Meghan Trainor – “Title”

Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “3am” “Like I’m Gonna Lose You”

Like many pop songs, you’ve probably heard “All About That Bass” on the radio and thought, ‘I bet her album is all like that, but a little worse.’ “Title” is a solid debut for Trainor, in that it sees her properly explore different influences beyond most debuts. But, it ends up being hurt by the very same thing.

If you’ve seen pictures or videos of Trainor, or seen/heard “All About That Bass,” you’d think she has a pseudo-bubblegum pop vibe to her. The album’s first song, a cutesy 25-second vocal interlude (???), does nothing to dispel that. And the third track, after “Bass,” called “My Future Husband,” doesn’t exactly sway away from it either. But Trainor does show off a number of talents – on “3am” she adopts more of a doo-wop/soul quality to her vocals. She does try her hand at rapping, successfully on closer “Lips Are Movin” and unsuccessfully on the horribly titled “Bang Dem Sticks.” And she does pull off two ballads – the mid-album sleeper “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” with John Legend, and “What If I” later on. Otherwise, the album is topped off with pop/R&B mixes that vary from catchy to overlong to forgettable.

As of now, it’s safe to say Trainor is known as the “All About That Bass” girl. And to her credit, that’s somewhat unfair. Trainor might only be 21, but she’s been making music independently for years. And it’s also unfair that with that song’s ever-increasing popularity (including a surprising Grammy nod for Song of the Year) mixing with her brief time in the actual industry, she might be stuck with that title. What makes Trainor’s debut more interesting than other debuts is also it’s downfall – lack of identity. By combining bubblegum pop, R&B, hip-hop, etc., we get a full array of Trainor’s talents, but we don’t really get enough of each to really know who she is as a singer. I’ve discussed this before, especially in dealing with Ariana Grande, who is having the same problem (in an opposite way). To be a female pop singer in 2015, you have to have a persona. Beyonce, Adele, Lorde, all have the personae to match the music. Trainor is still forming one (although already further along than Grande), and having a hit as big as “Bass” this early might end up being detrimental to her. Although “Title” is interesting as a debut, and Trainor’s superb songwriting skills are on focus the whole time, it isn’t consistent enough to produce a proper image. And as far as her lyrics go, she aims throughout the album for feminist anthems about body positivity and owning oneself – but a simple Google search leads to articles of how problematic “All About That Bass,” “Dear Future Husband” and “Title” are, among other tracks. The image she’s trying is one straight out of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” (more a coincidence of time than an actual influence) but isn’t nearly as crafted.

There’s a few different ways to look at “Title.” On a purely musical standpoint, it can be seen as a fun collection of songs that mix throwback rhythms with modern vocals. It can also be seen as a marvel of songwriting from a talented young woman. Or, it can be seen more in-depth, as a varying, frustrating collection of songs that each try so hard to be unique that they end up uniform together. It’s tough not to look at it lightly, tough not to glaze over its flaws. So where “Title” has some pop highlights, it struggles from problematic and contradictory beliefs, and a lack of an image in Trainor. She’s certainly a talented songwriter and a versatile performer, and there’s promise on “Title.” The whole package just isn’t there yet.

If you like this, try: Into diverse pop? What a time to be alive. Into problematic female performers? Azealea Banks.

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Robin Thicke – “Paula”

Grade: D

Acceptable track: “Living in New York City”

Let’s get this out of the way. This isn’t about the music. I don’t yet know if I’m referring to the album, or this review. But it’s a rare occasion when I can review an album where the music plays such an afterthought to the context behind it. Because this is barely an album. It has songs, sure, songs that have choruses and rhythms. But it’s all a thin veil for an attempt at a passionate, public apology. Occasionally, it works. Often, it doesn’t. Thicke dives too deeply into their relationship, even when he’s criticizing himself, giving us information we really didn’t need to know.

So let’s talk about the music a bit. The music does take a backseat, but when he’s prepping a quote-unquote ‘concept’ album like this, it’s not really the focus. Still, it’s all simple R&B, never elevating itself beyond some basic beats and unchanging soul rhythms that sound more in place in 90′s clubs. Sometimes it’s fun :) Sometimes it’s sad :( But from a music standpoint, there’s few highlights. “Living in New York City” has a fun, optimistic beat, and follow-up “Love Can Grow Back” has a big horn section and a jazzy, soulful vibe. But those are rare highlights. The album starts off with two slow-burners that musically are, frankly, boring. And although they set the album’s largely remorseful tone, they also stumble out of the gate with 9 minutes of dull music.

