Album Reviews: Frank Ocean, Britney Spears, Young Thug & More
So unfortunately due to illness, I missed out on a host of major album releases and never got the chance to write our annual “best of the year so far” lists. But rather than writing about month old albums we’ll save that analysis for the end of the year. In the meantime, we’ll tackle the hottest release of the past fortnight in rapid-fire fashion.
Glory by Britney Spears
2013’s Britney Jean set a low bar for Glory clear and, while Britney’s latest is a more competent and accomplished album than its predecessor, it does little to suggest that the one time Queen of Pop has rediscovered her midas touch. At her best, Britney is a wind up and watch her go popstar who will contort her deliciously inane vocal flourishes into pretty much any shape (steamy futuristic RnB? No problem. Camp excess? You got it. Sweet heart balladry? Sure thing. Stainless steal pop? Naturally). Unfortunately, subpar material has seen Britney twist in the wind since the glorious camp highs of 2007’s Blackout. Glory seeks to address this lack of direction. Trends are not chased. Instead, this largely anodyne collection thrives on sweetness (“Man On The Moon”) and silliness (“Clumsy”), respectively.
There are attempts to channel the steamy, slow R&B of the cutting edge (“Just Luv Me”), but these efforts underwhelm. Britney and Glory come to life in the high gloss moments. The more robotic and the less human the star sounds the better. When she’s willfully weird and enunciating like an alien raised in record studio she soars. Glory might be the rare exception to the critical orthodoxy; the more dated the sound (“Do You Wanna Come Over?”) and synthetic the soul (“What You Need”) the better. There’s certainly a joy to hearing an array of 80s inspired bridges be Britney-fied and, even if she is serving up a self-conscious parody of her own eccentricities, at least the music is fun on its own terms and – in rare moments – it is legitimately sexy and understated (“Slumber Party”). More importantly, it sounds truer to Britney and her sonic touchstones than anything she’s attempted since 2008 (if not before).
Glory offers nothing to rival “Toxic” or “Slave 4 U’s” brilliance (let alone her teenage majesty), but this lightweight collection is likeable and extremely listenable: a step in the right direction as Britney Spears seeks to find her footing in what should be the stately, if not imperious, phase of her tumultuous career.
Blonde by Frank Ocean
Talk about painting yourself into a corner. If Nostalgia U.L.T.R.A taught fans to expect tender sensibilities and arena sized hooks, then Channel Orange set an implausibly high standard for free-wheeling, boundary busting artistry in the tradition of Stevie Wonder. Following two beloved records with four years of radio silence only heightened anticipation to the point at which supposed fans were willing to sue their hero when his album (then under the working title Boys Don’t Cry) wasn’t released on time. In this context, perhaps Blonde is the best possible response: an insular and confounding record, full of subtleties and half explored ideas. The kind of work that inspires cries of “genius”, even as fans and critics are kept at arms length.
Daring is a more apt term than genius. Blonde, depending on perspective, is either willfully obscure and challenging with its unanchored fragments and drumless loops – or it’s tossed off, unfinished, riding the hope that the absence of clarity and cohesion will substitute for genuine depth. The validity of Ocean’s artistry is very much in the eye of the beholder – when album closer “Futura Free” rolls around, is it a heart wrenching final corruption of modern RnB or a last unpolished deluge of intriguing ideas and haunting melodies in search of an actual song or satisfying narrative structure?
Whether (or not) Ocean has gazed so long and so hard at his own navel that he’s actually fallen in; there’s no denying Blonde’s impeccable moments: the squelchily beautiful douchebagery of “Nikes”, Andre 3000’s incendiary “Solo (Reprise)” verse, “Ivy’s” pitch-shifting romanticism, “Solo’s” careening narrative flair (not to mention that stunning chorus) and the sordid slow sung majesty of “Self Control”. There is something intriguing about Ocean’s rejection of seemingly any booming beats. Unlike so much cutting edge RnB, Frank refuses to ride on the coattails of the production. Quite the reverse. Blonde, despite its illusions, is very much the work of a singular artist. So much so, that, like fellow innovator James Blake, listening to Blonde is akin (for better or worse) to being stuck in stalled elevator with the artist as he pours out his soul ad nauseam. The end result is album that is too fractured and indulgent to rival Channel Orange’s effortless excellence, but too compelling and intriguingly alien to be dismissed – Frank Ocean’s scattered, post-gender soul is a heartfelt head scratcher, and that’s no bad thing.
