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MC remains complex, relentless on latest strange, multifaceted album, in which he goes deeper into his own mind.
Kendrick Lamar has already taken hip-hop to the outer galaxies of style, sound and resonance. Protesters in Chicago, Cleveland, Oakland and New York took to the streets singing his 2015 single "Alright" like it was the new "We Shall Overcome." His last album, To Pimp a Butterfly, will likely go down as the defining reflection of the America that spawned #BlackLivesMatter, in the same way Pablo Picasso's Guernica stands as the defining reflection of the Spanish Civil War.
But two years later, the perils of fame and the exhaustion of fighting for social justice seem to weigh on Lamar. "Last LP I tried to lift the black artists," he laments on "Element," one of the many bruising, battle-scarred battle-raps on his fourth LP, Damn. "But it's a difference between black artists and wack artists."
Seemingly exhausted with the burden of constantly pushing hip-hop forward into concept operas, electric Miles explosions and Flying Lotus electronic burbles, Damn. seemingly takes a classicist route to rap music. If To Pimp a Butterfly was the best rap album in 2015, Damn. is the platonic ideal of the best rap album of 1995, a dazzling display of showy rhyme skills, consciousness-raising political screeds, self-examination and bass-crazy-kicking. Kendrick has many talents – pop star, avant-garde poet, lyrical gymnast, storyteller. But here he explores what we traditionally know as a "rapper" more than on any of his albums to date. The rhymes on songs like "DNA," "Element," "Feel," "Humble" and "XXX" come fast, furious and almost purist in nature. In an era where "bars" seems almost old-fashioned in the age of Drake's polyglot tunesmithery, Young Thug's Silly-Putty syllable stretching and Future's expressionist robo-croak, Lamar builds a bridge to the past.
On Butterfly, he untangled the mess in his mind with multiple personalities and distended voices, an Inside Out-esque spray where different emotions would almost require different timbres. Now he stares down almost everything with the same voice and a singular focus, whether his problems are external (Fox News, the prison-industrial complex, guns), internal (self-doubt, pride) or something in between (see the masterful "Lust," which treats news of Donald Trump's election as but a rumble in a monotonous Groundhog Day timeline of existence). His flow remains exquisite without having fall back on the dramatic filigrees he brought to Butterfly. Producers like Mike Will Made It and Sounwave make Damn. feel state of the art – an album full of beat changes, tempo switches, backmasking, needle bounces and broken melodies – but Lamar's rapping is timeless enough to step into Ice Cube's Death Certificate Timberlands.
Of course, this is Kendrick Lamar, so if he's going to delve into a more classic style of rap, he's going to take a complex, multifaceted, strange, unexpected path to get there. His twists on vintage hip-hop are downright post-modern. Kid Capri, the DJ whose blends and airhorn voice were omnipresent on early Nineties mixtapes, shows up with his iconic voice. But instead of brassy hype, he drops existential koans like, "Y'all know, what happens on Earth stays on Earth." "XXX" is a vintage screed about clapping back at killer cops, perfectly in line with Rodney King-era revenge fantasies by Geto Boys, Paris and Lamar's personal hero 2Pac. But Lamar goes deeper into his own mind, painting blood-soaked hypotheticals and then juxtaposing them against his desires for gun control. (U2 are featured on the track, but their input sounds like maybe eight measures of a melody used like a sample.)
That's the electric part about Damn.: 2Pac rapped through his contradictions; Lamar raps about his contradictions. The theme here is humility, and Kendrick clearly has mixed feelings. On "Loyalty," he treats his boasts like a weakness, with Rihanna crooning "It's so hard to be humble." On "Pride," he treats his boasts as an annoying obligation, drolly saying "I can’t fake humble just 'cause your ass is insecure." Then, on "Humble," he finally screams "Bitch, be humble" like he worked up the confidence. And even then, you can't help but wonder if he's talking to himself. On "Element," he'll say "I don't give a fuck" but then immediately follow it with "I'm willin' to die for this shit."
