Nikki Lane – Denim & Diamonds: Review

As it is with many, when the subject of Country music gets brought up, we can immediately become dismissive since its gen-pop style has us express slight disdain from the more honky-tonk country akin to early Kenny Chesney. But, when you remind yourself that ignorance isn’t bliss, it extends to music as a whole. Country’s extensive history, and nature, have given us fantastic stories with whimsical subtexts, stylistic ingenuity bridging blues and roots music, and a plethora of incredible artists not named Dolly Parton or Kenny Rogers, or gen-pop hoe-down tonk. Nikki Lane is another one you can add to that list, especially now, with the dynamic Denim & Diamonds. Her writing has had a resounding presence, getting elevated by keying into characteristics of the Roots Rock and Outlaw Country genres. In her own way, Lane is an outlaw in Country, as she stays true to herself and makes her music that kind you can actually rock out to feverishly without overbearing notes.

See, there is something about Country music that gives me some momentary bliss from the overly glitzy and produced instrumentals that start to tire you out because you can’t always be in synthesized trance. The genre has its own within its mass ecosphere, but the nuanced, melodic styles of the past have kept my inner, old soul afloat. Some great, some mediocre, and some bad, digging further into this world has given my ears new dimensions. Nikki Lane is that but with rugged rockadelic sounds that will have your eyes reflecting those diamonds in the rough. With Denim & Diamonds, we get music with clever songwriting that keeps you on your toes, buoyed by wildly creative and fun harmonies and melodies that some weaker instrumentations become ingrained into the final product. But there are a few times where it might be more difficult as the well-intentioned fail to capitalize on better deliveries. “Try Harder” fails to have as significant an impact as the opening “First High.” “Try Harder” is monotonous instrumentally like “Faded,” lacking a spark until the end when we get a wicked guitar semi-solo; fortunately, the album sparks brightly.

“First High” makes a distinguished impact, like the many tracks on Denim & Diamonds. Nikki Lane begins with a reflection on her roots, particularly the first time she fell in love with rock-n-roll and played her first note; however, we’ve heard her grow. Her first album was more rock, and the follow-ups brought in more country, and this one finds perfect synergy between the two. So when “First High” shifts from the melancholic strings (resonant with blues) into this more audaciously deep rock layers, which incorporates pedals, transfixing you into her musical world. Produced by Josh Homme, founder of Queens of the Stone Age, the two create an elegant hybrid that tiptoes around centralized genres expressing her unique identity. We hear it contextually within the production, further building the instrumentations with nuance, especially within the string sections; some of its rhythmic patterns, subtle or unsubtle riffs, or solos beneath a rich orchestration. 

“Good Enough” evokes an old Country soul, incorporating the fiddle as a contrast to its plucky guitar, all underneath the atmospheric coating that oozes the feeling one can describe as home is where the heart is,” vaguely. It’s grounded in reality as it never gets the urge to overdevelop, especially in the strings arrangements. Nikki Lane is tender, focusing on lessons learned through a relationship, which elevated her mental help finding solace in understanding she’s good enough.  “Black Widow” contrasts the style of “Good Enough,” as we hear Lane expressing her true badass self in a thrift store leather jacket and jeans over rustic and anthem-like instrumentations driving through the lyrical connotation given to us in “First High.” It’s a third-person extension of “Born Tough,” a potent country rock anthem that delivers with oomph and a sense of empowerment that gets boasted by its colorful instrumentations. We hear both sides of her–the personable like “Pass It Down” and the more impactfully driven bravado of the others mentioned.

Denim & Diamonds is an amalgamation of Nikki Lane’s musical personality. She gives us temperate Americana and Blues/Roots music that reflects her more personal (diamond) side; the denim is that rough-trade, pick-up-your-bootstraps Country, finding the perfect synergy, despite the ups and downs. Sometimes she finds ways to blend the two into a beautiful blend that tames the senses, especially as you get the chance to feel and hear remarkable storytelling through different contextual moods. You get this naturalistic feeling in most instrumentations–more importantly, in her melodies and songwriting as she finds unique avenues to express the platitude of layers within. Lane inflects sheer individualist bravado, letting herself feel one with the elevated country undertones as it blends with other styles and, at times, becomes the central force driving you home.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Jessie Reyez – Yessie: Review

Among Jessie Reyez’s best qualities–that have overwhelmingly attracted me to her music–are her melodies and songwriting, which focus on establishing and delivering powerfully driven stories through distinctly dark and soulful tracks. Her debut, Before Love Came To Kill Us, masterfully stamped this as a known, but the consistency gets placated by Jessie trying to bring too many sonic ideas into the fold. That’s the opposite on Yessie, a more refined, intimate album that doesn’t try to go in various directions, instead finding herself musically. Yessie has smoother transitions between the R&B notes and variations of pop, soul, and rock overlays, which get concocted with different genre-style undertones within the production–equipped with depth and poignant lyricism; its concrete consistency makes it one of the best albums of 2022.

Yessie shows Jessie Reyez delivering atmospheric complexions between reflective coldness, hypnotic confidence, and personal contemplations of the now, leaving her heart on the sleeves bare with powerful emotions. Unlike her debut, the transitions between themes are pure, never making you feel disjointed as you proceed chronologically; the same goes for the production. Having it work is pivotal since we hear Jessie transitioning between distinct styles without stumbling, either in-song or song-to-song, like the Hip-Hop centric intro “Mood.” We hear her transition from a more Hip-Hop flow to a soul chorus with a harmonious sample of “Los Caminos De La Vida” by Los Diablitos of Colombia, which one would think these clashing styles would sound jarring. Fortunately, the synergy between them allows your imagination to grasp anything given and vibe with it effervescently. 

