Justin Timberlake – “Man of the Woods”

(Photo Credit: That Grape Juice)Grade: D+

Key Tracks: “Supplies,” “Breeze off the Pond”

Let’s be perfectly clear here – this iteration of Renaissance Man Justin Timberlake is different than the one we saw on 2013’s double “The 20/20 Experience.” We know this because of the cover, where a picture of him in a suit is cut by him(/someone) in jeans and flannel, and also because he told us. In reality, our “Renaissance Man” doesn’t have many hats on his rack. This album (somehow only his fourth solo work) proves that he is incapable of stretching out of pop’s limitations, even if he stretches those limitations in multiple directions. He’s a great singer, better dancer and one-time denim enthusiast, but he’s only a decent songwriter and remains vapidly unaware of both boundaries and genre authenticity.

This album actually has some great moments – at 16 songs and 66 minutes, it has to. But we need to dive into the album’s most egregious moments, most of which work to actively discredit the title and premise. Timberlake is a Memphis native – a city within state lines of the country’s best music city. And he attempts to use that heritage to prove that he has a woodsy background; a background that rarely shows its face throughout the album. This should be an easy sell for an ambitious and malleable artist who could cherrypick collaborators. I mean, the guy has “timber” and “lake” in his name. Instead, tracks like opener “Filthy” and “Morning Light” fall back on pop conventions, which are decidedly un-woodsy. The latter features Alicia Keys, who had a massive hit about her home city of New York, a city so decisively un-woodsy that a salsa company ran a whole ad campaign about it. The album’s front half features some songs that are pure pop and, even though he grows into the image more as it transpires, it starts the album off with a joltingly off-brand start.

Also, I have to talk about the filthy lyrics. I’m not even referring to the song “Filthy.” I’m referring to the back-to-back genital-drying lyrics of “Sauce” and “Man of the Woods.” Early on in “Sauce,” Timberlake sings “I love your pink, you like my purple / The color right between those, that’s where I worship.” Ewwwwwwww. And it only gets worse, a whole lot worse on the following track. The song is about the mutual love he has for his wife Jessica Biel, but lyrically it sure doesn’t sound that way – “So tonight, if I take it too far, that’s okay because you know … I hear the making up’s fun.” This is uhhhhhhh this is a song by a man currently in a Woody Allen film. I would like to revert you to the pic of Timberlake wearing a #TimesUp pin. And the chorus is just awful: “But then your hands talking, fingers walking, down your legs / There’s the faucet,” he sings. Please take your sexy back. Here’s a fun fact to leave you with: he named this filthy song after his infant son.

Major authenticity issues and gross lyrics aside, this album does have some enjoyable tracks. Country sensation Chris Stapleton helps actually ground “Say Something” in the vague indie-country-folk world Timberlake thinks he’s invading. Other tracks like “Supplies” and “Breeze Off the Pond” are pleasantly enjoyable songs, the former mashing flamenco-inspired guitar with trap beats, one of the album’s most interesting ideas. The latter is the best example of the acoustic-driven vocal songs that dominate the album’s back half. Even some early tracks like the Pharrell-co-authored “Midnight Summer Jam,” are delightful if not empty tracks. Even the pre-release ridicule of “Flannel” is a little deflated, as the track is frustratingly enjoyable.

Still, there’s far too many faults on this album. Ugly missteps run hand-in-hand through the city, and any escapes into the woods are mere digressions. What is essentially the opening line on this album is “haters gonna say it’s fake.” When’s the last time you heard Justin Vernon say that? Merle Haggard? Just being from an area does not make you an automatic herald of the culture. I’m from Boston but I’m not gonna jump into a perfect street-punk career at 27. I mean, there’s a damn reggae song on this album. So while there are some surprisingly pleasant moments, and Timberlake may remain an annoyingly pleasant celebrity figure, I have to end this with a question: If a tree falls in a forest, and no one’s around to care, should you bother listening for it?

