For the lead single of her second album, Tove Lo chose as inspiration one of the most-circulated and least-understood literary quotes of the past decade, the “Cool Girl” monologue from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl: “Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes,
and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.” People circulating this quote almost always leave out the fact that the woman delivering this soliloquy is a psychopath who will go on to rack up a body count.
But why they circulate it is more telling: that in her misanthropy she’s elucidated something very real about relationships, and very bleak.
Tove Lo knows a bit about bleakness and misunderstanding; she’s courted both from her first single. The bluntness of “Habits (Stay High)” ensured it’d cut through the crowd of anodyne rising pop stars but also ensured that for the next year Lo would field interviews about whether she actually lurked in sex clubs and picked up daddies on the playground. As a student of confessionalism, she knows audiences have an endless appetite for scandalous female writers, from Mary McCarthy to Cat Marnell to Fiona Apple toBritney Spears, and that they crave their honesty less than they do their imagined autobiographies, their self-destruction and bare flayed skin. As a student of pop, she knows that her industry parses women's vulnerability as empowerment, their pain as sexiness, their point as pop as usual. Lo certainly leaves herself open to misinterpretation—her Sticky Fingers-via-creepshot album art, her music’s endlessly quotable debauchery.
Perhaps knowing this, she practically spells Lady Wood out: putting an explanatory interlude in the outro of “Imaginary Friend” (“I don’t know... I guess it’s kind of like a voice in my heart reminding me that there's nothing to fear”), all but defining “lady wood” on the title track, or addressing the audience on “Cool Girl”: “Now you can’t tell if I’m really ironic,” Lo sings, absolutely correctly.
“Cool Girl” is equally a pop song, a delivery device for a sassy, stuttery chorus about being a cool girl. It's the line all smart music walks, and Lady Wood walks at album length. The album’s a showcase for Wolf Cousins, the Max Martin-affiliated songwriting collective that includes Lo and nearly a dozen others, including Swedish writer Ilya Salmanzadeh, Iranian producer Ali Payami and production duo the Struts. They’ve written about half the charts, butLady Wood is as concentrated an outlet for their sound as you’ll find. But it’s equally a platform for Lo to argue, as she did on Queen of the Clouds, that the self-destructive affairs of a particular sort of woman are a subject worthy of four-part concept albums.
Lady Wood is the first two parts: the high and the comedown, the party and the afterparty. The structural resemblance to the Weeknd’s EPs isn’t accidental. When Abel Tesfaye worked with the Scandinavian claque he became Lo’s direct colleague, and the debauched tableaux and nervous vocal tics of tracks like “Don’t Talk About It” and “Keep It Simple” sound almost tailor-written for him. The sound is basically the same, too: nocturnal, minor-key synthpop, less suited to dancing with tears in your eyes than waking up alone and disheveled the morning after. It’s the same sound the Wolves have worked for over a year, but in Tove as in Abel they’ve found an ideal collaborator, one who goes as dark as they do.
For the most part, Lady Wood abandons the shock value of its predecessor; the title track and a couple nods to being “under the influence” are about as explicit as things get. But her ruminations and obsessions are the same: the fleeting freedom found in bad behavior; the compulsion of her women to tamp down their desires and their inability to do so; envy of the men in her misadventures, who have it easy. It’d be easy to play this as melodrama, but Lo sings most of the album without affect, so when she does emote, it counts for more: sneaking cutesy Betty Boop inflections into the backing vocals of “Cool Girl”'s chorus, belting into the void on the ballads, exclaiming “I’m gonna get hurt!” like it’s her deepest desire. That's on standout “True Disaster,” which begins as Marr-like feedback haze and turns into one of the year's best pop songs, a perfectly wrought instrument of self-laceration. (The effect’s somewhat ruined when the titular disaster reveals himself two songs later as mealy-voiced Joe Janiak, who barely sounds capable of manipulating a coffee machine, let alone a woman. This is why “True Disaster” should be a single.)
That said, “True Disaster” isn't a perfect pop song. It suffers fromTove Lo’s primary weakness as a songwriter: her compulsion, at least once per track, to include a line that her Scandinavian colleagues might call “juicy” but that comes off more like a brand saying bae. At least on a track called “Lady Wood” you know what you're getting, but nothing about “True Disaster” prepares you for the line “I can't hide my feels.” Even the tracks free of such nonsense are so unrelentingly bleak and so professionally done that, at album length, they become interchangeable well-produced malaise. Yet when Lady Wood tries to go upbeat—as on “Imaginary Friend” and “WTF Love Is”—the resulting tracks are the weakest by far. The bridge to “Cool Girl” is designed to be the emotional core of the whole album, the moment Lo lets her guard down and reveals her true desires, but it just sounds like she’s emulating Sia.
