Posts Tagged ‘Hip Hop’

h1

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.

Advertisements
h1

Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne (real-time track by track review).

August 13, 2011

Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative album, Watch The Throne, was always going to be a self-important, grandiose affair. To this end, the magnificent artwork (creatively directed by Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci) exudes opulence, with the cover appearing to be engraved gold, while inside Kanye and Jay’s faces are morphed into tigers’ jaws. So the artwork is striking, fashionable, and strong. What of the music?

Of course, this isn’t the first time that Jay-Z and Kanye West have collaborated. From the former’s celebrated album The Blueprint, to West’s recent “Monster” single, the two have been a frequent pairing. One question is whether Watch The Throne, which is a near-perfect melding of the two rappers’ most recent albums, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (West’s magnum opus to date) and The Blueprint 3, would exist without West’s latest solo album. It certainly wouldn’t sound the same, built on a similar set of soulful samples (courtesy of Otis Redding, Nina Simone and Curtis Mayfield, among others), classic Wu-Tang-esque production (partly courtesy of the RZA) and an incorporation of unusual effects (“Lift Off” has a countdown to a rocket launch and deliberately stutters Beyoncé’s hook at the end) and modern styles for dizzying effect (“Who Gon Stop Me” thrillingly and unpredictably descends into dubstep). Unfortunately, Fantasy means that Watch The Throne sounds less innovative than its predecessor, but judged on its own merits, it is nevertheless a strong entry in both rappers’ catalogues.

Another question might be which rapper comes out on top. Although at times they sound less in sync than others, this isn’t really the issue; it’s not about one guy against the other, but what they can accomplish as a team with their two considerable powers put together.The album is bombastic, swollen with the promise that hip-hop’s magnates have to live up to. Here is a track-by-track review.

No Church In The Wild

A sinister bassline accompanied by Frank Ocean’s singing opens Watch The Throne. “What’s a god to a non-believer who don’t believe in anything?” Mysterious and cryptic, the song is nevertheless thrilling. Autotuned vocals hark back to West’s 808s & Heartbreak. Both rappers seem to be authoritative and yet feel outcast by religion… are they trying to be socially conscious? “Love is cursed by monogamy – something that the pastor don’t preach / something that a teacher can’t teach / when we die, the money we can’t keep / but we probably spend it all coz the pain ain’t cheap” (West). Are these men, who are fabulously wealthy and not particularly modest about it, trying to be human? If so, it’s a commendable move.

One thing that is confusing – several songs have little instrumental interludes at the end – what purpose do these serve? These do seem unnecessary and swiftly become irritating…

Lift Off

Pianos and strings make this song sound big and propulsive. Beyoncé sings the hook impeccably. “I’m supercharged / We’re about to take this whole thing to Mars” – they’re aware how big stars (!) they are, and also aware that this album is an Event that should be launched. Just the way that the album was launched in a planetarium… The rocket launch countdown could perhaps be a subtle link to “Countdown” on Beyoncé’s 4?

Niggas In Paris

Another sinister-sounding song that has echoes of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”. “What’s 50 grand to a motherfucker like me, can you please remind me?” Jay-Z is rich. Again, by demonstrating how big stars they are and how much they reign over the game, they are proving how much of an Event this album is. Jay and Kanye go back and forth on this track, which shows however that this album is far from a phoned-in effort. Jay-Z is rich, and Kanye has had sex with many girls. Thematically, this doesn’t break any ground for rap!

Otis

The Otis Redding sample brings soul, and harkens back to West and Jay-Z’s work on The Blueprint (as well as most of West’s early output which mixed hip hop and soul samples to thrilling results). Kanye: “Last week they didn’t see me cause I pulled up in my other Benz” (sounds like “underpants” !!).  West coins the phrase “luxury rap” – looking at the album cover as well as the duo’s individual reputations, is this the genre description they would ascribe themselves? Is it because of wealth, or rhyme quality (or both)?

