• Top 10 albums of 2012

    18. Dez. 2012, 22:48

    It’s that time of year again! Here are my top 10 albums of the year. Enjoy and please share your 2012 music picks!

    10. UsherLooking 4 Myself



    It doesn’t recapture the heady heights of My Way or 8701, but it’s an effort that tries to combine R&B, dance and pop with a newfound maturity. Highlights: Climax, I Care For U, Lemme See, Looking 4 Myself, Euphoria

    9. B.SLADEDeep Purple



    He does it again! After the excellent Diesel and Stealth albums, B.Slade hits us with Deep Purple. His beats and vocals are sicker than what mainstream is ready for – it feels like real R&B. Highlights: PHONy PONy, TwerK, Deep Purple, Lo Siento

    8. Alicia KeysGirl on Fire



    Alicia Keys has yet to make a bad album. This album has a quiet beauty, maturity and warmth to it, which is appropriate considering her newfound motherhood. Highlights: Brand New Me, When It’s All Over, New Day, Girl on Fire, Not Even the King

    7. BrandyTwo Eleven



    A well-deserved hit single heralded this unabashedly R&B album. Brandy’s voice is once again harmonious and emotive; the beats are once again forward-thinking. It feels like coming home. Highlights: Wildest Dreams, Let Me Go, Without You, Put It Down, What You Need

    6. TamiaBeautiful Surprise



    One of the best vocalists around, this is more classic R&B that just hits all the right spots. It’s wonderfully romantic and a sweet delight to listen to. Highlights: Give Me You, It’s Not Fair, Still Love You, Still

    5. Lana Del ReyBorn to Die



    A new voice and a new style that started of the year with a sophisticated bang. Lana Del Rey also demonstrated she knows how to make an artful music video (see: National Anthem, Ride). The Paradise re-release was a nice addition to this record, but the original album was solid all the way through and married Nancy Sinatra with deep beats. Highlights: Born to Die, Blue Jeans, Video Games, National Anthem, This Is What Makes Us Girls.

    4. Nicki MinajPink Friday: Roman Reloaded (read the full-length review here)



    A schizophrenic album that calculatedly veers between popular music styles, but is stuffed with so many hits that it’s undeniable. Nicki Minaj’s re-release The Re-Up only added 7 more top tracks to the era. Highlights: Roman Holiday, Come on a Cone, I Am Your Leader, Beez in the Trap, Starships, Pound the Alarm, Automatic, Beautiful Sinner, Fire Burns, Gun Shot, Freedom, I’m Legit, The Boys (yes, that many!)

    3. Frank Oceanchannel ORANGE (read the full-length review here)



    An architect of brave new R&B and soul that breaks boundaries and touches hearts, Frank Ocean has arrived with an album that transcends the sum of its parts. Highlights: Thinkin Bout You, Sweet Life, Pyramids, Lost, Bad Religion, Forrest Gump

    2. Jessie WareDevotion



    Her music is like a young, modern Sade. Irresistible, fresh, smooth and beautiful from beginning to end. An exciting new talent that sounds classic and up to date all at once. Highlights: the whole thing.

    1. RihannaUnapologetic (read the full-length review here)



    Rihanna proved that she can equal Rated R. An album full of emotionally resonant, musically forward-thinking songs that epitomise what pop is and should be in 2012. Highlights: Diamonds, Numb, Loveeeeeee Song, Jump, What Now, Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary, Get It Over With, Lost in Paradise, Half of Me

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  • Rihanna - Unapologetic (album review)

    2. Dez. 2012, 13:24



    Unapologetic might be Rihanna’s best album yet. In truth, I’ve been struggling to work out how to start a review of this album without referring to her previous masterpiece Rated R, which was a tour de force that exposed an angry, vulnerable girl trying to figure out the aftermath of love gone wrong. This album came out when I was in the midst of trying to untangle and deal with my own feelings of unrequited love, and resonated with me on such a level. On the other hand, Unapologetic comes out when I am happily in love and settled in my own life. This time, Rihanna’s narrative is quite different to my own – and yet Unapologetic, to its credit, still connects with the listener, drawing them into her fury that this time is more simmering than explosive (on Rated R, all-out rage only begins to subside into a quieter, more vulnerable, bubbling – yet nevertheless powerful – anger at around “Photographs”, two thirds of the way through the record).

    Of course, Rihanna’s life has changed considerably since then. An even bigger star now than she was 3 years ago with the ability to only release number 1 singles, now she has a number 1 album to match. Meanwhile, her atomic breakup with Chris Brown (precipitated by his fists) has metamorphosed into media-baiting behaviour, ill-advised collaborations with Brown and the rumoured (likely true, if the photographs and ineloquent tweets and confessions of her ex are to be believed) rekindling of their romance. Unapologetic: why shouldn’t Rihanna forgive her abuser, her first love? Why shouldn’t she work with a hot male R&B star? Why can’t she misbehave, smoke, drink, party night after night like anyone in their early twenties? Despite what naysayers like to purvey, her career certainly hasn’t suffered for it. But the material on the album – none of which was written by Rihanna but all of which has a stamp immediately more personal than the scattergun Loud that hit dizzying heights all too infrequently, and than the ultimately unsatisfying Talk That Talk that petered out halfway after such a promising start – displays a thoughtfulness that suggests that while Rihanna may be “unapologetic”, she’s not unaware of what is going on around her, what is happening to her and certainly of what is being said or claimed about her. Unapologetic continues where Rated R left off: there are certainly hits, but nearly every song carries a depth of meaning that exudes confidence, confusion, sex and honesty.

    Opener “Phresh Out the Runway” is swag personified, and is effectively Rihanna making an entrance. While it’s great to start the album, and an excellent song to listen to for an immediate energy boost when you’re half-asleep leaving the house on the way to work, it’s not the meaningful content I’ve discussed above. Neither is the other David Guetta collaboration, “Right Now”, a club diversion that rehashes previous album highlight “Where Have You Been” to pleasant but unremarkable effect. But on lead single “Diamonds”, we get a childlike chant, a sparkling midtempo strut and a powerful vocal that lyrically echoes previous megahit “We Found Love”: where there were “yellow diamonds in the sky”, now we are “shining bright like a diamond in the sky”. Rihanna’s vocals have grown more impressive over the years (whatever she’s smoking, I would like some) and where she may have simply been a vehicle for delivering hit songs even on the consistent Good Girl Gone Bad, now it’s she who transforms a song into a smash. The chorus is powerful yet sincere, and lyrics such as the telling “I choose to be happy” betray a sense of desperation in trying to convince herself that a romantic relationship is truly infallible rather than fleeting (as are the moments portrayed in the accompanying video). It’s a fantastic performance, and a refreshingly downbeat choice for a lead single that nonetheless packs punch.

