a breakdown of the artists’ most recent work
Whitney, Light Upon The Lake
True facts: Whatever cultural waves are left to be made by rock music, they’re all shooting straight out the lake the next time Lil Pump wants to swerve his jet ski. Pretty inhospitable gig to be the one band playing a trap-heavy Spring Weekend then, right? But if anyone is equipped to ride out the wake left by hip-hop hedonism, it’d probably be Whitney. These laid-back hipster bros (and boy do they want you to know—you’ll strain your eyes counting all the PBR cans art-directed into their videos) take the sounds of Harvest-era Neil Young, twist out the heroin despair, and add on a horn section for some pretty great substance-comedown music. Album opener “No Woman” sums up the nostalgia this band is after: ideal for when I stumble grinning back to my room thinking dumbass thoughts about “my beautiful youth.”
But, ultimately, Friday night melancholy is a pretty limited tonal groove to fill with five songs per LP side. Some songs retain clarity into the hangover—jaunty “Golden Days” gets some lovely mileage out of a wah-wah guitar riff that feels like it’s always existed, and the anthemic “Polly” stacks up so much sound that it can’t help but be cathartic. But in the light of day, the record annoyed me, Julian Ehrlich’s Tickle-Me-Elmo-sings-Lindsey-Buckingham voice—which carries all of the dynamic range that diss implies—doing no favors for its wearying sweetness.
Though Whitney is filled out with chops otherwise (Max Kakacek is an especially talented dude; underneath the band’s honeyed glaze, his guitar playing is surprisingly nerdish and intricate), any attempt to stray sonically is limited by the album’s weird, wimpy sexlessness: “Dave’s Song,” attempting a brassy R&B homecoming sound, is torpedoed by its lyrics—some pretty punchable self-pity bullshit (“I don’t want to be saved/Take me in your heart again”). “You’d think the album’s one instrumental cut would therefore be a nice balls-out morning stretch for their sound, but “Red Moon” is inexplicably frigid—nothing more than a single mournful horn solo limply reinforced by an awkward drum and keyboard lockstep. What a rip-off. But hey, I’ve heard some rumors that these dudes play funk now, so ladies watch out.
Track picks: “No Woman,” “Golden Days,” “Polly”
NAO, For All We Know
NAO has the sort of elusive, totally idiosyncratic singing voice that always brings out my inner hack writer. But when an artist is this hard to describe, reductive comparison is really all that’s available. So imagine, if you will, Lily Allen sped up to 78 RPM or perhaps a babyfied Deniece Williams, and that’ll get you started. Over standard R&B instrumentation, her near inhuman sweetness would probably be pretty terrifying, or at least scan as consumerist parody. Luckily, For All We Know surrounds NAO with Funktronic grooves as eccentric as she is—the gift of a small army of producers hailing from the oh-so-British wonky scene. Spotify top track “Fool to Love” is the genre’s epitome: fat, buzzy bass licks, snappy synth percussion, the occasional wacky, overcompressed future-computer sound, and NAO happily vogueing over it all, having a pretty swag time. This would probably be the song to check out if you’re curious about this sound.
It is the sound, though, so your first couple listens will likely have you lost in the swamp, with not a lot of tracks sticking out. But few are less than pleasant, so sorting out the different hooks and atmospheres gets addictive, fast. Michael Jackson freaks (er, healthy Michael Jackson freaks) should love “We Don’t Give A,” NAO’s colorful twist on his classic foot-stomping (I HAVE BEEN ROMANTICALLY MISTREATED) protest anthems. Gentle creeper “Adore You” is the album’s smoothest cut, with the skinniest bass line and the lightest percussion, sounding how I imagine a rainy day in cyberspace would. Then there’s “Inhale Exhale,” which brings a biblical amount of taunting, schoolyard attitude, and NAO just meets it effortlessly. All the swagger of great Boom-Bap, without any of the struggle bars.
That being said, she has her limitations. Unlike her Alt-R&B peers, artists like FKA Twigs and Kelela who sing about unhealthy sex over abrasive IDM beats, darkness doesn’t come naturally to NAO. Though her producers are up to the task—“In The Morning” alternates spooky synthesized ghost screams with menacing, gear-rattling drum patterns—when forced to lower her pitch, NAO sounds overwhelmed. The album’s interludes are a minor misstep as well—lo-fi “voice memos” of NAO and her collaborators that subtract from the mystery of her voice. Full disclosure though: I’ve seen her live, and whatever she loses in intimacy, she regains in adorability. It’s a bop.
