“YB better.” This simple phrase has become a rallying cry of sorts for the millions of prepubescent YoungBoy Never Broke Again (or NBA YoungBoy) stans who continue to flood comment sections and Twitter replies in order to champion their incarcerated artist of choice. The fanbase which surrounds the Baton Rouge native is comparable to that of most K-pop acts: both engage in the most unrelenting, childlike behavior humanly imaginable online, alienating virtually any outsider observers. But YoungBoy’s world and mythos isn’t one for casual listeners, especially given the intense rate at which he’s dropped albums, mixtapes, music videos, and the like. If anything, he himself plays into the meme, which has only intensified after he was blackballed by the media at large. These days, he’s in full-on outlaw mode, releasing projects from prison after being locked up in March of this year and receiving little to no industry push. He’s still out-selling most popular rappers — he’s also had zero features on his last two albums and is still performing well commercially, a feat which has drawn little attention — but chances are, you’re not going to be hearing “Toxic Punk” playing at a public sporting event anytime soon. YouTube was his platform of choice, but even there things are getting dicey.
But pleasing people — namely music critics and executives for streaming services — has never really been YB’s forte, who has instead chosen to participate in engagement strategies strictly for the fans. So his latest, Sincerely, Kentrell, serves less as a defining artistic statement and more as a dumping ground of material to feed these ever hungry devotees, who will all likely declare this as his masterpiece. Quality-wise, it’s a long way from that hefty title. Much like his previous studio release Top, there are no outright misfires in the sprawling 21-song collection, but there are also hardly any tracks that stand out from one another. Which is fine for an eight-song stretch, where YoungBoy’s aggressive delivery and fractious tone are lively enough to keep things moving along at a comfortable pace — the longest track here doesn’t even pass the four-minute mark — even as his production choices continue to circle the drain of creativity (non-stop piano melodies and/or guitar licks anyone?). It’s at about the half-way point that the album fully reveals itself to be a senselessly assembled product, not without artistry, but still lacking a truly coherent vision: Even something as basic as album sequencing seems to have been all but ignored by the final mixing stages — especially from “Baddest Thing” to closer “Panoramic,” which has all of these short, deeply unmemorable tracks bump up against one another until they turn into an amorphous sonic blur. To a degree, that’s probably the point and overall strategy: when it comes to flooding the market with derivative wannabe emo-trap, there truly is nobody better than YB.
Sufjan Stevens & Angelo de Augustine
As our collective nostalgia cycle trudges forward past the cultural touchstones of the ’90s towards those of the early-to-mid-2000s, once-derided or since-forgotten trends from that era have found unexpected new life. Indeed, subjects as disparate as nu-metal, the media persecution of Britney Spears, and even the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan have all been re-interrogated in recent months with the benefit of hindsight and historical context. To a certain extent, something similar has occurred with the music of Sufjan Stevens, whose star story of an inward folk artist turned soul of a nation (or state territory, anyway) has been re-tread by newer artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Big Thief. Though the music of both Bridgers and Big Thief has yet to achieve either the empathy or imagination of Stevens’ heyday, Stevens’ releases following this fertile period have continued to conceive of novel containers for his artistry and personhood, as on his 2015 diaristic masterpiece Carrie & Lowell, or the epic bummer electro-opera of last year’s unfairly maligned The Ascension. His latest release, A Beginner’s Mind — a full-length collaboration with singer-songwriter and Asthmatic Kitty signee Angelo de Augustine — is his most character-driven album since his 2000s works, once again using stories in the public record as a throughline for unlocking the personal truths of artist and subject alike.
The genesis of Beginner’s Mind was a cabin retreat during which Stevens and de Augustine watched movies for songwriting inspiration, with the resulting 14 songs each organized around a particular entry in their watchlist. Yet these are less plot summaries than thematically linked extractions, whose emotional thrusts are handily transposed onto the usual subjects of the Sufjan Stevens’ oeuvre: isolation and longing, despair and belief. Lush opener “Reach Out,” for instance, is nominally associated with Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire, but its yearning for human connection is broadly (and beautifully) expressed enough to have appeared on Stevens’ soundtrack for Call Me by Your Name as well. The lack of consistent focus on subject matter lore is hardly a downside, and the inherently varied conceit of Beginner’s Mind renders it Sufjan’s loosest release in some time, forestalling the fussiness that can sometimes characterize his music. On the sun-dappled “Fictional California,” Stevens and de Augustine poetically channel the cheerleader joie de vivre of the song’s filmic prompt Bring It On Again, while “Lady Macbeth in Chains” traces the late career of All About Eve character Margot Channing with graceful concision. Elsewhere, “Back to Oz” disguises dark truths underneath its jaunty, bustling exterior, persuasively re-framing its subject Return to Oz as a parable of child abuse (the effort being of a piece with Stevens and de Augustine’s stated desire to train their gaze on works now perceived as defamed and “problematic”).
