ALBUM REVIEW: Kanye West – Ye (2018)

Kanye West is surely pop culture’s craftiest puppet master in the Age of Outrage. Here is a man who knows how to stir exactly the right amount of controversy and work it to his favour each and every time, and has forged a legendary rap career as much from being an outspoken asshole as he has from being a fantastic producer.

The latest Kanye controversy, for anyone who missed it, was his vocal support for Donald Trump and the ‘Make America Great Again’ movement, as well his statement that 400 years of black slavery ‘sounds like a choice’. The general consensus seemed to be that he had gone too far this time, and was out of touch.

‘Nobody walks the tightrope between juicy scandal and career immolation with more finesse than Kanye West’.

But the truth is, almost nobody is more in touch with the world in 2018. We are living in an era where controversy is the essence of fame itself, and nobody walks the tightrope between juicy scandal and career immolation with more finesse than Kanye West. Any publicity is good publicity, and you know that every single person who said Kanye went too far was listening to his new record the day it dropped.

Did I mention he released an album? Yes – in the eye of Hurricane Kanye is his new record, titled ye – seven tracks long and only 23 minutes, much like Pusha T’s recent DAYTONA, which West produced. It deals frankly with mental health issues and contains heartfelt songs dedicated to his wife and daughter. It’s also probably his worst album to date.

Kanye’s recent output has been very inconsistent both in terms of style and quality. 2016’s The Life of Pablo was an erratic and messy album which Kanye put together quickly and then spent many months publicly revising, uploading new versions and songs to streaming services and digital stores. Ye feels just as scattershot, but at a third of the length its highlights are fewer and further between, while its lowlights are more unavoidable.

File ‘Yikes’ and ‘No Mistakes’ under highlights: the former contains a catchy hook on top of a moody bassline and some ghostly vocal samples, while the latter is a brief, two minute slice of vintage soul Kanye. It contains some of the album’s most memorable bars, too: ‘I got dirt on my name, I got white on my beard / I had debt on my books, it’s been a shaky-ass year / Let me make this clear, so all y’all see / I don’t take advice from people less successful than me, huh?’

‘It’s hard to hear Ye as anything more than a rushed and very inconsistent record’.

But then there’s the ridiculous, high-pitched, mumbled hook on ‘All Mine’. The eye-rolling monologue that makes up the majority of ‘I Thought about Killing You’. And worst of all – the Kid Cudi feature on ‘Ghost Town’, in which he sings the hook like a cat in the process of being strangled. I literally cannot hear that line – ‘I’ve been tryyYYYYYyyyYYYinnnnng to make you love me’ – without physically wincing and skipping the song. It’s that bad.

Ye should be commended for the frank manner in which it deals with mental illness, but it can be difficult to treat these issues with the seriousness they deserve when Kanye rhymes ‘hurt so bad, I go numb’ with ‘I called up the Muslims, said I’m ‘bout to go dumb’.

In the end, it’s hard to hear Ye as anything more than a rushed and very inconsistent record. While DAYTONA felt short for the purpose of filtering out the imperfections and removing the filler, Ye feels short because it was put together in a month. But even though, in my opinion, Kanye’s music has been on a downturn ever since 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the man’s intuitive grasp of the mechanics of fame is sure to keep his name on our tongues at least until the next album rolls around.



ALBUM REVIEW: Father John Misty – God’s Favourite Customer (2018)

Father John Misty’s God’s Favourite Customer comes barely more than a year after his album Pure Comedy, which released in April last year. The songs of this new album were conceived in much the same time period, only a matter of months later. And Misty (real name Josh Tillman) has stated in interviews that they were written during a period in which he was struggling with mental health issues, and spent two months estranged from his wife while living in a hotel.

Coming so soon after Comedy, it’s no surprise that God’s Favourite Customer is very similar in terms of musical style. Both albums are largely comprised of languid, mid-paced piano ballads over which Misty sings in his typically self-aware, sarcastic manner. But Customer is only a couple minutes shy of being half Comedy’s length, and as a result avoids that record’s biggest flaw: its over-indulgence.

When I reviewed Pure Comedy in 2017, I said I felt like it was “beating me over the head with self-aware, post-ironic commentary”. That certainly isn’t the case for Customer, whose songs are much more concise, and tend to follow conventional verse/chorus structures. This helps to make Tillman’s lyrics, which are still the most appealing thing about his music, stand out even further.

