Archive | July, 2018

The Carters ‘Everything is Love’ – Review

21 Jul

There is something otherworldly, glamorous and ridiculous about Jay Z and Beyoncé’s marriage (a relationship honestly divorced from any sense of realism) and those are elements that they have gloriously mirrored in ‘Everything is Love’s expensive, pristine productions. The cover art, promotional photos and lead music video all prominently feature the louvre and its many prized artworks. The crystalline beats, soulful chords and honeyed vocals are arguably as opulent as anything contained in that famed institution.

This is a slight but ambitious record where Beyonce in particular pushes herself in to new poses. She has diverted so far from her initial sweet spot that it’s a little difficult to gauge how much of her we can recognise in these deliriously affected raps. She’s technically proficient, undoubtedly, and confident in a way that allows her to adopt wild and unusual personas. For better or worse, she rarely sounds like the natural diva who belted out relatively straightforward anthems like ‘Crazy in Love’ and ‘Single Ladies’. Jay Z meanwhile is Jay Z – less audacious than twenty years ago, perhaps, and not much more mature, but still one of the most distinctive and unflappable rappers out there.

Lead single, ‘Apeshit’, – catchy, relentless, dramatic – is an example of where The Carters coalesce perfectly. So perfectly in fact that the rest of ‘Everything is Love’ pales in its wake by hitting similar beats thematically without ever matching ‘Apeshit’s brazen artistic confidence.

‘Summer’ is an inauspicious opening track. Over a laid back groove, Beyonce swoons over her husband, imploring him to make love to her on the beach. As ‘so real…so real…so real’ echoes, you can’t help feeling that there is something very unreal about this cinematic fantasy. Nothing about the cliched imagery ‘water’s so blue’ ‘beach sands’ ‘play the game’ feels original but by the time Jay Z appears to disrupt the romance, the imagery has become so decidedly evocative and desirable that you can’t help but be sold on this dream of an idealistic relationship. This sets the tone for ‘Everything is Love’, an album so steeped in thick and carefully placed metaphors that it feels almost disappointingly evasive and hard to pin down.

Somehow though Beyonce and Jay Z manage to sustain this level of desirability, even as they reveal glimpses of folly. Events of the past two years have dramatically demonstrated that this dream relationship is no such thing. In their spats, both public, artistic and private, The Carters have been humanised in a way that didn’t seem possible a few years ago. Cracks, albeit beautiful cracks, are clear on the surface (and they are a couple totally obsessed about the surface). None of that is explicitly excavated on ‘Everything is Love’, which perhaps isn’t unexpected, after all both ‘Lemonade’ and ‘4:44’ did very good jobs of analysing the hurt of the situation. Instead this album tries to present a positive public face. As Beyoncé rattles through the affirmations on ‘Love Happy’ – ‘love is deeper than your pain’ ‘I believe you can change’, ‘we’re flawed but we’re still perfect for each other’, ‘this beach hasn’t always been paradise’ – the soulful sincerity of her vocals soothes any doubts or disappointments.

This is neither artist’s best work, not by a long shot. Beyoncé doesn’t sound as fierce or as emboldened as she did on ‘Lemonade’, where the moods were far more deeply sourced and her vocals more powerful. Likewise Jay Z isn’t afforded the space to get particularly wordy or insightful and on the album’s strongest songs – ‘Apeshit’, ‘Summer’ and ‘Love Happy’ – he is either muted or comfortably outshone by his better half. You also never particularly feel like The Carters make the most of this pairing; few of these songs feel like genuine collaborations, rather they are Jay Z or Beyoncé tracks that briefly feature the other half. Beyonce’s backing vocals on ‘Black Effect’ are a rare example of where she integrates herself in to the architecture of her husband’s song. Jay Z meanwhile never really feels like more than a passer by on her tracks.

