Critical Optimist Presents…Industry Herb!

I’ve been doing Critical Optimist for a couple years now and I’ve loved it every step of the way, don’t get me wrong. It does get lonely though. That’s why my collaborator Laney Kuczmynda and I are launching Industry Herb. A podcast about the inside trends and goings on in today’s entertainment industry. Our desire to do this was borne out of a longing for those once-in-a-lifetime, lightning-in-a-bottle moments of debate and discussion that can only come about when you put a couple people in a room and have ’em bounce different ideas off of one another. Writing criticism is my passion, but I’ve gotta admit, it tends not to produce these moments.

We’ve released two episodes so far, one about our top albums of the year so far, and one about the new Tarantino flick, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Ride along as we analyze the world of entertainment, talking to new people and collaborators along the way. You can find us on google podcasts, breaker, pocket casts, radio public, or apple podcasts.

JPEGMAFIA’s Homecoming — is anything but a — Dissappointment

Baltimore Rapper JPEGMAFIA came on the scene back in 2016 touting a very specific sound. Full of clicks and beeps and fuzzy ambience, his debut Black Ben Carson is one of the most abrasive pieces of music I’ve ever heard. His 2018 album Veteran is no less brutal in its sonic assault. A 47 minute ode to the anarchic and the absurd, featuring such song titles as “My Thoughts On Neogaf Dying”, “Macaulay Caulkin”, and “I cannot F****** Wait Til Morrissey Dies”.

Since JPEGMAFIA’s emersion, the rap game has changed quite a bit. It has gotten more alternative, more weird. Despite this, Peggy made it very clear in the roll out of his new album All My Heroes Are Cornballs that he was still an outsider. The album’s singles were accompanied by videos of Peggy playing tracks from the album for various industry insiders (Kenny Beats, Denzel Curry, DJ Dahi, etc..) and being met with their resounding disappointment.

One of the series’ better offerings.

I saw Jpegmafia perform at Baltimore’s Ottobar early last month. The place is simultaneously unequipped and perfectly suited for an artist like Peggy. I’ve talked about the Ottobar’s smallness and grunginess before, and JPEG took full advantage of this, crowdsurfing at one point, and shooting an arm up to pull himself up onto the balcony; elsewhere he parted the crowd with his hands and hopped down into the fray like a post-rap Moses.

JPEG’s performance was one of the greatest of my life so far, but the really impressive thing was the way he put his city on. He prefaced “1539 Calvert” leaning backstage shouting “anyone from the bell, you’re welcome to come on out here for this next one.” The Baltimore Rappers poured out of the backstage entrance in droves. I’m talking like 20 guys on what might be the city’s tiniest stage. “Ladies and gentlemen, JPEGMAFIAAAA!” roared a winter coat clad Fonlon in his best wrestling announcer voice. Peggy’s tourmate Butch Dawson stood to stage right, shirtless and holding chopsticks and what looked like a plate of sushi.

JPEGMAFIA dropped the beat and the group onstage began jumping with the music, chanting the words to the song as Peggy screamed them into the mic. In many ways this show felt like a victory lap, for everyone involved. JPEGMAFIA’s “Type Tour” is the biggest of his career, and Butch Dawson (who is still pretty underground) has gained lots of exposure as a result of his accompaniment. Fonlon, who is still a budding artist played a show for a massive crowd that an artist at his level doesn’t usually encounter. If the show was a victory lap, then this song was perhaps the group’s final few strides towards the finish line.

At the same time, as the group bounced around the stage and off one another, there was a hint of nostalgia on everyone’s face. One wonders if their eyes lit up for memory of a simpler time, when their rap game had yet to become a competitive sport.

AFK’s Vanquish is an Industrial Trap Banger

It’s been a big couple of months for New York rap duo AFK. Rapper Brandon Pettus and producer Thomas Karas are still in the underground by any stretch, but it is getting hard to tell. They recently expanded their musical pantheon with a feature on Astronomer, an album by fellow upcomer Fallen Into, and their hit Typhoid just surpassed 100,000 streams on Spotify, no small task in today’s saturated music-scape.

