Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers: Review

Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. The title isn’t reading a mouthful, but the new album by Kendrick Lamar has created a conversation that makes you feel like you were reading one. It’s a complex text that wants you to decipher beyond the surface layer verbiage, and Kendrick doesn’t make it pleasant. It’s provocative, but that’s a given for him. With complex text, there is complex production, but here, he is building toward growth and showing us a reenergized side of him. However, it isn’t an immediate masterpiece or a straight one. It’s progressive but flawed. Kendrick brings many ideas to the fold based on experience where he flourishes in delivering his message; unfortunately, the second half (Mr. Morale) gets a little muted by certain decisions made. It left me hoping it had the same impact as the first (The Big Steppers), but he stumbles over some creative choices that don’t pan out. Though both offer a lot to digest as we let ourselves get consumed by the proverbial introspections from Kendrick.

Kendrick Lamar closes Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers with “Sorry I didn’t save the world again/I was too busy rebuilding mine my friend/I choose me, I’m sorry.” It’s a gut-wrenching punch that hits you in the brain as it establishes in your mind that the style and perspectives taken are the way they are. Kendrick is at an apex where some would think a drop from him would “save Hip-Hop.” But Kendrick is more than just hip-hop; he isn’t out here to sell you popular records, and he isn’t here to deliver a myriad of styles like on DAMN, but he is taking us through the looking glass. Kendrick takes a nosedive with such effectiveness that it breathes intrigue into understanding where he is getting at. This commonality gives it this vitriol that boasts the topics he speaks on, which offers a platitude of reflections that cloud him as he progresses through various aspects of his life, like fatherhood and grief. These notions align within the texts of “United In Grief” and “Father Time,” two of the best tracks on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers

Unfortunately, some lose impact, like “Auntie Diaries” on Mr. Morale and “Rich Interlude” on The Big Steppers, because intention gets slightly derailed due to artistic decisions which drive immense discussion into his approach, but more so the former. “Aunties Diaries” sees Kendrick tackling the double standard with the usage of slurs in hip-hop, reminiscing on his adolescence where he admired his transgender familial members for their heart and hustle. He goes on to mention how it was one of them who showed him his first sheet of 16s, helping to ignite his early love of hip-hop. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stick, as Kendrick’s focus on obtuse song structures has him missing the point. He’s sticking to reality where he deadnames and misgenders his family when there were other avenues he could have taken without censoring himself. “Rich Interlude” loses semblance due to Kodak Black and his controversial history, where he doesn’t embody the wholesome image of success, which further and poorly encapsulates Kendrick’s “product of our environment” theology. Furthermore, it has me question whether Kodak’s inclusion was more musical kinship or a shot at musical redemption.

While Kendrick Lamar values the exploration of parallels through experience, there is further understanding of the dynamics that shape our socio-political discussions and progression toward true equality. However, what’s getting represented is Kendrick’s true nature. We may not acquiesce, but that’s because they evoke “I choose me, I’m sorry” subtly. He subverts our perception of him within these various themes to tremendous effect, despite the complexities of his music. We hear themes like his conflicted normality, his relation to hip-hop, trauma, etc. In “Savior,” he reminds us, “Like it when they pro-Black, but I’m more Kodak Black,” implying that despite the pro-black political bubble we’ve placed him in, his opinions on particular things aren’t far from artists/entertainers like Kodak and Kyrie Irving. It’s a sentiment we get from the lines “Niggas is tight-lipped, fuck who dare to be different/Seen a Christian say the vaccine mark of the beast/Then he caught COVID and prayed to Pfizer for relief/Then I caught COVID and started to question Kyrie,” where Kendrick’s mental lining isn’t far off, but willing to learn. 

Kodak Black’s presence stems from appearing on an interlude to backing vocals and a track that feels lost as it juxtaposes the lyrical content with the embodiments of the rest. “Silent Hill” is more radio-driven; the production is minimalist, weaving these intricate soulful harmonies and crazy percussion patterns, while the two rap about their status and money. Despite Kodak Black delivering a solid verse, it is the only instance where he doesn’t have you slightly groaning, unlike his brief appearance in “Worldwide Steppers.” It’s a unique contrast to The Big Steppers, which has “We Cry Together,” a solid track that speaks on Kendrick’s abusive and dysfunctional relationship with Hip-Hop. It’s heavier like the music on Mr. Morale, while “Silent Hill,” a fine song, doesn’t have any merit within the overall construct.

Surrounding the little that didn’t work is an abundance of mental exploration. Kendrick Lamar spreads lyrical vibrancy with emotional gravitas, so whether he is rapping about trauma with “Mr. Morale” and “Mother I Sober” or talking his shit like on “N95” and “Worldwide Steppers,” he is giving us these auspicious bars/ideas to break apart. On top of that, he is incorporating production that perfectly matches the levels of nuance he offers in his verses. We hear this flurry of big-scope, little-scope productions that fit the nature of the content without getting overdone or undercooked. It buoys many of the various artists Kendrick brings to help build his narratives.

Though pertinent with the Beth Gibbons feature on “Mother I Sober,” their innate-great consistency of them shows in The Big Steppers. From the luminously mystifying vocals of Sampha to Taylour Paige’s remarkable performance on “We Cry Together,” there is a cadence to them, specifically as they work their style over potential reference sheets. But there are some that miss, like Baby Keem on “Savior Interlude.” His verse lacks integrity in the art, and he continues to show how much of a proxy he is for Kendrick when they work together. Fortunately, Keem and Kodak are the only two featured blemishes on the album that weigh it down, and their appearances are brief.

