Denzel Curry Brings Short and Bombastic New Album

ZUU sees Denzel return to his raw roots for a love letter to his home and one of his most listenable LP’s to date.

Denzel Curry is a Florida based rapper who rose to popularity with his 2015 single “Ultimate.” It was loud, hard-hitting, and extremely lyrical and, although the song stood well on its own merits, it got most of its exposure by becoming a part of popular meme. Regardless, Denzel found his way on to the much maligned 2016 XXL Freshman Class and gave the only impressive performance in a terrible freshman cypher. Later that year, he released his major label debut, Imperial, which was violent, vulgar, and filled its 40 minute runtime with a breakneck pace. It’s jazz influences balanced well against Curry’s rapping style, which can best be described as “lyrical trap.” Curry followed the album’s impressive success with 2018’s TA13OO, finding even more critical acclaim and commercial success by drastically changing his song. Now, less than a year later, we once again find a very raw form of Denzel on this third LP, ZUU.

The albums is quite impressive thanks to a handful of elements, not the least of which being the unique instrumental approach which Curry takes. Tracks like “BIRDZ,” or the very short “BUSHY B INTERLUDE,” showcase this quite well as they bring the melody to the forefront with abrasive yet listenable tones. While the record focuses very heavily on percussion, it still makes more than a few impressive efforts to bring a melody forward.

On top of this, the bass lines are simply fantastic. The opener and title track may be the most obvious example of this but it plays quite a role in middling songs like “SPEEDBOAT.” The bass brings so much power and controls so much real estate within the mix that it refuses to be ignored, instead carrying a handful of tracks to even more impressive final products.

Additionally, we’re given quite an impressive cast of guest star lyricists on the features list. Tay Keith’s work on “AUTOMATIC,” brings a excellent energy which very nearly matches that of Curry himself. Similarly, Sam Sneak brings a commanding level of bombast to every second of his verse on “SHAKE 88.” While the features list is populated with a handful of relative unknowns, each of them bring their best efforts and prove their place on the album.

Thanks to the short style of writing, the pacing is also quite strong. While ZUU does seem to drag just a bit near the end, it’s quickly saved by the unstoppable, manic energy of a song like “CAROLMART” or the closer, “P.A.T.” Denzel seems to care so much about these tracks that he can give an impressive performance throughout every second, improving great cuts and saving bad ones.

That brings us to the top reason why ZUU is such a strong album, namely Denzel Curry’s explosive flow on nearly every track. Tracks like “RICKY,” and “WISH,” feature some of the best flows I’ve heard all year. Curry’s ability to write one brutal flow after another just doesn’t exist elsewhere in mainstream rap, and yet it’s the very thing that has brought him to such a spotlight so early. His flow clearly draws from elements of drill, bling, Florida rap, which is very refreshing, but he brings along his own spin which makes Denzel Curry one of the best artists on the market today.

I do, admittedly, have a few complaints. Worst of all, the album features three interludes, two of which, “YOO,” and “BLACKLAND 66.6” are fairly meaningless and unnecessary. In addition, I imagine the record could feel a bit draining for a listener who is unfamiliar with Denzel’s relentless flow and lyrical style.

However, the good far outweighs the bad. ZUU certainly isn’t the expansive concept piece its predecessor claimed to be, but instead, it feels like a purging of unused ideas from previous sessions. Despite this, the record feels entirely cohesive and makes for a fantastic listening experience.

ZUU sees Denzel return to his raw roots for a love letter to his home and one of his most listenable LP’s to date.

6/10

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Tyler, The Creator Drops Daring Sixth LP

IGOR is a bold and well executed entry into one of the most excited discographies in modern hip-hop.

Tyler, The Creator is a rapper and producer from Ladera Heights, California. He debuted in 2009 with the Bastard mixtape which found impressive success, followed by 2011’s Goblin, which made Tyler a household name and landed in the top five on Billboard. During this early portion of his career, Tyler founded the Odd Future rap collective which spawned the careers of multiple stars in today’s alternative hip-hop scene. He went on to drop Wolf and Cherry Bomb, both of which sold quite well. However, after four successful LP’s, his brash, bass-heavy style was beginning to fatigue many listeners. This changed with 2017’s Flower Boy which brought an entirely new sound to Tyler’s discography along with genuinely heartfelt lyrics which dealt with lover, maturity, and coming to terms with his sexuality. Now, two years later, his much anticipated sixth album, IGOR has arrived.

