Sophomore Surge

 

Grande (middle) performing “Problem” at the 2014 Radio Disney Music Awards

By Steven Martinez

Trends in most mainstream music reflect cutting-edge developments from the less heard corners of the music industry. This is not news, it’s not even particularly insightful, but it is nonetheless factual. However, it also doesn’t mean that pop music can’t be both pleasurable and objectively good. Case in point: Ariana Grande‘s recent capitulation to popular trends on her latest single “Problem.”

Any listener can immediately identify the saxophone loop, apparently a sample, on “Problem” and recognize eerily similar production in Jason Derulo‘s “Talk Dirty” and perhaps even more readily on Macklemore‘s smash “Thrift Shop.” (One would also be remiss for failing to mention that Kanye West likewise employed horns on his 2006 single “Touch the Sky” — more evidence of his prescience.) So, yes, it’s a derivate but “Problem” succeeds on much the same terms as her previous hits. Namely, stellar, kinetic production and Grande‘s soaring vocals (though the lyrics here are not to be scoffed at either).

In the song, Grande laments her affection for a lover who consistently mistreats her, and criticizes herself for swooning at his repeated and likely disingenuous declarations of contrition and rehabilitation, ultimately concluding she has her “head in the clouds” and “one less problem without [him].” She doubtlessly arrives at this decision with an assist from Iggy Azalea, who’s featured on the song and who dedicates her verse, the song’s last, to generally gelding males of the lothario variety (and referencing Jay-Z in the process). “There’s a million ‘you’s, baby boy,” she spits, “so don’t be dumb/I got 99 problems but you won’t be one.”

Azalea gets the mic-dropping send-off, but Grande does most of the stage setting here. In each of her two verses, she, Grande, fires off her lines in rapid succession, almost piling the sentences on top of one another, as if she’s in a hurry to finish the conversation before her former lover can swindle her again. This rush, however, does nothing to dampen her vocal prowess. She’s fluidly melodic and layered throughout and spectacularly builds her pre-chorus couplets to a climactic crescendo. (Alas, she saves glimpses of her dazzling melismas for the song’s outro.)

It’s invariably refreshing to hear a twist (or a tweak) on the au courant production trends, but combine that with a decent message — Taylor Swift‘s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” which glorifies the triumph of ephemeral emotions over reason, is a main offender here — and genuine talent and you’re hearing something special (and something bound to become tremendously popular). Creating music that meets both criteria, on the evidence of this song and her debut album, seems to be no problem for Miss Grande.

 

The good, the bad and the unchanged: the 2014 Grammys

I admit I gave up hope for the Grammys last year. After witnessing the most popular music awards show all but shun Frank Ocean (despite ubiquitous critical praise and tremendous commercial success, Channel Orange won a Grammy for “Best Urban Contemporary Album” — a category created for the purpose of giving Ocean the award), and reward — surprise, surprise — the record with the best sales figures (Mumford & Sons‘ Babel), I crossed my arms and stamped my feet and rashly declared the whole ceremony a wash. (It wasn’t; The Black Keys and Dan Auerbach came out all right.)

Granted, my opinion of the show dwindled significantly after Adele won everything two years ago, and when Kanye West’s peerless, hip-hop opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy somehow failed to earn an Album of the Year nomination. Ergo, wholly embracing my dispositional pessimism and writing off the Grammys as a farcical popularity contest where sales quantity was positively correlated with quality, and artistic merit only mattered in dollars and cents, seemed inevitable. (Again, not true; a number of critical darlings including Ocean, Miguel, Fiona Apple and the aforementioned Keys were recognized last year.)

All that to say I didn’t watch the telecast this year, I didn’t watch it last year either, save for the AotY announcement, but I did read up on the winners and, I have to say, as much as it pains me, there remains some justice in the music world. I loved Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which won Album of the Year, and Kacey Musgraves’ defiant, iconoclastic Same Trailer Different Park, awarded Best Country Album (the trenchant and acerbic “Merry Go Round” was also a winner), topping the heavily-favored Red, to my overwhelming delight. (Despite popular opinion, I don’t dislike Taylor Swift. The message of her music is misleading, and her new sound is at best nominally country, but she writes a killer hook and cranks out Top 40 hits, one after another, like a Gatling gun.)

