The Critic: Jaden Smith seems to occupy a peculiar space in modern Hip-Hop. Most people have heard of him, but almost none have actually heard him. He has inevitably so far stood in the megastar-sized shadow of his father, Will Smith, and the mediocre success he has enjoyed is, perhaps unfairly, dismissed by cynics as being a result of Will. On ‘ERYS’, Jaden makes a mockery of them.
It is heavily experimental, and the plot of Jaden being some kind of futuristic drug dealer who sells a mind controlling substance called ‘Pink’ to the world, and everyone subsequently degenerates into masses of zombies, is wacky to say the least. It’s interesting, but I wouldn’t say that when I listen to the album, it’s a story that can be easily gleaned from the obtuse lyrics.
The opening track is peppered with left-field musings such as, “The gold and diamonds could dissolve his pride”. It’s the sort of whimsical statement I put in my University philosophy essays to try and con my tutors into thinking I’m cleverer than I actually am.
But Jaden never comes across as someone who is trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. As a whole, his plot makes sense, and he deserves respect for providing us with often witty lyrics that do not succumb to the Hip Hop stereotypes of sex, money and drugs. Of course, such references make their appearances, but as a whole this album plays with a higher purpose than merely flexing and impressing the listener.
It is deep, but also kind of accessible. The spacey production, vocal distortions and mercurial features come together to form a project packed full of beautiful moments, with each off-kilter idea improving the overall effect of the album. Some artists experiment for the sake of experimenting, and even use this to hide their actual lack of originality, with the only result being music that is nigh impossible to make any sense of.
Jaden is not one of these artists. Admittedly, it could be argued that his auto-tuned, emo rap style is heavily derivative of Kid Cudi and Travis Scott. There are definitely moments, particularly when rapping alongside Cudi on ‘On My Own’, where it is apparent where Jaden gets a lot of his inspiration from. His outlandish, self-assured antics coupled with the twitchy, euphoric nature of some ‘ERYS’ tracks provoke easy comparisons with Kanye West. Equally, Jaden’s move to regularly opt for soul-baring laments over braggadocious bars could render him a student of the Drake school of Hip Hop.
But what is this really to say? Quite frankly, 80% of rappers in today’s charts have drawn stylistic influences from at least one of Kid Cudi, Kanye and Drake. Jaden is in his own lane, and that lane sounds pretty darn good.
Some artists experiment for the sake of experimenting...Jaden is not one of these artists
The Fan: My favourite three rappers are undoubtedly Kanye, Travis Scott and Drake, so to see Jaden combining numerous strands of these artists’ styles, and then putting his own stamp on the resulting concoction obviously plays right into my hands (or my ears, I guess…).
I love experimentation in rap, but often artists such as Tyler, the Creator, Daniel Caesar and Frank Ocean are a little too introspective and cryptic for me to really get on their wavelength.
I feel like Jaden strikes the perfect balance here between being innovative and being intelligible to the listener. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of it sounding awesome - you can turn up to the electric, hard-hitting rhymes of some songs, and then wallow in the fragile sorrow of other tracks.
Standout Track: ‘Summertime in Paris’
Hidden Diamond: ‘K’
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
this article was originally published at phaser.com
Posthumous albums are always a tricky business. It is so difficult to get the sentiment right, to make sure the intentions are clearly to honour the artist, and not just to achieve material gain. There is even a question as to whether this music should be released at all.
It is clear from reading interviews with the likes of Vargas & Lagola, Aloe Blacc, and Carl Falk, all of whom worked together to complete Avicii’s TIM, just how much they cared about their late Swedish superstar and friend. Songs from TIM are difficult to listen to now, they say, and the nature of the songs on the new album make it evident why this is so.
It would be easy to read TIM as heavily foreshadowing the DJ’s passing. It is pervaded by darkness, with the first track, ‘Peace of Mind’, opening with the lyrics,
Bad Reputation tells the tragic story of someone hiding their depression (“I don't want to be seen in this shape I'm in/I don't want you to see how depressed I've been”), while ‘SOS’ pleads for a lover to come save them from their insomnia (“I get robbed of all my sleep/As my thoughts begin to bleed”).
