Post Malone’s Ambitious Sophomore Release Finds Room for Plenty of Hits and Misses

     Post Malone’s rise to the higher tiers of the Hip Hop world has been relatively quick. From his 2015 breakout single, “White Iverson,” to his subsequent major label debut, Stoney in 2016, Malone quickly made a name for himself as a reliable producer of atmospheric, beat-centric tracks which make a perfect soundtrack for late night driving, or late night drinking, depending on your preference. Some have criticized his approach as being quantity over quality, and his music as “sonic wallpaper,” that isn’t meant to be listened to as much as played in the background. While some of this is true, Beerbongs and Bentleys marks Malone’s second 18 track project in two years, and the record stays relatively entertaining throughout which is more than can be said for most long rap albums released today.

   Malone makes an interesting change on this album that is apparent from the opening track. Gone are the nocturnal, bass-heavy beats of Stoney, in favor of lighter, happier beats that are much heavier on the higher end. While the change can be jarring at first, its an interesting move that serves to differentiate the sophomore effort from its predecessor.

   The track-list itself is not without highlights. The albums single, “Rockstar” is solid, though 21 Savage’s feature is a bit of a blemish. “Takin’ Shots” and “Psycho” feature entertaining bars and catchy vocal choruses, and “Stay” is a welcome step outside of the repetition of the album, making it probably the best track on the project.

   These hits, however, are hindered by weak tracks like “Spoil My Night,” and “Zach and Codeine.” On top of that, the album really limps over the finish line with a weak handful of tracks rounding out the list. The lineup could’ve been stronger around fifteen tracks.

   Malone’s performance across the album is respectable to say the least. He commands each track with energetic and unique performances that really leave something enjoyable to be found even in the worst tracks.

   Conversely, almost every feature on this album is terrible. The aforementioned 21 Savage nearly ruins one of the best tracks in the lineup with his sleepy, boring flow and uninventive lyricism. Nicki Minaj’s performance is characteristically irritating and really doesn’t fit in the track at all. Aside from these two, Swae Lee and Ty Dolla $ign give relatively inoffensive performances, but add little their tracks other than a slight break from Malone’s superior performance. The only features with any value fall on the same track, coming from YG and G-Easy on “Same Bitches.”

   My only other issue with this record maybe slightly unfair, but it comes from the lack a variety. Post’s insistence on avoiding the title of “Rapper” comes from his ability to sing and play guitar, as well as his eclectic tastes in music. In many ways, he’s not wrong. His acoustic work has been quite impressive in viral videos and one off releases, but this title is hard to avoid because when it comes time to lay down a record, audiences hear nothing but traditional rap music. While this may be a bit of an unfair attack, as Beerbongs and Bentleys is actually less repetitive than most similar projects, it would be nice to be treated to more than just one song featuring an acoustic guitar, and even that song is heavily produced.

   Overall, this is an impressive Sophomore release. While Malone may not have completely found his voice, he’s certainly closer and much more unique on this project. The record gives me hope for the future, even if it doesn’t wow me in the present.




J. Cole Drops Interesting Addition to Impressive Discography

     If you don’t listen to rap music, or you’ve lived under a rock for the past decade, J. Cole is an impressive, if a bit overrated rapper who is best known for going double platinum with no features on his major label debut, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. His 2016 follow up, “4 Your Eyez Only,” was a genuinely admirable effort which established Cole as one of the leading voices in the recent movement of “conscious rap.” However, “KOD” breaks the J. Cole mold in many ways, which are made clear by the title track, which falls second on the list, and aren’t explained until the last couple songs.

   “KOD” is a bit of a shock for many long time fans. Whether it’s the uncharacteristically aggressive delivery, or the oddly braggadocios lyrics, Cole seems to be on a different wavelength than we’ve ever heard. While “Photograph” and “The Cut Off,” return briefly to more Cole-esque instrumentals, the lyrics and delivery are still distinctly different. Each of these songs, partly by virtue of their strangeness, and partly due to a lack of form, fail to capture listeners in the early minutes of the project.