From the first moments of the opener, “IGOR’S THEME,” the daring and unique production style of this record is immediately apparent. Throughout the song, virtually every mixing decision is surprising and unpredictable, particularly the contrast between the organic drums and the very industrial melodies. This is even more noticeable on a cut like “NEW MAGIC WAND,” which boosts a rattling bass and distorted sound effects to all but bury the soft, genuine vocals which cary the lead from behind. Consistently, Tyler chooses to bury excellent melodies as gems to be found on repeat listens while blasting some of the most commanding elements to the forefront.

In addition to the production, the instrumental pallet itself is shockingly broad and creative. “I THINK,” and the closer, “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?” uses a wide range of interesting synths and percussion instruments to bring an almost mind-bending sound to life. On the other hand, a later cut like “GONE, GONE/THANK YOU,” utilizes everything from wispy acoustic guitars and guttural basses to bizarre vocal effects and oddly bright shakers and snares. Nearly every track is an adventure as we’re never quite given the boundaries for where Tyler is willing to go. Instead, each song feels like a perpetual experiment.

Beyond this, the album’s strongest quality is its tendency to drop into some of the most danceable grooves of the year. Tracks like the massive hit, “EARFQUAKE,” or the equally fantastic, “A BOY IS A GUN,” feature excellent, ear worm choruses which blend perfectly between the modern sensibilities of hip-hop music and a sort of synthetic, industrial Motown style which seems entirely unique to this album.

While this is certainly not the measured, balanced, and well-developed style one would generally associate with good pacing, IGOR instead aims to incapsulate Tyler’s manic energy and does so perfectly. Songs like “RUNNING OUT OF TIME,” and “I DON’T LOVE YOU ANYMORE” are perhaps the best examples of this, though it’s apparent throughout. Each track seems to bounce endlessly from one creative idea to another, expecting the listener to fill in the blanks to connect them. Through this, the project keeps you inthralled for its full runtime.

Another trick which helps the pacing as well as the songwriting to punch above its weight is Tyler’s tendency to write in parts instead of traditional choruses and verses. Take tracks like “PUPPET,” and “WHAT’S GOOD,” for example, where the entire makeup of the song seems to come unglued and reform every few moments, shifting wildly from heavy hitting bars to flowing grooves and everything in between. Again, the manic energy of the album’s writer bleeds through every note, making every cut a loosely tethered amalgamation of contrary ideas.

Ultimately, I’m left with very few complaints. The album’s loose concept is a bit difficult to follow, but its largely irrelevant and overshadowed by more than a few incredible songs. Mostly, I feel admiration for Tyler, himself. With his early work facing quite a bit of criticism for its abrasive and at times sparse tone, he could easily have retreated into a safer form of mainstream hip-hop. Instead, he stuck to his guns and now comes out the other side having crafted a truly unique sound which is a clear advancement of the sound on the earlier records.

IGOR is a bold and well executed entry into one of the most excited discographies in modern hip-hop.

8/10

Defeater’s Self Titled Return is Brutal Yet Heartbreaking

Defeater is a riveting story of struggle which packs a punch of brutal instrumentation and heartfelt lyricism.

Defeater is a melodic hardcore band from Boston. They debuted in 2008 with Travels which tells the story of a young man born in New Jersey near the end of the second world war. This family and the circumstances surrounding them would go on to be the focus of the entirety of Defeater’s discography with each album expanding the world and introducing a litany of new characters, some acting as sequels and others as prequels. In addition to the sprawling narrative, the band’s unique ability to mix hardcore instrumentation with a keen sense of melody makes them one of the most interesting bands in the modern metal scene. They officially parted ways after the 2015 release of Abandoned, but announced in early March that they would return with a self-titled fifth LP.

