Catch-up Album Reviews – Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, More
The astute 411 reader may have noticed our lack of album reviews in 2016. Since Kanye West dropped The Life Of Pablo and media darling Jack Garratt unleashed Fire, I’ve (David Hayter has) been out of the country and haven’t been able to write weekly album reviews.
The good news is that we’ve kept you up to date on the hottest tracks each month and covered all the big news stories, but it’s time we caught you up on the key album releases.
So get ready for 411’s official catch up!
We’re cutting straight to “The 411” (conclusion/summary) and hitting you with a 1-10 rating of the hottest releases by 2016’s biggest stars – in chronological order.
★ by David Bowie
[Released: January 8th 2016]
“Look up here, I’m in heaven” – the cheeky git, that’s right, pop’s greatest chameleon pulled the wool over our eyes one last time and produced a confoundingly poignant endnote. It’s a tribute to Bowie that Blackstar received rave reviews when critics were still trying to figure out if the Thin White Duke was discussing ISIS, Major Tom or some celebrity from an alternate reality. His death was the aha moment, suddenly these dense Jazzy odysseys made perfect sense and the avant-garde pleasure of the arrangements gained heartbreaking emotional heft. The obtuse clues are now painfully obvious and the tender tones, darkly sorrowful.
Better still, if 2013’s The Next Day saw Bowie looking back to Lodger (“Dirty Boys”), 90s rock (“The Stars Are Out Tonight”) and his own heyday (“Valentine’s Day”), then Blackstar feels utterly alien. This is bonkers Bowie, baring his soul and drifting off down a sonic rabbit hole where few (his past self included) would dare to tread. The album has its shakier moments of course, but three of Bowie’s finest songs (“Dollar Days”, “Blackstar” and “Lazarus”) tip this release over the edge. He said it himself, “just like that bluebird, Oh I’ll be free, ain’t that just like me”, this is the freest Bowie has sounded since Scary Monsters. Not bad for a man on his death bed.
Adore Life by Savages
[Released: 22nd January 2016]
Savages arrived immaculately formed. With only two singles under their belt, the post-punk fourpiece put together incendairy live shows overflowing with seething inhuman bile. They were an aesthetic delight (spectral silhouettes oscolating violently amongst the smoke) and their debut album thrilled, but the idea of progression seemed alien – where could they possibly go from here? Adore Life answers that question, mixing philosophical depth (“is it human to adore life?”) with macabrely heroic gestures (“this is what you get if you mess with love”) and a new found sense of patience. Savages are still overflowing with half contained intensity, but they have the good sense to pull their punches – exploring space, silence and tone, allowing a new naval gazing tenderness to flourish. Adore Life doesn’t slug the listener squarely in the jaw (nor does it mutilate your corpse) like 2013’s Silence Yourself. This is a deeper, less vitriolic release that rewards commitment and points to a slow rising dawn, rather than a blinding flash.
Anti by Rihanna
[Released: 28th January 2016]
“Bitch Better Have My Money” (which does not feature on Anti) set the internet ablaze and suggested Rihanna, the pure pop bad girl, was going to take her mainstream audience to the streets. She may have flirted with the artistic edge alongside Drake and Jamie xx, but she never truly pulled the trigger. 2016 was to be the year RiRi did a Beyonce, thumbing her nose at safety conscious execs with a guerrilla release. The theory was impeccable, the practice strangely turgid. Anti delivers to a very limited extent. RiRi dives into the avant-RnB quagmire and surfaces sounding mundane. She ramps up the attitude without discovering an edge: it’s well intentioned, but unspectacular.
Anti has its highlights (the doo-woop, Prince-through-the-filter-of-90s-Aerosmith “Love on The Brain” and the wild pleads of the half-baked “Higher” thrill) and yet it’s almost impossible to recommend a poorly sequenced LP that stumbles, fitfully in the dark in search of direction. This might be the launch pad for Rihanna mk.II, but for the moment Anti pales compared to RnB vanguard (Miguel, Frank Ocean, Beyonce etc.) and reminds the world that Rihanna is better hitmaker than soulstress.
