Posts Tagged ‘ballad’

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Rihanna – Unapologetic. (album review)

December 2, 2012

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Unapologetic might be Rihanna’s best album yet. In truth, I’ve been struggling to work out how to start a review of this album without referring to her previous masterpiece Rated R, which was a tour de force that exposed an angry, vulnerable girl trying to figure out the aftermath of love gone wrong. This album came out when I was in the midst of trying to untangle and deal with my own feelings of unrequited love, and resonated with me on such a level. On the other hand, Unapologetic comes out when I am happily in love and settled in my own life. This time, Rihanna’s narrative is quite different to my own – and yet Unapologetic, to its credit, still connects with the listener, drawing them into her fury that this time is more simmering than explosive (on Rated R, all-out rage only begins to subside into a quieter, more vulnerable, bubbling – yet nevertheless powerful – anger at around “Photographs”, two thirds of the way through the record).

Of course, Rihanna’s life has changed considerably since then. An even bigger star now than she was 3 years ago with the ability to only release number 1 singles, now she has a number 1 album to match. Meanwhile, her atomic breakup with Chris Brown (precipitated by his fists) has metamorphosed into media-baiting behaviour, ill-advised collaborations with Brown and the rumoured (likely true, if the photographs and ineloquent tweets and confessions of her ex are to be believed) rekindling of their romance. Unapologetic: why shouldn’t Rihanna forgive her abuser, her first love? Why shouldn’t she work with a hot male R&B star? Why can’t she misbehave, smoke, drink, party night after night like anyone in their early twenties? Despite what naysayers like to purvey, her career certainly hasn’t suffered for it. But the material on the album – none of which was written by Rihanna but all of which has a stamp immediately more personal than the scattergun Loud that hit dizzying heights all too infrequently, and than the ultimately unsatisfying Talk That Talk that petered out halfway after such a promising start – displays a thoughtfulness that suggests that while Rihanna may be “unapologetic”, she’s not unaware of what is going on around her, what is happening to her and certainly of what is being said or claimed about her. Unapologetic continues where Rated R left off: there are certainly hits, but nearly every song carries a depth of meaning that exudes confidence, confusion, sex and honesty.

Opener “Phresh Out The Runway” is swag personified, and is effectively Rihanna making an entrance. While it’s great to start the album, and an excellent song to listen to for an immediate energy boost when you’re half-asleep leaving the house on the way to work, it’s not the meaningful content I’ve discussed above. Neither is the other David Guetta collaboration, “Right Now”, a club diversion that rehashes previous album highlight “Where Have You Been” to pleasant but unremarkable effect. But on lead single “Diamonds”, we get a childlike chant, a sparkling midtempo strut and a powerful vocal that lyrically echoes previous megahit “We Found Love”: where there were “yellow diamonds in the sky”, now we are “shining bright like a diamond in the sky”. Rihanna’s vocals have grown more impressive over the years (whatever she’s smoking, I would like some) and where she may have simply been a vehicle for delivering hit songs even on the consistent Good Girl Gone Bad, now it’s she who transforms a song into a smash. The chorus is powerful yet sincere, and lyrics such as the telling “I choose to be happy” betray a sense of desperation in trying to convince herself that a romantic relationship is truly infallible rather than fleeting (as are the moments portrayed in the accompanying video). It’s a fantastic performance, and a refreshingly downbeat choice for a lead single that nonetheless packs punch.

The next trio of songs could all be described as downbeat yet potent, but each has its own place on the album. “Numb” works atop a sensual Egyptian-sounding ostinato and pounding drums, while Rihanna drawls monotonously that nobody “can’t tell her nothing… I’m impaired / I’m going numb, I’m going numb”. Interestingly, the vulnerability continues as the lyrics imply that for all her power and “double-dares”, Rihanna sees herself as the defective one. “Pour It Up” in contrast is celebratory of women who are in charge (like Rihanna, of course)… and yet the vocals and beats are submerged in aural tar, as if Rihanna is high off the champagne, weed and money referenced in the songs. None of these songs are instant, and yet on repeated listens they reveal themselves as worthwhile and interesting – “balling out” may not be as fun as it’s cracked up to be. “Loveeeeeee Song” is also very chill, working from a traditional R&B template that’s chopped and screwed into something less recognisable. It’s a romantic ballad dressed up as a nonchalant come-on. So far, the theme of Unapologetic is that appearances can be deceiving – Rihanna is flawless, cocky, confident, nonchalant, vulnerable, determined to be happy, numb, impaired, intoxicated, worried about “sounding too desperate”, in need of love and affection… It’s a spiralling morass of emotion dressed up as a percolating limousine ride.