From start to finish, ‘Everything is Love’ is a projection; a fantasy presented as something deep and personal. It isn’t in any recognisable sense – the productions are far too on the nose, and the lyrics are the carefully considered output of a committee. But as a projection, it is far more unique than the average confessional. Has there ever been a power couple on the level of The Carters? And if there has, did they take the brave and unusual step of unravelling their complex relationship issues on a daring pop album? ‘Everything Is Love’ is therefore a significant record, and one that will be referred to and poured over for years to come by fans, gossip columnists and commentators alike, digging for any insight in to this fascinating couple. It’s elusive more often than not, but perhaps that adds to the intrigue.



Drake ‘Scorpion’ – Review

18 Jul

A little Drake goes a long way. The the last thing that anyone who heard ‘Views’ or ‘More Life’, thought was “Drake needs to put out longer albums.” ‘Views’ in particular was simultaneously extravagant and draining; with an almost total absence of good taste and restraint, jewels like ‘Hotline Bling’ and ‘One Dance’ were buried deep amongst countless other, sprawling, Drake-by-Numbers escapades.

But ‘Scorpion’ ups the ante even further; its 25 songs deep, with ‘side a’ containing largely hip hop tracks, and ‘side b’ establishing a more languid, r&b mood. It’s a strident division that doesn’t particularly do Drake any favours. The unspooling flow of his music, along with his stylistic preference for hybridity, suggests that the track listing would almost certainly have benefited from a bit more fusion between styles. But I guess in the era of hyper playlists, that may be missing the point. Drake is the most modern of contemporary pop stars, and there is little about ‘Scorpion’ that wants to be acknowledged as an ‘album’ in the classic sense of the word. Drake practically encourages you to pick and choose your favoured songs, whilst the others simply serve to enhance his streaming statistics.

If that concept seems very futuristic then know there is isn’t much about the music itself that is similarly out there. ‘Scorpion’, like ‘Views’ before it, is largely a collection of watered down ‘Take Care’ vibes, with very little variation. Noah “49” Shabib is once again in control of the production, and his soundscapes are as rich and sophisticated as you might expect – but that’s the problem, they’re exactly what you expect. When Drake does diverge, as on the exhilarating ‘Nonestop’, he sounds a little too indebted to the acts he’s riffing off (Migos, Future, Stormzy…). The trick for him now is to push at the boundaries of what a Drake song can be without losing sight of his own distinctive personality. The chill ‘Summer Games’ is a brilliant example of where this happens; the lyrics, rich in summertime sadness and longing, are an extension of Drake’s classic modus operandi, and perfectly compliment the dreamy synths that are far more classically stylistic than his usually preference.

Oddly for a rapper, Drake has always been more palatable on the songs where he doesn’t do much talking. The laid back sideways r&b Numbers are therefore far more enjoyable than the wordier tracks on side a. ‘Don’t Matter to Me’, in particular, is perhaps his finest pop moment to date. For an artist who shows such a blaring lack of restraint on a macro and personal level, he is a master of it on a micro, musical level as ‘Don’t Matter to Me’ demonstrates. The song makes the most of a previously unheard Michael Jackson demo from the ‘Thriller’ days; over a spluttering beat and woozy synths, Jackson’s otherworldly falsetto is transported fully in to Drake and Shabib’s moody and menacing sound world, and it’s a surprisingly spot on fit. The contrast between Jackson’s tone and Drake’s flatlining, Canadian drawl is practically fluorescent. Both artists shine.

Of the rap numbers, ‘God’s Plan’ and the meme ready ‘In My Feelings’ are inarguably the brightest moments whilst the headline baiting ‘Emotionless’ contains the most talking points. But far too many of these tracks are simply forgettable. I’m looking at song titles on iTunes – ‘8 out of 10’, ‘Mob Ties’, ‘Can’t Take a Joke’, – and I’m struggling to remember how they go, even after several listens. There is a numbing effect to hearing 25 Drake songs in a row. Mid paced, stylistically similar, lacking edge and emotional range – nothing about the extended format plays to Drake’s strengths as an artist. ‘Scorpion’s side a is enjoyable in short bursts, and contains a handful of songs that rank up there with his finest work but the less successful songs are diminished further when strung alongside one another like this. A pop album shouldn’t feel this much like a chore – especially as, ironically, Drake has one of the most effortless voices you’re ever likely to hear.

