Credit: Griffin Lotz
Album Roundup by InRO Staff Featured Music

Album Roundup — July 2021 | Part 2: Pop Smoke, John Mayer, Laura Mvula

August 17, 2021

Pop Smoke

When was the first time you heard Canarsie rapper Pop Smoke’s hulking, husky battle cry of a voice? It was probably over the grimy “Welcome to the Party,” sounding invincible, its timbre and cadence declaring its presence immediately. Or maybe it was on the JackBoys compilation album closer “Gotti,” where it was equally spartan — and also like he’d hastily smoked five cartons of Marlboros right before recording. Either way, it probably left an impression and for good reason: listening to Pop Smoke rap was like bearing witness to this unstoppable force taking shape and form, a true once-in-a-lifetime talent who was taken far too soon. But ever since his death in early 2020, his voice has played with more regular consistency: You’ve heard it on high profile hip-hop releases from this year by the likes of Polo G and the Migos, where each artist strayed from their comfort zones production-wise in order to show their respect; you’ve heard it copied and bastardized by any number of Woo wannabes who want to fill the void with some of the most derivative sounds the Brooklyn drill scene has to offer; and you’ve heard it most prominently on his own posthumous albums, star-studded affairs that largely consist of people who — if we’re being completely honest — had no idea who Pop Smoke was two years ago. Faith, the second of these posthumous projects following last year’s Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, certainly builds on that latter position: Of the 21 guests who have been assembled, Lil Tjay and Quavo are the only ones who had worked with Pop before his death. 

There are others who make natural sense for post-mortem collaboration — like 21 Savage on “Bout a Million” flexing about spending “money ridiculously” over the acoustic guitar-infused beat — but most make for awkward combinations that feel more interested in commercial viability than legacy maintenance, especially on the record’s stagnant second half. The sentiment is best encapsulated by the painful three-track trek of hearing a forced Chris Brown on “Woo Baby,” to Dua Lipa on the Future Nostalgia B-Side “Demeanor,” and ending with a goofy Pharrell on the pop-saccharine “Spoiled.” These are all sounds and styles Pop had signaled towards on past releases, but the remaining snippets and outtakes of his that haven’t already been recycled certainly don’t point in those directions. These aren’t scraps being used and sold as whole pieces, these are scraps of scraps being peddled as entire songs (“Beat the Speaker” and “Coupe”); one even gets the distressing sense that after this album, the Pop Smoke well might be tapped completely dry. Because of this, it’s the features who are relied upon to do the heavy lifting and fill the space in between: Bizzy Banks is practically running the show on “30,” and the Kanye-throwaway “Tell the Vision” requires two different audible digressions and a bored Pusha-T to pad out the runtime. These songs are so reliant on this outsider star-power to operate that it makes things feel arbitrary after a while, as if everyone who’s associated is doing so out of good will, with the heads at Republic wanting to cast the widest net possible. 

This, all told, is perhaps Faith’s biggest failing on a base concept level: that Pop Smoke, who was a unique individual with an iconic voice — and who was tied with a specific regional music genre and movement — is now just any other dude who spits along to any type of popular production. The always sinister Pharell strikes again on this front, here with three weak producer credits under The Neptunes’ banner, including a bizarre dance-hall attempt that reconstructed the original drill beat for “Top Shotta” in a move that feels like it was ordered by an algorithm. It aims to sound triumphant, but is so structurally incoherent that, between original intention and emended execution, it comes off as a mess, a stitched-together anthem that’s neither exciting nor enjoyable — which might be the most accurate description of the indecisive Faith that one can muster.

Writer: Paul Attard   Section: What Would Meek Do?

Credit: Carlos Serrao

John Mayer

John Mayer may be immune to embarrassment. Whether it be avoiding the fallout from egregious interview comments from years ago, multiple exes writing songs about how terrible of a boyfriend he was, or the inescapable image of a soft-boy (light) rock star destined for dentist’s office waiting rooms, Mayer has managed to land on his feet time and time again. His massive success and noted guitar skills landed him the new Grateful Dead frontman gig half a decade ago, alongside a healthily growing body of solo work and major sold-out arena tours.  It’s the confidence from these successes that materializes on his newest effort, Sob Rock, an ‘80s pop-inspired record peppered with the sounds that were the bread and butter for a generation of artists before him. In all of these imitations, the question then remains as to whether or not his unflagging confidence is warranted.

