Category Archives: Arts Reviews

Frank Ocean, “Chanel”

With last year’s release of Blonde, listeners found a liberated Frank Ocean flaunting his freedom from the constraints and demands of his record label, Def Jam. Under Def Jam’s supervision, Ocean’s openly bisexual status would only be hinted at on Channel Orange‘s “Thinkin’ of You” and a coming out letter on his Tumblr account. While writing Blonde, Ocean sought inspiration from his own turbulent past, with songs such as “Self Control,” and “Good Guy” allowing for a deeper self-expression of his bisexuality.

On his 2017 single, “Chanel,” Ocean continues to fuel the public’s perception of him as an ambassador for LGBTQ artistry within the relatively hostile domain of R&B and Hip-Hop. Ocean opens with the assertive declaration:”My guy pretty like a girl and he got fight stories to tell/ I see both sides like Chanel, I see on both sides like Chanel.” Later on, Ocean details an intimate encounter with another man, whose “straight-acting” persona soon gives way to a malleable, “dirty plastic” sense of identity. Both encounters highlight the dichotomies that have become a motif throughout  Ocean’s catalog; the allure of “Chanel” relies on such observations concerning the binaries inherent in his “post-breakout” experience: sexuality, gender norms, and status.

The musical arrangement of “Chanel” recalls the hazy, ambiguous production of Blonde, with programmed drums setting the pace for the slow piano progression, and vague synth leads that loop throughout the song. The subtle instrumentals, however, bow to Ocean’s rapping, which holds most of the song’s conflict and appeal. With its social commentary and avant-garde production, “Chanel” reflects the newfound artistic freedom of the

With its social commentary and avant-garde production, “Chanel” reflects the newfound artistic freedom of the Blonde sessions; Ocean’s empathetic confessionalism, however, hasn’t been lost in the experimentation, making for another raw hit that we’ve come to expect from him.

 

Lady Gaga, “Perfect Illusion”

With the announcement of “Perfect Illusion,” Little Monsters and critics alike were left to wonder what a Lady Gaga single would sound like after her three-year hiatus from pop music. Would the swirling rumors of a RedOne/Gaga reunion make for a dark, club banger a la “Bad Romance?” Perhaps a Grammy win with Tony Bennett had persuaded the Golden Globe winner to try her hand at a solo jazz collection? Neither, it seems. As a collaboration between Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Mark Ronson, and the producer, Bloodpop, Lady Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion” finds the Mother Monster swapping her jazz ensemble for a handful of guitars and a dash of punk.

More Tame Impala than Mark Ronson or Bloodpop, “Perfect Illusion” takes a stab at dance-rock, toeing in line with Ronson’s promise of a purely “analog record.” Simple guitar progressions and delayed synth vamps underscore Gaga’s raw vocals, which waver between a female Bruce Springsteen and (oddly enough) a belting Miley Cyrus. The auto-tune that ran rampant on previous dance hits like “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance” is gone, leaving behind the sheer force of her powerful delivery.

The Ronson-Parker-Bloodpop trio’s intentions are glaringly clear from the first listen: to feature Gaga’s undeniable vocal talent, as showcased on Cheek To Cheek and her memorable tribute to Julie Andrews at 2015’s Oscars. The effect, however, has overshadowed Gaga’s knack for quirky, provocative lyrics. Vague verses and a simple, repetitive chorus stand as some of Gaga’s weakest lines, despite her recent boast that “every few days, a lyric would change and it would get better and better.”   Even in its final draft, the song’s intention as a commentary on the ingenuine nature of social media barely comes across.

Lady Gaga’s survey into punkish disco-rock of “Perfect Illusion,” marks the beginning of yet another reinvention in the singer’s eight-year stint in the limelight.  After the saccharine empowerment of Born This Way and the weed-fueled erracticism of Artpop, the raw vocal power and refreshing collaborations on”Perfect Illusion” are a hopeful sign that Joanne may produce some of Lady Gaga’s most accessible work. The stale lyrics and modest arrangement, however, still fall short in capturing the thrill and intrigue of The Fame Monster, arguably the most authentic and respectable release of the icon’s career.