Proportionally, these are trivial complaints. Lady Wood is short, but Lo finds ample darkness to plumb. “Don’t Talk About It” recasts the girl squads so ubiquitous in pop culture as nihilistic cliques hazing each other into empty highs and dead-eyed selfies. “Flashes” does the same without the squad, Lo lamenting the effect on friends back home of so much mining her life for content: “When I fuck things up in front of camera flashes, what about you?” “Vibes” is deceptively chill, the supposedly lighthearted flirting of two parties with nothing between them but contempt. “What's your line, though?... Heard that before,” Lo teases, only to be negged down by Janiak. And “Keep It Simple”—befitting the title, just Lo and Cousins standout Payami—presents a scenario both hyper-specific and likely relatable: lying in bed with a rebound at some garbage hour of the night, flipping through an ex’s old sexts, feeling nothing. Payami’s synths land fast and loud like thunderclaps, and Lo pushes any impending connection or intimacy back into the dark. Then she pulls herself together for the drop, the cool girl once more.
At 25, Joanna “JoJo” Levesque is already something of a veteran. In 2004, she became the youngest artist to hit No. 1 on the Billboard pop songs chart with “Leave (Get Out),” released when she was just 13. Its girl power ethos and catchy hook delivered by a precocious teen star aligned into a perfect pop moment. “Leave (Get Out)” was an emblem of the TRL era—and, ostensibly, the launchpad from which JoJo’s career would blast into the stratosphere.
Some of this momentum carried over to her sophomore effort, The High Road, in 2006, featuring the excellent young love anthem “Too Little Too Late.” Then, in a turn of events that even the most experienced musician would dread, a legal dispute with her labelhalted any of her commercial ambitions. The battle essentially held her career hostage for the better part of 10 years. Now that the smoke has cleared, JoJo’s back with a new label in her corner, a decade of gritty industry experience behind her, and her third full-length album.
Mad Love. provides some indication of the path JoJo might have taken if her career had rolled along uninterrupted. The EDM-leaning beats favored by today’s biggest pop stars, her contemporaries in terms of age if not necessarily longevity, are prevalent. The low, pulsating synths of bonus track “Good Thing.” build up to a drop on the chorus, and lead singles “Fuck Apologies.” and “F.A.B.” are obvious ploys for radio rotation. The former comes complete with a tame Wiz Khalifa verse, while the latter boasts an always welcome contribution from Remy Ma.
From a different artist, these songs might sound like pre-packaged attempts to jump on the same bandwagon that she decries in “F.A.B.” In JoJo’s case, they play out as sincere progressions, bolstered by her vocal talent and honest approach to storytelling (she has songwriting credits on every track). There’s enough compelling singing across Mad Love. to hold interest, even if your tolerance for dance-pop wears thin.
Rhythmically, JoJo is arguably following on a trend that she helped put in motion: she was working with Nordic hitmakers well before Stargate’s run of chart smashes. Lyrically, she is also exploring more mature themes. There are songs about sex and love to be sure (“Reckless.,” “Like This.”), but also joy and angst. On bonus “Clovers.,” she chronicles her struggles with depression: “No matter what the doctors offered me/Couldn’t shake that dark cloud off of me.” The song gives her fans, especially the ones who shed adolescence alongside her, the language to describe the fraught transition into adulthood. Perhaps the unintended advantage of being sidelined by her label was the chance it gave JoJo to bypass the common, shock-based pop starlet rebrand in favor of simply living to tell her tales on her own terms.
JoJo’s original deal was with the now defunct Blackground Records, helmed by uncle of the late Aaliyah, Barry Hankerson. The association undoubtedly, if unconsciously, pushed her sound towards R&B. It also resulted in some of her debut album’s best non-single cuts. Twelve years later, Mad Love. only reinforces the idea that JoJo could thrive in the R&B sphere; “Edibles.” is proof. As she sings, “I bring all the realness to the surface/Does a woman like that make you nervous?” over distorted synths to her are-we-aren’t-we companion, you can’t help but wish that every other track sounded something like it. The electro-pop of Mad Love. could stand to make way to a few more slow jams, which highlight her impressive range and its raspy magic—outdone only slightly by Alessia Cara on “I Can Only.,” another standout.
While JoJo sounds great on big ballads and floor-filling tracks alike, Mad Love. lacks a cohesive sound. The abrupt genre shifts are jarring at turns, but paradoxically it’s this malleability that should be key to JoJo’s continued success.
Ultimately, though, Mad Love.sounds like an album that JoJo needed to make, and one that her fans were waiting for—the fans that grew up with her, went through big life changes beside her, devoured EPs and mixtapes she made despite record label obstruction, and took her back to No. 1, according to a more modern metric (the iTunes chart). On “Music.,” when she sings “every night I bet my life on you,” it’s encouraging to see that after all this time, the risk paid off.
At the start of the decade, Lady Gaga worked hard to reposition pop as a high art or vice-versa—both absorbing and extending a lineage that included oddball visionaries like Andy Warhol, Klaus Nomi, Prince, David Bowie, Grace Jones, Elton John, Madonna, and Missy Elliott. Most of her avant-garde gestures were extra-musical, a string of cheeky, absurdist visions realized entirely outside of the studio and only tangentially in conversation with her bloodless dance jams (Gaga herself has referred to that early work as “soulless electronic pop”).
