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Music Video: Katy Perry’s “Roar”

Perry’s third album, Prism, has been marketed as a change in direction for the singer.

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Music Video: Katy Perry’s “Roar”

Abandoning the Rocky theme of her closing performance under the Brooklyn Bridge at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, Katy Perry takes a different angle for the music video for her single “Roar,” which has dethroned Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” after an impressive 12-week run to become the pop star’s eighth #1 hit in the U.S. The clip, directed by Grady Hall and Mark Kudsi, is being billed as a “Motion Theory Adventure Filmed in Junglescope” and features Perry stranded in the jungle after her plane goes down and a tiger devours her vapid, photo-snapping beau. Perry’s third album, Prism, has been marketed as a change in direction for the singer, but just like the song is ultimately not much of a departure from her previous hits, the video, a quasi-feminist twist on Tarzan that also doubles as a Nokia commercial, likewise finds her maintaining her playful video persona, befriending a monkey, swinging on a vine, and throwing down with the abovementioned jungle cat.

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Every Kanye West Album Ranked

Looking back at the emotional exhibitionism that defines the rapper’s work, it’s starkly clear how much of himself he’s put into it.

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Kanye West
Photo: Def Jam

Kanye West has come back from the precipice of what feels like certain career suicide more than just about any other popular music artist. But his tendency toward self-feat—on full display during our cruel summer, which saw him pursuing a dubious presidential bid, announcing another new album that never materialized, and waging “war” against record labels that led to him tweeting out his entire contract with Universal Music Group—is an essential part of the divisive, frequently infuriating, and resolutely genius work that he’s amassed over the last 15-plus years. West’s magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, would only have half a title if things were otherwise; the Black Power lingua franca of Yeezus wouldn’t be nearly as galvanizing without the juxtaposition of base carnality that shocks its politics into a realm of raw human expression; and The Life of Pablo, West’s most uninhibited and soul-baring album, reaches its highs through knotting grace and grotesquery into a mercurial self-portrait that’s rarely flattering but always magnetic.

The path from “Jesus Walks” to Jesus Is King has been a willfully discursive one, a journey from hip-hop’s hard beats to gliding electro-rap, from 808s & Heartbreak’s Auto-Tune croon to the industrial rave soundtrack of Yeezus to, ugh, the #MAGA hat. And in recent years, ever since West’s bipolar diagnosis became public knowledge, every volatile career move that he makes is necessarily met with an earnest concern for the man’s mental health. That concern has steadily been occupying more and more real estate in fans’ minds this summer, especially without any artistic output to counterbalance it. And maybe that’s a good thing: Looking back at the emotional exhibitionism that defines West’s incredible work, it’s starkly clear how much of himself he’s put into his art, but less clear how much more he can afford to give. Sam C. Mac



Ye

10. Ye (2018)

Ye’s emotional claustrophobia is at times effective: As a chronicle of living with mental illness, this is Kanye’s most unsparing work to date. “Sometimes I think really bad things,” he confesses on the stark, harrowing opener “I Thought About Killing You,” his voice dipping into an artificial chopped-and-screwed baritone. “Really, really, really bad things.” But when he departs from quasi-unfiltered monologues to structured verses, the results are uninspired. “If I pull up with a Kerry Washington, that’s gon’ be an enormous scandal,” from “All Mine,” is a clunker of a line, even coming from the guy who struck internet-meme gold by rhyming “croissant” with “French-ass restaurant.” Since Yeezus, Kanye has trafficked in minimalism, paring back his once-grandiose arrangements until the seams are visible and selling the results as raw unfiltered honesty, but Ye’s slapdash construction feels less like an artistic choice and more like a cry for help. Zachary Hoskins



Jesus Is King

9. Jesus Is King (2019)

The music on Jesus Is King is as impeccably produced as that of just about any Kanye release to date, but the shift toward gospel, while occasionally captivating and even convincing, more often proves that it’s more difficult for Kanye to apply his particular narrativizing gifts to faith than it is to the exploits of outsized celebrity caricatures, or the episodes of his own tabloid-baiting life. The album’s prevailing mood is braggadocio, ever Ye’s true north, and the greatest basis for his boastfulness is, familiarly, the resilience with which he’s carried himself on the path to commercial and personal success. The particulars of this message run counter to the ostensible thesis of Jesus Is King. Kanye doesn’t seem to have quite figured out how to translate his spiritual awakening to his music as confidently as he has nearly every other experience in his life on previous albums. Mac



Yandhi

7. Yandhi (2019, unreleased)

Like Prince’s Black Album, Yandhi was pulled from release at the very last minute and shelved because its creator felt that its content was too explicit. (Apparently couplets like “New ass, new tits/New bitch, who this?” didn’t jibe with his newly rediscovered Christianity.) Thankfully for fans, all of the songs from the album’s original tracklist have leaked (either as demos or finished but unmastered tracks) along with others from the sessions, and have been configured into various bootleg compilations. If that sounds way too outside the realm of canonization, consider that Kanye burned that bridge sometime around the sixth “update” delivered to streaming services of his 2016 album The Life of Pablo, or when he replaced an entire beat on 2018’s Ye days after its release. In short, thinking of latter-day Kanye West albums as fluid is more than appropriate. Yandhi is also far from Ye’s worst album, thanks to the indelible earworm “New Body”—which features a salacious and table-turning verse from a prime-form Nicki Minaj and a beat by Ronny J that sounds like a tin whistle—along with “Hurricane” and “City in the Sky,” which both do more interesting things with their gospel influences than just about anything on Jesus Is King. Mac