When describing their sound to others I’ve taken to describing them as Industrial Cloud Rap; It’s not an exact representation but it does the job. The layered abrasive beats fit nicely with Pettus’ shouted vocals, dipping into all manner of abstract topics, from existential dread, to what can only be interpreted as robbing a supreme court justice: “If I see Kavenaugh I’ma have to be direct / put the choppa to his neck / catch a case hit a lick”.

On their new track “Vanquish”, distorted, ghoulish voices usher in a rickety tom drum rhythm. A thick synth bass floats into the room like a cloud of smoke and Petus begins to scream over it.

The instrumental is filled with so many odds and ends, noises that I can’t even begin to accurately describe. Cartoon voices, screaming opera voices, and foreboding keys that sound like a horror movie theme (fitting for the track’s October 31st release date).

“Vanquish” builds like a video game power meter, ramping up as chants of “Dumb motherf*cka you missed it” get louder and louder and being unleashed as Pettus takes his rhymes full speed ahead and they begin to lose their intelligibility. All the better, it’s the rawness that you’re here for anyway, and this song is raw indeed. A vehicle can only travel at this breakneck speed for so long, and the machine inevitably begins to tear itself apart. The track ends the way the listener feels, gasping for breath collapsed in a heap on the floor.

Music like this is what we need. As much as I enjoy the door rattling 808s that have become the sound of our generation, without artists like AFK there will be nowhere to go when we all wake up one day and that sound has become stale. AFK made “Typhoid” a year ago, and in the interim put out Paycheck, an ep that takes them down several different musical alleyways. While “Vanquish” is certainly in a similar vein to “Typhoid” it shows sonic evolution, and maturation since the group’s last release.

One year in and they only have seven songs to their name. AFK’s decision not to flood the market, in an industry where market flooding works, demonstrates an unwillingness to be painted into a corner, and forecasts great things to come in the future.

Thanks for reading! Here’s a video some friends and I worked on where we interviewed AFK and went to one of their shows. What a show! They tore it up.

Venom Prison: The Feminist Sledgehammer Deathcore Didn’t Know It Needed

Metal vocalist Larissa Stupar moved to Wales in 2014, where she met Ash Gray. The two hit it off and decided to form a band, they both had been members of other outfits before but had slightly different plans for this band. They took the name “Venom Prison” and recruited two more members to create a feminist death-metal group. They may not be the first, but they are certainly the most ferocious.

I don’t necessarily believe in the idea of feminism-through-retaliation. Gender relations this decade — and especially the past year — have been characterized by struggle and hurt. It doesn’t do much to solve the problem for a woman to sing and scream about doing the same things to men that men have wrongfully done to women. Stupar seems to know this. There is a powerful feminist sentiment to their latest album Samsara, but not a vengeful one. Nonetheless, retributive themes creep in every once in awhile, and they are welcome when they do.

Implementing the metaphysics of morals

Impaled by the sword of power

Your blood is gracefully dripping

Onto the face of Justice

While she raises her arm in victory

You get what you deserve

Suppression, fragments of memory triggered by the enemy

Justice served

Poignant grief provokes aggression

Inspired by a brutalised instinct of survival

No mercy granted for those who don’t feel compassion

Overpowering thoughts, homicidal

Assassination. This is the end of ignorance

Judgement day, bearing the fruit of consequence

Traumatised, anxiety, isolation

Retribution, corruption, suppression

Implementing the metaphysics of morals

Assassination, this is the end of ignorance

Judgement day

Bearing the fruit of consequence

“Implementing the Metaphysics of Morals”

These lyrics clearly come from a place of pain, but also carry impetus for the future. It may be that through the forward thinking lyrics of this album the cycle of toxic masculinity that has plagued Death Metal since its inception may be broken. In a way this is what the record is about. “Samsara” refers to the Buddhist cycle of life and eventual death to which all earthen things are bound.

The final track “Nakka” describes a long, painful, death that the speaker endures. The implied meaning is that the cycle will be broken this time, and the speaker will escape their suffering.

Reading the subtext? Maybe it’s time for this iteration of Death Metal’s bloodline to die out, so that something new, fresh, and redeeming can rise from its ashes.

