Album Review: 20/20 Experience - Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake is a savior amongst the entertainment industry.  Ok, that may be dramatic, but did you enjoy an episode of SNL when he wasn't hosting? Didn't think so.  We've seen him go from that platinum-frosted, curly-haired kid in the ultimate boy band to a pillar in the most unlikely genre, hip-hop.  As the music scene moved on, so did JT.  While we loved his movies, well the later ones (remember Alpha Dog?), we missed his music.  He brought sexy back (ha!) in 2006 and then let sexy get ruined by the likes of Justin Beiber.  Now, a mere 7 years (which feel like an eternity) later, JT roared back, in that roaring '20s way, with the ultimate 20/20 Experience.            

The album's lead single, "Suit and Tie" is an R&B romp that echoes a little Prince and a little Marvin Gaye.  Complete with a verse by Jay-Z, the song is "classy" in the sense that it's slick, from production to lyrical delivery and overall sound.  It's by no means grand, as Timberlake leaves that to other tracks on the record, but its up-tempo slow burn proves that the Experience isn't a race, but a marathon.

The record is glued together with brilliant use of horns and band orchestration, much like the opening credits of an Irving Berlin love story.  Timberlake establishes himself as the band leader, the Sinatra or Martin of the millennium.  As one track melts and forms another, a funk riff turns into a Moroccan-style drum beat like on "Don't Hold the Wall."  His long-time collaborator Timbaland lends his strengths in sound manipulation to each track, turning a soft lullaby into a stomp-along, punctuating beats with narration.  "Strawberry Bubblegum" and "Spaceship Coupe" project the album as a live album, conjuring the black and white images Timberlake wants into the minds of the listener.  A true manifestation of sounds and self,  what Timberlake and Timbaland have is special, if not as innovative as one would like.

The record seems effortless in its intricacy, making no effort to produce a mainstream club banger, yet that makes all the difference.  "Tunnel Vision" and "Let the Groove In" (in all its Gloria Estefan-esque, Latin glory) reflect the passion of the old JT, the dancer, arguably the ultimate performer of the past decade.  But where 20/20 Experience shines is Timberlake's magnetism and unabashed celebration of love and marriage (kudos, Jessica Biel, kudos).  It's gentle in its encompassing neo-soul atmosphere, but packs a punch in Timberlake's passionate and captivating croon. 

Yet, not even the return of Justin Timberlake is perfect.  Even at its most diverse moments, and maybe Timberlake's most artistically reaching moments, it falls.  This is not the record where eventual hits are going to reach out and grab you. And while this approach may be new for Timberlake, the sounds itself are not.  And as the end nears, Timberlake himself sounds to get bored with the fading, sounds-like-it-should-be-an-Imogene Heap-lullaby, "Blue Ocean Floor." 

It's a solid return for pop's renaissance man.  It's familiar yet refreshing in a time where dubstep and dance-pop have been ruling the air waves.  It's pure and intimate in ways that pop culture hasn't seen or heard in awhile.  If a funky, soul injection was all we needed, I'm glad it's Justin Timberlake who's supplying.  **8.5/10


Album Review: Long.Live.A$AP - A$AP Rocky

This generation's rap culture is more money and women than strength of character, revolution, and giving a voice to the real-life struggle of so many.  That's not necessarily as awful as it may seem, though.  While not substantial,  the decade's hip-hop hits have been club-bangers and ass-shakers, bringing people together on (and off) the dance floor.  It's an escape, but how long of a career can you have praising Ciroq on deck and beauty that fades. 

Among the same, Harlem shaped the unique talent that is A$AP Rocky.  The 24 year-old, MC Rakim Mayers, released a mixtape, Live.Love.A$AP (2011), befriended fashion heavy-hitters Jeremy Scott and Alexander Wang, and has collaborated with artists like media waited, and waited,...and waited until the release his major label debut, Long.Live.A$AP,  to really sink its teeth into his rap game chops.  Inspired by his past, yet influenced by his present, A$AP Rocky is clearly striving to be the voice of the future, but with relative success.

The album features 15 tracks, boasting gun shots and plenty of "fuck" bombs.  The title, and opening track, features Rocky's voice floating above a dub bass that's eerie, invasive.  The tale of a hard-knock life over a hard-knock beat, it repeatedly boasts the line, "I know I'll probably die in prison," but that's all Rocky gives.  "Jodye" "Angels" and "Ghetto Symphony" are similar, with Mayers giving the listener a taste, but never letting the listener in.  Each track provides an experience, both intimidating and accessible, yet not enough to push through the wall.  There is a story to be told, but maybe Mayers isn't really ready, which exudes potential. 