Moreover, “Get Lucky” won a bevy of awards, Record of the Year among them, and was performed live to great success by Nile Rodgers, Pharrell Williams,  Stevie Wonder and, most surprisingly, the imitation robots themselves. (OK, I watched the performance, but on YouTube, ex post facto.) And Vampire Weekend snagged a gilded gramophone, Best Alternative Music Album, for Modern Vampires of the City. A real awards-show coup, right? Critical acclaim still means something! There’s hope yet for the Grammys! Hoorah!

Well, not so fast.

That Jay-Z (Or is it “Jay Z“?) won anything (Best Rap/Sung Collaboration) for a song off the phoned-in drivel titled Magna Carta Holy Grail borders on sinful, and Ben Haggerty’s sweep of the remaining rap awards, for his gay-is-OK anthem “Same Love” and The Heist (with Ryan Lewis), somehow trumping Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, feels to me like political posturing and message mongering from the industry that blew their chance at it last year. (Frank Ocean famously announced that the inspiration for Channel Orange came from his romantic entanglements with another man.) Though, if that is the case, at least Macklemore’s ideology and this quasi-endorsement of it share a shameless heavy-handedness. So they’re honest about their myopia.

And Imagine Dragons’ Best Rock Performance win, for “Radioactive,” is baffling to say the least, mostly because the song has more in common with EDM than rock (Think maybe the song’s popularity bolstered its chances?), but I suppose it was silly of me to carry a torch for Queens of the Stone Age, who as yet have not won a single Grammy award. (Seriously though, …Like Clockwork kicked major tuchus.)

Disappointment and confusion aside (“Holy Grail,” really?), I didn’t turn away from 2014’s list of winners with disgust and indignation — though I will never forgive nor forget the snubbing of Frank Ocean — which I consider a major step forward for someone like me, whose baseline temperament, especially regarding the Grammys, hovers near contempt. And, in a way, the list made me feel validated. Some of the albums I adored received their due recognition and admiration, and I’ll be the first to tell you there’s little else I enjoy more than being right.

Which rightly begs the question, have I changed my mind about the Grammys? Has my faith been restored, my skepticism vanquished?

Well, there’s always next year.

Music roundup: A beginner’s guide

The game-changers, fist-pumpers, claptrappers and the Johns

As we countdown to the annual Pazz & Jop poll, and because I have no other way of publishing this list, I present the inaugural year-end rundown of music worthy (and not so) of your attention and consumption. Of course I’m not a professional critic, which means I’m not sent advance copies of albums, which means my record selection is generally limited to what’s popular or what I’m interested in or — sometimes —  what my friends recommend. That, in turn, implies I’m likely to miss at least one sleeper sensation. But don’t reach for your pitchforks or torches just yet; remember when I said this was my first. Because, like any truly great album, I’m bound to get better the next time through.

(** Albums are listed in no particular order **)

Justin Timberlake The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 (RCA)
Like a lout who ogles himself at the gym, this Long Play (at 74 minutes) demands more patience than it deserves. Bloated song structure, extended codas and libertine lyrics abound; and for all the sonic muscle producer Timbaland flexes in Part 2’s protracted cuts, he – and Mr. Timberlake – now share the hubris of any fitness-center peacock: the person most impressed by the show is the one in the mirror. (Album score: 5/10)

The Wonder Years The Greatest Generation (Hopeless)
Billed as the third in a trilogy of albums about growing up, this one doesn’t charm so much as it enthralls; the songs layered with existential crisis (“the devil’s got a rifle on my front porch/with me in his sights/ he knows I came looking for a fight”), coming-of-age angst (“I’m sorry I don’t laugh at the right times”) and a yearning for greatness (“I just want to know that I did all I could with what I was given”). So they got the emotion, how about the sound? Protean pop-punk at its finest: forceful mid-tempo tracks, resonant ballads and standby turn-of-the-millennium melodies with some torque. You could say it’s an LP with courage, brains and a heart. That’d be the trifecta then, which makes sense because good things are supposed to come in threes; except a trio of listens won’t be enough. (9.5/10)