    The next trio of songs could all be described as downbeat yet potent, but each has its own place on the album. “Numb” works atop a sensual Egyptian-sounding ostinato and pounding drums, while Rihanna drawls monotonously that nobody “can’t tell her nothing… I’m impaired / I’m going numb, I’m going numb”. Interestingly, the vulnerability continues as the lyrics imply that for all her power and “double-dares”, Rihanna sees herself as the defective one. “Pour It Up” in contrast is celebratory of women who are in charge (like Rihanna, of course)… and yet the vocals and beats are submerged in aural tar, as if Rihanna is high off the champagne, weed and money referenced in the songs. None of these songs are instant, and yet on repeated listens they reveal themselves as worthwhile and interesting – “balling out” may not be as fun as it’s cracked up to be. “Loveeeeeee Song” is also very chill, working from a traditional R&B template that’s chopped and screwed into something less recognisable. It’s a romantic ballad dressed up as a nonchalant come-on. So far, the theme of Unapologetic is that appearances can be deceiving – Rihanna is flawless, cocky, confident, nonchalant, vulnerable, determined to be happy, numb, impaired, intoxicated, worried about “sounding too desperate”, in need of love and affection… It’s a spiralling morass of emotion dressed up as a percolating limousine ride.

    Things become much more straightforward with “Jump” – i.e. SMASH. Dubstep breakdowns done right and made fresh and dynamic; a sample of “Pony” by Ginuwine that could have easily been problematic (as is so often the case when interpolating excellent material) but instead elevates the music; Rihanna is cocksure and forthright. But within a couple of songs, we have an explosive ballad that I saw described by a user on Popjustice as “fire and ice blasting out of the ground”. “What Now” is flawless and one of Rihanna’s best works – a mid-tempo ballad that quickly becomes bombastic, overwrought and emboldened by one of her best vocal performances to date. As drums explode and guitars roar to a climax, lyrics profess that “I spent every hour just going through the motions / I can’t even get the emotions to come out / Dry as a bone, but I just wanna shout”. The emotions certainly do come out, so palpably that the cut is utterly absorbing and one of Rihanna’s best. “Stay” directly follows this and is the quietest track on the album, serving as more evidence of Rihanna’s improvements as a vocalist and interpretative singer – she is capable of taking a song and breathe life into it, whatever the subject matter or emotional standpoint. It’s just been confirmed as Unapologetic‘s second single and appears to be a fan favourite, though I wouldn’t go any further than saying the song is fine – I would certainly champion other tracks over this one. But its contrast with the other songs on the album and with Rihanna’s usual output gives it its own place on the album.

    Nobody’s Business”, the duet with Chris Brown, is the perceived “event” of the album, sampling Michael Jackson to boot. But musically it’s a little bit flat – the existence of the duet says more than its sonic attributes. “You’ll always be mine, sing it to the world… ain’t nobody’s business.” Yet another contradiction in an album full of them, both lyrically and musically. Is Rihanna purposefully spiting all of those who supported her during the fallout of her abuse suffered at Brown’s hands? Is it offensive? Or are they just teasing? It seems very pointed when Rihanna sings “Let’s make out in this Lexus” – as opposed to what happened in a car last time! It’s a trying sentiment that seems difficult to understand – but once again, let’s remember that Rihanna is "unapologetic" so what does it matter? She is going to do what she wants, she’s young and in love, and hopefully she won’t get hurt again in such a way. “Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary” is the album’s centrepiece that, like “The Last Song” from Rated R, captivates the listener with exceptionally personal exposure. Where the previous aims to provoke without any substance to back it up, here the confessional actually reveals a lot. “I was his Marilyn Monroe / Brown eyes, tuxedo, fast cars / A James Dean on the low.” We are clearly taken back to that fateful night of Rihanna’s being attacked (and interestingly, she hints at Chris Brown’s alleged bisexuality to boot, which may or may not have something to do with the night in question). The bravado of “Nobody’s Business” is completely gone here, and as the song transitions into “Mother Mary”, Rihanna sounds less sure of her swagger: “I swear I wanna change”. The lyrics touch on the nature of fame, as does worthwhile bonus track “Half of Me”, and implies that whatever we think we know about Rihanna, us outsiders never get to see the whole picture and so we shouldn’t judge… but Rihanna understands that we inevitably will. As much as “Nobody’s Business” claimed to be happy-go-lucky and ready to dive into love-as-sex, “Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary” shows much more depth of thought (as in “What Now”) and heart that encourages repeat listens. This is another highlight of Unapologetic.

    The closing songs of the album feel like a plane coming into land. “Get It Over With” is sublime, like a song-length interlude that urges the climax to “come on and fucking rain”; anger gives way to fatigue and surrender to whatever will be, good or bad. “No Love Allowed” is, contrastingly, a deceptively sunny reggae song that once again confounds expectations set up by the previous song. But the lyrics are spooky and uncomfortable, as was its precursor in spirit, Loud‘s “Man Down”. In direct opposition to that song’s subject matter, here it’s Rihanna yelling “911 it’s a critical emergency / Better run run run and charge him with the 143.” It’s a neat (perhaps too neat?) inversion of “Man Down” and seems to shed more light on the Chris Brown saga… but as highlighted in “Half Of Me”, how much do we ever know about Rihanna? We’re not privy to the whole story – according to “Mother Mary”, she’s going to “make the best scene they’ve ever seen.” “Lost in Paradise”, last but not least, is a bass-heavy closer that implies the story is not over, because now Rihanna has to find meaning to the paradise she claims to be stranded in if she ever hopes to find her way out.

