Deep Album Cuts Vol. 9: Robin Thicke

Sunday, June 30, 2013

For most of his career, Robin Thicke has been successful but easily underestimated, embraced by R&B audiences but never one of its biggest stars, and held at arm's length by pop culture and the Top 40 world as kind of a funny curio, the scion of a sitcom star turned blue-eyed soul singer. And I kinda figured that's how it always would be, until a little song called "Blurred Lines" came along as a chart-topping megahit earlier this year, with the release of an album of the same name coming out in a few weeks. So I thought it'd be a good time to look at his vastly underrated back catalog, which I think has become pretty impressive over time, better than I've seen anyone give credit for.

When he started out over a decade ago, he was just plain 'Thicke,' and while he'd already displayed some songwriting talent, most notably on Jordan Knight's "Give It To You," I think he still had a long way to go at that point. His first album, A Beautiful World, is hampered by incredibly weak vocals -- he was 25 when it was released, but sounds much younger, singing in a higher register than he often does now, without the confident falsetto he'd soon master. Other than the single "When I Get You Alone," there are only a couple songs off the album that I could stomach enough to include here.

Resurfacing as Robin Thicke a couple years later, he was embraced by big stars like Lil Wayne and Pharrell Williams, who signed him to Star Trak. But in the 7 years between his first Neptunes-produced single for Star Trak, "Wanna Love You Girl," and now "Blurred Lines," Thicke was largely left to his own devices to write and produce nearly all of his own records with frequent collaborator Pro J. And he got pretty good -- expanded vocal range, and a stylistic range that included '70s soul, piano ballads, and lush bossa nova like his urban radio breakthough, "Lost Without U." His voice still sounded thin at time, his lyrics occasionally bordered on ridiculous, and he wasn't exactly reinventing the wheel, but his talent was undeniable, and I think he's just gotten better over the course of his career. So until Blurred Lines arrives, here's a look at the best of the first five albums, as a Spotify playlist:

Deep Album Cuts Vol. 9: Robin Thicke

1. I Need Love
2. Sidestep
3. Never Give Up
4. Ask Myself
5. What Would I Be?
6. Something Else
7. Jus Right
8. Flowers In Bloom
9. Hard On My Love
10. Make U Love Me
11. Would That Make U Love Me
12. Teach U A Lesson
13. I Don't Know How It Feels To Be U
14. Shadow of Doubt
15. Brand New Luv
16. Compass Or Map
17. Loverman
18. I'm 'A Be Alright
19. An Angel On Each Arm
20. Complicated
21. Cry No More

Tracks 8 and 18 from A Beautiful World (2003)
Tracks 1, 4, 11, 12 and 20 from The Evolution of Robin Thicke (2006)
Tracks 2, 6, 9, 14, 17 and 21 and from Something Else (2008)
Tracks 7, 10 and 15 from Sex Therapy: The Experience (2009)
Tracks 3, 5, 13, 16 and 19 from Love After War (2011)

Clearly, my favorite of the bunch is Something Else, which was on my list of favorite albums of the 2000s. It's a concise, self-contained 12-track album (even Lil Wayne's "Tie My  Hands," tacked onto the end a few months after it appeared on Tha Carter III, functions well as a closing track), with a little more uptempo funk and disco and rock in the mix than on his other albums. But Love After War and The Evolution, though much longer and with more missteps, are also pretty great.

In my mind, the only major misstep of his Star Trak catalog is Sex Therapy, which before Blurred Lines was his only album full of big name outside producers (although the buzz on the new one is very positive, so I remain optimistic). Aside from the chart-topping title track produced by Polow Da Don, most of the album is just kind of a mess, with guest rappers like Kid Cudi and Game and Nicki Minaj clashing badly with Thicke's sound. The album came in two editions -- Sex Therapy: The Session is the shorter one comprised almost entirely of tracks with guests, and Sex Therapy: The Experience is the longer deluxe edition that adds a few Thicke/Pro J productions. Two of the three tracks I picked from that album are only on the latter version.

Previous playlists in the Deep Album Cuts series:
Vol. 1: Brandy
Vol. 2: Whitney Houston
Vol. 3: Madonna
Vol. 4: My Chemical Romance
Vol. 5: Brad Paisley
Vol. 6: George Jones
Vol. 7: The Doors
Vol. 8: Jay-Z

Thursday, June 27, 2013
The Short List of concerts in Baltimore in this week's City Paper.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

I wrote a Complex list with even more room for argument than usual, 20 Horrible Songs Made By Great Rappers.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

I reviewed Wale's new album The Gifted for the Baltimore City Paper's Noise blog.

