Five Notable Releases of the Week (11/16)
It's still one more week until Thanksgiving, but New York just got its first snow of the season, holiday music is in full swing, and year-end lists have already started to come in (from Rough Trade, Uncut, and Decibel), so it's definitely starting to feel like the end of 2018 is near. But 2018 isn't done offering up great music, and this week is very much proof of that.
In addition to the five albums I picked for this week's Notable Releases, some honorable mentions include The Smashing Pumpkins' sorta-reunion album (their first with Billy Corgan, James Iha, and Jimmy Chamberlin all involved in 18 years), black metal/hard rock blenders Slegest, the Brainfeeder X compilation, Pro Era's Kirk Knight, Mike WiLL Made-It's guest-filled Creed II soundtrack (ft. Kendrick Lamar, Bon Iver, Vince Staples, A$AP Rocky, A$AP Ferg, Nicki Minaj, Rae Sremmurd, J Cole, Schoolboy Q, 2 Chainz, Nas, Rick Ross, Pharrell, Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, YG, Tessa Thompson, Ella Mai, and more), Thermals frontman Hutch Harris, reunited heavy space rockers Failure, folk singer Josephine Foster, Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, and rising Chicago rapper Warhol.ss.
Check out my five picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
The first voice you hear on Anderson .Paak's first album in nearly three years isn't Anderson .Paak but multi-instrumentalist/singer Kadhja Bonet (who recently signed to Paak's OBE label). It doesn't sound far removed from the two albums of psychedelic jazz-soul that Kadhja released, and not only does starting such a highly-anticipated, high profile album with Kadhja's music give her a much-deserved spotlight, it also sets a mood that suggests this album is going to be full of warmer, richer sounds than Paak's music has ever had before. It also shows you right off the bat how Paak isn't afraid to share the stage even on what might be his most personal statement yet. And while it's nearly impossible to judge an album this anticipated in under 24 hours, it already feels like Oxnard delivers on the promise made by that gorgeous intro.
All of Paak's albums have been named after a city, and naming this one after his birthplace feels like a statement, like Paak is intending this album to be the project he's been building towards all these years, a new beginning. And Paak himself has said as much. "This is the album I dreamed of making in high school, when I was listening to [Jay-Z]’s The Blueprint, The Game’s The Documentary, and [Kanye West’s] The College Dropout," he told Rolling Stone. Oxnard also reunites Paak with Dr. Dre, and artists tend to make career-defining albums under Dre's guidance (like The Game did with The Documentary). A lot of people were first introduced to Paak's music when he was featured all over Dre's 2015 album Compton, though Dre stayed away when Paak followed Compton with his own new album, his January 2016 sophomore LP Malibu. For Oxnard, Dre is executive producer, he provided guest vocals and some of the beats, and he's releasing it on his famed Aftermath label. Dre's involvement is felt strongly and it's very welcome, as is the involvement by Paak's several other collaborators. The album is full of guests, almost all of whom are at the top of their game, and in addition to all the credited guest verses, there are so many voices besides Paak's fleshing out the songs. Oxnard feels like his most communal album yet, from all those vocalists to the lively instrumentalists providing groovy funk basslines and glimmery jazz keys. But still, it's Paak's show and he remains the star of it.
Paak sounds looser and more confident on Oxnard. As great as Malibu is, it could feel stiff at times compared to Paak's live show, but that isn't the case this time around. And while Paak's vocal style has always been somewhere between singing and rapping, Oxnard is shaping up to be -- if not his best album -- at least his best rap album. Paak's rapping has never been better than it is on "Saviers Road," the Dr. Dre-aided "Who R U?," or on the standout "6 Summers," which is one of the album's most lyrically powerful songs with its pleas for gun reform and its shots at the president's incompetence. It's also one of the album's most sonically interesting, with its unexpected but expertly executed transition from bumping West Coast rap to chilled-out neo-soul. Paak deftly navigates the horn-fueled, head-nodding production of "Sweet Chick," which is one of the album's most classically rap songs, and when he offers up a dose of G-Funk with "Anywhere," he starts the song off with none other than G-Funk master (and long-time-ago Dre protégé) Snoop Dogg.
Snoop's verse is effective, but the real show-stealing appearances come from reigning West Coast king Kendrick Lamar on "Tints," Rapper of the Year contender Pusha T on "Brother's Keeper," promising newcomer Cocoa Sarai on "Mansa Musa," a very fired up Q-Tip whose verse on "Cheers" will make you miss A Tribe Called Quest even more than you already do, and a very well-prepared J. Cole on "Trippy." Cole can be hit or miss, but 2018 has been filled with hits for him, and this verse is among his most mind-bending of this year. Again, it's really a communal affair, where Paak never hesitates to share the spotlight at the right times, but his personal vision is also strong and felt throughout. The album isn't without its missteps -- Oxnard probably could’ve done without Paak’s ill-advised attempt at reggae on album closer "Left to Right" (though that song is technically a bonus track... whatever that means in the streaming era) -- but it's clearly a lush-sounding, statement-making album and not a repeat of anything Paak's done before. And at least based on my very initial judgement, I'd say it's a success.
