Posts Tagged ‘complexity’

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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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Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE (album review)

July 17, 2012

The first I time I took notice of Frank Ocean was when I found out that he was the writer of one of my favourite songs, “I Miss You” from Beyoncé’s 4. By this point, he was already gaining some buzz as a member of the Odd Future collective, and so I downloaded his mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. I fell in love with songs such as “Novocane” and “American Wedding” immediately, while others such as “Swim Good” and “Strawberry Swing” grew on me after a couple of listens. I was convinced that Ocean was indeed skilled at creating R&B that was a bit more grown than the electro-dance recycling going on in the charts, and that focused on exploring human emotions. In this way, he set himself apart in my mind, and I was excited to see what he would do next.

Enter channel Orange. If anything, it’s less accessible than Nostalgia, Ultra. or than many of the songs that make up Ocean’s mammoth The Lonny Breaux Collection. For the most part, songs don’t announce themselves (and certainly not with typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structures) as much as their melodies seep into your head with repeated listens. However, between the lush instrumentation (and there is definitely genuine instrumentation going on here; these are more than just pre-paid beats) and resonating lyrics, after each listen one takes away something more from the experience. channel ORANGE is a meticulously crafted piece of work, and there is much to discuss. It’s at times difficult to penetrate the chilled, hazy vibe of the album to find a meaty hook of the type that we’re used to – and I feel it would have been nice to have had more of these sprinkled through the album – but there’s nevertheless plenty of sustenance here.

Opening track “Thinkin Bout You” is possibly the most immediate song on the record, and it’s utterly beautiful: the way Ocean uses his falsetto is reminiscent of Prince, and evokes the feelings of at once being totally in love and feeling totally alone in that love, desolate and desperate. While not a technical vocalist to rival R. Kelly or Usher, Frank Ocean knows how to use his voice to maximum effect. The lyrics in the song evoke the unrequited first love that we all knew, and that Ocean wrote about so eloquently in his open letter posted on tumblr. The bravery of an R&B star, of a black man with ties to and props from the largely chauvinist hip hop community, to come out as bisexual two weeks before his album was released has not gone unnoticed, and should not be ignored; rightly so, it appears that Ocean’s success – and I personally believe that even without the announcement / confirmation of his sexuality, channel ORANGE would have been a hit – has been bolstered. Support has been largely overflowing, and it would appear that at last, times might be changing – and not just because Obama and Jay-Z gave black men permission to support their fellow man if that man happened to be gay or bisexual. But in terms of the music and in terms of Ocean’s letter, the focus pulls away from the object of his affections being male or female to the beauty and the intricacy of the sentiment. Sometimes Ocean sings to a boy, sometimes to a girl – but 100% of the time, it sounds beautiful, the lyrics are deep and honest, and the songs as a whole don’t simplify but rather reflect the complexity of the subject matter of being infatuated, in love and lost in love. “Bad Religion”, another standout on the album, begins with a howling organ which Ocean’s plaintive vocal joins to express his loneliness and despair. Lines like “I can’t tell you the truth about my disguise” and “It’s a bad religion to be in love with someone who could never love you” are at once more detailed than what one finds in a typical R&B song for the radio, and yet the emotions of someone in love can’t be put much more simply, or laid bare any more.

Subject matter on channel ORANGE doesn’t just limit itself to romance found and lost, but tackles other topics too. “Super Rich Kids” explores precisely that, but the lyrics could apply equally to the inhabitants of Ladera Heights and to the wealthy-yet-jaded entertainers in the music industry: “Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce…too many white lies and white lines…nothing but fake friends.” The coda which robs the hook from Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” lends the track an air of nostalgia while giving the listener something recognisable to grab onto. “Crack Rock” likens loneliness to drug addiction, and fastens to these emotions details of being ostracised by family and society. In some ways “Pyramids” is the centrepiece of the album – an epic 10 minutes that starts out evoking Egyptian deserts, before seguing into a sexier exploration of making love to a stripper called Cleopatra. While lyrically drawing parallels between how women were and are at once worshipped and subjugated by men, the production starts off bouncy, transitions through seductive into sleazy, and fades out with a howling guitar Pink Floyd or Jimi Hendrix would be proud of.