Monthly Report: June 2013 Singles

Sunday, June 23, 2013

1. Fantasia f/ Kelly Rowland and Missy Elliott - "Without Me"
I've already raved about Fantasia's album, and many recent singles produced by Harmony Samuels (by Ariana Grande, Sevyn Streeter, Keyshia Cole and others), but this song in particular is just incredible: lush and skeletal at the same time in a way that just sounds amazing in the car in the middle of the summer. I also just love the seething, imperious tone of the song, which all three vocalists nail in different but equally perfect ways. I'm curious if Missy wrote this -- obviously, she has a writing credit, but I don't know if it's just for her verse or if she came up with the hook and the concept and everything, which would make sense, it feels like it could've been one of those killer R&B deep cuts on her early albums. Listen to all of these on the Spotify playlist of my favorite 2013 singles.

2. Alicia Keys f/ Maxwell - "Fire We Make"
Maxwell's Blacksummers'night was a masterpiece, and it's really kinda driven me nuts that it's taken him 4 years and counting to continue what was supposed to be a trilogy of albums released in fairly closely together. So it's nice that there's at least been a little new music from him lately -- a great but far too short snippet of a new song called "Gods," and this duet where he predictably outsings and outclasses Leeshakeez, while still maintaining some semblance of aesthetic compatibility, if not chemistry per se. I haven't heard much by Gary Clark, Jr., but his cracked squealing guitar solo at the end of this song really does put a nice cap on it. Another great production from Pop & Oak, who did amazing work last year with Miguel and Elle Varner.

3. Paramore - "Still Into You"
This is a perfect power pop song, which in proud power pop tradition means it is just out of step enough with actual trends in both pop radio and rock radio to not be much of a hit, which is frustrating. Especially because that other emo comeback act with a recent #1 album, Fall Out Boy, have managed a big Top 40 hit with something I don't like as much or consider remotely as accessible. Here's hoping "Ain't It Fun" is the next single and becomes the massive crossover hit it deserves to be.

4. Gloriana - "Can't Shake You"
This has been a serious serious sleeper hit on country radio -- it recently peaked on Billboard's country airplay chart in its 37th week on the chart, but it never quite got into the top 10, and has already started to wane. Really hits the same kind of vibe as Lady Antebellum's best singles, which is nice since their own recent singles have been garbage.

5. The Neighbourhood - "Sweater Weather"
After years of old-ass '90s bands running alt-rock radio, there's a lot of new blood these days, but that's not always a good thing. It feels like now the rock charts are constantly being dominated by these random new bands (as in, like newer than Imagine Dragons even) like Capital Cities, New Politics, Atlas Genius that I really can't be bothered to learn much about or even muster any real hate for besides changing the station when they come on. This song has grown on me, though, ironically hitting its stride just as sweater weather was ending. It really seemed to come out of nowhere, though -- it hit #1 on the Alternative chart before I really could hum it, and right after that was when my local rock station started running 'new music' bumpers featuring the song.

6. Brad Paisley - "Beat This Summer"
Where "Sweater Weather" ended up kind of taking so long to peak that it missed the perfect seasonal timing, Paisley managed to calibrate things pretty well with "Beat This Summer." I remember hearing the song on the radio for the first time in early March and thinking he jumped the gun, but here we are in June and it's saturating the airwaves at just the right time.

7. Nicki Minaj f/ Lil Wayne - "High School"
One thing that I think has been glossed over a bit in all the debates and thinkpieces about Nicki Minaj 'going pop' is that it actually didn't work out that well for her to focus on Top 40 instead of urban radio. "Starships" was as big a pop hit as "Super Bass," but her second album sold half as much as her first. And the big difference, I think, was that Pink Friday had 5 big urban radio hits, and Roman Reloaded only had one. "High School" is not exactly a real rap mea culpa, but it definitely feels like one of the only songs suited to the format that she's had in a while, and her first verse is some of the best plain old rapping with no crazy accents or vocal pyrotechnics that she's ever done, she just tells a story with enough attitude and personality to make it compelling. Of course, this song has already started to lose steam at radio, but it really is good.

8. Emeli Sande - "Next To Me"
I guess she's big in England, which as usual means I'm happy to ignore her until a song is big in the U.S. and good enough to grab me by the lapels and win me over. A little basic and saccharine (is she their Alicia Keys?), but the heft of the production really works.