Gotta Have It

The moaning at the beginning sounds like a black spiritual. There are elements here that also draw upon Nas’ Untitled, with that albums specific evocation and reference to black culture’s past of slavery. “LOLOLOLOL White America, assassinate my character” – Kanye sounds like he is challenging or second guessing people. Is this in reference to the infamous Bush / Katrina incident? Or when Kanye West humiliated Taylor Swift at the VMAs? “Oh shit, it’s just blacks on blacks on blacks” – West again… realising that discrimination and misunderstanding comes from his own race as well as others? Who is to blame?

New Day

It’s quite audacious to autotune your Nina Simone sample, especially when it’s her most famous song “Feeling Good”. Kanye West and Jay-Z are trying to push music forward, and symbolise that after the follies of youth, the two men have reached a stage where they enjoy being mature and responsible – “It’s a new day, and I’m feeling good”. Here, they talk about how they would raise their children and the mistakes that they themselves made in their youth, which humanises them and exposes some truth underneath their bravado. “I just want him to be someone people like / I don’t want him to be hated all the time, judged / Don’t be like your daddy” (West) / “Sorry junior, I already ruined ya / Coz you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya / Sins of the father already made your life ten times harder” (Jay) – “Teach you good values so you cherish it… My dad left me I promise never to repeat it” (Jay). A touching song that is a lyrical highlight.

That’s My Bitch

Both rappers praise their women. Beyoncé gets a shout-out or two. West name-drops Basquiat. “Why all the icons all white?” (Jay, who then name-drops Naomi, Halle Berry, Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek)

Welcome To The Jungle

This song picks up on the pictures of Jay and Kanye’s faces merged with tigers. The songs works off a “the world is a jungle / life is hard” metaphor. Jay – “My tears is tatted / my rag in my pocket / I’m just looking for love / I know somebody got it” – he inhabits the character of a gangster who can’t express emotion in public because that’s not how the stereotype works. It’s not generally something that’s permitted – but West and Jay have got to a point where they are comfortable eschewing stereotypes and exposing a little more of who they genuinely are.

Who Gon Stop Me

This sounds grimy, dirty and modern all at once, and is one of the standouts on the album. West and Jay stand, confident in their unstoppability, “Heard Yeezy was racist / well I guess it’s so on basis…. I only like green faces” (Kanye) – “This is something like the holocaust / millions of our people lost” (Kanye) / “Black on black” (Jay) – urging people to “beat the odds” and achieve their dreams and be unstoppable. A thrilling entry. Jay-Z references how far he has come from being a drug-dealer in his youth.

Murder To Excellence

A song of two halves, “Murder” and “Excellence”.

“Murder” – Chants jostle with clashing drums and a tuneful bass guitar, while Kanye and Jay-Z rap socially / racially conscious lyrics. “41 souls murdered in 50 hours” (Kanye) Again, they fixate on the crimes that black people commit against themselves. “314 soldiers died in Iraq… 509 died in Chicago” (Kanye) – some interesting reality.

“Excellence” – an immediate transition to a different sample and ominous piano vaguely reminiscent of an Eminem production, except less thunderous. From talking about murder on the streets, to the injustices the rappers have seen on their path to excellence: “Domino, domino / only spot a few blacks the higher I go” (Jay). “In the past, if you picture events like a black tie / What’s the last thing you expect to see? Black guys” (Kanye) – an axe to grind!

Made In America

A sweet song, where Frank Ocean eulogises the rappers’ parents, along with Biblical figures and leaders of the black / civil rights movement in the US. Kanye tells an abridged version of his meeting with fellow producer No I.D., and how he was able to use his new-found wealth to treat his late mother well. Jay-Z does an appreciated bit of storytelling, pretending to be boiling water in the same kitchen where his grandmother cooked banana pudding, when really he’s cooking up something quite different. “The streets raised me, pardon my bad manners” (Jay). This song feels like we are reaching the home stretch of the album (which is true), and gives us something positive, as well as lets us in on the sense of accomplishment that the rappers feel not only to have survived the streets and their upbringings, but also to have ascended to such heights of fame. They are aware and appreciative of how comfortable their lives are.

