It’s been something like six years since Ciara had a big pop hit, and it’s a tribute to her tenacity that after years of missing the mark she finally created something that connects. For that she, and everyone else, can thank Mike Will Made-It, who delivers the most stunning (those drum beats!) and friendliest track of his career. Not his most daring or deepest mind you, but it’s good that his sound is adaptable to artists who aren’t rapping about how stoned they are. Still, this track could use a little depth, and it isn’t going to come from Ciara, who needed her tenacity for the simple reason that she never was that good, even when she had hits.
DJ Khaled featuring Drake, Rick Ross & Lil Wayne—“No New Friends”
How dare people try to be friends with Drake now that he’s famous? They just want some of his fame and money to rub off on them. He’d rather hang with his real friends, his true friends, the ones he knew before he was famous. He’ll even stick with the ones who can’t really hack it anymore, like Lil Wayne. After all, you won’t catch Wayne hanging with people he didn’t know before he was famous. Except for Drake, of course. But Drake is special. At least, that’s what he keeps telling us. But then, why should we believe somebody who isn’t willing to be our friend?
Just like Michael Buble, Sara Bareilles is an artist I enjoy when she’s being sarcastic, and find unbearable when she engages in sincere uplift. This isn’t horrible, but it pales next to Bareilles’s previous singles, and portends a load of schlock in the future. C’mon Sara, there must be someone who still pisses you off. Maybe you and Buble could do a duet where you really tear into each other.
Lana Del Rey—“Young and Beautiful”
Del Rey’s inability to project or phrase makes it hard to tell just what direction she’s approaching this song from, but I’m going to assume, since this is from The Great Gatsby soundtrack, that she’s pretending to be Daisy Buchanan. Problem is, she sounds more like Myrtle, the gas station owner’s wife who deludes herself into believing that Daisy’s husband, Tom, is in love with her and ends up being killed by Gatsby’s car while Daisy is driving. Myrtle isn’t young and beautiful, and she’s too shallow to have an “aching soul”, but she’s convinced herself of both all the same. Sounds like Del Rey has, too. But she hasn’t convinced me.
Hustle Gang featuring T.I., B.o.B., Kendrick Lamar & Kris Stephens—“Memories Back Then”
Another great T.I. rap (two in a row!), and this time the words are as important as his timing and flow. But B.o.B. is ordinary as ever, and it’s beginning to look like Kendrick Lamar’s misogyny is not only real, but deep. Either that or he’s been doing so many features lately he’s started to fall back on cliches to get by. So, if you feel like it, edit out the T.I. verse for a best of, and hope for a remix with someone equally inspired. Just think what Andre 3000 could do with an idea like this.
Zac Brown Band—“Jump Right In”
Ever wondered what James Taylor would sound like if he fronted a jam band that was really into Jimmy Buffett? Me either, but here it is all the same.
Fall Out Boy—“My Songs Know What You Did In the Dark (Light Em Up)”
I’ve never been a fan of Fall Out Boy. Their songs, their playing, and their ideas always seemed muddled to me, and when you combined those with their obvious ambition and self-absorption you got a lot of pretentious mess. I was glad when they decided to go on hiatus (from which I assumed they wouldn’t return), because I could only see them getting worse if they carried on. But now they’re back, and the time off has obviously been good for them, because their comeback single is focused, imaginative, and even comes close to making sense (at least to me; I’m sure it makes perfect sense to them). Naturally enough, the song is at least partially about their time off. At least, I assume that’s what the “dark” of the title partly refers to (these guys love puns and multiple meanings). The best stroke is in the title itself, the idea of a songwriter being informed of mysterious goings on (by who or in what context we’re never told) by the songs he writes. It reveals songwriting as a kind of self-telepathy along the lines of Norman Mailer’s famous statement “I don’t know what I think until I write it down” (and yes, I had no idea what the song was about until I started writing this). These guys have obviously stored up enough anger to drive their songs without a lot of fancy ideas, but it’s good to hear them thinking. It’s even better to hear that thought making it’s way into the music instead of confusing it.
After the run of mediocre singles that followed the wonderful “Need You Now” (there were seven of them, in case you’re counting), I figured Lady Antebellum for one of those groups who have one great song in them, and then repeat the formula for as long as it takes for the magic to wear off and they disappear from view. But “Downtown” is a surprise in every way, a slice of stripped-down country funk that’s the polar opposite of “Need You Now” and just about everything else in mainstream country. It does have one predecessor: “Pontoon”, and I would be surprised if Little Big Town’s hit wasn’t a strong influence on this one. “Downtown” isn’t as sultry, but it’s funkier, and if the song and arrangement aren’t enough of a surprise, the guitar break sure is. The first great country single of the year, and it’s going to be a hard one to top.
