Swollen Members – Dagger Mouth

DAGGER

This can’t help but feel like an apology for their previous, atrocious album. For an album that’s so apologetic it also sounds like a roaring comeback that threatens to be their defining work. It’s an odd contrast that doesn’t really make sense and makes you wonder what Armed to the Teeth was all about anyway if they’re doing the complete opposite here.

Swollen Members are about classic Boom Bap only with more charisma. Instead of mumbling about New York and other such cliches, they flirt with horrorcore while never becoming as obnoxious as Necro. This versatility let them either slide completely into the genre, take it into more personal places (“Bad Dreams”) or to just expand beyond the typical boundaries of Hip-Hop. That’s why Black Magic is so good and why it received such a lukewarm reception. Before Kanye West’s new found fame, the only way to make an acclaimed album was to imitate crappy New York rappers I won’t bother to name.

So when they dropped Armed to the Teeth, it made no sense except that the people at Subnoize used it as a device to spread their misogyny. While the addition of guitars were cool, tracks like “Porn Star” were not. It’s exactly what I feared and what we got. For some reason they think that if they hate women, then every artist on Subnoize must sing about hating women. Even beyond the occasional misogyny the album lacked spirit. The only time it did, it’s because it had song titles like “Reclaim the Throne”. Clearly, they weren’t over the whole D&D thing.

From the beginning there is a suicidal fatal darkness to this album that never lets go. The opening track goes off about emotions and fear. “The Shining” talks about a spinning world that makes you feel lost. Just look at the song titles from that track on – “Devil”, “The Predator”, “Chemical Imbalance”. Swollen aim for a balance between the murder raps of Necro and the depressive introspection of Sadistik – self-harm as a sign of strength.

The result is absolutely badass and fun. It’s over-the-top, yes, but its darkness doesn’t mean a lack of fun. Swollen just trade in being warriors to being creepy dudes. “Night Vision” and “Chemical Imbalance” are the pumping heart of the album, where Mad Child swings from self-hating to bragging, often in the same line. You can hear his passion, too. He repeats the same rhymes a few times, but its his fury, his anger, how it’s directed at everyone (including himself) and no one at the same that makes the verse of “Night Vision” one of the best verses in Hip-Hop ever. Some rappers may have written more clever rhymes, but such passion is rare, especially in Boom Bap.

You can also look at this album as not just Swollen taking their style to the extreme, but also pushing the Boom Bap genre to actual darkness. Rob the Viking also shines here, knowing that the lyrics would be nothing without creepy sounds. While they don’t really go the danceable route – “Fire”, “Sound of the Drum” and “Devil” are the only times they raise the tempo and let the drums kick hard – he creates great soundscapes. Odd, unclear sounds surround these songs. A generator-like hum makes “Night Vision” way creepier. Rob knows that if the drums don’t take a central place, something else must. His atmospheric is actually atmospheric and enveloping. Calling it ‘camp’ is just silly. There was no other way of achieving this besides piling the odd noises.

Mad Child is the star here, which can sometimes be sad. All of the struggles he talked about in Armed to the Teeth are here out in the open. It might as well be an exorcism of his demons. Some songs are solo, like “Chemical Imbalance”. That leaves Prevail a bit in the dust, since his lyrics don’t have that personal nature but just cool imagery of satanic rituals, killing people, the undead and general darkness. He can never capture Mad Child’s fury who raps like a man possessed. It’s most apparent in “Night Vision” where his verse is almost useless. That said, he’s still an integral part. Without him this would become an incoherent and self-centered work. Prevail’s slightly more lighthearted approach is necessary.

The best thing about this album is how it manages to be unique, a whole piece without straying too far. Traditional Hip-Hop is an extremely minimalist genre so you get a lot of rappers saying nothing over white noise. It’s almost frightening how similar most of the canon is. Swollen Members don’t pull any tricks here, it’s just they got a more interesting concept and more passion. In the end Hip-Hop is sound art, and no matter how clever your lyrics are you need passion and to rap with conviction. Dagger Mouth is a strong contender for the best Boom Bap rap album ever. It actually takes advantage of the genre’s style and limits. It uses the minimalist beats to let the rappers go crazy, so the rappers actually go crazy. At the same time the beats remain important, providing odd sounds that change the tone of the songs – whether it’s the aggressive “Night Vision”, the moody “Chemical Imbalance” or the self-congratulating “Mr. Impossible”. I want to blame Subnoize for this album’s lack of success, but then again if they didn’t shat out Armed to the Teeth they wouldn’t feel the need to apologize and make a glorious comeback.

