Monday, November 20, 2017

Blue Lips | Tove Lo

Earlier this fall, Tove Lo prefaced her newest album with a seven-minute music video that predominantly features very detailed sex scenes with a bargain brand Muppet on acid. The track it was produced for, "Disco Tits," is a banging neo-'90s house track that, while largely a harmless earworm, boasts a few one-liners delivered like nails across a chalkboard. (For future reference, Tove, any mention of nipples is probably a no-go.) It all had us wondering if Tove Lo is okay – in less of a 2007 Britney Spears way and more of a 2013 Lady Gaga way, when creativity takes an absurd form – until we took a hard look at her path to her third studio album, Blue Lips.

Twinkies in the bathtub, daddies on the playground, and freaky people in sex clubs – that was Lo's introduction four years ago when "Habits (Stay High)" ignited in America. So when her second studio album came in the form of a sleek dance-pop record titled Lady Wood, with a title track as outwardly sexual as one could expect, it shouldn't have come as a surprise. While Lo developed an understated cool presence between her debut, Queen of the Clouds, and Lady Wood, her vernacular further regressed. Even the term "lady wood" in and of itself is cringeworthy to a degree.

In that sense, conditions don't improve much on Blue Lips, marketed as the second phase of Lady Wood. Though its title implies lack of sexual satisfaction, it tells quite a different story in its 14 tracks – a tale of a woman's sexual liberation with good intent but without any sort of elegance. "They can't fake it, drying off the seat when they getting up to leave," she sings on "Bitches," a smug, sexy track that explores her bisexuality. (Really, not a track goes by that doesn't reference wetness, bodily fluid, sweat, oral sex, or climaxing.) And like the "WTF Love Is" and "Vibes" of Lady Wood, "Struggle" is the trend-term track of Blue Lips: "Fuck, fuck some sense into me. The struggle is real when you don't tell me how you feel about this love."

But luckily, her knack for slick, attention-grabbing production and cutting melody lines has managed to hypnotize listeners yet again on Blue Lips. The record is more aggressively catchy than her previous releases, grinding into sharp house beats and humid guitar lines. "I'm the queen of the motherfucking discotheque," she declares on introductory interlude "Light Beams," before the record throws itself onto the dance floor (and into the bedroom of another one night stand). The first seven tracks, all hyperactive and hypersexual, match her black-lit ecstasy, yanking listeners into the clouds with her. "Disco Tits" and "Shedontknowbutsheknows" sputter and spasm with heavy electronics, while guitars and clipped beats kick "Stranger" alive. Even "Bitches," in all of its raunchy glory, keeps me coming back for listen after listen.

The album's back half, informally titled by minute-long interlude "Pitch Black," keeps in touch with the first half's sonic palette but takes to midtempo speed as it comes down from her frantic rush. "If it was easy, I'd forget about you, baby, but I never really understood how people can move on from a heart to love another. Oh, if I could, I would," she sings on the effortlessly smooth chorus of "Bad Days," an in memoriam of her recent wild nights. The album's finale, meanwhile, seems to recap how the insane two-album narrative began: "Hey, you got drugs? Just need a pick-me-up only for tonight. Don’t tell anyone I was with you," she repeats on power ballad "Hey You Got Drugs?" 

The story arc that carries from Lady Wood comes to a close nicely on Blue Lips – first with one last streak of destruction then with a crash-landing into reality. Along the way, though, we get lost in Lo's overt drive to be as sexual as possible. (If the album's title and ass-grabbing album artwork didn't let you in on it already, Tove Lo is really just all about sex and she wants you to know it right now.) But goddamn it, we get lost for a reason: Because Tove Lo knows how to make a frank, trashy, infectious banger. Sometimes it's hard to believe that she's so outrageous – again, not 2004 Britney Spears outrageous; it's more like a 2015 CupcakKe outrageous – but we all keep singing about our nipples and repeating our new favorite dirty Fifth Harmony reference alongside her anyway.