Things become much more straightforward with “Jump” – i.e. SMASH. Dubstep breakdowns done right and made fresh and dynamic; a sample of “Pony” by Ginuwine that could have easily been problematic (as is so often the case when interpolating excellent material) but instead elevates the music; Rihanna is cocksure and forthright. But within a couple of songs, we have an explosive ballad that I saw described by a user on Popjustice as “fire and ice blasting out of the ground”. “What Now” is flawless and one of Rihanna’s best works – a mid-tempo ballad that quickly becomes bombastic, overwrought and emboldened by one of her best vocal performances to date. As drums explode and guitars roar to a climax, lyrics profess that “I spent every hour just going through the motions / I can’t even get the emotions to come out / Dry as a bone, but I just wanna shout”. The emotions certainly do come out, so palpably that the cut is utterly absorbing and one of Rihanna’s best. “Stay” directly follows this and is the quietest track on the album, serving as more evidence of Rihanna’s improvements as a vocalist and interpretative singer – she is capable of taking a song and breathe life into it, whatever the subject matter or emotional standpoint. It’s just been confirmed as Unapologetic‘s second single and appears to be a fan favourite, though I wouldn’t go any further than saying the song is fine – I would certainly champion other tracks over this one. But its contrast with the other songs on the album and with Rihanna’s usual output gives it its own place on the album.

“Nobody’s Business”, the duet with Chris Brown, is the perceived “event” of the album, sampling Michael Jackson to boot. But musically it’s a little bit flat – the existence of the duet says more than its sonic attributes. “You’ll always be mine, sing it to the world… ain’t nobody’s business.” Yet another contradiction in an album full of them, both lyrically and musically. Is Rihanna purposefully spiting all of those who supported her during the fallout of her abuse suffered at Brown’s hands? Is it offensive? Or are they just teasing? It seems very pointed when Rihanna sings “Let’s make out in this Lexus” – as opposed to what happened in a car last time! It’s a trying sentiment that seems difficult to understand – but once again, let’s remember that Rihanna is “unapologetic” so what does it matter? She is going to do what she wants, she’s young and in love, and hopefully she won’t get hurt again in such a way. “Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary” is the album’s centrepiece that, like “The Last Song” from Rated R, captivates the listener with exceptionally personal exposure. Where the previous track aims to provoke without any substance to back it up, here the confessional actually reveals a lot. “I was his Marilyn Monroe / Brown eyes, tuxedo, fast cars / A James Dean on the low.” We are clearly taken back to that fateful night of Rihanna’s being attacked (and interestingly, she hints at Chris Brown’s alleged bisexuality to boot, which may or may not have something to do with the night in question).  The bravado of “Nobody’s Business” is completely gone here, and as the song transitions into “Mother Mary”, Rihanna sounds less sure of her swagger: “I swear I wanna change”. The lyrics touch on the nature of fame, as does worthwhile bonus track “Half Of Me”, and implies that whatever we think we know about Rihanna, us outsiders never get to see the whole picture and so we shouldn’t judge… but Rihanna understands that we inevitably will. As much as “Nobody’s Business” claimed to be happy-go-lucky and ready to dive into love-as-sex, “Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary” shows much more depth of thought (as in “What Now”) and heart that encourages repeat listens. This is another highlight of Unapologetic.

The closing songs of the album feel like a plane coming into land. “Get It Over With” is sublime, like a song-length interlude that urges the climax to “come on and fucking rain”; anger gives way to fatigue and surrender to whatever will be, good or bad. “No Love Allowed” is, contrastingly, a deceptively sunny reggae song that once again confounds expectations set up by the previous song. But the lyrics are spooky and uncomfortable, as was its precursor in spirit, Loud‘s “Man Down”. In direct opposition to that song’s subject matter, here it’s Rihanna yelling “911 it’s a critical emergency / Better run run run and charge him with the 143.” It’s a neat (perhaps too neat?) inversion of “Man Down” and seems to shed more light on the Chris Brown saga… but as highlighted in “Half Of Me”, how much do we ever know about Rihanna? We’re not privy to the whole story – according to “Mother Mary”, she’s going to “make the best scene they’ve ever seen.” “Lost In Paradise”, last but not least, is a bass-heavy closer that implies the story is not over, because now Rihanna has to find meaning to the paradise she claims to be stranded in if she ever hopes to find her way out.

