Lil Yachty – Let’s Start Here: Review

When Lil Yachty had an album leak in December, intrigue was raised from the music community as they heard a shift from his typical trap beats to a more alternative sound. That hint left many eagerly waiting to see if the official release would contain some of these songs or get reworked. Whatever it was, one thing is true after listening to Let’s Start Here: this sound works for Yatchy, and though there are some hurdles to overcome, the production has personality and is vibrant, despite being too much Tame Impala and Yatchy chilling on the Dark Side of The Moon. The production’s consistency is high, but the final product is either elevating or de-elevating with the vocals. Yatchy teeters too far into monotonous melodies, delivering nothing more than autotuned typicality. It’s a stark contrast to the featured artists who take command of the songs and make many of them worthwhile. Though Yatchy has moments where he’s enlightening over the production, it isn’t enough to push Let’s Start Here to the levels it could reach with better vocals.

Let’s Start Here brings a lot to the fray, mostly sonically. It’s contextually rich, boasting these whimsical ideas that mirror something off a Tame Impala album or something edgier, though it still finds footing with its identity. Lil Yachty doesn’t stray far from his lyrical bag of typicality (simplistic wording) as he develops and establishes themes relating to drug use, loneliness, love, and regret; however, there is rarely a moment he sounds uniquely profound. Yachty has moments where it makes you think there is something here for future endeavors, but unlike “The Black Seminole” and “Should I B,” Yachty is sizzling the effects for too long or doesn’t take full advantage reflecting some choices he made. Like with “:(failure(:” or the outro on “We Saw the Sun,” which boasts these theological ideas on failure, happiness, and wealth, and with the latter, the notion of feeling free to express oneself without stress, don’t get reflected poignantly. More than half the time, Yachty benefits from his featured artists, singers who skillfully acquiesce with the psychedelic overtones of the album.

Depending on the song, a featured artist could elevate their respective track to a higher plateau, like Diana Gordon does with “Drive Me Crazy” or Foushee on “Pretty,” two standouts on the album. The smooth funkiness of “Drive Me Crazy” oozes vocal vibrancy, giving us this beautiful moment where the two harmonize eloquently, while giving us complementary performances in their respective verses. “Pretty” is similar to it, except for its production, a rich and slowed-down psychedelic rock song that lets its vocalist command and steers it toward this enriching listening experience. Yachty understands the rhythm and offers one of his better performances on the album; additionally, Foushee’s luscious spacey, soulful vocals boast the final impact, despite Yachty’s slightly corny and provocative lyrics. Justine Skye and Daniel Caesar also elevate theirs by adding more personality than Yachty, even when the song isn’t all that great, like on “Running out of Time.” 

There’s a lot to like about this Lil Yachty album, but the moments that had me sparkly-eyed at first don’t deliver with the same potency upon replays. Part of it’s that Yachty seems sonically all over the place without purpose and lacks a sense of pacing. At first, you’re entranced, then it’s a fatiguing experience as you get no sense of consistency in style but are still keen on the quality of the respective songs. At 14 tracks and 58 minutes, it doesn’t feel like such, almost becoming a slightly daunting experience with Yachty’s more monotonous melodies. Though he brings some edge, especially with the rap verse at the end of “Drive Me Crazy,” some performances are tried and predictable from his style. It’s a daunting experience that aims too close to the moon but takes a wrong turn before returning. I’ve shared praise for “The Black Seminole,” but like “I’ve Officially Lost Vision,” it starts to feel overlong after a certain point. It doesn’t creatively expand beyond a few switches and breaks. Fortunately, he has a good run from track 4, “Pretty,” to track 8, “Drive Me Crazy,” where even the streamlined aspects of Yachty’s vocals are still captivating enough for you to return.

