Posts Tagged ‘mainstream’

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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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born this way.

February 28, 2011

First of all, so that the title is not completely misleading, here is Lady GaGa’s new video:

I like this video, and as a result the song is growing on me. Sure, the song rips off Madonna’s “Express Yourself”, and the video for that song is iconic. But I like the various effects, I like the grandiose opening monologue (although “temporal” is not the opposite of “eternal”, and there were flashes of Janelle Monáe’s ArchAndroid inspiration hither and thither), and I most of all like what the song stands for. This will be the focus of my blog tonight, in a roundabout way.

I have a couple of friends on twitter who were really touched by Lady GaGa’s new song, and found it an anthem for them to be proud of who they are. For me, not so much – I think that the lyrics are at times clumsy and facile, and I don’t feel at this point in my life that I need a song to reassure me that “it’s okay to be gay”. Mariah Carey’s “Outside” did that for me nicely when I was 12. But just because I personally am past that point, doesn’t mean that the sentiment is not good – whether calculated or not, I commend Lady GaGa for her work against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, her promotion of AIDS awareness and safe sex, and her embracing of all fans.

Anyways, I was reading the latest issue of LOVE magazine this weekend while I was in London with Toby, and the focus of the issue is androgyny. In particular, I was struck by an interview with transsexual model Lea T, who is famous for being cast by Riccardo Tisci in the latest Givenchy campaign.

Transsexual models generally don’t make it into the mainstream; but Lea T has not only accomplished this, but has been more than upfront about her transsexuality. In the interview with LOVE, she says:

“From the start I want to talk about being transsexual… We have to be proud of who we are. I’m trying to change things, in my own small way… If you don’t tell people, you’re basically saying that there’s something wrong with it.”

I find this admirable, because in such a public arena it must be frightening, liberating, nerve-wracking and a hundred other emotions to expose such an intimate aspect of your personality, your sexuality, your self. And I got to thinking about myself and my sexuality. In my work, in my personality, in my day to day life, I don’t hide my sexuality, but I don’t go out and about to promote it either. I never wanted my sexuality to be the defining characteristic of who I am; I didn’t want people to focus on my homosexuality and put everything else as second best. Is this the right attitude? I would definitely say that I am proud of myself; I am proud of my boyfriend, I am proud of our relationship. I guess that would make me proud to be gay. But at the same time, I don’t necessarily want to embody the gay stereotypes of being effeminate, promiscuous, pink glitter and camp because I don’t feel that that is who I am. I’m not exactly butch, but I am just myself and being gay is a part of that. It’s not the whole.

Nevertheless, working in a college with teenagers, should I be more upfront about my sexuality? Would that set the right example? I have a picture of Toby and I on my desk that I don’t need to point out to anyone, but students can and do see it. I never lie about going to see my boyfriend at the weekend, if students happen to ask. Is there a difference between choosing not to actively broadcast your sexual preference, and denying it? I like to think so – I don’t lie about my boyfriend, about the fact that I like men. What for? I am not ashamed of it, and at this point in my life I feel more or less secure in my sexuality – so I am happy to identify as gay. I know that homosexuality is much more mainstream, much more accepted than it has been; a lot more remains of the journey towards accepting transsexuality as mainstream. So I understand Lea T’s desire to be upfront and bold about her sexuality – she is opening doors, and for that I totally salute and respect her. But what do you think? I believe that I am who I am and I don’t need to broadcast my sexuality, just as I don’t need to broadcast my religious beliefs or marital status. However, would it sometimes be beneficial to my students to have an older role model who is openly gay, but also embodies many other positive things? It’s a tricky one.

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v is for vanity.

October 2, 2010

Mike told me the other night that “I am the vainest person he knows”. I don’t know if this is true; I wouldn’t be surprised. But at the same time, I defend my vanity (by which I mean my obsession with making sure I look good) with the fact that I do it first and foremost for myself. Not many people understand this – I dress nice and moisturise my face and fix my hair even if I’m not going to see anyone that day. I don’t feel good if I don’t look my best, because I know I can and therefore should look better. After all, one of my sayings is : “If you feel good then you should look great; if you don’t feel good, you might as well look great.”

