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Review: Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

The effort to canonize My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as one of hip-hop’s all-time high points is already underway.

5.0

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Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

“I fantasized about this back in Chicago” is the first thing that Kanye West says on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and it’s the only thing close to a context for the 13 tracks of delirious hip-hop decadence that follow. For the remainder of “Dark Fantasy,” he’s freely mixing the materialistic (“Mercy, mercy me, that Murcielago”) and the existential (“Hey teacher, teacher/Tell me how do you respond to the students?/And refresh the page and restart the memory?/And re-spark the soul and rebuild the energy?”). The track might not answer a lot of questions, but it’s a dynamite beginning to an audaciously complex rap masterpiece, on-point thematically and, even more so, musically, with Kanye mashing up G-funk and baroque pop while huge, anonymous voices pop in to ask, “Can we get much higher?” like a stoned soul take on a Greek chorus.

The effort to canonize My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as one of hip-hop’s all-time high points is already underway, and I’m confident that Kanye’s new album can weather the backlash that all potential classics must confront. That said, insisting, on whatever grounds, that Kanye has released one of rap’s great milestone’s doesn’t do the album justice, at least insofar as doing so invites impossible challenges (is it really better than Fear of a Black Planet or Illmatic? Who could definitively say?) without drawing due attention to the strengths on which the album might meet them. So let me offer the following, slightly less generous superlative: No rap album I’ve heard can boast better production than this one. The music is exhilarating, often abrasive, never predictable, at times stunningly gorgeous. These are the finest tracks that any group of rappers has yet to rhyme over, and if the album doesn’t make Kanye any more of a contender for the title of Greatest MC than he was two years ago, it handily confirms that he’s rap’s greatest producer.

Even when Kanye was working as an in-house beatsmith for Roc-a-Fella, he showed a savant-like knack for sample-based hip-hop. It turns out that was only the earliest manifestation of a much more encompassing talent. For Kanye, the internal logic of pop music must be nearly transparent: He doesn’t seem to get what makes every genre work, nor does he get all of them as well, but he has an intuitive sense of how to construct more kinds of songs than any other producer working today. He looks good in grimy hard rock on “Hell of a Life,” pulls off arena-sized pop pomp on “All of the Lights,” and still finds time, with the posse cuts “Monster” and “So Appalled,” to kick out the two hardest rap tracks of his career.

Even when Kanye looks back, the results can be stunning. On “Devil in a New Dress,” he perfects the sampling style he invented, manipulating the pitch and tempo of Smokey Robinson’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” until it crawls luxuriantly out of the speakers like wine poured in slow motion. It’s a gorgeous slow burner that turns tragic in its third act, as Kanye’s rhymes swap lust for heartache before distorted guitar lines and a muscular verse from Rick Ross close it out (that’s Kanye acting tough, but it’s clear he’s really hurting).

Wisely chosen as the album’s centerpiece, there’s no question that the following track, “Runaway,” is Kanye’s most arresting showcase as a songwriter. The self-lacerating lyrics, including a filthy first verse (“She find pictures in my email/I sent this bitch a picture of my dick”), are far too off-putting to count as anti-hero posturing, much less as self-pity. The sense of uncomfortable proximity, that maybe Kanye isn’t aware of just how much he’s oversharing here, is reinforced by his unpolished and sometimes tuneless singing. After three verses plus a chilling interlude from Clipse’s Pusha T, apparently as ruthless a boyfriend as he is a coke dealer, Kanye sounds drained.

The “Runaway” single ends there, but the album version undergoes a remarkable transformation, as the lonely piano figure that introduced the song is joined first by menacing cello and then, surprisingly, by an utterly weightless violin section. When Kanye returns, he’s singing through a vocoder, and where his voice strained and cracked before, it now becomes a purely melodic instrument capable of making its own joyous contribution to the track. Kanye sounds disembodied, as though “Run away from me, baby” wasn’t a directive to a mistreated lover, but the cry of a man trying to exit the black hole of his own implacable ego. The coda to “Runaway” is a fantasy of escape through pure catharsis, with the vocoder literalizing Kanye’s ability to transform his personal shortcomings into art.

