“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!

Rihanna, “Towards The Sun”

Reaching it’s peak spot of #4 on this week’s Billboard Hot 100, “FourFiveSeconds” offered some respite from the “Great Rihanna Drought of 2014.” With the commercial release of the “Towards The Sun,” however, it seems as though Rihanna has shown even more mercy for her thirsty Navy. The track was released as a single from Rihanna’s voice-acting debut, the animated Dreamworks film, Home. The soundtrack is set to feature several original Rihanna songs, perhaps in compensation for the two years since 2012’s Grammy Award winning, Unapologetic.

A departure from Rihanna’s darker, grittier songs, “Towards The Sun” opens with a falsetto hook that segues into the track’s stomping chorus that recalls Florence + The Machine (who’s confirmed to be sampled on a track for her untitled 8th album). An optimistic yearning for hope in the face of despair, the track lyrically recalls Mariah Carey’s buzz single from 2013’s Oz The Great and Powerful, “Almost Home.” Like “FourFiveSeconds,” the track features a vocally commanding performance in the chorus and bridges; nevertheless, the brief verses undeniably pale in comparison.

With the release of “Toward The Sun,” Rihanna confirms a continuing trend in experimenting beyond her command of R&B, a direction which suggests a more eclectic, audacious direction for the tentively titled, #R8.

Rihanna, Kanye West, & Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds”

Finally, the “Great Rihanna Drought of 2014” is officially over! On Saturday night, the Barbadian native dropped the new single, “FourFiveSeconds” after teasing her fans with Instagram studio snippets of two new tracks, including “Kiss It Better,” and the addictive, “Ain’t None Of This Promised.” True to Rihanna’s word that any new music would be announced via her directly, an iTunes link to the the new track was advertised on her official website with little warning (West did, however, tease the track at last week’s iHeartMedia Music Summit).

Despite Rihanna’s pushing for the track, it’s uncertain whether the cut is indeed the lead single from Rihanna’s much anticipated follow-up to 2012’s Grammy Award-winning, Unapologetic. The sparse, country influenced track features Kanye West and Paul McCartney, who previously made headlines this year after releasing West’s ode to daughter, North, “Only One.” As such, it’s questionable whether “FourFiveSeconds,” which in-itself is a drastic departure from Rihanna’s urban R&B sound, is a release from the songstress’s tentatively titled, “#R8,” or just another single from Kanye West’s own 8th studio release.

Featuring Sir McCartney on a simple acoustic guitar backdrop and organ bridge, Rihanna’s vocals shine on the track’s D major chord progression. A regretful tune detailing wayward partying and its subsequent remorse, the track’s stripped production and instrumentation is an unlikely, yet refreshing addition to the duo’s list of hits. While Rihanna’s return to the studio showcases strong and emotive vocals, Kanye’s own contribution flounders next to the “Stay” hit-maker’s formidable performance with an unnecessary pitched vocal loop underscoring Kanye’s own lackluster singing.

Grab your umbrellas, Rihanna Navy! It’ll be raining hits soon enough!

Below is Rihanna’s own viral reaction to the song’s iTunes release:

UPDATE: “This is the first song that my fans are going to hear from the new album.” Can’t help but notice that  Rihanna and McCartney never even look at each other, let alone speak with one another!

Kanye West (featuring Paul McCartney), “Only One”

Kanye West’s new material recently made headlines after Seth Rogan revealed in a Rolling Stone interview that the Yeezus rapper rapped his entire follow-up album for the comedian from the backseat of a limo. After the opening lines of the album’s first single, however, any listener would question how well Kanye fared without his trusty Auto-tune.

Opening the new year with one of music’s most unexpected collaborations, Kanye West and Sir Paul McCartney have released, “Only One,”—a minimal ballad featuring McCartney on electronic keyboard and West on, well, Auto-tune. The track recalls 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, an album inspired by his mother’s unexpected passing and a called off engagement with designer, Alexis Phifer. The single cover and handwritten lyrics posted to West’s official website suggests that the inspiration for this venture, however, is his one-year old daughter, North “Nori” West, with Kim Kardashian.

