When Kevin Abstract pensively observed that “It’s kinda sick and I was born in 1996 and 1999 the only year that I remember,” on Saturation II’s “JUNKY,” it helped put things in perspective: the appointed ringleader of Texas-rap group BROCKHAMPTON, who was 21 when he wrote that line and will turn 25 later this year, was trying to live in the moment but was lingering on his troubled past, the definitive young man’s angsty ethos. The trio of mixtapes he released with his cohorts in 2017 refracted this inner turmoil through their unconventional song structures — often cramming upwards of five of their members on a single track at once — shifting genre approaches, and deeply personal (as opposed to cringe, the two things often conflated) lyrics; then they got signed to a major label, and ever since have been attempting to trim off the perceived fat. In an ironic twist of fate, after saturating the market with their dysfunctional sonic approach on their Saturation series, they’ve since been struggling to streamline their sound, while also staying relevant in the process. This could be a result of attempting to reach a wider audience, but could also be attributed to the group members simply growing out of this heavy emo phase. Either way, it has produced some of their most polished music, while simultaneously being some of their least essential. One doesn’t even get the sense that most of them really want to keep up the whole enterprise anymore, as once-circulating rumors that their final studio release was just around the corner have now finally been confirmed to be the truth — though that was signaled long before, with Abstract dropping a solo record in 2019, taking the wind out of Ginger’s sails.
Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine, the first collective release from BROCKHAMPTON in over a year, continues to suggest that the self-described “boy band” is at a creative crossroads; or, more accurately, it finds them stalled in the uncomfortable growing pains of artistic maturity. It’s competent and never outright unpleasant, but it severely lacks the x-factor that made their previous outings so memorable. The first leg of the album features mostly one-off pairings with other P4K-approved rap artists — Abstract with Danny Brown on “BUZZCUT,” Dom McLennon and JPEGMAFIA on “CHAIN ON” — which points to a fractured collective attempting to cohere wildly contrasting stylings. The end results are often non-starters, with the only noteworthy moment being the bouncy “BANKROLL,” with the always animated Merlyn Wood matching ASAP Ferg’s wily energy. The true dramatic starting point — the moment where things are really meant to kick off — is on guitar-heavy “THE LIGHT,” where vocal chameleon JOBA gruesomely details his father’s recent suicide (“Skull fragments in the ceilin’, felt your presence in the room”). Abstract is also featured, though his recollections of his mother’s homophobia feel a tad muted when presented in such close proximity to this more immediately brutal subject matter. Regardless, the abrasive instrumental fits the mood, and the track’s pathos is rightfully earned through the duo’s impassioned performances.
The rest of Roadrunner plays into the group’s more base pop instincts — the promotion of R&B vocalist Jabari Manwa from featured player to full-time member is most felt here — like the wannabe Beatles imitation “WHAT’S THE OCCASION” and Charlie Wilson-featuring “I’LL TAKE YOU ON,” while occasionally oscillating into territory that’s well-intentioned, if poorly executed. “PLEASE DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY” questionably confronts America’s gun violence epidemic over a G-funk beat, and the gospel hymn “DEAR LORD,” where the group prays for JOBA in his time of need, is way too gimmicky to fully resonate. “THE LIGHT PT. II” at least closes things out on a somewhat optimistic note — not for the group as a whole, but for JOBA, as he comes to peace with his father’s actions and vows to raise the “grandkids you’ll never meet” with the same compassion he was afforded. It’s a powerful sentiment, but one that’s so singular that it feels altogether disconnected from the group as a whole, while also undermining the previous tracks by highlighting their inconsequentiality by comparison. So while it’s been fun rooting for the band’s success this far into their weirdo careers, solely going off of the music they’re making now, their disbandment might honestly be the best business decision they could make.