From the opening track, “The Worst of Fates,” the most prevalent highlight of the band’s sound is clear, that being Derek Archambault’s vocal performance. Throughout the album, especially on cuts like the aforementioned opener or the more subtle “Desperate,” Archambault brings an intensity that can’t be ignored. Under that roughness, however, there’s a genuine vulnerability through which he imbues every story and character with a gruff sort of humanity. It’s a brutal scream, but heartfelt all the same.

Beyond this, Archambault’s lyrics are once again enthralling. Of course, the story telling and conceptualism of the album is every bit as excellent as expected. On tracks like “List & Heel,” or “All Roads,” though, he goes above and beyond in painting vivid imagery and writing with a truly cinematic eye. Along with its many other functions, this album is the fifth installment to a long series which deals with the same family and, in that department, it succeeds wildly.

Instrumentally, the record is a masterwork. Perhaps the most noticeable piece of the puzzle is Joe Longobardi’s drum work. On cuts like “Mother’s Sons,” or “No Guilt,” Joe transitions between complex rhythms and lightning quick fills and does each incredibly well. He has an excellent ear for timing and despite rather predictable time signatures and somewhat weak production, his work shines through as a definitive key to the band’s impressive sound.

Another great element is Jake Woodruff’s grinding lead guitar. While a few of choices are a bit questionable, his contributions to tracks like “Stale Smoke,” and my favorite song on the album, “Debt/Debtor,” can’t be ignored. His drowning style provides a more solid counterpoint against some of the album’s most driving, fast paced beats and he has a talent for writing hooks. On a few cuts, his leads provide the catchiest moments on the album in addition to laying a more layered atmosphere.

My favorite aspect of the band’s sound, though it may not be as immediately noticeable, is founding member Mike Poulin on bass guitar. He grants a heaviness to songs like “Atheists in Foxholes,” and “Hourglass,” and he’s to thank for much of Defeater’s fantastic sound. The chugging, rhythmic bass stands as the foundation of nearly every melody and it is, in many ways, the glue that holds the album together.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Defeater combines all of this for an epic, creative finish in “No Man Born Evil.” This track embodies much of what makes this album so good with a ringing lead guitar, thundering bass, and explosive drums underscoring an unbelievable performance from Derek Archambault which brings to life a harrowing storyline. It’s the perfect ending to a nearly perfect album.

Defeater’s self-titled come back is almost everything fans could’ve hoped for. We get to return to the dark, gritty world which they’ve created over the past decade, guiding by great writing and wonderful performances from the entire band.

Defeater is a riveting story of struggle which packs a punch of brutal instrumentation and heartfelt lyricism.

8/10

Veronica Stanton Debuts With Catchy and Heartfelt EP

827 Miles is an incredibly listenable debut which has me excited to cover many more releases from Veronica Stanton.

Veronica Stanton is a country singer/songwriter from Jenkintown, PA and based in Nashville, TN. She got her start in local shows performing with a family band and learned sing and play music at home. She stepped out into more solo work in high school and began to pursue songwriting in earnest in college. After graduating, she came to Nashville and began playing the circuit of writers rounds before starting to work with producer Dan Knobler. Now, she’s released her debut EP, 827 Miles, named for the distance from her hometown to Nashville.

The project opens with the title track and immediately, much of what makes this EP special is present. Veronica’s sweet, bright vocal is easily the highlight of the cut, made all the better by some clever and well-written lyrics. Her rhyme schemes create instant earworms that demand a second listen and, thanks to nice, clean production, the her personality bubbles through every line. Songs that focus on missing home are also less prominent than they once were and it’s nice to hear the topic addressed so well once again.

“Flying,” follows and quickly, the strong instrumentation begins to shine through. Anthony DaCosta helms the electric guitar, which he did quite well on Joy Williams’ album which I covered earlier this week. His gentle touch and ear for melody are invaluable to this cut and many after. Beyond this, the verse-centric structure with a two bar chorus is unique and Stanton confidently channels shades of Dolly Parton in her soft but solid delivery. It’s yet another track which seems to demand a second listen.

