Jack Harlow
Credit: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
Album Roundup by InRO Staff Featured Music

Album Roundup — May 2022 | Part 3: Jack Harlow, The Smile, Black Star

June 22, 2022

Jack Harlow

Back when I was a young man  / I liked them girls that was in the Abercrombie / I likеd them girls that was in the Aeropostalе / Now them same girls got coke in they nostrils / Somethin’ done made the youth hostile / Maybe it’s the fuel from the fossils.” So muses Jack Harlow on “Side Piece,” a performatively solemn track surfacing somewhere toward the middle of latest project and second studio album, Come Home the Kids Miss You. A comically shallow attempt to parse through The State of Things, sandwiched between rigid chorus and a rambly verse about hanging out in Argentina, “Side Piece” is classic Harlow, as far as one could hope to define that — a mishmash of not really connected ideas, sanded down into something that plays smoothly enough. 

Indeed, one could confidently describe the bulk of Come Home the Kids Miss You’s 45 minutes in similar terms, the 15 songs included herein bearing a uniform nondescriptness, somehow unfocused yet overly manicured at the same time. Backed by the assertion that Harlow “can raaaaaaap,” it becomes clear early on that he can’t do much beyond that, stamping his name on a fair number of boring beats in an unnecessary strain for credibility undermined by the team of producers backing him up (13 total on “I Got a Shot”!) from track to track. Clearly a lot of work was put into building Harlow a stage to flex his technical proficiency, but even here he falters, delivery, flow, etc. all reaching the strata of “serviceable” and not much beyond; obviously the rapper’s forte, but not really noteworthy or exceptional in the context of the broader culture. So why this guy exactly? It’s hard to say, and becomes no more obvious by the time Come Home reaches its conclusion with “State Fair,” a pokey lament for simpler, pre-fame times in Harlow’s native Kentucky. Regardless, it’s clear the industry is all in. 

The songs leading up to that point tell a similar story, except when they don’t, bringing in a savvy selection of features (Weezy, Pharrell, and, most on the nose, fellow cultural tourist Justin Timberlake) to cosign the MC’s mundane, conflicted observations on fame (sometimes it’s a lot of fun, sometimes he misses his friends). It’s a classic move straight out of the Logic playbook, one that these various elder statesmen are happy to oblige (most egregiously an uncredited Snoop Dogg cameo on the painfully titled “Young Harleezy”), but the resulting effect is that of a coronation for somebody we don’t care about, who hasn’t accomplished much of anything. Even Logic at least has an angle, proudly steering into the rap nerd label to create these unwieldy, overly involved concept albums that aren’t very good, but which at least exemplify some kind of imagination. Harlow doesn’t even offer that on Come Home the Kids Miss You, using this release to position himself somewhere in between that type of studied genre aficionado and Drake’s softboi romanticism (well represented here on their collab “Churchill Downs”). A rather cringey combo that nevertheless seems to hold some appeal for a significant enough chunk of the general public, one struggles to conceive of the sort of person who would want to return to this collection of stock hip hop beats and routine bars. It’s a patently tedious project to work through, one that bodes poorly for Harlow’s long-term future in this scene.

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

Credit: Alex Lake

The Smile

When perennial critic and music bro favorite Radiohead dropped, with near-surprise timing, A Moon Shaped Pool in 2016, the album was heralded not only as another storied entry in the band’s storied career, but, in time, as a possible capstone for its existence as well. Arriving alongside mortality-minded contemporary records like David Bowie’s Blackstar, A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here…, and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, AMSP evoked similar feelings of a journey’s end, its apocalyptic subject matter and reintroduction of older material closing the loop on some of the band’s central tensions and propositions. Radiohead’s output in the years since, if not posthumous per se, has helped to cement AMSP’s sense of finality, comprising mainly archival video footage and reworked/repackaged stray material. A robust number of solo releases during this same period from principal players like frontman Thom Yorke and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood (and a perfectly solid solo debut from guitarist Ed O’Brien) further suggested a group of musicians disengaged from active creation with one another. On paper, The Smile — a new trio with Yorke, Greenwood, and now-former Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner — seemed like another possible such side-quest, yet on debut album A Light for Attracting Attention, this satellite outfit is often indistinguishable from its mothership, compensating for secondary status with an agility and looseness largely unavailable to imperial era Radiohead.

