Fuck That Noise: Bruno Mars, The Weeknd and Ballads By Macho Men

Bruno Mars’ single, “24K Magic”, is badass. Mars doesn’t so much sing as he speaks throughout the song with every line meaning the same thing. He’s cool, he knows how to party and has women. The latter is especially important, because we live in a new feminist world where attractive guys are still allowed to flaunt their women like dollar bills. He’s so confident that, really, why attempt a chorus? The first spin of “24K Magic” makes it sound more like a spoken word track over a Synthfunk backing rather than an actual Pop song. It’s one of the year’s best songs.

It’s also a game-changer for Bruno Mars. From here on out, the only reaction to his ballads is ‘fuck that noise’.

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The Weeknd poses for his philosophy book

Music is acting. I don’t care who you are in real life. What’s important in music is that the character you play in your music is believable, and will somehow makes sense when we connect the songs. Eminem is unconvincing because he’s at one point mocking Pop music, whines about people not liking him and then makes a song with Sia. Ian Watkins is an all-around terrible person, but the sound of “Rooftops” didn’t change just because we discovered he’s a pedophile.

Balancing bragging tracks with ballads is tough. We all experienced the highs and lows of life, but you need to connect these two. If your character is sad, I need to believe this sadness is real and is relevant despite all the parties you had. It’s especially tough to come off as vulnerable or sensitive when a second ago you bragged how much sex you have and how all the women want you.

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I don’t think this is what you do with crosses

The Weeknd also released a song with a similar vibe, but “Starboy” is vastly different in demeanor and content. The Weekend also brags about having a lot of sex and a lot of money. He explicitly says he has a girlfriend and a mistress, both of which are out of your league. Along with bragging about cars, it’s obvious Weeknd’s life is overall quite kickin’.

What’s different is the context. Bruno Mars is carefree and happy in “24K Magic”, and only brags about how good his life is. You can understand nothing else about Mars, other than that he’s probably an inconsiderate asshole outside having fun. A line like “Bad bitches and ya ugly ass friends” promises great sex and treating you like dirt. Weeknd, however, is so dark that it’s obvious there’s something wrong with him despie how much he parties.

The Weeknd starts off his song with “I want to put you in the worst mood”. Already, this song is more than just bragging. He wants you to feel bad, he needs others’ jealousy so he could feel good about himself. Instead of the social butterfly who’s inconsiderate, Weeknd’s song is upfront about how pain exists in our world (and he wants to cause it). When he proceeeds in the verse to brag, it’s always about how his good things should make you feel bad. The line about using drugs to kill any pain makes it obvious that Weeknd does have a shitty day and needs to do things about him. The line “We don’t pray for love, we just pray for cars” is quite nihilistic, expressing a dark worldview of retreating to materialism.

Musically, “24K Magic” is a straight-up banger with funky backing, a great bassline and a synth that farts all the way. It only contains happiness. “Starboy”‘s drums are colder and jittery. It’s also more sparse, almost sounding like Joy Division tweeked for the dance floor. By the time drums kick in the chorus, they’re aggressive. You can party to it – it’s even recommended since it’s also brilliant – but it’s not happy-go-lucky and it’s more suitable to planning revenge than celebrating your anniversary with a significant other.

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Ain’t no fun if the guys don’t get naked too

These differences make me react so differently to the ballads. When Bruno Mars put out “Versace on the Floor”, I could think in terms of ‘fuck that noise’ and ‘are women still fooled by this?’. A little before, Mars was a social butterfly who didn’t care about anyone. He was the person you invited to the party, but once everyone had too much to drink and talk about life he gets kicked out. He’s the guy who never holds a conversation but only screams jokes If Mars will be accused of raping a 16-year-old, I wouldn’t be surprised. Okay, I wouldn’t be surprised over any musician, but Mars is definitely in the top of musicians who have the highest chances of doing it.

I can’t connect the two. If “24K Magic” was less aggressive, more akin to Radical Something’s anthems of summer then it’d be different. Mars’ cocky aggression is integral to why his ballads doesn’t work. The line “Bad bitches and ya ugly ass friends” paint a picture of a guy women love so much he can afford to treat them bad without realizing it. Just ask Dessa. Neve in “24K Magic” do we hear a person who’s fun to be around, but a person who has a lot fun. It’s the type of person who fucks women instead of having sex.