9. Tim McGraw f/ Taylor Swift and Keith Urban - "Highway Don't Care"
I still can only handle Taylor Swift in small doses, a single here or there, so I like when she has these little minor cameos in songs like this and John Mayer's "Half of My Heart" that really flatter her voice. I also like how Keith Urban has a 3rd wheel guitar solo on the vocal duet just like Gary Clark, Jr. on the Alicia/Maxwell song.

10. Leah Labelle - "Lolita"
With Pharrell suddenly ubiquitous again thanks to Robin Thicke and Daft Punk, big stars are actually looking to him for hits for the first time in years, and it's quickly becoming apparent that his batting average hasn't improved much. But this is a decent single from an early American Idol also-ran who had another good overlooked Pharrell-produced single last year.

Worst single of the month: B.o.B. f/ T.I. and Juicy J - "We Still In This Bitch"
Mike Will Made It has had a really incredible string of hits over the past year, to the point that I've literally had one of his productions in these posts every month for 6 months straight -- "Neva End" then "Show Out" then "Bugatti" then "Kisses Down Low" then "Love Me" then "Body Party." So it seems like time to admit that he can do wrong, and while the Miley Cyrus single is really probably the worst pop hit of the year, I feel like singling this one out because I'm just appalled that B.o.B's return to rap radio was more craven and pandering than his pop crossover, and that urban radio actually welcomed him back. The production isn't even any good, it sounds like Mike started making a beat and then they laid their verses before he got around to finishing it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013
This week's Short List.

Monday, June 17, 2013

I reviewed Kanye West's Yeezus for the Baltimore City Paper, and it is a long one, I had fun writing it.

Monthly Report: May 2013 Albums

Sunday, June 16, 2013

1. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
I'm not a big dance music head, but I fuck with Daft Punk, which I suppose makes me like a really huge number of people. But I'm not that fanatical about it, they just clearly have a good ear and make some jams. And I think I'm probably more open to this album, or at least put less pressure on myself to enjoy it, than a lot of those folks, because I don't really give a damn either way and don't worship Discovery so much that I need another. So I like this chill disco prog album they made -- there are really several stretches of it that basically make me feel like I'm listening to Trans Am, who really have kind of a similar approach to creating tributes/pastiches to some of the same influences, and I'm surprised nobody else has picked up on that. "Fragments of Time" is definitely my favorite of the vocal tracks on here, besides "Get Lucky," although I would've been fine with this being more of an instrumental record overall (or at least no Strokes and Animal Collective lames). This just makes me want Nile Rodgers to have some big full album vehicle right now, though.

2. Dungeonesse - Dungeonesse
I already reviewed this album so I don't know if I have a lot else to say about it, but I'll just re-iterate that I'm a huge fan of everybody involved in this album and really think they went hard on this shit and did something better than the 'oh indie people doing pop/R&B' boilerplate responses it's been getting really warrant. The vocal arranging is fantastic, the beats go all over the place and don't just go through simple loops or offer some condescending idea of 'catchy' music that you often get in projects in this vein.

3. Tricky - False Idols
Like a lot of people, I got off the bus with Tricky a long time ago -- last album I heard before this was Juxtapose, which was, jeez, 5 albums ago. So I'm not qualified to call this a 'comeback' or not, but I'm enjoying it, at least once I get past the way it opens with another stupid semi-cover, this time of Patti Smith's "Gloria." He still has a unique way of putting together sounds that's distinctly Tricky, it's nice to hear that still in tact, the mid-album stretch with "If I Only Knew" and "Is That Your Life" is pretty great.

4. Little Mix - DNA
I liked their stateside semi-hit "Wings" enough to check out the belated U.S. release of this Brit's group album, and it's full of similar tracks that make me kind of nostalgic for the sound of American pop R&B in the early 2000s and late '90s. The harmonies aren't anything special and no one voice really leaps out, sometimes it sounds like they're so afraid of sounding too British that they don't let much personality come out, and none of the songs here are classics, but it's still pretty damn bubbly and enjoyable.

5. Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood - Black Pudding
After last year's great Lanegan solo album that kinda put his voice into some new, weirdly modern contexts, he sounds good back here in a dark dusty acoustic environment. Nothing special, really, but the record has some great ambiance, "Mescalito" sounds amazing.

6. Hustle Gang - G.D.O.D. (Get Dough Or Die)
There was a point a few years ago, before T.I. did his time and everything stalled out, where Grand Hustle had some really huge potential as a rap label: Young Dro still had some commercial potential, B.o.B hadn't turned out to be a cornball yet, they had Meek Mill waiting in the wings, 8Ball & MJG were on the team. So there's something really anti-climactic about T.I. finally focusing on the roster now that some of those guys are gone and everyone else has lost momentum. It's nice that they have Trae in the mix now too, though. This tape is actually pretty dope, especially with Dro dominating things way more than I expected him to.

