Posts Tagged ‘quality’

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Madonna – MDNA (album review.)

March 28, 2012

MDNA is Madonna’s 12th studio album (depending on what you include / exclude) and it’s an improvement on her last effort, Hard Candy, simply because there’s a higher strike rate of really good tracks. It’s no Ray of Light, Bedtime Stories or American Life (her most introspective albums and not coincidentally, her best – let the debate begin!), but we get more of an insight into Madonna the Human Being than we have in possibly 10 years.

Not that you’d know it from the two singles that have been released: “Give Me All Your Luvin'” is a straightforward ‘fun’ track which has had a lot of the fun ironed out of it. Madonna’s vocal sounds flat, the production sounds a little lacklustre, and while Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. acquit themselves well during their verses, their presence is unnecessary. The melody is perky but calculated, the cheerleader chants are hooky but calculated – the whole thing is a perfectly acceptable pop song, but it sounds so desperate to be joyful that it ends up losing a lot of charm. “Girl Gone Wild” serves well as an album opener, but again it sounds dated for Madonna – which means bang-on-trend with what’s in the charts – and unimaginative. The lyrics are uninspired, the melody is catchy and you will be humming it after a couple of listens. In this sense, the singles both do their job, but there’s much more exciting stuff on the album.

Which, take my advice, should be sequenced thus:

01. Girl Gone Wild
02. Gang Bang
03. I’m Addicted
04. Some Girls
05. Turn Up The Radio
06. I Don’t Give A (Feat. Nicki Minaj)
07. Give Me All Your Luvin’ (Feat. Nicki Minaj & M.I.A.)
08. B-Day Song (Feat. M.I.A.)
09. Superstar
10. I’m A Sinner
11. Love Spent
12. Beautiful Killer
13. Best Friend
14. I Fucked Up
15. Masterpiece
16. Falling Free

I am never usually one to mess with how an artist envisions their album by cherry-picking individual songse, or by listening to things on shuffle. I am very in favour of the idea of an album being treated and listened to as a body of work. However, I gave this track list (which I found on the Popjustice forums) a go and it seems to flow so much better. It stacks the harder-edged songs at the front of the album, followed by a sunny middle section and winding down towards the slower songs at the end.

“Gang Bang” is my favourite song on the album. A revenge anthem featuring menacingly-spoken vocals (reminiscent of Dita from Erotica) atop a minimal beat, a dubstep breakdown (again, bang on trend / a little passé, but it works well in this instance) and screams of “DRIVE BITCH! AND WHILE YOU’RE AT IT DIE BITCH!”, it’s irresistible, edgy, a little silly (Madonna does not need to prove she is edgy and ‘down with the kids’ by swearing, but never mind), and it totally works. I can’t help but think of The Bride from Kill Bill when I listen to this song. Even though it would be an extremely weird choice for a single, this song is so cinematic that it deserves a video. “I’m Addicted” is the “Impressive Instant” of the album – swirling synths and insistent beats piling on top of each other to provide a climactic finish, while Madonna abandons insightful lyrics such as “all of the letters push to the front of my mouth, and saying your name is somewhere between a prayer and a shout” in favour of hedonistically chanting “M D N A M D N A” over and over.

And so we come to the album title. It’s a cool way of writing “Madonna”. Madonna has also said that the songs on this album display her musical DNA, so that also makes sense. And then, it also sounds like MDMA – which is a drug (hence the aforementioned refrain) and implies that Madonna’s new music is addictive. It’s a well-chosen title that has layers of meaning – well done to all concerned! The album cover (I am talking about the deluxe cover, above – the standard is pretty but doesn’t really go beyond that) shows Madonna posing behind a ridged glass screen which slices up the picture into discordant segments and perhaps represents an impenetrable layer between us, the listeners, and her, the performer / musical icon. The super-bright colours then pack a punch to the eye, and also reference a psychedelic, drugged-up state. Drugs like MDMA! I am spelling this out. The most intense colour comes from Madonna’s lips however, which is also important – she always takes centre stage. And her lips are where her voice comes from (sort of – you know what I mean) and Madonna is a Singer. Yes.

Back to the music then. “I Don’t Give A” is another standout track which has an urban quality to the beat. It discusses the hectic schedule of a star on Madonna’s level, and how she does ten things at once without feeling the pressure, because she doesn’t give a. It’s a defiant moment that’s further strengthened by another strong rap from Nicki Minaj, and tops out with an operatic choir repeating “I don’t give a”. As we’ll learn later on in the album however, Madonna does give a. “Love Spent”, “Best Friend” and “I Fucked Up” are introspection done right (unlike “Falling Free”, which is an epic ballad marred by Madonna’s incredibly mannered delivery and too little momentum too late). “Love Spent” switches up halfway through from practically one song to another with little more than a hook in common, but the same theme pervades throughout – if love were money, would you spend it on me? Would you care about me as much as your money? It sounds ironic for Madonna (who is not poor) to be discussing this, but then again, why can’t she? Everyone can relate to the feeling of coming second best in a relationship, regardless of whether either member of the couple is wealthy or not. It’s an emotional moment that is buoyed by a strong melody and interesting musical touches (such as the opening guitar and the Nintendo bleeps). “Best Friend” and “I Fucked Up” are apparently about her divorce from Guy Ritchie, and the demise of their relationship. Now, I know that it is easy to attribute these lyrics to that experience which the whole public knows about- and Madonna has had a couple of relationships since then (one of which was with Jesus!) – but it sounds pretty convincingly like Guy was on her mind when she wrote these tracks.  “Best Friend” talks about losing someone Madonna was very close to, and reflecting upon the time they shared together – “It wasn’t always good but it wasn’t always bad”. The fact that time has passed between the divorce and the album has allowed Madonna to apportion the blame where it lies on both sides – as well as Guy being the subject of her vitriol on other tracks, “I Fucked Up” sees her take some responsibility for the relationship’s demise. “I blamed you when things didn’t go my way… In front of you, I was cold.” Listing a number of the things that the couple could have done makes for some heart-wrenching listening, even as the production picks up speed. Although parts of the album sound manufactured for radio (like the singles) and others see her aim blindly for the craziest dancefloors, these tracks are where Madonna is open and sounds honest, rather than pre-meditated.