Why I Love You

Dirty guitars and beats slam in and interrupt the peaceful reverence of the previous track for this album closer (on the standard edition). The rhyme speed has picked up, and Jay pledges his loyalty to those nearest and dearest to him. Mr. Hudson, singing the hook, for once does not irritate! Now that is progress. Kanye and Jay-Z thank one another for the positive effects they’ve had on each other’s careers – which is why this (rather than the previous track, which would have been sonically more appropriate) is the album closer. Unless you have the deluxe…

Illest Motherfucker Alive

Climactic piano, synths and operatic choruses back Kanye and Jay’s various boasts. This sounds too big for its lyrics (“what the ending of Scarface should feel like”, apparently), and perhaps explains why it was relegated to just the deluxe.

H.A.M

The first single finally shows up towards the end of the deluxe album. Next to the album’s tracks, this sounds somewhat flimsy production-wise (until its apocalyptic bridge, at least). A re-evaluation of the album’s aims by Kanye and Jay-Z probably relegated this to the end of the deluxe.

Primetime

This song is perfectly adequate. I’m tired. This album is long!

The Joy

Samples Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You”, giving a warmth to the deluxe album’s end that feels like proper closure after the epicness of the whole thing. It was bloated, bombastic and at times could have been trimmed somewhat, but it was very engaging! Once again, Kanye and Jay-Z expose their tenderness and talking about their families, and how this is just as important as the wealth and beauties they’ve promoted elsewhere on the record. A laid-back treat for those who get the deluxe.

h1

why young money has won me over.

January 17, 2011

OK, so as I am unwell and off work, I might as well try and do something productive. I haven’t done a music review on this blog for ages – and while this isn’t a traditional album review, I thought that I would write a music-related article.

I was reading on Toya’s World Drake’s recent comments on how Aaliyah inspired him as a singer to make his songs relatable across genders and across situations. This connects to one of the best songs on his album, “Unforgettable”, which samples her. Unfairly, I ignored Drake for an unfeasibly long time, and it was only hearing his songs covered by Teairra Marí on her Point Of No Return mixtape that made me decide to give him a chance. I am so glad that I did – rather than just another overhyped rapper who featured on every R&B and Hip Hop single of the moment over the last year and a half, his album betrayed a talent for rhyming and exposing vulnerability and honesty over beats that combined some of the raw soundscapes from Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak with horn-led Swizz Beatz productions. I was thoroughly impressed by Drake’s honesty about fame, and his lyrics which alternated between self-hype and self-deprecation. While Kanye West’s stellar new album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy equally shows him exposing the insecurities behind his ego on songs such as “Runaway” and “Blame Game”, the difference is that Drake has been upfront about his insecurities from the get-go. This is something I feel is admirable for a male artist in any genre – traditionally, female artists are emotional and find strength in their vulnerability, while male artists are sex-hungry, predatory and invulnerable to emotion just as they portray themselves as being invulnerable to everything, bullets included (a quick flip through rap history should indicate that this is certainly not the case – 50 Cent aside). So Drake utterly won my respect for being frank and honest, while also creating a really good album that still had some swagger songs, but was not afraid to step away from that and both rhyme and sing with equal sincerity.

