Charm Taylor, The Road Within EP

Review: Charm Taylor Takes Listeners On Quite A Trip On ‘The Road Within EP’ 


Charm Taylor, The Road Within EP

Charm Taylor • The Road Within (EP) • Release Date: May 5, 2015

First impressions are unalterable. Once the tone has been set, changing perceptions is a truly arduous task. When dropping an album, if the impression given off by the artist is iffy, it could determine the state of the said artist’s career. On her debut solo EP The Road Within, Charm Taylor ensures she’ll leave an impression that none can or will forget. The Honorable South front woman can be best described as eclectic – a genre-bender mixing a little bit of this and that. Arguably, The Road Within lies somewhere between stylistic labels alternative, hip-hop, and soul music, but ultimately, Taylor does her own thing with the help of colleague, friend, and producer Saint Rock.

“Mother Of Nine” is definitely the exemplification of future soul; it opens The Road Within with a bang. After an enigmatic instrumental intro, “Mother of Nine” gains some stability before confounding once more as Taylor ‘busts a rhyme’ aka rap. It’s odd characterized by a mystical sentiment, but it definitely makes the listener curious as what is to come. Tone setter? Definitely.

“Green Acres” possesses a luxurious, soulful sound that’s also influenced by old school hip-hop. This sound is a perfect backdrop for Taylor, who contrasts the luxuriousness with jagged, quasi-sung, quasi-rapped vocals. While the enigma hasn’t been erased from opener “Mother of Nine,” the listener has a better grasp of the script for “Green Acres.” An interlude, “Mosiah’s Mantra,” once more eliminates predictability in favor of extraterrestrial, innovative spirit. As Imagine Dragons put it, “welcome to the new age!”

“Moksha” follows, interestingly contrasting everything else preceding it. The production is animated, highlighted by the drums and a heightened electro-infused script. Similar to “Mother of Nine,” Taylor’s concept is otherworldly, which is both artistically impressive, yet confusing. Regardless, “Moksha” is one-of-a-kind. A lengthier interlude, “ODU” follows, as slick and unpredictable as everything else.

“Clothes” has a moody disposition in reference to its alt-soul backdrop, but is arguably the most sensual record from the EP. Brief at just over two minutes, “Clothes” packs quite a punch. The EP’s third and final interlude, “Mind As Water” precedes penultimate joint “Ascension,” which is captivating as its jubilant title suggests. Taylor spits with vigor over manic, energetic production continuing to eschew labels. Title tack “The Road Within” concludes the EP. Interestingly, the summative track is arguably one of it’s most accessible.

Ultimately, Charm Taylor has created something new and fresh on The Road Within. An interesting trip, those who love their music ‘next level’ will eat up the ambitiousness of this effort. Those who prefer their script to be more predictable likely will have difficulty digesting this. Regardless, Taylor’s debut solo EP is something to behold.

Favorites: “Mother of Nine,” “Green Acres” and “Clothes”

★★★½

Kelis, Food © Ninja Tune

Review: Kelis, ‘Food’


Kelis, Food

While there is little food to physical eat, Kelis’ sixth studio album makes you hungry for more

Kelis • Food • Ninja Tune • US Release Date: April 22, 2014

It’s not easy to be an oddball. Maybe oddball has a negative connotation, but personally, being somewhat of an oddity myself, I take it as a compliment. It means that you don’t conform like so many others do to respective things. For R&B singer Kelis, she certainly has never conformed to conventional R&B. That willingness to be different certainly made “Milkshake” and “Bossy” big-time statements and hits, even if it didn’t catapult the respective albums to a great degree of commercial success. Even now on album six, Food, Kelis finds herself on an indie-label after the majors just didn’t work out – not selling enough albums or fitting the mode of the ‘commercial artist’.

Celebrities attend 5th annual ESSENCE Black Women in Music reception at 1 OAK. Los Angeles 01/22/2014 © WENN

That said, being on Ninja Tune just might be the best thing for Kelis’ artistry as Food proves to be a superb album. With all the talk of the alternative R&B movement, it is easy to forget that ole girl has been ‘alt’ for a minute! She throws some excellent retro-soul into the mix on Food.

Breakfast” opens appropriately, given the album’s title and natural chronology of eating events (LOL). Kelis’ raspy vocals are a perfect fit for the soulful palette established as “Breakfast” proceeds. It’s not the ‘second coming’ of soul by any means, but it is a sound starting point. The best line is “Maybe we will make it to breakfast” – aka meet me at the table, it’s goin’ down!

Jerk Ribs” aren’t normally associated with ‘lunch’ (I think dinner), but perhaps Kelis is getting ahead of schedule – or something like that. Sporting an old-school sound and propelled by an addictive groove, “Jerk Ribs” is both sexy and soulful. I mean, Kelis consistently reiterates lyrics “So call on me, it feels just like it should” – Ooh la-la! That said, the paternal references are more important perhaps: “In Harlem, where I start to breathe / your beat was like a soundtrack to me / I was the girl, my daddy was the world / he played the notes and key/ he said to look for melody in everything.” So it’s not about sex, right?

