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.

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.

2022 Catch Up: Some Albums I Missed This Year

Rina Sawayama – Hold The Girl

Unlike her self-titled debut, Rina Sawayama’s follow-up, Hold The Girl, isn’t as refreshing or profound. It’s almost tiptoeing a line between more by-the-numbers electro-pop without extending her reach beyond minor tweaks here and there within its production, like the guitar riffs on “This Hell.” Beyond inconsequentially detailed anecdotes within the sounds, few songs barely make much of an impression, becoming nearly forgettable because they aren’t as surprising as the debut. That isn’t to say there isn’t something to take away since Sawayama has shown herself to understand the ebullient decisions made to orchestrate lavish paintings on her canvas. Even when songs tend to add a little flare, there is a slight disappointment, like the empty and straightforward “Frankenstein” and “Your Age.” They never get past replicating standard pop overtures that you’d find easily on an Ava Maxx – or Tiesto, Meduza, or any poppy EDM DJ – album.

That isn’t to say it is devoid of any good music. The title song of Hold The Girl is this rich and darkly vibrant electro-pop powerhouse that bridges symphonic vocals – akin to Lady Gaga – and her mysterious presence. With her debut, you never got a sense of what she is bringing with beat choices, and that kind of mystery isn’t as intriguing here consistently. There are varying songs that hit, like “Forgiveness” and “Imagining,” but it’s a predominantly predictable album that doesn’t feel as intriguing like when I first heard the metal rock influence “STFU!” on her self-titled debut. It’s a forgettable piece of work that defines the sophomore slump. But more so, it puts the album title into perspective as it feels like she restrains herself. It plays it safe, and in some regard, you can get something great out of it, but when you’ve debuted as someone who takes chances, it could have been more explorative on a follow-up.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Arctic Monkeys – The Car

As I further listened to the new Arctic Monkeys album, The Car, I couldn’t help but feel like they were missing the spark. Though I was always keen to see them get further into slower tempo jams after AM, it continues to disappoint as they begin to rely on atmospheric and emotionally sifting vocals by Alex Turner and less at creating dense instrumentations. Their last album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, tried to keep it slightly interesting by exploring new styles like Glam Rock on their lead single, “Four Out Of Five;” other similar moments consistently outshone their slower jams. On their follow-up, the effervescent presence of the slower tempo baroque pop and lounge pop. However, some of the finite details in the rock songs, like the funky undertones on “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am.” Unfortunately, it never treads into murkier waters, and some notes become hollow.

Unlike the name of the song “Big Ideas,” there aren’t many here, but the little sparks that shine through give us these whimsically explorative tracks. Additionally, the use of funk in the album is inspired, but they never get FUNKY with it. The tempo stays slow and becomes derivative. It almost makes listening to Alex Turner’s engaging songwriting seem distant in the long run. That isn’t to say you find anything good here. “Jet Skis On The Moat” and “There’d Better Be A Mirrorballs” are some tracks that have stayed with me upon multiple revisits. The way these tracks incorporate the funk into their more loungey fair adds dimensions, unlike “Hello You,” which is broader in its approach. There is a consistency in the instrument playing, as they come with energy, despite the assignment being more a complete 180 from their Alt/Garage Rock days of the 2000s. I found The Car to be a solid effort as they deliver layered lyricism reflecting on memories and lessons learned through countless relationships. Though it may sound standard, Turner’s descriptive, poetic writing adds volumes.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Soccer Mommy – Sometimes, Forever

As a fan of Daniel Lopatin’s work as an artist under the alias Oneothrixpointnever or his work in films making complementary scores, I jump the gun at anything he does or produces. However, something came over me, and the album he produced for Soccer Mommy flew by, and I forgot to return until recently. I sat beside myself lamenting over my neglect as the production of Sometimes, Forever is astronomically grand as it takes Sophia Allison (Soccer Mommy) to new levels that beautifully contrast the more structured songs of Color Theory. Though instrumental in keeping a core rock aesthetic, we hear more effects and experimentation with the instrumentations that you’re taken aback by some of the in-track shifts. For example, the noise-like guitar riffs at the end of “Bones” or the industrial/singer-songwriter punk-influenced “Unholy Affliction” and “Darkness Forever.” It is melodically rich and buoys fun explorations of different soundscapes, even though it isn’t the most lyrically profound.