My Woman by Angel Olsen
On Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014) Angel Olsen struggled to set her self apart from a crowded field of severe female singer-songwriters even as she offered soulful insights so bruising that her work demanded attention. Flecked with moments of resplendent misery, topped off by “Unfucktheworld’s” decaying lilt, Olsen’s last album suggested that if the singer could hone her narrative brutality into more satisfying songs, she might yet be a transcendent talent. My Woman goes some way to fulfilling that promise. Olsen still stretches and contorts the listener atop her torture rack of frayed cries, despairing warbles and shrill, ghostly cries, but, more often than not, the agony is wrapped in taut popier packages.
“Shut Up Kiss Me” is an absolute riot, a darkly sexy statement of intent that explodes into a scuzzy lofi banger with a seductive melody hiding in the second verse that typifies My Woman’s tight, rock ready opening half. The plot thickens as the album approaches the finishing straight. Among the drifting delicacies and lingering torch songs that litter the album’s conclusion, Olsen’s music not only holds its shape, but asserts itself with “Sister” suggesting that Olsen has spent as much time studying Stevie Nicks as she has PJ Harvey and Sharon Van Etten. Where once the romance and misery of the lyrics held sway, an Angel Olsen album can now stand and thrive on the strength of the airy beauty of its arrangements. “Those Were The Days” is a masterpiece content to swoon and drift in a dessert of desire and longing – the saunter proves so seductive you’ll wish you could waste a little more time in its protracted presence.
To paraphrase a tired sports cliché: if Angel Olsen was once an album away from being an album away; after My Woman, she stands a mere step shy of perfection. Her next release cannot come quickly enough.
Jeffery by Young Thug
Talk about twisting in the wind. After his commercial debut, Barter 6, turned out to be a low-key, artful affair punctuated by stellar moments (“Halftime”, “Constantly Hating”), Young Thug has struggled to truly assert himself as an artist. Some of his career best material has followed (most rapper’s would bite Thugger’s arm off for the hits he casually dispensed on Slime Season 3), but, as Barter 6 recedes into the past, Thug continues to shy away from releasing a uniform or coherent successor. Which is disappointing, after all, wasn’t Young Thug supposed to be more than just another rapper who dropped hot tracks on a never ending deluge scattershot mixtapes?
Maybe. Maybe not. Whatever Thugger’s supposed destiny, Jeffery is neither a genius asserting statement, nor a sign that the wheels are about to come off anytime soon. Instead, the release is as consistent and heartily enjoyable as it is inane and chauvinistic. Some perseverance is required. Thugger has often been mocked for his indecipherable lyrical content, but the pitiful sexual braggadocio of opening salvo “Wyclef Jean” and “Floyd Mayweather” is so painful and unlikable, that’ll you’ll be begging for an array of semi-melodic nonsense to take their place. It’s a tribute to the latter’s slippery and subtle beat that it almost single handedly overcomes the track’s lyrical deficiencies.
Mercifully, Jeffery immediately picks up pace. The beats are varied and daring, and Thugger proves up to the challenge; mutating and deforming his vocal with genuine guile, he stacks syllables to create wholly unexpected melodic highs throughout. The sex raps eventually settle down into something more substantial. By the time the sublime “RiRi” rolls around, it’s clear that Thugger is embarking on what amounts to a romance. Don’t expect slow jams, thoughtful soul or anything truly sexy, but Thug does manage to convey a sense of devotion even within a world of acrobatic and often heartless hedonism. More importantly, the album catches fire with a devastating run of hits down the stretch. “Guwop’s” detached extra-terrestrial longing, “Harambe’s” unhinged juxtaposition, “Kanye West’s” fittingly sumptuous production and “Pick Up The Phone’s” send ‘em home happy buoyancy, make for a five star finale.
Is it enough to tip Jeffery over the edge and redeem its painful missteps? Quite possibly. Barter 6 was more coherent and daring in its understatement, but Jeffery might just be the album Thugger’s fans take to heart.