The Dead Don’t Die

Jim Jarmusch is a fascinating individiual. His name perplexes, how are you supposed to say it? “Jar-mich”, “Jar-moosh”, and “Jar-mush” all seem to be passable pronunciations. His appearance resembles that of a scientist from a space opera; with pale features and wild, white hair. His 2016 art-house flick Paterson was one of the most captivating movies I’ve ever seen. It was the story of Paterson, (Played by Adam Driver) a bus driver living in Paterson New Jersey. He goes to work, goes to the bar, and comes home. Rinse and repeat for the rest of the movie, with some spoken word poetry thrown in the mix. Nothing much happens and the dialogue sometimes verges on bad “improv club pastiche” but I still respected the film for moving at a snail’s pace and depriving me of any rousing conflict; for forcing me to relax so to speak.

The Dead Don’t Die is a little bit like that. The film takes place in the Central Pennsylvanian town of Centerville (Its a real place, what a wacky state!) where folks listen to the radio at the local greasy spoon, old guys wear KAWA (Keep America White Again) hats unperturbed, and Cops drive around helping people out rather than arresting them.

When we open, weird stuff has been happening for who knows how long at this point. The skeptical locals have been attributing it to daylight savings time and not in fact, to the Earth being moved off of its axis.

Our main characters are Bill Murray and Adam Driver, the only two police officers in town who must repel the zombie invasion. I don’t want Driver to become typecast as the straight-laced law officer, (his character here resembles his role in last year’s BlacKKKlansman but I’ve got to admit he’s darn good at it. He and Murray are the perfect pair each popping off with lines dryer than the next. The rest of the world can lose their minds, these two hardly ever raise their voices.

Murray and Driver in The Dead Don’t Die

Then there’s Sturgill Simpson’s role in this whole thing. He’s credited in the opening roll even though he only has a cameo. This is because his track “The Dead Don’t Die” is the theme song. It’s also a real song within the movie’s universe — people love it. Simpson’s appeal appears to transcend cultural and generational barriers. Its the perfect melodic representation of the movie; a subdued but apocalyptic steel guitar riff. “After life is over / the afterlife goes on!”. In an age of blockbusters that assert artistic status, this has got to be the funniest.

With its metahumor, tiny budget, and head-scratching ending — not to mention a cast that is stacked like pancakes — this film is clearly shooting for the “cult-classic” label. The point of the film can feel somewhat ambiguous at times as Jarmusch flirts with social justice motifs (climate change, racism, feminism, and child abuse) but then abandons them to joke about other things. Is the film suggesting that towns like Centerville are the problem? While the world is falling apart at the seams, they’re reaching for that second cup of diner coffee?

Maybe, but maybe not…I think it’s just a funny movie.

Denzel Curry: Coming out of the ZUU

Last year Denzel Curry put out an album that seemed sonically and conceptually to be his magnum opus, or at least intended so. “TA1300” or “Taboo” discusses paranoia, fear, hatred, and a whole host of truly dark things that are seen as “taboo” in the rap game. This was a bold project that pushed Curry beyond the status as a meme maker that “Ultimate” brought him.

However, it didn’t really seem like him. It was quite inventive to bring such deep subject matter to a trap album but the high concept bars didn’t always pair well with Denzel’s aggressive flow. That’s my opinion anyway. When I listen to Kendrick Lamar, I feel inspired; when I listen to Denzel Curry I feel like fighting (he makes great music for workouts).

After the buzz of “TA1300” had come and gone, Curry and his team sat down and discussed the direction they would take next. “Let’s make some hard stuff” Curry said. And so they went into the studio and pumped out some of the hardest bangers Miami has ever seen. The album: ZUU

“RICKY” is a tribute to Denzel’s father, and a heartfelt one at that. “Ricky used to take me to my first shows ever” ‘Zel raps. Aside from the surprisingly loving message of the song it oozes charisma. Bouncing 808s and a distorted synth line accompanied by freestyles bars set this song apart as one of those once in a lifetime tracks that come to be from a spark of studio energy that flares into an uncontrollable blaze.

