A new Ye record means yet another round of gleeful denouncements from an increasingly frail, corporate press apparatus, solemn assurances that this time West is definitely, actually down for the count. It’s a sentiment that’s been capitalized on several album cycles over by now, since 2016’s The Life of Pablo perhaps, and yet, Ye remains at the top, still the definitive pop music innovator of his time. Though, arguably, when it comes to innovation, his latest studio album, (the eleventh) Donda 2, is the apex of his catalog so far, surpassing the scope of previous, similarly minded projects to create something new and experiential. An idea that first manifested in The Life of Pablo with Ye’s post-release corrections and updates, and has informed his tracklist curation since (very obviously so with last year’s Donda), Donda 2 appears to be its ultimate realization, an album designed to be elaborated upon, where the music and process of its creation are given equal weight.
What we have now is the initial take, Donda 2 V2.22.22 Miami, titled in reference to the spectacular listening party where this iteration was debuted. Exclusively (and divisively) released to his $200 Stem Player device, some have resented the notion of submitting to such a high price tag for an “incomplete” album, but ignoring the costliness, the Stem Player offers an elegant solution to Ye’s production indecisions (more so than the lopsided Donda (Deluxe) at least) while further involving his audience in his process. The 17 songs presented as V2.22.22 are certainly varying degrees of finished, with a few immediately obvious, basically complete hits, and several more that could be described as sketches or demos. Executive produced by Future (who appears on three songs here) and bookended by mournful XXXTENTACION hooks (another in the middle for good measure), the tone of Donda 2 is that of aggrieved machismo, debauched male melodrama inspired by West’s very public, messy divorce from Kim K. But while Donda 2 doesn’t shy away from the bad vibes, it’s a far less ferocious album than its knowingly assembled features might signify, finding Ye wallowing and dispirited more than anything else. There are exceptions of course, like the “Freestyle 4”-esque “SECURITY” (one of the album’s more complete, ready-to-go tracks), which has a playfully threatening edge, and “SCI Fi,” with its aggrandizing sample of Kim’s SNL monologue. But the album’s big stand out moments thus far find West baldly miserable. “HAPPY” looms largest in this respect with its dour Future verse up front giving way to Ye going off about buying Uber, ultimately disrupting his own verse to ask the listener “Do I look happy to you?” At times a challenging, provocative dance of contradictory emotions, at other times bland pop sentiment (the boring Migos/Baby Keem collab “WE DID IT KID” and dreadful top-40 hit “City of Gods”), Donda 2 is an odd, unruly album that has surely not yet reached its final form — not a deficit, but in fact the start of something very exciting.
After double-dipping in 2019 with U.F.O.F. and Two Hands, Big Thief is again delivering plenty of material in 2022, this time with their fifth full-length record, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, a sprawling 80-minute double album recorded in four separate studios across the country. Immediately, it seems these varied collaborations have coaxed the band into their most philosophical posture yet lyrically, contemplating nothing less than life, love, and existence as we know it. The result is a richly textured work that adds to the panoply of great albums that Big Thief has made, both as solo artists and as a group.
The group’s latest is distinctive for the sounds peppered throughout, some steeped in a traditional roots perspective, while other segments opt for the softer acoustic texture that has marked Adrianne Lenker’s solo career up until this point; importantly, though, while she is the sole writer on the majority of the tracks here, Dragon feels like an altogether new creation, distinguished from her work as a solo artist. Some cuts from Lenker’s catalog, like “12,000 Lines” and “Simulation Swarm,” do appear, and have indeed been a part of Lenker’s solo tours for some time now, while “Spud Infinity” has been a live favorite both in full-band and solo form, but all of these are far more fleshed out on this LP than their previous iterations, live-tested so as to here become the most unimpeachable version. It’s a testament to the band’s recording process, seeking to perfect a track before performing live in the studio, unlike so many. And yet, despite the raw nature of their methodology, the tracks evidence a very clear, impressive polish.
What’s long impressed about Big Thief is not only the individual talents of its members, but the way their individual proclivities have so seamlessly gelled over the years, all the more notable for their relative youth as a band. It’s slightly disappointing, then, that Dragon sees this cohesion falter just a bit, with a few of the tracks feeling separated from the whole, likely due to the multi-studio/producer approach that was employed this time out. Still, this is a small gripe that only occasionally registers throughout, and feels particularly negligible when considering the massive runtime here, which impressively manages not to overstay its welcome. There’s a point on Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, sometime around “Little Things,” where the impression is of listening to a band already deemed great by history, their continued rise feeling meteoric; this isn’t the first time a Big Thief record has registered in this way, with much of their work registering like a greatest hits compilation in real-time. It’s this intangible that submits Dragon as a triumph, not only as a release that advances the natural progression of perhaps the defining stars of indie rock, but as an exercise in pure musicianship that understands and communicates the fluid boundaries of what rock can be. This is hardly the first time that Big Thief has succeeded on such a grand scale, and given the evidence, it’s tough to imagine it will be the last.