It’s not hard, now, to recall these stunts from memory: she was sewn into a dress fashioned from slabs of flank steak for the VMAs. She hatched herself from a semi-translucent egg at the Grammys. She hired a self-described “vomit artist” to puke a steady stream of syrupy green liquid onto her bosom during a SXSW performance. Her repeated and earnest disavowal of anything remotely normative was (and remains) plainly empowering for anyone sitting at home alone in her room, feeling like a true weirdo. The idea was always to fracture and reestablish a hierarchy. Only Gaga could turn “monster” into a term of endearment.
And regardless of whether you find those moves electrifying or tedious, it's hard to overstate the value of that work as a public service—every generation’s freaks elect a champion, and Gaga was tireless, proud, and wholly devoted to the job. Her commercial success also meant that her chart peers were, for better or worse, free to get stranger, artier, and less predictable; Gaga helped usher in an era of pop in which hardly anything is too far-out (or pretentious) to play. Visual provocations of one sort or another are expected now: Sia performed “Chandelier” at the Grammys with her back to the audience, wearing a bobbed, platinum wig, while Kristen Wiig and the then-twelve-year old dancer Maddie Ziegler frolicked around her in nude bodysuits. Miley Cyrus gyrates among furries as a matter of routine.
But now that her peers have caught up, Gaga is starting to feel less like an audacious pioneer and more like one among many. Joanne, which is named after her late aunt—a sexual assault survivor who died of lupus at nineteen—experiments with rootsier idioms like country and folk, maybe as a kind of goofy gesture toward authenticity, or maybe just to distance herself further from 2013’s overblown and gloppy ARTPOP. Gaga has always sounded most comfortable belting out rich, brawny pop songs while wiggling around a piano bench, and her best tracks, like the deeply irresistible “Yoü and I,” from 2011’s Born This Way, are reminiscent of the more virtuosic fringes of glam-rock (“You and I” features inimitable Queen guitarist Brian May, a drumbeat that nods directly to “We Will Rock You,” and harmonies that very nearly recall “Bohemian Rhapsody”).
Glam—its blatant preoccupation with fame and stardom, its mischievous and inelegant tendencies, its emphasis on the theatrical, the visual, the decadent, the garish—made sense for Gaga, both for her voice (while robust and often lovely, it is not exactly nuanced; the little fissures and breaks that typically animate folk songs aren’t instinctive to her) and for her fantastical, psychedelic-leaning visual taste. A move toward singer-songwriter earnestness now—especially following Cheek to Cheek, the collection of jazz standards she recorded with Tony Bennett, itself a purposeful expression of seriousness, maturity—feels unnecessary.
Gaga has repeated Warhol’s claim that “art should be meaningful in the most shallow way,” but Warhol also insisted on a kind of surreal detachment from flesh—“Sex is so abstract,” he once said. Gaga’s disembodiment feels less deliberate. Joanne never reveals much of a narrative or stylistic through-line, and even her brief dips into indie-rock – her collaborations with Father John Misty on “Sinner’s Prayer” and “Come to Mama” (Misty is also credited as a writer on Beyonce’s Lemonade), and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker on “Perfect Illusion” (Rihanna covered Parker’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” on Anti)—feel familiar.
Joanne is rife with visitors, though none make themselves especially known: Mark Ronson (who co-produces), Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine, Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age. “Dancin’ in Circles,” a song she co-wrote with Beck, is a clubby paean to self-love with a grody pre-chorus: “Up all night, tryna’ rub the pain out,” she chants. In 2016, masturbation-as-engine-of-escape isn’t a particularly titillating topic (in the decades since “She Bop,” Hailee Steinfeld, Nicki Minaj, Pink, the Pussycat Dolls, Britney Spears, and plenty of others have recorded tracks about getting themselves off), nor the instance of Beck-Gaga collusion anyone was hoping for (imagine, for a moment, if he had brought her “Debra”).
Though Gaga addresses a handful of serious concerns here, some topical, some personal—the murder of Trayvon Martin; what happens to a person after she dies—her treatment of them often feels clumsy if not performative (in “Angel Down,” an ode to the Black Lives Matter movement, she sings, “Angel down / Why do people just stand around?” while Ronson sadly plays a Mellotron).
Elsewhere, there are hints of a smaller, more personal arc: Gaga’s got it for someone she knows is bad news, but she’s not sure if she can walk away just yet. “Perfect Illusion,” the record’s first single, struggled to chart (it debuted at number fifteen on the Hot 100), but has a propulsive, dizzying quality that feels like a pretty good analogue for the process of completely losing your mind over someone, only to realize later you’ve been hoodwinked: “Mistaken for love, it wasn’t love, it was a perfect illusion,” Gaga bellows, her fire-hose voice big, unchecked, wild. She sounds indignant but also vaguely unhinged—like she’s figured out she’s playing a rigged game, but still refuses to fold her hand. Opener “Diamond Heart” has Homme on guitar, but the best moments are Gaga’s: “Young wild American / C’mon, baby, do you have a girlfriend?” she wonders in the chorus.
