Posts Tagged ‘Kanye West’

h1

autumn wonderland (Prague, October 2012)

October 22, 2012

This week, Toby and I spent four days in Prague for our post-moving-house holiday – going away in the summer is passé darling, and we got it for a bargain having only booked it the Friday before! In fact, visiting Prague in the autumn felt like the perfect time to experience the city, as it was comparatively quiet to what one would expect (no stag dos) and the parks were full of trees’ leaves changing colour. It was a little bit chilly without being unbearable, and as we ended up doing a lot of walking, it wasn’t too hot to hike around in. It would have been lovely to have seen snow, but when we arrived on Tuesday morning, the city was shrouded in a somewhat forbidding but very atmospheric mist, which lifted as the day wore on (most days the weather followed this pattern, although Wednesday was a gloriously sunny day). Our hotel (Designhotel Elephant) was modern, comfortable, and conveniently located. I’ve posted a photographic summary on my tumblr, but I’ll go into a bit more detail with the snaps below:

Our flight was ridiculously early on Tuesday morning from Gatwick; in the future I would very much prefer to fly to and from Heathrow (getting home from Gatwick on Friday evening was even more horrendous). However, once we were on the plane I put my phone on Flight Mode and took this stunning picture of the sunrise above the clouds out of the plane window. We touched down in Prague at 9am and after dropping our belongings off at the hotel, we went for a walk along the river to get our bearings:

Before long, we found ourselves standing at the famous Charles Bridge (which I was familiar with from Kanye West’s video for “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”). As we walked along, there were many stands with artists offering to draw the typical caricatures, a band playing “Wonderful Tonight” (which was quite romantic), and a creepy man with a stuffed monkey playing what sounded like fairground music.

We left Prague Castle for another day, and wandered back towards Old Town Square just in time for the midday chiming of the Astronomical Clock. On our way, we also saw a cool sculpture by David Černý called Hanging Out:

Although it seemed fairly serendipitous at this point that we happened to arrive just as the clock was going to chime, over the next few days we seemed to show up on the hour at Old Town Square, and navigating our way through the crowds watching the clock became somewhat tedious. We next headed to what became our favourite café in Prague for some lunch: Bakeshop Praha:

2pm came along, and we were officially able to check into the hotel, which we did. We promptly fell asleep, went out for dinner at a nearby pizzeria, and that was the end of our auspicious first day in Prague.

Day 2

Feeling well-rested, we headed downstairs for an underwhelming breakfast (never has so much choice been offered, and yet so few options be actually viable) and then made our way across the river to climb up to Letná gardens. Thus began the theme of hiking up extremely long and steep flights of steps. The view however was fantastic, and we also saw stood by the Metronome of Prague (which has a cable with many shoes attached). Letnà gardens were absolutely beautiful, and with wonderful weather we had a relaxing stoll through the park.

We made our way back to the city centre and wandered through the Jewish Quarter, seeing the Spanish Synagogue and the monument to Franz Kafka. This part of town also has the Prague equivalent of Sloane Street, containing stylish boutiques for Dolce & Gabbana, Bvlgari, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci and so on.

In the afternoon, we went on a riverboat tour, which has become a holiday tradition for us. In the sunny weather, the city looked resplendent and amidst the tourists using their iPads as cameras, we got a few more beautiful snaps of the city. It was also nice to have a sit down! Especially as afterwards, we made our way to Wenceslas Square (the only slight disappointment of the trip, as it was covered in big chain shops – including Debenhams, Marks & Spencer and other British institutions, which was weird) which was more of a strip, and wandered to the former site of the National Museum situated at the top.

After  some well-earned rest back at the hotel, we headed out in the evening for a traditional Czech dinner – I had beef and dumplings (slices of bread dough) in lots of gravy, with cranberries and a dollop of whipped cream! It was a little odd, but quite hearty and rustic and extremely delicious! Toby had pork schnitzel with potatoes, which was also reportedly yummy. I also had a nice black beer to round off the night – and we discovered that apparently, smoking in bars / restaurants is still legal in Czech Republic! When I was younger, I remember thinking that smoking around food wasn’t really very considerate, but now having been removed from the smell of smoke in a bar for so many years, it actually gave the whole establishment a more cosy ambience. Interesting!