For an album where Rihanna does not carry a single songwriting credit (though she is an executive producer), Unapologetic sure feels personal. And honest: an album filled with contradictions that are often calculated but nevertheless sound/feel like they have genuine meaning. The journey of the album is consistently riveting and reveals its complexities on repeated listens. There may be few answers to fans’ questions (however many sordid details it provides), but this rings less as Rihanna being deliberately elusive and more as she herself not quite knowing how to proceed. After all, she’s naked on the damn album cover – how much more vulnerable can one be, clothed only in a flimsy gauze of words, slogans and hashtags? In a world where her lover became her abuser and now may become her lover again, and where soundscapes and lyrics distort and contort around and through her voice, the one thing – no, two things – Rihanna clearly knows is how to release hit singles, and how to craft a powerful album.

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Demi Lovato – Unbroken (album review)

October 4, 2011

My limited knowledge of Demi Lovato extended to: Disney, Camp Rock, annoying, an album cover that ripped off No Doubt’s Rock Steady, some sort of meltdown. After hearing her song “Skyscraper” on the almighty Popjustice and falling in love with that song’s vulnerability, raw vocal performance and defiant lyrics, I decided to investigate further. Beyond finding out that Demi had a really bad year last year, I found her new album Unbroken. And it would appear that Demi is becoming a grown woman.

Although the initial four tracks feature guest appearances that made me tremble with fear (Timbaland – I am sadly no longer filled with anticipation when I see his name in liner notes; Dev; Iyaz; Jason Derülo), the tracks were upbeat, fun and seemed determined to showcase Demi as a young woman (she’s still only 19!) who wants to party, have fun and flirt with guys. It seems a bit much to front-load what is essentially a coming-of-age album with such lightweight tracks, but they are frothy and hooky and will draw young listeners in. But from track 5, the waltz-time ballad “Lightweight”, Demi really gets down to business and things get really good. She gets to do more with her voice and showcase why she is almost certainly the best singer to emerge from the Disney teen bratpack. The title track is a defiant call-to-arms (“I’m gonna love you like I’ve never been broken / Tonight I’m letting go”) over a thumping dance-pop beat, while lead single “Skyscraper” still remains the standout, a tear-jerking ballad that has rightly been the biggest hit of Demi’s career to date. “In Real Life” is a sassy, soulful cut that skews R&B, with a vocal performance that sees Demi’s romantic fantasies ultimately realised. Closing track “For The Love Of A Daughter” is a plea to Demi’s alcoholic father to “put the bottle down”, and while it’s lyrically a little maudlin, Demi puts in a vocal that rivals Kelly Clarkson at her peak and shows that Demi hasn’t just been through a year where her most private problems came to light, but that she’s always dealt with tough issues that humanise her in the face of her teen counterparts. In a year filled with lacklustre releases, Unbroken is a pleasantly strong album that comes as a breath of fresh air and demonstrates the potential star quality that Demi is on the cusp of realising.

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Kylie Minogue – Aphrodite. (album review)

June 27, 2010

Aphrodite marks Kylie Minogue’s 11th studio album, and the general attitude is that this is the Australian star’s comeback album following her battle with breast cancer, after the scattershot effort of previous project X. Not only did X not allude to her personal life and struggles (to many fans’ dismay), it seemed determined to overlook them; however, the genre-hopping and quality rollercoaster displeased many listeners.  This is not to take away from the album’s strongpoints; for the gigantic misses of glam-rock lead single “2 Hearts” and the tepid, forgettable “No More Rain”, there were hits such as the excellently addictive “In My Arms” and the sensuous “Sensitized”, not to mention the beautiful closing lightweight ballad “Cosmic”.  X was a frustrating listen not because it ignored Kylie’s personal foibles but because it didn’t know where its head was at, and fired off moments of sheer brilliance and then of complete twaddle seemingly at will.  It’s true that in contrast to that album, Aphrodite is cohesive, focused and honed to target the fibrillating emotional dance-pop that so pleases the radio and Kylie’s gay fanbase.