It’s the same story on “Million Reasons,” co-written with Hillary Lindsey (who collaborated with Carrie Underwood on “Jesus, Take the Wheel”), an undeniable power ballad Poison would’ve murdered in 1988: “I bow down to pray,” Gaga sings at her piano. “I try to make the worse seem better.” This kind of semi-desperate negotiating will be uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has tried to will a doomed situation into something viable. Her man’s already given her a million reasons to split. “But baby, I just need one good one to stay.”
Sartorially, Gaga has recently come to favor civilian get-ups; just last week, she returned to the Bitter End, the tiny, Greenwich Village venue where she got her start, wearing short-shorts and a sheer, Bud Light-branded tank top (Bud Light sponsored her Dive Bar tour). In the video for "Perfect Illusion," she wears denim cutoffs, black combat boots, a black t-shirt, and a blonde ponytail. I sported a similar look—though with far less success—nearly every school day between 1995 and 1997. But nobody wants to immediately recognize herself in Gaga’s aesthetic; we want her to suggest a path we hadn’t thought of before, to nurture and clarify a beauty we didn’t even realize was there. Joanne feels too self-conscious, an affront to the Gaga of yesteryear—the truest self, after all, isn’t always the quietest.
A Seat at the Table
Solange Knowles turned 30 in June, and it seems clear that her Saturn Returns manifested in an artistic surge. A Seat at the Table, her third full-length album, is the work of a woman who’s truly grown into herself, and discovered within a clear, exhilarating statement of self and community that’s as robust in its quieter moments as it is in its funkier ones. Even though it’s been out less than a week, it already seems like a document of historical significance, not just for its formidable musical achievements but for the way it encapsulates black cultural and social history with such richness, generosity, and truth.
To this point, Solange has been trying on styles and stretching out into her own skills as a songwriter. Having spent her early teen years singing backup and writing songs, she debuted as a solo artist at just 16, with Solo Star. Very 2003, it was a gleaming, hip-hop-informed album that slinked over beats from the likes of Timbaland and the Neptunes; even with plenty of great tracks, the production outweighed her presence. After a five-year break as a solo artist—during which she got married, had son Julez, moved to Idaho, got divorced, starred in Bring It On: All or Nothing, among other films, and wrote songs for her sister Beyoncé (whew!)—she returned in 2008 with Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams. That album was clearly immersed in a deep love of ’60s funk and soul and its attendant politics, and she rebelled against expectations (see: “Fuck the Industry”), eager to fully express her individuality. She fused her musical impulses in the easy, ebullient grooves of 2012’s True EP, which eased a glossier vision of pop into the soulfunk groove she had ingrained.
Even with such an impressive resume, though, A Seat at the Table is on a different plane. It’s a document of the struggle of a black woman, and black women, in 2016, as Solange confronts painful indignities and situates them historically. Many of these songs draw from current reactions to the seemingly unending killing of black women and men at the hands of the police, but the scope of the record as a whole is much larger than that, with Civil Rights hymnals encompassing centuries of horror black Americans have been subject to, including that inflicted on Knowles’ own ancestors. But even when Solange offers her narrative in first-person and incorporates her family’s past through interludes with her mother Tina and father Mathew, she does so with such artistic and emotional openness that this album feels like nothing but a salve.
The quick sketch “Rise” opens slowly, on a sweet piano and with layers of Solange’s voice in jazz modulations, as a sort of blessing and a placid encouragement to thrive despite it all. “Fall in your ways, so you can crumble,” she sings. “Fall in your ways, so you can wake up and rise.” The word “rise” lands on the high note, but the song lays out the album’s central tension between pain, pride, sorrow, and fierce dignity. This leads directly into “Weary,” a ginger, breathy document of exhaustion, and the deceptively euphoric “Cranes in the Sky,” which, taken as a “Weary”’s counterpart, illustrates two stages of sorrow. What’s so touching about “Cranes,” though—intertwined with the airy, peaceful beauty of its video—is the way Solange specifically documents her process of coping, down to the smallest escape mechanisms. On a warm bass strut, she sings about drinking, sexing, running, and spending in an effort to be free from “those metal clouds,” making visible the kinds of mundane things we all do in the service of a temporary reprieve. Naming these actions feels radical in and of itself, but by the time she flies off her own cloud of a Minnie Riperton-level aria, she seems to have freed herself from the routine, and transcended it.
Solange has said that it was important to her to articulate her roots, and so along with the recordings of her parents, she made the bulk ofA Seat at the Table in New Iberia, Louisiana, “based on that area being the start of everything within our family’s lineage,” the place where Tina Knowles-Lawson’s parents first met and then fled after being “run out of town.” In terms of production, her song structures, and melodies, she celebrates the whole history of black music. But the result is never derivative; when you recognize the spirits of artists like Riperton, Zapp, Angie Stone, Aaliyah (lyrically, in “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care”), Janet Jackson, Stanley Clarke, Lil Mo, Herbie freakin’ Hancock and so many more, it feels more like a musical nod or a wink.
