Arlo Parks – The Soft Machine: Review

Coming off an excellent debut album, Collapsed In Sunbeams, Arlo Parks has given us these intricate R&B/Soul/Pop hybrids, free-flowing with a natural cadence that evokes those calming emotional notes that keep you ingrained in her sound. It transfixes you into this world that balances the nuances of indie R&B/Soul and Pop with its loverly and atmospherically composed vocals that define the textures of her writing. As Arlo Parks noted through her quick one-minute explanation of the core context of the album, “This record is life through my lens, through my body – the mid-20s anxiety, the substance abuse of friends around me, the viscera of being in love for the first time, navigating PTSD and grief and self-sabotage and joy, moving through worlds with wonder and sensitivity – what it’s like to be trapped in this particular body.” Though that is prevalent within her follow-up, My Soft Machine, it’s an album that does more of the same without feeling consistently unique from her debut, leaving us with her songwriting, vocal performance, and some quality but uninteresting production.

Sonically driven to encompass mood, My Soft Machine mostly excels due to Arlo Parks’ songwriting and vocal performances having an immense pre. It’s an album where even the mildest production brings these solid melancholic sensibilities, but most times, you feel like there was some room to explore more. You hear it from the beginning with the song “Bruiseless,” one of two tracks entirely produced by Parks’, the other being “Ghost.” It feels like this heightened push towards building an album that becomes an embodiment of its lead artist – it’s a commonplace, but all do so differently; here Parks takes the lyrical route – in doing so, it shows Parks swimming through these beats fluidly, allowing her themes to breathe and offer more of an understanding. It’s what’s in between the two tracks that it starts to limp with its steadfast pace and familiarity. They interject, creating a negative fluidity where occasionally it’s more challenging to crumble and ingest what’s getting said because as you dig through, you get more entrenched by Parks’ whimsical melodies in her choruses.

There are occasions Arlo Parks’ choruses have more of a gravitational pull, as they emerge with this hypnotizing energy that sometimes her verses feel like a minimal afterthought. It becomes detrimental to boasting some thematic poignancy, even though the choruses aren’t thin, similar with the visceral depth in her verses. It isn’t too recurring as you can sense the differences, like with “Impurities” and “Purple Phase” – the emphasis is more evenly split, leaving these haunting vocals as a ghostly reminder – with the former, it does enough to hook you with the verse, but when Parks begins to sing, “I radiate like a star, like a star, star, star … When you embrace all my impurities/And I feel clean again,” in the pre-chorus and chorus respectively, it’s simplicity gets reinforced by the whimsy in her voice, allowing to have the gripping depth seen between the love she shares with her significant other. But its when you get to the crux of her verses where you hear what Parks wants to relay, even when it’s a little forgettable like “Blades” or “Puppy,” which don’t tread to new territory with its instrumental inclusions, specifically the synths.

Unlike Arlo Parks’ last album, the production sometimes feels predictable, rarely enticing you all the way and making you love it in its entirety. The soulful strings and subtle, buoyant percussion patterns add weight to the sound structure; yet, it gets disappointing when it slightly retreads mood-focused layers that you feel like you’re listening to the same moods, despite different themes represented. One example comes from “Weightless,” which ventures through safe paths, illuminating only when the chorus strikes, continuing to show the ferocity given to the delivery of either. “Weightless” has solid verse but is a little forgettable, specifically as Parks flows over these simple drum patterns. It leads into a surprising rap verse, but it’s not enough for the song to gain momentum, like “Dog Rose,” where the production is its defining juncture. Its chorus comes stronger than other aspects of the vocal performance, but this guitar-driven production feels stunted by not so gripping vocals from Parks.

One definitive highlight on the album is her duet with Phoebe Bridgers. It’s refreshing and an embodiment of their craft, especially their directional cadence, driving forth this theme of true love. It adds dimensions when the song embodies vague layering that can be reflective of whoever is listening. It’s more so because both artists are bisexual, and it adds nuanced dimensions, allowing the song to have more cognitive meaning, like the others, which continues to be enveloped by the world around Parks. On “I’m Sorry,” we hear Parks talk about this hardened shell she wears, making it harder for others to get through. Or with “Devotion,” she brings this otherworldly rock establishment with her co-producers, creating this incredible tale of queer love that evokes darker moods, alla Prince. She uses these dark conjectures to capture this love, twisting whats negative into the positive, like with the pre-chorus, where she sings, “Girl, I wanna protect you, I do, oh/Your eyes destroying me/I’m wide open, hmm.” It rounds out this solid follow-up that aims for depth, even when the production lacks luster.

The Soft Machine is unique, but not much so with the production. It’s within this zone that takes a safer route to allow the writing to gain emphasis, but in doing so, it sometimes whiffs at making its gravitational pull more powerful. It was something that did grow on me the more it played, especially as I let it connect after giving different sectors more attention based on what’s the most potent. It isn’t to say the supporting cast there isn’t up to par, but it’s more of a disappointment from its lack of consistency. I enjoyed it a lot, but I’ll find myself returning to the debut more frequently than not.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Daisy Jones & The Six – Aurora: Review

There’s no denying the significant uptick for the novel Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid, especially the television miniseries based on it. It is a different narrative journey I’m not used to taking; though I am used to reading through interviews all my life, it felt like two distinct worlds colliding. However, one thing that did stand out while reading the novel was the details within the creation of this album that felt grandiose as if we were getting something akin to Rumours by Fleetwood Mac or Don’t Shoot Me I’m The Piano Player by Elton John yet as I took the time to sit back and relish in the attempt to realize that album, titled, Aurora. As the album kept playing and playing, the melodies struck beautifully – guitar strings strum with fluid range – the writing and performances are substantially rich – but with what rounds out the edges, I couldn’t hear what the novel wanted to convey about its musical layers. It treads familiar waters within the safer waters of Soft-Rock, never seeming to do something meticulously unique. Listening to it, with or without background knowledge of the characters, you get a solid rock album with quality replay value.

