ‘cause I couldn’t be the one to hurt him”. Regardless of your opinion of Aiko, she captures your attention and ends the EP with a bang… or several. No pun intended.
All said and done, Jhene Aiko leaves the impression she truly can be R&B’s next great artist. Contemporary and captivating, Aiko doesn’t have to infuse extra grit to sell her points vocally. She can coo and still shine as bright as a beacon. Few can do such without being chastised for their lack of vocal abilities. Sail Out certainly makes me excited for the possibility of Aiko’s forthcoming full length studio album.
“The Vapors”; “Bed Peace”; “Stay Ready (What A Life)”; “Comfort Inn Ending (Freestyle)”
- REVIEW | Jhené Aiko’s Sail Out (auralboy.wordpress.com)
Janelle Monáe Scores A Home Run on The Electric Lady
Janelle Monáe⎪The Electric Lady⎪ Bad Boy / Wandaland ⎪⎪ US Release Date: September 10, 2013
Merely calling Janelle Monáe one of a kind would be a total understatement, like really. Janelle Monáe is one of a handful of R&B artists who brings something truly different, fresh, and eclectic to the table. Incredibly nonconformist, Monáe beats to her own drummer, from the tuxedo she swears by to the bombastic, illustrious tunes she captivates us with. Her second full-length album (third if you include her debut EP in that conversation) The Electric Lady shows no fall-off for Monáe – girlfriend’s got it y’all. Perhaps most shocking about the album is that she was able to get Prince to collaborate with her – your mouths should be agape ‘cuz don’t no one get ‘The Purple One’ on their album!
An orchestral overture opens, entitled “Suite IV Electric Overture”. Establishing the refined, artistic liberation of this album and the incredibly individualistic Monáe, the overture seems appropriate. “Givin’ ‘Em What They Love” brings the first punch, intact with Prince lending his distinct pipes. The vocal chemistry between the two is like a match made in musical heaven – it’s that good. The vocal harmonies rock as well, though perhaps the biggest highlight is when Monáe really digs in to her inner rock-chick showing some unstoppable grittiness. Follow that juggernaut up with another, the fantastic single “Q.U.E.E.N.” which features a legend in it’s own right in Erykah Badu. Catchy, ‘real talk’, soulful, contemporary, and laden with swagger, “Q.U.E.E.N.” is one of the best songs of 2013, regardless of genre. “Am I a freak for dancing around?” Of course not! Monáe even throws some rhymes in there, further showing the artist’s versatility and restlessness. No complaints thus far.
Title track “Electric Lady”, featuring Solange, continues the musical impressiveness, even if it can’t outdo the one-two punch of “Givin’ ‘Em What They Love” or “Q.U.E.E.N.”. As always, Monáe compels vocally, as does the more eclectic, hipster Knowles sister. Following one of many interludes (“Good Morning Midnight”), “Primetime” is an alternative R&B match made in heaven. Janelle Monáe and Miguel? YES! No wonder “…it’s a prime time for our love / and heaven is betting on us”, as the standout refrain goes on this valedictory showing. To make it even more romantic and sexy, those vocal harmonies are simply stunning as are the lead vocals. After being “Primetime”, Monáe declares “we were unbreakable / we were like rock and roll / we were like a king and queen / I want you to know…” on the fine “We Were Rock and Roll”. Like “Primetime”, love remains the theme, compared with rock and roll. Works right? Yep.
Following “The Chrome Shoppe” (another interlude), Janelle goes cray cray on “Dance Apocalyptic”. The hip-hop leaning intro is enough to signify this: “Bands they make her dance apocalyptic now…” Initially, I felt a bit less enthused about Monáe’s second single, but hearing it contextually, it is still good stuff. I mean, she “…need to know, if the world say’s it’s time to go / tell me, will you freak out?” Sensible enough, right? Well in Janelle’s world that is. Monáe goes chill on “Look Into My Eyes”, sounding much like ‘60s or ‘70s pop. A lovely showing, “Look Into My Eyes” doesn’t supersede any juggernauts, but it still manages to please at a high level. It closes Suite IV capably.