The master musician and bandleader Raphael Saadiq serves as co-producer; Saadiq meets Solange in the juiciest middle, both bridging their instincts between classic instrumentation and futuristic funk. The arrangements are voluminous, loose and tight at once, but Solange’s voice is always at the front of this proscenium; each shows restraint as they lean into her collective vision. The sound they conjure is chill-inducing, an easy sound for subject matter that’s as real and tough as it gets. The excellent “Don’t Touch My Hair” (with a feature by Sampha) and “Mad” (her second collaboration with Lil Wayne) specifically address the way black women are devalued, and the songs meet that with resistance. Solange’s voice is a palliative for the pain she describes, as she names truths to divest them of their power.
A Seat at the Table offers a hearth to black women as much as it asserts Solange’s right to comfort and understanding. And in terms of her lived experience, the table of the album’s title, metaphysical and physical, rests in her home of New Orleans. In several interludes, the rapper, label head, and entrepreneur Master P threads the album with musings on No Limit’s runaway success as a black-owned record label (landed him on the Forbes list, baby). That particular segment leads into “F.U.B.U.” ("For Us, By Us"), a honey-dripped slow-grinder of black affirmation, with tubas that sound inspired by NOLA’s Second Lines as Solange mews, “This shit is for us/Don’t try to come for us.” Her sumptuous harmonies build a protective forcefield: “Some shit,” she sings, “you can’t touch.”
A Seat at the Table’s nature is beneficent, but at its spiritual core it is an ode to black women and their healing and sustenance in particular; in writing about herself, Solange turns the mirror back upon them, and crystallizes the kinship therein. She harmonizes with Kelly Rowland and Nia Andrews that “I got so much magic, you can have it,” but the song that perhaps best encapsulates this outstanding work is “Scales,” a slow-burning duet with Kelela near the end of the album. Their harmonies are heavenly and create almost a meditative effect, a mantra of healing kindness in a syrup-slow synth progression. It’s a sex jam, I think, but it can also serve as a shine-theory jam. “You’re a superstar,” they sing together, letting the “star” part roll around a bit in the lower part of the vibrato. “You’re a superstar.”
Hard II Love
Like many child stars, Usher has struggled with his transition to adulthood. He was too old to be lurking like somebody’s creepy uncle in the 2010 video for “Lil Freak,” and too young to be belting like a 55-year-old who’s just bagged his first under-30 girlfriend in the song “Hey Daddy (Daddy’s Home).” But on 2014’s “Good Kisser,” a louche wink of a song, he figured out how to relax into exactly what he was: a dude in his mid-thirties with the abs of Michelangelo’s David, the dance moves of MJ, and the money of an artist who released the sixth best-selling album of the 2000s. He sounded breezy and at ease, finally confident enough to date women his age. So it’s a little disappointing that on Hard II Love, Usher’s eighth studio album, he hasn’t managed to hang onto that effortlessness. But there’s plenty to like, starting with his voice, which sounds better than ever.
It helps that he’s back to doing R&B. Over the years, Usher has toyed with electronic music which never played to his strengths. Songs like the fist-pumping cash grab “OMG” are made for singers who rely on over-processing to plump up their vocals. Usher has a warm, rich, creamy voice that needs room to spread. Experts in dealing with exceptional voices like The-Dream and Tricky Stewart (“Bump,” one of many bangers on Hard II Love) and Paul Epworth (the glittery, star-flecked album opener “Need U”) clear out space for Usher to just be Usher. Especially on the first half of the album, the production is as sumptuous and smooth as Frette linens. Even relative newcomer Metro Boomin’s “Make U a Believer,” one of the record’s standout tracks, is at home among the veterans. The whole affair sounds so rich that the rootsy Raphael Saadiq-produced closer “Champions” is as out of place as a poor country cousin.
As “OMG” illustrates, Usher is willing to do anything in order not to two-step gently into that gospel-by-day, grown-n-sexy-R&B-booze-cruise-by-night stage of his career, even though “Tell Me,” an eight-and-a-half-minute quiet storm track is just begging for a raging fire and bearskin rug. Hard II Love will keep him safe for now. For the most part, it’s sleek and modern, and it snaps right into the current R&B landscape. The one thing that rankles is that he jacks artists on the rise to do so. From the vocal phrasings to the lyrics, “No Limit” is such a Ty Dolla $ign song that I checked to see if Ty had written it. Of course, younger artists are influenced by more established artists. But when the situation is flipped, few people outside the music industry will know Usher is borrowing from Ty or Jeremih. Let them gain more mainstream recognition before helping yourself to their styles.
Then again, Usher is always trying on new personas, and on Hard II Love, he tests out thug-lover Usher. And frankly, hearing him sing, “Tell me what nigga is perfect? Tell me what nigga is right? Tell me what nigga been with the same bitch and she been holdin’ it down for life?” on “FWM” (“Fuck With Me”) is like Ja Rule trying to sing a Luther Vandross song.