Graduation

7. Graduation (2007)

Kanye’s sampling choices remained basically citational on Graduation, even as his production adopted a beefy, synth-glam sheen. “Stronger” is one of the more galvanizing moments of contrast to the filtered soul of “Through the Wire” and “Touch the Sky.” Instead of trying to placate his oft-mentioned elders with Curtis Mayfield and Chaka Khan, the menacing Vocoder samples of Daft Punk cut through the hazard tape of “Stronger” and, if nothing else, form a much more appropriate match for Kanye’s blustering hubris. Still, you couldn’t find a campus library cavernous enough to annotate “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” in which Kanye attempts to satirically undercut his supposedly self-deprecating biographical exorcism and ends up in a deep confusion, or the swooping drama queenery of “Flashing Lights,” in which he compares his media experience to what it must’ve felt like to be “Katrina with no FEMA.” Eric Henderson



808s & Heartbreak

6. 808s & Heartbreak (2008)

After a series of micro-evolutions, 808s & Heartbreak marked Kanye’s first hard pivot away from his soul-sample-heavy brand of hip-hop. The album’s narrow aesthetic boundaries—including minimalist keyboards, steely string passages, and, of course, tribal 808s—highlight Kanye’s limitations as a vocalist. But while Auto-Tune might be the worst thing to happen to popular music since Kanye’s ego, it makes his pitiful crooning sound like that of a despondent robot. And that ego, like the singing rapper’s heart, isn’t so much broken as it is deflated like the balloon on the album’s cover, making for purposeful (mis)use of the pitch-correction software as a symptom of said heart defect. Sal Cinquemani



The College Dropout

5. The College Dropout (2004)

Who says rap can’t be insecure and hopelessly neurotic? Kanye proved the possibility of this kind of finicky introspection without losing a hint of swagger, hopping from big issues to self-involved bluster, always with one eye on the mirror, second-guessing himself all the way to the top. Before the ego-infused outbursts, before the anti-academic motifs became hopelessly stale, The College Dropout found Kanye as a relatively blank slate, as well as the first rapper to score a hit single with his jaw wired shut. Jesse Cataldo



The Life of Pablo

4. The Life of Pablo (2016)

“We don’t want no devils in the house,” squeaks a sampled Christ-worshipping pipsqueak in the first seconds of The Life of Pablo, and unsurprisingly her words go unheeded: After the benedictory blessing of “Ultralight Beam,” Kanye is back to his sinning ways. The Kanye of this album is the least likable one yet, and even more repelling for his apparent proximity to the real Kanye: Unlike those of the “monster” on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or the “god” on Yeezus, there’s always a sense that the narratives here—the one about Taylor Swift, the shot at Ray J, etc.—are his own. But the thing is, amplification is Kanye’s art: Sounds are always getting bigger and sharper, production progressively more expansive and diverse, and emotional honesty is taken to the most vivid of extremes. The Life of Pablo is a masterwork because it pairs Kanye’s best executed musical ideas with the most revealing expression of his character. Mac



Yeezus

3. Yeezus (2013)

As raw and straightforward as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is sparkling and expansive, Yeezus is another self-deifying shrine to an artist so much more sensitive than his stature should allow, turning everything he releases into a messy blend of the personal and the political. Never has this been clearer than on stellar songs like “New Slaves” and “Blood on the Leaves,” which conflate personal and historical traumas into one chaotic mixture, communicating both the insidious, lingering effects of a racist culture and the unmistakable imprint of an artist who refuses to be quieted by his own insecurities. Cataldo



Late Registration

2. Late Registration (2005)

Though his public appearances and constant blogging demonstrated an ego run so amuck it headed right into South Park fish-in-a-barrel territory, signing up to co-produce a rap record with Jon Brion was a pretty genius move. Brion’s strings and general sense of kooky bombast make for a consistently challenging album that never forgets that it’s still a pop record. Despite a tinge of melancholy on tracks like “Hey Mama” and “Roses,” or the outrage of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” Late Registration mostly captures the joy that can only be found in creative invention. Jimmy Newlin



My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

Insisting, on whatever grounds, that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is 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. 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. Matthew Cole

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Review: Joji’s Nectar Creates a Mollifying Vibe That Feels Removed from Reality

The album is tantamount to the relatable but rote sadness of a Twitterdecked epigram.

2.5

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Joji, Nectar
Photo: Damien Maloney

George Kusunoki Miller’s successful rebranding from the uncouth YouTube memelord known as Filthy Frank into chart-topping artist Joji speaks to the appeal of his sulky, hi hat-accented R&B, which is tailor-made for a Gen-Z audience that came of age during the trap wave guided by such brooding auteurs as Drake and the Weeknd. On his 2018 debut, Ballads 1, the Japanese-Australian singer’s heartsick lamentations blended together in a mass of chilled-out piano and sleepy falsetto, but at the time it seemed that Miller, stripped of his outrageous internet persona, lacked an artistic identity. With his follow-up, Nectar, Miller flaunts improved vocals and expands his sonic palette with the accouterments of synth-pop and alternative rock, but he comes up short of filling that void.

The album’s opening track, “Ew,” finds Miller exploring the uncomfortable feelings that arise from losing in love. A cascade of piano arpeggios and clouds of sentimental violin shore up ruminations such as “Teach me to love just to let me go” and “I can’t believe that I’m not enough.” “Gimme Love” is as pleading as its title suggests, while on “Run,” Miller confronts an evasive lover, smoothly shifting between morose belting and light-as-air head voice. Glimpses of idyllic love are momentary, their inevitable end always in sight, as on the doting “Like You Do,” where Miller worries, “If you ever go, all the songs that we like will sound like bittersweet lullabies.” At the risk of wallowing, he braves such powerlessness, which similarly informed the best tracks on Ballads 1.

