Monday, March 28, 2016

Mind of Mine | Zayn

Like Beyoncé or Rihanna, Zayn needs not a last name for distinction. Like a cool kid on AIM or Yahoo! Messenger back in the day, he needs not your judgement for using alternating caps on his song titles. And like any young entertainer with a drive for more, he needs not four other band members dragging him down, as he's out to prove with his own solo debut, Mind of Mine.

The blueprints for a departed boy band member's solo album and a maturing child star's breakout album are nearly identical: spit the bubblegum -- bubblegum pop, that is -- out of your mouth, let those hormones write the hypersexual lyrics for you, and show them all that you're not a little kid anymore! Following a good portion of this recipe for success, Zayn went for edgy without the spectacles. Let's put it this way: if Bangerz was Miley Cyrus' way of telling the world that she's all grown up, Mind of Mine is Zayn's way of showing it.

He's an attractive 23-year-old male of considerable fame who is romantically connected to a model, so these tracks focus on the topics that you'd expect: Women, lust, love, and his Internet #haters, with emphasis on those first two. Needless to say, lead single "Pillowtalk" (or "PiLlOwT4lK," whatever) set an accurate stage for what was to come. Spare outlying piano power ballad "Fool For You," his drunken sexcapades unfold on Frank Ocean's alternative R&B turf -- and this seems to be the playing field he belonged in all along. Need proof? Check out "Wrong," where Zayn is at his most assertive and sensual; he and featured artist Kehlani (vocally, she's Tinashe and Tove Lo's lovechild) drive into the chorus in a fashion not unlike the Weeknd on "The Hills."

Being the only one of its kind on an album filled with smooth electronic R&B, that piano ballad track does falter, but don't think that Zayn's voice can't hold its own and drive a song. His vocal melodies make "Bordersz" and "It's You" as great as they are; the delicate acrobatics on the latter provide some reasoning as to why he is the first One Direction boy to get a solo break. Same goes for "Rear View," especially when those airy vocal stems pile on top of sharp electronic drum clicks at the song's back end.

Although moody R&B is totally Zayn's thing now, he hasn't lost that pop sensibility from his One Direction days, whether he likes it or not; the evidence is sprinkled throughout this bad boy. These tracks, minus "Lucozade," which plays more like a constant stream of consciousness than a formulated song, are still hook-reliant; they're just much dirtier than before. Speaking of which, "Befour" goes hard, kept alive by a constant drumbeat and thin synth murmur. Better yet, neon-lit banger "Like I Would" and album closer "Tio" go even harder. ("Like I Would" does not appear on the standard edition of the album, which is a tragedy in every sense of the word and merits the purchase of the deluxe pressing, and "Tio" does not represent "uncle" in Spanish. Just a heads-up.) 

All deluxe and retailer-exclusive tracks in, the album stretches to 20 tracks -- a feat that has become less daunting in an era when deluxe editions and repacks are unapologetic in pushing track listings well over that number. With such a lengthy debut album, Zayn gives himself ample space to shape who himself as a solo artist. It seems he's had a lot to say for a long time, and this is the first time he has been uninhibited in his craft. After all, it's much easier to build a badass image over some brooding PBR&B, intricately crafted to be enjoyed in the dead of night, than his former band's bright pop-rock. Sure, he intrudes on some other artists' territory -- the Weeknd was really the one to make this genre accessible to pop audiences last year -- and that would be a problem if he weren't doing this well. But he is.

Mind of Mine is available now under RCA Records. Standard, deluxe, and Target exclusive versions are available.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

This is What the Truth Feels Like | Gwen Stefani

Upon a personal whirlwind, Gwen Stefani found her way to the center of pop culture conversation late last year without much more than a lone single, "Used to Love You," and a new season on The Voice to merit worthwhile headlines. Months removed, as only aftershocks of her public appearance with Blake Shelton made ripples on tabloid sites, she wiggled her way back to the spotlight with her side of the story: her third studio album, This is What the Truth Feels Like, is the musical diary to accompany the recent events, telling her side of the story through song.

Writing duo Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels, Stefani's studio crutches throughout the album, make their presence heard without overriding her own immature quirks, helping sell her heartbreak and healing through songwriting that lends itself to crisp, perfectionist productions, spare the typical bombast of Top 40. Much less confrontational than Stefani's previous material, these songs are not climactic affairs; choruses are more business-as-usual than noteworthy. That does, however, make for some well-rounded tracks, such as the title track; as gentle synths breeze through and light drum machines click and pop, it's a breath of fresh air that isn't far from the ballpark of Selena Gomez's "Hands to Myself." Let's also not forget the bucket of fun that is "Make Me Like You" and the sprawling little ditty "Rare," two of the best offerings on the album; neither are bangers expected from Stefani, but their delicate productions, like most on this album, are refreshing.

In some ways, record executives' claims that this record is "too personal" seem valid. Detached from the context of Stefani's personal life, it reaches a level of schizophrenia: at one point, someone went and made her like him, yet at another, she cries because she realizes that she hates someone she used to love. To her defense, though, most of the album does play out like an autobiography, chronicling the ending of her Gavin Rossdale chapter and the beginning of the Blake Shelton one. I must argue the validity of some of the lyrics as they pertain to her new country flame, because I just don't see Shelton as the Snapchat sexter type ("Take a Picture") nor the inducer of a drug-like hypnosis ("You're My Favorite"), but she gets an 'A' for creativity. Her fantasies do make for some catchy tracks.

