At no point in her career has Carrie Underwood hidden her Christian faith; after American Idol, and the coronation single that followed, both ran their course, her first proper single as a country artist was “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” and many of her long list of hit singles since have put similar focus on her religion. One of the common themes in Underwood’s religious music to date, though, has been the relative easiness of it all. Like so much of contemporary “praise music” that’s ready for K-LOVE radio playlists, there’s very little struggle or questioning to singles like “See You Again” and “Something in the Water”; instead, they’re songs of religious expression wherein the faith is replaced by a complacent sense of certainty, less true gospel music than just very sincere, very passionately delivered cheerleader chants for modern Christianity.
There’s certainly an audience for that particular flavor of CCM — both “Temporary Home” and “Jesus, Take the Wheel” were massive hits for Underwood, as was every single she released through the first decade of her career — but there’s just so little weight to any of those songs. Meanwhile, and to her immense credit, every new Underwood album does show her becoming otherwise more adept at tackling lyrical complexity, to an extent that it becomes all the more glaring a discrepancy in her catalog that her faith-based songs are consistently among her least challenging. The one real outlier in this sense has been Underwood’s rendition of the traditional hymn “How Great Thou Art,” which she’s performed for a few notable TV appearances, and which showcases her at the full peak of her craft in a way never before captured on record.
My Savior — a full-on gospel album — corrects that. Underwood curated the tracklist from Southern gospel standards, and each of the hymns she’s chosen has attained its status because the quality of its composition and the power of its lyrics has endured across generations. Purely from a songwriting perspective, it’s the finest album of Underwood’s career. But it’s Underwood’s performances that elevate the album into something far more compelling than just the typical Sunday morning worship service. The risk in recording an album like this is that the performances will stick to a strict, formal conservatism; instead, Underwood honors the melodies and structures of songs like “Blessed Assurance” and “I Surrender All” without being beholden to the cadences that were originally intended for a choir of congregants to sing together. She makes purposeful choices with her phrasing on “Because He Lives,” occasionally falling behind the beat only to catch back up a few bars later, and turns “Victory in Jesus” into a trad-country shuffle, with elongated vowels that recall vintage Tammy Wynette.
As a vocalist, Underwood has simply never sounded more connected to her material than she does here — and she’s never made so many surprising and effective choices as a performer. Sure, she belts “How Great Thou Art” with the authority and conviction one would expect, and it’s riveting. But she’s no less compelling on pensive readings of “Just as I Am” or “Softly and Tenderly.” Throughout, in fact, Underwood is dialed into this material, fully engaging with how the songs wrestle with why religion itself is valuable to so many people, with doubt and self-doubt, and with the recognition that faith is about reflection and not just easy platitudes. Her authentic connection to Christian music, and her thoughtful delivery of it, makes My Savior an exemplary gospel album as well as Underwood’s best work to date.
Writer: Jonathan Keefe Section: Rooted & Restless
For about a week now, a social media massacre has taken place: YBN Nahmir — whose once budding career was deemed long over until a nearly two-year-old freestyle of his became a huge hit on TikTok — has been mercilessly clowned on for both the perceived quality of his recent output and flopping harder than the piggie who jumped off a 12-story building thinking he could fly. Just quickly browse through any one of Nahmir’s tracks from the past year or so on YouTube, and you’ll be immediately bombarded with trash can and clown emojis, and the occasional sardonic judgment to add salt to the wound. (On “Pop Like This,” which only got 7k views in two hours, most comments rechristen the track to “Flop Like This.”) He, like many other young SoundCloud rappers who blew up in 2017, is now forced to come to terms with the fact that his time at the top has ended; “Rubbin Off the Paint,” a catchy, vibrant tune, came out four years ago, in a completely different media environment, one that’s now rewarding authenticity (Pooh Sheisty, NBA Youngboy, and Lil Durk) over pure cap spun by a kid who still wears braces and got famous for spitting bars in a chatroom while playing GTA.
So Nahmir’s tale is a cautionary one, and the release of his debut album Visionland is being proclaimed as the final nail in his coffin; even someone like Lil Yachty, who’s been struggling with commercial viability for the past half-decade or so and preaches positivity, has himself taken part in the schadenfreude. However, most of this negative feedback is being pointed in one direction: “Soul Train,” which is currently rocking a staggering 133k dislikes to 14k likes on YouTube. It’s Nahmir’s self-described “simp song,” and has him singing in auto-tune over some nondescript, poorly-mixed soul instrumental and repeating lines like “I gotta stay focused” eight times in the span of 10 seconds; it’s as flagrantly embarrassing as advertised, not helped at all by the fact that Nahmir’s vocal abilities are in the same talent range as IceJJFish.
