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: Asher Roth, ‘RetroHash’


51ehHeonFjL._SL500_AA280_ It’s pretty safe to say Asher Roth is one high mellow dude on RetroHash

Asher Roth • RetroHash • pale fire • US Release Date: April 22, 2014

Asher Roth-20111215-34“That party last night / was awfully crazy, I wish we taped it / I danced my a** off / and had this one girl completely naked,” sings Roth on one of the more memorable songs of 2009, “I Love College”.   Yep, “I Love College” was Roth’s ‘ace in the hole’ for debut album Asleep in the Bread Aisle, which managed to debut at in the top five of the Billboard 200 Albums Chart. Even so, Asleep in the Bread Aisle didn’t exactly set up Roth to be the next great MC. Until his 2014 LP RetroHash, Roth hadn’t released a proper sophomore album. RetroHash isn’t quite the ‘second coming’, but it is definitely a big step up from Asleep in the Bread Aisle. AR definitely comes up.

Parties at the Disco” initiates RetroHash in mellow fashion – who’s surprised? The high from the stoner vibe hits the listener from the jump, which is what we’ve come to expect from Roth during his brief career. Still, there is something more abstract and unique working here. He gets a nice assist from ZZ Ward vocally. “Dude” finds Roth collaborating with Curren$y, giving RetroHash a big hip-hop guest spot. The overall production is old school, very much in the Philly rap sensibility (dusty drums, prominent bass). This soulful production is definitely a blessing, providing a superb palette for Roth to spit over. Curren$y’s verse provides a sound contrast both stylistically and vocally compared to Roth. “Tangerine Girl” is a complete contrast to anything else that Roth has released up until this point. Finding Roth singing throughout the majority, “Tangerine Girl” is incredibly alluring. On the final verse, Roth does bust a rhyme, including a reference to the ‘nasty’ (“If you wanna fly better come inside / come along we’ll go for a ride”). I’m onboard – with the song that is.

Asher Roth-PFR-012668Pull It” definitely has a hook that inescapable if initially random: “One finger in the air just like this / one finger in the air and I’m gon’ pull it / yes I’m gon’ pull it, yell, I will pull it / yes, I’m gon’ pull it, yes, I will pull.” The verses clarify what Roth is referencing, with lyrics like “Only relation, I ain’t good at relationships / I ain’t no angel, but no, you never gave a sh*t…but separated, you call my name in ecstasy.” Basically, Roth is good at making love, but sucks with a more substance-requiring relationship. “Something for Nothing” proceeds, featuring Coyle Girelli. It’s not a bad track – certainly as mellow and chill as everything else – but perhaps it ‘floats’ just a tad too much. Still, the falsetto is sort of like whipped cream – light and fluffy, LOL!

Fast Life” follows, featuring Vic Mensa guesting on the second verse. The groove and overall production has more soulfulness and bit more bite compared to “Something For Nothing”. If nothing more, the hook is truthful: “Fast life, someone’s always caught up in the fast life.” “Last of the Flohicans” catches the eye if for no other reason then its title. Major Myjah provides a sometimes-indecipherable hook for Roth (“…Just learn the truth / it’s all out of focus, focus…”), while the MC seems on autopilot, at least where his flow is concerned. If nothing else, Roth opens with a bang: “Last of the Flohicans / Go in for no reasons / Snowing for four seasons / F**ked up my whole weekend…” Major Myjah stays on board for the equally soulful “Be Right”. The beat and overall production – luxurious! Honestly, “Be Right” might edge “Last of the Flohicans”. If nothing else, Major sounds stronger here.