When the Weeknd shows up his vulnerable side, it’s believable. He takes the dark side of “Starboy” and expands it, or takes the small cracks and zooms into them. “All I Know” is believable because it’s a direct contrast to “Starboy” instead of being unrelated. It was what he tried to hide so hard by bragging about praying for cars. “Secrets” is the flipside, with Weeknd being the man pining after the woman who has all the guys.

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About as romantic as quoting Gamergate supporters.

They also sing their ballads differently. “Versace on the Floor” is full of vocal acrobatics. Vocal acrobatics are impressive and a great way to terminate your acting abilities. Since they point out you’re actually a singer, you forget about the mood and the content. “Versace” is less about having time with a girl and more about seducing a girl using the promise of romance just to ditch her (Ed Sheeran’s character does it all the time). Shifting singing styles so radically only serves to show you were acting all along. Weeknd always sings as Starboy and never tries to show off. Imagine “Belong to the World” if Weeknd sang it like Mars. Actually, it would probably still be good because of the lyrics.

Perhaps it has something to do with me being a guy, but then again I consider Lostprophets’ “Rooftops” to be a highlight in music history. That song was made by your worst nightmare, a guy so sexy he could do anything he want and have women supporting him. Watkins never did Mars’ vocal acrobatics there. When it explodes, he screams more than sings and that’s crucial. Of course, good actors are also the best at sexual abuse, so maybe Mars isn’t that in person after all. I don’t know. All I know is that, as an actor, he’s horrible. Give me songs like “24k Magic” any day, because, from him, songs like “Just the Way You Are” makes me worry what happens backstage. I shouldn’t, since there’s always a good reason to worry about things happening backstage.

If that’s not enough, listen to “Versace” while watching the video for “24K Magic”. Tell me how different he is from how Nice Guys(tm) describe your boyfriend.

Ed Sheeran – Divide

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Reviewing an Ed Sheeran album only takes two sentences. Any song where isn’t trying to lure a girl to sex disguised as a romance is excellent. Any song where he pretends to feel deep, serious emotions is obviously bad. Of course, two sentences isn’t a review and there’s more going on here. Ed Sheeran is a star and his love songs are especially popular, so we need to figure out how exactly this crap works and why cheesyy love songs are still pumping out when he should be putting a backwards baseball cap and collaborate with Eminem.

I said this a thousand times before and it dawned me. It’s hypocritical to claim Ed Sheeran comes off like an asshole, even a dangerous one when Lostprophets is one of my favorite. These guys are a classic case of music as acting, when the front is completely different than the real person. Solution to this conflict is easy. Fist off, acting is all that’s important when judging music. Ed Sheeran can be a fantastic person for all I know, but I review his character here. Second, Watkins never broke character. Sheeran does.

“Shape of You” is the most interesting song here since it merges Sheeran’s two sides, and reveals all I said about him. He courts a lady with soft, sensual singing and sounds romantic. Yet listen to the chorus. It’s all about the girl’s body. Imagine if the song was sung by a heroin junkie homeless in the street or an overly obese dude with glasses and anime dakimakuras. The song is quite creepy in how it goes on and on about how Sheeran desires a body and not the person.

There have been countless songs about sex, but the key is that they sound authentic. When 50 Cent made “Candy Shop”, it was all about having fun sex. He never tried to sound romantic – only more into sex as having fun instead of status symbol. “Shape of You” has a fantastic melody, but it’s equivalent of a hot guy going on a date with a girl and only telling her how beautiful she is. Something about its bluntness and how Sheeran still sings romantically makes him sound like a person trying to lure girls desperate for romance to easy sex.

Everything else here is easy to digest. There are the ballads, and they’re all quite bad. Sheeran can’t seemt to find a bit of vulnerability in him. Every ballad is sung with confidence. A slightly low voice doesn’t equal vulnerability, especially when “Dive” and “Perfect” explodes into choruses. The latter actually has a decent melody that would be good in the hands of a different singer. He can’t even fake sincerity like Coldplay.