Having said this, it’s strange reading through the lyrics of TIM, because on the basis of them alone it’s hard to view the album as anything but a suicide note from Avicii. However, listening to the album is an entirely different experience. The melodies are often tinged with sadness, and Carl Falk explains that Avicii would combine major and minor chords in the same line, the latter giving the songs a feeling of wistfulness. But there is an energy about each track, a sense that Avicii hadn’t lost his feeling of wonder and inspiration that shines through so prominently on his Stories hit, ‘The Nights’.
‘Never Leave Me’ is a boisterous, euphoric ode to a loved one, continuing the theme from SOS with the lyrics,
She knows how I’m feeling,
'Heaven’, his collaboration with Chris Martin, is undoubtedly the standout track, and one that fans have been waiting for since it was teased in 2014. It is overwhelmingly uplifting and positive, and initially it seems a little odd that it is positioned as the second track on TIM, as it could have provided a concluding note of happiness as the album closer. But then you remember the most tragic aspect of this album - it’s a tribute to a story that didn’t end happily.
The track that was chosen to finish TIM, ‘Fades Away’, epitomises how perfectly the sentiment of the album was judged. It references the ‘troubled times’ and the ‘trials to find somewhere we belong’ that have coloured the preceding eleven songs, but ends on a note of optimism,
All I know is that with you I’m moving on
This album carries such an emotional weight with it, that it was always going to be tough to find the balance between tones of positivity and regret. TIM finds this middle ground in a way that few other posthumous albums succeed in doing, and in my view, this is Avicii’s best work to date. His collaborators spoke with sadness about how it felt like he was on the brink of something massive musically, and how he would never get to execute this vision. TIM is as close as we can get to the perfect tribute, and the perfect reminder of how influential and talented Avicii was.
I think it is easy to underestimate the impact Avicii has had on music, and people, around the world. The testimonial message board on his website is evidence of this, with tributes being posted from a whole range of nationalities - there are few artists whose music has touched so many people. We all remember when ‘Levels’ broke into the charts back in 2011, and essentially set the tempo for a decade that would be dominated by House/Pop fusions from EDM titans such as Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Martin Garrix and The Chainsmokers. Avicii’s crossovers into Folk, Rock and Country music broke down genre walls and introduced many new artists to fans that would not normally be interested in these kinds of music.
On a more personal note, it seems apt that I’m writing this review in the lead-up to Father’s Day. Zac Brown Band is my father and I’s favourite band, and we always have one of their CDs loaded into the car stereo, ready for our road trip sing-a-longs. The paths of our music tastes don’t often meet, but this is a great instance where we can really share our love of music with one another. And the only reason I ever heard about Zac Brown Band, was because they were featured on the Avicii song ‘Broken Arrows’, and I thought hey, why not give them a try.
Equally, I remember playing my dad Avicii’s ‘The Nights’, and he fell in love with the carpe diem spirit of the hook,
He said, one day you’ll leave this world behind,
Before any big event in my life, my dad will still text me the words, ‘Remember, these are the nights!’, just as a reminder to make the most of every moment. It seems a bit trivial to call an EDM song my favourite song, but because of the meaning associated with it, ‘The Nights’ is definitely up there for me.
Avicii has had a much bigger impact on me that I would have ever imagined. While the album is heavily tinged with grief, TIM is also the perfect celebration of Avicii’s talent in creating music that resonates with his listeners. Despite the pained lyrics and the tragic context, TIM has at its heart the message Avicii always tried his best to convey - one of hope.
After the immense success of the Migos’ debut album, Culture, and their smash hit 'Bad and Boujee’, you would have thought they’d earned the right to be taken seriously. But they are talked of as something of a novelty, and a lot of people claim their popularity is merely the result of the ease with which they are turned into memes.
This seems a tad unfair, but regardless, the decision for each of the trio to release solo projects this year has provided Quavo, Takeoff and Offset, respectively, with the opportunity to show why they should be held in higher esteem, both collectively and as individual artists. However, Quavo’s solo album was disappointing, lacking the vocal innovation and melody that has made him such a sought-after feature, despite containing a handful of highlights. Takeoff’s project came and went without so much as a ripple in the unusually calm waters of the charts. So the onus was on Offset to redeem the rap group, and prevent critics from scratching their heads and wondering why they ever thought these solo experiments would be worth the risk.