Though transitional effectiveness between songs is pure–starting clean with varying ilks of R&B/Hip-Hop/Pop–later vigorously with more distinct and generative styles as it turns the bends with “Mutual Friends.” Like the songs that preceded it, Jessie’s coming at it with ferocity through more personable one-on-ones no matter the style, like with “Tito’s” or “Forever.” Its soulful confidence adds contrasting layers that mesh beautifully. Here, Jessie and featured artist 6lack sing to their significant other, who is making a mistake by leaving a situation that reflects opposites attract. “Forever” is a compelling contrast to the aforementioned “Mutual Friends,” which backs the sentiments of the impactful “Queen St. W,” which establishes Jessie’s coldness that further gets reflected during the bridge and chorus of “Mutual Friends.” “Yeah, our mutual friend/Asked me how I sleep with so much hate in my heart/I told them I sleep like a baby,” (Bridge), “But if you died tomorrow, I don’t think I’d cry/I gave you one too many nights” (Chorus). The production’s consistency in elevating the effectiveness of her melodies and lyrics is potent here, capitalizing on a uniquely triumphant piano ballad. “Mutual Friends” minimizes or relatively dilutes the drum beats, letting Jessie Reyez discharge intensely and leaving me speechless as it takes notes from Billie Eilish’s dark-pop style, except Jessie makes it her own. Each track is different, refreshing, and significantly impactful on both ends, whether she is coming cold, confident, or lamenting, yearning for more as the music hits on the senses it evokes.

It becomes a testament to Jessie Reyez’s will to express herself refreshingly through radiant production that doesn’t juke you around in the ups and downs, primarily because there aren’t any off kiltered moments. She isn’t trying to formulate too many ideas and forcing them to acquiesce chronologically. Though there is some fantastic work on Before Love Came To Kill Us, her debut, it isn’t more concrete like Yessie. Yessie is more of a translation of Jessie Reyez’s being through varying situations she found herself in personally and how they’ve morphed her into who she is. We hear that through various styles, which get incorporated into the sounds like the confidently nuanced and personably fun “Tito’s” or the emotionally potent and rock stylings of “Break Me Down.” Two contrasting sounds amongst each other and other tracks on the album bring monstrous energy that has them feeling in line with the contextual tones throughout, specifically the latter. “Break Me Down” has the style and vibe of a mid-00s emo rock track with great explorative depth that you’re staying along due to its consistency with the transitions, like when we go from the cold “Mutual Friends” to the confident and mesmerizing “Tito’s.”

“Tito’s” is a darker dance-pop groove that hits those dance censors, making you groove to the beat as Jessie Reyez exhumes immense confidence in her lyrics and melodies. Its summery post-disco influenced production by Calvin Harris and Maneesh, as Jessie reminds us of the depth of her talent by turning a potential rudimentary dance banger into something more complex. After getting heard on“Mood,” we hear Jessie singing in Spanish more frequently, which we’ve rarely heard her do in the past–neé a feature with Romeo Santos saw her performing predominantly in English to his Spanish. It’s an extension of the strengths of Reyez’s monstrous performances, adding value at the end with the primarily Spanish track, “Adio Amor.” It adds exponential value to Jessie’s artistic duality, which sees her transcend soundscapes and deliver pure authenticity. It’s what stayed flowing through my mind–how impactful and less derivative of itself it is, as we see these fruitful transitions that never have you second guessing.

The music of Yessie is swarthy, melancholy sounds, creating gripping relatability that takes different sonic outlooks that aren’t as predictable. From the bilingual electro-R&B “Adios Amor,” which continues to show Jessie Reyez’s coldness, to the similarly thematically driven rock-like “Break Me Down.” It’s a crisp progression of greatness as Jessie Reyez capitalizes on delivering a personification of herself with remarkable depth. It isn’t an album that exponentially breathes club, or dance bangers, instead letting it round out stylistically akin to the atmosphere/tones derived from the beginning, becoming more apparent or subtle as it goes along. It left me bewildered with excitement, as Jessie Reyez has been someone who’s shown to me that she can create something special, and she does so here. Go check out Yessie now!

Rating: 10 out of 10.

Sampa The Great – As Above, So Below: Review

Amongst friends, I’ve come to understand varying perspectives on Hip-Hop are ever-shifting based on the culture. Thus, the way I think Black Thought, Little Simz, or Rapsody are some of the hottest MCs, they’ll prefer to hype up the know–gritty Hip-Hop keen on bars, arrogance, moody drug rap, like Pusha T, Benny the Butcher, and A$AP Rocky. It’s perplexing as Hip-Hop’s growth has been more than just blending sonic influences from regional hip-hop in the US and UK. And it’s because of that growth we’ve been able to see artists embrace genres beyond the immediate know–like Jazz, soul, and R&B–these artists have been able to blend House and Hip-Hop, Regional African Music, past massive pop hits like Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” etc. Sampa the Great reflects this growth, offering a shift from past tracks, blending some minimalism with exuberant production. Sampa doesn’t mince words; she has these creative flows and unique rhythmic patterns that help push themes to the forefront. It’s as effervescent as ever on her follow-up to The Return, As Above, So Below.

As Above, So Below goes beyond to allow inflections of Sampa the Great’s verses to get heard. She’s always been one to express her Zambian heritage musically through features, production, and the incorporation of its languages to boast her identity as a rapper. Though we’ve gotten projects that demonstrated her masterful technical skills, it was only a matter of time: an expansion on the production’s use of African sounds to coat the core hip-hop percussion notes with the evolution of construction. Because of it, it’s focused on central thematic cores, allowing for simplistic themes about perseverance and individuality, like in “The Great Never Forget.” Featuring Zambian musicians Tio Nason, Chef 187, and Mwanje, they bring varying languages of the region, like Bantu and Bemba. It adds depth toward seeing Sampa’s vision, as her roots extend beyond the recent. Incorporating contemporary features boast Sampa’s talent, parallel to rappers like Denzel Curry, Joey Bada$$, and Kojey Radical. Woven in between tracks that hone in on her Zambian roots, which get reflected through language and sound, like the remarkable “Can I Live?” featuring Zambian Rock group Witch or Angélique Kidjo on the closing track.