In the album’s introduction, Lamar helps a blind lady searching for something on the ground, and she turns out to be a murderer. The meaning of this metaphor is open for debate, but one thing is indisputable: Kendrick Lamar sees himself as someone here to help people find the things they have lost –quite often, it seems, a sense of humanity itself. And that's a huge job for one man, especially since his peers can hold court on a relatively smaller part of the collective subconscious. Chance the Rapper raps like America's hope and optimism; Kanye West its untethered id and basest impulses. Hundreds of street-level mixtape rappers represent anger and nihilism; and mega-stars like Drake, J. Cole, Big Sean, Nicki Minaj and Eminem are all explorations of various ideas of self. Lamar, patient and meticulous, self-doubting yet bold, is left as pretty much the unofficial navigator of everything else, a wide, complex, occasionally paradoxical gulf of noise.
Lamar's gift is not just that he can say why he's the best ("I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA"), but also that he articulate how this responsibility feels ("I feel like the whole world want me to pray for 'em/But who the fuck prayin' for me?"). He can paint pride and agony with the same brush, and it’s that ability that makes "Fear" probably the most emotionally rich song in his entire discography. Like Sigmund Freud meets Scarface, Lamar connects the dots from the seven-year-old terrified of catching a beating from his mother to the 17-year-old terrified of being murdered by police to the 27-year-old terrified of fame. "I practiced runnin' from fear, guess I had some good luck," he raps with ease. "At 27 years old, my biggest fear was bein' judged."
Much like the recent A Tribe Called Quest record, Damn. is a brilliant combination of the timeless and the modern, the old school and the next-level. The most gifted rapper of a generation stomps into the Nineties and continues to blaze a trail forward. Don't be confused if he can't stay humble.
Debut album from chart-topping EDM-pop duo is a drab, monotonous whinge.
Last year, the duo of Alex Pall and Andrew Taggart – known, collectively, as the Chainsmokers – were the ruling bro kings of pop. After breaking through in the early 2010s with the smirking novelty banger "#SELFIE," they chilled out and looked inward, to great reward. The makeup-sex prelude "Closer" spent 12 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 and became 2016's most defining song, establishing the commercial potential of EDM's soft "future bass" sound and utilising Tumblr alt-pop upstart Halsey. They achieved chart dominance without releasing a proper full-length and could probably have bobbed along pop's waves for another year or so with EPs of self-serious moping.
What's actually serious for an artist, though, is an album, and so last week brought the duo's official debut, Memories... Do Not Open. Riddled with resentment and lyrics that land with a self-serious thud, Memories is a stunningly drab record. For the most part songs plod along at a strenuously mid-tempo pace, and are mostly lacking in any sonic detail that would reward closer listening. The few stylistic flourishes that break up the trudge – robo-funk backing choruses on "Young," a wobbly synth break on "It Won't Kill Ya," the dreaded, made-for-festival-singalongs "whoa-whoa-whoa-who-o-o-a" break on "Honest" – sound like sops to potential trends more than anything else. The slightly more uptempo "Break Up Every Night" suffers from the same "women be crazy" anomie that made "Closer"'s omnipresence so wearying.
Similar to how the spunky Halsey was whittled down to a sulky whine on "Closer," Memories' guest vocalists, – narcotised R&B singer Jhené Aiko on the trapped-out existential lament "Wake Up Alone," the hired-gun songwriter Emily Warren on two tracks – could have been brought in off the street to mimicking the bawling denizens who dominate pop right now. Country duo Florida Georgia Line, who appear on the pseudo-inspirational album closer "The Last Day Alive," are turned into a rubbery backing-vocal blur. Only Coldplay's Chris Martin stands out in any way, his trembling contribution to the current hit "Something Just Like This" breaking from the sad-boy and mopey-girl monotony.
