Let’s face it: Pusha T is an undeniable cornball. He’s the type of dude who thinks it’s impressive to claim that his brand is “crafting masterpieces” on an Internet talk show where they eat spicy chicken wings (where he tapped out about halfway through, the weenie), or that it’s cool to have an album listening party titled “Cokechella,” or that making a diss track against McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish gives him street cred — who’s next on the chopping block, the Hamburglar? — or that remixing the theme song to Succession would yield further acclaim. All these antics were perpetrated within the last six months, starting with the last listed offense; for about any other rapper, it would be career suicide to act this blatantly wack. But Pusha also happens to be an undeniably great rapper, one who’s steadily built an impressive body of work out of finding fresher ways to rap about selling coke — product so high quality, in fact, that it allows him to constantly have egg on his face because of it. So we let it slide — in fact, call it an equivalent exchange: the cornier Pusha’s actions are, the better his music seems to get. With this logic, his fourth studio album, It’s Almost Dry, would have to be his best yet. The recent tomfoolery has just been too off the charts for it to be anything else.
And yet, while it’s certainly better than the bloated excess of his Wrath of Caine mixtape and My Name Is My Name — both of which found the Virginia native struggling to find his voice amidst all those blaring 808s — it lacks a certain level of tonal and qualitative consistency that made the minimal Daytona so electrifying. Which is strange, considering that the architect of that previous record (Kanye West, then; Ye, now) is back at the helm for half of Dry’s tracklist, with long-time collaborator Pharrell Williams assuming production credits for the remaining six songs. If we’re forced to compare the two and go tit-for-tat on who’s got the superior selection here, Williams miraculously ends up on top. This isn’t to say there aren’t gems from Ye (“Just So You Remember” gives Push one of his better moments in a while), but the more noticeably lacking tracks — “Diet Coke” sounds like Diet Pusha T, ditto for Nigo’s “Hear Me Clearly”; closer “I Pray for You” drags the whole thing down into a solemn sermon — all bare his namesake. Even his two guest features could charitably be described as “scarce,” with a phoned-in call for familial unity (“When daddy’s not home, the family’s in danger”) ringing hollow compared to the obsessive vitriol expounded on Donda 2. “Dreamin of the Past” and “Rock n Roll,” on the other hand, are more stirring examples of West’s craftsmanship, looping chopped-up Donny Hathaway and Beyoncé samples until their voices practically become instruments in their own right.
The remaining material on Dry — basically the entirety of Williams’ contributions — are far more successful at reinvigorating Pusha beyond the self-imposed label of a “street rapper.” These tracks don’t necessarily demand more from him, or even switch things up too dramatically. What they do allow for is enough space for a diverse set of cadences and flows that instill a basic sense of artistic progression on Push’s behalf. “Call My Bluff,” for example, ranks as one of his most uncanny vocal turns, with his vocal delivery carrying an indifferent register throughout — he smoothly goes from “eating conch fritters with chips and queso’s” to “don’t make me call my TTG’s with Draco’s” with the same despondent timbre. The apathetic sentiment carries over from opener “Brambleton,” a scathing diss against an old manager that’s so low-key you’d be hard-pressed to imagine anyone involved here getting too worked up about it. “Neck & Wrist” features a rather humdrum Jay-Z appearance all too concerned with legacy upkeep and swearing up and down that he’d still be on top even if Biggie were still around (he has one choice line delivery played extra squeaky: “Y’all spend real money on fake watches, shocKINGly”), but Pharell’s percussion-heavy production is so cosmic and otherworldly that it somehow works once counterbalanced against Push’s blithe presence.
It’s Almost Dry, like all of Pusha’s solo releases thus far, practically lives or dies by the established relationship he has with his production team, and, more specifically, how much faith he’s willing to invest in their creative choices; it’s his voice, but their overarching vision, a backhanded compliment for sure — but hey, at least give it to Push for understanding that no matter how good of an MC one is, their music is only as good as the actual music they’re rapping over. With Ye and Pharell, he’s working with two talents driven by perfection, to a degree that makes each individual track stick out, but fails to really cohere once stacked alongside one another. There’s competition, and then there’s just showboating. Regardless, taken as it, what It’s Almost Dry may lack in connectivity, it tries — and almost succeeds — to make up for on a more isolated level. Which, for a rapper who’s infamously known for not getting along well with others besides his high-profile producers, might be the best compliment one can give a modern-day Pusha T record. That is, until he starts going after Grimace; then the heartless bastard’s taking it too far.