Nearly as accomplished—and equally as obsessed with the vocoder—is “Lost in the World,” Kaney’s much-anticipated reworking of Bon Iver’s “Woods.” It’s astounding how he takes the strangest sample on the album and crafts it into a defiantly giddy dance number, complete with tribal drumming in the verses and group choruses that sound massive. It’s a mad stroke of brilliance to take Justin Vernon’s solitary ode to alienation and use it as the centerpiece of a catchy, communal reverie. It’s experimental, to be sure, but it’s also the closest the album comes to pure pop indulgence. All the more surprising, then, that the song is interrupted by a seething political missive from Gil Scott-Heron, his “Comment #1,” the sample of which eventually derails “Lost in the World” entirely and runs headlong into the album’s closing track.

By this point, Kanye has pimped on Mt. Olympus, married a porn star, and made love to the Angel of Death, and instead of wrapping up the album with its most joyous track, he tears back the curtain and leaves us staring at a grim and recognizable present. Heron’s words: “All I want is a good home and a wife and a children and some food to feed them every night…Who will survive in America?” The pop-star decadence is shown to conceal the familiar country of predatory lending, teen pregnancy, mandatory minimum sentencing, blighted inner cities, racial profiling—and the confounding question is what power fantasies like Kanye’s have to do with it. Perhaps they sustain the men and women who fight for survival even as they prop up the system that forces us to combat one another on its terms. And where this question applies to all forms of escapism, it seems especially appropriate for rap to confront, as it has aspired to give black America a voice, a soundtrack, a language, and an escape.

The truth is, like Jay-Z recently told Jon Stewart, rap is an art form. And I think that, like Stewart suggested in response, there are plenty of people who already recognize it as such. But vindicating rap—or, for that matter, comic books, video games, or music videos—as belonging to the ever-expanding family of acknowledged “art” is less important than rap’s defenders realize. On the other hand, it’s absolutely crucial that rappers and producers are actively exploiting whatever artistic potential rap does have. It matters that artists like Kanye are finding new frontiers in rap precisely because there are so many people interested in policing rap’s borders, making sure it doesn’t get too violent, or too queer, or too smart. And as long as they’re winning, it doesn’t matter if rap is blasted out of playground stereos or dissected in college English classes: Rap’s status as art is a matter of demonstration, not definition.

So as to avoid sounding conspiratorial, let me be clear about who is handicapping rap in the year 2010. It’s the easy-target A&R guys, sure. But it’s also, more powerfully and more frequently, the fans. It’s especially those fans who believe that realness is definitive of good rap and refuse to accept anything less than a one-to-one correspondence between life and lyrics. For the twentysomething black male to whom rap is most often marketed and by whom rap is most often performed, realness is as much a matter of asserting ownership as it is of relating to the music. Though, ironically, some of the people most invested in keeping rap tied to realness are middle-class white folks who like rap precisely because they don’t relate in any literal sense to its message, but rather because it provides the edgiest musical escapism on the market. Keep those groups in mind and you start to realize the subversive genius of Lil Wayne’s choice of protégés in Nicki Minaj and Drake: The first group finds nothing more threatening than a female rapper (except, as Nicki has pointed out herself, a gay rapper) and the second is just as threatened by a rapper who is unabashedly educated and privileged. Rap critics of many colors and income brackets also deserve some blame, for soft-pedaling paternalism when they praise rappers for “channeling raw experience” or for “unflinching realism,” which can amount to saying that the best rap is either autobiographical or journalistic, but never idiosyncratic, poetic, or performative. For 20 years, rap’s aesthetic has been monopolized by authenticity, and it’s high time it got a bit of competition from fantasy.

From that perspective, I see Kanye as nothing short of a hero, and I see virtually no danger of critics praising My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy too much. Kanye spent the last decade or so pushing himself and his fans to come to terms with a vision of hip-hop so wildly expansive that it could annex whole genres, swing to any mood, freely mix piety and pitch-black humor with snarkiness and swag. His unfailing ear for beats meant that, for three albums in a row, we were all too busy nodding our heads to see how powerfully the game was changing: It wasn’t until 808s & Heartbreak that anyone noticed, and only then because Kanye’s ego finally got the better of his musical talents (this was, after all, the record that introduced “solipsism” to the vocabulary of rap criticism). With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy complete, even that misstep finally looks purposive, as though Kanye first recorded an album as sonically and emotionally distant from his previous work as possible in anticipation of later finding a place for its instrumental digressions and painful candor.

