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Review: J. Cole, Born Sinner

Cole’s palpable sense of responsibility is matched by his slick but convincing critiques of hip-hop’s culture of conspicuous consumption.

 

4.0

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J. Cole, Born Sinner

In three very plainspoken tweets last month, J. Cole announced that he would be releasing his sophomore album, Born Sinner, a week early, to compete with Kanye West’s Yeezus. Too often a label holds an album so it doesn’t get overshadowed by a bigger release, but Cole has managed to steal some of Kanye’s thunder without appearing either greedy or disrespectful. He’s merely seizing the moment, a virtue he espouses on “Forbidden Fruit”: “Life’s a bitch, and that pussy’s wet.”

True, Cole mocks “New God Flow” (from Kanye’s Cruel Summer release) on “Trouble,” and Born Sinner’s first skit, a blustery sales pitch from famed TV charlatan Kerney Thomas, feels like a takedown of false prophets with an eye for gold. But Cole has more pressing business than ragging on a guy whose work he claims to enjoy. Indeed, Cole’s newest interrogation of how to be responsible with power, cash, and sex-symbol status is as penetrating as anyone’s. That includes Mr. West.

The album’s organizing principle is a rapper’s addiction to women, which Cole illustrates richly, but without any sense of misogynist puffery. Steve McQueen went down similar dark paths in Shame, but the filmmaker’s focus was predominantly on the self-destructive elements of sex addiction. Cole, in keeping with his good-dude street rep, is more concerned with repercussions for the women. On the emotionally canny “Crooked Smile,” he serves as motivational speaker: “You wonder why you’re lonely and your man’s not calling…So all you see is what you lacking, not what you packing.” The woman in question has been jilted by a heel who sounds suspiciously like the lothario Cole embodies on other tracks, and he consoles her for her loneliness, her bad orthodonture, and all that “pressure” to find a good man. Cole has a rare talent for turning heavy ballad material into a club-banging dance track—a danse macabre, perhaps, but a dance nonetheless.

Cole is, of course, a singer as well as a rapper-producer and does excellent work when he goes all croony during a hook. (“Power Trip” would probably work just as well if Cole took over Miguel’s schmaltzy cameo.) But his songster’s instinct serves him well in verses, too, which include loose snatches of melody, often right before a beautiful bass drop (see the tremendous third track, “Land of the Snakes,” for a master class.) Yes, Cole holds a magna cum laude degree, but he never elevates concept over instinct, one reason his work feels, to use the word he wants us to use, real. Cole’s conspicuous confidence in his art is likewise arresting, especially among other dues-paying rappers of his generation. At times it almost feels like he’s playing with one hand behind his back, just because he can.

And here’s the only real problem with Born Sinner: Cole’s production work is elegant, but he’s first and foremost a words guy, and when you’re competing with the lushness of Kendrick Lamar (who makes a spooky appearance on “Forbidden Fruit”) or the preening, infectious weirdness of Kanye, playing it straight is probably not sexy enough. Born Sinner doesn’t match the cohesive satisfactions of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, though it boasts better writing. “Chaining Day” bears close study, especially given this year’s apparent vogue for rapping about slavery. Avoiding pat notions of servitude, Cole emphasizes how platinum chains can be just as restrictive as ones made of iron.

For OutKast, whose influence is more prominent here than on 2011’s Cole World: The Sideline Story, questions of sexual responsibility took on serious social import. Cole ups the emotional stakes further, as he (or his persona) dishes recriminations about women spurned and the attendant disruptions in already-fraught communities. His palpable sense of responsibility is matched by his slick but convincing critiques of hip-hop’s culture of conspicuous consumption. “Money don’t last,” he notes more than once, and it’s very tempting to believe Cole is in the game principally for his art. But the hustler in him wants to be number one, and if his next album is to explode properly, he should apply his elegant and unflinching style to stories beyond his own—and perhaps not overshadow his singular talents with release-date stunts.