Aphrodite bears much in common with that other Kylie comeback record, Fever.  Both are love letters to the dance floor, where the tempo and beats are relentless, while Kylie purrs over the top at once calculated and lascivious.  Both are pure pop, and neither of them take enough risks to stand with Kylie’s best albums: the daring, creative zenith of Impossible Princess or the seductive Body Language that was comprised of songs that were so off-kilter and curious that it was a pleasant surprise just how well the songs worked both individually and as a whole.  Nevertheless, Aphrodite aims to please, and on lead single “All The Lovers”, Kylie does just that with a lyric that pleads simultaneously for love and for the dancefloor.  Primed for the radio and for the gays with its pop-dance leanings, Kylie seems to have struck a home run.  However, this song epitomises much of one of my criticisms of Aphrodite as a whole: the sentiments of the lyrics (which are well-written) and the beauty in the melodies (which are often evocative and well-structured) get swallowed up by the uniform pop production of the album.  It at once unifies the record and smooths out most of its interesting quirks: if X was too schizophrenic, Kylie has gone too far the other way with Aphrodite to create a record that is too homogenous.  Like Madonna’s Confessions On A Dance Floor, Stuart Price oversees production duties here to melt the songs together into one continuous blur, making the decent songs fight to announce themselves as individuals to the listener’s ear.

With songs such as “All The Lovers”, “Closer” and “Everything Is Beautiful”, this is a problem: for example, “Closer” is structurally and melodically a ballad, fighting against production that wants to make it a bitter dance song.  “Everything Is Beautiful” should be a gentle, sweet ode to the joys of love, but the insistent drum beat transforms the song into an anthemic but ill-fitting upbeat pop song. These identity crises give much of Aphrodite the sense that it is trying too hard to be something it’s not, or that the tracks are not allowed to be themselves.  There are a couple of plain weak tracks: “Better Than Today” sounds entirely like a Scissor Sisters track and Kylie Minogue (who is not credited enough for her vocal and interpretative abilities) sings it in just that way; “Looking For An Angel” is listless filler which once again seems to have earned its spot on the record because it fits in with the overarching feel of the album as a whole.  It’s a shame that unlike on the quirky Body Language where the album’s moments of strangeness worked, a large part of Aphrodite feels like it is a square peg forced into a round hole.

This is especially highlighted when one listens to the songs that do work.  “Get Outta My Way” is a focused, upstanding anthem that takes its 4-to-the-floor beat and runs, creating an exhilarating standout; “Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love)” bears the essence of Fever‘s infectious “Love At First Sight” and is similarly lovely; the title track “Aphrodite” is a statement of self-worth and determination to triumph that totally suits its marching-band beat and lyrics that declare “Did you think I wasn’t real?… I’m fierce and I’m feeling mighty / I’m a golden girl, I’m an Aphrodite / Alright?” Its confidence and zest spearhead Aphrodite’s most successful moments.  However, “Cupid Boy” is the antithesis of this and still shines; a moody guitar-driven mid-tempo that proves that (unlike the aforementioned “Closer”) it certainly is possible to successfully deliver an emotionally-charged ballad-esque track while still keeping the overarching dance feel of the album intact.  Closer “Can’t Beat The Feeling” is one of the album’s poppiest moments, but its embrace of its own cheesiness is almost delightful, with Kylie’s vocal delivery transforming throwaway candy-floss lyrics such as “Feel the force of the reaction / Let it take you on a ride /… I can’t beat the feeling that I get when I’m with you” into a delirious proclamation of love.

Overall, Aphrodite caters to its target group, but a little too efficiently.  Some songs feel like they’ve been forced to be what they’re not, a couple seem to be present only by dint of the fact that they musically sound like Kylie Minogue tracks – facsimiles of songs rather than songs in their own right.  But at least half of the album works, and when the individual elements of Aphrodite react successfully and the songs stand up with the help of the production rather than being strapped down by it, the results are impressive.  I enjoyed this album more than I expected to, and it marks one step closer to a return to form for Minogue… even if she’s not quite at her peak.