If accompanied by smaller stakes than a hypothetical new Radiohead album, the musical aesthetic of ALfAA should satisfy fans of the group’s universal sighs and low-flying panic attacks. Taking the baton from the lush, gauzy passages on AMSP, ALfAA forgoes Yorke and Greenwood’s occasional rock n’ roll reluctance and foregrounds guitar leads as a guiding light through doomy dioramas. After the oozing synth creep of opener “The Same,” chiming guitars clarify The Smile’s ambition to jam on “The Opposite” and lead single “You Will Never Work in Television Again,” the latter a happy marriage in no-wave between early Sonic Youth-like ferocity and the cavernous qualities of Glenn Branca. A comparable balance between primacy and cacophony is struck on “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings,” its buzzing pulse building to an atonal squall, and one of Yorke’s most possessed performances on mic in years. On tracks with longer runways to riff — the krautrock-adjacent “A Hairdryer” and oscillating “Thin Thing” — repetition-driven grooves coast uneasily until coming precisely undone in crunchy devolutions. These mathier song constructions are founded upon, and carried by, the dexterity of Skinner, whose unexpected instrumentations and driving syncopations coax urgency and immediacy out of collaborators more well-known for their reserve. Though if Skinner is responsible for keeping The Smile earthbound, “sixth Radiohead member” and producer Nigel Godrich deserves credit for providing ALfAA with its ethereal edges, his warped textures and reverbed echoes adding mystery to these more physical songs (a stark contrast with his unforgivingly direct productions on the month of May’s other notable indie rock comeback).

Ironically enough, both Godrich-produced works (released one week apart) share many of the same topics and concerns, among them the fraying bonds within society and the decline of political order in modern times. It’s well-trod terrain for Yorke certainly, whose work in Radiohead and on 2019 solo album ANIMA consistently cast the singer as both protagonist and avatar for the alienation of a beset-upon populace. His tendencies toward emotional agitprop are as acute as ever here, conveying world-weariness through single-and-plural first-person observations of ill omens and tidings. The approach reaches fatalist peaks on ballads like “Speech Bubbles” and “Skrting on the Surface,” with both songs’ narrators staring down crumbling futures to the tune of a gloomy jazz shuffle, ambling in a fog through which sunlight occasionally shines. On the gorgeous, strings-centric “Pana-vision,” Yorke’s critique of life’s dull grind takes a different tact, adopting instead the perspective of a character moving into the next life with sublime bliss. If Yorke’s depressive balladry ends up slightly over-represented on ALfAA — and perhaps slightly over-familiar within his larger body of work — The Smile’s immaculate execution of the downer vibe forestalls any potential for drag here, skewing the results closer to “big mood” than “late period Drake album.” Though more so than its #sad tenor, the most compelling argument supporting the timeliness of ALfAA may be the album’s embodiment of the desire to do more or less the same things with a different group of friends.

Writer: Mike Doub   Section: Pop Rocks

Black Star

At first glance, the title of Black Star’s newest album, No Fear of Time, scans as a fitting choice for the elusive rap duo, their music — amounting to a single studio album, 1998’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star — often positioning them as truth-tellers striving toward an elevated consciousness. The duo then at the start of their respective careers, Black Star is surely a product of its time and the combined youthful vigor and imagination of 26-year-old Yasiin Bey and 23-year-old Talib Kweli, an album rightly celebrated for the technical ingenuity it showcases, but also frequently caught up in the self-seriousness that ruled certain genre factions during this era. At the forefront of an independent, underground scene backed by now-defunct Rawkus Records, Black Star rap from a moral high ground on their debut, paying homage to foundational hip hop legends like KRS-One and Slick Rick while wagging their fingers at the likes of Diddy and wringing their hands over the popularity of the violent rhetoric embraced by gangsta artists. 

Quite removed from where the genre currently rests, there were a good number of years where a follow-up project was in great demand, Bey and Kweli performing together with enough regularity to keep hopes alive, until both figures receded out of the culture far enough that it ceased to matter. In Bey’s case, the move away from the spotlight seemed more purposeful, an explicit decision to retire that hasn’t stuck (though it seems that he has entirely divorced himself from Hollywood), whereas Kweli’s career stalled out around the time he went independent, his more recent media coverage focusing on the sexual and cyber harassment charges lodged against him. And so Black Star makes their return at a peculiar moment, when there’s no longer obvious space for them to occupy, nor obvious interest in these artists from the broader, current-day culture — recharacterizing the title as a sort of defiant, self-deprecating joke.

