Kendrick Lamar is not your savior; he’s not your messiah, not your go-to source for everyday wisdom, and he’s certainly not an individual worthy of widespread idolization. He repeats and rephrases this sentiment throughout his final offering for TDE, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, like it’s a recalcitrant push-back against his meteoric (and, at times, overwhelming and outright obnoxious) critical lionization from legacy media outlets and the music industry at large. He’s been propped up as the rapper who can do no wrong, the lyricist who cuts to the heart — now with five parts! — of the issue; here, he’s messy, challenging, combative, and, to his credit, downright contentious with his audience. He lets his fangs truly out for once, and in a way that allows for zero self-righteous anger and isn’t pitted against any real deserving enemy; on this LP, he’s the protagonist, antagonist, and every secondary player in between. He’s his own worst enemy and his biggest supporter.
If the comparison could be drawn, there’s actually very little that separates this from Ye’s recent Donda 2. Sure, this one is far more… shall we say, musically complete than West’s latest offering, and has songs with fleshed-out structures and finished verses (and far fewer Virgil Abloh eulogies). Thematically, however, both records are concerned with being unafraid of one’s own ugly interiority and embracing the chaos and internal contradictions that come with exorcizing your inner demons. They’re bodies of work that implore you to hate them (especially by judgmental, supposedly “liberal” finger-wagers who think they’re angels themselves), to think their primary MCs are narcissistic assholes who can only conceive of the world’s many problems through their own struggles. To a degree, these skeptics are right: there’s a self-involved character to how these albums have been conceived — a certain embrace of immediacy with their selected subject matters, one that sacrifices prompt clarity for emotional potency — but one that makes them far more engrossing because of it. On most hip-hop albums, transgressive art is a byproduct of real-world injustice; while Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is influenced by broad social ills more than Donda 2, both are so insular at points that they almost exist within their own historical vacuums, heightening their own internalized drama to the level of transgressive art itself.
While Lamar has always placed himself in conversation with the world around him to a certain degree — 2017’s DAMN served as his last foray into the meta-textual, fourth-wall-breaking territory of acknowledging his shortcomings — here, he’s more hellbent on making artistic choices that are intended to infuriate than ever before. He’s willing to pull a Slim Shady some 20 years after the fact, and gets into a melodic screaming match with Taylour Paige on “We Cry Together,” one of the more outright self-effacing tracks on the double album’s first disc; for as much as Kendrick loves to play pretend and pitch his vocals for dramatic effect, he’s rarely this indignant, this vulnerable, this ready to expose himself and shatter his perfect image. He places Kodak Black front and center of the musical festivities — with one feature, a sole skit, and a few stray appearances elsewhere — with the central objective of contrasting their images as Black entertainers in America, with one who’s been “accepted” working alongside a perceived pariah; it’s a comparison that’s not 100% there and feels a bit trollish, but the intellectual and moral complications that arise offer a genuinely thorny bit of provocation.
Sometimes, it pays to go bold, even if the results are messy and demand further engagement than surface-level considerations: “Auntie Diaries,” which at times is equally problematic (the deadnaming of transgendered family members, the liberal usage of “f****t”), nonetheless carries a redemptive attitude, one that suggests emotional growth can always supersede habitual ignorance. But the slurs remain, even if minds have been changed: again, Kendrick Lamar’s sainthood has been revoked; he’s not perfect, nor does he claim to be. He’s a human being, supposedly a humble one, somebody who’s continuously growing; the once mirthful phrase still lingers, echoing in his mind over and over again.
Yet, Kendrick doesn’t just turn inward; he’s more than willing to spit some venom out onto others as well. On the war-ready “N95,” Lamar rattles off an extensive list of material possessions and social constructs listeners should “take off” — “the clout chase,” “the money phone,” “the fake woke,” and “all that designer bullshit” — as their presence and prevalence within hip-hop culture has distracted them from recognizing their own personal traumas. Kendrick carries a bit of a pompous tone when delivering this verse, with a dash of insolence on the hook (the call and response chorus of “Bitch, huh, huh, ugh / You ugly as fuck” followed by a foxy “You outta pocket” adlib), but at least he’s consistent: he’s still attempting to get to the point and cut through it all, even when it seems like he might be losing the narrative. Makes sense, especially given the circumstances: Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is a long, undisciplined, eagerly ambitious project with some noticeable washouts (the flat “Die Hard” and monotonous “Crown”), but one that is never at risk of spiraling out of control. Even with the bloat, there’s a clarity and intensity to the directness of Lamar’s storytelling abilities that is seldom heard with this level of technical production backing it; the varied instrumental choices and switch-ups on “Mr. Morale,” for example, provide a needed menace lacking from Lamar’s stunted performance.
