Few may have guessed that Austin Richard Post (or, Post Malone, as translated by an Internet rap name generator) would be the enduring cultural figure that he is today when “White Iverson” dropped back in 2015. What would prove to be a career-making single and something of an aesthetic trendsetter (or at least, trend-codifier) was also widely mocked at the time, with Malone’s scuzzy white boy take on sing-song-y trap music inevitably bugging those wary of the rapid mainstreaming/gentrifying of the genre. Yet despite the initial jokes and skepticism, Malone didn’t have much issue integrating into wider rap culture in the wake of “White Iverson”’s success, securing beats/co-signs from the likes of Pharell and Metro Boomin for debut album Stoney a year later, while also landing a now iconic feature on The Life of Pablo’s original closer “Fade.” Nor did he face much resistance from the wider pop music industry, Stoney ushering the singer/rapper into the upper echelons of the Billboard charts and a fruitful, collaborative friendship with Justin Bieber, who appeared on fourth single “Deja Vu.” Boasting equal credibility in both of these worlds, Malone moved on from Stoney to the Grammy-nominated Beerbongs and Bentleys, an appropriately laconic project, goofy and emo in proportionate measure. Though Stoney implied a more commercial, singles-centric future for this MC, Beerbongs and Bentleys, while not a severe course correction, breezed past critical skepticisms and measured expectations to deliver a decidedly cohesive project. A quick-paced 65 minutes, the album keeps up for the duration, hardly flagging even when moving away from the radio songs. Something of an achievement in the streaming era, Beerbongs and Bentley found a nice middle ground between the not-so-disparate poles of Malone’s trap pretensions and desire for broad pop appeal, high energy and formulaic but not without character.
Perhaps not such a huge accomplishment in the grand scheme, but Post Malone’s second studio album nevertheless deserves its mild praise, the small feat managed there a significant peak of his increasingly unremarkable discography. Following up 2019’s dreary, diffuse Hollywood’s Bleeding (propped up by Into the Spider-Verse cut “Sunflower”), Malone halfheartedly returns with Twelve Carat Toothache, a slight, rambly switch-up that favors the artist’s singer-songwriter side. Largely ignoring more straightforward hip hop production in favor of a sampling of various Top 40-approved styles (Neon Trees and Imagine Dragons come to mind on “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” Lorde plus any number of neo-folk artists on the belabored “Lemon Tree”), album mastermind and elite pop producer Louis Bell runs Malone through a bunch of different uncomfortable poses, stretching the capabilities of his warbly crooning delivery, but never to very interesting effect (alas, not even when paired up against unlikely guest vocalist Robin Peckold on “Love/Hate Letter to Alcohol”). Twelve Carat Toothache is a pointless exercise, one that attempts to lazily retool this artist’s already solid star persona, while also cleaning up his already almost too-clean sound. Obviously the end product of a loss of inspiration, one must hope that next time around, Post Malone can conceive of something bolder than handing the project off to a mega-producer.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly what KayCyy (spelled exactly as is) is going for on Get Used To It (a mixtape meant to hold over fans before his upcoming studio debut), and, for the most part, that’s a good thing. At least, in KayCyy’s hands, this becomes a good thing. In fact, he’s such a good songwriter — and ghostwriter, with his hands all over Ye’s Donda — that he can of course make it a good thing. There’s an immediacy to the songcraft here — and brevity, as the poppy tracks reliably clock in around three minutes and hit the chorus at least twice — that registers no matter how aggressive things get. Sure, it’s easy to point to the influences that have gone into the general sensibilities of these tracks — lo-fi, 2017-era Playboi Carti can be heard all over “Replay” and “Borrow,” with the latter even copying his deadened delivery across the chorus and verse — but the arc that KayCyy is able to assemble from these reference points is far more telling than the mere presence of such qualities.