Writer: Paul Attard Section: What Would Meek Do?
While many would love to deny it, Jonatan Aron Leandoer’s influence on the trajectory of Western pop music over the last few years is largely unmatched, with elements of the eclectic cloud rap aesthetic he pioneered as Yung Lean apparent in the recent music of a variety of contemporaries and predecessors. He’s also (not exclusively) responsible for charting a path from Internet stardom to mainstream stardom, cultivating a dedicated fan base via SoundCloud and Tumblr that forced the industry to come to him — a strategy inspired by Chief Keef and the drill artists who reached national prominence using similar social media apparati. Nevertheless, Yung Lean has mostly remained a prominent figure at a remove from the culture, boasting a number of famous friends and significant collaborations (some vocals tucked away on Frank Ocean’s Blonde, a couple early Travis Scott tracks, etc.), without ever quite earning true pop star status in the way that his Drain Gang associates currently appear to be. There are any number of reasons why Yung Lean has found himself in this curious spot — mainstream media skepticism/derision, struggles with addiction and depression, personal tragedy/loss — but even barring these significant external factors, one imagines his career wouldn’t look so different, being an artist so very committed to his own pace.
New mixtape Stardust works as something of a reset for Yung Lean, a sort of companion piece to 2020 album Starz which saw the rapper open himself up to a more streamlined, broadly appealing sound signified by features from like-minded pop maniacs Ariel Pink and Playboi Carti (removed from the digital version). Stardust is at once more concise than that previous project (a dreamy 35 minutes), while also opening up space to collaboration in a major way. Ultimately scanning as more celebratory than cynical, Stardust finds room for the various, ascendent Drain Gang affiliates and high profile fans, Skrillex and FKA Twigs, without straining to find stylistic common ground, or losing that Leanian edge. Anchored by a robust lineup of trusted producers (primary Drain producer Whitearmor and RipSquad’s Lusi) overseen by Fredrik Okazaki and with a contribution from Whole Lotta Red architect Art Dealer (the joyful “Trip”), Stardust convincingly pulls together various stylistic elements including the anticipated glittery videogame trap production most associated with Lean, along with post-punk melody and delirious art pop.
Undoubtedly inspired by the work of aforementioned Starz contributor Ariel Pink, Stardust establishes its aesthetic balancing act upfront with the Twigs-featuring “Bliss,” which finds the duo riding a driving punk guitar riff into gonzo trap production and gleefully dramatic singalong vocals. The subsequent 11 tracks split their time in between these tones, making room for Lean’s gloomy yearning and buzzy, whining delivery on “Starz2therainbow” and melancholic rumination on “Paradise Lost”, as well as Skrillex’s hyped-up take on cloud production for the triumphant Drain posse cut “SummerTime Blood” (with an uncharacteristically subdued sensual track from the iconic EDM producer, “Lips” preceding that one). Lean traverses tone and genre on Stardust without ever losing sight of its cumulative appeal or his very specific, beautifully cryptic lyricism; in fact, it proves to be his most readily digestible release yet. It’s hard to tell if this mixtape indicates where Lean is heading, as it’s never been too easy to discern the rapper’s next move, but at the very least, it reflects a mode he has no problem operating in.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux Section: What Would Meek Do?
Riding an immense wave of hype, Wet Leg releases their debut self-titled album, a hook-filled indie rock record that thumbs its nose at the idea of being in a band. The buzz has been so tangible, in fact, that it feels almost reminiscent of the early days of the indie rock craze in the early aughts, generating plenty of excitement for the group’s future and the influence they may bring to bear. The album is predicated on a perceived lack of lyrical sincerity, and that plays no small role in making the whole thing work, Wet Leg’s droning intonations feeling almost as if they were mocking or taunting the listener, establishing a singular, effective dynamic. Another way of looking at it: the duo leans into their carefree nature in such an endearing way that it’s quite hard to not be at least a little bit charmed by their shrugging.
