Beyonce – “Beyonce”

(Photo Credit: thisisrnb)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Mine” “Flawless”

Long live the queen. Beyonce caused an internet explosion the other night by nonchalantly dropping sixteen new songs (and videos) on iTunes, with no promotion or even any announcements. How no one knew it was going to happen is still astounding. Magazines and websites have taken down their year-end lists and re-tooled them accordingly. She is in no way the first to do it, Death Grips did the exact same just a few weeks back (also with video – and there’s was free), but this album is different. Its lack of a title and unannounced release back up the album’s theme of self-confidence and self-realization. At sixteen songs and a few minutes past an hour, it doesn’t always keep the listener interested, but it’s diverse sonically and consistent thematically.

This album is a little tough to classify. It’s pop, it’s R&B, it’s hip-hop. But unlike most genre-mixes like this, “Beyonce” has a mission statement, bringing lessons about mixing fun and family with a feminist touch. Beyonce has been married since ’08, and she sings a message about being independent within a marriage. There’s tracks about partying, tracks about a strong, independent composure and still, on “Drunk On Love,” lines about remedial marriage chores like doing the dishes. “Beyonce” is devoted to teaching feminism as an internal motivator, teaching that it is as much about self-confidence as it is equality. The album’s lyrics don’t always hold up, but when she is upfront (especially in the album’s latter half), they’re very strong.

There’s only five guest spots across sixteen songs on the album, cementing the album as a Beyonce effort – she’s front and center (as if we were unsure of it at all). Frank Ocean’s majestic talent is again wasted in a meaningless role, as it was on John Mayer’s recent album. But Drake shines in the very respectful song “Mine,” where he takes both a rhythmic background and a strong forefront in his verses. The other three guest spots hardly constitute as “guest spots” – Jay-Z gets a verse in “Drunk On Love,” as song about their marriage, Blue Ivy Carter’s voice is mysteriously droned in a finale song about Blue Ivy Carter, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gets sampled reading her poem, “We Should All Be Feminists” on “Flawless.”

So Beyonce establishes herself as the queen we already saw her is. The promotion works, the well-placed guest spots work, and her lyrical narrative is largely strong. Is the music actually good? Yes. Of course it is. Bey raps on “Drunk On Love,” and raps well. She boasts “I sneezed on a beat and the beat got sicker” on “Yonce.” She’s alternately sweet, on “Superpower,” booming on “Rocket,” pained on “No Angel,” and funky on the Pharrell-produced “Blow.” In other words, she’s human. She has a bunch of inconsistent and complementing emotions, that come through in a set of consistent beliefs. She believes in herself; she believes in all of us. “Beyonce” isn’t so much an album as it is a reflection of Beyonce as a person. Which is probably why the nameless album has been dubbed “Beyonce.” In a world filled with celebrity feuds, drama and boasts, Beyonce and Jay-Z have established themselves as the power couple – rich, powerful, respectfully boastful, and talented, while remaining focused on family and marriage. But Jay-Z’s 2013 contribution was a forgettable release, while “Beyonce” is not. It’s doubtful that they’re competing at all, but if they are, then Beyonce is winning.

-By Andrew McNally

Earl Sweatshirt – “Doris”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Chum,” “Whoa”

Everyone knows what made “The Silence of the Lambs” one of the scariest films ever. Little of the movie’s horror was in the face of the viewer, but infiltrated the mind instead. And it was driven home by the powerful believability of the actors. Earl Sweatshirt’s full-length debut, “Doris,” exists in much of the same way. He was the rising star of Odd Future when the group took a sharp and sudden rise to fame in 2010, and was a promising rapper in an otherwise passable group. His mysterious disappearance and fall from the public eye left the spotlight open for Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean instead, both of whom capitalized on it. His first EP, “Earl,” saw brutal tales of murder and a violent life, much in the Odd Future way of over-exploitation and disgustingly perverse gore in the lyrics. It was a lot, but with Sweatshirt’s capabilities, he pulled it off.

“Doris” is just as frightening of a record. But Sweatshirt leaves the restraint of Tyler, the Creator and gets into the listener’s mind, lyrically and musically. Sweatshirt raps often about growing up without his father, and how he feels he should be angrier about it than he actually is. And he raps about dealing with drug use, a possible cause for his disappearance (he is only 19 now, placing him at 16-17 then). Sweatshirt is a conflicted man, and he easily brings his mental anguish onto the record for us all to experience. His short songs and drone music accompany an often low-key style of rapping that sounds like he might be phoning it in, but really, he is so wrapped up in his own problems that he can’t work through them well enough to deliver what fans might expect. It might be added effect, it might not be, but like watching Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, it doesn’t really matter. It’s effective enough as is.