Asher Roth-PFR-012671“I be on my own / scouring the globe in designer clothes”, sings Roth on the hook of penultimate track “Pot of Gold”, “Surfing on the waves, million dollar boats / really want to stay, but I gotta go / searching for the pot of gold.” While boasting of a come-up is fashionable, understandably so by many MCs, Roth seems to almost brush off the fame or all of the misconceptions with being famous. Honestly, a track like “Pot of Gold” makes you have more respect for the MC as he rises above the shallower things in life. And then of course, there’s the closer – SMH!   “Keep Smoking”, featuring Chuck Inglish is definitely and appropriate closer, given Roth’s love of reefer. While it is sad that Roth invests in weed to almost atone for his issues, the approach he takes makes you sort of sympathize. Weed isn’t the answer obviously – even Roth sees that – but Asher just can’t let go of Mary Jane.

Overall, despite being incredibly low-key, RetroHash is a solid album. It’s not your standard rap album by any means – they won’t be playing this one in the club – but it is definitely enjoyable. RetroHash is definitely deeper than Roth’s major label debut album was. It’s not perfect mind you – the lyrics aren’t always ‘out of the box’ – but Roth has his moments by all means.

Favorites:

“Parties at the Disco” ft. ZZ Ward; “Dude” ft. Curren$y; “Tangerine Girl”; “Pot of Gold

Verdict: ★★★½

August Alsina, Testimony © Def Jam

Review: August Alsina, ‘Testimony’


August Alsina, Testimony © Def Jam

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

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

The moment has finally arrived for up and coming New Orleans contemporary R&B singer August Alsina to take center stage. Sure, the 21-year old represents the new generation who prefer boldness to subtlety, but ultimately the brasher style suits the hardships he’s enduring in his personal life. “Through the pain”, Alsina seems to find the positives, even if it seems overcome with pessimism on full-length debut Testimony. A true testimony the LP ends up being, Alsina builds off the momentum of 2013 EP Downtown: Life Under the Gun, upping the ante.

Testify” sets the tone for Testimony exceptionally, with August Alsina portraying a snapshot into his life. While “Testify” isn’t necessarily the best track from the LP, it is a vital one because of how it fits into the concept. Calling it relatable might be a stretch as the only one who has experience what ‘August Alsina’ has experienced is August Alsina, but it does allow for the audience to connect.

Make It Home”, featuring Jeezy, definitely extends upon “Testify”. “I don’t always do what I should, but I do what I gotta do,” sings Alsina on his first verse, later adding “See I done dodged a couple shots, served a couple blocks / hit a couple corners tryna shake a couple cops.” Knowing the potential repercussions of his risky actions, Alsina adds “If I don’t make it home tonight / tell my mama that I lover her…take some money to my sister.” As realistic and dark as it is, “Make It Home” is a great showing; there’s something alluring about the no BS approach.

Right There” has a difficult act to follow, but continues to convey a painful, candid narrative. The repetition of the chorus is gimmicky, which takes a smidgen or so away from the cut. Still, Alsina shows off his nuanced pipes and makes you happy how he has ‘came up’ from the bottom.

You Deserve” makes brilliant use of an L.T.D. sample (“Love Ballad”). Alsina states on the intro “This is for the girl down the hall / misused and abused…pick your head up love, smile / this is for you.” Even though “You Deserve” is another song with pain behind it, Alsina spins the message positively: “But I’m just saying / you deserve better, I’m saying, you deserve better.” Women who have been battered and bruised should truly embrace the prudence that Alsina shares here.

August Alsina in Concert at Power 99's Performance Theatre in Bala Cynwyd - May 31, 2013 Power 99's Performance Theatre Bala Cynwyd, PA, USA 05/31/2013 © Paul Froggatt / PR Photos

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.

 

August Alsina in Concert at Power 99's Performance Theatre in Bala Cynwyd - May 31, 2013 Power 99's Performance Theatre Bala Cynwyd, PA, USA 05/31/2013 © Paul Froggatt / PR Photos

Keeping love and sex on the mind, “Ah Yeah” finds Alsina going even softer – no tattoos to cling onto this time! Dedication seems to be a dominant factor on his mind as he sings to his girl: “You shine with picture perfect beauty, show it off.” “Ah Yeah” is no new concept, but it is great to hear AA concede some of his edge.

