Blondie – “Pollinator”

(Photo Credit: Spin)Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Already Naked,” “Fragments”

Certain bands hit a legendary status where they can have others write music for them. We saw it last with the proto-new Monkees album that had contributions from both Harry Nilsson and Rivers Cuomo. Well, Blondie have hit that status. Although they don’t have the amount of material or the longevity (remember their 15 year break), Blondie shook music so much that they’re able to have outside help.

But before we discuss the non-Blondie elements, we should discuss the band itself. This album has a renewed energy and a consistent groove to it, and it’s safe to say it rivals that of their original late ’70’s run. The band is locked in on every song. And, as with any great Blondie album, there’s a respectable mix of new wave, ballads, disco and punk. The album is bookended with two great rock songs, “Doom or Destiny” and “Fragments,” the latter sporting an unexpected and effective tempo change. “Long Time” balances out a pleasantly bouncy beat with a delicate bridge. “When I Gave Up On You” is a great ballad, and one that brings the album’s momentum down a bit. And although “My Monster” might not be the best track, the blending of guitar and synth over unexpectedly monotone vocals makes it arguably the most interesting. Debbie Harry hasn’t missed a beat – her voice dominates the album. It hasn’t changed in the slightest – modest, but dominating. Only in “Already Naked” does it feel like the band relies on her, though, which is good. In the album’s other ten tracks, her voice patiently but strongly leads the band.

After a fairly mediocre outing where the band took on a more electronic approach, Blondie decided to tag in to some other writers for this album. This isn’t to say they’ve given up – merely that they felt fans would rather appreciate great songs written by other people to decent songs written by them. And the person who shows up the most in the songwriting credits is indeed Debbie Harry. The classic duo of Harry and guitarist Chris Stein penned two tracks on this album: opener “Doom or Destiny” and “Love Level.” Harry also has a credit alongside Blood Orange on “Long Time.” Keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen and his wife Laurel are credited on two songs as well. Other songwriters that aided include Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio, Charli XCX, The Gregory Brothers, and Adam Johnston, a writer for YourMovieSucks.org. Almost ironically, the album’s weakest track “Best Day Ever,” was written by Sia and Nick Valensi of the Strokes.

Despite the credits, the album is somewhat sparse on actual guest appearances. Joan Jett (who is not credited as a songwriter) appears on opener “Doom or Destiny.” Johnny Marr, Charli XCX, the Gregory Brothers and Adam Johnston appear on the songs that they co-wrote. The sole other appearance is that of John Roberts. Readers may know Roberts as the voice of Linda Belcher on the unbelievably great FOX animated show “Bob’s Burgers.” I do not know the circumstances that led him to appearing on a Blondie record. The track he shows up on, “Love Level,” is the only one that approaches hip-hop in any way. Admittedly, it’s pretty jarring, because it’s not only the only pseudo-rap heard on the album, it’s also the only prominent male voice. As a song, it works, but in the context of the album, it’s a little much of a curveball.

At the end of the day, this is just a very good Blondie album. For a band that spent their heyday trying everything, they sound comfortable going back to some basics. They nail both the jams and the ballads, and they sound great as a collective. The energy is there, the diversity is there, and Debbie Harry’s vocals are there, so there is reason to rejoice. Forty-three years and eleven albums in, Blondie still sound young and fresh. And really, isn’t that what Blondie is supposed to be?

-By Andrew McNally

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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.

Tinashe – “Aquarius”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Bet” “2 On” “Bated Breath”

There are a number of goals an artist has to have going into a debut album, but maybe the most important is signifying your sound and immediately making it your own. Tinashe does this and more, with her hip-hop/R&B blend and smart lyrics coming together in one of the year’s biggest surprises.

“Aquarius” doesn’t subscribe to any genres. This is growing typical of the hybrid R&B/hip-hop genre that is melting together and becoming it’s own being, but this album is especially inclusive. Tinashe comes out of the gate brimming with confidence, knowing she can pull off any of the ideas that come up. And she does – from sultry R&B, to smooth vocal ballads to a straight DJ Mustard track (“2 On,” which you’ve heard a million times, but it still hasn’t gotten worn out). By the end of the second track, Tinashe has already established herself as a unique voice, unafraid to try things unheard of in older R&B.

That second track, “Bet,” firmly establishes the album’s foundation. The song, distinctly R&B, is also a collaboration with Blood Orange and ends with a very lengthy, ambient guitar solo. It’s the album’s second-longest track, and it takes its sweet time. The song announces for the album that Tinashe is in total control, flowing through different styles and dominating every track. Her vocals are strong and engaging, traditionally sultry in an untraditional format. “Bated Breath” is the album’s best vocal song (and the actual longest track), a seductive ballad in the album’s final act with Tinashe’s voice soaring over the music, and one that stops on a dime halfway through and re-crescendos with an engrossing coda. Compare this with the straight hip-hop of “2 On,” and you get a well-rounded singer. Her lyrics, too, are often smart and occasionally conceptual and subversive. The most notable track is “Pretend,” about trying your hardest to ignore problems in a relationship, even for a minute. A$ap Rocky drops in for a verse, as her deadbeat boyfriend. A$ap Rocky, Future and Schoolboy Q all contribute excellent verses on the album, and are all shown up by Tinashe.

Musically, Tinashe takes as many liberties as she does vocally. The album is mostly slow-moving, melodic and low-key R&B with club beats and ambient rhythms. But it is peppered with guitar, piano, and volume. Each track is it’s own entity, and they’re nearly all distinguishable from each other. “Pretend” excels on an unexpected, minimalistic beat that’s closer to a home recording than it is a radio cut. The album is also divided into pieces, split by five interludes and an outro. Most are little more than minute-long tracks serving to shake up the flow, although the interlude titled “Indigo Child” is itself a rather experimental and slightly haunting track, one that hits the album’s loudest volume.

The album’s only real fault is a slightly bloated running-time of 55:43. Its eighteen tracks do include the six interludes, so it is less daunting than it looks, but it does sag a bit in the midsection. It could do without a few tracks; it could stand to be a little tighter. Still, as it stands, “Aquarius” might be the year’s best debut, and is certainly one of the best hip-hop albums. In a world filled with young TV personalities trying to shed their former status and make it in music – namely Miley and Ariana Grande – Tinashe has quickly emerged as one of the stars (Tinashe, only 21, was known previously not for music but for roles in “The Polar Express” and “Two and a Half Men”). “Aquarius” is an instantly enjoyable and thorough album, one that doesn’t demand multiple listens, but slyly convinces them instead. Tinashe is in total control on her debut, and it’s relentless fun.

-By Andrew McNally