Saweetie has been an artist on the verge for the last couple of years, having sprung up rather suddenly back in 2017 with viral single “ICY GRL” (a SoundCloud success with an accompanying video that had the rapper casually performing for the camera, lavishly dressed but in the comfort of her apartment), which would become something of a mission statement, informing much of the rapper’s output and brand ever since. (Icyness is her lodestone.) Saweetie’s videos have maintained the same faux-accessible presentation for the clips supporting her two most recent EPs and a few singles. She’s probably at least a little bit of an industry plant; her releases and promotion have been cannily timed, her music and video work born an undoubtedly professional-grade sheen right from the start, and she happens to count Gabrielle Union, Zaytoven, and M.C. Hammer as relatives. Regardless, Saweetie has proven herself to be a dependably vibrant singles artist — last Summer’s enticingly snappy “Tap In” confirmed this, as did the much-memed Doja Cat collab “Best Friend” from January. Both these songs seemingly were meant as lead-ins to her upcoming first full-length project, Pretty Bitch Music. But the substantial gap in time between these drops suggests that Saweetie and her label aren’t immune to the near-ubiquitous, pandemic-induced skittishness gripping the industry. And so, preempting said album, we get a new EP: Pretty Summer Playlist: Season 1.
As suggested by its instructive title, this EP is being double-billed as a playlist, a marketing move easy to be skeptical of, but maybe appropriate insofar as there is a definite concept attached to the choice here: Pretty Summer Playlist: Season 1 positions Saweetie as curator and recurring feature (she’s only credited as lead artist on two of seven tracks) to an assemblage of rappers and singers who, in her words, “are up next.” Intended as a yearly tradition, this first season Playlist puts Drakeo the Ruler, Lourdiz, Kendra jae, Bbyafricka, and Loui at center stage. (The latter two offer-up their viral singles — “Baby Mama Coochie” and “Talkin’ Bout,” respectively — for remixing.) Pretty Summer Playlist: Season 1 is a good-natured project, yet these collaborations aren’t especially remarkable, at least outside the way in which Saweetie is able to match each artist’s style, with one exception: Drakeo’s collab with the host on “Risky,” probably the L.A. rapper’s most high profile guest appearance following a tumultuous past few years of being in-and-out of prison whilst music media became increasingly fixated on his output. It’s a savvy cosign on Saweetie’s part, and one she earns, confidently going up against Drakeo’s unusual, grumbly delivery and arhythmic flow and finding a nice parallel in it to her own, more classical stylings (something Drake was unable to do in his appearance on Drakeo’s own recent The Truth Hurts). “Risky” has the makings of a summertime hit with its tough, indulgent lyrics and aggressively thudding, bass-centric beat. That song aside, though, it would be surprising if the other tracks here caught on in a similar manner (Saweetie’s two solo cuts included), all being mostly satisfying, but somewhat perfunctory pop endeavors. There’s enough on Pretty Summer Playlist: Season 1 to accomplish the stated goal of getting listeners interested in performers on the rise, and yet, for Saweetie — still something of a performer on the rise herself — it’s another stop-off along the way to a career-defining project.
There was once a time when DJ Khaled’s music was fun, when his amassed star power could reliably produce a few “anthems” — all while shamelessly cashing in on his (usually shouted) trademark catch-phrases — and where he, the entire time, was doing little to no actual work on songs with his name headlining. What exactly Khaled does on any given part of his records is up for debate, but the most accurate answer involves him being a middleman for semi-established and budding talent. So he’s a mover and shaker, and more importantly, something of a name brand unto himself, one who’s become painfully self-conscious in the process: since re-inventing himself as a Snapchat positivity guru half a decade ago — part of which included a humorous incident where he was lost at sea while on his jet ski — he’s stopped working with lesser known (read: less marketable) artists for fear of alienating the moms of America by making them listen to the likes of Ace Hood or Lil Boosie. Now when putting an album together, it’s nothing but a metrics game to Khaled; he’s not concerned with quality, but sheer quantity and bankability. Which features will garner the most engagement? Which unearthed samples will spark a viral moment? Which Drake tracks from years past can be used to artificially inflate your first week sales? These are the questions that keep Khaled awake at night, and the ones that primarily concern his latest output, KHALED KHALED, his most shameless cash-grab to date.