His more clich├ęd attempts are sadly more successful, though his second single, "Fuckin' Problems" has a lot of fucking problems.  A$AP Rocky isn't necessarily a great rapper, but a talented wordsmith with an undeniable swagger that is infectious, adding to his new persona, his desire to 'A(lways) S(trive) A(nd) P(ropser).  However, over and over again he is out-rapped.  Drake and Kendrick Lamar shine on "Fuckin' Problems" while Rocky becomes a supporter, same goes on his super-collaboration with Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, and Big K.R.I.T on "Train."  While the weakest tracks, "Fashion Killa" and "Up All Night" featuring dubstep, poster child, Skrillex, rely on over-production and boasts of young, cash money that are more obnoxious than can be taken at face value.

Lackluster attempts aside,  there are moments of greatness.  "Hell" featuring Santigold and "Goldie" are  addicting with their wit and reminiscence of Rocky's Live.Love.A$AP -that deep, south trill A$AP brought to life.  The album's greatest track is "Suddenly" -a spoken word anthem over a gospel fade.  "You my brother, you my kin, fuck the color of your skin" is a juvenile display of knowledge, but knowledge none the less, which is refreshing in its simple innocence but impactful still.  His references are real, but never fully realized.

At the end, it's hard to define.  Is it too-hype, hyphy, too chill? Where does A$AP Rocky belong or does he really not have to?  This album has cut out its own place, on its own middle ground.  But if this, "new King of New York" wants to keep that title, he has to push himself.  Sonically, there is too much smoke to make out a true identity, but lyrically, the young MC's potential is limitless...and everything is still purple. **7.0/10


Album Review: Channel Orange - Frank Ocean

As the unlikely member of controversial rap collective, Odd Future, Frank Ocean's smooth yet progressive take on R&B is a welcomed refresher.  He quickly established a cult following on his mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, and had fans impatiently waiting for more.  On his official debut, Channel Orange, Ocean continues to push the boundaries of traditional R&B while singing with a seductive croon and a high level of lyrical honesty. 

Similar to Nostalgia, Ultra, the record opens with sounds -like a engine starting.  The track flows into, "Thinkin' Bout You" -a seemingly, one-sided love affair that Ocean wants to continue.  The beats are simple, letting Ocean's vocals overwhelm instead of the instrumentation.  Other mini-intermissions come in the form of tracks like "Fertilizer" "Not Just Money" and "White" which features John Mayer.

Following "Thinkin' Bout You" is the tale of "Sierra Leone."  There's a '70s-esque groove that punctuates the lyrical mystery of the track.  Ocean isn't going out of his way to make his music radio-friendly or club-ready.  "Sweet Life" which boasts the line, "My TV ain't HD, that's too real" features a subdued brass section and a soft, piano accent.  Ocean takes the biggest strides vocally on this song, featuring Al Green-inspired howls and a strong rasp.  His creative take on an iconic sound propels the album foward, as the tracks are fluid in and out.

"Super Rich Kids" featuring fellow OFWGKTA member, the elusive Earl Sweatshirt,  almost has a "Benny and the Jets" type feel as Ocean speaks about spoiled kids with "too many white lies and too many white lines."  And, where other R&B artists use irrelevant samples to add an illusion of depth to their tracks, Ocean's sing-along of "I'm looking for a real love" actually fits into the narrative he's created. 
Ocean's effortless suave swagger trickles throughout the rest of the album on the finger-snap driver, "Pilot Jones" and "Crack Rock" -where even Ocean's unabashed vulgarity is pleasing to the ear.  

The closest Ocean gets to a club-banger (and I use that term loosely) is the undeniable groove of the 10-minute epic, "Pyramids" where he compares his runaway lady-love interest to Cleopatra, and "Lost." The electronic scale in the background is repetitious and synths addictive as Ocean fills the track with falsetto and sweet, vocal runs.  While "Lost" unfolds, I don't think anyone would mind being lost in the "heat" or "thrill of it all" with Mr. Ocean by their side.

"Monks" tells of the ones who "mosh for enlightenment" -yet another soulful, social commentary.  Where popular observations about love and real relationships, or lack thereof, are often presented on a surface level, Ocean weaves complexities with more relatable phrasing.  Fading into the confessional track, "Bad Religion" -Channel Orange finds its climax as well as its slow burn of an ending.  Vocally, Ocean's strength is in his desperation -telling the all-too-familiar woes of loving someone who doesn't love you. 

"Pink Matter" featuring Outkast's Andre 3000, is like embers glowing.  3000's verse breathe life into a track that almost fades into the background.  Obviously unafraid to mix genres, a heavy yet mellowed blues guitar rocks the track to sleep as Ocean and 3000 blend their vocals, almost like a lullaby.  "Forrest Gump" (the album's end, as the track "End" is just sounds, in true Frank Ocean fashion) is a solid closer.  