7. Spencer Owen - iTunes Changed My Life
I've been friendly with Spencer Owen in online music nerd circles for, wow, over a decade now, he's a bit younger than me but always seemed like a smart kid with a good sense of humor. Recently on Twitter he linked this record he made I guess a few years ago but just released on Bandcamp, which is a collaboration with Morgan Klein (who I met a while back when I interviewed Beauty Pill and he was there as a photographer, and we had a moment of 'oh hey, you know Spencer Owen!?'). It's a really jokey and strange and surreal album, to a point that I sometimes find off-putting, but also in parts sounds really good and unique and I'm impressed by it.

8. various artists - The Music of Nashville Original Soundtrack Volume 2
I've fallen behind on a lot of TV shows in the past few months, and I feel bad about not keeping up with Nashville in the second half of the season at all, because it really was one of the best new shows of the fall, and I'd like to keep watching, but I don't know if I'll ever catch up at this point. And one of the reasons I like it is that the music has been pretty consistently impressive (although man, Connie Britton is really just not up to pulling off the superstar she's supposed to be with her voice, they should be dubbing her vocals). So at least I can dig these soundtrack albums. A couple weeks ago, I worked at the Ford's Theatre Annual Gala, and one of the performances was Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio doing a couple songs from the show ("Fade Into You" from this album, and "When The Right One Comes Along" from the first soundtrack), they sounded really great. This album has a cover of "Ho Hey" on it but otherwise is a pretty strong listen.

9. Eve - Lip Lock
I always thought Eve was a pretty dope rapper, and it's a shame that when her career took a downturn she couldn't even get that last album released with a fairly big hit like "Tambourine" and just went away for ages. Coming back with a wannabe-mainstream independent album like this is kinda weird, though -- she could made any record she wants, and put the dude from Cobra Starship on the hook of one of the first singles for some kind of misguided attempt at pop crossover. Most of the record is pretty good, though -- "She Bad Bad" and "Wanna Be" and "Grind Or Die" and a lot of other tracks are just Eve flowing hard over harsh synth beats.

10. French Montana - Excuse My French
For the past year or two I've been kind of turning up my nose at the whole premise of French as a national star, especially once he started having his own hits that he was on about as much as DJ Khaled. But since the album turned out not to sell like gangbusters, I can kind of enjoy it on its own merits as a record full of dumb bangers. Plus it's cool that a couple of talented Baltimore cats like J. Oliver and Los are on this record.

Worst album of the month: The-Dream - IV Play
I've never been a huge fan of The-Dream as an artist -- he's got some undeniable classics as a writer, but his first two albums worked largely in spite of his Winnie The Pooh voice and deeply unlikable personality. This album isn't as bad as 1977, but it's still pretty curdled and charmless, dude just does not have the hooks like he used to, and can't make beats as well without his old co-producers, Tricky Stewart and Los Da Mystro. There's some OK songs (wish the one with Kelly Rowland was just saved for her album), but this is way worse than Love King, which I expected this to be on par with.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Rapman Ron, who you may remember as Ron G. from Mania Music Group, released an excellent free album, Me, My Green & Irene, and I wrote about it on the City Paper's Noise blog.

Movie Diary

Friday, June 14, 2013

a) This Is The End
I went to the movies the other day to kill time during a long job break, and went theater skipping after the first movie and wandered into this one after it already started. But that was kind of fine with me, since the first 1/3rd or so that I missed was the stuff they establish in the trailer and I got to see all the random other shit that happens. It really was like a long, expensive Funny Or Die sketch. There were a few laughs but also just a lot of 'here are the exact jokes you'd expect, along with a handful of really crazy over the top surprises that are also totally in character.' These guys really love to make movies that eventually just break down into constant arguing. Jonah Hill was definitely the funniest in this movie, just the way he was playing 'himself,' and what happens to his character. A few things got funnier at the end as it escalated, but mostly it was a bunch of stupid bullshit.

b) Iron Man 3
This was the movie I paid to see before wandering into the other one. I'd been really looking forward to Shane Black reuniting with Robert Downey, Jr. for this because Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a new classic as far as I'm concerned. This wasn't quite as snappy and breezy as I kind of expect from Black, though, at times it even felt heavier and less charming than the first Iron Man movie. Still, a pretty solid sequel, and the stuff with Ben Kingsley was pretty great.