But where 808s & Heartbreak’s stunted emotional arc expressed little more than an egomaniac’s bile for his ex-girl, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy allows Kanye a thematic palette broad enough to confront his pride and anguish. The album dwells on the surreal (“Dark Fantasy” imagines a shopping-mall séance and a sky eclipsed by herons) and the religious (next to Kanye himself, it’s Satan who gets the most name-drops here). It’s all in the service of an exhausting contest between self-aggrandizement and self-effacement, Kanye embracing his singular pop-star/super-villain persona while struggling to connect with the creative potential that made him worth our attention to begin with. This much he confesses on “Power”: “I just needed time alone with my own thoughts/Got treasure in my mind, but couldn’t open up my own vault.” With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, there’s no question that he’s found the key.

Label: Roc-a-Fella Release Date: November 22, 2010 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Anderson .Paak’s Ventura Fuses the New School and Old School

The album serves as a reminder of the magic that can result from looking to the past to inform the future.

4

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Ventura
At the heart of Anderson .Paak’s music has always been an emotional unburdening of exuberant proportions. It’s present in the shades of intensity his voice carries between croon and rasp, the luxurious kinetics of his funk-laden instrumentals, and his starry-eyed joie de vivre. On his fourth album, Ventura, Paak alters this blueprint by mastering the equilibrium between exactitude and ease, between vintage soul and new-school fusion.

The salt and sand of the California beach towns where Paak grew up comprise the lifeblood of his albums. Whereas last year’s insular Oxnard paid tribute to the city of his birth, Ventura is more expansive. Dr. Dre, Paak’s longtime mentor, served as executive producer on Oxnard, lending that album its heavy-hitting funk-rap skylarks, but on Ventura, Dre allows his protégé to take the reins. Paak certainly doesn’t shy away from the challenge, as the album is awash in golden timbres and spacious, full-blooded textures. It’s lush yet artfully edited, unforced yet deliberate—a far cry from the overwrought architecture that got the best of Oxnard.

In many ways, Ventura represents a return to form for Paak, as he channels the neo-soul of 2016’s Malibu, which was sorely absent from Oxnard. But while Paak was comfortable residing in the clearly defined contours of traditional verse-bridge-verse song structures on Malibu, he allows those boundaries to blur and shift here. The cinematic opener “Come Home,” which boasts a particularly nimble and clever verse from André 3000, unfolds like an overture, anchored by a choir of angelic voices and hair-raising drumrolls. Staccato trumpets puncture the disco glitz of “Reachin’ 2 Much” before, in one of the most fabulous transitions of the album, giving way to a chilled-down groove equally fit for a backyard BBQ and a dance floor.

Too many tracks on Oxnard felt as if they were carried by noteworthy features like Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and Q-Tip, leaving Paak as a supporting character at best. By contrast, Paak is never overshadowed on Ventura, working off a tight and balanced chemistry with his guest artists, and he embraces an endearing transparency when he treats topics as disparate as dealing with a nosy girlfriend (“You stay here too much, baby/You know it’s not your place”), reigniting a dormant love (“When you take somebody for your own/It can’t survive on history alone”), and uplifting community in the face of racism and poverty (“The people that you came with? You’re coming with me”). Throughout it all, Paak maintains an optimism that, though some might deem naïve, is undeniably infectious.

The foundations of Paak’s sound—disco, funk, ‘70s soul, California G-funk—cast an air of nostalgia over his music. But he’s shrewd enough in the design and construction of his music to prevent the amalgamation of these influences from slipping into pastiche or kitsch. Although Ventura is replete with anachronisms—theatrical strings fit for Earth, Wind & Fire (“Reachin’ 2 Much”), nightclub-ready slap bass (“Jet Black”), quiet storm (“Make It Better”)—Paak fuses the old school and new school seamlessly, producing a sonic palette that hasn’t quite been replicated by any of his contemporaries. Ventura serves as a reminder of the magic that can result from looking to the past to inform the future.

Label: Aftermath Release Date: April 12, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Madonna and Maluma Drop Sultry New Single “Medellín,” from Madame X

The lead single from Madonna’s 14th album is driven by a decidedly unhurried tropical rhythm.

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Medellin
Photo: Interscope Records

Last month, Page Six of the New York Post published an article titled “How Madonna is using younger stars to cling to relevancy.” The infamous tabloid swiftly revised its headline to the marginally softer “How Madonna is using younger stars in hopes to stay relevant” after receiving blowback for what some perceived to be a double standard. But as the gulf between the 60-year-old pop queen’s age and that of the average radio star has continued to widen, it’s true that she’s increasingly leaned on collaborations with younger artists like Justin Timberlake and Nicki Minaj.