“Die Hard” and “Purple Hearts” have these contrasting shimmers reflecting on the track’s components. Both have dual features, and both use them differently. On “Die Hard,” Kendrick Lamar brings Blxt and Amanda Reifer of Cover Drive to deliver a balanced remedy of soulful melodies in the chorus and post-chorus to complement Kendrick’s flow as he raps about his fears in opening up in a relationship. “Purple Hearts” sees Kendrick, along with Summer Walker and Ghostface Killah, delivering visceral verses relating to love in a relationship and the hardships which come from it. Summer Walker is a standout all-her-own, like Taylour Paige, both of whom encapsulate the last two tracks on Mr. Morale. In the previously mentioned “Mother I Sober,” Kendrick Lamar takes trauma head-on; he’s rapping about his past, reflecting the directions taken to escape memories, like in the second verse where he notes: “​​I remember lookin’ in the mirror knowin’ I was gifted/Only child, me for seven years, everything for Christmas/Family ties, they accused my cousin, “Did he touch you, Kendrick?”/Never lied, but no one believed me when I said “He didn’t,”/Frozen moments, still holdin’ on it, hard to trust myself/I started rhymin’, copin’ mechanisms to lift up myself.” There is a lot to digest and endure as he pours out his heart with more than internal conflictions.

But that is what Kendrick does, he tackles trauma and other themes head-on. More so in past albums, but he is keeping centered despite missing the mark a few times. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers reestablishes Kendrick’s artistry at a cost, but he does so in his own right, even if we don’t see eye-to-eye with the way perpetuates these thoughts.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Pusha T – It’s Almost Dry: Review

We’re about four years removed from Ye’s infamous Wyoming series, which saw Pusha T deliver Daytona, his best work to date. It showed that we could have more with less, as it weaved a more concrete and tightly structured album–one with a definitive start-to-end without leaving much to ride the coattails of great production and rapping from Pusha. Being four years removed from his last joint, Pusha T is hungry–can you blame him? It’s a contingency for him to constantly deliver top-notch verses, but it doesn’t reflect the final creation. We’ve become accustomed to his coke raps, his intricate rhyme schemes, and (of course) his infectious, maniacal laugh. That stays constant on It’s Almost Dry, despite a heel turn after “Diet Coke,” where most tracks fail to hit the mark from external forces.

From the beginning, it starts coming at you, track by track, a plethora of energy jabbing you with these hard-hitting bars that make you want to rewind it back. Pusha T can deliver a plethora of coke and money raps, but he knows how to keep it consistently intriguing lyrically. He takes different avenues to re-enforce certain connotations of his status and wealth, using his dark drug-dealing past to relay levels on the don’t fuck with meter. It’s a cycle that has been formulaic while staying interesting. Pusha T’s control and command of his craft keep him driving with a mostly clean license, like someone with only a few parking infractions. Blemishes here and there, lyrically, but for the most part, it’s a driving constant that acquiesces with the bleak and murky production. However, Pusha takes a heel turn after “Diet Coke,” where most tracks awkwardly fade into obscurity.

Though playable, some of the tracks have individualized issues, some of which don’t come from Pusha T directly. From underwhelming features on “Rock N Roll” and “Scrape It Off” to the mundane delivery and production of “Open Air” and “Call My Bluff,” these issues create distractions, at times, making you wish he took more of a solo route. It doesn’t operate with the same consistency as the first six tracks, which come at you with Pusha exceeding past his peak. Two things are evident: the Kanye West features are underwhelming, and Pusha T shouldn’t have tried to push cross-appeal over his sonic style. Don Tolliver and Lil Uzi Vert add little to the track, except for basic melodies on the chorus from the former and a forgettably bland verse from the latter. They aren’t like Jay-Z on “Neck & Wrist,” which reminds us why they are in a tier all their own. They deliver verses that create goosebumps over eerie synth and high-pitched, slightly distorted percussion.

Production is key on It’s Almost Dry. It usually incorporates these varying subtexts in its stylistic approach, rounding out Push with an array of vinyl scratches, drum patterns, and dark synths. It keeps the bleak, grimy, and murky atmosphere while taking consistent, organic twists with their added building blocks. It’s a testament to the synergy between producers like Pharrell, Kanye West, BoogzDaBeast, and 88-Keys, to name a few. They keep us on a linear path without taking a sudden nosedive. “Rock N Roll,” for its faults, naturally emboldens a rock mentality over an electro-hop core that gets reinforced by Kid Cudi’s modulations. “Dreamin Of The Past” gives us a boom-bap core with nuances to soul music; “Let The Smokers Shine The Coupe” is a bombastic anthem that consistently plays with percussion. Sans “Call My Bluff,” each production, whether subtle or not, gives us something different than the past, adding to Pusha T’s limitless range. 