Which, to be fair, there are plenty of, like the pulsating, massive see-sawing bassline of “Replay,” where KayCyy’s vocals repeatedly croak out the demand “give me more, not less,” before then asserting “I bet I do numbers, let’s bet, yeah.” His first verse that follows this is jagged, often monosyllabic with wordplay, and baby-voiced in his cadence (“Woah, wow, I know she gon’ geek”); the second is more melodic, smoother, carries an actual rhythm, and ends with an unfounded declaration that he’s the year’s hottest rookie. It’s a monster of a song, preceded by opener “Look What I Found,” which features a progressive midsection beat switch-up that announces guest Lancey Foux with a full orchestra; “Shoutouts” follows both, with a stammering, bouncy beat that KayCyy playfully propels his voice off of as he honors his immediate family (he makes the humorous aside that he “put my granny in a Wraith” but that “uh, she don’t even know what it is”) before hitting a chorus built around him stretching out the “-en” in “told ’em it was written.” A little later, on “Howwww” (again, spelled exactly as is), he laments about how he wouldn’t be mad “if a stranger fuck my bitch… / ’cause I don’t know him,” as opposed to if a friend did it instead. It’s in the details.
But while KayCyy largely operates in a vaguely hip-hop-oriented space throughout the majority of Get Used To It’s brief 27-minute length, there’s an even briefer stretch in the middle (two songs, to be exact) where he slows things down even further with a pair of neo-soul ballads that suggest his eclectic talents might stretch even further. “Hold You Up” and “Rain,” the latter of which features 070 Shake and Daniel Caesar, gift the mixtape with an earthy, almost sensual middle-ground of sorts that feels like a transitional space between the project’s bombastic opening and mellowed closing. And while there isn’t really much of a thematic arc to the music as a whole, KayCyy’s diverse skill set provides enough of a reason to stick around; he really does make you wanna know what’s going to happen next, which, at this point, seems almost limitless.
Toward the end of Mississippi Son, Charlie Musselwhite imagines himself as a hitchhiker, young and aimless. The blues itself is personified as the driver who thunders down the highway — one can only presume it’s in a dark and dusty Cadillac — and offers young Charlie a ride. Nearing 80, Musselwhite has now spent decades in that car, a fleeting discursion turned into a life’s work. Mississippi Son is his travelogue, his chronicle of just where that mysterious driver has taken him; a seamless patchwork of standards and originals, the album masterfully draws on familiar forms to render Musselwhite’s biography. It’s a crowning achievement, and the kind of rarified synergy of craft and content that only the most veteran practitioners can accomplish.
It’s also a homecoming, and in more ways than one. The title reflects Musselwhite’s recent return to the state where he was born, his long life as an itinerant bluesman bringing him, at last, full circle. The songs reflect the inevitability of his path, how his lifelong fling with the blues took him far and abroad but was always destined to return him to the mouth of the river. But it’s also something of a musical homecoming: While Musselwhite has made a name for himself largely on the basis of his spirited harmonica work — his sensitive musicianship has made him the go-to harp player for everyone from Ben Harper to Tom Waits — Mississippi Son highlights his skill with the guitar, an instrument he mastered as a child but has rarely showcased on his records. There’s a smeared-lipstick romance to his playing, which never sounds polished but is consistently tantalizing in its rhythmic precision. There’s even a solo acoustic guitar piece here, offered as a testament to his late friend and mentor Big Joe Williams; Musselwhite plays it on one of Big Joe’s own guitars, an apt metaphor for the way this record knowingly engages with personal history.
It’s not just personal history that Musselwhite is concerned with. One of the most ingenious things about Mississippi Son is how it overlays autobiography on top of a compact history of the blues, exhibiting Musselwhite’s comprehensive knowledge of the form and weaving old chestnuts into his own story. Played in a tight three-piece configuration, the cover songs attest to Musselwhite’s gifts as a blues stylist: His take on John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling King Snake” is tightly-coiled, casual in its menace; Charley Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues” is offered up as an irresistible, locomotive groove. The Stanley Brothers’ country-folk classic “Rank Strangers” is converted into a dusty blues, and best of all is a raucous reading of Yank Rachell’s “Hobo Blues,” which sounds positively nasty with its popping drums and stinging guitar. No matter what mode he’s working in, Musselwhite sings with a casual authority and deep control — his voice has more in common with the booming solemnity of Johnny Cash than with the frayed edges of Howlin’ Wolf.
The cover songs provide context for Musselwhite’s originals, which sketch out his own vagabond life — his prodigal wanderings and winding road home — in a rough-hewn, rural vernacular. (Personal though these songs may be, you may need to consult the liner notes to distinguish some of the originals from decades-old staples.) Opener “Blues Up the River” is loose and limber, a testament to Musselwhite’s hypnotic power; it’s also a marvel of storytelling brevity and precision. “Drifting from Town to Town” tells you everything you need to know in the title alone, while the uptown swing of “Blues Gave Me a Ride” bears witness to a life of gratitude: “Now if blues stops for you / Won’t you jump on board? / You can forget all your troubles and / Roll on down the road.” For him, blues is both escape and calling; and on Mississippi Son, it’s also an open invitation.