While the gesture is sweet, the track falls short of what most expect from a Kanye West lead single. While West’s work as a producer is nothing less than impeccable, he’s never been an impressive singer—a point the sensationalist “Only One” proves all too well. Let’s just hope that whatever West has planned for the follow-up to the critically-acclaimed, Yeezus, doesn’t turn out to be 808s & Heartbreak, Part 2.

Madonna, “Devil Pray”

Surprising fans and music leakers alike, Madonna reasserted her absolute power over the music industry by immediately uploading six new songs from her upcoming album, Rebel Heart. After hackers uploaded six in-progress demos of the tracks, Madonna one-upped the key punchers with the completed tracks produced by the likes of Diplo (“Living for Love”), Kanye West (“Illuminati”), and Avicii (“Devil Pray”).

The latter, which once again recycles Madonna’s penchant for religious imagery, is one of the more assertive mixes off the album’s sampler tracks. True to Avicii’s trademark style, the cut is a mash-up of acoustic guitar-backed verses with a synth-hard chorus warning America’s youth about succumbing to the Devil through drug-fueled escapism and waywardness.

Nevertheless, “Devil Pray” is simply Madonna’s rehashed sensationalism with contemporary production that foreshadows the dance-oriented approach used in 2012’s MDNA and the superior, Confessions On A Dance Floor. While Madonna’s proven she still has the power to destroy hacking attempts, the 56-year old once again falls short of transcending her own monotonous “reinventions” for authentic innovation.

Beyonce, “7/11”

Sure, I was excited to learn that Beyonce’s latest single shares its title with my birthday. Yes—Beyonce sold 828,773 copies in three days with no notice. Quantity, however, doesn’t always mean quality.

While Beyonce’s self-titled 5th LP may be the icon’s most impressive, if not definitive release to date, “7/11″—a track described as “R&B ratchet record similar towards ‘Partition,” —hardly carries the weight of ‘Yonce’s sexiest anthem to date.

Hyped through fake track-lists and insider comments, “7/11” is a minimalist trap cut that sounds more like an unfinished demo than a finished, radio-ready single. Rampant auto-tune, simple instrumentals, sloppy lyrics—all characteristics we’d never expect from a Beyonce release yet are plentiful in “7/11.” With so little to offer, the best feature of the song is the final segment which finds Ms. Carter playfully ad-libbing over a relatively lush pad vamp.

One viewing of the low-maintenance music video and anyone would conclude “7/11” is Beyonce’s attempt to let loose and play after a year of divorce rumors and back-to-back world tours. Still, fun and innovation—both of which “7/11” strives for yet falls short of—shouldn’t sound this forced. It’s hard to believe that “Partition” placed 10 spots lower than “7/11” on the Billboard Hot 100 yet became a viral phenom without the build-up.

I won’t lie: I don’t hate “7/11.” The track does, however, seem like a lazy, tired attempt from such the 21st century’s most elite diva. Beyonce’s latest single proves the hit-maker doesn’t need a reissue as much as a well-deserved break.

Madeon, “Imperium”

Since July 7th, 2011 —the date when Madeon’s 38-song sampler, “Pop Culture,” was first uploaded onto Youtube—the 20-year old DJ has steadily been on the rise. Between remixing deadmau5 songs, performing at major Music Festivals, and working on Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP, Hugo Pierre Leclercq has had little time to release more than just a handful of singles and an attempted E.P.

This hard-hitting floor stomper, however, marks a major change in the young producer’s career; “Imperium” is Madeon’s battle cry of a lead single from his much-anticipated debut album:

“’Imperium’ is probably one of the hardest sounding songs I’ve made. . .It was inspired by the past couple of years of touring around the world. My intention was to write something that was fueled by the energy of dance music but with a narrative element. It doesn’t sound like anything else on the album yet it’s an important part of it, it’s the transition between two phases. I wanted to capture the feeling of ‘confidently walking into adversity.” — Madeon, On “Imperium”

True to the latin phrase, Madeon storms into the last quarter of 2014 with a synth anthem for the masses. Madeon blends sax samples, brass riffs, and squelchy synth stabs into a 3-minute electro-stomp that never risks too much repetition. The tracks mainstay, however, is the bold bass line which completes Madeon’s vision of a rebel yell to herald in an undeniably formidable debut LP.

