Ariana Grande’s new album is sweet and sour

ariStream on Spotify

Score: 7/10

Add to library: ‘No Tears Left to Cry’, ‘God is a Woman’, ‘Breathin’

Sweetener is Ariana Grande’s fourth album, and it’s a bit soured by its over-reliance on Pharrell William’s dry, faux-funk beats. Considering the two hits pulled from the LP – ‘No Tears Left to Cry’ and ‘God is a Woman’ – are both Max Martin cuts, surely the writing was on that wall that something wasn’t quite working?

If Williams’ productions win critical acclaim, it will be from journalists on a tight schedule. His songs are interesting enough for a minute, but Pharrell soon depletes his sachet of tricks. Not that you’d notice if you’re prone to the skip button and have a glut of albums to review by midnight.

Fortunately, I have time on my hands.

The Nicki Minaj-assisted promo single ‘The Light is Coming’ is admirably mental island-tinged pop, full of white-hot percussion and digital grind – until you realise the irate male vocal sample has been looped without any plan or artistic intention. It’s as if Pharrell built a skeletal first draft in the studio, popped out for a coffee, and never came back.

Ariana keeps her end of the bargain on ‘Successful’, toasting to herself and womankind with slinky cool, but her effort is somewhat undone by cheesy groaning keyboards. ‘Borderline’ harkens back to The Neptunes’ early-00s album fillers, and I now understand Kelis’ decision to cease working with them exclusively in 2003.

To Pharrell’s credit, the Piña Colada-flavoured ‘Blazed’ and the dreamy goodness of ‘R.E.M’ are fully realised successes, and prove Ariana’s collaborative instincts weren’t too off-the-mark.

Electro slowies like ‘Better Off’ and ‘Goodnight and Go’ offer pleasing restraint, but the first single ‘No Tears’ still towers over the album. Max Martin has crafted a daring piece of theatrical dance-pop here, as laden with UK garage as it is with heavenly wails.

This is Ariana’s first project since the terrorist attack at her concert at Manchester Arena last May tragically claimed 23 victims. In choosing the first single, Ariana and her team had to strike a delicate balance – uplifting but not glib, respectful but not in mourning. And they’ve passed with flying colours. It’s just a shame the rest of Sweetener doesn’t always hit the same sweet spot.

 

[Music] Nicki Minaj – The Pinkprint (review)

Niki Minaj

Available to buy on iTunes

Review: There was a delightfully abrasive moment during Nicki Minaj’s guest turn on Ciara’s 2014 single “I’m Out” where talk of “big fat titties when they’re hangin’ out my tank-top” unexpectedly scanned as an ideological move that only the Trinidadian rapper could make. There was nothing smart about the image the lyric created, while the slippery zaniness with which it was delivered rendered it deliberately unsexy. But with Minaj’s name now synonymous with the current hip-hop landscape, it seemed she had shrewdly adopted the cartoonish arrogance of buddies Lil Wayne, Kanye et al in a manner that was apathetic to their male gaze, with indecorous terms such as “fat” and “hanging” instead holding up a positive reflection of the wordsmith’s perceptible body image.

This crass and brazen expression of sexuality was somewhat built upon on “Anaconda”, the inescapable, Sir Mix-A-Lot-sampling summer hit that served as the The Pinkprint‘s second single. The difference this time was that everything about “Anaconda” – from its meme-magnet artwork to its risibly gratuitous video demanded both our attention and our approval. The track’s reliance on creeping guitar plucks and culturally-embedded lyrics derived from “Baby Got Back” was disappointing given the manic energy Minaj poured into verses that stand toe-to-toe with similarly globe-trotting accounts of sexual conquests in Afroman’s “Crazy Rap” and Lil Kim’s “How Many Licks”. The Pinkprint’s clever sequencing follows it up with the EDM headache “The Night Is Still Young”, allowing for an immediate comparison that narrowly spares “Anaconda” from being labeled the collection’s most reductive effort.

This conspicuous pair of chart-friendly contingency plans are undoubtedly the album’s nadir, as even despite additional smatterings of on-trend radio fodder – such as the “Dark Horse”-aping Dr. Luke production “Get On Your Knees”, boosted by a sensual vocal from hook girl Ariana Grande – The Pinkprint primarily divides its attention between introspective mid-tempo R&B and tough, focused exercises in trap-inflected hip-hop. It’s an occasionally jarring dichotomy, but the overarching quality of the music allows such sins to be forgiven. Giving credence to her alleged Enya inspiration, “All Things Go” and “I Lied” get things off to a slow, ethereal start, but the lack of posturing within Minaj’s sensitive verses is refreshing. The similarly styled “The Crying Game” has prickly rock undertones that help further animate Jessie Ware’s bizarrely uncredited turn on the song’s chorus.