Now, you might think: “It may be an extra step to translate,”, especially for some, but it’s worth that time as it opens the doors to Sampa’s world. Though we get varying sonic styles and features, Sampa’s Hip-Hop is at her core. She doesn’t forget that it’s a part of her, further shifting styles to embolden her MC-like skills. It’s a continuance of what we got loosely on The Return, seeing Sampa work with artists of varying regions, like South African rapper Ecca Vandal and South Sudanese-Australian Rapper Krown. We won’t hear a constant reverence toward non-sequitur Hip-Hop that matches the grooves and tones of an expected, instead reflecting the flows/rhythmic patterns of the performing artists like on “Lane” with Denzel Curry. Sampa has proven herself with past tracks like “Final Form” and “Freedom,” but when it comes to As Above, So Below, it tries to ground itself with a message before allowing herself to get lost in the metaphors and wordplay. Unfortunately, we hear her get lost delivering choruses and bridges, and at times, minimalist bars loosely, like the lines “Who took fabric, made that shit classic/That shit ain’t average/We did,” on “Never Forget,” or the weak refrain on “Bona.”

But I know Sampa the Great has bars equipped and ready, but what’s important to her is trying to convey a message that speaks identity more than reflecting on the stasis of her career and the future. Though we get some moments of that here, it reflects on her artistry instead of being about how her kind of style has made her successful enough where she exclusively flexes her riches. Her natural confidence only energizes the effectiveness of the themes getting relayed by both sides–blending different artists that shift our understanding of international artists. So when I searched the translation of Chef 187’s verse on “The Great Never Forget,” it dawned on me that understanding it in my native tongue isn’t like understanding how the inflections, flows, and phrasing from bar to bar for those who consume it regularly. It’s similarly the case with features that buoy over the strength of the production, like in the closing track “Let Me Be Great,” featuring Beninese Singer/Songwriter Angélique Kidjo. The feeling is musically joyous, specifically when looking at her clear direction and what she achieves. It’s an experience that elevates everything around it, from its colorful and expansive production to transitional consistency upping the volume of the performances.

As Above, So Below is a triumphant follow-up to The Return. It tells us who Sampa the Great is without taking away from what makes her a fantastic artist: her lyrical and technical skills, seemingly camouflaging within the beat and creating works of art that transcend past the core hip-hop-sphere. It left me hungry for more, despite a tightknit 40 minutes that feels hefty in its thematic depth. I’ll be returning to this frequently, and hopefully, what I heard gets captured similarly with you, the listener.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

JID – The Forever Story: Review

Having the gift of storytelling allows hip-hop artists to add depth beyond the apropos flexing as they take us on journeys toward understanding their message. We’ve gotten various styles, at times becoming more focused on the trickle-down effect–it works for many, but not all. JID is more linear, giving us these intricate flows as he builds the world around him with musical vibrance. Usually tonally split between being frenetic and soulfully slower, there is an equilibrium as it goes through JID’s life with themes centered on family, hip-hop, and his relationship with the people around him. Furthermore, his walls continuously crumble, adding innate vulnerability and giving us a sense of his character, specifically through the guise of Hip-Hop. The Forever Story continues to show the potency of his craft as he bridges styles with effervescent production that boasts the world JID builds with his rhymes, flows, and melodies.

JID and vulnerability are two entities that acquiesces cleanly, spearheading the conversation toward understanding JID’s character. He is world-building and allowing his connection points to progress his messaging. It starts coming at you ferociously with this myriad of songs like “Raydar,” which establishes interconnectivity within the black community, reflecting central aspects that speak broadly while staying close to retaining relativity. It’s on “Raydar” where JID reignites our view of song construction, levying what to expect: “I got the shit you could play for your mama/I got the shit you could play for the hoes/I got the shit you could sell to the trappers,” speaking to his artistic range. And he makes it known with his sonic range on The Forever Story, giving us some heavy hitters, intimate reflections, and mature flexes.

Following “Raydar,” the sounds that spread throughout shift from the darker percussion to the more neo-soul-influenced sounds containing the stability which allows the beat to coast smoothly. It has this crisp jitteriness, reflecting JID’s flow in likeness. We hear it effervescently on “Can’t Punk Me,” “Dance Now,” and “Surround Sound,” and it’s similarly the case with tracks that focus on the soulful undertones. These tracks embody aspects of JID’s person–“Can’t Punk Me” is a descriptive rag-to-riches tale–“Dance Now” tackles years of doubts, particularly when shifting the corner with a major record deal–“Crack Sandwich” sees JID sharing the dynamic between him and his siblings growing up in the south–JID is coming about these topics with maturity, especially when comparing where he was to now.

On the other end, tracks like “Kody Blu 31” and “Stars” embolden the jazz-rap overtones, playing with instruments and implementing them uniquely. With “Stars,” the live instrumentations steal the spotlight, shining through percussion, invigorating the verses from JID and Yasiin Bey. BADBADNOTGOOD’s input, the live orchestration, shines alongside the hip-hop producers Christo and Eric Jones. “Kody Blu 31” brings out that Blues/Soul influence brilliantly. The postwork on JID’s vocals highlights the emotional weight from predominantly singing when he’s known to mostly rap. That lyrical maturity also gets heard in how he expresses himself in choruses and verses, like the slight digs at stereotypes that come with stardom on “Stars,” speaking to its nature on a grounded scale, considering his status compared to that of label head J. Cole. It’s on these soulful songs where the synergy between the performers and production gets heard potently, especially with the features, one of many highlights on The Forever Story

Amongst the features in The Forever Story, there is a consistency that parallels JID’s masterful lyricism, running dry swiftly on “Bruddanem.” Lil Durk’s delivery isn’t up to par with the poignancy of his verse, which offers an illustrative view of brotherhood in Chicago as it transcends past simple camaraderie–taking bullets for another–further reflecting the lengths they go to protect each other. It gets heard, but it doesn’t match the levels of JID, whose more tame flow expresses the emotional cracks in his voice, like on “Kody Blu 31.” It’s more a testament to Durk not being fully assimilated past drill-like flows. Unlike it, JID shows consistency with construction, mirroring the production with aspects of his feature’s strengths and giving us standout performances that progress the story while staying personally reflexive in their regard. Whether it’s Ari Lennox or 21 Savage, JID creates synergy, enveloping tracks with effervescently purported notions. The Forever Story is grand, almost cinematic, how JID loses himself within the beat and paints these delicate and vibrant scenes.