Day 3

As if we hadn’t done enough exercise for one holiday, today we made a huge tour of Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral, followed by walking around to Petřín Hill and down the steep slopes to Kampa Island for a beer, and then back home for sleep! The weather started off overcast but was deceptively warm, as we crossed the Charles Bridge once again and hiked up to the castle gates, where we happened to be just in time for the changing of the guard. Two troops of Czech soldiers, dressed immaculately in navy suits, marched about in a square-dance formation, eventually exchanged a standard, and then trooped back the way they came, keeping time to a brass band playing from the windows of the castle courtyard. Equally intriguing was an eagle which kept trying to get inside one of the castle windows, and a stray golden retriever that appeared from nowhere to roam around the courtyard (luckily post-changing of the guard). Toby and I nicknamed these the Eagle of Prague and the Dog of Prague, whose job was presumably to catch the Eagle of Prague. We never found out if he succeeded.

 

 

The architecture was breathtaking (as you can hopefully see), so we stopped for lunch at a little cafe overlooking the whole of Prague, before making our way round to Petřín Hill for some views which… overlooked the whole of Prague. Truthfully, I have never visited a place that has beauty literally around every corner; be it natural or man-made, Prague is a feast for the eyes and the soul. We didn’t quite make it up to the observatory (after all of the walking, we didn’t have another 299 steps in us) – but I don’t think we felt we needed to either.

 

 

Eventually we cautiously made our way back down the hill (which was as steep as it looks above), across the river via Kampa Island and some honey cake and a beer, to the Dancing Buildings. And that was about it for Day 3, as we promptly fell asleep upon returning to the hotel!

 

Day 4

The day we said goodbye to Prague – we did some souvenir shopping, lots of café-visiting, and it was nice to actually take our time around the city without heading for any sites in particular. We headed to Prague airport in the evening, and I phoned my parents to tell them how lucky they were that I decided to come back, as I was very tempted to stay in Prague! I had an absolutely wonderful time and could really imagine living there, as things aren’t too expensive (or rather, they are cheaper than London!) and the city is clean, crisp and beautiful – I know that I have used that adjective a lot throughout this piece, but it’s true! I highly recommend that if you haven’t been, that you take a trip there at some point – it’s romantic, cultural, historic, modern – a little bit of everything. You won’t regret it.

h1

Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded (album review.)

April 6, 2012

It’s time to accept that the Nicki Minaj that we heard on her mixtape (and best album to date) Beam Me Up Scotty is gone. The Nicki Minaj that we heard stealing the show on Kanye West’s “Monster” is a distant memory. Now, the Nicki Minaj who pleasantly surprised us with her bubblegum rap confection “Super Bass” is asserting herself throughout Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded. Nicki Minaj may not have concretely realised her Roman Zolanski alter-ego (who shows up at the start of the album, but his fangs have been sanded down after his explosive showing on “Roman’s Revenge”), but throughout her career we have seen her evolve and shift through persona after persona. The hard female rapper we heard on Playtime Is Over gave way to the exciting cyberspace femme fatale with the ridiculous flow and heart of gold on Beam Me Up Scotty, who tarted herself up with colourful outfits, wigs and softened edges for Pink Friday. Although her rap credentials have become less indisputable, mainstream success has opened Minaj to a new audience: pop. Teenagers, little girls dancing and rapping along to her songs on youtube, people across the world now want to hear what Nicki Minaj has to say. Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded finds Minaj trying to please everyone whom she has courted throughout her career. Does she succeed?