 

Britney Spears, “Private Show”/”Make Me”

It’s hard to believe that Beyoncé and Britney Spears are the same age. 34 years, however, have treated the two mega-divas quite differently: while Yoncé continues to sell out massive venues on the success of her latest album, Lemonade, Brit-Brit has spent the past three years peddling lackluster singles. After the disappointing Iggy Azalea collab, “Pretty Girls,” fizzled out, it seemed plans for another Spears album were once again shelved.

One year later, Spears fans worldwide reveled in the promise of “Make Me,” the lead single off of Spears’s ninth studio release, Glory. True to form, the track includes the three hallmarks of every Britney single: 1.) whiny, feeble vocals, 2.) excessive Auto-tune to fluff up the former (second only to Ke$ha), and 3.) mid-riff baring artwork to highlight her best asset, her body.With an appearance by G-Eazy, we also find Spears’s recent habit of outsourcing for more relevant, fresh-faced talent (see “Pretty Girls,” which rode on the coattails of the brief Iggy Azalea craze) in full force.

That being said, the vocals don’t fall into the realm of robotic, as on the throwaway recording, “Ooh La La” or the Ke$ha-penned, “Til The World Ends.”Smooth choral runs and subtle verses prove a working formula for Spears’s limited range, even adding a flair of, dare we say, artistry to the mix?

Not so fast. “Private Show,” which shares the name of Spears’s newest fragrance, abandons such subtleties for a bold release that’s heavy on sex appeal and auto-tune. In short, the effect is that of a robot crooning about stripteases and twerking—bizarre and repulsive. Britney chokes on the chorus and invokes a laughable Rihanna impression with her clipped “work it’s.”The entire track revolves around an awkward arrangement that tries to balance the instrumental’s light-hearted mood with Spear’s obvious struggle in singing the song.

When, at the three and a half minute mark, Spears confidently asks to take on the song again, one has to wonder at how deeply Spears’s denial runs; after a 24-year long career of cashing in on lip-synced global tours and Las Vegas residencies, Britney Spears once again proves how her career relies on her fan base’s sense of nostalgia for her reign as the Queen of Y2k pop. Let’s leave 2016 and the actual singing to Beyoncé.

 

Ferras, “Closer”

It’s been over two years since the release of Ferras’s last release, an eponymous five-track EP brimming with romantic yearning — and the inevitable heartbreak and disappointment that results from it. The single, “Champagne,” was an assertive departure from Ferras’s piano-driven debut, “Hollywood’s Not America”. While “America’s” radio-friendly sound worked well for its use as American Idol’s departure song, “Champagne” reeked of Dom Perignon and coke-fueled urgency. 2014 brought with it a fiery new Ferras flaunting a serious mohawk —and a sound to match.

Two years later, Ferras continues the trend with “Closer,” a  mid tempo pop track reminiscent of the Ferras sessions. Subtle marimbas and piano stabs shuffle behind lyrics resounding with the same urgency and desperation that made “Champagne” so exceptional. While Ferras’s passionate delivery remains in tip-top form, the backing arrangement lags behind his aroused vocals. The mismatch between Ferras’s zeal and his underwhelming instrumental recalls the jounce of “No Good in Goodnight,” a slice of filler that lacks the vulnerability of tracks like “Speak In Tongues” or the gorgeous Aliens & Rainbows take of “Take My Lips.”

Still, “Closer” teems with a come-hither appeal that only Ferras can pull off . Although the drastic highs and sweeping lows of songs like “Champagne” and “My Beautiful Life” may be lacking from Ferras’s latest release, “Closer” still carries with it the promise of another solid LP. In the meantime, we’ll have to wait with fingers crossed, hoping to hear Ferras at his best—that is,  when he’s hot and bothered.

