Dropping just over a month after Drizzy’s divisive, house music-inflected megamix, listening through Beyoncé’s sinuous dance record might provoke commentary like the text that another InRO writer sent me the Friday morning of Renaissance’s release: “Is Bey copying Drake’s homework?” But let’s unpack that a bit. Drake’s tribute to his friend Virgil Abloh, the visionary late LV Artistic Director known early in his career for playing house music-heavy DJ sets, returns to the “playlist” concept the rapper-crooner fashioned for his 2017 project More Life. What was new on Honestly, Nevermind was that the commitment to a “seamless” listening experience extended to a more tunnel-visioned aesthetic direction — influences were drawn from hard techno, Baltimore’s signature club music, and some of the ballroom and Afrobeat that Drake has more regularly incorporated into his sound since More Life, but the constant is a compositional minimalism. The insistence on stripping back songs to just skeletal instrumental frames — with an ever-present, breathy Drake gliding over the beats and pulses — also goes some way toward explaining dismissals of Honestly, Nevermind. For one, “minimal house” isn’t typically the domain of “vocal house,” and only a handful of tracks on Drake’s latest (notably, “Massive”) mustered the sonic muscle of that deep house sound that took root in the ‘90s, and that introduced a heavily gospel-influenced vocal presence that Drake’s own whispery delivery couldn’t hope to emulate.
So did Drake really do much “homework” for Honestly, Nevermind? Maybe not, and in truth that’s the charm of what’s actually one of this year’s best albums: It’s less a work of calculated pastiche than coy experimentation, Drake caring less about genre reverence than exploring how he can meld the instrument that God gave him with these specific sounds and textures, locking in on ingratiating vocal hooks and melodies along the way. In contrast, Beyoncé’s dance record is nothing if not studied: A set studded with album credit-inflating samples or interpolations, like the instantly-recognizable snaking synth line from Robin S.’s “Show Me Love” (1993) that bolsters lead single “Break My Soul,” the flip of Teena Marie’s sparkling late-disco anthem “Ooo La La La” (1988) that spans both “Cuff It” and “Energy,” and the peak disco classic of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” (1977) that Bey lovingly pays tribute to on album-closer “Summer Renaissance.” Beyoncé is anything but a minimalist, and since at least the hard-reboot of her self-titled album/“visual album” in 2013 — which embraced a kaleidoscopic range of experimental R&B, pop, soul, and electronic subgenres — she’s approached her albums as canvases for intricate, musically eclectic, politically charged, and disarmingly personal statements.
Renaissance is largely another effort in line with that ethos. Opener “I’m That Girl” is at least as experimental and off-kilter as something like the beat-switching “Haunted” off Beyoncé (2013), with a looped, lo-fi vocal of the late Memphis underground rapper Princess Loko serving as the principle beat over which Beyoncé raps for the first part of the song, and later blending that sample into a denser mix of pounding bass and Bey’s own multi-layered harmonies. As with Honestly, Nevermind, the whole of this album can function as one continuous playthrough, a compositional integrity that’s built for the dancefloor. But some individual songs do assert themselves more than others: While the first two tracks on Renaissance hold back the bigger hooks and euphoric releases, “Alien Superstar” finally embraces the anthemic, with a chorus that vaguely interpolates Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” but that, thanks to some new wave-inflected synth lines, comes off sounding more like a prime era Prince single. The narrative of the song, which looks to transcend the emotional stress of the workday grind by elevating the uniqueness of those individuals under their capitalist cog cloaks, is quintessential Bey self-empowerment (“Bullshit we flying over”) with just enough of a twist to keep it fresh.