Another orchestral overture opens Suite V (“Suit V Electric Overture”), borrowing it’s basis from none other than “Look Into My Eyes”… at least initially. The interlude eventually opts for major key, uptempo fare, only to return to a slower tempo. “It’s Code” proceeds with soul in mind, anchored by a rich, animated bass line. As always, Monáe delivers the vocal goods with her nuanced vocals. The cut segues into the uptempo, groovy “Ghetto Woman” which sounds like a soulful, funky throwback as well, but without being anachronistic. The words are as much a draw as the production, particularly the chorus: “And when you cry don’t you know that I am crying with You? / When people put you down, yeah way down and you feel / like you’re alone…” Empowering, “Ghetto Woman” seems like a fine companion cut to the previous “Q.U.E.E.N.” – rap intact as well. And shout out to Kellindo Parker’s awesome guitar solo as well.
Following the android-themed interlude (“Our Favorite Fugitive”), Monáe wants the “Victory”. “And if tomorrow shall come to me,” she sings at the end of verse one, “I’ll count your every kiss as a victory.” She confirms the toughness of victoriousness: “Cause to be victorious, you must find glory in the little things…” True, and I suppose a kiss could certainly signify a blooming romance. Lyric analysis aside, what about those soaring upper range notes from Monáe? This totally sounds like a Lauryn Hill type of song! Continuing on the much travelled pathway of love, “Can’t Live Without Your Love” is self-explanatory. That definitely doesn’t make it a deal breaker or second-rate either.
“Sally Ride” is definitely clever, particularly if “Can’t Live Without Your Love” seemed the slightest bit too ‘normal’ for Monáe. While there are several messages going on here, there seem to be allusions to the late Sally Ride (“I’m packing my space suit / and I’m taking my shit and moving to the moon”) that transcend Monáe’s ‘android’ stuff. Also lines like “Just wake up, Mary / Have you heard the news? / oh, just wake up, Mary / you got the right to choose…” seem like a reference to freedom of choice in numerous social regards (sexuality, career, etc.). This wouldn’t be far-fetched given Monáe’s love of individualism, nonconformity, and empowerment of women.
Monáe receives the assist from another eclectic, classy standout in Esperanza Spalding on penultimate cut “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”, another love-oriented. “It’s too late, you’re hypnotized / she’s got Dorothy Dandridge eyes / and you love her, you love her, you love her, you lave that girl…” The poetic nature of the cuts makes it shine. The closer “What an Experience” says it all. Sure it’s referencing love, but in the context of this 19 track effort, isn’t it quite the experience in itself?
How good is The Electric Lady? It’s awesome, simply put. Consistent, fresh, retro, and captivating, Monáe continues to pave her own way. Forget all notions about a post-R&B world where the soul is dead, Monáe has got it going on. Go on and twerk it Janelle! #QUEEN
Favorites: “Givin’ ‘Em What They Love”; “Q.U.E.E.N.”; “Primetime”; “We Were Rock and Roll”; “Ghetto Woman”; “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”
The Weeknd Sticks With the Formula With Less Notable Results
The Weeknd⎪ Kiss Land ⎪ Republic⎪⎪ US Release Date: September 10, 2013
Alternative R&B generally is a fine outlet to keep the cooling genre of R&B alive. In a day and age where ‘neo-soul’ has fallen by the wayside and adult contemporary R&B can’t carry the torch alone, alt-R&B seems like the present answer to preserve respiration. Artists like Frank Ocean, Miguel, and The Weeknd have been the chief proponents of this movement. The Weeknd’s compilation effort Trilogy, showed the possibilities and the appeal of this nu-soul. On Kiss Land, The Weeknd continues in a similar vein, but not sans flaws. Kiss Land feels too spacey at times, where some extra definition and less self-indulgence might’ve boded well for The Weeknd.