The anonymising of everyone who stopped by the Chainsmokers' studio would at least be understandable if Taggart's vocals were worthy of the spotlight, or if his lyrics betrayed even a hint of insight. But his bleat, which brings to mind the wounded wail of a third-tier Warped Tour act, is nothing special; and his lyrics, which resemble hastily texted missives from a friend who never asks you how you're doing while endlessly railing about the woes of his not-really-that-bad life, are artless pouts about fame being hard and about feeling being misunderstood. While the human impulse to feel for another person's pain does flare up now and again, the combination of lyrics like "I'm supposed to call you, but I don't know what to say at all/And there's this girl, she wants me to take her home/She don't really love me though, I'm just on the radio" with the Chainsmokers' overly ponderous, yet somehow underbaked pseudo-balladry makes for a crushingly un-fun listening experience.
San Diego two-piece return with album number three.
With Gold Fever (2014), Tone Catalano and C.C. Spina proved they could turn out a consummate, hook-laden dirty blues-rock stomp. This sometimes-soulful follow-up takes these quantities and stirs in a smattering of keys, chimes and effects. The title track and "For Life" showcase Spina's undeniable chops behind the drumkit, while "Bad Business" confirms Catalano is capable of mustering ample rustbelt blues-guitar bite. But it's hard to shake a sense of déjà vu despite the frills: Same Sun adds superficial colour to the already comprehensive palette sketched out by the White Stripes/Black Keys duopoly a decade ago.
L.A. country stylist airs his softer side on sophomore outing.
Tenderheart is an assured step forward for this rising country star. Expanding upon the more trad. country lay of Angeleno (2015) – albeit with added emphasis on silvery pedal steel ("Two Broken Hearts") – Outlaw reprises a little SoCal mariachi verve ("Everyone's Looking For Home"), before taking in the broad sweep of L.A. with urbane cosmopolitan country ("Now She Tells Me"), classic Bakersfield strains ("All My Life"), and sun-dappled Suburban nostalgia ("Bougainvillea, I Think"). There's heartland rock redolent of Tom Petty in "Tenderheart", while "Look At You Now" recalls Justin Townes Earle.
Sydney hip-hop duo embrace pop on most confident album yet.
On their fourth LP Spit Syndicate achieve a consistency that was lacking on 2013's Sunday Gentlemen. While Jimmy Nice and Nick Lupi still seesaw thematically – wedging their signature party jams ("Late Nights") up against overt political statements ("Not In My Name") – slick R&B production weaves it all together neatly. The extensive guest list is used to great effect: Thelma Plum's dynamic vocal simmers over a restrained beat on "Darling Street", while Remi is a mischievous counterpoint to Nice and Lupi's verses in "Houdini". No longer just tinkering with pop music, this is Spit Syndicate's most confident LP yet.
Fragile UK model-folkie tends post-divorce wounds.
Professionally speaking, Jack White was always a mixed blessing for Karen Elson. As husband/producer, his shadow fell heavily over her 2010 debut The Ghost Who Walks, and the couple's estrangement only brings him into sharper focus on this album of open wounds and stoic resolutions. "Wonderblind" and "Double Roses" count the cost in a gauze of harp, flute and harpsichord, an olde folkie thread that weaves around orchestral bodice-rippers, fragile confessions and the token Nashville twang of "Million Stars". What sticks is the nakedness of lines such as "In the end I forgive/I was set free by what you did." Ouch.
Foo Fighters guitarist turned podcaster keeps it country.
Shiflett had country in the crosshairs well before honkytonk renditions album All Hat and No Cattle (2013). Aside from the pedestrian late-Nineties-era Third Eye Blind strains of "Sticks & Stones", the Bakersfield guitars of this third solo LP are generally tasteful (see low-slung rumble "I'm Still Drunk"), the pedal steel and keys uniformly glossy, while Shiflett's vocal layers nicely with a country grounding. The input of producer Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson) is patent – despite insincere weeper "Room 102". Still, when Shiflett unbuttons the rodeo suit a little (cowpunk tune "Cherry"), he's far from bereft in a diverse California scene.