You’d be forgiven, then, for assuming that “Medellín,” the first single from Madonna’s upcoming 14th album, Madame X, is an attempt to cash in on the ever-growing popularity of reggaton. While the 25-year-old Maluma is a huge star in Latin America, however, he’s yet to cross over beyond the Latin-pop market in the U.S., so the partnership appears to be a mutually beneficial one. And Madonna has lovingly appropriated Latin culture in her work for decades, as far back as 1986’s “La Isla Bonita,” and as recently as her torero-inspired music video for 2015’s “Living for Love.” In fact, one could argue it’s the single most consistent musical theme of her career outside of, say, dance music more broadly.

Co-produced by Mirwais, who was previously at the helm of Madonna’s Music and American Life albums, “Medellín”—named after the city where Maluma was born—is a sultry midtempo track driven by a decidedly unhurried tropical rhythm and Madonna’s catchy refrain of “one-two cha-cha-cha.” The singer’s inexplicably Auto-Tune-drenched verses are nostalgic and wistful, nodding to the breezy escapism of “La Isla Bonita”: “I took a sip and had a dream/And I woke up in Medellín.”

Vocally, Maluma does most of the heavy-lifting on the bilingual track, with inuendo-filled verses that reference both Colombia and Madonna’s hometown of Detroit. But Madonna’s sugary harmonies, particularly during the song’s rousing hook, balance out Maluma’s gigolo routine with a dreamy sweetness.

Listen here:

The music video for “Medellín” will premiere on April 24. Madame X is out June 14 on Interscope Records.

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Review: The Chemical Brothers’s No Geography Resembles Loving Fan Fiction

The album displays elements of all stages of the duo’s career yet retains the same playful inspiration found in their best work.

3.5

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No Geography
Photo: Hamish Brown/Astralwerks

To call the Chemical Brothers’s No Geography a kind of impeccable fan service is to suggest a criticism entirely unintended. If the U.K. duo’s ninth album resembles loving speculative fiction, it’s of an urgent, exciting sort that the electronic pioneers have more than earned over their relatively consistent 25-year career. In fact, save for the wonky sequencing choice of front-loading the two most negligible songs—the boilerplate big-beat intro of “Eve of Destruction” and ”Bango”—No Geography could easily pass for a collection of epic B-sides to some of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons’s signature classics.

“MAH” (short for “Mad As Hell”) is a dopamine-surging mash of familiar sounds, its frenzied, vaguely tribal beats and grinding noise reminiscent of “It Began in Afrika” and “Chemical Beats,” respectively. “Gravity Drops” gives the 808s-on-Salvia drum thunder of “Come with Us” a modern production spit-shine, with some additional sprinkling of Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” and Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker.” “We’ve Got to Try” similarly resurrects the hip-hop-based car-stereo thump of the Chemical Brothers’ first two albums, and even raises a glass to two of the stronger tracks (“High Roller” and ”Busy Child”) by their early American counterpart the Crystal Method.

Fans of the Chemical Brothers tend to have their own favorites among the many genre styles the pair use to generate their panoramic sonic palette. If you love the group’s bouncing, THC-fried detours into crisp, disco-infused pop, singles like “Got to Keep On” and “Free Yourself” are made to order. For this listener, it’s the moody dance-floor psychedelia, and in this vein, No Geography thrills as well: “The Universe Sent Me” gives “Star Guitar” a darker, more meditative spin with its humming baseline, ethereal Liz Frazier-esque vocals, and fire-damaged guitars, and “Catch Me I’m Falling” winds down the BPMs while turning up the intergalactic lovesickness. These songs, like the album as a whole, display elements of all stages of the duo’s career yet retain the same playful inspiration found in their best work.

Label: Astralwerks Release Date: April 13, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Watch: Madonna Unveils Teaser Trailer for New Concept Album Madame X

The secretiveness surrounding the project isn’t surprising given that Madonna has been the victim of rampant leaks.

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Madonna
Photo: Instagram

Certain discrete corners of the internet lost their collective minds earlier this month when Madonna’s Instagram page, alternately littered with posts featuring the singer’s adopted twin daughters or snapshots of her recent photo and video shoots, was taken over by nine indivudal images comprising a large red “X.” The typically prolific celebrity ‘grammer remained relatively quiet over the next two weeks, intermittently posting images of the letter X in her stories, and slowly revealing the manifesto for Madame X, her first album in four years:

Madame X is a secret agent
Traveling around the world
Changing identities
Fighting for freedom
Bringing light to dark places
She is a cha cha instructor
A professor
A head of state
A housekeeper
An esquestiran
A prisoner
A student
A teacher
A nun
A cabaret singer
A saint
A prostitute

The album’s lead single, which could be out as soon as this week, is rumored to be a duet with Colombian reggaeton singer Maluma, but details are scarce. The secretiveness surrounding the project isn’t surprising given that Madonna has been the victim of rampant leaks since at least the turn of the century. The studio recordings for her last album, 2015’s Rebel Heart, leaked like a sieve, resulting in the arrest of an Israeli hacker.