Soccer Mommy retreads familiar themes, particularly ones enclosed to situations within a relationship, and almost seemingly loses herself in the moody production. Though the melodies are a strong focal point as they radiate an immense pull into its gravitational center, further entrenching us with fantastic sounds. Fluctuating between surprises and the more linear approach, it isn’t hard to get lost in her enigmatic work; Daniel Lopatin lets bass grooves ride waves of ferocity, taking us through elevated heights of darkness and vibrance. We hear it as it goes from the hopeful and whimsical “newdemo” to the dark and synth-heavy “Darkness Forever,” which sounds like a cross between atmospheric electronic wave music and punk. It’s a Rock album first, but how the two elevate it to be something grander shines a light on the dimensions within its emotional resonance, especially in those self-criticisms when reflecting on relationships or other what-ifs.

Sometimes, Forever is an album that I reflect on with glee. I am glad I’ve only gotten around to it now, as the past few weeks have seen some audacious and bombastic pieces of work that a moody and sonically expressive was what I needed. Despite a step back lyrically, it doesn’t hinder the final product; it leaves you in a foggy mist created by the expansive emotional range Soccer Mommy radiates through different inflections. You’d think Arctic Monkeys’ The Car would suffice, but the sounds are hollow by comparison. I know I’ll be spinning the new Soccer Mommy heavily, and I hope you love it as much as I do.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Brockhampton – The Family: Review

Like most boy bands, there comes a time when they have to grow and succeed individually, though not everyone will come out with an established career beyond the group. It’s rare but not impossible. It’s like when people use Beyonce as an anecdote to describe the leader of the group, or rather the one with the most potential to excel; Justin Timberlake was that for N’SYNC, and Kevin Abstract for Brockhampton. Unfortunately, it’s Brockhampton’s time, so as they turn the page on their future, they leave fans with two final albums – The Family sees Kevin Abstract delivering nuanced tracks about their respective journey as bandleader – TM establishes that camaraderie through musicality. However, TM isn’t as strong, sometimes sounding like they are trying to slightly mirror different styles far from themselves and missing the mark occasionally. It tends to feel more like a gimmie, unlike The Family, which is the more concrete project – a personal reflection of new beginnings with weighted emotions about the past. It’s a fantastic sendoff showing Kevin Abstract’s naked vulnerability as he laments about various decisions.

In many ways, Kevin Abstract constructs The Family as this emotionally complex eulogy, reminiscing about the good times and the bad. On “RZA,” Abstract focuses on his failures to maintain consistency despite the separation. Wu-Tang Clan were able to expand and have their solo careers, but when the RZA uses his whistle, they come back and reconvene to deliver more heat. Abstract tells us this isn’t the case with Brockhampton; he opens the door and lets us know how it wasn’t the case for them and the issues that arose. But they are still family, and he reminisces about their past, like on “Gold Teeth,” where he reflects on the early days of Brockhampton making music and striving in Southern Texas. These days, it hasn’t been the case with varying issues and emotions weighing down on the members as they let the problems consume them – some understandably so – but there is this known that we will see them grow and mature as artists as they push forward.