   This changes, however, with “ATM,” which sees Jermaine finally feel at home in this new style. It also sees him, hopefully intentionally, biting the types of quick and internal rhyme heavy flows which have recently risen to prominence in the Florida scene, with artists like Denzel Curry and XXXTentacion. This track, I would imagine, tips off most careful listeners that some kind of trick may be afoot. And by the first vocals of “Motiv8” the gig is up.

   Again, J. Cole is mimicking a popular rap style, this time that of the online, Soundcloud scene, and putting it to use in a really effective way. “Kevin’s Heart” continues this trend and is one of the most intriguing tracks on the entire project.

   With “BRACKETS,” however, Cole returns to form to deliver a very thoughtful commentary on the systematic issues which plague people of color in this country, a topic which he is quite well versed in. The odd, pitched-up voice which speaks on the bridge serves to create a funny skit/interlude in the song before Cole comes back with one of the best verses he’s crafted throughout his career. It’s emotional, it’s intelligent, and it’s what most fans were expecting when this record was announced.

   The “Once an Addict” interlude is similarly emotional, this time speaking to his mother’s alcoholism, and his early introduction to the idea of using substances to numb one’s pain. “Friends” and the “Window Pains” outro follow this formula of one long, lyrically thick verse sandwiched between dark, catchy hooks, and its a formula that fits Cole’s style of writing quite well.

   The record closes with “1985 (Intro to “The Fall Off”)” which has set the internet aflame since its release with talks of the many disses toward the young rappers of the day. While my opinions are a mixed bag on the actual politics expressed in the track, and I may write at another time to discuss my views on this verse, there is no denying that J. Cole’s flow and lyricism are impressive on this track as they are on the project as a whole.

   This project is an interesting addition to Cole’s discography. On the one hand, his penchant for keeping young rappers in their place consistently is refreshing, and likely necessary to insure that hip-hop, which is by far the most vibrant and impressive genre alive today, doesn’t go the way of its predecessors and over-commercialize to the point of dullness. However, some criticism my be in order for Jermaine as well, as he doesn’t seem to challenge himself to grow and change as much as he challenges the younger generation. Cole’s evolution has been fairly minimal since 2014FHD and that doesn’t show any signs of changing. So while he spends much of his time performing the much needed task of rap’s “gatekeeper,” artists like Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, and Danny Brown are continually growing and the additions of brand new rappers like Denzel Curry threaten to leave him in the proverbial “dust.”

   This album itself is fun, but it ultimately suffers from being disjointed. The first half, full of J. Cole mocking the flows of popular rappers could likely have been trimmed down to a separate EP or even just a few singles to be released before the real album dropped, which should’ve either stuck closer to the sound of the second half, or even experimented with more progressive sounds and flows. The second half is, however, far too enjoyable to allow this project  to receive too low of a rating.




A Perfect Circle Returns

     It’s been twelve years since Maynard James Keenan climbed from his underground wine cellar to feel the sun on his face once again, and give us all the gift of 10,000 Days. On top of this, it’s been fifteen years since the boys of A Perfect Circle, namely MJK and Billy Howeredel, were together in the studio for a project full of original music, instead of covers. But in late 2017, the group dropped “The Doomed” to much acclaim and apparently didn’t see their shadow, and so, here they are with the appropriately titled, Eat The Elephant.

   For those of us who are familiar with APC, much of this record will come as a surprise, and the opening, title track is no exception. The title refers to the old phrase, which goes something to the tune of “You eat an elephant one piece at a time,” which MJK seems to imply rings true for the vast task of identifying the issues of the modern day and addressing them. The sparse instrumentation and simple vocals fly in the face of everything listeners have known about this group, but this doesn’t last long.

   “Disillusioned” was perhaps the most impressive of the pre-release singles, and serves as a high point on the album itself. The band is immediately opting for a more industrial sound, something they’d flirted with on their last studio release, which was entirely covers.

   “The Contrarian,” fits nicely into the niche carved by this first half, and is a welcome addition to an already impressive early lineup.“The Doomed,” by following in the trend of lyric heavy vocals and industrial instrumentation, really makes listeners worry that the old APC may not make an appearance on this project, as they’ve been known for all these years.

   The group returns to form, however, on “Talktalk,” which is highlighted wonderfully by Billy Howerdel’s signature, growling guitar. Maynard’s vocals on this track are characteristically droning and omnipresent, and for a moment, they’re back. While the records second half is certainly the weaker, it isn’t without its highlights.