Did he deliver? Well, he definitely succeeds in distancing himself from the typical style of the Migos, as well as the standard subject matter. There seems less self-assurance in Offset’s voice, as for the first time on a Migos album the loud posturing is replaced by hushed honesty. The title track, ‘Father of 4’, sets the mood for the rest of the project. After a very philosophical and perhaps overly poetic intro from Big Rube, Offset spares no time getting on topic - “I was 17 years old when I had you/ Trying to find my soul when I had you”. He names all his children, and unravels the layers of his relationship with them, opening up to the listener about how he perceives his identity as a father. While other rappers have often cited their offspring as their central motivation, these tributes can often sound trite, as the expression of love is enshrouded in trivial lyrics about Gucci belts and diamond chains.
Offset makes it clear this is not going to be one of those albums, with the artist being incredibly candid, often painfully so, about his personal life throughout Father of 4. ‘North Star’ is an emotional wade through Offset’s mental struggles, with the funk-oriented Cee-Lo Green seeming an odd choice at first, but ends up combining well for an outro that adds sentiment to the track. ‘After Dark’ is not catchy at all, but the chorus is uttered so statically that it gives you time to chew over each line, something unusual for Migos tracks, where the verses rattle along at such a speed that there is no time to think, or to stop and digest what is actually being said (albeit it normally not very much). ‘After Dark’ epitomises Offset’s move away from the typical tone and themes of his group.
He balances the melodies well with the quick fire bars that he has become renowned for, but Migos fanatics will inevitably ask where the celebratory anthems and triplet-fuelled explosiveness has gone. The attempts to satisfy this expectation are there, with ‘On Fleek’, ‘Clout’ and ‘Legacy’ all threatening as firecrackers, but ultimately lacking the necessary spark.
On the whole, though, Father of 4 is a pleasantly surprising listen, with Offset removing his Saint Laurent mask and baring his soul to the world, spinning the Migos blueprint on its head. When he rose to stardom and married Cardi B, Offset became one of the golden boys of Hip Hop. On Father of 4, he walks with the 24-carat necklace dangling as a heavy weight on his shoulders, rather than a symbol of his success.
Album Art - The 1975, A Brief Enquiry Into Online Relationships
You might have gathered from previous posts that I’m not a fan of modern rock. But for the past two ‘Album Arts of the Week’ I’ve chosen cover art from rock bands - perhaps this means they should all quit their day jobs and become artists instead of singers? I speak in jest, for rock music obviously has a lot to offer in the today’s times, especially, it seems, The 1975. Which is ironic, considering their group’s name is over 40 years old. The title of their upcoming album, A Brief Enquiry Into Online Relationships, draws intrigue, and pokes fun at the pervasiveness of technology in the 21st Century, a subject that will undoubtedly provide numerous points of interest when the album is ultimately released (See, at Maximoco Review HQ we’re so ahead of the charts, we review albums that haven’t even come out yet. That way, no-one can tell if our review is way off the mark or not).
But you may be staring at this random arrangement of coloured dots, and wondering why it’s sitting under the ‘Album Art of the Week’ heading. I confess that I’m not artistically learned enough to be able to explain to you the subtle machinations and hidden messages behind this picture. As much of a cop-out as it may be, I simply chose it because I find it aesthetically pleasing, and it definitely gives off a minimalist, AI-fax-machine (is that a thing?) kind of feel, which ties it in perfectly with the album title. It looks like the sort of thing you’d find at a modernist art exhibition, where everyone stands around it nodding and hmm-ing pensively, when really no-one has the slightest clue as to what they are looking at. And that’s why I like it.
Song Title - 'Look Up Child', Lauren Daigle
I think this is the vocalised thought of every parent and grandparent in the world right now. Children and teenagers are glued to their phones, living their lives through the eyes of social media, which inevitably entails living life through the eyes of someone else. As Drake wisely raps on ‘Emotionless’, “I always hear people complain about the place that they live…Cause they been staring at somebody else’s version of s***”. It seems Daigle is offering a similarly poignant message for our society. There is a wonderful world to see out there, but we miss most of it because we’re too busy looking down at our phones. If you’re reading this on your phone - look up! (But of course, don’t forget to return to us later. Sorry, page-views over scenic-views). Still, see the sky, see the birds, see the trees. It’ll inspire you. Also, on a less practical note, it’ll mean you’re less likely to walk straight into a telegraph pole.