Mama” definitely shows Alsina has some substance to back up Testimony. On the verses, the singer lists the teachings his mother instilled within him: “Mama said stay out of trouble / Mama said don’t be a fool / Mama said stay in somebody’s church / Mama said boy stay in school.” While “Mama” isn’t the most electrifying track from Testimony, it is hard to deny how meaningful and touching it is, particular the chorus in which Alsina sings, “Mama I made it… I ain’t gonna stop now cause Mama I made it / and I hope I made you proud.”

Benediction” proves to be even stronger and equally touching. Throughout the narrative, the audience is given an account of the hardships that Alsina has endured. If one was to question Alsina’s edginess, “Benediction” gives and understanding as to one   Although the hook is from a dark place, it’s nothing short of addictive: “Started off in the streets / we would take collection from the fiends / People dyin’ all around me / So I gave you my testimony…” Rick Ross provides a sound assist, spitting superbly over the soulful, churchy production work. Sure its not all from the ‘good book’, but it is what it is (“Pray for benediction, pretty women on my premise / Condo out in Cabo… Gold around my neck I’m ballin’ for these final minutes.” Amen… I think.

Although “I Luv This Sh*t” previously graced Alsina’s EP Downtown: Life Under the Gun, the monster single featuring Trinidad James (“All Gold Everything”) never grows old. Sure, we could’ve cut the molly-loving MC, but his guest verse suits the vibe. Alsina continues his foul mouthed-ness (is that even a word), but the real talk mixed with the slower, horn-accentuated production is a match made in heaven, albeit quite blasphemous (“God dammit I love it, I love it… So I’mma keep on smoking cause I love this sh*t / I’mma keep on grinding cause I love this sh*t / she tell me keep f*cking cause I love this sh*t and I love it…”) “Numb” concludes the standard edition of Testimony – club style. Alsina trades Trinidad James for B.o.B and Yo Gotti. While the cut is slickly produced, it is a bit more ‘swag’ than substance.

Ultimately, Testimony showcases the great amount of potential that August Alsina has to offer as an artist. Vocally, Alsina easily has the pipes to succeed. Additionally, he has the backstory to truly fuel the fire.   Sure, Testimony isn’t a perfectly crafted album, but it’s better more often than not. There are plenty of notable songs – filled with pain as well as the triumph of resolve. Maybe it’s not beautifully poetic, but isn’t grittiness a different take on beauty (or something like that)?

 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

★★★½

Photo Credits: © Def Jam, © Paul Froggatt / PR Photos

Review: Jason Derülo, ‘Talk Dirty’


51Q2c-T9xKL._SL500_AA280_ Derülo’s over-reliance on sex and swagger holds the album back at times

Jason Derülo • Talk Dirty • Warner Bros • US Release Date: April 15, 2014

Jason Derulo2-20140225-49It has been a minute since “Whatcha Say” had this music enthusiast excited about new pop/R&B artist Jason Derülo. Nah, I wasn’t a ‘fan girl’ as any number of YouTube personalities might put it, but I did think ole boy had something fresh about him. Judging by the uniqueness of that number one hit, it seemed he was well on his way to conquering the music industry. Things didn’t quite work out that way for a number of reasons. Sure, Jason Derülo hasn’t exactly set the Billboard 200 on fire (understatement), but nor has his music since his debut truly stacked up either (no shade – or at least not that much shade, I promise). Future History, Derülo’s second album (first full-length technically), was the first sign of an artist with a connections problem. The album just didn’t have the personality or substance to make much noise. Here on his latest effort, Talk Dirty, Derülo is in much better shape; he has a big hit on his side. Even so, Derülo’s over-reliance on sex and swagger holds the album back at times.