Nicki Minaj’s mixtape Beam Me Up Scotty was utterly thrilling, but again betrayed something more than your average hyper-sexual female rapper. Her idiosyncratic delivery, and her willingness to be vulnerable and honest about her music industry difficulties (on “Can Anybody Hear Me” she proclaimed “Def Jam said I’m no Lauryn Hill / Can’t rap and sing on the same CD / the public won’t get it, they got ADD”). By extension, we can understand that Minaj has a clear vision of who she wants to be as an artist, but is being somewhat held back from that and steered in a slightly different direction.  It’s no accident that “Save Me” is one of the best songs on Pink Friday, and it is the only song which Minaj sings from start to finish. Image-wise, Nicki Minaj is clearly hailing after Lil’ Kim, and to a lesser extent Lisa Left-Eye Lopes. Pink Friday at first was a disappointment to me because it was much more pop than I was expecting, and there weren’t many of her hard, crazy verses that characterise her best features, such as on Kanye West’s “Monster”. Nevertheless, the album has impressed me because it does mix in various sounds, various characters, and is not overtly sexed nor trying too hard to be one of the guys, or prove its gangster credentials – these are elements that have characterised a lot of female rap and it is brave of Minaj to forsake all of these and try to be herself, even if she is not allowed to be so fully. So again, although Nicki Minaj is hardly original and I have a suspicion that her true artistry will be revealed in years to come, her output and dedication to her craft is still promising and beyond what is expected of most new acts.

I wonder if, when putting together his Young Money troupe, Lil Wayne was aware of just how talented his acts are. I am tempted to say yes, as madness and artistic talent can often go hand in hand. Young Money’s album itself comprised catchy, if disposable, chart fodder which nevertheless promoted a collective ethos above highlighting individual talents. This is all well and good, but apart from Wayne, Minaj and Drake, how many of the others can you name? Sure, Shanell is memorable for being the other female in the group, and has contributed solidly to Nicki Minaj’s songs “Handstand” and “Cupid’s Got A Gun”, exhibiting a controlled and evocative vocal on the latter. She also wears that interesting jewellery across her face.  Tyga stands out by dint of his recent collaborations with Chris Brown on “Deuces” and other songs. But neither of these artists (nor any of the rest) have yet been allowed to stand on their own two feet. I mean, between Wayne’s own mixtapes and those of Drake and Minaj, along with their official studio albums, singles, collaborations and features, they already saturate the media. It is likely that if all were given the same treatment simultaneously, the public would scream for respite.  But I wonder, since Young Money clearly comprises talented members who, importantly, have their own vision and are not afraid to express it, just how many more talented members we haven’t yet been exposed to. This intrigues me and suggests that the collective is filled with promise.

h1

top 15 albums of 2010.

January 2, 2011

It’s that time again! Last year my list had 20 albums on it; this year, due I think to the generally deteriorating quality of popular / mainstream music, I have chopped the list down to 15 – if I had 20 albums on it, there were inevitably a couple of albums on the list which had but a handful of good tracks. This does not necessarily make a good album – so for the sake of quality over quantity, this year my list is shorter and sweeter.  Enjoy and comment if you like / dislike / agree / disagree!

15. MonicaStill Standing (check my review here!)

Highlights: Still Standing, Stay Or Go, Love All Over Me, Believing In Me

Skip: If You Were My Man

14. Diddy – Dirty MoneyLast Train To Paris

Highlights: Yeah Yeah You Would, Angels, Hello Good Morning, Coming Home

Skip: Someone To Love Me, Shades, Loving You No More

13. The-DreamLove King

Highlights: F.I.L.A., Abyss, February Love, Florida University, Take Care Of Me, All Black Everything

Skip: Make Up Bag, Sex Intelligent (Remix), Yamaha, Veteran

12. Toni Braxton Pulse (check my review here!)

Highlights: Yesterday, Make My Heart, Hands Tied, Lookin’ At Me, Wardrobe, Why Won’t You Love Me

Skip: If I Have To Wait, Hero

11. Teairra MaríPoint Of No Return mixtape

Highlights: Detroit, Body, Girl Power, Coins, My Lovin’, Holla, Over

Skip: Super High

10. Jazmine SullivanLove Me Back

Highlights: Holding You Down (Goin’ In Circles), Good Enough, Stuttering, Famous, Luv Back

Skip: Don’t Make Me Wait, Redemption

9. Nicki MinajPink Friday

Highlights: I’m The Best, Roman’s Revenge, Save Me, Check It Out, Your Love, Girls Fall Like Dominoes

