Shania Twain – Queen of Me: Review

Blending luscious pop songs and whimsically balanced Country songs, Shania Twain continues to excel in reeling the listener into a world full of musical wonder. Taking a chance with producers containing rich backgrounds in pop, reggae-fusion, and rock – like when Josh Homme assimilated his rock roots with Country producing Nikki Lanes’ last LP – they find ways to bring distinct styles, elevating Twain’s strengths. When you hear a pop producer like Mark Joseph take a crack at Country with a song like “Last Day of Summer,” you hear his captivatingly smooth guitar playing, adding dimensions to the slower tempo track. It builds depth, allowing Queen Of Me to come and go like this swift, replayable, confidence-building experience. It’s an inoffensive Country-Pop album with a lot of replayability. It gets boasted by Shania’s rich energy, which makes even the most straightforward tracks a delightful listen.

Queen of Me shows its strengths imminently; Shania Twain opens the album with a phenomenal sequence of Country-Pop/Dance-Pop hits – from “Giddy Up!” to “Best Friend,” Twain is glowing. “Giddy Up!” is this fantastic country dance tune that gets those feet moving with glee, reminding us of her potency in making incredible hybrids. It’s only after that she begins to take shape and let the writing take the form of introspection and make the simple repeatable. “Giddy Up!” gets us up, but it’s what comes after that keeps us flowing within Twain’s gravitational pull. Her voice brings this touch of rejuvenation where the glee in her singing captivates you further. It’s a bit typical with its thematic approach, taking simple routes to get her emotions out with confidence and passion. That passion hits its peak on the beautifully rich “Not Just A Girl.” Like “Queen of Me,” the eponymous track, she exhumes this lioness confidence-like ferocity, making one react like Orville Peck when Shania Twain sang the first lines of their collaboration “Legends Never Die” – in the music video.

Queen of Me isn’t all perfect, though; we get a corny push-off song in “Pretty Liar” and a simple country-pop production in “Got It Good.” The latter does contain a lovely crescendo that keeps you engaged, but it doesn’t have the depth thickness of “Number One” and “Waking Up Dreaming,” nor does it have the kind of character the guitars bring on the country-focused “Inhale/Exhale AIR” and “Last Day of Summer.” Both tracks could have gotten shaved off and made the album a smoother listen, especially “Pretty Liar,” which comes by jarringly. But what Twain’s producers deliver is distinguishing character in the sound. The eponymous track blends synths into this remarkably captivating flex where she exhumes confidence through different scenarios. Additionally, “Waking Up Dreaming” is a perfect example of evolution in a genre; it’s part Country-Pop, part Dance-Pop, delivering these gorgeous electric guitar and synth bass notes that make Twain’s vocals triumphant.

Some of the songs on Queen of Me are a tad simple thematically, and it doesn’t tread new waters, but it does have emotional brevity to keep you replaying these songs more frequently. Unlike the Ava Max album, we don’t get boring, typical melodies or overly ambitious choruses aiming too hard to be catchy. Though “Pretty Liar” isn’t the most astute track, taking jabs at liars. It also includes a corny chorus, albeit catchy, and it goes, “Cause your pants are on fire (your pants are on fire)/You’re such a fucking liar (such a fucking liar)/(Liar) Another level higher, your pants are on fire.” She’s trying to have fun with the idiom but ultimately falls short of being something jovial and tongue-in-cheek. However, her lively energy in the song makes many of these songs great. The track “Best Friend” focuses on the relationship between best friends, and though it’s simple, her joyful energy makes it a pure delight to have repeating without hesitation.

Queen of Me is great, for lack of a better term. Shania Twain is back after five years, still in peak form, giving us wonderfully energetic performances and some overall fun songs. Though we get some simple ones, Twain keeps you reeled in because of that energy, her natural flow, and the lovely choruses that will have you singing along readily. It did so with me. But sometimes, you just need a little serotonin-laced music to keep the vibes strong.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Ava Max – Diamonds & Dancefloors: Review

After an artist delivers a less-than-stellar debut, one can only remain optimistic with the positives that seep through the negatives. Unfortunately, Ava Max doesn’t appear to let those positives take command and find better collaborators, instead disavowing our musical comprehension and delivering subpar Dance-Pop stuck in one gear on her latest album, Diamonds & Dancefloors. Ava Max takes us through a 180 spin from her debut, Heaven & Hell, shifting typical electro/synth-pop flair into the same genericism, but with Dance-Pop, with a touch of more personal and reflective content. There is little energy getting exhumed by Ava Max as she tries to sprinkle typical shifts between lower vocals and hitting the fifth octave. She isn’t relishing in the vocal range she can provide and instead teeters between mediocrity and thrill; sometimes, this quality is enough for the listener to find themselves in a trance; I wasn’t one of them.

Ava Max would tell Zane Lowe at Apple Music, “This album is about my life and what I went through in the last year and heartbreak…it’s basically heartbreak on the dance floor,” adding, “It’s gonna make you cry and dance at the same time.” The production is fine on its own, never taking chances in the breaks or choruses, instead relaying the same sonic mediocrity we’ve heard others do, like Zara Larsson, except better.