Parquet Courts Light Up Gold (What’s Your Rupture?)
Give their hipster cred a serious boost for releasing a debut on cassette, but dock twice as many points for stonewalling commercial (and popular) viability in the process. This time round, the brothers Savage and Co. minded their pocketbooks and got a proper release. Good thing, too, because theirs is a sound lacking in the mainstream (well, since the Japandroids anyway). Maybe this Brooklyn-based quartet plays a little loose with pre-hyphen genre modifiers, but the music’s rock all the same, sometimes post-punk, garage, even stoner. Besides, malleability is the hallmark of a craft mastered; and this lot oozes virtuosity whether contemplating mortality – with Ramones-esque urgency – or battling the munchies. (8.5/10)

Daft Punk Random Access Memories (Columbia)
The premise: a record from two faux robots that never lost their kid-like fascination with music, or their love for the music that fascinated them as kids. The players: Bangalter and de Homem-Christo, naturally; additional highlights include Nile Rodgers, Pharrell Williams and Julian Casablancas (among others). The product: an alacritous and anthropogenic soundscape; the amalgamation of disco, funk and house, breezy guitars and bouncy synths and buoyant hooks. The verdict: lubricate your hips, the dance floor beckons. (9.2/10)

The Front Bottoms Talon of the Hawk (Bar/None)
You know that friend on Facebook who overshares? The guy who cultivates space age cyrstals? Yep, that’s Brian Sella. He makes you wonder if he can’t process tragedy (or happiness) without a microphone, digital or otherwise. And, of course, some lines could use a proofreader; “I feel f***ed, but in a good way,” for instance. But there’s also, “[This is] for the warning signs I’ve completely ignored/there’s an amount to take, reasons to take more,” and “Tonight I’m the only one left, and I’m bettin’ it’s a fact that you will never learn.” And then there’s the music, which seems to obey exactly one rule of pop: four minutes or less. The sound is a fusion of power pop and rock (more rock), and Sella’s voice is always on the verge of cracking. But despite his talking without thinking (just feeling), you like him because unmitigated honesty’s rare these days. (8.5/10)

Justin Timberlake The 20/20 Experience (RCA)
The working title must’ve been The Honeymoon Metaphors. In any case indulge me an apropos simile. The songs are like ingredients in a love potion: some you expect (“Strawberry Bubblegum”), some you don’t (“Let the Groove Get In”) and each has a distinct flavor (i.e., bizarre musical influence); ingested together they make for a potent concoction. But every subsequent gulp (listen) has the potential to introduce a new fixation (Favorite Song). Not always a bad thing; this time though it means these tracks have another thing in common with a magician’s philter: most of their powerful effects don’t last. (7/10)

Kanye West Yeezus (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam Recordings)
A Dark Fantasy sequel this ain’t. Call it what you want: polarizing vanity, sales suicide, downright abrasive. I call it boredom, artistic squirming; dissatisfaction with the safety of pop’s status quo, groundbreaking; the anti-pop record from our generation’s most definitive pop superstar. Here, the sonic milieu, aptly inspired by architecture, is as spare and industrial as the lyrics are galling and provocative. (Think: the “Monster” video on acid.) Ergo Yeezus might cost him some bandwagon listeners, but Kanye’s appeal always seems to border enigmatic. That’s how friends of mine can discuss their hatred of his recidivistic tendencies and their love for at least one of his songs in the same breath. Such contradictions typify this release: it’s radio-incompatible and addictive, proto-‘Ye and not, minimalistic and exasperating. In short, what you should expect from a guy who pummels expectations like they disrespected his mother. (9/10)

Kacey Musgraves Same Trailer Different Park (Mercury Nashville)
The Girl Who Changed My Mind About Country Music (but not country radio). Here’s why: she largely eschews popular, epicurean lyrical tropes for stories of the recurrent lifestyles of small townsfolk; people who’ve disciplined themselves to settle for second best because personal ambition is, like arriving late to church, for them an unfathomable concept (and an unforgivable sin). Though there’s some lighter, bucolic fare as well. A song about the mobility of “home” and a YOLO anthem with a shoulder-shrugging (“If that’s something you’re into”) endorsement of same-sex relationships — take note, Macklemore — similarly shine. The results – despite some very tangible radio-friendly sensibilities – aver Musgraves to be disenchanted with becoming a pop artist. She’s trying to be something much more interesting: a good one. (9.3/10)