Pusha T’s first three singles built up hype; they have different production styles, and Pusha T never derails, constantly hitting from all avenues that they hit exponentially; these tracks: “Diet Coke,” “Neck & Wrist,” and “Hear Me Clearly.” Even though It’s Almost Dry isn’t twelve tracks of this quality, he makes sure to close the album on a high note. “I Pray For You” continues 2022’s return of Clipse in rare form as we hear Pusha T shifting toward a more spiritually driven production that isn’t experimental like his feature on Donda. The way an organ gets incorporated boosts the depth in No Malice and Pusha T’s verses. It’s a memorable high note that makes It’s Almost Dry an interesting run-through, especially as you go through it multiple times.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Denzel Curry – Melt My Eyez See Your Future: Review

Denzel Curry’s new album, Melt My Eyez See Your Future, is unlike previous work, with a deviation in tone and lyrical approach. It has more introspective raps than past work, which focused on balancing a sound engulfed with nuances of past Hip-Hop sounds from Florida/The South and lyrical grit as he delivers comparative flexes–think J. Cole when he flaunts his education. However, Denzel doesn’t need to flex his lyrical prowess, as he has been amassing respect as an emcee and artist. Albeit offering technical consistency, it bears shortcuts in its production. While Zuu brought elevated and monstrous production, Denzel Curry matches its energy–it creates a product that offers repeat value to his other projects. Unlike Zuu, Melt My Eyez See Your Future gets built upon minimally, and instead, the percussion starts to take command as he keeps his raps centered and introspective.

It’s been odd. Hip-Hop/Rap albums are usually structured to keep a balance and style opposite a standard construct, which is a strong opening and closing while dwindling in the middle. Unfortunately, that consistency isn’t here, as Melt My Eyez See Your Future starts to get lost–each decision after “Troubles” seems to churn my head or leave me in a haze of mundaneness. The album begins treading down a stream of consciousness that focuses on style over substance. It’s especially noticeable with “Zatoichi,” featuring a very forgettable Slowthai. His vocals on the chorus get drowned out by these grungy electronic overtones that I had to doubletake as I thought I missed Slowthai on the first go-around. It isn’t rare for a single to miss, but it didn’t have the gravitas of “Walkin,” which lets instrumental play without an over-emphasis on its complexities–further allowing Denzel Curry to explore lyrically. 

In past work, Denzel Curry’s talent for creating melodies is usually unfound as he has adapted it to boast his over-arching sound/style. Despite Denzel rapping more fluidly, he doesn’t stray too far from melody-driven tracks. “The Last” rides waves as he surfs through with hypnotic and authentic melodies that get buoyed by rich production. “X-Wing” parallels the greatness of “The Last,” with an emphasis on the trap sound with an uninteresting flow and tiring choral melodies. It’s a predominant issue with this second half, even with small moments like “Angelz” and “The Smell Of Death,” which feature production from Thundercat. Unfortunately, the funkadelic nuances and sick verse/delivery left me wanting more after finishing at 1:52. Though the way it connects with “Angelz” offers an uptick in an otherwise forgettable second half.

Through its faults, Melt My Eyez See Your Future has a powerful first half, starting with gut-punching drum beats and rustic jazz overtones on “Melt Session #1.” It embodies the atmosphere of the studio’s sound stage, which adds natural emphasis to his verse. Denzel Curry continues to stride with these remarkable verses that explore intricate themes, like life, religion, capitalism, and society, using his experience and emotional perspective to back it up. Though that doesn’t always equate to something great, there are still compounding factors that make his verses last or lost within the production, which is evident with the posse cut. However, this is Denzel’s album, and his work speaks higher on solo tracks like on “Worst Comes To Worse” and “Mental.” With “Mental,” you hear Denzel deviate in an open frame, walls get torn down, and he raps about his struggles with suicide. 

There is a consistent surge of quality bars in Denzel Curry’s verses that keep you entwined, even when he slightly deviates from the introspective raps, like on “John Wayne,” a flex rap. Using John Wayne as a reference point, Denzel raps about why he sees himself with the same gusto John Wayne embodies in westerns, especially with the gun-totting skills: “Walk around the hood like I’m John Wayne/Nine on my hip, I’ma let that bih bang.” The track’s polished and eccentric production by JPEGMAFIA rounds it out to near perfection. Overall, the production is consistent, even when it envelops him and his featured artists in a shroud of load percussion. It’s a lot to reflect on, but at the same time, I hear the lost potential as it doesn’t land as smoothly as past albums, like the phenomenal Zuu.

Melt My Eyez See Your Future continues to tell us Denzel Curry is here to stay, despite his eccentric style. We get a flurry of great production and solid verses, but they don’t always acquiesce with consistency. There is consistency in the first half, more so than the second, which ultimately left me feeling underwhelmed as I listened to it.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Daddy Yankee – LEGENDADDY: Review

2022 has been one helluva of a year–from the postponement of the annual Grammy Awards to April 3rd to Maury Povich retiring and Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon performing this summer at Lollapalooza–nothing has churned more emotions than the announcement of Daddy Yankee’s retirement: the architect of who defined reggaeton as a genre. It’s bittersweet for fans, but he leaves with a monstrous send-off on his 8th and final studio album, LEGENDADDY. Being his first album in a decade, we’ve seen reggaeton’s growth from nuanced ballads to pop-bangers which bridge samples of sonic influence. It’s all relative to your cultural roots and the music that inspired you from youth. Daddy Yankee made reggaeton what it is today, allowing for a free flow of ingenuity to become universally accepted as new artists create their foundation. LEGENDADDY takes various eras of reggaeton and weaves them into a musically transcendent timeline of music history, with Daddy Yankee surprising us at almost every turn.

