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.

 

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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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