Jason Derulo3-20140225-46Talk Dirty” kicks off the album alluringly with its sinful brilliance. Calling the joint heavenly is blasphemous considering its suggestive lyrics and equally ‘dirty’ production. By the way, “Talk Dirty” owes a ton to Balkan Beat Box’s “Hermetico” – like the majority of the production! Face it, that seductive sax comes off as nasty as Derülo’s opening lyrics from verse one: “I’m that flight that you get on, international / first class seat on my lap, girl, riding comfortable”. Nope, Jason D. is not really talking about a plane! If Derülo is a bit subtler regarding sexual endeavors, 2 Chainz is more explicit, holding little back about the ‘pleasure’. Even if you’re the type waving the finger at the shallowness Derülo and 2 Chainz exhibit, the addictiveness of the chorus section is undeniable: “Been around the world, don’t speak the language / but your booty don’t need explaining / all I really need to understand is when you / talk dirty to me”.

Wiggle” doesn’t add any greater sophistication to Talk Dirty, as Derülo uses the song to talk about booty (“You know what to do with that big fat butt…wiggle, wiggle, wiggle”). Matching the slinky nature of “Talk Dirty”, “Wiggle” is another track concentrated on getting down without ever citing genuine, authentic emotion. With Snoop Dogg assisting, confirmation is provided that it’s gotten “Hot” and X-rated. With fantasies being Derülo’s bread and butter, on “Trumpets” he sings “Every time that you get undressed / I hear symphonies in my head…yet the drums swing low / and the trumpets they go…” Right on cue, the trumpets enter, in all their brilliance. While “Trumpets” is catchy, ludicrous lines like “Is it weird that I hear / angels every time that you moan” are questionable, near – if not – deal breakers.

Jordin Sparks-20140130-45Bubblegum” brings in the king of sexed-up, minimalist rap these days, Tyga. “Bubblegum” of course couldn’t possibly retain any sense of innocence – even it becomes a naughty, raunchy reference. “She just wanna pop, pop, pop, pop, pop that bubblegum.” Yeah, what kind of bubblegum Jason? SMH. “Vertigo” arrives in the nick of time to deliver Talk Dirty from being completely overexerted. Duet-ing with boo Jordin Sparks, “Vertigo” has something the opening quartet of the LP lacked – substance. Sure, no one expects total ‘abstinence’ from Derülo or R&B in general, but “Vertigo” balances physical and emotional without just piling on, well the three-letter word. But of course, “Kama Sutra”, featuring Kid Ink, returns Talk Dirty from whence it came… no pun intended. Even though it is Kid Ink rapping here, the listener could totally picture Tyga on this track. Like the other risqué songs, it is what you make of it.

Personally, “Zipper” is a turn-off, specifically thanks to Derülo’s opening lyrics: “I’mma mark my territory / shawty I’m an animal, slowly digging into your / spread you like a bad story…” If that’s not enough to raise an eyebrow, the stupid hook accomplishes the task: “up and down like a zipper”. Even if Derülo were solely referencing his fly, “Zipper” would be nasty. “The Other Side” provides atonement, finally toning things down a might. “The Other Sides” straddles (Ha “straddles”) modern pop and contemporary R&B. Derülo shines on the big-time chorus: “Tonight, take me to the other side / sparks fly like the Fourth of July / just take me to the other side / I see that sexy look in your eyes…” Don’t call it the ‘second coming’, but it is easily among the cream of the crop of Talk Dirty.

Jason Derulo4-20140225-52Unfortunately for “With the Lights On”, the momentum fades as the song has only occurred “x” amount of times in the past. Honestly, look no further than this album itself – everything is about “the do”. “Stupid Love” at least sports more of an air of being refined, but that doesn’t make it truly notable by any means. “Marry Me” closes the standard edition of Dirty Talk trading the hook up for matrimony – quite a 360 huh? The thing is, contextually don’t “Stupid Love” and “Marry Me” both feel like departures among the clubbier cuts that ignore the emotional aspects of a relationship? Still, if you need a kinder, gentler cut, “Marry Me” is it.