Let’s Start Here does precisely what the title suggests, but here is just a beginner’s step. Yachty tries to elevate his craft to new heights, despite getting in the way of himself by implementing some tried melodies that never go above and beyond. Throughout my listens, I found a lot to commend, pick apart, and realize how great it could have been. I know Yachty can take this and learn and further his alternative psychedelic rock journey and maybe deliver something purely fantastic from around the edges to its center.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

Ab-Soul – Herbert: Review

Mentally exhausting but exuberantly rewarding, Ab-Soul’s new album Herbert takes us through hurdles as Soul reflects on life and emotional imbalances that have placed him into a zone where the focus was his mental health. 2014’s Stigmata felt like a linear direction of drug-infused beats built with the complexities of perfectly quaffed glass, and Do What Thou Wilt felt more of the same, just lesser in sonic appeal and construction. But that isn’t the case with Herbert, an album that feels more like the dark undercurrents beneath the percussion getting refined and letting it control are more linear approach instead of flip-flopping between the overly experimental and the “Ab-Soul, Asshole” that we’ve listened to since Longterm Mentality. It’s an evident relic of the past with its jazzy, at times lightly funkadelic tones that give us similar tendencies akin to the audacious and beautiful “Illuminate” from 2012’s Control System. It isn’t devoid of lyrical grit, where he can shift the parameters of his flows, keeping you engaged as Soul never diverts into songs that wane too much into darker experimentations.

As a lyricist, Ab-Soul’s content is kitschy compared to most populous rap in the above or underground scene. It may have been why he never got an Interscope Records co-sign, allowing him to get down to the nitty-gritty and deliver songs where his sleeves ache, and his grief is on full display like he did with “Closure” off Stigmata. That’s still prevalent here, along with more reflections that sees Ab-Soul constructing his multi-layered persona with vitriol. We hear it in the twinkly “Fallacy,” which details Ab-Soul’s hiccups and moments where he succeeds. It’s in the emotionally complex “Herbert” and “The Wild Side,” which shows us who he has been throughout the years – someone constantly on the side of the road where there’s an obstacle with every step. It’s a blissful melancholy that gets highlighted over beautifully resonant and sometimes minimalist (comparatively) production, continuously boasting the thematic prowess of Soul. Ab-Soul is one to knock out of the park more consistently when the nature of the tracks wanes on personable instead of flaunting and flexing, though there have been hits within that realm, like “Hunnid Stax.” We hear the essence of it on the gripping and smooth “Hollandaise.”

Time passes, and what you thought you knew may have been incorrect from the get-go. Recently, Edie Falco remarked in an interview about her role in Avatar 2: The Way of Water – when she filmed, what she thought it could make on opening weekend, etc. – Falco noted that she believed the film was released and flopped. Similarly, Ab-Soul’s mild silence since 2016, only appearing as a featured artist or short, fulfilling singles, reminded me of a pre-2015 Ab-Soul, where the focus on experimentation had him flying too close to the sun. Unlike Icarus or Falco’s thoughts on Avatar: The Way of Water, Ab-Soul didn’t flop and had been bettering himself, growing as an artist, and finding meaning on his journeys. We see that with the beautifully constructed and focused concept album that imbues the essence of who Soul, musically and spiritually.

Containing a spiritual connection brings confidence toward having a multitude of producers board the ship to give us something as coherent as listening to screamo with freshly clean ears. There is an underlying distinction in styles as it transitions, allowing for seamless continuations of narrative greatness. The production boasts the content getting reflected, whether mellow or more boisterous, like “Positive Vibes Only.” Unfortunately, as slick as the beat is, the track doesn’t have the lyrical frontness and feels too lost in its production to make anything out of it, unlike “Hollandaise,” which brings a lot of ammo. It isn’t like the nuanced and ever-growing sounds of “Art of Seduction” and “Do Better.” It’s a flurry of simplicity that retains depth with how it gets constructed, unlike the overly styled beats of past songs like “D.R.U.G.S.” and “Sapiosexual.” Here, there is a fine line between the two; sometimes, you can’t distinguish what hits and doesn’t at first. When Ab-Soul chooses production that goes the extra mile, like “Go Off,” that sense of doubt washes away swiftly as you hear Soul command the beat and take it to the next level. Unfortunately, featured rapper Russ doesn’t match the quality writing from Ab-Soul and Big Sean, but he’s only a quick slight that doesn’t deter from the quality of the final product.