There was once a time when 2 Chainz could reliably save any track he was featured on. His insane, ludicrous one-liners were always blessings in disguise, gems of pure preposterousness in how little they made sense — pronouncing Givenchy like a Frenchman (“GI-VEN-CHY”) and then mistaking it for a sneeze (“n***a God bless you”) on “All Me” might take the cake. But these were often only the standout moments shoehorned into a slew of forgettable mid-2010s singles. He wasn’t just a tad eccentric on these songs; he was a potent mixture of flat-out hilarious, barbarous, and always timely, sorta like if Eddie Murphy took up rapping as a side-hobby if 48 Hours flopped. If you aren’t cracking up after hearing “she got a big booty so I call her Big Booty” then you simply have no sense of humor, good taste, or basic human decency.
Fast forward to 2022, and unfortunately, it seems like that creative spark has all but vanished. The man’s about to turn 45 in September, and on his latest studio offering, he’s finally sounding like it: an elder outsider looking in. This isn’t to say Dope Don’t Sell Itself is outdated by any means, or that it invalidates the brilliance that’s come before, but it is a sign that some serious course correction is desperately needed for the 2 Chainz brand in order to keep things afloat (this is reportedly his last trap album, so at least someone else seems to understand). He’s still reliably doing his thing, albeit a watered-down version of it: the wackiness of his lyrics now feel forced, uninspired, and, worst of all, generally unfunny (“Maybach so big, it came with an office, where the secretary?” would’ve been lame even if it dropped in 2012). There’s still a lot of charisma to 2 Chainz’ raps, where he can swagger about on an opener as strange as “Bet It Back” and make a line as tired as “in her mouth like Colgate” playful enough — but the required infrastructure to make it all work is sorely lacking. There isn’t a single interesting or impressive moment on the entire album, which plays it safe and conservative at just about every juncture; the half-hour length, which in and of itself signals to all parties how phoned in this is, feels neverending with music this calculated. “Pop Music” is about as limp as strip club anthems go, “Lost Kings” begs for unearned pathos and receives none, “If You Want Me To” ends things on a sex jam nobody asked for; even when you get an occasional song with a more defined concept guiding it — the dancehall-flavored “VladTV” poking fun at the online platform’s notorious reputation for self-snitching — the results remain about the same.
When it’s time for the guests to show up — the majority of whom are arbitrarily picked, where’s Ye and Tuchi when you need them? — it only further proves how static the atmosphere is. “Kingpen Ghostwriter” is a pretty cool track, up until Lil Baby shows up and suddenly makes you realize it should be him and only him on the beat, not sharing the spotlight with an unenthused 2 Chainz (ditto for NBA YoungBoy on “10 Bracelets”). Roddy Ricch’s chorus on “Outstanding” is the best thing going for it, same with Swae Lee on “Caymans”; even a rapper as undistinguished as 42 Dugg makes more of an impression on “Million Dollars Worth of Game” than its central performer. So, perhaps in a twisted act of divine irony, the guy once known for killing features is now being killed on his own tracks by features; which means he better start hitting the gym or get a Fitbit ASAP, because this dope certainly isn’t going to be selling itself any time soon.
There’s nothing subtle about the title of Welcome to the Block Party — yes, a jokey reference to its creator’s surname, but also an announcement that this is jocular, extroverted country-pop, better suited for soundtracking a barbecue than a late night of soul-searching. That Priscilla Block proves to be such amiable company, such a natural-born crowd-pleaser, may not come as a surprise to anyone who’s followed her story thus far; where Miranda Lambert rose to country stardom via a reality TV competition, Block has leveraged TikTok popularity just a generation later, demonstrating a knack for showmanship and an affinity for hooks. And yet, listening to her debut album — a boisterous, party-friendly 12 tracks in only 35 minutes — there’s little that scans as trend-chasing, nor indeed much of anything that ties the album to its early 2022 vintage. It’s actually something of a throwback to the glory days of Shania Twain, back when country-pop borrowed more from arena rock dynamics than from pulsing hip-hop beats. (It’s only when you get to track 10, “Wish You Were the Whisky,” that you hear a modern, electric pulse, and even that song builds into a power-ballad belter.) In a weird sense, she comes across as something of a traditionalist — but where purists trace their lineage back to Hank (or at the very least to Willie), Block looks to the platinum era of the 1990s as her point of origin.