Rihanna featuring Mikky Ekko—“Stay”
Adele having opened the door with “Someone Like You”, we’re starting to see a rise in piano-only (or near-piano-only in this case) ballads. Bruno Mars has one (and a good one, too) in the top ten, and now there’s “Stay”. I was impressed at first: the song moves nicely and shifts in ways that keep your attention, and Rihanna’s voice is looser and comes closer to real emotion than she ever has before. But then you have to deal with Mikky Ekko (ugh, what a name), and his “Ed Sheeran wasn’t available so they sent me” vocal. Ekko gets the entire second verse to himself and sinks the record. At at her most mechanistic, at least Rihanna has a voice that keeps your attention. Ekko couldn’t get you to notice him even if he was singing to you in an elevator—you’d mistake him for muzak. There are a lot of guest vocals and raps on Unapologetic, along with dance tracks with not much in the way of lyrics. This is Rihanna’s way, I suppose, of giving herself a break while making sure she doesn’t drop out of public view for more than 25 minutes. I don’t blame her, but if she’s going to do that she needs to find better singers.
Tim McGraw & Taylor Swift—“Highway Don’t Care”
Tim McGraw may be the most overrated country star of the last fifteen years. He’s got a voice, but he uses it for nothing but the usual country sentiment. He’s willing to experiment with sounds and styles, but he always lands in roughly the same place, and those experiments never extend to the ideas or the themes of the songs themselves. He generates a lot of buzz at times, but no heat. On “Highway Don’t Care” he teams up with Taylor Swift, who has already done her part to canonize him, and though neither one of them had a hand in writing the song, it may as well have both their fingerprints on it. Which means it leads nowhere new. Even worse, it takes its sweet time not getting there. The only revelation comes when Swift takes the part of the generic love song playing on the radio: if ever there was proof that it’s her voice as well as her songwriting talents that have made her such a star, this is it. She makes those banal words come alive. Too bad McGraw can’t do the same.
Drake—“Started From the Bottom”
“Started From the Bottom” is more a teaser for the new album than a legitimate single, but I’m impressed by the beat, and by Drake’s switching up of voices. Whatever you may think of him overall, there’s no doubt that he’s improved as a rapper. As for the lyrics, I assume that he means that he and his crew started out from the bottom of the rap game, not life itself. I’m willing to concede that point; how many people would take any teen actor—especially a Canadian one—seriously if he suddenly announced he intended to become a serious rapper? But that doesn’t mean he needs to devote every track to complaining about it.
Kenney Chesney—“Pirate Flag”
Chesney is coming off a string of above-average singles, but this is the fourth single off Welcome To the Fishbowl, and the inspiration doesn’t run quite as deep this time around. Certainly not deep enough to float his pirate ship.
Young Jeezy featuring 2 Chainz—“R.I.P.”
Is he talking about his career? Not yet, I guess.
Chris Young—“I Can Take It From There”
For assembly-line made country slap and tickle, not bad. But I’d have less doubt about his lust if Young didn’t use so many pre-formed parts to put it across.
Wale featuring Tiara Thomas—“Bad”
This is the first time a Wale record has gotten my attention since he teamed up with Lady Gaga on “Chillin’” nearly four years ago. Once again it’s the woman who makes the track worth hearing. When Tiara Thomas announces that she’s never made love but she sure knows how to fuck, the record is essentially over, at least as far as Wale is concerned. Who pays attention to anything else after that? Thomas also outs herself as a cheater who’s guaranteed to break Wale’s heart, which I guess makes her whatever definition of the recently controversial term “bad bitch” you care to apply. The word “bad” applies to Wale, too, but in only one way that I can think of.
Something of a blah week, which is probably why it took me so long to get around to it (my apologies). It has, in fact, been a very slow year so far, even though there have been more records entering the chart than your average January, and one of them was from Justin Timberlake. I thought it was going to be a weird year, but now I’m beginning to wonder. So far it’s been tepid. I’m starting to get the feeling that in the future we’ll look back at 2012 as a year full of promise and then wonder what the hell happened in 2013. It’s still early, though, and that’s just a hunch. No predictions yet.