A Day to Remember Common Courtesy (Self-released)
Hey, McKinnon, if the document speaks for itself, why’d you write a song about it? Or, if you had to write the song, why’d it make the album cut? The sun rises, sets, label execs short you on royalties. Haven’t you heard? Living well – not muckraking – is the best revenge. Naming the pre-release tour after the best song on your new album? It’s a start. The existence of that song, maybe the best you’ve ever written? That’s the middle finger you’re searching for. All the broken relationships (record label not withstanding) and the hometown jingoism and the silencing of naysayers, or, better yet, the making converts of ‘em? That’s what I want to hear about because that’s what sells concert tickets. And guess what? Those execs are the naysayers now, and selling well is the better revenge. So right back at it again? Can I get a “f*** yeah”? (8.8/10)

Queens of the Stone Age …Like Clockwork (Matador)
Necessity may boast the longer tenure as mother to invention, but near-death experiences are also a fine source for fecundity. And when an artist, like Josh Homme, who has in reserve enough creative juices to fill a sixth Great Lake, glimpses the Afterlife one can (and should) expect a deluge of lurid imagination. And that’s just the cover art. The music plays out like the Songs for the Deaf sequel that never was: crunchy guitars churning out mammoth riffs; songs both woozy and propulsive, the sound constructed with a mosaic of musical influences and rubber band-ish genre bending. Not to mention reinserting the inimitable Dave Grohl, and reinstating the erstwhile Nick Oliveri, into the famously revolving lineup. Clockwork isn’t Homme’s opus (that’s SFTD) or his swan song (that’s TBD), but it’s his latest classic and Deaf’s proper successor — and it’s about time. (9/10)

Chance the Rapper Acid Rap (Self-released)
The first marvel is the veracity of this line, the last on a prophetic opener: “This your favorite [expletive] album and I ain’t even [expletive] done.” The second is how this kid — and, at 20, he’s still a kid — doesn’t have any label support, Young-Kanye comparisons and all. The rest, if you can convince yourself to take that first track off repeat, equally stuns: an eccentric but not esoteric flow, clever hooks, soul-inspired production as trippy and euphoric as an all-day high and mic-dropping freestyle raps that pile up in greater number than Chance’s myriad personas (a sometimes paranoid dealer, incisive social commentator, love-struck teenager; sometimes all three at once). Here, the sophomore effort, Chance proves more than equal to the task of eclipsing the hype, his own grand self-assessment, “even better than I was the last time, baby,” serving as both the standard and the conclusive evidence. (9.3/10)

Ariana Grande Yours Truly (Republic)
Refreshing as it is, this year enormously, to see a former female child star shirk the customary “clothing optional” attitude, no discussion of Ariana Grande is even half complete without mention of her prodigious vocals; the first time I heard “The Way,” I couldn’t differentiate Grande from Mariah Carey — and, I assure you,  a more favorable comparison does not exist. Similarly noteworthy, courtesy of producers Harmony Samuels and Babyface, is her homage to the staccato synths of ’90’s R&B (another nod to Mariah) and the piano flourishes of ’50’s doo-wop, though both unfortunately tail off towards the end. What remains (and endures) however is a fresh perspective on love as grownup as her iconoclastic modesty, network mandate or otherwise: “I wanna say we’re going steady like its 1954/… so just call me, if you want me/’cause you got me.” Got me, too. (8/10)

