Lana Del Rey
Few pop artists in recent years have oscillated between mass adoration and mass infamy as regularly as Lana Del Rey, recipient of both gendered media controversies and well-reasoned criticism regarding depictions of desire/female agency in her music. Del Rey’s latest dust-up was perhaps her most severe yet; having at last achieved true prestige with Norman Fucking Rockwell! — a state of the union address for depressed Twitter users that doubled as 2019’s most acclaimed album — Del Rey celebrated her ascent to the summit by lashing out at critics, Black female artists, and activists alike over perceived slights and insults. It was a move best understood as a “soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you” gesture, and probably led to many listeners indeed liking her less. Del Rey has been an agent of her own public scorn as well as the target of others’ ungenerous scrutiny, and this most recent instance of the former inevitably alters expectations for her music. Someone whose conduct is actively distancing them from modern social discourse shouldn’t be expected to deliver another “sign of the times” treatise.
Still, it could be said that the stakes for Chemtrails Over the Country Club are noticeably lower than NFR!. As with other recent post-heel turn efforts from Kanye West (Ye) and Grimes (Miss Anthropocene), Lana’s latest captures the living-for-the-moment bliss of its protagonist, adopting a posture that is alternately free and defiant. Or, as she puts it herself on the title track, “I’m not unhinged or unhappy, I’m just wild.” For listeners inclined to accept or overlook this threadbare explanation for recent behavior, the album is as effective a sustained mood piece as any other Del Rey release to date. “White Dress” is one such peak of evocation, blending diaristic remembrances with references to our shared pop culture past to conjure a fleeting moment of poignance. Trip hop throwback “Dark But Just a Game” is another highlight, with compressed verses unfurling into a lush chorus. The narrator’s self-definition under duress proves personal, and never more so than on the momentum-building, sun-dappled sound of “Wild at Heart.”
Del Rey lets nary a moment here stray from the preservation of her own self-identity; on the unexpected, honky tonk-adjacent “Dance Till We Die,” she’s “Dancing with Joan [Baez],” taking calls from Stevie Nicks, “covering Joni [Mitchell]” — and the latter claim is, in fact, realized on Chemtrails closer, “For Free,” with aid from Zella Day and Weyes Blood. This album’s sonic identity seems to be intentionally bearing out comparisons with its effective approximation of the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter era (courtesy of returning producer/svengali Jack Antonoff). To a literal extent these songs’ stories are “real” — those Nicks and Baez stories happened, too — but more importantly they support the free-wheeling narrative that Del Rey pursues with Chemtrails. Beyond that framing, the subject matter and musical choices here will largely seem familiar, and range from falling in-and-out of love (typical) to ruminations on God (less typical, relative to past output) and are tied together with that well-chosen cover (Joni Mitchell cover — also typical). This adds up to a lower key set than the often-bombastic NFR!, scanning more as contiguous to Del Rey’s other works — which makes sense, since her presentation is pretty much unchanged.
The complication, this time, is the recently growing awareness of Lana’s public persona, which casts this album in a different light. The tendencies toward intimidation that characterize some of Del Rey’s recent interviews color, and inhabit, Chemtrails. You could even consider the album’s evocative title as an analogue for thinking about its effect — poisonous fumes on view high above an idyll. The announcement that Del Rey will be releasing a new album in June that will ostensibly challenge notions that her “career was built on cultural appropriation and glamorizing domestic abuse” indicates that she is not done defining herself — and in oppositional terms. This is perhaps to be expected; pop star performance of aggrievement is a tried-and-true way to activate fanbases, and the experience of being slotted into an ill-fitting role seems intolerably odious to Del Rey. With this slightly hostile album — and the likelihood of further drama being imminent — Chemtrails seems poised to become something of a “lost” record in Lana’s oeuvre. For now, though, the stylistic inclinations and emotional acuity here provide an impressionistic peek at the world of its author — a series of refined dioramas in the eye of a storm.