It’s too clean. When he sings that hearts don’t break around here, it’s more believable – only it must be Sheeran’s heart since women come back to him anyway (See “New Man”). It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is it about him that makes his ballads sucks so much. Wisely, he doesn’t do any vocal acrobatics like Adele and his voice is quite beautiful. In style, he’s closer to the Weeknd, who is the model when you want to be both a sex icon and a mess. I guess it’s because Weeknd always lets darkness in, even when he brags. “Perfect” never touches on the possibility of heartbreak. It’s music for the end credits of a bad romantic comedy, as if once a romance starts it never ends and the story’s over.

Previously, he could sound more sincere (if unimaginative) when talking about things other than love and how awesome he is. “Happier” should be his moment to show heartbreak. The guitar strums in a defeated way, not trying to produce a melody and it aims for the warmth of an early Dashboard Confessional. Everything is hushed, the singing is lower and the piano is pushed back. Yet it doesn’t work. You can still see the stage behind him. Where is the bitterness of heartbreak he is so good at showing at “New Man”? The falsetto at the end is a joke, a gorilla beating on its chest, sounding more macho and confident than a Groove Metal band who are hell-bent on beating Pantera.

Then again, even with better acting these songs will most likely suck. They don’t contain a melody, but all lead to an explosion, like Coldplay that’s more readily available to stadiums. It’s not the source of the bad acting since it was present in his earlier songs. When he gets personal, the only reaction to it is ‘why the fuck should I care?’. Many artists wrote songs like “Eraser” (quite good) and “Castle on the Hill” (awful), but none of them sounded so self-centered as he is. Why should anyone of us care about Sheeran’s life, considering he made so much money singing pretty ballads?

‘Privilege’ is a word I didn’t want to use. After all, a lot of my favorite rappers are white dudes whose albums are psychotherapies with the listener. Grieves and Atmosphere come off as humble, sharing their stories with the listener with hopes of relating. “Eraser” has a toughness in it, Sheeran trying to convince us he’s tough because he survives the pain of being famous. Considering on later songs he brags about fucking – and sounds happy about it – I’d say it’s another attempt to impress us. The song is good, though. As for “Castle on the Hill”, it has the same idea as Adema’s “All These Years” without the darkness. Nostalgia is a painful thing. I know that since I spent 3 years in a military home and seeing a distance growing between me and my old self, me and my friends and all I’ve known is quite hard. “Castle on the Hill” paints it like it’s all happy and nice, taking a trip down memory lane. Don’t say ‘privilege’, don’t say ‘privilege’.

So it’s all crap so long as Ed serious. Smack in the middle of the album you get “New Man” and “Galway Girl”, two brilliant songs that will easily rank as among the best of the year. Switching up his demeanor, now he’s a playboy who fucks women and women call him up – despite having boyfriends – to fuck. It’s believable for once, actually has spirits and Sheeran is into it. The latter is about picking up a girl at the club but there’s none of the creepiness of the lead single. Instead, it’s just about how she fell in love and they had sex. The former is a bitter break-up song about how the ex-lover’s new man isn’t that good. The confidence, the venom in that song is fantastic. It’s not a rant or a plea for the lover to return. Condescension is the dominant emotion, with Sheeran sneering all the way to next  one night stand. It’s not a song to sing to convince yourself you’re over the break up, but to celebrate how you moved on. No coincidence that both of these are Hip-Hop driven.

Nothing here is too different than previous albums by him. His sound is expanding a bit and there is more than acoustic balladry now, but overall the man remains the same. He cannot break free of being a performer, he cannot get into the act. The difference between him and the horrible Watkins is that Watkins remained in character. Having “New Man” and “Happier” in the same album is jarring, since they’re opposites but there’s nothing to connect them. Eventually, one side takes over and the most convincing one is the braggadio and macho bullshit. It’s funny how that song take shots an ultramacho new boyfriend, because that’s exactly how Sheeran sounds like. I have no problem with that, since “New Man” is actually brillaint. I only wish he would let go already. “Galway Girl” has more spirit than any song here.