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Toni Braxton – Pulse. (album review)

May 7, 2010

The first album from Toni Braxton in 5 years comes following an abbreviated residency at Las Vegas, yet more record label disputes, health scares, a neat run on Dancing With The Stars and a separation from long-term partner Keri Lewis.  So one would assume that she has a lot of life material to draw on, material that might be evident in the singer’s new album.  Well, yes and no: Toni Braxton has stuck to her strengths, which are soulful R&B ballads expertly sung.  The lyrical content of these tracks betrays barely a whisker of what the singer has been through in the past 5 years, and to look at the singer she stands stately, sophisticated and stunningly beautiful for a woman of 40 years old.  Indeed, she still has that same sexy body she had 15 years ago, although now it is dressed with a more chic, age-appropriate veneer that effortlessly walks that tightrope between sexy and classy.  Nevertheless, Braxton’s creamy, rich alto has a slight bit more depth to it now; to paraphrase from her interview in Metro this week, she has the ability to channel her experiences (be they joyful or sad) into the texture of her voice, and this is what makes Braxton one of the most enduring and valuable singers to emerge in the last 20 years: you feel her when she sings.  On Pulse this is evident throughout, particularly when her voice is reduced to a low, husky whisper such as at the beginning of “Woman”, a cover of Delta Goodrem’s track from 2007’s Delta that improves on the original because Toni Braxton’s voice brings more depth to the lyrics (although Delta Goodrem’s own version was solid in itself, perhaps making this achievement all the more impressive), and the production ranges from subtle to soaring while never overtaking Braxton’s performance.

After more leaks than Ciara’s Fantasy Ride, it would be unacceptable for Pulse to be anything less than solid, considering the 25+ tracks we’ve heard from Toni Braxton’s recording sessions for the project.  For the most part, Braxton has chosen the strongest songs for the project, although bonus tracks “Rewind” and “Stay” add little value to the album and could have been replaced with successful “Ice Box” soundalike “Clockwork” and particularly “It’s You”.  These are just little personal gripes however, and don’t affect the fact that Braxton sings each of the 11 tracks on her album with impeccable aplomb; her voice cannot be faltered, whether she’s emitting attitude on the sassy “Make My Heart” (which again improves upon Blaque’s / Mis-Teeq’s “Can’t Get It Back”, being based on the same sample) or evoking vulnerability on standout closing track “Why Won’t You Love Me”.  It is surprising that this is the only track on Pulse that gives Toni a significant songwriting credit (“Yesterday” does credit her, but only along with 4 other contributors) considering her credits on The Heat and More Than A Woman; those two albums, while not perfect, were both cohesive and consistent – they felt like albums, not just a collection of songs.

And this is where my only main gripe with Pulse comes in.  Indeed, the album contains some beautiful songs – my personal favourites are first single “Yesterday” (although it sounds like Beyoncé’s “Halo”, it is strong and sincere enough to stand on its own two feet – unlike the version with Trey Songz, which suffers from a change in production that is at once overdone and bland), the aforementioned “Make My Heart” and “Why Won’t You Love Me”, “Wardrobe” with its clever man-as-outfit metaphor that somehow avoids sounding cheesy or forced.  “Lookin’ At Me” is a welcome uptempo that bumps convincingly and brings the sass out of Toni, and perhaps in the closing stretch of the album which is ballad-heavy, another uptempo of this nature might have livened things up.  Finally, “Hands Tied” is an utterly beautiful song in lyrics, production and vocals, and has an outstanding video to match – Toni Braxton dances in front of a troupe of attractive men, stands in an eye-catching black dress in front of an ornately carved table that I would quite like in my house, and locks eyes with the camera, singing and dancing and yet conveying the determination for love inherent in the song’s lyrics.

As I said before, there are no weak tracks, and perhaps my opinion is swayed by the sheer amount of material I’ve heard from the project – unlike classic albums Secrets, The Heat and More Than A Woman, the album feels merely like a collection of lovely songs than like an album.  Previous album Libra suffered from this same problem, although Pulse has more of an identity, hewing close to soulful ballads and eschewing popular production tricks; unlike a couple of Libra‘s tracks, this album won’t sound dated, to its credit. But something intangible makes some albums more than the sum of their parts, and Pulse just doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi.  In comparison with Monica’s recent Still Standing (check my review here!), both albums are a welcome embodiment of “real” R&B, both are classy efforts that dispense with unnecessary featured artists and emphasise the singers’ strengths.  Neither album possesses any repellent tracks, and all the material is beautifully sung.  But if I had to choose between them, Monica’s would win out because something about it feels more sincere, more cohesive; something connects with the listener more.  I feel bad that I can’t quite put my finger on what that “something” is, but it means that while Pulse is certainly solid and worth purchasing, as a whole it isn’t  exceptional.  Nevertheless, some of its songs are exceptional, and it is wonderful to hear a singer relying on her vocal ability and strong songwriting rather than gimmicks or collaborations with flavour-of-the-month artists.

