Posts Tagged ‘climax’

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Top 10 albums of 2012.

December 17, 2012

It’s that time of year again! Here are my top 10 albums of the year. Enjoy and please share your 2012 music picks! 🙂

10. Usher – Looking 4 Myself

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It doesn’t recapture the heady heights of My Way or 8701, but it’s an effort that tries to combine R&B, dance and pop with a newfound maturity. Highlights: Climax, I Care For U, Lemme See, Looking 4 Myself, Euphoria

 

9. B.Slade – Deep Purple

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He does it again! After the excellent Diesel and Stealth albums, B.Slade hits us with Deep Purple. His beats and vocals are sicker than what mainstream is ready for – it feels like real R&B. Highlights: PHONy PONy, TwerK, Deep Purple, Lo Siento

8. Alicia Keys – Girl On Fire

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Alicia Keys has yet to make a bad album. This album has a quiet beauty, maturity and warmth to it, which is appropriate considering her newfound motherhood. Highlights: Brand New Me, When It’s All Over, New Day, Girl On Fire, Not Even The King

7. Brandy – Two Eleven

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A well-deserved hit single heralded this unabashedly R&B album. Brandy’s voice is once again harmonious and emotive; the beats are once again forward-thinking. It feels like coming home. Highlights: Wildest Dreams, Let Me Go, Without You, Put It Down, What You Need

6. Tamia – Beautiful Surprise

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One of the best vocalists around, this is more classic R&B that just hits all the right spots. It’s wonderfully romantic and a sweet delight to listen to. Highlights: Give Me You, It’s Not Fair, Still Love You, Still

5. Lana Del Rey – Born To Die

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A new voice and a new style that started of the year with a sophisticated bang. Lana Del Rey also demonstrated she knows how to make an artful music video (see: National Anthem, Ride). The Paradise re-release was a nice addition to this record, but the original album was solid all the way through and married Nancy Sinatra with deep beats. Highlights: Born To Die, Blue Jeans, Video Games, National Anthem, This Is What Makes Us Girls.

4. Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded (read the full-length review here)

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A schizophrenic album that calculatedly veers between popular music styles, but is stuffed with so many hits that it’s undeniable. Nicki Minaj’s re-release The Re-Up only added 7 more top tracks to the era. Highlights: Roman Holiday, Come On A Cone, I Am Your Leader, Beez In The Trap, Starships, Pound The Alarm, Automatic, Beautiful Sinner, Fire Burns, Gun Shot, Freedom, I’m Legit, The Boys (yes, that many!)

3. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE (read the full-length review here)

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An architect of brave new R&B and soul that breaks boundaries and touches hearts, Frank Ocean has arrived with an album that transcends the sum of its parts. Highlights: Thinkin Bout You, Sweet Life, Pyramids, Lost, Bad Religion, Forrest Gump

2. Jessie Ware – Devotion 

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Her music is like a young, modern Sade. Irresistible, fresh, smooth and beautiful from beginning to end. An exciting new talent that sounds classic and up to date all at once. Highlights: the whole thing.

1. Rihanna – Unapologetic (read the full-length review here)

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Rihanna proved that she can equal Rated R. An album full of emotionally resonant, musically forward-thinking songs that epitomise what pop is and should be in 2012. Highlights: Diamonds, Numb, Loveeeeeee Song, Jump, What Now, Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary, Get It Over With, Lost In Paradise, Half Of Me

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New music: Climax (One Take Vocal) (Usher Cover)

August 2, 2012

Hurrah, some new music! I have been slowly but surely getting into Usher’s new album Looking 4 Myself, and I realised that “Climax” suits my voice and falsetto well. So I had a go at singing it – recorded this vocal in one take! I am very pleased with it – 5 minutes’ work, not a flawless vocal but certainly decent enough!  I hope you enjoy, and I hope that this tides over those of you who are waiting for new music from me… It’s coming! xx