Blue Lips is available now under Island Records.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Reputation | Taylor Swift

Three years ago, Taylor Swift sat atop the Empire State Building, surrounded by a live studio audience of fans and cameras that streamed her announcement around the world in real time: After a long career that flirted with the thought, she pledged herself as a bona fide pop star. And she would go on to become quite a successful one, unveiling the neon-lit 1989 and fanning its success across nearly two years. The album and its six singles intoxicated audiences with their shimmering '80s pop, and Swift's unshaken songwriting style kept pop Taylor Swift from seeming too foreign for comfort.

But the Top 40 landscape that allowed her to dominate with the one-two sucker punch of "Shake it Off" and "Blank Space" is no more; a diverse portfolio of hip-hop artists occupy the spaces that used to hold gold-plated reservation cards for pop titans like Swift, Katy Perry, and Adele. Nothing if not an industry mastermind, though, Swift already knows rule number one to pop stardom survival: reinvention. Toying with her tried-and-true two-year album cycles, she spent an extra year in the dark amid an embroilment with Kanye West before unleashing plans for her sixth studio album, Reputation, a high-gloss set that proves Taylor Swift committed herself to the right genre.

She killed off county Taylor for the new, shiny pop Taylor just one album cycle ago, and as it turns out, 2014's pop Taylor was only the first of many versions to come. "The old Taylor can't come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, because she's dead!" she says on lead single "Look What You Made Me Do," a dark-toned manifesto that sneers against an unnamed entity – some argue West, though I tend to align with the theory that it damns the media personified. (West becomes the direct target, however, on the bratty "This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things," which reopens the wounds from VMAs and recorded phone calls past.)

The exaggerated self-portrait on "Look What You Made Me Do" paints Swift as the bad girl, the lying, cheating, sleazy snake that Kim Kardashian implied she was. A preoccupation with her public image lingers throughout Reputation, the first half of which concerns itself with selling – not rebuking – the idea of Taylor Swift as pop culture's ultimate villain. "They're burning all the witches, even if you aren't one. So light me up. Go ahead and light me up," she declares on "I Did Something Bad," a jarring, gunshot-sampling banger. Also revealing a wolf in sheep's clothing, "Don't Blame Me" is a burning slow-jam that admits to shifty behavior but projects that blame onward: "Don't blame me: Love made me crazy. If it doesn't, you ain't doing it right."

Swift has built a career that is reliant on being egocentric – that quality just hasn't been so outward until this point. She has found great success in music that exists almost exclusively in a vacuum, immune to sociopolitical forces that don't pertain to her brand, her relationships, or her music. That, perhaps, is why it seems ridiculous that an uprising has appeared for her to make career-shifting comments on American politics or sexual assault, especially in the wake of her high-profile (and successful) countersuit against a deejay who grabbed her inappropriately. Swift's brand has always been, and even now still is, relatively inoffensive fodder; she has planted herself into American households as a sister and a friend, making her gossip as worthwhile and entertaining as a real relative's newest neighborhood scoop.

At 27 years old, Swift is in her own class among her 20-something contemporaries, having built an empire without a preexisting celebrity preamble from Disney, Nickelodeon, or the like. Since her 2006 debut, she has aged alongside listeners naturally. The ordinary girl who cried over unrequited love in a freshmen-level classroom has grown into the superstar who gets plastered at her own bougie, Gatsby-level parties – and after 12 years to get here, it actually feels later than it should for Taylor Swift to reference alcohol for the first time. (Yes, Taylor Swift acknowledges that she drinks alcohol and has sex a few times on Reputation. Insert slight gasp when she wisps, "Carved your name into my bedpost, 'cause I don't want you like a best friend. I only bought this dress so you can take it off.")

She dismantled her good girl image, but it's important to note that the fundamentals of the old Taylor Swift – the one who found comfort in love and heartbreak – are still intact and are integral to Reputation's story arc. As the world descends on her public image, she shutters inward and toward a lover who calms the waves: "My reputation's never been worse, so you must like me for me," she croons on the bouncy, vocoder-drenched "Delicate." The album's back half is almost entirely dedicated to her love life, once her songwriting's mainstay but now reduced to a subplot. The synth-propelled "Getaway Car" best represents love, even if doomed from its start, as the vehicle for escape: "I was ridin' in a getaway car. I was cryin' in a getaway car. I was dyin' in a getaway car," she sings.