Let’s not mince words: we’ve heard singles throughout the last few years, each showing different directions with auspicious production and captivating flows and melodies as Daddy Yankee ignites a flame into these new, younger artists who he’s influenced. LEGENDADDY features some of these artists as they match wits with the DY, expressing themselves within the sounds they’ve refined themselves. Myke Towers joins Daddy Yankee for “PASATIEMPO,” a stellar dancefloor electro-pop/reggaeton anthem that incorporates more melodies than the reggaeton-trap hybrid “ZONA DEL PERREO” and “HOT.” Whenever Daddy Yankee is trying to command the dancefloor, he juxtaposes these sounds to give us an essence of his range in style. Following “PASATIEMPO,” Daddy Yankee sings and raps over tropical-laced percussion on “RUMBATÓN,” taking away the house-pop sample for authentic representation. 

We hear elements of salsa, bolero, or bachata in its rhythm phase of the 2000s, to its hip-hop side and trap/perreo side of today. It’s organized chaos, allowing us to marvel at the work he delivered throughout the years. The production is as vibrant as ever, and each track has its value on the dance floor. Unfortunately, not every track lands on all notes. “ZONA DEL PERREO” suffers from redundant lyricism; it’s a simple track about dancing, particularly perreando or dancing Doggystyle. The production is lush and feels like a waste, as Natti Natasha and Becky G become forgettable with poor mixing and autotune. It isn’t like “AGUA” with Rauw Alejandro and Nile Rodgers, which precedes it. “AGUA” mixes the complexions of reggaeton with disco, bringing a slightly funky bass to round it out while Daddy Yankee and Rauw Alejandro rap and sing in a beautiful tangent.

Daddy Yankee is more than the surface layer reggaeton tracks we hear. Beneath the production, Daddy Yankee rarely takes a step-back with his lyricism, as he flexes and expresses these emotions in coded melodies that have us gyrating whenever we stop doing the 1-2-3 step of Bachata. Within these songs, we hear Daddy Yankee flexing his status as a legend, his humble beginnings, and aspects of relationships–like “IMPARES,” which sees Daddy Yankee lamenting the emotional distance between him and his wife due to his mistakes. Following the previous song, Daddy Yankee raps about his imperfections while finding acceptance in his faults as he justifies opposites attract–this gets juxtaposed by how it expresses hiccups within the relationship. The multiple layers on these tracks come from commanding confidence behind the board and microphones, as Daddy Yankee and his producers create these productions that feel fresh and different than last.

Beyond proclaiming his status on “CAMPEÓN,” Daddy Yankee takes the time to reaffirm it. After a few danceable and emotional bangers, Daddy Yankee comes with “UNO QUITAO Y OTRO PUESTO,” which encapsulates his youth with potent energy in an attempt to lay down his legacy in music form. It’s a true reggaeton-hip hop hybrid that he is known for–it has been one of the reasons I’ve personally been in awe of his talent, from the “Rompe Remix” to “Gangsta Zone” and “TATA Remix,” there isn’t a moment that he fails to show how extensive that utility belt is. This energy is rampant throughout LEGENDADDY, showing in different ways, but nothing as mesmerizing as tracks where he drapes it with powerful verses, like on “ENCHULETIAO,” where he raps about being hooked to the hustle.

LEGENDADDY is a triumph. It shows why Daddy Yankee has been the driving force behind the escalation of the genre today with his influence for the next generation, bridging many genres and languages together. We forget Daddy Yankee was making songs with Fergie and Snoop Dogg before we saw Bad Bunny make a song with Will Smith or DeLaGhetto making a song with Fetty Wap. It’s a fantastic album that plateaus him higher than most pop artists, and his name will remain in the ears of many for years to come.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Weezer – SZNS: Spring: Review

Weezer’s constant output has never ceased to amaze me, sometimes it lands, and other times they become mostly forgettable duds. They have had moments where, for every three or so mediocre to okay albums, there is one great one, but fans rejoice for new music–I know I do– there are always a few solid songs that stay with you. For the past two decades, they have seemed to pull all their effort in the first half of the decades than the second–this trend makes it easier for others to know when to come back. 2021 has been a great heel turn for them as they’ve explored new avenues musically, and continue to do so on their new EP, SZNS: Spring.

You may ask, is SZNS: Spring fantastic? It’s not even close, especially when comparing to previous Weezer albums; however, to say it isn’t another fun experience after Van Weezer wouldn’t be doing it justice. SZNS: Spring is like any run-of-the-mill power-pop/rock project from Weezer that offers melancholic fun with the instrumentations and the songwriting, which oozes middle-age dad levels of fun and relaxation. Ok Human had us singing about audible and reading Grapes of Wrath or a fun time at the Aero movie theater, and that is prominent on SZNS: Spring as Rivers Cuomo weaves a tale of “The two angels descend from heaven down to Earth because they’re tired of being so prim and proper up in heaven,” as per his press release.

SZNS: Spring is a flow of power-pop consistency before steering toward more standard rock complexions. Weezer has an idea of where they are spearheading the story, but the production sometimes is too much or Rivers Cuomo misses the mark melodically. When it comes to Weezer projects of this caliber–which I’ve mentioned prior–it starts to downward crescendo into a mundane burger of basic melodies. “The Sound Of Drums” is the first that didn’t hit as well as the others. Rivers brings melodies we’ve heard done similarly and excellently on past albums, but’s simplicity doesn’t hit as smoothly since the production–sometimes–muddles Rivers singing and leads you to the next two songs, one of which shines like three of the first four songs. 

