Tag Archives: R&B

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.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

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.