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Review: Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly

Lamar is greatly invested in the post-rap sound he’s aligned himself with, which is another pointed departure from Good Kid, M.A.A.D City.

4.5

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Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly

In the thick of its release, the conversation surrounding Kendrick Lamar’s extraordinary new album is bound to be mired in debate about its proximity to, or more specifically the distance it keeps from, the rap genre. Which is to say, To Pimp a Butterfly will inevitably be held up against Lamar’s 2012 breakthrough, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, judged against that album’s status as a young classic of the hip-hop genre and the reputation the rapper built in its wake. Lamar earned that reputation by being an artist with that rarest of skill sets: technical mastery, narrative focus, and social consciousness, able to conjure up comparisons to 2Pac, Biggie, and Illmatic-era Nas.

Lamar’s ascension came at a time when the biggest names in rap tended not to fit the expectation of a rap icon. Former Canadian TV star Drake staked his claim to fame on the boast of pairing his rap talents with R&B-leaning vocals, and Kanye West was coming off an ostentatiously eclectic album that juxtaposed rap against every genre he could cram alongside it. Lamar took rap back to the streets with a knotty, Joycian account of a man in Compton navigating daily life’s travails. He intimated the vices of this milieu to expose their appeal and identify the life choices that perpetuate them. It was an ambitious album that brought Lamar fame, but left him conflicted about its cost. The idea of “getting out of the ghetto,” a concept so many rappers strive for, left him with what he terms “survivor’s guilt.”

To Pimp a Butterfly was born of this guilt, but it was emboldened by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner—by the heightened awareness of what it means to be black in America. On the album Lamar condemns police brutality and slights Obama; he fears the government, recognizes an institutionalized incentive to ghetto life, and identifies with an 18th-century slave. Its sprawl and concerns conjure a new set of comparisons: G-Funk made nearly indistinguishable from its P-Funk antecedents, Sign ’O’ the Times-era Prince, and maybe what Jimi Hendrix might’ve given us had he been around a little longer. It’s not completely without precedent in rap, existing in the same general vicinity as OutKast’s Stankonia, or the Roots’ most ambitious work (Things Fall Apart and Phrenology), and its jazzier passages find a kindred spirit in the ‘90s group Digable Planets’ Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space). But coming from the artist behind misappropriated party jams like “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Swimming Pools (Drank),” it’s a seismic departure.

Where there were once big hooks, energetic rhyming in perfect lockstep with the beat, and a clear narrative thrust, there’s now an expansive morass of live music grooves, heady and sometimes contradictory stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and not so much as an overarching narrative as lots of fractured ones ducking in and out of obscurity. Opener “Wesley’s Theory” immediately establishes the black-power theme by throwing up a sample of Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger Is a Star,” and the album descends (or ascends, perhaps) through black culture from there. The same song formulates its title based on Wesley Snipes’s tax-evasion prison sentence, an analogue for the vices of black celebrity and the aggression of those institutions that prey on its failure. It’s a song that unites Kanye West’s “New Slaves” theory with funk spirit, complete with funk founding father George Clinton intoning strange poetry over Thundercat’s wobbling, drunker-than-Dilla bass bleats.

Tidy this album isn’t, but like There’s a Riot Goin’ On or the distended jams of One Nation Under a Groove, the uncompromising messiness is the point. The focused and fervent anger, politics, cosmic knowledge, and above all unshakable self-doubt is the point too. Lamar’s every bit as invested in the 11th-hour positivity anthem he’s elected to include here as a visceral live take (substantially upgrading the single version that leaned a bit too heavy on its highly recognizable Isley Brothers sample) as he is in the song that trumpets him as “the biggest hypocrite of 2015” and pivots on a third verse devoted to ruthless self-critique; as invested in the disco-ish one that sexualizes the prison industrial complex as he is in the second song he devotes to the concept of fame being unable to save black men from themselves. And his investment is so convincing that it sells even his more dubious claims, like excusing Michael Jackson for “touching those kids” because he wrote “Billie Jean.”

Lamar is also greatly invested in the post-rap sound he’s aligned himself with, which is another pointed departure from Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. In the years since that album, the R&B and hip-hop-connected jazz pianist Robert Glasper released two distinctive efforts that together with the jazz-transfiguring music by Flying Lotus and Thundercat of the Brainfeeder label essentially laid the groundwork for Lamar’s opus. All of those artists are present here, joining West Coast rap figureheads like Snoop Dogg and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City producer Sounwave to mine a sound steeped not just in regional traditions, like Lamar’s last album, but evocative of a whole culture’s history, as expansive in its sonic repertoire as Lamar’s raps are unmoored from his specific realities. It’s the logical next step for a conscious rapper unable or unwilling to report from the corner.