Just as impeccably crafted is lead single “Break My Soul,” though that wasn’t as obvious (to this writer anyway) when listened to separately from the song sequence that builds to it. Producers Terius Nash AKA The-Dream (who’s all over this album) and Tricky Stewart deserve a lot of credit for architecting what’s essentially an expert mash-up between the aforementioned deep house classic “Show Me Love” and New Orleans bounce icon Big Freedia’s bomb-throwing “Explode,” but at the center of all that is a stellar Beyoncé song asserting its own powerful agency, building on the foundational themes of hard work and perseverance established in the preceding song-suite by filtering Big Freedia’s anti-capitalism (“Release your job”) through Robin S.’s defiant demand for love and appreciation, and again landing on a message of empowerment that isn’t as platitudinous as it might at first seem. The next song is even better: “Church Girl” not only chipmunk-souls the legendary Clark Sisters, making an unholy union of gospel and twerk music, but it commits to the provocation of that juxtaposition, taking Renaissance’s “mash-up” project in a more overtly socially progressive direction by spinning a narrative about liberation from oppressive attitudes toward women’s bodies in a “Christian nation” by owning spirituality and embracing sexuality in one fell swoop. It helps that the song is both an absolute banger and a borderline spiritual experience itself, with Bey’s gorgeous vocal trills taking cues from the Clarks.
Renaissance succeeds on both the formal strength of its sonic collage and (perhaps even more so) on the underlying, emphatic timeliness of the message that emerges from the act of “reviving” / “revitalizing” a wide range of pioneering voices from dance music’s past and present. Beyoncé certainly deserves her place within that lineage, and she turns in some of her best and most charismatic vocal performances to date on songs like “Church Girl,” the second part of “Pure/Honey,” and “Summer Renaissance” by following the various muses (notably Donna Summer) that course through this music. That doesn’t mean, though, that Renaissance always escapes the pitfalls of pastiche. As a follow-up to explicitly personal statements like Beyoncé and Lemonade (2016), the reliance on the substance of others’ musical and thematic ambitions here does serve to distance us some from an artist who, even at her most diaristic, still can seem guarded, frequently ensconcing her candidness in some form of memeable branding (“Becky with the good hair,” “Monica Lewinski’d all on my gown,” etc.). And as someone who’s generally more partial to songs than vibes, I do miss the pop gravitas with which even 2019’s very underrated The Lion King: The Gift (and a better-sequenced 2020 “deluxe” of that soundtrack) absolutely bursted. That great album likewise set its sights on a sustained aesthetic experience — the colorful, rhythmic dexterity of Afropop, which not everyone, like me, will prefer to the worship-at-the-four on the floor altar that is Renaissance. Both albums, though, serve as very persuasive cases for the vitalness of this current, curatorial Beyoncé era.
Writer: Sam C. Mac Section: Pop Rocks
When she announced the release of a new album called Take it Like a Man, Amanda Shires asserted her desire to write about women with a sense of agency and interiority; to make her female leads “more than just a character in someone else’s life.” It’s a fitting statement of purpose for the singer, songwriter, and Highwoman who has spent her career upholding country music traditions while eschewing its conservatism. And it’s borne out across the new album’s ten tracks, first-person narratives where women act on their desires and occasionally instigate their own heartbreaks; take ownership of their shortcomings, but don’t allow themselves to be cowed or shamed. It’s a raw, emotionally acute record that lives up to Shires’ principles without ever feeling like it’s trying to settle a score or prove a point. It’s also the best and boldest music she’s made yet, the very fine Highwomen album included.
Part of that boldness may come from a new collaboration with Lawrence Rothman, who produces the album and leads a small troupe of musicians that includes Jason Isbell, who happens to be Shires’ husband, on guitar. (A boon crew of backup singers includes Maren Morris and Brittany Spencer.) Rothman brings a different kind of weather than Dave Cobb, the go-to producer in the Shires-Isbell household, whose preference for austerity rendered The Highwomen warm but maybe a tad dry. Rothman supplies a more layered and atmospheric mix, most evident in the whirlpool of vocal harmonies that bubble up during “Fault Lines.” As for Shires, she contributes some of her most adventurous and exploratory songs yet, including excursions into punch-drunk, horn-drenched R&B (“Stupid Love”) and echoing, noir-ish pop (“Bad Behavior”). These songs are lush and inviting, but there’s also some real in-the-red intensity here: Opener “Hawk for the Dove” is a blazing rock-and-roll epic, featuring a searing fiddle solo from Shires. At the opposite end of the spectrum there’s “Don’t Be Alarmed,” where Shires’ warm drawl is accompanied by little more than Isbell’s finger-picking.