Other songs that deserve a mention are “Some Girls” and its basic but essential proclamation: “Some girls are not like me”; “Superstar” and its sugar-sweet hook of “Ooh la la, you’re my superstar”  (I imagine this song as being great for driving along to); the romantic “Masterpiece” which is somewhat cliché but manages to remain elegant and understated. On the other hand, weaker points of the album include “I’m A Sinner” which sounds like “Beautiful Stranger” (and I didn’t like that song either), and the ridiculous “B-Day Song” which wastes M.I.A.’s talents and doesn’t match up to the quality of the rest of the album. However, it’s relaxed nature reveals that Madonna probably had genuine fun recording this track, and it’s nice to hear a song that’s so unguarded. Perhaps it should have remained a b-side.

Overall, MDNA is a good album. It’s not outstanding as a whole, but it contains a fair few excellent moments. The songs are cohesive enough to feel like they belong (with a couple of exceptions), while varied enough to retain interest. There’s genuine introspection, braggadocio and hedonism – which is what we want from Madonna. It’s a shame that some of the album feels so calculated that it detracts from our enjoyment of the material. But once you can look past that, MDNA provides a trip well worth taking.

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Monica – Still Standing. (album review)

March 21, 2010

Still Standing is Monica’s first album since The Makings Of Me 4 years ago.  Like that album, Still Standing stands at a brief ten tracks (bonuses excluded), and the font on the album cover is the same.  Missy Elliott has a strong presence in the album’s production, and in case you forget this fact, she grunts and shouts at the beginning of some of the tracks to announce “New Monica! Hot shit!” This annoying tic disrupts the flow of an album that is largely slow to mid-tempo, and is unnecessary since we know we’re listening to Monica and we don’t need Missy Elliott to bludgeon us over the head with her opinion of her own track.

Unlike The Makings Of Me however, Still Standing is “hot shit” from beginning to end.  Representing the strongest album Monica has released since The Boy Is Mine (or possibly  All Eyez On Me), Still Standing contains one uptempo track, “If You Were My Man”, which is tellingly the album’s only weak point, riding an 80s groove that sounds genuine and laid back even as the bass knocks hard.  Apart from this song, the album runs at a slow, leisurely pace that really invites the listener to sink into the songs and contemplate the alternately loving and lovelorn lyrics accompanying the tracks.  Despite the album’s slow tempo, the 10 tracks seem to be over too soon, and when an album makes you want to press repeat immediately, that’s a good sign that it’s a decent effort.  What’s more, although there was a real danger that with so many slow songs, they might melt into one another to become a big treacly mess, the lyrics, melodies and production are all immaculate throughout and each song is distinguished from the next.  “Still Standing” (the first song we heard from this project way back in 2008, which opens the album with a declaration of strength and resilient and deserves to be the title track) and “Mirror” employ persistent, menacing synths and underlying piano to emphasise the empowering nature of their lyrics, and are two highlights from the album.

“Everything To Me”, the album’s first proper single, has been an unlikely hit considering its radio-unfriendliness (a 3/4 time signature? How refreshing!).  However, its soaring declaration of love is elevated by Monica’s stellar vocal delivery, and while sonically she sounds more and more like a young Mary J. Blige (Still Standing is the album Stronger With Each Tear should have been), it is becoming more and more apparent that Clive Davis was right all along and Monica is truly the vocal heir to Whitney Houston.  “One In A Lifetime” (which couldn’t sound more like a Mary J. Blige track if it tried, robbing liberally from her mega-hit “Be Without You”) is radio-ready but still sincere, while “Superman” employs a plethora of hero metaphors over a slow-jam beat.

In contrast to these romantic songs stands “Stay Or Go”, another album highlight which takes the flowing piano from Chris Brown’s “So Cold” (the best song from his mediocre Graffiti), slows it down and adds more mature lyrics and beautiful vocal stylings to the mix to serve up an effective ultimatum to Monica’s love interest.  Album closer “Believing In Me” sees Monica heartbroken, defiant and finding her strength of heart and soul all over again in the wake of a broken relationship.  Just as “Getaway” was a declaration of vulnerability at the end of The Makings Of Me, so is “Believing In Me” a declaration of vulnerability but also independence, which one might relate to Monica’s recent split from her long-time partner Rocko.  It closes the album well, with Monica’s vocals on the edge of tears close to the song’s climax.

Still Standing succeeds because while it sounds current, it doesn’t pander to radio’s demands for disposable fluff and instead hews close to Monica’s strengths as a supreme R&B vocalist, giving her solid melodies to express heartfelt lyrics.  Every song is strong and uncompromising, standing on its own merits and together these songs form a cohesive whole.  Annoying grunts aside, Missy Elliott handles production duties well, as do the other producers (particularly Bryan-Michael Cox), and if the album is brief at 10 tracks, at least it serves up excellent quality and is markedly better than The Makings Of Me which contained the same number of songs.  It feels like Monica has really hit her stride after previous album wobbles, and it’s so refreshing in 2010 to find some artists making true R&B still enjoying commercial and critical success.