Well, the album is certainly diverse and there is something for everybody. After the insane and yet exciting “Roman Holiday”, the album is stacked with urban tracks designed to prove that Nicki is still in touch with her musical roots. “Come On A Cone” is a fascinating listen, and the genuinely unexpected “dick in your face” interlude about two thirds of the way through the song is a refreshing thrill – but Minaj can no longer get through an entire rap song without resorting to her trademark ridiculous vocal tics. This is a gimmick that initially served to set Minaj apart from other female rappers, but now it sounds like a party piece that is trotted out to fulfil the listener’s expectations. The song succeeds, but it could have been more. The tracks which follow are chock full of features, which is nothing unusual for a rap album, but here they serve to mute Nicki’s own impact on the material. “Beez In The Trap” is catchy but incredibly basic while “HOV Lane” is single-entendre bragging that may pay tribute to Jay-Z and to Minaj’s potential to be a supernova rather than just a star, but compared to the more insightful work Minaj has done on the past (for example on Beam Me Up Scotty‘s “Can Anybody Hear Me” or Pink Friday‘s “Moment 4 Life”) it rings a little hollow. “Stupid Hoe” is an ill-advised tirade against Lil’ Kim that is so ridiculously silly that the bite in Minaj’s lyrics is muzzled by the repetitive hook and uninteresting beat. The buzz single for this project, “Roman In Moscow”, was so much more than all of the rap tracks that actually made it onto the album because the production was exciting and the flow and rhymes were unbridled and interesting. It showed that the ‘old Nicki’ is still alive, but there is no longer a place for her among any of Minaj’s current, more successful incarnations, which is a shame. As oddly structured and jarring as they may be, “Roman Holiday”, “Come On A Cone” and “Roman Reloaded” are the most successful songs in the first half of the album because although they are not amazing, they grab the listener’s ear and don’t let go.

After some tepid R&B slow jams which are so rote that they barely deserve mentioning, let alone a place on this album (“Right Thru Me” and “Your Love” from Pink Friday were miles better than these), we get to ‘pop Nicki’. This abrupt about-face in the album really should have been split into two discs on the physical version, but it’s not the disaster that other reviews have reported. “Starships” is at once derivative of LMFAO’s and Rihanna’s latest smashes, and yet also entirely the mutant spawn of “Super Bass” (without which ‘pop Nicki’ would never have come to triumph over ‘old Nicki’ or ‘Roman Zolanski’ or ‘Harajuku Barbie’ etc.), but my god is it fun. This song absolutely deserved to be a single and to be successful – I feel conflicted because Nicki Minaj shouldn’t have had to so deliberately manufacture such a hit, but its hit status is undeniable. “Pound The Alarm” goes one better and is an absolute gem that Britney Spears probably wishes she had recorded. “Whip It”, “Automatic” and “Beautiful Sinner” repeat this formula ad infinitum (or ad the next 15 minutes), and although the songs are great fun, they expose Minaj’s crossover aims as so calculated that a little bit of this fun is taken out of them.

The album winds down with some mid-tempo, more thoughtful songs such as “Marilyn Monroe” and “Young Forever”. Strong hooks and mainstream production make these songs perfectly enjoyable, and although the lyrics show more insight from Minaj than the preceding half hour or so, they’re still calculated. “Fire Burns” and “Gun Shot” close the album (before the jarring “Stupid Hoe”) and they are the most genuine tracks of the second half. “Fire Burns” is this album’s “Save Me” (one of the highlights from Pink Friday), and the regret and sadness in Minaj’s delivery rings true. “Gun Shot” features Beenie Man and brings a little Caribbean flavour that Minaj hasn’t explored since Pink Friday‘s bonus tracks, or Beam Me Up Scotty‘s “Keys Under Palm Trees” or title track (her shout-out to Trinidad at the beginning of “Beautiful Sinner” certainly doesn’t count). While so many of the second half’s tracks are deliberately and irresistibly exhilarating to a head-spinning extent, “Gun Shot” is a less manufactured but, if anything, more uplifting ray of sunshine.

Do I like this album? Absolutely. Do I feel that it squanders Minaj’s potential? Yes, and no. This has been a hard review to write, because there’s so much here to deal with. The mainstream-aimed songs are good, but many of them are so deliberately manufactured to be hits that the genuine feeling is often ironed out. The rap songs are acceptable to good (barring the mediocre slow-jam section in the middle), but the featured artists rarely measure up to Minaj’s own potential, while simultaneously limiting her own space to shine. The weird songs are absolutely interesting, but Minaj doesn’t need to rely on inconsistent alter-egos and silly voices to be compelling. Beam Me Up Scotty proved this, and I find it sad that Minaj isn’t encouraged to exhibit her rap skills and singing in a more genuine way. “Roman In Moscow” and “Fire Burns” are remnants of the Minaj we have previously experienced. And while I genuinely am happy for the existence of songs like “Starships” and “Pound The Alarm”, their aggressively insane exuberance is something that Minaj may risk exhausting herself trying to outdo on Pink Friday: Roman’s Resurrection (or whatever comes next).

