Papa Roach – Crooked Teeth


While Papa Roach’s previous album was decent, it also put the band at a crucial point. The songs lacked emotional punch, were nothing but decent stadium anthems but had nothing going to them besides things to sing along to at shows. It didn’t even sound like the band could pretend to have emotions. They didn’t even try to make tools for venting your frustration. So while pretty melodies like “Falling Apart” are nice, they had to give us something more or quit music. It’s been this way for a few albums now, but F.E.A.R. was their driest record yet.

And Crooked Teeth is exactly the kind of album I wanted from them, yet I never thought they were capable of making it. Sure, I believed they could crack an earworm or too. So when “Help” dropped, it was a good sign. It was ordinary mid-tempo rock, but there were subtle differences that hinted at a sense of purpose. Acoustic guitars were quite prominent and the vocals weren’t as explosive, adding a layer of vulnerability. It’s still an anthem, but it now had a bit of that shallow emotional sentiment that makes it work outside stadiums.

Then there was “Crooked Teeth”, which of course was praised because it was loud and we all know Pop music is bad. It’s not just the noise, though – it was truly chaotic, opting for a half-screamed verse and the band just hammering on their instruments. Most weird as the short Hip-Hop break in the middle. In the past I said “Gravity” was a brilliant career highlight but I wrote it off as a fluke. Most of this record builds from there.

You can’t escape how Hip-Hop-driven this record is, as if Papa Roach looked to the controversy surrounding Linkin Park and decided to replace them. Papa Roach were some of the worse genre-benders in Nu Metal and their rapping didn’t add much back then. Here, though, the rapping is far more focused and smooth.

Shaddix sounds like an actual rapper, having an actual flow and adopting the right tone for rapping. Even for someone used to Rap-Rock, these songs are confusing at first. “Break the Fall” and “My Medication” might as well be Hip-Hop with some guitars. Later they even adopt the genre’s bragging antics for “Born for Greatness”, where they also use their guitars for a bass drop. Add the cheery, easy vocals and you have a fantastic, chest-beating anthem that sounds confident and huge.

This rediscovery of Hip-Hop either causes, or a symptom of rediscovery of purpose in their music. Each song has its unique vibe now, nothing sounds like just another anthem. The aforementioned “Help” would sound generic in any other album, but here it’s one of a kind. Its subtle unique traits, like letting the acoustic guitars stay prominent rise to the surface. On “My Medication” and “Break the Fall”, they re-capture the spirit of teen angst that made their old music so good. What was lacking in their latest album was that.

Teen angst may be shallow, generic and too general for any depth. It can be effective though, especially with good hooks. “My Medication” has a manic energy in how the guitars roar and Shaddix sounds like he cares about this subject matter, like he is a drugged-up rockstar living a reckless life. The anthemic nature of the songs is secondary to their purpose. Even their ballads improved. “Periscope” lets the guitarists try something else for a change, a pseudo-underwater riff while Shaddix along with Grey keep the vocals low. It’s a song you’d expect from Deftones if they tried to go Pop. If this sounds like ripping off, it might – but Papa Roach throw themselves with full conviction that people in YouTube got worried over that track.

The highlight of the album is easily its oddest track – “Sunrise Trailer Park”. In a way it’s a spiritual successor to “Gravity”, only it pushes so far into Hip-Hop that it has no business being on Rock radio. True, it’s not as harrowing emotionally was it wanted to me. Lyrical imagination was never one of their strong points and the subject matter of losing a friend from drunk driving – and being guilty – has no depth here. Still, the band is sincere enough, letting the emotions rise out without forcing them. It might be obvious, but it’s never overt and there is something quite haunting and damaged in the line “I’m still haunted by the best years of my life”. At the end of the songs these lines just float with the beat. Such decisions can only come from a focused band who knows what their songs is about.