Ultimately, Talk Dirty is average at best. It has its moments, but it also seems to put its eggs too much into one basket – specifically booty. Much like Derülo’s Future History, Talk Dirty seems to lack cohesion; it’s missing something. There is nothing wrong with Jason’s voice – he can sing – but his music just doesn’t lend itself to making a genuine connection as a listener. That said, nothing eclipses “Talk Dirty”.

Favorites:

“Talk Dirty”; “Vertigo”; “The Other Side”; “Marry Me”

Verdict: ★★★

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: ★★★★

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Review: MKTO, ‘MKTO’


MKTO © Columbia

MKTO don’t reinvent the wheel, but deliver worthwhile pop music

MKTO • MKTO • Columbia • US Release Date: April 1, 2014

Every year, there are new pop acts that come and go. Some make a gargantuan impact and either exemplify current trends soundly or begin a new trend. Others fall by the wayside, going unnoticed. For MKTO, made up of actors/musicians Malcolm Kelly and Tony Oller, they don’t reinvent pop’s wheel (if there is such a thing), but they do execute pop’s current trends very well. Don’t call MKTO the saviors of pop or perhaps even the next ‘great’ thing, but the twenty something duo definitely have something to offer. With Kelly handling the rhymes and Oller handling the soulful vocals, debut album MKTO definitely shows there’s something there.

Thank You” begins MKTO incredibly positive and upbeat; there isn’t the slightest ounce of negativity. Calling “Thank You” something previously unheard in pop music would be a major overstatement, but in the context of a debut album, MKTO get off to a solid start. If nothing else, the vocal grit courtesy of a soulful Tony Oller is noteworthy.

MKTO in Concert at Q102's Performance Theatre in Bala Cynwyd - November 18, 2013 Q102's Performance Theatre Bala Cynwyd, PA, USA 11/18/2013 © Paul Froggatt / PR Photos

While “Thank You” is a highlight, “Classic” is even stronger. Don’t go so far as to say it exemplifies its title, but it is definitely irresistible pop. I mean lyrics like “I wanna thrill you like Michael / I wanna kiss you like Prince…” are just, scrumptious and that’s not even the chorus (“You’re over my head / I’m out of my mind / thinking I was born in the wrong time…you’re one of kind living in a world gone plastic / baby you’re so classic”)! Malcolm’s pop-rap swag seals the deal (“A 70s dream and an 80s best…Girl you’re timeless, just so classic.”)

God Only Knows” isn’t bad, though it doesn’t quite live up to the bar established by “Classic”. Still, “God Only Knows” is no waste, once more benefiting from catchy lyrics, most notable on the chorus (“God only knows /how much I need you…”). A song of both emotional investment and physical desire (“When you touch me with your body / and all that I can think is how to lose our clothes”), “God Only Knows” is highly relatable to all ages.MKTO in Concert at Q102's Performance Theatre in Bala Cynwyd - February 21, 2014 Q102's Performance Theatre Bala Cynwyd, PA, USA 02/21/2014 © Paul Froggatt / PR Photos

American Dream” opens with the statement, “Do something with your life”, a definite foreshadow to the positivity of the song. Where Malcolm played a minimal vocal role previously on “God Only Knows”, “American Dream” allows the MC to shine as well. The results are none too shabby, though again, nothing incredibly innovative or ‘brand new’. Still, hard to deny clever lyrics like “This ain’t the same summer that you used to know / ‘cause Jack left Diane thirty years ago…”

Could Be Me” brings pop-soul singer/songwriter extraordinaire into the mix, Ne-Yo. Like everything else, the results are definitely pleasant, particularly adding Ne-Yo’s smooth vocals. As expected, “Could Be Me” is a soundly crafted pop cut with great potential to appeal to multiple audiences. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of “Could Be Me” is that Malcolm doesn’t allow the perceived ‘innocence’ of “Could Be Me” hold him back when it comes to his rhymes: “She keep on searchin’ for the wrong man / with the iced out Cartier on hand / So mean but he look like Tarzan / little b*tch but he act real hard man.” A little gutty-ness never hurt anyone, right?