Skip: Did It On’Em, Fly, Last Chance

8. Janelle Monáe The ArchAndroid (check my review here!)

Highlights: Dance Or Die, Cold War, Tightrope, Oh Maker, Say You’ll Go, BabopbyeYa

Skip: Mushrooms & Roses, Neon Valley Street, Wondaland

7. ShakiraSale el Sol

Highlights: Loca, Antes De Las Seis, Gordita, Lo Que Más, Islands, Tu Boca

Skip: Sale El Sol, Addicted To You, Mariposas

6. CiaraBasic Instinct

Highlights: Ride, Gimmie Dat, Heavy Rotation, You Can Get It

Skip: nothing!

5. Kanye WestMy Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Highlights: Dark Fantasy, Power, All Of The Lights, Monster, Runaway

Skip: Gorgeous, So Appalled, Hell Of A Life

4. DrakeThank Me Later

Highlights: Fireworks, Over, Up All Night, Fancy, Shut It Down, Unforgettable, Find Your Love

Skip: Show Me A Good Time, Thank Me Now

3. SadeSoldier Of Love

Highlights: Soldier Of Love, Babyfather, In Another Time, Skin, The Safest Place

Skip: Morning Bird, Bring Me Home

2. M.I.A. /\/\ /\ Y /\

Highlights: Steppin’ Up, XXXO, Lovalot, It Takes A Muscle, Tell Me Why, Illygirl

Skip: Teqkilla, Story To Be Told

1. Christina AguileraBionic (check my review here!)

Highlights: Bionic, Woohoo, Elastic Love, Lift Me Up, You Lost Me, Vanity, Bobblehead

Skip: Prima Donna, My Girls, Birds Of Prey

h1

power couples.

November 17, 2009

Looking at the current music industry, I find it interesting how a lot of the biggest stars have attached themselves to one another.  Beyoncé and Jay-Z are considered the golden couple of R&B / hip-hop, and although they are both megastars and extremely talented in their own right (and have lots of independent ventures, and carved out their own careers independently before getting together), it’s the fact that they are together which makes them seem almost invincible.  When you listen to some of Beyoncé’s love songs, you can imagine her singing about Jay-Z; when she has a song like “Diva” which exudes confidence in a hip-hop style, you assume that Jay-Z had something to do with that attitude.  Even if it’s not the case.  Likewise, on Robin Thicke’s new song “Meiplé”, Jay-Z raps about Beyoncé being the “black Brigitte Bardot”.

Running with the Beyoncé example, she teams up with artists such as Shakira and Lady Gaga (whoever’s hot, basically) to cement her status as one of music’s elite.  Just like Timbaland and Justin Timberlake, or Timbaland and Nelly Furtado.  Relationships-wise, remember the furore over Britney Spears and Justin back in the day?  Their relationship elevated them to supernova-level megastardom, and was a massive element in their fame and success.  Interestingly, when they broke up, things just weren’t the same.  I think as members of the public, we like a couple who are balanced musically and seem to fit each other personally – it seems like fairytales can happen.  And when they self-destruct and we’re forced to admit that the fairytale was something created by the public and the media that the celebrities could never live up to, it’s just not the same.  I’m sure that there are some people who would attribute Britney’s entire marriage to Kevin Federline and her subsequent meltdown to the fact that her and Justin broke up, regardless of the reasons behind that breakup or the other factors in Britney’s life that added to her downward spiral (and subsequent resurgence).  I think that the same is happening with Rihanna and Chris Brown at the moment – however good their music / dancing / fashion might be, the fact that they were part of a couple – however much they would deny it to the paparazzi – made them seem that little bit more gilded in superstardom.  Now that they’ve split up, regardless of who beat who, they’re both experiencing some backlash (despite the fact that in both cases, their new material is certainly up to par, if not better, than their previous work).  What’s up with that?