Diamonds & Dancefloors speaks on heartbreak, focusing on a deteriorating relationship that boasts angst, depression, and reflections on identity, as one wants to distract themselves by dancing through their emotions. It’s not uncommon, with some of the most hypnotic works coming from Eurodance/Electro-pop songs of the late 90s and 00s. From “Better Off Alone” by Alice Deejay to “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn, and Basshunters’ trilogy “Now You’re Gone,” “All I Ever Wanted,” and “Angel In The Night,” this idea of letting loose and coming into your own, emotionally, which can get derivative. Ava Max tries to tap into that zone, style, but she becomes complacent with its lack of melodic creativity and production that takes that next step to feeling refreshing. There’ve been a few times when a song has given us beats that aren’t bottom of the barrel, like that of “Ghost,” which beautifully taps into aspects of Eurodance hypnotizing synths, despite it being predominantly in the choral sections. 

As non-extinguishing as “Ghost” is, it is one of only a few examples where Ava Max taps into her strengths: creating smooth melodies that will have you singing along. Writing is not one of them, as she shows us that her co-writers aren’t capable of boasting some boring and tried lyrics that take simple directions without making something profound. Ryan Tedder, who has written many hits, helps Ava Max turn “Weapons” into a radio hit, but it’s standard. Ava Max uses this song to focus on an idiom, “Stick and stones may break my bones (but words can never hurt me,” which some may feel that’s true to them. But Max’s song doesn’t reflect or hold that true, and instead, she seems like she can’t take words and would prefer the sticks and stones since there’s a bulletproof vest underneath for so many words. It is direct, as are other songs, with some that loosely thread simple metaphors like “Turn Off The Lights.” Much of what is here speaks to those who prefer it this way, but as someone who can find escapism within the melodies and production, it didn’t happen so often here.

Ava Max sews loose threads together to make a barely engaging album. One minute you’re grooving to some luscious choral melodies, and the next, it gets dourer as Max doesn’t captivate you with depth. When she retreats to another known: the more astute and emotionally protective creative, it still doesn’t feel new. “Cold As Ice” sounds like a tempered and groovier take on her Sweet But A Psycho demeanor that she established with her debut, but it still doesn’t pack a punch. With all these downs, when there should be more ups, but there are still some diamonds gleaming on the edges of the dancefloor, waiting for their moment to shine like Sugar Motta during a performance at Satana and Brittany’s wedding in Glee. The last two songs, along with “Get Outta My Heart,” spearhead some of the best work on the album. It uses minor quirks expected with Ava Max’s vocal style – here, she sounds different; she takes a smoother approach to her melodies while letting the Electronic/House elements create something new. It gets me moving, but there’s so little here for me to enjoy that I couldn’t find these to be anything rather than positives I won’t see getting repeated frequently, unlike “Weapons.”

Diamonds & Dancefloors was definitely made for the latter, but the grooves don’t always want to make you bust out your best moves, instead just free-flowing without a care. It has heart, except it isn’t poignant or carries enough depth instrumentally that you can’t help but push this aside and listen to better pop records from similar artists. As much as I can see something here for the masses, it doesn’t translate to something unique but rather something very apropos and diluted. There are a few tracks to like, but not enough to recommend a full listen.

Rating: 3 out of 10.

Lil Yachty – Let’s Start Here: Review

When Lil Yachty had an album leak in December, intrigue was raised from the music community as they heard a shift from his typical trap beats to a more alternative sound. That hint left many eagerly waiting to see if the official release would contain some of these songs or get reworked. Whatever it was, one thing is true after listening to Let’s Start Here: this sound works for Yatchy, and though there are some hurdles to overcome, the production has personality and is vibrant, despite being too much Tame Impala and Yatchy chilling on the Dark Side of The Moon. The production’s consistency is high, but the final product is either elevating or de-elevating with the vocals. Yatchy teeters too far into monotonous melodies, delivering nothing more than autotuned typicality. It’s a stark contrast to the featured artists who take command of the songs and make many of them worthwhile. Though Yatchy has moments where he’s enlightening over the production, it isn’t enough to push Let’s Start Here to the levels it could reach with better vocals.

Let’s Start Here brings a lot to the fray, mostly sonically. It’s contextually rich, boasting these whimsical ideas that mirror something off a Tame Impala album or something edgier, though it still finds footing with its identity. Lil Yachty doesn’t stray far from his lyrical bag of typicality (simplistic wording) as he develops and establishes themes relating to drug use, loneliness, love, and regret; however, there is rarely a moment he sounds uniquely profound. Yachty has moments where it makes you think there is something here for future endeavors, but unlike “The Black Seminole” and “Should I B,” Yachty is sizzling the effects for too long or doesn’t take full advantage reflecting some choices he made. Like with “:(failure(:” or the outro on “We Saw the Sun,” which boasts these theological ideas on failure, happiness, and wealth, and with the latter, the notion of feeling free to express oneself without stress, don’t get reflected poignantly. More than half the time, Yachty benefits from his featured artists, singers who skillfully acquiesce with the psychedelic overtones of the album.