This song is followed up by “WISH”, a more subdued offering. It features a fairly cookie-cutter hook and verse from Denzel, but does accomplish the goal of featuring Miami’s little known Kiddo Marv, who absolutely murders his verse when the time comes.

In fact, this entire album is a who’s who of South Florida rappers, from the well known, to those whose popularity is regional at best. From Kiddo Marv, Ice Billion Berg, Sam Sneak, and Playthatboizay, to Carol City alum Rock Ross.

I do take some issue with the track “Shake88” because as infectious as the hook is, Denzel made the bizarre decision to put a verse from the perspective of a woman in the hands of a male rapper. It doesn’t take away from the listenability of the song but we are living in the year of the Female Rapper. Rico Nasty, Cardi B and Tierra Whack are on fire right now and any one of them would have raised the value of this song, and this album tremendously with their presence. I’m still holding out hope for a Megan Thee Stallion remix.

As it is, ZUU isn’t perfect, it’s not extremely deep and it isn’t going to change the rap game forever. It is however a fun, carefree summer drive through downtown Miami with the radio blasting.

Blockbusters in the Post-Avengers Cinemascape

Two months ago Marvel studios released Avengers: Endgame to great acclaim; both the critical kind, and the kind that transcends a review. A LOT of people watched this movie, and not because it’s a fantastic film (even though I would still say it sort of is). For ten years the MCU has been a snowball rolling down a hill; starting out tiny with Iron Man in 2008 and achieving massive size and velocity by 2018 with Infinity War. So many people were invested in the patchwork story by the time it hit the bottom of the mountain that the film broke records left and right. But this is the end of an era, as sad (or happy) as that may be. Yes, of course marvel still has contracts extending into the next decade — they wouldn’t be a movie studio if they quit while they were ahead — but this is the last superhero film that will be an event. Look at Dark Phoenix, statistically very few of you have seen it but you probably know what it is. This film absolutely tanked, only just breaking even and earning a paltry 34 million over the profit line at that. The story arc that the film is based on is one of the most significant comic book story lines of the Twentieth Century, Dark Phoenix should have been a smash. Whether or not people realize that the golden age of superhero movies has come to an end, they understand it subconciously with their moviegoing decisions. Maybe in ten years, we’ll get to see “revisionist superhero movies” but for now, the genre that catapulted from kitschy nerd-bait to the most popular in the world is going to take a break.

This isn’t all bad. Horror movies are definitely grabbing a piece of this newly open real-estate. Jordan Peele and his chilling thrillers are definitely going to be around for a while, and last month’s Brightburn was a pleasant surprise. What entered my periphery as a somewhat clever pitch (Superboy but he’s a serial killer) blasted into theaters with clever camera work, emotional performances, and a helpful bit of self-awareness. I legitimately want more of this; give us horror-movie Batman, shark-flick Aquaman, Wonder Woman and an army of Amazons tearing down the patriarchy one gory invasion at a time.

Chad Stahelski’s third installment in the John Wick franchise proved to be a smash both financially and critically. Writer Derek Kolstad trims the fat on this venture and eliminates anything that could possibly be labeled an exposition dump. Does this make some of the movie harder to understand? A little, but the missing chinks of information add to the overall experience by augmenting that air of mystique that surrounds Wick and his deadly world. This film gives me hope for the future of movies, but does make me wonder if Keanu Reeves’ undying work ethic is necessary for a project of this quality.

A big wide vacuum is going to open up in the middle of the film industry and though horror and action will try to squeeze in a little bit, the past few months have made it agonizingly clear what our next cinematic obsession will be: Jukebox Musicals. This is what Rocket Man became, what Bohemian Rhapsody wanted to be, and what the highly successful Mamma Mia franchise has been all along.

We should have seen this coming. Guardians of the Galaxy essentially redefined the classic rock canon, and Baby Driver captivated audience with its fluid marriage of music and action. La La Land is everyone’s favorite bit of Oscar Bait cinema, and The Greatest Showman broke records left and right. Music has proven itself to be extremely bankable; audiences like songs they can sing along to, or soundtracks they can listen to later on. This is what allowed us to be fooled into thinking Bohemian Rhapsody was a good movie (you read that right).