“Professional” is an interesting way to start, sampling EMIKA’s “Professional Loving”. At first, The Weeknd’s reference to professionalism seems to be his newfound stardom, as highlighted lyrically throughout the intro (“…So you’re somebody now / but that’s a somebody in a nobody town / you made enough to quit a couple of years ago / but it consumes you / everywhere you go”). On the switch-up, the idea of professionalism seems to transform sexually, which isn’t unpredictable given The Weeknd’s dedication to such subject. All in all, it works, but “Professional” feels as if it could use one extra lift to truly propel it to another level.
“The Town” seems a bit more undercooked than “Professional”. Sure it’s druggy sounding and The Weeknd continues his mission (“I remember on the bathroom floor / before I went on tour / when you said we couldn’t do it again / cause you had a thing with another man…”), but even given the richness of his falsetto, he lacks the strength to deliver a truly captivating performance. He does better for himself on “Adaptation”, though it’s not without its rubs. “I lay my head on a thousand beds / it’s been a test to see how far a man / can go without himself…”, he sings reflectively on verse one. The chorus is more telling though: “But I chose the lie / I chose the life / then I realized / she might have been the one / I let it go / for a little fun / I made a trade / gave away our days / for a little fame / Now I’ll never see your face / but it’s okay I adapted anyway”. The Weeknd gets added swag points with his ad libs toward the end.
By “Love in The Sky”, The Weeknd seems to have his stuff together, delivering one of the album’s best. He’s in top-notch form when he delivers widely interpretable lines such as “There’s no one inside / but you’re free to relax / if you commit to this ride / there’s no turning back…” Sure, he could be going for high level thinking, but it seems he definitely wants you to catch his innuendo. If it’s not clear on “Love in The Sky”, it definitely is on the follow-up cut, “Belong To The World”. “I’m not a fool / I just love that you’re dead inside… I’m not a fool, I’m just lifeless too…” Okay. Most interesting is when it’s obvious The Weeknd is referring to a stripper (“Oh girl, I know I should leave you / and learn to mistreat you / cause you belong to the world / and ooh girl, I want to embrace you / domesticate you / but you belong to the world…”).
Personally, “Live For” seems like something of a wasted opportunity. The hook is simple as is the overall theme: “This the sh*t that I live for, this the sh*t that I live for / this the sh*t that I live for, with the people I’d die for…” Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve heard this about a bajillion times. Still, The Weeknd asserts his ‘swag’ (“I’m in my city in the summer / Camo’d out, leather booted / kissing b**ches in the club…”) while Drake steals the show (“Roll up in that thing, got h**s like Prince, but they know I’m King.” “Wanderlust” is stronger, sampling Fox the Fox (“Precious Little Diamond”). Again, it’s not perfect, but you can’t deny the humor and truth in a line like “Good girls go to heaven / and bad girls go everywhere / and tonight I will love you / and tomorrow you won’t care…” If nothing else, “Wanderlust” is the closest cut to dance to.
“Kiss Land” stands out, with The Weeknd being bold with lyrics like “You can meet me in the room where the kisses ain’t free / you gotta pay with your body” or the more overt “I can’t stand talkin’ to brand new girls / only b**ches down to f**k when you shower them ones…” Maybe most irresponsible is his references to drugs. Despite this, “Kiss Land” is a winner. “Pretty” shines as well. While it literally opens with a ‘bang’ (“Somebody telling you it was pointless for me to come back into your arms / said you f**ked another man…”), The Weeknd reins himself in with some more thoughtful lyrics. Closer “Tears in the Rain” sports solid ideas, but as with many of the cuts here, it lasts too long and feels a bit too indulgent.
How does Kiss Land stack up? Honestly, it is a bit disappointing. It’s not terrible by any means, but to say an of the cuts stand up against “Wicked Games” or “Twenty Eight” would be a stretch from my perspective. Additionally, even though The Weeknd built his career around sex, drugs, and emo R&B, a broadening wouldn’t hurt next album.