But while the subject of Miller’s intense focus hasn’t changed since his last album, his music’s sonic reach has expanded on Nectar—at least to the extent to which he’s assisted by featured artists. An outlier in Joji’s discography, the Diplo-produced “Daylight” is a soaring, summery post-breakup anthem. Taking singer-songwriter Omar Apollo’s lead, Miller settles into a soul-adjacent groove on “High Hopes,” and experimental producer Yves Tumor leaves his fingerprints all over the glitchy, distorted “Reanimate.” Throughout, the album’s collaborations come off less as inventive genre-bending and more like a hesitation to commit to a genre. What’s more, Miller’s presence on these songs doesn’t display the range of a chameleonic workhorse so much as relegate him to second-in-command.

On his own, Miller is comfortable rinsing and repeating, soporifically drifting over three-minute-long verse-chorus structures. With the exception of the Brockhampton-esque “Tick Tock,” which is enlivened by an off-the-wall sample of Nelly’s “Dilemma,” the songs unspool uneventfully, founded on hazy synths and hollow drum machines. At an excessive 18 tracks, the album ends up feeling like a big-budget version of the nondescript, vaguely hip-hop-flavored study mixes that proliferate on YouTube. This is perfect background music for anyone wishing to emulate those videos’ studious anime girls—which is to say, Nectar is palatable enough to summon a mollifying “vibe” yet uninvolved enough to ensure that listeners maintain their focus on the task at hand.

Miller’s transparency remains his greatest strength. On “Modus,” he seems to address the failures and numbing effects of antidepressants: “I don’t feel the way they programmed me today.” On the page, this lyric’s forthrightness could have the potential to draw blood, but Miller’s unexpressive delivery has a dulling effect. Clearly, Miller doesn’t balk at transporting listeners to his lowest moments through his lyricism, but his placid performances and dime-a-dozen soundscapes fail to do the same. Nectar largely feels removed from its inspiration in reality, so that it’s tantamount to the relatable but rote sadness of a Tweetdecked epigram, the equivalent of a half-hearted “it be like that sometimes.”

Label: 88rising Release Date: September 25, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Sufjan Stevens’s The Ascension Aims for Great Heights but Often Gets Lost

The album is only partially successful at maintaining the singer’s impeccable songwriting.

3

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Sufjan Stevens, The Ascension
Photo: Sacks & Co.

Sufjan Stevens has never shied away from big ideas. From 2005’s massive, baroque opus Illinois, to 2010’s bombastic Age of Adz, to 2015’s achingly personal Carrie and Lowell, the singer-songwriter never seems afraid to go all in on a sound or feeling. Throughout the last two decades, Stevens has churned out intermittent masterpieces, all of them taking on vastly different sonic sensibilities, and his ability to surprise in every conceivable mode has become, perhaps, his defining characteristic as an artist.

So, ironically, Stevens’s turn toward an almost entirely electronic-based approach with The Ascension, his first album in five years, doesn’t come as a shock. Age of Adz, after all, incorporated programming and synthesizers into its explosions of impressionistic noise, but the expansive electronic soundscape that Stevens goes for here is a more complete transformation from his established sound. The album, however, is only partially successful at maintaining Stevens’s impeccable songwriting through this sharp transition.

A few too many of the songs on The Ascension get lost in the album’s overwhelmingly dense production. Opening track “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse” starts off with a dark, thumping beat and sheer, foreboding synthesizers, while Stevens’s opening lines are chilling and silky, momentous and inscrutable: “Move me/Move like the waters I cannot drink/I have lost my patience/Make me an offer I cannot refuse.” He makes subtle manipulations to that line, hypnotically repeating the slippery melody as the song intermittently takes off—at one point, it literally sounds like a spaceship launching—before then collapsing. While the first three minutes of are mystical and memorable, the song quickly begins to meander, sinking into repetitions of the title and, eventually, a pulsing, nonverbal coda.

As the album plays out, this feels less like a fluke and more like a trend; too often, the tracks stretch out far longer than seem necessary. The seven-and-a-half-minute “Sugar” spends its first half building tension with chilly atmospherics and a static beat, but it confuses the use of repetition for a great sense of immersion as Stevens slowly and dramatically unveils one pop bromide—“Come on, baby, give me some sugar”—ad nauseam throughout the rest of the track. “Death Star” doesn’t spend a lot of time getting to the point, but it similarly sacrifices a compelling structure for a repetitive hook and overstuffed kind of ambience.

While The Ascension, as a whole, falls short of Stevens’s best work, there’s still plenty to like here. In fact, one of the album’s flaws is that its most emotionally resonant tracks—like the hazy devotional “Run Away with Me” and the dreamy, starlit ballad “Tell Me You Love Me”—are frontloaded. “Video Game,” Stevens’s take on a straight-up pop song, wonderfully melds his well-trodden examination of religious themes (“I don’t want to be your personal Jesus,” he sings in a nod to the Depeche Mode song) with a strong melodic foundation. “Lamentations,” meanwhile, is less straightforward and better for it, with an off-kilter beat that incorporates garbled vocal sounds, recalling the adventurousness of Age of Adz. These songs are sharper, more succinct representations of what The Ascension seems to be going for—a fully realized electronic reimagination of Stevens’s detailed and maximalist songwriting.

The album’s 80-minute runtime makes some of Stevens’s lengthier explorations feel like more of a slog than they might have been out of context. Indeed, this album is so dense that it wouldn’t be surprising if some of the less immediate tracks reveal their nuance as time goes on. Occasionally, stretching the limits of a song can do wonders, like on the mesmerizing closing track, “America,” in which a repeated line—“Don’t do to me what you did to America”—carries more weight with each utterance. But while Stevens often reaches great heights on The Ascension, he almost as often seems to get lost in his big ideas.