4 daggers out of 5

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Brother Ali – All The Beauty in This Whole Life

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Some time ago, Brother Ali had vitality and passion. It was a time everyone hated Hip-Hop made for partying, so some did bland, unmusical Boom Bap and others decided Hip-Hop could be about things other than killing and fucking. Nowadays it’s not mind-blowing anymore and that’s okay, since that era gave us Atmosphere whose followers – like Grieves and Sadistik – are the future. Brother Ali had his sure of fantastic tracks.

When I say ‘vitality’, I don’t mean that Brother Ali gone soft or any of that crap. The best song here is “Out of Here”, and his best song overall is “Faheem”, a heartbreaking song for his son that’s arresting from the first note and the moment Ali opens his mouth. There is vulnerability in his voice, one of an everyman who struggles with everyman issues that despite being common they’re still so huge we need music to deal with them. For a long time, it was one of the first songs I offered any time someone went off on ‘Hip-Hop is not music’ rants.

This album continues with the more introspective, less political nature. Nothing here goes hard like “Whatcha Got”, and that’s okay. The problem is, Ali doesn’t sound like he’s really into making music. Many of these songs ramble and don’t go anywhere. When they do, these are messages we’re familiar with and their delivary isn’t interesting or adds something new.

I’m not even sure if Ali is capable anymore. Like any rapper in this style, he had a tendency to make songs that are too dense to be interesting, but “Out of Here” should’ve been more powerful, darker. It should’ve brought the same vulnerability that made “Faheem” so arresting, yet it just coasts along. If it never sends a comforting message like how life goes on, it also doesn’t provide much insight into the topic. Losing someone to suicide is confusing. It shifts paradigms. We don’t just realize someone is gone, but it was death by choice. Someone actively decided that this whole project called life isn’t worthwhile.

According to the story, Ali took a break from music and went on a trip around the world to learn a bit about the beauty and love and life. Just look at the title. This kind of optimism leads to two things. Either there is a madness, an untamed desire to live and experience and contain everything which often leads to gender-bending music or you get dull, non-confrontational Zen bullshit. As if being complacent, or passive or placid, or whatever bastardization of Buddhism we invent is somehow profound.

Ali’s new found optimism isn’t mad and engrossing. All it does is make him less confrontational, with less desire to jump fully into his ideas. “Before They Called You White” reeks of tokenism, not of anger or of intelligence. Ali wants to take on the invention of whiteness. That’s an interesting topic that people don’t say interesting thing about. I can’t even get angry at Ali missing the cases and histories of racism not done by whites. Nothing is more West-centric than pretending whiteness is the great evil, but at least the idiots who spew that are passionate about it. At his most passionate in his song Ali says ‘Post-Traumatic Slavemaster Syndrom”, which is kind of cool. As for the final hook, it’s ironic. If the eye can’t see itself and needs critique, can I do it to all cultures?

Don’t get the impression that this album provides insight into the racial struggles. Nothing here is like Macklemore’s “White Privilege”, an abomination that was at least interesting. The second time Ali talks about race with focus is on “Dear Black Son”, but since race is everywhere in contemporary discourse the song is not interesting. I don’t mind songs about the Black experience, but don’t expect a “The Blacker the Berry”, something that shows the pain of being marginalized, of being always afraid a random cop will shoot you or that everyone still gives you funny looks despite claiming constantly they’re not racist. There is genuine pain to explore here, but this song is nothing but ‘you’re beautiful and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise’. Considering Ali experienced losing someone to suicide, I think if anyone needs this message, they are people who don’t an identity to give their life meaning.

I digress. This review should talk about how dull Ali’s rapping is on this album. Whatever interesting thing he has to say on “Never Learn”, the best thing about is the bluesy beat. Mostly, it makes me wish I was listening to Grieves who is so talented even when the songs are about nothing he imbues them with emotion. “Never Learn” is just cookie cutter serious Hip-Hop, pleasant on the ear and nothing else. Most of the songs are like this. I don’t get it. Ali is a talented rapper and the first single, “Own Light”, has some life in it. In fact, it does hint that the album might be necessary, taking introspective Hip-Hop to a more optimistic direction and creating the antithesis of Sadistik.

