Sabrina Carpenter’s newest album, Emails I Can’t Send, has a lot of emotions to unpack and not enough tools to do it with. Emails is her first project since 2019’s Singular Act II — Act I was one year before, and together they yielded several excellent pop tracks, including “Paris,” “Bad Time,” and “Looking at Me.” This latest record has a baseline competence as a pop project, but doesn’t have much personality beyond that, largely due to lacking production choices.
Many of the tracks on Emails have tasteful mid-tempo arrangements that try to straddle the line between emotional but upbeat pop, mixed with some stripped-back singer-songwriter vibes. Because of this, too many songs end up stuck in the middle, where their instrumental choices aren’t surprising enough to take center stage, but with lyrical efforts that can’t quite carry in isolation and are still reliant on these conventional musical swells. There’s a lot of gentle percussion, simple guitar, and dreamy backing vocals that paint a pretty atmosphere, but this aesthetic doesn’t really go anywhere; “Already Over,” for instance, follows this design to the point of boredom. (“Vicious,” although it begins just as tastefully plaintive, bucks this with a high energy bridge.) Ballad “How Many Things” features a pretty vocal performance from Carpenter, and the minimal guitar accompaniment is the right choice tonally speaking, but the spare production blends into other selections on the tracklist and doesn’t stand out as the especially vulnerable moment it clearly intends to be. The same goes for “Because I Liked a Boy” — the lyrics lambasting deranged stan Twitter behavior and unjust personal attacks on her dating life aren’t wrong, but the by-the-numbers ballad arrangement doesn’t tackle the messaging in any interesting way. “Nonsense” is maybe the worst offender of the vocal/instrumental mismatch: the lyrics and performance choices are so tongue-in-cheek, and the production is giving Carpenter absolutely nothing.
With that said, some songs on Emails I Can’t Send do stand out. “Read Your Mind” is groovy dance-pop, and “Bet You Wanna” has a subdued but tense arrangement that complements its hushed vocals. Early single “Skinny Dipping” wades through the same sincere morass as some earlier tracks, but pulls through successfully because of its lyrical ambitions. (Prolific pop songwriter Julia Michaels co-wrote much of this album, and her signatures are all over it for better and for worse, nowhere more obviously than on this song.) There are conversational melodies, hyperspecific personal details (“Hear the barista call an oat milk latte and your name”), and elaborate turns of phrase (“skinny dip in water under the bridge”). The stream of consciousness verses and the central metaphor are admittedly a little ridiculous, but that commitment is exactly why it works — there’s no need for the instrumental to be exemplary, because the writing is already so notable on its own.
But the best song on this project by a mile is single “Fast Times,” a slinky bossa nova track that Carpenter performs with the perfect amount of winking restraint (“Fast times and fast nights… give me a second to forget I ever really meant it”). It’s a great example of how the most convincing songs on Emails are, surprisingly, not the most earnest and emotional ones, but the cuts where she plays it cool. It’s also a good argument for Carpenter’s path to pop stardom that her vocals shine most when self-conscious of their own performance. Sure, maybe the bops are just hard-carrying, but “Fast Times” at least doesn’t feel like a song that just anyone could pull off. Looking back at her earlier work supports the potential of her personality as well — there’s “Honeymoon Fades,” a loose single from 2020 where, yes, the production was simple, but in a way that still gave the song an alluring jazzy character and let Carpenter flex an array of delicate, smoky vocal choices. “Diamonds Are Forever” had her turn in a soaring diva performance, and on “Looking at Me” she delivered the sassy hook with the utmost confidence: “They ain’t even looking at you, baby — they’re looking at me.”
On Emails, echoes of this attitude appear on tracks like “Read Your Mind,” where you can practically hear Carpenter rolling her eyes as she sings, “I can’t read your mind!” See also, “Bad for Business”: “He’s good for my heart, but he’s bad for business,” she sings, clearly with no particular care for commercial stability. But these glimpses of fun, personable pop are weighed down by tracks that take their ideas more seriously but don’t have the musical depth or nuance to match. At this point, it’s tough to tell and will be interesting to see whether her next release has the same stylistic conflicts, or if Carpenter veers more fully into either pop star or singer-songwriter territory. In the meantime, Emails at least leaves listeners with “Fast Times,” which remains one of the best pop surprises of the year.
