Immaculate vibes. In the simplest terms, that’s what PJ Morton’s new album Watch the Sun brings us. Throughout his career, PJ Morton has taken influence from his musical upbringing and brought some free-spirited albums, along with more “serious” projects. No matter the direction taken, PJ offers a lot of delightful tracks with depth, vibrancy, and captivating melodies. It makes each album a marvel to listen to, even when it lacks consistency in quality, albeit never in tone. Watch the Sun brings a beautiful cadence with its summery atmospheric textures, whimsical melodies, and vibrant production, masking some of the blemishes, and particularly, some features don’t bring an A-game, focusing more on tonal fit, which weaves some dull lyrics.
Watch the Sun evokes many genres: R&B, soul, gospel, hip-hop, etc. though it never feels bloated, contrived, and cornered into offsetting the tangential flow it’s taking us on. The blending never falters, giving us these elegant shifts in styles with keen transitions that don’t make us double-take as it sometimes transitions between contrasting styles. There’s “Please Don’t Walk Away” with soulful-jazzy production that contrasts what follows, the eponymous track, which incorporates reggae drum beats within soulful island strings. It never skips a beat. It continues to show as such, with PJ Morton’s eloquent construction, like closing on a three-track string where sandwiched between two soulful-gospel tracks is a remarkable summer R&B hitter with El Debarge.
The consistency can shadow some of the emotionally resonant songwriting at first before fully immersing in its blend. Watch the Sun is not something that hits you right away; it sweeps you up your feet with its production, a constant vibe, and later, it keeps you floating with some remarkable performances. PJ Morton sings about different topics centered on an emotional core, under surface layers reflecting niche subtexts within his beliefs and sadness. It gets boasted by the production, which juxtaposes lyrical tone with a vibrant-summer aesthetic, which subtly flows through its veins. It is telling us the sunlight never breaks, despite these down moments; what culminates is a reminder that PJ is on a fantastic high, artistically, throughout.
PJ Morton rides strong with his lyricism, but it isn’t as consistent with all his features. For the most part, some are coming with verses written to only capture the fit of the content and atmosphere without delving deeper into style. With Nas on “Be Like Water,” he brings some fun rhythmic linguistics, like when he raps: “Just a figment of imagination/A wickedness I’m not relatin’, situation, lookin’ at it lately/With the wisdom of a man who made it,” but it lacks some emotional gravitas, especially compared to what PJ and Stevie Wonder bring. It’s the same with Wale on the subsequent track. Wale brings more emotion, but the bars aren’t that interesting and too direct.
However, it isn’t exclusive to both rappers, as long-time collaborator JoJo comes across like any standard, non-creative singer. She harmonizes well with PJ, but it can’t keep the interest afloat. That isn’t to say the track is poor, but having a more profound singer would make it more potent with its theme of mental self-care. It’s effective as is and masked within the amplified atmosphere of the production, but it isn’t as powerful as “Still Believe” or “On My Way.” In a way, it adds the low-scale title when speaking in a range of quality, or simply put, at worst, the track is just fine, and at best, they are fantastic. But ultimately, it’s a vibe. It’s an album that you can have on loop without subverting your focus.
Kilo Kish is authentic to her craft, as she adds realized perspective in her songwriting. It has been a keen aspect of her talent; she has been able to draw up down-to-earth vocalizations and an array of whimsical, electro-grunge-R&B/Hip-Hop grooves that acquiesce in tangential bliss. 2013’s K+ put a spotlight on her because of it, and she continues to control it from mixtape to albums, including her new album, American Gurl. Building a foundation on Experimental and Alternative R&B/Hip-Hop, Kilo Kish branched out and used the basis of what works, adding elements that see her evoking elements of Pop; however, it can become forgettable, especially with her 2016 album, Reflections In Real Time. As a follow-up, America Gurl improves on some of the off-electronic overtones and transitions, with Kilo Kish growing more into who she is as an artist.
American Gurl is vibrant, switching styles and trying different ways to incorporate overarching themes that personify Kilo Kish’s life since her debut album in 2016. It’s a loose concept wherein she focuses on themes beyond what affects her on a personal level, as she creates parallels to her perspective on the “American Girl,” using themes like consumerism and personal freedom. She can give it to us with vibrant production and more dour-electronic synchronization between vocals and production, as it creates intricate transitions. We hear it through similar themes or ideas reflected in the songwriting or the production style. It’s a significant strength that shrouds over consistent details that already make her a great talent. Significantly, the stronghold of these songs is Kilo Kish’s intricate and hypnotic melodies, acting like the glue holding many of the tracks together.
American Gurl is great, and another reason is that Kilo Kish makes bold choices, specifically with her features. Unlike standard features, Kilo Kish uses them to elevate the sonic platform and add nuance to her vocals. She does this twice with “Death Fantasy” and “New Tricks: Art, Aesthetic, and Money.” “Death Fantasy” has Miguel delivering these ghostly vocals, which bring life to the song’s theme of death, like the death of a faux-pas physique that doesn’t reflect your inner. It speaks to more than self-worth, like how privilege–generally speaking–shields you from genuine freedom. “New Tricks: Art, Aesthetic, and Money” uses Vince Staples as a hype man for her unique flows and swagger.
