music / Columns

The Best Of April 2017: Kendrick Lamar, Gorillaz, More

July 24, 2017 | Posted by David Hayter

April saw the arrival of more heavy hitters and veterans of years past to compete with the stars of avant-garde who dominated in March. The big releases would continue to come as the industry geared up for summer, but could the big names live up to the hype or were they just stealing oxygen from better less well known releases? Let’s find out!

Kendrick Lamar – Damn

Genre: Rap

The 411: King Kendrick is back and his head is no longer held high. Rather than tackling institutional racism and deconstructing the black psyche in the 21st Century, K.Dot has his hood up and his ear to the streets. The greatest rapper alive, by common consent, is descending into the gutter to fire off a series of warning shots. This isn’t a shock, even as his albums grew heady and artful, Kendrick’s guest verses alluded to his rivals (most notably Drake or any rapper with a ghost writer). Damn is not an outright diss record (far, far, far from it), instead Kendrick is strolling back onto the streets of the mad city, but where he once found terror and hyper-masculine insecurity, he now has the confidence due the hottest shit in town. The King is calling for “loyalty, loyalty, loyalty” from his women, from his friends, from his peers and from own subconscious. Of course with the crown comes the paranoia and Damn is riddled with boasts that barely manage to paper over the cracks – as Kendrick reflects on his come up, from his parenting to his struggle, Damn always has an eye on the forces (the turncoats and the institutions) ready to tear him down. The result is a complex album, rich in social and psychological commentary, that proves less daunting than either Good Kid or To Pimp A Butterfly. The narratives are sharp and self-contained. The beats universally bang with a brazen commerciality that often disguise the complex sonic smears and moral malaise hidden beneath Damn’s back-to-basics surface. So long live King Kenny! He may have taken a load off and he may be visibly enjoying his privileged position, but don’t mistake Damn for a lightweight or bitter offering, this is cutting edge, accessibly rap music from an artist with hell of a lot left to say. [8.5]

Gorillaz – Humanz

Genre: Pop

The 411: Humanz feels strangely superfluous. Gorillaz’s 2010 release, Plastic Beach, was never explicitly announced as the band’s last, but with Damon departing to reunite Blur and artist Jamie Hewlett declaring, “I’m so fucking sick of drawing those characters”, it certainly seemed like a fitting finale. Global warming seemingly brought the natural world to an artificial end encapsulated by Gorillaz’s despairing death-disco. By comparisons Humanz feels like “just another album”, sure the band have been shot into space with some of the hottest rappers in the game, but the collection of songs that result feel scattershot (if uniformly enjoyable). Damon mans his wonky keyboard, staring dead-eyed and dejectedly into the future while a series of high profile guests attempt to inject energy (Danny Brown), politics (Vince Staples/Pusha-T), the zeitgeist (Popcaan/DRAM), nostalgic optimism (Noel Gallagher) and melody (Grace Jones) respectively. The result is another doom disco that can still thrill despite the chasm in quality between the best songs and the worst, but one that nevertheless feels less pertinent and less powerful than its predecessor. Gorillaz may be a supergroup, but on Humanz, they feel like just another band (albeit with some very famous friends). [7.0] 

Sheryl Crow – Be Myself

Genre: Country Pop

The 411: Normally when an artist names an album “Be Myself” the intention should be obvious: a restatement of core values as the artists hits reset. The trouble for Sheryl Crow is not the idea of turning the clock back; the key question is to when? Who is the real Sheryl Crow? Which of her sonic adventures was the truest? Her signature 90s sound was youthful, full of loose sexual energy and sun, but is that really a representation of the veteran superstar today? Well, perhaps the lyrical content is secondary, maybe it’s all about the sound. Reuniting with producers Jeff Trott and Tchad Blake certainly seems to reignite old fires as Crow summons not only the sound of the mid-90s, but the sense of ease that once exuded from her vocal. The pop soon hooks flow without feeling forced and Crow feels more charismatic than she has in a decade. She’s no longer stumbling from bar to bar and from one lover to the next, but her old sound proves surprisingly fitting for retrospection and wry observation as it did for carelessly living in the moment. Does she lack bite? Undeniably, but Crow feels utterly at ease and that, in itself, is radical improvement. However, Be Myself’s standout moment buck the broader trends entirely: her post-cancer cancer anthem “Love Will Save The Day” is an absolute gem. [7.0]

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

Genre: Singer-Songwriter

The 411: Josh Tillman is kind of an arsehole. This isn’t a surprise to anyone. His alter ego Father John Misty is an acerbic elitist sniggering and playing a laugh track over our planet’s debt fuelled destruction. But he’s also a hero: a romantic who sees old-fashioned love and marriage as a tonic to the ADHD misery of the world and the transience of hedonistic fucking. I Love You Honeybear was such a brilliant, brutal and beautiful record that following it was never going to be easy. 2017’s Pure Comedy doesn’t try to ride the wave of optimistic that crept beneath its predecessors surface, instead Misty doubles down on cynicism, snide cruelty and self-indulgence. It’s as if he’s saying that we, the pitiful dwellers of this solipsistic digital age don’t deserve to bask in the radiance of his love, only to wallow in his disdain and endure his masterful composed lectures. Tillman is a tease. He is wholly aware of how self-righteous and symptomatic of the larger problem his rants are: “Oh great, that’s just what we all need/Another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddam seriously”. This tension – between the Tillman who wants to right our wrongs (spitting in the eye of a rotten culture) and the man he sees staring back at him in the mirror  (another sanctimonious know-it-all, solving the world’s problems by scolding his compatriots from behind a keyboard (or in his case a mic-stand)) – charges Pure Comedy with electricity. It’s a joke. All of it. And no one is laughing. It’s a goddam tragedy. [8.0]