2 new men out of 5

Issues – Headspace

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So far, the Nu Metal revival was great but a little disappointing. We got bands that mined the genre for emotional. It sounds impossible, but there’s beauty in Islander’s “The Sadness of Graves” or Of Mice & Men’s “Another You” that no other band in the style had. Others just knew how to rock. What the revival didn’t have was a band that captured the original weirdness.

Nu Metal was, at its heart, a weird genre. The reason critics and True Metalheads whined about it was because they couldn’t keep up. Bands switched vocal styles and genres but still kept it simple. You don’t hear a song like Slipknot’s “Only One” anymore – a mish-mash of three genres that’s accessible enough to play Tekken to. Issues finally deliver what the revival needed – an album that’s as bizarre as it is catchy.

It was so easy to go the other route. It was so easy to feed the mosh kids what they want, play 100 more breakdowns with the occasional R&B break. Instead we get “The Released”, which explodes with a funky riff, rapped vocals and then towards R&B singing all backed by Djent guitars. The second single “COMA” sounds even more like Periphery remixing a Justin Bieber song. Previous Trancecore band still had some aggression in their vocals, but Carter forgets he’s in a rock band. If I were a Slayer fanboy, I’d be offended.

The problem with mixing genres is getting the balance. Some bands merely add elements – a rap verse here or a bass drop there. The most frustrating ones add so much you can’t ignore, but never enough to break out of their subgenre. In their beginning, Issues’ R&B elements were hard to ignore but were also not enough. “Stringray Affliction” may be brilliant, but it’s a Metalcore song spliced with an R&B outro.

Headspace isn’t completely genreless, but it’s diverse enough to make it only fit ‘Rock’ or ‘Nu Metal’. It’s not even that the band isolates the styles, playing a Djent song and then a Pop song. The songs don’t even switch sections. It’s the method of picking small elements, mixing them and creating a whole song. “The Realest” is the best example of this. Despite mixing Funk, R&B, Djent and Hip-Hop it still sounds like a whole song rather than hopping from one thing to another. What’s more impressive is that these outside influence aren’t filtered. The rapping in “Blue Wall” and “Someone Who Does” is convincing. The two vocalist can produce a Rap record and no one would guess they have a Rock background. It’s also no surprise Carter released a solo record, because he never sounds like a Rock singer imitating Craig David.

As exciting as the sound is, there’s also disappointment. Issues never go full weird. There’s nothing like “Kobrakai” or “Nobody’s Listening”. While the band managed to distill their influence into a coherent sound, they’re afraid of expanding on it. The songs never differ too much from another. “Blue Wall” is feels like the most radical departure here, only because it commits itself fully to brutal slamming. None of the song commits itself to anything, but the band merely plays variations on a sound.

They got hook to back it up, though. The sound isn’t the only attraction here. Issues use their sound to dress up already great hooks. In fact, the album is ridiculosly consistent. The only missteps are, perhaps, “Yung & Dum” which feels too redundant in going on and on about how fun it is to be young. It’s easy to forget there were singles when the songs remain catchy all the way through. They also borrow Periphery’s songcraft. While still relying on choruses, the verses are often different and the songs conclude (“Lost-n-Found” gang vocals are an album highlight). The band doesn’t just wants to have a gimmick or hit singles. They produce actual songs.

Anyone who’s moderately interested in music should hear this. People who like heavy music can use this as a gateway to beautiful melodies. People who love hooks and clean singing can use this as a gateway to harsh vocals. Many will still dislike it. The typical criticism of ‘they have no direction’ and ‘they’re gimmicky’ will surface, but these are just Slayer fans being stupid or Indie fans not knowing how to have fun. It’s the Blue Lines of Rock – an album that mixes genres seamlessly, creating a consistent sound and plenty of great songs.

4 wastes of headspace out of 5

Rihanna – Anti

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Rihanna wasn’t supposed to last this long. She’s talented and charismatic, but not enough. Her voice sounds unique now only because we’ve heard it in a dozen songs. She doesn’t have the iimmediatepersonas of other artists like Carly Rae or Melanie Martinez or Lana Del Rey. She always had good hooks and connections with famous DJ’s. That’s why so later in her career she could still make a crappy song like “We Found Love” a hit.