-By Andrew McNally

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Snoop Dogg – “BUSH”

Grade: C

Key Tracks: “Peaches N Cream” “Run Away”

There’s a question I’ve had about ridiculously famous rappers for a while – what path do they follow, when they grow older? Classic rock singers like Rod Stewart and even Bob Dylan have been going the route of covers albums, so I’ve been wondering where a rapper like Snoop might go. Turns out, he doesn’t really know either. “BUSH,” his thirteenth album, meanders around basic funky rhythms with the aura of a man who hasn’t given up, but just doesn’t feel he has anything new to say.

It’s safe to say that the music that Snoop has put out in this millennium hasn’t tried to be revolutionary. “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” even as a potential candidate for one of hip-hop’s greatest songs, doesn’t try to prove anything. His Snoop Lion phase didn’t prove anything we didn’t already know (nor was it taken very seriously). So now that we’re 15 years into this century and Snoop Dogg is ever-increasingly just a family man, his music has taken a natural progression towards the fun and breezy. It often is, but it begs to wonder why it exists in the first place.

After a midtempo intro with Stevie Wonder, the next four songs on “BUSH” are all Snoop solo, and they could all really use the kick of someone else. “This City” serves as the best, centered around a hypnotic vibraphone rhythm, going on only slightly too long. The weakest of the four is “R U A Freak?,” with some groan-worthy punny lyrics and an uncredited appearance from Charlie Wilson so prevalent that I’m honestly not sure Snoop even shows up on the track.

There are brighter points later on the album. At the sixth of ten tracks, “Peaches N Cream” is the first one that really feels inspired. It’s the only song that credits Charlie Wilson, although he shows up on four tracks. “Run Away” features a surprising collaboration with Gwen Stefani, who channels her No Doubt years instead of her solo pop career. She adds a late spark to the album that’s missing elsewhere. And the album’s finale, “I’m Ya Dogg,” has guest verses from Rick Ross and Kendrick “some of ya’ll share bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell” Lamar, who called it himself – although the song is great, and really the album’s only true rap track, Snoop takes a vocal backseat and gets lost in the mix.

The funk revival of 2015 doesn’t seem like something planned, more coincidental. Snoop, Lamar, and Mark Ronson have all released funk-heavy albums, but each with a foundation coming from a different place. It’s going strong nonetheless, and the music is at least funky. Wonder is wasted in a lifeless opener, but “BUSH” does have it’s funky moments at times. It’s fun, and I think that’s all that Snoop’s going for now. If so, then it’s a minor success. But even so, he seems too content to be releasing placeholder, schlocky albums. This is the man who was vaguely involved in murder charges; the man with a drug rap sheet longer than Willie Nelson’s. It doesn’t seem right that he has settled into such a steady and easy life that he can release self-serving, basic funk. From reggae on “Reincarnated” to funk on “BUSH,” it seems like Snoop is closer to forfeiting the rap game rather than leaving it behind. But, it answers my question. When a successful rap artist can make enough and settle down, provided they didn’t marry Beyonce, then what are they to do? Keep it easy.

-By Andrew McNally

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

Sorry Guys, Women Won Music (Again) in 2014

Man, us men really spent the year treading water. As 2014 comes to a (well-deserved) close, and we discuss the best and worst in music, one thing in evident – women really lead the way. Women released better songs, better albums and had more progressive things to say than men did. So although men can boast, dick around and talk big, it was women that paved every path this year. Aloe Blacc was the man? Well Beyonce was Flawless. From Laura Jane Grace to Ariel Pink, Wiz Khalifa to Mish Way, both men and women helped women become the beacons of music in 2014.

2013 was an exceptional year for women in music, too. I almost wrote this article last year, but I was then too devoted to keeping this blog strictly reviews. It’s amazing to think it was only last year that unknown teenager Lorde nearly overtook Robin Thicke for biggest song of the year. But where 2013 was all about new acts establishing themselves in new niches of music (like one Crutchfield sister in Swearin’ and the other in Waxahatchee, both redefining punk), 2014 was all about the big names taking sides and taking stances.

2014 began on December 13th of last year, when “Beyonce” dropped unexpectedly. Not even the album’s guest stars knew there was an album coming out. Only Beyonce could have a release that huge, that unannounced and that coherent. It would go on to champion a year full of feminism and sexuality where women dominated, with only minimal exceptions.