It’s thematically poignant as we hear Kevin Abstract juggling through his emotions to deliver them with grace. We hear about new problems within the familial dynamic brought about by fame and riches, like colliding egos, Abstract branching into solo work as the band promoted their album iridescence, and his overly indulgent artistic direction with music videos, etc. Some of it gets brought up in “All That” and “The Family.” The former sees Abstract trying to lay his perspective, looking at moments and emotionally ever-long feelings that arose from their growth as a band. In it, Abstract raps, “As the checks grew, it became harder to leave/Everybody got an ego now, imagine bein’ me/Competition started off so healthy/’Til one day I looked up like, “Damn, you almost better than me”/I don’t feel guilty for wakin’ you up when you sleep/I don’t feel guilty for cuttin’ your verse from this beat.” It shows us the imbalance caused by egos or Abstract making music again with disgraced ex-member Ameer Vann. Issues arise, and Kevin Abstract takes accountability and offers an emotional apology on “Brockhampton,” the last song on The Family, which beautifully sends us off after a slightly imbalanced album.

The Family is a rich text that keeps most of Kevin Abstract’s words short and sweet but with resounding depth that you get incentivized with great music that you’d want to replay and understand further. It’s through Kevin Abstract’s flows, lyricism, and the production by bandmember bearface and producers boylife and Nick Velez, offering sounds that invoke memories atmospherically. We hear it on “(Back From The) Road” and “All That,” which beautifully samples the theme song to the classic Nickelodeon show of the same name. It brings nuance to the idea that everything that glitters is not gold, as it flips the positivity of the message toward a more pessimist one. There is a consistency to the production, never feeling overly produced and having balance as it boasts the vocal deliveries and lets us genuinely get within the trenches of what has been going on.

Unfortunately, The Family doesn’t have smooth pacing, letting a 17-track, 35-minute album feel more like a 17-minute EP. However, it doesn’t take you away from the raw emotion getting brought out. Brockhampton, or rather Kevin Abstract, lets it show, teetering between what works and what doesn’t, like the singing tracks compared to his more rapping ones. Spinning this left me feeling a lot, especially as I was one of the many who took this journey with them since the first Saturation, and it’s now time for new beginnings.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Rauw Alejandro – Saturno: Review

After delivering an exuberant delicacy of sounds on Vice Versa, Rauw Alejandro returns with new and expansive soundscapes that shroud over typical reggaeton tracks mixed within. There is no denying Alejandro’s allure of the electronic genre as a whole; from sounds that evolved from regions and eras, Alejandro is using it as an influence during this ascension as a master of the dance floor. He’s finding himself amongst the stars, taking us inside this futuristic hive where reggaeton grows beyond the perreo and dembow, allowing itself to be something grandiose. Saturno, or Saturn, is taking us through varying levels, or rings, surrounding the core aspects of the album and delivering many danceable heaters. Though it’s easy to understand the lyricism you’ll get from reggaeton artists: danceable, flavorful tunes focusing on love, relationships, sex, and seduction, amongst similar themes within that realm – it isn’t all black and white, and the depth brought about by luscious melodies and fruitful choruses and verses make it a bewilderingly fun ride with a few missteps along the way.

Saturno, by all accounts, aims to deliver futuristic overtures and undertones, whether through the production or from the vocals, to take us to the stratosphere of his mind, where we see how he musically thinks. It excels at that and some; it’s an album where the essence of reggaeton isn’t lost, but the electronic avenues he takes are astronomical, no pun intended. Sometimes you’re getting hints of dancehall, sometimes Miami Bass or EDM, but the overall vibe leaves you in a trance where you aren’t noticing your body grooving. Though I can’t speak to how you motion per tempo, the transitions between tracks are smooth – save for the interludes/skit. But the lavish futurism expressed through the eyes of a reggaeton artist getting past conceptual pop norms and taking his music to new heights. We’ve heard it done before with the disco and funk elements of Rauw Alejandro’s last album, Vice Versa. Here, he’s taking that influence from the transitional period where Disco became more Post-Disco/House/Electronica with an essence of life with his vision as he runs the pop gambit. 