Depending on the song, a featured artist could elevate their respective track to a higher plateau, like Diana Gordon does with “Drive Me Crazy” or Foushee on “Pretty,” two standouts on the album. The smooth funkiness of “Drive Me Crazy” oozes vocal vibrancy, giving us this beautiful moment where the two harmonize eloquently, while giving us complementary performances in their respective verses. “Pretty” is similar to it, except for its production, a rich and slowed-down psychedelic rock song that lets its vocalist command and steers it toward this enriching listening experience. Yachty understands the rhythm and offers one of his better performances on the album; additionally, Foushee’s luscious spacey, soulful vocals boast the final impact, despite Yachty’s slightly corny and provocative lyrics. Justine Skye and Daniel Caesar also elevate theirs by adding more personality than Yachty, even when the song isn’t all that great, like on “Running out of Time.” 

There’s a lot to like about this Lil Yachty album, but the moments that had me sparkly-eyed at first don’t deliver with the same potency upon replays. Part of it’s that Yachty seems sonically all over the place without purpose and lacks a sense of pacing. At first, you’re entranced, then it’s a fatiguing experience as you get no sense of consistency in style but are still keen on the quality of the respective songs. At 14 tracks and 58 minutes, it doesn’t feel like such, almost becoming a slightly daunting experience with Yachty’s more monotonous melodies. Though he brings some edge, especially with the rap verse at the end of “Drive Me Crazy,” some performances are tried and predictable from his style. It’s a daunting experience that aims too close to the moon but takes a wrong turn before returning. I’ve shared praise for “The Black Seminole,” but like “I’ve Officially Lost Vision,” it starts to feel overlong after a certain point. It doesn’t creatively expand beyond a few switches and breaks. Fortunately, he has a good run from track 4, “Pretty,” to track 8, “Drive Me Crazy,” where even the streamlined aspects of Yachty’s vocals are still captivating enough for you to return.

Let’s Start Here does precisely what the title suggests, but here is just a beginner’s step. Yachty tries to elevate his craft to new heights, despite getting in the way of himself by implementing some tried melodies that never go above and beyond. Throughout my listens, I found a lot to commend, pick apart, and realize how great it could have been. I know Yachty can take this and learn and further his alternative psychedelic rock journey and maybe deliver something purely fantastic from around the edges to its center.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

Ice Spice – Like..?: Review

Living in a world where going viral is as vital, if not more, than steady consistency amongst artists, it’s no surprise that Ice Spice took the wheel swiftly and continued to build on the success of her viral hit “Munch (Feelin’ U).” She continued that skyward trend with her following single, “Bikini Bottom,” a track that takes sonic influence from the Bikini Bottom title theme of Spongebob Squarepants and is as awe-inducing as it is confusing. Like “Munch,” Ice Spice doesn’t so much establish this jubilant and vibrant tone for the dance floor; she exhumes confidence that would otherwise be addicting if the writing had any level of depth, especially when her flexes are bare. However, Ice Spice has shown that she can bring varying dimensions to her writing, whether comparing and contrasting or fired-up metaphors, while staying bare and still meshing with the slick production by RIOTUSA, her frequent collaborator, on her debut EP, Like..?. It brought some intrigue to build within, but it fizzles swiftly with brisk pacing and an overall forgettable listening experience.

If there is one element of Like..? to thoroughly commend, it’s RIOTUSA’s production, which keeps the listener fluffed and on their toes – even if it’s the most lavish – hoping for some moderately good flows and verses from Ice Spice. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Though Ice Spice picks up steam with “Princess Diana” and “Gangsta Boo,” what surrounds them are tracks with poorly written brash lyricism that pushes sexual ferocity, liberty, and confidence. She exhumes vocal confidence that her candor circumvents the simplicity of some verses and choruses, allowing some to brush aside retreads and inhale the mixture of music getting produced. In this recent wave of New York Drill, creativity is scarce, and though the production brings a lot of consistency, it’s boasted to higher levels because the beats sound like RIOTUSA took the time to make them.

Since the viral sensation “Munch (Feelin’ U),” Ice Spice hasn’t fully separated herself from it lyrically. She references it twice outside of “Munch,” but they never come off organically. There’s some casualness, like in “Actin’ A Smoochie, where she rapped, “N***a a munchie, he eat me like food, damn (Grrah)/He eatin’ it up, kitty on water, he beatin’ it up (Beatin’ it up).” The bars aren’t as gripping. Each time it happens, there is no sense of oomph riding it, making it seem like she’s forcing an inorganic identity, like the mundane producer callout. It’s never in alignment with the flexing and trying to make it seem like eating pussy is prestigious these days, unlike in the past. We hear this on “Bikini Bottom,”  she raps, “Balenciaga baddie, got a bag (A bag)/N***a munchin’, ate it from the back (The back)/N***a fiendin’, gotta play it cool (Huh?).”

That sexual liberty gets surrounded by simple flexes, party-like bars, and more sexual liberation which never takes that extra step, like the lines “In the party, he just wanna rump (Rump)/Big boobs and the butt stay plump (Stay plump)/She a baddie, she know she a ten (Baddie, ten)” and “Goin’ viral is gettin’ ’em sicker/Like, what? Let’s keep it a buck (Huh)/Bitches too borin’, got ’em stuck in a rut (Damn)” off “In Ha Mood.” She’s spitting relative randomness without constantly focused on storytelling, unlike the main highlight, “Gangsta Boo” with Lil TJay. It samples the iconic “I Need A Girl Part 2” and uses it beautifully, but the percussion still follows a simple flow, so Ice Spice stays comfortable. Ice Spice brings her all here and shows promise that she can deliver some great verses in the future.