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Sugababes – Sweet 7. (album review)

February 7, 2010

Sweet 7 marks the 7th album from the Sugababes, and the first album from the newest incarnation of the group, consisting now of Heidi Range, Amelle Berrabah and Jade Ewen.  Furore of no original members remaining aside, Sweet 7 evidences a complete glossy polishing of the group’s sound that started upon Mutya’s departure after Taller In More Ways, one of the group’s best albums.  Sweet 7 is full of pounding clubby pop uptempos, with a couple of ballads at the end to slow down the pace.  For the most part (the piece-of-trash “Thank You For The Heartbreak” aside), these are well-written, catchy pop songs with a couple of pleasant surprises along the way.  “Wear My Kiss” and “About A Girl” are smashes-in-waiting that don’t deserve to fare badly on the charts just because of bad feeling towards the group’s revolving-door lineup.  “No More You” sounds like a Stargate production in the vein of Beyoncé’s smash “Irreplaceable”, and standout “She’s A Mess” has some hilarious lyrics (“drinking bottle after bottle after bottle…” / “Everybody go mad, everybody go psycho!”) and multiple hooks, plus an irresistible instrumental coda that keeps you dancing and pressing repeat.  This track sounds as if it could be addressed to Ke$ha, dissing trashtastic, classless girls everywhere (perhaps Amelle has reformed her drunken antics and girl-bashing self?) who just live to party and get drunk.

The ballads that close the album feel a bit tacked-on, and could have been better incorporated into the sequence of the album as a whole, but “Crash & Burn” and particularly “Little Miss Perfect” are well-sung efforts that offer a nice change of pace from the mostly relentless 4/4 beats of the disc.  Sunny acoustic-led track “Sweet & Amazing” offers a lyrical insight on optimism and getting what you want out of life; the message is nice and appreciated, but the lyrics themselves come across as trite and banal.  Still, the overall vibe of the song is endearing. Perhaps “Sweet & Amazing” and “Little Miss Perfect” are also answers to those who have criticised the group for ousting last founding member Keisha Buchanan, stating in not so many words that the group had to do what it had to do to survive and to maintain a healthy inter-member relationship.  Who knows – but these songs at least give a little bit of meat for fans and listeners to bite into.

However, Keisha’s absence is gaping for two major reasons.  One: anyone who has heard the original Sweet 7 sampler with Keisha’s vocals knows just how much better “Get Sexy” and “Miss Everything” sounded before.  This is largely a production error: the intro on “Get Sexy” no longer grabs the listener with any vocals; Jade Ewen’s voice on “Miss Everything” is unnecessarily auto-tuned within an inch of its life, and the modulations on her voice are at least double that of Heidi’s and Amelle’s, which seems illogical considering that Jade Ewen is far and away the best vocalist in the new incarnation of the group.  Indeed, the new rendition of “Wait For You” places Jade front and centre, and her vocals particularly in the second verse are nothing short of thrilling. Technically, she might be the best vocalist the Sugababes have ever had, and it is almost a shame that she sacrificed her solo career to be part of the group; especially when the re-produced songs make little effort to blend her vocals with Heidi and Amelle’s.  Through no fault of Jade’s own, at times her vocals stick out like a sore thumb, not just because she outclasses her fellow members at nearly every turn, but because the vocal mixing appears to have been carried out by an orang-utan.  This seems to be a running theme with the Sugababes, as Amelle’s vocals on tracks such as “Red Dress” sounded nothing short of harsh, but with newer songs came a more subtle, blended approach to the production.  Hopefully future albums will exhibit the same approach.

Two: as hinted at in the introduction to this review, the Sugababes’ new music is extremely polished, but it has lost nearly all semblance of any originality the group had.  Songs such as “Overload”, “New Year”, “Round Round” and “Situations Heavy” sounded unique to the group, as if they could be sung by nobody else.  The shout-out of “RedOne!” at the start of “About A Girl” might as well be changed to “We’ve used Lady GaGa’s producer, please love our single too!”; “Thank You For The Heartbreak” could be sung just as easily (and probably better) by the Sugababes’ biggest rivals Girls Aloud; “Miss Everything”, while a ridiculously catchy song, features Sean Kingston in an unnecessary attempt to pander to the American market.  “Crash & Burn” sounds like something Chris Brown could sing and in fact did sing on his mediocre Graffiti track “Crawl”.  Only towards the end of the album on quirky tracks such as “Give It To Me Now” does a shade of the Sugababes’ original spunky personality creep in. I’m a believer that when the group lost Mutya Buena, they lost what made the Sugababes that irresistible combination of street, edge and class.  Even looking at the album and single covers from Sweet 7 (not to mention the horrendous video for “About A Girl”), the Sugababes are posing in skimpy outfits and pouting like their lives depend on it.  In the old days, their individuality stood out; perhaps in a loss of confidence, the group now looks and sounds desperate to fit in, which is a shame as they used to lead the pack, and with a strong set of well-written tracks on Sweet 7, they don’t need to resort to such pedestrian tactics.  In trying to be edgy and stand out, the Sugababes have lost their sense of individuality and ironically end up blending in with your average girl group or classless female singer.

So, what to make of Sweet 7?  It’s balanced heavily towards the uptempo, but most of its songs do succeed and the album is a fun listen with a few standout cuts.  Jade Ewen is a thrilling addition to the group, and were the vocal production a little better, her voice would elevate the material to stellar status.  The ballads are serviceable for the most part, and in my opinion there is only one unlistenable song on the disc (putting the album ahead of Change and Catfights And Spotlights).  However, it’s a shame that the Sugababes have lost that spark and class that set them apart from the rest of the pack.  In trying to compete with the rest of the shallow, faceless current pop music scene – regardless of who now comprises the group – the Sugababes have automatically lowered themselves to the level of their peers, and that is sad because they could have made a great album instead of a solid but unexceptional one.

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Rihanna – Rated R. (album review)

November 14, 2009

Here is the album review I promised on my twitter yesterday!  Before I start, once again I want to thank you all for supporting my blog, both my music reviews and my personal entries.  I really appreciate all the views and I hope that you’ll keep it locked here because I ain’t stoppin’! 🙂 Thankyou.

You already know what I think of Russian Roulette, and the other 3 songs we’ve heard already from Rated R.  Generally, they portray a darker, edgier side to Rihanna, both in the production (deeper, more menacing beats) and lyrical content that includes a bit of cursing, a lot of swagger and references to pain, trials and tribulations.  “Russian Roulette”, “Wait Your Turn” and “Hard” are more or less indicative of the album as a whole.  In contrast to her previous smash Good Girl Gone Bad, it’s a lot less uptempo.  The songs are mainly midtempos and ballads, which may alienate a lot of fans who want her faster, danceable material (though “Hard” and “Rude Boy” cater to these needs, and do so well with swagger lyrics – the latter seeing Rihanna come on to a ‘rude boy’ as if she were the guy who is gonna “put it on you”).  However, the slower material allows for two major things: one, to prove that Rihanna can actually sing.  Okay, she’s no Beyoncé, but she holds her own a lot better than many people might expect.  “Russian Roulette” and closing standout “The Last Song” don’t employ lots of vocal runs, but they emphasise strong, clear vocals that prove Rihanna’s got a voice as well as a body – btw. the artwork for this era is immense! – and also go well with the more emotionally searching and vulnerable material.  Two, it allows for Rihanna to delve into her pain, and although it’s never made explicit that she’s referencing her love, abuse and love lost with Chris Brown, songs such as “Stupid In Love” and the epic “Cold Case Love” immediately bring that whole affair to mind.