Granted, one could say that about any previous release under the We The Best Music brand, but the blatant transparency by which some of these songs operate strictly as high-level PR moves makes the entire endeavor feel perfunctory. Cuts like “EVERY CHANCE I GET” and “LET IT GO” are perfectly fine on their own, even somewhat catchy; but being aware that Lil Durk and Lil Baby have an upcoming collab mixtape on the way makes their inclusion feel like throw-away publicity in the form of music, and the same goes for Bieber and 21 Savage (chances that their partnership was originally cut from Justice’s Deluxe Edition and placed here as some extended favor? Quite high). “WE GOING CRAZY,” a song that’s not particularly crazy in any real respect, has the Migos collectively rapping for under a minute, all while industry plant H.E.R. makes forced references about OnlyFans over a lame sample of Shawty Lo’s “Dey Know.” In fact, laborious callbacks to yesteryear are something of a recurring motif here — one could call it a variation on a theme, if Khaled was even remotely artistic with his intentions and wasn’t simply playing into nostalgia — as Justin Timberlake delivers one of his weakest ever vocal performances over an interpolation of the Jackson 5’s “Maybe Tomorrow” (which, considering JT’s history with their sister, maybe isn’t the most appropriate call, Khaled?). And in a clear attempt to soak up radio play by throwing as many big names as possible together on one track, Post Malone, DaBaby, Lil Baby, and Megan Thee Stallion are dumped onto an overblown trap remix of dad-rock staple “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos; “I DID IT” has these four artists all crammed into a short two minutes and 40 seconds, each busting out the same exact flows and regurgitating the same exact lyrical content they’ve exhausted in the past year. It’s almost guaranteed to be a Billboard smash and prominently feature in NBA 2K22.
Even when things aren’t as overstuffed, they still fail to rise to the occasion. Cardi B sounds outright embarrassing on “BIG PAPER,” not because her pen game is off, but by virtue of her vocals barely matching the beat; she comes off confident, but also like she’s never rapped a day in her life. Aubrey Graham’s two solo appearances — as if to make up for his absence on 2019’s Father of Asahd — forms the quintessential Drizzy diptych between boss mode (“POPSTAR”) and bitch made (“GREECE”), neither of which are terribly compelling as stand-alone singles and make even less sense in the context of the album. The worst moment here, something of a perfect encapsulation of Khaled’s current methodology and ethos, comes with the old-head ode “SORRY NOT SORRY,” a track tailor-made for the type of sycophants who love the idea of both Jay-Z and Beyonce being billionaires. HOV and Nas trade cornball bars about who’s richer than who — Nas calls himself the “cryptocurrency Scarface” with a straight face; Jay brags about drinking Japanese whiskey on his mezzanine, which… cool flex, I guess? — over a compressed, schmaltzy, glistening instrumental. The track itself is so out of touch that it might as well be re-titled “SORRY NOT SORRY FOR BEING A BOURGEOIS VENTURE CAPITALIST.” It has little appeal on a musical level, made instead with maximum streaming profits and internet clicks in mind; it’s “another one” for the scoreboards, but, much like Khaled the brand over Khaled the hit-maker, has little to nothing going for it beyond superficial pleasures.
Detroit hardcore punk collective The Armed are something of a contradiction in terms, crafting intensely physical music that conveys its exertion from behind an iron curtain, with even the exact membership of the band intentionally obscured from audiences. Aside from a few known elements — like consistent producer Kurt Ballou of Converge — the Armed has guarded its anonymity closely throughout the years, even going so far as to hire actors to impersonate band members for the promotion of new music. This latter penchant certainly casts a pall on their new album Ultrapop, the announcement of which confirmed an official band lineup and declared the album as an attempt “to create a truly new listener experience.” Whether or not any of this can be taken at face value, or if it’s even germane to one’s appreciation of the Armed’s music, is one of the many fallacies destroyed in the wake of Ultrapop, which achieves a kind of purity in its brutalist, maxed-out assault on sense and sensibility. With Ballou now exec-producing alongside Chelsea Wolfe producer Ben Chisholme, and featuring several QOTSA contributors, Ultrapop was conceived with a stated intent to create “the harshest, most beautiful, most hideous thing [the Armed] could make,” and communicates infectious choruses and overwhelming feelings via the tonally extreme language of hardcore music.