Label: Asthmatic Kitty Release Date: September 25, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Watch: Lady Gaga’s “911” Music Video Is a Surreal Death Dream

The video, directed by Tarsem, finds the singer awakening in a desert surrounded by pomegranates and a broken bicycle.

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Lady Gaga, 911
Photo: YouTube

When Lady Gaga’s Chromatica saw its belated release in May, most of the attention was focused on its collaborative tracks with Ariana Grande, Blankpink, and Elton John. But the dramatic transition from the orchestral interlude “Chromatica II” into the synth-pop dance tune “911” soon went viral on TikTok, making the latter the most-streamed solo cut from the album aside from lead single “Stupid Love.”

Enthusiasm for “911” seems to stem mostly from the transition, but the song itself, which is reminiscent of past Gaga singles “LoveGame” and “G.U.Y.,” touches on the timely topics of mental health and pharmaceuticals. The music video, directed by Tarsem and inspired by Armenian director Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 film The Color of Pomegranates, finds Gaga awakening in a desert surrounded by pomegranates and a broken bicycle. What follows is a surreal dreamscape featuring a bride adorned with a red cross symbol, a woman cradling a mummified body, and Gaga performing jerky choreography while dressed, of course, in a series of elaborate costumes.

The clip, which was shot at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, takes a turn for the heavy-handed when the music cuts out and Gaga begins to tearfully wail straight into the camera. It’s quickly revealed that it was all a death dream, and the characters Gaga saw were, à la The Wizard of Oz, either victims or first responders to a fatal car accident that leaves Gaga on a stretcher and her produce scattered on the street.

Watch below:

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Review: Alicia Keys’s Alicia Strikes a Careful Balance Between Hope and Despair

The album reveals the interconnectedness of the singer’s view of both the world and herself.

3.5

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Alicia Keys, Alicia
Photo: Milan Zrnic

Like the most effective political pop, Alicia Keys’s seventh album, Alicia, couches its socio-political observations in a personal context, unspooling to reveal the interconnectedness of its subject’s view of both the world and herself. The album’s de facto intro, “Truth Without Love,” sets the tone with a vaguely political lament about how the truth has become “elusive.” The focus then immediately pivots, on “Time Machine,” from our post-truth society to self-reflection, or “fear of what’s in the mirror,” suggesting that we seek solace not in nostalgia for simpler times, but in a free mind.

At times, Keys’s optimism about the state of the world feels naïve, like an echo from an era when “hope and change” felt attainable, as on the dreamy “Authors of Forever,” with its persistent refrain of “it’s alright.” But that sense of displaced positivity is offset by the directness with which Keys sings about police violence on “Perfect Way to Die” and so-called “essential workers” on “Good Job,” whose sense of hope is tinged by deep despair. That’s when you realize Keys’s optimism isn’t just Pollyannaish, but the kind you muster when you simply don’t know what else to do.

Still, those two closing tracks’ spare arrangements of piano and vocal—though functionally effective at highlighting the lyrical content—feel too conservative for their chosen subject matter. And when Keys’s signature piano is traded for acoustic guitar, as it is on a trio of back-to-back songs in the album’s middle stretch, the result is neo-soul formlessness that, generously, could be described as “mood music.” Keys’s voice, at least, pairs nicely with that of Miguel on “Show Me Love” and Khalid on “So Done” (by contrast, it’s much too similar in tone and timbre to Swedish singer Snoh Aalegra’s on “You Save Me”).

The most interesting of Alicia’s copious collaborations are the ones that diverge from Keys’s usual style. The dub-infused “Wasted Energy,” featuring Tanzanian bongo flava artist Diamond Platnumz, inspires in Keys a blissed-out vocal performance reminiscent of Sade, and there’s a matter-of-fact plainspokenness to her verses on “Me x 7”—“I should push this three o’clock to no o’clock ‘cause I don’t wanna disappear”—that complements Philly rapper Tierra Whack’s eclectic flow.

Alicia is aptly titled, as it largely returns to fundamentals following the loosely experimental Here. Like that album, this one lacks the powerful hooks of Keys’s earlier efforts, but she strikes a happy balance between the piano ballads that helped make her famous, the kick drum-driven R&B jams she so often gravitates toward, and her more recent inclination for less commercial fare. The Funkadelic-inspired “Time Machine” is simultaneously retro and futuristic, alternately sexy and darkly atmospheric, while “Underdog” and “Love Looks Better” update the “No One” template with an island vibe and swooning synths, respectively. That Alicia is at once her most accessible and forward-minded album in years seems fitting for an artist who, until recently, has made a career out of playing things straight down the middle.

Label: RCA Release Date: September 18, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Cults’s Host Explores the Seduction and Dissonance of Codependency

The album chronicles the euphoric highs and harrowing lows of a parasitic relationship.

3.5

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Cults, Host
Photo: Maxwell Kamins

For nearly a decade, indie-pop band Cults has dealt in the mystique of contradiction. Brian Oblivion’s lush, bewitching instrumentation and Madeline Follin’s guileless vocals, sung in the style of a Phil Spector girl group, conjure the wish-fulfilling fantasy of teenage daydreams. The twist is that Follin’s lyrics tend to recount the ruins of humanity, from alienation and hopelessness to temptation and amorality. With their fourth album, Host, the duo deploys the same tonal contradiction between music and messaging, this time chronicling the euphoric highs and harrowing lows of a parasitic relationship.

With the detail-oriented obsession of hardboiled detectives, Oblivion and Follin study a romance’s toxic dynamic from multiple angles across the album’s 12 tracks. Buoyed by histrionic, ‘60s pop-style violin stabs, “Trials” sees Follin fretting that her lover is so invasive and consuming that he watches her even in her dreams. But she doesn’t play the damsel in distress, à la the Shangri-Las, for too long. She unflinchingly wrestles with the dark and twisted particulars of desire, as on the sweeping “Spit You Out,” where she purges herself from her toxic partner: “Leech, held on, I spit you out/Cleaned you from my tongue.”