Depending on how you receive it, the track can be an ode to the character Forrest Gump himself, or a metaphor for Ocean's own life and past relationships that have recently come to light in the media.  Whether it's a love-letter to Ocean's past, male love or not, it works.  Wrapping up the themes of love, loss, growth, and heartbreak, Ocean promises, "I'll never forget you" and he's now made it so we won't be able to forget him either.  **10/10


Album Review: Looking 4 Myself - Usher

As Michael Jackson will forever remain the King of Pop, Usher Raymond is on the fast track to taking his throne as the Prince.  On his seventh studio album, Looking 4 Myself, Raymond pushes the evolutionary bounds that have become a staple in popular music.  His smooth, soulful croon carries just as much power and sensuality as it did when he first broke through the airwaves.  At 33, with almost every one of his albums certified platinum, one would wonder what the R&B megastar has left to prove.  Mixing samples from electronic, R&B, soul, hip hop, and pop music -on this record, Usher establishes himself as an artist.

As combining the overtly sexual with his real life struggle, Looking 4 Myself is Usher taking you along for the ride.  The album opens with "Can't Stop Won't Stop" -a club thumper that sets the tone for the electrifying groove, though the fault comes in the lyrics, "This is a jam, turn it up."  While songs that follow like "Scream" "Climax" and "Lemme See" featuring Rick Ross are ready-to-chart singles, they still sound fresh, at least for Usher.  Always walking the line between seductive and vulgar, it's Raymond's unshakeable confidence that breathes life into these high energy tracks.

While dubstep nuances and electronic flare provide a modern backdrop, Usher's R&B sensibilities round out the sound.  "Twisted" featuring (and produced by) Pharrell, is minimal, but hypnotic in its simplicity and soulful groove.  More creative boundaries are pushed with slower ballads like "Dive" "Lessons for the Lover" and, maybe the record's most emotionally serious track, "Sins of My Father."
The low-points aren't as poignant, because the rest of the record more than makes up for it.  However, it is obvious why bonus tracks "Say the Words" "I.F.U." and "2nd Round" were left off the original tracklisting.  Sonically, those songs seemed to be going in the opposite direction, while Raymond and his producers wanted to float up mainstream.

Looking 4 Myself is not as evolutionary as Usher maybe wants, or thinks, it to be.  The last time we heard from him, Raymond vs. Raymond seemed too hard to play up his playboy nature to mask the more mature facts concerning his divorce.  This album is similar, but the approach seems more honest and more believable as Usher really seems to be moving on.  Regardless, his fans will always be moving on with him.  **8.0/10


Album Review: The Wanted EP - The Wanted

Teenage girls (and a relative amount of teenage boys) have had a love affair with the notion of the "boy band" for as long as I can remember.  Whether it's from the Osmonds or Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, to more recent, harmonized monsters like Boyz II Men, Backstreet Boys, and the Jonas Brothers -these acts have been sure to establish those warm, butterflies-in-the-stomach feelings across the world.  So, it's only natural that the latest UK import burning up the US charts is also making teenage hearts race like they hadn't in a long time.  The Wanted is composed of wannabe footballers (soccer here in the States) and all-around good-looking gents who can carry a tune.  But with success in cracking America held up so high, The Wanted fall short.

Technically, this EP entitled The Wanted is the group's third release.  Their two previous albums, The Wanted and Battleground were received well across Europe, but failed to get the boys noticed in America.  Now, all that has changed with the release of mega-singles like "Glad You  Came" and "Chasing The Sun." 

The Wanted EP open with the promise of dance floor-ready anthems with much more sex appeal than boy bands' past.  But after the initial rush of "Glad You Came" and "Chasing The Sun" (which actually sound much less appealing on record than when performed live), the production and lyrical content starts to try too hard.  "Heart Vacancy" can be compared to the sappy, almost love songs like Backstreet Boys' "I'll Never Break Your Heart" but, that would be unfair...to the Backstreet Boys.  With The Wanted's decided sexuality and self-proclaimed "man band" status,  their "love songs" seem unbelievable.

"All Time Low," the track that cemented the band's status in the UK, attempts to establish a looking-for-true-love persona, but again falls flat.  The same can be said for the dramatic, semi-ballad "Warzone." Maybe the lyrics themselves are overshadowed by lack of interest sonically, but the two don't mesh well. "Gold Forever" includes the laughable line, "butterflies, butterflies, we were meant to fly" and lends itself to yet another celebration of youth.   "Lightning" is redeemable, but it follows the same recipe as The Wanted's previous singles: slow beginning, simple hook in a catchy chorus, accompanied by an overdone, but always danceable beat.