Eponymous opener “Ultrapop” announces the group’s grand intentions succinctly, unveiling cavernous synths that are punctuated by bursts of harsh noise, and lyrics that describe digital age ennui broadly enough to be both epic and a little silly. Much of the album proper rides this line between authentically modern mood board and a parody of one; single “All Futures” is a pinwheeling, combustible track that seems to take unhinged pleasure from its bleak prognosis of things to come, while the thrashing squall of “A Life So Wonderful” stands in contrast to the numbness its narrator describes vis-à-vis vice and human contact. The sonic character of Ultrapop matches the broadened scope of its lyrical content, occasionally reminiscent of noise-rock group HEALTH with a dialed-down dance quotient, and elsewhere in line with the screaming musical embrace of once-rumored Armed band member Andrew W.K. For how overwhelming this might seem on paper, and — given the long list of musicians and producers who contributed to Ultrapop — how much detail is crammed loudly and quickly into each song, it’s surprising how natural this musical collision sounds in practice: ruthless and tuneful alike on “Average Death” and “Real Folk Blues,” and attaining torch song poignance on closer “The Music Becomes A Skull.” Though the Armed’s eyebrow-raising creative process and curious relationship with being seen are fun to think about, the group has created something with Ultrapop that merits serious consideration on its own terms.
Though well-received upon release, Diddy – Dirty Money’s Last Train to Paris didn’t really make an impact proportional to its expensive roll-out and ostentatious, high-profile list of features, and about two years later, the group disbanded, citing Diddy’s loss of interest as the determining factor. But Last Train to Paris has (deservedly) endured, amassing a devoted following in the years since that’s as much due to Diddy’s forward-thinking, stylish beat curation as it is to band member Dawn Richard, whose writing and versatile vocal performances provide the album with much of its shape and character. Richard had previously starred on Diddy’s MTV reality program Making the Band 3, which documented the creation of Danity Kane, the popular, yet dysfunctional R&B outfit (initially a quintet, then a trio, and as of 2020, a duo of Richard and Aubrey O’Day) which, at the time of Last Train to Paris’s promotion and release, were on hiatus. The work that Richard did as both vocalist and songwriter under the Bad Boy Records banner stood apart rather distinctly from her famous mentor’s, and as cultural opinions began to strengthen on Last Train to Paris, so came a renewed excitement about her artistry.
Since then, Richard made her escape from major labels, and committed herself to a lower profile career that’s allowed a rare level of control over her music, at least for an artist of her stature. The time as an independent artist bore an ambitious trilogy of albums (Goldenheart, Blackheart, and Redemption), released over almost four years, whose loose narratives afforded Richard a rather massive canvas (each is an hour) on which to indulge her experimentation with genre and songwriting structure. Now, following something of a transitional work in 2019 (New Breed, meant to serve as the first part of a new trilogy, along with this one), Richard seems intent on bringing her music into a new phase with Second Line: An Electro Revival. Bringing her back to the expansive, avant-garde compositions that characterized her original trilogy, while further streamlining her stylistic synthesis, this new record can feel like a curiously conflicted album; it’s quite adventurous in some ways, conventional in others. Once again using narrative to inform structure, Richard adopts the persona of King Creole (for whom the album’s intro is named), a sort of Harawayian cyborg (though credited as an android) who comes to a post-apocalyptic New Orleans to learn of her humanity and spread a message of love. Bits of this tale shine through, particularly in tempo and instrumentation, both conceived to parallel King Creole’s arc from droid to human. But more than anything this all acts as a useful frame through which to understand the ideas that guide Second Line, an album that’s doing a lot of different things: mounting a return to form, while also serving as a funeral for what came before.
