Monthly Report: October Albums
1. Janet Jackson - Unbreakable
Having pored over Janet's back catalog before this album was released, and examining the way she kind of spiraled off into a series of frequent unsuccessful albums a decade ago, it's nice to see her come back after a 7 years and sound genuinely refreshed and rejuvenated. It sounds like she spent that time learning to relax and stop chasing hits, and while this isn't her best album, it may be her warmest and happiest. Other than "Burnitup!" trying a little too hard, there's a plush, sumptuous feel to even the uptempo tracks, and Janet's voice shows its age a little, but she stays in a comfortable range. "Take Me Away" is great, "Broken Hearts Heal" is great, really a lot of it is just beautiful and euphoric even if it's not as catchy as Control or as visionary as The Velvet Rope. I put this and most of these other albums on my running Spotify playlist of 2015 albums.
2. Young Thug - Slime Season 2
One of the most frustrating ways in which Young Thug has emulated his hero Lil Wayne in the way he seems to work very hard at recording huge amounts of material but there's very little sense of when or how it's going to come out, and tons of it got leaked before it was mastered or sequenced for a release. So the exciting thing about him putting out the first Slime Season in September and then following up with the sequel just a few weeks later is that it feels like he's finally doing something with all that material instead of just letting it leak or get too old to use. Apparently a lot of that has to do with Alex Tumay, the engineer who assembled Slime Season 2, and I hope this means more releases like this will become more frequent now -- there's no reason he can't be dropping high quality projects as often as Future, or Gucci back in the day. This one's really too long for its own good, though, shorter mixtapes would be better. I tend to avoid listening to leaked unfinished music, so I'm glad they took some of those tracks and mastered them and got them sounding right on here, there's even a few songs with Rich Homie Quan and Birdman that would've been on that mythical second Rich Gang mixtape. I think my favorite stuff is that run starting with "Bout (Damn) Time" and "Flaws" towards the end. Listen to it on DatPiff.
3. Demi Lovato - Confident
I was always impressed by Demi Lovato's early albums, which had a pretty high level of production and songwriting without ever really having big name pros like Max Martin and Stargate involved in them. So this album kind of feels like a power grab to finally get up to that level and work with Martin and Stargate, and I think it comes off pretty well. Like her last couple albums, it's a bit patchwork and hit'n'miss, but there aren't any big stumbles aside from that awful Iggy Azalea collaboration. She's always theoretically had a good voice for power ballads, but "For You" is really the first good one she's been able to knock out of the park. "Stars," the song with drums that sound sampled (or deliberately emulated) from a Sleigh Bells track, is one of the better songs on the album, her label should cut that check and make it a single.
4. Boosie - Thrilla, Vol. 1
I'm a little relieved that this mixtape just says 'Boosie' on the cover, it gives me hope that he's maybe moving on from that whole 'Boosie Badazz' thing that I was never crazy about. This is his 3rd project since coming home last year, and the first 2 were pretty great, it's really a shame that Boosiemania has dissipated and he's gone back to being underrated. His voice and his music is a little different now but Thrilla is really the closest he's sounded to Trill Ent.-era Boosie since coming back, the old fans might like it a little more. "Bring It Like I Talk It" is the most immediate standout.
5. Shy Glizzy - For Trappers Only
I've always been a fan of Zaytoven's production, and it's impressive that after 10 years on the scene he's been able to produce a whole project with the impact that Future's Beast Mode has had. So it's shrewd of Shy Glizzy to also do an entire tape with Zaytoven, even if it's not a completely perfect MC/producer combination, there's some potent stuff on here. "Going Thru It" with Boosie is awesome, maybe better than anything on Boosie's project. You can listen to it on DatPiff.
6. OMI - Me 4 U
It's interesting to listen to an album that's basically been reverse engineered to match the aesthetic of a remix that accidentally became a worldwide hit. Me 4 U features the popular remix of "Cheerleader," not the original, along with a couple other remixes and many originals that match its 'tropical house' aesthetic, essentially trying to turn a fluke into a formula, in the classic tradition that drives popular music forward as much as it dooms it to repetition. At a certain point it becomes way more of this particular sound than you'll ever need, but OMI's voice suits it, perhaps better than more traditional dancehall. I especially like "Sing It Out Loud," where he ironically laments "tried to write you a beautiful song but my vocabulary ain't that vast," when he actually singing an unusually wordy lyric in a lovely melody.