The Forever Story is a triumph for JID, weaving together his strengths and compacting them cleanly in his own transformative journey. We get a balance between production styles, allowing them to connect through distinct transitions. It left me zoning, retaining it on repeat, and feeling the immersive nature of his music. And with features that boast the messaging of their respective tracks and equally great production, JID continues to add credence to his momentous strength as a lyricist/MC.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Danger Mouse & Black Thought: Cheat Codes – Review

When it comes to The Roots or Black Thought–as a solo artist–even the pseudo remixes on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon–Black Thought never disappoints, even when your anticipation is high. With Cheat Codes, his new album alongside musician/producer Danger Mouse, Black Thought emboldens his status in Hip-Hop, delivering an influx of lucid and poignant verses. There is constant intrigue in Thought’s words as he gives perspective parallels to the simplicity behind the realism, amongst other styles like flexing and relevant criticism. The music takes you by the horns, offering a refreshing album that finds home on stoops with the homies where you’re blaring it from speakers, despite some minor drawbacks from weak featured performances.

Black Thought morphs imagery fluidly, barely seeming to skip a beat like he’s some rap prodigy, but that’s been evident since trading bars with Dice Raw in the 90s. Cheat Codes takes us back 20-30 years when sampling was a check-mark component of Hip-Hop/R&B, though Thought and Danger Mouse craft it with nuance. It’s a driving force behind Cheat Codes, as it shifts through varying styles contextually, from reflective raps to evoking multi-layered flexes, etc. Though on a vague level, it is reflective of most rappers–how Black Thought writes and spews off the dome offers clean structures and intricate rhyme schemes. There’s innate synergy, especially with the shift toward a style more potent from 1993–2006–think J Dilla, DJ Premier, Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, The Hitmen, etc. Danger Mouse, a veteran from the era, brings seamless craftsmanship as the samples get incorporated into the beat/production for Black Thought to spit profusely. “No Gold Teeth,” amongst others, encompass these samples as the glue between sounds, allowing us to stay keen on the distinct switches between beats.

“No Gold Teeth” is a keen example of both and a favorite. It gives us a detailed retelling of Thought’s career and how the grind reflects the earned confidence he imbues with his status as a rapper–one example: “Philly ain’t known for cheesesteak sandwiches only, stop/Yo, I’m at the top where it’s lonely/I got everybody mean-mugging like Nick Nolte/But nah, I won’t stop, won’t drop, won’t retire.” Like “Close to Famous,” it’s an inner jolt where he doesn’t push aside the kind of feeling that comes with one’s history and allows it to be a given to maintain focus as a proper form of rags to riches. It’s how he can keep others mean mugging without relenting on the abundance of grandeur. He mentions chains in passing as an achievement instead of a representation of net worth. Danger Mouse incorporates the opening string orchestration and some humming from the song “Stop” by South African Trumpeteer Hugh Masekela, which gets used as a contrast to Thought’s tone. 

Similarly, with the sampling in “Saltwater,” Danger Mouse incorporates sequencing from Italian Rock Band Biglietto Per L’Inferno’s operatic “L’amico suicida,” establishing the tone for the track eloquently. Featuring Conway the Machine, Black Thought, and Conway trade verses that position themselves on this tentpole of unfuckwithable, or one not to fuck with based on how they describe themselves. Like when Conway raps, “Look, they heard me rhymin’, they wanna know where they find me at/The grimy cat from the May Street trenches, insomniac/Three in the mornin’, lurkin’ in that Pontiac/Where I’m from, you gotta take your pole even when you go to the laundromat (Keep it on you).” Black Thought intersects criticisms toward youths aiming to rap for the glamour–forgetting how some come from these grimy roots striving for a voice instead of the money, then shifting to display a difference when it comes to the power of words, like when he rapped: “We pass the baton like a drum major at Howard/We transfer the power for salt, water, and flour/My pen packs a dawah, Akira Kurosawa/My ideas is gunpowder, secure the tower.” The layers within this sequence are also potent throughout the album; it has more standing on the solo ventures, unlike most with features.

Conway, MF DOOM, Raekwon, Killer Mike, and ASAP Rocky have an excellent presence on these features, the former three more so than the latter two, but a few others seem to disjoint from what is effervescently flowing through Danger Mouse and Black Thought. There is a clear synergy between Thought and these featured rappers, but not all can match the lyrical and technical poignancy of the reference sheet Thought delivers. It’s especially the case with El-P on “Strangers” and Joey Bada$$ & Russ on “Because,” which brings forth ubiquitous bars that don’t feel fresh and new, instead becoming a reflection of past selves that aren’t as interesting. It feels more of a throwaway when pinned up against the complexities of “Belize,” which comes across as an expanded flex that attacks various angles from both Thought and MF DOOM– posthumously.