Favorites: “Love in The Sky”; “Belong To The World”; “Kiss Land”
- Review: The Weeknd Flows Nicely on ‘Kiss Land’ (abcnews.go.com)
Joel Compass artistic potential shines brightly on his new EP Astronaut
Joel Compass⎪Astronaut EP ⎪ Photo Finish / Black Butter Records ⎪⎪ US Release Date: September 10, 2013
At 19, few people know exactly what they want to do in life or where they want to go. Having an identity crisis is not unfounded. For 19-year Brit Joel Compass, an identity crisis doesn’t seem to be a problem whatsoever, unless you consider an eclectic mix of modern pop, contemporary R&B, soul, and electronica an ‘identity crisis’. Personally, the blend of multiple influences, not to mention one awesome voice (particularly that falsetto) makes this newcomer one to watch. Don’t sleep on Joel, particularly since the Londoner just dropped a well-rounded, EP (Astronaut EP) featuring current single “Astronaut” as well as previously issued joint “F*cked Up”. Four songs deep it may be, but take my word for it, listeners are in for a treat.
“Astronaut” opens the EP capably, mixing modern/contemporary R&B, pop, and electronic elements. Vocally, Joel Compass possesses quite a compelling instrument, well attuned to both soulfulness and trendiness. If nothing more, “Astronaut” has a sick vibe and shows the great potential of Compass. Oh, and throw in a worthwhile hook and all is well. Nothing like a profane title to capture one’s attention, right? “F*cked Up” finds Compass keeping things 100. In an age where the new generation expects straight-shooting, brutal honesty, Compass’ candidness about his state is welcome. He’s “…so f*cked up and this girl won’t wake up…” The approach won’t please older folk who aren’t fans of their music incorporating f-bombs, but the twenty-somethings should definitely be on board – and relate.
“Kiss Love Goodbye” follows up solidly, opening mysteriously with the stoner/ alt-R&B. Sure, there is a straight 4/4 groove anchoring things down, but the spacey, relaxed feel is modern, fresh, and in step with the nu-R&B of today. Compass once more taps into elements of pop and electronic, incorporating the sounds and sensibilities of of dubstep. Vocally, he continues to shine, filling in the subtle rhythms of the drums with his voice. On the sweet “Back To Me”, Compass’s falsetto shines atop druggy production, making the comparison’s to Canadian R&B sensation The Weeknd legit for sure. The approach to this ballad again has it’s foot in the door to the past given Compass’s soulfulness, but also feels hip to the upmost. Unafraid to experiment and expand the definitions and confines of R&B, “Back To Me” provides yet another consecutive triumphant number filled with potential.
Should you check out Joel Compass? The answer is one big emphatic yes! Whether he’s “f*cked up” or not as he sings is besides the point – the man can S-A-N-G. This EP offers a snapshot into what could potentially be a brilliant career, no questions asked. Give JC some love… you won’t regret it in the least.
- [New Music] : Back To Me – Joel Compass (urbanlunch.wordpress.com)
- Joel Compass – Astronaut (Ghost Loft Remix) (modernlifemag.com)
- Joel Compass – Astronaut (Gorgon City Remix) (miamiswamp.wordpress.com)
- Joel Compass – Fucked Up (Ghost Loft Remix) [Video] (deadendhiphop.com)
- Joel Compass – Astronaut (Gorgon City Remix) FREE DOWNLOAD (thehundred.co)
- Living Like an Astronaut (heardanoise.wordpress.com)
Mayer Hawthorne⎪ Where Does This Door Go ⎪ Republic ⎪⎪ US Release Date: July 16, 2013
If you go by looks alone, Mayer Hawthorne looks like anything but an R&B singer, particularly a retro-soul singer; he appears to be the antithesis if anything. That, of course, is shallow and small-minded thinking, which I’m opposed to. I’m especially opposed because home boy can S-A-N-G, period. Mayer Hawthorne has a lot more soul than many of his contemporaries, no questions asked. Where too many R&B artists are trying to find their answer in breeding pop and R&B, Hawthorne looks to the past for his inspiration, and man has it made for great music. Given his knack for soul and a falsetto the ladies should be swooning over, Hawthorne’s third album Where Does This Door Go further provides evidence as to why he is an artist to watch. Yes, at times I’ve had R&B practically buried six feet under, but it’s artists like Hawthorne that still make me believe.