Last fall, Drake promised that his sixth studio album, Certified Lover Boy, would arrive in January of 2021. But two months later, we’re only now (as of this writing) getting fed: A three-song EP, Scary Hours 2. The first Scary Hours was an even slimmer offering — just two tracks, including the debut of “God’s Plan” and the modestly successful single “Diplomatic Immunity.” Back then, the wild popularity of “God’s Plan” (and its instantly iconic video by Director X) easily overshadowed doubts of Scary Hours’ substantiality. The single also set the stage for Scorpion (where “God’s Plan” reappeared, “Diplomatic Immunity” did not), a rather sleepy, unfocused album from Drake carried to minor cultural phenomenon status by the strength of its singles. We could safely assume that the intent is similar behind Scary Hours 2; that its purpose is to get the spotlight back on Drake in time for the upcoming main event, the rollout of which COVID (and also, perhaps, some looming PR disasters) threw into disarray.
Regardless of the motivations behind this prolonged preamble, the strategy seems to be working: the three tracks from Scary Hours 2 debuted in the top three spots of the Hot 100. America must still be fascinated by Drake, clearly — because it’s hard to see these particular songs as worthy of significant excitement in their own right. “What’s Next” stands apart from the rest (and no coincidence it’s also the best) with what sounds like the meeting of demand for Drake on a Whole Lotta Red-type beat, courtesy of producers Maneesh and Supah Mario (the latter fresh off some work on Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake that makes him a smart pick for Drake). It’s not a stretch to say that the title of “What’s Next” is self-aware, that it’s teasing out a direction for Drake’s coming project. And the aesthetic direction that it suggests might work, too; it’s a direction that Drake flirted with already a bit on “Pain 1993” (with Playboi Carti and Pi’erre Bourne on hand, for authenticity’s sake) off last year’s Dark Lane Demo Tapes. Still, it’s hard not to feel some weariness at this point, or even read exasperation into that title. Drizzy’s career has almost exclusively been dedicated to the act of prognosticating pop music trends — surely an exhausting endeavor in the streaming era. Though to be fair, the song’s lyrics indirectly speak to all this, with Drake oscillating between snide and introspective, dismissing skepticisms of his album rollout with a sarcastic “OK,” while also lamenting the double-edged sword that is success. (It means he has to figure out what’s next, you see.)
The other two songs on Scary Hours 2 tackle similar subject matter, but offer more familiar beats: “Wants and Needs” enlists 40 and Cardo to produce a song in the most classic, brooding Drake mold (would have fit right in on More Life), while “Lemon Pepper Freestyle” gives the rapper a spare, looped vocal sample (“I been tryin’, tryin’, tryin’, tryin’”) to unload on. Much like “Diplomatic Immunity” on the previous Scary Hours, the latter and closing track serves as a sort of “State of the Union,” affording Drake four-and-a-half minutes to go off about his Vegas residency and the adjustments he’s making to a life of fatherly responsibility (granting us the comical image of parent-teacher meetings where he’s asked about Beyonce and Nicki), but only after 90 seconds of intro from the Teflon Don himself (the “Lemon Pepper” of the title alludes to Rick Ross’s ownership of multiple Wingstop franchises and specifically to his passion for that iconic wing variant). “Lemon Pepper Freestyle” isn’t the most inspired Drizzy track around, but, at the very least, it’s an assurance that he hasn’t lost his knack for spinning some enticing narratives out of the highs and lows of his own pop stardom — even as he edges towards something that vaguely resembles maturity. Whether this is still the case with a more substantial runtime will be clear soon enough. But either way, it’s undeniable that Drake has yet to fall out of step with music culture.
Adult Mom’s third record, Driver, brings with it a reminder of the talent behind Stevie Knipe’s project chronicling awkward experiences and the intimate details of everyday life. Knipe’s stream of consciousness songwriting style remains engaging to listen to, and when combined with soft guitar strums and the occasional drum machine, lends an almost meditative feel, even as the lyrics regularly scan off as distressing or even a plea for help. This relatable, raw honesty is hard-won, especially in the music industry’s present penchant for commodification, and keeps Adult Mom feeling fresh even now.