“Wildflower,” falls perfectly in the middle of the five tracks and fills this position incredibly well. It’s far more lighthearted, lyrically, and the vocal melody on the chorus is nothing short of fantastic. Dan Knobler’s production is almost a sugar rush of bright guitars and a well placed organ that creates a beautifully shimmering piece of pop-country. As if this wasn’t enough, Veronica proves the legitimacy of her old school aesthetic with an awesome key change in the final third that perfectly closes out the funnest track on the project.

As “Rome,” rolls around, the organ takes the front seat, as do the drums for the first time. The changes quickly set the song apart from previous entries, but the great vocals, fun lyrics, and melodic lead guitar is no less present. In fact, the chorus may be the best of the EP and Stanton’s falsettos are an interesting touch which I wish had better utilized on each track. Overall, while “Rome,” doesn’t jump out the way earlier cuts do, it’s certainly one of the strongest of the bunch.

“Won’t Be Back Soon,” brings the project to a close and the roaring electric guitar on the intro quickly establishes the track’s irreverence. This is easily the lyrical highlight of the album as she turns the classic trope of promising a quick return to home on its head by pointing out that, for her to come back would mean failure in her dreams. The brilliant touch of storytelling is just icing on the cake of one more fantastic instrumental, complete with a rocking organ solo. “Won’t Be Back Soon,” is a perfect closer and brings the theme of the EP full circle.

Ultimately, I’m left without much to complain about. Each track is perfectly paced, well mixed, and well written. The theme is cohesive but not overbearing and Veronica’s voice is wonderfully at home in this modernized version of golden age, women’s country.

827 Miles is an incredibly listenable debut which has me excited to cover many more releases from Veronica Stanton.

5/5

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Catfish and the Bottlemen Stay True to Form For Better or Worse on Third Release

The Balance is a fun project full of great efforts that just can’t quite break the atmosphere of its own uninventive creation.

Catfish and the Bottlemen are an indie/alt-rock outfit from Wales. The debuted with 2014’s The Balcony which went platinum shortly after its release. Prior to their debut, the famously cut their teeth playing in the parking lot before larger bands’ gigs, and that experience very clearly informed much of their commanding sound. After the massive success, the launched two tours and dropped The Ride as a follow up LP in 2016, which went gold. The back to back strong releases netted the band a spot as an opener on Green Day’s Revolution Radio tour in 2017. In January of this year, Catfish and the Bottlemen released a new single and announced the release of their third studio record, The Balance. It’s finally here, and it’s mostly meets expectations.

One strong addition to The Balance that wasn’t nearly as prevalent on previous releases is a string of excellent bass lines. On tracks like “2all,” and “Basically,” Benji Blakeway is given the front seat, melodically speaking, for much of the runtime. His parts are well written and he performs confidently but, of course, the tone of the bass can’t be ignored. The thickness that Blakeway along with, presumably, the production team achieved is fantastic, and it brings another level to his work.

Additionally, Bob Hall’s drums are quite the asset. On a cut like “Fluctuate,” he finds a danceable rhythm and delivers it throughout, where as on “Mission,” his bombastic style guides the group extremely well through multiple timing and style changes. His style is nothing revolutionary in rock music and he rarely shows incredible speed or complex rhythms, but there’s something to be said for reliable simplicity, and that is delivered in spades.

Of course, this is a rock album, and so it’s nothing without the guitars. Luckily, Johnny Bond, the band’s newest member, holds this down quite well. Here, Catfish seems to have improved the most over previous efforts as they’ve found a consistent tone and style which works well with their sound. Tracks like “Sidetrack,” and “Coincide,” feature driving and catchy riffs that will remain in a listeners head for quite a while. 

The album’s strongest points, however, are Van McCann’s vocal performances. From the opener, “Longshot,” to the closer, “Overlap,” and even cuts throughout the middle like “Encore,” McCann brings a confidence and punk energy which is, frankly, more that what he has any right to. His range is quite impressive and, thanks to a handful of grin-worthy one liners, he’s charming enough to carry the record through most of its rough points.