Maybe this album is helping me realize that this is where popular music is staying right now.  That maybe that awfully annoying Gotye song is the most sonically interesting track that will make it on the radio.  To The Wanted's credit, these guys can actually sing.  It's not their voices that sound bad, it's the lack of diversity in each track, both lyrically and structurally.  Will the album perform well on the charts? Most definitely.  But, eventually they're going to want to change.  Hopefully, there will be enough fans and skeptics interested in what that change brings.  **6.0/10


Album Review: Bloom - Beach House

Maryland's dream-pop duo, Beach House, have been critically acclaimed darlings since their self-titled debut dropped in 2006.  The two albums that followed, Devotion (2008) and Teen Dream (2010) were accepted equally as well by fans and critics alike.  Their latest release, Bloom is the band's most beautiful work to date, masterful both vocally and musically.

The dream-pop duo invite you into their wonderland as "Myth" begins.  Victoria Legrand's vocals overcome the listen as she rasps stronger than ever.  Alexander Scally's accompaniments mystify while creating sharper contrast and structure.

Bloom couldn't be a more fitting title for this record  as each track flows into the next.  To dissect each track would take from the sheer lushness that these two individuals create.  "Lazuli" and "Wishes" are near-masterpieces, with vocals that cascade along with guitars, which are crafted against a simple drum beat.  The overall tranquility of each track extends itself to the feeling of spinning or falling, but in the most beautiful way. 

And while Beach House has produced bold tracks in which the listener can lose his or herself, each track, spanning over four minutes, is never boring.  "Troublemaker" is the album's standout, with Legrand's ethereal contralto making the track jump out at you.  There's a slight Zombies-feel here, as well as on "Wild" -which exemplifies the band established creativity and awareness of influence vs. homage. 

The wonderfully epic instrumentation comes to a climax on the sweeping, "On the Sea" and the album's closer, "Irene."  The shining, screeching guitar compliments Legrand's finesse with phrasing and narratives.  Compared to iconic acts such as the Smiths or the Cure, Beach House's strong air of mystery shines next to Legrand's straight-forward narratives. "Other People" features Legrand pining for a gone-too-soon lover, but while it could come off as desperation, she phrases each sentence with conviction.  And while lyrical poetry can come off as contrived, Legrand and Scally are believable and inspired. 

The direction Beach House is heading is new territory for a band of this generation.  Bloom is familiar, yet it leaves you wanting more.  Retrospectively, this is the type of record Chris Martin wanted Coldplay's Mylo Xyloto to be, but came up short.  While I don't believe this band has fully "bloomed" (pardon my pun), I'll be waiting impatiently for the impending tour and future releases.  **10/10


Album Review: The Only Place - Best Coast

In 2010, the California duo, Best Coast busted onto the scene with Crazy for You; singing blissful pop tunes about relationships and weed. Bethany Consentino and her partner-in-crime Bobb Bruno struck a lo-fi chord with music fans and critics alike, becoming darlings within the festival circuit and on summer music playlists. Their sophomore effort, The Only Place, is a more mature Best Coast with a potential for more mainstream appeal.

 The album opens with "The Only Place" -an almost folky loveletter to California. Creating the perfect image of Cali, Consention beckons the question, "Why would you live anywhere else?" accompanied by an all-over happy, sonic feeling.

 On this record, Best Coast excels at the happy -whether it's real or not. Tracks like "Why I Cry" and "My Life" are relatively sad, but the band knows well that a deep, downer-ballad isn't their style. The closest track produced to a ballad is the beautiful, final taste of the record, "Up All Night." A track that should be played whether it's the end of the night, summer, or a relationship.

 Then, there are sheer crowd-pleaser tracks like, "Better Girl" and "Let's Go Home." Consentino seems to pride herself on writing narratives about heart and homesickness which create a dramatic underlay, presented with shiny pop sensibilities. While there record seems more like a continuation than a creative leap, there is a sense of self-awareness. The record is a reflection of the band's current state, which appears to be solid, honest, with a firm grip on creative freedoms. The newfound maturity comes in the form of the songs, "Last Year" "No One Like You" "Do You Still Love Me Like You Used To?" and "Dreaming My Life Away." Each song is a standout in itself, with a bit of a soda-shop '50s doowop quality, while the latter feels a bit like nondescript MGMT. Sonically, they're most unlike what is associated with Best Coast. The sounds are bold and seemed more round and complete.

Each track is much more polished than its predecessors on Crazy for You. Yet the band remains playful and youthful without having the be so serious, as if the stigma of the "sophomore slump" never existed. Yet, The Only Place isn't perfect, not that it was expected to be. Best Coast isn't the band one listens to for its deep emotion or philosophies on a greater power -its moreorless a relatable, feel-good jam band. Yet, while the album backtracks when Consentino whines about not conforming.

 To take Best Coast at face-value is to really appreciate the purity of what Consentino and Bruno have built together. There's no doubt these tracks will be just as successful, if not more, than what was released from the band's debut. However, I always like to see a band's progression and I'm still waiting for that from Best Coast. **7.0/10