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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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Christina Aguilera – Bionic. (album review)

June 14, 2010

As you can tell from my current blog layout, I am very much feeling the imagery of Christina Aguilera’s current Bionic era.  It’s fierce, severe and pushes the envelope.  Artwork such as the front cover (above) and other graffiti-inspired cyborg manipulations handled by D*Face push the envelope and also serve to symbolise Christina as human machine which creates fine music hence “Bionic”.  Various analyses of this robotic imagery could be and have been made: on the one hand, Christina Aguilera in her superhuman form triumphs over all her competitors and makes superior , near-perfect music because she has this bionic element to her; on the other hand, as part-robot, Christina can only ever produce a facsimile of what music is supposed to be, while never quite getting close enough to the organic, human qualities in music that elevate it beyond the calculable – qualities which cannot be quantified or mechanised.  In Bionic, as in life, the truth lies somewhere between these two opinions.

Bionic the album is a long listen – 18 tracks in its standard version, 23 in its deluxe (with iTunes bonus track “Little Dreamer”, a likeable but throwaway confection, making a grand total of 24).  I’ll dispense with the additional 5 bonus tracks first: they are, by and large, bonus tracks for a reason: either they are not strong enough to be considered for the main album (“Monday Morning” is pleasant but lackadaisical; “Birds Of Prey” is lyrically mysterious and interesting, but musically and vocally it’s too much mainstream dance that Kelis would do a lot better with on her current Flesh Tone project), or they don’t fit thematically with the empowering / sexual / carefree / mature feel of the album.  “Bobblehead” is a thrilling production that stutters and races to its climax with the wonderful lyric: “I never play dumb to get what I want / and always come out the one that’s on top”; however, its main hook is a nonsensical mumble that may be the point of the lyrics, dissing idiot girls who dumb themselves down and preferring to deploy her own intelligence, but it’s still a nonsensical mumble which fails to use Christina’s vocals to much effect.  “Stronger Than Ever” is a ballad that is lyrically strong (and embodies my current struggle with my parents) and vocally able, but it just lacks that something.  “I Am (Stripped)” is a lovely album closer but is a more acoustic version of one of the main album tracks, and so it’s understandable why it’s relegated to bonus status.

So, to the main event. To my ear, Bionic moves in three arcs.  In its first, it goes for the jugular with relentless, futuristic uptempos; it then cools down into a sensuous, emotionally vulnerable, mature ballad section; finally, it picks up again for a closing triad of uptempo songs that epitomise fun.  While it’s possible that the album could be trimmed down to make a more concise, compelling listen, it flows very nicely throughout and only has a couple of stumbling points.  Christina Aguilera said that she wanted something which sounded futuristic, but with elements of the organic; something which integrated her new emotional maturity as a mother with her desire to remain playful and sexy.  On this point, she has succeeded: Bionic has elements of all of this.  Tracks such as “Bionic” and “Elastic Love” incorporate computerised effects to distort Christina’s voice, along with buzzing, whirring productions that sonically embody the bionic cyborg face of her album cover. However, on tracks such as standout “You Lost Me” and “All I Need”, Christina is stripped of the musical gloss of the faster tracks to be backed by little more than a piano.  “All I Need” is also a touching, mature tribute to her son, which nicely avoids being mawkish or saccharine like Britney Spears’ unlistenable “My Baby” from Circus.  Finally, sex is all over this album, and from the enticing “Woohoo” to the seductive “Sex For Breakfast” (which I have yet to play for my boyfriend, but when I next see him in July, I am using this song on him!), it’s explicit without being pornographic, edgy without crossing that line.  In this respect, the Christina Aguilera of “Dirrty” is still present, knowing how to be provocative while still being musically relevant.