Transitioning from “Need U (Conversation With Priyanka Chopra)” to “Missin U,” Chopra and Usher talk about what they want in a partner. Usher answers that he wants a beautiful woman with a “nice thin waist, fat ass.” Chopra, on the other hand, asks for a man who makes her laugh and feel safe: “He’s gotta be effortless, you know?” On Hard II Love, Usher isn’t that, but trying too hard hasn’t sounded this good in years.
At first, Frank Ocean was simply a great storyteller. Then he became the story—an avatar for all of our fluid modern ideals. He could be the dynamic human of the future, exploding age-old binaries with an eloquent note, melting racial divisions with a devastating turn of phrase or quick flit to falsetto. He breathed hope. Then he went away. Years clicked by. It was easy to worry. There are precedents for this sort of thing, for disappearances, for the self-implosion of black genius. Lauryn Hill. Dave Chappelle. “Black stardom is rough,” Chris Rock once said. “You represent the race, and you have responsibilities that go beyond your art. How dare you just be excellent?” The Rock quote is from a 2012 profile of the reclusive D’Angelo, who felt compelled to release his first album in 14 years following the shooting of Michael Brown; the moment spurred him on.
Faced with a hellish loop of police brutality, other musical leaders like Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé came forth with brilliantrighteousness as well. But not Frank. Though he posted several elegant messages online, reacting to horrors in Ferguson and Orlando, his relative silence only grew louder as tensions outside continued to rise. The stoic empathy he beamed throughout Channel Orange was missed. There was a yearning for his perspective—how he could soothe without losing sight of what’s important. How he allowed us to escape within his carefully drawn characters while never letting us off the hook. How his voice was allergic to nonsense, how it could shatter a heart into dust.
It still can. “RIP Trayvon, that nigga look just like me,” he sings on “Nikes,” the opening track from Blonde, his wary exhale of a new album. In the song’s video, Frank holds up a framed photo of the 17-year-old martyr, the boy’s sad eyes tucked inside a hoodie. Even now, four years after the Florida teen was shot and killed with Skittles in his pocket, the line jolts. It’s also the most overtly political statement Frank makes across the entire record. And “Nikes” is hardly a call to arms. The song is a woozy, faded, screwed-down odyssey, replete with helium warble and dewy third eye—and it’s actually one of the album’s most propulsive tracks.
On its surface, Blonde seems tremendously insular. Whereas Channel Orange showed off an expansive eclecticism, this album contracts at nearly every turn. Its spareness suggests a person in a small apartment with only a keyboard and a guitar and thoughts for company. But it isn’t just anyone emoting from the abyss, it’s Frank Ocean. In his hands, such intimacy attracts the ear, bubbles the brain, raises the flesh. These songs are not for marching, but they still serve a purpose. They’re about everyday lives, about the feat of just existing, which is a statement in its own right. Trayvon Martin would be 21 today, and Blonde is filled with feelings and ideas—deep love, heady philosophy, despondent loss—that he may have never had a chance to experience for himself. The stories Frank tells here find solace in sorrow. They’re fucked up and lonely, but not indulgent. They offer views into unseen places and overlooked souls. They console. They bleed. And yes, they cry.
The power of Frank’s work often comes via extreme transparency, but he’s not writing diaries. It’s about how he’s able to locate the crux of any situation, or expose undue artifice, or peel things back to their naked core. Like how he skewed L.A. privilege without breaking a sweat on “Super Rich Kids” or broke down the Coachella generation’s bored numbness in five minutes on “Novacane.” Recently, he’s expanded this skill beyond music. It’s in the “Nikes” video, which both takes advantage of movie magic, like lighting a man (Frank?!) on fire, only to deflate the trickery by also showing the crew of extinguishers putting him out. It’s in the oversized, seven pound, coffee table magazine Boys Don’t Cry, which came out along with the new album; in it, screenshots of internet histories—perhaps the most accurate mirror of our modern selves—are on full display, along with literally naked bodies on and around his beloved sports cars, and charmingly unfiltered interviews with fellow artists and friends. (These chats can get a bit stoner-y, though amusingly so; in one, Frank asks Lil B, “is money sexy?”)
And this transparency was also expressed in the current campaign’s prolonged rollout, which at one point had fans watching Frank watch paint dry as part of a live stream lead-up to a visual album called Endless. As a piece of filmed entertainment, Endless is painfully dull, and perhaps that’s the point. As we watch Frank build a spiral staircase with his bare hands, the piece offers a sort of anti-promo message that comments on how an album’s release strategy can often diminish the art it’s built to uphold nowadays. Or maybe, you know, it’s just really dull. Either way, the Endless soundtrack is much more exciting—46 minutes of music that plays like a mixtape, sliding from song to song, demo to demo, like scrolling through Frank’s hard drive of unreleased material. It’s an intriguing peek into his process, and it contains some of the rawest vocal takes he’s ever put out—like on the strung-out power ballad “Rushes”—but it lacks the clarity of Blonde. (In a neat inversion, it now looks like Frank used the relatively minor Endless to fulfill his major label contract and then self-released Blonde, the main event—though both were exclusives to Apple Music, putting into question what “self-released” even means at this point.)