With direct nuance and nostalgia to the subtle underlinings of its 70s era, Aurora captures the essence of what influenced it, specifically, the music of Fleetwood Mac and their wayward yet delicate string orchestrations that emboldened their harmonies and melodies, like the acoustics of “Two Against Three” or “Look At Us Now (Honeycomb).” There are fantastic highs like them and calming middle-of-the-pack work that comes from this over-sizzling of decisions, like when it rides a rhythm for too long on “Kill You To Try,” making the outro feel slightly forgotten. It’s unlike the frenetic and lavish rock stylings of tracks like “More To Miss” or “Please,” where it doesn’t slightly overstay its welcome, delivering more profound musicality, especially the former “More To Miss,” which blends unique string layers from guitars and bass. Produced by Blake Mills, Aurora achieves its goal of delivering a capsule to the past, orchestrating these whimsically fantastic but sometimes standard, polished arrangements that get predominately outshone by the vocal performances. It leaves you with an essence of the past, yet it doesn’t feel significantly unique, even if it isn’t a bad album, and more just there with a larger sliver of greatness.

It feels like a layaway from the 70s as it looks to hit the nail squarely within the gravitational pull of nostalgia. But the music is sensibly modern but keeps its roots tethered to the operatic atmosphere of a studio construction, allowing the performance to be driven by visualizing space within one’s inflections as we hear with the powerful “Regret Me,” or the smooth cadences of “Let Me Down Easy.” Aurora is an album that rides the coats of its vocals because the profoundness articulated in the novel Daisy Jones & The Six isn’t fully heard consistently except for in the performances. Sung by lead actor and actress Sam Claflin and Riley Keough, they have natural essence to their voice, feeling more grounded, and for a few, it might be expected, especially knowing Claflin’s background with theater and Keough’s own lineage/life, respectively. Keough grew up around music, whether through the legacy of her grandfather Elvis Pressley or the musical ventures of her mother, Lisa Marie Pressley, so it felt sort of made for her; Claflin studied theater and drama, and if you didn’t know that… well, Finnick Odair from The Hunger Games can sing.

Easily put, Aurora is loose and focused on what it wants to be that it’s volleying an inconsistent everlong game between two styles. What I mean by that is whenever the album teeters between Rock and Soft-Rock/Pop, there aren’t many moments where the whole song feels pure as other times, you’re gravitating to ranging emotional delivery or the orchestration, where it’s the minimal stuff that lights up the stage, whether it’s a specific guitar lick or the synchronization of the two rhythms, or the soaring energy within the choruses. In the Riley Keough-driven performance of “Two Against Three,” the tempered vocals erupt once it arrives at the hook; the hook clutches you in the emotional gut and starts pulling harder and harder, similar to that of “Please,” except “Please” has more power within the chorus. It’s bolstered by the luscious cymbals coating the fluid strings and percussion layers, continuing the more boisterous notes of the track that precedes and succeeds it, including its distinct flair compared to others.

As the author of Daisy Jones would tell Rolling Stone magazine, “We finally have AURORA. A stunning, nostalgic, timeless album that captures the drama, pathos, and yearning of the band’s zenith and nadir all in one. A snapshot of time, intoxicating and dangerous. That delicious moment that you know can’t last… Daisy Jones & The Six are real. And they are better than my wildest dreams.” I’d downplay the word stunning, and I concur, especially not having seen the miniseries and reading the book. By understanding the heavy Fleetwood Mac influence that guided Taylor Jenkins Reid in writing the novel, it wasn’t hard to see the parallels, and sometimes, it’s that little bit that makes the production feel more replicative instead of inspired, aside from the vocals, the strings, and polished mixing. I thoroughly enjoyed this, even with its pivots into a less-than-stellar territory; give it a few listens, read the book, and watch the show if you’re a fan of the first two; I know I will be.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Kaytranimé – Kaytranimé: Review

Expectancy/hype is an enemy of the art consumer, especially within the audio world, as collaborations tend to have more coherence in a blend of styles. Though sometimes it comes and hits tremendously, that isn’t the case this time with the new collaboration album by Rapper/Producer Aminé and Musician/Producer Kaytranada. Looking at it on the surface, there wasn’t a surprise people had any sense of hype for the drop, especially as the two have had fantastic consistency from album to album. But with the expected, whether luscious summery production or smoother, fun flows, it’s as if the latter becomes consistently forgotten. Aminé’s flows aren’t as gripping or creative, never seeming to get out of this slower, heavy zone of flexing, that it sometimes transfers into more sociable romps that bring out the smooth cadence of his voice, like with “Sossaup” or “Eye,” where its features help boost the final production. Unfortunately, the highs aren’t enough to make Kaytranimé more of a great listen; it’s swift with lackluster pacing shortening the space left to breathe and making what follows a meandering disappointment.

There is some promise within Kaytranimé, especially Aminé’s lyricism/writing, as he keeps choruses and verses on point with the technicals and syllabic schemes. He’s witty and has some smooth lines that whiff with the flow, like when he gets behind the microphone; the delivery makes you feel unenthused. It’s what separates the decadent, island-smooth “Sossaup” or funky and soulful “4Eva” from tracks like “letstalkaboutit,” where it isn’t as creative. It leans more toward the mundane, feeling like a loosie, which gets overshadowed by a fun Freddie Gibbs verse. Like it, the former two have more of an equilibrium that makes it more effective despite having featured artists, though only Amaarae outshines him on “Sossaup.” Aminé’s flows tread familiarity and lack the creativity of sounds that reflect summer vibes, like the whimsical and ray-filled synths or modestly formidable but calming drum patterns that fluctuate with the strings and synths. Usually, Aminé has more of a command of his flows, but this time, he maneuvers them lazily without much bravado. It’s as if one was expecting something jovial and instead receiving this formal hip-hop album without many ear-popping moments.

The production of Kaytraminé shimmers, and hearing others perform over it is sometimes more memorable. It’s what makes “Eye” one of the more memorable tracks off the album, especially when it incorporates the strength of all three parties. Whether it’s Aminé’s singing, Kaytranada’s production, and the smooth Snoop Dogg flows from his Bush era, adding that sensual cadence, it counteracts Aminé’s emotionless/dronish delivery in the first verse making the song better, and Aminé’s rap verse a simple afterthought that meshes in. It’s as if Aminé found the golden goose in style as the song contains blended strength that boasts tracks like “4EVA,” “K&A,” and “Master P,” which are more attuned to expose the blended Hip-Hop/Dance/Funk sonic subtexts in the core percussion patterns of the beat. It’s a defining shift that makes you wish the album had a smoother trip as it gets bumpy after ascending and as it starts descending.