It predominately flows like a steady river with no rapids; however, that isn’t to say there are bumps along the way, with certain rocks (tracks) spotting up that make you shift, aiming to avoid it, even though it’s still there. But the way these sounds continuously expand and express visual splendor – you hear it from “Verde Menta,” “Corazón Despeinado,” and “Dime Quen?” – it’s an electrifying EDM track, resonant of the late 80s, early 90s Eurodance, an adequate but rudimentary EDM/Reggaeton hybrid, and luscious Miami Bass, respectively. But with that more standard track in the middle, the surrounding songs keep it afloat as Alejandro’s melodies continue to capture that futuristic aesthetic.

Unfortunately, Saturno sometimes retreads particular rhythms and sounds in reggeaton that doesn’t grip you, like on “Lejols Del Cielo” or “Ron Cola,” which barely grows beyond the straight line it follows. Additionally, there is a moment that feels like off-choices in the tracklisting – the skit near the end doesn’t add anything toward the overarching futuristic theme, more so acting like a hype-centered bridge between sections of tracks. It doesn’t fit like two previous interludes with viscerally pungent beats. Its translucent nature allows it to absorb these dark yet luminous synths into its ecosphere, where the engagement is high, and its futuristic tech shines through. In “Más De Una Vez,” we hear these laser synths shoot in the backdrop and through the stars of its Electronic/Reggeaton core. We get the essence of this through varying tracks, as his producers use it to envelope more than its core genre complexions, like on “Dejau,” which adds notes of Afrobeat or “De Carolina,” and its use of light industrial electronica. It isn’t like Vice Versa, where the influx of pop grandeur laid a smooth path of consistency, where you couldn’t help but keep it on a loop. 

Saturno is lavish and inspiring, though it’s a little far from perfect. Rauw Alejandro carries an identity he vigorously puts forth as producers eloquently build these electrifying beats with him. Though that isn’t to say it’s perfect, a few issues here and there causes it to lose traction as this steady locomotion of dance bravado. But most times, Alejandro is winding up and delivering a fast one, melodically, almost allowing for the sidesteps to become afterthoughts. They are still there and ultimately take away from the levels this could have reached. It makes a splash and is ready to fire us up as winter dawns, even if it isn’t to the highest temperature, like a 2000s Sean Paul song.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Nas – King’s Disease III: Review

Expected, but when? That was the question following the release of King’s Disease II by Nas & Hit-Boy. As we were aware, Nas was too, letting us know on the opening track, “Ghetto Reporter,” spitting the line: “Niggas know I don’t drop this often so cherish it (So cherish it).” With King’s Disease III out now, it makes one feel blessed as a fan with their release of Magic, as it now feels more of a present to them because the third King’s Disease is the best of the trilogy. Nas is as raw and lyrically astute as his best work, reminding the world that the tank is never emptying and the Henny bottles never end. But as you hear Queens in the House throughout “Thun,” you’ll quickly learn the mark King’s Disease III leaves. Nas shows listeners the pristine condition that his motor remains behind the mic and pen. Past King’s Disease albums saw Nas beautifully acquiescing with the evolving sounds of Hip-Hop and implying his talent is akin to a king able to command the flow of society. King’s Disease III has Nas taking off his crown, showing us his ferocity as he sways from humbling riches to elegant ammo, and that ammo is never-ending.

Without sputtering and then asking for oil, Nas goes on a tear throughout without seeming to tire out mentally with his verses because Nas is bearing slight shortcuts with the choruses, which don’t come off with the same energy as the verses. But Nas is one to quickly return with crisp bars that fluctuate between humbling riches, toying with history, and a barrage of metaphors and slick wordplay to keep you engaged. At one point playing coy with Jay-Z on “Thun,” as Nas relays the lines: “In a Range Rover, dissectin’ bars from “Takeover”/Sometimes I text Hova like “Nigga, this ain’t over,” laughin.’” But this is only a sampling of what Nas brings to the table. There are unique allusions to his partnership with Hit-Boy on “Michael & Quincy” and engaging takes on the social-political climate with “Recession Proof,” which doubles as advice to his listeners about investing and saving.