Some of the album’s sonic lightness can also be attributed to Stevens’ return to his once-characteristic folk sound, which he has only performed sparingly since his pivotal 2010 release The Age of Adz. Though Stevens is no slouch as an electronic composer, Christmas caroler, or in any other guise — Stevens’ unpredictability is one of the main reasons his career is worth following, really — his folk albums have always been accompanied by a certain emotional heft, more inclined perhaps to provide a nakedly lovely backdrop to their generally weighty topics (American history, Christianity, and grief among them). Beginner’s Mind is lighter fare than its predecessors, but similarly forgoes the complication en route to straightforward beauty — the autumnal splendor of “Cimmerian Shade” is one such example, as is “The Pillar of Souls,” so gorgeous that a listener could be excused for not keying into its lyrics concerning the demonic S&M exploits of Pinhead in Hellraiser III. To be sure, Stevens has an ideal partner for the genre revival in de Augustine, whose solo performances on “Lost in the World,” the album’s title track, and closer “Lacrimae” are all standouts, and who is so adept at twinning his vocals with Stevens that it can often be difficult to parse who is whom. For de Augustine, Beginner’s Mind is an earned level-up; for Stevens, it is a testament to his once and continued vitality, still inimitable in his ability to reflect on the stories of others while simultaneously extending the narrative of his own.
After a busy release cycle unexpectedly launched Kacey Musgraves to the top of the country crossover charts in 2018 and 2019, she returns with Star-Crossed, an album deeply rooted in the sounds of her own divorce. The album chronicles every emotion of the relationship from start to finish, but retains the minimalist style that ultimately appealed to both country and pop fans on Golden Hour. The result is emotionally effective, if sonically uneven throughout.
It’s an oft-repeated trope that country music is about beer, pickup trucks, and your spouse leaving you. What surprises most about Star-Crossed, an album clearly about a divorce, is that it doesn’t sound particularly “country” despite its author and content. While this has been the center of some controversy (the Grammy awards have opted to place the album in the pop categories rather than the country fields Musgraves previously occupied), it does make sense given its overarching sound. There are no fiddles or banjos populating the instrumental forefront, there’s a dearth of slide guitar, and even its emotional core feels like a significantly more tidy fit in the pop landscape. There are still small glimpses of Same Trailer, Different Park, but at no point do you hear full-fledged country Kacey. This will feel like a loss to some, as her voice has been a constant force in the genre for the past several years, going so far as to bring in new fans to the country realm, but in the midst of all this change is a gripping story, a tough one to grapple with: can the partner that inspired tracks like “Butterflies” and “Golden Hour” be the same one she feels so bitter toward on “Justified” and “Breadwinner”? The sentiment may be hard to swallow, but it’s distinctly raw and honest, as few things are more familiar to the human experience than relationships that seem just right only to soon combust. But for all that, Star-Crossed feels more like an affirmation of the past rather than a shameful rendering of it: each track works not to minimize her part in the split or air dirty laundry, but to explore where the incompatibilities took root.
In spite of this affecting lyrical material, there’s no denying that the album is, well, a little boring. It turns away from the fuller pop-country sounds that made Musgraves popular in the first place, and there’s not much that distinguishes things here from track to track. There’s nothing that feels like a breakout single, nor is there a single song that will really get your feet tapping. Sonic evolution by an artist is often a plus, sometimes even essential, but it rarely helps when that change comes only in making your sounds smaller; none of the grandeur that made Golden Hour such an exceptional record are present here. With a few more hooks and a little editing, this could have been a worthy enough, if still irrevocably slighter, follow-up. Absent those key elements, Star-Crossed is nothing more than a softly pleasant, deeply middling step to the side, a distinct disappointment even if not an outright failure.
Baby Queen (real name Arabella Latham) debuted in the pop music scene in 2020 with more skills and presence than most artists who’ve spent years in the industry. Her debut EP Medicine was full of pop-rock tracks that burst with raw, confessional energy, yet felt polished and carefully composed; she packed her lyrics with memorable one-liners, but still found time to craft clear narratives and intricate bridges. EP highlight “Want Me” is a perfect example: spoken-word verses about the details of romantic longing (“I wish I thought that I was pretty, so that I could turn you on / I had a dream you called me pretty and I told you you were wrong”) explode into cathartic, shouted choruses, and it all ends in a coda where Latham repeats a rapid, desperate melody over production that slowly builds into a thrilling climax. It’s snarky (“I bet you get bored having sex / Because you want me and you just don’t know it yet”), ambitious, and an argument for why Baby Queen is one of the most exciting new writers in pop music today. Her September mixtape The Yearbook delivers even further on this promise.
Some of the most exciting tracks on The Yearbook are the ones that lean farthest into pop-rock sensibilities. In lead single “Raw Thoughts,” weighty percussion crunches and skitters like a punching bag made out of your own thoughts, and guitars overlap into a final crescendo on the lyric “I’m thinking about you / And you’re thinking about sex” — which should not feel as transcendental as it does. Second single “These Drugs” finds Latham slower and sadder, huddled in a bathroom stall regretting her self-destructive choices but unable to break the cycle. Again, for a song with lines like “It’s louder than a cry for help / When I destroy my mental health / Because I don’t respect myself,” it feels strangely good: that’s partly due to her brooding vocal performance and the fantastic rock-ballad production by King Ed, but it’s also because Latham has a brilliant understanding of the catharsis that makes singer-songwriter work interesting.