Music Video - 2 Chainz ft. Quavo, Drake: 'Bigger Than You'
Watch as child-lookalikes of three of the biggest names in rap strut around in a school and cause anarchy for the teachers. Ah, reminds me of my days of young rebellion at High School, only reading four out of the five books on the reading lists, and some days, if I was feeling really naughty, not even doing any extra work during lunch time. I know, pretty scary stuff, but don’t fret, my life is firmly back on the rails now. Anyway, it’s a fun video - check it out here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r26bNe0MTzs
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
Recently, it feels like Future has been threatening Drake’s title as the marmite rapper of this generation. Some adore him and herald him as the best thing since sliced bread (to keep in line with the marmite metaphor), some dismiss him as a commercial calamity that will soon be toast (too far?).
The main strike that people place against Future’s name is the accusation that he releases way too much music for any of it to be well-constructed or well thought-out. If he can make an entire mixtape in roughly a week, when we are used to artists painstakingly honing the sound of an album over a matter of years, can it truly contain the same quality?
Probably not, if we are talking purely musically. But Future’s strategy is actually more astute than simply flooding the market. Artistically, it provides us with a catalogue of projects, which we can then view as a whole and appreciate the evolution of his music. A lot of them are undoubtedly samey, with hooks often consisting of a mind-numbing amount of repeated lines, and subject matter rarely straying out of rap’s typical hedonistic confines.
But while the individual songs on each album may be overly derivative, there is definitely progress from project to project. The spasmodic, confusing leaps from each Kanye West album to the next can partially be explained by there being a gap of a few years between each one. Future’s development from album to album is much, much less significant, yet to an extent the subtlety in the changes gives the listener more of an insight into the mind space Future is in at each moment of his artistic and personal progression. He has spoken in interviews of a reluctance to speak about past works, arguing that they show us a snapshot of where his head was when he made that body of music, and that it is no longer relevant to him now.
Future makes music that is perfectly tailored to our instagram-infested, twitter-twisted, facebook-frenzied brains, where followers are kept updated through a regular flow of photographs, tweets or posts. This is what Future’s albums do for his listeners, and the intense quantity lets us feel even closer to the action - just how a more frequently updated twitter or instagram account will make followers feel.
Furthermore, the rapidity of Future’s musical turnover targets our so-called short attention span generation, where instead of savouring an album for months or years on end, we binge a project in an hour and then are already desperately seeking out our next sonic fix. Future is one of the only artists in the market right now who can satisfy that desire. Okay, perhaps rappers that build up publicity for an album over the course of a year or two may hit bigger first-week sales, but generally we have found that the greater the hype, the greater the disappointment when it actually arrives on our playlists.
So yes, in isolation Future’s albums may not be anything spectacular, and by no means can he be called the best artist of the moment. But he has an excellent strategy, both artistically and marketing-wise, and one that epitomises 2018. It’s quick, it’s simple and it’s effective.
And hey, I don’t know about you, but I love marmite.
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
Lyric of the Week - Kenny Chesney, ‘Get Along
He said all your really given is the sunshine and your name
Chesney’s knack for storytelling is once again highlighted, as he recounts a tale of a religious man giving him some rather deep advice. The song is of course all about the mantra of getting on with those around you (spoiler alert in the title), with a very unsubtly cloaked reference to the Christian principle of ‘Love thy neighbour’. While I appreciate the message, it is easy for songs like this to come across as overly preachy and self-righteous. But that is why I love these two lines, because they add a touch of self-deprecating humour, as Chesney recalls the profound teaching that fundamentally all we have is ‘the sunshine and our name’, but then as the singer is pondering this it ironically starts to rain. Key lesson to be learnt? Apparently you do need to take an umbrella on that summer Nashville trip you’ve been planning after all. Seriously though, as you well know, over at Maximoco HQ we hate too much seriousness, but we are suckers for a good, loving message - so that’s why these lyrics were bound to be a hit with us.