In keeping with her previous solo records, the songs on Second Line have been produced almost entirely by a largely unknown artist: L.A. based “synth theorist” Ila Orbis (plus a handful of credits for Richard herself). Expanding on this notion of a “return to form,” the album toys with the concept of a homecoming, acting as a loud and explicit celebration of the singer’s New Orleans roots, pulling together that city’s musical traditions and an eclectic sampling of electronic stylings from across the globe (house, footwork, drum, and bass). And in composing songs like this, Richard draws out the similarities between these maybe-not-so-disparate genres, musical traditions all born from the work of black musicians. This is of course a worthy concept to pursue, but the songs on Second Line are perhaps almost too seamless in their construction, incorporating numerous sonic ideas into one song, but ultimately smoothing out the production into a generalized, electro-R&B melange. Which is of course absolutely in Richard’s wheelhouse, and as such, one could point to several truly hot tracks on this album — the bright, immediately catchy sex jam “Jacuzzi” or the edgy house bop “Bussifame,” for instance — yet Second Line ends up more beholden to contemporary R&B trends than it would like to believe. (This is most noticeable through contrast provided by tracks like “Le Petit Morte (A lude)” and “Mornin | Streetlights,” neither of which are really beholden to any other genre.) Second Line is most interesting when it’s playing with the conventions and structures of the song as individual works, often placing what reads as two (or more!) compositions within a single record (along with ample spoken word). That these forward-thinking flourishes aren’t consistently matched by the overall merits of the songwriting leaves the next-level quality of her musicianship still unquestionable — but her vision, surprisingly, less certain.
As it currently continues to stand, rather unfortunately, nostalgia is a hot commodity in today’s society. Existential longing for one’s past has shaped an entire decade’s worth of cinematic universes, remakes, reboots, and retreads, all comforting a generation of adult children into believing that the art they once cherished during pubescence is definitely still as flawless as they once remembered it. But to most semi-self-aware sentient beings, this is rarely ever the case with the vast majority of once-treasured media from the past. Part of this has to do with memory and perception, and the ways these two forces intersect with personal taste and growth relative to a specific moment in time; in this respect, one of the grand mistruths of this commodification is the line about “if you were growing up during [insert year here], you had to have seen this,” which asserts that certain properties have a universal appeal to everyone of a certain age group — a flawless argumentative strategy from PR firms for why we need a new Ghostbusters or Star Wars every decade or so now. Nostalgia, then, if properly conceptualized, should take on a more idiosyncratic nature, one more fluid with personal understanding than with grand public appeal. And one should also understand that the vague impression of what one remembers from these assorted pieces of media is what should constitute this sentimentality, not the original work wholesale.
Enter Brandon Lowe aka evaboy, who’s been uploading music to Bandcamp since 2013, and who’s been raised on and heavily influenced by the ultimate remembrance apparatus: mid-2000s internet culture, an amalgamation of anime aesthetics, Playstation-era rendered cinematics, and early rave soundscapes. With his latest and most accomplished album yet, ...jook ’til i die, he appropriates and re-contextualizes a variety of popular hits from his youth — he hasn’t revealed his official age, but if the songs selected here provide any indication, one could venture a guess that he’s in his mid-to-late 20s — alongside a diverse array of genre stylings, shifting between hardcore breakbeat, 2-Step, nightcore, and, as the title semi-alludes to outside of the dance, Chicago Juke. In a sense, he’s pursuing what Nicolas Jaar accomplished under his Against All Logic moniker a few years back — except he’s lacking the critical shield of “respectability” with the samples selected, the only thing holding this back from further critical recognition. Starting with the obscure, voice-controlled PS2 video game Lifeline — emphasizing the all-forgotten human element of most of these enterprises — Lowe wastes no time tearing through the likes of Akon, Jeremih, M.I.A., Drake, Lil Jon, and Future, building on their sonic foundations whilst also acknowledging their cultural contributions to long-standing pop traditions. He clearly has deep affection for these tunes, and isn’t selecting their voices for purely ironic purposes, and while they all exist within a once popular lexicon, none would seriously argue any of these are “generation”-defining visions (okay, well maybe “Birthday Sex”).
But it’s the small curveballs peppered in along the way that produce the richest results, like how he turns Lil Dicky’s absolutely unlistenable and annoying “Cocaine” into the far more melodic and texturally rich “Never Even Done,” or how he chipmunks Denzie’s vocals from Monsta Boy’s “Sorry” and sends that UK garage staple into a heightened emotional frenzy. Indeed, each track on ...jook ’til i die serves as a testing ground for this type of untapped creative potential, building a rich dialogue between mentors and mentee, one that retains this high level of enthusiasm throughout its considerable 70-minute length, a usual death-blow for high-energy events such as these. This principle is reinforced on the pathos-driving closer, one that also serves as the supposed death of the evaboy alias — from the hands of DJ GAPE, a YouTube shitposter who may or may not be Lowe as well — and combines the past (a blown-out rendition of T2’s “Heartbroken,” the originator of the “bassline mania” movement) with the present (Charli XCX’s “Forever”) into a tapestry of tear-jerking footwork. Even utilizing a sample this contemporaneous seems to suggest that the things we currently cherish will one day soon begin to recede into the far recesses of our memories — a notion that more people, inclined like evaboy, should graciously accept.