Lil Wayne featuring Drake & Future—“Love Me”
Mike Will Made-It is the hottest producer in rap right now, and the beat here helps to make Lil Wayne sound alive for the first time in months. Doesn’t sound like he’s thinking much, though: his raps on “Love Me” consist of one tired, unfunny sex joke after another, usually with a bad pun attached, and as you might expect he sinks into misogyny before he’s finished. Future provides the hook, and it’s a good one—wish they’d let him rap on it, too.
“Wild For the Night” (featuring Skrillex & Birdy Nam Nam), #82
“Long Live A$AP”, #86
As much as I like the idea behind the A$AP crew—breaking down regional barriers and mixing and matching styles—the reality doesn’t yet live up to the hype. The Skrillex-produced “Wild for the Night” has a great vocal hook, and the chorus moves with a propulsion that’s rare in rap, but the repetitive synth squiggles are weak and corny, and they get worse as the track goes on. As for “Long Live A$AP”, all it proves to me is that the crew has been listening to Frank Ocean (the falsetto chorus is even built around the same word as the chorus of “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You”: “forever”). But everybody’s doing that, and this sounds more like cash-in than homage. Rocky raps well on both tracks, but doesn’t have anything special to say. A$AP has got a promising concept, but they may need a genius to pull it off, and I’m not hearing one on these records.
Olly Murs featuring Flo Rida—“Troublemaker”
“Troublemaker” is as readymade as they come, but it works. I hated Murs’s last single, which was so generic and soft focus it barely registered, but this is catchy and bouncy, with just enough personality to stick in your head. Flo Rida, who knows better than anyone how to jump start a hook, adds a little edge to the proceedings; it’s one of the few cases where a rap improves a record rather than making it worse.
Darius Rucker—“Wagon Wheel”
“Wagon Wheel”, which has been bouncing around Nashville for years, isn’t a great song, but it deserves better than this. Rucker’s only appeal is the gruff but friendly quality of his voice; he seems incapable of expressing emotion, or of knowing how to get at the root of a song’s meaning. He knows the chorus is about sex—at least I think he does—but capitalizing on that appears to be beyond him. I don’t know whether he doesn’t get it or he’s too tasteful, but whatever the case the song is stolid from beginning to end. The music doesn’t help: there are spots where the entire record seems so listless it’s almost dead.
One thing that the new singles dominated market is starting to do is destroy the old release schedule paradigm. Last year’s summer lull was barely a lull at all, and here in mid-January the big guns are putting singles out when the memory of Christmas has barely faded, with the surprise release of Justin Timberlake’s first new music in six years leading off. The Taylor Swift single is something of a surprise as well, not just in terms of quality (poor), but in its being released at all. I imagine it was forced by popular demand—why else put out a Target-exclusive bonus track as a single just a couple of months after the album?
Blake Shelton—“Sure Be Cool If You Did”
Shelton has found the perfect groove, and it’s called Seduction. He’s charming, relaxed, has a good sense of humor even if he’s never witty, and honest about his desires without ever being heavy-handed or appearing lecherous. His boyishness has it’s limits, though. He appears to live in a world where he has no responsibilities other than satisfying women as well as he can, and making sure they have a good time before and after. His universe is the singles bar, and the world outside either doesn’t exist or can be easily shrugged off. People who appreciate that sort of fantasy should lap this up, because “Sure Be Cool If You Did” is the best job Shelton has done in this style yet. Though it’s hardly a compliment to say that Shelton is good at being shallow.
Taylor Swift—“The Moment I Knew”
It’s easy to understand why “The Moment I Knew” wasn’t included on Red. For all the emotional relationship shifting Swift does on the album, she never resorts to pouting, breaking down in tears, or acting like a spoiled brat (entitled, maybe, but never spoiled). She does all that on “The Moment I Knew”. She’s never sounded more unappealing, and all the songwriting craft in the world—and right now she’s the best—isn’t going to make things any better. I don’t want to jump to conclusions here, but let’s face it: if you have a couple of bad relationships, there’s no telling what the cause might be, so you can just soldier on without worrying about it; but if you’re working on numbers three, four, five, or whatever, it’s time to check your own head and not be putting all the blame on others. Something is wrong, and it’s not just them.
