Notable Releases of the Week (12/15)
We are officially halfway through December and this is a surprisingly stacked week for new music. My five picks include the first N.E.R.D. album in seven years, and that’s one of two albums I picked this week that feature the reigning king of rap, Kendrick Lamar. I didn’t pick Eminem’s disappointing new album Revival, but you can read my review of that HERE.
Along with the big rap releases out today, I also chose albums by two small indie rock bands that have the very real possibility of being very overlooked, so I hope you give those a shot too.
Meanwhile, keep up with the many Best of 2017 lists that keep coming in (and stay tuned for BV lists). For metal, check out Invisible Oranges’ ongoing year-end coverage. Also check out our new playlist of 52 of the best indie holiday songs, our NYC holiday show roundup, and our NYC New Year’s Eve show roundup.
A few honorable mentions: producer Harry Fraud’s guest-filled mixtape The Coast (ft. Action Bronson, Rick Ross, Skepta, A$AP Twelvyy, Curren$y, Wiz Khalifa, Playboi Carti, Lil Yachty, the late Prodigy, and more), producer Zaytoven’s guest-filled mixtape Trapping Made It Happen (ft. Young Thug, Migos, Young Dolph, Juicy J, Lil Uzi Vert, and more), and The 1975’s surprise live album.
Check out my five picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Brockhampton have had a killer year, proving themselves to be the most exciting, DIY-minded rap collective to break since probably Odd Future (who are a clear influence on Brockhampton). They already released two albums, Saturation I & II, and today they’re completing the trilogy. (They initially said this would be their final studio album, but then announced that a fourth studio album is coming next year.) Brockhampton are not only ridiculously prolific, but they’re clearly getting more talented by the second. Saturation II was a noticeable progression from Saturation I and now Saturation III has the group on yet another level. Like the first two, it’s a long album and there are some skippable tracks, but the highs are really high. It starts super strong with “Boogie,” which sort of injects a dose of George Clinton-style funk into Brockhampton’s unique production. With Brockhampton, the beats are really as important to the sound as the rapping — all the production and all the hooks are done in-house, and it’s a big part of how their sound is so cohesive and so void of radio-ready trends. (Their signature style is sort of a cross between Tyler, the Creator and Yeezus, with their own originality thrown in.) Other sounds they explore on Saturation III include the orchestral/electronic blend of “Zipper,” the druggy, jazzy “Johnny,” the bassy, club-ready “Sister/Nation,” and a handful of songs that take a break from rowdy rap for crooning indie-R&B. The best production on this album, though, is “Alaska,” which has a head-nodding backdrop that ranks among the best songs that Brockhampton have done yet. Lyrically, Brockhampton (and group leader Kevin Abstract, in particular) have left an impact by discussing LGBT issues more than you tend to hear in rap, and Saturation III has some of that too. In general, the album really gives all of the rappers the chance to get introverted, open up about their personal lives, and discuss relationships with mental health, drugs, sex, and and whatever else comes to mind. Saturation III also has Brockhampton interacting with their own fame more than ever, and dishing out tons of deserved boasts. The members also click with each other more and more. Kevin may technically be the leader, but one of the exciting things about Brockhampton is how they go back and forth with each other and transition between different rappers so seamlessly. All of them have also gotten increasingly good at rapping. Their lyrics are getting more clever and their deliveries are getting more confident. They’ve already made such a huge mark but it still feels like their best days are still ahead of them, especially since we already know 2018 is bringing us another Brockhampton album and a massive tour.