There are varying transitions, whether through continuing to build on themes or by its production. “Distractions III: Spoiled Rotten” continues to build upon these illusions we have of attaining grandeur life to satisfy our insecurities; it’s expressed more personally in “Death Fantasy.” However, the transition in production delivers an interesting contrast to the more experimental “Death Fantasy.” While “Distractions III” uses elements of electro-pop, adding catchier melodies while retaining that experimental glitz, “Death Fantasy” is barer. It uses a balance of atmosphere and low synths to evoke its presence–something that is subtly vibrant beneath most productions.
The steady consistency in which Kilo Kish keeps turning heads comes from having an individualized identity to the songs on the tracklist. Like Rosalia’s Motomami, American Gurl has a different sound that barely parallels what we get. “Bloody Future” evokes an elegant island vibe; the cohesion between percussion and synthesizers is what spearheads it–that’s its identity. It continues as we get “New Tricks: Art, Aesthetic, and Money,” an experimental hip-hop track that explores more industrial electronic overtones over hip-hop-centric drum beats. The everchanging production breathes enough character that you’re left mesmerized by each direction it takes. It’s as if she took the best aspects of K+ and the best of Reflections In Real Time, and she, along with producer Raymond Brady, found a way to build something profound, though I can’t honestly say that about every track.
As you navigate American Gurl, the moments that get you perked up, and sometimes those moments aren’t as consistent–positively speaking. “Choice Cowboy” with Jean Dawson is overly ambitious with its electronic notes, that you get lost in this uninteresting techno-dance-pop hybrid that can easily get skipped. It’s the most jarring, comparatively, as it lacks smooth melodies that keep you entwined from start to finish without taking focus away from her songwriting. It’s the only instance that turns me away and causes this from being a perfect album.
American Gurl is fantastic; we see it blend an essence of life with musical progression. We get infectious melodies and unique percussion patterns that keep you attached to the lure, digesting what she sings about. It’s an album I recommend seeking out, along with her other work. More importantly, her words are grounded in reality and poignant.
What starts as the ambition to make the people groove on two feet as the production’s glossy rhythm infectiously manipulates the neurons in their brain became a little more profound, fun, and nuanced for Silk Sonic: the new super duo, consisting of Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars. The two have been known for the electrifying R&B-Soul infusions that expand its limits by balancing it out with a modern flair – Anderson did so with Malibu and Ventura, and Bruno Mars for most of his career. And uniting for An Evening with Silk Sonic, they deliver just that. This collaboration offers a quick, whirlwind experience that paces itself swiftly for a predominantly up-tempo album.
Riding the coattails of the summer smash and bed rocking, “Leave the Door Open,” the expectations were high for the duo, to only be boosted by the inclusion of Bootsy Collins MCing the album/performances. The song heightens the strengths of both artists, and if most of what we were to get mirrored that, then it would be a great album. And most songs do, like the eloquent and swagger-filled “Fly As Me,” which sees Anderson back to his smooth and smile-inducing rhythm and flows that sometimes feel like a fever-dream when he delivers. Parallel to it comes many, like “Smoking Out The Window,” which cements Bruno Mar’s effervescent presence as he leads another song.
For Anderson .Paak and his adlibs – they don’t hit the landing as frequently as his rapping and drum playing on An Evening with Silk Sonic. But his presence is pivotal in blending in a nuanced cool vibe – a kind that has you rocking the flashiest bell-bottoms with a loose and colorful button-down. Most of the time, it is the Bruno Mars show, and his presence has an elegance, especially in the backing vocals – in contrast to Paak and his. It’s subtle, barely making a dent in the quality of the song, which goes to show the skill of these artists, who can keep the fluidity despite hiccups.
The chemistry between the two is seamless – each song has the kind of synergy that gets you feeling lifted and one with your body, but it focuses on a heavy-set mood that can’t play at any given moment. It embodies more than just your standard, hyper-set, and linear models where themes align to tell a big picture; it personifies the locomotive engine in your legs that moves without proper nerve functions. You can attribute it to the dynamic palette like a shimmy-two step, slow dance grooves, and swaggalicious percussion rhythms that you can’t help but get lost within the 32-minute album. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like 32 minutes. Once it ends, it may send you trekking into older music or keeping An Evening With Silk Sonic on repeat.
However, An Evening With Silk Sonic flying by swiftly made me feel like I didn’t truly hear the songs in-between “After Last Night” and “777.” It took continuous listens for the unique productions to shine and differentiate themselves amongst the rest. Though a part of me feels the awe-inducing production, lyrics, and vocal performances on “After Last Night” left a heavy impression. It’s the only song to contain credited features – Bassist Thundercat and the Mack Daddy of Bassists, Bootsy Collins – to perform backing vocals. Thundercat’s inclusion is subtle, but it adds to the beautiful reverb in the chorus, while Bootsy continues to MC on this journey – mixing that with the funkadelic and bass-heavy production is what kept that delightful ring in the ear.
But it’s more than just his captivating voice that brought about a constant return for me to these songs in between the previously mentioned. “Smoking Out The Window” is a powerhouse performance that sees Mars carrying, as Paak delivers a forgettable verse. “Put On A Smile” is crooning at its finest, with the contrasting pitches shining over the more subdued production, but if I were to select a weak link, it is this song, as it doesn’t hold steady weight, compared to the others that keep a specific groove stuck in my mind – simply it feels like a stoppage gap where the music slows back down a little.