Throughout my listening of Kaytraminé, there were moments when it wasn’t clicking for me. Instead of taking unique directions vocally, it leaves the production somewhat of a misnomer, feeling like the only person who understood the assignment. It becomes entwined within two unlike sides, with Aminé aligning with constant braggadocio raps – harder and less vibey – there are some highs and lows. Some lows, “Westside,” “STFU3,” and “Ugh Ugh,” aren’t the strongest of the crop. It balances tone poorly; where Aminé would get more confidently typical, he chooses to downplay the bravado in his voice. It’s switching flows with beats where we hear some correlation, but it’s all rounding itself to become somewhat redundant and repetitive. To put it simply, his flows aren’t as vibrant. They overlap – sometimes, they feel distinct to the nature of the beat’s aesthetic. When you hear Aminé’s flow on “STFU3” compared to something like on “Rebuke,” you notice more balance. It’s such a disappointment since the album starts on a momentous high with “Who He Iz,” but his constant flex of collaboration can get tiring – it makes you appreciate more toned-down performances like on “Sossaup,” where everything just hits perfectly. And it starts with Kaytranada’s production, which I’ve noted prior.

Kaytranada’s production is the main highlight of Kaytraminé though slightly weak – it isn’t up to par with some of Kaytranada’s best work, but for what it’s trying to relay, some fantastic sonic choices are getting made. This ranges from the beat switch in “Ugh Ugh” to the pure Hip-Hop textures of tracks like “K&A” and “letstalkaboutit,” where it uses subtle notes to keep it in line with the summery aesthetic – as a collective, it isn’t always wound tight, but through an individualized lens, it becomes more and more apparent how much of a waste these beats were when tacked on with Aminé’s lukewarm delivery. It’s one thing to have great verses, but they are only as effective as the flow delivering them, and Aminé is not consistent there. The choruses are catchy, and the features are potent, but it’s a predominant whiff for both artists, more so Aminé. I wish I could have liked this more, but Kaytraminé is a disappointment. But why not give it a full listen; let me know what you think in the comments below.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Jordyn Shellhart – Primrose: Review

It’s usually a musical treat when an artist finally steps past the shadows of artists they’ve written for to take us on a journey that will either affirm stylistic limitations or express a vast grassland of creativity painting over the planes. For Jordyn Shellhart, it’s a balance between the two, teetering towards the latter as her debut, Primrose, tackles apropos content and skews the expected into something emotionally deep and vibrant, allowing the vocals to have this indelible stamp after the song has played. Though it isn’t some landmark Country album that leaves us with something sonically profound, Shellhart’s writing shines under the lights, where the accompanying strings, piano, and drums play eloquently in the back without much hindrance or true pizazz. The focus tends to have more of a presence within the writing, as some instrumentations feel slightly hollow, despite the composition not taking a complex nose dive pivot. Complexity isn’t needed within the core base of weaving the first notes of a Country song – like her contemporaries, Shellhart brings more nuance to the underlying rock and pop textures, keeping attention nigh through some rough patches.

The writing of Primrose tackles themes within familiar territory as most songwriters tread into; however, Jordyn Shellhart tackles it creatively as she relays these personal moments with auspicious storytelling where it isn’t so cut and dry. It isn’t easy for someone to reflect on instances of abuse, co-dependency, cheating, and more, like the persistence of an Ex’s mother in the song “Tell Your Mother I’m Fine,” with a common confident retort after. Though it isn’t the only instance of taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to the writing, Shellhart is aiming for a proper equilibrium to flex the range with which she can take verses and choruses, allowing the listener to gravitate toward something captivating. They all carry this vibrant aesthetic within the Country music landscape, keeping in tow with an overuse of the guitar strings to guide the principal emotional bravado within the heart of the song, like the contrasting hopeful rhythms on “Steal A Man” or the spirited and doubtful notes of of “Amelia.” 

There is a broader sense of her musical direction as Shellhart takes us down these intricate paths where we get to hear quality melodies that reflect the poignancy of its themes, like that of abuse on “Amelia” or the overindulgent term for the other in a cheating scenario, homewrecker on “Steal A Man.” But it’s when we get to the second that her writing is reinforced tremendously, like in “Maybe You’ll Have A Daughter,” which looks at being discarded when the feeling of love is high. However, as pivotal as the writing is, through the words, the construction of the melodies and harmonies are equally so, and the unique styles complementing, and sometimes contrasting, each other, allows for a smoother listen than some simple but effective sonic landscape isn’t as fully immersive as say something from the dynamic force within Nikki Lane’s more outlaw country notes. I’m not denouncing the solid instrumentations, as they come with a sense of quality and direction, but sometimes they feel safe. It lacks this want to become something grander, whether transitioning between collective layering or more broken down, like with “On A Piano Bench Getting Wasted” or the tiring moments of “Maybe You’ll Have A Daughter.” But it takes a step back to let it all progress smoothly with the occasional standout.

It’s what makes “Joni” such an intriguing moment; we get to hear the sizzling pop-catchy chorus fluidly moving through the danceable track, which sees Shellhart playing with a popular perspective viewpoint on Joni Mitchell’s music, where one hears her writing style more direct to the emotional conflictions, being more thorough than the allusions created by Jordyn Shellhart. This gets heard in the chorus, where Jordyn Shellhart sings, “First words outta your mouth, “Are we in a fight?”/I sit cross-legged on the bed, you say you’re pickin’ up a vibe/How can I make you understand that everything is wrong?/I don’t think Joni Mitchell would like any of my songs.” Through it, Shellhart notes how the weight bared from past relationships is too convoluted for her to deliver proper direct emotional gravitas, instead leading us through these distinct modest romps that use more detail for an expansive view of the content. Shellhart is letting the themes breathe through the elaborate situations, allowing the storytelling to flatten the let us hear the progressional ferocity of its multi-layered writing.