What I wanted from Papa Roach was focused songwriting and capturing the old energy of frustration rock. In some cases – like in the title-track or “Help” this is what I get and it’s enough. The addition of rapping, exploring new sounds and territories, having “Sunrise Trailer Park” suddenly hints that maybe this band has something in them more than just venting tools. Maybe that’s what happens when you grow up. You may not have emotional depth, but you realize you’re free to try whatever you can. Hopefully this is a rebirth and maybe they’ll become genre-benders like Linkin Park.

3.5 crooked teeth out of 5

Linkin Park – One More Light

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Anyone who was born when Hybrid Theory first came out is 17-years-old now. If they’re lucky, they have experienced heartbreak, romance, sex, drugs, fighting with parents, have a solid group of friends and are thinking of what to do with their lives. I say this so you’ll realized how long these guys exist. We still live in the fallout of their first two albums which captured the anxiety of youth so well. So now we’re listening to Mike’s half-apology to his kids and wonder what the hell happened.

It’s the same question a parent will ask themselves when they realize their baby is now as big as them and discovered sexuality. These guys are old. Moreover, they always hopped from genre to genre, each album a clear response to what was before. Minutes to Midnight was their attempt to break away from Nu Metal, experimenting with different kinds of structures and isolating the Hip-Hop elements so they’ll become their own. On A Thousand Suns they said goodbye to everything and to every audience, jumping headfirst to experimental electronica, themes of nuclear warfare, emphasizing their Hip-Hop elements and producing such a wide-eyed vision that nobody could keep up with them.

After that, things made a bit more sense – but only a little more. Just when you thought they went full artistic, they dropped Living Things, a simple punchy albums that combine all their previous elements. Yet that album wasn’t a regression, since it had “Victimized” and “Until It Breaks”, the band refusing to settle to a genre and to a single structue. After everyone got used to blippy electronics and with a new fanbase, The Hunting Party threw it all away for huge, angry Rock that still included their experimental elements – see “A Line in the Sand”.

So how is the direction they took on this album a surprise? This album is the complete opposite of The Hunting Party without going ambient, not just in sound but in vibe. Linkin Park have always been quite angry. One More Light isn’t just a move to a new sound – you heard some of these ideas back in “Breaking The Habit” but to a whole new emotional dimension. 3 years ago they were angry adults, now they’re content adults.

It’s amazing people still react to this band with the surprise. As an attempt to go commercial, this is the complete opposite of their essence. When it does sound like ‘what’s on the radio’, it’s a drastic improvement. For the first time Linkin Park are allowed to be happy. The main shock behind “Battle Symphony” was how joyous it was, how it was so full of hope it didn’t have to to be bombastic but ride a glitchy, funny riff. Chester sounds content, not stretching his vocals but keeping the fun, careless spirit. This, along with “Nobody Can Save Me” are songs for an easy summer and we all could use such a summer.

Even when the songs are more serious, there’s a grown-up attitude of contentment, of looking back at your past and coming to terms with it. So you get “Halfway Right”, where Chester pours out his troubled with past with the happiness that it’s all behind him. Or there’s “Sharp Edges”, a move to Country which would’ve been cliched – and is – but check the ending. It’s been so long since the “What doesn’t kill you…” line sounded good, but the song explodes with life-affirming energy.

There’s a problem in music where artists ‘grow up’ and lose vitality. Many artists don’t know how to grow up, and what passes for lack of restraint is actually losing the energy and desire to make music. Linkin Park doesn’t fall into that. They enjoy keeping the songs low-key. It’s the kind of happiness where you don’t have to prove anything, and that’s why the ending to “Sharp Edges” or the ‘na na na’ thing in “Halfway Right” works. The band isn’t a spent force and their adulthood didn’t drain them of energy. Instead, they found joy. Nothing in “Sharp Edges” is particularly new if you listened to Mumford & Sons, but with such a joyous ending there’s no need to get lost in the dictionary in search of profound words.