With Blonde’s unobtrusive instrumentation—large swaths go by without any drums whatsoever—the album could be mistaken for background music. But then Frank’s voice enters, and the overall quietness turns into a soft spotlight, capturing attention. It’s a technique pioneered by noted minimalists like Brian Eno and Rick Rubin, both of whom are included in Blonde’s who’s who list of contributors and inspirations. Many tracks feel emptied, with only the plain strumming of an electric guitar or foggy atmospherics left behind. But they mesmerize. Even a song like “Nights,” which sounds straightforward at first with its shards of silvery chords and midtempo beat, eventually turns into a strange shredding solo before ending with what sounds like a Drake dream heard underwater. “Nights” is not an anomaly. It’s the album’s centerpiece, by an artist who is following nobody but himself.
Frank is 28 now, and his voice has grown stronger and more dexterous, while some of his tales have become more abstract. “Skyline To” is essentially a tone poem about sex, summer, and California haze backed by mood and mystery. “Godspeed” nods to gospel but stays grounded in its prayer to steadfast but broken love; a short story in the magazine, also called “Godspeed,” reads like uncanny science fiction but is actually based on Frank’s boyhood. Certain things are clear, though. The big questions are on his mind. He’s aware of his mortality now. He’s thinking about families, about what it means to live outside society, whether that’s a sustainable goal. He contemplates settling down with “two kids and a swimming pool” on “Seigfried,” a song that works in words by Elliott Smith and ends with a spaced-out soliloquy about living life in the red before a random solar flare brings chaos unto earth. This is not light fare. But the touch is oh so feathery. On “Solo,” he contemplates various stages of singledom, from the jacket-throwing hedonism to the smoked-out emptiness, with nothing but a churchly organ backing him up. It’s a stunning piece of songwriting that ultimately finds some peace with being alone. It sounds like a friend.
Later on, “Solo (Reprise)” marks the album’s only major vocal guest appearance, with a devastating, head-spinning verse from André 3000. It pinpoints one of Blonde’s major themes: nostalgia. André looks back on his 20 years in hip-hop and feels duped by rappers who don’t write their own rhymes. “I’m hummin’ and whistlin’ to those not deserving,” he says, amid a conclusion that will likely haunt Drake’s nightmares for years. “I’ve stumbled and lived every word, was I working just way too hard?” There is disappointment in his voice, and some bitterness. André’s disillusionment could be a cautionary tale for Frank, who often uses the album as an opportunity to look back with a rosy tint: climbing trees, Michael Jackson, cannonballs off the porch, Stevie Wonder. It makes sense for an artist who titled his first major project Nostalgia, Ultra. when he was only 23. Longing looks good on him, though, especially when he’s able to harness it to aching effect on “Self Control” and “White Ferrari,” songs that fight off despondency with a sadness that feels three-dimensional.
The album ends with a final look in the rearview, in the form of spliced-up old interviews with some of Frank’s young friends as well as his brother Ryan, who was around 11 at the time. A cozy keyboard rolls in the background as the boys talk about who they are and what they wish for. Carefree laughs—the kind that adults can’t seem to utter—are looped. Harsh static constantly intrudes, though, hinting at the distortions of time. These brief talks are also transcribed in the magazine alongside photos, and when asked about his dream superpowers, Ryan says, “I want to be invisible, I want to fly, and I want to be invincible.” His bright eyes peer out from under a Supreme cap and pink bandana. He looks like he might pull it all off.
Long Live the Angels
It’s taken Emeli Sandé almost five years to follow her 5m-selling debut ‘Our Version Of Events’, a length of time that feels apposite both for her sake and ours. ‘Overexposed’ doesn’t begin to do justice to how ubiquitous the Scots-Zambian singer became in the 18 months following that album’s release – for a while it felt as if the BBC, the Brits and her record label were colluding in jamming a feeding tube down the nation’s oesophagus until the pop-soul gruel came oozing out of our tear ducts. For Sandé herself, meanwhile, such sudden, all-pervasive fame came at a high personal cost of its own.
In 2014 she went through a painful divorce from her long-term partner after just one year of marriage.
The curiously subdued response to her recent comeback single may indicate a certain weariness on the public’s part for round two, but it’s certainly no fault of the song itself – the defiant, Rihanna-esque ‘Hurts’ is about as far from the ‘granny music’ epithet bestowed on her by Noel Gallagher as it’s possible to get. In fact, at its best – like the libidinous, Jay Electronica-featuring ‘Garden’, or the intimate, Twin Peaksy ambience of ‘Happen’ – ‘Long Live The Angels’ reveals an angrier, edgier Emeli Sandé, with bitter experience in that mellifluous (if overfamiliar) voice.