While there are plenty of lines written from behind an ironic sneer, songs like ‘Please Don’t Die’, ‘Just Dumb Enough to Try’ and ‘Disappointing Diamonds are the Rarest of Them All’ are about as close as Father John Misty will ever get to a completely sincere love song. And their strong vocal performances are matched with some more lively instrumentation, bringing a bit of volume and energy to the record.

But taken as a whole, the ten songs of God’s Favourite Customer blur into one, and lack anything really distinct to make them stand out. Listen to the first three seconds of ‘Just Dumb Enough to Try’, ‘The Palace’, and ‘The Songwriter’ one after another and you’ll understand what I mean – each features the same slow, minor chords played at almost exactly the same tempo.

It all just feels too safe, and although I appreciate that this album is more direct than its predecessor, I can’t help feeling I’m walking on familiar ground. I’d love to see Father John Misty apply his lyrical talents to some more adventurous music, but I don’t doubt that God’s Favourite Customer will continue to feed the cult of personality which surrounds Misty at this point, and be more than enough to appease his fans.



‘Cocaine concierge, longest running trapper of the year’

It’s been three years since the release of Pusha T’s last album, 2015’s King Push – Darkest Before the Dawn. In the heavily commodified world of mainstream hip-hop, three years is a long time: the era of music streaming has brought us to a point where many artists will put out a new project every year, and will often stretch these albums out to ridiculous lengths to maximise the number of streams they receive. For some particularly bad examples of this see Migos’ Culture 2, or Rae Sremurrd’s uninspired triple album SR3MM which released just a couple of months ago.

DAYTONA, by contrast, is seven tracks long. At twenty one minutes, it’s also shorter than King Push, which was supposed to be a prelude to this record. But while the album’s perplexingly short runtime initially struck me as dissapointing, it turns out to be one of DAYTONA’s greatest strengths. The record is completely devoid of the filler we so often see in big rap albums, and it has a cohesion and focus which they very often miss. All the lyrics (bar one Rick Ross feature on ‘Hard Piano’) come from Pusha, while Kanye West handles the production of all seven tracks.

Pusha plays the character of thespian kingpin throughout DAYTONA, which he himself described as ‘luxury drug rap’. What sets him apart from the leagues of rappers who’ve written shitty bars about taking and/or selling drugs is both his storytelling ability and his sense of humour. Just like someone such as Raekwon, whose album Cuban Linx is namedropped as an inspiration, Pusha T songs feel like the inner monologue of a villain in a gritty crime narrative: ‘Feds takin’ pictures like its GQ / This Avianne collarbone is see-through’. But Pusha keeps it light with a healthy dose of comedy at the same time: ‘I been grantin’ wishes like a genie / To bad hoes in two-piece bikinis’.

Kanye’s beats, meanwhile, are some of the best he’s put together in years. They’re loud and ostentatious, but in construction surprisingly simple. ‘The Games We Play’ and ‘Come Back Baby’ are almost nothing but big, crispy drums and a killer bassline, but both make incredible use of their respective samples. The former samples a guitar solo from this obscure ’60s funk jam and then screws it down to half speed until it becomes a woozy oriental stomp almost unrecognizable from its source material. And the latter makes use of R&B singer George Jackson’s ‘I Can’t Do Without You’, contrasting the soulful chorus with clinical, bassy verses to fantastic effect.

DAYTONA isn’t a particularly ambitious record, and truthfully it doesn’t break much new ground for either Pusha or Kanye. But it demonstrates what both artists do best in an admirably minimal and highly replayable set of seven songs. If this is to be the first release of the Summer of Kanye (his record label GOOD Music are gearing up to release at least three more albums in the next couple of months), then it’s definitely a strong start.Here’s hoping for more like this.


ALBUM REVIEW: J Cole – KOD (2018)

“Truthfully, J Cole is vanilla ice cream.”

Hip-hop has always had an obsession with rankings. Call it a symptom of competitive masculinity, or of a genre born in poor urban areas that has found itself rising to complete cultural dominance in 2018. Rappers have always gone to great lengths to tell you why they are the number one, or top five, or top ten, and the idea of the ‘king of the game’ is one that has always sparked a great deal of conversation.