Host is the first Cults album to be recorded primarily with live instruments, but the band’s sound continues to be synth-driven. Showy horns give “8th Avenue” a bluesy hue, while “Monolithic” is bolstered by an imaginative, layered string arrangement. Oblivion’s electronic kinetics, however, are responsible for heightening the songs’ drama and suspense: “Working It Over” and “A Purgatory” both boast hooks that turn anthemic thanks to the application of dense, otherworldly synths. Producer Shane Stoneback resumes his role as the unofficial third member of the group, ensuring that Host, in spite of its dabbling in live instrumentation, springs from the same atmospheric vein as previous Cults albums.

The group toys with unexpected melody formulation throughout the album—a gamble that doesn’t always pay off. On “Honest Love,” Fullin whispers a bewildering, oscillating refrain that grates against the robotic backing vocal. The scattered melody on “No Risk” is similarly puzzling and makes the song’s brief two-and-a-half minutes feel like an eternity. Although the band earns points for risk-taking, their flirtation with dissonance is less inventive than it is jarring, producing songs that amount to Frankenstein-like composites.

The album’s real allure is rooted in Cults’s representation of Stockholm syndrome, that sickeningly insidious pathology responsible for a host’s attachment to its parasite. The intoxicating “Shoulders to Feet” depicts attachment to a toxic partner as an almost spiritual devotion. During the soaring refrain, Fullin sings, full of conviction: “Shoulders to my feet/You’re everything I need.” Just as cult leaders are said to exploit faith, so do parasites with their victims, instilling in them the belief that all is for the greater good. Whereas faith represents salvation for most, Host suggests that it can just as easily be one’s undoing.

Label: Sinderlyn Release Date: September 18, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Gus Dapperton’s Orca Feels Like the Musical Equivalent of Mystery Meat

These restless songs flit between lapses of focused meditation and fretful apprehension.

3

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Gus Dapperton, Orca
Photo: Jess Farran

Gus Dapperton’s most striking quality is his meticulous appearance, which consists of baggy, thrift-chic clothing, pristinely painted nails, and a sharp bowl cut. But like his scrupulous sense of style, the singer-songwriter’s music has felt too faithful to the inoffensive “good vibes” of bedroom pop. Dapperton’s 2019 debut, Where Polly People Go to Read, offered an attractive amalgamation of alternative pop and R&B but did little in the way of distinguishing him from his peers. Think of Dapperton as an edgier Rex Orange County or a less neo-soul-inclined Omar Apollo.

With his sophomore effort, Orca, Dapperton roughens up the edges of his music, trading in sleek synth-pop slow jams for unvarnished balladry and borrowing more heavily from indie rock. Gone are the tepid Casio keys and muted drum pads of Where Polly People Go to Read, replaced by feverish guitar and warm piano melodies. On his debut’s more sensual cuts, Dapperton’s crooning could veer into nasal; by comparison, he relies on a more emotive rasp here, a texture that pairs well with the album’s downtempo rock. On “Grim,” his guttural screams and thrashing guitar comprise a tortured call and response—a far cry from the icy aloofness with which he approached the torch songs on his last album.

As Dapperton analogizes on the Arcade Fire-esque “Bottle Opener,” he intends to uncap formerly bottled-up feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. But his urge to probe these emotions to their depths is often obstructed by their cyclical nature and his misgivings about the future. “Medicine,” which sounds like a draft out of Ben Gibbard’s songbook, culminates with a collision of staccato piano and insistent acoustic guitar as Dapperton declares, “Every time they try to fix me up/I get addicted to the medicine.” These restless songs flit between lapses of focused meditation and fretful apprehension. It makes sense, then, that they were crafted during short-lived moments of stillness in his life, stolen amid the highs and lows of the singer’s hectic touring over the past couple of years.

Dapperton delivers his stickiest hook to date on “Post Humorous,” a deceptively buoyant song about nihilism. Sun-soaked guitar strumming belies lyrics about losing touch with one of the few lifelines available to a pessimist: humor. Dapperton cloaks his messaging in cryptic imagery, casting self-destruction in a softer glow: “I repress the iridescence of a fire…I confess the incandescence of a dying light.”

Most of the songs on the album, however, lack the gravitational pull of “Post Humorous,” their spare, repetitive structures drifting aimlessly as if in free fall. Dapperton’s sister provides sweet-sounding vocal accompaniment on “Antidote,” but the song’s reverb-drowned verses don’t leave much of an impression and its one-word hook quickly grows tiresome. The chorus of “My Say So,” sung by Dapperton and Australian artist Chela, follows a scattered xylophone melody note by note, giving the track a maddening sing-songy feel.

Orca’s heartfelt ballads improve on Dapperton’s numbed-out debut, but he faces the same quandary as many of his bedroom-pop cohorts: How do you avoid making nondescript, vaguely alternative songs like these sound like something more than the musical equivalent of mystery meat? Of course, there’s an audience for the harmless niceties of bedroom pop—as evidenced by the viral success of BENEE’s Dapperton-assisted “Supalonely,” a frothy ode to self-deprecation. But just like a fleeting Tik Tok video, Orca may be enjoyable in the moment, but it doesn’t have staying power.

Label: AWAL Release Date: September 18, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Every Song on Taylor Swift’s Folklore Ranked

We’ve ranked all 17 songs from the singer-songwriter’s watershed eighth album.