The musician biopic is nothing new at all, but Rhapsody has set a new precedent in its disregard for factual accuracy in service of a compelling narrative. This new breed of movies will not be designed to tell the story of an important artist, they will be vehicles for hit-song-based setpieces.

The explosion of these films has yet to happen, but we are sitting on the ticking time bomb. Later this summer we will see the release of Blinded by the Light; the story of a Pakistani kid growing up in England that becomes attached to the music of Bruce Springsteen. Next year, a Trolls sequel about six tribes, each devoted to different styles of music will hit theaters, with a hit soundtrack to boot, I’m sure. There’re also several broadway musicals being adapted to film next year including West Side Story. It would seem that the storm of music-based movies is going to come whether we like it or not. Maybe it isn’t all bad though. I love music and there could be a lot of fun to come out of this new trend. We may as well sit back and enjoy Starman, Dexter Fletcher’s inevitable David Bowie picture.

P.S. That last part is a joke, I couldn’t resist.

Post Hardcore is Thriving in 2019

In the late 1980s members of the burgeoning punk-rock scenes in Chicago and D.C. like Husker Du, Black Flag, and Minutemen began taking the building blocks of punk music — which had become formulaic at that point — and reusing them to create new music that rebelled against the establishment that Punk had become, while staying true to the scene’s DIY roots and aesthetics. The genre flew largely under the radar in the 90s, as Grunge, something very similar but different enough took center stage, but it re-surged in force around the turn of the century.

You probably know a lot of bands that characterized the genre in the 2000s; My Chemical Romance, Pierce the Veil, Circa Survive; to name a few; The kind of band that had merch characterized by those black t-shirts with Wolves and monsters on the front. This was the genre du jour for teens at the time.

We live in a musical world dominated by rap music. A lot of people, like myself have become disillusioned with rock music: its lack of creativity, the corniness that seems to inhabit basically every successful rock outfit these days, and its continued propensity to not sound like rock at all.  However, lately this slump in popular rock has been good for punk rock, specifically the many different brands of post-hardcore –from the harsh and melodic, to the new breed that throws genre tradition to the wind. Here are three excellent post-hardcore albums from THIS YEAR.

Holding Absence: (self titled)

This is a band that is fairly new to the scene. I know very little about them and their internet presence is minimal. Nonetheless this album is a beautiful series of songs about love and its many different facets. It expresses deep longing in a strikingly prayerful manner. This record holds lots of contemplative ambient passages broken by emotive vocals and intense breakdowns. If you’re looking for passion in your heavy music, give this album a shot.

Our Last Night: Let Light Overcome

I first became acquainted with Our Last Night through their extensive discography of pop song covers. They’ve got a version of Kendrick Lamar’s HUMBLE that is borderline better than the original…I do not say that lightly. I was more surprised than I should have been to discover that they’ve got some solid music of their own. Though this album isn’t exactly breaking the post-hardcore mold, its a solid album for a workout or any other equally intense activity.

Happy Hour: Love Hurts EP

This is a very new band, a Florida Outfit that has yet to release a full-length album yet. At only three tracks this ep asks very little of the listener. Fully embracing the emo side of post hardcore, this collection spews bitterness and regret, but in such a charismatic fashion. The final track “Already Dead” might as well be a rap song for its use of a tender guitar instrumental in the verse and triplet flows, seething vocals and a crunched out chorus anchor it though. I think we can expect great things from this group in the coming months.

Bring Me the Horizon: Amo

Bring Me the Horizon caught a lot of flak for this record when it came out in January, and I won’t say that it’s justified but I will say I can see why this extreme departure from their former sound has led some people to feel slightly disillusioned. On 2006’s Count Your Blessings vocalist Oliver Sykes channels something positively inhuman as he sings bitter songs of anger and loss. Here, he’s singing about love which understandably sounds a little bit different. There are tracks on this album that feel like “punk-goes-pop” covers of top 40 hits that were never written.

This is an innovative album though, and BMtH flirts with electronic sound like no other metalcore act. The industrially tinged nu-metal guitar riffs on “MANTRA”, the sweet synths of “medicine”, and the earnest and tender lyrics of “mother tongue” make this one of the most daring albums that the band has ever put out.