"Getaway Car" is the closest Swift comes to brushing against 1989's sonic palette, and although it is an outstanding highlight, that may be for the best. Swift's image overhaul and commitment to her newest reincarnate make Reputation as successful as it is. Ditching the guitar, her longtime instrumental companion, she is clad in heavy electronics and soupy vocoders. Her vocal showcase and songwriting are more conversational, leaning into a causal sing-rap in places like "...Ready for It?" and "This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things." And she pulls it off well: Throughout "End Game," a song that features Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Future, the one who feels most uncomfortable is Sheeran – who would have ever guessed such a development?

A shiny, 2017-chic release fueled on a breakneck sugar rush, Reputation manages to come off as both a natural progression and a wise, albeit calculated, business endeavor. Though she does chalk up her actions as the vengeful consequences of others' doings, Swift no longer plays the outright victim of others' crimes and has aged out of a squeaky clean image. This all plays out over premier power pop that camouflages Swift within this year's Hot 100 cool crowd, which guarantees success even amid an anti-pop era in the mainstream. Reputation proves Swift knows how to read the room, survey the lay of the musical landscape, and plant her feet where they need to be. And if she can continue to do this throughout her career's lifespan, this won't be the last time an impressive new Taylor kills off an old Taylor with one swift slice to the jugular.

Reputation is available now under Big Machine Records.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Ctrl | SZA

Upon the release of her debut album in June, singer-songwriter SZA found herself thrust into the ranks of the Knowles sisters as a figurehead for the modern black woman – a significant charge for a young woman who had to fight a much harder battle than a second-gen Knowles should for the release of her album. After delays – both self-imposed and label-rooted – put it in limbo for almost two years, Ctrl found its footing due to its alignment with the current popularity boom for hip-hop. But spare "Love Galore" and "Doves in the Wind," two lackluster tracks included only because they carry big-name guest features, the album is more sophisticated in sonic composition than its radio-dwelling counterparts, dodging most typical chintz of the hits and capitalizing on authentic, unpolished neo-soul and rhythm and blues.

Rawness and vulnerability are terms that have been branded into SZA's hip, perhaps thanks to this album's title and overarching theme: Control and her perceived lack of it in both life and love. Admittedly but admirably flawed, SZA admits many times over that an affinity for "dirty men" has damned her since the beginning. She owns up to things that once would have been twisted to slut-shame the hell out of a woman and turns them into defiant acts of self-preservation, done in pursuit of taking back control. She advocates for vengeful cheating (the two-stepping, slow-burning "Supermodel," on which she reveals she slept with her ex's friend after he went to Las Vegas without her on Valentine's Day) and upstaging the main attraction as a mere side piece: "My man is my man is your man, heard it's her man, too. You're like nine to five; I'm the weekend," she sings over a sultry groove on "The Weekend."

At the record's pivotal moments, she best translates the consequences of reckless, taboo behavior: Muffled automated drums keep "Prom" alive as it recounts a fear that she hasn't matured the way that she should have, while the downtempo "Broken Clocks" watches time melt as SZA realizes that life has slipped through her fingers. There is also, then, the matter of self-worth – a touchy topic for the other woman, the role she plays from time to time. Two-stepping lead single "Drew Barrymore" recounts her humble dream to eat tacos, smoke a joint, and watch Narcos before it magnifies how relentless self-doubt and self-consciousness destroys it all: "I get so lonely. I forget what I'm worth. We get so lonely. We pretend that this works. I'm so ashamed of myself, think I need therapy."

With personal tales of conflict, sexcapades, and self-loathing, SZA doesn't seem to have it all figured out as the album unfolds. And as a coming of age record, Ctrl is striking in the sense that SZA never does figure life out by the end: "Only know fear. That's me, Ms. 20-Something. Ain't got nothin', runnin' from love," she sings on the album's acoustic finale. It doesn't hurt, of course, that her malleable voice navigates well through her soundscapes, which color a bit outside the lines of the typical R&B artist's template, and that the album doesn't have any shortages of solid grooves or melodies. But what really drives this record home is the young woman at the center of it all: SZA, a charismatic, honest woman who isn't afraid to splatter herself, her insecurities, her mistakes, and her secrets across a damn fine record.