OneRepublic—“If I Lose Myself”
Can we assume that EDM is over now that OneRepublic has embraced it? “If I Lose Myself” is EDM-lite, to be sure, but it’s still EDM. Gone are the clattering, over-miked but at least human-sounding drums that have marked almost every Ryan Tedder production until now. Instead we get a smooth machine beat and looping synths reminiscent of Phillip Glass or Terry Riley in service to another of Tedder’s bland but oh-so-sincere love lyrics. It reminds me of when Steve Winwood went disco in the softest possible way. Goodbye, EDM, it was nice knowing you.
Timberlake is too serious a talent to write off, but “Suit & Tie” is too shallow a record to take seriously. The Timbaland beat is great (and I’m sorry to say that that’s a surprise), and Timberlake has never sung better, but this is a song about dressing up to go out with a woman with a great ass, and nothing more. If anything, the quality of the music is too high, and when it gets deflated by the lyric it almost hurts. Retro-sophistication will only take you so far if all it does is swim on the surface. As for Jay-Z, I suspect he was brought in in consideration of his sartorial habits, not because his rap fits the song.
B.o.B. featuring T.I. & Juicy J—“We Still In This Bitch”
This isn’t unlistenable, and everyone involved raps well, but I find it almost impossible to pay attention. The title tells you what they’re going to say, and they don’t dare swerve from the script. “We Still In This Bitch” is as pro forma in its way as B.o.B.’s pop records, and without the benefit of a decent hook.
The things guys will say to get laid. Geez.
Kendrick Lamar—“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”
It’s a muddled comparison, I know, but Kendrick Lamar is essentially Drake if Drake were capable of deep thought (as opposed to giving it lip service). Here, he even chooses a theme close to one of Drake’s own: how his friends have changed since he became famous. Lamar admits that he’s taken advantage of his fame even while complaining about those who are trying to take advantage of him, which isn’t far from Drake’s own admissions. Drake always sounds angry, though, and shrugs others off with barely a thought. Lamar doesn’t do that. He doesn’t sound angry or even irritated. Mostly he sounds disappointed, and his disappointment isn’t directed only at others. Since Lamar talks to himself so much on his tracks, I wouldn’t be surprised if the “bitch” who’s killing his vibe isn’t sometimes himself.
In which the group who jump-started their career with “If I Die Young” goes full bore into country gothic. The woman in “Better Dig Two” not only vows to follow her husband in death, but appears to threaten a murder-suicide if he ever dares to leave her. It’s Miranda Lambert’s “Crazy-Ex Girlfriend” taken to the emotional limit. I wish I could say it was great, but somehow it doesn’t work. The music is menacing, but their pop roots show, and the tone is off in places. They’re trying too hard.
Normally I could care less about rappers bragging about how often they get laid, but this one works, largely because everybody here, even Drake, is at the top of their form. Drake, in fact, walks away with the record; bragging about his dick must inspire him. I’ll admit Kendrick Lamar sounds a little out of place—this isn’t really his zone—but he makes the best of it anyway.
Chris Brown—“Don’t Judge Me”
With titles like this, you have to wonder why Brown complains so much when anyone brings up Rihanna in interviews. Uh, because you keep bringing her up in your music? Not that this is technically about Rihanna, of course; I’m sure it’s a complete fiction. Besides, it’s about womanizing, not battery. But didn’t the fight with Rihanna start because she was calling Brown on his womanizing? Maybe he should write a song called “The Ballad of Chris and Ri Ri” and get it over with. Whatever. It’s a boring record, anyway.
The Weeknd—“Wicked Games”
The sound is impressive, and so is the voice, but every time I listen to The Weeknd I find myself faced with a supposed soul man who devotes himself to the same misogynistic crap as the hardest rappers, and I suspect that has a lot to do with his appeal. I admit that this time out he confesses his sins, but it’s the sort of manipulative candor that’s designed to make him look deep; even as he admits to taking advantage of you he still expects you to do whatever he wants. He’s soulful, but he’s a con man, and I don’t trust him.
Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill—“Don’t Rush”
Finally a decent song, and better yet, Clarkson takes another step toward fulfilling my dream of her becoming this generation’s Dusty Springfield. Her vocals are stunning: alluring, sexy, self-possessed, and smart. The ’70s easy-listening soul feel is a perfect fit for her. All the ironic yacht rockers should either give up or ask Clarkson to give them lessons—this is what you can do with the style when you put all your heart and soul and brains into it.
Thompson Square—“If I Didn’t Have You”
Of all the mixed pairs in country music, Thompson Square is probably the least interesting: there’s no tension between them, and no sign of passion, either. This isn’t the worst record you’ll ever hear, but it is one of the blandest.