   Maynard’s vocal presence on “Delicious,” is indescribably welcome to old school Tool and APC fans as he strings together the type of melodic and lyrical combo that only he can. This over the first truly rocking instrumental on the project makes for one of my favorite tracks in the setlist. The album is not without it’s weaknesses, though.

   I was a fan of “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish,” when the band released it, but I never expected it to actually end up on this project. I had considered it a bit of a joke, and a fun reference to something of a cult classic sci-fi film, but it’s presence on Eat the Elephant is just jarring, and interrupts the rather serious overall tone.

   It is, however, enjoyable on its own, which is more than I can say for “Hourglass,” which is simply annoying and over produced. A massive part of APC’s appeal has always been their organic rock sound, and while a turn to the less accessible sound works on most of this album, it is never so alienating and out of touch as on “Hourglass.” The effects on Maynard’s vocals ruin what may have been a catchy hook, and the instrumental itself never really finds its direction.

   I found myself pleasantly impressed with Howerdel’s ability to utilize the kind of formless, interlude track on “DLB” as that is an often ignored skill which he puts to good use. He’s much less successful, however, on “Get the Lead Out.” An outro track who’s odd, hip-hop drum beats and out of place record scratches do no more to justify it’s nearly seven minute runtime than Maynard’s floundering and pointless lyrics, most of which just repeat the title. If you couldn’t tell, this is my least favorite track on the project.

   The project is more than redeemable, though. MJK’s lyricism may not hit on every track, but when he’s on, he’s on. When “Delicious” opens with “How inconvenient and unexpected and harrowing for you, as consequences tend to be,” I just can’t keep from smiling. He takes on many of his familiar targets, namely religion, selfishness, addiction, and any general bad behavior he sees in the world today, while avoided the pitfalls of overly politicized writing. And his vocals are nearly as impeccable, making up for their apparent lack of edge with experience, and thoughtfully conjunct melodies.

   Howerdel, for his part, is no slouch either. He really takes risks on this project, which were wholly undemanded by a fanbase which was excited even to hear anything new. Most of Billy’s risks paid off, and those that came up empty didn’t miss the mark by all that much.

   Overall, when a mega-popular rock group comes back to the public light after a decade and a half of wine making and whatever Billy Howerdel does in his free time, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of trying to regurgitate the old sound. By contrast, A Perfect Circle challenges us. Howerdel asks us to follow him down musical rabbit holes which are often, totally unpredictable and MJK hits us with lyrics that push on the flaws he sees in everyone’s lives, from our religious hypocrisy, to our sense of numbness to the current state of the world. One can only hope that we will hear a followup to this very respectable project within the decade.




The Tree of Forgiveness Review

     For anyone who’s following my social media in the past few months, my excitement for this project should come as no surprise, and one should, therefore, know that I plan to explore this record in further detail than many of my reviews, so for those who are short on time, let me sum it up quickly. The Tree of Forgiveness is, without a doubt, the best record I’ve heard so far this year. Now, let’s dive in to why.

   When the world first heard about the Outlaw Country legend’s plans to release a brand new album this year, his first collection of completely new music in thirteen years, all were curious as to what angle he’d take. At first, some feared that this may be some kind of commentary on modern politics or any number of other possibilities which may be labeled collectively as “the worst.” Many also entertained the concept that this could be a dark, brooding goodbye to the world of music, a la late Johnny Cash, as Prine is nearing an age which would make this appropriate. Instead, listeners got a treat which no one could’ve guessed: Just one more entry into Prine’s already fabulous catalog.

   The record’s opener, “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door,” sets aside all anticipation of seriousness with the bouncy guitar lead played by Prine himself. With the addition of a simple rhythm,  impressive mandolin and electric guitar work from the band, and a classic bluegrass harmony, John is back, and it’s a blast.

   This style continues through the next tracks, “I Have Met My Love Today,” accompanied by an erratic, but effect hand-clap rhythm and a measured, female harmony vocal layered of Prine’s, and “Egg and Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone,)” which, despite what the length of the title may suggest, is yet another enjoyable romp, accented by John’s still excellent guitar picking and an energetic back up vocalist.

