Beyonce – “Lemonade”

(Photo Credit: honourmymystique.com)Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” “Freedom,” “Formation”

Beyonce’s previous album, one of the only albums that I’ve felt deserved a self-title, was a masterpiece ode to love, sex, celebrity and family. And it’s release was revolutionary, the kind previously reserved to more predictably innovative acts like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. So expectations were high coming in to her next album, and although we’ve gotten an entirely different album than what we expected, it’s every bit as good, if not better, than expectations.

“Beyonce” felt like she was opening the doors into the private life of her and Jay-Z, into a world we shouldn’t really be hearing. The album was like we were all the winners of a Golden Ticket, getting a brief look inside the magic world of music’s most powerful couple. Well, this album also feels like something we shouldn’t be hearing, but for the opposite reason. “Lemonade” is full of personal clapbacks aimed at Jay, with the lyrics stopping just short of specifically telling us he’s cheated, and with whom (it was Becky with the good hair, who is supposedly Rita Ora). It is an emotional and personal roller coaster, with as much revenge as regret. Jay-Z might be one of the richest and most powerful men in entertainment, but no one can wrong Bey and get away with it.

There are memorable lines across nearly every song on “Lemonade.” She wastes no time in addressing the issue, on the ballad opener “Pray You Catch Me,” singing “You can taste the dishonesty / It’s all over your breath.” On the follow-up “Hold Up,” she laments being in her position, saying “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” before deciding that she’s already been jealous, so she’s choosing crazy. Indeed, the album might feel a little crazy, with nearly every song serving as a very public response to a very private issue. But it also serves as part of the album’s identity, as an ode to black women. Anyone can – and should – listen to “Lemonade,” but it isn’t an album designed for everyone. There’s no proper radio bangers, and it’s intentional. If there were, we wouldn’t all be listening to the message. By developing her own marital problems, she addresses issues of women, occasionally black women, and puts them in a context that’s often pushed against in media. It’s been an interesting trend over the years, as Beyonce has voluntarily become a voice for black pride. This continues here in just about every context – musically, lyrically, historically and visually.

If she sounds frustrated on the first two tracks, then she’s totally over it on the next two. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” has some of the album’s most blatant lines – “You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy / You can watch my fat ass twist, boy / As I bounce to the next dick, boy” – that quell any notion that she has been singing from a fictional POV. She wrote a diss track about her own husband. I mean c’mon, that’s incredible. And it drags onwards into “Sorry,” which is not an apology for anything (nor should it be). “Now you wanna say you’re sorry / Now you wanna call me crying” she sings, holding it over Jay’s head. Elsewhere, on “Sandcastles,” she laments, “I know I promised that I couldn’t stay / Every promise don’t work out that way.” The album’s best line goes to “Love Drought”: “Nine times out of ten I’m in my feelings / But ten times out of nine I’m only human.”

Musically, the album is kind of all over the place. It needs to be, it highlights Bey processing a terrible thing and going through a range of emotions. What this album successfully tries to show is that, at the end of the day, she’s as human as the rest of us. She might sound justified, only to come off as too angry or too forgiving, because she’s not perfect.

The collaborators and co-writers are key to understanding the diverse music. She often reflected the styles of her collaborators on her self-titled album, namely Drake and Jay. It was done then because of the album’s secrecy. On “Lemonade,” it is done out of appreciation. The album is about appreciation – of yourself but more so, of others. And if the lyrics are multi-faceted, so are the collaborators. Jack White nails an appearance on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a blues-rock tune. “Freedom” is about black pride and is easily the most intense track, unsurprisingly featuring Kendrick Lamar. James Blake pops up on an interlude that is really just a James Blake song. The Weeknd turns “6 Inch,” a song about identity, into one of the album’s smoothest. She reflects all of their styles out of appreciation for their own work. Animal Collective and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs get songwriting credits for lyrics taken from their songs (on “6 Inch” and “Hold Up,” respectively). And “Hold Up” features co-author credits from EDM superstar Diplo and indie singers Ezra Koenig and Father John Misty. Going even further, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Jerome “Doc” Pomus & Mort Shuman, Burt Bacharach and “Prisoner 22” show up in the sample credits.

The music is as much of a journey as the lyrics, with all of the above artists contributing their own sounds. “6 Inch” is sultry, “Forward” is an electro-ballad, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is a blues-rock kicker, and “Hold Up” sounds like what a Beyonce song written by indie singers would sound like. “Daddy Lessons,” one of the only songs about something other than her husband’s infidelity, starts with a New Orleans jazz sound before transitioning into an ode to her father, with a country-esque backdrop (taking in her Houston heritage). It sits right at the album’s midpoint, a standout that shows how divisive the album’s feel can be. And early single but visual-album afterthought “Formation” sounds (and looks) like New Orleans.