For “Smoking Out The Window,” it’s easy to gloss over Anderson Paak’s verse, considering Paak shines almost everywhere else like on “Silk Sonic Intro” as he establishes the riotous energy that will slowly peak after “Leave The Door Open.” The grooves come like a rollercoaster – a prominently effective one – it’s fun with individual highlights, but some moments keep you on heavily focused, especially the final song. “Blast Off” sends off the album on a high note with soulful and spacey sonic symmetry that you feel like it is sending you into space. And it’s a feeling that becomes more and more resonant with countless listens. From these listens, you start to marvel at the craftsmanship between both artists, especially when they are hitting a peak in greatness.
An Evening With Silk Sonic reaches its goal, despite being less than perfect. It is hypnotic and transfixing as your body sways to the rhythm, unaware that the two-step and gyration is just part of feeling the effervescent vibe throughout. But as you connect to it closer, the more it becomes part of your mood-dancing mix – this includes you cool cats out there, sippin’ bourbon neat, and smoking cigarettes before the dance floor utters the first letter of your name. If only An Evening With Silk Sonic was longer, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Imagine the most trivial roller coaster you have ever ridden, and now imagine having to ride it consistently, knowing that the few bright spots aren’t always everlasting. That has been the ride Lion Babe fans have been on since their major-label debut, Begin. The songs that stood out were ones that have been released prior, like “Jump Hi” featuring Childish Gambino. On their follow-up, Cosmic Wind, we received an eclectic array of soul/R&B and funk hybrids that felt authentic to their artistry. Unfortunately, we’re back at the dull moments of that roller coaster ride as their new album, Rainbow Child, has pacing that can beat a hare in a race.
Cosmic Wind is the epitome of the phrase: breath of fresh air. Begin is forgettable and clunky and lacking balance in appeal. They were limited by the label to make the album marketable, as the closest thing to marketability, on the surface, is the fact that Jillian Hervey is Vanessa Williams’ daughter. Set that aside. She didn’t rely on nepotism to make a name for herself, as she hustled with her producer, Lucas Goodman, to grow organically. Her vocal range and performances speak for themselves, as it allows her to experiment with various sounds. Rainbow Child takes a step back from this, as the production dwindles into the realm of simplicity – this is where they focus on more detail and less extensive.
Lion Babe is known for keeping features to a minimum, and this has let them find perfect pairings that translate over. On the opening song, “Rainbows,” Jillian Hervey’s performance carries expressive range, from the high pitch chorus to the smooth melody of the verses, the steady drop mirrors perfectly. It benefits from solid verse by Ghostface Killah, as he brings validation to Lion Babe’s way of finding the perfect pairing for a song.
Along with Trinidad James, other features on the album stand out individually, “Signs” with rapper, Siimbiie Lakew. “Signs” is a high point Rainbow Child, as rapper Siimbiie Lakew brings a cadence and intimacy in his performance. It’s saddening to see them almost lose control of their individualized freedom as the featured artists are more memorable than Jillian Hervey. They focus on weaving the songs with beautiful visuals. This creates some fluidity, but most people won’t be listening and watching in tangent unless you’re a superfan.
Due to this, the album teeters on and off, catching you by surprise by these featured performers who outperform Hervey; Lucas Goodman’s production, not as much. Goodman’s eclectic production contains ever-changing spotlights as he toys with psychedelic and acoustic sounds. He allows for the simplicity to mold into an effervescent array of moods, between togetherness and spirited. On the vocal end, we see Hervey finding a happy medium, matched with the underwhelming songwriting. “Going Through It” has a smooth-twinkly percussion, which emboldens Hervey’s slow tempo, despite boring lyricism that breaches a level of preachiness.
Neither member of Lion Babe has been consistently great; however, you’ll know when the music lands. You’ll become mesmerized as they pick you up from the corner seat and onto the dance floor. There aren’t many instances where this is the case on Rainbow Child, except for “Get Up,” which elevates the smooth slow-dancing grooves that aren’t prevalent in classical styles. Jillian Hervey and Trinidad James make the most of lavish-80s nostalgia influences within production. The brass horns create a bridge toward the soft percussion, as the piano keys and bass round out their colors. Trinidad adds that beautiful fusion with his effortless flow, which has grown throughout the years.
Unfortunately, in between the few highlights, Rainbow Child can be very forgettable. The intangibles of the album’s production allow it to breathe from beneath the rubble of mediocrity. It feels lost and not the trippy fun created by stringy performances and elegant sound layering. Lucas Goodman’s production has a natural way of transitioning from one to another, and as much as Hervey tries, she doesn’t command focus. Unless you hear the featured artist, it’s hard to distinguish which song is playing.
Rainbow Child leaves me feeling bewildered as the talent doesn’t mirror what is expected, especially with the simplicity of the songwriting. It doesn’t fit the character mold well, thus leaving less to the imagination and adding pressure toward the featured artist. It does leave you with one thing, a want to return to Cosmic Wind on a warm summer day.
When word spread of a non-collection of demos and records from Prince’s vault, the world felt a sigh of relief to receive new music without fearing for a producer’s intervention. We heard that this album, Welcome 2 America, was one that Prince had shelved after its recording. And after some rough years with tragic releases that undercut artists’ legacies, like Michael Jackson and Pop Smoke, there were worries that this new album could potentially deliver something similar. However, that isn’t the case. Welcome 2 America is this groovy-funkadelic soul journey that takes through histrionics of culture’s control in society.
Most of Welcome 2 America reminds us of what we’ve been missing over the last half-decade. Prince has had a presence everywhere, despite minimal hiccups within some of the instrumentations. There isn’t a moment where the music feels fully dated. He speaks on the influence social media and the internet have on creating biased opinions. But it isn’t like Prince is equating to the meme – The Simpsons Predicting Things. Instead, Prince has a keen eye on the stimulation consistent backslaps from the judicial system, and more can create amongst a crowd. 2020 was a testament to that momentous uproar amongst the community.