However, in the video for “Not Myself Tonight”, Xtina makes her return and perhaps pushes the envelope a little too far.  S&M get-ups, Madonna tributes aplenty, and bisexual flirtations are almost par for the course at this point, and Christina Aguilera is more than entitled to use them considering her influence on current female artists in the mainstream over the past 10 years.*  However, although “Not Myself Tonight” is an understandable choice as Bionic‘s lead single considering its radio-friendly sound, it’s not futuristic and it’s not exciting enough to merit the edgy, sex-fuelled imagery.  Rather than hookless, it sounds like a bunch of hooks jostling together for attention over a dance beat (which has a couple of exciting tribal flourishes), the result of which means that sometimes the song sticks, on other listens it doesn’t quite get there.  A better first single might have been the thrilling, soaring title track, or uptempo album standout and follow-up single “Woohoo”, on which Xtina extols the virtues of good oral sex, recruits Nicki Minaj for a fine rap segment, uses her vagina (the titular “Woohoo!”) for a cowbell, and tops it off with a throbbing, buzzing dance break coda for good measure.  Along with “You Lost Me”, “Lift Me Up” and album closer “Vanity”, “Woohoo” is an album standout where all of Christina’s chemical ambitions for Bionic come together perfectly to produce some exemplary pop.

Bionic itself has no bad songs, but there is some filler: “Prima Donna” comes at the end of the first album arc of jugular-ripping uptempos, and is the weakest of them, with little lyrical know-how or production excitement to give it its own identity after the tracks preceding it.  “My Girls” is a ‘riding in the car with your top down’ sort of song, but comes off as fluffy compared to the album’s meatier offerings: although Christina proves (responding to criticisms that she oversings) that she can vocally restrain herself on songs such as “Elastic Love” with its amusing and witty stationery metaphors, and the tender “All I Need”, “My Girls” needs the vocal melisma to give it some spark; as it stands, it’s a little too laid back.  Nevertheless, 2 out of 18 songs (or 15, excluding interludes) is not bad and perhaps a better result than I was expecting.  Sure, several songs on the album are not immediate: “Glam” takes a few listens to hit its stride with its subtle, fibrillating beats and “Vogue”-esque spoken-word verses, while “Vanity” initially startles the listener with its unbridled use of the word “bitch”, references to Christina making herself “wetter” before marrying herself as her “lawfully wedded bitch” and effectively giving the finger to everyone who doesn’t have such bravado.  Only by the song’s end (and possibly a couple of repeat listens) does it sink in that the track is a storming highlight, a perfect album closer, utterly hilarious and ridiculous (and knowingly so), with a vocal flourish that knocks all competition to the floor before her son’s voice confirms all suspicions: his mother really is the shit.

At the end of the day, it’s this kind of confidence that makes Bionic a great success – Christina Aguilera believes that she rules the world, and this kind of ambition almost single-handedly propels her music to heady heights.  It’s a new page for Christina, and she’s secure enough in her ability to try different things: the mélange of styles is a little disorientating until repeated listens expose the subtleties and intricacies in her vocals, lyrics and the songs themselves.  “Lift Me Up” is another beautiful, soaring track that was slightly superior in its stripped down live version performed on the Haiti telethon, but still thrills within the album.  “I Am” is a declaration of humanity, imperfection and adulthood that lends substance to the polished sheen of Bionic‘s robotic side, deployed confidently, efficiently and effectively for example on clubsong “Desnúdate” (which neatly remembers and includes Christina’s Spanish-speaking audience and heritage).  If Christina experiments with textures in her voice, sometimes preferring subdued rumbles to soaring melismas, she still shows that she can do both better than most other female artists.  At the end of the day, Christina Aguilera is an musical artist with a personal and professional vision that she fulfils 85% of the time.  Her misfires are excusable and never in poor taste so much as merely a little bland or inconsistent – in time, Christina will learn to totally excise these from her projects.  Most importantly, while some of Bionic indeed caters to current mainstream tastes and is hardly an obscure sonic revelation, the majority of it is interesting and thrilling, and rings true as Christina Aguilera’s own personality and intention which doesn’t give a fuck about current radio trends (in my opinion, less than half of Bionic would get spins on mainstream radio).  For this, her sales might suffer, but her artistic integrity remains intact and hopefully the mainstream radio audiences and buying public one day will catch up.