Though I’ve commended the production, its creativity comes from everything outside the drums; it can feel somewhat fresh. It’s more energizing with “Princess Diana” and “Munch (Feelin’ U),” but as it comes back full circle, what everyone has been touting since “Munch” became a viral hit. Ice Spice doesn’t try to hide it, but it isn’t all that cool or great since she lacks variety on a technical level. I was left shrugging as I couldn’t fathom returning to this EP and re-evaluating its sure fire miss. It is something I had some hope, it would excel past expectations, but even with my low confidence in its quality beforehand, I wasn’t shocked when I felt justified that Ice Spice isn’t totally there yet, but there is still room to grow and hopefully, she does.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

Ladytron – Time’s Arrow: Review

Ladytron’s latest album, Time’s Arrow, is not as expansive, keeping an almost two-dimensional with many synth patterns and the production’s range in guitar and percussion usage. It takes a while for the wheels to get rolling as lead singer Helen Marnie deconstructs innate reflective points with vigor on many songs. Her vocals add dimensions to each song’s atmosphere and psychedelia tones, seeping into these intricate thoughts that have us viewing some layered dimensions of our being, whether impersonal or not. Marnie, along with co-writers Daniel Hunt, Jonny Scott, Mira Aroyo & Vice Cooler, don’t leave you with ambiguity – the verses speak fluidly through its poetic approach, allowing you to visualize their world, interconnected with yours. It values time beyond the centralized generalizations we’ve heard prior – we get another solid effort that could have gone through another round in the think tank but still a serviceable release.

Starting strong, Time’s Arrow begins to keep its pacing steady, leaving you mystified by its ambiance and fluid melodies. Unfortunately, the synthesizers sometimes feel less intriguing and more of an added commodity that takes away from the small details that underlie the production coating. It isn’t until the later half of “Faces,” the second song on the tracklist, it starts to make sense of its direction – time is linear, but there are rifts that take you in unique sidesteps. It’s playing a bit loose with this concept, sonically, veering and making moments last long or short. It’s a straight shot of pure reflective bliss that stumbles to make anything imperatively potent with the sounds. There are some memorable notes within the production, but its consistency of impact is lesser than their last album. 

Sometimes Ladytron’s use of synths can over-sizzle, and other times it’s a little stale, but rarely in between. However, they never take you away from lyricism that’s lavishly poignant and resonant with one’s inner journey with themselves on a few tracks. In “Misery Remember Me,” we hear Ladytron looking back at one’s disdain for reflecting a person they’re not; it has gospel influence boasting the ponderous chorus and elevating its sense of self while letting the synths take a back seat. Not every track has this lyrical astuteness. Sometimes it teeters toward mundaneness with depth-less simplicity on “Faces” or the lackluster chorus of “California.” Fortunately, it is within the mid-point where the album takes chances beneath the abundance of synths caught between a drought and a rainstorm. Overlaying its poetically influenced lyricism are waning tempos with the different synthesizers they are using; in the long run, it took me away from finding much intrigue with “City of Angels” and “Sargasso Sea.” It’s a disappointing variation in production that keeps it from having a powerful opening and closing.

That middle sector of Time’s Arrow is where it starts to come to life. Beginning with “Flight of Angkor,” the tone gets set with a more fruitful array of synths that bring twinkles to your ears instead of confusing you. Continuing till “The Dreamers,” elements of Dream-Pop get incorporated to buoy the smooth cohesion between monochromatic ambiance and starry melodies. We don’t hear an overreliance on keeping you reeled with atmospheric electronic bliss. It lets the vocals breathe through the thick layers of synths, letting the backing vocals shine through. Additionally, we don’t get this small cluster of contrasting and complementing synths and percussion like in the title song; it oddly works at points, but comparatively, it’s a weaker-written song than the others. It doesn’t negate the vocal performances that radiate beneath harrowing synths that fail to make you return more than twice. 

Time’s Arrow sometimes feels like a distant memory, and remembering leaves you with some slight disappointment. It has these uniquely fantastic moments, but surrounding it, are some less-than-attractive synth layers. The synths don’t take away from the atmospheric aesthetic it imbues. It keeps a steady play consistency that can get a new listener to flow with it, but for fans of Ladytron, this was a lesser effort I wish I could like more than I do.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

Margo Price – Strays: Review

Continuing to expand on elements of folk and rock, Margo Price brings a different coating to her sound on Strays, her newest album. More atmospheric and streamlined, its country core becomes more potent, opening up a new stage for her vocals to explore new foundations. I was surprised by my initial enjoyment, gravitating closer to the distinct vocal textures supplemented by its consistent production. However, that surprise waned when I saw the production credits, and it all made sense. Produced by Johnathan Wilson, whose production you’ve heard effervescently on Father John Misty’s albums and last year’s Big Time by Angel Olsen, my favorite of 2022, the album switches sonic context, choosing a lane without overstepping with some of the atmospheric coatings. Unlike Big Time, Margo Price doesn’t always have a level of nuance in her writing and performances, sometimes skewing the pacing or having a proper balance between production and vocals; however, a good amount of tracks standout, leaving some of these issues as bumps on the road.