Cheat Codes continues to show Black Thought’s dominance as a lyricist, accompanied by fantastic production from Danger Mouse and delivering platters of whimsically thrilling verses. But like past realized projects, Thought seems to stumble with making sure the performances are up to par with the direction he wants to take, because there are many here. Though it isn’t hard to be too distinguishable, comparatively, some get notice, and you’re quickly yawning after the final outcome. It’s a fantastic album nonetheless and definitely encourage all hip-hop fans to take a seat and indulge.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Pale Waves – Unwanted: Review

Turning back the clock with Unwanted, Pale Waves reinvigorates the sounds that hooked us with My Mind Makes Noises, which felt slightly faint on Where Am I? Instead of reeling towards general rock complexions, Pale Waves ignites their emotions and lets them ride like waves as they shift between chords and effects. The strings are transparent and potent, allowing the drums and synths to be the sandpaper smoothing out the rough edges. It’s gripping at various moments–other times, we’re vain to the sounds that aren’t as triggering and leave us humdrum with esoteric genericism in the pop-punk aesthetic blanketed over the album, and the slight side-turns into acoustics. Though they teeter in this direction, it centers on taste, and it didn’t hit the proper tastebuds; the few missteps can get glossed over by the sheer consistency heard compared to their last album. And that isn’t to say I haven’t had this on repeat–cause I have exponentially, further showing how easy it is to get lost within that realm of sounds.

The realized consistency in Unwanted is as potent as ever, keeping you enshrined in this confined temple of relativity where Heather Baron-Gracie’s captivating melodies and the band’s overall riotous instrument playing keep you glued as it comes from multiple angles. It’s immediate with “Lies” and its tremendous drop, creating an identity toward the emotive tenacity these tracks will deliver. There is angst, and their fiery limits aren’t confined, giving Baron-Gracie the range to evoke emotions fluidly. She doesn’t get invariably angered by situations, sometimes getting lost within existential thoughts that get reflective based on personal social experiences. But it’s when Baron-Gracie truly immerses herself with these feelings, which are reflective amongst the best tracks on the album. “Lies,” “Jealousy,” and “Alone” are some that come with a fierce punch, propelling the straps to grip you into your seat and rocking to these sentiments we are or aren’t focusing on, especially with the latter two. “Jealousy” ferociously captures that essence of jealousy Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” exhumed, just not as vanilla. The melodic strings and gripping drum patterns in the chorus bring out your inner emotional mosher, one where the body speaks on the production’s bravado. 

Unlike “Jealousy,” “Alone” reinforces a disdain for anyone who embodies an overly touchy persona and eagerness beneath that they can’t get beyond simply understanding someone’s preference to be alone. Heather Baron-Gracie exhumes these sentiments with personal integrity that you forget the universal appeal it brings; it’s akin to empowering anthems about being alone and striving, except it’s being alone, so she doesn’t have to deal with varying “repercussions.” Like she said in an interview with Apple Music: 

“I don’t think I’ve ever been as brutal as I am on this track. It’s about when you say no to someone and they just don’t leave you alone. So many times—in clubs, in bars, in goddamn Tesco—where someone comes up to you and they’re like, ‘Can I buy you a drink? Can I get your number?’ And you say, ‘Sorry, I’m not interested.’ And they still get all handsy and physical with you. Do you not get the message? Don’t touch me.”

– Heather Baron-Gracie

: there is an essence of being without becoming overly preachy, especially in the context of rejection songs. There is a balance that never downplays the themes, though not all tracks have gripping production, sometimes feeling like composites of other styles without adding anything distinguishingly new to set itself apart besides any catchiness within the chorus or melodies. 

Fortunately, we’re steering towards a triumphant set of tracks to close the album, especially as they imbue these exhilarating sounds that shift the parameters by allowing some of the simplicity to feed into the depth of the performances or the intricate production that steers you away from current pop-punk tones. “You’re So Vain” and “Reasons To Live” begin to ignite and exhume fumes of creative integrity. It’s pertinent to one’s enjoyment of the album as they slowly shift toward the sounds of Where Am I? except with stronger compositions that keep your ears glued. It caught me by surprise, with the final track finding itself on heavy rotation. Baron-Gracie has noted how negatively emotional Unwanted is and transcends the emotions loosely, like on “Clean,” which gives us some crisp, fun positivity where her sense of love gets explored physically and vocally. You hear and feel it when she sang: “I bang my hеad against the wall/Until I hear your voice/Yеah, I’ve come undone/I’m hooked and I’m withdrawn/And I don’t really care if it’s my fault,” as this composite of metaphorically intense love, and it’s delivered beautifully.

Amongst the wind of radiant consistency, some tracks minimally stunt progression or feel like a sonic retread of others that have done it better, which is the case with the more somber, acoustic-driven “The Hard Way” and “Numb.” They don’t sound like something special at first, as you get predominant lead-ins toward these crazy closers of rock bliss, but those lead-ins aren’t all effective and leave you feeling mum about the last 70 or so seconds of the tracks. “Only Problem” is not like them; it is one of these composites that feels like a poorly constructed throw away that doesn’t retread themes, instead sounding poor in comparison with what follows. These tracks have merit contextually lyrically, but the layering between vocals and production isn’t equally as strong, and that’s what keeps you engaged.

Unwanted is fantastic, albeit with a few hiccups along the way. It delivers what fans want and love and more, and from speaking to a few–post thought collection, which has been potent in our conversations. It keeps their formula intact as we shift in emotional range, becoming reflexive between vocals and instrumentations–we’re in a daze as we align with riotous melodies that make us feel heard during our inner personal jam session. And if you bypass the ineffective tracks, there is more to obtain from the sheer transitions within the pitch, style, and more, which will leave you with a rewarding listening experience.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Maggie Rogers – Surrender: Review

Like some, I’ve wondered where Maggie Rogers could take her career since her debut came and delivered intriguing genre stylings, like electronic-folk, and not like the Ellie Goulding kind that felt more pop. Instead of exploring it more, she expands what inherently worked more consistently on her debut: Heard It In A Past Life–that is electro-pop, rather loose, and more alternative-electro-pop. It’s what makes Surrender a fascinating journey that explores the notion of surrendering yourself, allowing an opening for a “transcendence of sex and freedom,” as Maggie Rogers would describe. She isn’t succumbing to the external pressures of the disco trend, allowing the melodies to shift and form these captivating tracks, which keep you engaged through most, retaining a sense of balance between that and quieter pop that slowly hits the pedal as it gets to the end.