Give it time, and it won’t be Lamar’s move away from classicist rap that bugaboos his fans in hip-hop, but more likely it will be To Pimp a Butterfly’s unwillingness, its refusal even, to present the kind of authoritative statement ’heads crave from their heroes. This fact adds a fascinating ripple to the album’s lengthy finale, a poetry-reciting that turns into an interview with 2Pac (Lamar dubs in his own questions over the Swedish interviewee, along with copious displays of enthusiastic agreement), circling back to poetry, and arriving finally at a frantic question left unanswered.

Lamar has certain things in common with 2Pac for sure, citing the icon on numerous occasions as a major inspiration. But there’s no question that the personality put forth throughout To Pimp a Butterfly is nothing like the cocksure attitude the late rapper exudes in his posthumous cameo. Lamar instead shares something with D’Angelo, black music’s other reluctant Messiah. Like him, he has a lot to say, but willfully obscures his intent perhaps out of the great wisdom of his fallibility, or maybe just because he knows there aren’t any easy answers to the questions he’s asking. “I want you to feel uncomfortable,” Lamar has said of his intent for this album—because loving it is complicated, and it should be.

Label: Interscope Release Date: March 15, 2015 Buy: Amazon

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Taylor Swift Drops Star-Studded, Pride-Themed “You Need to Calm Down” Video

The video takes the notion of visibility as a means of acceptance to the extreme.

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Taylor Swift
Photo: YouTube

After years of political agnosticism, Taylor Swift endorsed two Tennessee Democrats during the 2018 midterm elections, prompting a backlash from white supremacists and their dear leader, Donald Trump. In the span of less than a year, the singer went from being the Aryan goddess of the alt-right to being called out as an agent of sodomy in a sermon by a homophobic pastor and sheriff’s deputy in her home state.

Swift’s path to wokeness has been a long one, and while the launch of her new single, “You Need to Calm Down,” during LGBT Pride Month might feel like the equivalent of Google slapping a rainbow flag on their logo, her activism—which included a recent $113,000 donation to a Tennessee LGBT organization—seems like more than just a branding opportunity. “To be an ally is to understand the difference between advocating and baiting,” Swift posted on Tumblr after rumors circulated that she kisses former rival Katy Perry in the video for “You Need to Calm Down,” the second single from Swift’s seventh album, Lover.

The clip does, however, take the notion of visibility as a means of acceptance to the extreme, featuring cameos from RuPaul, Ellen DeGeneres, Adam Lambert, Adam Rippon, Laverne Cox, Billy Porter, Jesse Tyler Ferguson (whom she serenaded at a surprise performance at New York’s Stonewall Inn last week), and other queer celebrities, YouTube stars, and allies.

Directed by Swift and Drew Kirsch, the video opens with the pop singer waking up in a pastel-colored trailer home adorned with kitschy paintings and a framed Cher quote (“Mom, I am a rich man”). She makes herself a cotton-candy smoothie, takes a dip the cleanest above-ground pool you’ll ever see, and parades through the trailer park’s pride-themed festivities, which includes a “pop queen pageant” featuring drag versions of Swift, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Adele, Cardi B, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and Katy Perry.

The real Katy pops up for a heartfelt reunion with Swift that makes “You Need to Calm Down”—which seems to strive for, but falls short of, the campy eye candy that Perry has honed in her own videos over the years—feel like a bachelorette party at a gay bar. But just in case you question Swift’s allegiance to the cause, the video ends with a message urging viewers to sign her petition for Senate support of the Equality Act.

Watch below:

Swift’s album, Lover, is due August 23 via Republic Records.

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Review: Yeasayer’s Erotic Reruns Is a Collection of Benign Love Songs

The album aims for an enthralling vision of infatuation, but the band’s message rings hollow.

2

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Erotic Runs
Photo: Chad Moore/Shore Fire Media

Yeasayer’s decade-plus-spanning discography is eclectic, purveying everything from world music (All Hour Cymbals) to austere electro (Fragrant World) to outlandish psych rock (Amen & Goodbye). As a relic of the bygone age of neo-hippie pantheism marshaled by the likes of Animal Collective and MGMT, the experimental rock outfit faces the quandary of evolving their sound for today’s indie landscape, which favors the low-key over the baroque. On Erotic Reruns, the band dives headfirst into flowery pop-rock, accomplishing yet another stylistic about-face and pruning away their most esoteric tendencies.

Throughout their fifth studio album, Yeasayer aims to transmit an enthralling vision of infatuation, but their message rings hollow. With its truncated verses and refrain, opener “People I Loved” seems hastily assembled, and its “na-na-na” hook quickly grows tiring. The band’s lyrics are often half-baked, making the rapture of falling in love on the plodding piano-driven “I’ll Kiss You Tonight” feel like a rather banal occurrence.