This Is Acting by Sia
[Released: 29th January 2016]
Rihanna isn’t the only pop star capable of cobbling together a surreally constructed and seemingly illogical release. Sia Furler, songwriter-for-hire extraordinaire, decided rather than consigning her rejected tracks to the dustbin of history (or the LPs of Z-list stars) she’d create an entire album of castoffs. The end result is an album that is both testament to Sia’s ferocious power and an indictment of characterless songwriting. This Is Acting is full of non-specific, broad based and largely anonymously produced pop songs (it is bizarre, given the foreknowledge that the songs would be non-specific and impersonal, that the production choices prove so anodyne). Mercifully, despite these undeniable flaws by design, This Is Acting is not a bad album. Sia is a force of nature and, when she throws her weight behind the right track, she sets the world ablaze. Sheer force of will transforms these songs into arena conquering juggernauts and it’s hard to imagine anyone (be they Rihanna, Madonna or Zayn Malik) recording a superior version of “Alive”. Therefore, This Is Acting is not a failed experiment, but one that should, nevertheless, not be repeated.
Cardinal by Pinegrove
[Released: 12th February 2016]
It would be easy to take a superficial glance at Cardinal by New Jersey indie rockers Pinegrove and dismiss the band as charming, ever-so-slightly depressing songsmiths for people who distain big open armed gestures and prefer staring at their own shoes. This would be a mistake, Cardinal might relish its rustic barroom awkwardness, but rather than shying from the fight, Cardinal is a sprawling all American epic recorded in a dingy garage. There’s a joy to hearing Evan Stephens Hall’s longform narratives and introspective streams of self-consciousness unfurl – his tone is simply stellar – but Pinegrove remain anxious to produce ballsy arrangements, like a tossed off, under rehearsed Guns N Roses. Pingrove somehow disdain the grandiose, while producing the biggests songs you’d could conceivably fit in a 30-capacity-bar. Throw in some heart breaking lyrical insights worth falling in love with, two road tested singles (“Size Of The Moon”, “New Friends”) and one sublime ode to grabbing life by horns despite your deficiencies (“Aphasia”), and you have 2016’s finest debut album.
This Unruly Mess I’ve Made by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
[Released: 26th February 2016]
This Unruly Mess I’ve Made might overtly refer to the aftermath Macklemore’s white hot success (as he explains on “Light Tunnels”), but it could describe his inspiring and frustrating quagmire of a second album. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are well aware that they are overly earnest – hip hop bleeding hearts to rival Muse’s stadium sized corporate paranoia – but when they strike upon the right note (the adorable “Growing Up” or the flawed, but welcome, “White Privalege II”), they flirt with being labelled a vital voice. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ success relies almost entirely on striking the perfect chord between ironic bad taste, straight-faced moral insurgency and old school referential fun. Sadly, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made can rarely hold these conflicting tendencies in check and good songs (“Kevin”) suffer as a result. The sermonizing almost plays like a conservative parody of a well intentioned liberal, as the whispered sincerity of Macklemore’s delivery mirrors a cringe inducing hip-hop PSA. Elsewhere, it’s bewildering that a track as joyous, preposterous and as subtly right on as “Downtown” can sit alongside the irredeemable “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” and “Buckshot’s” tiresome pastiche. Chance The Rapper’s arrival on “Need To Know” (a mediocre slowee) is the aha moment: here is a rapper who can appear serious, but not severe, and goofy, but not garish, simultaneously. Tragically, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ burgeoning talents are undermined by their perilous excesses on an album that is perpetually shooting itself in foot.
I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful And Yet So Unaware Of It by 1975
[Released: 26th February 2016]
The great decline of guitar driven indie music has always felt like an act of hubris, by staring at their shoes and making insular music for the converted, in the UK particularly, a once vibrant scene has become meek. 1975 frontman Matt Healy has many faults, but a lack of ambition and a personality deficit are not among them. He is brazen and ILIWYSFYASBAYSUOI is wildly ambitious to the point of parody. Like INXS before them, these surprising indie-pop crossover stars are happy to go full-blown boy band on an album that over-reaches in every conceivable direction. There might be pseudo-intellectual nadirs, moments of painfully-sappy-sincerity, instrumentals that aren’t remotely amazing (or original) and an implausibly long run time, but these factors fail to sink the good ship 1975. The 80s aping pop is too spritely and Healy, for all is gobshite agitator airs, is too convincing a frontman to be denied. The 1975 aren’t as interesting as they think are, but two albums in, they remain an intriguing proposition and ruthlessly aspirational force in a scene full of wallflowers.