Surrender doesn’t mince expectations, and it reminds you head on instantly. Disregarding the musicologist’s idea of the leading hitter squared at track two or three, Maggie Rogers hits you with varying sounds that radiate magnetic synergy. They encompass layers of rock underneath exquisite electronic overtones, specifically synths, taking you through these clouds of dance-bliss. You’re in your room, feeling and letting Rogers’ words empower you to surrender and be yourself instead of masking individual weaknesses. “That’s Where I Am” begins a new start after finding someone in “Overdrive,” which tells us where Maggie Rogers at mentally. It reminds us how she can make minimalist lyrics feel more effervescent. In the first verse of “That’s Where I Am,” Rogers sings: “I found a reason to wake up/Coffee in my cup, start a new day/Wish we could do this forever/And never remember mistakes that we made.” It establishes a mood before shifting into escaping with this person, offering emotional gravitas with how she structures and delivers her lyrics. It continues to ignite the sentiment of going overdrive in the previous track. 

Similarly, track three, “Want Want,” continues to expand on these notions that embrace growth, pleasure, and an understanding of having it both ways. It embraces coy humility as Maggie Rogers sings about her innate synergy sexually with this person. However, it isn’t a continuous reflection of this journey, and she gives us scenes of the past, weaving a parallel between then and today. We hear through sentiments that steer toward acceptance, like on “Shatter” or “I’ve Got A Friend,” where she surrenders herself to her emotions. There are elements to Rogers’ music that offers a balance between styles, from the electro-pop to more alternative, live instrument heavy indie-pop rock. She reels us with captivating melodies and a mix of crisp pop drum beats, eclipsing certain constraints and finding ways to make humbling minimalism feel realized. It’s pertinent as it tries to create a median with sounds, especially as we hear clean transitions between tracks. One of the better transitions comes between “Horses” and “Be Cool,” specifically on both sides of the spectrum, like “I’ve Got A Friend.” Between the former two, there is an escalating string section at the end that capitalizes on the emotional gravitas of “Horses” and then tempers us with “Be Cool.” Though these tracks carry weight on both ends, there are varying moments where Maggie Rogers’ writing shines, like with “I’ve Got A Friend” and “Horses.”

In “I’ve Got A Friend,” Maggie Rogers takes us to a time she met this person, her close friend; she was slightly stunted by how the friendship flourished, creating disbelief between the expected and the natural. As she notes in her first verse: “Who would’ve said/When I met you at a party/Everyone was drunk on 40s just south of Stuyvesant/That I would get to know your sisters/Bring them with us every time that we were in Austin,” she realizes how special their connection is, bringing some jovial jubilance when describing their closeness: “Oh, I’ve got a friend who’s been there through it all/Masturbates to Rob Pattinson, staring at the wall,” without swaying from the emotional complexities between them noting: “I’ve got a friend who’s tangled up inside/Tried to hold her hand the day her mother died/I’ve got a friend who’s been there through it all/Talked me out of jail, talked me off the panic rail.” It’s one of many examples that shows the meticulous care Rogers’ brings to the music, giving us a sense of being while offering personal reflections that feel personable.

Unfortunately, Maggie Rogers on overdrive isn’t something that lasts forever. As the album comes to a close, “Symphony” and “Different Kind of World” don’t offer equivocal strength when trying to capture your attention. The production for the former doesn’t have an elegant contrast with the minimalist-style writing, eventually overstaying its welcome at 5:11. Similarly, “Different Kind of World” broken down acoustics feels off when compared to the tracks we have that preceded it. In past songs, some acoustics contain a continuous balance of varying harmonic pieces that buoy the guitar or piano, and these elements carry oomph. It isn’t till we get close to the end that the track shifts into this uproarious sequence of kinetic drums and synths, but it doesn’t save it from being anything more than a forgetful ballad.

That isn’t to say there isn’t something to take from Surrender. Maggie Rogers is coming headstrong and giving us more personable tracks that have more definition than some of the core singles of her last album. Instead of creating more livid-dance sequences, there is an essence to the dancing and singing. Definitely an improvement from her previous album, it’s something I’ll be returning to soon more frequently in the nighttime and other times, in my room during the rain.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Beyoncé – Renaissance: Review

The hype behind Beyoncé’s new album Renaissance matches and, for many, has exceeded expectations. Though it’s to no surprise, as Beyoncé has always directed her vision with bravado, incorporating varying subtle notes within the shrouds of the surface genres it imbues. Taking on the current nostalgic disco trend, Beyoncé evolves past certain standard genre constraints today and takes new approaches, like shifting the dynamics between eras of evolution–Disco–House–Dance. With streaming, Renaissance contains subtle crossfades, which delivers a more cohesive mix without the DJ. Using this direction, Beyoncé develops her craft to fit the mold of what she’s giving, and specifically, with the help of her producers, Renaissance is a powerhouse. It isn’t perfect, with “America Has a Problem” becoming entwined within the confines of the style and losing itself in the immersion right before a barrage of great tracks to close.

When we were given a taste with “Break My Soul,” a part of me knew something special, and as you continue through the album, it’s just that. From the beginning, you’re in a skyrocketing trend upward with clearer transformative grooves. It has varying transitions that formulate this essence of being on the dance floor, letting the sounds reflect the kind of dance we do. From “Alien Superstar” to “Energy” and again between “Church Girl” and “Virgo’s Groove,” it aligns the album to such greatness, and it’s in the finite details. It isn’t to say there are stunted transitions surrounding them, but they exhume the distinct identities that let them work solo or within the near seamless play from start to finish. We get varied factions–from the clean-cut dance track to something more structured toward core-House sounds, like the sonic structure of “All Up In Your Mind,” which bridges House with Bass within the vocal complexions. It’s to ease yourself into the energetic synths and heavier percussion that it envelops.