There's a whole circuit of R&B hopefuls that kind of hang around the periphery of the industry for years trying to break through to real stardom -- Tiffany Evans is 23 but has spent literally half her life in that state. She had singles that grazed the charts in 2004, 2008, and again in 2015 with "On Sight" featuring Fetty Wap, which leads off this record. She had anther EP a couple years ago called 143 that I loved, this one isn't as consistent, but it has some jams, "Me And You" is great. She could really sing when she started out at 12 years old, and she continues to sound great, really will be a shame if she continues to drift on the margins.
8. Tamar Braxton - Calling All Lovers
Like Tiffany Evans, Tamar Braxton started her career very young, and kind of kicked around with minor success forever -- with The Braxtons in the '90s and a forgotten solo album in 2000. But in 2013, she finally became a bona fide star, with Love And War moving units and spinning off several radio hits. And now, with the follow up, she's kind of sliding back to the margins with a fraction of the sales or airplay. At least the album is better this time. Love And War was diverse to a fault, and Calling All Lovers covers a little too much ground too -- in the first three tracks you slingshot between a reggae groove, a housey uptempo cut, and a retro soul song. Maybe she wanted to cover a lot of ground or maybe she's just a willing puppet -- or Muppet -- for her producers' whims. But there's enough songs that actually work with her voice that it's not necessarily a problem.
9. White Out w/ Nels Cline - Accidental Sky
I'm not familiar with White Out, but I will listen to anything Nels Cline does, and this was good for a couple listens. As with a lot of noise improv records, you kinda have to go along for the ride and wait for some interesting sounds to happen, and I don't feel like Cline gets into the kind of interesting tangents he gets into with his own bands, but it sounds beautifully recorded and even kind of relaxing at times.
10. Fall Out Boy - Make America Psycho Again
After 10 years as one of the only bands that gets played on both pop radio and rock stations, Fall Out Boy love to cross genre lines more than ever and try to be everything to everybody -- they performed with Thomas Rhett on the CMA's a few days after releasing their rap remix album. American Beauty/American Psycho is a fun, frustrating album with songs I really like and songs I really dislike, and I enjoying hearing them pull apart every song and fit a guest rapper into it, sometimes with major rap producers like Zaytoven providing the new beat. Fall Out Boy have been flirting with rap for most of their career, and I found it pretty irritating early on -- the 'hood' sequence in the "This Ain't A Scene" video was extremely cringe-inducing, and their biggest contribution to the rap world was making Tyga famous. But now they just seem like rock musicians who happen to listen to and appreciate rap, and you get a sense that they just wanted to hear Migos and Juicy J and Black Thought on these songs. Take my opinion with a grain of salt, though, I listened to the Limp Bizkit remix album too.
Worst Album of the Month: Raury - All We Need
Raury is a teenager with a guitar and a straw hat who opened for Outkast a month after releasing his first mixtape, and signed with Columbia Records and appeared on the cover of XXL's Freshmen issue soon after. He's been the butt of a lot of 'industry plant' jokes and chatter from nerds who have no idea how the music industry works and think there's something more shadowy and sinister about some major label-powered careers than others. That's all fine and good, but Raury is such a pretentious high school talent show reject that it is a little mystifying that so much money and effort was put into making him moderately famous with the kind of artistic cachet that well backed artists with no radio potential tend to stumble into. The album is full of awful singing and precious rap verses about how love is good and hate is bad and the ozone layer is good and McDonald's is bad over hand drums and rudimentary guitar strumming. "Mama" is almost a nice song but his voice just kills it. It debuted on the charts at #78, which is impressive given how few units it takes to manage a high chart placement these days. So even if he is an 'industry plant,' whatever that means, no need to be too mad about it now. Listen, there's nothing wrong with the niche he's trying to occupy, some of the most exciting artists of our time are black hippies (and/or members of Black Hippy), but not everybody who went to Woodstock deserved stage time.