My grandmother and I were having a conversation last night and I always knew that she hates embellishing anything about her looks. She has never worn makeup and never understood why my mother takes such time with her hair and face each morning (my mother and I are definitely on the same wavelength when it comes to holding ourselves to high standards with our looks – we both do it for ourselves). She has only ever used a rinse in her hair once or twice, and didn’t even like that: she complains whenever I dye my hair (or announce that I am going to dye it), as she says “there is nothing wrong with how it is, it is nice” and says “it looks unnatural / stark / too serious”. She hated it when I had it blonde one summer, and she refers to changing one’s hair colour as “painting it”. She didn’t like when I shaved my head, as I “didn’t look like me”. She responds to my declarations of wanting to be slim with “you are fine as you are”. At this point, I am fairly slim and so I agree that I am fine this way. However, no matter what my size, even when I was a fair bit bigger in years past, she always said “you are fine as you are”. Now, I don’t think that it’s a good recommendation for children to diet anyways, and I probably put myself under too much pressure as a child with that – but I know that the reason why she says that I am fine the way that I am is because my nan fundamentally believes that you should accept what nature gave you and not decorate or embellish it in any way.

To this end, she even wears shades which are mainly muted: browns, greys, navy, black, sage green. Even with colours that could be interesting, my grandmother chooses the most boring variant of it; sage green, olive green, dark grey, mid brown.  Now, I myself have been mocked for mainly wearing black, white, brown and grey – but I also wear navy, maroon, dark green and sheer clothes. I mix up my fabrics, I have lots of coordinated accessories, I wear different coloured jeans. To quote (admittedly, my boyfriend) Toby, my style is “slinky and elegant”. And I am very happy with that description, as that’s what I am for – model-perfect and classic. I still believe that I am not there yet (and until I have the money to afford a Gucci wardrobe, I won’t get there either!) but I do my very best and I do look different from the crowd, which is good. If this is being vain, if caring about your looks and moisturising and wearing lip balm and smelling nice and wearing clothes that actually fit me properly and compliment my body is vanity, I will proudly wear my vanity as a badge.

However, I am considering changing my style… I don’t know to what? I definitely don’t want to be less sophisticated or classic, but I feel like I could be more edgy. I do have some edgy garments, but I occasionally feel (possibly because of my new job, where I couldn’t wear anything too fashion-forward that would concern the Cirencester natives – as it is, I get compliments on my outfits there) that I play it safe. I saw some gorgeous studded boots in River Island that I wanted. As I couldn’t do them up, I didn’t get them – but I loved their style. They were edgy, slightly goth-y, a bit fearsome. Toby didn’t like them, but I did because they would have set me apart. And then I considered: I could not wear them to work. And although that remains a fact, and I would have therefore wasted my money on boots that looked wonky when I laced them up and which I would only be able to wear once or twice a week, I felt like all of a sudden my fashion choices had to be compromised. Is this growing up? I suppose so, but it is a little bit sad. I therefore aim to keep an eye for being forward, and to keep nourishing my inner fashionista against the conformity drive of mainstream society.

To this end, I love love love my tattoos because they not only have meaning for me and make me a little more edgy, embodying my darker side; they also accessorise me in a unique way! I will therefore close this entry by showing y’all my new tattoo that I got TODAY: it’s not finished yet, as there needs to be some more shading on the sankofa part of the key, as well as around the piano keys; but it looks pretty damn sweet so far!  Enjoy 🙂 and thankyou for waiting for this entry, y’all are so patient with me and I love you all 🙂

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Christina Aguilera – Bionic. (album review)

June 14, 2010

As you can tell from my current blog layout, I am very much feeling the imagery of Christina Aguilera’s current Bionic era.  It’s fierce, severe and pushes the envelope.  Artwork such as the front cover (above) and other graffiti-inspired cyborg manipulations handled by D*Face push the envelope and also serve to symbolise Christina as human machine which creates fine music hence “Bionic”.  Various analyses of this robotic imagery could be and have been made: on the one hand, Christina Aguilera in her superhuman form triumphs over all her competitors and makes superior , near-perfect music because she has this bionic element to her; on the other hand, as part-robot, Christina can only ever produce a facsimile of what music is supposed to be, while never quite getting close enough to the organic, human qualities in music that elevate it beyond the calculable – qualities which cannot be quantified or mechanised.  In Bionic, as in life, the truth lies somewhere between these two opinions.