Track Picks: “Get to Know Ya,” “Inhale Exhale,” “Happy,”
If all goes as planned, this is the dude you’ll brag to your kids about seeing. Packing a water-deprived voice more textured than all the high-end, designer item sandpaper you might care to name, Anderson.Paak puts a stupid amount of charisma toward a singular sound: androgenizing the vocal stylings of hip-hop and R&B so thoroughly that it’s frequently unclear whether he’s rapping or crooning, and you finally just have to call it showmanship. Motown warm and blessed with copious record hiss, Paak is easily pegged as the trendy, NPR Tiny Desk version of Bruno Mars—nothing more than a nostalgia act. Though his songs often begin with a real drum beat and James Brown guitar lick, they pack in enough weirdo sonic detail to reward close listening (check out the terrifying little electronic gasp right before the first chorus of “Put Me Through” and the random, millisecond-long guitar solo right after!). He’s maybe the most perfect crossover artist of our era, so it’s kinda weird that household-name-status continues to elude him. Maybe obscurity is what he wants, “Fuck fame, that killed all my favorite entertainers,” he raps on “The Seasons | Carry Me.” Well…here’s your chance to get him there anyway.
Malibu is probably the most fully-formed album by any of these artists. It is, at least, the only one confident enough to open with its quietest song, the devastatingly wistful autobiography of “The Bird.” From there, Paak alternates tight, muscular pockets of groove like “Am I Wrong” and “Come Down” with patient, languorous speak/sing suites that revel in their runtimes. While some of the latter are superficially repetitive—“The Waters” takes us on the same long, sighing journey as “Room in Here,” simply switching the instrumental vehicle from piano chords to bass guitar pulses—the force and variety of Paak’s insights carry listeners through.
Save some space for “Silicon Valley,” one of the most beautiful and daring songs in the English language. It’s a frustrated lament, a true soul stomper, dedicated to a girl hiding behind her towering breast implants, begging her to reveal the beating soul “under that tender titty meat.” Unabashedly mixing the vulgar with the empathetic, the song ultimately argues they’re one and the same—different forms of the intimacy that Paak craves. “Silicon Valley” tends to repulse, often drawing accusations of sexism from Paak’s haters and well-wishing cringes from his fans. But couched within Malibu’s generous package, it comes into view as the ultimate expression of honesty from a genuine pop searcher. Open your heart.
Track Picks: “Come Down,” “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” “Silicon Valley”
D.R.A.M., Big Baby D.R.A.M
In 2016, no pop star was more fun to root for than D.R.A.M. Blessed with the deep vocal range of a gospel singer, he did the world a favor and trained his prodigious talent toward the creation of bomb-ass turn up music. The singles dropped like manna; over cheap hi-hats and rinky-tink piano, D.R.A.M racked up enough iconic goofball moments to cement his legend. First came “Broccoli,” which made a Mickey Mouse whistle the centerpiece of a song about how D.R.A.M’s weed is hotter than your girl. “Cash Machine” wielded similar thematics, sampling a bill-counter to punctuate its argument that money is all a man needs for romantic fulfillment. Swooping in to satisfy the suddenly burning question, “is D.R.A.M, like, not into sex?” came “Cute,” which answered— “yes, but only after a couple dates.” K-Mart air-horns fill the air as we learn from D.R.A.M’s e-harmony profile that “the first thing we need to know about him is that he is a foodie,” before he private messages to say he’s chosen us “like a Pokemon.” The hype for this album was nuts.
But all was not well. If listening to D.R.A.M’s singles was like cheering on the class-nerd for entering the Bar Mitzvah dance circle, buying his album was like watching him grow into a toxic internet misogynist. “Monticello Avenue” is all about the indignity of having to sleep with groupies who aren’t “big fans.” “In a Minute/In House” reveals the meaningless sex was just to keep him warm while on tour away from his true girl. “100%” is supposed to ease her mind when D.R.A.M. says “she’s got way more to provide for [him] than those whores.” So much for being “beyond all that fuck shit.”
Obviously all of that would be tolerable, even “sleazily” enjoyable if the deep cuts were as strong as the singles. But while they certainly sound more expensive— “Misunderstood” brings bombastic guitar and an actual rapper (Young Thug) and “Sweet Va Breeze” has actual instruments— it’s all empty weight, and nothing comes close to “Broccoli”s addictive simplicity. However, perhaps humbled by the crummy Spotify numbers, D.R.A.M’s 2017 tracks (available on the album’s deluxe edition) cut down on the runtimes, stock up on meme rappers, and represent a return to form. Hopefully, he plays some of those.