   It isn’t until “Summer’s End,” that we are treated with any type of sincerity. The track is a somber contemplation on the loneliness of an empty home and the inability to bare the pain any longer.  Here, we start to get a hint of a what a talented artist Prine is, as he, seemingly understanding the effectiveness of his aged and somewhat broken voice, uses his vocal parts to tug at heartstrings in a way that only he can.

   “Caravan of Fools,” closes out the first half on an interesting note, using a minor key and thought provoking chord progression to build an air of mystery about the track. In the end, the change is welcome and effective, showing John’s range and writing ability in a new light.

   “Lonesome Friends of Science,” despite an irritating, science fiction sound effect on the intro, forms into an excellent opener for the albums second act. The organ work in the background is a particularly inspired decision, presumably made by producer, Dave Cobb, whom we will touch on later. The lyrics simply praise his modest life, all based on the premise that he does not mind of the world ends any day now, because he doesn’t live there, he lives in Tennessee only.

   “No Ordinary Blues,” features even more guitar picking and organ, as we begin to see a pattern for the instrumentation. Prine’s vocals sound very well produced on this track, better than anywhere else on the project.

   “Boundless Love” can be somewhat forgettable, but this may be mostly because of its placement between a couple of the best tracks on the album, but if this is truly what one would call the “worst track,” that is a complement to the unimpeachable quality of this record. This song is also one of the first to heavily introduce the concept of God into the lyrical cannon so to speak of The Tree of Forgiveness.

   What follows is an excellent candidate for the best song in the entire track-listing. While the lyrics are a bit repetitive, the three part harmonies on the chorus and the violin work to catapult an already great song into the heart of every bluegrass fan within earshot.

   “When I get to Heaven,” closes out the experience with heart, excitement, and John Prine’s infectious happiness. There’s even a Kazoo! It’s the closest Prine comes to contemplating the issues of old age and death, but even this, he does with joy and talent.

   The key to The Tree of Forgiveness is that every piece of the puzzle fits perfectly.

   The record is paced very well, short tracks leaving listeners still fulfilled and only one song, “Lonesome Friends of Science,” clocking in over four minutes.

   Prine’s guitar work is, as expected, wonderful. However, the rest of the instrumentalists keep up admirably, and the organ work throughout the project is particularly inspired. All of this is handled well by Country music production extraordinaire: Dave Cobb.

   John’s vocal work on Tree is tender and emotional, and really serves as the highlight of this effort, alongside some really fantastic lyrics. Tracks like my personal favorite, “Summer’s End” seamlessly blend reminiscence with wit in a way that only John Prine can, and has since his  self-titled, debut LP in 1971.

   In a world of Stapletons, Simpsons, and Isbells taking time to honor the country music of old, it is beyond refreshing to hear one of the all time greats come back to remind us all why he deserves our honor.




Cardi B Drops Extremely Competent Major Label Debut

     Cardi B crushed the billboard charts in mid 2017 with her first major label single, Bodak Yellow. The track’s charismatic vocals and heavy trap influence rocket it to number one on the billboard chart, the first song by a female, solo rapper to do so since Lauren Hill in 1998. She beat out Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” and went on to have the longest run at number one of any female, solo rapper ever. In short, Cardi B’s success didn’t take long to catch up with her bombastic lyrics, and the music world was hotly anticipating her inevitable LP release.

   In the meantime, new fans found two well rounded, if a bit unfocused mixtapes in Cardi’s catalog to tide them over. Those projects, however, set expectations quite a bit lower than they clearly should’ve been. From the opener, Invasion of Privacy’s purpose is clear. Cardi is here to prove herself, and this record is how she’s going to do it.

   The beats on this record are excellent and diverse. Tracks like “Get up 10” and “Bickenhead” feature busy, bass heavy trap-influences, while tracks like “Bodak Yellow” utilize minimal backing tracking, and lean heavily on Cardi B’s performance, which works well. On top of that, tracks like “Be Careful” and “I Like It” utilize upbeat, major-keyed instrumentals which contrast heavily with the dark tone of the record, the latter track being built around an interesting sample of Tito Nieves’ iconic, Caribbean party anthem, “I Like It Like That.” These tracks had easily the most potential for failure, but instead they work surprisingly well.