Driver kicks off, fittingly, with “Passenger,” a reflection on a brief relationship that is indicated to have ended poorly: “On the cusp of the state line / New England to Westchester / On the cusp of loving / And resenting each other.” The track demonstrates Knipe’s (as narrator) progression from being the less-interested party, taking the necessary steps to open up emotions to another individual, to gradually becoming the one who is more invested in the relationship. The album is filled with these kinds of familiar, crushing realities, elsewhere notable on “Breathing”: after lamenting that “My finger’s on the response message / Watching the cursor float / I am isolating in every corner of my house it’s not pretty and it / feels like I’m locked in myself,” they follow up later on the track with, “I am nothing special Just an emotional vessel So covers up / Hide myself.” Elsewhere, “Sober” deals with a former relationship scarred by substance abuse and the subsequent damage — “And the last image of me you remember / Is my hunched over back on the driver’s side / Begging you to get out when you said that you wanted to die” — while the album’s closing track, “Frost,” leans heavily into the drums and backing guitars that the newly-added full band affords, and describes the aftermath of a car accident, in emotional, physical, and financial terms.
And it’s precisely this universality that makes Adult Mom such an interesting listen. The empathic writing results from an understanding that everyone is being crushed by the same system, all of it playing out in a world that doesn’t prioritize mental health care, that doesn’t provide appropriate help to those struggling with substance use, and that makes sure to deliver a hospital bill after a traumatic accident. Knipe writes of the miseries and pangs that connect and unite us in class solidarity. But even in the wake of this failed system, Knipe is able to situate their lyrics in a middle ground, linking with the listener through shared experience all while refraining from any didacticism. Here, lines flow comfortably and easily together, and Driver is ultimately an album of connection, one that speaks with specificity to our moment in time, and a necessary listen in 2021.
Benny the Butcher
The COVID pandemic scuttled release plans for untold numbers of musicians and performers, leaving vast expanses of the last year largely unpopulated with noteworthy album drops. That void seemed to have been aggressively filled by Griselda Records and its founding/headlining trio: Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine, and Benny the Butcher. This Buffalo, New York rap collective (with some domain also over Detroit, since they count Boldy James as a member) has maintained an undeniable dominance over the last 12 calendar months of releases. Which isn’t to say that Griselda wouldn’t have broken out without a gasping space to fill, but more that the stars aligned for the brand-savvy crew; they’ve always been good about keeping their name in the conversation, but as the reach of their promotional apparatus has grown (with Eminem, Jay-Z, and Virgil Abloh all putting significant investments down), they’ve only gotten better at doing so. A sudden dearthof competition certainly didn’t hurt of course.
The Plugs I Met 2 is — approximately — the tenth project out under the Griselda banner since March 2020; it’s also Benny’s second in that time, following October’s Burden of Proof — and not counting a starring role in Griselda Films’ first feature, Conflicted. All this puts Benny still just a little behind compatriots Gunn and Conway, who’ve cranked out three albums each during the same timeframe — plus, Conway’s highly-anticipated Shady Records debut is said to be coming very soon. The least prolific rapper of the three by degrees, Benny makes up for it by scoring prestigious collaborations with Hit-Boy (Burden of Proof’s sole producer) and Harry Fraud, who handles all the production duties on this new project.
As far as rapper/producer matchups go, Benny and Harry are practically too perfectly aligned; their pairing is almost on the nose. The two artists have equally dedicated themselves to preserving a specific legacy of NYC hip-hop, though Fraud’s career goes back at least a decade now, a span of time during which he’s convincingly asserted himself as a torchbearer for the hard-hitting coke rap of yesteryear by working with both genre progenitors (Max B, Jim Jones) and revivalists (French Montana, Action Bronson). Benny is in the latter camp: Griselda have found significant success positioning themselves in opposition to contemporary trends in rap music, decrying inauthentic personae and minimalist production.
The Plugs I Met 2 fulfills any and all expectations one could attach to a meeting like this; it boasts nine, cleanly produced, soul/funk sample-driven beats, over which Benny recounts harrowing, firsthand stories of the drug trade. There are some featured rappers here (all over the age of 35, aside from Black Soprano Family’s Rick Hyde), and all their contributions are serviceable — though none really stand out from, nor urgently accentuate, what Benny’s laying down. (Fat Joe’s reference to the “Wuhan Virus” is certainly memorable, but for different reasons…) This isn’t an easily dismissed project in terms of the level of its craft, but it nonetheless inspires little passion — even despite drawing from the bleak lived experience of its author. Benny has built his career on this point of credibility, yet his approach feels diluted, distracted by tendencies toward homage and tangents of frustration with other rappers and their careers. It’s all ultimately part of the brand, but since it seems that Griselda is a group who are here to stay, one hopes that they’ll find something more to say.