    For an album where Rihanna does not carry a single songwriting credit (though she is an executive producer), Unapologetic sure feels personal. And honest: an album filled with contradictions that are often calculated but nevertheless sound/feel like they have genuine meaning. The journey of the album is consistently riveting and reveals its complexities on repeated listens. There may be few answers to fans’ questions (however many sordid details it provides), but this rings less as Rihanna being deliberately elusive and more as she herself not quite knowing how to proceed. After all, she’s naked on the damn album cover – how much more vulnerable can one be, clothed only in a flimsy gauze of words, slogans and hashtags? In a world where her lover became her abuser and now may become her lover again, and where soundscapes and lyrics distort and contort around and through her voice, the one thing – no, two things – Rihanna clearly knows is how to release hit singles, and how to craft a powerful album.

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  • Frank Ocean - channel ORANGE (album review)

    17. Jul. 2012, 18:25



    The first I time I took notice of Frank Ocean was when I found out that he was the writer of one of my favourite songs, “I Miss You” from Beyoncé’s 4. By this point, he was already gaining some buzz as a member of the Odd Future collective, and so I downloaded his mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA. I fell in love with songs such as “Novocane” and “American Wedding” immediately, while others such as “Swim Good” and “Strawberry Swing” grew on me after a couple of listens. I was convinced that Ocean was indeed skilled at creating R&B that was a bit more grown than the electro-dance recycling going on in the charts, and that focused on exploring human emotions. In this way, he set himself apart in my mind, and I was excited to see what he would do next.

    Enter channel ORANGE. If anything, it’s less accessible than Nostalgia, Ultra. or than many of the songs that make up Ocean’s mammoth The Lonny Breaux Collection. For the most part, songs don’t announce themselves (and certainly not with typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structures) as much as their melodies seep into your head with repeated listens. However, between the lush instrumentation (and there is definitely genuine instrumentation going on here; these are more than just pre-paid beats) and resonating lyrics, after each listen one takes away something more from the experience. channel ORANGE is a meticulously crafted piece of work, and there is much to discuss. It’s at times difficult to penetrate the chilled, hazy vibe of the album to find a meaty hook of the type that we’re used to – and I feel it would have been nice to have had more of these sprinkled through the album – but there’s nevertheless plenty of sustenance here.

    Opening track “Thinkin Bout You” is possibly the most immediate song on the record, and it’s utterly beautiful: the way Ocean uses his falsetto is reminiscent of Prince, and evokes the feelings of at once being totally in love and feeling totally alone in that love, desolate and desperate. While not a technical vocalist to rival R. Kelly or Usher, Frank Ocean knows how to use his voice to maximum effect. The lyrics in the song evoke the unrequited first love that we all knew, and that Ocean wrote about so eloquently in his open letter posted on tumblr. The bravery of an R&B star, of a black man with ties to and props from the largely chauvinist hip hop community, to come out as bisexual two weeks before his album was released has not gone unnoticed, and should not be ignored; rightly so, it appears that Ocean’s success – and I personally believe that even without the announcement / confirmation of his sexuality, channel ORANGE would have been a hit – has been bolstered. Support has been largely overflowing, and it would appear that at last, times might be changing – and not just because Obama and Jay-Z gave black men permission to support their fellow man if that man happened to be gay or bisexual. But in terms of the music and in terms of Ocean’s letter, the focus pulls away from the object of his affections being male or female to the beauty and the intricacy of the sentiment. Sometimes Ocean sings to a boy, sometimes to a girl – but 100% of the time, it sounds beautiful, the lyrics are deep and honest, and the songs as a whole don’t simplify but rather reflect the complexity of the subject matter of being infatuated, in love and lost in love. “Bad Religion”, another standout on the album, begins with a howling organ which Ocean’s plaintive vocal joins to express his loneliness and despair. Lines like “I can’t tell you the truth about my disguise” and “It’s a bad religion to be in love with someone who could never love you” are at once more detailed than what one finds in a typical R&B song for the radio, and yet the emotions of someone in love can’t be put much more simply, or laid bare any more.

    Subject matter on channel ORANGE doesn’t just limit itself to romance found and lost, but tackles other topics too. “Super Rich Kids” explores precisely that, but the lyrics could apply equally to the inhabitants of Ladera Heights and to the wealthy-yet-jaded entertainers in the music industry: “Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce…too many white lies and white lines…nothing but fake friends.” The coda which robs the hook from Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” lends the track an air of nostalgia while giving the listener something recognisable to grab onto. “Crack Rock” likens loneliness to drug addiction, and fastens to these emotions details of being ostracised by family and society. In some ways “Pyramids” is the centrepiece of the album – an epic 10 minutes that starts out evoking Egyptian deserts, before seguing into a sexier exploration of making love to a stripper called Cleopatra. While lyrically drawing parallels between how women were and are at once worshipped and subjugated by men, the production starts off bouncy, transitions through seductive into sleazy, and fades out with a howling guitar Pink Floyd or Jimi Hendrix would be proud of.

    Interludes give the album a sense of constant flow, and the overarching feel is nostalgia-soaked classic quality. channel ORANGE isn’t immediately accessible to non-R&B heads, and rewards repeated listens. If I could improve anything about the album, while I commend its artistry and sense of originality and self, it would be nice for some of the songs to have some more standout hooks. But overall, Frank Ocean has done himself and the world of R&B proud with this album – it’s deep, intelligent, textured and heartfelt.

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  • Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded (album review.)

    6. Apr. 2012, 20:49



    It’s time to accept that the Nicki Minaj that we heard on her mixtape (and best album to date) Beam Me Up Scotty is gone. The Nicki Minaj that we heard stealing the show on Kanye West’s “Monster” is a distant memory. Now, the Nicki Minaj who pleasantly surprised us with her bubblegum rap confection “Super Bass” is asserting herself throughout Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded. Nicki Minaj may not have concretely realised her Roman Zolanski alter-ego (who shows up at the start of the album, but his fangs have been sanded down after his explosive showing on “Roman’s Revenge”), but throughout her career we have seen her evolve and shift through persona after persona. The hard female rapper we heard on Playtime Is Over gave way to the exciting cyberspace femme fatale with the ridiculous flow and heart of gold on Beam Me Up Scotty, who tarted herself up with colourful outfits, wigs and softened edges for Pink Friday. Although her rap credentials have become less indisputable, mainstream success has opened Minaj to a new audience: pop. Teenagers, little girls dancing and rapping along to her songs on youtube, people across the world now want to hear what Nicki Minaj has to say. Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded finds Minaj trying to please everyone whom she has courted throughout her career. Does she succeed?