As it’s heard in “On A Piano Bench Getting Wasted” or through the thematic resonance of gaslighting in “Who Are You Mad At.” There is this resounding presence for world-building that Shellhart doesn’t try to get straight to the point, instead allowing for the situation to highlight the themes through action, like the former, where Jordyn Shellharts takes a moment to sing through a conscious perspective about the feeling of longing as if it is this mystifying haze around love. As she would sing, “I’ve never been the girl dreaming/Of first sight butterflies or I do’s in chapels/Maybe it’s just a full moon or because/I watched Sleepless in Seattle/But tonight I guess I feel different,” you get a contrasting sense of her being, and how wine and a film can shift feelings about it. The depths of her writing add a much-needed refresher from the more expansive, sometimes colorful country sounds. The instrumentations won’t be that memorable, but the melodies will, especially that of “Irrelevant.” 

Primrose is a neat and complex album that goes to the depths by reflecting its themes and making the listener focus more on the writing than the instrumentations. Though it isn’t the most astute production, sometimes, playing it safe sonically, we get an album that offers quite a bit, even if its appeal isn’t as widespread. Fortunately, it has some memorable moments, and Jordyn Shellhart makes a name for herself. It will leave fans of the genre fulfilled and hopeful, especially as this is only the beginning, and there is only up left to go. Give it a spin; did you like it or not? Leave a comment below.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

ICECOLDBISHOP – Generational Curses: Review

Do you remember those commercials for V8 Juice, where the person smacks themselves on the head, telling themselves they could have had a V8 instead of the overly sugary drink in hand? That was me, except when getting around to listening to LA Rapper ICECOLDBISHOP’s debut album, Generational Curses. ICECOLDBISHOP isn’t mincing words, giving us a purview of broken systems and the struggle of life imitating art, where there is no overly glimmering sight of hope, instead underlying the limited acceptance had with the notion of having hope, following in the lineage of what’s afforded to said community. Imagine hyperactive commentary on all that, explored through West Coast, G-Funk-influenced beats, and potent lyrics with poignancy, while the underlying production tends to be milder. There are a lot of great things going on in this debut; what sticks is that Generational Curses speaks to the sneering doom within ICECOLDBISHOP’s heart and mind as he sees a consistent cycle, keeping generation after generation feeling cursed as the socio-political climate teeters like an ill-conceived roller coaster; it kept me at the edge of my seat, despite inconsistent production and being a little derivative of a style. 

If not for ICECOLDBISHOP’s writing, Generational Curses would be something that would have easily gotten forgotten, like the poignant display of gun violence on Wara’s 2015 album, P.S.A. Instead, it’s a profound album, using its subject matter to make the listener contextualize the words he’s spitting. There isn’t a genuine pop single (popular), opting for tone and gripping imagery to weave these tales that sees ICECOLDBISHOP giving us these perspectives of violence in gang life like an aspect of the culture involving chain snatching, which we hear on the phenomenal “Out The Window.” It’s a constant motif that guides the album as these ups and downs transpire before Bishop and his family, whether advert or inadvertent. We hear an example through the excellent commentary on “The Gov’t Gave Us Guns.” On the track, Bishop attacks legislators and gun laws, playing with the loose laws, allowing him to get a gun and go home the same day without background checks, noting that the Government low-key wants us to kill each other. 

ICECOLDBISHOP isn’t negligible of the world outside of his immediate zone. He gives us a perspective through his community; he writes by creating parallels with issues that have been awash for ages, like drug use, gang violence, and misguided funds creating hardships for particular communities to excel, thus finding some people feeling the bread is in hustling. It’s a little derivative of the overly animated vocalizations heard through artists like Kendrick Lamar and Danny Brown, but the writing is crisp enough to look past most of it. On “D.A.R.E.,” ICECOLDBISHOP speaks on visual influence and perpetuating evil with the wrong descriptors. Named after a program that helped youths say no to drugs, Bishop plays with a double entendre, as the program is given to pre-teens (Aged 12) when we’re more impressionable, sometimes making us think differently about drugs. When I looked at posters explaining the effects of something like ecstasy, it reflected addiction instead of loose users, who may take it three times a year when they go to an Electronic music festival. Bishop plays coy with the chorus and opening of his verses, talking about these thoughts about trying different drugs because words don’t offer the same weight as visuals, and if one is told cocaine does this, but another person you trust more does it, it skews perspective.

It’s balancing anger by spicing it up with dread-filled tones and acute directness as ICECOLDBISHOP feels his generation, like the previous, is cursed. He’s delivering an overly violent actualization of his words, circumventing them into this zone that messes some people’s lives – it isn’t to say it’s parallel to what is happening around ICECOLDBISHOP. It’s as if most avenues for success and exploration beyond the impoverished or systematically corrupt are limited – thus, Bishop’s slight casualness behind the constant apropos violence and hustle and drug issues getting rapped about. Bishop makes it known how viscerally horrific it is, compared to others who have more of a streamlined life, where instead of getting your first Gameboy at 15, you’re flipping from the TEC to a MAC-10. It’s about the influence in front of you and how you get steered, even when sometimes you feel like you have little choice. 

We hear violent content Generational Curse consistently, but more so showcasing the darker path at the fork in the road, considering the world ICECOLDBISHOP develops phenomenally, especially the tracks “Full Fledge,” “Bad Influences From My Uncle,” “I Can’t Swim,” “Out The Window,” and “Cursed. They carry with them this absorbent depth that keeps a listener engaged from beginning to end; unfortunately, there are moments its content can get derivative, but it’s regaling to the point you can sit back and let it coast without much hesitation. It doesn’t benefit it much that the production is too aligned with the sound of the West, that it doesn’t try hard to push boundaries, sounding like composites of a style produced where it has enough glitz to add a medium-lit aurora around the vocals. Consistency is essential, especially when constructing that first album – ICECOLDBISHOP had a direction and kept it fluid throughout, never veering off the beaten path to shift the sound on a quick paradigm. That’s one of the better qualities you seek in a debut because it leaves the space between the now and the ceiling an artist can reach, and ICECOLDBISHOP still has room to grow.