Label: Columbia Release Date: June 18, 2013 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Chaka Khan’s Hello Happiness Runs on Good Vibes

As its titles suggests, the R&B singer’s first album in 12 years radiates positivity.

3.5

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Chaka Khan
Photo: Island Records

“I’m tired of hearing bad news,” Chaka Khan sings on the title track of her 13th solo album, Hello Happiness. The last time the singer was in the news, in 2016, she was entering rehab to treat an addiction to fentanyl, the same drug that killed Prince. Given the general sense of ennui that’s endemic to life in the 21st century, you’d be forgiven for expecting a more morose Chaka Khan in 2019. But as its title suggests, her first album in 12 years radiates positivity.

Hello Happiness’s breezy sensibility is intrinsic to its design. The 27-minute-long album’s opening track begins with a kind of mantra: “Music makes me sing/Goodbye sadness/Hello happiness.” The ebullient “Like a Lady” is punctuated with serotonin-spiking disco string stabs, while the chorus—“Ooh, you make me feel like a lady, baby/Ooh, I think I’m falling in love”—feels timeless and nostalgic. If it isn’t enough to put a smile on your face the first time around, Khan repackages the whole song again on the closing track “Ladylike,” pairing the same verses and chorus with a more up-front melody and a sparkling acoustic guitar hook.

Much of the credit for Hello Happiness’s relentlessly good vibes goes to co-producers Switch (formerly of Major Lazer) and singer-songwriter Sarah Ruba Taylor, who plunder the sounds of Khan’s 1970s and ‘80s output for a mélange of styles and textures, from the fat Bernie Worrell-like synthesizers and fuzz-laced guitars of “Don’t Cha Know” to the echoing dub effects of “Isn’t That Enough.” Sometimes the production steals the spotlight a little too much: With its infectious Fatback Band-interpolating bassline, lead single “Like Sugar” barely needs Khan’s vocals to make you groove. Her placement in the tracks, often deep in the mix and drenched in reverb, can give the impression that she’s a guest on another artist’s remix.

Yet, it’s worth applauding Khan, who turns 66 next month, for continuing to make an album as vital and contemporary-sounding as Hello Happiness. Few artists still releasing new music as they approach their fifth decade in the business are producing work like this, with an ear to dance floors rather than the Grammys and NPR. One need only hear the sizzling man-eater’s blues of “Too Hot” to know that Khan is still in fine voice. On Hello Happiness, she pairs those ageless pipes with some of the most danceable music in her career.

Label: Island Release Date: February 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Yola’s Walk Through Fire Feels Like a Musical Time Capsule

The British soul singer’s debut seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969.

3.5

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Walk Through Fire
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen/Nonesuch

Everything about Yola’s debut, Walk Through Fire, seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969—from the album cover, with its muted color palette and chunky vintage fonts, to the musical arrangements, which mix baroque-pop signifiers like glockenspiel and pizzicato strings with more timeless organ and pedal steel. The album’s session musicians are of a similar vintage: Drummer Gene Chrisman and pianist Bobby Wood are both veterans of the house band from American Sound Studio in Memphis, ground zero for Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis.

It’s tempting to ascribe this studious retro sensibility to producer Dan Auerbach, whose 2017 solo album, Waiting on a Song, treaded similar territory with some of the same musicians. But Yola, whose colorful backstory includes a brief stint with trip-hoppers Massive Attack, has a voice that lends itself to the analogue treatment: rich and mellifluous, adept at both caressing the melodies of a lilting ballad like “Shady Grove” and blowing the roof off of a belter like “Lonely the Night.” The British singer simply sounds like the product of another era, closer in spirit to the likes of Mavis Staples than to 21st-century R&B stylists like SZA.