    Well, the album is certainly diverse and there is something for everybody. After the insane and yet exciting “Roman Holiday”, the album is stacked with urban tracks designed to prove that Nicki is still in touch with her musical roots. “Come on a Cone” is a fascinating listen, and the genuinely unexpected “dick in your face” interlude about two thirds of the way through the song is a refreshing thrill – but Minaj can no longer get through an entire rap song without resorting to her trademark ridiculous vocal tics. This is a gimmick that initially served to set Minaj apart from other female rappers, but now it sounds like a party piece that is trotted out to fulfil the listener’s expectations. The song succeeds, but it could have been more. The tracks which follow are chock full of features, which is nothing unusual for a rap album, but here they serve to mute Nicki’s own impact on the material. “Beez in the Trap” is catchy but incredibly basic while “HOV Lane” is single-entendre bragging that may pay tribute to Jay-Z and to Minaj’s potential to be a supernova rather than just a star, but compared to the more insightful work Minaj has done on the past (for example on Beam Me Up Scotty‘s “Can Anybody Hear Me” or Pink Friday‘s “Moment 4 Life”) it rings a little hollow. “Stupid Hoe” is an ill-advised tirade against Lil’ Kim that is so ridiculously silly that the bite in Minaj’s lyrics is muzzled by the repetitive hook and uninteresting beat. The buzz single for this project, “Roman in Moscow”, was so much more than all of the rap tracks that actually made it onto the album because the production was exciting and the flow and rhymes were unbridled and interesting. It showed that the ‘old Nicki’ is still alive, but there is no longer a place for her among any of Minaj’s current, more successful incarnations, which is a shame. As oddly structured and jarring as they may be, “Roman Holiday”, “Come On A Cone” and “Roman Reloaded” are the most successful songs in the first half of the album because although they are not amazing, they grab the listener’s ear and don’t let go.

    After some tepid R&B slow jams which are so rote that they barely deserve mentioning, let alone a place on this album (“Right Thru Me” and “Your Love” from Pink Friday were miles better than these), we get to ‘pop Nicki’. This abrupt about-face in the album really should have been split into two discs on the physical version, but it’s not the disaster that other reviews have reported. “Starships” is at once derivative of LMFAO’s and Rihanna’s latest smashes, and yet also entirely the mutant spawn of “Super Bass” (without which ‘pop Nicki’ would never have come to triumph over ‘old Nicki’ or ‘Roman Zolanski’ or ‘Harajuku Barbie’ etc.), but my god is it fun. This song absolutely deserved to be a single and to be successful – I feel conflicted because Nicki Minaj shouldn’t have had to so deliberately manufacture such a hit, but its hit status is undeniable. “Pound the Alarm” goes one better and is an absolute gem that Britney Spears probably wishes she had recorded. “Whip It”, “Automatic” and “Beautiful Sinner” repeat this formula ad infinitum (or ad the next 15 minutes), and although the songs are great fun, they expose Minaj’s crossover aims as so calculated that a little bit of this fun is taken out of them.

    The album winds down with some mid-tempo, more thoughtful songs such as “Marilyn Monroe” and “Young Forever”. Strong hooks and mainstream production make these songs perfectly enjoyable, and although the lyrics show more insight from Minaj than the preceding half hour or so, they’re still calculated. “Fire Burns” and “Gun Shot” close the album (before the jarring “Stupid Hoe”) and they are the most genuine tracks of the second half. “Fire Burns” is this album’s “Save Me” (one of the highlights from Pink Friday), and the regret and sadness in Minaj’s delivery rings true. “Gun Shot” features Beenie Man and brings a little Caribbean flavour that Minaj hasn’t explored since Pink Friday‘s bonus tracks, or Beam Me Up Scotty‘s “Keys Under Palm Trees” or title track (her shout-out to Trinidad at the beginning of “Beautiful Sinner” certainly doesn’t count). While so many of the second half’s tracks are deliberately and irresistibly exhilarating to a head-spinning extent, “Gun Shot” is a less manufactured but, if anything, more uplifting ray of sunshine.

    Do I like this album? Absolutely. Do I feel that it squanders Minaj’s potential? Yes, and no. This has been a hard review to write, because there’s so much here to deal with. The mainstream-aimed songs are good, but many of them are so deliberately manufactured to be hits that the genuine feeling is often ironed out. The rap songs are acceptable to good (barring the mediocre slow-jam section in the middle), but the featured artists rarely measure up to Minaj’s own potential, while simultaneously limiting her own space to shine. The weird songs are absolutely interesting, but Minaj doesn’t need to rely on inconsistent alter-egos and silly voices to be compelling. Beam Me Up Scotty proved this, and I find it sad that Minaj isn’t encouraged to exhibit her rap skills and singing in a more genuine way. “Roman In Moscow” and “Fire Burns” are remnants of the Minaj we have previously experienced. And while I genuinely am happy for the existence of songs like “Starships” and “Pound The Alarm”, their aggressively insane exuberance is something that Minaj may risk exhausting herself trying to outdo on Pink Friday: Roman’s Resurrection (or whatever comes next).

    I believe that Minaj genuinely enjoys catering to a range of audiences, but as Beam Me Up Scotty and even Pink Friday demonstrated amply, she can do this in a more integrated and less scattershot way. Everyone was wowed by Minaj’s feature on “Monster”, but there’s nothing approaching that venom or spark here; her album-closing declaration that “I am the female Weezy” is reductive. Minaj is not a female Lil Wayne, female Jay-Z, new Lil’ Kim or resurrected Lauryn Hill. Nor is she Roman Zolanski, a cockney grandmother, a Harajuku Barbie or anything else – she is more than the ‘mere’ summation of these characters or costumes. She’s a savvy businesswoman and a genuine talent who is producing good music but coming dangerously close to losing the edge that set her apart so definitively in the first place. I fear that the more mainstream success that Minaj garners (and it will likely be deserved), the less heartfelt and genuine her music will become. There’s a difference between creating art that is deliberate in its purpose and achieves its goals, and art that is so focus-group tested and aiming to please that the quality is filtered down to a semblance of what it originally could have been. And while we can respect and admire an artist’s potential, we can’t praise them for what they have the talent to create if they don’t actually create it, or realise their potential consistently. And so Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded is a blast to listen to, but it also warns that unless Minaj takes stock and finds away to hone all of her personalities, she may ultimately spread herself too thinly and become nothing to anyone, rather than something to everyone.