Herbert is a fantastic return for Ab-Soul. He’s less reliant on creating an expansive piece on a limited canvas, instead aiming for something more constructive, linear, and oozing with melancholy; you can’t help but feel attracted to the lyrics and sounds. It’s a fantastic record that I’d wish released early because of the distinctively wrought process of dropping year-end lists during the first week of December as if it’s some desolate month with little to offer, yet, we’ve gotten two incredible hip-hop albums.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

2022 Catch Up: Some Albums I Missed This Year

Rina Sawayama – Hold The Girl

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

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

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Arctic Monkeys – The Car

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

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

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Soccer Mommy – Sometimes, Forever

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

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

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

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Issa Gold – Tempus II: Mirrors : Review

Following up the self-reflective and self-criticizing Tempus, Issa Gold follows up with Tempus II: Mirrors, an equally self-reflexive album bringing more of the same with more potent lyricism. It has little to gravitate towards besides excellent lyricism, some minor tweaks that boast the production slightly, and an abundance of heart. It isn’t an indictment on producers Chuck Strangers, Gates, Two Fresh Beats & Zayland as they deliver what’s expected with enough diversity and nuance to keep those who love lyrically focused rap albums. It may limit its audience because one usually gravitates to sound, but as it has been since the 70s, Hip-Hop has been about The Message, and that’s what Issa Gold delivers. Tempus II: Mirrors is raw and slick; Issa Gold flows smoothly, becoming one with the beat boasting the emotional complexities of each track as we hear Gold tackling fatherhood, music, and professionalism.

As much as I can herald Tempus II: Mirrors for its profound approach to keeping a balance between engaging the intimate, as sometimes one may not care for the deep layers of an artist’s personal problems, with the quality of their music coming first. So the stress builds from making sure the beat one is rapping over can keep the listener engaged; that’s why we hear varying songs with depressive anecdotes that have more catchy, captivating elements in their sound, whether through melodies or the production. It isn’t the case with Tempus II: Mirrors, where the catchiness isn’t profound, but the tweaks within the sonic layers of the beats keep the intrigue level high. Whether it’s bringing more focus to piano-driven overtures on “Lamelo” and “Crawling” or letting the electric guitar deliver rustic vibes on “Spiral” and “Lunar.” It brings more to the music than potent lyrics, rarely shining brighter than like on “Traded” and “Rockets.” Unfortunately, “Traded” isn’t as captivating comparatively. Though we get these unique situations where the beats feel more realized, it isn’t enough to make you feel like it’s something special. 

The uniqueness of its production is an adequately smooth touch that allows it to get past the monochromatic atmosphere of these kinds of raps. There is a nuance to them as they show introspective street styles that are moodier and incorporate more than just drum beats – think The Lox and Ultramagnetic MCs, just a little darker. It makes it easier to focus on the vocal layer instead of the production, as its heart stays in that lane. Due to that, it adds an extra layer that allows the music to flourish further.

At its core, Tempus II: Mirrors is for those old heads who prefer lyricists to the dominant Drill and Trap Hip-Hop that fills the airwaves, but Issa Gold offers more than that. He’s bringing varying flows driven by Gold’s dominant emotion, whether elevated egotistical swagger or pensive perspective, like on the melancholic “Indulge” and “Crawling,” which sees him rapping about family and fatherhood. It allows his words to get heard, more so than when he comes through spitting the former. However, there are fantastic tracks where Gold’s flexing is on full display. On “Lamelo,” Gold uses that melancholia in the beat to make his words feel humbling as his come-up saw him making choices so his music career could grow. As he raps on the track, “I never need the league, I knew the league needed me like Lamelo for the dream,” which shows how Issa Gold aims to succeed, despite his niche approach musically.