Starting with “Opening Night,” you hear that sense of dad-Weezer taking form as Rivers sings about Shakespeare and how reading his work makes him happy. Frankly, if it wasn’t for the fun use of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concerto number 1 in E major, opus 8, RV 269, “Spring (La Primavera)”, I: Allegro (in E major), the track would lose its mysticism since we’ve had funner and better songs about loving books from Weezer–If you take away the sample, then you’re left with another track like “The Sound Of Drums.” It barely keeps the interest leveled high for me to return. There are the songs “Angels On Vacation,” “A Little Bit Of Love,” “The Garden of Eden,” which carry nuances to melodies that make them lovable and fun, especially as they remind you of the fun times listening to OK Human and the array of fun piano melodies and synths.

SZNS: Spring is fun, but for an EP, it wears off quickly, with a more concentrated effort given to the earlier songs than the latter. However, this is Weezer and we get entertaining songs for the moment but forgettable in the long run. It’ll stay in my Weezer playlist full of fun songs, but don’t expect me to return swiftly with desire.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Conway the Machine – God Don’t Make Mistakes: Review

Conway the Machine has organized rhyme schemes and potent lyricism while broadening the transitions from song to song. One of few technical talents that fit him, and his Griselda cohorts, except each, come with different perspectives for style. Conway has brought about greatness on every front, from his ear for production and his masterful writing skills. It’s been the case through his many projects, from album to mixtape, and delivering an innate and hypnotic consistency for fans of lyricism over the more radio-centric sounds. When attempting to bring bangers, he doesn’t stray far from his identity, lyricism; it continues to be a staple of his craft. There’s constant activity on God Don’t Make Mistakes, his major-label debut. There is crisp production from a range of producers, who provide tonal consistency, and there is Conway’s lyricism that never falters.

God Don’t Make Mistakes is like a sucker punch that stops you in your tracks and forces you to sit and listen to Conway the Machine’s verses. More of an introspective composition, we see Conway attacking layers of his person, from confidence to early self-doubt and success. Conway opens the album with visceral confidence on “Lock Load,” featuring Beanie Siegel. Trading bars, Conway and Beanie bring energy and emotional depth to the lyricism. Conway raps: “Momma start thinkin’ I’m crazy, baby mama think I’m nuts/Ever since them n****s shot me, I just stopped givin’ a fuck,” in the first verse, using people in his life to define his attitudes as he progresses to rap more poignantly violent bars. It’s a softer percussion-based production, focusing on the atmosphere as the two add weight with their delivery. 

Unfortunately, there is a minor drawback in “Lock Load” – it happens twice – the audio levels of some of the features drown them out. It may bother some, but returning to piece the bars together with the production is part of its greatness. Beanie Siegel’s verse is audible in decibels, and it’s the same with TI on “Wild Chapters.” There is some disappointment since there are other tracks that have a proper polish for every artist – whether they are heavyweights like Lil Wayne & Rick Ross or underground rappers like 7xvethegenius, everyone delivers and make these tracks well rounded. It feels like those verses lacked that second look, but they are just blemishes on an otherwise outstanding album. 

However, it’s more than just a collection of fantastic verses and performances from Conway and the features that buoy God Don’t Make Mistakes to greatness. The producers bring an individualized identity on each track while keeping you invested, even when some songs don’t always work, like “Wild Chapters” with TI. It has agency, but it doesn’t land as strong as the others, specifically “Tear Gas,” “Guilty,” “Piano Love,” and “Chanel Pearls.” “Guilty” and “Piano Love” stand out as Conway’s solo performances, with the latter seeing Conway flexing eloquently over a piano-laced production from The Alchemist. The former takes the piano keys and gospel backing vocals to complement Conway’s introspective rap about a shootout that left him with Bell’s Palsy. It’s a testament to Conway’s talent. He breaks down barriers, bypassing his swagger simply to keep it real within less loud drum-banging productions.

With “Chanel Pearls,” well, it is an essential favorite – it has one the better productions on the album; the subtle simplicity gives it a sticky drum line, a 1-2-3 punch that allows an uproot from other instruments to build upon it. Piano keys return with elegance, particularly boosting Jill Scott’s rap verse and chorus. It tells a remarkable story – storytelling being a key talent – between two lovers, making it feel unique compared to others that do similarly. It roots itself into the emotions of the two, taking it to a personal level, allowing us to visualize the musical back and forth in our minds. 

God Don’t Make Mistakes comes with surprises. We continue to hear Conway the Machine go toe-to-toe with rap’s heavyweights; we hear him adapting his technical and writing skills to the content he wants to reflect on the album. What Conway expresses is his true self, reaffirming the notion of God accepting the flawed like those deemed “clean.” The constant motion of the album allows it to have a steady run despite its minor issues.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Leon Bridges & Khruangbin – Texas Moon EP: Review

The kind of summertime bliss and whimsy that guided the atmospheric textures of Texas Sun by Leon Bridges & Khruangbin was a needed touch in 2020, especially as we tried to steer our minds away into a world of solace, where the stresses of the pandemic are non-existent. I’m talking cruising down the highway playing their song “Midnight” with the windows down or hanging with friends down at the park or beach while sipping on wine and spritzers; two years later, they take us on a different journey on Texas Moon. Their new EP centers itself by evoking moods stemming from calm nights amidst the surrounding cold. However, behind the atmospheric overtures are spiritually impactful songwriting, which keeps you grounded instead of feeling freeform love from the thrills of rich intake of Vitamin D. Texas Moon has softer complexities on both sides; the production isn’t the armor overlaying the lyricism, and instead, it’s underneath adding more depth to the lyricism on the forefront.