But Beyoncé brings more to the table than seamless transitions, provacious lyrics, and contextual understanding. We get some thorough tracks assembled with more standard structures, like “Summer Renaissance” and “Move” with Tems and Legend/Icon Grace Jones. They get incorporated into the refrain, chorus, and interlude, creating remarkable synergy between the three; it allows Beyoncé’s words on “Church Girl” to ring proper. Those words: “Me say now drop it like a thottie, drop it like a thottie (You bad)/Church girls actin’ loose, bad girls actin’ snotty (You bad).” Spoiler alert; it does, and as you keep the moves going, you start to hear more engaging sound shifts within the beat. It’s an attractive constant keeping you on your toes, especially if you aren’t a Beyoncé fan. Another example is the standout “Alien Superstar,” a House/Dance-Pop hybrid that shifts focus based on section; we hear it when Beyoncé flips between House-centric melodies before shifting to more Dance and Pop with the choruses.

Albums these days aren’t concrete with the genres they are exhuming, and the elements that get incorporated into them deliver fantastic blends that excel its prerogative. Similar to how “Alien Superstar” shifts, others do so within auspicious tangential touches that evolve the surface layer of the sound. The range can be subtle, often more apparent, like “Energy,” where we get shifts between House and Afrobeat subtexts, evolving the contextual bravado we are already hearing. With Beyoncé’s focus and strength at weaving empowering notions in between some flexes and offering a more triumphant output–they carry a duality that allows you to envelop uprooted themes of self-worth, sex, and hedonistic undertones within the pleasure of having it all. It’s potent on “Thique” and “Pure/Honey.” 

Unfortunately, Renaissance isn’t perfect all the way through. It doesn’t necessarily stumble, but one track becomes lost within the confines of the mix at first, and when you return, it turns out to be more of a redundant dud, and that is “America Has a Problem.” It contains an intriguing idea: Beyoncé goes meta, bringing an understanding of her pull in pop, adding a parallel to cocaine, where its popularity resided within clubs that played Disco and later House/Dance/Post-Disco music. It isn’t lyrically strong, often feeling like Beyoncé is retreading past tonal sentiments over an electrifying beat that simply overpowers it. Through flows and melodies, it mirrors elements of “Thique” without enough emphasis on its themes. It’s the only straightforward blemish amongst the 16 tracks, though there are little ticks that didn’t suitably acquiesce with my sense; it most likely will for you, the adequate barebones consistency of “Church Girl.” On the plus side, the latter had me drop it low like a thottie like Beyoncé tells us to.

Renaissance is a fantastic body of work that shows Beyoncé’s own understanding of the genres/sounds she works with and creates auspicious synergy. For the longest, you’re vibing, grooving to these energetic and captivating percussion patterns, and then you take a slight detour down an alley before getting an incredible send-off. It then repeats, and you continue to strive off these sounds, making the most out of your summer now that self-empowering booty popping music is getting new dishes on the menu. I know I’ll be indulging the rest of the summer, as I know you will too, after listening to Beyoncé’s Renaissance a few times.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Westside Gunn – Peace “FLY” God: Review

The sheer persuasive prowess that Westside Gunn brings behind the microphone has no bounds. Though I’m being facetious, there is something to how he incorporates vocal gunshot noises before, between, and sometimes after a verse, boasting its poignancy. He’s done it in various ways, and yet, this time, it feels slightly different. Coming straight off the tail end of Paris Fashion Week, where one assumes he visited the Louvre, Westside Gunn delivers a mixtape with a construct akin to an abstract painting. Peace “Fly” God is Gunn’s new mixtape that’s grimy, rough, and naturally flowing; it has these soundscapes take us through exceptional complexions that parallel the artistic energy flowing through his veins at the moment. It’s altruistically flawed, creating a world unparalleled to the apropos standard Hip-Hop he has delivered with his Hitler Wears Hermes series. It follows similar thematic styles of the past; however, the way it’s constructed on these distinct canvases offers an elegant perspective into Gunn, Estee Nack, and Stove God Cooks. 

Peace “Fly” God isn’t something that hits you immediately. Its sonic composition shifts the parameters of what to expect, eventually hearing its fluidity through the verses. It’s a balance between abstract and core-drum beats that continues to batter you with slick bars–and to a lesser degree–flows. Unfortunately, there are moments where you’re left dazed by the production, and the rest becomes the same song and dance. However, Westside Gunn gives us some more gun sounds than the boom, boom, boom, boom, and that’s been enough to retain my attention, especially in the lackluster “Derrick Coleman.” All of that is pertinent in “Jesus Crack,” which takes content from a shallow puddle, but there is swagger and a smooth Brand Nubian sample. Beyond constructing a bold 8-minute epic flex, Westside Gunn takes a chance with Don Carrera’s atmospherically gritty and ghostly production. It’s a notable contrast to Madlib’s soulful work in the second half. 

Production doesn’t come from those two exclusively–Daringer and Conductor Williams taking the helm at the end–but they handle the bulk. In some ways, it plays like Westside Gunn’s journey from thoughts to microphone–feeling the highs within bars about gang life, hustling, and high fashion. It gets delivered to you through the varying production styles, which feed off lustrous moments like the wickedly wild piano overlays on “Ritz Barlton,” followed by a trove of spiritually connected verses that expands on each topic, like fashion on “Big Ass Bracelet.” It sees Gunn and Stove God Cooks focusing on the glitz while reminding us of their grit. Gunn does so with sequences like, “In the ghetto, AP strapped the coke out a soupie (Whip)/Neck full of Veert pearls, lookin’ all bougie” and “Anybody violate, I annihilate (Boom, boom, boom)/I switched the band on the Dick, you rockin’ time today.” Within the context, he offers a distinction that splits surface and reality. Stove God Cooks does similarly, after proclaiming to be a Jay-Z–MF Doom hybrid, with lines like, “​​Either way you die alone, my shooter Pat Mahomes (Brr)/My bullet thrower/I was court-side watching Syracuse play Villanova (Go).” Cooks echoes the accuracy of his shooter’s aim while reminding us of the casualness of his success.