Before the start of Prince’s Welcome 2 America tour, his band accompanied him in the studio to record some music, particularly about the social-political climate in America and more. He distinguishes the rights of one and the view imparted on them based on blind societal construction. In the opening song, Prince delivers in spoken-word / singing hybrid delivers this wide range of ideas that flowed through his head as he saw the world progress. It continues to elevate throughout the album, taking away aspects of the dance movements for electrifying emphasis on the songwriting.
This is effervescent on the songs “Same Page, Different Book” and “Running Game (Son Of A Slave Master),” which breaths onto life’s recurring redundancies. It speaks on the changes needed as these redundancies become a more glaring issue. It finds ways to fix a community presence to keep the attention of the listener through the instrumentations.
Prince has had a consistent procession with rockabilly sensibilities behind his various eras, from disco to funkadelic power-rock and others. It isn’t missing here as Prince takes us back to a moment where this sound rang supreme for him. So there will be an urge to groove to the rhythm, despite the deep meaning in the songwriting. For example, In the song “Born 2 Die,” Prince creates a parallel to living-free as he speaks about the dangers that could kill a character, like external temptations. Prince approaches these subjects carefully to create the right atmosphere amongst the collection of tracks. It makes the transition between songs that bring out a two-step and ones that bring out your inner beret-wearing-coffee-drinker sensibilities (musically).
The songs that follow a similar path to “Born 2 Die” come across with beautiful bravado. “Yes” and “Hot Summer,” in particular, are these breaths of fresh air with commanding gospels that create unison from those who dance around with glee. It stems from a looser sensibility that comes from an elongated sunset and calming weather of the summer. “Yes” gets you up on two feet as you rejoice with the band in this unified mix of glee and happiness that stem from trying and seeing new pastures.
Unlike “Yes,” “Hot Summer” is a delicate summer fling that doesn’t boast the tracks around it. Others feel part of a bigger collective, while this feels too focused on being a summer anthem. From the infectious percussion and harmonies by Prince and his band, this small stoppage gap delivers behind Prince’s strengths. It’s a highlight from the album that isn’t fully there. To its merit, one could easily find themselves grooving to this on any given day or whenever your focus isn’t to play this from start to finish.
These transfer over to other songs like “1000 Light Years From Here.” This song contrasts themes with the instrumentations. It blends lively sounds with serious songwriting that speak about the prototypical American Dream. For some, it is a true dream that becomes a reach, while others create their own far from the gravitational center of society.
The songs that fluctuate instrumentally around similar sentiments are usually the best. One of my favorites songs on the album, “Stand Up And B Strong,” delivers on all cylinders. It builds momentum by fueling the internal desire to feel heard and capitalize on unified strengths. Like on “Yes,” there is an overwhelming sense of wanting happiness and determination that brings us closer together.
There aren’t many songs that feel minimally off. But there is a reason Welcome 2 America got shelved in 2011. It isn’t perfect, and the humility it adds to Prince as a musician leaves you feeling comfortable and warm about its perception later down the road. Welcome 2 America takes itself seriously and is vibrant enough that most will enjoy the many songs on this, while others may feel lukewarm – understandably so. This album is fun and a nice relic of the past; however, it would have been understandable if it remained shelved.
Leon Bridges’ old soul is rooted in the back of his vocal cords. He delivers transcendent – driving with the top down of your convertible – type of music. We’ve heard Leon Bridges deliver various sweet and tingling performances over loose and melodic string orchestration, sometimes reminding you of Otis Redding. We swayed with the rhythm of R&B, resonant of smooth-soft billowing from singers who presided with dominance. His attention to detail is awe-inspiring, which rarely gets underwritten by poor transition execution. He takes you on the backseat of his motorbike as he swoons you to smooth grooves, particularly from his softening-melodic vocals, on his new album Gold-Diggers Sound.
Throughout Gold-Diggers Sound, Leon Bridges shifts the location from the dim-lit music club to the bedsheets. “Steam” takes that approach by creating a sleek and vibrant track about winning over our date, who had you head over heels from her hotness. With these unique inflections, he brings self-assurance to the people who need to swoon a little more. Instead of playing classic Trey Songz or Jodeci to get in the mood, Leon’s music makes you work for it by allowing the females he sings about to have a dynamic perception of the situations at hand. Leon Bridges transfixes these ideas with grace and beauty that they become individualized highlights all their own.
Two tracks come to mind when reflecting on these intentional directions of love and intimacy: “Motorbike” and “Magnolias.” Each track is a whirlwind adventure through the nightly bustle as you marvel at the beautiful lights illuminating your way. It’s a two-pronged song that doesn’t billow in a puddle of basic conventions and delivers a worthwhile free-living experience. Being non-conventional is the definition of the album, bringing unique strengths from Leon Bridges’ remarkable vocal range.
“Magnolias” is a bit different. Leon Bridges finds himself inspired by magnolia trees and the music Sade within the construct of the song. It tells a beautiful tale about love juxtaposed with elevated moods. Leon is in a state of pure happiness and whimsy that his state of mind is loose with the thought of smelling magnolia trees, opposed to flowers. It’s like the fragrance offers a more poignant aroma that brings them this elevated/happy mood.