So where does Robin Thicke stand? “Paula” is a love letter, a deep apology for the way he acted as a husband. For the most part, he’s earnest in what he’s singing. In some of the more enthusiastic songs, he sounds like his heart just isn’t in it. (Only exception: “Living in New York,” where he sings about how she’s moved to NY and how pretty all the women there are). Some lines throughout the album I caught are, “All that she needs is another try,” “If you ever need a friend, baby / I can be the one that you want” (vomit emoji) and “There’s something bad in me” (understatement!) His lyrics get pretty intricate, so it’s easy to give him the benefit of the doubt, he’s genuinely grieving and it’s possible he actually feels bad for the stuff he’s done.

But, don’t let that deceive you. Thicke is a singer, it’s what he does, but there’s no reason for this be as public as it is. Even if he believes his own lyrics, this album is a power play. I was watching a World Cup game on ABC the other day and I saw an ad for Thicke on Kimmel’s dumb show and the voiceover said, “Robin Thicke concludes his ABC takeover!” He’s riding a storm of buzz over this album, capitalizing on his own deep emotions. And it’s important not to look at Thicke as some kind of hero here. Everything that happened between him and Paula was his fault, and he’s starting to be made out as a victim. He isn’t. “Paula” is usually pretty creepy, with too many details about their relationship growing more abusive. He just falls short of singing her social security number and where she sleeps at night. It honestly sounds unintentional, a side effect of him baring his true emotions, but it’s weird nonetheless. “Paula” is, at it’s best, forgettable. It is, at it’s worst, gross and shady. It isn’t good. Don’t listen to it and don’t acknowledge it, you’ll just be feeding into the Robin Thicke machine.

Oh also burn in hell for literally always.

(This review was originally posted at thefilteredlens.com, and since the time of publishing it has been released that “Paula” sold a whopping 530 copies in the UK. I wasn’t sure what the public’s perceptio of Thicke was nowadays, but it seems like we’re on the same page)

If you like this album, try: reading a different blog

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

Ciara – “Ciara”

Photo Credit: the Huffington Post

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “I’m Out,” “Super Turnt Up”

You have to admire Ciara’s perseverance. Lead-off single “Body Party” is her first song to make a dent in the Billboard chart since roughly 2010, usually the kiss of death for solo R&B / rap artists. Her last few albums have not been successes either critically or commercially, even if they were not exactly failures in both categories, either. I don’t want to bring up her critical and commercial struggles, because every review of “Ciara” begins with that fact. But it is an important lead-in to this album. The album is simply titled “Ciara.” Bands and artists that choose to self-title a non-debut are often making a statement, that the album encapsulates all of the artists’ progress until now. Some work, (“Fleetwood Mac,” “Social Distortion”) while some are misguided declarations into new territories (“Metallica,” “blink-182”). “Ciara” is the former. It is a completely safe and standard album, but one where Ciara can put her foot down and announce that, despite a consistently slipping presence, she is still here, and will not let past failures stop her.

That being said, it is a very safe album. Opener “I’m Out” is a very dance-friendly track, constrained to medium-volume beats and even features an only-slightly-uncensored guest spot from the often pervasive Nicki Minaj. The album continues down this path: basic R&B songs, basic club tunes, basic songwriting. “Body Party” is the only song that really features Ciara’s strong voice, the album’s biggest downfall. Also, it’s relatively quiet demeanor shows up too early on the album, as the third track, and it is a little off-setting against the early club songs that are still winding up the album.

“Ciara” is not a long album, only ten tracks ranging mostly between three and four minutes. This is probably good, because of how underhand the album feels. If it were to go on much longer, it would feel too tepid instead of feeling like a collection of what she has done so far. It is not great, and commercially and critically might go down as another hit-and-miss effort. It’s mixing of different ideas does seem to have a purpose, however, one that might not go noticed to the listeners but one that does tie up her career to this point. It is a basic work, one that is enjoyable and almost immediately forgettable. Depth-less and easy, without overstaying it’s welcome.

Also, side note: I’m always down for a song called “Super Turnt Up”

-By Andrew McNally