La Dispute: Panorama

I’m a big La Dispute fan. They’re a really collaborative band and I got to know them through their work with Touche Amore. They’re a very different kind of hardcore band though. Embodying the exact opposite side of the spectrum from BMtH who tends to flirt a lot with poppy melodies and softer sounds to contrast their brutal side, La Dispute is all emotion. Vocalist Jordan Dreyer screams his vocals out in a distraught world weary cry, that sometimes fades to a whimper. This album is laden with soft guitar melodies that stand in the background and let the poetry shine. Once in a while though the band kicks in with a huge, bombastic, truly hardcore passage that brings to climax the emotions that Dreyer has built up. This is a somewhat heavy-hearted album, but its also a beautiful one that really represents everything La Dispute is about.

Honorable Mention — Thrice: Deeper Wells.

This is a record store day EP companion to Thrice’s 2018 release Palms, and it does a really great job of building on established themes of acceptance, compassion, and brotherhood. I really love the line “We keep building bigger fences when we should be digging deeper wells”; it’s kinda become my mantra lately. Check this album out, its a short listen that’s well worth it!

Weezer’s Black Album: The Importance of Artistic Integrity

Weezer has had an active last couple of months. The California alt-rockers made the charts for the first time in years this summer with their meme-cum-radio hit cover of Toto’s “Africa”. This was followed up by a few singles for their upcoming Black album, which seemed like the only cover left in their quintessential run of colors albums. (Blue, Green, Red, White).

Then they found a new color: teal. The teal album came out on January 24th, and was composed entirely of cover songs, led by “Africa”. The album goes over pretty much the way you’d expect: Cuomo and Company doing their best to sound like the original artists, which isn’t entirely displeasurable, but not exactly impressive either. It turned out to be an entirely bankable product however, as the album made #5 on the billboard top 200.

Unfortunately, their latest effort, The Black Album leaves lots to be desired, and an interview of Rivers Cuomo by Entertainment Weekly’s Darren French reveals several possible reasons why. The topic arises, as it unavoidably had to, that the biggest thing Weezer has done in recent years is a song by another band; Cuomo responded with a bit of cynicism.

“We’ve never been that successful that we’re playing at the Grammys. We haven’t been on a stage that big. But most of the time I’m thinking, ‘We’ll get there someday. We just gotta keep working. Someday we’ll play the halftime show at the Super Bowl. We just gotta get the songs right. We just gotta keep pushing. We’ll get there.’ But here we are, 25 years in, watching the Grammys, and I just felt, like, I get it. These people are super entertainers. And I’m cool with that. ” — Rivers Cuomo

I felt sad reading this, because for these past 25 years Weezer has been a lot of people’s favorite band. Through the grungy rage of the 90s and the blingy excesses of the early 2000s, Weezer was consistently unconcerned with being cool; a reminder that coolness was not all it was cracked up to be. They were four clean cut, slightly nerdy looking guys from California. They didn’t care what anybody thought about them, not in an attention hoarding way; in a “standing in the same position on all of their album covers” way. Yes, it is technically true that Weezer never reached the enormous heights that many artists of today are achieving, seemingly effortlessly, but the band always gave the impression that they weren’t in it for that reason.

Reading that interview really brings out the hollow nature of their new music.

“This girl I like
I’m talking ’bout this girl I like
But I feel so lonely, feel so lonely
Uh, uh, yeah, I’m living in L.A
This girl I like
I’m talking ’bout this girl I like
But I feel so lonely, feel so lonely
Uh, uh, yeah, I’m living in L.A”

Living in L.A.

What the heck does this mean? Nobody ever accused Rivers Cuomo of being the world’s greatest lyricist, but his earnest anthems about love lost, and feeling like a loser were usually coherent. This song feels like three different choruses, that don’t jive at all, smashed into one.

Gone are the delightfully crunchy power chords of Blue, the chilled out choruses of Green, the caution-to-the-wind experimentation of Red, and the triumphant anthems of White; We’re left with empty musings of a man refusing to act his age, and drab instrumentation that caters to the lowest common denominator; plus, Cuomo curses relentlessly on this record, which is fine I suppose, but comes across like that kid in middle school that starts cursing a lot so people will think he’s cool.