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  • Madonna - MDNA (album review)

    28. Mär. 2012, 21:48



    MDNA is Madonna’s 12th studio album (depending on what you include / exclude) and it’s an improvement on her last effort, Hard Candy, simply because there’s a higher strike rate of really good tracks. It’s no Ray of Light, Bedtime Stories or American Life (her most introspective albums and not coincidentally, her best – let the debate begin!), but we get more of an insight into Madonna the Human Being than we have in possibly 10 years.

    Not that you’d know it from the two singles that have been released: “Give Me All Your Luvin’” is a straightforward ‘fun’ track which has had a lot of the fun ironed out of it. Madonna’s vocal sounds flat, the production sounds a little lacklustre, and while Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. acquit themselves well during their verses, their presence is unnecessary. The melody is perky but calculated, the cheerleader chants are hooky but calculated – the whole thing is a perfectly acceptable pop song, but it sounds so desperate to be joyful that it ends up losing a lot of charm. “Girl Gone Wild” serves well as an album opener, but again it sounds dated for Madonna – which means bang-on-trend with what’s in the charts – and unimaginative. The lyrics are uninspired, the melody is catchy and you will be humming it after a couple of listens. In this sense, the singles both do their job, but there’s much more exciting stuff on the album.

    Which, take my advice, should be sequenced thus:

    01. Girl Gone Wild
    02. Gang Bang
    03. I’m Addicted
    04. Some Girls
    05. Turn Up the Radio
    06. I Don’t Give A (Feat. Nicki Minaj)
    07. Give Me All Your Luvin’ (Feat. Nicki Minaj & M.I.A.)
    08. B-Day Song (Feat. M.I.A.)
    09. Superstar
    10. I’m A Sinner
    11. Love Spent
    12. Beautiful Killer
    13. Best Friend
    14. I Fucked Up
    15. Masterpiece
    16. Falling Free

    I am never usually one to mess with how an artist envisions their album by cherry-picking individual songse, or by listening to things on shuffle. I am very in favour of the idea of an album being treated and listened to as a body of work. However, I gave this track list (which I found on the Popjustice forums) a go and it seems to flow so much better. It stacks the harder-edged songs at the front of the album, followed by a sunny middle section and winding down towards the slower songs at the end.

    “Gang Bang” is my favourite song on the album. A revenge anthem featuring menacingly-spoken vocals (reminiscent of Dita from Erotica) atop a minimal beat, a dubstep breakdown (again, bang on trend / a little passé, but it works well in this instance) and screams of “DRIVE BITCH! AND WHILE YOU’RE AT IT DIE BITCH!”, it’s irresistible, edgy, a little silly (Madonna does not need to prove she is edgy and ‘down with the kids’ by swearing, but never mind), and it totally works. I can’t help but think of The Bride from Kill Bill when I listen to this song. Even though it would be an extremely weird choice for a single, this song is so cinematic that it deserves a video. “I’m Addicted” is the “Impressive Instant” of the album – swirling synths and insistent beats piling on top of each other to provide a climactic finish, while Madonna abandons insightful lyrics such as “all of the letters push to the front of my mouth, and saying your name is somewhere between a prayer and a shout” in favour of hedonistically chanting “M D N A M D N A” over and over.

    And so we come to the album title. It’s a cool way of writing “Madonna”. Madonna has also said that the songs on this album display her musical DNA, so that also makes sense. And then, it also sounds like MDMA – which is a drug (hence the aforementioned refrain) and implies that Madonna’s new music is addictive. It’s a well-chosen title that has layers of meaning – well done to all concerned! The album cover (I am talking about the deluxe cover, above – the standard is pretty but doesn’t really go beyond that) shows Madonna posing behind a ridged glass screen which slices up the picture into discordant segments and perhaps represents an impenetrable layer between us, the listeners, and her, the performer / musical icon. The super-bright colours then pack a punch to the eye, and also reference a psychedelic, drugged-up state. Drugs like MDMA! I am spelling this out. The most intense colour comes from Madonna’s lips however, which is also important – she always takes centre stage. And her lips are where her voice comes from (sort of – you know what I mean) and Madonna is a Singer. Yes.

    Back to the music then. “I Don’t Give A” is another standout track which has an urban quality to the beat. It discusses the hectic schedule of a star on Madonna’s level, and how she does ten things at once without feeling the pressure, because she doesn’t give a. It’s a defiant moment that’s further strengthened by another strong rap from Nicki Minaj, and tops out with an operatic choir repeating “I don’t give a”. As we’ll learn later on in the album however, Madonna does give a. “Love Spent”, “Best Friend” and “I Fucked Up” are introspection done right (unlike “Falling Free”, which is an epic ballad marred by Madonna’s incredibly mannered delivery and too little momentum too late). “Love Spent” switches up halfway through from practically one song to another with little more than a hook in common, but the same theme pervades throughout – if love were money, would you spend it on me? Would you care about me as much as your money? It sounds ironic for Madonna (who is not poor) to be discussing this, but then again, why can’t she? Everyone can relate to the feeling of coming second best in a relationship, regardless of whether either member of the couple is wealthy or not. It’s an emotional moment that is buoyed by a strong melody and interesting musical touches (such as the opening guitar and the Nintendo bleeps). “Best Friend” and “I Fucked Up” are apparently about her divorce from Guy Ritchie, and the demise of their relationship. Now, I know that it is easy to attribute these lyrics to that experience which the whole public knows about- and Madonna has had a couple of relationships since then (one of which was with Jesus!) – but it sounds pretty convincingly like Guy was on her mind when she wrote these tracks. “Best Friend” talks about losing someone Madonna was very close to, and reflecting upon the time they shared together – “It wasn’t always good but it wasn’t always bad”. The fact that time has passed between the divorce and the album has allowed Madonna to apportion the blame where it lies on both sides – as well as Guy being the subject of her vitriol on other tracks, “I Fucked Up” sees her take some responsibility for the relationship’s demise. “I blamed you when things didn’t go my way… In front of you, I was cold.” Listing a number of the things that the couple could have done makes for some heart-wrenching listening, even as the production picks up speed. Although parts of the album sound manufactured for radio (like the singles) and others see her aim blindly for the craziest dancefloors, these tracks are where Madonna is open and sounds honest, rather than pre-meditated.