I was thinking about this not because I ruminate daily on Beyoncé and Rihanna’s love lives, but because the same kind of thing has happened at uni.  Consciously or not, several of us within our course have paired off – not in a romantic sense, but just attached ourselves to one best friend.  There’s Pete and Emma, Penny and Daisy, Julie and Clare, among others – and of course me and Mike.  Talking about Mike and me, we’re the unofficial ‘leaders’ of our group – everyone seems to look to us whenever we speak in class, whenever someone needs to volunteer to do something in the group, organising social events.  I dread to think what would have happened if one of us didn’t smoke – we wouldn’t have had the chance to gel so instantly (on the first morning, Mike came up to me and said “Do you smoke?” “Yes.” “I thought it was you outside.  THANK GOD.  I smoke too!” and that was it!).  But I still think that because of the people we are, we would have found each other before too long.  It’s interesting how we seem to attract others around us, be they members of the aforementioned pairs, or others.  At first, there was a pair of the two youngest girls, Jenny and Sian, but as time’s gone on, Jenny has started to explore life on the dark side (i.e. she’s hanging out with me, Mike and Vikki) and loosened up to have some fun.  There’s a sense of charisma and magnetism that pairs who get on well exude without even much effort.  I wonder if those in our group who don’t come out for social drinks, who turn up to uni alone and go home alone, are enjoying it quite as much?  I know that the point of the course is not to have fun and socialise, but I like to work hard and play hard, and I think it’s a good balance for getting the most from this experience.

The funny thing was one night recently when Mike couldn’t come out.  I was still the social ringleader, but I did have a couple of comments such as “So what is Mike doing tonight?”  “How is Mike?” “You won’t smoke as much tonight since your smoking partner isn’t here.”  Me and Mike texted during the evening (he was sad he couldn’t be there, I was updating him on the scandal and gossip as the night progressed), but I thought it was interesting how people still kinda saw me as the ringleader, but thought that he and me were inseparable to the point of knowing each other’s business inside out.  I told Mike about it on Sunday when I saw him, and we laughed at the fact people seem to have the conception that we cannot exist without one another (I’ve heard one person say “Mike loves you, he follows you everywhere!” when I don’t see it as following, I just see it as a natural gravitation towards one another) – last time I checked, I managed 23.8 years of my life without Mike, and he managed even more without me.

Once you become a part of a “power couple” in whatever sense, does that make you inferior when you act on your own?  As much as I enjoy being part of the “Mike & I” leadership party, I’m still my own person.  Me and Mike have a lot in common, but we’re different in a lot of ways too, and I don’t need him to function.  And vice versa!  I think that having a companion or partner in crime makes you feel stronger, bolder and more confident, but it doesn’t mean that without the other person, you’re nothing.  I wonder what Jay-Z thinks about his position in hip-hop’s elite, and whether this position would be compromised were he to divorce Beyoncé tomorrow.  Sometimes a friendship or relationship brings along with it a certain amount of social bank or clout, but that’s not the sole reason why we should be friends with anyone – we just gel with people and connect from there.  Because at the end of the day, people may see a certain facet of us in the public eye – whether we’re celebrities or just day-to-day people – but behind closed doors or in the privacy of our own relationship, we have that connection for reasons people don’t understand unless they’re willing to plumb the depths below the surface.

h1

lady love. (LeToya album review)

August 22, 2009

On August 25th, LeToya will release her second solo album, Lady Love.  The disc is a ballad-centric compilation that stays true to LeToya’s traditional R&B-ballad signature style as evidenced on her self-titled first album, while displaying growth both musically and (in particular) vocally.  Although the few uptempos on the record (“She Ain’t Got…”, “Take Away Love”, “After Party”, “Love Rollercoaster”) lack the Houston chopped/screwed dirty hip hop flavour of the club songs on her debut, they veer more towards a poppier, guitar-fused sound.  The bonus track “Swagger” is a nod to her previous uptempos, featuring Bun B, Killa Kyleon & ex Slim Thug, and while LeToya isn’t on the song enough for it to warrant being a proper track on the album (thus making sense why it’s relegated to ‘bonus’ status), it is a nice throwback to bangers such as “Gangsta Grillz” and “Tear Da Club Up” that were highlights on her first disc.  Of Lady Love’s upbeat tracks, single “She Ain’t Got…” is the standout, a gutsy declaration to a cheating boyfriend that ain’t nobody better than Toya.  The electric guitar adds extra fuel to her fiery performance, and the hooks of “Swing batter batter batter” + “She ain’t got shit on me” are addictive.  This may be the most poppy LeToya has ever gone, but it’s still got an added punch and bite that most pop tracks lack.