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Taylor Swift
Photo: Beth Garrabrant

Over the course of the four releases preceding Folklore, Taylor Swift developed a model of pop album that was seemingly machine-calibrated to please just about everyone. For each fan-favorite deep cut (“All Too Well,” “New Romantics”) there was an equal and opposite radio hit (“22,” “Shake It Off”). The conflict inherent in this structure came to a head on last year’s Lover, which produced pop-centric, radio-friendly singles like “ME!” and “You Need to Calm Down,” as well as the rootsier title track and the lilting “Afterglow.”

Folklore, by contrast, finds Swift at her most masterful and consistent, which makes comparing its songs all the more challenging. None of these songs reach overtly for the theatrics or immediate pop appeal of earlier singles such as “Look What You Made Me Do.” Instead, Swift foregrounds her narrative sensibility and her eye for detail, reminding us of—in case we somehow forgot—her voice-of-a-generation status. See below for our ranking of every song on the singer’s watershed eighth album.


17. “Epiphany”

It’s commendable that Swift would take a moment on an otherwise introspective album to pay tribute to essential workers and to remind her listeners to wear a mask. The conciseness with which she draws a parallel between medical professionals and soldiers is persuasive, but the device’s neatness and sincerity can feel a bit simple. Still, on such a consistent album, last place isn’t so much a slight as it is a credit to the rest of the album’s songs.


16. “Cardigan”

For a song about a conventionally comfy piece of clothing, “Cardigan” is surprisingly slinky, its swaying melody and Swift’s gasping vocals elaborating nicely on the dark pop of 2017’s Reputation. The song’s protracted central metaphor, fairy-tale imagery, and idealistic mentions of scars and tattoos risk being uncomplicatedly wide-eyed, but it’s Swift’s established style to employ childlike concepts with a sense of irony. “Cardigan” avoids becoming saccharine when Swift allows it to be sensual, possibly name-dropping one of Rihanna’s steamiest singles (“Kiss It Better”) to seal the whole thing with a kiss.


15. “Mad Woman”

Swift’s most credible expressions of resentment are typically couched in a tangible conflict (“Mean”) or balanced against self-examination (“Innocent”), but “Mad Woman” is a declaration of anger justified mostly by an interrogation of gender norms. Its lyrics about the weaponization of internalized misogyny signal that Swift has grown since she wrote “You Belong with Me” and “Better Than Revenge,” but her best songs are even more nuanced and tangible than this.


14. “The Lakes”

Folklore’s tender, self-referential bonus track reveals an important element of the album’s ethos, namely that Swift aims to be remembered as a poet. She seeks to do so here through meta-poetics, naming writerly forms (“Is it romantic how all my elegies eulogize me?”) and building puns around great writers’ names (“I’ve come too far to watch some namedropping sleaze/Tell me what are my words worth”). The song might skew capital-R romantic (“A red rose grew up out of ice-frozen ground/With no one around to tweet it”), but it’s an affectionately detailed testament to the fact that readers can become writers, and writers can become icons.


13. “This Is Me Trying”

This is one of a small handful of tracks on Folklore that feel less like distinct story beats and more like summations of the album’s broader emotional arc. In fact, “This Is Me Trying” is a fitting coda to Swift’s entire discography, mining both her vulnerability and her ability to do harm on a serene mid-album respite from the lyrical density of “Seven” and “August.” The image of a salt-rusted Swift downing a shot of whiskey between ruminations on her very public youth is jarring next to her self-titled debut, but it feels like an honest comedown from Lover’s shine.


12. “My Tears Ricochet”

Like “Mad Woman,” “My Tears Ricochet” tells one of Folklore’s most straightforwardly resentful stories, this time grounded narratively in the idea of a toxic lover showing up at their ex’s funeral. Jack Antonoff’s production touches are stirring: The sharp beats of strings on the chorus recall the bridges of early-2010s Swift songs, and the warm echo of Swift “screaming at the sky” on the bridge evokes the thrill of “He looks up, grinning like a devil.”


11. “The 1”

As one of Folklore’s peppiest tracks, “The 1” is a fitting opener and a smooth transition from Lover’s effervescence. It tells us immediately that Swift’s preoccupation with regret has lasted since Fearless and Speak Now, but she’s got the age and experience to reassure her lover (and herself), that “it’s all right now.” Whereas heartbreak was fresh and monumental on “Fifteen,” nowadays Swift’s approach to love and dating is candid and mature—but wistful enough to avoid being blasé.


10. “Peace”

“Peace” is among Swift’s most spacious and gorgeous songs, leaving the impression of pillow talk deepened by promises—or threats—of loyalty. While the song deflates somewhat from the predominance of lyrical clichés (“The devil’s in the details, but you got a friend in me,” “I’d swing with you for the fences/Sit with you in the trenches”), Swift delivers every word with intimate urgency. It’s a fitting summation of the tension between the thrill of love and the knowledge that it’s never truly promised, a conflict that’s motivated much of Swift’s music.

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Every Britney Spears Album Ranked

We decided to reevaluate the singer’s discography and discovered that her trajectory as an artist has been far from linear.

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Britney Spears
Photo: RCA Records

Over two decades into her career, Britney Spears is less likely to make headlines for her music than her personal and legal battles, which have resulted in the #FreeBritney movement. So it’s easy to forget that, against all odds, the pop singer has amassed an impressive body of hits—from her iconic debut, “…Baby One More Time,” to later earworms like “Till the World Ends” (see our list of Britney’s best singles here).

With the exception of cult favorite Blackout, Britney has never been considered an “album artist.” There’s nothing more satisfying, though, than someone who forces us to recalibrate our expectations, and Britney did just that with 2016’s Glory: By eschewing EDM and embracing subtler pop and R&B sounds, she made her most daring, mature album to date.