Texas Moon is about longing, and it is about regrets. The feelings are potent, and there is never a moment where these sentiments lose control and steer you toward a pitfall of despair. Instead, these sentiments best get characterized as a kind of retroactive lamenting you have in the middle of the night, in front of a fire, a fifth of scotch on your right, and guitar in strapped as you sing and whisk the mind into the night. Like the immediate waft of a potent fragrance underneath your nose, the opening track, “Doris,” delivers on impact as Leon Bridges and Khruangbin sing about a woman named Doris who changed their life for the better. 

In the first verse, they sing: “Don’t close your heavy eyes, Doris (Doris)/You have so much/So much to leave behind/If you travel to the other side, Doris (Doris),” further delivering impact in the chorus “I’ll be right here holding your hand/You taught me how to be a real man.” 

Connecting multiple layers created by Khruangbin’s haunting vocals, the production parallels a slight sadness as Leon Bridges sees Doris off into the afterlife. These lessons from “Doris” evolve on “B Side,” turning it into this beautiful soul-funk-rock groove that sees Leon Bridges singing about his love and her spiritual accompaniment throughout touring. Unlike the somber and spiritually subtle “Doris,” “B-Side” becomes a lively alternative, giving off a sense of hope blending fun drum beats, funkadelic bass, and congas. Texas Moon balances these two styles and expands them to offer a proper balance with the lengths these songs can go, like with “Father Father.” 

The sounds of “Father Father” are similar to “Doris,” the strings and percussion subtly boast the emotional core without sacrificing in scope the depth of these sonic layers interwoven beneath heart-aching lyricism. In the song, Leon Bridge weaves a conversation between him and God, where he admits that the shame of his faith has led him down a road of sins. He has shown the backside of his hands, which glimmer with hope and prosperity, while his palms hold the dirt from his sins. In church, they sometimes tiptoe a line between the levels of bad sins are, and Leon’s regretfulness looms as he continues with similar thoughts, despite God telling him otherwise. The beautiful parallels within the songwriting and vocal performances reinforce the outer armor, as the guitar strings reflect his broken-down feeling. These kinds of sonic elements are what Texas Moon by Leon Bridges &Khruangbin a resoundingly fantastic project.

So whether it is smooth and sexy “Chocolate Hills,” the southern charm of the string potent “Mariella,” or the fun in “B-Side,” the Leon Bridges & Khruangbin have a formula that works. It transcends the parameters of their sound, allowing for minimalism to breathe and shape itself underneath the remarkable melodies and words written by Bridges and Khruangbin, so albeit the love, there is a part of me that wishes it ran longer, but beggars can’t be choosers. 

Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

Big K.R.I.T. – Digital Roses Don’t Die: Review

Big K.R.I.T. is distinguishable in many ways – quality being one of them – but they don’t benefit his bottom line when the production wanes between forgettable and spectacular. It’s not hard to when the spiritual and influential overtones of southern hip-hop charm your ears into your bass-infused beats; however, some of that now beguiles you into reflecting where K.R.I.T. has been heading since surprising his trifecta of EPs in 2018. Throughout these EPs and his subsequent album, he skewers between offering a palette of introspective raps, more introspective raps, and some flex raps. Fortunately, his new album, Digital Roses Don’t Die, offers a cleanse that teeters between good and great. K.R.I.T. isn’t past his “My Sub” series days; he just fails to exemplify his artistic growth with that same bravado that captivated my ears in 2014.

Despite being a slight uptick, from Big K.R.I.T.’s last album K.R.I.T. Iz Here, Digital Roses Don’t Die still sees the Mississippi rapper continuing to drive slightly on auto-pilot. It is an issue that got nudged off because K.R.I.T. was coming off a monstrous effort in 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time, which explored two sides with visceral imagery and production. There is a parallel effort in making something that stands over the previous album as he sands down the rough edges. Interestingly, he does so by weaving four sections that paint the portrait we get for the album cover. K.R.I.T. makes it work, even if he twiddles his thumbs with some flows resonant of the past without an extra push of energy. It continues to push that recent rocky up-down battle with quality, and the album makes it known quickly.

There is no hiding Big K.R.I.T.’s talent. He is one of the few rappers who blends the modern direction of southern hip-hop with the old-soul flair of the loud bass percussion that emboldened the productions of Outkast and UGK. The production side of Digital Roses Don’t Die shines brighter than the lyrical side since K.R.I.T. comes at it mostly solo, allowing for his words to come across more clearly. However, this is where we see K.R.I.T. as an evolving artist and less of someone who continues to rap without a sense of direction. That is potent, especially as K.R.I.T. continues to impress with what he does. It benefits the album that it isn’t as clustered with producers, instead of tightening the work between a few, including himself.