I thoroughly enjoyed Generational Curse, despite its flaws. It opens the doors for a rapper hungry to take that next step and realize his potential. Though he’s mirroring this assertive style that has creative limitations, ICECOLDBISHOP keeps it authentic to his craft, and that elevates it further. I’d say the ceiling is high for him, and this album made me excited for more. Give it a listen, and let me know what you think.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

GALE – Lo Que No Te Dije

Since late 2022, Puerto Rican singer-songwriter GALE has been on the come-up, and music publications have become wary of such. Safe to say, I was also on that delayed hype train quietly amassing for GALE like a Karol G co-sign and a significant spotlight/interview with Rolling Stone. Whether early or late, getting to listen and explore Gale’s artistry has been nothing short of refreshing. She doesn’t try to find herself pushing weight through meandering notes in the ever-growing popularity of Latin-Trap and Reggaeton. Instead, she’s finding footing in pop and weaving styles that fit the artistic vision on her new album, Lo Que No Te Dije, translated to “What I Didn’t Tell You.” For GALE, It doesn’t matter how effective the song may be, as evidenced by the fun cheekiness of some songs, like “D Pic,” a mild-mannered tune that aims at the immaturity of dick pictures through texts – as you dive into the album, for its faults, it’s a refreshing listen, especially as she makes something out of the tried relationship-context for pop songs.

What’s unique about Lo Que No Te Dije is its self-reliance on trying new sounds while leaving an empty slot for GALE to bring vocal subtleties through her melodies, giving us to hear a more rounded product. It makes the transitional sequencing feel fluid, like when it shifts from the electronically bombastic “Problemas” to the smooth cadence of the percussion-driven “La Mitad,” which takes influence from Reggaeton in the drums that adds oomph to keep overtures balanced. It then shifts to this excellent acoustic pop song (“Ego”), where GALE flexes her independence from an egotistical and possessional ex. Here, we hear a defining aspect of GALE’s artistry – following the same strength of song-to-song transition, “Ego” sees a similar cadence in language transitions. Many things are working for Lo Que No Te Dije, specifically the energetic and natural catchiness of varying songs, buoyed by solid production from DallasK and Josh Berrios. They bring a transparent layer between sounds, allowing the vocals to feel the importance of backing sounds, heartening the emotional poignancy in the songwriting. 

Lo Que No Te Dije is conceptually thematic, focusing solely on relationships and deconstructing the varying characteristics one experiences, or many times, more personal. It wears its heart on its sleeve, and if it kept that sonic and tonal consistency, GALE could have delivered something more profound, but she takes unique turns that bring forth a vaster range of relativity. GALE can shift the context of a song and make it fit a specific tone without feeling overly hokey. We hear it with “D Pic,” where she takes an empowering and sardonic tone when bashing her man for sending a dick pic in the middle of the night – we hear it with “Killah,” where GALE feels the power, knowing what she loves and the control she wields, using a metaphorical gun and bullet to express it. As standalone tracks, they still show GALE’s talent as a songwriter but don’t feel entwined with the emotional complexities of other songs, especially the dynamite “Problemas” and “Nuestra Cancion.”

Taking into account the varying angles GALE tackles the sounds of this album – one can readily feel disappointed by the slight disjointedness of these cheeky but explorative pop songs that take an inconsistent pivot from the emotional complexities of others. As I’ve noted, the tracks “D Pic” and “Killah” slightly fit the album’s focus on deconstructing a relationship through this vast worldview on living, but these songs don’t bring much to contain that establishment. They are more so there to reinforce GALE’s self-reliance and confidence. “D Pic” is a fun pop romp that wants to focus on the guitars but forgets close to halfway. “Killah” is another Tropical Reggaeton/Pop song that doesn’t feel that ambitious or colorful, reminding me more of a throwaway that’s added so the album doesn’t land below 30 minutes. Fortunately, there are other reasons to enjoy the album, like some of its reference points and influences within the soundscapes.

As it’s been with pop and music in general, use of influential references becomes more apparent within the soundscapes, like the disco flavors in synth-pop or the electronic elements in Latin Trap. It’s this evergrowing way of building and exploring new foundations, shifting how we hear them sonically, like when Melanie Martinez interloped the melody from “If You Had My Love” by Jennifer Lopez on “Brain & Heart.” Here, those moments, at first, become bewildering and then refined and beautifully resonant with outer notes within the progressional melody. The standout moment comes on “Problemas,” which beautifully incorporates aspects of Justin Beiber’s first verse melody on his powerhouse hit “Baby.” It’s subtle but brings an impactful punch, like the EDM synths on “Nuestra Cancion” or the timid but pertinent consistency of the synth-pop rock sounds of the late 2000s on “Triste.” It’s just this prevailing trip to listen to and get lost in as you feel powerful emotions and dance.

Though “D Pic” and “Killah” are slight “blemishes,” they don’t fully take away from the great stuff going for the album, especially its catchiness, which will definitely have me returning again and again. It didn’t strike a chord initially, but as it kept looping, I heard the luscious details imputed into the tracks, bringing forth something multi-dimensional. It’s a fantastic reintroduction to GALE, but it still doesn’t have the strongest landing. It comes with direction and a sense of being – individualization – yet, the hiccups do stand out, and it lessens this to another solid pop album that will stand the test of time, or so I hope.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Conway the Machine – Won’t He Do It: Review

Consistency has been essential to the greatness of Conway The Machine. He keeps his listener engaged with these multi-faceted layers in his verses, expanding the horizons of his raps with these unique reflections of the past and future. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the production, as Conway comes with noticeable highs and middling lows, leaving you hungry for something more potent on the production side; it’s the case with “The Chosen” off his new album Won’t He Do It, where the beat isn’t as entrenched into its sound as Conway and Jae Skeese (featured artist) are with their verses. It’s a recurring issue that leaves the follow-up to God Don’t Make Mistakes more underwhelming than anticipated, but in a way, levels the hype one would have with the sequel dropping later this year. The beats sound confined to reaching standard levels for quality without expanding in new directions. It’s a blend of the dark-piano-influenced New York Street Rap Beats and Jazzy-Dark Boom-Bap that never does anything unique, and you’re left with a slate of some great verses to keep you fed until future releases without much of a reward.

