Posts Tagged ‘Beyoncé’

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Beyoncé – 4 (album review)

June 11, 2011

So it’s been a really, really long time since I wrote an album review. I was going to do one for Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, but then didn’t. (The album is really good and well put-together, btw.) I was going to do one for Nadia Oh’s Colours (which is a ridiculously fun, exhilarating listen perfect for the summer) and I still might. But this album tops them all. I am a Beyoncé fan, but even I didn’t expect her to come out with this. Perhaps it’s fitting because of the stage in my life where I’m at – but she’s in love, I’m in love, she wants to talk about love on a deeper and more soulful level and I can be more receptive of that now and really get to grips with the music, the vocals and the lyrics.

Sonically, the album is very cohesive (a mature, soulful and slower-paced set) – “Run The World (Girls)” aside. Part of me feels like it is tacked on the end, another part of me feels like the song is an exhilarating climax to a mainly slow-burning set. It’s a killer single which heavily samples Major Lazer’s “Pon Di Floor” and makes you want to dance, but in comparison to the rest of the material, it feels a bit… basic? It certainly feels more modern than everything else on the album, but that means it sounds less timeless… the fact that Beyoncé has already made several songs celebrating “Independent Women”, “Survivors” and “Single Ladies” makes it feel like “Girls” running the world is almost a downgrade? I love the song but it should stand alone, and I would have preferred the album to end with the ballad “I Was Here”, which is straightforward Ryan Tedder production and Diane Warren lyrics – Beyoncé’s performance saves the song with solemn vocals that add weight to the sentiment of leaving your mark on the world once you’re gone. In the hands of a lesser talent, the song would sound trite, but Beyoncé gives it life.

But there are much better tracks – namely, the rest of them. Opener “1+1” is stripped-back soul with a soaring guitar climax, and Beyoncé’s commands of “Make love to me” sound at once desperate and assertive in the best way. What’s striking is that Beyoncé has made an album that sounds like the work of a legend – she evokes Stevie Wonder (the joyous “Love On Top” with its audacious multiple key changes that have you wondering “how high is she going to go?!”), the Isley Brothers (“Rather Die Young”, with its sun-drenched soul that declares Beyoncé’s utter dependance on her lover), Prince (“1+1”), Michael Jackson (“End Of Time” with its commanding vocals over a bombastic bassline and brass section, and an irresistible melody) and Sade. But more about that later…

Beyoncé sounds like Beyoncé on but two songs: “Best Thing I Never Had” evokes her monster hit “Irreplaceable”, with the same theme of being better off without a foolish boyfriend. Symbolyc One employs a beautiful flowing piano melody in place of “Irreplaceable”‘s acoustic guitars, but Beyoncé is clearly a grown woman now. Her vocals sound almost too soulful, too nuanced for the music, and it takes a few listens for all of the pieces of the song to come together. In contrast, “Countdown” is an album highlight, which evokes the swagger of “Upgrade U” and repeats the theme of #winning with her lover by her side. The use of Boyz II Men’s “Uhh Ahh” in order to create the titular countdown is cleverly done, and Beyoncé rides the brassy, bouncy Caribbean-lite beat with effortless flair.

Other album highlights include “I Care”, which may have basic lyrics (the chorus: “I care / I know you don’t care too much / but I still care”) but are once again transformed with Beyonce’s masterful vocal, which plumbs despair and soul to make the song truly transcendent. You can feel her pain, you can feel her desperation, you can feel her frustration, and that is the talent of a true artist. When Beyoncé’s voice intertwines with a soaring guitar solo after the song’s bridge, the listener is shown just how powerful a singer she is – not just technically, but emotively too. “Party” is an early 90s R&B throwback that evokes early TLC in its chunky-yet-chilled production, and En Vogue in its multi-tracked harmonies. The best song of all is “I Miss You”, which is produced by upcoming talent Frank Ocean and evokes Sade’s best. The lyrics are simple yet evocative (and I personally relate to this as my boyfriend and I are currently working through a long-distance relationship – but if you read the blog, you already know about that, and this song is more about missing someone you’ve broken up with – I just prefer to appropriate the lyrics for my own emotions!), and Beyoncé’s vocal is restrained and yet so deep and real. When she sings “No matter who you love / it is so simple, I feel it / it’s everything”, a lump is brought to your throat and you can’t help but be transported to a place of loneliness, of longing and of love.