Ctrl is available now under Top Dawg Entertainment and RCA.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Relaxer | alt-J

English three-piece alternative outfit alt-J has never been anything less than a bit unhinged. They came into fame via disjointed soundscapes with hidden agendas: On An Awesome Wave, lead vocalist Joe Newman glazed through stories of love triangles and murders with slurred, hypnotizing diction. Their follow-up, This is All Yours, fussed over songwriting so unorthodox that it took over a year of repeated listens before its musicality revealed itself. Their work was calculated to pinch a nerve with absurdist themes and use its alluring soundscapes to soothe over the pain immediately.

The trio's third album, meanwhile, doesn't concern itself with much, standing stagnant as the world moves around it. At just shy of 40 minutes in run time, it disguises itself as a short escape... that is, until listeners dive into it head first and realize that five of its eight tracks clock in at five-plus minutes. And those five tracks take their dear, sweet time to get a hell of a lot of, well, nowhere, but that isn't necessarily a damning point in alt-J's case – especially as they deliver an album titled Relaxer.

Given its title and visual treatments, which come courtesy of a first-generation PlayStation game that replicates surreal, LCD-influenced dreams in chunky pixels, Relaxer is exactly as it markets itself: a record more concerned with its indie-static vibe than its inspirations, which are more benignly cockeyed than its predecessors' backstories. Tracks like "Adeline," a Hans Zimmer-sampling cut about a Tasmanian devil who falls in love with a human woman, and album finale "Pleader" spiral into cinematic instrumental scores that leave just enough space to mold Newman's warbles and moans into the equation.

On standout track and lead single "3WW," a fuzzy guitar loop plays like a flickering candle under Newman as he melts under Wolf Alice's Ellie Rowsell. And if "3WW" is the embodiment of the album's mission, "In Cold Blood" and "Hit Me Like a Snare" are its antitheses: the former, a jolting anthem that speaks in numeric code, and the latter, frankly the most obnoxious of any alt-J offering. "We are dangerous teenagers. Fuck you. I'll do whatever I want to do," Newman shouts with kiddish happiness on "Snare," breaking his usual cool demeanor in the most uncool way he could dream up.

The alt-J of years past was a bit more inspired and a bit less tired than the one we hear today. Relaxer serves its purpose in their discography, especially in its more glistening moments ("3WW," "In Cold Blood," "Adeline"), but when the record lags in its monstrous run time, it wears far too thin for even remote comfort ("Hit Me Like a Snare," "Deadcrush"). That's not to say that the alt-J guys have lost their appeal, but they do seem a bit less commanding than they were when we last saw them – a fact that becomes obvious only when they make us endure those long moments of friction within an album that was meant to be a smooth ride.

Relaxer is out now under Atlantic Records.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Beautiful Trauma | P!nk

In the five years since we last heard from P!nk, not much out of the ordinary seemed to have gone down in her life – or at least from what we know, she steered clear of anything that would have inflicted great emotional pain. Aside from a one-off folksy album released with a friend, she hasn't done much aside from fostering a family: She saw her firstborn child through her formative years and gave birth to a second. Her marriage with motocross racer Carey Hart, which was rocky from the start, seems to have stabilized into a tabloid nonevent.

But when she returned to music this year with "What About Us," she didn't seem quite like the P!nk we've come to know. Though the pulsating dance track hints at context within the turbulent American political climate, it is uncharacteristically subtle, especially for an artist whose opinions have never been to herself. Then comes Beautiful Trauma, an album with a title that bears the weight of many healed scares – but an album that never quite gets to the point on how the scars got there or proves if they're even genuine at all.

With P!nk's personal life mended and "What About Us" giving few hints, Beautiful Trauma leaves few things for her to bear issue with: the political landscape, of course, being one. And if any pop star could have conjured a fury over the Donald, it could have been P!nk. After all, she was the one to shoot a musical missile toward George "Dubya" Bush point-blank ten years ago. Yet what we are greeted with is a discrete album, overflowing with acoustic midtempo tracks that busy themselves with undisclosed problems within her marriage. (See: the folk-dipped "Where We Go," piano ballads "You Get My Love," "But We Lost It," and "For Now.")