Arctic Monkeys AM (Domino)
AM, like the latest QotSA record, owes a small measure of its bravura to Josh Homme‘s contribution and endorsement. Credit the rest to artistic maturation. But, also like the latest QotSA record, Homme’s influence isn’t the only one apparent from the opening moments. On “Do I Wanna Know,” the album’s first track, lead single and the only AM song I know to get consistent radio play, the sound is vintage, stoner-rock Queens (tinged with bluesy diversions a la Brothers), chugging out a greasy, slithering melody over a simple, march-worthy drum patter; even the lyrics line up: “the nights were mainly made for saying things you can’t say tomorrow,” the narrator laments, aping Dan Auerbach‘s howl. The next 11 tracks exist in that morally ambiguous twilight. The album proper described best in Turner‘s own words: “Mad sounds in your ears/they make you feel alright/they bring you back to life.” (9.1/10)

Vampire Weekend Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
There are gradations, a friend likes to remind me, where music and creativity collide after a breakthrough album. At the bottom, a great risk that fails. More of what made a band popular takes second place, and, at the pinnacle, a sonic overhaul that yields tremendous results. Fitting then that Vampire Weekend follows just such a progression, minus the misstep. The idiosyncratic indie rock of their self-titled debut propelled the band onto the mainstream, Contra held them there and then we get City, which finds them not unveiling hidden weapons but discovering a brand new arsenal. It sounds like the epitome and the antithesis of pop music, wholly electronic and unflinchingly original. They even take a potshot at the popular lyrical zeitgeist: “Diane (Get it, “dying”?) Young.” And wouldn’t you know it, the gamble pays out. Cheeky bastards. (8.5/10)

Jason Isbell Southeastern (Southeastern Records)
His lyrics (e.g., “we’d burn these joints in effigy/cry about what we used to be”). If not his lyrics then his voice; the twang present but not hyperbolic. If not his voice then his sound, which, on this record, is nominally (“alternative”) country, but not in a Taylor Swift, electrono-pop way. If not his sound then his discursions; there’s carnal love and bacchanalia, but poetry (“home was a dream/ one that I’d never seen/till you came along”)in the former and black humor in the latter, and also loneliness (“what good does knowing do/with no one to show it to?”), death and rehabilitation (“so high the the street girls wouldn’t take my pay/they said ‘come see me on a better day'”), the clarity of hindsight (“all the things she’d suspected/I’d expected her to fear/was the Truth that drew her to me when I landed here”). If none of the above then why bother? (8.8/10)

Guilty Pleasure: Chris Brown, “Fine China

Favorite Obscurity (single): John Grant, “Pale Green Ghosts

Favorite Obscurity (album): John WizardsJohn Wizards

Speaking of Courage

The circumstances surrounding Frank Ocean’s celebrity constitute a case study at once poignant and also highly relevant for the exploration of sexual orientation amongst public figures. Ocean’s debut studio album, Channel Orange (2012), earned unanimous critical acclaim and shipped over 500,000 copies in just eight months. The album garnered six Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist and Album of the Year, and the New York Times Magazine recently featured Ocean in its cover story. In the summer of 2012, Ocean announced his participation in a gay relationship via an open letter posted to his Tumblr blog. The news shocked the public (and fellow musicians) and generated a media frenzy. While the notion of an openly gay singer is not new, Ocean’s case stood out as groundbreaking. Ocean’s work located him at the center of the hip-hop and R&B music community, while his sexual orientation disassociated him from the hyper-masculine, chest-pounding braggadocio and homophobic underpinnings of the very genres within which he was a rising star.

The letter begins with these words: “whoever you are, wherever you are, I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike. Human beings spinning on blackness.” The use of the second person pronoun “you” personalizes the message to each individual reader and also evokes a sense of familiarity between Ocean and his fans. This letter constitutes something personal shared between them. He goes on to elucidate similarities he shares with his readers by saying, “[we] all want to be seen, touched, heard, paid attention to.” Ocean addresses the connection between his fame and the collective desire for recognition. He further appeals to the fundamental human desire for physical contact and meaningful social interaction. Ocean unites humankind under one banner — explicitly, as a group of people who want to feel wanted. The elimination of every other barrier — be it ethnic, racial, geographic, or sexually oriented — is immediate and intentional.

The banishment of such labels generates a feeling of universality. This is not a letter intended merely for men or for women, African American or Caucasian. Its target audience is any and every person who wants other people — or one special person — to find him or her interesting, worthy of attention, and perhaps even lovable. Readers need not even be a fan of Ocean or familiar with his music. The only prerequisite is the possession of a desire for recognition and connection.