Dierks Bentley—“Tip It On Back”
For a beer drinking song, “Tip It On Back” is surprisingly slow, almost mournful. That makes sense on the opening verse, which is about the travails of life that make you want to get good and drunk on the weekends, but the chorus, oddly, is the same. It doesn’t get any faster or more joyful, just louder. Makes you wonder why he drinks at all.
“I Almost Do”, #65
“Everything Has Changed” (featuring Ed Sheeran), #67
“All Too Well”, #80
“Stay Stay Stay”, #91
Red see-saws between relationships in bloom and relationships that have wilted, with a couple of turns into more generic themes, and the five tracks that make the Hot 100 in its debut week reflect that as much as the preview singles did, if not more so. Despite this thematic unity, the album can hardly be called cohesive, since stylistically it jumps all over the place, and the frequent returns to Swift’s more familiar mode of confessional songwriting never bring it together. More than any of her previous albums this one boils down to individual songs. They’re a mixed bunch. I would enjoy “22” more if Swift didn’t open it with a Ke$ha impersonation, and I’d enjoy “Stay Stay Stay” more if it weren’t so giggly. As for the serious songs, they’re high-class singer-songwriter material perfectly crafted and played, but rarely anything more. None of which worries me as much as Swift’s tendency to get swept off her feet by any man who shows even the most basic level of politeness (just because a guy carries your groceries or opens the door for you doesn’t mean he’s the one). Then there’s her affection for duet partners whose appeal consists of the ability to sound sincere and nothing more. For the first time, I question her taste. No wonder she has relationship problems.
Lamar may be from Compton, but he’s not of it. He observes it from inside and outside at the same time, which allows him to shift perspective without losing his connection to the truth. Sometimes this takes the form of changes in vocal approach and texture, often with the aid of pitch shifting and filters. Sometimes, as in “m.A.A.d. City”, the whole song changes direction, throwing in an entirely different beat and feel. The result is music that covers life from a half-dozen different perspectives in the same song, many of them coming from inside Lamar’s own head as he sorts out his place in the world. That goes for a love lyric like “Poetic Justice”, as well, which has more intelligent romance charging through it than any rap I’ve heard this year. At least, that is, until Drake shows up. Lamar has so many voices he barely needs guest spots, and Drake’s unshakable sense of self-importance doesn’t fit the song. He’s outclassed in every way. Other than that, two great tracks from a great album.
Sam Palladio & Clare Bowen—“Fade Into You”
I’m not sure how seriously to take this record. An original song with production by T-Bone Burnett should be given some consideration, even if I don’t like it much. But this one comes from the new TV series Nashville, and though I’ve heard good things about the show, the music suffers from the same problem that infects Glee: actors as singers, pop songs turned into showtunes. “Fade Into You” sounds nothing like mainstream Nashville, but at the same time Burnett’s production sound has become as much of a cliché as countless country radio hits, so it’s hardly an improvement. It isn’t terrible, but it’s badly flawed, and if more tunes from the show make the chart, and are no better in quality, I may need to give some thought to whether or not I want to continue reviewing them. It will be interesting to see if these have staying power on the charts, or turn into short-lived souvenirs like the Glee tracks. But that won’t change their quality one way or the other.
Here’s another way in which hip-hop reminds me of country these days: it’s packed with moderately talented, minor artists who put out an endless succession of records that are well-crafted musically, demonstrate a high level of vocal and lyrical talent, and share barely a single idea between them.”Young and Gettin’ It” sounds good but means nothing, at least nothing more than other records by 2 Chainz, Wiz Khalifa, Fabolous, Big Sean, Kirko Bangz, and endless others (dare I add Lil Wayne to the list?). Most of whom appear on each other’s tracks anyway, so why bother trying to tell them apart?
50 Cent featuring Dr. Dre & Alicia Keys—“New Day”
Another uplifting chorus from Alicia Keys (“Empire State of Mind” it ain’t), a familiar-sounding snare drum beat from her hubby, and 50 Cent at his most mush-mouthed, lying to us: “Nothing matters but the music/Music my first love”. It’s already the clarion call of second-raters around the world, but just a few years ago 50 Cent was saying music was just one element in his diversified portfolio, a way of making quick cash so he could do some real business. Guess that didn’t work out. Oh yeah, also featuring Dr. Dre as himself.