The biggest point of contention comes with the two-part conclusion of “Mother I Sober” and “Mirror,” where the inclusion of the pair in and of themselves suggest that there can even be a satisfying finish to the topics at hand — having your significant other hop on the final 30 seconds of a track to drop a quick “congratulations” feels especially cheap in that regard — but perhaps Lamar’s intentions are far more sinister than presented. He could be willingly fooling himself into believing he’s actually broken a “generational curse” by securing enough emotional validation from those he cares most about; or he could just be deluding himself and his listeners, and so is instead destined to continue past cycles of abuse. It’s a testament to the record’s knottiness that we, as listeners, can’t be sure. After all, Kendrick Lamar isn’t eternal, or even unbeatable; on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, he is simply human, and all the better for it.
Writer: Paul Attard Section: What Would Meek Do?
One of the most compelling and immediately exciting things about Harry Styles is his winsome charisma. The man’s simply a natural performer, easily lighting up any stage he visits, and you never want to look away from his live performances — his connection with a crowd is easy, his presence magnetic. Importantly, for the most part that appeal has carried over into his actual music. Songs like “Sign of the Times” and “Watermelon Sugar” — hitting opposite ends of the tonal spectrum — beg to be listened to, even if they might not be your particular style; they’re grandiose and ridiculous and attention-catching. It’s clear Styles aimed to bring that sort of energy to his third album, Harry’s House, but unfortunately it did not transfer smoothly or evenly into the studio. The peak moments are genuinely thrilling, but much of the album registers as nice but a little dull, a disappointment given the dynamism Styles is so clearly capable of.
Harry’s House does kick off with a fabulous one-two punch of “Music for a Sushi Restaurant” and “Late Night Talking.” “Sushi” is ludicrous in the best sense, replete with a mish-mash of horns, a wordless chorus, and a bevy of seductive food metaphors. Any attempt to describe the song can only make it sound stupid, but it’s well worth the listen for the experience of it: it operates as a thesis statement for the album, and is an absolutely swaggering opener. “Late Night Talking” continues down the ‘70s funk lane, albeit in a more straightforward manner; it’s danceable and incredibly sticky, designed to be spun on repeat. The other littered tracks that follow in these footsteps of upbeat production stand out as well. Lead single “As It Was” is a masterclass in the “sad bop” genre, simultaneously grandiose and rather lonely. It’s certainly a fine line to tread, but Styles is up to the task, charming even when he’s singing about his own self-loathing.
The album as a whole, however, struggles a bit when it comes to the writing. The sonic stylings of Harry’s House are undeniably lush and earwormy, but they unfortunately can’t mask the many awkward or downright bad phrasings. “I bring the pop to the cinema / you pop when we get intimate,” Styles croons on “Cinema,” a distinctly unsexy and juvenile bit of wordplay. On “Boyfriends,” which is meant to be a more heartfelt ballad examining how men take advantage of their partners, Styles offers only basic platitudes: “They think you’re so easy / they take you for granted / they don’t know, they’re just misunderstanding.” Nobody expects a sociologically grounded tract on poorly behaved boyfriends from a three-minute song, but this is so low effort as to barely register. And more functionally irksome, the album melds into a series of “ba ba ba” and “la la la” noises, making it hard to differentiate between different tracks when spinning the record for background music. It’s perhaps in these littered complaints that the most frustrating thing about Harry’s House becomes clear: For an artist whose music is usually so buoyed by his energetic performance, this latest album scans as an awfully subdued and generic affair. Too many listeners will be left feeling like a vexed parent: not mad because it’s so godawful — it isn’t — but disappointed because it isn’t more.
Writer: Alex Clifton Section: Pop Rocks
When Tame Impala infused the indie music scene with its retro-futurist brand of psychedelia and acts like DIIV introduced a grungier aesthetic to the relatively clean-cut milieu, the stars aligned for a band like Sunflower Bean. The Brooklyn-based trio were ready to offer their take on the popular sounds (and looks) of the day, mixing a throwback urgency with hazy power pop on their first album Human Ceremony in 2016, following a string of singles and EPs. It was an eclectic record by a band very much in search of an identity, sifting through the alt-rock canon for anything that would lend itself to their rough-around-the-edges musical amalgam. What the group lacked in finesse, they made up for with a charmingly sincere approach to the well-worn styles they were trying out. But by the time their follow-up Twentytwo in Blue came out two years later, Sunflower Bean’s music had taken a turn for the poppy and topical. LP #2 took on the feverish zeitgeist of the Trump years, albeit with a pretty laid-back energy that mirrored a lot of their pop contemporaries — more of a warm embrace for dark times than a fiery call to action in the face of political upheaval.
