“Hiii, motherfucker, did you miss me?” begins the first song on Lizzo’s newest album, Special. And, honestly, given that a lot of big-name artists went sad, slow, and/or polarizing in 2021, rather than delivering classic feel-good pop, lead single “About Damn Time” has every right to its title. Following that groovy, richly produced single, the other tracks on Special explore different facets of dance-pop and R&B in Lizzo’s typically eclectic style. Some end up as disposable pop, but there are also a few highlights that even skeptical listeners may enjoy.
The album’s obvious crowd-pleaser is “Everybody’s Gay,” which follows up “About Damn Time” by leaning even harder into carefree disco throwback. Another standout is the soulful “Doo Wop (That Thing)”-interpolating “Break Up Twice,” which features a great vocal performance where Lizzo drags out dramatic notes that sit in just the right part of her range, and a soundscape deepened by brass instruments. This latter point is a sonic theme throughout the album’s production — “Naked” has the brassy arrangement of a musical’s villain song, but flipped into an ode to being comfortable in her own body, and “Birthday Girl” builds its chorus around trumpets that encourage us to celebrate each other (it’s a little cheesy, and the instrumental sounds cheaper than some others on the tracklist, but it’s still a cute little stop-off).
All four of these songs are featured on the album’s second half, which lands much stronger than the first; it’s not that there’s a stark bad/good divide as soon as you cross over to track 7, but several of the early songs don’t feel as fully realized in comparison to later ones. “The Sign” and “Grrls” are constructed from flat-sounding instrumentals (although the latter is a surprising grower on relistens), and the hook of “I Love You Bitch” crosses the line into being a bit too gimmicky. Lyrically, the front half also has more empowerment word-salad songs where punchlines are more important than narrative — which isn’t necessarily an indicator of quality, but lends a different kind of impression when looking at a tracklist in the abstract. Lizzo’s best writing in this vein is either so silly as to achieve easy humor (see: her shouting “bitch!” over her own flute solo in the bridge of “About Damn Time” — again, the entirety of “I Love You Bitch” pales in comparison to this one adlib), or it reveals something heartfelt in a casual, conversational way (“I did the work, it didn’t work” in “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready)”).
Maybe the most striking song on Special, however, is its penultimate one, “If You Love Me,” which houses the most straightforward, vulnerable discussion of insecurities on the album. Whereas a track like “2 Be Loved” goes for quippy call-and-response as Lizzo questions whether she loves herself enough to accept someone else loving her too, “If You Love Me” is a slow-burning R&B cut (with hints of country!) that lays all its emotional cards on the table. “I question everything I know / How can you say I’m beautiful?” she asks, and sighs “Being good to me, like I am someone else, seems so back-handed.” Her vocal performance is alternately desperate and tender; there’s something in the soft fall of the melody in “If you love me, you love all of me… Or none of me at all” that makes this song scan like a long-lost classic. It’s a track that looks for possibilities without simple resolution, but that remains open to love and self-acceptance in whatever form it takes along the way. The #relatable, radio-ready fluff on Special can be quite fun and certainly joyful if it’s played to full commitment (which is harder to execute than it sounds), but most of the gems on this album are the b-sides that go for a bit more depth, whether musically or lyrically.
Writer: Kayla Beardslee Section: Pop Rocks
Kingmaker, the sixth studio album by Tami Neilson, is less an album of recorded music than it is a dissertation on contemporary feminism framed in (pop-)cultural literacy. As a statement of women’s inerrant agency, it’s perhaps the densest album since PJ Harvey’s landmark To Bring You My Love. As a sociological study, it’s perhaps the most thoughtful album since Patty Loveless’ Mountain Soul. As an encyclopedia of perfectly and purposefully chosen musical references, it belongs in a conversation with Beyonce’s contemporaneous Renaissance. As an album that displays mastery of both genre conventions and vocal technique, it has no real point of comparison or peer. Both of Neilson’s two most recent albums — 2018’s SASSAFRASS! and 2020’s Chicakboom! — were among the finest releases of their respective years, and certainly mined similar territory, but Kingmaker makes both of them sound like rough drafts in hindsight. The clarity of focus and vision on Kingmaker is simply beyond Neilson’s already once-in-a-generation standards.
The album opens with its title track and thesis statement. Over an arrangement that is best described as a slightly twangy version of a Shirley Bassey-era James Bond theme, Neilson immediately announces that Kingmaker demands close attention to the artistic and aesthetic reasons she’s chosen to invite comparisons to specific cultural markers. Bond, particularly the “classic” films, is positioned as a hero whose power and intrigue are directly tied to the problematic way he leverages his cultural privileges. Neilson’s invocation of that character, then, plays as a powerful rejection of those exact cultural privileges, as she belts patriarchy-upending lines like, “If my famine made your feast / Then I’ll stop asking for what’s already mine.” As her vocal performance crescendos, she declares independence from the self-appointed “kingmaker,” asserting that, perhaps, she’s always been a king after all. It’s provocative and smart as a subversion of both cultural tropes and systems of oppression, and it’s riveting as a showcase of Neilson’s vocal skill.
“Baby, You’re A Gun,” is just as impactful. The arrangement is a nod to Ennio Morricone’s score to Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, which are fundamentally about a woman’s retribution against those who would deny her agency. Neilson’s song covers similar territory, swapping Beatrix Kiddo’s Hatori Hanzo blade for a firearm, and leaning into the ways that women’s roles are prescribed for them. “When they look at you, they see,” a mother or a daughter or a lover, Neilson sings over the course of the song’s verses. There’s a clear throughline to the way conservatives make politicians frame statements about issues pertaining to women: “As a father of two daughters,” or, “I think about my wife and mother,” are the types of framings so often used by those in power who can only demonstrate empathy to others once something has become personal to them. Neilson has no time for such things, instructing each of those daughters and mothers to embrace and use their own power: “They’d better run and hide,” she warns.
Although the referents are diverse — from the Spanish guitar that nods to Willie Nelson’s and Julio Iglesias’ “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” on “Beyond the Stars,” a gorgeous duet with Nelson himself, to the yelps and sneers on “Mama’s Talkin’,” which recalls the accessible punk of Blondie’s Parallel Lines — the overall aesthetic of the album coheres around Neilson’s deep understanding of country music conventions. It’s no accident that she casts the autobiographical “King of Country Music” as a nearly a capella front porch jam session; backed by little more than some handclaps and a plucked banjo, she reminisces about opening for Kitty Wells and performing at Opryland, questioning whether or not the genre’s would-be king could be, “the daughter, not the son.” That she asks this exact question at the end of the song before immediately segueing into her duet with one of the men, Nelson, who could stake a legitimate claim as true country music royalty — again, there’s nothing on Kingmaker that’s an accident.
It’s to Neilson’s credit that she balances the explicitly political — “Mama’s Talkin’” dresses down a man who paints himself as a victim of “cancel culture,” while “Ain’t My Job” takes aim at the wage gap — with personal narratives that deepen the album’s thematic heft. “Beyond the Stars” mines her evolving grief over her father’s death, and standout “The Grudge,” a stirring and stomping dirge, addresses generational trauma. To that end, Kingmaker is an album about how injustices and abuses function within systems to inflict individual pain that then informs each individual’s experiences and relationships. Is it any wonder, then, that Neilson shouts and wails and belts her way through these dense — and, it must be said, catchy as all hell — songs? Kingmaker finds the most gifted singer in modern popular music using her extraordinary voice to elevate and inspire those who are too often voiceless.
Writer: Jonathan Keefe Section: Rooted & Restless
Lil Uzi Vert
This past month, Lil Uzi Vert decided to embrace chaos. No, they haven’t pledged their unwavering loyalty to the dark lord Satan (at least not yet) or went on a Tyler Durden-esque anarchist bombing spree around major metropolitan cities in the name of freedom. Instead, they released their latest EP, Red & White, and with it came the most chaotic album roll-out since Donda 2 earlier this year. Three promotional singles were dropped exclusively on SoundCloud during the lead-up, then a few more, then the rest were dumped onto streaming services — only to have the first slew of previously released tracks not make it onto the final product. Some songs were still lingering on SoundCloud, and some new ones remained elsewhere in perpetual limbo; it was a grand ole’ mess, and one the notoriously impish Uzi probably took a lot of devilish delight in engineering.
This rebelliousness was eventually squared away and dealt with: all ten tracks were neatly placed in the correct order (save for “Believe Me,” which remains a SoundCloud exclusive to this day), starting with the spaced-out “Space Cadet” and ending with the grandiose “F.F.” — which, yes, does indeed take a sample from Masashi Hamauzu’s iconic Final Fantasy OST and throws a skittering trap high-hat over it. The chosen cover — Uzi painting on a canvas in front of an attentive audience, with his other “masterpieces” (mixtapes) hanging nearby — is fitting, in that the general approach to songwriting here seems to be throwing anything on a wall and seeing what sticks. The music, then, isn’t “almost dry” like Pusha-T’s; this work is still wet on arrival. But Uzi always works best when backed into a corner, when he actually has something to prove; here, he doesn’t, but still rises to the occasion anyway.
In short — much like Uzi’s own diminutive height or the brief half-hour length of the project — the music that makes up Red & White provides a nice little snapshot of where Uzi’s been and where they might be going, taking stock of his growing influence and picking up a few new sounds along the way. As a holdover for the upcoming Pink Tape, fans really couldn’t ask for a better summation of Uzi’s talents at the present moment: their breathless delivery on “Flex Up” builds on the triplet-flow promise of Eternal Atake’s “POP,” with a clearer sense of rhythm guiding the many pockets he dips in and out of; the way they completely command “Hittin My Shoulder”’s propulsive chorus through sheer force of will; and the way he stretches his vowels across “Glock In My Purse” to make the titular “purse” sounds like a “hearse” (or, more accurately, a “puuuuuuuuurse”).
There’s a clear comfortability Uzi displays when hopping on any of these beats, a confidence that’s difficult to match and even harder to outright describe; while they’ve stayed relatively silent on the music side of things for the past few years, Uzi makes their presence felt almost immediately, and sticks to it for an impressive run. There are a few misses (the repetitive “I Know” and bland “For Fun”) that feel especially egregious given the limited duration of the project, but they’re nearly all redeemed by the massive “Issa Hit” overshadowing everything that’s come before. Working with long-time collaborator Oogie Mane, Uzi goes full Carti-mode over the rage-influenced track (whose mammoth beat sounds like it’s slowly capsizing on itself), first by asking the probing “Are you dumb?” before bouncing right back with the coy “Better use your medulla.” It seems that by embracing chaos, Uzi’s remained one step ahead of us all.
Writer: Paul Attard Section: What Would Meek Do?
After their blistering 2016 album Voices, Singaporean grindcore legends Wormrot let six years go by without treating fans to any new material, their longest gap between records. Following Voices, the harsh crustgrind of 2011’s Dirge, and their spartan debut LP Abuse, Hiss sees the band expanding their grindcore assault, coloring it with black metal chords, chanted vocals, and unorthodox instrumentation. Predictably, there are breakneck tempos, blocky riffs, and hideous screams all over this album, but its experimental flourishes augment its ferocious punk metal energy, making for a uniquely rich and harrowing experience.
Even on their earlier and more straightforward releases, Wormrot were always eager to push their sound beyond the tight confines of the genre, venturing deeper into new and strange territory with every LP, while keeping their inherently minimalist core — the band’s bass-less lineup consists of guitarist Rasyid, drummer Vijesh, and, until recently, vocalist Arif, who left the band before the album’s release — intact. Opening with “The Darkest Burden,” the album announces itself with 30 seconds of near-inaudible ambient sounds before finally erupting into a vicious double bass onslaught. The song’s spat-out vocals and metallic riffs are underscored by some atmospheric black metal guitar work, which adds a surprising amount of nuance and harmony to the otherwise punishing track. These glimmers of grindcore deviation continue with the atavistic singing on “Broken Maze,” as well as the screeching, dissonant violin on “Grieve” and “Weeping Willow.”