Women Dominated Albums

“Beyonce” may have been the year’s best album (if you count it), but it was one of just many great albums from women. Charli XCX and Nicki Minaj followed in Beyonce’s path and released December albums – a month usually reserved for contractual-obligation Christmas albums. Tinashe and FKA twigs released two of the year’s best debuts, two R&B albums that establish each singer’s other-worldly confidence. And speaking of other-worldly confidence, the year’s best album unabashedly went to St. Vincent. Annie Clark’s guitar-drenched songs of surveillance and snakes were nothing else we heard all year, in both scope and confidence.

Taylor Swift did something usually disastrous for musicians and switched genres (Remember “Forever“?). But she went passive, attacking armchair critics on “Shake it Off,” not coincidentally one of the year’s best/biggest songs. “1989” was a big mess of a pop album that convinced many people (myself) that there really is more there than angry break-up songs.

Another one of the year’s best albums came from Lana Del Ray, who listened to criticisms and improved her music in every way. “Ultraviolence” was dark, brooding and seductive – a 60’s minimalist pop work that’s ready to defend itself from Youtube comments. With songs like “Fucked My Way to the Top,” Lana owned her identity, to the chagrin of many. In comparison, Sam Smith provided one of the year’s best songs – “Stay With Me” – but struggled to find his own musical identity, with a lackluster debut and less of a personality than his minimalist pop peers.

And this brings us back to last year’s minimalist dear, Lorde. Lorde didn’t release any music in 2014 save one song, “Yellow Flicker Beat.” But the song came from the soundtrack to the recent Hunger Games movie, a soundtrack she was assigned to curate. That, itself, is a huge deal for anyone – especially someone still in their teenage years. And, she chose people of a like mind – CHVRCHES, Tove Lo, Tinashe, HAIM, Bat For Lashes, Charli XCX and Grace Jones (!!!) all make appearances.

Women Dominated Songs

“I got one more problem with you, girl”

“I go on too many dates / at least that’s what people say”

“Fuck the skinny bitches in the motherfucking club”

Women seemed to rule the radio this year, too. The year’s best songs and most provocative lyrics belonged to women. Let’s look at these three examples – Ariana Grande dominated the charts this year, with no bigger song than “Problem,” with Iggy Azalea. It was a horn-blasting, bombastic pop song influenced by DJ Mustard’s production but without any unnecessary DJ attachment. Taylor Swift tossed critics askew in a side of her we’ve never seen before, and Nicki Minaj rallied against pro-look pro-anti-feminists. “Anaconda” was one of the year’s best songs – she took a comedically remembered hit from ’92 about the male gaze and repurposed it into a song about female body positivity. What’s better than that?

Elsewhere, there was the female talent showcase of Jessie J/Grande/Minaj on the excellent “Bang Bang,” a song that’s just about bangin,’ and it’s great. It’s just a fun, upbeat pop song that shows off some talent. Grimes’ only contribution to 2014 was “Go,” a crazy, pseudo-steampunk song that reflects your every mood when you listen to it. Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” might not be one of the year’s most revered songs, but it tied Janet Jackson for most weeks at #1, and it’s just another notch in her book.

Women Owned Feminism & Sexuality

So let’s talk about the most important woman of the year, alright? Laura Jane Grace, of Against Me! In 2012, after Against Me!’s miserably regressive “White Crosses” album, Tom Gabel announced that he was going to start living as a woman, Laura Jane Grace. Grace joined Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, among others, in a year where the transgender movement finally came to a public eye. So Against Me!’s 2014 album, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” opened a wide audience to a previously closed movement. And while the album had some weak points, tracks like “True Trans Soul Rebel,” “Unconditional Love” and “Drinking With the Jocks” illustrate Grace’s struggles with gender identity in the way of some of Against Me!’s most abrasive lyrics yet.

And while we’re on punk, two of the year’s best feminists were Mish Way and Meredith Graves. Mish Way’s band, White Lung, released one of the year’s best albums in “Deep Fantasy.” The album is heavy and real from start to finish, but it’s centered around its second best song, “I Believe You,” a song that’s written from the POV of a surprisingly understanding friend of someone who’s admitting they’ve been sexually assaulted. The song is both musically and lyrically the heaviest thing they’ve done, and it’s one of the year’s most important minute and 42 seconds.