This time out, the queen of pop has successfully kept things under wraps, but it seems that Madame X—a character perhaps inspired by the 1966 film of the same name starring Lana Turner—is ready for her close-up. Watch the teaser for the new album, directed by Steven Klein, below:

Madonna will reportedly perform new material from Madame X at the Eurovision Song Contest on May 14.

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Review: Craig Finn’s I Need a New War Soars When It Rises Above the Mire

If there’s one thing that squarely separates the album from the Hold Steady singer’s previous work, it’s the consistent mellowness.

3.5

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I Need a New War
Shervin Lainez/Big Hassle

The artistic growth Craig Finn has displayed over the course of his four solo albums is comparable—in terms developing a lyrical and production style—to his progression as a songwriter across the Hold Steady’s first four albums. The difference is that rather than sketching out narrative party epics set to huge power-and-glory guitar riffs, Finn is now mostly writing tightly focused character studies to go with his largely understated indie rock songs—music, in other words, that’s harder to latch onto and easier to overlook.

Despite its title’s connotations, I Need a New War—the third in a retconned trilogy of albums—finds Finn further entrenching himself in the stylistic hallmarks of 2015’s Faith in the Future and 2017’s We All Want the Same Things. The album’s ties to its two predecessors are, however, largely implicit rather than explicit. Counter to past Hold Steady albums, there are few, if any, recurring characters, and unlike Holly, Charlemagne, and the whole crew of divinely inspired party hounds who Finn sings about with that band, his subjects here are mostly just regular folks doing their best to muddle through their day-to-day lives. It takes one hell of a good writer to turn that kind of subject matter into compelling rock n’ roll, and Finn—practically in his own category as a lyricist—is up to the task.

Produced by Josh Kaufman, who also helmed Faith in the Future and We All Want the Same Things, I Need a New War retains many of those albums’ sonic traits: watery guitars, pillowy keyboards, and a stuffed-nose Finn singing in a lower, relaxed register. But it’s also a departure, introducing new wrinkles like silky backing vocals by Annie Nero and Cassandra Jenkins and a liberally employed brass section that gets downright jazzy on the lounge-y “Her with the Blues.” Several songs, particularly “Magic Marker” and “Indications,” unexpectedly adopt a ‘50s doo-wop sound, continuing Finn’s penchant for introducing new stylistic approaches on each of his solo albums that we haven’t heard from him before.

If there’s one thing that squarely separates I Need a New War from Finn’s previous work, it’s the consistent mellowness. With its dreamy atmosphere and loitering tempos, the album is more reliant than ever on Finn’s wordplay. This is rarely an issue for a lyricist of Finn’s caliber, as his eye for detail can turn seemingly mundane scenarios—a simple favor that becomes hard to repay (“A Bathtub in the Kitchen”), an office drone who daydreams of driving away from a dead-end relationship (“Carmen Isn’t Coming in Today”)—into resonant vignettes.

At the same time, Finn can get too bogged down in minutiae, such as devoting an entire verse of “Holyoke” to binge-watching TV shows. But even then, the aside serves the song’s larger purpose of illustrating the anxiety-ridden narrator’s vain attempts to distract himself from the omnipresence of death: “Massachusetts, man, you’ve got a lot more graveyards than we’re used to/I swear to god they’re every other mile.”

I Need a New War soars when Finn dares to rise above the mire. This includes “Something to Hope For,” whose optimistic title is mirrored in its peppy, infectious hooks. And lead single “Blankets” is Finn’s most rousing solo effort to date, an account of a desperate search for an old flame that’s as sweeping and powerful as the “thunder in the canyon” that the musician sings about on the chorus. The song’s concluding thought—“You live your whole life/Just to travel to the place you’re gonna die”—is as bleak and resigned as anything else on the album. But like almost everything that Finn sings, it’s also invigorating.

Label: Partisan Release Date: April 26, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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The 25 Best Chemical Brothers Songs

To celebrate the release of the duo’s ninth album, No Geography, we ranked their 25 best songs.