Not every song is concerned with love lost.  “Te Amo” is about a girl who’s infatuated with Rihanna, and its undulating beats have been beefed up slightly on the album version to make it more hypnotic and possibly (along with “Rude Boy”) the song that would have slotted in nicely on Good Girl Gone Bad.  “Rockstar 101” is backed up by Slash’s guitar work and like “Hard” and “Wait Your Turn”, it demonstrates Rihanna’s confidence in herself – something she perhaps wants to emphasise.  She is fierce!  However, compared to some of the other tracks, “Rockstar 101” falls somewhat flat, as it doesn’t have as much depth as the emotionally-charged midtempos, nor does it ring as true as the harder-knocking songs.  It does demonstrate that Rihanna is not an urban artist – she’s a pop singer who encompasses a range of music. On this album, she combines elements of rock, pop, R&B and melds them together to create a dark album that works for the most part.  And credit goes to her for trying to improve on each album – like Good Girl Gone Bad, the amount of filler on the disc is fairly minimal (in contrast to her first two records) and she’s tried to do something different that has evolved as she has as a person.  So I must applaud that.

A couple of the ballads such as “Stupid In Love” and “Photographs” (which benefits from will.i.am’s synthed beats that kick in midway) are perfectly solid, but pale in comparison to the best tracks.  These are, in a nutshell, first single “Russian Roulette”, “Fire Bomb”, “G4L”, “Cold Case Love” and “The Last Song”.  These all work because Rihanna is putting herself out there vocally and emotionally.  The producers do a fantastic job (praise must go in particular to Justin Timberlake and The Ys’ work on “Cold Case Love”, which shows a gradual building of beatboxing, standard beats, guitars and strings to an epic climax that fades out by itself and underline Rihanna’s pain at a love misfired – “Release me now ’cause I did my time”) more or less throughout, but Rihanna herself carries the songs.  “Fire Bomb” has been compared to something by Kelly Clarkson, but in my opinion it knocks much harder and is a compelling contrast to expectations – most people would expect a club banger from the title, when in fact it’s a slow pop/rock ballad which essentially says “if I’m going down in flames, you’re coming with me”.  “G4L” is one of the darkest songs which shows Rihanna pledging to be “down 4 life”, ride or die until the end.  The off-key tweaks at the beginning signal something mysterious, and the lyric “I lick the gun when I’m done ’cause I know that revenge is sweet” is one of the best opening salvos I can remember.  The track brings to mind the tiny gun tattoos on the sides of Rihanna’s breasts, demonstrating that even if she may be a sweet person on the surface, she’s also a strong and determined one – her attitude is reflected in her music as much as her body art.

“The Last Song” was the track that stood out to me most from listening to the 30-second snippets, and it doesn’t disappoint – it’s a perfect closer to the album, not only in name but in texture also.  It employs a soaring guitar and heartwrenching lyrics, chronicling the realisation of a breakup.  “The sad song ends up being the last song you’ll ever hear.”  Rihanna’s spare vocals almost seem to cry the lyrics throughout the track, and the buildup throughout the song until near the end where all the instruments fade out is done perfectly.  Rihanna said that she wanted Lil’ Wayne and Kings Of Leon to like her album, demonstrating her desired blend of urban and rock. The album is definitely a mélange of styles, but apart from “Hard”, I don’t see enough hip-hop for Weezy to connect with, and the rock elements are nowhere near as indie-pop as Kings Of Leon.  However, the soaring guitars provide something edgier and deeper within the context of a pop album, and the hard-hitting beats and synths knock plenty – the combination of which provide something quite extraordinary and special within itself.  Rihanna should be proud of this record.

Rated R has a focused aggression to it that rings truer than it did on Good Girl Gone Bad. Despite the lack of uptempo smashes, it’s a fantastic record that hopefully will have as much repeat-play value as her previous record.  Whether it’s because of her personal struggles, maturity as a young woman or desire to experiment musically (probably a combination of all three), Rated R shows growth.  I pray that her label doesn’t re-release the album, since it’s perfect as it is and comes across as something sincere, rather than designed to make money as a light pop confection.  Why I’m impressed with Rated R, beyond the simple fact that most of the songs are solid or better, is because it’s cohesive.  All the songs work together to make the album more than the sum of its parts.  It has a big emotional impact, and it sets a musical mood (dark, edgy and yet heartfelt) that doesn’t let up throughout – in her own words, from “Hard”, “that Rihanna rain/reign”.  I didn’t know if she had it in her to best Good Girl Gone Bad, but even if it doesn’t have as many number 1 smashes and addictive beats, Rated R is a musical step forward that I personally value that little bit more.