This is why 4 is Beyoncé’s best album, superceding B’day’s tiger-hungry anthems and I Am… Sasha Fierce’s finest moments. Beyoncé is an artist. She has made an album which she has so clearly poured her heart and soul into – listening to the vocals, there is something here that wasn’t there before. A soulfulness, a longing, a power that comes out through the gritty texture of her voice and the soaring riffs that transcend lyrics and production. There’s a majesty and a bravery in singing such raw songs about love, about death, and about life over productions that are mainly understated and subtle in a way that Beyoncé hasn’t really done before (“Disappear” from I Am… Sasha Fierce might have clued us in, however!). This album is made to be listened to from start to finish, and you’re missing out if you don’t give it a try.

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important.

April 11, 2011

First of all, a gift / apology for not having written in such a long time! This is a new (well, new to you guys!) song called “Important”, which I did nearly a year and a half ago now – just after I finished and released Quiet Storm, so it was too late to put it onto that album. I was inspired (as is probably evident) by Beyoncé’s “Broken-Hearted Girl” musically, while the lyrics were part of my attempt to delve a little bit deeper with my lyrics. One of my aims for my new album is to talk more eloquently and honestly about love and relationships, because over the past 18 months I have experienced love, experienced relationships and friendships in such a new way. In that respect, this song precedes the timeline for my inspiration, but still fits the brief 😉 It’s just a demo version and still needs a little polishing up (and of course there is no guarantee it’ll make the final tracklist) but I like it and I hope you do too 🙂

One of the things that the song talks about is knowing your priorities and having them straight, in a relationship and in friendships. I have lately had to reprioritise my own life – financially, my car has pretty much taken over and if I am going to London to see Toby, running my car, paying rent and affording all my unavoidable expenses, I have had to accept cutting back on luxuries. I go out for coffee / dinner / cinema less, which is a shame because that means I see less of my friends. I spend less money on clothes and entertainment, and although my lust for them is undiminished, I can’t entertain getting a pretty designer thingummy any time in the near future because I just need to spend the money on other things. Once I move to London, even though my salary will increase, the need to budget intelligently is only going to intensify. I was saying to Toby yesterday that perhaps although I was rationalising at the time (with a grin on my face as I never thought I’d have to go through with it), I am glad I got my fancy jewellery and phone and sunglasses and all my designer things over the last couple of years, because they are things I treasure and now I have to make them last – now that I have them, I don’t need to get any more! My iPod (which I have had for 2 and a half years – the longest surviving iPod yet!) recently started playing up, which greatly irritated me – especially as I got a brand new car stereo so I can plug my iPod into it and play whatever music takes me mood – and I have had to spend quite a few hours over the past few days fixing it, because I can’t survive without music and I simply can’t afford another one right now.

Beyond material things, I need to treasure my friendships and my relationship. The inconveniences I have listed above are just that – inconvenient but not life-threatening! A couple of years ago, I could literally not survive without my iPod. But now, I think I could do it. I wouldn’t like it, but I could do it – other material things such as my phone, my laptop, my car have taken precedence. But my priorities have changed also. What’s important to me is keeping my relationship with Toby happy (which it seems to be up to now, and I realise that this is something to truly cherish), being a good friend and keeping a good circle of friends around me (which I feel I now have), and moving to London and building a career and a life for myself. All of a sudden, having a nice place to live in the city, having a good job and financial stability are important considerations. When did I become a grown-up?