But impressively, Black Star totally earn this joke, defying doubters and haters alike with No Fear of Time, an album that convincingly stages Bey (whose solo output has always been pretty forward-thinking, in fairness) and Kweli for 2022 without diluting the pair’s chemistry. Relegated to the library of podcast subscription service Luminary — which recently landed a massive investment from mutual buddy and co-host Dave Chappelle  (the trio have a show together on the network, naturally) — there’s a good chance that No Fear of Time may end up sneaking by a broader audience, and still another chance that those who do hear it will find the project too tainted to engage. But this probably works into Black Star’s designs just fine, their dubious release strategy as much a means to combat the devaluing of their art as it is a way to defuse two-plus decades worth of built-up anticipation. 

A breezy nine-track, 32-minute record produced by Madlib in full, Black Star rise to the occasion with No Fear of Time, without necessarily showing up past collaborations. Offering up a chic narrative suggesting the recordings were made “guerrilla-style” in hotel rooms and dressing rooms over some stretch of time (word that this project was completed surfaced as early as 2019), the supposed off-the-cuff nature of the album’s recording process is apparently born out in the fundamental sketchiness of some of these tracks, like the two-minute long “Sweetheart. Sweethard. Sweetodd.” and the similarly brief Bey solo cut “My favorite band.” But regardless of duration, Madlib’s beats hit consistently hard, though the more sweeping pieces like opener “o.G.” and the Black Thought-featuring penultimate track “Freequency” inevitably impress the most, allowing the producer space to construct these beautiful, multi-part compositions that move from erratic menace to spacey melancholy in an elegant, unshowy manner. Bey and Kweli are still lively performers and able to match each other’s energy for the most part, with both sort of lyrically challenged — the former weary and repetitive, the latter’s pontifications on social justice more fraught and haphazard than ever. Still, No Fear of Time is hard to resist in its fleet, compact state, its problems mostly mitigated by the amount of time Black Star stays on mic. But whether or not there’s a sustainable future for the duo, or even active interest in releasing more music together, remains entirely uncertain by the time the album concludes.

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

Credit: Abby Ross

Taj Mahal & Ry Cooder

To hear Ry Cooder tell it, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were always his guys. Recalling the alien intensity of Howlin’ Wolf and the like, Cooder remembers being a teenager and finding himself pulled in by the casual virtuosity and easeful demeanor of Terry and McGhee’s work, particularly their 1952 Folkways recording Get On Board. The music made enough of an impact on him, along with his decades-long, on-again-off-again collaborator Taj Mahal, that the two of them cut a full-length Terry/McGhee tribute album in early 2022, replicating the title and half of the tracklist from that Folkways classic, even modeling their album cover off the original’s striking black-and-white photography. 

Such fastidiousness attests to real subject-matter expertise, and listening to the retooled Get On Board will leave little doubt that Cooder and Mahal wore out the grooves on their old Sonny & Brownie LPs. But it also suggests that this might be one of those historical projects meant to edify and impress through a commitment to period detail. Happily, Cooder and Mahal have constructed something infinitely more valuable, not to mention playable: A record that feints toward archivalist purity even as it hoops and hollers with roiling joy and tangible glee. Put differently: It’s a party record, a boisterous witness not just to how great those old folk-blues sides are, but to the enduring impact that a formative musical experience can have. To hear Cooder and Mahal perform these songs, seemingly in a rush of memory — you’ll often hear one of them start off a tune as if reminding the other of how it goes, before the whole band kicks in with a wallop, or else hear takes punctuated by giddy laughter —is to behold two masters reconnect with a visceral, adolescent, life-changing pleasure. 