Interludes give the album a sense of constant flow, and the overarching feel is nostalgia-soaked classic quality. channel ORANGE isn’t immediately accessible to non-R&B heads, and rewards repeated listens. If I could improve anything about the album, while I commend its artistry and sense of originality and self, it would be nice for some of the songs to have some more standout hooks. But overall, Frank Ocean has done himself and the world of R&B proud with this album – it’s deep, intelligent, textured and heartfelt.

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fear and self-loathing.

March 11, 2010

Lately I’ve noticed something about myself that never used to be the case.  Part of the idea of this blog is that I can use it to look at myself, examine my emotions and think things through.  It’s cathartic for me to write, but it’s also a way of me holding up a mirror to myself and trying to untangle emotions and confusion in my brain and heart.  By ordering things on the page and trying to make them as logical / rational as possible (which it isn’t always!) I can sort things out so that I can understand them myself, just as much as so that you all can understand, relate to and empathise with what I’m going through (and hopefully touch those of you who are or have been going through the same).

However, I now can’t tolerate the idea of doing personality quizzes, self-assessment or delving into my past and my psyche in a semi-public arena.  For not the first time, on Tuesday afternoon we had a class about psychometric testing and using these tests to determine a person’s aptitudes and skills.  This was fine, it was quite interesting and we did some example questions on verbal & non-verbal reasoning, numeracy, and spatial and mechanical awareness.  We then moved on to those psychometric tests which can be used to assess personality.  Now, although our lecturer dutifully informed us that we were all a mixture of every type of personality, and that every combination was positive, my back was immediately up.  As the example questions began, I felt a violent urge to disengage from the class and decided to quickly fill in my answers and then doodle on my page, not talking to anyone and not joining in any discussions sharing types, answers and anecdotes.  I wasn’t interested, I felt that a quiz of 8 questions (we did a very shortened version, since the full test is 88 questions!) was NOT enough to diagnose who I am, and I wasn’t interested in what anyone else had to say, whether anyone else felt that they really were what the quiz said they were or whatever.  I just wanted to get out.

I was talking to Mike, and later Toby, about my reaction – I was in a bad mood for several hours after this.  Why had I reacted so negatively to it?  Part of it is genuinely that I do not think that any quiz has a right to put me in a box or tell me who I am.  Because of this, as a careers adviser I myself probably would not use psychometrics to “analyse” clients, since that would be pretty hypocritical seeing as I can’t complete one myself (though once I had calmed down, I later on looked up my answer to the quiz, and while it was pretty flattering and seemed valid enough, I took it with a pinch of salt and forgot about it).  So I don’t like being generalised, and I don’t like being told who I am by somebody or something which evidently thinks it knows better, and which claims to be able to penetrate to the core of me in a matter of minutes.  I’m much more complex than that – we all are! – and I think that should be respected.  That’s part of it.

But part of it, if I am totally honest, is perhaps that I just don’t want to analyse myself in that way, and certainly not in a room with other people.  If it truly is going to delve into my psyche (which I still doubt), then the result should be for me and me alone.  Maybe a little bit of me is scared about what if it says something that really is undeniably true, but also that I utterly detest and despise?  Does that mean I am scared of myself? I hate myself?  What does that mean?  The fact is that this isn’t the first time I’ve reacted like this to delving into my past and my background (educational and personal) during class activities.  It’s probably the third, if I remember rightly.  I never used to be like this, and it concerns me a tiny bit – what am I so afraid of?  Why do I have such a sudden, strong negative reaction?  This reaction is only worsened by the fact that I know I’m overreacting – Mike said that he doesn’t take the quizzes seriously as they are usually a bunch of nonsense, and I know he’s mostly right.  Is it the fact he might be a tiny bit wrong that fills me with dread?  Is it dread that I’m filled with, or is it self-loathing, confusion or ignorance?  What’s going on with me?