* I’ll address this once and only once: anyone who thinks that Christina Aguilera is copying Lady GaGa is a) suffering from memory loss and should go back to Christina Aguilera’s last two album eras which were mired with controversy and blazed with exciting fashions and imagery, b) suffering from hearing loss as Christina can sing GaGa – and pretty much anyone else – under the table, c) has no respect for what Aguilera has achieved over the past 10 years – while GaGa has had a fantastic 2-year run and displays much potential (her music and videos are definitely getting more intriguing), she’s still only been around 2 years and more respect should be shown to anyone who successfully completes a decade in the music industry, and d) completely overlooking Gwen Stefani, whose hairstyle Christina mimics in her “Not Myself Tonight” video, and whose image, sound and career Lady GaGa has borrowed liberally from, mixed with a bunch of fashion designers, and passed off as her own to those too young, too unaware or too amnesiac to know any better.

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Monica – Still Standing. (album review)

March 21, 2010

Still Standing is Monica’s first album since The Makings Of Me 4 years ago.  Like that album, Still Standing stands at a brief ten tracks (bonuses excluded), and the font on the album cover is the same.  Missy Elliott has a strong presence in the album’s production, and in case you forget this fact, she grunts and shouts at the beginning of some of the tracks to announce “New Monica! Hot shit!” This annoying tic disrupts the flow of an album that is largely slow to mid-tempo, and is unnecessary since we know we’re listening to Monica and we don’t need Missy Elliott to bludgeon us over the head with her opinion of her own track.

Unlike The Makings Of Me however, Still Standing is “hot shit” from beginning to end.  Representing the strongest album Monica has released since The Boy Is Mine (or possibly  All Eyez On Me), Still Standing contains one uptempo track, “If You Were My Man”, which is tellingly the album’s only weak point, riding an 80s groove that sounds genuine and laid back even as the bass knocks hard.  Apart from this song, the album runs at a slow, leisurely pace that really invites the listener to sink into the songs and contemplate the alternately loving and lovelorn lyrics accompanying the tracks.  Despite the album’s slow tempo, the 10 tracks seem to be over too soon, and when an album makes you want to press repeat immediately, that’s a good sign that it’s a decent effort.  What’s more, although there was a real danger that with so many slow songs, they might melt into one another to become a big treacly mess, the lyrics, melodies and production are all immaculate throughout and each song is distinguished from the next.  “Still Standing” (the first song we heard from this project way back in 2008, which opens the album with a declaration of strength and resilient and deserves to be the title track) and “Mirror” employ persistent, menacing synths and underlying piano to emphasise the empowering nature of their lyrics, and are two highlights from the album.

“Everything To Me”, the album’s first proper single, has been an unlikely hit considering its radio-unfriendliness (a 3/4 time signature? How refreshing!).  However, its soaring declaration of love is elevated by Monica’s stellar vocal delivery, and while sonically she sounds more and more like a young Mary J. Blige (Still Standing is the album Stronger With Each Tear should have been), it is becoming more and more apparent that Clive Davis was right all along and Monica is truly the vocal heir to Whitney Houston.  “One In A Lifetime” (which couldn’t sound more like a Mary J. Blige track if it tried, robbing liberally from her mega-hit “Be Without You”) is radio-ready but still sincere, while “Superman” employs a plethora of hero metaphors over a slow-jam beat.