Tempus II: Mirrors doesn’t stand up to the masterclass that was the first, but it’s enough to keep the wheels turning as you keep listening. It’s a continuation of what Issa Gold does well, even if it isn’t as interesting. There isn’t much retread, but the production feels more like simple choices and nothing that is there to fit the grander scheme. It’s an album one can readily return to if they feel this type of rap, and those will be sufficiently satisfied.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Taylor Swift – Midnights: Review

1989 came and went with Taylor Swift delivering a defining statement as a pop star. We heard and saw the fire slowly growing since “I Knew You Were Trouble” off Red. But after that, we started to hear her cool down with the electronic quirks from Reputation, which we continued to see with the electronic-focused tracks of her subsequent album Lover. Taylor Swift seems to come across as creatively stunted when given beats/production that emboldens a chance for Swift to go beyond linear synth-pop. Midnights, Swift’s latest album, seems to express a happy medium where she can flex beautifully over chill-out electronica production. Unfortunately, after a specific point midway Swift starts to come across as creatively stunted on the lyrical end, losing that spark that makes the first half such a breezy, good vibe. Comparatively, a modest disappointment, Midnights is a step back for Swift, exchanging rich text with rich sounds that outshine the writing. It left me feeling like it was missing that special spark we heard predominantly in the first half.

Midnights is this conceptually driven album that revolves around dreams, nightmares, etc., as Taylor Swift’s creative juices begin to flow post-midnight on sleepless nights. But it isn’t always there. Per usual, Swift is developing these reflective stories, hypotheticals that stumble in the second half, either from the writing or melodic choices that Swift makes. We first hear it as she turns the page with “Vigilante Shit.” Swift has done this type of song before on “No Body, No Crime” with Haim; however, that track had nuance, and “Vigilante Shit” feels like a poor extension of the former. From there, you get shimmers of the downward spiral Midnight turns. “Labyrinth” sees Swift tackling themes of heartbreak and growth past them, though it isn’t as gripping, and Antanoff’s backing vocals add little depth to the already simple written song. Surrounding the shard stumbles along the way, the production stays consistent with sonic motifs, particularly from the low pitches from the synthesizers, Mellotrons, and Wurlitzers. 

Throughout the album, it does leave an interesting impression, though not negative or positive. Midnights is Swift’s 6th album working with Jack Antanoff, a fantastic musician/producer; however, the mystique loses fizzle after a while. So your first thought could be, “when do we get an original project without Antanoff, add a different personality behind the instruments and boards. Though the carbonation lasts longer for Midnights, Swift’s and Antanoff’s writing isn’t as captivating with tracks like “Bejeweled” and “Karma.” “Bejeweled” never feels like an individual product, taking cues from past pop hits by Swift. It treads familiar water over this crisp electronica beat that tackles the idea of shimmer as a sound. “Karma” doesn’t have excellent writing, and with oblique melodies, it becomes more of an afterthought in the long run. In “Labyrinth,” the focus is on the atmosphere, but the random drop near the end, though simple and effective elsewhere, doesn’t have that same impact as if you coasted through a track that emphasized more of an emotional core.

The production of Midnight takes from ideas from three “musical eras” of Taylor Swift, the synth linings of 1989, the electronic intricacies of Reputation, and the lyrical complexities of Folklore/Evermore. However, the height of it comes with potent first from “Lavender Haze” to “Questions…?.” Taylor Swift isn’t relying too much on whimsy and fantasy, like confronting people with her boyfriend Karma, instead reflecting on growth. In the blissful “Maroon,” she reflects on a love story that isn’t sparking with youthful fire and rather a humbling tale of togetherness and loss. The use of maroon as the defining color boasts the complexities of its story, like the color itself, complex hues of brown and red reflecting the complex dynamics of a relationship as they express beyond pure honesty. As it is with most of Swift’s songs on Midnight, themes reflect love through different purviews, culminating in varying lessons learned and emotions exhumed.