The most important tracks are the title-track and “Sorry For Now”. They’re so good that they deserve their own paragraphs. Why “Sorry For Now” wasn’t released as a lead single is mystifying. No song grabs the listener and is full of surprises like that one. First off, we hear Mike directly addressing his kids and nothing shows us how old these guys are like this. Then there’s the chorus, which is beautiful and odd in its dismissal of angry children – a ‘someday you’ll understand’ that’s almost flippant but not too much. Right before the final chorus Chester comes to sing-rap, and it makes a happy song already more happier. At this point, they believe they can do anything – so they combine personal lyrics, a bass drop, a happy melody along with switching roles. By far it’s one of the most joyous song I heard, a band sounding so happy where they are so they just go with whatever.

Then there’s the title-track, which is harrowing. Linkin Park made few ballads, but this is the best of them. It’s not just about losing someone. The driving line – “Who cares if one more light goes out/in a sky of a million stars?” expresses how small we are in the face of death. It’s a song that should change the world. We hear about people dying everyday, and we can’t care about it all but goddamn it matters. It’s a hushed, warm ballad that, again, never explodes to vocal acrobatics. Brad’s guitar in the background is just as fragile as any of us. This is a song we all need to take in, to affirm our importance and our fragility at the same. No surprise they decided the song was so important they should title the album after it.

Releasing “Heavy” as the first single was such a stupid move. It remains the worst song here, although it’s only bad for the first minute where Chester sounds too whiny. As soon as Kiiara joins it becomes a decent ballad, updating the existential angst to adulthood. The album sounds nothing like that song. Actually, this album doesn’t sound like anything. Glitch is a big element, but just when you think you captured the sound of the album something slips. “Good Goodbye” is an aggressive Trap song. “Sorry For Now” is too big. The last two tracks drop the electronica for acoustic guitars. Comparisons to Twenty One Pilots are a good idea, but that’s because Twenty One Pilots are another band who refuses to stay in one place. So everyone calls them ‘unoriginal’.

Some have said this is a good Pop album but a bad Linkin Park album. Actually, when you look at it in the context of the band’s discography it becomes better. It’s another adventure, another evidence of how creative this band is. It’s not just the exploration of sound – there’s plenty of beautiful melodies and song progression. Add “Sorry For Now” and “One More Light” which are masterpieces, and this is another success. Of course, people who grew up on guitars will hate this. That’s less fun for you.

4 battle symphonies out of 5

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

The Crystal Method – Tweekend

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The Crystal Method has been written off as inferior carbon copies of Big Beat, and also that they did a ‘dumb, American version of it’. Snobbish people had to convince themselves that the Prodigy made profound music involving social commentary and existential questions when in reality they did nothing but really, really catchy noise. At first this label of the Crystal Method is a bit deserved. Their debut is a collection of cool Breaks with some funky Sci-Fi sounds. It had a cool sound, but few songs. Here, though, they truly come together and cement themselves as canonical in the electronic genre. Tweekend is one of the reasons why Big Beat remains EDM’s best genre.

Since by now every artist in the genre cemented their sound – Prodigy with their loud rocking, Fatboy Slim with his smoothness, Chemical Brothers with their genre-bending, Crystal Method had to find some kind of shtick that makes them unique. The whole ‘simple breaks and cool sounds’ was rendered irrelevant in ChemBros’ debut, where they converted it into some of music’s best 30 seconds. So they try to find a new, defining sound here – and they mostly succeed.

They still sound like newcomers, but not in the bad way. It’s obvious their sources of inspiration include the aforementioned artists, not just the genres influencing Big Beat. You get here a more clearer picture of what Big Beat is, and why every soda pop commercial wanted this kind of music. Whereas the Prodigy made Breakbeat fueled by guitar noise, Crystal Method seeked the specific kinetic energy that the genres happened to create. The originators were inspired by other genres. Here, Crystal Method are directly inspired by the originators.

That’s the main distinction between this album and their debut. Now they don’t just want to bang, but to make music that works like a martial arts scene or a car race. It’s music that was made for video games of that era, when violence was cartoonish, cars were fast (and possibly shot rockets) and everything was larger than life. It’s the end of the retro-future. Our image of the future and technological development wasn’t of peace but of combat and lasers, but boy do we like it. The album cover fits the atmosphere of it, watching a world becoming more technological and being okay with it.