On the ballsier half of the album, “Trini Dem Girls” proposes exoticism (“Jamaica dem girls gonna park the pum pum”) over a laudably colourless, handclap-heavy beat, “Four Door Aventador” casts a spell with its mumbled chorus and smoky atmosphere, while the pondering trap beat of third single “Only”, featuring Drake, Lil Wayne and Chris Brown, oscillates between mild interest and tedium depending on who’s on the mic. (Note: Both Drake and Lil Wayne are better utilised on the twerk-ready iTunes bonus track “Truffle Butter”.)

On The Pinkprint, Minaj has refined almost every branch of her musical output, with the notable exception of her adventures in EDM, which really should have been left to fester on 2010’s Roman Reloaded. Its quieter moments surpass the aural mush she peddled on her debut, while the lion’s share of the more overtly hip-hop tracks show a sense of conviction unseen since “Roman’s Revenge”. Our only gripe is with a title that stands as nothing more than a tip of the hat to Jay-Z‘s The Blueprint. Sure, every fingerprint may be unique, but shouldn’t a woman as talented as Minaj be looking to leave a bigger mark on the world?

8.5/10

[Music] Ariana Grande – My Everything (review)

my everything

Review: There’s a sizeable chance that when Rihanna giggled during Ariana Grande’s iHeartRadio performance this May, she did so without agenda. As Vine-friendly as the moment may have been, perhaps the chart veteran was simply struck by the similarities she shared with the pony-tailed ingénue making a serious play for the pop market before her. As Grande knocked out a rendition of her breakout hit “The Way” while wearing a black, long-sleeved jumper-dress, it seemed there was a fork in the road. The ex-Nickelodeon actress had been playing up her Lolita-like appeal since previewing an aborted cover for her debut that all but served her on a platter. If Grande was truly after a crack at superstardom, then that jumper-dress was coming off.

And off it came. Even less convincing than the Grande-does-Adele get-up was the vision of her gyrating awkwardly in a glitzy mini-dress and knee-length boots as the still-baffling excuse for a chorus of her summer smash “Problem” groaned on. From the most objective stand-point, there’s no denying that Grande lacks showmanship. But in its place she carries a sheen of stubborn professionalism, a trait previously glimpsed in a young Rihanna Fenty in 2007. Buoyed by only a barrage of hits, the faith of music execs, and a distinctive – if not exactly mammoth – talent, Rihanna was less of a Good Girl Gone Bad than a good investment returned as she gave charisma-free performances of unbelievably strong pop songs.

It’s now 2014, and Rihanna’s name has slowly come to mean something more than a signifier of a great tune. Whether or not Grande’s future output shrewdly moulds itself around a similarly compelling personal life is anyone’s guess, but there’s no doubt that we are witnessing a watershed moment in the 21-year-old’s career. My Everything has dreams of cohesiveness, being bookended by an intro and the title track, both featuring featherweight piano and string arrangements that pretend the Hot 100 pandering that occurs in the interim never happened.

But even on “Problem”, Grande is most notable for setting a fluttering higher register against not only Max Martin’s razor-edged horn loops and dry thumps, but also the posturing of Iggy Azalea’s guest verse. This lack of engagement could be her downfall in the long run, but there are spikes of genuine angst on “My Everything” and “One Last Time”, which, with its tear-stained tropical synths, is a sweetly bombastic re-write of Drake’s “Take Care”.

The album’s bountiful list of collaborators should throw up red flags, but an on-form Big Sean fits the chiming R&B ballad “Best Mistake” like a glove, while The Weeknd has fun as the R. Kelly to Grande’s Lady Gaga on the “Do What U Want”-aping Italo-disco stutter of “Love Me Harder”. “Break Your Heart Right Back” mixes a sunny Diana Ross sample with trap elements to create a hit so efficient that Grande and Childish Gambino seem equally at home on it, and although Zedd churns out a disappointingly stale EDM beat on “Break Free”, he in turn does his muse a massive favour; with no bells and whistles to contend with, Grande has rarely sounded like more of a star.

My Everything is unlikely to set the kind of trends that Rihanna’s ripening may have, but that voice – the range of which is best showcased on the Ryan Tedder ballad “Why Try”; with cotton-wrapped coos framing cloud-piercing trills – is reason enough to pay attention. This should only be the beginning; if this really is Grande’s “everything”, then it’s time she broadened her horizons.