Bionic the album is a long listen – 18 tracks in its standard version, 23 in its deluxe (with iTunes bonus track “Little Dreamer”, a likeable but throwaway confection, making a grand total of 24).  I’ll dispense with the additional 5 bonus tracks first: they are, by and large, bonus tracks for a reason: either they are not strong enough to be considered for the main album (“Monday Morning” is pleasant but lackadaisical; “Birds Of Prey” is lyrically mysterious and interesting, but musically and vocally it’s too much mainstream dance that Kelis would do a lot better with on her current Flesh Tone project), or they don’t fit thematically with the empowering / sexual / carefree / mature feel of the album.  “Bobblehead” is a thrilling production that stutters and races to its climax with the wonderful lyric: “I never play dumb to get what I want / and always come out the one that’s on top”; however, its main hook is a nonsensical mumble that may be the point of the lyrics, dissing idiot girls who dumb themselves down and preferring to deploy her own intelligence, but it’s still a nonsensical mumble which fails to use Christina’s vocals to much effect.  “Stronger Than Ever” is a ballad that is lyrically strong (and embodies my current struggle with my parents) and vocally able, but it just lacks that something.  “I Am (Stripped)” is a lovely album closer but is a more acoustic version of one of the main album tracks, and so it’s understandable why it’s relegated to bonus status.

So, to the main event. To my ear, Bionic moves in three arcs.  In its first, it goes for the jugular with relentless, futuristic uptempos; it then cools down into a sensuous, emotionally vulnerable, mature ballad section; finally, it picks up again for a closing triad of uptempo songs that epitomise fun.  While it’s possible that the album could be trimmed down to make a more concise, compelling listen, it flows very nicely throughout and only has a couple of stumbling points.  Christina Aguilera said that she wanted something which sounded futuristic, but with elements of the organic; something which integrated her new emotional maturity as a mother with her desire to remain playful and sexy.  On this point, she has succeeded: Bionic has elements of all of this.  Tracks such as “Bionic” and “Elastic Love” incorporate computerised effects to distort Christina’s voice, along with buzzing, whirring productions that sonically embody the bionic cyborg face of her album cover. However, on tracks such as standout “You Lost Me” and “All I Need”, Christina is stripped of the musical gloss of the faster tracks to be backed by little more than a piano.  “All I Need” is also a touching, mature tribute to her son, which nicely avoids being mawkish or saccharine like Britney Spears’ unlistenable “My Baby” from Circus.  Finally, sex is all over this album, and from the enticing “Woohoo” to the seductive “Sex For Breakfast” (which I have yet to play for my boyfriend, but when I next see him in July, I am using this song on him!), it’s explicit without being pornographic, edgy without crossing that line.  In this respect, the Christina Aguilera of “Dirrty” is still present, knowing how to be provocative while still being musically relevant.

However, in the video for “Not Myself Tonight”, Xtina makes her return and perhaps pushes the envelope a little too far.  S&M get-ups, Madonna tributes aplenty, and bisexual flirtations are almost par for the course at this point, and Christina Aguilera is more than entitled to use them considering her influence on current female artists in the mainstream over the past 10 years.*  However, although “Not Myself Tonight” is an understandable choice as Bionic‘s lead single considering its radio-friendly sound, it’s not futuristic and it’s not exciting enough to merit the edgy, sex-fuelled imagery.  Rather than hookless, it sounds like a bunch of hooks jostling together for attention over a dance beat (which has a couple of exciting tribal flourishes), the result of which means that sometimes the song sticks, on other listens it doesn’t quite get there.  A better first single might have been the thrilling, soaring title track, or uptempo album standout and follow-up single “Woohoo”, on which Xtina extols the virtues of good oral sex, recruits Nicki Minaj for a fine rap segment, uses her vagina (the titular “Woohoo!”) for a cowbell, and tops it off with a throbbing, buzzing dance break coda for good measure.  Along with “You Lost Me”, “Lift Me Up” and album closer “Vanity”, “Woohoo” is an album standout where all of Christina’s chemical ambitions for Bionic come together perfectly to produce some exemplary pop.