c) The Campaign
These Ferrell/McKay movies are generally always good but get better with repeat viewings. So this didn't really hook me at first, and I don't even know what I'd be quoting or fondly remembering after catching it for the third time, but there were some funny moments.

d) Magic Mike
I thought this worked much better as a kind of low stakes slice of life story, before they introduced the kind of contrived Conflict and Danger in the second half. But in general it was pretty good -- Soderbergh's gift for awkward, genuine-feeling moments of dialogue came out really strongly, and was weirdly added by how Cody Horn had zero screen presence, and just seemed like a person, not an actor.

e) Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World
That other recent apocalypse comedy. I had no reason to expect this to be good, and maybe it wasn't and my weakness for sadsack Steve Carrell movies just knows no bounds. But really, it was nice, especially given the fact that it had the same screenwriter as Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, one of the worst movies I've ever seen. Nice ensemble, lotta fun bit parts, and I like that the ad campaign downplayed the relationship between Carrell and Keira Knightley so it kind of catches you off guard by not taking too predictable a path, even if the ending is pretty sappy.

f) Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
I tried to watch this for LOLs but there were no LOLs to be found.

g) That's My Boy
I tried to hatewatch this but it wasn't even demonstrably worse than all the Adam Sandler movies that were actually successful. It's pretty weird to see something that actually seems beneath Andy Samberg's usual intellectual standards.

h) Chernobyl Diaries
This was okay, not more tension or scares since you kinda know it's going to get gorey, but there were a few good unexpected moments, and they didn't pull their punches.

i) Think Like A Man
Pretty decent ensemble rom com, lots of likable people going through the predictable motions, although whoever's idea it was to make Kevin Hart not just the comic relief but the narrator should be shot. He basically shouts over the whole movie.

j) The Last Days Of Disco
Whit Stillman feels like the godfather of a lot of the kinds of movies I can't stand, but I think I actually like his stuff. Or at least, I liked Metropolitan when I saw it, and the other day I finally watched this, after seeing the trailer a a hundred times because it was at the beginning of a VHS I used to watch a lot (I think Zero Effect). Liked the whole ambiance of it, the way it captured the era without exaggerating it with cartoony clothes.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

In this week's Baltimore City Paper, I wrote The Short List and the Rap Sheet column, which features news about Rye Rye, J. Oliver, Kenton Dunson and Rickie Jacobs.

Deep Album Cuts Vol. 8: Jay-Z

Sunday, June 09, 2013

In the first entry of this series, as I laid out the idea of 'deep album cuts' mixes and what artists would be a good fit for them, I actually singled out Jay-Z as one example of an artist I wouldn't want to include -- namely, because he's revered as an 'album artist,' and you don't really have to work hard to make an argument for the worth of his non-singles even though he has huge hits. But since I'm currently running a poll of Jay-Z's best tracks (feel free to vote!), I've been poring over his catalog yet again, trying to dig for the few songs in his incredibly revered career that you could actually justifiably call 'underrated' (my pick for most underrated Jay song: Scarface's "Get Out").

So I decided that the way to do this is to go really deep -- you could easily make a mix of Jay-Z album tracks that pretty much any rap fan knows by heart, a collection that rivals any other rapper's greatest hits. Concert staples and fan favorites like "Public Service Announcement," "Where I'm From," "Can I Live," "U Don't Know," "This Can't Be Life"...I don't really need to speak up on those songs' behalf. So I went way deeper -- basically, my criteria was looking at each album on Spotify sorted by popularity, and if a song was in the top half, it wasn't eligible.

Here's the playlist, now on TIDAL, because that's the only place that streams all of these albums now:

Deep Album Cuts Vol. 8: Jay-Z

1. Regrets
2. Rap Game/Crack Game
3. A Week Ago featuring Too $hort
5. Streets Is Talking featuring Beanie Sigel
6. All I Need
7. Some People Hate
8. December 4th
9. Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)
10. Friend Or Foe
11. Friend Or Foe '98
12. Show You How
13. It's Hot (Some Like It Hot)
14. Face Off featuring Sauce Money
15. Ride Or Die
16. Parking Lot Pimpin' featuring Lil Mo, Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek
17. Coming Of Age featuring Memphis Bleek
18. All Around The World featuring LaToiya Williams
19. You Must Love Me
20. Come And Get Me

Tracks 1, 10 and 17 from Reasonable Doubt (1996)
Tracks 2, 11, 14 and 19 from In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997)
Tracks 3 and 15 from Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life (1998)
Tracks 4, 13 and 20 and from Vol. 3... Life And Times Of S. Carter (1999)
Tracks 5 and 16 from The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)
Tracks 6 and 9 from The Blueprint (2001)
Tracks 7, 12 and 18 from The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse (2002)
Tracks 8 from The Black Album (2003)

As you'll note, I limited this to pre-"retirement" albums. As far as I'm concerned, those first 8 albums are all varying degrees of classic, and none of the albums since has been half as good as the weakest of these. Jay still occasionally does good work by any reasonable standard, but he's Jordan with the Wizards to me, now and forever. If I was to include post-'03 stuff, I suppose I could go for "Trouble" or "New Day," but fuck it.