When it comes to the music, however, Wet Leg proves a little more familiar. There are elements of many popular styles of music here, most notably punk, indie rock, and britpop, without too much stretching. While this melange isn’t bad on its face, it does result in a sound that decidedly won’t be among the most original to be heard this year. But what it lacks in originality, it more than manages to make up for with straight-up fun. These cuts are undeniable bops, almost as if they were manufactured in a lab to come soaring across the airways or through your subpar phone speakers via some TikTok video. Indeed, the short-form nature of Internet content seems custom made for Wet Leg’s success, their succinct and quick-witted riffs fitting snugly within the videos that originally sent the dup into the viral stratosphere. The lyrics are biting, often hurling insults toward the men that attempt to control them in the songs, and the delivery of the largely (and deservedly) misandrist musings is always more charming than offensive.
In a world of split-second judgments and inundated with a slew of representation from women in music, it’s simply refreshing to encounter a group like Wet Leg. There’s nothing present that is new per se, but the band’s skill is in making it seem as if it were, and executing it all with attitude to spare. In the months leading up to the album’s release, TikTok users took to commenting “One song” on every late-night performance and music video clip shared on the app, and while ostensibly this was an expression that the duo had largely milked their one popular song, it also did demonstrate a thirst for a little something more from the group. It’s a fitting enough reaction to the album on the whole, too: a quality, polished product and energizing experience that feels just shy of there. There’s no doubt Wet Leg’s popularity is still mid-ascent; if the quality of music follows, something special might not be far away.
Writer: Andrew Bosma Section: Ledger Line
Even when he’s ostensibly straightforward with his intentions, Jack White loves to misdirect. He has a notable flair for the dramatic, a penchant for eccentricity that has manifested into a recent string of albums marked by atypical artistic motivations. Keeping this in mind — and looking back now with a healthy amount of hindsight — it’s almost remarkable how cohesive The White Stripes functioned in terms of both their musicianship and their garage-rock sound, building upon each new release with a clearer sense of the direction they wanted to take their developing interests. But since separating from his “sister” and bandmate Meg in 2011, White’s subsequent solo career has played with audience expectations by giving them less and less of what they should be expecting.
There was the perfectly competent (if also a tad generic) Blunderbuss, his most easily accessible record to date, followed by the more unruly Lazaretto, before heading into no man’s land with the outlandish Boarding House Reach. To give credit where it’s due, the record wasn’t a simple subversion, or even a crafty in-joke (it’s difficult to discern if/when White is ever taking the piss): it was a complete sonic overhaul, the type of record one produces once they start throwing literally anything and everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. Ambitious in scope, yes; unfortunately, next to little actually did stick between all the overblown gospel choirs and cringe attempts at rapping. To this day, “Connected by Love” ranks as one of the most grotesquely insincere pieces of musicianship from the 2010s, just a complete dumpster fire of a track. Fortunately for White — and for the listening public at large — Fear of the Dawn is something of a course correction from Reach, where rock’s most quirked-up white boy has finally found a comfortable middle ground between these more garish impulses and approachable commercial viability, straddling the line between these two modes with a firmer sense of quality control. Better yet, he’s now able to channel said inducements into songs that have a consistent thematic throughline: to embrace the unfamiliar, to live in the shadowed veil of darkness, the only time and place that makes sense to an oddity like White. He puts it best on “Into the Twilight”: “Here in the night / Everything’s right.” Not the most original thesis for a body of work, but it’s something, and that’s surely better than nothing.
Besides, what’s the point of worrying about logistics when White’s still able to play the role of the grand trickster so knavishly? As mentioned above, he continues to merrily mislead listeners on exactly where any of his records will go at just about any given time. The opening three-track trek of the album constitutes a fairly conventional blues-rock progression, all tightly structured and intensely performed, before dipping into the baroque “Hi-De-Ho,” an anomalous homage to vaudeville legend Cab Calloway that’s equal parts eerie, strange, and hysterical. Nothing about the track’s broader elements should conceivably work at all — Calloway’s rough looped vocal sample, the frantic guitar playing, the goofy Q-Tip feature, the strong “fucking around” quality of the entire enterprise — and yet, all together, they form a song so cockamamie that it’s difficult not to respect the raw singularity of it. Which, at this point in his career, is perhaps the best and more advantageous lens through which to engage with White’s ever-growing body of work: to embrace this particular strand of strangeness. Or, at the very least, to do so when the end results are this engaging.
