[Music] MNEK – Small Talk EP (review)

mnek

Available to buy on iTunes

Review: There is a common thrust to the most lucrative tier of singer-producer MNEK’s output. From the guest turn on Gorgon City’s “Ready For Your Love” early last year that marked his chart debut, to his soulful groans on Madonna’s recent single “Living For Love”, to his latest release “The Rhythm” – which enters the UK Top 40 this week at #38, becoming his most successful solo cut to date – the notion that stints as a reliable prop for diluted, radio-friendly house tracks conjured up in a record label boardroom are MNEK’s (née Uzo Emenike) bread-and-butter is a difficult one to resist.

Each of the aforementioned tracks are immensely enjoyable on their own terms, and had the Small Talk EP arrived bereft of its most eccentric, laterally-thinking moments, MNEK’s flair for sprightly melodies and pinning down potentially saccharine turns of phrase with puppy-eyed sincerity would still ensure his addition to the British music scene to be a more than welcome one.

But for those accustomed to hearing Uzo’s rich baritone over splashes of cotton-padded synth and a 4/4 beat, the nü-electroclash crush of opening track “Every Little Word” will scan as a startlingly left-field curio. Somewhere amidst a clunky fever dream of pounding drum machines, wobbly synth and gooey basslines lies an unshakably cute love song, and although not the most graceful example of MNEK’s pop prowess, the track contains a far more tangible sense of personality than “The Rhythm”. As serviceable as that finger-clicking single is, an over-reliance on the deep bass burble of its garage-flavoured breakdown in lieu of an actual chorus backs its headliner into the undesirable role of a slightly anonymous guest vocalist.

It should therefore come as no surprise that this EP’s sharpest moments begin to crystallise when his own idiosyncrasies converge with cut-glass songwriting. The criminally underrated 2014 single “Wrote a Song About You” is a disarmingly sweet highlight, retaining its emotionally-charged thump even when the tempo shifts up a gear and Uzo goes full-on diva for the final chorus. “In Your Clouds” brews its luxurious electro-R&B groove into a fluffy gust of pitched-up chants (“Take me to that place / Aaa-aah…”) and a whistling wind instrument, while “More Than A Miracle” sidesteps the generically clean dance leanings implied by its preamble in favour of a fractured bubblegum chorus melody relayed over a grime-echoing beat.

One certainly can’t fault the efficiency of this six-tracker. As the final notes of the sole ballad “Suddenly” are scaled to cap off this breathless overview of MNEK’s potential, the listener has a healthy knowledge of what exactly makes him special as an artist, and, perhaps just as importantly, how he could possibly blend into the mainstream should the duty call.

9.5/10

Blind Dating With Sylvia Plath (Application to Love)

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Love me or loathe me,
you do the math:
it’s time for blind-dating
with Sylvia Plath!

Romance lies
behind one of three doors.
Our contestant is Agnes.
She’s just been divorced.

She’s sixty and sexy.
She won’t be repressed,
commodified like cattle…
but it seems I’ve digressed.

Escaping her marriage
and its perilous jaws,
I present you with Agnes.
I demand your applause.

[A glittery Agnes
ascends to the stage.
The make-up does wonders
for masking her age.]

Welcome, my darling,
and do take a seat.
I’ve got three living Ken dolls
for your libido to meet.

[Poor Agnes starts wincing
under the spotlight.
Poised on a stool,
her dress looks quite tight.]

Our sort of people
are men without flaw,
false teeth and glass eyes –
should this not be the law?

[With the uproarious crowd
in a state of unrest,
the first door creaks open
like a treasure chest…

A young man emerges
tanned from head to toe,
wearing pink branded briefs
spelling out the name “Joe”.]

Come out of the closet.
Close enough to touch.
He comes with a six-pack,
and an all-too real crotch.

He’s a prime piece of beef.
I can tell by the cheers.
He has us all salivating –
so what’s with the tears?

[Agnes whispers to Plath.
Her response seems to stun.]
But who cares if this hunk’s
the same age as your son?

Don’t you for a second
think that you’re a perve!
A young shatterproof man
is what you deserve.

You’re choosing this man.
I’m ending the game.
Do you not think your ex
would do exactly the same?