Opening with a triumphantly radiant and psychedelic country-rock song, “Been to the Mountains,” it drives forth sensibilities Margo Price wants to imbue with the themes on both sides of the aisle. In the liner notes written for the album, “This was one of the very first songs that flowed out the next day after we came down from our mushroom trip. I just really wanted to incorporate poetry. I wanted it to be really psychedelic, and I wanted this album to be able to serve as a record that people could put on if they were going to maybe dabble in psychedelics.” The sounds become more potent and the lyrics more poignant as the wheels continue to turn and the music starts to become whole. Unfortunately, these psychedelic tendencies can sometimes modestly overreach parameters to steal the spotlight from Price’s vocals. She has a command of it, but the mixing can slightly dilute sonic components, letting the instrumentations have control while you get lost amidst the captivating electric and string sections.

Unlike “Been to the Mountains,” the times the instrumentation levels are higher are heard in “Change of Heart” and “Hell In The Heartland,” where the guitar strings, synths, and effect guitars overcome varying aspects of the song. It’s similarly the case with “Light Me Up;” however, a key difference is that “Light Me Up” focuses on its vibe, exponentially increasing particular layers like a roller coaster. Building from an opening acoustic set, it picks up steam after the first verse, especially Price’s vocals. It doesn’t let Mike Campbell’s slick guitar playing deviate, instead synchronizing beautifully through the different sonic complexions. Though I’m not saying her vocals are inaudible, levels don’t sound balanced, and some words aren’t as clear, turning your attention back to the instrumentations. After a first listen-through, you start to pick up the pieces and hear the poeticism controlling Price’s fingers as she writes both lyrics and music. It’s stylistically consistent and pertinent to Margo Price’s direction with Strays, sometimes mellowing out from the rock-driven aesthetic to something more folkish, like the lovely “County Road.” 

Like many tracks on the album, Price gets reflective no matter the perspective – whether personal or interconnected, the uniquely wild stories get boasted by great songwriting. Despite this, like “Hell In The Heartland,” not everything translates well; some have pacing that tends to leave you lost in the winds with certain tracks, like “Lydia” and “Light Me Up.” Though the pacing is an issue, it isn’t that bothersome as the music ends up being rewarding when you understand the gravitas of the themes getting presented – a wandering mind looking to comprehend their surroundings as the music’s melancholy and rockabilly finds the proper equilibrium for clarity. That message comes across as robust, and the notions brought about in the album write-up get the shine. It gets subdued in its psychedelic tones, leaving a lot to pedal effects, Wurlitzer electric piano, and synths. There’s some nuance, though elevated by her vocal performances; the split comes with those notions from the album/liner notes, which focuses on the influence Psilocybin had on her mental direction, allowing us to see this palliative hybrid between the low and high octanes in the instrumentations.

Strays was a good listen, despite its issues. It expresses elements beyond the country aesthetic Margo Price has molded herself with, opening new avenues to play with the genre and deliver these fantastical atmospheric pieces. They take us away from her slightly more traditionalist nature of previous albums, producing something pensive and radiant. I didn’t necessarily love it all, but there were enough tracks to return, especially with some the moxie expressed in the vocals and production.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Skyzoo & The Other People – The Mind Of A Saint: Review

Hip-Hop isn’t a stranger to concept albums where rappers choose a perspective and build a narrative between fiction and non-fiction, whether it’s Black Trash: The Autobiography of Kirk Jones by Sticky Fingaz or American Gangster by Jay-Z. Skyzoo & The Other People take on this approach and deliver an album that takes us through the perspective of Franklin Saint, the lead character in the FX drama, Snowfall. As one who hasn’t seen the show, it’s not hard to connect the parallels to the era it reflects, but there is no doubt if a listener is a fan of the television series, they’d get exponentially more out of the album. The music profoundly reflects attitudes of the 80s, Saint’s will to survive, and personal growth through daily interactions with those in and outside The Family. Though the latter can respectively leave some empty pockets, there’s enough for one to see its greatness, specifically when boosted by fantastic production. The Other People implement modernized nostalgia, using elements of Gold Age Hip-Hop and Boom Bap into this alluring cohesion of music, furthering one’s allure to the project.

Like Black Trash: The Autobiography of Kirk Jones, Skyzoo keeps the narrative in constant motion, keeping the aesthetic realized from production to the verses, and never breaking character, keeping the swagger intact. The Mind Of A Saint is effusive and personal, at times expressing that sly coldness that comes with one’s own comfortability flexing this kind of success at the expense of the common folk and their addictions. It’s raw and honest, making you zero in on the nuances of his bars, and it starts to hit you in the middle as Skyzoo brings Franklin Saint to life, and keeping it real – the tracks, “Straight Drop,” “100 To One,” and “Bodies!” It doesn’t stop there as it continues toward a strong ending. Unfortunately, not all tracks are dense, as some allusions to interactions in the show can leave you with questions; it’s a positive that it’s significant enough to possibly influence one to watch it as it did with me.

Waxing poetics, Franklin Saint (Skyzoo) rarely delivers bad bars, weaving concrete storytelling that builds emotional dexterity with the escalation and de-escalation in his directness and metaphors. On “Bodies,” Saint raps about people who’ve died throughout his career hustling, describing to us why or why they didn’t deserve death. He’s bringing a sense of broken trust within the family and do-or-die survival selfishness. He brings us an overview of his community and a life ingrained in the song “Views From the Valley,” which beautifully paints a picture of the kind of up and downs Franklin Saint deals with through the everyday motions of others around him, like his uncle. 