“You’re On Your Own, Kid” has us listening to a tale of a young person yearning for love, as if it’s this end all, be all; a crutch if you will. As she wistfully drifts into the night, the detailed writing and resonant melodies open your mind to the emotional truthfulness that hits our protagonist in the song. It continues to transfix you like the tracks that precede it. “Anti-Hero” brings forth the past eras of Swift–ones I’ve mentioned before–the livelier synths of 1989, electronic tones like “Delicate” from Reputation, and the lyrical complexities of the Folklore. It isn’t loquacious, and the auditory hand that grips you closer is tender and smooth, unlike the delivery of later songs. Fortunately, after the mediocrity in most of the second half, Swift grounds back into reality and offers something unique with the last two tracks, particularly “Sweet Nothing.” “Sweet Nothing” is instrumentally simple, mirroring her relationship with Joe Awelyn, deconstructing the importance of understanding and growth–she has finally found someone who hasn’t cared about the fame that comes with dating Swift.

Midnights is a minor step back for Taylor Swift, but it isn’t this albatross that fails to hit the mark. Swift came with direction; however, that won’t always constitute a great album. Though linear and coherently consistent, it doesn’t get elevated to the degree past albums have been, specifically 1989 and Folklore. There is a lot to like here, with some solid repeat appeal. Unfortunately, it left me yearning for something more, especially as I sat there listening to Swift sing and elevate the idea of karma to people from her past.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Kid Cudi – Entergalactic: Review

Kid Cudi isn’t devoid of ideas; however, he barely extends said ideas beyond its core aesthetic. We’ve heard greatness on Passion, Pain, & Demon Slayin’ as Cudi elevated his sound beyond the haziness of his melodic depressed stoner raps. He’s encouraging himself toward new plateaus, but it got immediately forgotten by subsequently released and forgettable albums, like Man On The Moon 3. It continues with Entergalactic, his first soundtrack, and his eighth studio album. It left me feeling hollow like the namesake TV Special released on Netflix. Recorded in 2019, it seems like Cudi didn’t take the effort to refurbish the work and keep it from sounding like a drab extension of Man On The Moon 3. It doesn’t lack quality tracks, but they are far, and in between, it almost feels like a chore to sit, listen, and distinguish the ups and downs. So much so, it’s hard for one to recommend this, as it fits the quality of the conjoining special–a hollow representation of love between gifted artists, except without the depth but a lot of animated sex. Entergalactic is monotone in tone and becoming too entwined with the atmospheric textures; it’s almost like it’s devoid of any external effort beyond a first thought.

Giving us a fascinating thematic and enlightening intro, Kid Cudi completely forgets his musical trajectory and loses himself after a few tracks. Stylistically, what Cudi aims for has succeeded, but he’s bringing depth lyrically and creating exuberant melodies and hums. We’re far from Man On The Moon: The End of Day and Indicud, but within the confines of Entergalactic, Cudi squeezes out some good tracks between mundaneness. The rough patches you have to cruise past to get to them aren’t rewarding–songs like “Do What I Want” and “Willing To Trust” are some that stand out, but for the latter, it takes a while for the front-to-back completionist. Featuring Ty Dolla $ign, it uses Ty’s strengths smoothly, allowing the beat to feel almost second nature, and you can coast through the blissful melancholy. It isn’t the same for a lot of Entergalactic. Starting strong with its intro, “New Mode,” and subsequent track, “Do What I Want,” it eventually becomes a forgettable heel turn in a career, which Cudi has now said he will be pausing to focus on creating visually.