Only two of the album’s fifteen tracks stretch over four minutes. No idea sticks around long, adding to the effect of Earl spouting out ideas and stopping when he can’t find resolutions. And musically, although the albums switches handily from beats to horns, etc, there is a constant drone feeling, a slight feeling of dread hanging over it. The music is often as low-key as the rapping. A plethora of guest stars tend to keep it cool, too. RZA flies off a bit (in an entertaining way), but Frank Ocean, Vince Staples, Mac Miller and many others contribute to the album’s tone. He even keeps the asinine Tyler, the Creator from flying off the handles and (relatively) keeps his profane manner down. One of the album’s best songs is “Whoa,” the second of two tracks with Tyler, that features both of them playing it cool over a unique, vocal beat.

“Doris” is not really revolutionary, and it does jump around a little frequently. Sometimes, it’s deeply honest and affecting. Sometimes, it’s tough to follow. But it is a narrative, and a brutal telling of a man who has too many problems for someone of his age. When the audience first sees Hannibal Lecter, he is locked in his cell, in a very mentally scary shot. “Doris” is a cell for Earl, and it is an album that sticks out more in the mind than in the gut. And for this, it’s more grounded and affecting than Odd Future could ever be.

If you like this, try: “Twelve Reasons to Die (The Brown Tape)” by Ghostface Killah (2013). An alternate version of his album from the spring that adds a minimalistic production. It also has a narrative feel, though one that goes more for the gut.

-By Andrew McNally

John Mayer – “Paradise Valley”

(Photo Credit: Rolling Stone)

Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Dear Marie,” “Call Me the Breeze”

It’s important to note that John Mayer underwent throat surgery last year, which sidelined him from the public eye and lessened the landing of his 2012 album, “Born and Raised.” “Paradise Valley” might suffer a small blow, too, although an extensive tour he’s currently on will help advertise. It’s important to note that because it explains the album’s subdued nature. After recovering from throat surgery, Mayer surely wanted to lay low and take things easy on the next album. There’s no reason to blame him for that. And there are some very quaint and pretty songs on the album, with an unusual eclecticism. But the little energy there is used up by the halfway point. It actually audibly drains out during the sixth track, slightly past the halfway point, and never comes back.

As with some of Mayer’s previous works (and in response to his recovery), the music is the primary focus of the album. It is still resembling of a pop album, but with sections of full instrumentation, often harmonica or guitar. Mayer is, admittedly, a phenomenal guitarist, and many songs feature his rambling, passionate solos. His guitar work proves that a good guitar solo doesn’t have to have any urgency or rapidity to it, as long as the emotion is there. The other good point musically is the slight eclectic nature. There are just enough blues and country elements thrown in to save the album from being too boring.

But it does get pretty boring. While it is often gorgeous, many of the songs are also forgettable. It’s a thin line, and the album falls on the wrong side of it a few too many times. No idea sticks around longer than it needs to, but the ones on the album’s latter half are often boring from the start. A cover of JJ Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze” (often wrongfully attributed to Lynyrd Skynyrd) bolsters the varying elements, and serves as a nice, unplanned tribute to the recently fallen blues hero.

Vocally, Mayer’s voice still sounds good when he wants it to. Again, it isn’t the focus, but adds a nice accompaniment to the music. It is still pop, after all. What may the album’s worst quality is two wasted guest spots. Mayer is alone on nine of the eleven tracks, so his two guest spots already feel a little out of place. The first, a song called “Who You Love” (the aforementioned, energy-draining sixth track) delegates Katy Perry to some harmonious background vocals, most of which could have just been recorded by a session singer. The second spot, “Wildfire,” features Frank Ocean on a song that’s only 1:26 long. Ocean mostly does that somehow-beautiful pitch-singing he does, resulting in what’s basically just an interlude. It’s almost as if Mayer and Ocean recorded the song out of necessity, to sign their names on a continued partnership. Ocean is one of the most talented and interesting people in music today, so the point of the song is largely lost.

Save the guest spots, there is nothing inherently wrong about the album. It eventually succumbs to it’s own dullness and it’s largely unremarkable, when Mayer isn’t strumming away. It often sounds pristine, and it’s a nice listen for someone looking for a smooth and low-key listen. Otherwise, it drags on too long with it’s overly subdued sound. A little energy wouldn’t have hurt.

-By Andrew McNally