I watched For Colored Girls today, which I had been desperate to do – and now I am desperate to read Ntozake Shange’s original choreopoem, which I shall probably purchase tonight or tomorrow. It reminded me that all of us have our own issues, our own baggage and our own insecurities which we need to conquer, but too often we struggle alone with these burdens rather than shouldering them with our friends and family to both help us cope and draw us closer together. I saw my friend Sarah yesterday whom I hadn’t seen since November, and while it was really good to see her, I found that I didn’t really know what to say to her to connect and recapture the friendship we had at university. Hopefully this is just a blip and next time we get together we can have a more effective catch-up; after 45 minutes, she had to go, but before she left she told me “not to leave it so long next time!” My life has become busy to the extent that try as I might, I can’t see all of my friends as much as I would like. And this is a shame, because when I’m at home in Bristol I can easily get lonely and no matter how much music, how many possessions I have, how many films I watch or PS3 games I play, I still feel bored and cabin-feverish. So I cherish my friendships, I cherish my relationship and how lovely it is, I cherish the things that I have, I cherish my emotions and both my ups and downs. And the real priority is making sure that I remain grateful and don’t become complacent about everything that I have. I may not be satisfied, because I have so much more in my life that I want to accomplish – but I am somewhat happy with my life and that is a really Good Thing.

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ave maria.

September 21, 2010

Above is my cover of Beyoncé’s “Ave Maria”, which I made for Toby as a 6-month anniversary gift.  The lyrics speak for themselves. After originally keeping it special for him, I thought that nearly 3 months later it’s time to let y’all hear it. I hope you enjoy it; I don’t think my microphone did it justice and I think that Beyoncé’s version is untouchable, but I am nevertheless pleased with how it turned out.  And Toby really liked it, which is the most important thing.

However, my other reason for posting it up here is to say that I have opened a Soundcloud account! It can be found under http://soundcloud.com/onyxparadise and I am currently in the process of uploading the entirety of Quiet Storm, as well as some other tracks. In the future, I will be uploading my new tracks there! 😀 I am starting to get excited about creating new music, and the concepts and themes of my new material will be quite different from before, I anticipate, and reflect my various life-changing experiences over the past year. In many respects, the past 12 months have been eye-opening, soul-shattering, emotional and have inspired a lot of growth.  It’s been without a doubt the best year of my life. I’ll share more on the concept of my new material as I create it and feel confident enough to expose it to the world. But the idea of it is forming in my head and has been for a while, and I am very excited. To this end, on Friday when I get paid, I will be paying off my credit card and buying a brand new microphone so that the quality of my recordings is much improved. Watch this space!

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Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid (album review.)

May 23, 2010

I literally don’t know where to start with this review.  Comparisons have been made to James Brown (the lead single “Tightrope” has a funky, dirty bass and backchat with Monáe’s band), Judy Garland (“Oh, Maker” features a stately purity of voice in its verses, only to give way to a joyful exaltation of a chorus, and is one of the album’s highlights) and even Erykah Badu (Monáe sings with a knowing voice, sometimes sounding wise well beyond her years while not even connected to this cosmos).  But Janelle Monáe is undeniably her own woman: crazy hairstyles, performing in black-tie tuxedos, employing ethereal instruments coupled with double-time beats, composing her material in suites… It would be audacious enough if it didn’t succeed, if Monáe were above her station with this Metropolis, 28th century high-concept shit.  But she’s not.  Although at times The ArchAndroid feels a bit like it’s overreaching, the vast majority of it is exciting, mindblowing and more than a little bizarre.  This makes it one of the boldest releases to come out in quite a while.

I’m not going to attempt any detail of the story behind this album; it’s only vaguely important to the running order of the songs.  In very brief, Cindi Mayweather was an android who fell in love; the cyber-hunters were invited to hunt her down; she has since discovered the ArchAndroid helmet which displays the city of Metropolis on the top – yep, that’s the album cover above! – and has transformed from pariah to messiah for the robot population of Metropolis.  Monáe creates a textured evocation of this hyper-space reality within her music, and it’s appropriate that The ArchAndroid sounds nothing like anything else in current popular music.  However, its melodies are still catchy, its production tricks are still appreciable (although the music sounds far removed from anything Sean “Diddy” Combs would touch, Monáe is signed to his BadBoy imprint, whose releases normally display impeccable production values – if, at times, little else), and the meanings behind the inventive, often poetic lyrics (from “Say You’ll Go” – “Love is not a fantasy / A haiku written in Japanese”) go beyond the specifics of the Metropolis concept to speak more generally of love, society, and human emotions and situations.  In other words, Monáe hasn’t concept-ed herself into oblivion; the songs can still have meanings to each individual listener, which is important because we still need to relate in order to truly engage with the music.