The most rational thing that I can think of is that I’ve worked so damn hard to become the best person I can be, to become the person I’ve always wanted to be.  Over the years I’ve raised my intelligence, lost weight, learned to write, sing and produce my own music which I now market (check it out here!), made a lot of progress towards looking the way that I want to, become a lot more sociable and popular, made some wonderful friends, and I am proud of the person that I have become, while I still acknowledge that I have plenty further to go before I feel remotely satisfied with my achievements in life.  I’ve changed a lot – superficially, I’ve lost a lot of weight, stepped my fashion game up, dyed my hair and exercise regularly while watching what I eat.  Even though I’m plenty insecure inside, I know how to portray confidence and appear secure because at the end of the day, if I chicken out and don’t do something, it doesn’t get done and I regret not trying.  I’ve made all this personal progress and tried to change and improve the person that I am so much to be the better man that I want to be, aim to be… so what if one of these personality tests shows all that progress to be an illusion?  What if I’m just the same person as I was before, before I came so far?  Deep down, can we ever evolve? I believe I’ve evolved, I’ve grown a lot… it doesn’t feel like a lie.  I know logically that a quiz cannot discredit the progress I feel that I’ve made – the only person that can measure that is me.  But if it cut me down and put me back at square one, what then? What if it all means nothing and I’m destined to be the same person I used to be?  Is that what I’m afraid of?

I just don’t know.

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illusions.

January 10, 2010

I was on the way home from work at the hospital on Friday afternoon and it began to occur to me while I was sat on the bus, for no particular reason, that just as we all want different things that can help us on our journey to happiness, so we’re all coming from different places with different perspectives. I thought back to Monday night and Tuesday morning, when I’d spent the night at Mike’s place, and playing games with his son Billy.  He messed about with his food, he splashed Mike while he was having a bath, he was bashing a toy meerkat on the floor the next morning looking for coconuts.  He’s three years old, and he’s a bright kid, but he’s a child that is almost totally carefree.  And why shouldn’t he be?  That’s one of the luxuries of being so young, that we don’t realise is a luxury until it’s passed us by.

Does that make him “immature”? In a way, yes – but with none of the bad connotations that the word usually carries.  He’s a child, he’s got a lot of growing up to do, experiencing of the world and everything that entails.  So as a child, we can’t blame him for not understanding the complexity of relationships, people, and a hundred other things that fall under the umbrella of “life”.  But just because he’s a child, that gives him a get-out clause that we don’t afford other people whom we presume should know better.  So I was sat on the bus, wondering if maturity and immaturity is just an illusion? Is it a concept that we’ve invented to fuel our own feelings of superiority and comfort us when we’re feeling insecure?

I know that I’m certainly guilty of this.  Through the years, many many people (parents, teachers, friends, colleagues) have told me that I am “mature for my age”, “wise beyond my years” and so on and so forth.  I appreciate the compliment, but it’s meant that sometimes I’ve looked at people my age, or people whom I’ve just thought should know better than to behave in the way in which they’re behaving, and the first thing to my mind is “they’re immature”.  Is that really just code for “oh, I am better than them”?  To me, it seems to be a way of dressing up a superiority complex.  Looking at it now, I think that when we see people as “immature”, it’s not because they’re mentally or emotionally stunted – or at least, it’s not their fault.  They just have a different viewpoint of life / whatever the issue or context is, because they’ve been through different things or they’ve been raised a certain way, that they approach the complexities from a different angle.  I’m sure that I’m not the deepest person around, and that some people think I am shallow. I like to think I am not, but then who likes to think of themselves as shallow? 😉  I like to think I’m mature, but then who likes to think of themselves as immature?

So I am trying to restrain myself from automatically judging people as “immature”. Yes, I may disagree with the way they express themselves in connection with certain situations, and I might think that if it were me, I would do things differently, approach the situation differently, or have a more nuanced viewpoint.  But we’re all learning, and maybe instead of judging someone else, I should learn to take a step back and see things the way they do.  Sometimes I think too much, and perhaps simplicity is better.  Mike and I did say sometimes that it would be nice to just be able to switch your brain off  and not overthink things – I’m certainly guilty of at times taking things too seriously.  And perhaps, sometimes part of ‘maturity’ (whether it exists or not) is letting loose and having fun.  I honestly believe more and more as I get older that levity and laughter is vital for sanity.