However, none of this exists without Hit-Boy’s production, which adds subtle details to the beats that allow them to transition from one to the other while keeping it interesting, like on “Legit.” “Legit” incorporates live acoustic crowd noises to amplify Nas’ bravado – that stoic confidence that allows him to feel rejuvenated and fresh despite age. There are inflections of streetwise boom-ba – ala Boogie Down Productions and Craig Mack – centered jazz rap, and varying type beats influenced by 90s Nas, with Hit-Boy shifting the parameters for Nas to go hard on them. He’s able to deliver past the nevers; one minute as is rapping through this delicate take on late 90s New York rap, which incorporated more Soul and R&B, in “Hood2Hood,” and another, he’s rapping over this luscious boom bap beat on “First Time.” Like “Reminisce,” Nas gets introspective, giving us a sense of blissful nostalgia as he recounts the first time he listened to certain favorite artists. Despite laying a foundation, Nas brings mirroring relativity to his listeners without feeling tacky or gimmicky.

Unfortunately, as glowing as I’ve been with King’s Disease III, the choruses aren’t as strong. It’s something you might have to set aside mentally because they aren’t consistent. Some aren’t as creative or have energizing gravitas, but pushing the weaker ones aside, allows for a more transcendent experience as the music eclipses these hollow points and makes you forget about them for a second. It left me in a daze after a few spins, and that’s what Nas aims for, a legacy of records spinning with fresh content no matter the era. So whether it’s the drab, emotionless chorus on “I’m on Fire” or lacking energy like on “Get Light,” Nas approaches the hooks as simple bridges that aren’t supposed to be ear-popping, like how the borough bridges are eye-popping, but they get the job done. That isn’t to say he doesn’t have some spectacularly hyphy hook delivery, like on “30” and bonus track “Till My Last Breath,” which has visceral energy that encourages the inner New York within.

King’s Disease III sees Nas continuing to extend his prime, delivering heater after heater without the support of features and amounting to one of his most immaculate albums since 2012’s Life is Good. Hit-Boy produces sounds that flip between modern, large-scale Hip-Hop beats and ones that bring nuance to the influential elements of 90s Boom-Bap/Jazz Rap, amongst others. It all acquiesces into one strong gavel to the table as Nas makes an everlasting statement about his lasting legacy that will only grow more, especially with the consistency of the King’s Disease trilogy, where Nas assimilates and demolish Hip-Hop sub-genres momentously.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

Natalia Lafourcade – De Toda Las Flores: Review

Natalia Lafourcade has always delivered a range of sounds by valuing history and allowing it to beautifully encompasses her artistry. From Musas: Un Homenaje al Folclore Latinoamericano en Manos de Los Macorinos and Mujer Divina: Un Homenaje a Augustin Lara to her Un Canto Por Mexico, Lafourcade has been able to make a sizeable splash at a consistent level. She has us hearing how the music she grew up with influences the cadence in her vocals while being able to fall back into orchestrations that incorporates vibrant Alt-Rock, Folk, and Pop Rock sounds. De Toda Las Flores continues demonstrating value by incorporating luscious sonic influences and seemingly expressing that fun with this variety of jazz, pop, salsa, and more. Co-produced by Adán Jodorowsky, son of famed filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, Lafourcade visually catapults us back toward the emotional fortitude of life, giving us an eloquent musical breakdown that consistently keeps us engaged, even during the weaker moments. Whether brass or subtle, the music carries gravitas by capitalizing on Lafourcade’s strengths lyrically and vocally, despite some of its minimalist instrumentations never feeling realized.