Album Art of the Week - Alice in Chains, Rainier Fog
Now, I’m a big fan of bright colours, and I’m not a big fan of rock music. So as I’m staring at this entirely black-and-white, murky album cover from a rock band, part of me wonders what I was thinking choosing this for Album Art of the Week. But for some reason, the image just looks awesome to me - I love the office-style cut-and-paste juxtaposition with the scenes of nature, and the man walking into the ‘eye’ of the storm (quite literally) creates a very ominous vibe. The writing in the bottom left-hand corner adds to the overall mystery, making this look like a poster for an upcoming horror movie, and certainly has a voyage into the unknown feel about it. Just lost out to ‘Performance’ by White Denim.
Title of the Week - ‘you should see me in a crown’, Billie Eilish
Inspired by the famous Moriaty line from BBC’s Sherlock, “In a world of locked rooms, the man with the key is king. And honey, you should see me in a crown.” This song screams confidence compacted into a sassy, pithy punchline. Also poignant because the original quote is about ‘the man’, while Billie switches this to be about herself in an empowering move. And if you’re wondering whether the standard of this blog’s spellchecking is slacking, Billie brands all her song titles without any capitals. Travis Scott did it first. Just saying.
Music Video of the Week - ‘One Day’, Logic ft. Ryan Tedder
To be honest, I started watching this with a sceptical eye. Logic already played the humanitarian card last year with his National Suicide Prevention hit single ‘1-800-273-8255'. ‘One Day’ dropped out of the blue, following a very thuggish Bobby Tarantino mixtape, and handily just in time for the VMAs. Logic performed, of course, and while it was moving it was also in danger of coming across as an attempt to jump on the anti-Trump bandwagon, and using the well-publicised border crisis to fuel another surge up the charts. But whatever your feelings about the actual track, or his VMA’s performance, the music video is undoubtedly poignant and well-constructed. It begins as expected, with a dramatisation of the separation of a family trying to cross into the USA, and then we fast forward to follow the lives of one of the children who has been separated and given a new home, as well as a boy who grows up to become a neo-Nazi. The plot line is a little convoluted at times, but the conclusion more than makes up for this. The message is one that is very relevant to our times, and you can be as mistrusting of Logic’s motives as you like, and I don’t even really like the song, but viewed as an isolated piece of art, this music video is incredibly inspiring and captures what it is trying to communicate perfectly.
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
Usually, if I mention the name ‘Jason Mraz’ to someone, they’ll pause for a while and adopt a quizzical expression, reaching back into the dregs of their memory to find why the name rings a bell. Then the light switches on, and they remember with a smile. He is probably most famous for his motivational hit, ‘I Won’t Give Up’, and the wonderfully playful chart-topper, ‘I’m Yours’.
Having taken a break from producing music to star in Broadway’s Waitress, you could have been forgiven for wondering Mraz would ever return to brighten up the charts with his carefree optimism. But thankfully on Know, his new album, this is exactly what he does.
From the introduction to the conclusion, Know plays like the soundtrack to that moment at school where you were finally allowed onto the big field for summer (or maybe that was just one of my countryside childhood quirks). Mraz’s contagious happiness fizzles through the listener, and - call me corny - it’s the first album I’ve listened to in a while that’s actually made me smile to myself at the singer’s innocent humour.
The beauty of Know is undoubtedly its message, which is obvious from simply looking at the tracklist - the likes of ‘Better With You’, ‘Might As Well Dance’ and ‘Love Is Still The Answer’ immediately extinguish any doubts that Mraz has become hardened by life since when he first burst onto the scene. If anything, he sounds even happier, now being married and enjoying life in the US. He admits he was tempted to go down a darker path with his music after his last album, partly as a result of the seemingly exponential amount of issues that litter the world today, saying, “I wrote a lot of frustrated, angry, even sad songs between then and now, but nothing I wanted to come forward with; nothing I wanted to sing.”
Instead he penned ‘Have It All’, the album’s lead single, inspired by a blessing he received from a Myanmar monk in 2012. It is jam-packed with just about every positive, Pinterest-spawned mantra in existence (“May the best of your todays be the worst of your tomorrows”/“May you always lead from the beating in your chest”, and the more typical Mraz lyric, “May you get a gold star on your next test”). What I love is that you can tell he’s genuinely written the tracks himself, because they’re too off-the-wall and wholesomely ingenuous to have been manufactured by a songwriting team, as lots of modern tracks are.