Meredith Graves, of Perfect Pussy, had a busy year. Perfect Pussy’s debut, “Say Yes to Love,” was secretly modeled off the line, “Why do we say yes to love?” The album has a feminist tone throughout, with Graves frequently taking on the established male punk precedent (if you can hear the vocals). Punk music needs a reason to be energetic; Graves and co. don’t hold back about that reason.

Outside of the band, Graves published essays on being a woman in the music industry, comparing Andrew W.K. to Lana Del Ray, and on male pattern violence after Mark Kozelek made an unnecessary, public feud with the War on Drugs.

On the sexuality side, it’s easy to say that sexuality in music as all about confidence – whether it’s outward, like Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love,”  Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” – or sultry and subversive – FKA twigs “Video Girl,” Tinashe’s “2 On,” this year was full of strong, confident women, and it’s been a joy of a ride. Keep it up, 2015.

There Are Always Exceptions

Of course there’s exceptions. With Azealea Banks finally getting to release her excellent debut, “Broke With Expensive Taste,” came some harassing, homophobic Twitter rants that diminished credibility. (I won’t link to them – know that they’re out there).

She also started an ongoing feud with 2014’s most problematic female, Iggy Azalea. For those of you reading this, by now you’re surely at least familiar with the name – she had a number of huge hits in the summer – “Problem,” with Ariana Grande, “No Mediocre,” with T.I., and her own songs “Fancy” with Charli XCX and “Black Widow” with Rita Ora. I have to admit, from a music standpoint, I think they’re all great songs. But I wish I didn’t know anything about her when I listen to them. Azalea is Australian by birth, British by upbringing, and whiter than a jar of Hellmann’s. But she raps in a fake, black Southern accent (see: Atlanta) to mimic those who “influence” her. She’s trying way too damn hard and yes, it’s really racist. And yes, she has dropped the N-word.

Lana Del Ray also sparked some controversy by saying she would rather talk about space travel than feminism. The degree to which it’s just to fit in with her old-money, Gatsby-befriending persona is debatable, but it’s something that was said and can’t be forgotten.

Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus also made trouble with some serious, continuous cultural appropriation, done for their own “artistic benefits.” Both artists have remained silent when asked by fans to stand up for actual black issues like Ferguson.

But Here’s What Men Did This Year

Men accomplished little this year, in terms of music (and most other things). As always – exceptions. Pharrell’s “G I R L” album was a great, feminist work (and acted as an unintentional apology for “Blurred Lines”). Perfume Genius’ song “Queen” was one of the most honest, heartbreakingly rattling songs of the year. Patrick Carney, of the Black Keys, had a year spent on the offensive where he called out people like Jack White for their actions. And, artists like John Legend and J. Cole led the movement to recognize the need to acknowledge Ferguson, with ?uestlove adding that we need more Bob Dylans and Rage Against the Machines – artists with political motivations. But for every Run the Jewels, there’s at least one Eminem, so let’s look at men being men:

Eminem. Eminem released a song where he threatens to punch Lana Del Ray. Why? To what purpose? Eminem is 42 years old, and his fight for relevance includes threatening the most passive, pacifistic singer you can think of? That’s not intimidating. If Eminem wanted to stay popular, he’d retire and let his record speak for itself. Or, he could actually focus on the quality of his music, since he hasn’t had a good song since “Lose Yourself” (arms spaghetti) and his 2014 contribution was a Shady greatest hits compilation no one asked for.

Mark Kozelek. Sun Kil Moon’s 2014 album “Benji” was remarkable, but the 47 year old singer is also fighting a losing battle with aging, as he started a one-sided, unnecessary feud with the War on Drugs, a band that has looked up to him, and has taken no part in this imaginary feud. It all culminated with the admittedly silly and meta but still homophobic single, “The War on Drugs Can Suck My Cock.” The fact that these attacks are unresponded to amounts to nothing more than Kozelek trying to prove his manliness and yelling at a crowd that isn’t listening.