But as stated at the beginning of the review, the album focuses mainly on ballads, and there is a wealth of stellar-quality material here.  From the airy vocals of the title track that opens the album (although I can’t help thinking of this track as an extended intro to the album, so blown away is it by “She Ain’t Got…” that immediately follows) to “Lazy”, which appears to remake Rihanna’s “Rehab” with better lyrics and far better vocals, where LeToya sings that “her heart’s a little lazy” after so much drama with love and relationships (I can relate!).  The vocals on this disc are far improved not only from her debut, but seem to position LeToya as a rising powerhouse (something which is quite surprising, since she never sang lead in Destiny’s Child and the kind of vocal prowess she displays on the album has barely been hinted at before).  One thing is for sure, when Beyoncé stated in the Destiny’s Child interview that “LeToya was more or less tone deaf, she was more of a rapper than anything”, she was fucking lying.  I’m sorry, but if LeToya is a rapper, she is the best-singing rapper to walk this earth (no disrespect to Lauryn Hill).  Listening to the standout “Good To Me”, where LeToya lists her reasonable desires in a partner and pleads that she is tired of being disappointed, the vocals explode throughout the song, with sustained notes and riffs both sounding impressive.

As well as competent belting, LeToya also takes risks with her voice.  On the sensual “I Need A U”, LeToya spends most of the song in an airy whisper, which compliments the slow-as-molasses beat and sexy lyrics to create a perfectly seductive listen.  Nevertheless, the best tracks are those which show that LeToya knows her strengths.  First single “Not Anymore”, while a straightforward radio ballad, is addictive and raises up the listener as LeToya repeats “I don’t want it anymore… I know my worth and you can keep that drama”.  The audience is exhorted to just sing along and feel empowered as LeToya kicks her boyfriend to the kerb, and even the rote production (a collaboration with Bei Maejor & Ne-Yo, that echoes his own style) serves the song well.  And album closer “Don’t Need You” is a laid-back closer with a beatbox element in the production.  It is another sing-along affair, where LeToya discovers that she is better off on her own.  Happiness doesn’t mean that you need another to be with you all the time.

“Over”, “Matter” and “Regret” (a sexy, laid back track that rewrites Kelly Rowland’s “Ghetto” and improves it tenfold, with a melody and hook that is actually memorable) all represent strong ballads that repeat the same theme, of the wronged girlfriend realising that she is the better one.  The fact that nearly all of the songs on this album cover the same theme does get a tiny bit monotonous, although songs like “I Need A U” and “Love Rollercoaster” are a refreshing change in that they are optimistic.  Generally though, this album is the perfect listen for after a breakup, and it’s practically impossible to imagine that LeToya didn’t write this album in response to her failed relationship with Slim Thug.  All that I can say is that, without wishing more relationship drama on LeToya, she clearly creates her best material when she’s unhappy with love… This album is clearly one of the albums of the year, since it doesn’t try to be dance of any other genre to get more radio play… it is solid R&B, with no weak tracks and stellar vocals.  Even if the themes aren’t too varied, it makes the album cohesive and one that you can listen to from beginning to end without skipping.  The ballads have enough variety in the production not to sound alike, and the hooks are memorable and get stuck in your head after only a couple of listens.  In 2009, music has become so disappointingly bland, false and heartless that every good album is a highlight that we really have to cherish.  I recommend that we all cherish LeToya’s Lady Love, because not enough artists nowadays are making music this strong and consistent.  A fantastic sophomore album.

h1

this is lycanthropy.