Even when Yeasayer is primed toward eliciting the longing and lust of infatuation, their sound is fettered by exaggeration. “Let Me Listen in on You” is chock-full of sweet nothings like “I can make your dreams come true,” and its florid strings give the chorus a sense of overdone theatricality. Elsewhere, a high-pitched vocal and carnival synth grant “Ecstatic Baby” a whimsy so overblown that one imagines the track would be deemed too cheesy for an Apple commercial. When Yeasayar does accomplish to tap into love’s exhilaration, they relay it with a heavy hand, making already sentimental concepts feel saccharine.

Erotic Reruns is a collection of ultimately benign love songs, as the eroticism proposed by the album’s title is glaringly absent across 29 scant minutes. Yeasayer are amiable, starry-eyed musicians whose sound, at its best, is inviting even as it overreaches. But while a concern for authenticity may not be pop music’s primary enterprise, among its virtues is its capacity to consistently excite and enchant. Try as they might, Yeasayer fail to attain either.

Label: Yeasayer Release Date: June 7, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Titus Andronicus’s An Obelisk Is All Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

On a superficial level, the ostensibly back-to-basics album could charitably be described as workmanlike.

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Titus Andronicus
Photo: Ray Concepcion/Merge Records

It takes balls to open your rock album by screaming about “an inferior version of rock n’ roll,” as Patrick Stickles does on “Just Like Ringing a Bell,” the opening track of Titus Andronicus’s An Obelisk. The band’s ostensibly back-to-basics sixth album could charitably be described as workmanlike. Stickles and longtime sideman Liam Betson’s guitar tones are fuzzy and chunky in all the right ways, and Stickles has his punk-rock growl down pat. But these are mere superficialities; loud guitars and screaming have hardly been the main focal point of the band’s sound. On An Obelisk, though, they’re just about all that Stickles and company have to offer. Forgive the cliché, but they asked for it by naming themselves after a Shakespeare’s tragedy: The album is the very epitome of sound and fury signifying nothing.

An Obelisk arrives just 15 months after the expectation-subverting A Productive Cough, but it couldn’t be more different, despite the fact that Stickles wrote both albums around the same time, separating the material into the bangers found here and the prior album’s more complex and mellower epics. This may sound like a welcome news for fans who struggled to embrace A Productive Cough’s cavalcade of guest musicians and auxiliary percussion, horns, and other instrumentation. But anyone who’s been clamoring for Titus Andronicus to make a uniformly hard and fast punk album like this one hasn’t been paying attention to what the band is about.

One of Titus Andronicus’s greatest strengths has always been the dichotomies in their music—those juxtapositions of the quiet and loud, the portentous and the irreverent. This is, after all, a band whose first album, The Airing of Grievances, borrowed its name from a Seinfeld episode, and whose breakthrough, The Monitor, was an epic concept album about the Civil War that they managed to somehow top five years later with a 90-minute rock opera about bipolar disorder. An Obelisk is loosely conceptual, but unlike The Monitor and The Most Lamentable Tragedy, there’s no discernable narrative or character to hang onto here. We do, though, get a narrator, known as Troubleman, who serves as little more than a thin veneer from behind which Stickles can excuse his under-baked ideas. After all, one wouldn’t expect the guy who wrote ambitious epics like “A More Perfect Union” and “Number One (in New York)” to be capable of penning the adolescent inanities that constitute the lazy three-chord blunders that are “(I Blame) Society” and “Tumult Around the World.” But he did.

From the generic stick-it-to-the-man platitudes of “(I Blame) Society” and the 68-second “On the Street” (“There’s too many police on the street/And they’re all after me!”), to the clearly unintentional parody of hardcore punk that is the 88-second “Beneath the Boot,” it’s almost hard to believe how dumb these songs are. Stickles has successfully managed to confront his demons in increasingly creative and resonant ways, from inventing a doppelganger on The Most Lamentable Tragedy to turning those demons into a party on A Productive Cough’s “Above the Bodega (Local Business),” but “My Body and Me” is insultingly glib: “My body and me, we don’t always get along/He tells me it’s all right, I tell him he’s all wrong.”

Producer Bob Mould, apparently unable to transfer whatever is powering his late-career renaissance to other artists, does capture an organic live-in-the-studio sound that shows the band’s current lineup—Stickles, Betson, and rhythm section R.J. Gordon and Chris Wilson—doesn’t lack for intensity. But with so many flat, unoriginal riffs and unmemorable choruses, there’s just not enough meat here to reward that approach, and despite its unrelenting volume, An Obelisk just feels empty without the wide-ranging dynamics and ambitious arrangements that have, until now, defined Titus Andronicus’s music.