Let’s cut straight to the chase. Ole boy does not miscue, period. Intro “Problematization” dramatizes the aftermath of a secret hook-up, prefacing brilliant opener “Back Seat Lover”. On “Back Seat Lover”, Hawthorne is perfectly content with continuing with a secret ‘relationship’, confirmed by lyrics like “You know I’d never hit and tell” (Verse one) and “You know I won’t say a word / yeah we can keep it discreet…” (Pre-Chorus). Ultimately, Hawthorne seems to enjoy… well the sex (“If I gotta be your back seat lover / man well let’s get it on then…”). But then he also seems to ‘open the door’ to a true, balanced relationship on the bridge (“If you wanted more…I could show you the possibilities..”) In addition to its narrative prowess, the production of “Back Seat Lover” sets the tone with it’s neo-soul groove that has you addicted from start to finish.
It’s always great to have a remarkable first impression and even better when successive impressions are great. “The Innocent” is yet another great ‘impression’, both musically and lyrically. The groove buttresses things down, while a bit bass line helps to outline and reinforce a thoughtful minor harmonic progression - i, iv, VI, ii7-5 ,V7 for my theory colleagues. Hawthorne makes me fear ‘her’ on this cautionary tale, where he sings “she’s got it, and you want it / she’s got it, and you want it / she’s got it, the innocent / are never seen again…” He follows up the loss of ‘the innocent’ with “Allie Jones”, yet another well produced track. A contrast to “Back Seat Lover” or “The Innocent”, “Allie Jones” captivates, even if a shade less than its predecessors. Among notable attributes is the seriousness of the message itself: “the hope, the pain in your daughter’s eyes / the only thing keeping you alive…” (Verse two).
“The Only One” does things better, funking it up and getting the head nodding and those feet tapping. Even with a good time going down, the lyrics don’t match the enthusiasm, particularly a line like “Train goes off the track / chain reaction, latch the casket closed…” Yeah, that’s depressing. The track doesn’t necessarily feel that way regardless, aided by some hip-hop cues, vocal harmonizations, and perhaps most all, the entrance of horns. Funk continues to prevail on “Wine Glass Woman”, but so does Hawthorne’s keen perception. “Wine glass woman, wore your Christian Dior / but you shatter into pieces on the floor / Wine glass woman / see the fire your eyes / but your victory will be your own demise…” Well now. The ‘wine glass woman’ of which Hawthorne references may be in for it, but the song continues the consistency of Where Does This Door Go. No strike outs to be found.
On single “Her Favorite Song”, Mayer Hawthorne continues to impress vocally. The elements of classic soul remain potent, but the cut definitely eschews anachronism, tweaking the formula that has given Hawthorne a successful following. Mayer Hawthorne literally sings about his lady’s ‘favorite song’ soothing her: “But when she gets home, she puts her headphones on / she plays her favorite song and fades away / and when the music’s on she can do no wrong/ and she feels safe and calm and it’s ok / and she says (ba ba dum ba dee ah dum ba / ba ba dum ba dee ah dum ba…” If you watch the music video, which has ‘dogs’ in a bar setting, maybe the reason ‘her favorite song’ soothes her makes more sense… or just confuses more, LOL. Well produced, well written, and definitely another solid vocal from Hawthorne, “Her Favorite Song” is easily among the ‘cream of the crop’. And btw, make sure you check out the remixes as well!