It would be easy for the cheesy punchlines and unbounded joyousness of this record to come across as too much, and perhaps even sickeningly sweet. But Jason Mraz delivers them with enough cheek and playful innocence that it works, and you can’t help but dance along. A lot of motivational, message-heavy projects can entail less attention being paid to the actual melodies, and okay, perhaps Mraz’s style is a bit too dated to really breach the current Top 40. But make no mistake - the songs on Know are as catchy as ever. The buoyant ode to getting lost in the moment with love, ‘Might As Well Dance’, is a clear highlight, while the Meghan Trainor assisted ‘More Than Friends’ adds drive to the generally light-hearted strummings of the rest of the album.
The breezy hooks, the twinkling riffs and the lovable lyrics are reminiscent of peak MIKA, where people let their guard down and just enjoyed themselves amongst the bubbly pop of his falsetto anthems.
What better antidote could there be to all the sorrow and seriousness of 2018?
Yours sincerely, but not seriously,
Image by Moses Namkung on Flickr
The first of our ‘Rough Diamond’ series, where I will be giving another chance to projects that flopped critically, and seeing if any of these supposedly ugly ducklings are actually just swans in disguise...
Earlier this year, Tyga surprised fans by dropping a singing album. He has always had a distinctive rap flow that has sustained his career for numerous years, so this was certainly a curveball to then produce an all-singing (not quite all-dancing) project.
Now, a lot of contemporary music lovers, even those whose Facebook newsfeed is a merry-go-round of Rap-Up, Complex, Genius and HipHopDX stories, won’t have even known Kyoto was released. It went very much under the radar, with Tyga not really holding the same industry presence as he did when the Young Money flagship first set sail - even though there have been signs of a resurgence with the success of his recent single with Offset, ‘Taste’.
But the backdrop to Kyoto adds significance to the release, because it was composed amid the rapper’s split from Kylie Jenner, and her quick turn-around and surprise pregnancy with Travis Scott. It has never really been the thing to make love-based or break-up albums in Hip Hop, which is what made Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak such a game-changer. Emo-Rap is now, of course, a much more widely populated sub-genre, and Juice WRLD’s recent surge into the charts has revitalised it even more. His album, Goodbye and Good Riddance has all the nihilism and soul-searching of 808s, and has propelled him into being the poster boy of this new wave of rap.
However, while most critics would scoff at the mere thought of Goodbye and Good Riddance being mentioned in the same sentence as Kyoto, I think the latter offers a lot that Juice WRLD does not. It is much easier to listen to, for one, which would be many a reviewer’s argument for why it holds less artistic value. But why does 21st Century art have to be uncomfortable? Nowadays plays and art exhibitions often seem to have one goal in mind, to take the recipient out of their comfort zone.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not too fond of feeling uncomfortable. While I appreciate painfully honest works of art that are clearly a therapeutic medium for the creator, I think these pieces are often less constructive for the viewer or listener. I listen to Goodbye and Good Riddance and feel almost guilty that I’m not suffering as badly as Juice WRLD, and if I’m in a good mood and I listen to it, it just puts a downer on the moment.
Kyoto is also filled with a lot of pain, but it is a lot less bitter and more eclectic. Tyga conveys the suffering in a much subtler, softer, less angsty manner, and personally, I find the songs a lot catchier. I could listen to any of the tracks on there purely for their beats and melodies, without having to get too involved with the anguish. It is undoubtedly introspective, and also feels as though it has been created to help the artist more than the listener. But because the rhymes feel more uncertain, and the flow is less confident than what we are used to from Tyga, the project still invites the listener’s empathy. He covers such an array of emotions that it is very difficult not to find one that you can connect with, whereas Goodbye and Good Riddance feels more like one long, dark vibe.
‘U Cry’ is undoubtedly the centrepiece, with the pained lyrics fusing magically with the delicate piano sample to create a level of exposure that places Tyga on new ground. He details the feelings of anxiety as his girl keeps partying without him, only to call him afterwards, a narrative not often portrayed in the rap world, which only adds to its poignancy. The alpa male is replaced by a vulnerable lover, and the album benefits from this.