L.A. five-piece stick to the formula on album number six.
Cold War Kids have described their sixth album as both a tribute to the band's adopted hometown of L.A. and an exploration of love, yet LA Divine never fully commits to either of these ideas. Returning to the Springsteen-like bombast of 2014's Hold My Home, stomping opener "Love Is Mystical" is a soulful anthem, buoyed by hand claps and Nathan Willett's powerful range. From here the record rarely shifts gear, and by jaunty mid-point "No Reason To Run" the "woah-oh-ohs" prove tiresome. Three all-too-brief L.A.-themed interludes are compelling, but ultimately serve as respite from the bluster rather than the insightful vignettes they were intended to be.
Worldly trio continue with uncategorisable folk-fusion.
The appeal of 2016 debut Everything Sacred lay in its capturing of three gifted, adventurous musicians getting to know each other, resulting in beautiful improvisations exhibiting the elegant sensibilities of each. In exercising more restraint and relying more on mood, groove and structure, their second album is a game-changing masterpiece. Suhail Yusuf Khan's sarangi enriches the Celtic-tinged songs sung by James Yorkston ("Recruited Collier"), while Khan's own singing is of dazzling timbre. Jon Thorne's double bass lays sonorous foundations on a brave LP that is drenched in the soft spirit of friendship and playfulness.
A Krautrock Fifth Dimension? All in a day's work for these Canadians.
On their last album, the Canadian collective were trying to make Xanadu crossed with Sigue Sigue Sputnik. That seemed like crazy talk until you heard Brill Bruisers, a confetti cannon of brainy pop starbursts. For this follow-up, bandleader A.C. Newman said they wanted to make a Krautrock version of The Fifth Dimension. The guy should be in advertising. Take one listen to the propulsive rhythm, chiming melody and blaring synths of "High Ticket Attractions" – that's all it takes to become embedded in your brain for the rest of the year. The chirpy call and response between Newman and Neko Case will have you singing into a hairbrush to a song about the world going to hell.
Meanwhile, Case reaches a Stevie Nicks-like state on "This Is the World of the Theatre" and there's a Vangelis aura to the whirling blur of "We've Been Here Before".
They retain a knack for uncovering zingy melodies no-one's ever thought of, but there's a unifying sleekness and swagger too. It's the first New Pornographers album not to feature the requisite three songs written and sung by Dan Bejar, presumably off doing his own thing with Destroyer. His beat-poet lyrics and arch, spoken-sung delivery are missed, as his grit always adds pearls to the oyster. Still, this is a mouth-watering (almost) dozen.
Black-comedian folk-rocker reads last rites for humankind.
The blush is off the rose for Josh Tillman. The Honeybear that redeemed him on the brink of his existential abyss two years ago is but a speck on the bitter panorama of doom that comprises this epic comedy of the blackest hue.
Doomed we are, of course, as escalating failures of biology and technology fuel the insanities of religion and politics "on this godless rock that refuses to die". Tillman's distinction as a writer is a refusal to sugar that pill, even if it costs him his wages in "manic virginal lust and college dudes", as he scathingly predicts in the 13-minute career suicide of "Leaving LA". Destined to polarise, that 10-verse self-immolation is the bleeding edge of a contemptuous survey of What We Have Become as a species, with God and entertainment twin opiates for a pathetic condition that not even art (don't make him laugh) can save.
Ironically, ample beauty oozes from the Lennon-esque austerity of his acoustic guitar and piano, cut with orchestral peaks of dizzying exhilaration. But between "Ballad of the Dying Man" and the post-apocalyptic "Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before the Revolution", even his yearning for the end is ambivalent.
Ultimately, the faux reverend's dazzling intelligence as a commentator only sharpens his perception of humankind's terminal stupidity. Now that's funny.
Maturing indie rockers deliver dreamy experimentation.