 

Grace, FMA

It began with the name. When a slicker, rap-infused take of Leslie Gore’s hit, “You Don’t Own Me,” (Only “It’s My Party”would outsell this multi-platinum selling recording) came on my car radio, I was quick to ask Siri for the name of this newcomer. The single meandered it’s way through 60’s pop and G-Eazy’s verses, all ushered on by this nameless singer channeling everything from an erratic Aguilera to a tall order of Winehouse Lite.  Imagine my confusion when I was told the brash commander of such refurbished feminism was “Grace,” merely Grace. Not Grace Potter. Not even Grace Jones or Grace Slick. Just the unassuming Grace.

The Australian singer’s debut, FMA, is, at times, another reworked blend of 60’s girl group nostalgia. Sonically, FMA toes in line with the releases of recent British Invasion of soul chanteuses such as Winehouse, Duffy, and Adele. On “Hope You Understand,” Grace’s gritty vocals sound like a rehearsed, yet impressive imitation of Winehouse. The arrangement and melodies on the sparse piano ballad, “How to Love Me” would fit snuggly into Adele’s recent smash release, 25. Grace studied her idols well, to the point where her own presence is lost in the production and imitations.

Between a lackluster stage name and reiterating the style of her overplayed idols, it’s clear that Grace’s, well, saving grace is her versatile voice and hip-hop leanings. Driving hip-hop beats underscore a bright organ on the naughty “Church on Sunday,” while electronic pianos and pitched vocal samples make for a dreamy midtempo jam on the yearning “Say.” “Hell Of A Girl,” a bombastic ode to 60’s soul and independence, drifts smoothly along before building to Grace’s climactic ad-libbing in the whistle register. On the remixed single, “Boyfriend Jeans,” Grace takes it down a few semi-tones with a falsetto reminiscent of Leona Lewis.With its smooth, harmonized chorus of man-worship, the soul romp of “Boys Boys Boys” epitomizes the album’s theme of romances won & lost.

While the track is one of many standout tracks, it too pales in comparison with the brief, yet powerful outro of “Song Cries and Amens.” Clocking in at a measly one and a half minutes, “Song Cries and Amens” is a quasi-poetic reprieve from a tracklist devoted to summer flings and failed relationships. Instead, Grace opts for self-reflection, wavering between loathing (Sometimes I hate me. . . I’m selfish, you’re right/ I can’t be normal. I lied) and self-acceptance (“I’m lame. So what?/ I’m all right”). With a lush backdrop of pizzicato strings, muted horns, and solemn piano, the track is refreshing cut that comes too late in the album and ends to soon.

Like her older brother, Conrad Sewell (who topped the Australian charts with his single, “Start Again”), Grace is a rookie in the major label scene. Graced with a formidable voice, the younger Sewell’s future success on radio seems promising. Many listeners, however, may dismiss her as redundant if she refuses to part ways with her imitations of more established soul singers.

 

 

Ariana Grande, Dangerous Woman

After the infamous “Donut Licking Fiasco of 2015,” former Nickelodean actress, Ariana Grande, has committed herself to her most ambitious promotional agenda yet: adulthood. Between sitting for Playboy Bunny-inspired album cover shoots, donning lingerie in risque music videos, and ditching her signature pony-tail, Grande’s stance on maturity reflects the failed approaches of countless kid stars before her.

While Miley Cyrus’s grinding routine and Lindsay Lohan’s, well, adult career have failed to fully redeem these once beloved kid stars, Grande’s four-octave voice has set her apart. With each performance, her talent proves to be a magnetic tour-de-force that has drawn in countless fans (myself included) since 2013’s doo-wop inspired Yours Truly.