Mercifully, most of the songs are over and done with quickly enough, though only a couple—the bright “Just Like Ringing a Bell” and the freewheeling “Troubleman Unlimited,” the only tracks here that don’t sound like “an inferior version of rock ‘n roll”—stick to the ribs at all. A few grind on unimaginatively for over five minutes, either to the point of boredom (“Within the Gravitron”) or absurdity (“Hey Ma,” with its face-palm-inducing imitation-bagpipe guitar solo). Like all of Troubleman’s diatribes, they just feel like a lot of hot air.

Label: Merge Release Date: June 21, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Raconteurs’s Help Us Stranger Is a Robust Return to Form

The album proves that there’s still more to be mined from the supposedly anachronistic guitar-rock template.

4.5

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Help Us Stranger
Photo: David James Swanson/Big Hassle

The Raconteurs were initially billed as an outlet for Jack White to step outside of the self-imposed sandbox of the White Stripes. But coming after a period during which White’s work—as both a solo artist and with the Dead Weather—has become increasingly untethered from his original no-frills ethos, the Raconteurs’s first album in 11 years, Help Us Stranger, feels like a robust return to form for the musician.

But the Raconteurs shouldn’t just be viewed through a White-centric prism. There’s no better contemporary rock example of two halves of a songwriting duo, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, uncannily counterbalancing the other’s strengths and weaknesses than White and singer-songwriter Brendan Benson. Benson’s irrepressible melodic instincts keep White’s focus on his songcraft, while White’s boundless energy coaxes new tiers of passion from Benson, a less expressive vocalist and more rudimentary lyricist than White.

As White and Benson trade vocals on the album’s savage opener, “Bored and Razed,” with White’s spitfire verses building into Benson’s soaring choruses, their twin lead guitars batter away at each other like feral animals. Add Patrick Keeler’s thunderous drumming, and the band enters a dimension of pure rock power they’ve only ever succeeded in accessing together. The Raconteurs may lack the unconventional optics and charming minimalism of the White Stripes or the relentless power-pop hooks of Benson’s solo work, but Help Us Stranger is another compelling exhibit in the band’s continuing quest to prove that there’s still more to be mined from the supposedly anachronistic guitar-rock template.

Almost every track here is another example of one that would never have reached the same heights without the contributions of each band member. The main guitar riff of “Sunday Driver” is far from White’s most indelible, but combined with Jack Lawrence’s revving bassline and White’s own swaggering vocals and squealing lead guitar—contrasted with Benson’s laidback, psych-tinged, harmony-drenched bridge—the result is one of the most well-rounded and satisfying straight-up rock songs White has made since, well, the last Raconteurs album.

Likewise, with White’s frenzied guitar and Lawrence’s fat, greasy sonic low end, the Benson-led blue-eyed soul of “Now That You’re Gone” becomes a lighter-waving anthem. The band proves itself able to apply this effortless chemistry to any type of song, running the gamut from the groovy Detroit-style garage rock of “What’s Yours Is Mine” to the yearning bluegrass ballad “Thoughts and Prayers.” With “Help Me Stranger,” the Raconteurs even uncover something fresh, with White and Benson’s Everly Brothers-style harmonizing and acoustic strumming getting a quirky, modern kick from the off-kilter rhythmic foundation provided by Keeler’s upside-down snare drum and Lawrence’s heavy bass-pedal work.

While the disparity in fame between the band members may forever doom the Raconteurs to being remembered as one of White’s “side projects,” such a view is ignorant of both the band’s overall chemistry and White and Benson’s virtually equal songwriting talents. In fact, it’s the Benson-heavy songs here that make the most lasting impression, and White was clearly responsible for the album’s only misfire, “Don’t Bother Me,” a generic bar-band choogle over which White angrily sputters about his old nemeses, the “clicking and swiping” generation.

Both the melancholy Beatlesque pop of “Only Child” and the swooning country-soul of “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” rank among Benson’s very best work to date, with White’s multi-textured, ever-inventive guitar riffs and the rock solid rhythm section elevating Benson’s usual sad-sack routine toward true pathos. Help Us Stranger reaches its emotional apex during the latter’s honey-sweet outro: “I’m here right now, not dead yet,” Benson repeats, leaping registers as the band slowly works up to a fevered pitch behind him. Corny as it sounds, he might as well be singing about rock n’ roll itself. Few other bands out there are such compelling proof of its enduring viability.

Label: Third Man Release Date: June 21, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Silversun Pickups’s Widow’s Weeds Is a Clear-Eyed and Intrepid Renewal

The album grants us backstage access to the band at its most vulnerable and personal.

4

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Silversun Pickups
Photo: Claire Marie Vogel

Ever since the success of 2006’s Carnavas, the Silversun Pickups have had a hard time leaving the safety of their comfort zone. Without slipping completely into self-parody, each of the Los Angeles-based rock band’s subsequent releases has seen them tempering their winning formula with only cautious variations on Brian Aubert’s breathy, quavering vocals and their thick Gaussian blur of sonic distortion and reverb. The group’s dalliance with Depeche Mode-style synth-pop on 2015’s Better Nature boasted tantalizing moments of sparkling elegance and pulse-racing throttle, but its dependence on booming yet generically applied electronics left the album feeling vacant, even lethargic.