Azealia Banks, ‘Broke With Expensive Taste’

Azealia Banks fans have had to wait a few years for her debut LP, Broke with Expensive Taste, to finally hit shelves. After several delays, Bank’s first full-length release was dropped unannounced on November 6th. Banks’s last multi-track release was 2011’s 1991, which featured the lifted track, “212.” In the meantime, the 23-year-old became the Queen of Twitter feuds while hinting at collaborations with the likes of Lady Gaga, Kanye West, and Pharrell (the latter was eventually released in 2013), and pushed her 2012 mixtape, Fantasea.

As with any “post-Nicki” rapper, the comparisons with Minaj have become unavoidable. Both rappers attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High SchoolMinaj was rejected by the Vocal Department but went on to the theater department. Banks seems to have followed the same route (although, tracks like “Nude Beach A-Go-Go” prove Banks probably could have been accepted into the rigorous department). Banks has also followed the “femcee” trend, delays aside.

Before listening to Broke, I must warn you: Banks is not a British rapper. The album itself is heavily influenced by UK Garage and house rap, with many of the tracks being prime candidates for any rave mix. “Luxury” and “BBD” in particular, blend trance with 808 trap samples. Still, one word sums up the Broke experience: Witch-hop.

“sonically, it’s very mature…I didn’t want to do anything that was like, young [or] mainstream. I stayed far away from dubstep, and I tried to stay far away from trap, but I have one trap record…everything on my album is going to be like, anti-pop, or just anti-what’s-happening-now.”

Meanwhile, cuts such as the catchy opener “Idle Delilah” and “Wallace” incorporate Latin kits and marimbas into Banks’s collection. While the relatively sluggish “Wallace” stagnates as album filler, “Idle Delilah” stands as one of Bank’s most relevant tracks —touching upon economic competition and suicide—despite it’s inspiration from a supposed 20th Century retaliation murder.

Besides “Idle Delilah” and 2011’s “212,” the majority of the album’s first half pales in comparison to its more experimental counterpart. One of the major pitfalls of Banks’s debut is her tendency to recycle identical rhythms on her rap tracks while overindulging in her “trademark” combination of mumbling and rapping. While Azealia Banks is no Mariah Carey—or Ariana Grande for that matter—it’s a refreshing change when Banks warms up her pipes as it shows a surprising versatility many listeners wouldn’t expect. “Chasing Time,” and the formidable, surf-rock jam “Nude-Beach-A-Go-Go” charts territory Banks’s fans have probably never explored. If surf-rock doesn’t work out, however, the irresistible “Soda” and aggressive “Luxury,” seem likely candidates for any club mix, offering a promising avenue into dance-floor diva-dom.

Such adaptability in genres, however, shouldn’t appear as promising career paths for when the monotonous rapping no longer works for Banks. Rather, such diversity only highlights an innate resourcefulness in Banks’ catalogue that makes her debut a much more rewarding listen than Minaj or Iggy Azalea who, quite frankly, should’ve thought twice before copping the name of a femcee who, despite sales, will most likely outlast her.

6 REAL Aretha Franklin Covers You Need To Hear!

With the release of last month’s Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, Clive Davis praised  Aretha’s new album as

“. . .purely and simply sensational. She’s on fire and vocally in absolutely peak form. What a thrill to see this peerless artist still showing the way,  still sending shivers up your spine, still demonstrating that all contemporary music needs right now is the voice. What a voice.”