2015’s Dangerous Woman is a collection of mostly sulty, sexually charged R&B meant to capitalize on Grande’s most mature asset, her voice. A shameless nod to Aretha Franklin’s 1967 hit, “(You Make Me Feel like) A Natural Woman,” the title track features an empowered Grande belting over slinky guitar riffs and a smooth high-hat beat. Meanwhile,the Macy Gray-featuring soul of “Leave Me Lonely,”  offers a rare glimpse of a raw and vulnerable Ariana shedding a fickle lover. Whether it’s the contemporary trap of “Everyday” or the throwback brass & electric piano of “I Don’t Care,”Grande’s vocal versatility allows for a diverse assortment of R&B achieved by few in the Top 40.

The 15-track LP, however, doesn’t confine itself to one genre. Fans of the 2014  breakthrough hit, “Break Free,” will appreciate the 90’s Mariah-meets-Mura-Musa feel of “Be Alright,” and the addictive pulse of “Into You.” Those missing the 50’s doo-wop and girl-group rehashing of Grande’s debut might prefer the demure opener, “Moonlight,” in which Grande romances a contemporary “Elvis with some James Dean in his eyes.” Grande even stakes out new territory with frequent collaborator, Nicki Minaj, on the domineering reggae of “Side to Side.” Embracing both the familiar and new, Dangerous Woman merges past tastes with an  emerging curiosity for new genres and timbres.

Although the eclectic mix of genres and lackluster lyrics, at times, mimic the inconsistency found on My Everything, Dangerous Woman finds America’s favorite “Mini-Mariah” inching toward finally establishing an authentic presence that is undeniably Ariana Grande. Until then, Grande’s latest LP will stand as another stepping stone between the Nickelodeon child star posting Adele covers on Youtube, and the woman who has embraced her showstopping talent as the hallmark of a “dangerous woman.”

Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman hits shelves May 21st! In the meantime, watch Ariana and Miley take on “Don’t Dream It’s Over!

“Work,” Rihanna feat. Drake

Rihanna’s newest single, “Work” invokes several motifs from the R&B princess’s career: Drake collaborations, topless photoshoots, and dancehall anthems. Despite the nostalgia of past career moves, “Work” is being touted as the “first” single off of the bad gal’s highly-anticipated album, Anti. It seems Rihanna’s 2015 roster of eclectic singles—the Kanye West/Paul McCartney product “FourFiveSeconds,” ; the trap track, “Bitch Better Have My Money,”; and protest slump, “American Oxygen,”—have been shrugged off as mere promotional singles following the announcement of West’s resignation from his role as Anti’s executive producer.

Tapping into the Caribbean feel of Rihanna’s debut, Music of the Sun, “Work” nevertheless reflects more recent nuances from Rihanna’s catalog. Rihanna’s vocals are tinged with a grittiness absent from Sun and it’s 2006 follow-up, A Girl Like Me; Fenty’s slight rasp colors the erratic verses with a sensuality that trumps the monotony of a nearly incoherent chorus. Furthermore, the heavy autotune used on Drake contribution does nothing to bolster the, otherwise, pristine production. Even Rihanna’s unique mezzo-soprano has been touched up, with the outro showcasing obvious “enhancements.”

Musically, the song relies on an alternating synth-bass line that fuels the characteristic syncopation that has become a trademark feature of contemporary “digital dancehall” hits (see Mr. Vegas and Elephant Man). When dubbed with steel drums strikes and three-note synth leads, the result is a moody, almost retro groove able to heavy the winding melodies of the verse and chorus.

With a three-year hiatus between albums, Rihanna’s decision to announce another comeback with a single titled “Work” rings with an undeniable insincerity. Even so, Rihanna’s conscious return to her roots may very well be the song’s most redefining attribute. In a year flooded with tropical house from the likes of Justin Bieber, we gladly embrace Rihanna’s reclamation of her Barbadian beginnings.

 

Sia, “Reaper”

 

Sia’s upcoming LP, This Is Acting, collects a handful of shelved songs from the Australian songwriter’s undoubtedly massive archive. Although the 12 tracks (14 tracks if you snatch up he Target Exclusive Version) were returned by the likes of Adele, Beyonce, and Shakira, Sia nevertheless feels the compilation consists entirely of unrecognized hits.