There are audio queues that steer the narrative of a drug kingpin getting into the studio for the first time and emotionally flowing naturally – others add depth to the overall worldview Saint is living. Other audio comes from the show, though the first is from the pilot, they use specific exchanges that describe his rise or a mix of ads influenced by the “Just Say No Campaign” and a speech by Ronald Reagan about the war on drugs. It gets used to bringing his world to life and understanding the character he wants to present to us. The studio audio is potent in the six-minute verse emotional opus “100 To One,” which sees Saint rapping eloquence. It gets mirrored in “Purity,” which sees Franklin Saint delivering this crisp understanding of the dangers and turmoil that can come with life, adding depth to what we’ve heard; Saint keeps that coldness, so his weakness never shines bright. 

Beyond the scope reflective of the television series and its themes, The Mind of A Saint reflects that early 90s style where rappers who retroactive slang drugs and painted a portrait of the streets – think Illmatic or Ready To Die. There was never a need to hide the struggles of eventual paths artists took before making it in music, like The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z did with their respective debuts. They incorporate these soulful, at times jazzy notes and samples that embolden the time we’re supposed to be getting on this album. For example, we get a captivatingly loungey beat in “100 To One,” which incorporates jazz piano and strings within a subdued tempo; “The Balancing Act” adds soulful textures with backing vocals and percussion, bolsters the sentiments behind his emotional delivery. It’s like his distinct slower tempo version of “Juicy,” as he mirrors similar themes. It’s the best part of the album as it shifts sonic complexions while maintaining a cohesion that can be heard separately from the slight niche lyricism.

As great as this project is, there is a thin wall separating what you get out of it with or without watching the show. The Mind of A Saint did influence me to start the show and learn to later re-listen and get closer to the words of Franklin Saint (Skyzoo). However, it’s still effective in replicating a story of a young hustler growing to become a kingpin and the nuanced themes written within the verses about survival and success with the life given. Sometimes, it feels like opening a time capsule. It doesn’t feel dated, almost a testament to the time – Skyzoo grew up with that style; the influence gives him that natural cadence in the flow, and he beautifully reflects that with this. The smooth cohesion from start to finish offers a crisp listening. 

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Ab-Soul – Herbert: Review

Mentally exhausting but exuberantly rewarding, Ab-Soul’s new album Herbert takes us through hurdles as Soul reflects on life and emotional imbalances that have placed him into a zone where the focus was his mental health. 2014’s Stigmata felt like a linear direction of drug-infused beats built with the complexities of perfectly quaffed glass, and Do What Thou Wilt felt more of the same, just lesser in sonic appeal and construction. But that isn’t the case with Herbert, an album that feels more like the dark undercurrents beneath the percussion getting refined and letting it control are more linear approach instead of flip-flopping between the overly experimental and the “Ab-Soul, Asshole” that we’ve listened to since Longterm Mentality. It’s an evident relic of the past with its jazzy, at times lightly funkadelic tones that give us similar tendencies akin to the audacious and beautiful “Illuminate” from 2012’s Control System. It isn’t devoid of lyrical grit, where he can shift the parameters of his flows, keeping you engaged as Soul never diverts into songs that wane too much into darker experimentations.

As a lyricist, Ab-Soul’s content is kitschy compared to most populous rap in the above or underground scene. It may have been why he never got an Interscope Records co-sign, allowing him to get down to the nitty-gritty and deliver songs where his sleeves ache, and his grief is on full display like he did with “Closure” off Stigmata. That’s still prevalent here, along with more reflections that sees Ab-Soul constructing his multi-layered persona with vitriol. We hear it in the twinkly “Fallacy,” which details Ab-Soul’s hiccups and moments where he succeeds. It’s in the emotionally complex “Herbert” and “The Wild Side,” which shows us who he has been throughout the years – someone constantly on the side of the road where there’s an obstacle with every step. It’s a blissful melancholy that gets highlighted over beautifully resonant and sometimes minimalist (comparatively) production, continuously boasting the thematic prowess of Soul. Ab-Soul is one to knock out of the park more consistently when the nature of the tracks wanes on personable instead of flaunting and flexing, though there have been hits within that realm, like “Hunnid Stax.” We hear the essence of it on the gripping and smooth “Hollandaise.”

Time passes, and what you thought you knew may have been incorrect from the get-go. Recently, Edie Falco remarked in an interview about her role in Avatar 2: The Way of Water – when she filmed, what she thought it could make on opening weekend, etc. – Falco noted that she believed the film was released and flopped. Similarly, Ab-Soul’s mild silence since 2016, only appearing as a featured artist or short, fulfilling singles, reminded me of a pre-2015 Ab-Soul, where the focus on experimentation had him flying too close to the sun. Unlike Icarus or Falco’s thoughts on Avatar: The Way of Water, Ab-Soul didn’t flop and had been bettering himself, growing as an artist, and finding meaning on his journeys. We see that with the beautifully constructed and focused concept album that imbues the essence of who Soul, musically and spiritually.