Of course, at 15 tracks long, there’s no shortage of saccharine X Factor balladry either. On ‘Tenderly’ she’s joined by her father and cousins (credited as the Serenje Choir) for a song that is meant to reflect her Zambian ancestry yet ends up as prosaic gospel-pop. Others, like ‘Lonely’ or ‘Every Single Little Piece’, are pleasant without ever being impactful: music to pass the morning commute or to add a certain mumsy milieu to the Starbucks queue. Sandé clearly has the chops to stand out in the sophisticated cross-platform arms race of modern pop music – the soaring ‘Shakes’ and ‘Sweet Architect’ are proof of that – but you still wish she didn’t fall back so readily on cliché.
When The Weeknd was planning to shear off his dreadlock beehive a couple of months ago, the unanimous phrase of discouragement from those around him – “That’s your whole thing” – only spurred him on. Because really, Abél Tesfaye’s “whole thing” is turning his druggy R&B to gold. After a trio of lauded 2011 mixtapes and a tepid 2013 debut, the mysterious Toronto sadboy broke through in a big way with ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’, Spotify’s most-streamed album of 2015. Now, just over a year later, this bloated double album comes accompanied by the weight of expectation – will it take the 26-year-old up yet another level?
Well, there’s no mega-smash-in-waiting like ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ (surely now the cokehead’s love song of choice) but Tesfaye’s still capable of brilliant bluntness about intoxication and sex – usually at the same time. On ‘Rockin’ he’s on Adderall and spurning a clingy girl. On ‘Ordinary Life’ he gets wistful midway through a 45mph blow-job: “I can feel her teeth when I drive on a bump…she don’t know what I’ve done”. On Lana Del Rey co-write ‘Party Monster’, the hook is a little hackneyed (“Woke up by a girl, I don’t even know her name”) but it still does its earworming job perfectly.The best thing on here is the juddering ‘Secrets’ – where a jealous Tesfaye lowers his voice to reprimand a lying girlfriend – but more focus will inevitably go to the collaborations. Del Rey herself pipes up on ‘Stargirl Interlude’, a deceptively delicate ditty set in a kitchen. On ‘Sidewalks’ Kendrick Lamar delivers a typically killer verse over what sounds like one of Jonny Greenwood’s Radiohead guitar lines. Then there are the two Daft Punk features that bookend the album: opener ‘Starboy’ is a moody acknowledgement of his celebrity, while closer ‘I Feel It Coming’ is a beauty, on which Tesfaye’s trembling vocal unmistakeably echoes Michael Jackson’s. Unfortunately, Daft Punk mar their subtle, syncopated production with a rude vocoder intrusion.
If there’s a problem here, it’s the obvious 2016 one: length. Streaming charts favour albums with more songs, like Drake’s 80-minute ‘Views’. At 18 tracks and 68 minutes, it’s impossible not to see ‘Starboy’ aiming for those algorithms.
Deep into the album it becomes a slog, with too much banal, forgettable fluff like ‘Attention’, ‘Nothing Without You’ and ‘Die For You’ (this honestly goes, “I would die for you / I would lie for you”). Cutting his hair was no risk – the real Starboy move would have been cutting the crap.
Two tracks into her surprisingly fresh sixth album, Alicia Keys issues a mission statement: “Gotta speak the truth when I’m up in the booth.” For the next 45 minutes, the piano-playing New Yorker barely falters as she shows a more honest and socially conscious side to her songwriting. Most of the time, it suits her.From an early reference to her humble upbringing “in a tenement… listenin’ to the hook”, Keys doesn’t shy away from the personal here. On ‘Blended Family (What You Do For Love)’ she celebrates the complexity of her home life and addresses her stepson directly:
“Hey, I might not really be your mother / That don’t mean that I don’t really love ya.” But just as often, she looks outwards. ‘Illusion Of Bliss’ offers a sensitive exploration of addiction, ‘Girl Can’t Be Herself’ tackles unrealistic female beauty standards, and ‘Where Do We Begin Now?’ is a relatable portrait of a same-sex relationship. Although ‘Here’ features some vaguer moments like the bland “one love, one love” vocal hook on ‘She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv’, this doesn’t mean Keys pulls her punches. ‘Holy War’ is a heartfelt plea for tolerance and equality in a world Keys describes as “divided by difference, sexuality and skin”. “So maybe we should love somebody / Instead of polishing the bombs of holy war”, she sings grittily over thudding Phil Collins-style drums.
Keys’ lyrics are generally more interesting than in the past, but ‘Here’ also soars because the music feels looser and more youthful than her usual radio-devouring ballads. ‘Girl Can’t Be Herself’ rides a Latin-flecked R&B bounce, ‘The Gospel’ and ‘Pawn It All’ wed soulful melodies to old-school hip-hop beats, and ‘Work On It’ is a classic-sounding soul ballad that wrong-foots you with a surprisingly restrained chorus. Though it’s unfairly relegated to the deluxe edition, Keys’ percolating summer single ‘In Common’ remains the freshest, coolest track she’s ever recorded. We’ve known since she debuted with ‘Fallin’’ in 2001 that Alicia Keys can write songs that sound anthemic. But with ‘Here’, it feels as though she’s dug deep to produce a set of genuine, heartfelt and relevant anthems.