Sob Rock is less of an attempt at a sonic rebrand and more of a strike at a specific feeling. From the album cover’s sale stickers and half-attempts at downplaying the quality of the record itself, it appears as if Mayer is trying to give the impression that his latest is something like a long-lost bargain bin record. While on its face this seems antithetical to the swagger he displays in every other era of his career, it also feels too on-the-nose, too calculated, to be ironic in the way it intends.  Instead of a fresh take on pop beats and synth-heavy hooks, its aping is so entire that much here feels like it’s retreading territory from an age long past rather than reinterpreting it. In other words, Sob Rock fails to steer out of the rut Mayer often finds himself stuck in: that of being too musically talented to write off completely, but never so well-developed as an artist or brand to actually be interesting. Indeed, the most notable moments on this album are the cringeworthy ones, such as “Why You No Love Me,” a song whose titular chorus repeats what can most charitably be interpreted as a bad joke: “Why you no love me? / Why you no love me? / Why you no even care?”  While some leeway can be afforded due to time considerations — much of the album was recorded as early as 2017 — that also suggests ample opportunity for edits, rewrites, and reflection, which clearly didn’t happen.

Or, perhaps it did, but Mayer was happy with its shape: after all, he uses Sob Rock as a platform to take stock of his previous embarrassing behavior, and the lyrics find him vaguely poking fun at himself, an almost critical view of his schmaltzy, over-dramatic style and persona over the years. But self-awareness isn’t innately divorced from narcissism, and the result here is yet another self-indulgent exercise that misses the mark by a mile. If Mayer truly wishes to dispense with his past self, genuine introspection will be essential to the process, rather than approaching his foibles with the same unappealing bravado he’s been rocking for his entire career.

Writer: Andrew Bosma   Section: Pop Rocks

Laura Mvula

Listening to Laura Mvula’s newest album Pink Noise is sort of like having an anvil labeled “THE EIGHTIES” dropped on your head — in the best way possible. Retro-styled pop music is an easy sell and has been for years, but in a post-“Blinding Lights,” “Say So,” and Future Nostalgia world, its influence has reached a new peak. Pink Noise feels like a natural endpoint of that trend: with so many artists around the globe attempting to put their own contemporary spin on ‘70s disco and ‘80s synthpop, why not distinguish your work by shooting right past modernity and looping around to unfiltered nostalgia instead?

Pink Noise isn’t shy about its inspirations: from the first few seconds of the very first track, its production hits with a visceral rush of “Oh, this is exactly how people decided the ’80s sounded.” It’s not just in the abstract feel of the music, but in specific production choices that pay homage to the signature sound of ’80s analog synths. It’s also there in the simple but strongly sung lyrics, with hooks like “There’s something between us / And you can’t deny it / I know that you feel it / And you can’t deny it.” But that simplicity works because of Mvula’s commitment to powerful vocals and evocative sound design — and often, the syncopated rhythm of a line or its interplay with instrumental riffs make the writing feel much more complex than it looks on paper.

Many of the tracks on Pink Noise seem to be trying to answer a question — namely, how much is too much? (If that seems excessive, well, why bother to go for a throwback aesthetic if you’re not going to commit fully?) Tracks like “Safe Passage,” “Church Girl,” and “Magical” layer all kinds of twinkly synths, cavernous drums, bright electric guitars, and the occasional brass instrument over each other until you can almost smell the hairspray and see the shoulder pads materializing in front of you. “Church Girl,” the second single, also wins the award for “Intro that sounds most likely to segue into Whitney Houston singing The clock strikes / Upon the hour…”

Sometimes, the music does teeter right on the edge of Pastiche Cliff: ridiculously cheesy ballad and Simon Neil duet “What Matters” comes close to plunging over, as does closing track “Before the Dawn” (although its verses have some of the best production on the album, the “remember the night comes before the dawn” hook is a cliché idea delivered too slowly to be convincing). But not every song on the project is soaked in nostalgia to the point of inebriation. The title track has a more minimalist beat — relatively speaking, anyway; it’s still a full-on banger — that leaves more space in the mix for the listener to breathe, as does “Golden Ashes,” whose writing feels almost enigmatic compared to the straightforward lyricism elsewhere on the album (“Sometimes I don’t wake up from dreaming / I’m shook from bleeding / And my screaming sounds like angels”). 