July 30, 2009

Quick, watch this before someone takes it off youtube! Apparently, that happens sometimes! (they did it to my Whitney Houston video, because obviously my singing her song is going to damage her sales.)

The song has grown on me immensely, and Shakira looks flawless.  But looking at the way she dances in the video, and combining that with the ideas contained in the lyrics, it gets me thinking of the primal sexuality that we keep locked up by day and let loose at night.  When I go to a club with my friends, I tend to prefer straight clubs because a) the majority of my friends are straight, and b) I can’t stand the bitchy queeny atmosphere, the meat-market stares, nor the awful mega-cheese of Bristol gay clubs – therefore my dancing is somewhat inhibited and I tend to play it cool (R&B / hip hop kinda promotes cool nonchalance over insane all-out dancing anyways).  But nevertheless, I’ve always been a good dancer because I guess I have an innate sense of rhythm.  I always get randoms trying to dance with me in clubs, and other guys often compliment me on my dancing (which I find crazy, because for a guy to compliment another guy without knowing them or having an ulterior motive of some sort is practically unheard of).  I’ve been dancing since I was a child, but just as I learned to sing from Mariah Carey albums, I learned to dance from MTV.  The best teachers are your idols, and my recipe for success has always been study, study, study, incorporate a range of everything into your repertoire, and then just feel the music and let what comes out come out.  That’s the way I sing, and that’s the way I dance – it’s automatic, it’s instinctive, and it’s usually more powerful than a rehearsed performance.  Just as I have performed at numerous concerts singing and playing instruments, I have done a few dance displays and was the first male ever to win my high school dance competition (to Brandy’s “What About Us?”), so I guess I know what I’m talking about.  But at the same time, I could never teach anyone to sing nor to dance, because I just do what I do and feel the music and make my body talk.  I have heard accomplished instrumentalists say that they learned how to make their piano or their guitar talk (I read a quote from Bruce Springsteen in a book in HMV the other day), and that was a powerful yet simplistic explanation of how someone plays their instrument.  So I guess the best way for me to explain the way I ‘do’ music is that I make my voice or my body talk and express itself to the music.

When Shakira says that “this is lycanthropy”, I understand that she’s referring to unleashing your inner predator (in her case, the ‘she-wolf’).  I often find myself with my ipod at night dancing around, and the most intoxicating thing for me (which is the feel I’ve tried to capture on my forthcoming album) is to be outside in the dark, with the fresh air caressing your skin and nothing to distract you from the music as you stand / move around in the moonlight.  If I’m in a more contemplative mood, I’ll smoke my cigarette while gazing out over the garden just listening to the music, taking in the lyrics and sensing the feel of the music.  Music is the perfect backdrop for me (and I presume, many many people!) to rediscover their sexuality and sensuality, and get in touch with the inner person who is subdued during the hectic day-to-day.  This is why I find music so powerful.

If I am getting ready to go out, be it night or day, and I want to feel good about myself, I’ll dress up in my nicest, most flattering clothes, make sure I have a label or two, make sure my hair is fierce, my skin is tanned and glowing, and my jewellery is on point.  But I need a soundtrack to complete my attitude and back it up.  If I am thinking about someone, I’ll associate certain songs with my emotions and, if the person is lucky / significant, with them.  Music has the power to inspire so many feelings in me, and it can make me feel sexy, and bolster my confidence and go and get that guy whom I’ve been lusting after, instead of just contemplating it.  After all, we are in disguise during our daytime personas; once the moon rises, we have full licence to let our nocturnal predator out to play and attract our prey with the way we make our bodies talk.  I believe that dancing is one of the purest forms of expression, and the physicality of someone can be so powerful, so magnetic that it can attract you towards them instinctively.  So we may be humans, but we are still animalistic in our bodies, our spirits, and in the way that music can make us react.