The fun, yet ominous “Reaper,” proves to be one of the most promising of five singles released on iTunes so far . Cowritten and produced with Kanye West for Rihanna’s elusive Anti project, the promotional single is a bass-driven slice of charming pop radio. The upbeat, rhythmic production, however, juxtaposes with Sia’s despondent lyrics, with proclamations such as “So come back when I’m good to go/I got drinks to drink, and men to hold/I got good things to do with my life” meant to ward off an early Death.

While the track will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Sia’s 2014 release, 1,000 Forms Of Fear, the award-winning songwriter revealed her own indifference to the song in a recent Rolling Stone interview.  Sia herself preferred “One Million Bullets” and the Beyonce-outtake,”Footprints,”to the sinister “Reaper,” which was only included on the final tracklist of Acting after her manager’s insistence.

Sure, “Reaper” is no “Chandelier” or “Alive.” However, as pickings from the cutting room floor of one of contemporary pop’s most pervasive songsmiths, the track showcases the flexibility that allowed Sia to transition from indie songstress to pop’s most in-demand writers.

Sia’s This Is Acting hits shelves on January 29th. 

 

 

 

 

“Bitch Better Have My Money,” Rihanna

After the lead single from Rihanna’s untitled 8th album, “FourFiveSeconds,” proved an uncharacteristic smash for the R&B chart topper, fans and critics alike proposed Rihanna had finally ditched the club anthems. With the controversial, “Bitch Better Have My Money,” however, the Rihanna Navy saw the return of their urban diva.

The trap single features hoarse, aggressive vocals and addictive drum fills that sound like outtakes from producer Kanye West’s Yeezus sessions. Between “machine gun ad-libs” and thin synth lines, the cut relies on Rihanna’s combative, yet rousing performance. The lyrics leave much open to interpretation, especially after considering the risque line, “Your wife in the back seat of my brand-new, foreign car/Don’t act like you forgot, I call the shots!”

Just days before the single’s rushed release, Rihanna told media outlets that she aimed to make “timeless music” that would still appeal to audiences 15 years later. The release of “BBHMM”, however, fell short of these ambitions. Toeing in line with previous singles such as Loud‘s “Man Down” and Unapologetic‘s “Pour It Up,” “BBHMM” lacks the hooks that jettisoned trademark singles such as “We Found Love” and “Only Girl (In The World)” to the top of the charts.The single capitalizes on the relatively new introduction of trap into mainstream R&B and relies on an all-to-brief sense of sensationalism. Despite a catchy drum outro, and a much publicized iHeartMedia performance, the track has yet to make a sizable impression.

Rihanna, “As Real As You And Me.”

After multiple snippets of the track were leaked from a foreign screening of Rihanna’s animated picture, Home, eager fans only had to wait a little longer until the entire song began to circulate online! A sparse, yet gorgeous, piano ballad penned by William Penn High grad, Alicia Renee Williams, “As Real As You And Me” is one of four Rihanna contributions on the motion picture’s soundtrack.

The track shares several musical and lyrical similarities with Rihanna’s Top 10 ballad, “Stay.” Recorded in B Major, or a semitone lower than “Stay”, the track shares not only the “I-ii-vi” chord progression of its predecessor, but also the Unapologetic hit’s quarter note blocked chords and solo piano arrangement.  Lyrically, the song makes a similar plea for companionship; “As Real,” however, transcends the confines of its predecessor’s focus on romantic relationships by declaring that the various worldwide catastrophes we face are “as real as you and me.” The speaker’s awareness of the possibility of death and it’s alienating nature infuses the track with deeper — dare I say, existential?— considerations than  “Stay.”

While the track may sound like a “Stay, Pt. 2,” the track is a gorgeous addition to the Home Soundtrack, which hits digital music retailers on March 23rd.

Listen to the track here!