In spite of the adventurousness they display throughout, Wormrot still make room for some grindy traditionalism, as there’s a smattering of genre-typical micro-songs that don’t come anywhere near the one-minute mark, like the 10-second “Unrecognizable” or the bleak “Shattered Faith.” The latter’s concise lyrics of “Deluding state / The stagnant illusion of change / From your birth into your fucking grave / Time will take its course shattering your faith,” paint a remarkably grim and hopeless picture of life and death, a sensibility that permeates the album’s 33-minute runtime. “This is the end / Consuming your lies / Drown in despair / You chose this life,” Arif sings on the previously mentioned “Broken Maze,” a relentless track that describes entropy, desperation, and suicidal thoughts. On the outstandingly claustrophobic (and aptly titled) “Your Dystopian Hell,” the band dips their toes into mathy post-hardcore riffs before abruptly switching gears into pummeling blast bleats and foul, vocal chord-shredding screams, eventually capping the song off with a half-time noise rock finale that is staggeringly ferocious, recalling the crushing riffs of Nail’s “Wide Open Wound.” Hiss closes with the sprawling “Glass Shards,” which sees the group elaborating on some of their black metal influences, and pulling off numerous whiplash-inducing dynamic shifts. The song also brings back the violin, although it no longer produces the shrill bursts of noise it did earlier, opting for dramatic, melancholy beauty instead, as the song draws to a close with a screamo-inspired climax that fades out into another bit of 30-second near-silence.
Wormrot’s latest record is agonizing and extraordinary. Their effortless blend of grindcore, black metal, and screamo, coupled with the surprising emotional complexity this amalgamation brings forth, makes Hiss a serious contender for grindcore album of the year. It’s a brilliant work by a band that, even with the recent departure of their singer, seems poised to continually push the boundaries of their genre into exciting new directions — hopefully to even greater results.
Writer: Fred Barrett Section: Foreign Correspondent
Hot off the announcement of BTS going on hiatus, member J-Hope arrives with Jack in the Box, a concept hip-hop album, and his first full-length solo record. The album plays liberally with different genres, ranging from grunge to ‘90s hip-hop, and provides a deeper, more meticulous look at the sounds that helped shape the artist he is today. The result is a refreshingly cohesive articulation of nostalgia, growing up, and the emotional weight of being fixed at the center of idol culture.
Jack in the Box opens with a spoken word intro about the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box, which serves as a winking introduction, or even an origin story, to J-Hope as an artist (his name taken from the item found in said box). Following this opening, and despite being part of one of the world’s biggest bands, J-hope’s lyrical work on the album is focused on aiming higher and achieving more. With millions of tickets sold and a fanbase whose devotion is the subject of dozens of stale jokes, it’s easy to regard J-Hope, and by extension every member of BTS, as having “made it” in the traditional sense. But maintaining control over one’s artistry in the contemporary music landscape is a concern that plagues nearly every musician, and rising through the band-heavy world of K-pop presumably only exacerbates such preoccupations for individual members, a likelihood that tracks across Jack in the Box.
But it’s also thanks to J-Hope’s massive success with BTS that you can feel joy radiating from each track, his social and artistic currency affording the freedom to indulge classic hip-hop with respect and love, bolstered by the record’s huge, crooning vocal arrangements. It reflects a pivot from the very modern pop sounds he has heretofore been associated with, but the result is a stunning display that expands on the particular sonic textures he has brought to BTS, an album that’s almost impossible not to groove to across its duration. Admittedly, this shift also comes with a few instances of sonic repetition, and not every track within the scope of the whole album, but it’s still hard to regard it as anything but a first-time-out triumph.
Less clear at present is exactly how long BTS will remain split, and what the solo careers of each member will look like in the interim. Whatever the case, it’s unlikely the other members will all be able to rise to the level of J-Hope’s solo work, Jack in the Box providing a clear and thrilling blueprint for his future prospects, which arguably kicked off with his major headlining performance at this year’s Lollapalooza. With a never-ending stream of fans ready to support his every move, his career is primed for further success, and while most artists might be happy to rest on the laurels of that level of mass adulation, what J-Hope makes clear on Jack in the Box is that he will keep pushing for bigger and better.
Writer: Andrew Bosma Section: Foreign Correspondent