J. Cole – “2014 Forest Hills Drive”

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “Fire Squad” “No Role Modelz”

J. Cole wrote “magnum opus” all over this album. This is the album he envisioned as leaving his mark on rap, his childhood-based album, his “Here’s what New York is like” album. It’s not that, but it’s at least a solid release, largely devoid of some of his clunky lyrics of the past.

Defense seems to be the strategy on “2014 Forest Hills Drive.” It’s J. Cole’s album to lose. This is probably the most apparent in the lack of credited guests. He dominates every song, and although other voices do drop in, they’re uncredited and not the big names you’d expect. The album’s overarching theme is childhood and youth, as earlier this year J. Cole bought the house he grew up in, after it was foreclosed on in 2003. He defends this, he defends New York City, he defends his own position in rap. But the most effective is his defense of race, one of the few areas where J. Cole has been distinguished as of late. He gives a Ferguson mention on the sprawling finale, “Note to Self,” reminiscent of him being one of the first entertainers to make a visit to the town. On “Fire Squad,” he raps about white people taking over rock and rap, and how he’ll try to crack a smile when Iggy wins big at the Grammy’s. And on “No Role Modelz,” he raps, “I came fast like 911 in a white neighborhood.” At the album’s best, it’s provocative and button-pushing, a step forward for someone still looking for his place, and certainly forgiveness for Nas.

At the album’s worst, though, it falls into blander hip-hop lyrics and beats. “A Tale of Two Citiez” is particularly clunky song, just a self-serving boastful sex song. There are others on the album, and even better tracks like “Fire Squad” fall victim to some cliche moments. The album doesn’t do enough to bring in some cliche elements into other more, progressive ideas. Most of the album has surprisingly melodic and dense music, but trashy lyrics don’t always fit against them, and it gets jarring. J. Cole’s clearly working on tightening up his ideas and sound, and he’s not there yet, so an album of this stature may have jumped the gun.

“2014 Forest Hills Drive” isn’t going to be remembered as being on the same level as the albums that inspired it. It has some worthy songs, some piercing lyrics and a lot of great music (even the intro has compelling music behind it), but it’s all a little too messy so far. J. Cole doesn’t have the experience to pull this album off yet – just listen to “Note to Self,” the nearly 15-minute, improvised finale, where he namedrops everyone who helped make the album, and continuously tells the listener they don’t need to sit through the credits. It’s a big idea – challenging the listener to keep going. But, it’s also supposed to be fun, and we’re not in on it. J. Cole is coming towards mastering the formula, but it hasn’t quite all come together yet. Challenging me to go on was bold; I gave it a few minutes before I stopped.

-By Andrew McNally

Mariah Carey – “Me. I Am Mariah… the Elusive Chanteuse”

(Photo Credit: NY Daily News)

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “You’re Mine (Eternal)” “Money ($ * / …)

Mariah Carey has worked herself into an interesting point in her career – she’s already heralded as one of the most successful and talented pop singers, ever. So there’s a few directions she could go – she could sit back and enjoy all of the reaped benefits, or she could keep putting out albums that challenge other singers to get to her level. She doesn’t need to do anything too ambitious or original, especially as a pop/R&B singer. She’s just keeping active and adding more notches to her career. And that’s exactly what her fourteenth album is – it’s a collection of personal and reflective songs that feel right at home with her other works.

Of course the most important thing to analyze on any Carey album is her voice, even though it never falters. Carey, famously, has a five octave vocal range, which is almost inhuman. There are times on this album where, had I been playing the songs louder, her vocals would’ve upset the neighborhood dogs. Carey’s voice is as strong as it’s ever been, like on “Camouflage,” where different octaves are layered over each other until she becomes her own back-up singer. And on “You’re Mine (Eternal),” where her voice gets looped at the closing, into a slightly haunting drone. All throughout, her voice remains smooth and high flying, hitting extreme highs sparingly (to allow those moments to shine), and sounding typically relaxed and polished through every song.

There’s four effective guest spots on the album, all of which add some energy at the right times. “Dedicated” is saved from being too murky by an all too brief appearance from greatest rapper of all-time Nas, and the follow-up, “#Beautiful,” is helped by Miguel. Wale anchors “You Don’t Know What to Do” surprisingly well, and adds some much needed energy after a number of midtempo songs. And towards the album’s end, Fabolous delivers a strong spot on the extremely unfortunately titled “Money ($ * / …)” (I have no idea how to pronounce that title). For the most part, the guest spots are spread out, so they can provide some kicks throughout, and so it doesn’t get too bogged down at any point.