Containing a spiritual connection brings confidence toward having a multitude of producers board the ship to give us something as coherent as listening to screamo with freshly clean ears. There is an underlying distinction in styles as it transitions, allowing for seamless continuations of narrative greatness. The production boasts the content getting reflected, whether mellow or more boisterous, like “Positive Vibes Only.” Unfortunately, as slick as the beat is, the track doesn’t have the lyrical frontness and feels too lost in its production to make anything out of it, unlike “Hollandaise,” which brings a lot of ammo. It isn’t like the nuanced and ever-growing sounds of “Art of Seduction” and “Do Better.” It’s a flurry of simplicity that retains depth with how it gets constructed, unlike the overly styled beats of past songs like “D.R.U.G.S.” and “Sapiosexual.” Here, there is a fine line between the two; sometimes, you can’t distinguish what hits and doesn’t at first. When Ab-Soul chooses production that goes the extra mile, like “Go Off,” that sense of doubt washes away swiftly as you hear Soul command the beat and take it to the next level. Unfortunately, featured rapper Russ doesn’t match the quality writing from Ab-Soul and Big Sean, but he’s only a quick slight that doesn’t deter from the quality of the final product.

Herbert is a fantastic return for Ab-Soul. He’s less reliant on creating an expansive piece on a limited canvas, instead aiming for something more constructive, linear, and oozing with melancholy; you can’t help but feel attracted to the lyrics and sounds. It’s a fantastic record that I’d wish released early because of the distinctively wrought process of dropping year-end lists during the first week of December as if it’s some desolate month with little to offer, yet, we’ve gotten two incredible hip-hop albums.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Little Simz – No Thank You: Review

Surprising us with an album at the end of the year, it sounds like the gears never stop churning for Little Simz. Her fifth album, No Thank You comes after a whirlwind of a year, where she delivered Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, boasting her status past the underground and getting recognized for the quality of work she continuously drops. Winning Best New Artist at the Brit Awards, Simz made it known she will continue to grow while retaining true to herself, especially with the win coming at the height of the critically acclaimed SIMBI. The explorative sounds of SIMBI are this extravagant continuation of genre-bending, this time boasting Hip-Hop undertones with Afro-Beat and Soul. The music of No Thank You gets toned to ease the blend of unique overtones with minimalistic percussion. We hear more Gospel and Soul, and Simz allows herself to focus on being instead of being pressured by multi-layered beats. No Thank You is laying a foundation that sees Simz confronting her truth – her feelings without boundaries, and keeping it 100 at the cost of lyricism.

On No Thank You, Little Simz expands detailed contextual alignment with themes regarding race, musical and personal growth, etc., allowing them to be heard effervescently in the confines of its lavish production. No Thank You starts reeling you with the opening track, “Angel,” where she focuses on faith, her blackness, and her legacy with an exuberant bravado. It’s awe-inspiring; it makes one wish all the songs cared to embolden the Soul/Funk/Gospel overtones, but some sidesteps to express an aspect of her nature lose traction by feeling like the odd duck of the clan or the plainish “Control.” But “Gorilla” is that odd duck, but not because of its quality. It has a smooth, funkadelic bass line and minimalist percussion, allowing Simz to flow off the dome in a braggadocious fashion. But It’s more linear and more of a cut from SIMBI, with the excess of its drum patterns. As well, it doesn’t have the soulful nuance of the Gospel notes riding through many beats, hitting a peak with “Broken.”

“Broken” is a sonic reflection of the style incorporated on a platoon of tracks that exceed five minutes; however, melancholic outros add additional depth to its more streamlined consciousness. The bars are slick, and Little Simz isn’t devoid of clever rhyme schemes and metaphors. It counterbalances the spiritual cadence of the choruses and in-song transitions, and significantly, the intros and outros, where the hip-hop elements fade behind the curtain, giving center stage to the soulful vocals from singer Cleo Soul and musician/producer Kojo. They ease transitions as Simz buoys her identity through potential hurdles as her popularity grows. It gives new and old fans a spiritual understanding of her craft that won’t change, especially as Simz continues to try new sounds. 

The range of sounds producer Inflo delivers for Simz continues to boast her flows, which has been familiar since 2019’s Grey Area; on No Thank You, there is a continuous delineation between the genre influence getting heard. From the string and percussion-heavy “Silhouettes” to the acoustic choral overtones that let Simz break additional barriers by pushing more weight onto her lyricism on “Control” and “Sideways.” There is a crispness to the mixing that highlights both sides of the songs, letting you hear each detail, each angle it takes, as Simz never takes the short path to deliver. She paces herself fluidly through many tracks, allowing for a streamlining listen that lets you get from point A to point B while intaking everything smoothly.

Parallel to “Sideways” is the empathetic and emotionally captivating “Who Even Cares,” where Little Simz opts for a more sing-songy flow and lets us hear a different side of her. Though it follows a third-person narrative focusing on humbled beginnings and rational selfishness so one can succeed toward their goals, retreading some familiarity, there is an essence of being that realizes it more than its production. It’s funkadelic to the nines, seemingly feeling like a relic of the 80s, where the bass grooves and synthesizers take you to new levels as it plays through your ears. It isn’t the first time we’ve gotten to hear Little Simz sing, though it’s been more in the chorus; this shifts the dynamic of its delivery, specifically as a contrast to the more boom-bap, street flows of other tracks, like “Control” or “X.”