As I sifted through this clunky, at times drab album, I heard Conway The Machine get lost in locating the proper avenues to get his words through. It’s a blend of braggadocio flex raps and reflections on his life, relationship, and the changes success has on the performer and the people around him. How he approaches the album offers insight into his direction, especially that of an arranger/conductor with a thematically poignant cohesion of tracks on an album. For the faults Won’t He Do It has, Conway doesn’t try to make us pay too much attention to the beats, making his lyrics a focal point, but he isn’t as triumphant there. Fortunately, there is an understanding of song-to-song transitions – it’s making similar tones and themes align, never side-stepping for something of grandeur, humbling the rappers performing over the beat; that is, until the final track. It’s a testament to Conway’s detailed construction, specifically when it comes to having the featured artists deliver verses aligned with the thematic direction of the track, rarely missing in quality – I say it’s a testament since it’s an album containing a load of features – some standard and one unique pseudo-closer “Super Bowl,” a bonus track that didn’t get marketed as such.

Conway the Machine takes a moment to turn the tables of what has gotten heard and takes us through a bounce and percussion-laced trap beat. It’s different from other beats, making it sound more refreshing than usual, but even with that, the beat isn’t that different from the apropos Juicy J beat. Sauce Walka & Juicy J make their stamp on the track, slightly overshadowing Conway, who doesn’t feel totally at home with the production. His flows don’t match the smooth southern cadence of its featured rappers, but at least Conway finds his way trying to make it work lyrically. Leading into the song, we’ve been on a journey with Conway the Machine – one of self-reflection and perseverance, yet, that gets lost with this unique final track that does more than expected. In a way, it makes you reflect and appreciate the tight focus Conway gave the album in its standard 13-track run. From the opening notes, horns are lowlily blaring, contrasting the grimy percussion and laying a foundation for its aesthetic, which has moments of glimmering greatness.

Unfortunately, as Conway the Machine weaves these intricate bars together, you get left feeling whiffed by the weak production from producers you’ve heard better from. It ranges between the J.U.S.T.I.C.E League, Khrysis, G Koop, Daniel Cruz, and Daringer – to name a few – others bringing unique additions from other artists/producers, like Norwegian Pop musician Aurora, who adds this special touch to the atmospheric complexions on “Won’t He Do It,” blending beautifully with the percussion and programming work of other producers on the track. It isn’t to say these producers bring a bunch of lackluster beats, but at times I found myself latching to production that, comparatively, sounds different than others. It’s what separates the greatness beneath the rock and roll influence in “Flesh of My Flesh” to the low and hollow “Water to Wine,” which comes off as a standard Hip-Hop/R&B hybrid without that extra push, unlike “Kanye.” On “Kanye,” there is more nuance within the performance, never feeling standard or sub-standard as it toes the line with some gospel influence and letting it envelop the performative direction by its artists. Additionally, it sounds like some of that work on Donda influenced the palette for Conway’s output on this more personal album, Won’t He Do It.

Like “Kanye,” one can’t get through Won’t He Do It without hearing the thematic poignancy that aligns itself from front to back. It’s disappointing; some features don’t shine, feeling rudimentary to their character, never pushing through to give us something new. It especially goes for Westside Gunn, Benny the Butcher, and Dave East, though Conway isn’t as innocent either; some choices, though beneficial to its direction, don’t give us the best from everyone involved. I’ve noted how these features deliver following the themes, but that doesn’t always result in something memorable or significant. Though verses from the ones mentioned aren’t inherently flawed, they aren’t that distinguishable within the confines of the production, unlike the solo tracks, in which we get four of thirteen, where Conway feels at home and flows in a zone. It keeps this from being outright forgettable, as the creativity in the production is lacking a bit.

Won’t He Do It isn’t something to write home about; it’s an album that does little to improve as the production progresses. Conway the Machine doesn’t mince words, keeping many of his verses digestible; however, when it’s all said and done, the beats aren’t enough to make you return with gusto. It’s there, and if it’s your steelo, you’ll find enjoyment, but if not, it’s mostly forgettable. Here’s hoping the follow-up brings an uptick in the beats.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

IDK – F65

Weaving a cohesive, thematic sonic palette, Maryland rapper IDK has shown skilled proficiency in creating fantastic albums doing so. We’ve seen significant growth from straight rapping to divulging into varying sounds that beautifully align with the strength of his vocals when singing. It got heard poignantly on his last album, Simple, a collaboration with producer/musician Kaytranada. It continues with F65, his latest album, where the influence on the production is more locational as its sounds become more aligned with cultural bravado, boasting IDK’s rapping and singing about luxuries, race, lavished living as opposed to drugs, which was a pertinent theme on SubTrap, an album/mixtape IDK noted F65 was a more matured version of. For fans – one can readily see the parallels, from its thematic construction to similar elements, like interludes and vocal samples, that established more meaning behind the words IDK raps. Unfortunately, F65 sometimes gets lost between directions, becoming slightly bloated with tracks that mediocrely retread themes or losing touch with what’s been a strong suit for it.

Continuing on F65, IDK shows his hand at penning words at his will over any production, keeping his lyrics explorative and potent through metaphoric conjectures. However, after an emphatic three-track run, the album teeters slightly between thematic directions, especially as it loses touch with what he proclaims in the song “Champs-Élysées.” IDK notes how focused he’s been on particular genres and lifestyles. Though specifically, the spectacle of racing in Europe, additionally speaking to the avenue in France known for its inclusion in the Tour De France, luxury cafes, and the Arc de Triomphe. It’s an established sense of grandeur that adds depth to many of the bars IDK spits but an oft-contrasting direction to the more grounded tracks that have a heavier focus on themes of race. It’s like he’s trying to have his cake and eat it as well, with the way he tries to blend these tracks in, further making the album more bloated than it needs to be. It’s all despite coming with some great lyricism that allows it to keep an entwined presence after a first listen, where you will have a curiosity to return to the content.