After a massively successful independent release earlier in the year, Ryley Walker returns with Course in Fable, a sprawling folk album drenched in the ‘80s prog-rock with which Walker is intimately familiar. This eminently listenable set is filled with jazzy guitars and intense lyrical couplets across a brilliant 40 minutes. It opens with a two-lick guitar hook that sounds like it was ripped from Genesis’s playbook. “Striking Down Your Big Premiere,” makes for a strong introduction to Course in Fable, setting the tone for the album: “If I could wear a capsule/Of all the world’s hairline fracture/The biggest wig in the show.” Another song, “Rang Drizzy,” doesn’t shy away from discussing Walker’s 2019 suicide attempt (“I am wise/I am so fried/Rang dizzy inside/Fuck me, I’m alive”) as it evokes the experience of hitting rock bottom. So while it seems only natural and even easy to start dissecting these songs and finding the personal meaning in them, line by line, Walker has indicated, in multiple interviews, that this is not his intention. This writer’s style sees him writing in “lyric groups” of two or three lines that are intuitively combined in ways that fit with a song’s rhythms and arrangements. So rather than gush over perceived intent — or the potential implications of Walker’s words — it might be best to just let each line, each verse, wash over you, like the smooth, rolling guitars; their significance is notable but fleeting. Walker’s strategy works in the context of a great jam, a somber track, and multiple foot-tapping guitar songs with complex chords that significantly step-up the music styles being combined. It’s hard to find something to dislike anywhere on Course in Fable — each track naturally flows into the next. Walker has released not one but two superb, and vastly different, albums this year.
Despite a multi-year creative drought, work with various side projects, and a massive tour schedule culminating in a major festival run, Porter Robinson returns now with Nurture, his second solo studio album and a follow up to 2014’s Worlds. In sum, it’s an album that charts a series of heavy emotional catharses, from imposter syndrome to depression to the notion of finding worth in the self. These topics are all set to a sprawling soundscape that incorporates a disparate spate of sounds, including piano, electronic tinkerings, and Porter’s voice pitched to an almost feminine octave. The result is astounding.
The album’s first vocal-heavy track is “Look at the Sky,” a song that debuted as a part of Robinson’s virtual festival toward the beginning of the pandemic. The track is about emerging from a creative stall that he experienced amidst a depressive episode in 2016: “Shouldn’t it come to you naturally? / And everyone knows / You’re losing your gift and it’s plain to see.” This emotional growth is further demonstrated on following track “Get Your Wish,” which sees Robinson finding value in his music without the external validation of critical success: “When the glory tries to tempt you / It may seem like what you need / But if glory makes you happy / Why are you so broken up?” The album then reaches its peak on “Musician,” an introspective track of self-assurance amidst the struggles of depressive disorders and writer’s block: “How do you do music? Well, it’s easy / You just face your fears and you become your heroes / I don’t understand why you’re freaking out.” The main melody here is sampled from an unreleased collaboration with Kero Kero Bonito, featuring a glassy-sounding, piano-influenced pop beat, and its sonic waves wash over you with further layered sounds and soothing lyrics, a perfect balm for a panic-ridden world. Elsewhere, “Mother” proves another highlight, a song written from the perspective of Robinson’s parents, their encouragements blanketing him through his darkest times: “I’m on your side for the rest of your life / You’ll never be alone, don’t you worry, my child.”
The album wraps with the triumphant “Trying to Feel Alive,” a self-referential track celebrating the completion of the album itself: “You climbed a mountain, are you satisfied? / As you stand at the top / You already wanna do this / One more time.” It’s a sentiment that might seem braggadocious if not for its truth; Nurture is a phenomenal album of fresh, nuanced beats that, despite its lingering darkness, feels almost wholesome, exhibiting deep respect to the spectrum of human experience.