   However, that’s not to say that there are no bad instrumentals on this project. The hooks on “Drip” and “She Bad” grate the nerves and nearly ruin the tracks. Similarly, the melodic background of “Thru Your Phone” seems to contradict the lyrical tone of the track, and ends up being only distracting.

   The features on this record are a bit of a mixed bag. SZA features on “I Do,” and as one would expect, she elevates the track significantly. The same is true for Chance the Rapper on “Best Life,” which is one of my favorite songs on the list. Kehlani’s feature on “Ring” is relatively inoffensive, but doesn’t really add anything beyond a catchy hook. 21 Savage’s feature on “Bartier Cardi” is, unsurprisingly, boring and irritating, but it doesn’t ruin the track. The only feature that accomplishes this would be the Migos feature on “Drip,” in which the group essentially takes over, treating Cardi like an afterthought on her own record and creating, by far, the worst track on the record.

   When it comes to Cardi B herself, though, listeners will likely be quite impressed. Her vocal is powerful and unique, allowing her to be extremely versatile in taking confident leads over a plethora of different instrumental styles.

   Lyrically, anyone previously familiar with Cardi B are likely not surprised by the lack of spins this record will receive from the local Christian radio station. Each verse is riddled with sexual themes and vulgar language, accentuated by interesting rhyme schemes. What she lacks in storytelling, she more than makes up for with attitude and word play.

   Overall, the record is solid! It won’t change the rap landscape or go down in history as a classic, but it will serve as an excellent jumping off point for what promises to be an exciting career.


Jared Leto Returns to Mars, But Can’t Save an Underwhelming Project

     Thirty Seconds To Mars debuted with their self titled record in 2002, before really busting into the mainstream just three years later when 2005’s A Beautiful Lie reminded the world just how exciting a new set of rock anthems could be.

   From there, the three piece, arena rock outfit released a couple more solid projects, with front man Jared Leto finding time between cutting massive amounts of weight and mailing used condoms to coworkers for roles, (Dallas Buyer’s Club and Suicide Squad, respectively) to record a very iconic lead vocal over his brother’s drum work and various other contributions from a relatively small staple of instrumentalists. Their discography is relatively diverse, but their recent release, AMERICA, changes their formula more than ever before.

   A part of me nearly stopped this record in the first ten seconds, as the opener, “Walk on Water” bursts in with heavy synth and overproduced vocal shouts on a hook, but I stuck it out, and for the most part, I’m glad.

   The record consistently toes the line between cheesy, pop-rock on tracks like “Dangerous Night” and genuinely interesting arena rock on tracks like “Hail To The Victor.” A casual listener may face the creeping fear that Mars is going the way of Fall Out Boy, but there is something of worth in much of this project.

   Leto’s vocals, above all, are excellent! Seeing as the band seems to have done away with the more traditional elements of a rock record in favor of heavy synth and canned drums, Leto’s vocal leadership is make or break here, and he makes it work here. He’s easily the highlight of every song, and old school Mars fans have something to enjoy in his performance.

   This does not, however, apply to his lyricism, which boring and platitudinous throughout. Lines like “A thin line, the whole truth. The far right, the left view,” hint at a desire to speak to the current state of American politics, but Leto constantly stops short of saying anything substantive aside from cliched calls for unity. Not everyone needs to write about politics, and in fact, I’d be completely happy to hear a 30 Seconds To Mars project which is devoid of any politics, but instead we get half baked, safe statements, and it really devalues the tracks.

   And that sums this record up in a lot of ways, a safe release that lays claim to more controversy and importance than it truly has. The several interesting album covers which have circulated range from listing rich YouTubers, to lists of popular sex positions, each seeming to make a statement, but each saying nothing in the end.

   Essentially all of Shannon Leto’s drum work is either boring or extremely distracting, and if I hear one more bombastic synthesizer I’ll lose my mind! Features like A$AP Rocky and Halsey fall extremely flat and add little to the overall direction of the project.