Though much of F65 speaks to living lusciously and luxuriously, having fun, and reflecting on issues that have come with being a person of color, specifically with law enforcement, it isn’t the most compact. It’s like we’re getting a few more loose, vibrant songs that see IDK getting into his party bag and finding unique ways to express himself to the fullest, like the fun and energetic “Salty,” which has IDK and NLE Choppa performing about neglecting past lovers and live in the now with all these beautiful, big booty twerking women calling them salt shakers. Songs like “Salty,” – “Pinot Noir,” “Elmina,” and “Still Your Man” – bring forth greatness within IDK’s more fun side, and they are real standouts, but others also similarly, even as they tread in a different direction thematically. It’s as if IDK has written two separate albums and blended them; it misses what could have gotten set up if he was more lyrically direct to the aesthetic. There is never a proper balance to keep the transitions clean, but even though these stumbles, like retreads in “Up the Score” and “St. Nicholas & 118th,” which feel like a forced reminder to IDK’s love of racing entrenched in the sound. 

When it comes to that divide in direction, “Thug Tear” becomes an essential point where IDK builds upon his character, adding a hardened shell that allows him to bring these nuanced reflections on race, a life that shrouds them, causing friction where they have to tout and flex guns to create a safe space. It’s a template to the way IDK could have brought more to the tracks, which have that heavy focus on race, in a vague sense, but it’s never as tightly constructed, and more so trying too hard. It isn’t lost sonically, as the production holds a consistent motif, emboldening the drums and wind sections, specifically the flute and saxophone. It allows the music to bring a sense of being without overly tiptoeing away from the slight summery vibes, and more so with tracks where IDK’s flexing and introspection are at a peak, like in the run of songs, which includes “Télé Couleur,” “Rabbit Stew,” and “850 (We On Top),” making up for a lackluster attempt at being more catchy with “Radioactive.”

F65 is produced by a platoon of producers who bring a consistent cadence with the tones, keeping you entwined within this love IDK has expressed about this world he lives through and the divide while also expressing virtuosity and pride with his race. The latter doesn’t get lost with the album’s ridge in contextual direction, but there isn’t a significant balance to have consistent, smooth lyrical transitions. It’s a contrast to the production, which IDK arranges beautifully. That arrangement has two fantastic moments with runs that gives us those strengths we’ve heard of IDK as a songwriter. I’ve spoken about that opening three-track run; the second comes after an interlude with Musiq Soulchild, where it notes this lost perspective on attention – it leads into an incredible run of flex raps, which I’ve mentioned prior; flows get switched, lyrics are raw and creative, and the Rich the Kid feature hits hard.

There’s quite a bit to like about F65, specifically its remarkable soundscapes that make going through the album less of a chore. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do much with its concept, almost leaving it to the sounds to make it apparent. It’s centering itself in one area but going off tangentially with the context of the lyrics. It makes F65 a slightly jumbled mess but a listenable one that won’t leave you with regrets for spending 50-something minutes on it. I enjoyed it thoroughly, despite wishing it had better-connecting points and cohesion; as it’s packaged, there is no surprise some songs will find rotation, especially with summer approaching as the vibes hit for the season smoothly.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Jack Harlow – Jackman: Review

Like Jack Harlow, many of us aren’t strangers to the critical appraisal his last album received. Predominantly lukewarm to bad, Come Home the Kids Miss You, as a title, Harlow took a contrived concept while embodying the ghost of many Drake wannabes and poorly delivered an album that adds little to the imagination. It reflects a detachment from the hungry young rapper dropping mixtapes in Kentucky. DJ Drama helped push his name to the stratosphere, and his presence is evergrowing, continuing to prove his co-sign’s worth. Though Come Home the Kids Miss You was a dud, Harlow tries to remedy the situation by engrossing us with some lyrical fortitude over downbeat, soulful production, which retroactively guides him through these emotional complexities of his character, even if it isn’t all there, on his latest album Jackman. Keeping it short and straightforward, Harlow tries to bring us into the corners of his mind and incorporate some depth beyond his weak brags and tired choral melodies. As the latter remains, Harlow improves lyrically; with some songs coming across as hollow, it’s a slight improvement from his last, albeit shorter.

Jack Harlow understands who he is, bringing a modest, humbling nature to some of his raps on Jackman, staying aware of the perception of his music and the corniness of it. On “Denver,” Harlow raps, “Nemo said to keep my foot on necks ’cause I can’t let ’em just forget me/But the brags in my raps are getting less and less convincing/So I’d rather just (Wonder),” bringing a sense of understanding toward who he wants to be and shifting style to be taken more seriously than just another pop rapper. It’s heard through tracks where he speaks on wanting more of a grounded reality instead of flexing too much excess, using reflections on his roots to support his attitude and renewed humbleness. “Denver” reflects that beautifully; named after the city where he dropped his first verse, it amplifies his technical skills at its peak, particularly storytelling. We’ve heard this strength throughout his career, and as he switches gears on Jackman, getting to listen to him explore this foundation more is like a breath of fresh air.

It can’t all be humble; Jack Harlow has a moment where he brings pointless bragging on “They Don’t Love It,” where he delivers an asinine brag that’s purely vague and too much of a conversation starter that shouldn’t be one. On the track, he raps, “The hardest white boy since the one who rapped about vomit and sweaters/And hold the comments ’cause I promise you I’m honestly better.” Speaking through a commercial purview, you can easily find validity with that, but how one quickly forgets the late great Mac Miller and his popularity and poignant importance in Hip-Hop. It’s pushing vague lines, allowing people to create a conversation, but its effectiveness would have been more impactful if the previous album was any good. It’s a weak pivot that loses steam, especially retroactively, as the album gets more and more introspective, and the need for cockiness becomes lost within the conceptual flow of the rest. It isn’t as bad as his approach to the theme of bro code skepticism with “Gang Gang Gang,” where the shock doesn’t match the direction of the production and tone, feeling hollow and poorly conceived to deliver its message. 

These moments slightly take away from the solid work surrounding it, like the excellent commentary on “Common Ground,” where he’s looking at how white suburbanites have this fascination with the dominant culture of other races, particularly black people and hip-hop here. The way he picks apart the awe one has with the other is eloquently delivered, showcasing particular stereotypes toward a certain lifestyle we’ve seen of white people who grew up with excess wealth or the parents who find disgust with the lyrics their kids listen to. The latter has been a topic of conversation for years in hip-hop, and Jack Harlow’s exposure to the same continues to establish a trend within the surface layer, changing the attitudes of the same people. From there, sans “They Don’t Love It” and “Gang Gang Gang,” Harlow has a fluid flow within tracks where the production equally tries to take the spotlight away from him.  