As he puts it in an interview with Apple Music: “I immediately was pigeonholed after my first album, and the more I continue to create, I want to be honest about the music that inspires me. I love the juxtaposition of that beautiful acoustic guitar with the more trap, modern R&B thing. My mother always used to encourage me to write a song about this magnolia tree that was in her backyard. And so I kind of took that and shaped the lyrics around it. In my head, as far as the chorus, it felt like this is how Sade would sing it in terms of that melody. That probably doesn’t make sense, but it made sense in my head at the time.”
The melodies and harmonies are reminiscent of a young Sade record. Leon Bridges doesn’t hide from what influences him, finding new ways to deliver with impact on the production. His producers, Ricky Reed, and Nate Mercereau, amongst others, add extra layers of textures of instruments that developed further in our modern era (1990 – Present) of music. The production is crisp and tight without feeling like another rendition of a song we heard previously. To Leon Bridges’ testament, his vocal performances have kept him afloat as he breathes new life to these songs. On Coming Home, he delivered “Smooth Sailin’,” which allowed you to feel the soft summer wind breezing every time the chorus came on. And on Gold-Diggers Sound, it becomes a recurring attraction.
Unfortunately, Gold-Diggers Sound doesn’t have pristine execution; transitioning from song to song you start to notice which songs pop, opposed to not. Amongst the aforementioned “Motorbike” and “Magnolias” is the song “Gold-Diggers,” which gets lost amongst the trove of spectacular songs surrounding it. This situation mirrors as the album comes to a close.
Preceding the last two tracks is the astounding “Sweeter,” with Terrace Martin, which details a story told through the perspective of a protagonist in the shoes of someone who has been slain due to unnecessary force by police officers. His sentiments explore a deep section of the subconscious that fears any pivot could trigger a radical response in any given situation.
Gold-Diggers Sound is a beautiful detour from his traditional work of the past. It packs songs that flow with the wind and the top down as you’re cruising down the coast. His fans will continue to enjoy his harmless and tender vocals, and new fans will discover the breath of fresh air he delivers amongst others in his genre.
Continuing her monstrous year, winning both Song of The Year at the Grammys and the Academy Award for Best Original Song, H.E.R. delivers her debut studio album, Back of My Mind. It’s crazy to think that after three years of critical acclaim and mainstream success, she has been going about, on a consistent basis, releasing EPs after EPs that would later be repurposed as compilation albums. But her originality and talent always shined, giving us these unique creations that showed her range; specifically proving she has the makings of a rock star. Back of My Mind has luscious production, fantastic vocal performances, albeit clocking in at 21 songs and 80 minutes of material that sometimes feel more like filler or non complacent within the bigger picture.
Back of My Mind comes as H.E.R’s first true foray into creating a concept album that delves deep into her subconscious and brings out these beautiful performances about her life. However they come in a sporadic mess with few inconsistencies. There are moments where the track has you hooked from the melodies and the production – at times sensing smart songwriting – and yet the choruses that are supposed to be the icing on the cake, start to slightly teeter on mediocrity at random instances. H.E.R. either keeps your attention or you start to lose it as some tracks don’t have the depth her vocals can provide; other times the writing from her, with a collection of others, carry a lot of dead weight as it’s hard to distinguish who wrote who.
But these random factions on Back of My Mind are filled with some filler and thematic redundancy. That it will have you – at times – tapping next slightly quicker than usual, like on “Find A Way,” with Lil Baby, which comes across as broad and redundant. It feels like it was orchestrated to add slight commercial appeal; the same could also be said about the addition of “Slide,” with YG, and one of the weaker tracks, “I Can Have It All,” that she made with Bryson Tiller, Meek Mill, and DJ Khaled for his most recent album, Khaled Khaled. But for some of these tracks, hitting the skip button is a blessing as some of H.E.R’s best work comes from it, like “Bloody Waters,” with Thundercat, co-produced by Kaytranada and Gitelman (producer of the 2016 Mac Miller single “Cinderella”) and “Don’t.”
But these great follow-ups are just crumbs off the cake, as other slices come with blandness like the track “Paradise,” with southern trap rapper, Yung Bleu. It feels off as they try to incorporate and feel invigorated by the low-tempo island R&B and Hip-Hop ballad, which gets worse as it progresses; specifically because of the evolution of sound that starts to steer off a cliff. It is one of the many tracks that evoke themes about relationships and love, a few of which came off redundant, despite unique sounds. But when she steers in a more personable direction that doesn’t feel completely tried, as her career seemed to have a weird trajectory. When those songs have more focus on her person and the effect fame has had on her artistry, opposed to the more tedious themes in R&B/Soul, is where H.E.R. shines as a vocalist, allowing herself to break down more barriers and have us forget about the one true deterrent into pop in the song, “Slide.”
The emotional performances from H.E.R captivate you whether it’s melodically soulful or spiritually bleak, and continuing to show that her dominance in the industry is no fluke with her amazing voice and range. This continuation shows more when she is trading verses and duets with other artists, like the nuanced “Come Through,” featuring Chris Brown channeling a version of himself we rarely see. This is similarly heard on “Trauma,” featuring Cordae. The smooth, somber, and depth filled production by Hit-Boy feels isolated and it shines as its own thing that fits within the grander scheme of the concept as she picks apart pieces of her mind. It’s a breath of fresh air to hear these two artists mesh into a H.E.R. like tracks that don’t come across as what you’d expect when seeing their name on a feature list.