Forever Be” has the monumental task of following up juggernaut “Jerk Ribs”. Luckily the romance-filled “Forever Be” is a standout showing itself. “There will never be another / day for us to be, lovers,” sings Kelis infatuatedly on the chorus. “I’ll follow where you lead, together / and we’ll forever be.” Well written and thoughtful, relying on emotional as opposed to physical pleasure, “Forever Be” exemplifies the dying art of the ‘love’ song as opposed to the ‘sex’ song.

Kelis leaves The Kings Head Pub in Hackney where she hosted a party to celebrate the release of her new album 'Food' London 02/25/2014 © WENN

On the affectionate and impressive “Floyd” – which slows things down – Kelis “want(s) to be blown away.” In other words, Kelis wants to be swept right off her feet by ‘him’. Contributing to the seductiveness, the retro-soul cues continue in full employment, while Kelis coos in raspy glory. Another pro of “Floyd” is the use of space and stretching out the song across five minutes. Perhaps its lengthy, but letting it ‘ride out’ feels right in this instance.

Runnin’” is a tad bit quicker than “Floyd”, but still lies on the ‘slow side’ of the metronome. Alluring, yet mysterious in typical Kelis fashion, “Runnin’” balances the sensibilities of the past with a touch of alt-R&B savvy.   The key lines, posed as questions “How can I forget you? And “How could I reject you?” end up with answers including “you always right there in my rescue” and “you are my refuge”.

Hooch” arrives right out of the soul book with its sick groove, prominence of accented horns, and sexy “ahs” courtesy of Kelis. Another fine and vital part of the buffet, dessert is still always better in my book (its arguable of course). But sticking with the dessert perspective of things, who wouldn’t rather have “Cobbler”? Hopefully it’s peach or blackberry, but Kelis doesn’t specify. However, she’s not too worried about eating of course…LOL. I mean she does say, “You’re the best I’ve ever done…”

56th Annual Grammy Awards - Clive Davis and the Recording Academy's Pre-Grammy Gala and Salute to Industry Icons Honoring Lucian Grainge - Arrivals The Beverly Hilton Hotel Beverly Hills, CA, USA 01/25/2014 © Andrew Evans / PR Photos

Bless the Telephone” only clocks in a two and a half-minutes, but sounds unlike anything else on Food. That is because it is more singer/songwriter-oriented number in an alt or indie sense. Ultimately, it is a nice change of pace, but perhaps it doesn’t make the ‘elite’ cuts list.

Friday Fish Fry” has some mean sounding guitars, not to mention the pounding drums anchoring bass. While it’s still retro-soul, there is a natural bridge to rock music, which is a welcome ‘crossover’. Kelis’ rasp is at full force here, another pro. While it is incredibly tasty, much like the sweet “Cobbler”, Kelis could care less about getting her daily intake of Omega-3 on “Friday Fish Fry”. She wants something (“Give me what I want / give me what I need”), but it’s related to the bedroom…or the floor…or the couch… depending on personal preferences.

Change” reinstates a touch of mysteriousness to Food, given the unique production cues. The harmonic quirks help to truly make this cut notable. Things grow even more epic when Kelis employs her full-throated vocals atop the excited arrangement. On “Rumble”, the relationship is rocky, but Kelis can’t get over him: “We got so much history / I hurt you, you hurt me / no we don’t need therapy / what I need is you” It’s a song/theme that has played out time and time again, but never grows old.

56th Annual Grammy Awards - Clive Davis and the Recording Academy's Pre-Grammy Gala and Salute to Industry Icons Honoring Lucian Grainge - Arrivals The Beverly Hilton Hotel Beverly Hills, CA, USA 01/25/2014 © Andrew Evans / PR Photos

Biscuits n’ Gravy” is definitely delicious – I recommend Dairy Queen’s personally – but again, the taste isn’t important. Really does the title have anything to do with the content? “Not everyone believes the story, as for me I love the truth / and ever since I was a young girl,” Kelis sings, “Witnessed evidence and proof.” Kelis is just trying to make us hungry for the material itself! To her credit, she does at least mention “morning” (“Been given the morning, every dawn brings thoughts of you / by this time tomorrow I’ll be brand new”).

Closer “Dreamer” eschews the buffet – well the ‘food’ one. Here, it’s all about dreams, DUH! Still, one dream Kelis references is pretty freaky, if you catch my drift: “But if all was left to me / we’d be naked climbing trees”. Well now! To each his/her own I suppose.

All said and done, Food may have little to do about three square meals a day, but it is a well-rounded album regardless. A tasteful balance of soul, love, and sexual endeavors make this album much more refined than many contemporary R&B of today. Additionally, Food is more refined than Kelis’ previous work, which is something in itself. Maybe it’s not quite a masterpiece or a classic, but this is easily one of the best albums of 2014, regardless of genre.

Favorites“Jerk Ribs”; “Forever Be”; “Floyd”; “Cobbler”; “Change”; “Rumble”

 ★★★★

Review: SZA, ‘Z’


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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.

Favorites:

“UR”; “Child’s Play”; “Julia”; “Green Mile”; “Sweet November”

Verdict: ★★★★½

Review: M&O, ‘Almost Us’


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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.

Favorites:

“House”; “Run!”; “Hollow”

Verdict: ★★★★