Bill Orcutt & Chris Corsano
One of the most significant challenges in group improvisation is finding the right balance between the individual and the collective. A “free” musician typically strives to develop sounds that are new and unique, but when playing with others, they also have to consider how their playing interacts with that of their collaborators, exploring for themselves, while also leaving space for others to do the same. Rarely is that balance better struck than in the collaborative work of guitarist Bill Orcutt and drummer Chris Corsano: They are two of the most immediately recognizable players of their respective instruments, and as a pair they achieve a natural synchronicity that doesn’t merely preserve their distinct identities, but consistently pushes their playing to greater heights.
Previous releases have been heavy on abrasion and ferocity, but Made Out Of Sound finds the duo in surprisingly breezy territory, perhaps building on the relative softness of Orcutt’s 2019 solo record Odds Against Tomorrow. This airiness may also be a product of their unusual, quarantine-driven recording approach, with Corsano laying down solo drum tracks and Orcutt double-tracking guitar parts remotely while watching the dynamics of the waveform. (In a recent interview they acknowledged that not being in the same room, and thus not being able to feed so directly off of each other’s energy, might have led to the more relaxed sound.) But whatever the reason it’s simply a gorgeous piece of music, one that really emphasizes a lustrous beauty that before only lurked in the margins. Opener “Some Tennessee Jar” is particularly radiant; Orcutt is not a musician I tend to associate with sunshine, but his shimmering, interlocking chords and Corsano’s spacious drumming are actually a perfect match with the understated warmth that comes with the dawning spring. It’s a sunrise in song form. Which is not to say that the two shy away from dissonance entirely: “How To Cook A Wolf” provides a real jolt with its sharp entrance, and is probably the closest they get to the chaos of 2018’s Brace Up!, while “Distance Of Sleep” is a real brow-furrower, all tension, with Orcutt displaying his blues sensibilities. Closer “A Port In Air” cycles back to the rising sun of “Some Tennessee Jar,” and in so doing suggests yet another dawn, another day. The eternity contained within a single day seems an appropriate metaphor for the brief but dense Made Out Of Sound, a record that isn’t likely to wear out any time soon.
Lake Street Dive
After three years, Lake Street Dive returns with another fresh and vibrant album that bends the genres of pop and soul, with a smattering of each of the child prodigy bandmember’s jazz roots. Filled with sweet but never saccharine hooks, and bridges fit for only the finest dance breaks, Obviously is a major triumph for the band, who are known for their particularly engaging live shows.
It would only make sense that a group of such diverse talents would enlist producer Mike Elizondo, who has produced for nearly every type of musician out there. This was a bold choice for the band, who chose to self-produce their previous record (likely due to a variety of label and producer disputes in the past). The record runs a tight 40 minutes and none of the tracks overstay their welcome, covering important topics from climate change to defining femininity. The album opens with the infectious “Hypotheticals,” also the record’s leading single. The track is about uncertainty, a common feeling in the world, and opens with a smooth series of vocal runs from lead Rachel Price, its lines quickly punctuated by a vibe-worthy drum beat that guides the rest of the song. “Making Do” operates as a sort of call and response about the future of our planet and actions that we can take, the line “Everybody knew / Reading all the same headlines / Blowing through the traffic signs / Looking for the cops” referring to the idea that we all know the steps we can take, and it’s time to act. On a lighter register, “Know That I Know” tells of a casual relationship turning serious with cheeky nods to notable pairs: “Yeah, we’re like baseball and hot dogs / You’re Ferris Bueller and I’m your day off.”
These sorts of variations between tracks make the album endlessly listenable: It’s never too serious to be upsetting and never too relaxed to be glib. The album closes with the acapella “Sarah,” an ode to an ending relationship. The traditional-sounding instrument-free vocals are marked by some slight technical vocal effects that add a modern flair to the classic sound. And this is what Lake Street Dive sets out to do, to combine the classic and the modern to create something fresh but recognizable. The best album the band has put out to date, Obviously features every extremely talented member operating at career-best levels. It’s also just plain fun to listen to — entirely deserving of the undoubtedly energetic response they’ll receive when they eventually hit the road.