Sadly, the end result is introspective Hip-Hop without much going for it, either in subject matter, atmosphere, tone, wit or anything. The impression is that Ali found peace, and now he doesn’t have much he needs to let out in music besides some joy in “Own Light” and sorrow in “Out of Here”. In the title-track which closes the song, he praises God and overall existence. Forget, for a moment, Ligotti’s pessimism and how existence is always bad. Is that how the passion and love for life should sound like? Isn’t happiness and love wild, untamed emotions which we just can’t contain? Aren’t the best smiles those we can’t control? I’m happy for Ali that he’s at peace, really, but if his heart isn’t in music then he doesn’t have to make music.

Anyone remember “Fresh Air”? Now that’s a song that could cure depression.

2 out of 5 here

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

Ugly Duckling – Journey to Anywhere

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In later records, Ugly Duckling would often admit to feeling insecure and being nobodies. The sequel to this album opens with “Opening Act”, where they constantly talk about how anonymous they are and they kind of hope but don’t expect to be big. It’s the opposite of the typical subject matter. Instead of boasting how big they are, they’re cowering and begging for a little affection.

The irony is, “Opening Act” is a milestone in Hip-Hop. So rare are songs like it. Every line hits hard. It’s easy to follow, and you don’t need complex rhymes when you have such powerful lines. For all the expressions of lacking confidence, it destroys most Rap music. Before they made that song, though, they made Journey to Anywhere. It’s not offensively bland like most of its ilk, but we already have enough bland records like this.

At their best, Ugly Duckling make fun, loose Hip-Hop. The genre desperately needs such records. Too many rappers take their bragging seriously no matter how many Jazz horns they stick in the back. Wu-Tang Clan often sounds desperate for your approval, for critics to agree with how cool and badass they are. When the Duckling use horns, they’re cartoonish. “Smack” is the ideal song to put in a Powerpuff Girls episode. On Journey to Anywhere, they’re just kicking rhymes.

Now, if that was their purpose then fine. Dilated Peoples made a lot of good records using their formula, but they were focused. Their beats had good drums, funky basslines and DJ scratching all over their place. They aimed for a little aggression, too. Duckling don’t sound like they have any aim, so they fall back on dropping random words over beats that are just as indecisive. Sure, they sound nice and pleasant but I can get a similar vibe by listening to anything by Dilated Peoples or Jurassic 5. Why should I listen to this?

Some songs do have some concept. That’s before they found their wit and “A Little Samba” is the only thing that can stand next to “Turn It Up” or “Smack”. The hook is the primary reason, too. Laughing at tough guy bragging is fun, but they band doesn’t sound like they have fun. In their best songs, they emphasize the right lines. Here, they rap more smoothly and more hushed. They seek to blend in with the beat rather jump off from it. If the production was good enough to carry it, then fine. All it does is create pleasant sound. Just like the rappers, it’s too afraid to capture the attention.

What’s the point of songs like “Rock on Top” or “I Did It Like This”? They’re about nothing. Maybe if you listen hard enough you can find a catchy line, but the hook for “Rock on Top” is so lazy and desperate. I know Hip-Hop critics have a weird obsession with smooth rapping over Jazz beats, but that sound’s tired. Unless you have a personality, it’s worth nothing.

As fodder for a Hip-Hop party, it’s good. No track is going to wake the party. No track is going to help people get into the vibe. It’ll just continue it. There are a few keepers – the title-track has a beautiful beat, “A Little Samba” is cute and so is “Pick Up Lines”. Mostly, it’s a record without spirit. Old artists should make tired records like this. It would make more sense for the Duckling to release this later in their career when they exhausted all of their ideas. Thankfully they moved on to the brilliant Taste the Secret.

2 little sambas out of 5

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – This Unruly Mess I’ve Made

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Both Social Justice Warriors and the people who hate them are panic-starters. Confirmation bias is their religion, and it’s hard to find the truth between all the bullshit. It’s hard to find where racism is truly a problem, and not just a normal case where a black person didn’t get what they want. It’s hard to tell the difference between the actual damage SJW’s do, or paranoia.