Earlier this year, fans launched another social media campaign, #JusticeForGlory, and the album was subsequently reissued, nearly four years after its initial release, with a new track, “Mood Ring,” previously only available in Japan. We decided to reevaluate Britney’s discography and discovered that, defying yet another expectation, her trajectory as an artist has been far from linear. See below for our ranking of all nine of Britney’s studio albums.



Oops!...I Did It Again

9. Oops!…I Did It Again (2000)

“My loneliness ain’t killin’ me no more!” Britney belts on “Stronger,” referencing a key phrase from her debut single, “…Baby One More Time.” The track is, in retrospect, a standout among Max Martin’s many teen-pop productions from the era, boasting an ABBA-esque hook, robust dance beat, and a menacing foghorn that announced a sexier, more sophisticated, and yes, stronger, Britney. But while the singer’s sophomore effort, the cheekily titled Oops!…I Did It Again, doubled down on the Swedish producer’s formula, it also magnified the worst of both teen-pop’s ticks and Britney’s vocal hiccups. A limp cover of the Rolling Stones’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” makes Samantha Fox’s 1987 rendition sound positively electric, while the molasses-slow “Where Are You Now” and the treacly closing ballad “Dear Diary” could rot the teeth right out of your skull. Sal Cinquemani



Britney Jean

8. Britney Jean (2013)

Designed by committee, with up to six producers and nine songwriters per track, Britney Jean is sonically all over the place, stocked with a mix of the most garish presets from the EDM era and flaccid midtempo pop. The filtered synths featured throughout the album (courtesy of producers like will.i.am and David Guetta) are most forgivable on the catchy “Til It’s Gone,” which is as close as Britney Jean gets to earworms like Femme Fatale’s “Till the World Ends” and “Hold It Against Me.” Lead single “Work Bitch” is the aural equivalent of bath salts, a shrill and mechanical assault on the brain, while “Tik Tik Boom” is by far Britney Jean and company’s most egregious lapse in judgment, with T.I. offering tripe like “She like the way I eat her/Beat her, beat her/Treat her like an animal, somebody call PETA.” Uh, somebody call Tip’s probation officer. Cinquemani



…Baby One More Time

7. …Baby One More Time (1999)

When Britney burst onto the scene with “…Baby One More Time,” her adenoidal, childlike vocals suggested an innocence belied by the image of the then-16-year-old on the album’s cover, kneeling in a short denim skirt, her schoolgirl blouse unbuttoned, her head cocked to the side. Prior to 1998, teen pop had been an innocuous, perennial nuisance, but those big, pounding piano chords and processed squawks of “Oh, bay-ba, bay-ba,” followed by the singer’s full-throated delivery of the song’s hook—“My loneliness is killing me!”—signaled the christening of the genre’s very first Lolita. That the rest of …Baby One More Time plays like a glorified Kidz Bop album is neither surprising nor, frankly, inappropriate. The uptempo highlights—the hit “(You Drive Me) Crazy” and the house-influenced “Deep in My Heart”—feel lyrically and sonically chaste compared to the title track, while the ballads alternate between inane (“Email My Heart”) and interminable (“From the Bottom of My Broken Heart”). Cinquemani



Britney

6. Britney (2001)

There’s a learning curve in pop superstardom and Britney’s development always seemed comparatively stunted, if only because she rush-released three albums in as many years—and all before the age of 20. The media generously, if inexplicably, dubbed Britney the next Madonna, but her interpretations of classics like “I Love Rock N’ Roll,” from 2001’s Britney, lacked the irony and grit of a more seasoned and self-aware artist. The album, her best to date at the time, proved she owed much more to the likes of Paula Abdul and, especially, Janet Jackson than the Queen of Pop. The most successful songs here deviate from the Max Martin formula of Britney’s early hits, including the saccharine disco bop “Anticipating” and the Neptunes-produced “I’m a Slave 4 U,” whose skittering synths and heavy breathing served as a preview of what would become Britney’s career m.o. Cinquemani



Femme Fatale

5. Femme Fatale (2011)

In my review of 2011’s Femme Fatale, I lamented its lead single’s “cheesy pickup lines” and “generic Eurotrash beats and dated trance synths.” By the time the album dropped a couple of weeks later, though, “Hold It Against Me,” in all its generic glory, had burrowed its way into my psyche like a brain-eating amoeba. Released at the height of the EDM explosion, Femme Fatale is, like that single, a gaudy, unrepentant attempt to cash in on a subgenre with a looming expiration date. So it’s no surprise that some of the album’s most enduring tracks pivot back toward Britney’s earlier hits, including the bubbly “How I Roll” and “Trip to Your Heart,” which finds frequent collaborators Bloodshy & Avant seamlessly applying their glitchy, pitch-incorrected synth-pop to the fad of the era. Cinquemani



Circus

4. Circus (2008)

With Circus, Britney dropped the richly self-referential posture she almost reluctantly adopted on Blackout in favor of a far more risky mode: self-actualization. Instead of wallowing in the great drama that was her train-wreck quarter-life crisis, Circus represents the rebirth of regression. It’s a dozen-plus songs of blithe denial—one of which, “Radar,” is curiously recycled from the earlier album—that seems to be saying, “Hey, I’m still young enough to eat hard candy without it being a sad anachronism. So let’s get nekkid.” Biographical details are suppressed in favor of shopping lists (“Lace and Leather”), while confessionals step aside and make way for lewd double-entendres (“If U Seek Amy”). Hell, actual lyrics are eschewed in favor of syllables. Because it’s Britney, however, it all seems to work: Ridiculousness comes naturally, and her cooing break, “Ooh lolly, ooh papi,” on “Mmm Papi” is the nexus of cock-hungriness. If the album is a psychological step backward, well, you can’t say Britney doesn’t sound at home in the womb. Eric Henderson