Writer: Kayla Beardslee Section: Pop Rocks
Flo Milli’s opening question to the public was a bold choice: Ho, Why Is You Here?, the title of her bouncy, major-label mixtape proudly asked to any and all hoes who had the gall or the gumption to listen. Her follow-up retort is equally as straightforward: You Still Here, Ho? For those who still happen to be “here,” not much has changed from the previous installment of Flo Milli’s idiosyncratic brand of ATL-styled shit-talking to this one here. If anything, she’s a tad more adventurous this time around with the direction she takes her debut studio project, instilling a vague thematic contempt to guide the album — as opposed to a concept album, which this decidedly is not nor has the rigor to be — and taking on the persona of a Tiffany Pollard-esque reality television star for most of the track list. While the shtick is a tad redundant in terms of what Flo’s been doing up to this point (not helped at all by an apathetic Pollard, who phones-in a 30-second intro and outro and makes the already lame joker even cringier), it’s all still more or less within the same wheelhouse that her listeners have become accustomed to. With how confident Flo sounds on a track-by-track basis, you’d be hard-pressed to even think that two years have passed since then.
Which, on second thought, might not be the strongest compliment one could draw for a follow-up record; after all, shouldn’t listeners demand more than the exact same? You Still Here, Ho? is, in essence, an identical release to Ho, Why Is You Here?, concerned with similar topics (slapping bitches, stunting on haters, etc.) and executed with comparable flows and cadences as well. The only discernible difference seems to be a budget increase, paying for the wasted likes of Babyface Ray to mope around on “Hottie” and Rico Nasty to scream a lot on “Pay Day”; other than those two, it’s all Flo’s show. The biggest mark of quality here, then, isn’t based on the product as a whole, but more the small pockets of joy that Flo’s dexterous flows can reliably bring out at a moment’s notice — which, for a 17-track run of primarily solo cuts, is an impressive feat in-and-of-itself. While regulated to the ghetto of bonus track territory, the zany “Roaring 20s” summarizes pretty well what those pleasures can materialize as: where plainly ridiculous bars like “They never should’ve fucked up and gave me money / Came straight out of ‘Bama, now ain’t shit funny” can be traded off with such brazen conviction, only to be followed up with, yet again, more shots aimed at these hoes (“I swear, all these bitches be makin’ me sick / Like shit, all that bitch do is eat up some dick”). If that doesn’t convince you of Flo Milli’s greatness, I don’t know what will.
Writer: Paul Attard Section:What Would Meek Do?
Five member K-pop girl group Itzy have made a career out of being weird. Sometimes through shallow, not-like-other-girls branding, and sometimes through music packed with quirky production choices and bold, shouted hooks. Their debut track “Dalla Dalla” (2019) opened with an elevator ding and a hollow, bending synth line: “I love myself!” the ladies of Itzy cheered as glitter bombs exploded in the distance. A year later, they renewed their self-love licenses on “Wannabe,” where they declared that “I don’t wanna be somebody, just wanna be me” over a crunchy mix of guitar strums and room-filling synths. Other tracks like “Not Shy,” “Swipe,” and “Icy” respectively featured obnoxious horns, a sneering hip-hop beat, and a chaotic cascade of first sugary, then gritty instrumental layers. They reveled in being too much, almost all the time: you either got it, or you got left behind to catch up later.
Checkmate, led by single “Sneakers,” is Itzy’s seventh release and treads mostly expected ground. After mixed results from their more exploratory title tracks in 2021, the basic teen-pop of “Sneakers” picks back up as if nothing post-“Wannabe” ever happened, complete with lyrics about how “you can call me weirdo” but they’ll still dance proudly to their own drum. It gets the job done hook-wise, but is without a doubt their safest single to date. The b-sides, however, inject more energy into the mini album, some through dynamic anti-drops and some through buildups to rippling synth choruses (like the LDN Noise-produced “What I Want”). True to form, several of the tracks are sprinkled with playful sound effects — cars skidding and revving on “Racer,” a literal “wheeeee” drop on “Free Fall,” and the pots-and-pans extravaganza of “365” (an album highlight for its sheer musical audacity).
Itzy’s brand as a group is focused on dance and performance rather than vocal acrobatics, so their songs often lean toward talk-singing, chants, and rapping alongside traditional pop vocal moments. As a result, many of the tracks on Checkmate have difficult-to-pull-off hooks that rely on charisma to sell what might otherwise be a silly, flippant, or underwhelming line. For the most part, Itzy prove themselves up to the challenge, subordinating unremarkable lyrical content to their confident presence (although not even Chaeryeong’s tone can save the “You can call me weirdo” lyric in “Sneakers”). “3-6-5, not thinkin’ ‘bout you,” they sneer on “365” as the music goes full industrial hyperpop; Ryujin draws out the titular hook of “Racer” with a smirking vocal fry; “What I Want” opens with Yeji, Yuna, and Lia drawling about how they’re “gonna get, get what I want” over twitchy, bass-y synths.
The end of the album takes a more sincere turn with pop-rock power ballad “Domino.” The mixing washes out the guitars and makes the stylistic signifiers fairly shallow, but it’s still a nice track — Itzy songs usually don’t have quite as deep an emotional core, and the earnest melody is reminiscent of their soft, harmony-stacked ballad “Mirror” from last year. Checkmate isn’t a perfect album, but it keeps the energy pleasantly high from start to finish, creates a listening experience that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and, above all and in keeping with the group’s designs, is just plain fun.