A precursory listen to opener "Rings" may not convince you that the Splashh of 2017 is any different from the Splashh of 2012. There are golden crunchy guitars, fuzzy processed vocals, and insistent rock beats. But where their early work failed to mesh, Splashh have now found a style of experimentation that is spontaneous yet refined. Like the echoey onomatopoeia of their name, they favour dreaminess over immediacy – as in the odd sensuality of "Honey & Salt" – but there are enough accessible grooves to balance the nebulous explorations. An album that is effortless and energetic, even if it is a little too hazy to linger long in memory.
Melbourne punks stretch their sound on fourth full-length.
Same again? So it would seem, as on album four the Smith Street Band rely on their usual staple of stage-ready, pub-punk chant-alongs and constant applications of contrast – seemingly unscheduled shifts between quiet, nostalgic reflection, snippets of self-deprecation and boisterous, beer-spilling, crowd-leading crescendos.
Yet there remain notable attempts at extension here, with snippets of synths, light-industrial noise, angelic choirs and polished R&B pop scattered throughout. But as drastic, and often awkwardly pasted-in, as these palette experiments are, they pale in prominence to vocalist Wil Wagner's wordplay, which is tighter than ever, whether painting perfectly economic scenes of "payday beers"; pitching poetic pearls of twenty-something wisdom ("Just because I don't think I know everything, doesn't mean that I don't know anything"); or re-punching his punk card with straight-shot simplicity ("Music industry professionals, they can go and fuck themselves").
As a test of the versatility of their trademark sound, More Scared Of You... is a pass. As a testament to one of the country's best lyricists in full flight, it's a true triumph.
Gothic-folk Canadians' dystopian poetry and dark improvisations.
From the ominous album title to the growling guitars and unsettling synth lines, disillusionment and darkness ooze through this album. The abrupt endings ("Velvet Gloves & Spit"), heart-stopping silences ("Moment") and dystopian funk ("Grifting") are deliberately polluted and ugly, yet the shyest rays of respite regularly peep from the void. "Western Questions" offers hypnosis amongst the chaos, and the album closes on a surprisingly soothing (defeated?) note with "Floating Cathedral". But the relentless lack of direction creates an aura of pointlessness that may well trigger that existential crisis you've been keeping at bay.
The synth-pop band tries to outrun one-GIF wonder status.
The Baltimore band skyrocketed to fame via their 2014 TV appearance on Letterman. Frontman Samuel T. Herring's chest-beating, shirt-pulling performance that night, where he danced like a lovesick gorilla at a roller disco, went viral. Everyone remembers it. But can you name the song without looking it up?
Three years down the track, Letterman is gone and Future Islands are in danger of becoming a one-GIF wonder. Their fifth album is a series of galloping beats, loping bass lines and perky synths that blend together and almost become interchangeable. So it falls on Herring's stocky shoulders to give each track some individuality. Whereas a lot of synth-pop vocalists go for a slick, almost robotic delivery to fit in with the sonic landscape, Herring is like a method actor. He stretches vowels until they snap, emits guttural moans and quivers with emotion.
His lyrics veer from the dramatic to the melodramatic, the opaque to the bonkers. "Doubled the top-knot, flew out of the lattice door," he moans head-scratchingly on "Aladdin". A duet with Debbie Harry called "Shadows" is tucked away on the second last track, and her contribution sounds like she was in a different city and possibly a different planet to Herring. "A melody that trails and falls and never fully blooms," Herring sings. It's a telling line.
More breathless feeling from upstate New York woodsman.
Recorded at Memphis' immortal Sam Phillips Studio with producer Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell), Rowe's latest finds the singer-songwriter following oft-cited touchstone Richard Thompson along the forking paths staked out by Madman (2014), digging bold piano and sweeping strings, Gospel-soul, pastoral folk-rock and loping country-folk into his favoured earthy ground. Rowe's rib-rattling baritone – fresh air and clean living continue to separate him from, say, Mark Lanegan – is as distinctive as ever, and despite some faltering moments ("I'll Follow Your Trail"), he's often exquisitely enigmatic (emotive high point "The Salmon").