6.0/10

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[Music] Top 20 Tracks of 2014, Part One (#20 – 11)

No musical trend in recent memory has maintained its credibility quite as strongly as the house resurgence. In it’s purest form, the sparse but meticulously built beats affiliated with the genre are putty in the hands of a capable songwriter. Repetition is a hallmark, but so is solidity; with a serviceable melody locked down, certain artists thrive in their adventures with the blank canvas, an honest musical space that leaves orthodox themes (love, sex, heartbreak, repeat) ugly and exposed. This inherent pluckiness means that even the most chart-chomping house cut can find some love from the alt-music blogosphere, if not for its emotional resonance, then for a semi-ironic admiration of it’s 90’s credentials.

The house movement has been something of a trojan horse in the UK, ushering a host of homegrown talents – MNEK, Duke Dumont, Clean Bandit – into the Top 40, as well as allowing comparably exotic acts – Kiesza, Faul & Wad Ad – to be welcomed with open arms (Take that, UKIP). Our list reflects this popularity, but also bridges the gap between radio-friendly hits and Pitchfork-approved gems. Also on our radar this year are talent show also-rans, a Cuban sex-pest and a smattering of “conscious uncouplings”.

Enjoy.

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20. Pitbull – Timber [feat. Ke$ha], TBA

pitbull

Available to buy on iTunes

The unlikely union of country music and dance arrived last year in the form of Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”, but that was a rather stony-faced foundation for what should have been an unashamedly tacky subgenre.

Enter mediocre rapper Pitbull, LOL-pop refugee Ke$ha, and a tangy, harmonica-led instrumental. “Timber” is purpose-built for dance floor domination; Mr. Worldwide’s verses are mercifully brief, serving as clumsy foreplay for the song’s infectious hook and riotous breakdown. He isn’t a complete spare part, however: that pre-chorus is what sweaty, late hour nightclub-based dreams are made of.

See also: “Wild Wild Love” [feat. GRL], “Wake Me Up” / “Hey Brother” by Avicii

19. Le Youth – Dance With Me [feat. Dominique Young Unique], TBA

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Available to buy on iTunes

On his second single, L.A.-based DJ Le Youth eschews the sumptuous ebb and flow of his Cassie-sampling breakthrough hit “C O O L”, instead turning in a relentlessly funky jam built on curt snippets from TLC’s iconic “No Scrubs”. Jubilant house piano stabs and a spongy bassline negate Dominique Young Unique’s limp rap.

See also: Le Youth’s excellent Fixtape, “Falling Scrubs” (TLC vs. Haim – Carlos Serrano Mash-Up)

18. MNEK – Every Little Word, TBA

SAMSUNG CSC

Available to buy on iTunes

Considering the current ubiquity of the genre, rising British star Uzoechi Osisioma Emenike (A.K.A MNEK) took a gamble in not following up his Gorgon City collaboration “Ready For Your Love” with another sleek house-inspired gem. “Every Little Word” is arguably just as sweet in its content, but frames MNEK’s soulful voice with confrontational production tricks. Drums pound, basslines wobble comically, and a randy Darth Vader asks repeatedly if we “fuck to this sh*t”.

No judgment if you do.

See also: Ready for Your Love, Baby”  by Rudimental [feat. MNEK & Sinead Harnett]

17. Faul & Wad Ad VS. Pnau – Changes, Changes E.P.

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Available to buy on iTunes

With a whirling saxophone, euphoric synths and a children’s choir (lifted from Pnau’s frankly creepy 2007 single “Baby”) all vying for your attention over the course of six minutes, it’s a miracle this debut effort from French producers Faul & Wad Ad isn’t a convoluted mess. The duo take care to ensure the separate elements all get a chance to shine, but it’s that sax-lad denouement that lends “Changes” its earthy beauty.

See also: Changes” (Bontan Remix)

16. Kiesza – Hideaway, TBA

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Available to buy on iTunes

This ridiculously assured debut from Canadian pop ingénue Kiesza hit the UK No. 1 spot in April, although punters were perhaps so entranced by the transcendent deep-house cut’s one-take, choreography-heavy video that they failed to notice a crucial lack of identity between the strong verses and understated breakdown.

As much she feels like a guest vocalist on her own track, Kiesza still has the makings of a top tier popstar.