Aretha Franklin’s catalog attests to the singer’s status as one of the greatest singers in music (Trust me, I’ve had many an argument over who deserves the crown!). Franklin’s latest release, however, isn’t one of those contributing records. It’s clear the Diva has lost much of the power that made her one of the biggest acts in modern music. To make matters (and our ear drums) worse, Franklin’s latest of many cover albums strives for relevancy by incorporating some of the “contemporary diva classics” with four-on-the-floor beats and tacky R&B mixes. Aretha’s rendition of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep,” in particular, has been trending for the past couple weeks online which encouraged Arista to push it as the album’s lead single. I’m convinced the attention the track has garnered is nothing more than media sensationalism, seeing as the track sounds like a South Park parody.

Let’s face it, though: The Queen still sings better now at 72 than most of today’s newcomers (Lana Del Ray, anyone?). Still, there’s no denying that time has finally gotten hold of Aretha’s singing chops, with auto-tune pervading every track on her latest CD. After listening to the album, I decided to hunt out the Queen’s most impressive, yet overlooked, covers from her prime. Below are six Aretha covers I feel capture the flawless vocal technique Aretha was once known for and that this generation has, unfortunately, forgotten with this latest release.

6.)  “At Last” (Let Me In Your Life Outtake),

from Rare and Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of The Queen of Soul.

Do yourself a favor. Skip the weak, half-hearted karaoke version on 2014’s “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics,” and indulge in the ’74 studio outtake of the Blues classic. In all honesty, I doubt anyone will ever sing a better rendition than Etta James’s bittersweet version. The Matriarch of R&B layers a seemingly optimistic declaration of finding true love with the unnerving sense that this long-awaited love could very well be gone as soon as it came. The listener can hear the undertones of pain and heartbreak that have finally led James to this sigh of relief in finding love. In short, the complexity of emotion that James offers in her performance has solidified the most unlikely blues lyrics into a hallmark of the genre.

Still, Aretha Franklin is the Queen 0f Soul, not the Bitch of Blues. As such, Franklin’s studio take is a warm, vocally flawless track more superficially appropriate for weddings. While not a single teardrop is shed in Franklin’s version, the track is an awesome testament to the Diva’s superior vocal technique. Many songstresses have taken a stab at the 1941 Mack Gordon/Harry Warren classic: Cyndi Lauper, Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera, even Beyonce during her portrayal as James in Cadillac Records. Though impressive, none seem to truly revolutionize the song by steering it away from underwhelming imitations of James’s passionate, yet pensive performance besides Franklin’s, which opts for an assured mood that makes the Diva’s take truly her own.

5.) “Track of My Tears,” 1969

from Soul ’69

A Grammy Hall of Fame inductee and honoree of Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs” list, this Miracles track (no pun intended) is also among the most covered songs of all time. Congress even chose the hit for preservation in the National Recording Registry in 2008 as an artifact of soul music! What more of a reason does the Soul Queen need to add her own flair to one of her Majesty’s biggest competitors?

That said, Franklin’s version is as much a true-to-form soul single as it is a battle cry. The brash and brassy chorus shows how, contrary to the lyrics, a hurting Franklin tends not to be seen but rather heard. Fresh into the commercial success of her Atlantic years, Aretha’s “Tracks” includes all the attitude and bold vocals that would transform later hits of this era (also covers, mind you) such as Redding’s “Respect” and Warwick’s “I Say A Little Prayer,” into Aretha’s most famous classics.

4.) “Skylark/Skylark (Alternate Version),” 1964

from  Laughing on the Outside

Ironically, this jazz standard would be released on one of the first Aretha albums to feature a self-penned tune, “I Wonder (Where You are Tonight).” “Skylark” is  often cited by critics as one of the highlights of the album, mainly due to Franklin’s masterful sense of control. Wavering between subtle, sensual whispers and soaring belts, no vocal trick or phrase seems out-of-place. Aretha’s rendition shows a strategic, calculating singer whose every lyric is planned and executed.

The album version is complete on its own; if you’re an avid Aretha fan or just appreciate the various ways professional singers can shape a song, be sure to check out the “Alternate Version” included on The Essential: The Columbia Years compilation album. Swapping a lower piano melody for the original’s characteristic high-octave trill, the alternate version takes a tame, moody approach, while highlighting the seemingly infinite interpretations a singer can offer a rehashed standard.