Enter Butch Vig. For a band that can’t quite quit its love for ‘90s alternative rock, their choice to enlist the production wizard behind Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, and the Foo Fighters seems only fitting. But their fifth album, Widow’s Weeds, is anything but a sentimental rehash of the good ol’ days. Instead, the album profits mightily from the veteran producer’s ability to transition established acts into more mature, self-assured iterations of themselves, without scrapping the essence of what made those bands great in the first place.

Widow’s Weeds thus grants us backstage access to the band at its most vulnerable and personal, but also its most clear-eyed and intrepid. After years of lackluster reviews and a string of personal struggles, the Silversun Pickups were perfectly poised for renewal and, as Aubert croons on “Don’t Know Yet,” the band has worked hard to “reboot the machine.” Under Vig’s steady hand, they’ve stripped away the stylistic accretions of their previous albums and come up with a much tighter, more identifiably rock sound. From its opening notes, the album presents a band brimming with reclaimed confidence and vitality, one that need no longer take refuge behind endless waves of feedback and sonic distractions.

Right out of the gate, “Neon Wound,” as it chugs along to the metronomic precision of Christopher Guanlao’s drums, unrolls the perfectly pointed welcome mat for those familiar with the Silversun Pickups. “Hello, my friend,” Aubert sings, almost winkingly, “It’s nice to see you again/Now that we’re on the mend.” The song’s taut spareness gradually drifts off into what sounds like little more than a listless B-side from Better Nature, but “It Doesn’t Matter Why” hurries in to take up the slack in full-charging tempo.

To be sure, Aubert and the gang have given up no ground in creating soundscapes of great power and intensity, sculpting with staccato rhythms and relentless builds the jumpy, nervous tension of a downed power line. Where on previous efforts that tension relied on muddy guitar riffs or Lester’s alchemic keyboard effects, this is an album driven by instrumentation and tightly crafted movements. Excesses of distortion have been peeled away to reveal the musical proficiency beneath, so that the finger-picked intro to “It Doesn’t Matter Why,” the sensuous chord bends of “Simpatico,” and the poppy electronics on “Don’t Know Yet” receive their full technical due. And the timely flourishes of orchestral support across the album add interesting melodrama to the streamlined arrangements. What results is a sultry, if not still-too-hesitant, intimacy that allows songs to shimmer with moments of nuance and sophistication.

In keeping with this shift toward musical accessibility, Aubert’s lyrics have acquired a greater transparency. His customary blend of cerebral metaphors and visual imagery still prevails, but his language has become more plainly self-referential, lending unmitigated tenderness to the songs. And without having to compete any longer with the drone of sheer loudness, he’s able to showcase a range of peaks and valleys that ventures boldly outside of his typical monotone.

But for all of Aubert’s newfound reach, the punch of his vocal thrusts throughout Widow’s Weeds wouldn’t be possible without the harmonic parries of bassist Nikki Monninger. Her contributions on albums past have supplied softness and moderation to some of the group’s brawnier impulses (“Gun-Shy Sunshine,” “Ragamuffin”), and while it seems she’ll always be stuck at second mic, she’s no longer merely echoing Aubert’s lead. Her husky alto provides flawless melodic counterpoint on the ethereal “Freakazoid” and the restless “Songbirds,” and she offsets Aubert’s gravelly baritone on “Widow’s Weeds” with delicate grace.

The album also conjures the ghosts of exemplars past, sampling a whisper of Placebo’s “Pure Morning,” a hint of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” and a whiff of the guitar crunches from Alice in Chains’s “Man in the Box.” Especially on “Straw Man” and “Simpatico,” the sleek, cleaned-up sound does little to hide the band’s influences. But if the going recommendation is to steal like an artist, then Silversun Pickups have appropriated their indulgences happily and in good faith. “Songbirds” bursts out of the speakers like a post-pubertal “Panic Switch,” still bristling with angsty vigor but far more composed and sure of itself. In contrast, “Bag of Bones,” a meandering blunder, just shuffles along aimlessly and repetitiously.

Elsewhere, “Simpatico” spotlights the band’s calmer, quieter tendencies while offering some of the album’s most intricate guitar work. And the hardest-hitting yet most nostalgic track, “We Are Chameleons,” lives up to its title by mopping up virtually every color and texture of Carnavas and wringing it out into a frenzied sonic meltdown that defies the restraint and self-control that led up to it. Widow’s Weeds may lack the arena-sized atmospherics and anthemic party songs of past Silversun Pickups efforts, but with each additional listen the hooks sink in deeper and the melodies stay longer in your head. It’s catchy, heartfelt, and far less forgettable than…what were those previous two albums named again?