Track Picks: “Broccoli,” “Ill Nana,” “Cute.”
Rico Nasty, Sugar Trap 2 and new singles
In a Soundcloud era dominated by rainbow-grilled pedophiles and raging, spiky-haired domestic-abusers, 20-year-old trap rapper Rico Nasty gets a lot of attention for being, uh-oh, a well-adjusted and intelligent woman. That’s cool and all, but I think it’s more interesting that a year after becoming a mother, Rico popped a gasket, picked up an auction barker level of vocal strain, and started going hard.
Admittedly, early juvenilia like the “Hey Arnold” single and the Tales of Tacobella tape had a somewhat wearying sweetness about them, featuring nearly as much singing as rapping. Not so with Sugar Trap 2. The first three tracks see Rico introducing her signature throated bark, heir apparent to the full-mouthed yelp of Denzel Curry. Led by Japanese woodwind and gentle drumstick hits, album opener “Key Lime OG” sets the right tone, giving Rico plenty of tranquility to disrupt with bars like “Mike Tyson/ I’m a fucking bite her.” Her vocals do, eventually, take a xan with the “welcome to my treehouse” title cut (“We got OG, we got powder/We got choppers and flowers), and by the time we reach the hilariously named “La La Land Outro” we’re in club trance mode.
Sugar Trap 2’s loss of energy was troubling, but Rico opened her first 2018 single screaming “Don’t worry ‘bout a bitch,” and all was right in the world. Furthering my theory that gentle maternal bliss was what set her off, Rico sounds positively irate that she didn’t get “to smack a bitch today,” and I hope her life remains quiet if pure rage is what it’s gonna get us. Follow-up “Party Goin Dumb,” likely aware of this capacity for fire and fury, is a deranged, ego-mad hype cut for Rico’s own power to turn up a room. If your attendance at this concert remains unsecured, her newest track contains the bar “I make mo’ money than my old teachers and I’m proud of that/ You thought you was teachin’ me, well, bitch, I shoulda taught yo ass.” Isn’t that exactly what you want to be screaming before finals?
Sugar Trap 2: Fairly Lit/5
New Singles: Lit/5
Rina Sawayama, Rina EP
Dirty secret: the commercial pop of today will be the trendy indie music of tomorrow. Careerist 60s surf bands gave birth to 70s Punk, vapory 80s mall rock became the second Bon Iver album, and now Britney Spears is Rina Sawayama. Japanese born, London raised, a political science concentrator—the differences don’t register: Sawayma has the vocal tics of early-aughts, made-in-the-USA superdivas. With the help of genius producer Clarence Clarity, she rides chaotic, shifting sonic tapestries that require the listener to fight their way through sheets of falling glitter to find her hooks. This task can be forbiddingly dense, but trust me, the tunes are there.
“Ordinary Superstar” synthesizes a garage-y Avril Lavigne soundscape out of light guitar, whirring buzz-beaters, and middle-school bells for Rina’s ace Mandy Moore impression. Ceiling-burster “10-20-40” is a classic Christina vocal given sparkling showers of cathartic synth in the choruses and fun Gaga futurisms. For those choking on sugary sweetness, “Alterlife” offers more hard-edged guitar lines in four minutes than the last Arctic Monkeys album did in its entirety.
Badass moment after badass moment is all well and good, but Rina goes an extra mile, conceiving her debut EP as an intricate song cycle about internet loneliness and social anxiety. “Tunnel Vision” creates such a nightmare scenario of phone-addiction and “relationships going down the drain” that it relies on Shamir’s angelic vocal feature to keep it from utter despair. With “Take Me As I Am,” Rina rewrites “Till the World Ends” as an anxious self-destruction anthem, switching out Britney’s extinction-via-orgy for one girl’s apocalyptically low self-esteem. “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” brings both threads together, telling the story of a teen so lost in online romance that she’s finally lifted “across the distant galaxy”. It’s a genius project: Body-snatching the pop-stars of our childhoods, Rina invests their cold corporate husks with new warmth, crafting tender and honest character portraits. That down-to-earth empathy has earned her a dedicated fanbase. When she plays the one that goes “don’t you wanna be ordinary with me,” I know I’ll be singing along.
Track Picks: “Ordinary Superstar,” “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome,” “Tunnel Vision”