Back in 2008, Weezer found themselves in an interesting spot in the music industry. Releasing Red, their first album in four years, after Make Believe, which featured “Beverly Hills” one of the biggest songs of the band’s career. Red garnered barely a fraction of the success that their previous album did, and the sentiment expressed throughout the album made it seem that Rivers Cuomo was actually perfectly fine with this. “If you don’t like it, you can shove it / But you don’t like it, you love it” he said on the ego-anthem “The Greatest Man that Ever Lived”.

“Timbaland knows the way to reach the top of the charts / Maybe if I work with him, I can perfect the art” Cuomo crooned sarcastically on the album’s lead single “Pork & Beans”. Taking shots at Chris Cornell’s apparent sellout on Scream (which Timbaland produced) Cuomo seemed to acknowledge that Weezer’s brand of rock was no longer in vogue, and not as radio friendly as it once was. “I ain’t got a thing to prove to you…I don’t give a hoot about what you think” he yelled in the chorus.

Unfortunately, on their latest release, Weezer seems to be trying way too hard to prove themselves with a batch of their most soulless, algorithmically composed music yet.

This isn’t to say that changing things up isn’t good for an artist; on the contrary, I think it’s neccesary, so long as Artistic Integrity remains intact. I’m a big fan of the Urban dictionary definition for the term (“creating art for the heck of it”) but it is more than that. The ultimate measure of an artist is to move forward in their art while holding on to what makes them who they are. This is something that can’t be quantified or broken down to a science (perhaps this is why Rivers Cuomo fails at it so miserably) but is extremely present in today’s musical landscape. Since I cannot recommend The Black Album in good conscience, here are some other songs and albums from THIS YEAR that are great examples of artists doing new things with their sound.

Switchfoot: Native Tongue

I can’t pin the essence of this album to a single track, so I’ve gotta recommend the whole thing. This record finds the San Diego alt-rock veterans in possibly the most experimental place they’ve ever inhabited. Fully embracing synths and drum machines, working with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder to obtain a smoother production, and tapping into all manner of untried song structures, the band demonstrates on Native Tongue their ability to grow, collaborate, and thrive, even two decades after their genesis.

Fidlar: “Get Off My Rock”

Channeling Beastie Boys energy, Fidlar opens Almost Free with this quasi-rap ode to personal space. “Get off my rock!” the chorus screams as guitars fuzz and a harmonica lays down a rustic sounding riff.

Ariana Grande: “Fake Smile”

Ariana Grande is slowly getting closer to becoming the hip hop artist she was always meant to be. “Fake Smile” can be taken as the emotional heart of thank you, next, as it finds Grande finally admitting to herself that she isn’t fine emotionally, and deciding not to pretend otherwise. Accompanied by a slickly produced beat and a classic Wendy Rene sample, this song demonstrates that despite being pop music royalty for many years now, Grande still has plenty of artistic growth left in her.

SWMRS: “Steve Got Robbed”

The final track on SWMRS’ hard hitting sophomore effort Berkeley’s On Fire is a curious blend of hip-hop, crunchy power chords, and sweet harmonies. The verse of the song is sung in a particularly unsettling faux-patois, that sounds fantastic over the simple but heavy repeating riff. Laid over snappy snare drums and the occasional 808 bass thump, this song is a fun (and pretty hilarious) headbanger.

Gary Clark Jr.: This Land

Hailed as blues rock’s savior for the past few years, Gary Clark Jr. has subsisted on being pretty much the last bastion of hope for growth the genre has left. On his latest album, he’s doing tons of things differently. The song’s are deeper and more introspective, the music is more soulful — there’s as much Stevie Wonder on this record as there is Stevie Ray Vaughn — he’s even using solid-body guitars. The title track features an electrifying bass synth is a ticked off, politically charged anthem. Check it out!