Ocean appeals next to a feeling of empathy in his readers. Specifically in regards to bereavement or sorrow that arises as a byproduct of unrequited love. He describes his emotionally downtrodden state as “malignant,” “hopeless,” and inescapable. These adjectives imply that Ocean’s grief was severe and all-consuming. He claims that he wept as he declared his love for this man, and compares the lack of reciprocity from that man as akin to being “thrown from a cliff.” The language resonates with emotion despite its hyperbolic tone. Ocean felt helpless and distraught and even slightly fatalistic in the wake of his lover’s rejection.

The sentiments generated from this section of the letter complement the first. Ocean never uses the term “homosexual” or “gay” anywhere in his writing. This, again, is likely intentional. The absence of specificity, or a label, on the relationship allows for the circumstances surrounding that relationship to encompass a much broader scope. Here, anyone who has endured a similar situation (either in a heterosexual or homosexual relationship, with a male or a female) will be inclined to empathize with Ocean. All persons who have felt wronged by an individual who feigned or manipulated their romantic feelings are allied with Ocean against his former lover. Ocean creates and outlines a common enemy and merits empathy because his sorrow is tangible and sincere, if slightly exaggerated.

The final sentiment that reverberates throughout the last half Ocean’s letter is gratitude – gratitude to his fans for their support, to his mother for raising him to be “brave,” and gratitude to his anonymous lover who, despite his flaws, gave Ocean an unforgettable romantic experience. These words are highly indicative of tremendous personal growth and maturity on Ocean’s behalf. The letter is cathartic, near the end he says he feels “like a free man” (because he no longer has any secrets that need to be kept), but in a unique way. Ocean does not dedicate line after line of text to demonize his first love; instead he acknowledges the experience for what it retrospectively was: a time of unmitigated (and unmatched) joy in his young adult life. He writes, “even though it was never enough, it was.” The laconic and honest language Ocean employs to relay his thanks is the final element of pathos that elicits acceptance from readers of the letter.

Fans of Ocean expect gratitude for their support, and they receive it. The bereft are provided wisdom to aid in overcoming their emotional suffering, and those most close to Ocean are praised for their unyielding loyalty and unquantifiable contribution towards shaping him into the man he is. Public recognition defines celebrities so it is pragmatic for Ocean to acknowledge his enthusiasts. Scorned lovers frequently embellish the extremity of their sadness and might even be inconsolable. Ocean admits to feeling the same but intimates that the end of a romantic relationship is not synonymous with the end of the world – it is instead a step on the path towards self-actualization. And finally, he must pay homage to his support system of friends and family because they endured these troubled times with him, and will endure the hard times yet to come.

Analytically, it is only logical to conclude that this letter was well-received and admired by the general public. Russell Simmons, a business magnate in the hip-hop industry, extoled Ocean for “giving hope and light to many young people still living in fear.” He went on to say that Ocean “broke down a wall that should have never been built.” His thoughts were echoed by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, Solange Knowles, and many others. Ocean’s candid language coupled with the percolating pathos in his letter inspired feelings of unity, empathy, and reciprocal gratitude within readers, and thus became worthy of acceptance and commendation.

Ocean’s first encounter with love (and love lost) is not one unique to him or even to homosexual relationships. It is a profound and universal human experience that has afflicted many and will continue to afflict many more. He does not imply that these circumstances are special because they are homosexual. Rather, they are special because they inexorably changed his life, and ultimately for the better.

Today’s celebrities are bound to endure any number of intrusive invasions into many facets of their personal lives. The burgeoning of social media websites and the pervasiveness of handheld cameras and video recorders transform any ordinary citizen into aspiring paparazzi. Additionally, tabloid news outlets like TMZ and Gawker offer remuneration for the exploitation of information about the private lives of public figures. As such, speculation about the sexual orientation of celebrities, among many other things, is routine among the general public. Consequently, the discussion of sexual orientation by celebrities must be handled with deft precision. Prominent public figures can certainly glean some wisdom from Frank Ocean’s example.