At this point you can compare it to Electro-Industrial, and Big Beat always shared similar sounds and influence – and an ability to fit ideally most video games and movies. Oh, and yes, composers were stupid enough not to ask the dudes from Front Line Assembly to score The Matrix. Whereas the Industrial movement was scared of that future, this music jumps into it. It’s inevitable, so we might as well party.

That’s why it manages to have a fairly aggressive, macho sound without copying the Prodigy’s rebel punk antics. A funky bounce is underneath most of the songs, even the noise blast that is “Name of the Game”. There they let Ryu rap about how awesome he is over Morello’s riffing. Aside from being a fantastic idea for a song, the bass is deep and womping underneath all that noise. On some tracks the funk is more prominent – if you can sit still to “Roll It Up”, you may want to check things with your doctor.

It’s funny that they were branded as a dumber American dumbing down, since they actually play more with atmosphere than most Big Beat artists. In fact, they lead back to Progressive House than any other in the genre. “Roll It Up” and “Blowout” have a continous structure and a looping beat that threatens to last forver. There are few actual riffs here, sometimes appearing on songs like “Murder” and “PHD” but serving the beat rather than taking the center stage. Many of the sounds here surrounded and engulf the listener rather than pound into it.

What was seen as ‘dumb American’ is just the band getting the essence of Big Beat, if not exactly making the best album in the genre. Then again their competition includes ChemBros, so it’s by nature difficult. This album distills Big Beat from the outside influence, keeping what’s important – Hip-Hop breaks, a Funk bounce, Techno structures and the aggression of Rock. That still gives them a lot of room to move even if they never threaten to break away, but what great songs – “PHD” with its slower funk, “Roll It Up” in how spacey it sounds, “Murder” gives a badass melodic hook and “Over the Line” shows they can also be beautiful and more introspective. Being raised on albums like these made me wonder why EDM isn’t supposed to be an ‘album genre’. Even the weakest tracks like “The Winner” still bang. Perhaps you can cut a minute here and a minute there, but this is one of those “If you don’t like it, you’re no fun” albums.

3.5 murders out of 5

Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid

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Are Hip-Hop fans just failed literary critics?

I know I make fun of them a lot in my reviews, but the mind truly boggles. We’re talking about music. Music is an auditory experience. You can talk about the words all you want, but the question is whether it translates into good music. I can read the whole of American Tragedy over a dull Drone beat. The content would remain brilliant, but the outcome would be a dull and pointless experience.

Aesop Rock doesn’t do this completely, but he veers so close it’s frustrating. He’s clearly capable of being coherent, of providing lyrics that can be followed to a conclusion. “Lotta Years” is amazing. Aesop drops all pretensions, and tells in a straight forward fashion about feeling old and seeing how different the youth is. The imagery is both clear and poetic: “The future is amazing, I feel so fucking cold/I bet you clone your pets and ride a hoverboard to work”. It’s obvious and isn’t difficult to understand, but since when difficulty makes a piece of art impressive? What’s beautiful about poetry is how it sums up experiences and ideas in lines.

Not every song has to be this straight-forward. “Dorks” and “Rings” are less clear, but have lines that leap at you. “I think we’re all a pile of imperfections and flaws” is beautiful wherever it is, and it makes you want to explore what’s surrounding it. Even if it’s all gibberish, it’s gibberish that sounds cool.

You can only rap gibberish for so long before it becomes boring. Aesop’s lyrics are mostly gibberish. Analysis in Genius are interesting, but they’re analysis of lyrics, not music. None of these songs make me wonder what he’s talking about, make me want to dig in. I’ll gladly listen to an analysis of the lyrics, but at this point I’m not listening to Aesop’s lyrics but what people find in his lyrics.