Many of the most memorable Baby Queen lyrics are confessions about sex, drugs, or dark thoughts, but she reveals these things not for shock value, but because they’re an important part of her path to self-understanding. Even if you can’t relate to things like getting drunk on medication after a breakup or wishing you were more like your perfect older sister, the specific emotional honesty of Latham’s lyricism leaves such a strong impression that it makes these songs cut deep and hold up for listen after listen. And her writing isn’t all serious or sad, either. She’s funny — see the euphemism of “There’s a hole inside of me, and it’s shaped like you,” and the audacity of building an entire song around that hook — and she’s also playful: you often get the sense that you’re listening to Latham bend and stretch melody and song structure to fit the wild, tumbling will of her narrative. She tends to smooth over vulnerability with wit, self-deprecation, and self-aware mundanity, and in that way she perfectly captures the micro-generation of the late ‘90s: young adults caught between being millennials and Gen Z, stuck online and too deep in their heads, who know far too well that the world is fucked but can only cope by either breaking down or joking about it.
The Yearbook is definitely aloft up by its singles — deep cuts “Narcissist,” “Fake Believe,” and “I’m a Mess” are decent but nowhere near the heights of tracks like “Raw Thoughts” or “You-Shaped Hole.” It’s a short project, though, and the highlights are fantastic enough to anchor the whole thing. The crown jewel of the mixtape is far and away its third single, “Dover Beach”: most artists go their whole careers without putting out a perfect pop song, but Baby Queen did it in just one year. “Dover Beach” encapsulates everything wonderful about Latham’s work. It has the hooks and urgency of pop music, the intensity (and a handful of instrumental elements) of a rock song, and the poetic lyricism of a verbose singer-songwriter track. It’s about being in love, but also about being alone and trying to figure out how many of your problems come from your own head. Its freewheeling lyrics ramble and hang off the ends of their lines, but there’s also a brief, infinite pause before each chorus that feels like a deliberate dive down into the waves. The bridge and outro introduce multiple thrilling new melodies and pieces of structure (every single Baby Queen bridge is a reminder of why this pop music thing is worth it after all). “Dover Beach” feels as big as the world, and it’s her best song to date — and yet The Yearbook still feels like only the beginning of what is shaping up to be an amazing career.
You can think of genre as a set of rules — formal conventions that delineate a particular means of expression, like how sonnets have to have fourteen lines, or rock and roll a particular kind of beat. Or you could think of it as a kind of community: a tribe of people who recognize in one another a shared set of values and convictions, and who are interested in telling the same kinds of stories. No matter which way you want to look at it, Adia Victoria’s third and finest album, A Southern Gothic, pushes at the boundaries of what the blues can be. In doing so, she is inclusive and exclusionary in equal measure, at once claiming space for Black women while also positing the blues as a cultural and historic lineage in which some have sown more blood and tears than others.
Of course, Victoria has always managed to be a true believer without coming across as a finger-wagging purist; give a listen to the punkish energy of Beyond the Bloodhounds or the icy chill of Silences, two albums that uphold the values of the blues without being conscripted by them. A Southern Gothic features the spiritual guidance of the archivalist/revivalist T-Bone Burnett, somewhat nebulously credited as an executive producer, suggesting perhaps that this is Victoria’s most straight-ahead roots music yet, a feeling that’s initially confirmed by “Magnolia Blues,” a gently-driving tour through Southern iconography. “Mean-Hearted Woman” leans into grim austerity, and a cover of Blind Willie McTell’s “You Was Born to Die” is performed with boisterous classic-rock energy, right down to a stinging guitar solo from Jason Isbell. This opening salvo sets the table for a more porous, exploratory take on the blues, one where there’s room enough for the stylized (“Troubled Mind,” as dramatic as a James Bond theme) and the contemporary (“Deep Water Blues,” set to a muggy trap beat). Not all of these songs play by the rules of the form, yet they sound like they were grown in the same soil, baked in the same hot sun.
But if A Southern Gothic is about redrawing boundaries, it’s also about staking a place inside them. Its title suggests a literary tradition with room enough for William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor; Victoria’s insistence is that there is room enough for Black women, too. Song after song litigates the complexity of life in the South, tracing a landscape peppered with “Jesus Saves” signs and rebel flags. The most stunning of these songs is “Whole World Knows,” a gutting story of secrecy and shame set inside the close-knit culture of small-town fundamentalism. There’s also “Deep Water Blues,” about the Black woman’s burden of perennially saving white folks’ asses from total political and cultural collapse; keep it handy for the next Deep South election blockbuster. Victoria ends the album singing with The National’s Matt Berninger on a song called “South for the Winter,” about how folks who were born and raised below the Mason Dixon lines feel the South’s gravitational pull no matter how far they travel. For outsiders, the song may not really explain why a place that’s so fraught can still feel like home.But some things can’t really be explained at all; they can only be believed.