Posts Tagged ‘executive producer’

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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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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.

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Mariah Carey – Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel review.

September 27, 2009

Finally, it’s here (unless, like me you live in the UK in which case you are expected to wait until NOVEMBER 16TH!!!!  I will be buying the import collector’s version on Amazon, which drops on Tuesday.) – Mariah Carey’s new album, Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel.  Preceded by the lead single “Obsessed”, which has done very well but not shot to number one (leading certain people to brand it a ‘flop’ all the same), several questions were being asked of this CD: “Is Mariah’s voice really shot?” (No.) “Is it better than Whitney’s album?” (Yes.) “Does the fact that The-Dream and Tricky Stewart produced the whole album make it a bit monotonous?” (No… not really.  A couple of the songs are somewhat repetitive and reminiscent of other The-Dream tracks, but Mariah’s input and The-Dream’s variety are pleasantly surprising.) “Why did Mariah push her CD back? Was she running scared?” (No; she was making a cohesive R&B album and taking the time to make it perfect.)  Listening to the finished product makes this clear – where The Emancipation of Mimi (Mariah’s “comeback” “classic” album, which is possibly her least cohesive effort and contains some fantastic tracks surrounded by the most filler in any of her albums this decade) and E=MC² were literally a collection of songs, Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel takes you on a unified journey the way that Mariah’s best 90s efforts, the seminal Butterfly and Rainbow, and yes, even 2002’s Charmbracelet did.

Mariah’s vocals are stronger now than they were on Charmbracelet, though she often employs her whisper voice in place of full belting.  As it did on Butterfly, this gives the songs an intimate feel which brings out the intricate emotions inherent in her lyrics.  Standout “H.A.T.E.U.”, which means “Having A Typical Emotional Upset”, at first sounds like an angry-woman-scorned missive thematically similar to other songs on the album, but it is emotionally vulnerable as Mariah finds herself in a place where she misses her lover, but doesn’t know what to do with herself other than “change her number” and “move away” in an attempt to get over him and begin to move on.  The emotional limbo echoes in the production, which employs a hard-hitting slow beat and a baby’s cries along with Mariah’s whistle register.  Her high-pitched wails are a massive feature of this album, and are present on many of the songs – according to various tweets, Mariah wanted to explore using her upper range as a texture in homage to Minnie Riperton.  Just as on Rainbow‘s “Bliss”, on tracks such as “H.A.T.E.U.”, “Ribbon” and “Angel (Prelude)”, Mariah’s stratospheric notes come across less as an opportunity to showboat than as a genuine part of the song’s instrumentation and setting the mood.  At the album’s climax, a tasteful cover of Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is”, Mariah lets loose with gospel melisma and ecstatic squeaking to emphasise her joy and rapture in finally finding true love and encountering happiness after the ups and downs and broken relationships explored throughout the course of the album.  The only criticism of this song is that it ends far too quickly, robbing the listener of the climax – as soon as the vocal and musical apex is reached, the track is fading out!!! Here’s hoping that a longer edit of the song will surface.  But the point is that Mariah Carey is using all the ranges of her impressive voice for legitimate reasons – to serve the song and its mood, musical instrumentation, lyrical punctuation and emotional expression.  If there is any proof required that Mariah has grown as a singer, this album is it – even if she doesn’t belt as happily as she used to, her voice serves the songs more.

Having said that, Mariah also embraces radio trends on some of the more uptempo numbers.  Lead single “Obsessed” is one of a few tracks to use auto-tune.  Another question: “Why does someone with Mariah Carey’s voice need to use auto-tune?”  This is a somewhat valid question, but I think that Mariah is just trying to stay current and have fun.  Although some of the album’s slower material is more weighty and emotionally deep, songs like “Obsessed”, “Up Out My Face” and “More Than Just Friends” (which contains some fantastic lyrics such as “Secretly I know you wanna hit it like the lotto / And after that we can ketchup like tomato / We can make love in Italy in the grotto / Fresh off the jet at the Met they screamin’ bravo”) are designed to keep the BPMs up, keep things light and moving briskly, and create songs which have sharper lyrics and fun, bouncy melodies.  The marching band “reprise” of “Up Out My Face” is a fantastic, creative interlude that really knocks, and would have been great as an extended song – it harks back to one of Mariah’s performances of “Shake It Off” (perhaps the Thanksgiving Parade performance? I don’t remember… if anyone knows, feel free to comment!).  “Standing O” is another hard-hitting uptempo track that gathers its intensity as Mariah applauds an ex-lover for breaking her heart – “All you did was pound on it”.  The beats accumulate towards the end of the song, as Mariah’s voice gets more insistent and an almost operatic soprano punctuates her despair.  Although it had to grow on me somewhat, I am really enjoying the track.