The album is not odious by any stretch, but it's far glossier and more nondescript than it should be. Her stern voice still being her main selling point, she commands a groove over the rhythmic "Better Love" and across the album's liveliest track, "Secrets." And her sense of humor reappears on "Revenge," a lighthearted Eminem duet that works much better than the description "lighthearted Eminem duet" reads on paper. But too often, she gets sleepy and kicks it into autopilot: Dawdling through their run times, fluffy filler tracks like "Whatever You Want" and "For Now" don't assert themselves on the assumption that P!nk's voice can capture attention without a sturdy melody or thoughtful lyrics.

In the back end of the album, she rolls into gospel-influenced choruses of the straightforward "I Am Here." That she is – and historically, that's been enough. Every few years, she has appeared from dormancy with another novel's worth of life packed into an impressive album. After taking to a hiatus from music and having feared she was forgotten, she blasted herself into relevance with I'm Not Dead. When her marriage fell to shambles, she unleashed the burn-the-house-down, run-over-his-shit-with-a-lawnmower, punch-someone-in-the-face Funhouse. Upon that marriage's reconciliation, she dedicated an album, The Truth About Love, to the often untold details of love and forgiveness.

While it splashed onto the scene with the highest debut sales week for a female this year and will hold the title until Taylor Swift storms through next month, Beautiful Trauma doesn't tout the same genuine spark that previous albums set us up to expect from P!nk. She is most definitely here, which is nice and all, but that doesn't matter when she – a self-proclaimed loudmouth, mind you – bites her tongue and lets herself go unnoticed.

Beautiful Trauma is available now under RCA Records.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Masseduction | St. Vincent

Short of somehow begin misconstrued as a bigot, Annie Clark told Nylon magazine for her cover story in the publication's final printed edition last month, she doesn't mind being misunderstood. Of course, the 35-year-old musician, who does business as St. Vincent, has never been one for lucidity: Wrapped in erratic soundscapes and delivered in twisted, elusive poetry, the messages in her back catalog have ranged from satirical on a societal level to sentimental on a personal one. 

Masseduction, her fifth record, places St. Vincent in the midst of a sexed up, drugged up, messed up world and frames her personal woes as inescapable misfortunes that come stock with life in modern America. Damning west coast show business culture on the jagged "Los Ageless," she burrows into the problems it brings — an especially appropriate centerfold as we watch the destruction of a nation that overnighted an unqualified Hollywood elitist into the White House. But rather than lament on the obvious, she sews together her own experiences in today's frivolous world and proves she does not transcend the mess; Instead, she admits to being a victim of it herself and now fears what is to come.

Personal in nature first and foremost, Masseduction is open to alternate, grander significance secondarily. With "mass seduction" slurred into one word for its title and spandex-covered buttocks on its cover, the record delivers brutal honesty in regard to St. Vincent's lust, intensified by a neon-lit, leopard-printed culture: “Savior” is a disjointed recounting of role play in kinky leather outfits, while the title track delivers a double entendre on an unhealthy relationship and a toxic combination of sexuality and popular culture. "I can't turn off what turns me on," she sings on the chunky, beat-heavy title track, digitizing her voice to alternate "mass seduction" with "mass destruction" beneath its melody.

Sharp-tongued cuts like "Young Lover" and "Pills" spell out in somewhat ambiguous terms the ruins of her previous relationship with actress Cara Delevingne, who makes a surprising guest appearance on "Pills." "Pills to fuck. Pills to eat. Pills, pills, pills, down the kitchen sink," she chants with an uncharacteristic giddiness. The five-minute sonic representation of St. Vincent's experiences with sleeping medication, complete with jittering, jingle-like choruses and a spiraling comedown, wasn't intended to be — but sure does work as — a "finger-wagging" statement on a medicated society. Likewise, "Young Lover" tells the story of an addicted lover with leftover childhood scars, not to be an archetypal superstar’s portrait. 