On Headful of Sugar, they unfortunately lean into the pervasive sounds of algorithm-rock, to fairly unremarkable results — more Spotify “Alternative 20s” fodder than a meaningful artistic statement. While their debut cribbed from Lush, Sonic Youth, and the Smashing Pumpkins (from their gothy early days as well as the the Big Muff-laden Gish/Siamese Dream era), their sophomore album was more indebted to breezy, Fleetwood Mac-inspired pop-rock, filtered through a contemporary indie sensibility which sometimes flirted with the banal. But on their third, Sunflower Bean give in to the current demand for glitzy pop mediocrity. Although the record falls short of feeling cynical, there is a certain calculated quality, which colors its uninspired moments not as juvenilia but rather as half-hearted attempts at pleasing both the streaming overlords and the current cabal of tastemakers who have all but fallen in line with poptimist orthodoxy. Opener “Who Put You Up To This?” sets the stage early with a Lorde-esque vocal melody, courtesy of singer and bassist Julia Cumming, and a fuzzy, psych-tinged guitar solo which serves as a bridge before the final chorus. It’s decently catchy but also sounds exactly like everything else that has become ubiquitous in the world of unchallenging, consumer-friendly alternative playlists. On the middling third track “Otherside,” they sound especially aimless, the synth-led tune meandering about for a full two minutes before the drums kick in to shake the dreary song awake. And as far as the lyrics are concerned, lines like “Slivers of hope, they fade to rust / My daydreams crumble into dust” don’t exactly reward thorough rereads.
“In Flight” proves to be the Headful of Sugar‘s sole highlight, with a beautiful falsetto sing-along chorus and verses that recall Yo La Tengo’s “Stockholm Syndrome.” For once, the band does away with the platitudes and writes truthfully about experiencing alienation from their surroundings, namely the place they grew up in. “Nothing ever changes in this town / The people die or they move out / Everyone but me,” sings guitarist and occasional vocalist Nick Kivlen, a rare instance of legitimate gloominess from a band of self-described “misfits” who are supposedly concerned with their experiences as “outsiders disillusioned in the modern world” and who “wanted to write about the lived experience of late capitalism.” For all the trendy lingo found in their press kit, it’s their more intimate and personal material that resonates the most. It’s unfortunate, then, that they don’t really go for anything of the sort again, instead serving up trite odes to losing control like “I Don’t Have Control Sometimes,” where Cumming chronicles tame excesses such as locking yourself out of your house, getting bad tattoos, and spilling your secrets to strangers at a bar. Accompanied by a sunny but extremely forgettable instrumental, the song reeks of the kind of hyper-glossy, bland faux-alternative that has come to dominate the genre.
For better or worse, their music has always been a hodgepodge of clearly identifiable influences, but what was charming for a group that wrote their first LP while still in their teens, doesn’t have the same effect for musicians in their mid-twenties. The fact of the matter is, for all their hip role models, the music itself was never a particularly remarkable spin on the styles they were borrowing from, never mind the fact that they tended to borrow from their influences’ most accessible material anyway. But continuously moving further toward the pop end of the spectrum has only made their music stand out less, and on Headful of Sugar they struggle to set themselves apart, as even their more memorable tracks tend to be bogged down by a severe lack of originality and an onslaught of humdrum lyrics. Their reputation as a “fashion band” might point to something deeper than Cumming’s connections to haute couture fashion houses. There’s a fine line between adapting to a changing musical landscape and simply chasing trends, and unfortunately, it seems like Sunflower Bean have been mostly preoccupied with the latter.
Writer: Fred Barrett Section: Obscure Object
Hypnos is R&B singer-songwriter Ravyn Lenae’s debut studio album, and her first release in four years since 2018’s Sticky EP. Familiar adjectives like lush, groovy, and vibey all readily come to mind when describing Lenae’s music, but unfortunately she has already beaten every reviewer to the punch and named her album after the best one — hypnotic.