Listening to Miguel’s trilogy of brief mixtapes from earlier this year, Art Dealer Chic, the obvious comparison was to Prince, but this, a reworked version of the song that opened the series, is more Al Green, especially when Miguel is demonstrating his falsettos near the end (yes, he has more than one, and they’re all great). The song itself, and the arrangement, are too busy at times, but that’s because Miguel has more ideas, and feelings, than he knows what to do with, not because he’s covering up any defects. He’s still learning how to deploy his gifts, but this is the best R&B record since “Climax”, and he’s only going to get better.
Rick Ross featuring Wale & Drake—“Diced Pineapples”
If the title, which is a metaphor for both diamonds and pussy, but mostly the latter, doesn’t give you the giggles, Wale’s Smoove B impersonation on the introduction will (“The better my effort, the wetter her treasure”). Rick Ross lowers the temperature a bit, if only by conjuring up images of Rick Ross having sex, while Drake deepens the chill by doing his sad-sack-who-feels-your-pain-and-gets-laid-in-the-process routine. Wale’s final verse is already forgotten. In other words, business as usual.
This is so heavy. Not only is it about the Apocalypse (it says so, right in the lyric: “This is it, the Apocalypse”), but it’s also about the coming of a new age (“Welcome to the new age”). The singer himself, it turns out, is the one who’s radioactive (“I’m radioactive! I’m radioactive!”), and it’s all so heavy he has to stop before the end of the first verse to catch his breath; his inhalation is mixed higher than even the lumbering drums and super-distorted pseudo-dubstep bass, so you know he’s really feeling it. Somebody must like these guys, because this is the second track off their EP to make the Hot 100 in the last month. Every generation has its Queensryche, I suppose.
Keyshia Cole featuring Lil Wayne—“Enough of No Love”
I’ve always liked Keyshia Cole, even though most of her records have been mediocre. This is one of the better ones, a soulful lament with a good string arrangement, perfectly sung with just the right balance of strength, defiance, and bitterness. The song doesn’t build the way it should, though, and the chorus lacks musical punch and drama. Then there’s Lil Wayne’s feature. He plays it just right, at first, sacrificing enough of his usual charm to come on like the jerk the guy in the song is supposed to be, but he loses most of his energy along with it, and his rap tails out with a dumb play on Cole’s name that doesn’t fit at all. It’s a shame; a little more work and this could have been a great one.
Ne-Yo—“Let Me Love You (Until You Learn To Love Yourself)”
This isn’t a complete failure, but it feels wrong. Ne-Yo’s attempt to fit his subtle lover man croon to a Euro-disco backdrop sounds strained, not just vocally, but in terms of melody as well. Cutting his usual long, smooth lines into staccato bits strikes me as a mistaken compromise, a failed attempt to maintain his old musical personality in the face of commercial necessity. It’s more interesting in its way than the usual Ibiza outpouring, but not by much. And the title is a disaster. He needs the parenthetical, because he’s already written a song called “Let Me Love You” (a number one for Mario in 2005), but it sure leaves a lot of questions hanging in the air. Is he going to dump her once she learns to love herself, or is he holding back the full force of his affection until then? Whatever the case, the title sounds as compromised as the song itself.
Kendrick Lamar—“Swimming Pools (Drank)”
Despite putting out one of the best albums of last year (Section.80) and being officially anointed by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg as the savior of LA rap, Lamar has been keeping a fairly low profile, at least compared to, say, Frank Ocean. But in his own way Lamar is as emotionally open as Ocean is, and in many ways he’s better. He lacks Ocean’s soulful voice and falsetto, but he’s a brilliant rapper, and his sense of humor cuts deeper. Here he deploys more funny voices than a Funkadelic album to shade a serious portrait of a binge drinking loser who just happens to be named Kendrick. The silliest voice, naturally, is the one that gives him the best advice, while the hippest one tells him to fill his pool with liquor and “diiiive in”. Easily the best rap record to hit the chart so far this year.
Frank Ocean—“Thinkin Bout You”
Even without Ocean’s personal revelations, it’s hard to imagine how much further into the confessional form anyone could go than Channel Orange. His emotional confusion and the yearning that go with it shape and dictate the style and sound of the album, especially on this track, which opens the record and sets the stage for everything to come. He talks about the weather and begins to cry; jokes about the shallowness of his feelings and then admits he’s lying while collapsing on his bed in a single, brilliant line; finally he bares his hopes, his dreams, and his disappointments in a sweet, shaky falsetto that’s beautiful and unsettling, accusatory and pleading. Not a pop record, and its appearance on the Hot 100 may be the result of curiosity as much as quality (and I worry that some people are drawn to him because he reminds them of Drake). But anything that gives attention to a great record is fine by me.