Is Kyoto a masterpiece? Not by any stretch of the imagination. But it certainly has something to offer that has been overlooked critically. Upon the album’s release, Tyga was ridiculed for changing tack and singing, rather than sticking to his usual, flashy script of brightly coloured cars, pool parties and groupies. Kyoto is understated and underrated, proving that sometimes, less is indeed more.
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
Okay, let’s get this straight.
Nicki Minaj is not just famous because she is a female rapper, or because she was the first female rapper to really take the industry by storm. She is also not just famous because of her often outrageous fashion sense, and the obvious sex appeal this promotes.
It is a discredit to suggest that these alone have propelled her to stardom - they would have made her a flash in the pan. What has ensured her longevity is her undoubted skill as an artist. She can go bar to bar with just about anyone else in the game, she has hooks that wriggle themselves into your head and don’t remove themselves in a hurry, and she has undoubted charisma.
Also, in my opinion, her verse on Kanye’s ‘Monster’ is the best rap verse of the modern era, if not of all time. Sue me.
But she also has a much greater social role to play, and one which, judging from her recent Beats 1 interview with Zane Lowe, she is very aware of. “There are songs on the album that I feel woman really need right now,” with a message of female empowerment even more relevant amidst the rise of conservatism that has paralleled the ascent of President Trump.
Perhaps the pivotal track is the one that has stirred up the most controversy, ‘Barbie Dreams’, on which Nicki hilariously lists all the rappers that want to sleep with her and why she always refuses their advances. The song ironically inverts a sample from Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Just Playing (Dreams)’, which consists of him going through all the female R&B singers he’s attracted to. Nicki toys with Drake before dismissing him for being too emotional, claims the monocular Fetty Was has his eye (get it?) on her, and calls out her ex Meek Mill for still pervading her DMs. She is tempted by Young Thug, who famously broke gender stereotypes by wearing women’s clothes on the cover of his 2017 project JEFFERY, but then jokingly raps that she was turned off when she found him stealing her dresses.
This song epitomises what we need more of in 2018 - a woman’s voice in Hip Hop, and good, light-hearted fun. Many were shocked by ‘Barbie Dreams’, thinking it to be a diss track directed towards the various rappers referenced. But this is symptomatic of the problem - artists with their constant introspection and profound musings can end up taking themselves too seriously (rather like I do as a philosophy student, mind you), and here Nicki provides some refreshing relief from this.
For too long in the past women who like Hip Hop have had to endure the constant belittling, objectifying and macho domineering that underlies most of the songs atop the genre, which sound as though they are exclusively directed towards a male audience, even if this is not the intention. Nicki Minaj is a role model, someone who embodies the confidence, fearlessness and self-belief that regular Hip Hop can often detract from.
On her new album, Queen, she fires innumerable warning shots at her ex, but it comes across as strong rather than bitter, resurgent rather than regretful. The focus is very much on her, and her life, not on those who haven’t been able to keep up with her. And she has fun doing it, with the project peppered with entertaining, tongue-in-cheek punchlines, whilst never losing sight of the album’s defiant cri-de-coeur - "Who the f*** you thought you was, tryna stunt on Nick?”
In the strategic chess-board of Hip Hop, the likes of Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West still frantically vie for the throne, but too long have the eyes been trained on the King.
For everyone knows the Queen is the most important player.
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
Travis Scott’s third studio album, Astroworld, had all the odds stacked against it. Travis’ fans had been anticipating this release for two years, with the constant speculation as to when it would drop only ever resulting in disappointment - until now.
However, while there was obviously immense excitement at there finally being a release date, the prolonged hype meant it was always going to be virtually impossible to meet fans’ expectations. On the other side of the fence were Scott’s critics, who have maintained since day one that he offers nothing more than an unimaginative combination of his idols - Kid Cudi and Kanye West. His relationship with Kylie Jenner has also opened him up to sceptics who will view any success the album enjoys as purely a result of this limelight.
But that’s enough negative energy for one post. I admit I’m a massive Travis Scott fan, but I also admit I was nervous as to whether Astroworld would match its promise. ‘Watch’, the lead single, was okay, but it wasn’t of the calibre of Scott’s main Rodeo singles, ‘3500’ and ‘Antidote’, nor was it close to Birds in the Trap Sing Mcknight’s ‘Pick Up the Phone’. Furthermore, I have written previously of my reservations about long tracklists, and Astroworld reads 17 songs long.