Indisputable classics like The Blueprint and Reasonable Doubt, it's hard to cherrypick anything that's substantially less canon than the rest of the songs, but I think "All I Need" is pretty unfairly ignored. Mostly, though, I enjoy spotlighting albums that are somewhat maligned but full of songs I love, especially my first Jay album, Vol. 1, which is basically all fire besides the 3 songs that ruined its rep. "Rap Game/Crack Game" is probably his most slept on album track, in terms of how good it is relative to how much people rep for it, goes back to the Illmatic sample well of "Dead Presidents" but with a completely different vibe. Blueprint 2, for all its many flaws, has tons of bangers, in typical double album fashion. "Some People Hate" is one of Kanye's sickest beats ever. "Show You How" always feels like a major record because of how Jay keeps referencing it on lesser songs like "La La La" and "Suit & Tie," but it really doesn't get enough respect.

I wish there was more Dynasty on here, but most of my favorite songs off that ("This Can't Be Life," "1-900-Hustler," "Soon You'll Understand," etc.) are in the top half of the Spotify rankings, so according to my self-imposed rules they're out. "Streets Is Talking" is a pretty fantastic track for being a de facto sequel to a much earlier song, though, and "Parking Lot Pimpin'" feels like a secret jam ever since Jay made the (admittedly correct) last minute decision to pull it as a single and release "I Just Wanna Love U" instead.

Previous playlists in the Deep Album Cuts series:
Vol. 1: Brandy
Vol. 2: Whitney Houston
Vol. 3: Madonna
Vol. 4: My Chemical Romance
Vol. 5: Brad Paisley
Vol. 6: George Jones
Vol. 7: The Doors

Saturday, June 08, 2013

I wrote on the City Paper's Noise blog about The Holy Karon's new video, "Luci."

The 2013 Remix Report Card, Vol. 4

Friday, June 07, 2013

"Bad (Remix)" by Wale featuring Rihanna / "Bad (OG)" by Tiara Thomas
"Bad" has had kind of a weird path to these two new versions released this week -- first, Tiara Thomas released "Bad" as a great solo track to little notice. Then, Wale added verses to it and made it his single and it blew up. Then Rihanna, the biggest star whose voice most resembles Tiara Thomas's, jumped on the official remix, at the same time that Thomas signed a major label deal (not with Wale's camp), and released a new solo version of "Bad" that's different from the pre-Wale original. The Rihanna version is OK, adds some "Loveeeeeee Song"-style synths that almost make it kind of a mashup of her current hit with Wale's, but again, Rihanna's voice and delivery are so close to the original that it's a little superfluous. Even Wale basically just spits the same verses as before, but in a slightly different take with Rihanna jumping in. I applaud Thomas for pushing her own version, but this new one is just not as good as the original by a long shot, the changes to the beat and even the guitar riff just don't hit the spot.
Best Verse: n/a
Overall Grade: B- / C

"Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe (International Remix)" by Kendrick Lamar featuring Emeli Sande
After the big event Jay-Z remix, this is really pretty pointless, and just repeats the Kendrick verses from the album version with an obnoxious new hook. Mostly it just reminds me of that terrible-sounding Lady Gaga version of the song that almost ended up being on the album.
Best Verse: n/a
Overall Grade: D

"Body Party (Remix)" by Ciara featuring Future and B.o.B
Man, what kinda awkward-ass remix is this? Future does a proper guest spot after writing and doing some backup vocals on the original, and even opens the track saying "it's just me and you." But instead of it just being a duet with his boo, B.o.B comes in as a third wheel? Who thought that was a good idea? Bringing the track up to Ghost Town DJs tempo is pretty obvious, but it works.
Best Verse: n/a
Overall Grade: B