3.) “Somewhere,” 1973

  from  Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky)

The magic in this cover lies in the minute-long introduction, the moment right before the West Side Story classic shifts into a lackluster jazz affair. The opening showcases a soulful and yearning Aretha showcasing an exquisite sense of articulation and control. I’ve never felt music in such a way as when Aretha sings the lines “It waits for us/ Somewhere” between 0:47-0:56; in some obscure ventricle of the heart, Aretha’s voice in that 9 second snippet alone makes another tear in my heart. I’ve literally listened to that snippet countless times on repeat. Singing just doesn’t get any emotive, any more heartbreaking, any more perfect than that!

Although my favorite version of the Streisand classic has to be Katharine McPhee’s live performance for the TV special, Hitman: David Foster & Friends, Franklin’s version could have easily stolen the spotlight if the intimate beauty of the intro didn’t flounder in a tame arrangement that included, among other misses, a lazy, drawn out sax solo. Many Quincy Jones fans must have been left disappointed with this cut.

2.)If I Had A Hammer,” 1965

from  Yeah!!!!

I’ll be honest. The first time I’ve ever heard this song was after buying Franklin’s Yeah!!!! album during iTunes’s $7.99 sale on select Franklin albums last week. Needless to say, the track is flawless. The musicianship, the arrangement –and Franklin’s impassioned live vocals, of course! Since then, I’ve had the song on repeat everywhere I go. When reading up on the song, I learned that the tune was cover of the Pete Seeger-penned Peter, Paul, and Mary hit. I hunted out the original version (The Weevers) of this genius song only to find the song’s fantastic songwriting — as masterfully arranged in Franklin’s version– stripped of its rich rhythms and muddled by garish folk guitars and a thin harmony. Peter, Paul, and Mary offered little improvement.

On the very first listen, the listener is hooked by the Franklin’s quartet assertive piano riff before Franklin roars onto the recording with a power that lasts for the entire performance. While the crowd you hear throughout was actually just an overdub of a murmuring audience, the track was recorded live at Columbia Studios during a session overseen and produced by Clyde Otis. Raw 60’s vocal jazz at its best, Franklin’s “If I Had A Hammer” melds the power of soul with the Lady’s precision as a Jazz singer.

1.)Let it Be,” 1970

from This Girl’s In Love With You

The Story seems simple for this song: “Let It Be” was the song a King wrote for the Queen. The whole story, however, has a complicated history. Aretha’s version of the Beatles tune was first commercial recording of the song; it was even released before The Beatles by 3 months. While “Let it Be” was initially inspired by a dream visitation from his deceased mother, Mary, writer Paul McCartney envisioned the soulful track for the Queen:

“Paul McCartney had sent me an acetate of ‘Let It Be’ with a note that it was written for Aretha. We recorded it. Afterwards, though, Aretha told us to hold up the release. She liked the melody but wasn’t sure what the lyrics meant. Time passed and the boys from Liverpool were tired of waiting. They put me on legal notice that we no longer had right of first release. They cut it themselves and, of course, enjoyed a huge hit. By 1970 Aretha saw the light and allowed us to include it, along with ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ producer Jerry Wexler on This Girl’s In Love With You.

          –liner notes for Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of The Queen of Soul, 2007.

This gospel-infused rendition brought Aretha back to her roots while bringing the God-gifted voice it fostered to the forefront. It all started in the church for Aretha, with her preacher father managing the young Diva during “gospel caravan tours.” In fact, Franklin’s debut album, Songs of Faith, was a collection of hymns featuring Aretha singing and playing piano. With “Let It Be,” Franklin evokes these early years with her spirited plea for inner peace. Although ultimately overshadowed by the success of McCartney’s rendition, Aretha’s take —with it’s background harmonies, organ, and sax solo—seems to be more of a manifestation of McCartney’s vision than even the Beatle’s own version.

The above covers are only a handful of the Queen’s catalog. Check out this site for more Aretha covers from her prime!