    Other songs that deserve a mention are “Some Girls” and its basic but essential proclamation: “Some girls are not like me”; “Superstar” and its sugar-sweet hook of “Ooh la la, you’re my superstar” (I imagine this song as being great for driving along to); the romantic “Masterpiece” which is somewhat cliché but manages to remain elegant and understated. On the other hand, weaker points of the album include “I’m A Sinner” which sounds like “Beautiful Stranger” (and I didn’t like that song either), and the ridiculous “B-Day Song” which wastes M.I.A.’s talents and doesn’t match up to the quality of the rest of the album. However, it’s relaxed nature reveals that Madonna probably had genuine fun recording this track, and it’s nice to hear a song that’s so unguarded. Perhaps it should have remained a b-side.

    Overall, MDNA is a good album. It’s not outstanding as a whole, but it contains a fair few excellent moments. The songs are cohesive enough to feel like they belong (with a couple of exceptions), while varied enough to retain interest. There’s genuine introspection, braggadocio and hedonism – which is what we want from Madonna. It’s a shame that some of the album feels so calculated that it detracts from our enjoyment of the material. But once you can look past that, MDNA provides a trip well worth taking.

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  • Top 10 albums of 2011.

    2. Jan. 2012, 19:16

    So here is my other annual end-of-year post. I have been able to whittle down my list of favourite albums that were released in 2011 into a nice list of 10, and I have written a twitter-sized (ish!) review under each one. Enjoy and share your thoughts and favourite releases of the year too! :)

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    10. Drake - Take Care



    Drake releases another heartfelt hip-hop album, smoother & more cohesive than his debut. Highlights: Take Care, Marvins Room, Shot for Me

    9. RihannaTalk That Talk (read the full-length review here)



    The midpoint between Loud & Rated R. Stellar first half, average 2nd half. Highlights: You Da One, We Found Love, Cockiness (Love It) / Birthday Cake

    8. Nicole ScherzingerKiller Love



    Nicole’s solo debut blends killer pop with strong ballads showcasing powerful vocals. Highlights: Poison, Killer Love, Right There, AmenJena

    7. MýaK.I.S.S.



    Mýa continues to deliver solid R&B with her latest album deservedly re-released in the USA. Highlights: K.I.S.S., Take Him Out, Mess Up My Hair, Mr. Incredible

    6. Nadia OhColours (read the full-length review here)



    The sound of the summer! Deliriously catchy, irresistible dance-pop with tongue firmly in cheek. Highlights: Jump Out the Window, Taking Over the Dancefloor, No Bueno

    5. Jay-Z & Kanye WestWatch the Throne (read the full-length review here)



    The rap event of the year with production and braggadocio so confidently executed, it couldn’t fail. Highlights: Niggas in Paris, Who Gon Stop Me, Murder to Excellence

    4. Natalia KillsPerfectionist



    Masterful, dark pop with powerful imagery to match its consistently hooky and interesting songs. Highlights: Wonderland, Free, Zombie, Mirrors, Broke, If I Was God

    3. B.SLADEDiesel



    My discovery of the year – the best male vocalist I’ve heard in a very long time, with an impressive lyrical depth and stylistic range. Highlights: B.A.S.S., I’m Done, Do U Get Down?, Dorothy Humperdink, Never Again…, Sequel

    (P.S. his new album Stealth. is also excellent, but that only came out on 25th December and I don’t feel I have listened to it enough to be able to judge it – however, it likely would have earned its own place on this list!)

    2. Lady GagaBorn This Way



    Lady Gaga just keeps getting better, giving everything she has – heart and soul. Highlights: Marry the Night, Born This Way, Judas, Americano, Yoü and I, The Edge of Glory

    1. Beyoncé4 (read the full-length review here)



    Genuine soul, classic ballads and earth-shattering uptempos make for Beyoncé’s best album yet. Highlights: the whole album! (you can skip Start Over and the bonus tracks if you’re pushed for time)

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  • Rihanna - Talk That Talk (album review)

    19. Nov. 2011, 21:44



    Rihanna’s new album Talk That Talk sits somewhere between Rated R - her creative and musical zenith, and Loud – her hit-laden album that couldn’t stop releasing catchy, radio-friendly #1 singles. This is very much a good thing – although the album is not quite as emotionally deep or jagged as Rated R, it has more edge to it than Loud did – think of it as Loud² with the lights turned down.

    Lead singles “We Found Love” and “You Da One” are excellent examples of this. The former is a hands-up-in-the-air bittersweet love anthem that incorporates basic 4-to-the-floor dance just as previous lead single “Only Girl (In the World)” did. However, “We Found Love” is lyrically much more sparse and perhaps more potent as a result – the simple refrain of “We found love in a hopeless place” carries more weight. The excellent, vibrant and startling video further brought this song to life, emphasising the exhilarating highs (the high-energy production courtesy of Calvin Harris) and destructive lows (the simple, spare lyrics) of being in an all-consuming love. The album’s opening song “You Da One” is a sticky-sweet treat in the vein of mega-hit “What’s My Name”; it’s a shame that this didn’t come out in the summer, as it is a song to play in the car when you are riding with your boyfriend or girlfriend.