I believe that Minaj genuinely enjoys catering to a range of audiences, but as Beam Me Up Scotty and even Pink Friday demonstrated amply, she can do this in a more integrated and less scattershot way. Everyone was wowed by Minaj’s feature on “Monster”, but there’s nothing approaching that venom or spark here; her album-closing declaration that “I am the female Weezy” is reductive. Minaj is not a female Lil Wayne, female Jay-Z, new Lil’ Kim or resurrected Lauryn Hill. Nor is she Roman Zolanski, a cockney grandmother, a Harajuku Barbie or anything else – she is more than the ‘mere’ summation of these characters or costumes. She’s a savvy businesswoman and a genuine talent who is producing good music but coming dangerously close to losing the edge that set her apart so definitively in the first place. I fear that the more mainstream success that Minaj garners (and it will likely be deserved), the less heartfelt and genuine her music will become. There’s a difference between creating art that is deliberate in its purpose and achieves its goals, and art that is so focus-group tested and aiming to please that the quality is filtered down to a semblance of what it originally could have been. And while we can respect and admire an artist’s potential, we can’t praise them for what they have the talent to create if they don’t actually create it, or realise their potential consistently. And so Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded is a blast to listen to, but it also warns that unless Minaj takes stock and finds away to hone all of her personalities, she may ultimately spread herself too thinly and become nothing to anyone, rather than something to everyone.

h1

Top 10 albums of 2011.

January 2, 2012

So here is my other annual end-of-year post. I have been able to whittle down my list of favourite albums that were released in 2011 into a nice list of 10, and I have written a twitter-sized (ish!) review under each one. Enjoy and share your thoughts and favourite releases of the year too! 🙂

10. Drake – Take Care

Drake releases another heartfelt hip-hop album, smoother & more cohesive than his debut. Highlights: Take Care, Marvins Room, Shot For Me

9. Rihanna – Talk That Talk (read the full-length review here)

The midpoint between Loud & Rated R. Stellar first half, average 2nd half. Highlights: You Da One, We Found Love, Cockiness (Love It) / Birthday Cake

8. Nicole Scherzinger – Killer Love

Nicole’s solo debut blends killer pop with strong ballads showcasing powerful vocals. Highlights: Poison, Killer Love, Right There, AmenJena

7. Mýa – K.I.S.S.

Mýa continues to deliver solid R&B with her latest album deservedly re-released in the USA. Highlights: K.I.S.S., Take Him Out, Mess Up My Hair, Mr. Incredible

6. Nadia Oh – Colours (read the full-length review here)

The sound of the summer! Deliriously catchy, irresistible dance-pop with tongue firmly in cheek. Highlights: Jump Out The Window, Taking Over The Dancefloor, No Bueno

5. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne (read the full-length review here)

The rap event of the year with production and braggadocio so confidently executed, it couldn’t fail. Highlights: Niggas In Paris, Who Gon Stop Me, Murder To Excellence

4. Natalia Kills – Perfectionist

Masterful, dark pop with powerful imagery to match its consistently hooky and interesting songs. Highlights: Wonderland, Free, Zombie, Mirrors, Broke, If I Was God

3. B.Slade – Diesel

My discovery of the year – the best male vocalist I’ve heard in a very long time, with an impressive lyrical depth and stylistic range. Highlights: B.A.S.S., I’m Done, Do U Get Down?, Dorothy Humperdink, Never Again…, Sequel

(P.S. his new album Stealth. is also excellent, but that only came out on 25th December and I don’t feel I have listened to it enough to be able to judge it – however, it likely would have earned its own place on this list!)

2. Lady Gaga – Born This Way

Lady Gaga just keeps getting better, giving everything she has – heart and soul. Highlights: Marry The Night, Born This Way, Judas, Americano, Yoü and I, The Edge Of Glory

1. Beyoncé – 4 (read the full-length review here)

Genuine soul, classic ballads and earth-shattering uptempos make for Beyoncé’s best album yet. Highlights: the whole album! (you can skip Start Over and the bonus tracks if you’re pushed for time)

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

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

December 6, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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