Like typical major label Hip-Hop album drops, Jackman has a platoon of producers. Working with 17 different producers and instrumentalists, there is awe within the consistency, which gets brought from front to back. There’s this soulful aesthetic that Jack Harlow is going for, and they deliver without teetering far from the path. The beats carry nuance to boom bap at its simplest form, letting the percussion be more melancholic to boast the raspy, focused flows that bears heavy emotions as Harlow goes through his ups and downs. Unfortunately, at 24 minutes/10 tracks, having those two moments where it pivots poorly hinders the depth that could have shined brilliantly. Instead, it gets stunted, feeling short and less poignant as you break apart the lyrics of his misses, despite the intentions. It’s a solid surprise that could have been greater but misses the mark, especially as Harlow keeps his thoughts quickly and to the point while still bringing a much-needed change than the wannabe Drake-isms of Come Home the Kids Miss You.

I wanted to enjoy Jackman more, but unlike the many fans raking in the positives, they misplace what doesn’t work by missing to reach the depths of the lyricism. It is better than Come Home the Kids Miss You, no questions asked, yet, it lacks that oomph to round the edges better. Harlow brings forth lyrically sharp performances, even with shortcomings; however, it’s short and brief, leaving you wanting more, even if it’s just for another six minutes. It’s something I may not find myself returning to frequently, but it leaves me optimistic about what future drops could sound like.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Lloyd Banks – The Course of The Inevitable 3: Pieces Of My Pain: Review

Heard, via countless albums and mixtapes that Lloyd Banks has released, he’s been showcasing skills as a storyteller and visually composite writer, letting you ride through directional focus that translates between verse and chorus. Instead of captivating you with the catchy hook – Banks has shown a knack in delivering such – he’s been flipping the script with his latest series, The Course of The Inevitable. On his latest, The Course of The Inevitable 3: Piece of My Pain, Lloyd Banks reflects on deeper complexions of his character, flowing the pain through the flexes and the reflections of life while still whipping up that flavorful mastery with the featured artists. Choruses aren’t catchy more so keen on backing up what gets heard through the verses and offering visceral imagery as the words come together in your ears. So, for lack of a better phrase, Lloyd Banks keeps it real how he accentuates the emotional brevity with what he’s rapping. Additionally, the production brings complex depth consistently; even though you will find yourself hearing the typical beat here and there, it doesn’t fully drag as you’re gifted some quality New York Rap that hits everso effervescently.

Thematically mirroring what we heard via previous releases, there is more of a consciousness that smooths the edges of the more hardcore lyrical content on The Inevitable 3: Piece of My Pain. Lloyd Banks raps about who he is and what has gone on in life that is more contemplative. It’s what separates the more apropos flex raps and the bearing of his heart on his sleeve. The previous album has more of the former; this has more of a balance, adding to the strength of Banks’ sobering tone with his inflections with the way he weaves contrasts. Not every track will have excess confidence, though, as flexing comes with a price, as he notes on “Money Machine” with the line, “I ducked a few court orders, my Zodiac’s a natural cool born Taurus,” speaking to a consistency of neglect in the hustle. It’s a continuing indictment on the behavioral dissidence that goes within one’s growth – especially with how they grow up – as heard on the previous track with the lines “Growin’ up we had the foulest examples, the supervisors/The work I put in ground level improves horizons.” We hear elements within this worldview on the following track, “Cliffhanger.” It speaks on the down pivots faced when distinguishing who he calls friends, especially within both areas Banks has grown up in, whether it’s the streets or the studio. 

The balance between content isn’t central to understanding the album’s flow as it’s incorporating a direct contrast between the common, the flex of grandeur, and what is hidden beneath. It’s like listening to something of yesteryear, but a little more modern. We’ve heard throughout the years how potent it is to relish in your success, yet nuance gets lost within the sounds of the production, as you’re usually never listening to flex tracks as frequently on more dark, percussion-driven beats as Banks does on few songs, like “Money Machine,” which hard-nosed gun noises and slightly brood-ish piano notes, the same with “Onyx AMG.” But as it is, the production has this profound effect on how we digest it track to track, despite sometimes teetering with simple beats on “Opened Gates,” “LSD,” “Daddy’s Little Girl,” and “Deceitful Intentions.” Fortunately, the latter two get that predominant boost from lyricism that goes above and beyond the production to counteract the dipped quality. Though these instances don’t over shroud the brilliance of the beats on tracks like “Automatic Pilot” and “Red Alert.” Even with the more introspective tracks like “Cliffhanger” and the poignantly resonant “Voices.”

“Voices” sees Lloyd Banks speaking on his fears, getting a firmer grip on the negatives of reality, as opposed to the positives within them. He opens the track with a gut punch, rapping, “Took a significant loss and it ain’t been the same/Thought that we split through divorce, but I’m still in pain/Thought about turnin’ shit off, then my children came/Can’t let ’em see me feel, I’d be drownin’ in shame,” being an antithesis of his more abrasive self-titled intro. Both focus on pain as a central theme, though one speaks to the life lived where it was never safe or ideal, and the other gives us a view of his mental health. What pops through the verses are these distinct interjections between wordplay and storytelling, giving us well-rounded music that embodies the foundational fortitude of Banks’ craft throughout the years, especially on “101 Razors” and “Deceitful Intentions.” But as noted earlier, the production of the contemplative “Voices” and “Cliffhanger” have nuance within its 00s, New York Hip-Hop influence, which incorporates more strings and piano keys to embolden its sullen moods, adding depth to Banks’ delivery. Though, whichever direction he’s going with the content, he’s showing us a mastery of his skills, especially when painting scenes, like on the standout “Movie Scenes.”

The Course of The Inevitable 3: Piece of My Pain is another fantastic addition to the series started by Lloyd Banks in 2021. It may be up to par with the second, but it creates these auspicious moods with his poignant lyricism and unrestrained delivery that’s it’s hard to miss. It may not even be one of the hottest releases of 2023, yet Hip-Hop Heads will rejoice as you hear Banks continuously kill it as he did during his G-Unit days. Highly recommend it to fans of Hip-Hop and more so to those exploring from the grassroots to today in New York Hip-Hop.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.