In the Zone

3. In the Zone (2003)

Britney’s fourth album, In the Zone, found the former pop tart coming of age with a bold mix of dance and hip-hop beats, wiping clean the last traces of her bubblegum past. Britney’s unabashed devotion to dance-pop is, perhaps, the one thing that truly links her to Madonna, who—lamentably—appears on the opening track “Me Against the Music.” Britney beckons to an anonymous dance partner on “Breathe on Me,” exploring the eroticism of restraint: “We don’t need to touch/Just breathe on me.” After a night at the club—and little actual physical contact—she passes out on the couch in the “Early Mornin’” (produced by Moby) and finds some self-gratification on the Middle Eastern-hued ode to masturbation “Touch of My Hand.” Lest you start to believe that the girl who began her career by teasing her barely legal status is finally “in the zone,” “Outrageous” finds her singing “my sex drive” and “my shopping spree” with the same dripping gusto. Cinquemani



Blackout

2. Blackout (2007)

One thing latter-day Britney doesn’t lack is self-awareness. “I’m Mrs. ‘Extra! Extra! This just in!’/I’m Mrs. ‘She’s too big, now she’s too thin’,” she quips on “Piece of Me,” the second single from her 2007 album Blackout. Listening to it now, it’s easy to forget there was anything wrong in her starry world at the time. The album is remarkably cohesive, riding the Timbaland renaissance without the man himself (half the album was produced by Timbo cohort Danja). “Gimme More” and “Get Naked (I Got a Plan)” hold their own alongside the likes of Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” and Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous.” But it’s Bloodshy & Avant who hog the spotlight here, ponying up the beats on the glitchy “Piece of Me”—which sounds like robots hate-fucking—and the spunky, Kylie-esque “Toy Soldier.” “No wonder there’s panic in the industry. I mean, please,” Britney sneers on the former. Was that a sly comment on our misplaced gaze? Cinquemani



Glory

1. Glory (2016)

From Glory’s opening “Invitation” to its closer, “Coupure Electrique,” it’s no surprise that Britney stocks her latest album with expressions of uncontainable horniness. What is surprising is the degree to which her agency in the act is emphasized, and how sex here is rarely an act of exhibition. Songs like “Private Show” and “Do You Wanna Come Over?” yearn for a specific intimacy, a moving expression from an artist whose public relationship with sexuality once seemed disturbingly out of her control. The album’s key lyric comes from the single “Slumber Party”: “We use our bodies to make our own videos.” Glory is an album-length reclamation of Britney’s autonomy. Sam C. Mac

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Review: With From King to God, Conway the Machine Reveals His Humanity

Though the rapper pontificates on his wealth and street cred, the album’s biggest boast is his vulnerability.

3.5

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Conway the Machine, From King to God
Photo: MAC Media

Hip-hop producer Daringer has been the principal architect behind Buffalo rap collective Griselda’s sordid, soul sample-heavy world of coke-slanging and mafioso-style close shaves. But while his grim machinations positioned the crew as heirs to Mobb Deep and the Wu-Tang Clan, his minimal, hook-reluctant beats can at times feel repetitive and dreary. On From King to God, Griselda member Conway the Machine—the group’s self-proclaimed lyrical heart—branches out from Daringer’s grimy style, featuring the producer on only two of the album’s 12 songs. From King to God introduces a dark, understated sheen to Conway’s hard-as-nails boom-bap, while conserving all its original grit.

Griselda’s verses are often peppered with high-pitched, maniacal laughter and adlibs that mimic the sound of a machine gun, and their lyrics trace the rappers’ humble origins hustling on the streets of Buffalo. With From King to God, Conway returns to this familiar street sound but doesn’t constrain himself to it. Throughout, the album’s producers mold their sound to Conway’s vision, not vice versa, their eerie synth lines and varied beats bolstering a sense of impending doom. Travis Scott collaborator Murda Beatz presides over “Anza,” an antsy, tempo-hopping track, while “Fear of God” boasts production from Hit-Boy and a spine-chilling hook from Detroit’s baby-voiced Dej Loaf.

Conway tag-teams with Griselda cohorts Westside Gunn and Benny the Butcher on “Spurs 3,” brazenly defending his creative turf: “Ask the homie Wayno and ‘em, they’ll confess/Lotta albums are suddenly startin’ to feel a lil’ more Griselda-esque.” The track belongs to a string of them that glorify Conway and the Griselda name. Yet Conway tackles more expansive matters, like on “Front Lines,” where he envisions himself overtaking the Minneapolis police station that was set ablaze by protestors in the days after George Floyd’s murder.

Though Conway pontificates on his wealth and street cred to figure himself as a god, From King to God’s biggest boast is his vulnerability. Conway’s signature drawl isn’t a stylistic choice, but the result of Bell’s palsy, a condition that paralyzed the right side of his face after a gunshot to the head in 2005. Mortality and loss haunt the album, which is interspersed with monologues from DJ Shay, a producer and mentor figure to Griselda who passed away just weeks ago. “Shit was just starting to get beautiful/I wrote this while getting dressed for your funeral,” Conway reveals on “Forever Droppin Tears.” On “Seen Everything but Jesus,” he eulogizes lost friends and family, including Chine Gun, Benny the Butcher’s half-brother.

Conway’s flow is laidback and assured but occasionally seems too comfortable—too in the pocket of the beat. On “Lemon,” he’s outstripped by Method Man’s elaborate multisyllabic rhyme scheme. But despite his moniker, penning bars straight from the heart is Conway’s greatest strength. What the rapper lacks in flow experimentation and dexterous rhyme-craft, he makes up for with his knack for sincere storytelling.

Label: Griselda Release Date: September 11, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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