Monthly Report: January 2015 Albums

1. Dawn Richard - Blackheart
She's already one of my favorite artists of the last 5 years just off of the strength of Diddy-Dirty Money and her early solo projects, but I have to admit, I was starting to lose some interest in Dawn Richard. Goldenheart was good but felt a bit like a holding pattern after Armor On. Then came her split with the producer of those projects, Druski, and then the doomed Danity Kane reunion, and the plastic surgery that made her face unrecognizable, and I didn't really know what to expect anymore. But man, this album is a motherfucker. Totally turns her sound inside out and takes her established vocal sound and melodic style and puts it in a bold new context. Parts of the album work better than others, and it's pretty long, but the section with "Billie Jean" and "Adderall / Sold (Outerlude)" alone makes it one of the more exciting albums I've heard lately. Here's my running Spotify playlist of 2015 albums I've been listening to that has most of these in it.

2. Rae Sremmurd - Sremmlife
It's so rare these days that you get a major label debut rap album before you've had a chance to already go through several waves of interest and disinterest -- barring a Mike WiLL Made It compilation appearance here and there, nobody heard of Rae Sremmurd 8 months ago, and now here they are with two great Top 40 hits and no mixtape to unflatteringly compare the album to. In a way I'm less impressed with what they do on the album than what they don't get wrong -- I like "No Flex Zone" and "No Type," so here they are with 9 other songs that are enjoyable in the same way. There are some surprises, though -- "This Could Be Us" and "Come Get Her" are melodic tracks without R&B singer assistance that end up being some of the best tracks, and that almost never happens. And even when big stars show up, they're rappers with weird high-pitched voices who make sense in Rae Sremmurd's orbit (Big Sean, Young Thug, Nicki Minaj).

3. Fall Out Boy - American Beauty/American Psycho
With "Centuries" becoming the band's first top ten hit in 8 years, it really feels like Fall Out Boy are enjoying this major second wind that mainstream rock bands rarely get. And usually that era doesn't end up being nearly as good as the early days or missing something important about their musical identity (thinking of, like, post-rehab Aerosmith here). And while this stuff is definitely different from the From The Cork Tree era (and I remain a huge fan of the band's commercial nadir, Folie a Deux), I really dig this stuff for what it is. In some ways they're a stranger and more unique band now for the way they've managed to survive in the pop world, guyliner poster boys doing jock jams for sportscasts. And this album has a lot of beautiful midtempo stuff after the initial blast of anthems is over. It really alarmed me to learn that the American Beauty half of the album title is a tip of the hat to the Grateful Dead and not the Kevin Spacey movie, though.

4. Jazmine Sullivan - Reality Show
Back in 2010, Jazmine Sullivan released Love Me Back, an amazing album that I thought capitalized on all the promise of her debut while dropping its shortcomings. A few weeks later, she announced that she was "taking a break from music," which was really heartbreaking. I'm glad she finally came back around, even if it took this long, and the industry is showing her even less love than it did back then. In a way it brings back a lot of the eccentricities and conceptual ambitions of her debut and pulls them off with more aplomb, it's not all straight faced first person autobiographical stuff like you often get in R&B. At first I thought Reality Show was kind of a bland unimaginative title, but it made more sense when I read that she got inspired for the album while watching reality shows. It kinda makes this album like a flipside to the also great new K. Michelle album, an introspective record from an actual reality show star vs. Jazmine Sullivan giving her own reflection on that world through the eyes of a viewer.

5. DJ Chris J - Club Going Up Volume #1
The first new mix in a while from one of Baltimore club's most underrated mixtape DJs, I mentioned it in my last BPM column, but I didn't get to work in a link to the mix itself, which is here. It's 90 minutes long and almost a little overwhelming, but has a ton of great tracks, some of which I hadn't heard before and some that have been floating around for a minute. DJ AngelBaby also had a good new mix out in January.

6. The Honest Mistakes - Get It Right
The Honest Mistakes are a long-running Baltimore indie rock band that I've seen live once or twice and am in kinda the same social circle with, put out a great-sounding new album recorded at Magpie Cage. I haven't listened to it enough to form too much of an opinion yet but "It's Hard" is definitely the standout track for me.

7. Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love
I've never totally appreciated Sleater-Kinney the way a lot of people do. The Hot Rock is my favorite album by them, which is not really a consensus choice, and while I love Janet Weiss's drumming and Corin Tucker's wail, I don't tend to spend a lot of time with their catalog and wasn't holding my breath for them to come back. But I am happy to see them come back and pretty much nail it, sounding more comfortable with their sound than they did when they left off with The Woods. "A New Wave" is probably my favorite on this one.

8. Ne-Yo - Non-Fiction
In my recent post about Ne-Yo deep cuts, I made the argument that his albums have different strengths and weaknesses but are all roughly equally good. And I think this album bears that out, because the songs are all pretty uniformly good, the album is just let down by poor sequencing and an abundance of momentum-stalling spoken interludes. Back when Ne-Yo had the whole goofy comic book concept for Libra Scale, I thought that album would be undone by its narrative concept, but instead it ended up being a pretty tight, consistent album, while this album has all the skits that Ne-Yo sounded like he had fun making but don't really add anything to the experience. Of course, I'm listening to the 21-track deluxe edition, the 14-track standard edition doesn't seem to have a lot of that stuff, but it's also missing some good songs. I especially like the dancey run from "Time Of Our Lives" to "Who's Taking You Home" and "Coming With You," I still think Ne-Yo's stuff in that vein is underrated. It's weird that they used a different mix of "Money Can't Buy" on the album from the single released last year, the drums are audibly different.

9. Lil Wayne - Sorry 4 The Wait 2
In the long two and a half year gap between Carter II and Carter III, Lil Wayne became a superstar and revolutionized the way rap stars make mixtapes and use them as an outlet between major label releases. And back then, when Wayne seemed to be just enjoying being the best rapper alive and didn't care that much when his album dropped or what was on it, it was unthinkable to imagine that he'd someday become just another rapper whose label kept his album on the shelf against his will until he started making angry diss songs and filing lawsuits. So this whole Carter V ordeal has been strange to watch unfold, and I have no idea where it's going. But in the meantime, he's been rapping better lately than he had for a while, and I'm actually interested in hearing a new album from him. Not that this is Dedication 2 level or anything, but as far as the freestyle tapes though, I'd say this is as good as overrated-ass No Ceilings, the versions of "Sh!t" and "Dreams And Nightmares" are dope. That "Used To" shit is everything I hated about the Drake collab early singles for Carter V, though, less of that, please.

10. Lupe Fiasco - Tetsuo & Youth
Over a year ago, when Lupe Fiasco announced this album's title and started releasing singles and playing shows to promote it, I wrote a concert listing for his show in Baltimore that said "Lupe Fiasco dodges tomatoes and previews his next sure-to-be-depressing album, Tetsuo And Youth, at Rams Head Live." This was, obviously, shortly after he ended a concert early because an audience member threw a tomato at him, and admittedly kind of a cheap shot, so maybe Lupe was justified in his tweet about me that week. But his output since his first album had really just been a long line of disappointments up to that point, and it wasn't until the single "Next To It" a few months after all that that I started to think that maybe this album could be good. And it really is, even if "Next To It" isn't on it after all. It's really indulgent and overlong, and I've never been as in love with Lupe's wordplay and internal rhyme schemes as he clearly is, but there's still some pretty impressive moments here and the production is a big step up from a lot of the weak beats that dragged down some of his earlier records.

Worst Album of the Month: Mikky Ekko - Time
I was a pretty big fan of Rihanna's "Stay," even if it was pretty strange that they had this unknown American guy with a fake British accent and a goofy name singing on half of a single by one of the world's biggest pop stars. So I checked out this album optimistic that it might be good, although the fact that they're releasing it a full 2 years after "Stay" instead of capitalizing on it back when it was big was probably a sign that the album has been troubled. And it's really just pretty annoying, not sure what it wants to be, and his voice gets old fast. And the pretentious vocal effects on "Pressure Pills" are even worse.
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