Moving to the specifics of the music on The ArchAndroid, it’s a hefty album, comprising two suites that are much weightier then Monáe’s The Chase EP; that disc had three songs which were swift, exciting and irresistible.  The special edition had two extra non-concept tracks; a plea to the President for social consideration, and a beautiful, restrained cover of Nat King Cole’s “Smile”. Monáe may not be a vocalist in the same way as Beyoncé, Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera, but she has an extraordinary control of her instrument, and displays its versatility when songs require it (similar, in a way, to Toni Braxton or Sade).  On The ArchAndroid, Monáe alternately displays grace (“Oh, Maker”), subtlety (“Sir Greendown”), uninhibited release (“Come Alive (The War Of The Roses)”) and an old-school sensibility that fuses scat, Broadway and Latin rhythms (epic closer “BaBopByeYa”).  Suite II (the first suite of The ArchAndroid) is generally more immediate and accessible to the uninitiated listener: after a classical intro (although its concept hangs together flawlessly for most of the album, the instrumental interludes may be slick but they are still unnecessary filler!), Monáe gets straight down to business with the help of spoken word artist Saul Williams for “Dance Or Die”.  Beats fibrillate below Monáe’s haughty poetry, and before the listener knows it, the song segues into “Faster”, into “Locked Inside”…; before you know it, you’ve reached subdued ballad “Mushrooms & Roses” and Suite II is nearly over.

The seamless melting of one song into the next is a neat production trick, but one that we have seen before.  It has its risks, since the listener has to pay attention to his iPod, CD player or media player of choice in order to determine where one track ends and the next begins.  If the songs are dull, they risk totally going over the listener’s head.  Luckily, the majority of The ArchAndroid has enough memorable hooks, production tricks and bizarre sections to stick in the mind and merit repeat listens.  Suite II is far stronger than Suite III for this however; Suite III, although shorter, is much denser and ethereal. Although Suite II had some lovely slower material (“Oh, Maker” and “Sir Greendown”), Suite III seems weighed down by the lack of upbeat or midtempo songs.  “Make The Bus” is an ok effort but hardly lives up to the breathtaking pace of Suite II; “Wondaland” seems altogether too precious.  However, Suite III comes into its own as it reaches its conclusion: “57821” (the serial number of the robot Cindi Mayweather) begins to engage the listener with its subtle, undulating backing, before the majesty of closing tracks “Say You’ll Go” and “BaBopByeYa” unfurls.  In all, Suite II is stronger and more addictive listening, but Suite III has its moments despite its more downbeat demeanour.

Why does it all work? It’s beyond me, as Janelle Monáe seems to have thrown everything and the kitchen sink into this album – in terms of lyrics, vocal approaches, production tricks, musical genres, concept… It’s a miracle that it doesn’t sound overblown, desperate or self-important, but for the most part – it doesn’t.  Only on “Wondaland”, “Mushrooms & Roses” and “Neon Valley Street” does Monáe sound a tiny bit like she’s faking, stalling while she scrabbles for a new idea with which to blindside us.  The vast majority of The ArchAndroid is not only severely impressive, but sounds genuine.  Which makes Janelle Monáe a hugely talented, innovative young woman, and one of the best new artists to emerge in recent years.  Take a listen to The ArchAndroid and prepare to be both mentally and aurally stimulated.

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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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performance anxiety.

March 25, 2010

Last night myself and several of my coursemates, as well as Toby and his friend Miguel went to Mr. Wolf’s to watch one of our friends on the Careers Guidance course, Emma, perform some songs with her guitarist friend.  She sang Whitney Houston’s “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”, Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love”, Erma Franklin’s “Piece Of My Heart” and Eric Clapton’s “Change The World”, and did a fantastic job.  Emma and I spent an afternoon last term comparing our CD collections and marvelling over just how similar they were, since it often feels like nobody else in the UK listens to the same kind of music by artists such as Allure, Kelly Price, Angie Stone, D’Angelo and so on.  Obviously some people must buy their albums because otherwise nobody would stock them, but it’s rare to find somebody with whom you connect on such a musical level, especially as a singer or musician.  So I respect her music taste and her talent, and she was genuinely good (and outclassed the other performers that night 😉 ).