If Through the Fire sounds like it’s from 1969, that’s because the late ‘60s were the golden era of country-soul, when a small but significant group of artists, songwriters, and producers were blurring the boundaries between working-class black and white roots music. Yola, who’s cited Dolly Parton as a crucial influence, is right at home in this space, sounding as natural singing atop the fiddles and pedal steel of lead single “Ride Out in the Country” as she does over the organ and horn section of “Still Gone.” The ease with which Yola, Auerbach, and their collaborators blend these genres is a powerful reminder of their shared roots—particularly at a time when musical styles feel at once more amorphous and more rigidly segregated than ever.

While Through the Fire’s facsimile of ‘60s country-soul is uncanny, the sturdiness of its songcraft is even more impressive. Yola and Auerbach composed the majority of the album with seasoned songwriters—most notably Dan Penn, who as the co-writer of standards like “The Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” played no small role in the creation of country-soul as a genre. None of the songs on Through the Fire are of quite that caliber, and some feel like they’re trying too hard to be: The subject matter of “Ride Out in the Country” is a bit too bucolically on the nose, while a few stray lyrical references to “across the great divide” and “love [is] a losing game” come across as distracting tips of the hat to more canonical—and, frankly, better—songs. But on tracks like “Keep Me Here” and “It Ain’t Easier,” Yola seems capable of not only expertly mimicking the sounds of the past, but also creating something that will itself stand the test of time.

Label: Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch Release Date: February 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Signs Points to Better Times Ahead

The band’s raw, crowd-pleasing blues-rock remains as rousing as ever on Signs.

3.5

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Signs
Photo: Shore Fire Media

Tedeschi Trucks Band’s raw brand of blues-rock is a thrilling resurrection of bygone genres endemic to the southeastern United States, and they play with the freewheeling improvisatory energy of hallowed country-rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Little Feat, and Black Oak Arkansas. The group’s sound hasn’t noticeably evolved since their 2011 debut, Revelator, but their craft—particularly the electrifying, full-throated howl of singer Susan Tedeschi—remains as rousing as ever on their fourth album, Signs.

Lead single “Hard Case” fuses Americana, Memphis soul, and New Orleans swamp funk to tell the story of lovers who can’t quit each other. Tedeschi’s wails seamlessly intertwine with Matt Mattison’s gruff warble. “You’re a hard case to refuse,” Tedeschi sings, her voice tinged with both overwhelming desire and a creeping sense of self-doubt. Like most Tedeschi Trucks songs, “Hard Case” attempts to capture the blistering kinetic energy of the band’s live performances, and it mostly succeeds: The drums pummel, the solos meander, and the guitars, expertly played by Tedeschi’s husband, Derek Trucks, unexpectedly leap forward.

“Hard Case” is the closest Signs comes to matching the unbridled dynamism of “Part of Me,” a soaring standout from 2013’s Made Up My Mind. Yet the album also contains a handful of irrepressible trad-rock jams that allow Tedeschi’s vocals to take center stage, as on the Motown-inspired “I’m Gonna Be There” and “They Don’t Shine.” On “Walk Through This Life,” her voice veers from exuberant and unrestrained to subtle and declarative, yet it never loses its luster, evoking, at turns, that of Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, and Gladys Knight.

Many Americana outfits have become sociopolitical observers in the Trump era, and Tedeschi Trucks Band is no different. “Signs, Hard Times” is a blue-eyed soul rave-up that calls on bystanders to get off the sidelines in a time when passivity amounts to complicity. “No more fooling around,” Tedeschi shouts, urging us to take action before it’s too late. Yet, at times, their activist message comes off as stilted. “Shame, there’s poison in the well/Shame, you know we can’t un-ring the bell,” Tedeschi proclaims on “Shame.” It’s a well-intentioned but ultimately shallow truism—a lyric that states the obvious without offering any solutions.

At their best, the songs on Signs bristle with a kind of wide-eyed optimism. On “Still Your Mind,” Tedeschi seems to sum up the album’s mission: “You’re not alone/So many people feel that low/But I’ll help you grow.” While not without its flaws, Signs heals in this way. It’s often so joyous and spirited that, for a moment, it’s easy to envision better times ahead.

Label: Fantasy Release Date: February 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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