When Drake materialized in 2009, he was more than a bit of a novelty, a former Canadian child star experimenting with a sensitive, diaristic approach to hip-hop, spilling out his many concerns over dense, opaque beats. Four years later, he’s one of the genre’s biggest names, despite a marked lack of specific ability beyond a great ear for production and an inveterate, introspective charm. The passage to this point has been marked by a gradual transition toward hardness, following a series of public battles with Chris Brown, a bulking up in muscle and content. Drake is now sleeker and meaner than ever before, qualities that would seem to have diminished the softie persona he presented at the outset of his career. Yet these changes have really functioned as a progressive revelation of what’s been hiding inside him all along, as passive-aggression has ceded to outright belligerence, sour self-doubt to sour self-love.
The effect has been akin to watching a figure carved from stone, yet this isn’t the feel-good story of success begetting newfound confidence. The Drake of today is doubtlessly more of an asshole than the Drake of So Far Gone, but that development reads as more of an overture toward increased sincerity than anything else. Early songs like “Houstatlantavegas,” even with the deep wells of guilt that inspired their rigorous self-examination, were mostly rooted in narcissism, the dissonance between a man guilty of inveterate bad behavior and the nice guy he imagined himself to be. This conflict continues, but the more arrogant Drake becomes, the more he’s willing to cop to egotism, while still occasionally snapping at himself for his shortcomings. This means that, while not as precise as 2011’s Take Care, and not nearly as full of A material, Nothing Was the Same is a more interesting album, its flaws drawing all the contrasts of his persona into sharp relief: the jerk and the nice guy, the sensitive poet and the posturing wannabe thug, pressed together in a dense environment full of bassy, woozy production and marathon songs.
On first listen, Nothing Was the Same sounds a bit thin, Drake’s nice-guy pensiveness continuing to curdle, with an accompanying downturn in the complexity of his lyrics. The singles “Started from the Bottom” and “Hold On, We’re Going Home” both hinge on simple, familiar conceits—a refrain based on the well-worn humble-to-triumphal arc on the former, and a dry paternalist lecture explaining a woman’s motives to her in second person on the latter. But there’s still an internal struggle in nearly all of these songs, and as seemingly tough as he may have become of late, Drake remains more self-effacing, inward-focused, and anxious than most rappers, or pop artists in general. The album’s hooks may too often be dumb and domineering, but they just as often segue into verses that defy that simplistic posturing via frantic attempts to justify it, often modifying the surface messages via their neurotic content. His swagger continues to expand, and while Drake is even more haughty and demeaning to lovers and family members than ever, the simple fact is that this makes for better music than the woe-is-me soppiness that dominated his first couple of albums.
It’s key that the production, overseen by longtime collaborator Noah “40” Shebib with some outside assistance, is routinely fantastic, full of lush backdrops, with a constant atmospheric dynamism undergirding even the most scattered of songs. “Connect” is lyrically inert, hinging on a lame string of baseball metaphors, but the Hudson Mohawke-supplemented backing is vibrant and chameleonic enough to make up for it. “Own It” is an egregious collection of Drake’s worst characteristics, a mixture of crude, macho posturing backed by tedious vocal-pitch modulation, yet the track at least has the musical chops to distract from these facts. Basically, the baseline of strong music repeatedly rescues Drake from himself, while simultaneously allowing him to stretch further into exploratory territory. Consequently nothing here is totally without value, and even the low points fit into the vicious cycle narrative of the album, which finds Drake losing himself in his own fame, even as the lifestyle disconnect fostered by that success feeds his festering insecurities, and attempts to banish those fears via more talk of his success, which brings things right back to square one.
The depth and subtlety of this process puts this so far afield from the standard level of hip-hop discourse that it’s often startling when other rappers show up. Big Sean and 2 Chainz make for a pleasing confederacy of dunces on “All of Me,” their boneheaded brags serving a purpose similar to the rustic comedic foils in Shakespeare dramas, briefly distracting us from all this draining psychological tension. On the other side, “Too Much” finds U.K. artist Sampha darkening the tone via a passable James Blake impression, while Jhene Aiko enlivens “From Time,” despite the weird, robotic lyrics Drake seems to have given her to sing. Overall, it’s hard to overstate how much Nothing Was the Same benefits from a cohesive production style, just as it benefits from the smaller amount of guests, since more time with the half-charming, half-monstrous Drake means an even clearer rendering of his foibles and flaws. The album isn’t perfect, but it draws energy from that imperfection, further establishing a persona driven by Drake’s still-developing conflict between assurance and hesitation.
Label: Cash Money Release Date: September 24, 2013 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip
On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.3.0
Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.
The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.
Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.
Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.
If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.
Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon