Posts Tagged ‘Pharrell’

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Shakira – She Wolf. (album review)

October 11, 2009

Shakira’s new album She Wolf is her first album in four years (since 2005’s Oral Fixation volumes 1 & 2, which represented her best work to date, especially on the Spanish-language vol. 1) and represents a similar transformation to Jewel’s 0304 – Shakira has made an almost-purely danceable, modern album.  Unlike Jewel’s efforts prior to 0304, Shakira has made addictive up-tempo music before: see “Whenever, Wherever”, “Objection (Tango)”, “La Tortura”, “Hips Don’t Lie”.  But never before has she devoted an entire album to the stuff; gone are the tender, thoughtful ballads such as “Underneath Your Clothes” or “Illegal”.  The question nevertheless remains – is Shakira, whose image is now more sexually potent than ever (straight blonde hair, dancing in a half-catsuit in her “She Wolf” video), cashing in, or does she still remain herself?

Mainly, I argue for the latter.  Once the initial shock of the dense production and pounding bass subsides, the melding of cultures and instruments that has always been evident in Shakira’s work is here too.  Listen to “Long Time”, and its reggae beat which gives way to an instrumental bridge that prominently features what sounds like a gypsy saxophone; “Mon Amour” employs a rocky half-time clap that is reminscent of Shakira’s spunkier moments such as Fijación Oral vol. 1‘s “Escondite Inglés”; the only semi-slow moment on the album is to be found in “Gypsy”, where Shakira employs an island feel with a plucked guitar, Caribbean-esque drums and Eastern-European string accents on the chorus.  Not to forget “Why Wait”, which is 2009’s update of “Ojos Así / Eyes Like Yours” with its Middle-East-meets-West instrumentation and production over a storming 4/4 bassline (which becomes positively incendiary in the bridge).  Musically, although it’s a little bit of a readjustment to our expectations of what Shakira’s music sounds like, it is still definitely her, and her claims of wanting to make a “bassy, beat-driven record that maintains experimentation with sounds from other parts of the world” ring true.

Shakira’s lyrics have always been put under a microscope – a fact that has irritated me immensely through the years.  Not only is Shakira an incredibly intelligent woman, but her lyrics are far and away of a much higher quality than those of the majority of traditional pop made by native-English-speaking artists.  The criticism she has gained from reviewers and comedy sketches alike (see MADTV’s parodies of “Whenever, Wherever” and “Objection (Tango)” on youtube – they’re funny, but they’re also unwarranted) is totally unfair and disrespectful of an artist who has mastered a complex language (once you get past the basics, English is a complicated language to speak fluently – I should know, since I have taught it) when I wager that the majority of these critics can’t speak more than a few basic sentences of phrase-book Spanish.  Because Shakira dared to say “Lucky that my breasts are small and humble” in her first English hit does not make her nonsensical.  Listen to “Octavo Día” and “Timor”, songs in both Spanish and English that express criticism with the way that the world is run and our own media-obsessed culture, and you’ll understand that Shakira is very well-aware of what she sings and what she has written.  On She Wolf, there is nothing as incisive as “Timor” or “How Do You Do” (both from Oral Fixation vol. 2) but its opening salvo of “A domesticated girl, that’s all you ask of me / Darling it is no joke, this is lycanthropy” is certainly more sophisticated than “I think you wanna come over, yeah I heard it through the grapevine / Are you drunk, are you sober? Think about it, doesn’t matter” from Madonna’s current hit “Celebration”.  “Mon Amour” delivers a fantastic kiss-off to a boyfriend who has gone to Paris with another woman, while “Men In This Town” ruminates on where are all the good men who can appreciate what Shakira has to offer?  (I feel her on that one.)

I suppose that a certain amount of lyrical straightforwardness is to be expected on an album which is almost purely uptempo and flirts specifically with the electro-pop genre – I can’t get too mad that some of Shakira’s more insightful and wittier metaphors have been sacrificed.  But the three Spanish tracks that round out the album – “Lo Hecho Está Hecho” (“Did It Again”), “Años Luz” (“Why Wait”) and “Loba” (“She Wolf”) – are lyrically superior to any of the album’s English tracks.  For example, “Años Luz”‘s “Esperar es un mar que aún no sé navegar / No te quedes años luz, ya estoy decidida y quiero saber si lo estás tú” translates as “Waiting is a sea that I don’t know how to navigate / You haven’t got light years, I’ve already made my mind up and I want to know whether you have too”.  The English version, “Why Wait”, says “One more night with you, I won’t think it through / Time’s money, but you knew / There’s nothing in the world you can think of that I won’t do to you”.  It’s the same thought, but in Spanish it just comes across as much more elegant and sophisticated.  Not to mention that “Loba” in particular seems to flow much more naturally in Spanish than in English, and the lyrics are perhaps more comprehensible.  In any case, the Spanish tracks add to the album, even though they are retakes of English songs from its first half – it serves to reinforce the fact that Shakira is a bilingual artist who refuses to neglect either her Spanish or English audiences, but instead (as on the Oral Fixation era) seeks to satisfy them both.  This is laudable, and I hope that Shakira comes out with a full Spanish album next year (as has been rumoured).

So it all sounds good so far.  Well, the album is a consistent listen, and its brevity means that each song gets you moving but doesn’t outstay its welcome.  The dense production, in the main courtesy of Pharrell and John Hill, flows throughout (except for the break provided by the relatively lightweight “Gypsy”).  Because of this, there are no really weak tracks, although surprisingly, the Wyclef Jean collaboration “Spy” seems the most rote and uninspired song on the set – its straightforward 4/4 beat has nothing extra to catch the listener’s ear, and sounds lazy compared to Pharrell’s musically adventurous soundscapes in “Why Wait” and “Long Time”.  “Gypsy” sounds like nothing else on the album, but its dip in tempo serves as a break which can sometimes be appreciated by the listener, but at other times seem like an interruption of the party, so depending on your mood, it could be a help or a hindrance.  Other than that, all the tracks are solid, but none of them are immediate standouts save the last track, “Mon Amour”.  With its decidedly rocky, guitar-led music and handclap-driven beat that intensify into a crunchy, heady chorus, it’s the kind of track that you can’t help but get wrapped up in.  Shakira’s vitriolic lyrics, snarling vocals and cutesy airline announcement closing out the song are the icing on the cake, and perfectly embody a girl’s anger with her straying lover’s neglect of her (perhaps similar to 2005’s “Don’t Bother”).  With repeated plays, the appeal of “Did It Again”, “Why Wait” and “Men In This Town” reveals itself, but the songs are certainly not immediate hits like “Hips Don’t Lie”, “La Tortura” or “Objection (Tango)”.

I therefore think that this is a solid Shakira album, and definitely stronger than her breakthrough Laundry Service which contained some fantastic songs but also some uninspired, pedestrian ones (here, the only track I recommend skipping is “Spy”).  However, for me it falls just short of Oral Fixation Vol. 2, because She Wolf is a tiny bit too one-note in its electro-pop approach, and slightly diminishes Shakira’s lyrical mastery in the process.  In terms of her entire catalogue, Dónde Están Los Ladrones? and particularly Fijación Oral Vol. 1 (the Freudian / Eve in the garden of Eden / Madonna and child symbolism were inspired and have yet to be matched in this album’s artwork and photography) are still Shakira’s crowning glories, but the Spanish-language tracks on She Wolf are lyrically more adept than their English counterparts and a worthy addition to both the album itself and to Shakira’s Spanish-music legacy as a whole.  In short, Shakira has far from sold out, and has made a pop album that other artists should be humbled by, such as it melds other cultures and quirky wordplay more than most radio-oriented pop.  And perhaps it is a compliment to Shakira herself that this album still falls somewhat short of her best work, and what I know she is capable of.

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secrets (my first album.)

August 19, 2009

Tonight I want to share with you the first collection of songs that I completed between August 2006 and March 2007.  I was listening to the songs while wasting time at work, and I realised that before I debut my new material in the coming months, I wanted to take you through a history of my previous songs (don’t worry, there aren’t too many! 😉 )  I entitled my first album Secrets mainly because I was writing a song with the same title that ironically didn’t make it onto the album, but also because this album was the first attempt at my realising my own dream of creating a collection of songs that were “my little secrets”, as it were.  The sound of the album is sorta a combination of R&B meets dance via pop, and I’m glad to say that it is a long way away from the material that I create now (though a couple of the songs on the new album Quiet Storm do hark back to that sound).  The vocal production leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s only towards the end of the album (which were the last songs to be finished) that the songs begin to sound anywhere near polished. Nevertheless, I am so proud of these songs because they represent my first attempt at realising my dream of producing an album and being able to share it with the world, and it allowed me to get to grips with Garageband (the studio program on my mac, which is an application that I am still learning with every song).  And some of them aren’t so bad!  I hope that you enjoy the album, and I’ve provided a track-by-track ‘review’ with my thoughts behind the songs and the songwriting process.

DOWNLOAD SECRETS HERE: megaupload rapidshare zshare

Prophecy (Intro)
I wanted an intro to my album that was ominous and mysterious, so I liked the sitar-esque intrsuments.  The words are from the Book of Revelation, which makes it a direct copy of Madonna’s “The Beast Within”… but what the heck.  I thought it worked as an intro, I liked the idea of it being a “revelation” (because the album is called “Secrets”!), and I thought it led nicely into the pounding alien synths of the next track…

Reach Out
This is the “lead single” of the album, very club ready and the second song that I ever did.  Things I like about this song: the use of strings in an uptempo, the pounding bass and synths, the twinkling piano over the top, and the tongue-twisting chorus which proved to me that I write lyrics which are sometimes too hard to sing: “All my ladies in the club looking fly in your Moschino sexy sophisticated / All my boys ridin dirty flexin muscles flossin twenty” is a little bit more of a tongue-twister than I realised.  Things I should have improved: the chorus is in a slightly different key to the “just reach out just reach out” hook which comes after it!  Although I am certainly a singer before I am a rapper, the rap in the bridge is not my finest hour.  But I played the hell out of this on my ipod, and I was so proud so this song means a lot to me.

Confession (Prelude) / Checkin’
The prelude comes after I had just gotten into Joss Stone’s most recent album, Introducing Joss Stone, which used a lot of old-school instruments such as horns and live drums, so I was flirting with that old-school sound.  And then for “Checkin'”, I liked the contrast between the brassy horns in the prelude and then the cold, spiky electronic backing of the song itself.  In “Checkin'”, I actually combine those horns into the dance-feel of the song, and the beat changes several times throughout the song (particularly in the prechorus change to the chorus) which is something I feel makes the song fresh.  However, the vocal production on it leaves a little to be desired… So there are things I appreciate about the song, but also things that I wish I had polished a little more, once again.

My Man / I’m Coming (Interlude)
Again, this song has subdued vocals, and the somewhat restrained vocal production means that it fades into the beats a little too much.  This is one of the most R&B songs, and the straightforward ballad backing is something I think I did a really great job of.  The lyrics are also straightforward “keep your hands off my man”, but I turned it into a ballad rather than an uptempo, which is what usually goes along with a more fiery message.  The song is confident and was written a lot in the spirit of Monica’s “Sideline Ho” – you might be the one on the side, but I’m the main dude, so don’t even think of coming for me.  I like this one, and I wouldn’t mind doing another song with the same sort of music backing, just stronger vocal production (especially on the whispers, which are barely audible).

Respect Me
This is the first song I ever did!!! This brings back memories, I was sat on the sofa in the lounge, before I was due to go off to Spain, and I just started messing about with what sounded a little crazy on Garageband. I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I made my vocals skip, and then I started playing with the different drum kits.  The crazy beat is a product of going “C D E F G A” on one of the kits, nothing more, nothing less!  The siren is stolen from Beyoncé’s “Ring The Alarm”, and I wanted the same kind of fiery approach to the vocals, without the screaming!  The vocals actually came out pretty good, so on some of the songs I did in between this one and the last two songs on the disc, I don’t know why I didn’t put so much effort into the vocal production.  The handclaps in the bridge are my very own handclaps, which is why they sound a bit fuzzy, but other than that, I feel that this song holds up fairly well compared to others on the disc.

Reverse
One of the things that annoys me about Garageband is that you actually can’t reverse any portion of any of the tracks.  Not vocals, not anything (if anyone knows a way to do it, please let me know!).  So instead I slowed my vocals down in the chorus; “strato-stratosphere!” More questionable rapping in the verses, but the vocal run in the first prechorus – “daaaaaaaaaaaaaaanger” – is one of my finest moments! (and yes, it is all me doing that! No special effects!)  The concept of the “tetris beat” is adapted from Gwen Stefani’s “Yummy”, featuring Pharrell.  The straightforward 4-4 beat, combined with the odd space-alien synth and hand-claps (not mine this time) served as a simple club-ish backing.  I also liked the idea of the ” count 1,2,3,4…” which broke the song after the first chorus and gains attention.  This song isn’t bad at all, but excluding the Latin piano in the bridge, I wish I had done more singing on it and less rapping/speaking.

Say Anything
I think I did a great job with this ballad, which I presume must have been inspired by Janet Jackson’s “Take Care” from her underrated 20YO album.  I was listening to this song in the store-room, and this and the final song (the next one) “Yur Boi” are by far the best songs on this cd.  It’s a sexy, slow ballad that goes beyond the physical to really express how I can relish a lover’s company, not only when we’re talking but even when we’re silent.  True communication goes beyond words… but I still ended the song with a poetic spoken-word coda.  The bassline shudders appropriately, and the finger-clicks accentuate the subtlety of the whole song.  I can imagine Aaliyah singing something like this, as well as Janet Jackson.  I look fondly back on this song, which I wrote in Spain along with…

Yur Boi
Originally, this song was meant to share the sound of Brooke Hogan’s “For A Moment” (which is referenced in the very last line of the song), but midway through my stay in Spain, I rediscovered Jaimeson’s garage-R&B album, and I was listening to “Complete” and decided to change the song so that it had more of a drum’n’bass feel, which ended the album on an unexpected note that drew away from both the R&B and dance elements that had come before.  The melody steals a bit from Beenie Man & Mýa’s “Girls Dem Sugar” (the part where she sings “If I could be your girl” is the little snippet I stole, though I rejigged the rhythm and everything so it’s not recognisable until you compare the songs side by side).  I also wanted the lyrics to tell a story that surprised the listener – the first half of the song gives the impression that I’m blissfully happy with my lover, when as the song transitions into its less beat-driven second-half, it transpires that I’m alone and missing that person terribly, wishing that I could live our love over again.  The dénouement was reflected by the musical changes, where the drum’n’bass beat was subdued in favour of an acoustic guitar loop, strings and the piano melody which was pushed to the forefront.  On a couple of songs on Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, I was impressed by the way that Justin transitioned between the principal club-ready mainstream song, and the more emotional, heartfelt coda that segued perfectly into what came before and after.  I’m thinking in particular of “Lovestoned / I Think She Knows” and “What Goes Around… / …Comes Around”.  So I sought to recreate that sort of transition.  I think that the song turned out great, and apart from a couple of production quirks, it sounds quite fresh and legit, even today.  This song and “Say Anything” I think are the two best songs on the album, as they sound slightly more polished and have thus held up better with time in comparison to my newer material.

Once again, I want to thank you for reading, taking all these different journeys with me.  Please download the album (let me know if I need to re-up any of the links), and rest assured there is more (and a lot better!!!) to come. I hope that you enjoy reading the descriptions along to the songs and that they shed light on where and what I get my inspiration from.  I also hope that you’ll listen to my new music and see just how much I have matured and how far I have come, both musically and as a person.  From the bottom of my heart, thankyou 🙂