The title of that last song could also serve as keen advice to fans, particularly those who have a deep emotional investment in the Shires-Isbell marriage: Following the brazen desire of “Hawk for the Dove,” most of this album lives in a space of relational instability. “I know the cost of flight is landing,” Shires sighs in the title song, an acknowledgement that to love someone may mean riding high on waves of ecstasy, but also entails the risk of crashing and burning. Several songs here take stock of a committed relationship that’s hit a rough patch, none with greater intensity than “Fault Lines”: “You can keep the car and the house / We both know that none of that was keeping me anyhow.” “Empty Cups,” sung in Shires’ most Dolly-esque lilt, is a little gentler but no less heartbreaking: “Maybe I was asking for a little too much / To keep the newness from wearing off.” Shires hits the mark of vulnerability that never quite curdles into self-pity or self-loathing, and she mostly avoids the temptation toward pat answers: Loving someone for a long time is hard, it is risky, and the newness does wear off. (“You won’t make it any better with those throwaway lines,” she counsels in one song, though she could just as easily be admonishing herself.)
Maybe that’s what makes it feel anticlimactic when Shires ends the album with “Everything Has its Time,” a song that seems like it’s searching for a tidy summary that the rest of the album has carefully avoided. It’s also true that the rawness of the album’s first half gives way to a more playful second side, memorable more for the adventurous arrangements than for emotional directness. That will either feel like a slight letdown or a needed respite, depending on how well you can weather the turbulence of the earlier songs. Regardless, Take it Like a Man has the swagger and the confidence of an artist who knows she’s struck a fertile vein, not only living up to her own principles but creating a rich, resonant, and honest album in the process.
Writer: Josh Hurst Section: Rooted & Restless
Ken Carson’s X — his debut album for Playboi Carti’s Opium label — is a difficult record to recommend, but an easy one to enjoy. The musical pleasures this project provides can be seen as the equivalent of a sugar rush: a small burst of euphoria with no real game plan or substance outside of instant gratification. The beats are glitzy and glitched-out, with plenty of blown-out bass thrown in to make it easier to mosh to when Carson eventually tours with this material; they’re admittedly fun to listen to in the moment, but they hardly register much after the fact. “MDMA,” with its massive, jagged-sounding production, is pure delirium from the second the track starts till the second it ends. But the song also doesn’t have much texture or discernable character outside of those few descriptors; it’s this big, lurching beat in search of an actual melody or song around it. In fact, consistently across the album, Carson struggles to maintain much lyrical interest outside of a few pretty neat adlibs (“Fuk 12” has him bouncing around with a whole slew of them) and some catchy choruses. At his worst, he’s way too gross for music this slick (there’s one particularly nasty bit about making his girl take a Plan B because her “Plan A was to keep it”), while at his best… well, he keeps a vibe going, which is plenty enough for music that could be charitably described as “plenty enough.” But even that meager of an accomplishment is undercut once put in comparison with his contemporaries (Yeat, even for all of his deficiencies, at least sounds like he’s having fun most of the time). If the Carti connection wasn’t obvious, X is basically a watered-down version of Whole Lotta Red, and not a particularly inviting one at that. Carti was a rockstar vampire, which is exciting and cool; Carson is a VLone soldier who sounds like he’s about to fall asleep, which decidedly isn’t.