Her best songs were never creative. She just had good vocals and hooks. What makes Anti sounds so weird at first is because there was no build up to such an album. There was nothing weird or wild about Rihanna. She was always a conformist, so much so that she pretend to be a tough rapper on “Bitch Better Have My Money”. Even Bieber’s move to AltR&B makes more sense. He was huge. Rihanna doesn’t feel as huge as him, but just a talented vocalist with good hooks.

As brave as this album is, it’s misguided and pointless at the end. For a while I was sure it was incomplete, with the accidental leak at all. It takes a while until you realize “Kiss It Better” is pretty good. “Consideration” and “James Joint” are interludes which feel more like B-Sides recorded for the heck of it, just to try it. The pounding drums of the first track are interesting, but the novelty wears off quickly. There’s not much there besides Rihanna telling us she’s independent and we should respect her for who she is.

Who is she, though? When you adopt cliches that tell me you’re artistic, how artistic and original are you, anyway? Bieber didn’t just adopt the atmospherics of AltR&B. He experimented with it, putting the stripped-down “Love Yourself” right next to the moombahton of “Sorry”.

Anti is artistic and experimental in a predictable way. Instead of adding new things, it just removes club-friendly beats for ‘atmospheric and minimalist’ beats’. Instead of hooks, we get vocal acrobatics. Just because these things aren’t so radio-friendly doesn’t make them good.

These elements aren’t supposed to make your record inaccessible, anyway. Anyone who thinks experimental music is meant to be difficult on purpose never heard great experimental music. Experimental music ism’t merely different, but it find a way to make its difficulty and oddness enjoyable. Experimental music isn’t so much about ‘being difficult’, but about finding new ways to enjoy music.

Rihanna can’t find something to replace her club-bangers with. The last three tracks are all a throwback to ‘Good Ol’ Soul Music’ with vocal acrobatics. It’s just an obvious attempt to cater to ‘serious listeners’, sort of like how “Titanium” was for a while the only acceptable EDM song. What’s their point, though, besides being a throwback? Can’t I just listen to “Good Ol’ Soul Music” instead of Rihanna’s copy? Just compare “Never Ending” to “Stay”. The former is ‘stripped down’ by only having an acoustic guitar doing something in the background, and Rihanna doesn’t sound interesting. She just sounds serious.

Seriousness is another problem. A common misconception is that ‘quality music’ is always serious. It’s the sort of stupidity you expect from young people who just discovered guitars. Rihanna thinks that by never having fun we will respect her, but all it makes is for a joyless, boring album. The best tracks here are the most fun. The guitar of “Kiss It Better” and the bravado of “Desperado” are a lot of fun. Both are progress. They take the toughness of Rihanna and put it in a more melodic, soulful direction. It’s this mix of soulfulness and aggression which makes it genuinaly experimental, weird but fun.

You can imagine Rihanna in the studio, scowling like a character from Texhnolyze writing off ideas. A producer suggests bass wobbles there. Another one points out to Korn’s remix of “Bitch Better” and suggests adding a metalcore breakdown. Another one thinks that maybe she should try to rip off Black Moth Super Rainbow. “No,” Rihanna says. She’s a serious artists now, so we must not do something too crazy. Let’s just make everything vaguely atmospheric using a lot of small sounds and sings low-key. Let’s make none of the songs stick out, because serious artists make albums and not songs.

Too bad Korn’s addition of guitars to “Bitch Better” is wilder than everything here. Even if you take an album-centric approach, you still need songs that make the album worthwhile. I could enjoy an album full of “Kiss It Better”‘s and “Desperado”‘s. They may not be big singles, but they sound like complete songs with hooks. “Yeah, I Said It” just sounds like a collection of pseudo-atmospheric sounds and vocals. It’s almost a parody of alternative R&B.

Or maybe Rihanna just smoke a lot of weed and the whole album is meant to be enjoyed in a drug-induced haze. There are a lot of psychedelic albums that are very enjoyable without drugs, so I don’t see how it is a defense.

Anti is an important album, but only the surface. Rihanna officially becomes a ‘serious artist’ in the worst ways possible. It’s serious, uses the most predictable techniques to inform you it’s artistic but doesn’t contain an actual novel idea or weird. It doesn’t really challenge you or startle. It’s just boring and joyless most of the time. Rihanna could make a great album if she looked to “Desperado” but here, it’s mostly just posturing.