The public discussion by celebrities of sexual orientation for the purpose of acceptance can be effective provided it adheres to the model outlined in this essay. That is, if the message contains a substantial amount of pathos, eschews labels and specificity to appeal to a vast audience, and uses candid and heartfelt language to denote an intensely personal conversation between friends — as opposed to a declaration proselytizing the virtue of tolerance — it should be well-received. But acceptance also requires courage on behalf of the audience. The courage to ignore momentarily our disagreements, petty and ideological alike, and be willing to open our minds to something new. For we all fear what we do not know, but when can a person be courageous if not when he or she is afraid?

[*This essay was written six months ago as an assignment. It appears here almost exactly in its original form. At the request of my professor/editor, the essay was submitted for review in a scholarly writing competition.]

Art Imitating Life

They're ba-ack.

They’re ba-ack.

Album review:

The goal of any artist — be he (or she) an actor, a musician, a painter or a writer — is to push creative boundaries. Not simply to recreate, but to redefine; to re-imagine. And innate within that desire lies an eagerness to take risks — to discover what doesn’t work in order to reveal what does.

Unfortunately for Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Chritso, a lot of those missteps showed up on Human After All (2005), the French duo’s third and, until about two months ago, most recent studio LP. Though not entirely without its shining moments (see: “Robot Rock” and “Technologic“), HAA was widely regarded as a smudge on Daft Punk’s otherwise-stainless oeuvre, which most notably includes their turn-of-the-millennium masterpiece Discovery (2001).

Long story short: we’ve been waiting eight years to hear from the perpetually-helmeted pair again. Waiting to find out if they had anything new to offer the EDM zeitgeist sweeping through contemporary pop music — a sound they practically invented. Searching for any signs of rust or exhaustion. Waiting, for eight long years.

And after a roll-out promotional campaign that can only be described as the longest, marketing, red carpet runner in recent history, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo broke their silence and presented Random Access Memories to the listening public on May, 17 2013. Not a moment too late.

If HAA was largely a miscalculated effort, then RAM is a flat-out reclamation of their je ne sais quoi — an emphatic reinstatement of their relevance and a spectacular success.

How, you say? By eschewing the computer-generated sound of their imitators (those basement-dwelling mouth-breathers who guzzle Mountain Dew by the liter and use their MacBooks to churn out more of the derivative drivel that “Top 40” radio stations play on a loop) for live instrumentation. Daft Punk successfully reinvented their sound by embracing the music that inspired them to play, and it’s these aural arrangements that make RAM as much a tribute to the past as it is a glimpse into the future.

The album is saturated with the funky disco grooves and the modular synthesizers reminiscent of the 1970s and 80s. And, as usual, the vocals are consistently — though not entirely — mechanized with the help of a vocoder. What’s more, the collaborator’s lineup reads like a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee list. There are some old-school heavyweights like Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers,  and modern hit-makers, namely Julian Casablancas and Pharrell Williams, and every combination of the two pays off.

“Give Life Back to Music,” the first hype-busting track on Random, repetitiously declares the record’s creed (“Let the music of your life/Give life back to music”) — here, a more literal translation of Aristotle’s mimesis — to a crackling rhythm from Rodgers that’s so smooth it glides.

Four songs later, Casablancas shows up on “Instant Crush” to ponder the peaks and valleys of young love and explore the meaning of friendship. Miraculously, his signature, listless vocal delivery transforms into something sweet and even mournful when filtered through an encoder.

But it’s Williams (Pharrell, that is) who fortifies the nucleus of the album. His first feature, “Lose Yourself to Dance,” contains one of RAM‘s most infectious hooks, buoyed again by the breezy strokes of Rodgers’ guitar and some crescendo-ed backing vocals. And then of course there’s song-of-the-summer shoe-in “Get Lucky” — the other dance floor-flooder.  This is premium-grade Daft: pure hip-shaking funk, with a bass line so fat it’s got its own gravitational pull and a semi-computerized bridge that effortlessly evokes “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.”

If you’re aching for some technological mastery, pick up some noise-cancelling headphones and look no further than “Giorgio by Moroder,” which contains an amalgamation of production techniques that amount to a sonic history of the past 40 years, as well a brief (and somewhat self-indulgent) autobiography from the eponymous narrator.