When she told me about the Open Mic night and her impending performance on Monday, she mentioned that I should perform something.  I thought it sounded like a nice idea but a little short notice, but nevertheless I dragged Toby to the UWE music practice rooms to hammer out a piano version of Beyoncé’s “Sweet Dreams”.  It sounded fine (after Toby’s hints that making it an octave lower would sound good – which I did; and that I am not Christina Aguilera and should stick to less notes – which I sort of did but I love putting some runs in my vocals, because that’s part of my style and sets me apart somewhat), but I felt that it required more practice than I’d be able to gain in two days.  So for the reason that I didn’t feel it was polished enough or “ready” to perform, as well as I had never been to the venue and didn’t want to rain on Emma’s parade since we were all going to see her, I decided not to perform.  Next time, I will, and I’m since working on a piano version of “Lift Me Up” by Christina Aguilera to compliment the Beyoncé song.  They sound ok, and with a little practice I reckon they’ll be performable and effectively show off my vocals and my piano (something I’ve always needed to work at is playing the piano and singing at the same time). 

And yet the thought of doing that is a little scary to me now.  I used to perform regularly at Open Mic nights at Oxford (gaining notoriety in the process, which was pretty complimentary), concerts at school and sixth form where I used to sing, dance, play guitar and piano – the whole kaboodle.  I even performed at a Hiroshima Remembrance concert, which was outdoors and to the public.  I’ve done a lot of this, I should be used to it.  So why am I nervous?  I guess that now I have a boyfriend, and some close adult friends, their opinion means a lot to me? I don’t want to fall short of their expectations? Is it stage fright?  Admittedly, the last time I performed on a stage of any sort was 2 years ago, but Mike and I did an impromptu version of Beyoncé’s “Disappear” at my house and I managed to perform well in that and impress him suitably.  So maybe I just need to bite the bullet and do it, once the songs are ready. 

The other thing that fills me with a little nerves is the fact that I have had mentioned to me that a few of my colleagues on the course have visited my myspace and listened to the songs I’ve put up from the Quiet Storm album (which incidentally you can download here) on there.  Now, obviously the purpose of my myspace is to promote my music to the public and my friends – it’s for public consumption.  But to hear that people have listened to my stuff and liked it makes me feel funny – I guess partly because while I’m proud of this album, I feel that I still have a long way to go and develop, particularly in my production and vocal production (I have done a couple of songs more recently where I feel my voice sounds more impressive on record).  So I feel like I don’t want them to judge me yet. Also, I guess once again their opinion matters to me more than I expected it to, more than it should? I mean, Mike, Toby, Hannah, Karina, Nick… all my close friends’ opinions are understandably important to me and I am flattered by the support of all my friends.  And I’m flattered by the support of other friends who don’t know me so well – it is really nice – but I don’t know what to say, because somewhere within me my insecurity says “Do they really like it or are they just saying that and laughing behind my back?” I mean, I should be like “Who cares?” but my music is such an intimate, personal part of me that it’s important for me to produce, and if that essential aspect of who I am is a source of mockery or easily dismissed, I have to admit that that would probably hurt me, at least a little bit.  I totally understand that you can’t please anyone anyway, and at the end of the day my musical executive producer is myself – I’m my own harshest critic.  But I just hope that their support is sincere, because it means a lot to me.  And I guess that when I do perform “Sweet Dreams” or “Lift Me Up” or whatever else I end up doing (I am extremely liable to changing my mind in these sorts of things!), I am hoping that I can justify and live up to that support, their expectations of me.  I want to impress, I want to please people.  I guess that that way, it validates my singing and my music (my lifelong passion and ambition) and I can get a little bit closer to pleasing myself.  So I’m going to bite the bullet and go for it, but it’s harder than I thought and I didn’t expect it to be.