After igniting a modest fire under his first section, some of Big K.R.I.T.’s grounded work comes through, specifically in “Cum Out To Play,” which sees a more sensitive as he sings. It blinded me from remembering some of his mediocre effort on “Show U Right.” It has a slight groove, but it lacks the swagger of “Rhode Clean.” The kind of swagger that oozes off K.R.I.T. is usually unworldly, and like “Rhode Clean,” there are various levels, like on “So Cool,” where a smooth cadence laces the chorus and verses. “All The Time” mirrors it with tempo switches that has a more aggressive demeanor to it. However, there is more to Digital Roses Don’t Die that underlines the swagger. K.R.I.T. is singing more and more on the album, allowing for his emotions to bloom and feel fully formed. 

How Big K.R.I.T. weaves these songs together is interesting in concept, as he takes various approaches to base and complex meanings of what surrounds the word. With “Fire (Interlude),” we receive various aspects of igniting flames; unfortunately, the non-flex centric track falters in between the immense swagger. It’s similarly the case with the tracks that follow “Water (Interlude).” In the interlude, Big K.R.I.T. says, “The dude drops a love that watered our passion/The flame dies, the ground moves, the wind blows/But let the positive hydration be our caption,” as it alludes to how we keep memories in a modern age. Each track features some essence of water: 

“Boring” sees Big K.R.I.T. watering down the flame from “Show U Right,” and ironically, the water is the fire that ignites higher. K.R.I.T. brings the bravado. K.R.I.T. brings the witty thematic play as he makes being a responsible adult has hyphy as partying and doping.

“Would It Matter” has Big K.R.I.T. watering down expectations but disavowing those expectations as means to say beauty is subjective.

“Generational – weighed down,” sees Big K.R.I.T. tempering his status quo. He is successful with a checkered past and still lamenting about his doubts, like his ability to be a proper parent, knowing his life, and so forth. 

It flows the same for other tracks based on the context in the interludes; it has depth, and Big K.R.I.T. is grabbing the bull by the horns, making sure he endures longer than last time. It works the best under Earth, as opposed to others.

Ultimately, Big K.R.I.T. has something here, and it works. He coasts a bit, and it’s slightly evident with songs like “It’s Over Now,” but there are enough quality songs to call this a good album, even though replayability lacks the energy of past albums like Cadillactica. There is no true song in the vein of “My Sub” or “Keep The Devil Off,” off 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time; fortunately, that isn’t a heel turn, and you can readily return to this album – more so if you are a fan of K.R.I.T.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

Black Country, New Road – Ants from Up There: Review

Last year Black Country, New Road delivered auspiciously vibrant production in their debut, For the First Time. I was captivated almost immediately, from their rustic jazz undertones to experimental instrumental layering within the post-punk genre that it left me slightly optimistic. Unfortunately, that optimism has stepped back slowly upon lead vocalist Isaac Wood’s departure – as for now, Ants from Up There is a remarkable pivot for the band whose last album had minimal variation. It had these different ideas relative to the external nature of song composition instead of adding more depth. On Ants from Up There, the band isn’t as altruistic musically; they immerse themselves into balancing the external with the internal. Because of this, Ants from Up There shines, spotlighting itself as one of the best rock albums over the last few years.

For their debut, Black Country, New Road re-recorded past singles and began to create the mold for its sound. It had chaos; it had ingenuity; most importantly, it had too many ideas, some of which were superfluous. At times, their talent and songwriting tinted my headphones, which covered some of the poor freeform vitamins in the mix. Unlike their debut, Ants from Up There brings bright spots for the darkness. They take out the vitamins and make sure they don’t burn the concoction, delivering a fine fixture of delicious musical plates for indulging. I’ll tell you; it may have left me slightly over-bloated without regret. There are varying elements of different genres not heard in their debut, and mastering new territory to excel, like with Isaac Wood’s vocals, it grasps your ears with a chamber-pop-echo reinforcing the melodic bind between the vocal layers and production.

In an interview with Apple Music, bassist Tyler Hyde said: “We wanted to explore the themes we’d created on that song. It’s essentially three songs within one, all of which relatively cover the emotions and moods that are on the album. It’s hopeful and light, but still looks at some of the darker sides that the first album showed.” She is speaking about the track “Basketball Shoes” – it combines three different art-rock-driven songs into a 12-minute three-part arc that flows tangentially from start to finish. Within the three-song variation, there are nuances to the sonic motifs throughout the album, while mirroring elements of the intro, there is tame chaos. It’s paradoxical, but the album emboldens a beautiful parallel, where the instruments play at an elevated level. We get these contextualized and bright instrumentations while embodying complex, poetic songwriting, a good amount of which are about different things within a failing relationship.

Ants from Up There bridges Isaac Wood’s songs about a relationship with emotional exuberance. On “Chaos Space Marine,” the band plays with joy in every note as Wood sings about taking the next spiritual step into maturity. “Mark’s Theme” overly contrasts “Chaos Space Marine” in tone. Unlike seeing the light at the end of a proverbial journey, this metaphorical light ends for Saxophonist Lewis Davis’s uncle, who passed away from COVID. It’s a dreamy saxophone-centric production that embodies Davis’s emotions. It’s heartwrenching and adds a sense of unison amongst the band. They transform elegantly on “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade;” it takes influence from 70s Bob Dylan in its rustic production and lyrical elements from a song off Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, specifically “I Know There Is An Answer.”