Label: New Machine Release Date: June 7, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Madonna’s Madame X Is a Fearless, Eccentric Musical Memoir

The album is the work of an artist reawakened, and one who’s got something to say.

4

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Madonna
Photo: Interscope

Madonna’s 2005 EDM opus Confessions on a Dance Floor is considered by many to be the 21st-century standard for both every new album the singer releases and contemporary dance-pop at large. Though glorious in its own right, it seemed, at the time, like the work of an artist in damage control. The damage was 2003’s American Life, a personal, politically strident, and humorless album that became Madonna’s first commercial failure in 20 years. It also happens to mark the last time the queen of pop appeared to make music purely on her own terms, without any consideration of the charts or what the public expected of her—a novel idea for an artist in the business of making, well, popular music.

Of course, Madonna has never been your average pop star. Though her music has deep roots in R&B and disco, she is, at heart, a rock auteur, with all of the inclinations toward upending the status quo and expressing a singular vision that designation implies. Her last album, 2015’s Rebel Heart, was designed by committee, while its predecessor, MDNA, was recorded during a period when she seemed more interested in directing movies and extending her brand than making music. So it makes sense that when she decided to forgo songwriting camps and aspirations of a late-career radio hit for her 14th album, Madame X, Madonna turned to French producer Mirwais, her primary collaborator on American Life.

In other words, Madame X sounds like the work of an artist reawakened, and one who’s got something to say. It’s a development reportedly inspired by her time in Lisbon, where she was surrounded by musicians and art in a way she hadn’t been since her pre-fame days in the East Village. The influence of Lisbon’s multicultural history can be heard on tracks like the fado-meets-Motown “Crazy”—co-produced by Mike Dean, the album’s other principal knob-twirler—and the polyrhythmic “Batuka,” featuring Afro-Portuguese group Orquestra de Batukadeiras.

Madame X plays like a musical memoir, sometimes literally: “I came from the Midwest/Then I went to the Far East/I tried to discover my own identity,” Madonna sings on the Eastern-inflected “Extreme Occident,” referencing her rise to fame and spiritual awakening, famously documented on her 1998 album Ray of Light. A multi-part suite that shifts abruptly from electro-pop dirge to classical ballet and back again, “Dark Ballet” is a Kafkaesque treatise on faith and her lifelong crusade against the patriarchal forces of religion, gender, and celebrity—an existential battle echoed in the Jean-Paul Sartre-quoting closing track “I Rise.”

The album’s autobiography is also conveyed sonically: It’s a thrill to hear Madonna singing over a ‘90s house beat on the smoldering “I Don’t Search I Find.” But despite its ballroom strings, finger-snaps, and throaty spoken-word bridge, comparing it to “Vogue” or “Erotica” would be too easy. This isn’t a song so much as a mood. It’s downstairs music, the distant bassline rumbling beneath your feet as you slip into a bathroom stall for a quick bump or fuck.

Madonna has a reputation for being a trendsetter, but her true talent lies in bending those trends to her will, twisting them around until they’re barely recognizable, and creating something entirely new. The album’s pièce de résistance, at least in that regard, is the six-minute “God Control,” which begins with Madonna conjuring the spirit and disaffected monotone of Kurt Cobain—“I think I understand why people get a gun/I think I understand why we all give up,” she sings through clenched teeth—before the whole thing implodes into a euphoric, densely layered samba-disco-gospel mash-up. Throughout the song, Madonna’s vocals alternate between Auto-Tuned belting, urgent whispers, and Tom Tom Club-style rapping as she takes on the gaslight industrial complex and so-called political reformers. On paper, it might sound like the ingredients for a musical Hindenburg, but—somewhere around the midpoint, when she declares, “It’s a con, it’s a hustle, it’s a weird kind of energy!”—it all coheres into the most exhilaratingly batshit thing she’s done in years.

If, metaphorically, Madame X represents Madonna’s rediscovery of her voice as an artist, then it also highlights the literal loss of it. Over the years, the soft edges of her voice have grown sharper, and the album’s pervasive vocal effects—most gratuitous on the electro-ragga “Future” and, to a lesser degree, the haunting “Looking for Mercy”—have a distancing effect. The heavy Auto-Tune on Music and American Life was deployed in service of larger conceptual themes like imperfection (“Nobody’s Perfect”) and anonymity (“Nobody Knows Me”), contrasted by the bare performances of more confessional songs like “Easy Ride.” Here, filters are indiscriminately thrown on nearly every song, which only serves to obscure Madonna’s humanity. On “Medéllin,” for example, her admission that “For once, I didn’t have to hide myself” is pointlessly cloaked in Auto-Tune, keeping us at a remove.

