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Review: Wale, Attention Deficit

4.0

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Wale, Attention Deficit

Wale has been on the brink of a breakthrough for so long now that it’s neither far-fetched nor oxymoronic to refer to him as a veteran up-and-comer. Since around 2006 or so, the D.C.-based rapper with roots in the area’s local go-go scene has existed as rap’s semiofficial next best thing. He’s collaborated and toured with Mark Ronson, released a trio of high-profile mixtapes (including last year’s terrific Seinfield-themed The Mixtape About Nothing), and maintained a Twitter and blogospheric popularity impressive for someone who’s yet to release an official album.

So, Attention Deficit is both Wale’s major-label debut and his moment of truth, and on it he walks a fine line between selling out, repping his city, and gaining the approval of the post-backpacker underground. A lot of us who have been anticipating this album for an embarrassingly long time were worried about the first of these goals and became a little squeamish when we heard the album’s first two singles. “Chillin” and “World Tour” (featuring Lady GaGa and Jazmine Sullivan, respectively) are both tepid Cool & Dre productions in which Wale seems to be attempting Black Eyed Peas-style halftime-show rap. But aside from these and a forgettable Neptunes track (are rappers required by law to throw Pharrell and his tinny, tired book of beats a bone every time they release an album?), the album’s crossover bids are mercilessly few. The larger trends of Attention Deficit are Wale’s further evolution as an “issues” rapper and his continued willingness to wax free-associative over outside-the-box production.

Even as someone who loves TV on the Radio, I was skeptical when I heard Wale was working with the band’s Dave Sitek on a few tracks. It sounded too much like indie cotton candy: I thought, what, are they going to put Zooey Deschanel on the hook? But Wale was rightfully confident that Sitek’s skills could translate to hip-hop, and after Attention Deficit comes out Sitek may see his Blackblerry blowing up with requests from other rappers. Wale was apparently pleased enough with these collaborations that he opens Attention Deficit with the horn-stomping Sitek jam “Triumph,” a song that captures everything that got people excited about Wale in the first place: In dizzying, freestyle-like flow, he drops a humble nod to Kanye West (“I asked Mr. West for a little bit of help/But I realized these new niggas gotta get it ourself”), cleverly references mid-‘90s Nebraska quarterback Tommy Frazier, and uses a vintage Nintendo character to make a sexual putdown (“And she swallow everything like Kirby”).

I could listen to Wale go nuts over top-shelf weirdo beats for an entire album, and I guess satisfying that desire is the point of songs like “Mirrors” with Bun B, a delicious Premo-style slice of boom bap, “Pretty Girls” with Gucci Mane, and “Beautiful Bliss” with the on-fire next-next-best-thing J. Cole. But Wale’s mixtapes have proven that while the rapper is definitely interested in dominating hipster dance parties with songs like “W.A.L.E.D.A.N.C.E.,” he also has a conscious streak that is as important to him, if not more (Mixtape About Nothing‘s race parable “The Krammer” is as thought-provoking as an entire Cornel West tome).

Wale continues the habit of pointing a magnifying glass at uncomfortable subject matter on Attention Deficit. “Contemplate” and “Diary” take opposing sides of the male-female divide, and thoroughly squash the vacuous treatment Jay-Z gave to the same subject on Blueprint 3‘s “Venus Vs. Mars.” But Wale really lives up to his reputation for not shying away from controversy with “Shades,” a song about the racism prevalent among lighter-skinned African-Americans toward darker-skinned ones. Wale, the son of Nigerian immigrants, raps in honest, reflective bars about a prejudice most people would like to think doesn’t exist: “I never fit in with those light skins/I felt like the lighter they was, the better their life is.” The one instance where Wale’s instinct for social examination goes astray is the uncharming Ronson-produced “90210,” which, in its caricature of the coke-nosed celebrity wannabe, flips Chuck D’s famous “hip-hop is CNN for black people” to “the CW for black people” and must have been researched entirely on TMZ.com.

With his Lil Wayne-worthy punchlines, Kanye levels of heart, and Hova-approaching fluidities of flow, Wale’s not being overly presumptuous when he calls himself the “past, present, and future of hip-hop.” But that doesn’t mean he yet matches any of these dudes for originality or personality. In its ambitious attempts to revive conscious rap and push the envelope sonically, Attention Deficit may be one of the best rap releases of the year even while it lacks the focus of a central persona. As an artist, Wale is all over the place, and for the most part that’s a good thing. If he’s going to go the distance as a rapper, though, and it’s clear at this point that that’s his objective, he’s going to have become less of a prism for sports references, celebrity jokes, and highbrow social arguments and more of a force in his own right.

Label: Interscope Release Date: November 9, 2009 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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