For all his verbal and musical creativity, the mood remains the same. Aesop always sounds like he’s informing you how cool he is. That’s way “Molecules” is the second best track here, because for once it seems (It always seems, you can never be sure) that Aesop raps about how much of a badass he is. “Mystery Fish” does something similar. If Aesop goes about how out the box he is in the chorus, I don’t mind the nonsense in the verses. Every other song, soundwise, sounds like variations on these two. “Kirby” is supposed to be about his cat, but tonally it’s just softer than the other songs. “Blood Sandwich” – a song which is otherwise excellent – doesn’t feel like it’s about nostalgic stories about brothers.

It’s not a matter of mood. Sadistik mostly sticks to depressive and moody raps, but he can vary it. He goes from introspective to aggressive, self-loathing to contemplative. Aesop doesn’t have these tonal changes. The only difference is that some songs are less aggressive than others.

More frustration come from how Aesop hints at musical creativity but never pursues it. He can make a catchy song – “Rings” has a fantastic song that even if the lyrics were utter nonsense, the song would still be good. “Get Out of the Car” and “Blood Sandwich” remove all drums, and that helps take a more prominent role. There is also beauty in those ethereal beats. Other tracks are straight-up bangers – “Dorks”, “Mystery Fish” and “Molecules” are songs to blast in full volume.

Why then, doesn’t he take more advantage of it? Why make “Rabies” and “Kirby”, whose beats might as well not exist? If every track here had a hook as good as “Rings”, the album would’ve been pretty great. Aesop is charismatic enough to make the songs pleasant, but he refuses to take advantage of the auditory medium. He doesn’t realize the potential he has in mere vocals, instead he prefers to just rely his lyrics. Why not write a book, instead? I’m sure it’ll be interesting to read his lyrics on paper in my own pace. Listening to him isn’t fun. The ear is not interested.

Someday, maybe, Aesop will put out a great album where he cares less for conventions of Hip-Hop. He will realize he’s a talented producer, that hooks are great and that your lyrics are more interesting when the listener can breathe them in. It’s another self-indulgent effort, a glimpse into a great mind that doesn’t know how to communicate his ideas. I hope someday he’ll realize his potential, because I don’t need every song to be as good as “Lotta Years”. Just make them interesting as “Blood Sandwich” and you got a dedicated listener.

2.5 get out of the 5 cars

Lady Gaga – Joanne

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Many will be surprised at Lady GaGa’s new sound. Yet, you could’ve predicted this album all the way back in the Fame Monster era. Sound is superficial. What’s important is demeanor and purpose. They tell you far more about what sounds the artist will try next and why they work. That’s why it wasn’t surprising Linkin Park turned out to be experimental and not Slipknot. Slipknot may have started out with more outside influence, but Linkin Park’s music truly acted like there were no genres.

What defined Lady Gaga wasn’t her sound, but her personality. As for her personality, it was one of the most insufferable you could find in Pop. It wasn’t until Sia’s 1000 Forms of Fear that Pop music had a more obnoxious, pretentious figure. Even when “LoveGame” boasted about disco sticks, all I heard was decent Pop with squicky clean vocals without personality. However, Gaga was sure this shit was profound. She supported LGBT people, which is totally radical. She had a song called “Government Hooker”, which is more bizarre for reminding me of Combichrist than that title. The music videos were long and contained ‘weird’ outfits that all boiled to seeing Lady Gaga scantly clad.

I don’t know. I found La Roux’s semi-androgynous image far weirder, with “Bulletproof” containing more punch than anything Gaga made. She surely had no guts to make something like a CHRVCHES, who made one of the most hateful songs with “Gun”. Instead, she experimented with a bunch of mainstream genres and called it ‘influencing Pop culture’. The difference between her and all other Pop singers is that they focused more on hooks, and she more on her image.

