Monthly Report: June 2015 Albums
1. Vince Staples - Summertime '06
The Hell Can Wait EP was one of my favorite releases last year, because it was such a powerful, compact 24-minute introduction to this impressive rapper I hadn't really paid attention to before. This album is a hour long but divided into a 'double album' with two 30-minute halves that work well apart or together, each even stronger than Hell Can Wait, and it's just a lot to take in. It's not even especially strange or offbeat record, it's almost entirely beats and rhymes, but the beats have these squalls of bass and funky frequencies that kind of keep you on edge, and Vince raps in that kind of pinched nasal register that half of all Cali rappers seemed to use in the '90s and not as much since then. The sense of humor he has on Twitter and in interviews only comes across in his lyrics as a dry wit, but there's a lot of provocative, thoughtful stuff here, stuff you wanna debate or chew on or just sit back impressed at how well he phrased it. That opening run of "Lift Me Up" and "Norf Norf" and "Birds & Bees" is incredible. These are all in my 2015 albums Spotify playlist by the way.
2. Heartless Bastards - Restless Ones
I've enjoyed Heartless Bastards' previous albums, but this one is just hitting me a lot harder than the others have. Dave Colvin gives one of the best drumming performances over the course of the album that I've heard in a while, this loosely swinging, powerful way of moving the songs forward with some really brilliant fills. I don't know why I didn't notice what a brilliant drummer he is before, might be the clarity and fullness of the production on this one. The guitars sound gorgeous, too. "Into The Light" is the standout track for me so far.
3. Meek Mill - Dreams Worth More Than Money
I'm happy with the Noisey review I filed of this album less than 12 hours after it was released, but obviously after you write something that quickly based on a couple of listens, you wanna keep listening to let it sink in. I noticed this the other day and it kinda sits well with me, Meek's albums and Dreamchasers mixtapes all have different strengths and weaknesses but are all pretty close in overall quality.
4. Miguel - Wildheart
Miguel been one of the most exciting R&B artists of the last 5 years, in part because he's managed to fuse his retro sensibilities and his artsy ambitions with an ear for radio hits. And this album, good as it is, makes me a little sad because that balance is lost as his commercial sensibilities falter. My friend Maura Johnston's interview showed that he was aware of the challenge of following up his last record but not daunted by it ("I'll never make another Kaleidoscope Dream. I'll never write 'Adorn' again") and already the first week sales, which were barely more than half of what Kaleidoscope Dream did, bore that out. I don't even know what the 2nd single could possibly be. I like a lot of the album, though -- "What's Normal Anyway" is a beautiful mission statement, "Leaves" and "...goingtohell" are some of his best uses of guitar to date, "NWA" was one of my favorites from last year's EP and serves a very welcome purpose as a sonic outlier here. The sequence just falls a little flat, the first 3 tracks are pretty much the weakest on the album, I've already taken to playing it on shuffle mode.
5. Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material
Yet another follow-up to an album that was a really big deal to me -- Same Trailer Different Park was one of the best albums in the hardest year of my life, and songs like "Blowin' Smoke" and "Back On The Map" helped me get through it. So I dunno if this album will ever mean as much to me, but it's a strong record, one that doesn't really deserve the sophomore slump backlash or 'savior of country' hyperbole it's getting from different corners of the music critic world. I like the light touch of the arrangements, some great pedal steel and string arrangements sitting on top of these sturdy, simple acoustic riffs. I do think it's funny that she sings "I don't wanna be a part of your good ol' boys club," and then less than 10 minutes later she's singing with Willie Nelson.
6. King Los - God, Money, War
It's been almost 10 years since Los came over to my old apartment in Baltimore for an interview and it's been weird and surreal watching him continue to slowly work his way into the music industry and become if not a major star than a serious contender. After he left Bad Boy, he signed with RCA Records, and this was his first retail release with them -- basically his major label debut, but it was minimally promoted as some kind of precursor to the 'real' album next year. And it still charted pretty well, and has, like, fucking R. Kelly on it. The song with him is really good, too! King Los is an incredibly talented rapper, and he plays with words and flows as intricately as any Kendrick Lamar or Lupe Fiasco (to name two guys who've given him props), but Los never had a really strong viewpoint or social conscience in his lyrics, he was just kinda rappin' about whatever. This album feels like a little bit of a corrective to that, a few of the songs really get heavy, this article broke down one of them pretty well. The beat selection is hit and miss but overall it's a pretty promising direction for him to go in.
7. Tori Kelly - Unbreakable Smile
I really enjoyed Tori Kelly's single "Nobody Love" a few months ago, and in April, I was asked to write an article about summer jams that predicted the 2015 song of the summer. This week the article was finally published, long after "Nobody Love" dropped out of the Hot 100 without getting very far, and I kinda feel silly about my prediction. But her album came out and did pretty well, sold more than Kacey Musgraves, and the whole thing has a similar sunny Max Martin sheen with the occasional acoustic track and really impressive vocals.
8. Jason Derulo - Everything Is 4
Derulo is so scattershot just as a singles artist that I never would've expected an album of his to be worth a damn, but this is pretty great. "Want To Want Me" is one of the best pop songs of the year and "X2CU" and "Try Me" are up to the same standard. The K. Michelle duet is the most credible he's sounded as an R&B singer, and "Get Ugly" and the song with Stevie Wonder and Keith Urban are even more ridiculous than "Talk Dirty," so the whole album kind of feels like a satisfying combination of craft and novelty.
9. Tamia - Love Life
Tamia has always been on this mild adult contempo end of R&B and has made some singles I've really loved, but I'm impressed at how well she's settled into her own unique aesthetic and mastered it. It's that upscale '80s R&B sound that a lot of people fetishize now but few can really do well. Pop & Oak and Chuck Harmony and Polow Da Don have some heat on here.
10. Bilal - In Another Life
I dug Bilal's last album A Love Surreal, and this one makes the interesting choice of ramping up the idiosyncratic sonics while making the songs shorter and more concise -- almost every song is about 3 minutes long, only one goes over 4 minutes. The live drumming throughout most of the album is kind of a drag, just because the drummer is terrible, can't get a groove going at all, but all the wiggy instrumental textures suit Bilal's odd slithering voice pretty well.
Worst Album of the Month: Tyga - The Gold Album: 18th Dynasty
I almost feel bad even mentioning this album, it kinda goes without saying that Tyga is garbage and nobody liked this shit. But it still impresses me that Kanye's exec producer credit means absolutely nothing, there's not even much of the offbrand Yeezus vibe that a couple of the pre-album singles had. The actual production comes mostly from Mike Dean, who surely deserves to be given more important things to do than a Tyga album and playing in Travi$ Scott's touring band. It seems like No I.D. was wise to leave the Kanye camp and get his Def Jam gig and do great shit like the Vince Staples album.