   The final few tracks are redeeming, and the acoustic ballad “Remedy,” is by far the best track in the lineup, and “Rider” serves as a depressing reminder of just how good and interesting this album could have been as it abruptly closes out the forty-ish minute runtime. But even these aren’t enough to make up for the relative blandness of this project.

   AMERICA is worth a listen for fans of the group, but it certainly won’t turn you into a fan if you aren’t already. For that, might I suggest any other entry in their now five album discography, as this is by far the weakest link.



Jack White’s Boarding House Reach; So Close, and Yet So Far Away

     Jack White is an indie darling. He was one of the earliest major players in the recent vinyl revival through his own record company, Third Man Records, he fronted one of the most beloved and influential garage rock groups of the 20th century in The White Stripes, and has recently released his third solo studio album, this being the 14th LP in his colorful discography.

   At the age of 42, White has become a certified rock legend through fantastic talent, a tireless work ethic, and, above all, a keen ability to keep an eye on the future while holding tremendous respect for the past.

   His first solo project, Blunderbuss, is perhaps the best possible example of this. The production is ahead of its time, the stereo imagery is imaginative, and yet each track bleeds with a love of early 20th century blues, early 90’s grunge-rock, and lyrics that glorify early jazz culture. In short, Blunderbuss is the perfect example of a record that looks forward and backwards all at once. Boarding House Reach, however, is not.

   Perhaps the most apparent issue with this project, and what will jump out to any casual listener in the first few minutes is the lack of any substantial “groove” if you will. Each song sounds like a long intro, constantly throwing new ideas without ever settling into any of them. The opener, for example, features strange synth leads and an erratic vocal performance from White on the verses which distract from a really exciting and singable chorus and a mostly enjoyable organ lead, and that’s the real tragedy of this record.

   Boarding House Reach, is not without its bright spots. Far from it, this record features a few of the catchiest hooks in White’s career, just hear the aforementioned opening track, or the lead riff of “Corporation,” and the Hammond organ work throughout is captivating, but these shining lights are diamonds buried in not only the rough of this album, but almost always the rough of the tracks they are a part of.

   The only purely enjoyable song throughout the whole tracklist is probable the short, quiet, and simple “Ezmerelda Steals the Show.” At just under two minutes, its the shortest and simplest track, allowing the goofy spoken word piece to shine, charmingly without being dragged down by decisions which range from bewildering, to aggravating, to seemingly, intentionally ridiculous.

   The production, as expected, is vibrant. White and his team handle the array of unique instrumentation and constant transfer of the lead melody with such skill and intelligence that one wishes they’d had a more focused project to bring to life. A few instruments (I’m looking at you, Tamborine on track 3) are painfully tinny, but the overall sound is impressive from a technical standpoint.

   Finally, I must commend White on his vision, which is perhaps best summed up in the second to last track, “What’s Done Is Done.” In it, Jack White and Esther Rose strike an inviting, albeit simple harmony which plays well against the methodical Hammond organ work, and mostly endures a few irritating synthesizers. The sound that White creates here is oh so reminiscent of Blunderbuss. It’s a modernization of the kinds of church hymns which rose to prominence during the 1970’s Baptist revivals, mixing in cynical lyricism of early garage rock and an interesting drop-out bridge which is lifted straight from the more “new-age” techniques of 21st century pop. This updating of a classic, niche genre which just so happens to be quite near and dear to my heart got me thinking about a film I saw as a kid. A modern American classic known as “Hannah Montana: The Movie.”

   In it (spoiler alert) Hannah’s secret identity is revealed to nearly every citizen of the very small town in which she is performing, a mistake which should cost her her career. But, instead, the kind townspeople agree to let her put her wig back on keep performing, promising to forget it ever happened and tell no-one of what they just saw, and presumably did not take any pictures of. So allow me, on the part of all Jack White fans, offer Mr. White a similar opportunity.

   The concept on this project is fantastic and could make for the most interesting and exciting project in the entire Jack White discography, if executed better. So take the record back, focus it up a bit, remove a lot of the synth elements which plague each song, and make your use of 70’s gospel music a bit more prominent, and I’ll pay twice as much to hear that record! Hell, I’ll buy it on vinyl in a heartbeat! Call it Boarding House Reach 2.0 and, in exchange, we’ll all forget that Boarding House Reach ever happened.