Bionic itself has no bad songs, but there is some filler: “Prima Donna” comes at the end of the first album arc of jugular-ripping uptempos, and is the weakest of them, with little lyrical know-how or production excitement to give it its own identity after the tracks preceding it.  “My Girls” is a ‘riding in the car with your top down’ sort of song, but comes off as fluffy compared to the album’s meatier offerings: although Christina proves (responding to criticisms that she oversings) that she can vocally restrain herself on songs such as “Elastic Love” with its amusing and witty stationery metaphors, and the tender “All I Need”, “My Girls” needs the vocal melisma to give it some spark; as it stands, it’s a little too laid back.  Nevertheless, 2 out of 18 songs (or 15, excluding interludes) is not bad and perhaps a better result than I was expecting.  Sure, several songs on the album are not immediate: “Glam” takes a few listens to hit its stride with its subtle, fibrillating beats and “Vogue”-esque spoken-word verses, while “Vanity” initially startles the listener with its unbridled use of the word “bitch”, references to Christina making herself “wetter” before marrying herself as her “lawfully wedded bitch” and effectively giving the finger to everyone who doesn’t have such bravado.  Only by the song’s end (and possibly a couple of repeat listens) does it sink in that the track is a storming highlight, a perfect album closer, utterly hilarious and ridiculous (and knowingly so), with a vocal flourish that knocks all competition to the floor before her son’s voice confirms all suspicions: his mother really is the shit.

At the end of the day, it’s this kind of confidence that makes Bionic a great success – Christina Aguilera believes that she rules the world, and this kind of ambition almost single-handedly propels her music to heady heights.  It’s a new page for Christina, and she’s secure enough in her ability to try different things: the mélange of styles is a little disorientating until repeated listens expose the subtleties and intricacies in her vocals, lyrics and the songs themselves.  “Lift Me Up” is another beautiful, soaring track that was slightly superior in its stripped down live version performed on the Haiti telethon, but still thrills within the album.  “I Am” is a declaration of humanity, imperfection and adulthood that lends substance to the polished sheen of Bionic‘s robotic side, deployed confidently, efficiently and effectively for example on clubsong “Desnúdate” (which neatly remembers and includes Christina’s Spanish-speaking audience and heritage).  If Christina experiments with textures in her voice, sometimes preferring subdued rumbles to soaring melismas, she still shows that she can do both better than most other female artists.  At the end of the day, Christina Aguilera is an musical artist with a personal and professional vision that she fulfils 85% of the time.  Her misfires are excusable and never in poor taste so much as merely a little bland or inconsistent – in time, Christina will learn to totally excise these from her projects.  Most importantly, while some of Bionic indeed caters to current mainstream tastes and is hardly an obscure sonic revelation, the majority of it is interesting and thrilling, and rings true as Christina Aguilera’s own personality and intention which doesn’t give a fuck about current radio trends (in my opinion, less than half of Bionic would get spins on mainstream radio).  For this, her sales might suffer, but her artistic integrity remains intact and hopefully the mainstream radio audiences and buying public one day will catch up.

* I’ll address this once and only once: anyone who thinks that Christina Aguilera is copying Lady GaGa is a) suffering from memory loss and should go back to Christina Aguilera’s last two album eras which were mired with controversy and blazed with exciting fashions and imagery, b) suffering from hearing loss as Christina can sing GaGa – and pretty much anyone else – under the table, c) has no respect for what Aguilera has achieved over the past 10 years – while GaGa has had a fantastic 2-year run and displays much potential (her music and videos are definitely getting more intriguing), she’s still only been around 2 years and more respect should be shown to anyone who successfully completes a decade in the music industry, and d) completely overlooking Gwen Stefani, whose hairstyle Christina mimics in her “Not Myself Tonight” video, and whose image, sound and career Lady GaGa has borrowed liberally from, mixed with a bunch of fashion designers, and passed off as her own to those too young, too unaware or too amnesiac to know any better.