untitled unmastered. by Kendrick Lamar
[Released: 4th March 2016]
untitled unmastered. is un understated reinforcement of Kendrick Lamar’s ferocious talents and the To Pimp A Butterfly ethos. For many, this surprise release will prove a revelation; a pleasingly paced monologue that sees K.Dot spilling syllables and social critiques with absolute ease. This is a conscious rap masterclass that plums 60+ years of decidedly black sonic innovation. When reviewing To Pimp A Butterfly I posited that Lamar expertly curated, but added little new to, the legacy of Ashby, David, Funkadelic, Tribe and hundreds of others; however, here in 2016, Lamar feels serene. His dense wordplay sinks into these heady cultural surroundings and the rapper feels utterly at home as he spirals down into jazzy depressions and struts alongside buoyant funk highs. The detractors will rightly point out that Lamar’s decision to eschew overt pop and satisfying song structures is not an act of bravery (Chance The Rapper has no trouble spitting intellectual rhymes and penning feathery hooks), but there’s very little to criticize here. untitled unmastered. is less weighty than its immediate predecessor, but the album bears no burden of expectation and is, in many ways, a more pleasurable listen for that reason.
This Is What The Truth Feels Like by Gwen Stefani
[Released: 18th March 2016]
Fuelled by a bad breakup and ignited by a new lover, This Is What Truth Feels Like threatens (from the title on down) to be Gwen’s most vital and intimate release to date. The actually end product is a professionally produced (and highly enjoyable) album that frustrates because it refuses to fully commit to any one direction. Gwen, deprived of A-list producers, opts for sweeter, straight ahead pop and serves up a selection of clean-cut gems (“Misery”, “You’re My Favorite”, “Make Me Like You”). Unfortunately, the hits eventual dry up and TIWTTFL isn’t quite the airy treat it could have been, nor is it a confessional tearjerker. “Used To Love You” is fantastic, the kind of broad brush stroke single that will speak to millions, but it is an outlier. Heartache is kept at arms length as the Stefani/Shelton guard stays high and tight. Worse still, Gwen can’t quite give up her quirky experiments and, without Pharrell’s production, “Naughty” sounds contrived at best (despite a strong pre-chorus). This Is What The Truth Feel Like might generate a lorry load of complaints, but that’s only because Gwen is so close to entering a late career purple patch: a little less veneer, a little more honesty and a larger reliance on classic pop combined with her own innate charisma (rather than gimmicks and guests) would serve Stefani well.
Mind Of Mine by Zayn
[Released: 25th March 2016]
Breaking apart from a globe straddling boy band always has its inherent risks, but One Direction’s Zayn Malik would have been well aware of the potential rewards. The Brit would have grown up witnessing Robbie Williams ubiquitous success following Take That’s split, while in the USA (and as an artist in 2016) he would no doubt have hoped to emulate Justin Timberlake, who blended critical acclaim, pristine production and heart throb status to transcend pop celebrity. The holy grail is, of course, the king of pop himself, Micheal Jackson, who shook off childhood stardom and the family band to rule the world.
Mind of Mine suggests that Zayn fancy himself as a smoother than velvet balladeer rather than a crotch grabbing, twinkle toed juggernaut. His debut album is influenced primarily by Miguel and The Weeknd. Malik merges the former’s kind-hearted sexy stability with the latter’s alien murk and sordid moral ambiguity. The end result is a strange blend of expansive odysseys with a dark undercurrent. The ex-boy band star cannot rival Miguel sensuality – the San Pedro star can make hand holding or morning coffee seem like an ejaculatory experience – nor is Zayn as dangerously druggy as The Weeknd. This might sound like the recipe for watered down tedium, but Zayn is astute. He’s sweet and just-sordid-enough to stand out above Chris Brown’s shameless shtick. He is, for a lack of a better term, an artisanal Usher: rooted in the mainstream, lacking the Confession’s singers stunning highlights, but offering more zeitgeist aping edge. Zayn is getting stuck in, shoulder-to-shoulder in the middle of an R&B scene crammed full of ultra-talented stars. He has a ferocious head start on the Derulos and Browns of this world and, while he has none of Ocean’s outlier originality, Mind Of Mine is a more daring, considered and adult record than we had any right to expect at this stage.