When Madonna isn’t singing with what sounds like a mouthful of gumballs on “Crave,” the rawness of her voice amplifies the nakedness of her lyrics: “Ran so far to try to find the thing I lacked/And there it was inside of me.” Likewise, you can hear the grit and grief in her voice when, on “Crazy,” she sings, “I bent my knees for you like a prayer/My God, look at me now.” The track “Killers Who Are Partying” has been flagged by some critics for its lyrics—ostensibly inspired by scripture, the post-World War II poem “First they came…,” or maybe both—but the naïveté of Madonna’s words would be more cringe-inducing if her delivery wasn’t quite so bewitching. Mirwais’s arrangement, too, casts a spell: Old world meets new world as mournful fado guitar and accordion swirl beneath the track’s stuttering beats and warped synths.

Madame X is fearless, the sound of an artist unapologetically indulging all of her whims and quirks. The garish favela funk of “Faz Gostoso” and the racy reggaeton of “Bitch I’m Loca”—featuring Anitta and Maluma, respectively—feel out of place amid the album’s otherwise refined sonic palette. But even when Madonna falters, at least you know you’re getting the real deal and not some version of a pop icon cooked up in a songwriting lab.

Label: Interscope Release Date: June 14, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Mykki Blanco Is a Trans Joan of Arc in Madonna’s “Dark Ballet” Video – Watch

The self-described transfeminine rapper stars in the video from the queen of pop’s upcoming album Madame X.

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Mykki Blanco
Photo: YouTube

While presenting Madonna with GLAAD’s Advocate for Change award last month, Mykki Blanco hinted that a collaboration with the queen of pop might be imminent. Sure enough, the self-described transfeminine rapper stars in the video for “Dark Ballet,” the final track to be released in the lead-up to Madonna’s new album, Madame X.

Directed by Dutch Ghanaian visual artist Emmanuel Adjei, “Dark Ballet” echoes the themes of Madonna’s infamous “Like a Prayer” video, awash with Catholic iconography and a storyline revolving around a persecuted black person. But that’s where the similarities end. The singer only briefly appears in the clip, behind a black veil, and the burning crosses of her 1989 video are traded for a ceremonial burning at the stake.

The video is frenetic and non-linear, opening with Blanco held captive in a stonewalled room, wrapped in a dirty white robe. Wrists bound with rope, he’s led by clergymen to be executed for an undisclosed crime. He’s then seen dancing, first in a cathedral—pleading with the men, who forsake him—and then in the church’s sanctuary, dressed in a gold corset reminiscent of the iconic one designed by Jean Paul Gaultier for Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour. Madonna is, in effect, all over the video, but her casting of a queer person of color as the oppressed, rather than herself, spotlights the disproportionate impact of the patriarchy on minorities.

Produced by Madonna and longtime collaborator Mirwais, the song itself is an ambitious electro suite featuring a heavily Auto-Tuned denouncement of gender, lies, and fame, before the track breaks into Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed Pipes” from The Nutcracker accompanied by a robot Joan of Arc proclaiming her faith. (There’s a brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc near the beginning of the video.) The song is a reminder of the wacky magic Madonna and Mirwais are capable of cooking up together.

Watch below:

Madame X will be released on June 14 via Interscope Records.

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Review: Miley Cyrus’s She Is Coming Feels Like Empty Posturing

The singer finds her groove when she follows a less strident tack.

2.5

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Miley Cyrus
The only thing Miley Cyrus’s critics found more problematic than her appropriation of black culture on her 2013 album Bangerz was the singer’s utter abandonment of hip-hop on 2017’s Younger Now. That album was marked by a more mellow pop-rock sound, complemented by a newly squeaky-clean image that found her literally frolicking in a country meadow. The move was seen as confirmation that Cyrus’s interest in hip-hop is merely performative, and her recent renunciation of Younger Now and subsequent pivot back toward urban-influenced pop is unlikely to quash that impression.

She Is Coming, the first of three EPs that Cyrus plans to release throughout the year, is rife with references to her newfound toughness. Lead single “Mother’s Daughter” boasts an admirable feminist-adjacent message—“Don’t fuck with my freedom”—but Cyrus’s standoffish pose feels like so much empty posturing, making the bravado of Taylor Swift’s Reputation seem downright menacing. On the mercifully brief “Unholy,” Cyrus tosses off glib vaunts like “I’m a little bit unholy/So what? So is everyone else,” while an unintentionally comical quip about having sex next to takeout food may arouse little in listeners besides a sudden compulsion to sanitize their kitchen counter.