Macklemore’s second album makes it easy. SJW’s ruined this rapper. What used to be a confident, inventive and versatile rapper is now a doormat. “White Privilege II” is the centerpiece of the album. Way before you hear it, Macklemore’s crippling guilt over rapping while white cripples the album.

That song is easily one of the worst abominations commited to audio. You need to make songs about raping women and killing ‘damn niggers’ to make something worse. Actually, rappers have done songs about raping women and got acclaim for it.

Where to start with such a trainwreck? It ends with a woman singing about Hip-Hop like it’s some sort of ideal. Maybe she should look to Ice Cube or Eazy-E or Phife Dawg, highly acclaimed rappers who made sure to let us know how terrible women are. Women praising Hip-Hip is one of the most hilarious things ever. I can enjoy plenty of misogynistic music, but it doesn’t make it right.

In fact, “White Privilege II” proves something more terrible than white people rapping. Okay, so some dudes have a wacky entitlement complex and think their phenotypes mean they ‘own a culture’. Still, why are the only living artists Macklemore attacks are women? Why is Miley Cyrus twerking worse than those hundreds of videos and songs about ‘hoes’ and ‘gold diggers’, where women are just decorations in a video? Don’t criticize people for not wanting to listen to objecitifcation of women. It doesn’t matter how oppressed you are. Misogyny cannot be justified.

But Macklemore is concerned with not looking racist. Since we’re dealing with appearances, we can sacrifice other groups for our image. That’s why we bend over backwards to make sure people won’t criticize Islam. So Macklemore is angry over white people rapping and exploitating the precious culture that gave us songs like “A Bitch Iz a Bitch”. I’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist, or shouldn’t be talked about. Just don’t be a total moron about it (It’s no “The Blacker the Berry”, a song that gives the oppressed a voice, makes us understand what it feels like). Delivering coherent ideas in music is hard, but when you’re that pretentious is impossible. Hip-Hop is not holy. No one is entitled to Hip-Hop. Don’t tell me how Hip-Hop was for the ‘oppressed’ when misogyny and homophobia are all over the place.

Oh, and Macklemore had fantastic black singers on “Can’t Hold Us” and “Thrift Shop”. So no, Macklemore, your white skin didn’t help you. These black singers did.

Enough about that song, though. For a while, the album hints it might be good. “Light Tunnels” is actually very good. Apologizing to Kendrick Lamar was retarded, but it’s an ambitious song that could only come out of a Kanye-esque narcisstic mind. Then again, whining about fame is narcissitic unless you got psychological insight. The song stretches for 6 minutes, changing the beat constantly but still keeping a hook. It’s an epic, attention-grabbing opener. Macklemore still sounds inconfident in it, but at least it sees him looking forward and trying ridiculous but interesting ideas.

“Downtown” may be an obvious sequel to “Thrift Shop” but it’s a fun one. The aggressive shout-rap is a nice throwback. In truth, the only way it’s a sequel to that song is in concept. It’s a silly rap song driven by a hook that still pushes the music forward. The duo aren’t without talent, they’re just crippled by white guilt and over-seriousness.

The album drops in quality more and more as it goes on. It never becomes offensive until “White Privilege II” and sometimes it rises. Mostly though, it’s so subdued. Nothing about is particularly different from The Heist in musical terms. The songs switch from serious to fun, to a mix of the two. The musical backdrop is experimental and accessible at the same time (“St. Ides” has a beautiful beat). Both hooks and lyrics are important, but this Macklemore always sounds self-aware this time around.

Even when Macklemore was serious and cheesy, he sounded honest. He might’ve sounded ignorant, but he sounded like he genuinaly cared. “Neon Cathedral” worked. “Growing Up” and “Kevin” don’t. It’s as if Macklemore knows this is what’s expected of him. The fun tracks are where this is most apparent. “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” and “Dance Off” lack any sense of joy, or any hook. Macklemore sounds particularly depressed on the former, referencing Deez Nuts (meme, not the band) in some silly effort to inject silliness. Now, if Macklemore deliberately wrote a song about trying to lift his depression in a party, it’d be brilliant. His voice is light-hearted and sounds odd in serious songs, so it’ll be ideal for a song like this one. Instead, Macklemore sounds like he doesn’t really want to make music.

