Beyonce – “Lemonade”

(Photo Credit: honourmymystique.com)Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” “Freedom,” “Formation”

Beyonce’s previous album, one of the only albums that I’ve felt deserved a self-title, was a masterpiece ode to love, sex, celebrity and family. And it’s release was revolutionary, the kind previously reserved to more predictably innovative acts like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. So expectations were high coming in to her next album, and although we’ve gotten an entirely different album than what we expected, it’s every bit as good, if not better, than expectations.

“Beyonce” felt like she was opening the doors into the private life of her and Jay-Z, into a world we shouldn’t really be hearing. The album was like we were all the winners of a Golden Ticket, getting a brief look inside the magic world of music’s most powerful couple. Well, this album also feels like something we shouldn’t be hearing, but for the opposite reason. “Lemonade” is full of personal clapbacks aimed at Jay, with the lyrics stopping just short of specifically telling us he’s cheated, and with whom (it was Becky with the good hair, who is supposedly Rita Ora). It is an emotional and personal roller coaster, with as much revenge as regret. Jay-Z might be one of the richest and most powerful men in entertainment, but no one can wrong Bey and get away with it.

There are memorable lines across nearly every song on “Lemonade.” She wastes no time in addressing the issue, on the ballad opener “Pray You Catch Me,” singing “You can taste the dishonesty / It’s all over your breath.” On the follow-up “Hold Up,” she laments being in her position, saying “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” before deciding that she’s already been jealous, so she’s choosing crazy. Indeed, the album might feel a little crazy, with nearly every song serving as a very public response to a very private issue. But it also serves as part of the album’s identity, as an ode to black women. Anyone can – and should – listen to “Lemonade,” but it isn’t an album designed for everyone. There’s no proper radio bangers, and it’s intentional. If there were, we wouldn’t all be listening to the message. By developing her own marital problems, she addresses issues of women, occasionally black women, and puts them in a context that’s often pushed against in media. It’s been an interesting trend over the years, as Beyonce has voluntarily become a voice for black pride. This continues here in just about every context – musically, lyrically, historically and visually.

If she sounds frustrated on the first two tracks, then she’s totally over it on the next two. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” has some of the album’s most blatant lines – “You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy / You can watch my fat ass twist, boy / As I bounce to the next dick, boy” – that quell any notion that she has been singing from a fictional POV. She wrote a diss track about her own husband. I mean c’mon, that’s incredible. And it drags onwards into “Sorry,” which is not an apology for anything (nor should it be). “Now you wanna say you’re sorry / Now you wanna call me crying” she sings, holding it over Jay’s head. Elsewhere, on “Sandcastles,” she laments, “I know I promised that I couldn’t stay / Every promise don’t work out that way.” The album’s best line goes to “Love Drought”: “Nine times out of ten I’m in my feelings / But ten times out of nine I’m only human.”

Musically, the album is kind of all over the place. It needs to be, it highlights Bey processing a terrible thing and going through a range of emotions. What this album successfully tries to show is that, at the end of the day, she’s as human as the rest of us. She might sound justified, only to come off as too angry or too forgiving, because she’s not perfect.

The collaborators and co-writers are key to understanding the diverse music. She often reflected the styles of her collaborators on her self-titled album, namely Drake and Jay. It was done then because of the album’s secrecy. On “Lemonade,” it is done out of appreciation. The album is about appreciation – of yourself but more so, of others. And if the lyrics are multi-faceted, so are the collaborators. Jack White nails an appearance on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a blues-rock tune. “Freedom” is about black pride and is easily the most intense track, unsurprisingly featuring Kendrick Lamar. James Blake pops up on an interlude that is really just a James Blake song. The Weeknd turns “6 Inch,” a song about identity, into one of the album’s smoothest. She reflects all of their styles out of appreciation for their own work. Animal Collective and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs get songwriting credits for lyrics taken from their songs (on “6 Inch” and “Hold Up,” respectively). And “Hold Up” features co-author credits from EDM superstar Diplo and indie singers Ezra Koenig and Father John Misty. Going even further, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Jerome “Doc” Pomus & Mort Shuman, Burt Bacharach and “Prisoner 22” show up in the sample credits.

The music is as much of a journey as the lyrics, with all of the above artists contributing their own sounds. “6 Inch” is sultry, “Forward” is an electro-ballad, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is a blues-rock kicker, and “Hold Up” sounds like what a Beyonce song written by indie singers would sound like. “Daddy Lessons,” one of the only songs about something other than her husband’s infidelity, starts with a New Orleans jazz sound before transitioning into an ode to her father, with a country-esque backdrop (taking in her Houston heritage). It sits right at the album’s midpoint, a standout that shows how divisive the album’s feel can be. And early single but visual-album afterthought “Formation” sounds (and looks) like New Orleans.