This was an album that no one was expecting, about an incident that we had only ever speculated about. But it’s an album we need – an affirmation for women who have been cheated on, and a call to arms for black women around the world. It’s not like black pride and feminism are new topics for Beyonce, far from it. But it’s the personality she’s decided to mold herself into that has allowed her to become such a powerful force in the world socially. The music has helped that, too. We don’t know what’s in store for the Jay/Bey marriage, but given the quality and rapidity of his music lately – or lack thereof – she may have just driven a nail into the coffin of his music career. And she did it with one of the albums of the year.

-By Andrew McNally

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Grammy Predictions: Who Will and Who Should Win

(Photo Credit: The Grammy's)

(Photo Credit: The Grammy’s)

Well, it’s that time of year again. It’s the time for awards to distract you from taxes and the bitter cold. And music’s biggest night is quickly approaching! With performances from Adele, The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar, Justin Bieber, a David Bowie tribute from Lady Gaga, a Glenn Frey tribute from The Eagles and Jackson Browne and a Lemmy Kilmister tribute from Hollywood Vampires (the band that includes Alice Cooper, Joe Perry, and Johnny Depp), it’s bound to be an eventful night. While I cannot comment on every award, I’m presenting the major ones with my predictions, as well as who should win and who should have been nominated. The Grammy’s are notoriously unpredictable (remember this?), so if I get every one of these wrong, blame them.

Best New Artist: Nominees: Courtney Barnett, James Bay, Sam Hunt, Tori Kelly, Meghan Trainor

Will Win/Should Win: Meghan Trainor/Courtney Barnett.

Although Trainor technically isn’t even qualified to be nominated for this award – she was nominated for a major award last year – this is hers to lose. She’s an excellent songwriter and a talented performer, and does the kind of just-barely-biting-but-still-bubblegum pop that the Grammy’s love. Her album, uh, wasn’t great, though. Barnett deserves this award. Her debut full-length was a wholly original blend of 90’s guitars, Dylan vocal ramblings and suburban Australian apathy.

Should Be Nominated: Fetty Wap. Where was Fetty Wap?

Best Pop Solo Performance: Nominees: Kelly Clarkson, “Heartbeat Song,” Ellie Goulding, “Love Me Like You Do,” Ed Sheeran, “Thinking Out Loud,” Taylor Swift, “Blank Space,” The Weeknd, “Can’t Feel My Face”

Will Win/Should Win: The Weeknd, “Can’t Feel My Face.”

Unabashedly one of the best songs of the year, The Weekned brought semi-subtle darkness to the best rhythm MJ never moonwalked to. The song’s explosive bassline counteracted the lyrics, that sound like a love song, until you realize they’re about an inevitable cocaine overdose. It was the second biggest hit of the year!

Should Be Nominated: The utterly neglected Carly Rae Jepsen. Not for “I Really Like You,” but for the non-single “Run Away With Me.” It’s my blog, I can say what I want.

Best Pop Duo/Group Performance: Nominees: Florence & the Machine, “Ship to Wreck,” Maroon 5, “Sugar,” Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk,” Taylor Swift & Kendrick Lamar, “Bad Blood,” Wiz Khalifa & Charlie Puth, “See You Again”

Will Win/Should Win: Khalifa & Puth/Swift & Lamar

This one is really tough. Swift, Ronson and Khalifa all stand a big chance. But I have to give it to “See You Again.” While I have made my thoughts on Khalifa known, it is a genuinely great song. It also has two benefits: one of the 10 YouTube videos with over a billion views, and a now very famous spot in a movie – used in Furious 7 to commemorate Paul Walker’s untimely death. Plus, it was shunned by the Oscars, where it failed to even be nominated in a category it was expected to win. That said, “Bad Blood” was one of the most entertaining songs of the year, and brought together two artists that are usually hesitant with collaborations, and two artists who are otherwise competing tonight.

Should Be Nominated: Selena Gomez & A$ap Rocky, “Good For You.” Selena was among many former Disney stars who went through a whole career reboot this year, and the lead single from her great (and aptly named) album “Revival” is a sultry and engaging duet. Now, frankly, A$ap doesn’t help the song, and when it was released as a single, his verse was cut.