The line “I don’t like who I am in this environment” in the opener is telling. Both parties rarely sound like they want to make this music. Ryan Lewis has cool ideas and a diverse palette, but the beats aren’t attention-grabbing like before. He never takes the ideas to their extreme conclusions. “Need to Know” barely has a beat, as if minimalism is a virtue in and of itself. “Dance Off” is utterly pathetic. It’s a banger with no drums and no basslines. You can only tell it’s a dance song because someone screams about getting down on the floor.

If Macklemore truly thinks white females are ruining Hip-Hop, then he’s a hypocrite. If he just thinks white people are exploiting the culture (No mention of Apathy or El-P or Eminem or Mike Shinoda though), then don’t rap. Don’t rap especially if you don’t feel like it. Even when you leave out the abomination that is “White Privilege II”, it’s a tired album by two people who just don’t want to make that music.

2 popped tags out of 5

Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

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The album sounds exactly like the build-up, and that’s not an entirely good thing.

Starting off with a long digression about the days before the release is pointless. In the end, it’s boring and in a few years most of the listeners will have no idea what it was like. What you should know is that the album went through countless name changes and tracklistings. It was so extreme that even at the end, right after Kanye streamed the album in a party his mind kept changing.

At first, it’s an artist slowly discovering what their new album is and showing us every step of the way. When even on the day of release they keep changing it, dumping all the tracks and not releasing the album on time it’s clear something is wrong. Kanye is talked about like some mad genius, but these qualities are always struggling against each other.

The last two Kanye albums that got people so hyped were tightly focused. It’s bizarre to think the same Kanye on this album also made “Runaway” a few years back. That song goes for 9 minutes and doesn’t waste a single second. It’s the definition of ‘astonishing’. Here, Kanye West has no idea what to do in 2 minutes. “Father Stretch My Hands” is divided into two parts, both of which don’t make any sense. It’s weird melodic-Trap-Rap thing that’s cool on paper, but it goes nowhere.

Kanye is incapable of writing a Pop song here. He actually has a hook, but he never turns that song into an actual Pop song. He jumps from one section to the next. The music it has more in common with is that spastic Post-Hardcore thing Chiodos and Protest the Hero do.

What’s weirder is that this isn’t an artist just dumping ideas. Half of it makes sense as a whole album, and the other sounds like things Kanye just got out of his system. Tracks like “Waves”, “FML”, “Wolves” and even “Fade” point to a new direction for Kanye. They see him pushing further into the Alternative R&B movement, but still maintaining a lot of Hip-Hop influence and a free-from structure. They’re exciting in how weird and accessible they are at the same time. It’s what Pop musicians make when they feel brave enough.

Then there’s “Freestyle 4” and “Feedback”, where Kanye sounds like he’s spitting some verses that he had no idea where to put. “Highlights” is a great Auto-Tuned Pop song that gets lost. Why is “No More Parties in LA” here? It sounds like it belong in 2004. I’m sure many will be excited over it, but it sounds out of place and only reinforces the feeling Kanye had no idea what to do with this.

The structure of the album creates a weird effect. Almost every song sounds worst in it, yet the album works great as a whole. It’s easy to miss the beauty of “Waves” and “Wolves” when sit next to “30 Hours” and “Feedback”, but it’s fascinating to hear this from beginning to end. It’s not exactly a genre-bending album. Kanye’s too unfocused to this. The album is still varied and experimental, just because of Kanye’s nature. As scattered as it is, it shows that perhaps Kanye is incapable of making a bad album.

The result is a confusing album that challenges in a fun way. It’s hard to get a grip on what the album tries to be because there are literally two albums fighting for dominance. Listening to see it is seeing an artist who is now original by nature, who doesn’t have to try too hard to be weird. It lacks the focus of Yeezus, but it proves Kanye still has plenty to offer. He was just in a mental state that didn’t allow him to make a coherent album at the moment. Why didn’t he include “All Day” or “FourFiveSeconds” though?

There are also plenty of songs to take away from. In isolation, plenty of these songs work. They may less immediate, but “Ultralight Beam” and “Fade” are both new directions for Kanye West. The former is a weird Gospel number that doesn’t sound like anything. The latter jumps on the Deep House bandwagon, but destroys everything released today with how it progresses, until it reaches the brilliant lyrics (“I’ve been on my shit/Whole world on my dick”) and the breakdown. “30 Hours” is minimalistic and simple, but also beauitful in its serenity. Kanye even managed to produce the best skit of all time with “I Love Kanye”. It actually adds a lot, stuck in the middle of the album. If you need any further proof Kanye is off his mind in the best way, this is it. If the album wasn’t messy enough, Kanye pauses it to talk about himself.