De Toda Las Flores begins plucky, focusing on varying string arrangements that match the black-and-white aesthetic of its Shakespearean-influenced album cover, like the first track, “Vine Solita” (translated to “Came Alone”). It somberly transitions between classical string instruments, piano, and electric guitar, as she sings about this destination for self-reflection. When you look at the album cover, an immediate thought might be this album will be intimate, and it is, though Natalia Lafourcade does different things–with Adán Jodorowsky–incorporating auspicious blends that boast some acoustic textures. You hear it as the haziness of “Llévame Viento” (take me wind), and her words describe the place she yearns to be, a beautiful, tropical jungle with varying animals. Beneath the shift to a jazzier lounge-like aesthetic, you can hear the brustling wind meshing smoothly and bringing this track about escapism to life. 

Natalia Lafourcade sings and writes about various thoughts in her mind, and the way she delivers them is mainly refreshing. On “Pajarito colibrí” (hummingbird), she sings about taking a chance and taking on the world; on “Canta la arena” (the sand sings), she allows happiness to grace our presence with life, beautifully working in conjunction with the previous song “Muerte” (death). On “Muerte,” she sings about learning to live life from death, which feels like a slight homage to lessons learned within her culture, Dia De Los Muertos, while simultaneously giving thanks to aspects of her country that make her come with such bravado. Through this slight, spoken word-like melody, she sings: “Le doy gracias a la muerte por enseñarme a vivir/Por invitarme a salir a descifrar bien mi suerte/Tomando mi mano fuerte, llenándola de vida.” It gives us a grounded understanding before she evokes more spiritual, infusing melodies with beautifully cathartic brass instrumentations. It makes way for an acceptance of death, allowing her to indulge and dance on the beaches of Veracruz without care.

Its themes are powerful, and the songwriting is visually detailed, letting you understand her perspectives and the kind world Natalia Lafourcade inhabits. The production is dense beneath its more realized productions, and the minimalism that shrouds beginnings before the complexities show you beautiful synchronization. Yet, it isn’t as consistent. The minimalism doesn’t do much for Lafourcade’s vocals, leaving her to carry the emotional gravitas. You hear it on “Que Te Vaya Bonito Nicolás” (Good Luck Nicolas), where the stings are faint, and Lafourcade is sometimes distant vocally, almost losing the will to take that next step forward. It’s as if she isn’t contextualizing the sounds until it reaches the end, and it starts to make sense with its theme of moving on, particularly acceptance of the light in death. And “Pasan Los Dias” (Days Go On) tries to play the chords slowly to match thought and meaning to make it seem more realized, but even so, the pacing doesn’t stay consistent. It isn’t like “Pajarito colibrí,” where the pacing remarkably suits the shift it envelops with themes surrounding personal growth. The instrumentation flutters as it levels down to embrace those moments as you listen.

De Toda Las Flores has three tracks that don’t exceed the four-minute marker, and the rest exceed five minutes. On the surface, it may be a detractor; however, “Pasan Los Dias” is one where the pacing doesn’t match the ever-long days it tries to replicate. Others get filled with emotional fortitude, allowing you to gravitate to the words and gain a rewarding experience, but it feels entrapped in its concept without trying anything different. It’s especially so with the production during the album’s middle section, where we hear more saxophone and trumpets becoming one with the fantastical, whimsical-like strings that guide you. Switching the tempo from casual to danceable, and vice versa, like the transition from “El Lugar Correcto” (The Correct Place) to “Pajarito colibrí” and back to “Maria La Curandera” (Maria the Healer), a lot is going for the album.

Still, it fumbles through some inflection of the instruments and pacing. But it holds, as what surrounds the two weak tracks are these beautiful Latin-pop instrumentations grounded by Natalia Lafourcade’s flare for melodies, especially “Maria La Curandera,” which drives home the cultural aesthetics beneath the pop. It kept me returning and digesting the music further, as it will with you. It’s powerful and memorable, and as you keep playing “Maria La Curandera” and “Canta la arena,” you’ll feel what she feels and more, especially if English speakers translate as they listen and listen, over and over again.

Rating: 8 out of 10.