French Montana featuring Rick Ross, Drake, Lil Wayne—“Pop That”
Montana’s raps are so difficult to understand that it’s no surprise that people think he’s making up new words. There could be two or three in every line for all I know. Rick Ross is Rick Ross, which is neither good nor bad. He’s just there, as usual. Which leaves Drake and Lil Wayne, one becoming more ordinary with every rap, and the other trying desperately not to be. Drake sounds more confident than ever, but all that means is that except when he gets off a good line (there are a couple here), he sounds like every other bragging rapper. Meanwhile, Lil Wayne flails around trying to find something that will stick, and comes up with one of the most disgusting sexual images I’ve ever heard. I’m not going to repeat it; you’ll know it when you hear it (I hope).
Thomas Rhett—“Something To Do With My Hands”
The title told me exactly what this would sound like, but it didn’t fill me in on how good it would be. If country is going to be the new rock and roll (or the old rock and roll with more twang and banjos for texture instead of synths) that’s fine with me, especially if the up-and-comers’ tastes in early ’80s rock continue to lean more toward Rockpile than The Eagles or Tom Petty. Like Eric Church, Rhett brings an energy to his music that’s missing from that of most of their peers, and he avoids the sheen of studio perfection that mars so many Nashville versions of rock (compare CHurch and Rhett to Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney). Rhett is a little more laid back than Church, and sounds like he comes from the more privileged side of the tracks (he should; his father, Rhett Akins, was a minor country star in the late ’90s and still writes hits for others, including Blake Shelton’s “Honey Bee”), but he’s just as good at putting a song together. And in a genre that makes stars of overbearing hacks like Jason Aldean and Brantley Gilbert, he’s another glimmer of hope.
Ed Sheeran—“The A Team”
An old-fashioned piece of singer/songwriter acoustic balladry, with all the flaws inherent in the form. The hushed romanticism sentimentalizes the darkness of the subject—a young girl hooked on opium (at least I assume that’s opium in her pipe; who would sing about a crack addict like this?), forced into prostitution to support her habit, and slowly dying to boot—while the attempts at lyrical profundity and poetry end up trivializing the subject rather than illuminating it. The girl’s face, for instance, is described as “crumbling like pastries”. It’s evocative, but of what is hard to tell. Is her skin flaky? Buttery? Dusted with powdered sugar? And why change the pronoun in the final chorus? Is Sheeran blaming us for this situation he made up? Or is he saying we’re all addicts? Is being simplistic and engaging in faux-profundity another flaw inherent in the singer/songwriter form, or is it just Sheeran?
Train—“50 Ways To Say Goodbye”
Train’s hooks are so simple and obvious you find yourself humming along before they even start (especially, as in this case, when the new chorus sounds so much like the last one). Their beats are so bouncy that some rhythmic spring in your lizard brain sproings along in time no matter how hard your conscious mind tries to shut it off. Lyrically they’re goofy without being witty or challenging, though they do a good enough job at avoiding cliche to keep you listening for whatever nonsense they’ll come up with next. Their records are devoid of any actual emotion other than the desire to write a catchy chorus, even when the song is about a broken relationship, like this one. Even their irony is fake. In other words, they make children’s records for adults (or at least adult—cough—radio). They’ve been doing this for a couple of decades now. I’d admire their commercial acuity and tenacity if I didn’t hate them so much.
Big & Rich—“That’s Why I Pray”
Less than a decade ago, Big and Rich looked like the future of country music. Somehow, though, they never moved forward in the way people hoped they would, and the future they helped to anticipate arrived without them (see above). Now they seem a bit old-fashioned and out of touch. This is an above-average “trust in God” song, but just when you hope they’ll do something different (I would love to hear more from the unemployed guy who tells them not to mention God in his presence), they start pulling out well-worn and outdated ideas that we’ve not only heard too many times before, but are just plain wrong; i.e., teen pregnancy rates have been dropping over the last decade, not going up. Except in the bible belt, of course, where they’ve been trusting in God a little too much.
Maroon 5—“One More Night”
Less irritating than “Payphone”, but also less catchy, with both the band and producer Max Martin running on automatic. Since “Payphone” still hasn’t peaked (God help us), I’m not even sure why they released this. To prove to themselves they can still make hits without guest spots?