    The first half of Talk That Talk is relentless; after “You Da One”, “Where Have You Been” turns the BPM up to ‘insane’, adds an irresistible call to arms in “Wheeeeeeere have you beeeeeeeeeen all my liiiiiiiiiiiiife”, and quickly becomes Rihanna’s best dance single since “Don’t Stop The Music”. The album’s title track boasts a predatory rap from Jay-Z just like “Umbrella”, and Rihanna adopts a swagger which suggests that she is at once nonchalant and aggressively icy. It’s a curious dichotomy that defines Rihanna’s appeal – sometimes she is effortlessly stylish and seems to throw out hits that succeed in spite of their singer’s lackadaisical approach; and yet, there is some fierce and determined artistry in Rihanna’s heart to make her records work consistently, and to imbue them with heart and a range of emotions that has come through in her best material. At this point in her career, she commands respect.

    According to “Cockiness” and its subsequent interlude “Birthday Cake”, Rihanna also commands the bedroom. “Suck my cockiness, lick my persuasion” / “I love it, I love it, I love it when you eat it” are lyrics so aggressively sexual and yet so explicitly chosen for their shock factor that you can’t help but admire Rihanna’s chutzpah. The cherry on top is that she delivers all of these lines as if she couldn’t care less. “Cockiness” is aided by some top-notch production from Bangladesh, while “Birthday Cake” gets dark and dirty thanks to The-Dream. (This song would have been the album highlight did it not inexplicably fade out after 1:18 – possibly the album’s most glaring fault! But fear not – Rihanna is apparently recording a full version, perhaps for a repackage? I am a cynic.)

    Of course, in case you were in doubt, Rihanna has a heart too – ballad “We All Want Love” attempts and fails to recreate the epicness of Rated R‘s closer “The Last Song”, and is possibly an album low-point, although Rihanna sings earnestly. “Drunk on Love” is more successful – with a chunkier beat behind her, Rihanna sings about being intoxicated to the point that “nothing can sober me up”, and the desperation in her vocal is palpable. After this, we’re back to the template of previous Rihanna songs, and “Roc Me Out” is a retread of “Rude Boy” that is perfectly acceptable, if hardly groundbreaking. The song is fine, but it would sound a lot better if “Rude Boy” hadn’t existed. “Watch n’ Learn” incorporates reggae flavour (which was one of the best and most welcome aspects of Loud) and improves upon Loud‘s “It’s Raining Men”. “Watch n’ Learn” is raunchy, as is much of the album, but it’s also laid-back, chilled and bouncy all at once. The closing ballad “Farewell” is somewhat overwrought, but Rihanna’s vocals are impressive and the lyrics speak about wishing a close friend / lover well, and selflessly not holding them back despite wanting to – which is a unique song topic. “Somebody’s gonna miss you / Somebody’s gonna wish that you were here” is a tender lyric that succeeds where “We All Want Love” fell a little bit flat.

    Talk That Talk‘s bonus tracks are all decent. “Red Lipstick” reunites Rihanna with Chase & Status for some grimy dubstep; “Do Ya Thing” is another upbeat urban pop song; “Fool in Love” is a muted, electro-ballad that would have fit nicely in the main body of the album. In summary, Talk That Talk does not take the title of Rihanna’s best album; but given the circumstances under which Rated R was produced, that album is pretty special and unique and I wouldn’t wish her to go through that again. Talk That Talk perhaps ties with Good Girl Gone Bad for second place. It’s an album of contradictions – relentlessly sexual and yet unwittingly heartfelt in places; startlingly aggressive and yet disarmingly laissez-faire; there’s a bunch of hit songs on this record that nobody else could have delivered quite as well as Rihanna, and yet a lot of these songs are clearly inspired by earlier Rihanna hits. I believe that Talk That Talk is a calculated album designed for maximum chart success, but at the same time it sounds exactly like who Rihanna is and precisely what kind of music she personally wants to release. It’s a win-win situation for all concerned, including the listener – Talk That Talk is an irresistible ride.

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  • Demi Lovato - Unbroken Review

    4. Okt. 2011, 20:38



    My limited knowledge of Demi Lovato extended to: Disney, Camp Rock, annoying, an album cover that ripped off No Doubt’s Rock Steady, some sort of meltdown. After hearing her song “Skyscraper” on the almighty Popjustice and falling in love with that song’s vulnerability, raw vocal performance and defiant lyrics, I decided to investigate further. Beyond finding out that Demi had a really bad year last year, I found her new album Unbroken. And it would appear that Demi is becoming a grown woman.

    Although the initial four tracks feature guest appearances that made me tremble with fear (Timbaland – I am sadly no longer filled with anticipation when I see his name in liner notes; Dev; Iyaz; Jason Derülo), the tracks were upbeat, fun and seemed determined to showcase Demi as a young woman (she’s still only 19!) who wants to party, have fun and flirt with guys. It seems a bit much to front-load what is essentially a coming-of-age album with such lightweight tracks, but they are frothy and hooky and will draw young listeners in. But from track 5, the waltz-time ballad “Lightweight”, Demi really gets down to business and things get really good. She gets to do more with her voice and showcase why she is almost certainly the best singer to emerge from the Disney teen bratpack. The title track is a defiant call-to-arms (“I’m gonna love you like I’ve never been broken / Tonight I’m letting go”) over a thumping dance-pop beat, while lead single “Skyscraper” still remains the standout, a tear-jerking ballad that has rightly been the biggest hit of Demi’s career to date. “In Real Life” is a sassy, soulful cut that skews R&B, with a vocal performance that sees Demi’s romantic fantasies ultimately realised. Closing track “For the Love of a Daughter” is a plea to Demi’s alcoholic father to “put the bottle down”, and while it’s lyrically a little maudlin, Demi puts in a vocal that rivals Kelly Clarkson at her peak and shows that Demi hasn’t just been through a year where her most private problems came to light, but that she’s always dealt with tough issues that humanise her in the face of her teen counterparts. In a year filled with lacklustre releases, Unbroken is a pleasantly strong album that comes as a breath of fresh air and demonstrates the potential star quality that Demi is on the cusp of realising.

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  • Lady Gaga – Yoü And I (video review).