Writer: Kayla Beardslee Section: Foreign Correspondent
Maggie Rogers, fresh off a new master’s degree and a buzzy debut album heard by nearly everyone under the sun, returns with a new perspective and new sound on Surrender, her second full-length record. Gone are the sparse, breathy vocal tracks of her first album, replaced here by a bigger powerhouse voice and full-band instrumentation. The result is a bold re-entry to the musical world, and a sophomore sound set to impress.
It’s hard to take NYU students who go viral on the Internet seriously, even when they get a full-throated endorsement from Pharrell. It’s easy to write them off as simpering, even disingenuous, when their music starts to take off. But the Rogers narrative seems to easily sidestep any accusations of coming from money or legacy nepotism or having the keys to success handed to her, a quality likewise reflected in her music: she lands with a fiery confidence on this record, the sounds of someone who has been waiting for this moment their whole life and has no time for slumps. She trades in familiar themes — past lovers, new experiences, the feeling of simply letting go — but does so expertly, and she laces her new sound with a heavy dance music influence, a strong drum beat throughline pounding across nearly every track.
Which is to say, Rogers has grown both sonically and emotionally since her last record, confidently tackling ideas of self-worth and the pain of the world destructing around her. She processes her quick rise to fame and the power that she’s accrued thanks to it, pondering if she can use it for something that has greater meaning. But despite dealing with heavier and more somber ideas on this record, there’s still a great joy present in Rogers’ expression of such feelings. She’s content living in this absence of answers, and Surrender, fittingly, has the feels of her settling into herself as a person and as an artist. It’s dismissive to say that someone whose career started with a viral Pharrell video, a Mumford and Sons opening slot, a friendship/mentorship with Brandi Carlile and Sharon Van Etten, and multiple mid-day festival appearances has “found their footing” in the half-decade since its takeoff. But Rogers truly digs deep on this latest record, and reinvents her sound in a massive, wonderful way. The evolution isn’t just profound, but totally redefines Rogers’ ceiling as an artist.
Writer: Andrew Bosma Section: Ledger Line
Jack White’s in love; or, at the very least, he’s in love with the idea of being in love. The two aren’t mutually exclusive entities, as White did get married this year and seems to be, by all accounts, happily betrothed, slumming around on late-night television to give awkward yet cheery interviews about the milestone. Now, he’s proudly manifested those feelings with a stripped-down, almost naked resolve on his second album of 2022, the folk-rock-centric Entering Heaven Alive, which can be seen as the polar opposite of the harder-sounding Fear of the Dawn, the earlier of the two releases. Basically, this is the yang to that album’s yin, the warmer, more openly inviting of the two, and the active principle that serves as a catalyst for the entire endeavor: the last song here, “Taking Me Back,” is the opener for Dawn — with an added caveat attached (“Gently,” the track states), for good measure — which seems to suggest both albums form a Möbius loop of sorts once placed alongside each other. Taken on its own merits, it’s White’s most high-brow and symphonic release in about a decade, while also being a contender for his least compelling solo work yet.
Unlike Dawn’s constant chaotic fervor, Alive offers little reason to stay engaged besides a few memorable textural elements: the electric guitar pangs that ring out on the back end of “If I Die Tomorrow”; the jazzy opening xylophone line on “Queen of the Bees”; White’s careful string plucking across “All Along the Way.” But some quirky instrumental choices can’t save songs that offer such little to salvage: while there wasn’t a whole lot lyrically going on throughout most of Dawn, there’s even less happening here — and, arguably, that particular factor is even more important in this particular context than when he was scatting with Q-Tip. Again, White’s in love; it’s a fact he reiterates over and over again, with little tonal change-ups. The instrumentation suggests a melancholy tone, but White’s never willing to truly reach those emotional depths. The closest he gets is on the aforementioned “If I Die Tomorrow,” where he requests that “everybody’s love” that “they gave for free” be returned back to them if his death were to become imminent; it’s a poetic notion, accepting one’s own selfish ways and acknowledging the possible absolvement of sins after passing — but it’s one that feels a little too deep compared to what else surrounds it. When you open one of your tracks with “I feel lonely when I’m left all alone / I feel homely when you leave me at home,” it becomes hard to take anything else all that seriously.
If these two back-to-back projects have accomplished anything, it’s provided an opportunity for White to display his impressive and versatile technical abilities, even when filtered through such staunchly divergent styles. Yet, that’s all Entering Heaven Alive ever really amounts to in the grand scheme of things, another one-off for White to keep the critics on their toes. While that strategy has worked in the past, it’s hard to imagine that an endeavor like this is really what White plans on going for in the near future.
Writer: Paul Attard Section: Pop Rocks