There are plentiful examples to highlight how H.E.R creates a path to let collaborators flourish with her. It provides insight to the construction of the song/production notes, and how some meld themselves into a genre they barely touch. On “Cheat Code,” Asa Taccone (Electric Guest) and Julia Michaels co-wrote and co-produced the highlight “Cheat Code,” which felt seminally out of the former’s comfort zone. Asa brings unique touches with co-producer DJ Camper, like the vibrant and distinguishing percussion patterns.
This cohesion and understanding allows for new perspective on the delivery of the performance over the production, amongst the in between writing like New Jersey producer Cardiak and R&B/Soul songwriters from various eras of the genre, but especially this new era with writers like the duo Nova Wav (written for DJ Khaled and Teyanna Taylor) and Gamal Lewis, who has written for Ciara, Meghan Trainor, and Lil Wayne, to name a few. Unfortunately not everyone can make a track work, as Gamal Lewis and the other credited writers couldn’t really make that track feel fully rounded.
Back of My Mind’s quality strives in the middle where many tracks hit, some of which have distinct details that make slightly lesser tracks more repeatable, like the melody and production of “Lucky,” and “My Own,” or the lyricism of “Process.” H.E.R. comes about this album with a need to distinguish and express that she is capable of range, which she has previously tried to show on the slightly fun “We Goin’ Crazy” from Khaled Khaled.
H.E.R. has never shied away from speaking her truth, but she seems to feel misguided when it came to constructing her debut album. It’s bloated, running at 21 tracks and 80 minutes in length, you could tell what could have been shaved off and it would have made a tighter album. However, H.E.R. delivers enough to have you returning to this, especially with unique outputs like “Come Through;” however you’ll probably return to her earlier work more frequently.
Josiah Wise or, known better as, Serpentwithfeet has been a part of a musical realm of oblique vocal deliveries over experimental R&B sounds that takes influence from sonic styles of varying eras of R&B. His debut, Soil, brought a lot of the nuances from these styles as he painted these elegant pictures with his songwriting and sultry falsetto. Coming off a few low profile releases and a beautiful duet with Ellie Goulding on her 2020 release Brightest Blue, he has come back with the followup to Soil,Deacon. Deacon brings forth a series of paintings that tell stories about love, religion, and identity, as Serpentwithfeet brings forth a strong fortitude in his thematic transitions, even when songs don’t leave the consistent impact that Soil did.
Deacon, instrumentally, softens the kind of approach Serpentwithfeet takes within layers of the sonic transitions allowing for experimental consistency, though experimental is a loose term here. The experimental aspects come from these unique ways the production incorporates both conventions of R&B styles, particularly the popular parts of the blue-y 90s and and the rhythm heavy 00s; as well as an occasional vocal-gospel inflection of some of the harmonizations. There are some nuances, too, to the stylistic focus behind the percussion heavy R&B of the 00s and the slow-somber guitar centric style of the 90s, which had more focus on the blues aspect of the anagram.
Serpentwithfeet brings varying aspects of both, usually individualized on each track – one or another. Other times he is finding a beautiful blend of the two, like on “Same Size Shoes.” The beautiful melodies of the idealistic happiness he sees in the similarities between him and his lover. The production has been a key element of Serpentwithfeet’s work as it lays with the direction of his content. On Soil, he laid a foundation of his being and on Deacon he reasons with love and reasons with doubt on the surface, with the grounded songwriting creating more underlying themes. It reflects well with the broken down instrumentations on certain songs, like on “Amir,” and “Malik,” which are a combination of these idyllic men he creates in his head.
Serpentwithfeet and his producers steer the ship through some decadent transitions from start to finish. But there are moments where a song feels like a stagnant pause with slight abruptness, like on “Dawn.” It feels like an interlude that does little to connect the dots, but it does transfer the dynamic to have some slight gospel and soul undertones to take command of some sonic moods. Similarly with “Derrick’s Beard,” an otherwise lovely interlude that feels displaced within the collection of tracks, with its somber like vocalization not mirroring what precedes and follows in conceptual mood.
“Sailor’s Superstition,” brings forth a smooth combination of soul and baroque pop textures on the R&B vocal-subtexts, which revolves around a tale about superstitions told about a commonality in relationships. Serpentwithfeet’s eloquent use of the sailor analogy, which refers to that of an attraction to opposite or in his case – same sex – person/object deterring ideas of internal happiness in this case, unlike sailors where it’d be more work related.
Throughout Deacon, you hear a consistency in the inflection of his vocals, as they breath essences of the choir like amplification of the harmonies and at times melodies. But as reliant an album has with creating transitioning cohesion, Deacon has more individualized standouts as opposed to one big lush project you can listen to from start to finish. “Fellowship,” which closes the album, encapsulates all these themes on the back burner and delivers a smooth dance track that doubles as an ode to the bond of friendships. It’s the only thematic outlier that flows well within the contexts of the album, Deacon.
Deacon is definitively a different album than Soil, but it shows a kind of maturity in both sound and style you tend to see with artists of his mental caliber. The music breathes a life all its own with the content being vibrantly drawn in our mind through the songwriting.
Through the Jonas Brothers’ collective and individualized discographies, Nick Jonas has always been the one to grow from his strengths and leave centralized pop music behind, for the most part. His previous album Last Year Was Complicated had a plethora of unique creations stemming from collaborators Evigan and Max Martin – to name a few, but never felt like anything special. And though the album chopped in some unique pop infusions, Nick showed immense strength when he dove into more R&B centric production and let his high sultry pitches and slightly raspy low vocalizations create beautiful contrasts in sound. His new album Spaceman takes these strengths, and along with producers Greg Kurstin (Adele’s “Hello”) weave this elegant array of spacious R&B tracks that add a little pop in the choruses to keep the infectious sounds going.