Forever Until Tomorrow” cedes no momentum, as the duo continue to please. The lyrics are revolutionary, but simplistic, conveying emotions everyone experiences: “Girl I, I’m gonna love you / forever and ever and ever / girl I, I’m gonna hold you / forever and ever and ever…”

If there was any doubt that MKTO had some rebelliousness despite their ‘feel good’ pop, “Wasted” definitely proves this – all it takes is one f-bomb, right? Honestly, “Wasted” is the edgiest song of the otherwise ‘sunny’ debut, and the only ballad up until this point of the effort. “Am I crazy to think that I could be in love when it all ends up,” sings Oller on the chorus, “…I’d give you my heart, but I’d just f*ck it up / we’d end up, we’d end up wasted / la la la…” The sharp song manages to reference “Jack and coke smokin’ on the fire escape” as well as the religiously skeptical lyric “If I believed in God I’d pray, to God I’d pray.” Maybe it won’t appeal to those who enjoy everything being utopian, but personally, a little edge never hurt anyone.

Atonement arrives on “Heartbreak Holiday”, in which a quicker tempo and bright sound returns to MKTO. Even so, it’s pretty safe to say that MKTO don’t enjoy February 14: “(Baby I hate) I freaking hate / (Valentines Day) Valentines Day / (I’m feeling this pain) It cuts like a blade when I think about you…” Even through Oller’s soulful disdain for being without his baby, the listener is treated with another winner overall.

The opening of “Nowhere” is certainly suggestive…um, just plum freaky (“Breakfast in bed, bacon and eggs… she keeps me fed / breast and some legs / well done, yeah, well done”). It is what it is… hey MKTO are comprised of two twenty something guys – what do you expect? Ultimately, MKTO aren’t going “nowhere” anyways, though one has to question if it’s merely the emotional benefits of the relationship… just saying!

Penultimate cut “No More Second Chances” opens lovely, with Oller displaying the sheer beauty of his pipes on the chorus (“No more second chances, no more plastic lies / no more giving me reasons to make me have to say goodbye”). It follows with quasi-rap/spoken word by Malcolm, who gets a slight change of pace with the production to progress the cut. Sure, Malcolm goes a bit stupid, but the reference to Waka Flocka and a variant on the f-bomb does capture one’s attention: “She trying to be my flame like Waka Flocka with the focka”. A guesting Jessica Ashley definitely shines here, providing another contrasting voice to the mix and eliminating any sense of predictability. In regards to the production, “No More Second Chances” works well.  MKTO in Concert at Q102's Performance Theatre in Bala Cynwyd - February 21, 2014 Q102's Performance Theatre Bala Cynwyd, PA, USA 02/21/2014 © Paul Froggatt / PR Photos

Closing cut “Goodbye Song” puts the sentiment of ‘goodbye’ out there explicitly: “Ya I’mma put your sh*t out on the lawn / leave my heart and take your bone / there’s nothing left to say so long / this is your goodbye song.” Well, at least the album ends with a bang.

Overall, MKTO is an enjoyable, solidly conceived pop album. Like many of the albums it competes with, the rub is its lack of big-time innovation. Though MKTO isn’t particularly innovative or strikingly different from other pop/hip-hop hybrid acts, it’s still one of the better albums using this style. There are no misses, just certain numbers hitting home more than others. There is room for improvement, as there is with a number of artists and bands, but MKTO certainly get off to a good and speedy start.

Favorites:“Thank You,” “Classic,” “Could Be Me,” “Forever Until Tomorrow,” “Wasted”

★★★½

Photo Credit: © Columbia, © Paul Froggatt / PR Photos

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: ★★★★