“Ay Bass Player” serves as a foreshadowing interlude to “Crime“, which features standout MC Kendrick Lamar. “Crime” is sort of a simple, perhaps slightly ‘underdeveloped’ number, but given the simplicity of its theme (“We just wanna party / we don’t mean no harm / don’t wanna hurt nobody / we just wanna party…”), it’s also kinda understandable. As always, Hawthorne sounds polished, particularly on the vocal treatment of the titular lyric itself. Kendrick Lamar arguably ‘rules the roost’ on his rap verse, if for nothing more than inciting a necessary ‘anti-Molly’ campaign: “…Probably hit that Bob Marley, I ain’t with that Molly sh*t…” “Reach Out Richard” superbly pays ode to Hawthorne’s father, Richard, serving as atonement for the more lightweight “Crime”. Produced by a reinvigorated Pharrell Williams, “Reach Out Richard” is yet another triumph for the ‘it’ hit maker. Oh and as for Hawthorne himself, well, “the kid’s alright”.
“Corsican Rosé” continues on consistently, successfully blending contemporary R&B, hip-hop, and soul elements. The narrative isn’t new itself, but many times recycled: “I shoulda told you you’re the only one for me / how could I ever be so blind / I should have never let you find another guy / there’ll never be another time for you and me / I should’ve held on to you tight / now we’ll forever be ships passing in the night…” Catch the drift? On “Where Does The Door Go” the first time signature shift of the album takes flight in six-eight, truly heartening back to vintage soul. The use of strings help to craft a lushness about the title track while the harmonic scheme has some thoughtful, somewhat unexpected quirks. An interlude foreshadowing “Robot Love” is built in.
“Robot Love” is a feisty little cut with, well a sexed-up groove. It is a departure of sorts, which may or may not make it for every Mayer Hawthorne fan given it’s gimmicky nature. Personally, it hearkens back to Prince in one sense, and Hawthorne’s falsetto continues to stick the dagger into the competition. On the fine “The Stars Are Ours”, Hawthorne has Michael McDonald and The Doobie Brothers on his mind, emulating ther blue-eyed soul favoring pop. Closing cut “All Better” is appropriately placed and leaves the listener with a warm, fuzzy, ‘loving’ message: “Love can make me all better / love can make me alright / love can pull me together / so just make me all better tonight”. I have no doubt after listening to Where Does This Door Go, many would love to make it all better for Mayer Hawthorne, any night.
All in all, Mayer Hawthorne once more ‘does his thing’ on Where Does This Door Go. He doesn’t reinvent anything in an innovative sense, but what Hawthorne does do is make R&B, specifically that old-school sensibility ‘hot’ in 2013. Vocally, Hawthorne is a superb talent that deserves much more spotlight than he receives. Sure Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake are doing their thing in the blue-eyed soul movement, but don’t forget or overlook Mayer Hawthorne, who easily can hold his own.
Favorites: “Back Seat Lover”; “The Innocent”; “The Only One”; “Her Favorite Song”; “Reach Out Richard”
- Mayer Hawthorne (auralxtc.wordpress.com)
- Meet Mayer Hawthorne***messymandella*** (http://messymandella.com)
- Mayer Hawthorne – Where Does This Door Go Review (sweetsoulstuff.wordpress.com)
- Mayer Hawthorne’s “Crime” feat. Kendrick Lamar (popinsomniacs.com)
- Mayer Hawthorne – ‘Crime’ ft. Kendrick Lamar (getmybuzzup.com)
- Mayer Hawthorne – “Crime” ft. Kendrick Lamar (cyphteo.wordpress.com)
- Mayer Hawthorne: Where Does This Door Go – review (guardian.co.uk)
- First Listen: Mayer Hawthorne, ‘Where Does This Door Go’ (npr.org)
- New Song: Mayer Hawthorne Featuring Kendrick Lamar, ‘Crime’ (NSFW) (buzzworthy.mtv.com)