Ariel Pink. Human clickbait Ariel Pink’s 2014 album, “pom pom” made a lot of year-end lists. I didn’t listen to it. Ariel Pink called out Grimes, for some reason, calling her “stupid and retarded,” insults I never realized people used after the age of 12. Pink said he was contacted by Madonna to record for her new album only to say she’s been on a big downward spiral. Madonna’s publicist said he was lying, that she had never heard of him. Downward spiral? Meet Ariel Pink.

Robin Thicke. Thicke! Thicke was quiet in 2014, but he wasn’t trying to be. Black metal bands be damned, the creepiest album of 2014 went to “Paula,” Thicke’s in-depth, hyper-specific public apology to his ex-wife. First week sales counts: USA – 24,000. UK – 530. Australia – 158. 158 copies in Australia didn’t crack the Top 200.

Phil Rudd. For a band that sings constantly about manly stuff like rocking and violence, AC/DC’s first controversy didn’t come until this year, when drummer Phil Rudd was arrested for trying to hire a hitman to kill his wife. The band was as shocked as it’s fans, where was this rock and roll stuff in 1977?

Future killed the good fortune he’d set up with one of the best albums of the year, “Honest,” by admitting he cheated on Ciara and by guesting on the atrocious “Pussy Overrated” with Wiz Khalifa. Jack White did interviews where he groomed his image by verbally attacking respected artists like Adele, the Black Keys, and even Meg. Chris Brown got arrested a few more times, and had the gall to release a song about disloyal girlfriends. I could keep going on about men in music, but these are the biggest examples. Most of the best music of the year was done by women, and women made the bigger stories. They’ve had to, because to be anything less than extraordinary is going to get them shelved under male musicians. Let’s keep this going. 2015 should be the return of Adele, and Beyonce might even give us another album. We’re starting on the right foot.

-By Andrew McNally. Inevitable responses can be directed to amcnal817@gmail.com. Article can be reprinted or referenced, with citation. Feel free to remove links if ya do.

Future – “Honest”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “My Momma” “Benz Friendz (Whatchutola)”

Future’s second album isn’t entirely filled with winners, but it’s certainly unpredictable. Future, aka Nayvadius Cash, uses some brooding and synthy music to create a dark atmosphere around his music. But at the same time, it’s rhythmic and full of catchy hip-hop beats and occasional meaty samples. It matches the lyrics, which alternate between dirty and explicit to nods to personal struggles.

“Honest” could almost be described as “moody,” because of it’s seemingly inherent dark nature, but the title wouldn’t be right. The album is deceiving. Although it has many honest moments (hence the title), Future creates a unique and well-rounded atmosphere, one that’s human, with qualities both good and bad. The music’s dark but palpable nature not only reflects that, but it’s consistent throughout the album.

Future’s rapping remains the best part of his music, often frantic and unpredictable. He has a knack for dropping words in at select moments and creating his own vocal rhythms alternate to the music. It contributes to the trippy feel, with sometimes competing rhythms. Lyrically, Future is in complete control. He switches from explicit, like on opener “Look Ahead,” and on single “Move That Dope,” to tales of divorce settlements and upbringings (the affecting “I Won” and the personal “My Momma”).

He also has some A-list guest stars, who drop in for some inconsistent but sometimes great spots – Andre 3000 drops in on one the album’s best songs, “Benz Friends (Whatchutola),” and Wiz Khalifa guests on one of the most honest songs, “My Momma.” Drake and Kanye both show up, the former providing a memorable but short spot on an interlude, the latter contributing the album’s deepest story, “I Won.” Elsewhere, Pharrell, Casino and Pusha T are largely wasted on the overlong and tepid “Move That Dope,” but even securing their spots cements Future’s stance in the future of hip-hop. The only time the album sags is it’s midpoint, with a couple straight songs without guest spots, but it’s saved by the rich solo track “Covered in Money” and the collaboration with Andre 3000.

*One small issue I want to address with the album is that “Look Ahead” samples Amadou & Mariam’s “Dougou Badia,” and the duo seems to be getting no credit for their sample. I usually don’t pick up on things like this, but the sample is used as the whole basis of the song. They might have chosen not to get credit, I have no idea, I just want to put credit where credit is due because I defend Amadou & Mariam at all costs. Otherwise, “Honest” is a great album that creates a whole world without getting stuck in it, and helps to prove that Future’s name is well-chosen – he seems to be ahead of everyone else right now.

