H.E.R – Back of My Mind: Review

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.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

Serpentwithfeet – Deacon: Review

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. 

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Nick Jonas Takes Us On A Stellar Journey On Spaceman: Review

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.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

List: Ranking The Weeknd Discography

8. My Dear Melancholy

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.

6. Thursday

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.

4. Starboy

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.