I think part of the reason for J Cole’s mysterious popularity is the way he has co-opted this conversation, and through sheer quantity of self-mythology has placed himself at the top of the pile, at least in the eyes of his fans. On Cole’s breakout 2014 Forest Hills Drive, he repeatedly spouted a bizzare rap hierarchy in which he was a god and everyone below him only a king – as if he had ascended to a higher power level in Dragon Ball Z.

But, truthfully, J Cole is vanilla ice cream. He makes relatable, middle of the road rap music that is well produced and appeals to a wide audience, but really lacks any kind of personality or character. If he has one defining trait, it’s his awkwardness – the eye-rolling bars about folding clothes and taxes, where Cole reaches for something deep and introspective but misses the mark completely. Sometimes that awkardness is endearing, like on Forest Hills‘ ‘Wet Dreamz’, but most of the time it’s just clunky.

And so proves to be the case for KOD, an album which isn’t likely to change Cole’s reputation as something of a critical punching bag. It kicks off with a desperately cringey intro, in which a woman’s breathy voiceover tries to set up the albums themes of addiction, telling us that “life can bring much pain…”. It’s ridiculous, and has more than a little whiff of To Pimp a Butterfly to it.

Unfortunately, Cole can’t even come close to Kendrick’s ability to put a conceptual record together. KOD purports to be about addiction, and was released on 4/20 with a particularly psychedelic cover, but in reality only a handful of tracks address the topic. ‘Photograph’ is about having the hots for somebody on Instagram, ‘The Cut Off’ is about fake friends, and ‘BRACKETS’ is about…uh…taxes.

The production is solid, again taking cues from Kendrick with some spacious, modern jazz-rap. And a handful of tracks here contain some sticky if slightly obnoxious hooks, like ‘ATM’ and ‘Kevin’s Heart’. But ultimately what puts me off KOD is the cringe-worthy bars and awkward flows: how Cole rhymes ‘diploma’ with ‘all over’, or how he ends ‘FRIENDS’ by suggesting meditation as an alternative to drug use, probably for the sole reason that it rhymes with ‘medication’.

Nothing about KOD is offensive, really. It has a few good tunes, and Cole’s technical abilities are stronger than most rappers at his level of popularity. But that’s the problem with vanilla ice cream: the fact that it’s inoffensive is exactly the reason I never want to eat it. Now excuse me while I go and enjoy some of Ben & Kenny’s Haagen Baarz.



Album of the Year 2017: #17 Angelo Badalamenti – Twin Peaks S3 Soundtrack

The return of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks was far and away the strangest thing to happen in 2017. Trump’s election? Forget that. Go and watch episode eight of the new season – ‘Gotta Light?’ – then tell me you’ve seen anything more perplexing, terrifying and brilliant since the beginning of January.

It wasn’t for everyone, no doubt. Season three was challenging right from the get go, with an experimental and bizarre first episode that I’m sure turned many off. I wasn’t convinced at first, either, but as the show went on I began to realize the genius behind its disjointed and jarring transitions, its flatly sinister tone and mysterious side stories with no obvious purpose.

It was also absolutely hilarious at times, in a way that Lynch very often doesn’t get credit for. How about the scene where Jerry is taking a drug-addled stroll through the forest and then hallucinates that his foot is talking to him? The brilliant five-minute cameo of Michael Cera as ridiculous cool-guy Wally Brando? The countless moments of slapstick brilliance with Dougie, AKA Mr Jackpot?

Season three was an enigma, full of hilarity in horror in equal measure. And a large part of its mystique comes from Angelo Badalamenti’s incredible soundtrack, much as was the case in the show’s first two seasons. Twin Peaks has some of the most instantly recognizable and iconic TV themes of all time, no question – the sweeping nostalgia of the title theme, the sinister and lovesick ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’, the whimsical ‘Audrey’s Dance’…

These classics make their way on to the soundtrack of season three, too, but they sit alongside new pieces from Badalamenti, as well a couple of contributions from other musicians who are favourites of Lynch. Chromatic’s Johnny Jewel offers up the sultry and spellbinding ‘Windswept (reprise)’, while Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s horrifying ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’ sets every nerve on edge.

Badalamenti’s new pieces range from chilling (‘Dark Mood Woods’) to mystical (‘The Fireman’), to rapturous (‘Night’). He wrings drama from every note and chord of these ambient songs, all of which are relatively simple in composition and yet infinitely evocative. And he manages to bring them all together into a cohesive project alongside existing music from his own back catalogue, and that of his guest musicians.

