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Review: Nicki Minaj, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded

1.5

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Nicki Minaj, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded

One of Nicki Minaj’s many gimmicks is that she has multiple personalities, and if it wasn’t true before she made the jump from mixtape scene-stealer to unlikely Top 40 staple, then it probably became true around the time she showed up on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to reenact a YouTube performance of “Super Bass” with two fans, aged five and eight. Personally, I like the idea of an America where it’s considered boring when adorable British girls are flown in to hang out with lesbian talk show hosts and multiracial female rappers, but for Minaj that was indeed the moment where she seemed closest to the PG standards of mega-star innocuousness. That must’ve been confusing for a woman whose rap-radio single at the time was “Did It on ‘Em,” where she rides a nasty beat and talks about shitting on her competitors, who would perform at the Grammy Awards a few months later and piss off the Catholic League by staging an exorcism, proving, as though the mutually plagiaristic Madonna-Gaga organism hadn’t, that humping any arbitrarily chosen piece of Catholic iconography is still the safest bet for scandal on demand, and then on American Idol shortly afterward, ready to make like Katy Perry for a crowd mostly comprised of tweens and their parents.

It’s no wonder, then, that Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded starts with Minaj acting out a literal identity crisis on “Roman Holiday,” reintroducing us to Roman Zolanski, her psychotic male alter ego. The whole idea of Roman being a separate character who occasionally fights his way into command of Minaj is one that’s been realized inconsistently so far, and it’s hard to tell if there’s supposed to be a specific voice corresponding to Roman or if he’s embodied more abstractly in the attitude of Minaj’s tougher-sounding rap numbers. Either way, I think that Slant‘s own Jesse Cataldo nailed it in his review of Minaj’s Pink Friday when he observed that the Roman persona never actually scans as one among a Sybil-like legion. Minaj is either exceling in her niche—which is dishing out vulgar, violent trash-talk with all the manic vocal contortions we’ve come to expect—or she’s doing something far less interesting. That seemed less obviously true after “Super Bass” showed just how good Minaj could make bubblegum rap sound, but Roman Reloaded more than makes the case that “Super Bass” was a fluke and that Minaj’s potential as a crossover artist is negligible.

The three tracks following “Roman Holiday” are “Roman” songs—i.e., hard, confrontational rap songs with guests like Cam’ron and Rick Ross. And they’re brilliant. “Come on a Cone” has her rhyming over a snarling knot of synths that sounds like a swarm of bees, and includes breaks for Minaj to do her best approximation of a pop-diva vocal while she coos about putting her dick in your face. It’s one of the most hilarious and genuinely unexpected moments I’ve heard from a rapper not named Missy Elliott. It’s followed by “I Am Your Leader” and “Beez in the Trap,” two excellent tracks which manage to sound both bubbly and heavy as Minaj delivers her most effortlessly entertaining shit-talk to date.

The remaining 53 minutes of Roman Reloaded are a disaster, so much so that I could fill the rest of this review with a non-exhaustive list of the most embarrassing missteps. The album is partitioned almost exactly between a rap half and a pop half; the former is unquestionably stronger, but after “Beez in the Trap,” it limps off to its own disheartening conclusion. “Champion” finds Minaj, Drake, Nas, and Young Jeezy incapable of landing a solid verse between them, and “Sex in the Lounge,” with Lil Wayne and Bobby V, is an R&B seduction so tepid that it verges on parody. After the first 59 seconds, Minaj vanishes altogether so that Bobby V can sing about treating a girl (presumably Minaj) to “sex in the lounge,” which must be a close second to sex in the bedroom on the list of wholly ordinary places for lovemaking.

If Roman Reloaded ended there it would just be a disappointing album, but tacked on to this mediocre rap album is a ghastly and desperate bid for a hit single that sees Minaj and producer RedOne snatching items from a veritable sale rack of tired Top 40 tricks and tossing them hastily over the most basic synth and drum-machine presets. “Starships” and the three functionally interchangeable tracks that follow are retro-techno-pop earsores comprised of indiscriminately arranged bits of LMFAO’s “I’m Sexy and I Know It,” Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” and pretty much any recent Britney Spears or Katy Perry song you can name. Minaj isn’t much of a singer, and not much of a lyricist either. For the chorus to her self-affirmation anthem, Minaj shouts “Starships were meant to fly!,” echoing “Baby, you’re a firework!” for its uncomprehending intuition that if something is in the sky then it must also be inspiring, while her repeated exhortation on “Pound the Alarm” to get things “hotter and hotter and sexy and hotter” is about as weak as club-jam come-ons get. On a Madonna-by-way-of-Gaga knock-off called “Beautiful Sinner,” Minaj fumbles around making vapid sex-as-religion metaphors that are insightful about neither topic, though her ambitious choice of role models ensures that the song is better than “Marilyn Monroe,” which sounds like it was written for Demi Lovato, or “Young Forever,” which sounds, inexplicably, exactly like the Ready Set’s mediocre hit “Love Like Woe.”

Some of these songs just sound cheap and rushed in the way that major-label filler typically does, but “Beautiful Sinner” and “Marilyn Monroe,” being such dimly apprehended approximations of the cultural references currently in vogue, suggest that the prospects for Minaj’s pop career are already terminal. In their attempt to rush out a “Super Bass” follow-up, Minaj’s producers have cynically wrung her for every dopey could-be-hit she’s good for, determined to squeeze as much chart mileage as they can from a performer who brings nothing of value to the table where making chart-pop is concerned. Though you could call Roman Reloaded schizophrenic, the better word would be noncommittal. Most of the songs are just too generic and referential to read as an extension of anyone’s ego, alter or otherwise. Minaj seems to think that when she writes and performs a pop song, she has to exclude the warped humor and aggression of her rapping, but how much more interesting would it be to hear her (as Roman, or whatever) tear through a catalogue of recent pop clichés with as much intention to mock as to imitate? When she isn’t rapping, Minaj conveys no personality, not many, and her obsession with Barbie dolls and Disney princesses starts to look like a disappointingly accurate hunch about the extent of her own agency in the music industry.

Label: Young Money Release Date: April 3, 2012 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated

Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.

3.5

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Guster, Look Alive

Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.

Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.

On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.

Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.

For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.

Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results

Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.

3.0

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Toro y Moi, Outer Peace

Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.

Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.

Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.

Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.

The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.

Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip

On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.

3.0

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Joe Jackson, Fool

Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.

The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.

Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.

Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.

If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.

Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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