Another road block to enjoyment is Drake’s lack of self awareness. At what point did his emotional vulnerability boil over in to petulance? I swear that on ‘Take Care’ he largely came across as empathetic, open and relatable. Time and time again on ‘Scorpion’ he displays a lack of compassion that is sometimes subtle and sometimes blindingly obvious but makes large stretches of ‘Scorpion’ almost unlistenable. He steamrolls over a past lover on the risible ‘I’m Upset’, sounding like nothing more than a heartbroken child lashing out against the world. Elsewhere his insights in to social media and the intricacies of modern relationships have all the nuance we might expect of someone who has comfortably lived in the bubble of celebrity for most of the past decade (Spin have just posted an article highlighting the frequent bizarre references to Instagram). Somewhere over the past half decade Drake has crossed the line from insightful to out of touch and on ‘Scorpion’, an album that tries so hard to grapple with contemporary dilemmas, that has never felt more apparent or more damming.

It’s hard to see where ‘Scorpion’ will sit in the Drake canon. It’s certainly on a level far below his obvious classics, ‘Take Care’ and ‘Nothing Was the Same’, it lacks the purpose and direction of ‘Thank Me Later’, and isn’t as enjoyable as his more adventurous mix tapes and playlists. It does however hang together better than ‘Views’ (which may be damming with feint praise) and I genuinely love a good handful of these tracks. But those songs only account for a quarter of the thing, if that. As it is, there is little to recommend ‘Scorpion’ as a start to finish experience. Rumours are that the album is a contract closer and that a new release is just around the corner. But as I said at the start, a little Drake goes a long way, and now would be a good time for him to take a step back. Work on becoming the best rapper again and not just the biggest.

6.5 /10


John Hopkins ‘Singularity’ – Review

5 Jul

On John Hopkins first album in five years, ‘Singularity’, You almost seem to glide from the big beats of the more recognisably techno numbers like ‘Emerald Rush’ to ethereal and quiet piano meditations like ‘Recovery’. On its best song, that voyage happens in the space of a single track; the twelve minute ‘Luminous Beings’, which pulsates and spins, fades in and out of itself, and seems to be in a near constant state of growth and dissolve. Songs like this dare you to dance and then stop you in your tracks. The vulnerability that comes then is even more stark because of what proceeds these moments.

At its weakest points (which are nonetheless few and far between) ‘Singulairty’ sounds like the sonic equivalent of an enthusiastic and well meaning gap year student ‘finding themselves’ in foreign terrain. But more often, Hopkins experimentation feels authentic, genuinely thoughtful and exploratory in revelatory ways. Pre-album talk about meditation and psychedelics made me cringe a little but actually the album feels enriched by the sense of adventure. There is a fluidity in the way instruments merge, melt and spring to life. And there is Interesting tension between the loud and quiet, fast and gentle, moments which feels like a step away from the repetition implicit in contemporary dance music.

Without a doubt ‘Singularity’ is one of the most sonically daring and textually complex albums of 2018. But it’s the gorgeous piano melodies and sparkling arpeggios that give this album heart. The simple ambient piano notes of ‘Echo Disolve’ gently rise and fall above what sounds like the distant hum of traffic and everyday life. Here Hopkins reclaims the calm in a loud and busy environment. Final track ‘Recovery’ is even more sparse, and even more beautiful, but it’s essentially take on the same idea. The reverb and the background noise disappear to leave just the piano. Here Hopkins classical training, and his experience, comes in to play – he’s never risked being this unguarded before. There is daring and honesty in this degree of simplicity. And as the album closes with the same note that opened it, there is a sense of the world spinning on its axis. It’s here you understand Hopkins interest in connectivity; the way in which sounds play off each other, the ‘drones’ and ‘bridges’ that connect notes, songs, worlds. Of course this idea is best encapsulated on track four ‘Everything connected’, which is a seamless juxtaposition of sounds and feelings. It’s perhaps too cliched to describe music as taking you on a journey but with John Hopkins ‘Singularity’, no other metaphor feels quite as appropriate.