This was an album that no one was expecting, about an incident that we had only ever speculated about. But it’s an album we need – an affirmation for women who have been cheated on, and a call to arms for black women around the world. It’s not like black pride and feminism are new topics for Beyonce, far from it. But it’s the personality she’s decided to mold herself into that has allowed her to become such a powerful force in the world socially. The music has helped that, too. We don’t know what’s in store for the Jay/Bey marriage, but given the quality and rapidity of his music lately – or lack thereof – she may have just driven a nail into the coffin of his music career. And she did it with one of the albums of the year.

-By Andrew McNally

Advertisements

Kendrick Lamar – “To Pimp a Butterfly”

Grade: A

Best Tracks: the whole damned thing

He is a winner, and he’s probably gonna win again.

Oh, Jesus. One of 2015’s most hotly anticipated albums didn’t even have a confirmed release date, title, or tracklist a month ago. And now, it’s out a week early. It’s not known if Lamar dropping it early was to avoid a leak, or to pull a Bey, or just sheer confidence. But whatever way you look at it, “To Pimp a Butterfly” is not only one of the best rap albums of the year, it’s one of the best of the decade.

Lamar nails down a wide range of emotions and influences on “TPAB.” While rappers often try to make diverse albums, not all of them can pull it off. But Lamar shows all sides of himself simultaneously, not individually. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is as self-referential as an episode of Arrested Development. It is the work of a man who is confident to an arrogant point, but still deeply, deeply pained. Throughout the album, there’s a repeated spoken word bit about depression leading to screaming in a hotel room. He’s vulnerable when he raps “loving you is painful” on “u.” Lamar’s ability to shift tone is natural, and he’s possibly the best at playing off his emotions with the sound of his voice alone.

But at the same time, he’s confident, almost to a fault. Loving an unknown subject might be tough, but loving himself isn’t, as proven on the leadoff single “i,” even though the album version of the song is radically different. More still, he’s said the album’s title is a play on “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in one way because seeing “Pimp” next to “Butterfly” is an alarming juxtaposition, but also because he believes the album is Harper Lee-level importance. That’s bold; hell, that’s stupid. But, he’s right. It’s that good. He even ends with a 12 minute track, “Mortal Man,” which starts as a song, then transitions into a poem, and ends with another poem. In between the two – a spliced up interview with 2Pac from 1993. Pac. In the hip-hop world, that’s the equivalent of putting the Frost/Nixon tapes in the middle of a campaign speech.

The music on the album is dense. It goes from abrasive – “The Blacker the Berry,” “King Kunta” – to chill – “Momma,” “How Much a Dollar Cost” – to surprisingly funky – “Wesley’s Theory,” “i.” He pulls them all off, and they all flow and bleed together, sometimes in the middle of a track. There’s repeated musical sections, repeated phrases, and self-references. There’s also well-picked guest inclusions. The production credits read like a novel, but the album itself has few guests. Pharrell, Rapsody and Snoop Dogg round out expected roles. George Clinton and Ron Isley are less expected. Least expected is a sample of a Sufjan Stevens song.

Lamar knows what he wants and what he likes. “TPAB” is significantly different, tonally, than the song that made him famous – Big Sean’s “Control.” In his guest verse, he calls out nearly every rapper imaginable, even the beatified Andre 3000. On this album, Lamar raps about racial politics, and calls for black rappers to come together, overcome differences and fight against racism (most notably on “Mortal Man”). He praises Snoop, and calls out critics on “Hood Politics”: “Critics say they miss when hip-hop was rapping / Motherfucker if you did then Killer Mike would be platinum.” “Hood Politics” might be the album’s most important track, ironic given that it’s one of the more forgettable ones, musically. The song establishes Lamar’s political beliefs more than any other track.

Over the past few years, hip-hop albums have had a tendency to get bloated. But at 78 minutes and 16 tracks, there isn’t a moment that doesn’t belong on “To Pimp a Butterfly.” It doesn’t even feel like 78 minutes, anyways. Lamar is celebratory, depressed, angry; he is human. And he’s a phenomenal rapper, writer, and performer. If everyone was shocked by Lamar getting the Grammy snub last year, then they shouldn’t be shocked at the next ceremony.

-By Andrew McNally

Heems – “Eat Pray Thug”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Sometimes” “So NY”

Review also printed on Seroword.com

BRUH. Do you want to get shaken up? Wanna get rattled? Heems’ debut is the album to mess you up.

Queens rapper Heems finally has his debut album out, on his own Greedhead Records (search the name on my blog). He has described the album as “post-9/11 dystopian brown man rap.” Indeed, Himanshu Suri is a phenomenally unique force in hip-hop – a man living in New York who’s proud of his heritage, but also feels ostracized because of his race. And that politically charged motive is all over “Eat Pray Thug.” The songs excel on contradiction – New York is home; I’m driven from home.