It’s rare for an album’s best song to be the penultimate track, but Mvula accomplishes this feat with “Got Me,” the third single. If you listen to any song from the project, it should be this one. It has the catchiest writing, the snappiest production, the clearest sense of wit and fun, the most dynamic interplay between instrumental and vocals — name a superlative, and “Got Me” probably has it. It feels like the point that Pink Noise has been building up to over the course of its entire tracklist, the proof that yes, a throwback record can still manage to be fresh and surprising. With such a heavy focus on flashy production and nostalgia, rather than offering up anything particularly new in terms of musical style, it can be hard to connect to the songs of Pink Noise on a deeper level: the music is easy to listen to, but it’s also easy to forget after the final chorus. But when the album hits, on highlights like “Got Me,” “Church Girl,” “Remedy,” and “Pink Noise,” it really hits — those echoing synths and explosive choruses will remind you that nostalgia, when viewed through the right lens, can feel more sweet, vivid, and memorable than anything in the present.

Writer: Kayla Beardslee   Section: Pop Rocks

Credit: Berick Visuals/Drakeo the Ruler

Drakeo the Ruler

The concept of “The Truth” links Drakeo the Ruler’s recent projects together via a thread running the short but densely packed distance from December 2020, when he released We Know the Truth, to July 2021’s Ain’t That the Truth (with this past February’s The Truth Hurts in between). This loose Truth trilogy has emerged in the wake of Drakeo’s release from the infamous Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles County, where he was imprisoned off and on for three years while awaiting trial (and where he recorded the ingenious Thank You for Using GTL). Truth and lived experience are two of the more substantial currencies in the art world, and in rap culture perhaps even more so, particularly in the context of work detailing gang violence and dealing. Inevitably, in the post-Drake, ghostwriter-normalized industry, classically-minded rappers of the Griselda Records type would emerge to capitalize on the inherent untruthfulness of the narratives being spun by the big pop-rap stars. Indeed, Drakeo could be the west coast Westside Gunn if he wanted to be, but the Ruler’s appeal is that his music isn’t made in conscious opposition to the Calabasas set (he’s even worked with Drake, though to not so great effect), but instead in service of articulating his own philosophy. 

Building on the momentum established a year ago with GTL, Drakeo has released at least 5 full-length projects in the interim, with this latest failing to display any signs of wear or loss of inspiration. In fact, Drakeo only seems to be more comfortable with his status, his lyrics funnier and looser than ever, still balanced with a pragmatic nihilism and grumbly, amelodic flow. Opening track “Just Dance” is indeed an allusion to the smash hit single, a disarming reference that Drakeo slyly deploys to flip a bleak scene into a mean joke (“Just dance when these choppers hit the floor like Lady Gaga”). This track also establishes the tone and rhythms of the rest of the mixtape, which knowingly slides between unabashed goofiness and plainspoken sociopathy — a disorienting, yet entertaining experience that Drakeo has perfected at this point. In a sense, this isn’t much of a departure for the L.A. rapper, especially if one has been following his recent output closely (the production especially, more serviceable west coast-tinged trap, no real switch-ups), but it’s undeniable that Drakeo has more of a handle on his aesthetic than ever, testing the limits of how far he can take his singular flow off-beat, before pivoting back into catchy pop hooks. His ever appealing lexicon continues to expand too, back-to-back tracks “Mitchy Slickster” and “Pump Faker” introducing new murky terminology to the mainstream, appealingly enunciated by himself and younger brother Ralfy the Plug (gifted 5 features on this tape). Though of course, as much as Ain’t That the Truth exemplifies Drakeo’s music at its best, his thornier tendencies are amplified too, manifesting most damningly in a Tory Lanez feature (“Chops Out”). This inevitably reminds that, for the most part, there’s less distance between the persona Drakeo presents on these projects and the actual person, his commitment to this truth never oversold.

Writer: M.G. Mailloux   Section: What Would Meek Do?

Alexis Marshall

Nearly three years after dropping the masterful, horrifying You Won’t Get What You Want as the lead singer of Daughters, Alexis Marshall is back with another paranoia-riddled, anxiety-inducing work. Marshall’s solo debut, House of Lull . House of When (sic) strips back much of the “rock” instrumentation and places its footing firmly in the realm of noise, composed of minimalist, foreboding keyboards, cacophonous, unhinged percussion, sawing drones, and poetic, spoken vocals from Marshall. The lead single, “Hounds in the Abyss,” offers a representative glimpse into an album that’s uniformity of production and style haunts and grates in equal, intentional measure. Starting with a strangely accented, simple percussion rhythm and an incessant, high-pitched drone, the track is further industrialized when Marshall’s haunted spoken refrain comes in. Posing the question “Are you the one?” over and over again, strangely emphasizing and elongating the “you,” Marshall searches for the person throwing rocks at his window, phoning his mother and hanging up, and rolling cigarettes on top of his father’s stone, among other strange happenings. Despite the noisy instrumentation that’s hardly instrumental, the accented percussion and what sounds like drummed-upon garbage can lids, the song finds a tribal-like groove. The next track, “It Just Doesn’t Feel Good Anymore,” a sarcastic, begrudged response to the individualistic mandates brought about by COVID, is also strangely groovy despite being even less structured. The cymbal crashes sound more like they’re being knocked over than being played, and the same goes for the track’s gong. A whinnying, soloing saxophone haunts the song, and in the last part of the track, neoclassical darkwave powerhouse Lingua Ignota, who knows her way around twisted industrial tunes, provides some blood-curdling background screams.