Mastodon – Emperor Of Sand

Genre: Metal

The 411: In many ways Emperor Of Sand is Mastodon’s least compelling album to date. The Atlanta rockers have arrived at a point where their sprawling creations bristle, pulse and slide with an ease that defies the contorted nature of their early work. Emperor Of Sand is an album rich in groove and beefy riffage, but light in the type of idiosyncratic structural dynamism and sheer otherness that made Mastodon the best mainstream metal band of the new millennium. When they cry: “I wonder who I am, I wonder where I stand” on “Streambreather”, it’s tempting to finding yourself asking the very same question. Mastodon have transformed into a bulldozing and brilliant arena metal band. The solos not only melt faces, they soar upwards and deftly dart between lanes like an elite sports car. What this collection lacks in character it makes up for in craftsmanship. This is both the smoothest and most pitiless Mastodon have ever sounded. The Hunter was more brutal and bombastic, remember this is not Mastodon’s first pop conversion, but Emperor Of Sound is their first portentous and doom laden attempt to make foreboding, apocalypse baiting metal sound strangely commercial. The death of Bill Kelliher’s mother looms large over this concept album: the sands of time are running out and a great tragic darkness is slowly encroaching. The trouble is, this concept, while coherent and well executed, proves limiting – keeping Mastodon tightly in a pocket and restricting their potential (like a park ranger keeping a grizzly bear’s hair well combed). The challenge now, is not to continue to smooth and constrict, but to make prog music for the masses that has the eccentricity of Floyd or Jethro Tull. This incarnation of Mastodon is (understandably) brilliant, but faceless. Emporer Of Sand is good; Mastodon can, should and will be better when the shackles of grief have eroded. [7.0]

Feist – Pleasure

Genre: Singer-Songwriter

The 411: Feist has always been enigmatic and her best music carried a hint of malevolence behind its playful surface, but she’s never made a statement as stark and unguarded as Pleasure. This might sound intriguing in prospect, but it also sees the Canadain songsmith diving into a pool of severe and dignified musicians so overcrowded it’s hard to imagine how her collection could possibly standout. Despite her best efforts (the title track), Feist cannot out PJ Harvey, PJ Harvey – nor can she transform herself into the most bitter and bruised soul in the music industry. So what’s left for the Nova Scotian? Well Feist allows her pop instincts to swim to surface giving these dignified broods and tortured twists a strength of delivery that defies her peers. Feist’s cadence is routinely brilliant. She knows how to make a line stick in the listener’s subconscious and, while she can twist the knife as adeptly as the greatest miserablist, she’s proves far better at evocatively whispering in ears than most of her rivals. Make no mistake, Pleasure is neither a genre classic nor is it likely to be the best confessionnal LP you hear this year, but it is a worthy edition to a rich canon. [7.0]

Slyvan Esso – What Now

Genre: Pop

The 411: Caught between the art house and hit factory are North Carolina two-piece Sylvan Esso. This might seem like an awkward place to be, but this lack of clear direction suits Esso, freeing Amelia and Nick from both aesthetic and expectation. If their debut tried too hard to be cool (with sporadically brilliant results), then What Now endeavours to be sporadic and revels in the cosmopolitan results. Sure it might be disconcerting to discover that an album trailed by a big bombastic banger like “Radio” opens with a fractured and disconcerting beauty like “Sound”, but sheer quality of music compensates for this sense of dislocation. Esso are happy to be hypnotically understated, exploring the tender slightness of Amelia Meath’s vocal, before sticking their tongues out and adopting a knowing smirk as Nick Sanborn dials up his most elastic electronic slaps. Occasionally the band get too cute for their own good (“Kick Jump Twist” is addictive, but far too cloying), but more often than not their pop chops are beyond reproach (see the wonderful slow reveal of “Just Dancing’s” hook). [7.0]

Arca (Self-Titled)

Genre: Electronic

The 411: Arca has created a work of sumptuous beauty. Far from an artefact to be admired, the Venezuelan producer’s self-titled third album is terrifying to behold. This objet d’art may present a beguiling and tender surface to the world, but trapped beneath its transparent skin are silent screams, pitiless voids and bone breaking contortions. This is a MacGuffin to rival The Art Of Covenant: Arca lures you in with promises of otherworldly beauty, only to slowly tear your soul to pieces, ripping out your heart in the process (wrong Indian Jones film, I know) and, if not melt your face, then leave it stained with tears. The producer, who has been helping the world’s most avant-garde artists to successful locate the cutting edge, takes the radical step of following Bjork’s advice and singing in his own voice and his own tongue (Spanish). Who knew Arca possessed a vocal as disquieting and divine as the brutally benign soundscapes he’s been engineering for the past five years. Combining these spacious and uneasy beats with an idiosyncratic and ornate voice seems like a no-brainer, what is staggering is that the creator of the former also happens to be the possessor of the later. This is a mesmerizing singular vision: all the better for being largely improvised by its creator. Arca is fluid, free-flowing, splendour in its natural form: a rare glimpse of something seldom seen, an experience to cherished, if not necessarily understood. [9.0]

Further Listening: GAS – Narkopop, The Big Moon – Love In The Fourth Dimension, While She Sleeps – You Are We