-By Andrew McNally

Pharrell – “G I R L”

(Photo Credit: Hollywood Reporter)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Hunter” “Gust of Wind”

This was a risky time for Pharrell to release a solo album. He’s riding the waves of one of the most successful years someone in music can have. He had guest spots on the two biggest songs of last summer – “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines,” and he co-wrote and produced two songs on Beyonce’s instant-legend self-titled album. He wore a silly, hip-hop-historical and now famous hat to the Grammy’s, and he released a 24 hour music video for his big hit, “Happy.” Pharrell is, nowadays, now famous for producing and guest spots, hugely overshadowing his solo work and his music with N.E.R.D. and the Neptunes. So if “G I R L” were to be underwhelming, it would likely derail the ever-increasing speed of the train that Pharrell is at the helm of. Luckily, “G I R L” is a sufficient pop release. It isn’t the most memorable of albums, but it strongly benefits from an all-inviting sound, a consistent feminist agenda, and huge name guest spots from Pharrell’s long, long contact list.

Pharrell tried to hit all bases with “G I R L,” and he certainly succeeds. It’s sexy – like the sweaty “Hunter.” It’s classy, with opener “Marilyn Monroe.” And it’s friendly – centered around the smash hit “Happy,” which seems to actually be stylized on the album as “Happy (from Despicable Me 2).” You know, the kids movie. The very next song is “Come Get It Bae,” featuring the not-family-friendly Miley Cyrus. Whatever your fancy is with pop music, “G I R L” likely hits it.

The guest spots, though usually not the focus of a review, are something to marvel at. As mentioned, Miley drops in. And so do Alicia Keys, Daft Punk, Kelly Osbourne, a very falsetto-y Justin Timberlake, Timbaland (relegated to beatboxing) and, unpredictably, JoJo. And the strings on the album – arranged by Hans Zimmer. The cast on this album reads like a Wes Anderson movie. And just like an Anderson film – some of the appearances are solely based on “look who I got to be here!,” while some, especially Daft Punk, add a whole level of depth and help separate each track from the next.

And it’s good that each song is distinct enough to stand out – because Pharrell, on his own, isn’t actually all that strong. The rare moments when he raps on the album work, but otherwise, his voice usually just blends into the background. Think about “Happy” – his voice only overpowers the music because the music is minimal during the chorus, and it’s catchy because of how his voice acts as an instrument, not for the lyrics. There are moments where he ups into falsetto, and he really doesn’t hit the notes. There are a couple moments were it resembles watching a Top 12 American Idol giving what you just know is their last performance. It just isn’t quite there, overall. But it’s a boatload of fun, so it’s never an issue.

“G I R L” is all linked together by a distinctly feministic tone. It’s almost possible to see this – and “Get Lucky” and his work on Beyonce’s album – as an apology for the gut-wrechnigly misogynist (and possibly divorce-causing) “Blurred Lines.” Pharrell sometimes skirts the lines of male pop feminism – respecting women’s bodies and sexual desires, etc., and sometimes fully delves into actual feminism. It helps to create a consistent tone, and let’s be real, it’s just nice to hear. Inviting feminist-leaning artists like Daft Punk, Timberlake and the severely misunderstood Miley Cyrus only helps that. The era of patriarchal sex-pop is coming to a close, and Pharrell seems to be the one locking the doors.

So “G I R L” only suffers from Pharrell himself not being the most talented singer. And given that this is his first solo album in eight years, it’s not his specialty. He produced the whole album, and wrote every song, much more his strong suits. The album is not the most memorable, because it all feels familiar. But it’s still enjoyable and every song is unique. It sounds by the books, if every song was taken from a different book than the one previous. “G I R L” is a listen for those of all ages and musical preferences. There’s something for everyone, and his “music for everyone” approach helps to bolster the feminist themes. “G I R L” won’t be one of the albums of the year, but it’s a more than decent pop release, and one that will help Pharrell continue his unstoppable reign.

-By Andrew McNally

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