Best Rock Song: Nominees: Alabama Shakes, “Don’t Wanna Fight,” Elle King, “Ex’s and Oh’s,” Florence & the Machine, “What Kind of Man,” Highly Suspect, “Lydia,” James Bay, “Hold Back the River”

Will Win/Should Win: Alabama Shakes, “Don’t Wanna Fight”

I will hesitantly say that this one is almost guaranteed to the Shakes. “Don’t Wanna Fight” is not only one of the bluesiest and spine-tingling sons of the year, it’s one of the most this decade. Brittany Howard’s booming vocals are reminiscent of Ella or Aretha, but it a modern-tinged setting. It’s one of the best songs of the year, and the type of thing the Grammy’s love.

Should Be Nominated: After frustratingly finding out that Royal Blood’s “Figure It Out” was eligible last year, I’ll say Courtney Barnett’s “Pedestrian at Best.” It’s one of my favorites from the year. It would go under Best Alternative Song, but that’s not a category.

Best Rock Album: Nominees: James Bay, “Chaos and the Calm,” Death Cab For Cutie, “Kintsugi,” Highly Suspect, “Mister Asylum,” Slipknot, “.5: The Gray Chapter,” Muse, “Drones”

Will Win/Should Win: just throw a dart at the list/anything besides these nominees

Muse’s album was terrible, Death Cab’s album was worse. “Kintsugi” was the only album in 2015 I couldn’t make it through. Slipknot haven’t been relevant in years. I cannot say I am overly familiar with the music of Highly Suspect or James Bay and cannot comment on them further, I imagine they’re talented acts, to share the bill with three outdated artists. I have to make a prediction? Ugh. James Bay probably.

Should Be Nominated: METZ. Motorhead. Viet Cong. More than anyone else, Marilyn Manson.

Best Alternative Album: Nominees: Alabama Shakes, “Sound & Color,” Bjork, “Vulnicura,” My Morning Jacket, “The Waterfall,” Wilco, “Star Wars,” Tame Impala, “Currents”

Will Win/Should Win: Alabama Shakes, “Sound & Color

With all due respect to Wilco’s phenomenal album, this is again the Shakes’ to lose. I mean, it’s also nominated for Album of the Year, so it’s a surefire. Through and through, the best rock album of the year. Might as well take this time to highlight on of my favorite songs of the year, Tame Impala’s “Let It Happen,” which vaulted the album into nomination.

Should Have Been Nominated: How many times do I have to say this? Courtney Barnett, for “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit”

Best Rap Song: Nominees: Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen,” Kendrick Lamar, “Alright,” Common & John Legend, “Glory,” Drake, “Energy,” Kanye West, Theophilus London, Allan Kingdom & Paul McCartney, “All Day”

Will Win/Should Win: Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”

As much as I want to see Sir Paul McCartney pick up a Best Rap Song award, I don’t see the Grammy’s giving this to anyone other than Kendrick. His album is filled with topical and devastating muses on the state of black culture, and “Alright” cuts the deepest. It’s a true rap song for the ages. That said, if Fetty Wap wins, it is well deserved.

Should Have Been Nominated: anything from Nicki Minaj’s “The Pinkprint.” How about “Want Some More”?

Best Rap Album: Nominees: J. Cole, “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” Drake, “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late,” Dr. Dre, “Compton,” Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Nicki Minaj, “The Pinkprint”

Will Win/Should Win: Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly

Easy. This is a stacked category – really, these are all great albums – but Lamar is fighting T. Swift for Album of the Year, and none of these will stand in his way. His album is one of the greatest rap albums ever, and the Grammy’s owe him one from last time. That said, “Pinkprint” was my favorite album from last year, and a win for Nicki would be huge for her career.

Should Have Been Nominated: I don’t really have a true answer for this one so a personal pick, Heems, “Eat Pray Thug”

Record of the Year: Nominees: D’Angelo & the Vanguard, “Really Love,” Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk,” Ed Sheeran, “Thinking Out Loud,” Taylor Swift, “Blank Space,” The Weeknd, “Can’t Feel My Face”

Will Win/Should Win: The Weeknd, “Can’t Feel My Face”

So, let’s get this straight. I still don’t entirely understand the difference between this and the next category, Song of the Year. From my understanding, it relates to the overall production of a song, not just the writer/performer. All that said (or not said), The Weeknd made the best damn song of the year, and although he has competition here, I’m pulling for the Grammy’s picking him. It’s truly one of the grooviest songs in years.

Should Have Been Nominated: There’s a million answers to this. Elle King? I love “Ex’s and Oh’s.” The production on Bieber’s album was excellent too, it’s surprising not to see him nominated in this category.