In contrast to these romantic songs stands “Stay Or Go”, another album highlight which takes the flowing piano from Chris Brown’s “So Cold” (the best song from his mediocre Graffiti), slows it down and adds more mature lyrics and beautiful vocal stylings to the mix to serve up an effective ultimatum to Monica’s love interest.  Album closer “Believing In Me” sees Monica heartbroken, defiant and finding her strength of heart and soul all over again in the wake of a broken relationship.  Just as “Getaway” was a declaration of vulnerability at the end of The Makings Of Me, so is “Believing In Me” a declaration of vulnerability but also independence, which one might relate to Monica’s recent split from her long-time partner Rocko.  It closes the album well, with Monica’s vocals on the edge of tears close to the song’s climax.

Still Standing succeeds because while it sounds current, it doesn’t pander to radio’s demands for disposable fluff and instead hews close to Monica’s strengths as a supreme R&B vocalist, giving her solid melodies to express heartfelt lyrics.  Every song is strong and uncompromising, standing on its own merits and together these songs form a cohesive whole.  Annoying grunts aside, Missy Elliott handles production duties well, as do the other producers (particularly Bryan-Michael Cox), and if the album is brief at 10 tracks, at least it serves up excellent quality and is markedly better than The Makings Of Me which contained the same number of songs.  It feels like Monica has really hit her stride after previous album wobbles, and it’s so refreshing in 2010 to find some artists making true R&B still enjoying commercial and critical success.

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Alicia Keys – The Element Of Freedom (album review).

December 6, 2009

Alicia Keys’ new album The Element Of Freedom comes after her biggest success so far, As I Am, in a career which hasn’t had any troughs or lows to date.  Every album she’s released, from Songs In A Minor to the present has explored depth and soul, has combined traditional elements of R&B with current, up to date production and lyrical exploration of love, loss and self-esteem in a genuinely mature fashion that is beyond Keys’ years.  She’s consistently walked the fine line between critical and commercial success, effectively having her cake and eating it since 2002.  Alicia Keys plays the piano like a professional, but is not an entertainer who hides behind her instrument – she takes risks, sings and dances on stage, and has always commanded respect with an element of political and social awareness to boot.  So what does her new album bring to the table?

Like Rihanna’s Rated R, The Element Of Freedom is impossible to divorce from the singer’s personal life context. Keys has suffered some backlash for her love affair with separated-but-not-divorced super-producer Swizz Beatz.  Fans have turned away from Keys’ maturity and moral standpoints expressed in her material to date, saying that she was phony, that she was no better than the singers who dressed and acted like hos, and the lackluster success (i.e. it didn’t shoot straight to #1 as people presumed it would) of first single “Doesn’t Mean Anything” is perhaps because of this.  Despite a simple yet effective video which sticks to the album concept of being free of material things and going beyond all boundaries, the song was solid but seemed like a softer retread of her previous hit “No One”.  Nevertheless, especially since I’m certainly not in a position to judge Keys’ being in love with a man who is attached, the music is far from bad, and second single “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart” as well as her collaborations with Jay-Z, “Empire State Of Mind (Parts 1 & 2)” seem to be coming closer to replicating her usual success.

Here’s to hoping that The Element Of Freedom continues Keys’ string of successes.  Alicia said of the album that “”The way that the songs progress are gonna take you on a natural high. I just want you to feel a sense of freedom, I want you to feel out-of-the-box, feel inspired, You’re definitely going to be taken on a trip, I know you’re going to be shocked, you’re going to hear things that you probably didn’t think that I would sound like. It’s a journey.”  Some of this I agree with, some of it I don’t hear myself.  “Doesn’t Mean Anything” and “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart” both build to exhilarating climaxes, not because the music is especially bombastic (it’s anything but, though “Broken Heart” has a compelling drum loop that comes closer to bringing Kanye West’s 808 fascination into the 21st century than he himself seems to be able to manage).  Standout tracks “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, “Love Is My Disease”, “Distance And Time” and closer “Empire State Of Mind (Part II)” all employ soaring melodies that propel the listener to think and to ride their own emotions; Keys’ production and piano backing compliment each song without ever taking centre stage (as happened on occasion in her first two albums).  Its undeniable that Alicia Keys knows how to write a song, knows how to sing a song and knows how to express a song even with a voice that sometimes is limited – she wrings the emotion out of every syllable be it with a whisper (“Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart”) or a throaty, heartfelt plea (“Love Is My Disease”).