Still, it’s tough not to go back — and back again — to these brief tracks that immediately hit and smartly wrap up shortly thereafter; it’s as if the base formula of Red’s tracks were stripped even further of conventional structuring elements, sounding even more debased in the process. To hammer this point home, there are two cuts here, “Freestyle 1” and “Freestyle 2,” that quite honestly both sound more polished than the rest of the “traditional” tracks. This might be indicative of why X doesn’t make for a cohesive (or even enjoyable) album listening experience on the whole — the sequencing here is also all over the place in terms of pacing and mood — but the small pumps of pleasure along the way are devilishly enjoyable. It may be most appropriate to label X as a mere whiff at the moment, but it’s also perhaps the first big fumble that’s needed to spur Carson on to something greater. He’s clearly tapped into a particularly enticing sound, if only intermittently, but it’s one that could easily lead to a far more potent project down the line.
Writer: Paul Attard Section: What Would Meek Do?
New York avant-metal trio Imperial Triumphant have ruffled quite a few feathers on their way to their fifth studio album. Being both lauded as much-needed innovators, breathing new life into an inflexible genre, and derided as posers with no respect for the subculture’s history, this band of masked men has proven itself to be divisive in a scene that prides itself on transgression, while also being rife with purists who loathe deviation. As acts like Deafheaven and Zeal & Ardor were embraced by a non-metal audience — and in Deafheaven’s case, by a certain hipster contingent, intrigued by the band’s unique and somewhat cerebral shoegaze/black metal hybrid — debates about the aesthetic and ideological purity of the genre erupted, and as lines were being drawn, bands like Imperial Triumphant got caught in the crossfire as some traditionalists lumped them in with other divergents, supposedly diluting the trve kvlt ethos of the genre.
Imperial Triumphant’s complicated, dissonant, and mischievous blackened death metal ruckus contains nods to jazz, urban decay, and atomic age anxiety, wrapped in a luxurious, art deco package. The thematic ecosystem the group has created over five albums and three EPs recalls both a bygone era of New York City glamour and intellectualism, and the metropolis’ slow crawl toward an inevitable death. “Our city is like the corpse of a giant,” says the band. “What was once so bright, grand and spectacular, is now filled with greedy maggots writhing towards their share of ‘success.’ We don’t support it nor are we against. We only play the sounds of the New York City as we hear them.” Spirit of Ecstasy certainly carries over a distinct apocalyptic weight found in their previous work. The world of Imperial Triumphant is a decadent fantasia where high class and low life collide, where the grimness of the present is juxtaposed with a pre-World War I belief in the inevitable progress of society. “You can’t repeat the past / Obey your narrator / The nameless lord of infrastructure / The city of the tomorrow / Requires sacrifice today,” sings vocalist-guitarist Zachary Ezrin on “Death on a Highway,” a guttural exploration of technological and historical progress, as seen from the bottom.
Opening with the chaotic “Chump Change,” the LP immediately gets to pondering. “We live in the applause of the gods / Gasping for culture / Everyone is for sale,” they reflect on the cultural epicenter’s decline; “Welcome to New York / La même chose / The same hell.” Carried by tumbling drums, rollicking bass, and angular, discordant guitars, the labyrinthine track overflows with rhythm changes and wild tonal shifts, going from harsh slabs of noise to sparse, freeform jazz noodling. Album standout “Merkurius Gilded” masterfully fuses evocative, tense strings that wouldn’t be out of place in a Golden Age film noir, with furious blast beats and eerie choral singing, all combined into an ominous black metal onslaught. Adding to the maximalist cacophony is none other than ‘90s smooth jazz titan Kenny G, as well as his son Max Gorelick. While the inclusion of the popular but critically derided saxophonist could be put off as a semi-ironic bit of gimmickry, he does bring some exuberant chops to the tune, soloing in tandem with his guitarist son, to wondrous effect.
Later on, after taking things to ridiculously jazzy extremes on the instrumental “In the Pleasure of Their Company,” Spirit of Ecstasy slows down with the crushing nightmare dirge of “Bezumnaya,” a disorienting bone-rattler, filled with squealing feedback and drooled, demonic vocals. Bringing the album to a close is the car-crash fury of “Maximalist Scream,” a downbeat eulogy to the dreams of decades past which approaches something almost bittersweet: “Astonished achievement / Engineer beyond dreams / Maintain a standard / Faded, half-forgotten memory.” It’s a warped, diesel-powered metal frenzy that sees the statuesque triumvirate aided by the thunderous vocal talents of Voivod’s Denis “Snake” Bélanger. By the end, the instruments blur into a block of noise that increases in pitch, before fading into a well-deserved silence.