Part of the wallop is supplied by Cooder’s son Joachim, a drummer whose raucous thump and rattling maracas lend these songs a punchy, kinetic energy. There are some occasional studio effects, as well — the haunted, after-hours groove in “Packing Up Getting Ready to Go” could almost pass for a lost Latin Playboys jam — but by and large this is an unvarnished affair, with Cooder and Mahal very much running the show. They wisely avoid cosplay or studious recreation; Mahal, in particular, excels by blowing some spirited harmonica work without ever sounding like he’s trying to replicate Brownie’s unique style. And that’s really the key to what makes Get on Board so successful: These guys know what they’re doing but lead with feeling rather than academic knowledge, something that’s evident right out of the gate with their gleeful snarl in “My Baby Done Changed the Lock on the Door.” Elsewhere, they invigorate old warhorses like “The Midnight Special,” veering toward the raw and rambunctious as opposed to amber-preserved folklore. They dip into ribald humor (“Deep Sea Diver,” a wonderfully shameless innuendo), rural vernacular (“Pick a Bale of Cotton”), and loving nonsense (“Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee”). The lowbrow stuff rubs elbows with more high-minded material, notably a shuffling take on “I Shall Not Be Moved,” but the real pleasure of this album is how it renders such distinctions irrelevant: Here, even the most sacred songs sound earthy, and even the most vulgar sound like they could ostensibly change a life.

Writer: Josh Hurst   Section: Rooted & Restless

Belle & Sebastian

The day before Belle & Sebastian’s newest album was released, Stuart Murdoch tweeted an unusual, instructional disclaimer for longtime fans: “Understand it’s not Sinister, Tigermilk, or Arab Strap. Understand we can’t take you back to those days and the way you felt back then.” It’s certainly an obvious statement for music listeners, but indeed may be a necessary caveat for much of the fandom. Belle & Sebastian face an unusual problem in that their impressive back catalog boasts much-beloved ‘90s indie staples like If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy with the Arab Strap that soundtracked many a millennial’s coming of age. Although the band has released plenty of material in the twenty-odd years since, they’re still locked in battle with the (sometimes unforgiving) power of nostalgia. The question is one any enduring acts of a certain popularity must contend with: when your older work is so beloved, what is the proper way to move forward artistically? Luckily for listeners, Belle & Sebastian have pulled off a neat little trick with A Bit of Previous. Sonically, it acts as a cheeky little wink to older songs; lyrically, it tackles some of their usual topics but from the vantage of a different, more aged perspective. In looking both backward and forward, this latest record manages to sound fresh despite the threat of obvious retread.

Throughout, there are clear reference points to previous material. You can hear echoes of “Electric Renaissance” in the synths on “Talk to Me, Talk to Me,” while the sparse opening of “Do It For Your Country” recalls the simple guitar of “Piazza, New York Catcher.” At the same time, we’re treated to a more mature look on life. Opener “Young and Stupid” is vintage Belle & Sebastian, with a lovely melodic line carried through by violin, but the track overall feels like a more mature bookend to some of their youthful catalog: “Now we’re old with creaking bones / Some with partners, some alone / Some with kids and some with dogs / Getting through the nightly slog,” Murdoch muses, acknowledging time’s ever forward march. It’s a rather graceful look at aging from a band whose music is often associated — lyrically, sonically — with youth. But that’s not to say that Belle & Sebastian have lost all their energy — “Unnecessary Drama” features a spectacular riff working in tandem with a driving drumbeat and a wailing harmonica, as danceable as anything the group has produced.

A Bit of Previous is a lovely little jewel for a band with such an iconic career. It’s not strictly a recreation of their older work, but it does act as an homage to all the places Belle & Sebastian have been. It may not be the kind of work to win over new fans — if you’re not already a fan of Belle & Sebastian’s distinctly twee aesthetic, it’s unlikely this will ever be your cup of tea — but it feels like both a gift for longtime fans as well as an act of self-care, an act of meaningfully moving forward while lovingly acknowledging the past. Indeed, one of the great joys of music comes in hearing artists have fun with the material they’re producing, and this is by far the most fun Belle & Sebastian have had in the studio in over a decade. A full quarter-century into their career, as other acts think of hanging their hats and moving onto other life pursuits, Belle & Sebastian here prove they’re still capable of conjuring the magic that made them an early iTunes staple for a certain demographic. They may not be casting the same spell that won listeners over way back in 1996, but in tapping into that same animated spirit, A Bit of Previous is an impressive enough feat in its own right.

Writer: Alex Clifton   Section: Ledger Line