My fears, however, were proven to be groundless. The album rocks, to a level that is epitomised by its dramatic title. ‘Stargazing’, the opener, ensures Scott hits the ground running, with his pitched vocals reminding the listener of his untouchable mercuriality. This was the summer that left room for someone to step forward and claim the Hip Hop crown, with all the heavyweights producing fine projects, but nothing spectacular. On Astroworld, Scott takes aim at the pantheon, and he warns anyone who tries to halt his mission to either step aside or be blasted out of the way by his thunderous, Auto-Tuned roar.
He has always been a master of aesthetics, composing Rodeo with an unwavering loyalty to the theme, making it sound like a sleepy desert quest, with the mood meandering from intensely hot to uncomfortably cold and back again. Birds in the Trap played like a beast rattling furiously against a metal cage, with anarchy and dejection flaring up in equal measure. Astroworld is no less of an enthralling journey, with the cheery, fairground-esque instrumentals providing an eerie backdrop to Scott’s dark storytelling. The album is named after the theme park that was torn down in the artist’s home of Houston, and he’d outlined previously his goal to make the project sound exactly how it felt to have that emblem of youth and fun torn away from the heart of the city.
Boy does he stay true to his word. There is the spinning, nauseating tea-cups of ‘NC-17’; the snaking, rip-roaring coaster of ‘Astrothunder’; the stomach-somersaulting drop of ‘Who? What!’; and the psychedelic yet murky fun-house that is ‘Houstonfornication’.
The lyrics are undoubtedly his most personal yet, and show that Scott has worked hard to bring the content of his songs up to equal their unquestionable sonic quality. His newborn son and Kylie feature prominently throughout, with Travis offering us some tenderness to balance out the power posing on tracks like ‘Stargazing’ (“I was always high up on the lean/Then this girl came here to save my life”), ‘Stop Trying to Be God’ (“You can’t win a trophy or a plaque off her/But never turn your back on her”) and the concluding ‘Coffee Bean’ (“I know they told you I’d be bad for you/Don’t worry I’ll be back for you”). He interpolates a depth that we haven’t seen previously, addressing issues of sexism on ‘Skeleton’ (“If you take your girl out, do you expect sex?”) and interpolates a metaphor for the fickleness of fame on the aforementioned ‘Stop Trying to Be God’ (“The signal’s far from what you can be/‘Cause air traffic controls the landing”).
But the rapper doesn’t have such a strong following amongst the young generation because of his lyrics - it’s because of his anthems. Travis Scott cannot feature on other artists’ songs without his trademark ‘It’s lit!’ and ‘Straight up!’ ad-libs bringing aftershocks to each seismic hook and verse. On his own turf, on his planet, Astroworld, he expects his guests to bring just as much verve, and they generally do not disappoint. Drake churns out yet another classic refrain on ‘Sicko Mode’, while the slower ‘Stop Trying to Be God’ boasts Stevie Wonder playing the harmonica. The Migos of course pop up, while Frank Ocean and Swae Lee offer soothing melodies to soften the blow of Travis’ fiery bars. The Weeknd, however, undoubtedly steals the show, with his angelic but eerie vocals contributing to the hazy nightmares of ‘Skeletons’ and ‘Wake Up’. Despite the success of Migos member Quavo’s joint project with Scott, released late last year, you can’t help but think that The Weeknd would have been a far better suited collaborator.
The feeling of having something to prove seems to be the permanent mentality of an artist, but as cliche as it may sound, Travis Scott undoubtedly proves his point on Astroworld. Yes, some critics will lazily claim that he was born great, due to having met Kanye West so early on in his career. And yes, some will look with envious eyes and argue that he has had greatness thrust upon him, due to him having had a child with such a high-profile celebrity.
But don’t get it mixed up. On Astroworld, Travis Scott achieves greatness.
So my advice for listening to his latest project? As he wrote in the album’s accompanying Apple Music note - ‘Just buckle up’, and enjoy the ride.
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
Hello! I'm currently studying Philosophy & Theology at Oxford University, UK. Having always loved writing and music in equal measure, and having always hated decision-making, I figured hey, why do I need to choose between the two?