The casual flaunting continues, focusing slightly more on the excess of their success. The flows are grounded and fluid, specifically Westside Gunn, who takes on two Madlib productions solo. They give you a proper descent into his emotional side, like with “Open Praise,” which twists the view of gang life violence, giving us a darker side than arrogance. From the flows to his emotionally gripping singing a the end–he sings about love and envy. There is a consistent quality within the penmanship of these artists, especially their gripping details and stylistic directions. However, the deliveries don’t consistently acquiesce. “Derrick Coleman” is one where the platter we get doesn’t offer anything new. It has crisp production from Madlib, but the flows make it feel more atypical. It’s similarly the case “Big Ass Bracelet.” We get a trove of complex beats that feel like mosaics, painted with great detail. Unfortunately, not all strokes look the same. There are minimal stumbles that deter me as the last two tracks mentioned, but it’s enough to find a place amongst the many releases by Westside Gunn.

Don’t get me wrong, Peace “Fly” God is fantastic and covers ground exponentially. It’s disappointing; however, there are still quality tracks which evokes the replay button, like “Ritz Barlton” or “Horses On Sunset.” It gives fans something to digest while awaiting his follow-up Michelle Records. So enjoy the appetizer cause Westside Gunn’s 2022 is only just getting started.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Regina Spektor – Home, before and after: Review

Regina Spektor has thread needles of jubilant and poignantly straightforward songwriting that sends the song’s themes to the forefront with clean vibes. “SugarMan” off her latest album, Home, before and after, reminds us of that as she reflects on the deceptive lust money can bring. Using sugar as the analogy gives it different avenues to explore while rounding it out with captivatingly catchy choruses; it gets boasted by Spektor’s vocals, coming across as joyously driven when performing what she writes. Home, before and after, has conciseness to its sound and style, where it makes you feel like it’s getting played during a session of merriment in the creative process. It reminded me of Fiona Apple’s last album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, at times, where the vibrancy came from the naturalistic instrumentation–sans synths–that keeps it centered on its sound. It drives home the potent quality of the new Spektor album, even if it doesn’t tread new territory often.

There’s a lot to love about the new Regina Spektor album, whether it’s the lively vibes or Regina’s fragile and potent vocals. She’s allowing her songwriting to give us these perspectives that elevate the lyrical depth, which gets attributed to how she has taken the horns of the anti-folk genre and offers radiant deliveries. It’s a constant that stays effervescent, even if parts of tracks don’t carry a flurry of captivating melodies heard in “SugarMan” or “Loveology.” We hear this on the enigmatic “Up the Mountain,” where that energy she exuberates gets matched as you take it in. It’s similarly effervescent within most of the tracks on the album, save for “What Might Have Been,” which has her shifting to her apropos nebulous piano playing that can whisk some fans away but isn’t as effective here. 

It’s sometimes apparent throughout the album, outweighing that one time, specifically “One Man’s Prayer,” Spektor’s songwriting isn’t as keen and slightly forgettable. Though it’s one track, others are grounded, which gives us a vibe similar to when you first heard “Wallet” for the first time. Upon hearing her take us through this humbling tale about the contents of a wallet with Blockbuster memberships, it gives us a closer 1:1 relativity instead of having to pick apart various metaphors. Regina Spektor’s vocals uproot these little negatives to keep its front-to-back listen’s fluidity intact. 

Spektor weaves a consistent thread that emboldens her written and vocal technique in music. It allows time to become a small fragment of importance. Some directions that get taken perk up your ears with captivating melodies and harmonies that are keener on her identity, like “Loveology” or the enthralling “Raindrops,” which echoes the DIY Pop/Rock style we heard on Fetch the Bolt Cutters. It isn’t as direct as 1:1, but there is nuance to it, especially as it takes away from aspects of that echoey backing to drive a homely atmosphere. It’s heard a few times with the inner transitions of tracks like “SugarMan” or the opening track, “Becoming All Alone.” In between some emotionally melancholy piano playing–sometimes it’s mundane–there is something that catches your ear. On “Coin,” after some uninteresting piano playing, at the 3:34 mark, a shift gets heard, and some of that DIY Pop/Rock returns. It isn’t on the nose, but the very live and powerful band instrumentation gets driven to new peaks.

It’s the biggest strength of Home, before and after, as it elevates to new plateaus with its instrumentation. Sure, Regina Spektor and producer John Congleton can underwhelm at times–this is true–what shrouds these moments are these fantastic instrumentations that feel cinematic and triumphant. “Up The Mountain” is one of them, and the other is the incredible “Spacetime Fairytale.” Regina Spektor digs into her heart and develops a song about the love she holds for her son, reminding him that the world is vast as she focuses on influences that guide her songwriting and vocal performances. It’s heartwarming, but its continually building production makes the “story” expand. You hear these beautiful twinkly piano keys rhythmically before shifting to more creatively orchestrated pieces of grandeur. It’s more dynamic and viscerally captivating, taking it notches about the already fantastic “Raindrops.”

Home, before and after is another fantastic effort from Regina Spektor. There are some shortcomings, but there is a lot to indulge and get lost in as the instrumentations. I left feeling like nothing has changed since the last album. She continues to explore and cement a foundation for greatness as she has done throughout her career. I’d definitely recommend it as you’ll get what you expect, especially for fans.

Rating: 8 out of 10.