The EP’s dubious employment of hip-hop tropes and graphic sexual metaphors reaches its nadir on ballroom-inspired “Cattitude,” part boast track and part ode to Miley’s female prowess: “I love my pussy, that means I got cattitude/If you don’t feel what I’m saying, I don’t fuck with you.” RuPaul’s presence lends a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to the song, but given the straight-faced appropriation on display throughout the rest of She Is Coming, it’s impossible not to consider this one with as much seriousness—that is, not much at all. When, at the end of the track, Cyrus awkwardly raps, “You’re just mad ‘cause your hair is flat,” it’s hard to tell if she’s taking the piss or deliberately provoking her critics.

Which is a shame, as Cyrus finds her groove when she doesn’t try so hard, as on “D.R.E.A.M.,” a hazy confessional that, true to its title, is dreamy enough to forgive its puerile conflation of chemical and romantic euphoria. Even an initially jarring coda from Ghostface Killah feels of a piece with the impeccably produced track’s distorted guitars and slyly discomfiting beat. The ragga-inspired “Party Up the Street” likewise cushions its drug-induced reverie with pillowy keyboards and swoony orchestral flourishes. Unless the subsequent EPs in this series follow this less strident tack, Bangerz might start to seem like an act of cultural reverence.

Label: RCA Release Date: May 31, 2019

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Review: Katy Perry Proves It’s “Never Really Over” with New Single and Video

The video takes place inside a gated compound where the singer enrolls in a retreat for the brokenhearted.

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Katy Perry
Photo: Capitol Records

Katy Perry’s first solo single in two years, “Never Really Over,” finds the pop singer struggling with residual ambivalence over a former flame. “Two years and just like that, my head still takes me back,” she belts in her signature bellow. Co-produced by Zedd, who previously collaborated with Perry on the DJ’s simmering electro-pop single “365” earlier this year, the infectious “Never Really Over” is a bright midtempo pop track that wouldn’t sound out of place on 2013’s Prism. And that’s probably by design.

Despite the strength of its lead single, “Chained to the Rhythm,” Perry’s 2017 album Witness fizzled on the charts, selling a fraction of its three multi-platinum predecessors. So it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that a lot is riding on “Never Really Over,” the title of which could—depending on how the song is received—double as a bold statement of purpose or tragic irony.

From the sound of a ticking clock to marching-band percussion, time is a clever recurring motif throughout “Never Really Over.” If Perry looked to the future on Witness, she mines the past for the music video for this track. But rather than revert to the retro, brunette bombshell look of her most commercially fertile eras, Perry opts for a long, wavy strawberry-blond coif and a ‘70s-inspired boho-chic aesthetic here.

Shot in Malibu, the video takes place inside a gated compound where Perry enrolls in a cult-like retreat for the brokenhearted. She her fellow romance recoverees dance merrily in a sun-kissed field and partake in cupping, acupuncture, and other forms of alternative medicine—“I guess I should try hypnotherapy/I’ve got to rewire my brain,” Perry sings—culminating in a cheeky ayahuasca-style ceremony in which the participants drink their own tears.

Directed by Philippa Price, “Never Really Lover” is a playful and imaginative portrayal of love’s intoxicating spell and the absurd lengths some of us will go to exorcise ourselves of it. The clip is ripe for repeat viewings and filled with New Age symbolism, including the compound’s yin-yang-inspired logo and enough triangle imagery to keep illuminati conspiracy theorists occupied at least until Perry serves up her next visual feast.

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Premiere: Heather Nova Goes Back to Her Roots with “Just Kids” Music Video

We’ve got the exclusive premiere of the second single from the singer-songwriter’s 10th album, Pearl.

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Heather Nova

Released 25 years ago this fall, Heather Nova’s breakthrough album, Oyster, earned the singer-songwriter a faithful following, due in large part to her angelic soprano, memorable pop hooks, and, above all, her alternately thoughtful and visceral ruminations on love and healing. Singles like “London Rain (Nothing Heals Me Like You Do)” and “Heart and Shoulder,” from 1998’s Siren, further solidified Nova as a cult pop figure at once capable of harnessing the grit of alt-rock, the candor of folk balladry, and the sleek accessibility of Top 40 music.

Following a series of more stripped-down fare, Nova’s 10th album, Pearl, reprises the crisp, layered aesthetic of those early efforts, thanks in large part to the singer’s reunion with producer Youth (The Verve, Dido, Pink Floyd). Nova describes the album’s second single, “Just Kids,” as a celebration of the “carefree sense of open possibilities” that new love can conjure in us. “It’s a song about how love can make you feel like a kid again,” she says.

Shot in Bermuda, where Nova was born, the music video for “Just Kids” is a charmingly simple visual depiction of the song’s universal concept. Co-directed by Nova and photographer Vincent Lions, the black-and-white clip is largely composed of one long take that finds Nova lounging on the beach while Lions (Nova’s boyfriend) frolics playfully in the background in a valiant attempt to make her break.

Watch “Just Kids” below:

Pearl will be released on June 28 via Saltwater Records.

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