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The Chemical Brothers
Photo: Hamish Brown

This week, the Chemical Brothers will release their ninth studio album, No Geography, a notable feat for a group that was first propelled into the mainstream via electronica’s so-called big bang in the late 1990s. Here’s how consistently rich the duo’s vast catalogue has been throughout their near-25-year career: Given the task of choosing our individual favorite tracks, we came up with over 50 contenders worthy of inclusion. As you read—and better yet, listen—to this list, you’ll discover some unexpected omissions (pour one out for one of their biggest crossover hits, “Blocking Rockin’ Beats,” which didn’t make the cut), but also some equally surprising additions that more casual fans may find unfamiliar. Regardless of your level of immersion, though, what you’ll find here are 25 of the most explosive, head-bobbing, ass-shaking anthems in electronic music history. Blue Sullivan

Editor’s Note: Listen to the entire playlist on Spotify.

25. “Saturate”

The Chemical Brothers’s 2007 album We Are the Night is rightly maligned for containing a few of the duo’s rare missteps (here’s looking at you, “Salmon Dance”), but it also contains one of their most propulsive house bangers. Built on ping-ponging keys and a bassline so deep and dirty it almost qualifies as subliminal, “Saturate” builds to a surge of hammering snares that sound like crashing waves. A frequent late-set addition to the duo’s live show over the last decade, the track is just as deserving of its inclusion here as any of their early classics. Sullivan

24. “Life Is Sweet”

But is it? Structured as a call and response, “Life Is Sweet” first finds the Chemical Brothers radiating in an unambiguously optimistic vibe, to the point you can almost feel UV rays emanating from the speakers. And then, suddenly, everything clouds over and you find yourself dancing in a haze of primal doubt that winds up in a denouement of existentialist angst. Eric Henderson

23. “Loops of Fury”

Best video game soundtrack of all time? WipeOut XL, without a doubt. And the Chemical Brothers’s “Loops of Fury” was but one of the crown jewels of a compilation that also included Underworld’s “Tin There,” the Prodigy’s “Firestarter,” Photek’s “The Third Sequence,” and Fluke’s “Atom Bomb.” Even in that company, the relentless “Loops of Fury” comes about as close as any of them to feeling what it would be like to barrel down an anti-gravity race track at more than 200 kilometers per hour. Henderson

22. “Three Little Birdies Down Beats”

There is perhaps no other song on the Chemical Brothers’s 1995 debut, Exit Planet Dust, that defined the duo’s developing sound more efficiently than the unrelenting “Three Little Birdies Down Beats.” The track is a torrent of increasingly complex layers: breakbeats, soul samples, and an onslaught of screeching guitars and distorted vocals that would become the group’s signature over the course of the next decade. Sal Cinquemani

21. “My Elastic Eye”

Based around a sample of electronic composer Bernard Estardy’s 1973 piece “Tic Tac Nocturne,” “My Elastic Eye” sounds at once cinematic and classical, fusing prog-rock and jazz influences, and boldly employing the filtered basslines of French techno and electroclash, which was peaking in popularity around the time of the song’s release. The result is a mélange of styles that cohere into a spooky musical score that wouldn’t sound out of a place in an Argento giallo. Cinquemani

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Review: Khalid’s Free Spirit Embraces Self-Inquiry to Hackneyed Effect

The album feels more like an American Eagle ad than a documentation of an authentic transformational experience.

3

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Free Spirit
Photo: Grace Pickering

With his butter-smooth two-octave vocal range, megawatt smile, and candid, sincere commitment to portraying millennial love—replete with boozy Uber rides and text-message mind games—Khalid has swiftly become a pop fixture, carving out a seemingly permanent place on the Billboard charts. But there’s a sense of guardedness, an almost antiseptic quality, to the 21-year-old singer’s produced-to-perfection R&B. And on his sophomore effort, Free Spirit, he can’t seem to shake that predilection for playing it safe, despite the album’s calls to lose our inhibitions and be free.

Whereas his 2016 debut, American Teen, played like the soundtrack to teenage romance and misadventure, Free Spirit sees Khalid embracing more mature self-inquiry, albeit to hackneyed effect, as he does on “Self”: “I’ve ran away for miles, it’s gettin’ hard for me to breathe/‘Cause the man that I’ve been runnin’ from is inside of me.” And no less inspired are lyrics like “So if you’re gonna love me/You gotta love all of me” (from “Bad Luck”) and “Life is never easy when you need it to be/Try to knock me down, but I get back on my feet” (from “Hundred”).