Special Explosion – To Infinity
Special Explosion won us over with 2014’s The Art of Mothering EP, and then they kinda kept to themselves for a while, playing some shows and spending time in the studio but not releasing anything new. Now they’re finally back with their first proper full-length. That’s a long time between releases for a band that had only just started gaining some traction, and mid-December is not exactly the optimal time to release an album and get buzz for it, but hopefully none of this will deter you from listening to To Infinity. It’s by far the best thing Special Explosion have done yet, and very worth the wait. The Seattle band are clearly influenced by the Pacific Northwest indie rock sounds that they grew up around — it was probably a dream come true for them to record part of this album at Modest Mouse’s Ice Cream Party Studio in Portland and part of it at Chris Walla’s Hall of Justice studio — and they do a ton of justice to that sound. Pre-Transatlanticism Death Cab is the most direct comparison, but Special Explosion throw other sounds in there too. There’s a real post-rock atmosphere to the album, some Modest Mouse/Built to Spill-style guitar work, tons of rich male/female harmonies, American Football trumpets, and a little more Midwest emo on the mathy/noodly “Your Bed.” To Infinity has ten songs and they’re all good, but if it fails to move you at first, let it finish — the two best songs are the last two. Penultimate song “Fire,” which was released as the lead single, starts off as this indie piano ballad that sounds like Foxing covering a long-lost collaboration by Ben Gibbard and Jeremy Enigk. The lyrics have sort of a “White Winter Hymnal”-style repetition, and like that song, it doesn’t take long for “Fire” to get stuck in your head. As the song progresses, an unexpected but well-executed vocoder is added to their voices, and once the vocals finally cut out, a trumpet takes over as the song ends in a post-rock climax. I’d call it “epic” but I need to save that word for closer “So Long.” Over the course of its nearly-seven-minute running time, it brings all the different sounds that Special Explosion explore on To Infinity into one massive song. It makes it clear that Special Explosion have the ability to go beyond making a collage of their influences. At their best, they pull this stuff off as well as plenty of their predecessors.
As production duo The Neptunes, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo’s highly distinct style helped define the sound of late ’90s and early ’00s rap, R&B, and pop, and right in the midst of their prime, they formed the alternative rock/funk/rap band N.E.R.D. to work out some ideas that they couldn’t achieve from the producer’s chair. N.E.R.D. were never taken nearly as seriously as The Neptunes, but there’s just a little more anticipation riding on No_One Ever Really Dies than the last few N.E.R.D. albums. Aside from being their first album in seven years, it’s their first album since Pharrell had a huge number one hit as the lead vocalist on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and his first number one hit as a solo artist with “Happy.” It’s also got a fairly high number of very exciting guests, including Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000, RIhanna, M.I.A., and Future. Even if No_One Ever Really Dies isn’t making any last-minute changes to your year-end list, its 11 songs come with plenty of fun moments that are worth listening to.
Aside from Future, whose gurgly auto-tune is great in general but sort of out of place over N.E.R.D.’s high-energy “1000,” all of those above-mentioned guests really bring it. In addition to being one of our generation’s true powerhouse singers, Rihanna is proving to be a pretty damn good rapper too — we’ve witnessed it on “Bitch Better Have My Money” and Kendrick’s “LOYALTY.,” and now again on No_One Ever Really Dies opener “Lemon.” Over a classic-style, trunk-rattling Neptunes beat, RiRi and Pharrell shout-rap back and forth with each other, and the whole thing is pretty undeniable. Kendrick Lamar is on so much fire lately that any verse he spits is worth spending time with, and No_One Ever Really Dies has him on not one but two songs. On the funk-rockin’ “Don’t Don’t Do It!,” Kenny comes in at breakneck speed with words of wisdom about police brutality, and it kinda sounds like he’s channelling some of recent collaborator Vince Staples’ delivery. On “Kites,” he’s closer to the mode he’s usually in on his own albums, changing his flow up at least three times in the same verse. That one’s also got M.I.A., who gives the song an addictive hook and her own very fine verse. New music from Andre 3000 is so rare these days and he’s always in fine form when he does come out with something, so it’s a nice treat to have him back on “Rollinem 7’s,” which — if I’m not mistaken — is his first guest verse of 2017. He sounds great, but he would’ve been used better if N.E.R.D. didn’t throw him at the end of the album’s most repetitive song.