The lead-off single, opening track and best song “Sometimes” establishes the discord perfectly, by setting Heems up as a rapper who isn’t taking on a persona. “Sometimes I’m pacifist / Sometimes it’s pass the fist / Sometimes I stay sober/ Sometimes it’s pass the fifth,” he raps about his human qualities. This disconnect is what demands the album work as a whole – on “So NY,” he raps about being so New York-based that, “I still don’t bump Tupac.” But, on most of the songs, especially closer “Patriot Act,” he’s more honest about the racism that he, his family, and others have been through as a Middle Eastern man living in New York City. On “Patriot Act,” he bemoans how life became difficult for many people he knew after 9/11, in a spoken word piece that references stop & frisks and donating to local politicians to stay safe. On “Flag Shopping,” he rhymes ‘flags’ with ‘rags,’ and later raps “They wanna Toby us / Like we Cunta Kinte.” Heems cuts deep with his personal experiences, accurate accusations and brutal truth.

But Heems doesn’t spend the whole album expanding on that. He tries pop songs and ballads, too. On “Pop Songs (Games),” he goes for a genuine, bona fide pop song and, while it’s results aren’t quite spectacular, he’s putting in the effort to diversify his music. And on “Home,” Heems and Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) expertly pull off a ballad (courtesy of the line “Be my remix to Ignition”). Heems hits all boundaries on a relatively short album, expanding a brief time to include everything he can.

“Former Das Racist frontman” “Das Racist head” “Creator of internet rap sensations Das Racist” Uuuuuuuuuugh. Still referring to Heems as being the frontman for Das Racist is like still referring to Conan as being a “Tonight Show” host. It happened, it was great and it was underappreciated, but it’s over. Das Racist hasn’t been a band for something like two and a half years, and it’s time to start recognizing Heems for what he is – an incredibly complex, diverse and talented rapper and entrepreneur. On “Eat Pray Thug,” Heems gives it his all, and nearly everything he throws at the wall sticks. “Eat Pray Thug” is an open, honest and powerful work, one that examines New York City as both a lifestyle and a germ pool. And it proves Heems to be the affronting rapper he’d set himself up to be; ready to grab the throne whenever it’s left unattended. There’s a lot going on, and Heems has a lot to say. We should all be listening.

If you like this, try: Any of the people Heems has signed to Greedhead; namely Le1f, or Lakutis.

MisterWives – “Our Own House”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Reflections,” “Coffins,” “No Need For Dreaming”

Let’s get this out of the way: there’s nothing inherently special about MisterWives. They’re not one of the more unique indie bands you’re going to hear. But, it’s their sweetness and earnest desire to just make music and bank off each other that makes them great. They’ve only existed for a short while, but on their full-length debut, they sound like a full-fledged band that’s had years of practice. The band’s pretty, vocal-heavy folk-indie is strong at every point.

I was lucky enough to catch MisterWives live at what had to have been one of their earliest shows. They were opening for another great band called Pyyramids in Manhattan, and I remember seeing enough of them to think that they seemed like a down-to-Earth, groovy group that was playing what they wanted to. On “Our Own House,” they’ve expanded their sound, but they haven’t lost much of the fun qualities that they had in that tiny Manhattan bar.

Three of the first five songs on this album have horns. Openers “Our Own House” and “Not Your Way,” and fifth track “Best I Can Do.” It’s worth noting, because the band has an interesting strategy, where they come out with the bang of some extra musicians, before settling into who they are themselves. They bust out with a groove, with a funky grip that hooks you in for a few tracks before you things have calmed and you’re listening to just a few people.

The best tracks on the album are the ones where MisterWives work as a collective – some songs are too heavy on vocals, but some are collective efforts. Two of the album’s better songs, “No Need For Dreaming,” and “Imagination Infatuation,” are collaborative efforts. “Hurricane” is even more guitar-heavy. But even on the tracks on that aren’t as cohesive, Mandy Lee Duffy’s vocals are strong throughout. She’s the anchor of the band; she formed it, she leads it, and her sweet but booming voice propels the band forward. The band’s best song, “Reflections,” is centered almost entirely around her vocals.

“Reflections” is one of five songs on the album that already existed, on last year’s “Reflections” EP. But it’s okay, because they’re worked into the twining of the album organically. They’re just reprints of the older versions, but they fit fine within the album’s frame.

On first listen, MisterWives might seem like another folksy-indie throwaway band, but there’s a lot of substance to their music. It’s grasping, and catchy, and a ton of fun. There isn’t a dull moment on their debut. What MisterWives really is, is five talented musicians sitting in a studio, simply creating whatever they want. And as far as the (pseudo-)indie-folk genre goes, MisterWives are already one of the better bands in the game.

if you like this, try: Company of Thieves. Genevieve Schatz’s voice was sweet but dominant, like Duffy’s, and the band also had a collaborative indie sound. “Oscar Wilde” is one of my permanent favorite songs.

-Andrew McNally