George Ezra, with his signature deep baritone and radio-friendly pop sensibilities, opts for a switch-up on Gold Rush Kid, his third full-length LP, deviating slightly from the sound that has brought him to this point. Stepping away from the “guy with a guitar” genre, he takes a running leap into the bombastic electronic territory of a group like, say, Glass Animals, but the result is unfortunately lacking, completely fading what has made his career an interesting follow up until this point.
In the mid-2010s, it was hard to go much of anywhere without hearing “Budapest” filling public spaces. Every grocery store, bank, and dentist’s office managed to have that song piped into their building at least once or twice a day, and while this single was such a big hit largely on the strength of its sing-along chorus, it still lead to significant artistic clout for Ezra, especially in the UK, his nation of origin. The rest of his catalog didn’t manage to land with the same aplomb in the U.S., but the musician did manage to become a mainstay at mid-day festival slots and afternoon talk show performances. While that characterization may sound like a dig, these were legitimate techniques of the time that many artists used to leverage their popularity in new-to-them markets, a gambit that lent the highest chance of propelling them to international stardom.
But that era has passed, and the age of viral performances and TikTok soundbites has fully arrived, making unlikely stars left and right. With this in mind, it seems that Ezra is making yet another attempt with Gold Rush Kid at propelling himself to greater international recognition, but it’s all executed in a way that feels completely empty and void of any understanding of what actually makes these sounds so popular. Rather than making music that could theoretically go along with a video or have a dance accompanying them — the most common way to ascend via TikTok, a savvy maneuver regardless of your opinion — he instead merely imitates the earwormy tracks that have already become popular on the platform, co-opting the sonic textures that come closest to fitting into his wheelhouse. The result is as cheap as that tactic sounds: bland, insipid, and largely unlistenable. While he touts the record as his most intimate, with a focus on introspection, whatever lyrical framework he’s describing completely disappears within a haze of soulless pop motion-going.
Lest this all sound too much like a boomer-y condemnation of new modes, let’s be clear: there are myriad ways to accrue listeners and cultural currency, to bend music to viral ends, few of which adhere to any binary rulebook. But Gold Rush Kid is an excellent example of what not to do, specifically the wholesale imitation of what was popular a year ago, which is eons in this brave new world of the 30-minute trend cycle. Hopefully George Ezra realizes this and rebounds with something that actually holds the emotional intimacy he claims to be aiming for. Given his style, that could be a worthwhile avenue. Gold Rush Kid is as dead as ends come.
Since her debut album, the canon-ready Living With Ghosts, was released as just a lightly-tweaked version of her self-recoded demo tape, Patty Griffin’s Tape shouldn’t surprise to the extent that it does. Still, Griffin has been such an aesthetic nomad in the decades since she recorded that first demo that, at this juncture of her storied career, it’s a bit jarring to hear her return to such a DIY sound. Tape, as a collection of previously unreleased demos and rarities, jettisons the densely-layered rock, folk, and gospel flourishes that she has explored — to often brilliant effect — for scratch vocals and simply-strummed and plucked acoustic guitars. Few of the tracks here — “Don’t Mind,” featuring Robert Plant and a full backing band, being the most notable exception — offer more than Griffin’s extraordinary voice and her straightforward guitarwork or piano-playing. The stripped-down aesthetic is well-matched to the simplicity of these particular songs. “Get Lucky” coasts on a scratchy blues riff and Griffin’s not-entirely-hopeful plea for better fortunes, while “Night” hinges on a set of striking images (“Night, you come and sing the songs/Of birds that have no eyes”) that linger over just a few haunting piano chords. Not every singer-songwriter trades in the type of material — or sings so well — that lends itself so readily to such a bare-bones approach. But the nearly a capella “Kiss Of A Man” is so robust and distinctive of a narrative that it simply doesn’t need more than what’s here. Tape, to that end, is something of a full-circle moment for Griffin, harkening back to her first album while demonstrating how her craft has lost none of its initial potency or magic.