Free Spirit brims with potential radio hits, like the broody, laidback “My Bad.” The Disclosure-produced lead single, “Talk,” is bright and electric, with a galaxy of heavily textured synths underpinning the track’s buoyant chorus, in which Khalid shows off his seemingly effortless falsetto. A spacey guitar solo from guest John Mayer elevates the grounded groove of “Outta My Head” into something a little more out of this world. Multiple tracks, however, feature the same reverb-drenched guitar and airy synths, sucked dry of vitality by too-pristine production. For a burgeoning artist still establishing his signature style, Khalid settles into a surprising complacency here, failing to experiment with the template of his debut.

A fleet of 1970s-era vans emblazoned with the Free Spirit logo were deployed to colleges across the U.S. to promote the album’s release, and a band of disillusioned teens taking a weed-stoked road trip are the subject of a short film that accompanies the album. The title track grapples with the tantalizing and distressing prospects of freedom, but Khalid never seems to reconcile the depths of that freedom throughout Free Spirit. Perhaps it’s because, at 21, his journey is just beginning. But with all of the lyrical platitudes that abound on the album, the cover art of which depicts the artist overlooking a desert from the top of a dusty van, Khalid’s coming-of-age odyssey feels more like an American Eagle ad than a documentation of an authentic transformational experience.

Label: RCA Release Date: April 5, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Flaming Lips’s King’s Mouth Brings the Hooks but Lacks Heft

The album’s heartwarming melodies set to hit-and-miss lyrics represents at least a partial return to form.

3

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King's Mouth
Photo: George Salisbury/Warner Bros.

Given that Wayne Coyne has spent the last decade mired in increasingly bleak stonerism and aimless neo-psych jamming—not to mention the Instagramming and hawking of absurd novelty merchandise—it’s reasonable to wonder if he’ll ever return to the starry-eyed philosophizing of The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots that made him an indie-rock icon. Or, for that matter, if Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd will ever go back to writing the sweet pop melodies that made those albums so indelible.

With King’s Mouth, initially being released on vinyl as a Record Store Day exclusive with a full release to follow, Coyne’s voice is freed of the alienating reverb of the band’s recent work, returning to its clear, humanly quavering state in the center of the mix. Unfortunately, the album only contains about an EP’s worth of solid material, with the rest of the running time devoted to a tedious children’s fairytale featuring narration by the Clash’s Mick Jones.

Jones delivers, in intermittent spoken segments, a predictably offbeat yarn about a beloved king whose severed, steel-coated head becomes a totem of inspiration to the children of the kingdom (itself an extension of an art installation by Coyne). Conceptually, this is no less loopy than Yoshimi or any one of dozens of Lips songs that could have originally been conceived in a crayon drawing. But much of the narrative-focused sections of King’s Mouth lack compositional heft: They’re mostly sub-two-minute, largely instrumental toss-offs that Jones’s flat, disinterested narration does little to energize.

Still, as slight as they are, even vignettes like “Feedaloodum Beedle Dot” and “Funeral Parade” contain snatches of melody more distinct than nearly anything else the band has done this decade. This renewed melodic emphasis, though, is more appreciable on the album’s more deliberately composed songs. With their strummed acoustic guitars, pervasive but unfussy electronic embellishments, and Coyne’s existential musings, these songs sound like the basis of a proper follow-up to Yoshimi even more than the zany At War with the Mystics, did.

Of course, 17 years and numerous musical evolutions and public Coyne episodes later, this does feel a bit like backtracking, especially lyrically. The Coyne of “Waitin’ for a Superman,” “Fight Test,” and “Do You Realize??” was pseudo-childlike in disposition but also knowing and world-weary, and it was in that synthesis that he achieved genuine profundity. On King’s Mouth, Coyne too often defaults to just the “childlike” part of that equation, especially on “Giant Baby,” on which silly refrains of “You’re the biggest baby/You’re a giant little boy” render the eventual payoff line—“And it made me understand/That life sometimes is sad”—miles less impactful than, say, “Everyone you know someday will die.” Album closer “How Can a Head” also sounds a bit like a mash-up of things Coyne has said before in less frivolous contexts: “How can a head hold so many things/All our life, all our love/All the songs it sings.”

The heartwarming melodies that Coyne and Drozd set these hit-and-miss lyrics to represent at least a partial return to form for songwriters who, in recent years, seemed to have forgotten that melody is what they do best. Songs like “The Sparrow,” “All for the Life of the City,” and “Mouth of the King” boast sugary yet wistful melodies in the same vein of some of the Lips’s greatest work, and hearing Coyne sing them is like reuniting with an old friend.