"Crazy Kids (Remix)" by Ke$ha featuring / Juicy J / Pitbull
Ke$ha's latest single had no guest rapper on the album version, but has been released in three different versions with guest rappers, leading to the amusing Billboard chart entry for the song that says "featuring or Juicy J." The verse is pretty stupidly entertaining for the way he mumbles the last bar or two, but I kinda like hearing Juicy J on pop tracks more now than a few years ago when Three 6 was doing that sketchy "Lolli Lolli" shit. But you really have to hear the Pitbull one just for his opening couple bars about mustard and ketchup. His verse is pretty wonderfully shameless, too. 
Best Verse: Pitbull
Overall Grade: C / C / C+ 

"I Hit It First (Remix)" by Ray J featuring Uncle Murda, Dorrough, Clyde Carson and Uiiee Popcorn Man
Just the existence of this song is funny. Add to that this hilarity of there being a random grab bag posse cut remix featuring NYC gangsta rap also-ran Uncle Murda, one hit wonder Dorrough of "Ice Cream Paint Job Fame," nu-Bay rapper Clyde Carson, and someone named Uiiee Popcorn Man... But when I actually heard Uncle Murda's verse on this, I was nearly in tears, I swear: "Ray J a fool for this one/ Kanye ain't gon' be cool with this one (you know Kanye!)/ Ray said this ain't about Kim K/ Everybody know this record bout Kim K (everybody!)/ The video girl look like Kim K (ahhhhh!)/ I'm waitin' to hear a response from Kanye (can't wait!)."
Best Verse: Uncle Murda
Overall Grade: B+

"Karate Chop (Remix)" by Future featuring French Montana, Birdman and Rick Ross
Pity poor Casino, man. His verse on the original "Karate Chop" was so bad that even when Lil Wayne replaced him on the first remix with one of the most offensive lyrics in rap history, nobody once suggested putting Casino back on the record. And now we've got a pile-on of more people who aren't Casino, none of whom are remotely qualified to toy with Future's flow on this song. In a way I respect Birdman most for not really bothering with it and mostly rapping in a more rhythmically straightforward flow.
Best Verse: Birdman
Overall Grade: C

"Money Dance" by King L featuring Yo Gotti and French Montana
I don't follow the new Chicago rap wave that much, but I like King L, "Val Venis" was dope. This record I'm not as into, but it has potential, would be kind of a shame if it went national with such mediocre guests. French is even worse than usual here.
Best Verse: King L
Overall Grade: D

"Tonight I'm Getting Over You (Remix)" by Carly Rae Jepsen featuring Nicki Minaj
She's already since moved on to pushing a stupid new single, but as recently as a month ago Carly Rae's label was still desperately trying for the love of Carly Rae J to make something on her album besides "Call Me Maybe" and the Owl City joint pop off. I never really liked this song, and the millionth identical Nicki verse doesn't really help.
Best Verse: n/a
Overall Grade: C

"Twerk It (Remix)" by Busta Rhymes featuring Nicki Minaj
For the last couple weeks I've been kind of on the fence about whether I love or hate "Twerk It," still not really sure, but I kind of appreciate it for what it is, it's kind of a singular record but feels very of the moment. Which, hey, at Busta's age, good for him. But it almost feels like a step back to throw Nicki on the track, since it's such an on-the-nose choice to put her on a wacky twerking-themed song full of Caribbean patois. In fact, I kind of expected her to take the song over completely in the tradition of "Dance (A$$)," but her verse is actually really awkward and forgettable. Hopefully this remix doesn't take the place of the original in anyone's rotation.
Best Verse: n/a
Overall Grade: F

"Work (Remix)" by A$AP Ferg featuring A$AP Rocky, French Montana, Trinidad James and ScHoolboy Q
Ferg is terrible on the original "Work," so I will give him a lot of credit for going in and recording a new verse to open the remix that is actually a total improvement. French is hilarious for basically admitting that he bit his most famous ad lib: "HAHHH...That ain't Kanye/ That's Montana." ScHoolboy Q is probably my least favorite rapper in the game that people seem to respect, I don't really hear any talent there when he raps and there's something really off-putting about his whole personality.
Best Verse: A$AP Ferg
Overall Grade: B-

Thursday, June 06, 2013

My latest piece for Complex Magazine is a doozy: Hip-Hop's Catchiest Choruses Since 2000. Really got to just go off on 50 songs that I love and/or have heard a million times.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013
This week's Short List.

