Monthly Report: December 2014 Albums

1. D'Angelo and the Vanguard - Black Messiah
Since the first few albums on this list already made my top 50 albums of 2014, I will attempt to say something here that I didn't already say there, especially since obviously it's been a couple weeks and my feelings about these records are still forming and changing. But Black Messiah, man, as much as I did not spend the last 14 years waiting around for this guy to come  back, I'm glad he did. It feels in some ways like a more open, warm album than Voodoo, where I'd been kind of worried he'd disappear further into that album's quirks on a follow-up. Just the variety of textures and grooves, the playful way "Betray My Heart" winds down, the chill-inducing strings on the "Really Love" intro, the incredible splashes of piano across "Another Life."

2. K. Michelle - Anybody Wanna Buy A Heart?
I feel like if the entertainment media's ankle-deep engagement with R&B ever got past "how can Beyonce be a feminist if she dances?" thinkpieces and, uh, "D'Angelo plays real instruments" snob shit, K. Michelle would emerge as a rightfully pivotal figure in R&B's sexual politics. Earlier in her career, she struck a lot of people as kind of a caricature of "ratchet" culture, but I feel like the depth of her work and how it engages with sex and gender relations, from "Can't Raise A Man" to her "Loyal" remix to a whole bunch of songs on this album (especially the single "Love 'Em All") display a perspective that's as thoughtful as it is unapologetic and brazen (her 2 albums are perhaps the only major label R&B albums I've ever seen with explicit lyric stickers but no guest rappers). The fact that this album was apparently written about an affair with one of our era's biggest sex symbols, Idris Elba, while he was having a baby by another woman, might lead easily to tabloid tawdriness or more "side chick" jokes, but the songs have a real emotional resonance beyond that stuff. I mean, one of the most poignant songs is called "Drake Would Love Me." It's a little weird to me how "Can I Borrow A Feeling?" the album title is, though.

3. Kevin Gates - Luca Brasi 2
For a while it seemed like dropping 2 albums a year could have both creative and commercial diminishing returns for Kevin Gates, but it feels like this one is a tipping point both in how famous he's becoming and in how perfectly he's honed his whole sound and persona. "I Don't Get Tired" is a pretty good attempt to spin a meme into a hit single (although it remains to be seen if it will become one), but "Perfect Imperfection" is even better as an attempt to put Kevin Gates and his very specific emotional space into a 4-minute nutshell. That stuff is more interesting than the already familiar mafia posturing of "Plug Daughter" and "John Gotti," but Gates does that stuff better than probably anyone else in rap right now.

4. Charli XCX - Sucker
I'm less than enamored of Charli XCX's bratty Veruca Salt vibe on the first few tracks on this album  -- "Break The Rules" was a pretty terrible single choice that seemed to stall all the commercial momentum built up by "Boom Clap," and I half expect her to start singing about she's not going to eat her vegetables or clean her room. But after the opening section of the album, it hits a more straightforward pop vibe and stays there, with the only misstep being the song that was written with Rivers Cuomo and sounds like it. "Doing It" is so insanely good, sounds like an actual pop jam without indie training wheels unlike everything else I've ever heard by Ariel Rechtshaid.

5. E-40 - Sharp On All 4 Corners (Deluxe Edition)
When E-40 started dropped albums 2 at a time (or even 3 at a time) a few years ago, each volume was bursting at the seams with close to 80 minutes of music. Since then, the CDs have gotten shorter, which at first felt like some kind of admission of defeat. But honestly I'm glad that I can sit down with these new albums that are 54 minutes long and get through them in one sitting without getting overwhelmed. And really I think there's more variation in the production here than there's been on his albums in a while. It's like DJ Mustard taking that post-Hyphy sound mainstream gave him space to experiment more instead of trying to play keep up with a sound he helped invent.

6. Nicki Minaj - The Pinkprint
This album has some great tracks but is ultimately frustrating just like Roman Reloaded was with the tracklist divided into demographically focused sections. Here even moreso because it seems like halfway through recording, she went through some shit and started making a breakup album, but instead of a full-on 808s & Heartbreak type record, those songs just bookend the album on tracks 1-3 and 14-16 and give a weird context to everything else. And I wish those songs made me feel something, but there's still something guarded and performative about her 'personal' lyrics that gives those songs a Hallmark card blandness. I hope she finds a way to make that stuff work better by album 4 or 5, like Beyonce did. But "Want Some More," "Big Daddy," "Feeling Myself," that's my shit. Even "The Night Is Still Young," that's one of her best dance pop songs to date.

7. J. Cole - 2014 Forest Hills Drive
On some level, this album is an impressive accomplishment. After outselling Kanye on his last album, J. Cole attempt to kind of pull a Yeezus by dropping an album on short notice with no advance singles and no radio-friendly guests. Except this time it actually worked out, and in just a month 2014 Forest Hills Drive outsold Born Sinner, Nicki's album, and every other rap album released last year. All of that feels important, vindicates Cole in some ways, and there are stretches of the album that rise to the occasion. But the guy has this weird sour persona and total lack of discernment between good and bad punchlines, he's his own worst enemy as far as deflating good songs with totally awful lyrics. And the fact that over 20% of the runtime is taken up by a "Last Call"-style audio liner notes finale just makes it feel like he's still not out of Kanye's shadow creatively.

8. Rome Cee - The GLIMPS(EP)
A few new songs from one of the best rappers in Baltimore, this is up on AudioMack and recommended. "Children of the Night" is the standout for me, but the whole thing is pretty solid.

9. Mike WiLL Made It - Ransom
At this point, I'm a lot more interested in hearing how a producer oversees a single artist project than their own compilation album -- i.e. the Rae Sremmurd album is more exciting than this to me for the same reason that the YG album was more exciting than DJ Mustard's own 10 Summers. This is dope, though, nice rotating cast of mostly not super famous rappers and some really great beats that suggest there's more mileage left in the Mike WiLL sound than I thought there was a few months ago. Gucci Mane's "Stop Start" is great, really ridiculous how much music he still has trickling out of the vault.

10. The Smashing Pumpkins - Monuments To An Elegy
Billy Corgan's existence at this point is mostly just the greatest punchline to the setup that was '90s alt rock boom. But I don't hold any ill will toward the guy, he really is one of the more talented guys to have become a superstar in that era, and the new music has its merits. This one is stronger than Oceania, mainly because Tommy Lee is a pretty great drummer and a much better Jimmy Chamberlain fill-in than the kid who was with the band for the last few years. It's also surprising to hear Corgan finally make a brief, economical record -- I wonder if Tommy was yelling at Billy to get to the hook and wrap it up, because only one song here goes over 4 minutes (and even then, by 9 seconds). Corgan's attempts to smooth out his vocal delivery make me miss the nasal bleat, but the songs have their moments. I like that the most enjoyable song has the title "Being Beige."

Worst Album of the Month: Wu-Tang Clan - A Better Tomorrow
I will say, this album probably isn't as bad as many people have made it out to be, and the okay Ghostface solo album isn't so much better than it than people have made it out to be. But it is interesting to hear an aging group that so many people still love and root for kind of bellyflop into something that pretty much none of the fanbase can bring itself to embrace -- not that different from the Smashing Pumpkins album, really. What's interesting to me, though, is that it's not just the awkward production that's turning people off -- this album tries really hard to be positive and uplifting and it feels like people are just rejecting that en masse. Even to a greater extent than Kendrick Lamar's "i," the overt attempt at a message like that is very polarizing. It makes me want to like the album more, but then again, it just doesn't sound very good and feels like a total internal collapse of what used to make Wu-Tang great.
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