There are a couple of tracks where I differ from what I understand to be the general consensus, according to other forum and blog comments, as well as video reviews of the album I’ve seen on Youtube.  “Ribbon” has been garnering comments such as being ‘overproduced’ with its distorted hooks forming part of the music, and more of a crunk beat than other tracks, really hitting hard.  From what I understand, people are saying the track is a bit overcooked and Mariah gets lost in it – I disagree! I love the song, its music is dark and percussive, but Mariah’s syrupy vocals and lyrics “Wrapped up, wrapped up, ribbon with a bow on it” sit on top of all that like the icing on a cake.  It’s actually one of my favourite tracks on the album, and although it is a typical The-Dream track that could have easily fit on his Love vs. Money album, I don’t think that it suffers for that – there’s not another track like it on the album, so it stands out.

Whereas my only weak track, which other people seem to love, is “It’s A Wrap”.  Mariah pours wine at the beginning of the track, so I guess we are supposed to relax into it, but the doo-wop beat and sparse piano forces the song to melt away and become unmemorable.  The lyrics are somewhat lackluster compared to the zingers on other songs such as “Up Out My Face” (“If we were two Lego blocks, even the Harvard University Graduating Class of 2010 couldn’t put us back together again” !!!!!!) and “More Than Just Friends”, or to the emotional heft of ballads such as “H.A.T.E.U.”, “The Impossible” and “Angels Cry”.  The only line that “It’s A Wrap” has going for it, IMO, is “It’s going down like a denominator” – and you have to wait for the end of the song to get to that bit.  Just a bit lackluster for me – but other people love it, so you may love it too and we’ll agree to disagree.

Earlier I compared Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel to classic Mariah albums Butterfly and Rainbow.  This becomes apparent during the album’s closing stretch – though on “Candy Bling” and “Inseparable” Mariah offers a relaxed yet absorbing throwback vibe (to former Mariah tracks “Yours” and “We Belong Together”, respectively), and on opening ‘prologue’ “Betcha Gon’ Know” Mariah masterfully weaves an absorbing tale of heartbreak and infidelity just as she wrote spellbinding descriptive lyrics on classic “The Roof” – it’s not until “The Impossible” that we really seem to penetrate into Mariah’s heart.  The sexy R&B feel gives nods to Jodeci and provides a classic texture that once more exemplifies just how much is missing from 2009-typical R&B. Hopefully this is a sign that older R&B values are coming back around – although Mariah popularised the trend of female singers working with rappers, Memoirs does not boast a single collaboration and is all the better for it.  “Angels Cry” is a heartfelt ode to love lost that sounds like classic Mariah, and of course there is the closer “I Want To Know What Love Is”.  These last two tracks really ratchet up the emotional impact of Mariah’s album, where other tracks are lighter and more fun, or restrained slower material – and make sure that it goes out on a high.

Okay, so I am a big Mariah Carey fan, and I am bound to say that I love the album.  For me, it’s a real album that flows (hence the various reprises and little flourishes that help the songs segue together sonically as well as thematically) rather than just a collection of songs.  The lyrics and vocals work together to compliment each song’s mood, content and impact.  And apart from “It’s A Wrap”, I really enjoy every track on the album.  So for me, taking the songs individually, they are winners, but the album as a whole is elevated beyond the sum of its parts to something quite special.  In my opinion, this is why it stands head and shoulders above Whitney Houston’s I Look To You (certainly not an album which has a cohesive feel, and I only like half of the songs anyway) as well as nearly every other album I’ve heard released in 2009.  This is where Mariah Carey is not only a gifted singer and vocalist, but an artist who keeps working at and developing her craft as a writer, producer and someone who envisions how her project should sound from start to finish.  Check the credits: Mariah Carey is Executive Producer, Album Producer, and a producer and writer on every single song (apart from the cover version).  As a singer, a songwriter and an artist, she is what I aspire to be, and Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel is, like Butterfly and Rainbow, an example of her at her very best.