That’s not to say that Welcome to the Block Party ever plays as rote recitation or as Clinton-era cosplay. The bright, cheerful sound of the album is immediate and lively, and she has a way with melody that makes her suburbs-friendly honky-tonk sound thoroughly contemporary. (One of the great achievements of the album is in how every song can be a sing-along, something that’s equally true of the anthems and the ballads.) The album’s true point of distinction is its point of view; as a lyricist, Block has a canny way of taking familiar tropes but addressing them in a way that suggests specific experience: Take “Heels in Hand,” the latest in a long line of great country songs about things (see also: Miranda’s “Pink Sunglasses”), but really a very sensitive and earnest song about self-possession. At the more boisterous end of the spectrum there’s “Ever Since You Left,” a hell-raising anthem that reclaims bro-country’s obnoxious swagger. (When she learns that her ex wants to get back together, she rattles off a casual “I don’t give a f–,” muffling her profanity but making her point abundantly clear.) Self-confidence is the album’s thematic throughline, reaching its celebratory apex in the body-positive “Thick Thighs,” where Block’s optimism runs through country’s grand tradition of cornpone humor. (Sample lyric: “If you can’t handle these love handles, you can find me at McDonald’s.”) The closing, all-acoustic number initially seems like it will represent the opposite end of the self-confidence spectrum, with Block assembling all the mean girls who bullied her in high school. But then she hits you with the deliciously catty chorus: “By senior year, you were way too damn cool/ Well, look who peaked in high school.”
In the past decade, the sex positivity movement has gained real traction in the mainstream. It’s not like pop music has ever shied away from sex, but it’s taken years for women to be able to express their sexuality in music to the same degree that men have. Kim Petras has decided to take this positivity to the logical extreme with her new EP, Slut Pop, designed to celebrate sex in all its dirty, messy glory. Unfortunately, the content ends up being so boring that it does little to achieve any sort of climax.
Much like the bag labeled “dead dove, do not eat” on Arrested Development, Slut Pop does exactly what it says on the tin, delivering seven explicit dance tracks that celebrate the raunchiness of sex. It’s effectively a novelty record, emphasized by the fact that Petras released it right before Valentine’s Day — something to play in the background while you’re getting it on with bae. Like many other novelty records, though, Slut Pop overstays its welcome, even at a mercifully short sixteen minutes. It’s so one-note as to be profoundly boring, which is never what you want to hear about a record meant to celebrate pleasure.
Part of the issue is that we live in a post-”WAP” world. Cardi and Megan changed the game nearly two years ago with a raunchy, funny, and remarkably inspired song about sex. Phrases like “macaroni in a pot” or “park this big Mac truck right in this little garage” became part of our cultural lexicon, and it’s doubtful those will fade from sight any time soon. While it’s not required that music about sex have the deepest, most profound lyrics, “WAP” showed that lyrical complexity on explicit subjects is possible. No such creativity is to be found within Petras’ work, however. She sounds like a robot going through the motions of sex, not enjoying it but merely putting in her time until it’s over, and all the songs boast repetitive lyrics that grate after just a single listen. The chorus of “Treat Me Like a Slut” is the title, with “little dirty bitch, yeah, I like to fuck” subsequently chanted until it loses all meaning. “Superpower Bitch” repeats the word “cum” 33 times. The bridge on “They Wanna Fuck” is — surprise — a loop of the phrase “I wanna fuck.” Indeed, the explicitness of the lyrics here is what makes the end product so unsexy. It’s not that music shouldn’t be explicit (again, see Cardi talking about the sound of her pussy), but the sum of Slut Pop is an exercise in diminishing returns — what should be shocking instead becomes blandly banal. If Petras was trying to make some kind of statement with this approach, then perhaps she succeeded, but that seems very doubtfully her intention.
However, the most discomforting thing about the EP is not the content, but the personnel behind it. Dr. Luke (aka Lukasz Gottwald) has co-writing and production credits on every song — the same Dr. Luke that stands at the center of multiple allegations of sexual abuse by Kesha. Say what you will, but there is something decidedly unsavory about a man involved in a years-long public court battle over sexual misconduct producing such explicit work with another up-and-coming pop girl 20 years his junior. Dr. Luke seems to have adopted Kim Petras in the past few years as his attempt at a redemption narrative within the industry, but while helping build the profile of one of the industry’s few openly trans stars is certainly noble, the effort does nothing to erase his past misdeeds. If anything, it feels less like he actually wants to work with Petras and more like he is using her profile as a statement: he’s progressive and queer-friendly, the good guy in this situation. All his involvement manages here is to make Slut Pop all the more skeevy.