The Life of Pablo is a big event, but the album is overall underwhelming. It’s scattershot and messy. It’s not just that Kanye can’t hold himself back, but that he doesn’t know what his album should be. He can’t even settle on the idea of ‘messy album with no direction’. Still, it’s fun to just hear him try to find sense, and it does have “Fade”.

Panic! At the Disco – Death of a Bachelor

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Panic at the Disco were never ’emo’. They were never even similar to the bands that people mis-classified as Emo. They had Punk-Pop elements, yes, but they were more experimental and glam than their peers. When Fall Out Boy and Chemical Romance traded the punkish hooks for experimentation, it sounded like a band trying to justify their huge fanbase. When Panic reinvented themselves over and over, it was just something they were made to do.

“Emperor’s New Clothes” isn’t surprising. It was inevitable. Urie stomps and brags over a Hip-Hop backing while forgetting to rap. Fall Out Boy released a very similar song recently too. This is what happens to all successful rock bands. After you’re victorious, selling records and getting groupies what is there to sing about?

Stadium is the logical end of any band that relied on hooks for success. Some bands still pretend they have a serious message to deliver. Others, like Papa Roach, still give us angsty lyrics only with friendly melodies. They make it clear that the bands aren’t struggling, but they hope the songs will help you.

Since Panic never complained much about life, they choose (more correctly, Urie chooses) the hedonistic approach. There are a lot of lyrics about partying, drugs and being a bad motherfucker. The biggest influence on this album isn’t Frank Sinatra. Did Frank display the arrogance Urie shows in “Victorious” or “The Good, The Bad…”? For most of the album, Urie tells people either to fuck off, step their game up or how great he is. When he’s not doing that, he tells us he parties hard. It’s no different than your average Rap song on the radio.

That’s not a bad thing, of course. It’s actually what Rock music needs right now. Rock music suffered too much of over-seriousness. Ever since Nirvana, every rock star decided to make the audience a psychotherapist. Some Nu Metal or Punk Pop bands added a little fun, but a lot of Rock was just noise to think deep thoughts during recess. I can still remember the days when we considered fun music to be meaningless and therefore bad.

These songs are great. Urie is convincing in his arrogance and I don’t expect anything less of a rock star with fan girls. Urie sounds so confident that “Crazy=Genius” almost sounds stupid. What kind of lover would doubt him after hearing him on “Emperor’s New Clothes”? On “The Good, the Bad…” he sounds like he will continue smiling even if he’ll receive 1000 punches.

Urie also experiments with genres a bit, but they’re never full-blown experiments. It’s odd to hear no guitars on “Emperor’s New Clothes”, but he never lets the genre he experiments with to take over. I don’t know whether it’s a good or bad thing. Urie is a charismatic enough singer to hold his own. The hooks are better than ever, but you do wish Urie would go further. If he’s so confident as he presents himself, why doesn’t he try to rap on “Emperor’s New Clothes”? Why doesn’t “Victorious” contains a Skrillex-inspired bass drop although it begs to?

As expected, it’s the ballads that fail. They’re not terrible, but they’re a huge step down. They reek of tokenism. Urie may like Sinatra, but he doesn’t have the same kind of voice. He can’t replicate that atmosphere. A few horns and vocal acrobatics don’t make you Sinatra or Dean Martin. They have a specific style of melodies and of singing.

The title-track doesn’t suffer too much since it still has the old rock star arrogance. The obligatory closing ballad is a huge step down. Instead of channeling the influence and making a throwback, it’s just your ordinary piano ballad at the end of a rock album. Ballads often stick like a sore thumb in an album full of party tracks.

These two and a few other, more serious tracks make the record less focused. Urie plays the party tracks with full conviction, but he’s unsure how exactly to imitate Sinatra. Without this focus, the album fails to be the big statement it should have been. It’s still a great record full of hooks and variety, though. Maybe Pretty Odd was Panic’s classics and they will never improve on it, but Urie is far sounding out of ideas.

3.5 naked emperors out of 5