So the album is solid – but is it really that different?  As I Am saw Keys taking risks and incorporating traditional pop and even rock elements into her smoky R&B soul with stellar results (as well as a couple of lackluster songs), and that sound continues here, but in places incorporating 80s drums and synths – this sound is definitely in vogue (I still struggle to understand why), but at least Alicia Keys sounds less like she is pandering to fashion than most artists – again, this is tribute to her genuine musicianship.  I find it hard to say that I am “shocked” by anything on this album – ok, for the first time her intro is a spoken-word explanation of the album title and concept rather than a pianist showcase.  Her collaboration with Beyoncé, “Put It In A Love Song”, is fun and the closest Keys has ever come to club-ready, and Beyoncé’s voice and swagger doesn’t dominate the song as I might have feared – the two artists compliment each other perfectly and adeptly ride the compelling bassline. But here is where the surprises end – opening track “Love Is Blind” performs the same function as previous opening tracks “Go Ahead”, “Karma” and “Girlfriend”, in that they are uptempo, loop-driven productions that display the singer’s confidence before she delves into her vulnerability later in the album.  “Unthinkable (I’m Ready)” sounds almost too similar to The Diary Of Alicia Keys‘ “Slow Down”, and while “This Bed” provides an interesting diversion on Freedom, its The-Dream-esque synths and piano are really echoing Prince (which is 80% of what The-Dream does anyway) – and Alicia Keys already covered Prince at the start of her career (“How Come U Don’t Call Me”).  The album ends on a legitimate high with “How It Feels To Fly” and “Empire State Of Mind” exploring her ideals of freedom, exhilaration and expressing her love for New York – but she’s even played those cards before, at the end of As I Am (“Sure Looks Good To Me”) and The Diary (“Streets Of New York”).

As stated earlier, the most interesting aspect of the album, lyrically speaking, is matching the songs to Alicia Keys’ newly revealed love for Swizz Beatz, never mind his marriage.  Her feelings about it resonate through the titles – “Love Is Blind”, “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, “Love Is My Disease” and particularly “Unthinkable”.  Lyrics such as “Some people might call me crazy for falling in love with you” (“That’s How Strong My Love Is”) and “I’m wondering maybe could I make you my baby / If we do the unthinkable, would it make us go crazy? / If you ask me, I’m ready” (“Unthinkable”) speak for themselves.  Obviously, as members of the public there’s only so much we know about the situation, and only a certain percentage of that is remotely true – but the artists put their souls on a record and we can’t help but speculate, at the same time as we feel the songs and apply them to our own lives and emotions.

So The Element Of Freedom is, generally, more of the same from Alicia Keys.  It’s not nearly as risky as Keys herself might proclaim, and it’s not the best album of 2009, but it does provide some moments of genuine exhilaration, and there are plenty of strong tracks to make the weaker ones (“Like The Sea”, “Wait Til You See My Smile”) nothing to gripe about.  What’s more, Keys has found some freedom in being brave enough to write about her love and experiences in a new way – and if there’s anything I’ve learned in the past three months, it’s that love is stronger than anything and I can feel most of what she’s singing about.  Her piano playing compliments the songs without ever becoming a gimmick.  And anyway, after all, if Alicia Keys is providing more of the same, she’s still doing a damn sight better than your average R&B chick.  The lyrics are still simple but deep, the music is still soulful yet current, the songs are still well-written and hooky.  I believe Keys has a better album in her yet (The Diary Of Alicia Keys is still my personal favourite), but I thoroughly commend her for not dipping in quality throughout the past 7 years.

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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.