But that’s only one track of the 20 that comprise Visionland, and it would be dismissive to write off the whole project on the basis of one massive blemish. Truth be told though, this is one of the more memorable tracks that Nahmir has assembled for the album, albeit due to how ridiculous the results are — which has to be the biggest backhanded compliment one could muster for something like this. The other is “Wake Up,” which reuses a Minecraft melody and has a chorus built around the phrase “wake up get my dick sucked,” and is pretty funny once you get past how deeply stupid the ordeal is. Prime cuts like “Regardless” and “Get it Crackin” are dexterous enough and find inventive ways to best utilize their talent’s vacillating delivery and high-pitched cadence, but are sloppily structured and feature some rather colorless production. “Belgium” tries its hand at some slowed-down, hyphy-styled storytelling, and feels like one of the few songs here where there was something resembling a gameplan going in.
Everything else — specifically the run from “Fast Car Music” to “WooWAM” — is about as faceless as contemporary trap gets: limited lyrical ideas (getting head and hating the opps, with references to a “pocket rocket” on three separate occasions); big-money features (G-Eazy and Offset on “2 Seater,” bored out of their minds; G Herbo and SOB x RBE’s cagey DaBoii on “Politics,” are a little more engaged); and cheap beats that sound like they were purchased from Airbit (“Make A Wish”). A clear E-40 influence can be heard in Nahmir’s intonations and timbre throughout (the Bay legend even makes an appearance at one point), but missing here is any sense of vitality or passion in his voice; he comes off as content with doing the bare minimum, and if that’s sadly the case, then Twitter might be right. Somebody, please call the coroner, because this shit is dead on arrival.
Writer: Paul Attard Section: What Would Meek Do?
After briefly recentering his identity, again, as “The Jonas Brother,” Nick Jonas here shifts back to just being “Nick Jonas,” an artist unbound from the chains of his Disney Channel past, free to make whatever kind of music he feels like. There’s a world of raw emotion, libidinous play, and inventive sound outside of The Mouse’s grip, a world Nick has previously tip-toed into, and so it’s to much dismay that he explores absolutely none of that space on his new LP, Spaceman.
As the first beats of opening track “Don’t Give Up On Us” hit, it becomes immediately clear that Jonas intends to answer the question, “What would it sound like if The Weeknd was married and also sober?” Every opportunity to complicate tone on the track is muddled in messy lyrics about having to be in a separate room as his wife: “I keep thinking / Oh, I should be there / Oh, I should be there / So close, so close.” The sour-pussing doesn’t stop there, but continues on the next track, “Heights”, a song about fighting with a loved one and facing your fears: “I just wanna know right now / Do you wanna, you wanna work this out? / And baby, you know it’s a long way down / Then you know that I, I ain’t afraid of heights, heights.” And in a song (“Deeper Love”) that’s roughly as smooth as his personally-branded tequila (i.e. not), Nick invokes an ‘80s-esque chorus to ask his wife to go to bed with him: “I want a deeper love, yeah / I wanna know what it be like / To know what I’m believing / I wanna find it in your eyes.”
Those are but a few of the “highlights,” and while it’s not a crime to love one’s spouse, nor to write about how much you do, the puke-emoji lyrics across this album are likely to make the listener wish that it was. Perhaps it shouldn’t be all that surprising, as Spaceman follows in a long line of solo work that is of a similar quality, and even the recent Jonas Brothers album left much to be desired from the early-2000s boy band; it’s enough to wish that Nick would return to his pop-sensible roots, ideally with evidence of him growing along with his music. Instead, he here writes the same kind of song that he used to write, but in entirely neutered fashion, displaying no genuine desire or interest, each line feeling like it was written on a candy heart. Still, within this deluge of boring, overused hooks and too-familiar pop sounds is an artist that has quite a bit of technical talent. The reality is that Nick Jonas has a solid voice and is surrounded by enough good songwriters that he could likely work to become one. It’s just unfortunate that every three years he churns out the same tired solo album to diminishing returns. For now, we can only hope that the next one will break the cycle of sub-mediocrity.