Monthly Report: May 2013 Singles

Sunday, June 02, 2013

1. Robin Thicke f/ T.I. and Pharrell Williams - "Blurred Lines"
"Blurred Lines" is the second Robin Thicke song that has been produced by Pharrell Williams, the first being 2006's "Wanna Love You Girl." This is notable because the latter was Thicke's first single for Pharrell's label Star Trak, and he is at this point Star Trak's top selling and most consistently successful act. Thicke largely produces his albums himself (with production partner Pro J), but even the exception, 2009's hitmaker-heavy Sex Therapy, had no Neptunes tracks. I don't know why that is, and given Pharrell's output since 2006, it's probably a good idea, I just find it interesting (it's possible Thicke's signing was a marriage of convenience to begin with, like when Jimmy Iovine signed Slim Thug and, having no idea what to do with a Houston rapper, sent him to Pharrell). In any event, they seem to have genuine chemistry on this track, which just seemed like the most fun thing in the world when the video surfaced out of nowhere a few months ago. The subsequent x-rated cut of the video (which, with all the women in the video and all the men still fully clothed, made the playful sexuality of the original video suddenly seem more skeevy) and the cut that reveals the whole thing as an excuse to make an ad for RadioShack should maybe take some luster off the appeal of the whole thing, but the song just sounds better and better. Listen to the Spotify playlist of all my favorite 2013 singles so far.

2. Sevyn Streeter - "I Like It"
I was just raving about Harmony Samuels last week, and this is one of the first tracks I'd play if I was trying to explain to someone how great he is. Sevyn Streeter was in the Rich Harrison-backed girl group RichGirl that never went anywhere, more because of the commercial climate for girl groups than their material I think, but this is better than anything they did anyway. The follow-up single "It Won't Stop" has a different, slower vibe but is also really good, hope it's another hit.

3. Muse - "Panic Station"
Muse have always been shameless hacky pastiche artists, and sometimes that can be a lot of fun. This song is a mess of '80s signifiers, putting Faith No More "We Care A Lot" basslines and "Thriller" vocal melodies over Billy Squier drums, mining a slightly different vein of the decade that's less obvious than when they go straight to the Queen jugular of the '70s.

4. Ciara - "Body Party"
I don't think this song is quite as amazing as a lot of people do -- it's a bit on the nose, and not as much of a gamechanger as several other things Future and/or Mike Will have done in the past year, but it's still pretty great.

5. RaVaughn - "Best Friend"
I've heard this on the radio just a couple times, but every time it's just beautiful and arresting, and it took me a couple times to figure out how the hell RaVaughn's name was pronounced to find out more about her. Apparently she's a new artist signed with Ne-Yo, really hope this song blows up. I was kind of disappointed to hear the unedited version, though, the random f-bombs in choruses are a little played out now.

6. Gunplay - "Bible On The Dash"
It's kind of annoying how Gunplay continues to be 'one hit away' from his buzz really hitting another level, given some of the great songs he's got. Obviously this isn't a no-brainer radio song, but it is a great one and I'm glad it's starting to get some buzz, the first time I heard it on the radio it sounded great.

7. Vicci Martinez f/ Cee-Lo Green - "Come Along"
I only watch "The Voice" sporadically, even though it's a pretty enjoyable show, because it has felt so low stakes given the lack of any notable careers being launched from it (and Javier Colon's album was pretty good, poor guy). So I only vaguely remember seeing Vicci Martinez on the show whichever season she was a runner-up, and apparently she got a deal and an album released last year despite not winning, but for some reason this song only got a video recently and I just started hearing it on the radio a little. Having a single featuring her mentor from the show is a gimme, I guess, but this song is easily the best thing I've heard from Cee-Lo in a while, although it's definitely her show primarily and would be just about as good without him on it.

8. Kacey Musgraves - "Blowin' Smoke"
Same Trailer Different Park is probably my album of the year so far and almost every song is fantastic, so it's frustrating to see the second single not make the same impact "Merry Go Round" made. It's not as singular but it is pretty remarkable in its own way -- the fact that it's kind of the 'rocker' of the album just underlines how dry her whole sound is. It's so easy to imagine how an unsubtle Gretchen Wilson-type sassy redneck belter would sell this song, but Musgraves just tosses out every line with a wry smile over this loose, almost Stonesy groove. The lyrics also remind me a lot of some places I worked when I was younger, and some women I worked with.

9. Gary Allan - "Pieces"
Months ago, I wrote about Allan's album and shouted out this song as a personal favorite, before I knew it was gonna be a single. Sounds really great on the radio.

10. Charlie Wilson - "Turn Off The Lights"
Same time that I wrote about the Gary Allan album, I also said that "Turn Off The Lights" was a standout on Uncle Charlie's album, not knowing it would be a single either. Love when that happens.

Worst single of the month: Icona Pop f/ Charli XCX - "I Love It"
I don't care. I hate it. I don't care.