Joanne is hilarious. It’s not bad, but it’s laughable. The only thing keeping it from a self-parody is the fact it’s overall pleasant. Lady Gaga, a singer obsessed with her own image (And not the music) makes an album full of Heartland Rock in an attempt to shed her ‘image’ and become ‘real’. She’s so naive. Anyone who spent some time in music forums is over these cliches. Hell, I know 14-year-olds who listen to Thrash Metal that never had the ‘Pop isn’t music phase’. The album is retro not in sound, but in attitude. It’s a throwback to when people thought guitars were ‘real’ and electronics were not.

God, this album is pretentious. The whole thing is an attempt to sell Gaga as a ‘serious’ artist, buying into every moronic notion of how music that ‘stands the test of time’ should be. Listen to how subdued “Dancin’ in Circles”. It barely has a melody and smack in the middle Gaga breaks into a vocal acrobatic. Why would you howl like a banshee in American Idol in a lighthearted song about masturbation? On “Perfect Illusion”, she instructs the producer to turn down the drums. Although they beat like a club song, they’re anemic. If they’ll bang too hard the song might be fit for dancing, and as we know dancing is silly and moronic. Gaga performs the song with utter seriousness, making sure we’re impressed by her vocals while forgetting the lyrics are supposed to convey pain.

Lady Gaga said she wanted be an actress but music came in the way. You can feel it here. Sadly, she’s not a good actress. Music is an act, in the end. Good singers don’t just sing, but play a character. It’s far more important to sound like you mean what you say, to sound broken and angry rather than sing well. That’s why Adele is so awful, because she sounds far more concerned with impressing the audience than with venting.

As an actor, Lady Gaga is awful. She’s awful not just because she’s a bad actor, but because she can’t seem to imagine herself actually walking in those characters’ shoes. “Hello” is a lackluster act, but Adele at least sounds like she’s aware she should be believable. Lady Gaga never tries to sound genuine. Everything is dripped in insincerity, in awareness that music is just an act. “Hey Girl” has an otherwise beautiful melody, but it begs for a singer that’s less full of itself. Imagine if Carly Rae Jepsen sang it. It may not be as impressive technically, but Carly has more warmth than Gaga can ever conjure. Lady Gaga can’t divorce herself from being an actress, too afraid of jumping headfirst into genres and sounds. The irony is, the fear of being trapped leaves her without much personality or diversity.

Many of the songs are the audio equivalent of a magician explaining his tricks and while performing. Worse, it’s a pompous magician who thinks his tricks are really clever and put him above everyone else. “Sinner’s Prayer” isn’t so much about being a heartbreaker, but about Gaga’s vocal acrobatics and a token song about rambling. Lady Gaga’s overblown sense of self-importance rears its head the most in the ballads. “Million Reasons” and “Angel Down” just beg for you to take her seriously by using sparse arrangements, but for what?

The musical backdrops reek of tokenism, instead of genuine experimentation. Although she uses a few guitars, she never slides next to like Drive-By Truckers, Steeldrivers or even early Taylor Swift. You can use these sounds for a remix of “Marry the Night” and it wouldn’t feel any different. Despite showing off her connection to ‘real’ music, the purpose remains the same. The music is about how awesome Lady Gaga is. Changing the instrumentation slightly means nothing. It’s no surprise “Government Hooker” is one of her best songs since that one actually pushes her to the back.

It’s far from awful, and that’s because it’s not too serious. Lady Gaga can’t separate herself – and doesn’t really want to – from her partying and lots of sex. So “John Wayne” ends up the album highlight, where Gaga sounds like she means what she says instead of just acting. “I’m so sick of their city games/I need a real wild man” – that line jumps, because it’s sung dripping with sexuality and no attempt to impress. It’s also the song that jumps into its genre with the most conviction. I can imagine some Colt Ford dropping a rap verse there, or that girl who was in Drive-By Truckers singing it. It’s a lone moment of sincerity that makes you wonder if, perhaps, Gaga should stick to country for the sake of it.