G.O.O.D. Music’s G.R.E.A.T. Summer

This spring Kanye West did a great job making pretty much everyone mad through a relentless barrage of nonsense tweets, political opinions, and poopidy-scooping.  He then followed this by producing in quick succession five excellent albums that each clock in at about a half-hour and feature some truly inventive production along with some talented vocals from G.O.O.D. music’s roster.  Ye’s hand is in each of these album’s and I think much of their excellence can be attributed to his production and/or rapping chops.  However, it should be noted that his label is an absolute hotbed of musical talent also without whom these projects would not be possible.  In this post I’ll rank the the label’s music summer albums from good, to greatest.

Teyana Taylor: K.T.S.E

This record is my least favorite of the series.  Much of that can probably be attributed to the fact that I’m not much of an R&B guy to begin with.  Few of Taylor’s lyrics were particularly interesting and most of the song’s were a tad slow.  Still, this Album was not a major time investment at all.  In no way does it overstay its welcome, and it’s short enough that the less inspired tracks don’t drown out the ones that are actually good.  My personal favorite is “A Rose In Harlem”, which features an eerie vocal refrain paired with an ominous baseline that has consistently given me chills each time I’ve listened.


Nas: Nasir Nas-Nasir-Album-Cover-feature

I might as well say it.  I don’t think Nas is a great rapper.  I understand that Illmatic was kind of groundbreaking at its time of release, but as someone who wasn’t there when it happened, the sound is a tad bit bland.  With that said, his latest effort features some excellent production that redeemed his otherwise uninspired rhyming.  The only song on here that I absolutely can’t stand is Everything which, despite its name, isn’t really about anything.  However songs like The Cop Shot the Kid — which is structured around a heavily manipulated Slick Rick sample, and opens with a Richard Pryor sample that’s actually funny, but chilling in this context — and Not For Radio make this record worth the listen.


Kanye West: Yekanye-west-ye-album-cover-1527857034-compressed-1527864464-compressed

Kanye’s storm of crazy behavior meets its apex on this album with him reckoning with his bipolarism, suicidal thoughts, and the way his actions affect his family.  Of the five album’s this is the most minimally produced, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, instead it brings a hint of urgency to the album.  As though Ye has these ideas in his head and he’s rushing to get them out.  There are some really tender moments on here, like when he looks forward to his daughter’s future and hopes that men don’t treat her the way he used to treat women, that he didn’t realize was wrong until he had a daughter of his own.

“[Men] is savage, [Men] is monsters

[Men] is pimps, [Men] is players

‘Til [Men] have daughters, now they precautious

Father, forgive me, I’m scared of the karma

‘Cause now I see women as somethin’ to nurture,  Not somethin’ to conquer


KIDS SEE GHOSTSkids-see-ghosts-cover

The polar opposite of the somewhat underproduced Ye, KIDS SEE GHOSTS is a hyper-fluid powerhouse that fuses Kid Cudi’s sweet singing with Kanye West’s manic energy.   Highlights include an amazing sample of an old Kurt Cobain demo, a beautiful ode to rebirth, and an actual sequel track to Ye‘s “Ghost Town”.  The standout track; “Feel The Love” could be taken as an answer to the typical cloud rap vernacular but to me, it feels more like Kanye putting these young rappers in their place.  “You like to make gun-sound ad libs?  Watch this: ‘GAH…Guh Gah Gah Gah GAH!”


Pusha T: Daytonapusha-t-daytona-album-stream-1

This album, for me is the powerhouse that drove this whole grand operation; the rest of the records’ spontaneity curbed by Kanye West’s smooth soul driven production.  This is the record that lit the entertainment world on fire with a viscous calling out of Drake.  Though the beef eventually fizzled out inexplicably, Push definitely comes out on top album wise.  This sledgehammer of an album packs ten times the punch of Drake’s 25 tracks of stream trolling.

Though opening tracks “If You Know, You Know”, and “The Games We Play” are a tad uninspired, “Hard Piano” comes along with it’s hair-raising hook, and erases any doubt that this record is a classic.  Santeria, my favorite song, features a smooth, mysterious guitar lick (Lifted from a Lil’ Kim Song) that in less than three minutes builds into key driven cacophony.  As you settle down, the next song fades in with… what’s that?  A Yes sample?  “What Would Meek Do”‘s sample doesn’t have any sort of deep meaning…however, it’s just perfect for that song.