The guests are a big sell, but Pharrell and the rest of N.E.R.D. pull off some fine moments without guests too. “Deep Down Body Thurst” is one of Pharrell’s sunny-day funk songs, and if you like “Happy” and “Get Lucky,” you’ll probably like this one. “Lightning Fire Magic Prayer” is a nearly eight-minute trip through tons of different sounds and the whole thing is pretty psychedelic. If you’re into Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids,” Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, or past Pharrell songs like “Lost Queen,” this might be the No_One Ever Really Dies song for you. There are some weaker moments too, and Pharrell still sometimes suffers from trying to do too much at once (see “ESP” for example), but it’s worth hearing the album straight through to discover all of its treats.
Jeezy has been a staple of Atlanta rap since back when “trap music” was the name of a T.I. album and not the city’s prevailing style of music. He hasn’t really changed up his style to adapt with the times at all, and that’s not a bad thing. Like T.I., Jeezy is one of those guys whose voice just sounds so good, no matter what he’s talking about. And he sounds his best over the kind of ominous, anthemic production that was dominating rap radio in the early 2000s, and that’s the kind of production he’s still using on Pressure. So in other words, Pressure sounds exactly how you expect a Jeezy album to sound, but there’s something satisfying about an artist who can deliver comfortingly familiar albums year after year. (And that’s exactly what the highly prolific Jeezy has been doing lately — he’s released one album a year since 2014.) And even if the style of music dates back to another era, Jeezy still sounds fresh. He’s got all the vigor in his voice that he had on his classics; he may not be charting today like he used to, but Pressure has the ability to instantly transport you back to when Jeezy was among the rappers ruling the airwaves. It also picks all the right modern-day artists to fit in with a sound that’s faithful to Jeezy’s roots. If you like 2 Chainz, or underrated West Coaster YG, or Detroit newcomers Tee Grizzley and Payroll GIovanni, you’ve probably got a place in your heart for classic Jeezy. All of those artists appear on Pressure and all of them sound excellent with Jeezy.
The album’s also been making headlines for reuniting J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar on “American Dream.” It’s a very fine song that takes on today’s sad state of political affairs (Jeezy’s got a callback to his iconic Obama-era song “My President” — “First my president was black, now my president is wack”), though Kendrick is a little sleepier than he is on the new N.E.R.D. album. Still, it’s awesome to hear K.Dot on anything these days and it’s pretty amazing that he and Jeezy keep collaborating. Kendrick probably looked up to Jeezy as a teen, and now that he’s one of the genre’s biggest stars, hopefully his presence on Pressure will help remind people that Jeezy is still at the top of his game.
Before the recent boom of buzzy and critically acclaimed indie-punk happened, Lemuria had already perfected a version of the sound. A lot of the newer bands had their breakthroughs in the time since Lemuria last released an album (2013), but now Lemuria are finally back to rejoin the conversation. The existence of Recreational Hate was first sorta revealed when Lemuria launched a pre-order of a “secret LP” this past August, but it was only officially announced earlier this week. It’s also the first release for the band’s own Turbo Worldwide imprint (which they launched with the help of Asian Man Records and Big Scary Monsters), and they brought in producer/engineer Chris Shaw, who Lemuria said they chose “for his very eclectic discography, including the Weezer ‘Blue’ album, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Ice Cube, Wilco, Public Enemy, Modest Mouse, A Tribe Called Quest, Ween and Lou Reed.” That list makes a lot of sense once you hear Recreational Hate, which is Lemuria’s most diverse sounding album yet. The main influence is still stuff like Weezer’s “Blue Album,” but this time Lemuria also bring in triumphant horns on “Wanted To Be Yours,” pedal steel on the twangy “Kicking In,” somber, atmospheric piano on “Lake Below,” and bare-bones folk music on “Trembling.” Those songs end up fitting right in with Lemuria’s more driving songs, and Sheena Ozzella and Alex Kerns’s overlapping and harmonizing vocals sound so rich no matter what mode they’re in. Lemuria have always been known to deliver, but they’ve never made a progression as noticeable as the one they make on Recreational Hate.