It all coalesces into one helluva of a ride, and it makes you wonder if, perhaps, Human After All was a necessary album; a chance for Bangalter and de Homem-Christo to excise all the bad mojo bouncing around in their tin-covered heads. Because it sure feels like it. Random Access Memories has all the components of a great Daft Punk album. It’s fun, whimsical, innovative and epidemically catchy and one playthrough will not be enough.

After “Contact” — a six-minute ode to a shuttle launch — concludes the album, you’ll be donning a robotic helmet of your own while thumbing the repeat button and saying, More, s’il vous plaît!

Album score: 9.2/10

Key tracks: “Give Life Back to Music,” “Instant Crush,” “Lose Yourself to Dance,” “Get Lucky”

Proto-‘Ye

The album cover should’ve tipped us off

Make your peace with his abrasive personality (and his afflictive behavior) because his artistry is utterly unapologetic — and, on Yeezus (out June 18), completely unhinged.

Following 2010’s  highly-acclaimed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the music community politely tipped their hats to Mr. West. But, as is often the case, our appetites for innovation (and our expectations) were only temporarily satiated. We soon began to wonder, “What’s next?” and Kanye responded by prohibiting everyone involved with the creation of his sixth solo studio LP from broadcasting one word to the press about the album. There was no pre-release party, no promotional single, virtually no hype-building marketing scheme of any kind. (You couldn’t even pre-order the album on iTunes.) All we got was this cryptic line:

“When I listen to radio, that ain’t what I want to be anymore.”

Well, he has nothing to fear. Yeezus is easily Kanye’s most sonically ambitious (read: not radio-friendly) effort to date. Replete with squelching synths, industrial force and thunderous, tribal drum beats (in addition to the seemingly-de rigueur vocoder gymnastics), the album sounds like surrealist,  avant-garde pop — or maybe EDM on a Lebowskian acid trip. Needless to say, it’s not easily accessible and that’s the point. It’s a daring anti-pop record from this generation’s most definitive pop star. Moreover, where MBDTF stressed the creation-by-collaboration process with multiple featured artists on several tracks, Yeezus is indelibly guided by a singular voice and vision (though, as always, ‘Ye’s not alone behind the sound board), and it’s a not a particularly palatable one.

Kanye has always told his stories in a confessional tone — a kind of emotive chest-pounding aimed at catharsis — and plenty of the lyrics here are angry and arrogant  (“Hurry up with my damn croissants!”) and politically-charged and otherwise not fit to print. But, whether or not you agree with his ideology, one thing’s clear: the album’s themes are all treading in the same murky waters. ‘They see a black man with a white woman,’ Yeezy drawls on “Black Skinhead,” the album’s first standout track, ‘At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong.’ And that’s just the beginning.

He devotes “Hold My Liquor” to waxing elegiac about his alcohol-induced misadventures and regrets (and he’s backed by stellar guest appearances from Justin Vernon and Chief Keef, a fellow Chicago rapper). Later, West irreverently borrows a hook from Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit”  on a song bemoaning all of the (primarily financial) trouble caused him by his “second-string b*****s.” Proving again that Kanye regards propriety and decorum the same way he does our expectations of him — with a tetchy sneer.

Yeezus probably won’t make many new converts out of his detractors (and, of course, haters gonna hate) but the album deserves admiration for its sheer creativity, its minimalism (it clocks in at 10 tracks and just one second over 40 minutes long) and its cohesiveness. Subsequent listens don’t reveal deeply-layered production. Rather, they demonstrate just how much more West, and his team of top-notch producers, can do with less. The results are nothing shy of stunning.

It’s insufficient (and reductive) to call this just another rap album — it practically defies classification — but whatever it is, Yeezus is proto-‘Ye, and that’s what matters. So when he declares, “I ain’t finished, I’m devoted/and you know it, and you know it” we believe him. Well, then, what’s next?

Album score: 9/10
Key tracks: “Black Skinhead,” “Hold My Liquor,” “Blood on the Leaves”

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