When she cries, "How can anybody have you and not lose their minds, too?" on "Ageless," the suspect could fall not on a person, but on fame personified. As she towers to new heights in fame and mainstream appeal, having piqued interest as Delevingne's girlfriend and working with in-demand producer Jack Antonoff on this record, she finds herself wedged in an uncomfortable fold of fame. "And sometimes I feel like an inland ocean: too big to be a lake, too small to be an attraction," her voice smolders on "Smoking Section," the album's finale. She simmers from the album's otherwise breakneck pace and looks in the mirror, reassuring herself she'll make it out alive: "It's not the end," she repeats in its final 90 seconds.

Though it is her most melodically impressive outing to date, Masseduction finds its brightest moments in firecracker cuts like "Los Ageless" and "Sugarboy," when she commands her trusty guitar and zany synthesizers to unhinge around her soprano pipes. But sparse, surprisingly transparent ballads like "Smoking Section" and "New York," during which she seems more conflicted than corrupted, are equally important to the album's backbone. Because while it is exposed only when St. Vincent comes down from the frantic highs to reflect on intrapersonal issues rather than on how widespread chaos affects her daily life, her inner conflict is what hones cultural madness into a personal album that is much more socially aware than its master portrays it to be. 

Masseduction is available now under Loma Vista Recordings.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Double Dutchess | Fergie

Fergie could have enjoyed both the luxury of name recognition and the artistic freedoms normally granted only to brand new artists when she embarked on a solo endeavor in 2006. But settling on the philosophy that things that aren't broken shouldn't be fixed, she didn't go far from what she knew:, The Black Eyed Peas ringleader and the executive producer of what everybody knows is Britney Spears' worst album, wasn't far from Fergie's side, producing and featuring on solo debut The Dutchess to immense commercial reception. And despite the album's wild success and what was once a widespread demand for a sophomore solo record, its long-overdue follow-up, Double Dutchess, is nothing but double trouble.

Double Dutchess feels so awkward largely thanks to its faulty timing. Between the releases of "L.A. Love (La La)" and the full-length record, I was able to earn a bachelor's degree. More importantly, though, the popular music industry has flipped what feels like 50 pages in its coursebook for success; DJ Mustard, whose production tag is sewn into "L.A. Love," fell out of style not long after the track's 2014 release. And by shoving the dated song alongside 12 unrelated, inconsistent ones produced amid a rocky promotion cycle and eventual record contract dissolution, she furthers the feeling that this haphazard pop album was forced together like a puzzle finished with pieces from six different boxes.

The Dutchess, even if ridiculous at times, maintained a grasp on a similar sonic palette: pop music built on retro-R&B production bases. Yet throughout Double Dutchess, Fergie cannot sit still – and it's hard to be taken seriously as the jack of all trades when critics barely considered her the master of one to begin with. Perhaps her least successful alter ego throughout is chintzy, second-rate reggae Fergie with "Love is Blind," but following close behind is adult contemporary Fergie, who hit the jackpot once on "Big Girls Don't Cry" but couldn't dare repeat it on acoustic-based tracks "Life Goes On" and "Save It Til Morning" on this album.

It's only when Fergie stops taking herself too serious attitude that Double Dutchess reveals its best material. "Tension" dives into deep synths and a seductive guitar line, making for the album's most blatant highlight as Fergie takes to the dance floor. Interpolating the one-off '80s hip-hop hit "It Takes Two," the Nicki Minaj-featured "You Already Know" hypnotizes listeners into bouncing along to the classic sample and eventually rattling along with Fergie-Ferg and Minaj. Hell, even "M.I.L.F. $" is at least honest in its absurdity, making the relentless rap track at least ironically enjoyable as a party track in same sense as "My Humps."

But the attitude can be stretched only so far over poor songwriting. While fierce vocal delivery is meant to electrify tracks like "Hungry" and "Like It Ain't Nuttin'," Fergie fails to recognize that the ill-fated tracks, like many on Double Dutchess, should have been killed on the studio floor to spare everyone the trouble – three years of trouble for herself and a flurry of songwriters and producers. And so it seems that in attempt to convince herself that she didn't waste three years to produce weak melodies and uninspired lyrics for nothing, Fergie didn't even try to put lipstick on the pig that is this flimsy album – she just greased it up and let it loose on the streets anyway.

Double Dutchess is available now under Dutchess Music.