By Julio C. Reyna, February 2018 Web Exclusive.
Album: No_One Ever Really Dies
Label: N.E.R.D. Music
With the first release in seven years N.E.R.D. returns with No_One Ever Really Dies and, like most acts in a post-Trump world, we find the group attempting to make a protest record filled with Pharrell’s signature falsetto paired with the band’s live instruments, strange beeps and blips. While the content does not quite reach the initial intention, the album gets lost in a long list of features which are ultimately the saving grace.
The lead single and opening track, “Lemon,” features Rihanna, not as a guest vocalist but as a guest rapper. The song shakes with a funky beat that is as infectious as – and can rank among – the best Neptunes work from the early aughts. The clear thing about this track, as soon as Rihanna comes in with her cocky and effortless flow, is that she completely steals the show.
There are times when an album will front load with all the potential singles and then finish off with all filler and that is exactly what takes place here. The second half of the 11-track project sounds like a cut and paste effort of features, hooks and beats. The painfully long “ESP” and “Lightning Fire Magic Prayer” could have had their runtimes cut in half and still conveyed their point. A missed opportunity considering features from both Kendrick Lamar and M.I.A. is “Kites,” which finds both rappers relegated to the tail end of a track that plays like series of repetitive phrases and chants and a lazy introductory verse from Pharrell.
The disconnect between the intention of the album and what it actually achieves reveals a band that is trying to regain relevance. How can the guy that sings “Happy” now try to bring a similarly bright sonic aesthetic to a track that focuses on police brutality? collectively, it all seems miscalculated.
Artist: Charli XCX
Album: Pop 2
Charli XCX, the arguable princess of alternative pop, is signaling a sonic shift with the release of Pop 2. At a time when pop music finds itself lost between mid-tempo tracks and whisper vocals, the work is a boisterous sonic assault that effortlessly glides through 10 collaborative and autotune-heavy tracks.
What makes the mixtape so compelling is the level of anonymity she manages to maintain throughout, and the likely the reason it has been released as a mixtape versus an album. It is very blatantly her work, which speaks to her pop savvy and excellent songwriting. But she spends her time throughout hiding behind some Britney Spears-levels of autotune, letting the productions and all of her collaborators take center stage. The other question that comes to mind: Is this simply a showcase for people she has written for or worked with in the past? Everyone from Tove Lo, Brooke Candy, CupcaKKe, Kim Petras, MO and so many others stop by for the fun.
In the midst of glimmery beats and manipulated vocals, she playfully finds herself caught between being a sex vixen and heartbreak. The lead, and stand out, “Backseat,” a song featuring fellow underdog Carly Rae Jepsen, finds them both between those two worlds. Listeners will discover that they are both gleeful and remorseful over what transpired through XCX’s use of heavy autotune contrasting against Jepsen’s sweet, high vocals. The song ends in a mashup of blips and synths which seem convey the overall mess they have found themselves in.
What Pop 2 succeeds with is firmly establishing that, while the overall pop landscape is undergoing a hip-hop and R&B resurgence, there is still room for those who walk the more bubbly and electronic path. Great writing will always prevail and she is an artist that has always had a great ear for what works.
Artist: Francis and the Lights
Album: Just For Us
Francis and the Lights returns with his surprise album Just For Us, a synth pop, introspective work that speeds through 10 tracks and manages to clock in just under a half hour. It is both urgent and easy listening that warrants repeat listens. Bonus, for those listening in a loop, the closing track seamlessly plays into the opener.
For those who watch a certain reality show that stars someone that is married to Kanye West, album opener “Morning” (and the show’s current opening song) may sound very familiar. The West-produced track not only features his signature sped up high pitch vocal samples, but is one of the rare moments on the album where you’ll hear vocoder-free vocals from Francis.
Other return collaborators include Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat on the lush “Never Back.” The song begins with playful blips that contrast with the lyrics, “there is no god/ there are no rules/ but I wish something that I could do.” Beyond the first chorus, the music begins to swell. A string arrangement moves into the foreground, whistles start playing all while he, in a more pointed and emotional manner. Everything seems to indicate that the song is about to peak and then the music stops abruptly.
The interesting thing about this album is that some tracks end before the two-minute mark. It would be interesting to see what form they’d have followed within normal song length standards. However, this is part of the reason Just For Us excels. The tracks are a balance of both lush and sparse sounds. The latter working to give each listener their own interpretation – not what the song should be, but what it is for them. An album where the quietest moments are also the loudest makes for a challenging listen and leaves one wanting just a bit more … that’s a good thing these days, right?