Unsurprisingly ineffective, the production by Dot Da Genius & Plain Pat has been a mirroring downer. Their work translates to beats we’ve heard Kid Cudi create some of his best work, but the consistent blandness keeps it from being anything more than just a throwaway. It wouldn’t be that way if the accompanying visuals didn’t give it some purpose for being. You know when you get ecstatic for a B side or Deluxe edition with at least 10+ new tracks, but then you realize it’s all hype, leaving you feeling like the purpose for its release was moot? Entergalactic is that and more; it has rehashed elements between current and past beats never come across as unique. “Can’t Believe It” is a lesser, more muted version of “Do What I Want,” which is exponentially more of a banger. “Angel” overindulges in its synth samples of “In My Dreams (Cudder Anthem)” off Man On The Moon: The End of Day that you start waning and preferring to switch to his debut.

Despite the quality of work that may seep through the cracks, Entergalactic continues to come off monotone and tone-deaf. I say tone-deaf because it’s creatively stunted, barely getting past simple constructs and making one feel like fans won’t care as long as it’s new. For example, “Ignite the Love” opens with an intriguing acoustic sequence, eventually getting forgotten as it starts to shift back toward simple drum and synth patterns. You’d want to think it’s a dream, but Entergalactic is what it is, and it doesn’t aim to be anything with resounding depth.

It’s unfortunate because Kid Cudi has been able to deliver phenomenal work; he’s given us a hosh-posh of mediocrity, or outright imperfect, pieces of work; however, they come with something interesting to dissect and have conversations beyond the critical surface. Going back to WZRD or Speedin’ Bullet To Heaven, there is a sense of creative ingenuity that sees Cudi trying to express himself differently since he was never one to adhere to the standards of Hip-Hop. I can’t say the same here. Cudi is rarely intriguing, spending too much time finding ways to describe physical and spiritual connectivity between two artists, just without proper character dimensions. You’d want to think there is more to it, but it’s a soundtrack to a hollow TV Special, which it mirrors perfectly. Ty Dolla $ign gives us one solid feature, but 2 Chainz and Don Tolliver distort the balance because they come delivering what gets expected. For Tolliver, it’s been an ongoing thing where it’s almost hard to make him appealing in features due to artists sticking to that one melodic tone.

Entergalactic is a futile waste for both fans and non-fans. There is little merit, if at all, as it is a translation of the animated text released on Netflix, and it’s equally so. I started tuning out rather quickly, but when that extra spark of the joint hit, it kept me going. Though not with musical positivity radiating in my ears, more mediocrity and steps below.

Rating: 3 out of 10.

Freddie Gibbs – $oul $old $eparately: Review

It’s been three years since we’ve gotten a Freddie Gibbs solo album–I’m not talking about collaborations with one producer as they are on a tier all their own, but ones with many producers–despite the inconsistencies in quality, track-to-track, it’s regularly a must-listen when he drops. I say that primarily due to his ear for production since that’s one constant that keeps one gravitating back. That’s not the case with $oul $old $eparately, another conceptual album that tries too hard to present sonic layers that aren’t present; however, they aren’t an ear-sore but relatively more confusing. Most of that comes from forcing a narrative about Gibbs’ lackadaisical living in-between albums, leaving many around him annoyed and confused, like how fans feel about some of his beefs. $oul $old $eparately is different than his last non-collaborative with one producer, album, particularly in sound, as it shifts from his 2019 self-titled album’s more 80s Soul–R&B at the height of the Perm haircut’s popularity. It is more grounded in Hip-Hop, showing its hand and delivering some less than surprisingly inconsistency through the synergy with the beats and features where you’re coasting positively, for the most part.