Spirit of Ecstasy is a difficult and deliberately provocative effort by three of metal’s most daring iconoclasts. But even as their experiments grow wilder and more eccentric with every release, the band has the musicality to back up even their most out-there ideas. Supplemented by an array of prominent and/or acclaimed guests — an indication of the level of respect they enjoy, both in the metal world and beyond — their latest adventures in avant-garde experimentalism see them reaching unprecedented heights and providing the perfect soundtrack for a world that not only seems to be falling apart more with each passing day, but also seems to be lacking any vision for the future — a fact that this album’s boldness both laments and subverts.
Writer: Fred Barrett Section: Obscure Object
With Emotional Creature, Beach Bunny’s second full-length record, the group leans heavily into science fiction thematizing and fantasy framing for their particular quarter-life crisis branch of pop-rock. The record reflects a tiptoeing outside the comfortable, simple sounds of their first record and demonstrates a bit of growth, this while still acknowledging the growth that’s still to come. And if the trajectory is to be trusted, this album feels like a stepping stone on the path to what Lili Trifilio has wanted the band to be from the start.
Beach Bunny gained their initial popularity on the backs of a few popular TikTok sounds borrowed from their initial 2018 EP. In true TikTok fashion, this propelled them into the mainstream and established considerable expectations before the group of twenty-somethings had even released an album proper. This greenness was easily discernible on Honeymoon, their first album, which boasted the sounds of a band finding their footing not only sonically, but as new adults encountering a vast world of possibility. But while the pandemic stalled many artists, Trifilio pushed forward, writing the songs that would eventually populate Emotional Creature.
Here, on Beach Bunny’s sophomore release, the easy swagger and confidence of early-20s living and art-making gives some way to life’s natural quarter-life pause. This pivot is articulated through a natural angst to the band’s sound, a sense of the stall that so many experience, but also granted levity in the brightness of the drumming and each energetic riff. There’s still that confident bounce to the band’s step that helps offset the age-specific, fork-in-the-road musings the group trades in here. Lyrically, much of the same ground is covered on Emotional Creature that was approached on Honeymoon, with Trifilio dealing in the familiar indie mode of songwriting: heart on her sleeve confessions of shame, joy, love, and everything in between. In a way, the album plays as a type of therapeutic exercise — or else self-pep talk — as if Trifilio is conversing with herself while occupying her childhood bedroom. It lends the record a cathartic, healing texture, with the sense of relief that comes through in such songwriting something of a balm for listeners. There are also the aforementioned sci-fi flourishes — most overtly communicated via the album’s visual accompaniments (album cover, tour poster, inserts, etc.) — which add another layer of personality to the proceedings: the idea of entering “alien” new worlds, both personally and artistically, or themselves being aliens in these worlds lends not just a thematic link-up, but injects a little more playfulness into what could have been a somber affair. And none of this is hurt by the fact that this is also undeniably more polished than anything Beach Bunny has accomplished up until this point.
Perhaps most impressive, however, is that Beach Bunny offers proof that Internet-famous music — not to be confused with Internet music — doesn’t have to be vapid. Sincerity is the special sauce of Lily Trifilio and her band — fitting given that they first found fame via a social media platform with a song about the singer’s struggles with anxiety and mental health — and this latest record features both ripping highs and moving emotional lows, as well as a profound curiosity for wondering what comes next. For many, this intimate, experiential foundation will be relatable; if it isn’t — or isn’t of interest — much of the album may fall flat. But with a carefully calibrated approach to emotional interrogation and an expert modulation of tone and lyrical content on Emotional Creature, Beach Bunny delivers a worthy entry into their already exciting early catalog and solidifies themselves as one of the best indie bands to land in a minute.
Writer: Andrew Bosma Section: Ledger Line