Spaceman is a slightly new and more intimate direction for Nick Jonas, as the R&B sonic overtones takes the music to new heights by implementing coats of varying instruments to heighten the song’s themes. Like the track “This is Heaven,” which incorporates these angelic and orchestral horns that bring light to the scene Nick paints on the song as he talks about his conflicting relationship with religion and life. These sonic themes evaporate and consistently recycle the drenching rain of variety the album takes from the 80s.
Many tracks take stylistic influence in the way the structures are written and each song’s undertones, except for the title track which breathes Life On Mars with exasperation. This is because there are some people, who without looking deep into the title, won’t immediately sense the David Bowie ghost dueting with Nick in your ear. The orchestral strings intermittently throughout the instrumental brings a lot of life to the song. This is an ever growing strength on Spaceman, which comes and soars with applause like it was the recent shuttle that took the Mars rover less than a month ago.
Spaceman deserves the applause with the way Nick Jonas has been directing his career recently and not letting the other work around him hinder the quality of his new music. The songwriting has matured substantially through the years and on this album, Nick shows a lot of flashes of master work in the structure from the choruses to bridges. This burrows these great and infectious melodies that stay with you the more you hear them. “Deeper Love,” brings forth that with the elegant percussion and melody reminiscent of late 80s power pop-ballads that were once dominant in the mainstream, especially the esoteric synthwave sounds that remain subtle. As well, that Foreigner melody sample from “I Want To Know What Love It” is very on point.
This reflects symmetrically on the production, which never feels redundant and grows into these intricate pieces of R&B / Pop hybrids. These effervescent sounds come in full force on the track “Delicious,” which oozes lush Huey Lewis & The News vibes. These adjunct influences slide into some other tracks on the album, like the aforementioned “Deeper Love.” But the way it keeps feeling fresh and different adds new tunes for the jukebox and become bonafide potential club tracks.
However Spaceman is far from the gushing awe and uproarious reactions. Some songs dwindle plainly into the realm of forgettability, but they easily mix in without a hindrance on the overall product. This is more apparent in the second half of the album, with tracks like “Sexual” and “Nervous.” “Sexual” is this lustry and deliciously smooth sex track for those playlists, but the melodies and songwriting are more of an afterthought.
Spaceman is more than what meets the eye, especially from the many who had preconceived notions of the artist based on his early Disney days. Nick Jonas has fully grown into his own and has unabashedly made one of the best albums, so far, this year. It fills the room with vibrant electricity, you can’t help but have most of the songs on repeat.
Not even Gaefflestein can make this album enjoyable. It’s a real snooze fest from front to back. Upon its release I remember a very lukewarm reaction to the EP, but that was just giving him the benefit of the doubt. This new revisit, however, showed missteps along the way to deliver something that was once his strongest construct in his music.
The Gaefflestein instrumentals elevate the two songs with them, but nothing can really save the barely drawn out and yawn inducing My Dear Melancholy.
7. Kiss Land
There is a lot that can be said about Kiss Land. After three critically acclaimed mixtapes and a hype unseen from a Canadian artist since Drake in 2008 (Sorry Carly Rae Jepsen). His attempted insertion in the major pop stratosphere was lackluster to say the least. It plays it safe by sticking to his dark mood – synth wave R&B style, but without the depth seen on his previous projects. It always feels like he is treading too many familiar waters instead exploring these luscious sounds more.
It is perplexing how on the surface it met the criteria of what was to be expected from The Weeknd, and especially on his major label debut. With a bigger budget there would be an expected elevation in production, but even with the long runtimes and moody stories that are enveloped in the instrumental didn’t match the quality of his three earlier mixtapes.
There are a number of solid standouts like “The Town,” and “Wanderlust,” which has the most polished and unique instrumental of the bunch. “Wanderlust,” in particular lets the 80s style guitar strings create the overall feel for the synth-pop track. It’s the small nuances like these in the Kiss Land that make if a good debut.
Thursday is the “weakest” of the trilogy of mixtapes that make up The Weeknd’s first compilation album. It takes too much focus on redundant slow melodies interluding these more bombastic songs that standout (by early Weeknd standards).
Thursday’s highlights include “The Zone” featuring Drake and “Lonely Star.”
“The Zone,” has one of the more colorful instrumentals on the tape and buoyed gravitas where it doesn’t sink you too deep, but allows the immediate enjoyment from the subtle strings underneath powerful drum patterns.
Like most of Thursday, the instrumentations steal the show, which in turn allows the Weekend to play around more the music. It is the most ambitious tape of the initial three, specifically with the consistent styles brought by the drum patterns like on “The Birds Pt. 1,” and “Pt. 2.”
The variations include dream-pop like sequences like on “Lonely Star,” to the downtempo dubstep use in tracks like “Life of the Party,” and the title track. And to that effect it makes great use of what they work with, but at times feels like there is more that is missing. It could have just been expectations at the time
5. After Hours
Though one of the biggest albums of 2020, After Hours carried was a sense an essence more attune to the term overrated. However, It doesn’t apply for the second half of After Hours, which finally makes solid use of the new-wave sounds of the 80s. He brought it to the forefront (for the certain niche population of him) with modern takes on instrumental patterns from the era and opening new doors.
