Posts Tagged ‘Lauryn Hill’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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veterans.

July 21, 2009

I opened up Crunk + Disorderly yesterday morning and was confronted by this post about Cyndi Lauper & Lil’ Kim’s recent performance at the Nelson Mandela concert.  Kim looked fantastic (better and better, certainly an improvement on recent years, with her weight back down and her face not looking so exaggeratedly plastic), and I was intrigued to watch the performance.

I was blown away.

Okay, Cyndi Lauper sounded like a goat at the start, and I’m not used to hearing the classic “Time After Time” over a hip-hop-lite beat.  But then Kim opened her mouth and sang, and my jaw dropped to the floor. Kim is a fantastic rapper, and the undisputed best female we have (especially since Foxy, Eve and Lauryn have all but vacated their seats) in the current game.  I remember ordering her Notorious KIM album from amazon, and bringing it to school on the day it arrived and causing a storm because I was listening to explicit material (I was 14! but it was a private school, so who knows 😉 ).  I did feel a thrill in playing it to my friends and listening to a woman spit explicitly sexual rhymes over exciting space-pop-hop beats, and ultimately I’ve become a fan of hers who possesses all her albums.  Her records are never anything less than lyrically complex and sonically thrilling.  But between albums, Kim doesn’t seem to be so consistent with her promotion nor her other ventures, so this video of her singing “Time After Time” was a beautiful surprise.  As was the fact that, although she sounded a little shaky (although she’s gotten flack for ‘singing’ on her rap records, she generally keeps in tune and the songs are always fun and playful), her voice was beautiful and hit the notes more or less consistently through the performance.

When it segued into “Lighters Up”, and Kim and Cyndi both traded rhymes, I was impressed at both of them for fusing their styles into something heartfelt and potentially classic: it was an unforgettable moment.  I hope you enjoy the video, because after her run on Dancing With The Stars was unfairly cut short, Kim seems much more dedicated to proving just competent and talented an entertainer is, and showing us more facets of who she is other than through rapping.  It was something a little different, but taking risks does pay off, and Lil’ Kim proved she is a veteran of the rap game who can do things other rappers just don’t do (Lauryn did, but not anymore… I guess Missy and Queen Latifah are also exceptions, but then they’re also veterans too, in their own ways).  I hope you enjoy the performance as much as I did.

This goes to show that the truly talented can never be counted out: Madonna, Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, among many others always have a fanbase to come home to, as long as they keep displaying their talented and the reason why they are legends.  Whitney Houston’s new album I Look To You will drop in August, and I have a feeling it might be her turn now… although the leaked tracks from the record don’t sound amazing, the set looks like it will sound classy and restrained and come from an emotionally mature place following her troubles of the past few years.  At the end of the day, if you still have it, then you have nothing to be afraid of because nobody can take your talent away; you have to surrender it.  And in the long run, it’s the veterans who never give up.