Twin Peaks (Limited Event Series Soundtrack) is its own self-contained world, and that is just about the highest praise that can be heaped upon a soundtrack. Listening to it brings back strong memories of the show’s distant and recent past, but it is also evocative enough to suggest so many more scenes – perhaps even alternate realities – within the show’s dazzlingly strange universe. Grab yourself some coffee and a donut, put some wood on the fire, and stick this on your speakers. You won’t regret it.

Album of the Year 2017: #18 Jay-Z – 4:44

Is there any living rapper with a more successful and storied career than Jay-Z? Any rapper who has built so large an empire and yet remained, unlike a Dr Dre, musically relevant even to this day? I can’t think of one if there is – the man known as Shawn Carter has been one of the biggest names in music for close to thirty years, and 4:44 is the introspective late-career rap album that draws a line under all those achievements.

It’s a humble, often low key and very personal album, in which Jay addresses the infidelity rumours surrounding his marriage, reflects on his business acumen, and muses on fatherhood. His rapping is mellow and revealing, sometimes bordering on spoken word as he pulls back the curtain on his hustler persona.

Hova makes a couple of appearances – on the braggadocious reggae bounce of ‘Bam’ and the nostalgic ‘Marcy Me’. But by and large this is a Shawn Carter album – conversational, real, and apologetic. On the album’s title track, over a soulful beat, he speaks directly to his wife: ‘I apologise, often womanise / Took for my child to be born to see through a woman’s eyes’.

That frankness can be found in nearly every song on 4:44. Opener ‘Kill Jay-Z’ finds him addressing the critics and listeners who condemned his infidelity, and wrote off his music career: ‘How can we know if we can trust Jay-Z?’ He takes all the criticism in stride, and makes no attempt to defend himself, just resolves to correct as many mistakes as he can: ‘You gotta do better, boy you owe it to Blue’.

In ‘The Story of OJ’ he takes on the history of racism over a jazz-bar piano slide. In ‘Smile’ he raps about coming to terms with and loving yourself, revealing his mother’s struggles coming out as a lesbian. And in closer ‘Legacy’, which features a voice recording of his five-year old daughter, he muses on how the money he has made will affect his children’s lives.

It’s unexpected stuff from the rap game’s most exuberant hustler, and a far cry from ‘Big Pimpin’ or Reasonable Doubt. But it’s brilliant, and it makes for one of his best albums yet in combination with the fantastic production work by No I.D, who handled every single track. These ten songs are soulful, spacious, and feature some excellent sample work to boot.

It’s often said that hip-hop is a young man’s game, but 4:44 provides a blueprint for longevity. Unlike Hov’s last Blueprint, this one strips away all the persona and egotism, leaving behind nothing but passion, emotion and vulnerability. These qualities are a rare find in hip-hop, but it is them that set 4:44 apart as one of the best albums of 2017.

Album of the Year 2017: #19 Slowdive – Slowdive

Shoegaze innovators Slowdive returned with a fantastic self-titled album in 2017, delivering another helping of blissful, intergalactic dream-pop. Their return more than lived up to the enormous legacy of the genre they helped pioneer, and comfortably blew all imitators out of the water.

The eight songs of Slowdive are laced in a sugary film of reverb, with each carefully placed chord, rhythm and note sounding out as if in an enormous echo chamber. The album feels spacious to the extreme, limitless even: the soupy production effortlessly fuses guitars and keyboards together into one almost indistinguishable whole, to wonderful effect. Slowdive envelops the ears in a way few albums do.

Which isn’t to say that the record is mellow, by any means – songs like ‘Star Roving’ and ‘Go Get It’ are among the loudest the band has ever recorded. The former builds a driving space-rock groove from multi-tracked guitars and harmonized vocals, while the latter feels a bit post-rock with an interesting quiet/loud dynamic, as whisper-quiet verses erupt into a huge chorus: ‘I wanna see it / I wanna feel it’

For a band who hadn’t released any new music in over twenty years, Slowdive came back sounding full of confidence in 2017. Their new record was meticulous and panoramic: as delicate as a spider’s web, but as eternal as a galaxy. And certainly among the best of the year.