[Music] Madonna – Rebel Heart (review)

Madonna_-_PR_Hando_2250210a

Available to buy on iTunes

Review: Despite exploiting both the public’s desire and distaste for sexual provocation throughout a career spanning more than thirty years, Madonna’s thirteenth studio album Rebel Heart sees the Queen of Pop release a song entitled “S.E.X” for the very first time. One of the most potent examples of Madonna’s flair for media manipulation would involve her using titillation and its inherent shock value as a means of establishing discourses on power, control, and AIDS anxiety on 1992’s Erotica. With song titles such as “Deeper and Deeper”, “Why’s It So Hard” and “Bad Girl” winking at you from its tracklisting, the album may as well have been sold with a pack of pearls for listeners unwilling to explore its thematic depths to clutch. “Deeper and Deeper” almost drowns in own its doe-eyed reverence for love, “Why’s It So Hard” is a plea for world peace, and “Bad Girl” wraps up its exploration of destructive vices in a poultice of self-loathing.

“S.E.X.”, meanwhile, is about sex.

Couple this transparency with the presence of even more references to the singer’s discography than 2012’s MDNA, and there’s a certainly case to made for Rebel Heart finding Madonna in an uncharacteristically unimaginative state of mind. Although the Super Deluxe Edition’s twenty-five tracks may once again present the listener with an array of musical swatches to choose from, at least the record’s evident influences are just a little more time-honoured than those of 2006’s Hard Candy – a relic of Timbaland’s mid-noughties chart ubiquity – and the tuneless EDM of MDNA.

The glassy deep house of lead single “Living For Love” is a triumph, marrying Madonna hallmarks – gospel influences, self-empowering lyrics – to Diplo’s oh-so-current but disciplined production. “Devil Pray” never fully cashes in on the country-dance credentials presented in disillusioned verses in which Madonna appeals to a higher power for salvation, instead luring its chorus away from the barn dance and into a demonic orgy turned rave.

There are moments in which Rebel Heart feels genuinely fresh; Diplo and PC Music’s SOPHIE buff the plastic arrogance of the Nicki Minaj-featuring “Bitch I’m Madonna” with a decidedly cartoonish and auto-tuned sheen, rounding it off with confrontational blasts of what sounds like a dog being unnerved by a frantically pulled zip. “Iconic” could become Madonna’s very own “Eye Of the Tiger”, with a mouthy prologue from Mike Tyson fizzing into cascades of quasi-industrial beats, a victory lap of a chorus (“I can! / Icon! / Two letters apart”) and an appearance from Chance The Rapper. Producer Kanye West is in Yeezus mode on “Illuminati”, propping up Madonna’s intentionally dead-eyed anti-conspiratorial raps (“It’s not Isis or the Phoenix, The Pyramids of Egypt; Don’t make it into something sordid”) with heavy, sluggishly churning synths.

Critics will be quick to note the divide between these edgier cuts and the record’s more heartfelt and traditionally structured offerings. “Ghosttown”, the piano-led “HeartBreakCity”, and the largely acoustic “Joan of Arc” are easily Madonna’s finest ballads in a decade, but there are instances of the dualities implied by the record’s title intersecting. On “Body Shop”, her floaty voice woos a lover over a gossamer-light folk arrangement with a series of car-related puns, but when you hear Madonna sing “jumpstart my heart”, there is something sweet to take from them not all being exclusively sexual. On “Inside Out”, a slightly gigglesome topline of “Let me love from the inside out” doubles as both as a sexual solicitation and an unconditional acceptance of a lover’s flaws.

There’s little resembling an encompassing musical thread to Rebel Heart. Uptempo’s are something of a rarity, with many of the club-orientated tracks pacing themselves to deliver more fleshed out choruses. The self-referencing gets occasionally tiresome on “Holy Water” and “Veni Vidi Vici”; the first a deliriously camp (“Bitch, get off my pole!”) endorsement of female ejaculation with an unnecessary interpolation of “Vogue”, the second a wistful retrospective of Madonna’s life and career with lyrics made up of shout outs to her biggest hits: “I expressed myself, came like a virgin down the aisle / Exposed my naked ass, and I did it with a smile.”

So that brings us back to “S.E.X”. After so many years in the game, Madonna has probably earned the right to serve up such dimly derivative material if she should so wish. But Rebel Heart also embraces all of her strengths as an artist, from theatrical balladry (“Messiah”) to cocksure dancefloor fillers (“Unapologetic Bitch”) to exercises in sensual R&B (the bhangra-infused “Best Night”). At 56, Madonna is carving out a cultural space for older women in the music industry and beyond to further explore their sexuality and creativity. The fruits of her efforts will obviously take a few years to quantify and appreciate, but the adventurous streak running throughout much of her latest record shows why Madonna will always be a rebel at heart.

8.5 / 10