She’s also more restrained than she should. If it’s a deliberate decision, then Gaga isn’t all hopeless. She often used her voice to prove how ‘serious’ she is – just check the atrocious piano version of “Poker Face”. Her performance here is more restrained, with acrobatics appearing sporadically. Sometimes, they even fit. “Come to Mama” and “Hey Girl” have these indulgences, but it fits the feel-good nature of these songs. If she’s happy, she should have the energy to belt out like this. A track like “Diamond Heart” would’ve been destroyed by Sia’s bullshit, but Gaga never loses track of the melody. She strains her voice just enough to show strength but stops short before the melody’s gone.

The problems with Joanne run deeper than song quality. They’re mostly okay, with only “John Wayne” and “Diamond Heart” being keepers. The problem is, it proves Lady Gaga was nothing but a buffoon with zero self-awareness. I know it’s harsh, but we’re talking about an artist trading in EDM for pseudo-Heartland Rock to show us she’s serious. Even the album title and cover reek of smugness, as if giving a person’s name and posing ‘casually’ is somehow profound. Gaga mistook style for substance, and this is the first time she wanted to have more substance than style. I can forgive her because the album isn’t the trainwreck that is Any Recent Sia Song, but some pleasant Heartland Rock by a person who cares ore about appearing ‘serious’ isn’t my idea of a good time. Lady Gaga needs John Wayne, but I need a Carly Rae Jepsen.

2 perfect illusions 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

Big L – Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous

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The appeal of Boom Bap still mystifies me. I’m sure it gives the people who listen to it a comfortable feeling. They feel tough in how their beats are hard, but not too hard. The lyrics are about being a tough guy, but it’s never too vulgar. Boom Bap also makes you smart. It’s the Hip-Hop equivalent of boring Post-Punk. The main appeal of it is that it’s not accessible.

I know, I know. Talking about the fanbase takes us nowhere. Diving through the ‘wordplay’ and ‘metaphores’ of GZA or Ghostface never appealed to me because they never gave me a hook to latch on to. In fact, nearly every rapper that tries to sound hard over those type of beats comes off as pathetic. Smooth flows and jazz horns don’t sound tough, just restrained.

I was ready to dislike Big L. A Boom Bap album full of punchlines has nothing to offer me. Then I hear Big L talking about how if he has AIDS, then every other girl has it. The same songs include various threats of rape and murder and about how your family will be dressed in all black.

This is everything I wanted in street rap that’s about being tough. All those rap songs tell you how rough it is in the streets, yet they sound calm. Big L is angry. The punchlines aren’t just good on paper. I don’t want to hear anyone else say them but Big L. His performance is so energetic. It’s impossible to imagine him not rapping any clever lines. ‘Sounding hungry’ is dropped often in rap reviews, but there’s no better way to describe Big L. He’s immersed in the battle rap bullshit, sounding like he genuinely believes everything he says. Check his verse on “Da Graveyard” and how he loses rhythm because of how literally hungry he sounds. You can imagine him biting the microphone. Everyone else sounds utterly pathetic after him.

I always found ‘complex’ flows to be overrated. A lot of multi-syllabic and interior rhymes aren’t helpful if it’s just a string of rhythmless words. Expression is far more important. No one in Wu-Tang Clan can muster the same anger Big L does when he says he can’t afford the “O-R” in ‘poor’. Big L emphasizes catchy lines that stick in your head. His flow is clear and his to follow, rather than pile rhyme upon rhyme upon rhyme. After all, what’s the point of dissing sucka MC’s if the line doesn’t make sense?

Surprisingly, the beats keep up with Big L. It’s hard to imagine a Boom Bap beat fitting him (“Flamboyant” sounds better with Popeska’s bass growls) but they do. Although they never become true bangers, they at least don’t do the boring smooth crap. They’re skeletal, driven only by drums and basslines. There’s a roughness, often exeggerated to them. I can’t imagine Wu-Tang rapping over “Da Graveyard”. The drums are too loud. Even at their more atmospheric moments, they beat RZA at his own game.