There is a remarkable evolution unfolding on Black Country, New Road’s new album – one where the world is at your fingertips. You can take yourself to a place where the canvas is covered in vibrant colors in different hues, allowing them to transfix you as you divulge themes. Musically speaking, there is an ethereal array of jubilant instrumentations. Charlie Wayne’s percussion brings elements of hypnotic bliss, while Tyler Hyde’s groovy bass lines and Georgia Ellery’s violin playing deliver nuances of the dark chaos at times seen in post-rock. It’s expressive throughout, especially in the track “Good Will Hunting.” It’s a steady progression, leading to the 40-second mark where it blossoms into one of the best songs on Ants from Up There

However, within the confines of Black Country, New Road’s album, you start to infuse yourself within the confines of their sound, “Snow Globes” muddles in the background. The production drowns out Isaac Wood’s vocals, leaving you thrusted into an intense shake of a snow globe. It doesn’t hinder it and works on its own. Unfortunately, it isn’t until the second half that it recaptures your attention for the closer, “Basketball Shoes.”

Black Country, New Road’s shift from the chaotic, jazzy, punk rock hybrids of their debut adds a new light on their talent, especially as they maneuver while making a concert audience cheer louder than before. As they take these elements of art-rock and chamber-pop vocals and blend them into one, it leaves me feeling excited for new music, despite slight sadness from their canceled tour.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Animal Collective – Time Skiffs: Review

Through a better half of two decades, Animal Collective has been tuning with their vast soundscapes, bridging together grounded psychedelia and unhinged pop-chaos as they continue to attempt new directions with their music. So as I was listening to their new album, Time Skiffs, it began to dawn on me how nuanced it was to the late 2000s, where the psychedelic mold of Animal Collective rounded itself into a whirlwind of fantastic albums, like Strawberry Jam. Time Skiffs carries many strengths, but most importantly, it creates cohesion between contrasting instrumentations while tightening the bolts with awe-inducing melodies. It transcends one’s thoughts about their past, unrelentingly contrasting pop sound that felt jaded with off-kilter melodies – ones that will make you feel a slight “why” when grooving to FloriDaDa, off Painting With

Since the release of Campfire Songs, I’ve sensed a looming presence of what a composed version of Animal Collective could be. By keeping it close to the tone, it gave them some constraints. Instead of getting some unhinged but composed psychedelic rock and art-pop, they let themselves flow freely through various layers of psychedelic folk sounds. There has always been this sonic pheromone that has made the writing of Avery Tare and Panda Bear feel centered at its emotional core as the production, specifically the electronic and percussion work of Geologist and Deakin. You hear it with a structured approach balancing the pop cohesion and unhinged fluidity, even though it doesn’t always work.

The members of Animal Collective tend to shine a respective light, especially with the directions they take. It could come from the jubilant pop sounds of “Dragon Slayer” or the hypnotic jangle-art-pop “Cherokee,” where the underlying qualities offer the kind of depth that was absent on Painting With. Though Painting With was an acute side-step toward pop obscurity, as they worked around implementing these colorful instrumentations and melodies, Time Skiffs grabs the train tracks and reroutes them back to the musical jungle. It’s easy to pinpoint the differences significantly; it’s as if their curiosity continues to show with a progression of pop texture more akin to their definitive style in psychedelia. However, they don’t limit themselves. 

Amongst the first few tracks on Time Skiffs comes “Walker,” Panda Bear’s homage to pop legend Scott Walker, which offers a titillatingly upbeat production with twinkling xylophone. It adds an elegant contrast to a previous track, “Prester John,” a hybrid of two songs conceived by Avery and Panda, blended to create an atmospheric crescendo of synths underlying a dominant bass groove and piano. “Strung With Everything” adds to their level of ingenuity, as they use the influence from past pop artists to create something unique. It’s an unhinged jangle-psychedelic-pop that flurries into the skies with vibrant synths and infectious melodies; it leads you into a world filled with satisfying jabs into your ears. There is a moment about 5 minutes in where they blend in noises, like a school bell ringing. It oozes an influence from a pop style more akin to an early 70s Paul Simon record, where the fun and light isn’t too structured. 

Time Skiffs dwindles as it comes to a close, offering a continuation of the pop aesthetics from past songs. Unfortunately, all three tracks don’t stand out – “Passer – By” and “Royal and Desire” muddles in the dirt, barely elevating beyond its conceptual sonic atmosphere. It isn’t “We Go Back,” where they add a more rock aesthetic beneath the melodies and pop overtones. There is a lot to enjoy when Animal Collective doesn’t overreach its creativity meter, which can often deter from their range in melancholy. It happens right after the mundane “Dragon Slayer,” with the track “Car Keys” and its lack of control. The uproarious percussion drowns out the melodies and keeps you from understanding and enjoying the poor idea meshing that gets better on “Prester John,” which follows it.

Animal Collective gives us a different light on a beautifully catchy pop that doesn’t overreach. Unlike Painting With, Animal Collective keeps it close to their element instead of creating choruses driven by memorable repetition, which is very common in pop music. I genuinely liked Time Skiffs a lot, though it has its issues, the kind of flair from the psychedelic side takes me back to the late 2000s while staying afloat with structure and confidence.

Rating: 7 out of 10.