The album does have it’s faults, most of which lie more in the structure and the make-up of the album rather than in the songs themselves. As mentioned, there’s that terrible song title, which should be something to overlook, but I can’t get over it. And there’s the title: “Me. I Am Mariah… the Elusive Chanteuse.” The title track and last song is actually spoken word, with Mariah explaining what it means. “Me. I Am Mariah” is a self-portrait she drew when she was a child, that shows up on the album’s back cover, and “The Elusive Chanteuse” is the most recent of many nicknames she’s been given. They both have significance, and they both make excellent titles, but put them together and you have what will be a $2000 Jeopardy! question someday. (Also, I’m glad Carey takes time to explain the title on a spoken word track and I wish there was a way for it to fit less awkwardly into the album). The album’s 62 minutes and 15 tracks is hefty, too, especially considering she delayed the release when some early songs didn’t catch on with the public. There’s a lot of great tracks here, but there’s some dead weight, too, and it should’ve been cut. It’s daunting to the point where it’s far too overlong.

Structural issues aside, it’s great to see Carey still be herself. And there’s a lot of her on this album – its lyrics reflect back on the highs and lows of her life thus far. It’s personal and open, sometimes fun and sometimes contemplative. There’s a George Michael cover, and an ode to Reverend James Cleveland in the gospel choir finale “Heavenly (No Ways Tired / Can’t Give Up Now).” “Me. I Am Mariah” isn’t a wholly fulfilling album, but it succeeds with it’s diversity, flowing through different genres and emotions, while never straying too far away from a consistent pop/R&B sound. Carey shows she’s still as powerful as she was in 1991. She can belt like no one else, and she’s hit a point where she can do whatever she wants. And she’s very comfortable with that.

-By Andrew McNally

Jay-Z – “Magna Carta Holy Grail”

Photo Credit: hypetrak.com

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Jay Z Blue,” “Oceans”

“Watch the Throne,” the rap experiment from Jay-Z and Kanye West in 2011 must have left a mark on both performers. Both Jay and Kanye released albums this summer that showed growth and change as performers. But where Kanye’s “Yeezus” was a tormented work of introspective loyalty and political consciousness, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is just an album of basic beats and repetitive lyrics about Jay-Z’s wealth. Jay-Z is said to be worth about $500 million alone, plus the wealth of his equally-famous wife, Beyonce. His ‘change’ is a further disconnect from his own fans, where his constant rapping about European vacation destinations sounds more like bragging to an audience than typical lyrical boasts. Rap & hip-hop is typically a young man’s game, and with Jay’s 43 years bringing him twelve platinum albums and partial ownerships in a nightclub chain and a professional basketball team, he is officially too far into the entrepreneurial world to sound fresh and real in the hip-hop world.

The album is not all bad. “Part II (On the Run)” features typically amazing work from Beyonce, and “BBC” is a fun song because of it’s guest spots: Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Nas, Pharrell, and Swizz Beatz. “Jay Z Blue” is a brutally honest song about his daughter, and how he fears comparisons to his own father who was never around but for very different reasons. And “Oceans” features a well-placed guest spot from Frank Ocean, on a song about the film “Ocean’s 11″ being a metaphor for Jay’s accumulation of wealth.

Some tracks are just bad. The opener “Holy Grail” which also features Timberlake, is a bombastic call for receiving a legendary status, as Jay and JT channel Kurt Cobain and harmonize on an amended version of the chorus to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Not only does it sound bad, and not only does Jay already have the legendary status that he is attempting to claim to himself, but it is that kind of fame that led Cobain to suicide in the first place. The song is a dramatic misreading of Nirvana. “Somewhere in America” is the album’s worst track. Hova raps about how he’s good at math because he can count his money and than randomly mentions Miley Cyrus twerking. The song sounds like Jay freestyling a joke song in the studio and adding serious beats to it to make it a real track.

Other than the feeble Nirvana reference, there are some delightfully surprising references and soundclips on the album. Sinatra and Johnny Cash get reworkings that work much better than Cobain’s. M.I.A. and R.E.M. also get references. The most surprising, and haunting, is a soundclip from “Mommie Dearest” that leads in to “Jay Z Blue.” Where the album has some interesting references and clips, it is lacking in guest spots. A majority of the songs are just Jay-Z, and with the repetitive lyrics, it starts to get pretty old pretty quickly. Overall, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is a very safe album that takes no chances whatsoever and sounds disconnected and pointless because of it. Hova is just too far out of reality to relate to any listener besides those that already appear on the money-drenched album.

One final note: the album was famously released to Samsung Galaxy users a week ahead of time. This irked me in two ways. As a Galaxy user who downloaded the album, I had to sign away the rights to all of my personal privacy in order to get the album. I’m personally expecting a bodyguard to show up at my door soon after I publish this and question why I didn’t like the album. With the NSA leaks and Hova’s past songs against privacy concerns, this didn’t even make sense. Also, I didn’t even get the album until Saturday, something like four days after I was supposed to, which almost negated the point entirely. Even then, the app died twice throughout playing the album. The album is already platinum and Jay already has millions because of it, but at what cost to his fans?

In conclusion, here’s a screenshot from the commercial that advertised the album that accurately sums up the problems:

Jay-Z is, at the end of the day, an adult father. And at the end of the day, this was an album that was advertised on television.

-By Andrew McNally