The first half slows the tempo of the music by delivering some elegant soft and slow moments, but the overall progression becomes slightly forgettable. It could mostly be that The Weeknd has not predominately hit with his slower-tempo’d pop tracks in recent memory. But it isn’t devoid of great moments/songs like the moody and instrumentally simple “Scared to Live,” which shows The Weeknd’s vocal talent in ballad form. There are a lot of moments where The Weeknd disregards the typical sensitivities based around cold emptiness and channels more longing and heartbreak.
But if we are being honest, After Hours really benefits from having illustrious instrumentations from the producers, and especially legend Max Martin. His bass, drum, keys and guitar work, along with programming gives After Hours it’s own stage to shine in those moments, specifically on “Blinding Lights,” which is a real masterwork.
The prototypical new-wave pop track that exhilarates the drum and synths patterns by focusing it on a 171 BPM speed, which was very common for most drum beats of the 80s. You can hear that kind of consistency in the hits of many bands of the time, like Duran Duran and Joe Jackson.
Starboy was a real turning point in The Weeknd’s long and effervescent career. After ending a triumphant run in the R&B/Pop – stratosphere with Beauty Behind the Madness, his new direction incorporated more new-wave and synth new-wave elements into his music.
Like the recently released After Hours, the new-wave influence The Weeknd brings is a call back to 80s Pop music that once lost footing with more artists steering into an electric-centric direction. But artists like The Weeknd, and others, infuse the unique qualities of 80s music into the instrumentation and modernizes. “I Feel It Coming,” is a strong component of that by bringing smooth disco textures and new-wave synthesizers into the echo chamber and mixing together a lush instrumentation from The Weeknd and his core, plus Daft Punk.
Other highlights of 80s synth new-wave include “Party Monster,” and “Secrets.” The latter of which is this remarkable cut produced by Doc McKinney, The Weeknd himself, and Cirkut (producer of Dark Horse and Roar by Katy Perry) that feels like a remnant of the 80s brought into the light by the virtuoso of the people involved.
However, there are slight shift into the electronic side of the new-wave genre/sound gave The Weeknd many instances to switch his deliveries from certain conventions, like on “False Alarm.” The track opens to The Weeknd breaking down his verses with a hyper stylized melody and the chorus line shifts into a fire alarm going off, but its instead of the blaring noise it’s The Weeknd yelling the title. The smooth transition in the instrumental from the verses to the chorus lines are like a stellar bomb of lights playing the music in your head visually.
Starboy does extend long at 70 minutes, but most of the time the pace is in constant motion and the way you breeze through the tracklist isn’t an afterthought. The underlying currents of the instrumentation reels you with hypnotic consistency.
3. Beauty Behind the Madness
Contrary to the predominant style/approach on Kiss Land, The Weeknd shifts from the blues to the rhythm. The dimensions brought about by The Weeknd’s bombastic overtures that he creates with his producers.
Full of sultry and sex-fueled anthems you wonder how “Can’t Feel My Face,” got a nomination for a Kids Choice Award. Did kids love cocaine in 2016? If only there was an answer. But in all seriousness, like the follow up to this, Starboy, it comes at you full force with great track after great track. There is the luscious and melodic “Often” that takes parallel look on fame and the tinted glasses based on it, and the moody despair of the story evoked in “The Hills.”
The production had definitely tightened in the transition from Kiss Land to this. It could be that with more producers and instrumentalist there was sheer focus on the alignment of the music to The Weeknd’s vocal BPM delivery brings a lot to the forefront. “Can’t Feel My Face” does so by adding the disco speed to the funk centric track.
Though not every track comes off 100% perfect, the amount of what could otherwise be considered skippable songs keeps you head over heels with hypnotic instrumentals and stellar melodies that keep your ears racing for more. It makes you overlook some of the rough patches along the way.
2. House of Balloons
House of Balloons is The Weeknd’s debut mixtape that defined the low-profile hype. It embodies the necessity to show patience, as the detailed instrumentals and moody – morning after despair and regrets paint pictures of a night that leaves the mind weak, amongst other themes.
It does so by commanding moods and sequencing the instrumentations to lay out the cohesiveness from both producer and artist. There are flashes where The Weeknd’s vocals don’t correspond to certain niches of R&B, but what positively deters it from them are it’s unconventional choices instrumentally.
The sound is not as compartmentalized as other standards within the realm he was trying to break into is. There is more groove and emotional weight blended in two. House of Balloons, however, steers more into the blues aspect of the genre and uses alternative sounds to create a zoned in/spacey atmosphere. It’s what separates it from the other artists making music in the genre at the time, since it was heavily pop focused to create superstars. Its neck and neck with Echoes of Silence as one his best works to date.
1. Echoes of Silence
Echoes of Silence is not completely devoid of the typical lyrical content of a Weeknd project, but instead of expressing cold emptiness he is coming from a place of pure heartbreak and despair. It uses the dark-embroidered overtures to deliver with cadence. “XO/The Host,” and “Montreal,” builds upon this brooding mood created by his take on “Dirty Diana” by Michael Jackson.
Echoes of Silence gets the best components of House of Balloons and Thursday and builds upon them further. “Same Old Song,” is an embodiment of it, with croonish despair in his voice as he tries to flex his success it doesn’t match emotions held of his lost love. He plays it off like it is the same old song, but those emotions are deep rooted. He slowly builds his confidence back up to see the future, and Juicy J reaffirms that at the end with the hype man cameo. It is a great representation of the mixtape and The Weeknd as artist.