All this being said, I am left with a few complaints, one of which I’d expected before ever hearing The Balance and had hoped the band would be able to mitigate better than they did. Namely, this album can often be boring. It lacks and width whatsoever in its instrumental pallet, and each cut comes in somewhere around the three to four minute range and is built on nearly a identical structure. This can often ignored thanks to strong performances and a magnetic frontman, but on songs like “Conversation,” and “Intermission,” the veil of talent just can’t obscure the numbers by which this album was painted.

However, that certainly doesn’t make the record unenjoyable. In fact, if you want to shut your brain off for a moment and enjoy some fun, meat and potatoes alt-rock, The Balance is the album for you. There’s plenty to enjoy, especially on the first few listens, and it’s worth checking out for any fans of the alt-rock scene that once ruled the world just a few years back. However, there just isn’t enough risk or creativity to be found here, and the record suffers for it.

The Balance is a fun project full of great efforts that just can’t quite break the atmosphere of its own uninventive creation.

5/10

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Joy Williams Gets Back to Basics with Intimate New Release

Front Porch is an intimate collection of simple, well-written folk songs which is elevated by fantastic performances and excellent writing.

Joy Williams is a folk singer/songwriter from Nashville, Tennessee. She’s best known as the feminine half of the fantastic country duo, The Civil Wars, but she’s made quite the name for herself as a solo act as well, working mostly in the contemporary Christian world. She debuted with a self-titled LP in 2001 and went on to be fairly prolific through 201 before she and her then writing partner, John Paul White, found breakout success with The Civil Wars. After the group announced an indefinite hiatus in 2012 and fully dissolved in 2014, Williams quickly returned to her solo career, reasing Venus to mixed reviews in 2015. After a longer period of silence than usual, she’s back with Front Porch, which sees Joy return to her folk roots in new and exciting ways.

The album opens with two of the best country songs I’ve heard all year in the opener, “Canary,” and the title track. Both tracks live and die by the fantastic vocal performances by Williams which decorate the entirety of this record. She finds a perfect mix of powerful, emotive singing and technically proficient executions of well written vocal melodies. Additionally, Kenneth Pattengale’s production does her a big favor by avoiding the trap of over correction and instead leaving every imperfection in place for a full picture of just how good she is.

Joy isn’t the only vocalists doing excellent work on this record, however, as Anthony DaCosta’s harmonies are fantastic. Tracks like “The Trouble with Wanting,” and the closer, “Look How Far We’ve Come,” are driven by airtight harmony lines in which DaCosta serves as a perfect counterpoint to Williams’ lead. Their voices blend remarkably well and he knows when to take a backseat and when to join her in the spotlight. No folk or bluegrass album can succeed without strong harmonies and Front Porch is no exception.

Instrumentally, the record is quite impressive as well. DaCosta and Pattengale share acoustic guitar duties and nearly every cut is the better for it. From the rhythmic backing on “When Does a Heart Move On,” to the sparse but complex lines on “Hotel St. Cecilia,” the guitar is consistently a driving force at the very front of every mix. Thanks to more great production, it’s able to set the tone of the record quite well.

The rest of the band is excellent as well. A hand full of strong mandolin and violin tracks decorate most of the album, most notably the fantastic “All I Need,” but none of them are as prominent as Russ Pahl’s pedal steel guitar. On the most country-esque cuts like “Be With You,” the steel guitar fits perfectly in the arrangement, never overpowering but consistently adding a howling melody to the already strong collection.

Perhaps the record’s best quality comes in Joy Williams’ lyricism. This is particularly true in the middle of the album with cuts like “When Creation Was Young,” and “Preacher’s Daughter.” The former is packed with powerful imagery which mirrors the powerful nature of the love it centers on. The latter is a wonderfully grounded tale of Williams’ childhood, with a heartbreaking final verse. Each and every song on this album showcases Joy’s incredible songwriting prowess and it’s a treat to hear.

Some of the arrangements are a bit of a mixed bag, specifically in terms of chord progression. While a track like the relatively simple “No Place Like You,” has such a fantastic, jazz-gospel inspired progression that it elevates the song far above what it would generally be, others like “One and Only,” make a few questionable choices which the track itself struggles to overcome in the execution. It’s the record’s only misstep, but it’s fairly noticeable when it’s at it’s worst.