$oul $old $eparately has a concept, and it’s simple: Freddie Gibbs is taking his sweet time, living luxuriously and carefree instead of releasing an album. We hear his hotel room’s phone voicemails with some slight annoyance from people in his orbit and some vocals from his Vegas hotel’s intercom. And we hear his manager and Jeff Ross, for example, and though he’s tackled various landscapes, many don’t fit within the bigger picture. I could understand Joe Rogan, but when one hears Jeff Ross, one can get confused. They tend to dilute the effectiveness of the tracks, especially as they round themselves with some forgettable beats. If you disregard some of the dialogue and vocal transitions, you’ll end up listening to the crisp lyricism and flows that have kept Gibbs fresh. Without balance in production, it loses its vanity. But as you listen to the album, you start to ponder things, one of which Jeff Ross brings up–what’s with the rabbits? Freddie Gibbs is about symbolism within gritty street rap bars, and it hits on a consistent level.

Freddies Gibbs raps about drug dealing, luxury, and violent notations among this plethora of topic subsidies that could relate to the three. It’s in line with the connotation deriving from the album title. Gibbs comes across as this soulless person who is zoned out and inviting random heads to a Vegas party involving many drugs as he lives his best life and warns people he doesn’t fuck with. Unfortunately, that soullessness transfers over many beats, with rare outliers popping out. “Feel No Pain,” “PYS,” and “Zipper Bagz” are some that instantly come to mind. The respective producers try something refreshingly new with the percussion, playing with the drum patterns on all fronts. “Feel No Pain” is audaciously grand, giving us nuances of the boom-bap style with live drums, while “PYS” contains that southern, slowed-down drum pattern influence boasting the grit of Gibbs and featured artist DJ Paul. Throughout the album, there isn’t a lack of quality with the lyricism. These tracks, along with others like “Blackest In The Room,” “Space Rabbit,” and “Gold Rings,” grasp you hard and keep you centered in the direction on hand, even when the features are lackluster.

Like most Freddie Gibbs albums, $oul $old $eparately contains a platoon of features that usually match the quality of Freddie’s verses. Some may come and deliver with typical frequencies, like Rick Ross, Pusha T (still producing a great verse), and Offset, but others elevate their respective tracks further. Some two notable ones, “Feel No Pain” and “PYS,” see Anderson .Paak, Raekwon, and DJ Paul add depth by providing the sauce on the platter through unique inflections that translate over the nuanced beats. Melodic features like Kelly Price and Musiq Soulchild balance Gibbs’ grit and present forth equilibrium that is mainly nonpresent. In retrospect, they boast the quality of Gibbs’ solo tracks as there is little reliance on features that sometimes don’t deliver, like Offset or Moneybagg Yo. And, since they don’t get strong beats to flow over, it causes them to feel more like an afterthought. They look like something spectacular could be conducted on paper, but the semi-half-assery doesn’t allow you to ingest what it’s saying at times.

The beats get handled by many producers. But as the expression goes: there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Oddly with that many cooks, the production isn’t all that interesting and never truly bloated. They are never immersive as you are just listening to Freddie Gibbs rap without sonic fluidity. It’s an intriguing experience that gets less enjoyable the more you lament the effectiveness of its concept and themes. There are lyrical and technical consistencies from Gibbs, but the beats flummox you as the quality shift is more apparent. The tracks that fail to make an impact aren’t that lavish and maintain a mundane percussion-driven core without trying to elevate the exterior sounds, which makes you feel that Gibbs works better with a producer who can deliver proper, linear direction for him.

There is enough to reflect and return to, but $oul $old $eparately isn’t the standout his 2019 release, Freddie, was. $oul $old $eparately aims to be something of grandeur, but that gets instantly forgotten because of its lackluster delivery on the exteriors. You’re left feeling that if he toned it down and let it stay focused on being a little more apropos, it would be a much stronger album. You’re given something great beneath the surface, but it requires a good amount of your attention before finding what tracks you truly like, unlike those collaborative efforts, which have clearer directions, so go and listen to Alfredo instead.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

Nikki Lane – Denim & Diamonds: Review

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Sampa The Great – As Above, So Below: Review

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

JID – The Forever Story: Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 9 out of 10.