Hypnos is named after the Greek god of sleep, and the tracklist is arranged so that the songs lull the listener deeper and deeper into a trance as the project progresses. Calling anything on this patient album “upbeat” might be bending the truth, but early tracks like “Venom” and “M.I.A.” certainly have fast-paced melodies and, thanks to their tightly exploding synth chords, enough of a groove to get your head nodding. (The latter also has Afrobeat-adjacent percussion.) Lead single “Skin Tight,” which features The Internet’s Steve Lacy, is where the album really gets into the process of hypnosis: “Hold me while you can,” Lenae croons over a sea of dreamy harmonies. Her voice is delicate and high-pitched, but the richness of the album’s vocal layering elevates the music from anonymous, vibe R&B into a project formed around her distinct, siren-esque presence. The next few tracks are also slow and meditative; “Deep in the World” even incorporates some soft acoustic guitar. But just because the songs are relaxed doesn’t mean they’re somnambulant or lack personality. On “3D,” Lenae asserts, with smooth attitude, “I don’t need a boyfriend,” as Smino’s guest verse barely holds onto the beat.
The album picks back up for a moment with “Satellites” (wordless vocalizations support her lyrics about floating high in space), but then gets even more overt about its title as it descends back into “Lullabye,” which is punctuated by tissue-thin harp sounds. The last few tracks, which wind the project down to a gentle conclusion, are no less entrancing than the earlier cuts. Second single “Light Me Up” and its cascading melody are a highlight; acoustic guitar reappears in “Like You Do” and “Mercury.” These closing songs are so peaceful that you’re in danger of both forgetting you’re listening to them partway through and internalizing their music completely into your being. Hypnos concludes with “Wish,” where Lenae sings, “Every night, I close my eyes and make a little wish.” Grand violins guide listeners to close their eyes and finally rest. Describing music as lulling you to sleep usually isn’t complimentary, but for the hushed, meditative world of Hypnos, it’s high praise.
Writer: Kayla Beardslee Section: What Would Meek Do?
A full decade removed from his last release, Lyle Lovett returns with 12th of June, the result of stockpiling songs across that period of time and waiting for the moment when a record felt right. That lossless extends to the album’s character, which bears a lightheartedness capable of penetrating the most jaded defenses, all backed by a healthy focus on the instrumentation of the musician’s famous band.
The album’s title is a reference to the birthday of Lovett’s twin children, and it was largely inspired by them, with songs like “Pants is Overrated” being a simple narration of his day-to-day life getting his kids ready for the day. It’s a simple track, but charming, hitting all the right notes one would expect from such a song. It’s also an appropriate segue into Lovett’s late-career sound. It’s hard to place his genre in a box these days: while his early career can pretty comfortably be umbrella’d under country, this record comes with a bigger, swaggering swing band feel. The progression certainly makes sense, the byproduct of Lovett slowly bringing musicians into his fold over the years, recruiting talented individuals for what he lovingly refers to as his “large band.” Here, they toss around between sounds and genres, playfully peppering in wide-reaching influences, from swinging jazz hooks to folk pluckings to blues riffs. It’s certainly an amiable jumble, but unfortunately doesn’t build to much beyond that easy pleasantness.
There’s also not much of a throughline thematically on 12th of June, which makes it so that the tracks tend to bleed into each other a bit over time — this makes for easy listening, but given Lovett’s musical tradition, does feel a bit soft. This isn’t to say the effect is bad by any means, but it also doesn’t feel like a major artistic product built up over the course of a decade. No new ground is being broken or even tread, but then again, it doesn’t particularly feel like he’s trying to do so. On its face this feels frustratingly unambitious, as Lovett was known for shifting the style of the genre in the early ‘90s, but there’s no denying that the sum still goes down easily, nor that the artist is still performing an album of Lyle Lovett songs, which is payoff plenty in itself.
Many artists spend creative droughts trying to reinvent themselves and their persona, an attempt to become a new artist or brand a new personal artistry. Lyle Lovett instead leans comfortably into his old grooves on 12th of June, like someone settling into a beloved mattress. After a decade’s disappearing act, it’s a bold move in its easy confidence, and he forgoes any phoenix-from-the-ashes act and sticks to what’s worked well for the past 30 years. But despite that sort of sly conceptual boldness, it remains a distinctly safe record, agreeably warm but destined to leave many listeners wishing for something grander.
Writer: Andrew Bosma Section:Rooted & Restless