Writer: Paul Attard Section: Pop Rocks
The narrative around Caitlyn Smith — that she kicked around Nashville for several years as a highly regarded hired-gun songwriter for mainstream artists she could sing under the table on any given day — isn’t an uncommon one. Hell, country music has an entire cottage industry of women whose careers have shared that particular arc. In the ‘90s, that would account for the Holy Trinity of Matraca Berg, Gretchen Peters, and Kim Richey; more recently, Smith falls along the same axis as Lori McKenna and Natalie Hemby. It’s not a terrible way to carve out a respectable and award-winning career, but High, Smith’s third album, makes it clear that she’s still gunning for the commercial success that has, to date, eluded her. That is in no way a referendum on the album’s quality or to suggest that Smith has somehow compromised her artistry here. High is a lovely and often evocative pop-country album that showcases Smith’s powerhouse singing and her gifts for melodies that take unexpected detours without ever becoming inaccessible.
More so than its two predecessors, High is produced with an ear for what’s current on radio playlists — the double-time chorus on “Downtown Baby” wouldn’t sound at all out-of-place between Kane Brown and Maren Morris, while easy-going arrangement on “Dreamin’s Free” strikes the same tone as “I Can’t,” a Top 40 hit with Old Dominion, which closed out her previous album era with at least a bit of commercial momentum. The songs on High are better-written than was that track, with an overall theme of attempting to find emotional regulation in turbulent times. The title track — originally cut in a more rock-oriented style by co-writer Miley Cyrus on her 2020 album, Plastic Hearts — is easily the set’s most complex, capitalizing on the easy power of Smith’s voice to create dramatic shifts in dynamics that, structurally, bolster the song’s narrative of feeling unmoored. Smith belts and growls her way through one of the year’s most riveting singles; truly, few of her contemporaries on country radio could match her torrid delivery of the song’s sweeping chorus. Whether or not radio will actually bite on any of these songs remains to be seen — “Downtown Baby” has been struggling to gain traction — but High proves that Caitlyn Smith elevates contemporary country.
Writer: Jonathan Keefe Section: Pop Rocks
Bon Iver drummer S. Carey is back with his fourth solo album, Break Me Open, once again leaning into his particular brand of vulnerability, expressing rough and raw feelings with this typically gentle voice and heartbreaking lyrical work. Which is to say, by and large, if you dig early Bon Iver, you’re probably inclined to S. Carey’s music. It makes sense, as he himself is a fan, initially becoming a part of the band because he knew the first record so well that he impressed Justin Vernon with his audition. And his sounds are still steeped in that late-2000s indie folk vibe, practically a time capsule to the era. It’s understandable that such an approach wouldn’t age particularly well for some, but for generous listeners, his skills remain top-notch, and he never takes the opportunity to rehash the worst traits of the genre. His lyrics likewise remain tough and biting, spinning confessionals about his divorce and the loss of his father, wounds laid open for the listener to experience in a manner so personal as to feel almost intrusive, his landing of each line taking on the character of a one-on-one conversation. It results in an emotional resonance that is hard, if not impossible, for many artists to fake, and even in his fourth record, S. Carey’s music still feels profoundly genuine.
But in spite of this welcome intimacy, there isn’t a whole lot else going on. It’s a very vibes record, which isn’t inherently a bad thing — of course, not every work needs to push boundaries or innovate in order to succeed — but S. Carey doesn’t have the luxury of being a household name or major rockstar milking the same tropes over and over again in filled stadiums across the country. Fair or not, for a smaller artist, particularly one trading in an arguably nostalgic mode, it can be difficult to repeatedly get away with this. Which is to say, while Break Me Open is a delicate, soothing listen, it registers as a replica of his past work rather than any kind of continuation of themes or progression of sound. It’s unfortunate that something so obviously personal dovetails with a musical texture that was already familiar a decade ago, and while the expressions are clearly cathartic for S. Carey, the album undeniably lands a little flat. Those who are established fans will likely still connect with Break Me Open on some not insignificant level, but for a general listenership, a first spin will likely float into the ether, pleasant but never to be returned to.
Writer: Andrew Bosma Section: Pop Rocks