Writer: Andrew Bosma Section: Pop Rocks
This past August, BbyMutha released her long-awaited, full-length debut Muthaland, the culmination of many years’ work organically cultivating a passionate internet fanbase via SoundCloud and Bandcamp. Between these two platforms, she released at least 12 EPs over the course of six years, an impressive slate of concise, uncompromised projects detailing the rapper’s life in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Through her music, BbyMutha charts the mundanities and ecstasies of sex and motherhood with an appealing brashness and diaristic intimacy, refusing to disentangle them from one another. Her ability to articulate this scandalized dynamic in frank, funny language with an utter antipathy toward the performance of “respectability” gained her a cult following that naturally expanded out quite quickly, picking up high-profile fans like Bjork and Earl along the way. As BbyMutha began to approach legitimate fame, the narratives of her records became further complicated as they attempted to respond to internet beef and exhibited a receded sense of privacy, the combined weight of which likely inspired her to declare that the release of Muthaland would mark the end of her releasing music publicly.
But here we are, a mere five months later, and BbyMutha has shared a new EP with us, the Bandcamp exclusive Muthaleficent 2, accompanied by a heartfelt Insta post in which she declared “i owe it to myself to continue making art … and i owe it to my art to let it reflect who i currently am in an honest way.” This sentiment is felt throughout Muthaleficent 2, most immediately in the album’s opening minutes, beginning with candid audio of a playfully antagonistic exchange between an inebriated mother and judgmental son that leads into “PMS,” a loose, confessional track that lets BbyMutha elaborate on the tensions and burdens of celebrity that made her briefly turn away from her still-ascendent career — “I used to be comfortable telling bitches shit that ain’t none of they business / I was tryna find my power they was using it against me.” These initial moments of introspection and breezy domesticity are confrontational in their honesty, ignoring societal expectations and decorum associated with motherhood and pop artistry, two realms (as with most) where black women are scrutinized with violent intensity.
The rest of Muthaleficent 2 serves as a testament to the influence and ingenuity of the BbyMutha aesthetic, trap-based production that brings in elements of vaporwave and chiptune, even hardcore. These are sounds that she’s experimented with since the project’s inception, and that contemporaries like Rico Nasty and Lil Uzi Vert have pushed into the center of the culture more recently, but here BbyMutha asserts herself not just as an originator, but as an artist definitively at the fore. Paris Aden’s haunted 8-bit beat for “Muthaleficent March” could be slotted into Whole Lotta Red or Eternal Atake without raising an eyebrow, while the blown-out horrorcore bass of her beat for penultimate track “Traphouse” provides an appropriately grandiose stage for BbyMutha to recount manic sex tales alongside frequent collaborator Fly Anakin (Bruiser Brigade icon Zelooperz appears elsewhere on “Tig Ol Bitty,” another recurring guest). Of course, this isn’t meant to suggest that the beat selection on Muthaleficent 2 is derivative, but that in shaping and honing her aesthetic, BbyMutha has helped to inform its mass popularity. Whether or not she’ll want to continue this project as visibly is a different matter — she goes on to state in the above-quoted Insta post that her Mutha Magick Apothecary and The Sims 4 may ultimately be where she invests her creative energy — but regardless of where she ends up taking it, BbyMutha has amassed one of the more significant rap discographies of recent years, and Muthaleficent 2 is a worthwhile reminder that she’s been here, and has a lot more to say.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux Section: What Would Meek Do?
In referencing one of her signature hits for the title and opening track of her latest album, Loretta Lynn tips her hand: Still Woman Enough focuses more on Lynn’s legacy than on her current place in country music. And few artists have a legacy as storied as Lynn’s from which to draw on for this kind of late-stage statement album; she’s a true icon, and has earned a victory lap or two. But the new album raises the question of “just how many victory laps does any artist, even one of Lynn’s stature, need to take?” Since her landmark, Jack White-produced Van Lear Rose, back in 2004, Lynn has released just three albums, each one prominently featuring some fine (but largely inessential, truth be told) re-recordings of her most well-known material. On Still Woman Enough, that type of inessential re-recording is essentially the raison d’etre of the entire set. Though Lynn is joined by a roster of A-list collaborators — and has included some covers of genre standards that she didn’t actually write herself — this all scans as kind of perfunctory.
The title track answers a question about Lynn’s bona fides that no one ever asked, though both Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood ultimately overpower Lynn with their vocal performances — not because they’re overselling their parts of the song, but because Lynn’s voice, still spry on some of the album’s better moments, is well past its peak. Tanya Tucker proves a better foil for Lynn, on “You Ain’t Woman Enough.” That song’s arrangement as a duet doesn’t really work, but it’s still far more appropriate than this take on “One’s On the Way,” which boasts a terrific performance from Margo Price, but simply never gets around how odd it is for 88-year-old Lynn to sing in the first person about having another baby. Elsewhere, Lynn’s wit remains as sharp as ever, so it’s curious that she didn’t attempt an update to these lyrics that might have capitalized on some interplay with Price. The only one of the re-recordings that’s effective on Still Woman Enough is the one of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” — because there Lynn takes a purposeful risk.