2 bitches who owe Rihanna money out of 5

 

Sia – This Is Acting

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The role of songwriting is a long-winded debate in music communities. Do artists have to write their own songs to be talented? Do they have to mean what they say to be good? If a rapper writes a convincing song about robbin’ and killin’ and then it’s revealed he’s a cop, does it ruin the song?

This Is Acting somehow must be important to this debate, but I’m not sure how. It’s a collection of rejected songs Sia wrote for others. It’s supposed to reveal, perhaps, something about the singer and the songwriter. Imagine “Alive” if it was sung by Adele or “Space Between” if it was sung by Lana Del Rey.

I can’t imagine anything profound. All I can imagine is that these songs would be far more bearable if Sia didn’t sing them, especially “Space Between”. Sia’s main shtick is that she’s a ‘serious’ Pop star in an age full of Carly Rae Jepsen’s. She stretches her voice. She has huge arrangements and her tone is always grave. There are no “Call Me Maybe”‘s here.

Yes, there’s “Cheap Thrills” and “Sweet Design” but they still sound serious. Sia is that terrible of a singer. She may have technical chops, but like Adele she sucks out the life out of every song. She’s using every song as a vehicle to impress. It’s like a guitarist who can’t stick to a killer riff and has to shred over everything.

Some of it is not entirely Sia’s fault. She has an ugly, unbearable voice. Insulting a female voice as ‘muscular’ in the age where feminism is a hot topic must sound wrong, but there’s no better way to put it. It’s not ‘muscular’ in a way that makes it aggressive or tough or resilient. It’s ‘muscular’ in the fact it removes every sign of femininity. All that’s left are signs Sia had great vocal training and could hold notes.

You can still make a decent record with good hooks if you use your voice right. Sia is always sure she’s on American Idol and that she needs to sing it like the world depends on it. So you get “Move Your Body”, a song hilarious song that would’ve been a B-Side if Rihanna sang it. In the hands of Sia, it’s more serious than any ballad Adele sings.

Adele is an important point of comparison since both have the same annoying technique of being overly serious. At least Adele sings songs that are serious. She may overdo the vocal acrobatics but she has the right tone. Sia thinks songs like “Cheap Thrills” should be sung like they’re about stopping hunger and poverty. “Sweet Design” is the only song that’s somehow fun.

Sia has been terrible since “Titanium” but at least she sounded like she meant what she sung. She sounded like she really believed that the song is the most important thing to happen on earth since the Great Oxygenation Event. Here, it’s so obvious she’s acting.

In truth, authenticity doesn’t matter. Actors and authors write/act things they haven’t experienced all the time. The most important thing to do is to convince the listener you mean what you say. That’s why a lot of musicians can sound thoughtful while being horrible criminals.

Sia is a horrible actor. She’s so detached from the material. Instead of sounding like she believes in the importance, she only does it because the script says so. She follows the formula of a typical Sia song all the way, but the formula is too obvious to ignore. It’s not a grand concept that unites the songs. These are merely serious Pop songs about not being defeated.

If Sia believed in this material, maybe the overblown nature of the music could’ve had some charm. Dream Theater are often fun because they’re oblivious to how ridiculous they are. Sia doesn’t sound like it. She sounds like she knows what sells, that people will gobble it up because it’s more serious than Carly Rae Jepsen.

It can be interesting for a while to guess what song was meant for what artist. In the end, it’s just a collection of overly-serious ’empowering’ anthems. “Titanium” and “Diamonds” were crappy songs. Anthems are supposed to fun. They need a lightness to them. Sia sounds both overly serious and counting her money for all those who wanted copies of “Titanium”. Sia may reveal Pop music is all an act, but she also reveals she’s a horrible actor. I really don’t care if Rihanna doesn’t write her own songs. She’s convincing at least.

The chorus of “Reaper” is horrible. Sia sounds so moronic holding the note as if the world depends on it while the song doesn’t demand it. “Move Your Body” is so serious I can’t listen to it with a straight face. It’s appallingly bad. “Alive” is somehow decent.

1 chandeliers out of 5