“Beauty and a Beat” (featuring Nicki Minaj), #72
“Right Here” (featuring Drake), #95
How confident is Justin Bieber in his talent? Confident enough that the two LP tracks with the highest profile guests are pure filler. Minaj gets jokey and suggestive but does nothing special, while Drake tries out a new flow and nails it but doesn’t say much. “Beauty and the Beat” has a great break, but for the most part the music is passable and nothing more. These charted only because of Minaj’s and Drake’s fans, and I’ll bet neither one will be released as an actual single.
Meek Mill featuring Drake—“Amen”
Mill has nothing to say beyond the usual rap bragging, but he’s funnier and more clever about it than most: the line about drinking so much that when he takes a drug test he pees rosé is perfect, as are the lines about building himself a crib with a moat. As for Drake, he’s been using his post-Take Care guest spots to work out new vocal and rhythmic approaches, and so far he hasn’t taken a wrong step. He’s almost unrecognizable here, but he’s also very good, and his rap raises what would have been just an above-average track to a higher level. Not that much higher, mind you, but still an improvement.
Kelly Clarkson—“Dark Side”
Clarkson is in a groove where every record she releases has some magical quality that makes it compelling, if not overwhelming. There’s a sense of both comfortableness and humility in the music she’s making now. After a couple of shaky years she trusts herself, her talent, and her audience more than ever, and it shows. More than any other singer I can think of, she wants to draw her listeners into her world, welcome them and reassure them, even when what she’s singing about is pain and the loss of emotional control. This isn’t a brilliant record, but it’s very, very good, almost as good as “Stronger”. For the moment, at least, Clarkson may be the world’s friendliest, most sublime, and perfect pop star.
Easton Corbin—“Lovin’ You Is Fun”
Corbin, along with Chris Young, Luke Bryan, maybe Blake Shelton, and others, is what I call a country nerd. Goofy, smiling, dedicated, their music is always pleasant and well-crafted, but never strikes a nerve. To me, they’re a country version of the second-level power pop bands of the late ’70s, only instead of The Beatles and The Byrds they grew up on Garth Brooks and George Strait. They have talent, and they mean well, but most of them don’t have the stuff. Corbin is slightly better than the pack, but that isn’t saying much.
2 Chainz featuring Drake—“No Lie”
Drake’s misogyny is more subtle than that of other rappers (and rockers, and country singers, and so on), but it’s still misogyny. Instead of calling women names and physically and/or verbally mistreating them, he argues that they’re complicit in his manipulation of his celebrity to test drive women who strike his fancy. They all know what he’s about, right? So fuck ‘em and forget ‘em. It’s an old story, and Drake can’t be completely blamed for it, but considering the guy has built a career on his self-doubt and worries about his moral compass his inability to cop to his own bullshit is offensive. And for all that, Drake, who is rapping better than ever, is the least offensive thing on this record and the only reason to listen to it. 2 Chainz wouldn’t recognize a woman as a human being even if she kicked him in the nuts. Though I do encourage somebody to try.
Tony Lucca—“99 Problems”
Justin Bieber—“Turn To You (Mother’s Day Dedication)”
I’m having a hard time understanding the new, “mature” Justin Bieber. “Boyfriend” mixes dark, sensual music with some of the most naïve, unerotic lyrics ever heard, while this tribute to his mother is more reminiscent of southern rock murder ballads than a paean to a loving parent. He’s either mistaken sounding somber with sounding adult, or his much-vaunted precocious talent doesn’t extend to an understanding of what any particular piece of music means. That would go a long way toward explaining the emotional blankness of his singing.
Adam Levine & Tony Lucca—“Yesterday”
Jermaine Paul—“I Believe I Can Fly”
Christina Aguilera & Chris Mann—“The Prayer”
A lot of people are impressed by Bentley—or at least they were impressed by “Home”—but I’m not one of them. He’s a better than average country rocker, but only slightly. Put him in a battle of the bands with Eric Church or Miranda Lambert, even Blake Shelton, and they’d wipe the floor with him before the second song. On a good night he might be able to take Justin Moore, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Usher featuring Rick Ross—“Lemme See”
This is a step up from “Scream”, but nowhere near “Climax” (a tall order, I admit). The beat has a jumpy, eerie quality to it, but the song itself doesn’t work. Ross’s Trayvon Martin reference is too soon, and in some ways too little. Usher himself sounds, especially when he shows off his chest, as if he’s engaging in self-parody. That would be fine if it fit with the music, but it doesn’t. Maybe he hasn’t quite figured out all this electronic stuff.