Having just cut a straightforward re-recording of that same classic song on 2018’s Wouldn’t It Be Great, it was all the more essential that Lynn approach it differently this time: The autobiographical hit is recast in the recitation style that was most popular during country music’s “golden era,” and the choice suits both Lynn’s vocal and the lyrics of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” quite well, highlighting the plainspokenness of the narrative and Lynn’s emotional connection to how she’s framed her story. Beyond that one, though, few performances here are so lived-in. “Keep On the Sunny Side” makes for a natural fit to Lynn’s delivery, and she brings a bit of fire to a cover of Hank Williams’s “I Saw The Light” — enough that these ultimately suggest that Still Woman Enough would’ve been better served by hearing more takes on country’s battle-tested hits. After all, Lynn isn’t re-recording her own material, say, because of issues of ownership; unfortunately, this is just a case of the icon repeating herself, again.
Writer: Jonathan Keefe Section: Rooted & Restless
Death from Above 1979
Death From Above 1979 seem to have found a comfortable groove for themselves over the last few years, releasing three albums since 2014 when the band reunited after an approximately eight-year hiatus. While not the heftiest release ratio for a band participating in the modern-day music industry, there was a time where it seemed probable that the Toronto (dance) punk duo would never return with new music at all, the band’s initial dissolution coming on the heels of their first album You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, with their popularity only growing. This rejection of impending fame suggested that members Sebastien Grainger and Jesse F. Keeler were either really too dysfunctional as artistic collaborators (what the band has posited) or discomfited by mass visibility (at this point, their single “Romantic Rights” was being used as the theme song for MTV’s Human Giant), though Grangier spent DFA’s hiatus years releasing solo material while Keeler found new successes as half of MSTRKRFT.
The world that DFA stepped back into with their 2014 release, The Physical World, was a lot different than the one their band was born into, but their music — screeching hardcore riffs given structure by synth pop melodies — was better suited for this new era than just about any of their indie rock contemporaries. But while the band’s aesthetic fits comfortably with today’s preferences, Grangier and Keeler (a frequent guest on Gavin McInnes’ podcast) have acclimated to current cultural climates less well, maintaining a leering, macho lyrical perspective that noticeably clashes with the sensitivities that inform most American pop music today.
DFA’s latest album, Is 4 Lovers, suggests that the band isn’t particularly flustered by any of that, this project being a pretty straightforward continuation of what they’ve been doing thus far, albeit with a softened lyrical aggression befitting the title. Lead-off tracks “Modern Guy” and “One + One” (this album’s sole pre-release single) are classic Death From Above 1979 cuts, lots of chugging metallic guitar noise backed by synth manipulation and drumming patterned off disco rhythms — noise organized into catchy pop composition. These songs are as convincing a realization of the band’s aesthetic as anything on their debut, still committed to dopey, blunt songwriting, but steering away from the playful misogyny of older singles like “Death Womb” and the aforementioned “Romantic Rights.” The results are no less brainy, but that’s not really an issue for DFA, who are more keen on finding suggestive phrases and mantras to complement their instrumentation than reaching for the poetic. This works well on “Modern Guy” — where Grangier yowls “I’m a modern guy / In a modern time” in an Ozzy register to cool effect, for instance — but less so as the album progresses and the band fiddles with their formula. Is 4 Lovers’ centerpiece, “NYC Power Elite” (split into a “Part I” and “Part II”), has these two taking aim at the New York art world phonies in the goofiest fashion, using the title phrase as the basis for an imagined Saturday morning cartoon theme song (think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), their contempt and venom fizzling into low-stakes complaints about millennial bourgeois’ fashion sense (ripped jeans in the boardroom), plastic surgery, and a refusal to carry cash. Clearly, DFA works best when its members’ personalities and ideologies are abstracted and obscured, and Is 4 Lovers’ second half irrefutably proves this with the sappy, Oasis-influenced piano ballad “Love Letters” and “Glass Homes,” a cringey celebration of political centrism that shouldn’t have been bothered with. With this fourth album, we can see that Death From Above 1979 are still assured, clever musicians, but hopelessly lost when they leave their perfected template.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux Section: Ledger Line