See also: What Is Love

15. St. Vincent – Digital Witness, St. Vincent

St-Vincent

Available to buy on iTunes

Critics bemoaned the lack of Anne “St. Vincent” Clark’s signature riffing on her latest self-titled record, but the glossy, pseudo-psychedelic saunter of “Digital Witness” is all the better for it, instead leaving the heavy-lifting to a rubbery horn section and stonking bass.

A scathing treatise on social media, Clark asks “If you can’t see me / What’s the point of doing anything?” – skewering our if-a-tree-falls-in-a-forest approach to what were once life’s simple pleasures.

See also: Birth In Reverse”, “Prince Johnny

14. Ariana Grande – Problem [feat. Iggy Azalea], TBA

ariana-grande-unkown-photoshoot-2014_1

Available to buy on iTunes

An underfed chorus mars this otherwise brilliant slice of summery hip-hop-pop, courtesy of perennial hit-maker Max Martin (Britney Spears, Katy Perry). Nickelodeon star Grande has been on our radars since last year’s “The Way” positioned her as the new Mariah Carey, but “Problem” ushers the twenty year old into more club-friendly territory.

Her sugary but powerful voice contrasts nicely with the track’s thumping beat and post-“Thrift Shop” saxophone breakdown, but it’s rapper Iggy Azalea who really impresses, putting tired assertions of her “swag” aside for a moment to deliver an attitude-packed verse.

See also:The Way”, “Wait (The Whisper Song)” by Ying Yang Twins, “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea [feat. Charli xcx]

13. Shift K3Y – Touch, Touch E.P.

artworks-000073766951-1nd44y-original

Available to buy on iTunes

There’s a whiff of Craig David’s early noughties forays into garage on “Touch”, thanks in part to Shift K3Y’s (nee Lewis Jankel) soft, nasally timbre. The italo disco-flavoured production is surprisingly minimalist, although the track whirls by at such a pace that mistaking it for a kitchen-sink affair would be forgivable.

See also: Make It Good, Keep Your Mouth Shut (Things That We Do)” [feat. Griminal]

12. Soft Lit – Ocean King, GODMODE: Common Interests Were Not Enough to Keep Us Together

softlit_zps72c174f4

Available to buy from Godmode’s online store 

New York-based roommates-turned-musical duo Tyler McCauley and visual artist Tara Chacon meld R&B-friendly melodies with airy, organic production on “Ocean King”, one of the many highlights from Godmode’s excellent label showcase compilation Common Interests Were Not Enough to Keep Us Together.

McCauley contrasts almost-murmured verses with dark, fizzing synths and rattling drum machines come the chorus, with Chacon’s Kate Bush-style harmonies selling a dramatic tale of a love gone sour.

See also: Lately

11. Shakira – Empire, Shakira

shakira-can-t-remember-to-forget-you-2014-_3

Available to buy from iTunes

Blank out all memories of the underwhelming Rihanna duet “Can’t Remember to Forget You”; pop’s ultimate bohemian streamlined her baroque musical style into an Alanis Morissette-esque piano ballad-cum-rock number that only she could pull off, complete with distorted stadium-sized howls.

See also: Chasing Shadows“, “Cut Me Deep” [feat. Magic!]

Continued – Tracks #10 – #1

[Music] Top 35 Tracks of 2013 (#35 – #21)

35. Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines [feat. Pharrell and T.I.], Blurred Lines

Available from iTunes

YouTube-Bans-RB-Singers-Video-+18-2As divisive as the track may be, it would be churlish to ignore Robin Thicke’s monstrously successful ode to dodgy dance floor-based ethics when summing up the last year in music. The presence of the currently infallible Pharrell Williams and a warm, Marvin Gaye-aping instrumental – not to mention a notoriously ‘stripped-back’ promo video – combined to create a heady cocktail that had punters checking their social consciousnesses at the door. For better or for worse, “Blurred Lines” is the sound of pure carnal lust left unspoiled by the pressures of political correctness.

34. Britney Spears – Work Bitch, Britney Jean

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It would seem the record-buying public didn’t appreciate the irony of being told to work harder by one of the laziest ladies in pop, which may explain their apathy towards the first offering from Spears’ eighth studio album, Britney Jean. Following the ubiquity of last year’s “Scream & Shout”, launching with a Will.i.am-penned banger was a no-brainer, but no one could anticipate that their reunion could yield a song as devoid of grey matter as “Work Bitch”. What the track lacks in brains, however, it makes up for with the strength of its steely balls. Eschewing any form of tangible structure, relying on only a hard, repetitive beat and Spears’ trademark British accent, the song feels as alien to the wants of radio as the woman singing it feels removed from the wants of the industry, and in that sense it makes for a fascinating listen.

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