    21. Aug. 2011, 15:09



    After the extremely disappointing clip for "The Edge of Glory", Lady Gaga is well and truly back on her video A-game with "Yoü and I". In fact, one might say that there is a little too much going on, what with the appearance of both Joe Calderone (Lady Gaga's male Italian alter ego), and Yuyi the mermaid. Lady Gaga strolls towards a barn, plays the piano, dances with a horde of clones, is making out with an extremely attractive tattooed man (played by Taylor Kinney from The Vampire Diaries) who is then seen torturing her and performing some sort of scientific experiment on her, is getting married to this same man, is a mermaid, is making out with herself as Joe Calderone, is running through a plantation... Huh? It takes a couple of views to even start sorting out what is going here, and I have no idea how it all pieces together - if you do, please enlighten me. But here are my two cents...

    The Gaga that we see playing the piano seems to be the purest incarnation of Gaga in the video... perhaps this is reflective of her innocence? Compared to the bionic Gaga we see returning to Nebraska at the start of the video, Piano Gaga is very stripped down. However, Bionic Gaga is evidently returning to this place to rediscover the love interest she left behind (according to the lyrical content). It's been a long journey both literally and figuratively - hence her bloody heels. And this area in Nebraska is not a nice place - a creepy ice-cream man, torture scenes and a snapshot of a barn that looks straight out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre do enough to suggest this. Bionic Gaga looks almost funereal... is she back for some sort of revenge on the sexy torturer? The first verse and chorus juxtapose innocent Gaga and Joe Calderone (smoking and drinking up a storm) with Bionic Gaga, to drive home how much must have happened in the interim.

    Taylor Kinney's character appears to be responsible for this. We see a wedding scene, and then snapshots of the experiments (with a struggling Gaga strapped to a bench). Cut to Gaga in a teal wig, dancing with a horde of clones (to a ballad, which in itself is fairly impressive). In trying to improve / redefine Gaga, her lover has diluted her originality and turned her into 'everyone else'... perhaps some parallels for the state of the music industry and the identikit expectations of female pop artists? Again, I don't know, but that's what I'm getting from it. Gaga was innocent and naïve - she found love, but then love tried to change her under the guise of "improvement". Love is pain, and love is struggle - but the more Gaga struggles, the more she is restrained, to the sound of "Sit back down where you belong..." Love is thus also linked to subjugation (again, apt for the music industry and the roles of managers and labels, perhaps?).

    Yuyi appears, sat in a bath and bathed tenderly by the same tattooed torturer. This presumably took place prior to the experiments (as Gaga has a tail here and later, it's gone). Yuyi, who is reportedly "the reincarnation of Gaga's birth and artistic spirit", couldn't look more blissful to be with the man she loves. (Am I the only one who thinks that the name "Yuyi" is subtle way of saying "You (Yu) & ("y" is Spanish for "and") I"?) Somewhere along the line, something went wrong, and as Lady Gaga has said in reference to the video, "Sometimes love doesn't work". Taylor Kinney tries to have sex with Yuyi, but clearly that's not going to be successful - although he is quite attractive and I love his tattoo, so I am happy that scene is left in there! Is sexual frustration and sexual gratification the prime motive for trying to change Gaga's character into a bionic superwoman? Could this apply to both the torturer and the music industry? Does Gaga need sex to sell? (Fast forward to the shot of a post-mermaid Gaga thrusting mechanically on the operating table.) And wasn't she happier when things were simpler? The kiss she shares with Joe Calderone is much less angst-ridden... I guess that at first, Yuyi and her lover were happy, but as he wanted more that Yuyi couldn't provide, he ended up ruining her body, their love affair, and Gaga's individuality. To this end, I suppose that the wedding scene could have been the couple's original dream (which appears as Yuyi cradles her lover at the end of the video) that never came to fruition - another symbol of this love not working out the way the lovers intended.

    Gaga and her dancers in the plantation seem to have much more fun and more free reign over their movements than the Gaga clones in the factory - while the latter are all doing the same routine, whipping their hair and being sexually provocative, the former are just being weird and are not in sync. Perhaps this also represents something... through trying to make someone be the way we want / expect them to be, we homogenise them to a point where they lose their identity and purity? I think that that theory does hold a lot of weight, but I also felt a bit silly / pompous typing that last sentence... after all, this is a music video!

    The proliferation of guises that Gaga presents in the video for "Yoü And I" suggests that she has many complex and differing aspects to her personality as a whole, and each of these aspects has its own story and perspective. I guess that as people, we are all multi-faceted, and some parts of each person's story is beyond anyone else's comprehension. The Bionic Gaga who has returned to Nebraska doesn't seem vengeful after all; as she sings to the camera at the end, she seems to have accepted everything that happened to her to make her who she is - after all, there's no going back now, and we just have to experience everything that happens to us, be strong and independent, and keep walking. And if a music video can be that much of a ride and make one think that much, then it's got to be a good one.

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  • Joss Stone - LP1 (album review)

    11. Aug. 2011, 22:10



    LP1 is Joss Stone's 5th album and her third consecutive attempt to reboot her career (after the stellar Introducing... Joss Stone and the defiant Colour Me Free!). This time, Joss is free of her previous record label EMI and is on her own imprint, Stone'd. So, if she is finally truly in control, why is this album so lifeless?
    The good: Joss' voice is richer, more textured and more soulful than ever. "Last One to Know" is starkly emotional, and compliments this voice with dramatic string crescendoes. On "Landlord", a raw number which could have been recorded alongside Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, Joss takes centre stage backed by nothing but an acoustic guitar.
    The bad: There is little else positive to say about the album. Its major crime is that it is dull. Hook-free songs plod along with nondescript drums and guitars blending into an MOR blur. The lyrics are frequently awful: take "Newborn"'s anticlimactic "What happened to this morning when I woke up and the world was... bruised", or acoustic closer "Take Good Care"'s "Take... good... care... / Don't... push... the button." Um, what? Joss tries to inject some life into proceedings by cussing to prove how 'badass' she is: "I'm a girl that don't give a shit!" This swearing becomes tiresome, as it's unnecessary bravado rather than genuine emotion.
    If the songwriting on this album matched the quality of Joss' voice, LP1 would be a much more satisfying affair. As it is, it's going to take more than this inert stab at independence to revitalise her career. Perhaps Stone should consider working with a soul singer-songwriter like Jazmine Sullivan, whose vocal range and depth is similarly impressive but who has songs which thrill and impress, rather than bore. Joss is one of the UK's best singers but this material is largely deplorable - and it's a crying shame.

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