Lingua vocals can also be found on the two-part suite “Youth as Religion . / Religion as Leader,” which repurposes similar lyrics across a pair of styles: “Youth as Religion” is the plaintive, gently-spoken version rife with static, featuring an almost precious guitar solo and imbuing eerie discomfort, a sound that’s not revisited until album closer “Night Coming”; “Religion as Youth,” for its part, takes on the same manic, anti-instrumental approach that’s characteristic of much of the album. It’s elevated by Lingua’s abbreviated performance, which brings more vocal variety in a few repeated lines than Marshall’s unwavering speaking throughout the album. Elsewhere, an album highlight, “No Truth in the Body,” utilizes coins spinning, sliding, and rubbing as its main percussive element, which is joined by a few piano chords and directionless guitar. Marshall sounds his most plaintive, most abandoned here, as he speaks, questioningly: “Fire makes merry men lose sight and crumble / You see them crumble / Fire makes merry men hurt / You see them hurting.” It’s a fitting enough reflection of the album’s general tenor, and in many ways, House of Lull . House of When is an obvious follow-up to You Won’t Get What You Want: in a world even more in disarray than it was a few years ago, Marshall’s solo vision is just as bleak, worrisome, and grating, but also less melodic and inspired.

Writer: Tanner Stechnij   Section: Obscure Object

Credit: Jed DeMoss


Darkside, the musical duo composed of electronic producer Nicolas Jaar and jazz guitarist Dave Harrington, arrived as an unexpectedly exuberant affair following the meditative focus of each member’s solo output. After first playing together on the tour for Jaar’s landmark debut LP, 2011’s Space Is Only Noise, and later releasing an EP and a ghostly full-length remix of the revanchist Random Access Memories, Darkside released their proper debut Psychic: a dorm-room psych-rock staple whose eight songs wandered through gaseous expanses until suddenly snapping into gratifying focus. The subsequent Darkside tour — immortalized on last year’s Psychic Live July 17 2014 — punctured the on-record haze of Psychic with more tactile renditions that fully realized the group’s rhythmic potential, delivering thrills reminiscent of a particularly sweaty jam session or an extended club mix. It was also the last time that the duo had worked together in that mode, with Harrington’s subsequent releases conjuring electrical storms far busier than Darkside’s more svelte runway, and Jaar’s forging — and then rupturing — connections between various sub-genres of electronic music and the natural world. Even after the announcement of Spiral, the new Darkside album, it seemed possible that Psychic (and Darkside) would remain a footnote in the oeuvres of both artists, a moment of unlikely synchronicity.

Any doubt that Spiral could recapture the magic of Psychic was dispelled by excellent pre-release singles “The Limit” and “Liberty Bell,” both of which moved and grooved with a gait somewhere between a strut and a zombified lurch. Spiral proves consistently adept at recreating Psychic’s more direct, groove-driven moments, though these early tracks were still something of a feint, with the album proper also serving up piercing dub (“Only Young”) and churning acoustic laments (“The Question Is to See It All,” “Spiral”). Spiral’s more forward tracks also embellish the group’s core sound in unexpected ways, as on opener “Narrow Road,” which begins with a cluttered cascade of clicks and whistles before a bass groove swoops in and accompanies the song’s locomotive percussion tumbling down a hill. Elsewhere, deep cut “Inside Is Out There” grinds and hums with varying degrees of urgency, rippling through nocturnal moods until arriving suddenly upon piano-driven reprieve, evoking the relief of a journey’s end. In a release stream Q&A with Stereogum, both Jaar and Harrington described their jam-centric creation process in navigational terms, comparing their process of improvisation to following a roadmap. It’s certainly an accurate description of the experience of listening to Spiral, and if some sense of mystery is lost in emerging from the fog of Psychic, the group’s improved sense of directionality is nonetheless welcome here, as they confidently traverse familiar terrain towards destinations still unclear.

Writer: Mike Doub   Section:Obscure Object