Label: Warner Bros. Release Date: April 13, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Features

The 15 Best Nirvana Songs

Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl were prolific enough to produce some of the greatest rock songs ever put to tape.

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Nirvana
Photo: Sub Pop

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s tragic death via a self-inflicted gunshot wound. As if that weren’t a stark enough reminder of our fragile mortality, the band’s debut album, Bleach, will turn 30 this June. Of course, the massive success of Nirvana’s 1991 follow-up, Nevermind, would help change the course of rock history. The band’s songs, the vast majority of which were penned solely by Cobain, fused pop, punk, and heavy metal into raw yet relatively digestible scraps of visceral rock poetry that struck just the right balance of accessible and challenging, introducing “alternative rock” to the masses, influencing an entire generation of musicians and fans, and—for better or worse—christening a new subgenre: grunge. Though Nirvana only lasted for seven years and three studio albums, Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl were prolific enough to produce some of the greatest rock songs ever put to tape. Sal Cinquemani

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 5, 2014. Listen to our entire Nirvana playlist on Spotify.

15. “Been a Son”

The first of many collections of scraps tossed out to hungry fans, Insecticide at least revealed a few new sides of the band, ranging from blistering punk assaults to strange slices of jagged power pop. “Been a Son” proves one of the standouts of these early recordings, a zippy, straightforward ditty that retains only a scant undercurrent of sludge, only hinting at the psychic trauma that other songs made much more evident. Jesse Cataldo

14. “Rape Me”

Emblematic of the band’s reaction to accusations that they “sold out” for signing with a major label and softening their early punk sound, the opening guitar lick of “Rape Me” pointedly and playfully evokes “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before the track devolves into a crushingly blunt treatise on sexual assault that conveniently, if unintentionally, doubles as a taunt to the media to take their best shot. Cinquemani

13. “Sliver”

Rock’s inherently primal qualities have always been obvious, but few songs have approached them as directly as this one, a charging anthem that boils down to a melancholy tale of a little boy crying for his mother. Originally released by Sub Pop as a non-album single, it’s another sustained tantrum of a track, a roar disguising a whimper, highlighting the tormented whelp at the center of all that seething rage. Cataldo

12. “In Bloom”

Pitted with a stream of pithy, sardonic koans that go almost unnoticed under all the noise, “In Bloom” imagines a micro-problem (ignorant meddlers of the Seattle scene) that quickly exploded into a macro one, leaving an acidic song retroactively aimed at the huge contingent of fans prizing the band for their muscular qualities, while ignoring the pained sensitivity which produced that intensity. If more people had been listening, maybe we could have avoided the long downward spiral of influence that eventually led to Puddle of Mudd. Cataldo

11. “On a Plain”

Few things are more selfish, or illogical, than addiction, and the messy, self-focused tenor of Nirvana’s songs proves the perfect platform to engage that topic. The exacting honesty of tracks like “On a Plain” ended up as one of the band’s biggest cultural coups, pushing the focus of mainstream rock not only from glam fakery to “genuine” emotion, but from a fixation on surfaces and objects to the intrinsic horrors of being human, the gross weakness of our bodies and the yawning emptiness of discontent. Cataldo

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Music

Listen: Ariana Grande Drops New Single “Monopoly” with Victoria Monét

Yes, human pop song conveyor belt Ariana Grande dropped another new track today.

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Monopoly
Photo: YouTube

Human pop-song conveyor belt Ariana Grande dropped another new track today. Last week the singer hinted via Twitter that a release of “Monopoly,” a duet with frequent collaborator Victoria Monét, was imminent after the pair debuted the song live during a stop on Grande’s Sweetener World Tour. And here we are.

Clocking in at just over two-and-a-half minutes, the hip-hop-inflected “Monopoly” doesn’t leave much space for Grande to flex her much-ballyhooed vocal prowess, though she does manage to sneak in a few whistle notes at the end. The track has prompted as-yet-verified rumors that the pop star is bisexual: “I swerve both ways, dichotomy,” Monét says before both women put a fine point on it: “I like men and women.”

The lo-fi video is slightly more successful, with emojis popping up on the screen while Grande and Monét playfully celebrate on a roofop. At one point, Grande swipes left on “haters,” “negativity,” and “Trump.” (Grande recently started an initiative called #ThankUNextGen to register voters for next year’s presidential election.)

Watch below:

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