Song of the Year: Nominees: Kendrick Lamar, “Alright,” Taylor Swift, “Blank Space,” Little Big Town, “Girl Crush,” Wiz Khalifa & Charlie Puth, “See You Again,” Ed Sheeran, “Thinking Out Loud”

Will Win/Should Win: Taylor Swift, “Blank Space”

This is a surprisingly weak category, given all of the great songs that came out this year. Khalifa could easily take it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Grammy’s give Swift this award as a consolation prize (see below). It is probably the best song of the bunch, and Swift is deserving of at least some awards for “1989,” which really is a great pop album. Maybe the name she’ll be writing is “Grammy” or something, sorry, that’s, never mind.

Should Have Been Nominated: Although chart success does not necessarily equate award success, there is a conspicuous lack of both “Uptown Funk” and “Can’t Feel My Face” from the list. The Weeknd deserves this award. End all, be all.

Album of the Year: Nominees: Alabama Shakes, “Sound & Color,” Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Chris Stapleton, “Traveller,” Taylor Swift, “1989,” The Weeknd, “Beauty Behind the Madness”

Will Win/Should Win: Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

I saved this for last because I truly cannot decide if I think the Grammy’s will give it to Kendrick or Taylor. No discredit to the other nominees, who are all very deserving, but this is a two-person fight. There’s some factors here: 1) The Grammy’s love Taylor, who released what might be her best album yet, 2) The Grammy’s know they messed up by not giving “good kid m.A.A.d city” Best Rap Album in 2013, 3) “To Pimp a Butterfly” is a much better album than “1989.” I think it’s going to go to Kendrick. There will be upset if he loses, although Swift also deserves the award. But man, it’s been years since there has been an album as politically relevant and important as Lamar’s. Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Vice, EW, Billboard, President Obama and me all agreed it was the best album of the year. If he doesn’t win this award, he’d better call for a permanent boycott of the Grammy’s. #GrammysSoWhite

Thanks for reading! Check back in tomorrow to see what I got right and what I got wrong. And tune in for next year’s coverage, to see how many awards Adele wins.

-By Andrew McNally

Ariana Grande – “My Everything”

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Problem” “Bang Bang”

There are certain singers and rappers that, when they show up on a track, are automatically going to outshine the star – Beyonce, Andre 3000, Nicki Minaj. The problem with Ariana Grande is that she’s shown up by everyone. Iggy Azalea, Big Sean, Zedd, Cashmere Cat, Childish Gambino, The Weeknd, A$ap Ferg and, in an excellent Deluxe Edition-only song, Juicy J and Minaj all make appearances and they all help otherwise mediocre songs excel. On the four songs where Grande stands alone (not counting an intro), she sounds like an empty copy of a different singer.

“My Everything” does have its moments, most of which being the quicker, more EDM-embracing songs. Despite my best efforts, local rap radio has forced me to love “Problem,” a song with beats bigger than Grande’s whole first album combined.  “Break Free,” with Zedd, “Hands On Me,” with A$ap Ferg and “Bang Bang,” with Juicy J and Nicki Minaj are in the same boat. They’re great, fun songs with crushing beats but inoffensive mission statements. When Grande lets loose and has some fun, the album does too. These four songs are well-positioned, too, saving bursts of energy to come up every few tracks instead of using it all up early. Of the ballads, and there are plenty, the most noteworthy one is “Love Me Harder,” collaboration with The Weeknd, which matches some great vocals with catchy beats.

The rest of the album isn’t bad – it doesn’t ask you to form any kind of opinion. Much of the album, even the better songs, goes in one ear and out the other; cheap entertainment that’s forgotten as soon as it’s over. Grande’s voice shines throughout, and it stays as bouncy and inoffensive as it can, which results in a generally fun listen. The real issue lies in Grande’s lack of identity. She can really sing, maybe even better than most other pop singers out there right now (saving you, Adele), but her ‘carefree, bubblegum’ identity was unfortunately worn out in the early-00′s. Pop singers nowadays have to establish their own, unique beings – Adele is a soulful, 60′s throwback, Lorde is a hip-hop inspired, minimalistic hip-hop basher, Lady Gaga is a theatrical and newsmaking shock. Grande is trying to establish herself as a straight pop singer, but to do that, she’s going to have to compete with the current queen – Katy Perry. And frankly, in this current music world, only one is going to be allowed continued success.

So “My Everything” isn’t bad, just forgettable and bland, and it is never sure of where it wants to be placed. Grande is still (very) young, and she’s still finding her place. Working with big names like Zedd and Minaj could still shape her place in a crowded music scene. But for now, she’s standing as a successful but unexciting singer, and her second album provides a safe, somewhat bland listen.

-By Andrew McNally