Overall, I enjoyed Front Porch quite a bit. Venus was criticized for embracing modernity a bit too much and shedding much of Joy’s folk sensibilities, and while I’m a bit more partial to that record than most, it’s nice to hear her come back to her roots once again. She has a unique ability to make more traditional folk and bluegrass styles accessible to fans and non-fans alike, and it would be a shame to waste that.

Front Porch is an intimate collection of simple, well-written folk songs which is elevated by fantastic performances and excellent writing.

8/10

Anderson .Paak’s Quick Turnaround Yields Fun but Not Quite Stellar Results

Ventura is a flawed but ultimately electrifying piece of modern soul and yet another great addition to the ever growing Anderson .Paak catalog.

Anderson .Paak is a hip-hop/R&B artist from Oxnard, California. He debuted with a few notable underground projects in the early 2010’s, including the Cover Art EP which aimed to reclaim blues and R&B tracks written by black artists which were better known for being covered by white artists in the 1950’s. His breakthrough came first with 2014’s Venice, and then with his 2016 smash hit, Miami. The latter is a far more impressive release and brought to life the grooving, soul-funk style which set .Paak apart from the other members of his 2016 XXL Freshman Class. With his 2018 follow up, Oxnard, Anderson was launched into the stratosphere of modern music with what was largely regarded as one of the best albums of the year. Now, just a year later, he’s returned with Ventura, yet another groovy piece of Neo-soul mastery.

Eagle-eyed music fans will notice before they even hear a sound that the record has a fantastic lineup of features on nearly every track. While the vast majority of these are quite impressive, two stand about above the heap. Namely, the one and only André 3000’s tongue-twisting verse on the opener, “Come Home,” and Smokey Robinson’s silky presence on the follow up, “Make It Better.” In both instances, the features elevate the tracks to incredible heights.

Despite an incredible ensemble, Anderson still commands a leading presence across the project, and carries a few of the tracks alone. “Yada Yada,” is an absolute clinic in soul and funk vocals with .Paak’s rough sweetness burning through every line. “Chosen One,” however, would be entirely forgettable if not for the fantastic rap verse near the end with a few eye popping name drops and a fascinating flow. He’s really come into his own, and his work on this record is extremely exciting for longtime fans.

Beyond vocal performances, Ventura’s instrumentals are electrifying. Each cut features a massive pallet from an interesting mix of organic and electronic sources. “Reachin’ 2 Much” sees a foundation of thick bass guitar and thumping kick drums supporting howling synths and bombastic horn sections. “Winner’s Circle,” on the other hand pulls elements like skat singing and woodwind melodies and a hilarious opening sample.

The record is at it’s best however, when the entire band finds the somewhat intangible groove they seem to be searching for at all times. This happens to great effect on “Jet Black,” a track which is essentially carried by the groove and lacks the bells and whistles of other cuts. The album’s highlight, however, is the lead single “King James,” which is built on an undeniable beat and adorned with thoughtful, politically charged lyrics and a luscious saxophone. It’s here where Anderson is at his best.

I do, however, have a handful of complaints. The most consistent issue throughout is pacing. More than a few tracks drag on far longer than necessary and seem to go nowhere for the last half. “Good Heals,” on the other hand, is criminally short and feels extremely half baked.

The most frustrating shortcoming, though, is the way that Ventura absolutely limps through the finish line. The closing tracks, “Twilight,” and “What Can We Do?” Are both completely lifeless and unnecessary. The Nate Dogg feature on the latter is a nice touch, but the track itself feels like a lost, Nate Dogg B-side and is totally out of step with the rest of the record. It’s a shame, because the rest of the project is quite strong, and could’ve been brought home well.

That being said, Ventura is a success, overall. Once again, Anderson .Paak has come through with a unique brand of Neo-soul and funk that has the ability to excite fans young and old. His respect for the masters like Smokey and James Brown is palpable, but his rap background bring a unique spin.

Ventura is a flawed but ultimately electrifying piece of modern soul and yet another great addition to the ever growing Anderson .Paak catalog.

6/10

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