Okay, so there are some moments that are inexplicable -- the moans and screams on "Naughty," whatever "Red Flag" is -- and others that are unforgivable -- some lyrical immaturity across the board, Fetty Wap's invitation to rhythmically mumble across "Asking 4 It." But let's get real: is sensibility a prerequisite for a Gwen Stefani album? This is the same woman who we have embraced on separate occasions for spelling "bananas" repeatedly over a stomping beat, making this music video, and yodeling her way through a track. Does it all really have to make sense at this point? Not really. It just has to be fun and sort of chintzy; this album is both. Enjoy it for what it's worth.

This is What the Truth Feels Like is available now under Interscope Records. An exclusive deluxe edition can be found at Target department stores.

Friday, March 25, 2016

All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend | Aurora

It's not often we, as pop music consumers, are given an artist like Aurora.

With an elegant tongue and productions that create complementary environments for her authentic storytelling, she demands attention in an unorthodox fashion; her music is encompassing, but neither overpowering nor anthemic. At moments of culmination ("Running with the Wolves," "Warrior"), she is nothing short of majestic. When hopelessness strikes, she echoes her inner vulnerability with a fragile quiver (the acoustic cut of "Murder Song (5, 4, 3, 2, 1)," "Through the Eyes of a Child").

At a ripe 19 years old, she is alarmingly earnest in the conveyance of her lyrics. Not since Lorde have we met such a young songstress so in-touch with the world around her -- but while Lorde was focused on hierarchical order and the state of society as we know it, Aurora concerns herself with the inner workings of the human mind and her connections with the organic world around her. She idealizes a cleansing death via drowning and a subsequent revitalization on the surface, longs for normality and security, embraces underlying bestial qualities, begs for childlike simplicity and innocence, pulls herself through bouts of depression -- all while her voice, pure and tinged with her native Norwegian accent, showcases the versatility and emotion needed to sell lyrics that would otherwise seem overinflated.

Her soundscapes, crafted with an eerie production niche that picks and chooses from subtle undertones of dream pop, synthpop, trip-hop, Celtic folk, traditional East Asian, and singer-songwriter, present themselves as cooperative backdrops under her command. For example, "Under the Water" builds to the urgency of being pulled beneath the water as drums begin to pound under her commands to "wash away the sin," before it all gives way to the placid dawn of companion track "Black Water Lillies." Similar swells are well-executed on "Warrior," "Winter Bird," and "Runaway," but when her lyrics need room to breathe, they get it. Resonating in a haunting a cappella fashion, she becomes (and can hold her own as) the focal point on "Home" when the core of her statement on depression is made; it happens again on "Winter Bird" and "Murder Song (5, 4, 3, 2, 1)" when instrumentation is ripped away to reveal sparse vocal outros.

Aurora proves that a pop album doesn't have to void of love songs or veer into Grimes-type oddity to be quality. She has already mastered the art of crafting a stirring album: independent, trembling vocals, a healthy dose of authentic melodrama, and productions that obey their maestro, whether that means they become minor details that echo behind her or sweeping backdrops that bellow like mushroom clouds with her. She thrives on being moody and mysterious -- qualities that make her audience think, not just listen. As title, All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend in itself provokes a need for introspection without playing even one track; as an album, especially a debut, it's simply breathtaking.

All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend is out now under Glassnote Entertain Group. Standard and deluxe editions are available.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Vroom Vroom | Charli XCX

After vacationing on radio airwaves courtesy of two American hits in 2014, it looks like Charli XCX has no problem retreating back to her position as a viral oddity -- as she proves on her new extended play, Vroom Vroom, a collaborative effort with electronic producer Sophie.

Coming off of Sucker, a flat 40-minute set through which XCX portrayed herself as a ironic rocker reincarnate of mid-2000s P!nk or Avril Lavigne circa 2001, this extended play is loud. It's intrusive. It's strange. It's obnoxious. However, with its bellowing beats, meddling electronic samples, and tryhard sing-rapping and shouting, it's unapologetic in its qualities -- and  it somehow becomes enjoyable thanks to its production work and sassy delivery.

Having grown to be neither subtle nor charming, Charli XCX's lyricism has hit an all-time low -- now suitable for solo car karaoke sessions and white girls' drunken chants in the club rather than for self-pitying break-up Facebook statuses and Tumblr users' arm tattoos. She's young, wild, and free (you're dancing circles around me), and she's ready to fuck you up, steal your crown, and take your trophy. You slugs are too slow to catch up with her cute, sexy, sporty Lamborghini (you better work, bitch). Getting on all fours like an animal, she breaks all the rules for her dirty little secret. She just wants to be a bad bitch, m'kay?

The greatness comes in, once again, with the delivery of this foolishness over twisted club productions. A repeating Uma Thurman sample and rough, speaker-blasting beats help "Trophy" keeps its pace while XCX rambles through her bad girl spiel, while "Secret" is, simply put, a gritty banger. The title track, while enjoyable in its own right, takes so many turns that it seems like three separate songs pasted together, but only "Paradise," a disaster of a track with vocals pitch-shifted to the max and a collision of far too many extraneous samples, becomes a bothersome listen.

Listening to this extended play is what I imagine taking a ride in the sports car from its tacky cover art is like: fast, unpredictable, loud, a nuisance to others around me... and somewhat fun. Rather than try to construct a meaning from it all (because there really isn't one), sit back and enjoy the ride.

Vroom Vroom is available now under Charli XCX's own Vroom Vroom Recordings.