There is an essence to No Thank You that pits it against some of the best rap albums dealing with pure reflection, with the occasional sidestep into flexing; however, it succeeds in accomplishing a narrative. Its themes are expanded and given purpose through switches between the first and third person, offering a rejuvenating sense of relatability. It left me feeling a lot and wanting to hear more and more from Simz, and the constant change in sonic direction adds to that.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

SZA – SOS: Review

Continuing to succeed in her sonic expressions with a diverse palette of sounds, SZA defines how we receive the music by the album title. Layered with emotional and thematic elements, CTRL saw SZA commanding the stage and giving us a concise and consistent range of work that doesn’t make you overthink to understand who she is presenting. She has control. It’s the opposite of the follow-up SOS; it takes you through various soundscapes, some that we haven’t heard from her prior. It’s SZA exploding with all these ideas built through the last four years and offers a reflection of an artist who’s yearning to get heard. It’s like she is on an island with creators, just making music day after day, but nothing is getting released, so she issues her own mental SOS so that she can let it out and we can further understand her artistry. There is crisp sequencing, allowing the album to hurdle through missteps deriving featured artists or simplistic percussion a few times; the minor hindrances don’t over-shroud the lot of fantastic music SZA gives us.

Subtleness may be what SOS lacks, but it isn’t driving the strengths, meaning it doesn’t break the album. SZA keeps her sleeves bare with emotion as she laments and vents about her world, which correlates with sheer relevancy, giving SOS a grander platform for musical resonance. From the beginning, you are not getting hints; you get directness without a curtain failsafe to shield her when she makes a listener uncomfortable, if that. After the title track, we get a stream of consciousness that envelops us through these auspicious, musically metaphorical dualities that boast her person in reflection with the lyrics she delivers. “Kill Bill” sees SZA using the film Kill Bill as a means to create these allusions to situations that have done her wrong; she likens herself to Beatrice Kiddo leading down her path of destruction, which may ultimately see her having to confront her ex’s new girlfriends. Similarly, there’s “Gone Girl,” a starry R&B Ballad that gives us an inside look at the mind of SZA as she contemplates leaving her lover and emphasizing her ghosting by using allusions to the novel and film of the same name.

SZA’s stream of consciousness continues to add weight to her shoulders, buoying a robust response from the listener. One of which keeps you engaged through her songwriting, which outshines the production more consistently than not. Using the title SOS as this allegorical meaning toward delivering an explosion of sounds adds credence to the quantity and varying styles on the album, but more so the latter. Though not inherently bloated, this fresh consistency blooms through all but two tracks, even if there are minor sidesteps. “Far” is one of three tracks that allow itself to feel distant from the pack on a sonic level as opposed to its lyrical textures, which adds to the sentiments getting delivered on SOS. That strong flow of SOS gets slightly drowned by two of the features, which aren’t as complementary, either in style or with the quality of their verse, leaving the songs emptier. Don Tolliver and Travis Scott are the featured artists I talk about; they add little to the 23-track macrocosm of riotous emotions within her delivery, becoming more of an afterthought that could have gotten removed for crisper consistency. 

Fortunately, these two hindrances don’t take away from the explosive work SZA gives us, especially with its song transitions. Continuing to explore contextual verbal duality, SZA begins a wave of beauty with “Gone Girl,” shifting into SZA delivering a rap verse on “Smoking On My Ex Pack,” then turning into this vibrant dream-pop collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers and rising further on the monstrous punk track “F2F.” “F2F” takes you back to the early 00s, when burgeoning female punk artists let their angst get heard effervescently. You get taken aback instantly, mainly because it’s something different, and its flows. Though predominantly R&B, some tracks come to you never feel perturbed due to an understanding of SZA’s concept that allows them to come to you freely.

SZA’s vocals naturally assimilate to each style she exhumes, whether it’s punk rock, soft singer-songwriter pop like on “Blind” and “Conceited,” or grand R&B powerhouses like “Notice Me,” “Shirt,” or the bravado of “Low,” with the thematic potency of songs akin to “Irreplaceable.” It shows an exuberant amount of confidence as she commands who she is, especially in her day-to-day life. Unfortunately, some of these tracks don’t get overly creative with the drum patterns, leaving many songs to rely on their building blocks of sounds and vocals to keep you engaged. SZA can take anything she’s given by the horns and steer it toward greatness, and it’s been evident pre-CTRL. “Good Days” is one of a few examples that makes you realize percussion is second nature to the synths, the strings, and an array of melodies that offer a spacious atmosphere for you to get lost in and contemplate. It may be a potential problem that can come from having a deep platoon of producers helping you deliver consistency on a canvas, some of which may add more than needed, like the slim sonic redundancy of “Far,” but SZA beautifully pieces it together. 

SOS is a fantastic collection of songs that delivers upon its concept with emotional splendor; you’re never cashing out as you want to keep this album on repeat. I was one of those to feel that I couldn’t stop leaving it on loop, as the melancholy, sometimes minimalist production, gives us an open space to dissect SZA’s lyricism. Definitely, worth holding out for your lists to give it a chance to break through, and it will, like it did with me.

Rating: 9 out of 10.