Beats like “All Black” sounds detached from musical conventions. It’s deliberate. Like Big L’s demeanor and lines, it’s an expression of the personality. Besides punchlines, Big L has the street nihilist personality to give his raps context. Beats like “All Black” sounds like the producers couldn’t care about whether the beat is appealing or not. They lack the pretentiousness of RZA’s beats since they never try to be artistic using conventions. There are no sounds posturing as ‘weird’. The producers sound like they simply don’t give a fuck just like Big L.

The album as apparently ignored until Big L’s death. That’s weird, since the album doesn’t need a death connected to it. Sure, you can connect L’s nihilistic attitude but he doesn’t explore it like Biggie does. He simply does the Boom Bap thing much better than others. He has more passion, funnier and catchier lines, better beats and doesn’t obscure the songs behind ‘complexity’. It’s everything you wanted in a battle rap album. 36 Chambers is slightly better than this, but Big L almost tops it and he’s just one person. He’s that good.

3.5 families dressed in all black out of 5

Massive Attack – Blue Lines

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Blue Lines is unlucky. It couldn’t rely on the huge influence it had for lasting critical acclaim. Everyone talks about how outdated this is and they’re right. Pretty much any work of Trip-Hop that came after this pushes the genre way more forward. You don’t have to look too far. Just listen to some Tricky, Portishead and UNKLE and you’ll find artists with a wider vision, a more diverse palette of influence and more conceptual depth. Their concepts are also so different that they hold Blue Lines back from being outdated.

Trip-Hop has a lot in common with other 90’s genres such as Gangsta Rap, Nu-Metal and Industrial Rock. It’s full of darkness, sexuality and general pessimism. The approach may be more artistic, but the negative moods remain the same. Blue Lines is the opposite. Instead of drawing abandoned and heartless landscapes, it’s enjoying life.

In truth, you shouldn’t compare it to other works in the genre. Even the influence have different filters. Massive draw from the smoother side of Hip-Hop and from the pleasant, easy side of Soul. ‘Easy Listening’ describes best the album. The breaks are slow, but funky and still hard. The rapping is so laid-back there are no rhymes to follow. Barring the oddly aggressive “Safe From Harm”, the singers sing about the virtues of love and being thankful.

Many artists have tried to make an album like Blue Lines. A lot of rappers made this type of ‘smooth rap’, but no one does it like Massive Attack. Unlike rappers who focus primarily on impressing you with rhymes (that are boring anyway), Massive Attack put more emphasis on mood. “Blue Lines” is better than anything by A Tribe Called Quest because of how precise it is in getting the atmosphere right. The break is rolling with a perfect balance between banging and not being too loud. The hushed rapping fits with the vibes. They’re not out to impress you. They’re chilling with you to the beat.

Maybe what people mean when they say the album is ‘outdated’ is because of how unambitious it is. The unassuming title-track makes it obvious. Unlike later producers who made huge statements with their albums, Massive Attack are trying to create good vibes here. Nothing here sounds revolutionary, like a new sound that inspired a lot of people. “One Love” is just a reggea song with more a Hip-Hop beat. “Unfinished Sympathy” is what happens when a Soul singer meets some Hip-Hop producer.

Yet this unassuming, unambitious nature doesn’t ruin the album’s quality. It’s only unambitious because its aim is to create nothing good vibes. The album is perfect when you hang out with a few friends not doing anything big, or when the party is at its end and most people have gone home. The atmosphere is still social and danceable, but slower and content rather than happy. It’s shocking to think this was released so early. This album was available for everyone, and smooth rappers couldn’t imitate it?

Blue Lines is an oddity in the Trip-Hop genre. It’s out of place in the canon because of how different then approach is. It may not be as deep as Mezzanine or far-reaching as Psyence Fiction, but there are few albums like it. Sure, there’s a lot of smooth Jazz and smooth Soul and smooth Rap. Massive Attack combines all these for an album that perfects the calm and social atmosphere. Forget about genres. It’s such a pleasant album that I can’t imagine anyone not finding something to like here.

3.5 blue lines 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”.