Austin hardcore band Portrayal of Guilt are still relatively new on the scene though their members have been around (Matt King and James Beveridge played in the now-defunct Illustrations and Blake Given also plays in Lyed), and they're quickly making an impact. They debuted last year with a self-titled EP and since put out a split with Street Sects and now they've got their first full-length, Let Pain Be Your Guide, out in the world. It was recorded by screamo legend Matt Michel (of Majority Rule); it features guest vocals by Matt, his partner/collaborator Maha Shami (who's in NØ MAN with Matt), and Full of Hell's Dylan Walker; and the killer artwork was designed by another screamo legend, pg.99 vocalist Chris Taylor. It's not hard to see why these guys are taking off and finding themselves in such great company -- Let Pain Be Your Guide is one of the most refreshing hardcore albums of the year.
Portrayal of Guilt clearly have a handful of influences that date back to the '90s and early '00s, but they sound like a distinctly modern band. As is becoming increasingly common in the internet era, Portrayal of Guilt package together a handful of styles of music from the past, and deliver them in a way that simultaneously feels new and offers up some nostalgia for the past. Let Pain Be Your Guide pulls from the not-entirely-disparate-but-still-distinctly-different subgenres of hardcore, screamo, black metal, death metal, grindcore, powerviolence, and more, and they put their palette of sounds into a spastic blender that rarely stays in one place for more than about 30 seconds. The 10-song album clocks in at just over 22 minutes, and it usually fits at least three or four different types of music into one song. One minute Portrayal of Guilt can sound as brutal as any of the best death metal bands, and the next they'll be offering up quiet, clean guitar that echoes their hometown's history of post-rock. They know how to work in melody without getting poppy, and they know how to make intelligent, artistic music without losing sight of the rawness and the brevity that made punk so appealing in the first place.
One of the first things you notice about Leikeli47 is that she never performs or takes pictures without a mask, so in some ways, there's still some anonymity to her. But you'd never think that from listening to her music, which is full of huge personality. She released one of the best, if a bit overlooked, debuts of last year with Wash & Set, and now she's already following it with Acrylic which is at least as good. Like with her debut, it's easy to compare Acrylic to artists like M.I.A. and Santigold (who she's opened for), though more in overall approach than in sound. Like those artists, Leikeli47 has a sound that pulls from hip hop, art pop, R&B, electronic music, reggae, and more, and she's truly impossible to pigeonhole. The new album finds time for songs like the smooth neo-soul of "CIAA," the sunny-day alternative hip hop of "Girl Blunt," the kinetic avant-pop of "Roll Call," the dancehall-leaning "Hoyt and Schermerhorn" (which nods to Leikeli's Brooklyn hometown), and so much more, and nothing sounds out of place. Lyrically, she's still repping feminism and fashion and hair like on her debut, but she also goes into other territory. On the aforementioned standout "CIAA," she discusses growing up in a neighborhood full of gun violence, poverty, and drug trade, but you get the sense that she sees a light at the end of the tunnel: "I can't stop/I won't stop/It ain't in my nature/I keep it in my socks, I'll show 'em." She's an increasingly multi-faceted artist and she continues to carve out her own lane. Her music is approachable, and certain songs have comparisons to be made to other artists, but there really aren't many people right now (or ever) crating a catalog like Leikeli's.
Miami rap duo City Girls (aka Yung Miami and JT) were introduced to the world with their 2017 single "Fuck Dat N****," which helped them ink a deal with Quality Control, who included the song on the mostly-Migos-featuring compilation Quality Control: Control the Streets, Vol. 1 that same year. Then they released their very promising debut album Period in 2018, but City Girls really took off when Drake featured them on his world-dominating and meme-creating single "In My Feelings." They're poised to be one of the Next Big Things in rap, and they've definitely got the chops for it, but their instant fame has also come with a roadblock, or a "minor setback," as Yung Miami puts it. JT sadly has to serve two years of jail time for fraudulent credit card charges; she's slated to be released on March 21, 2020. City Girls aren't letting that stop them, though. They just now released their second album of 2018, and it offers up 13 more tracks of the kind of banger production, sticky hooks, and razor-sharp flows that City Girls have been winning us over with for the past year. It wastes no time addressing JT's prison sentence, opening with the song "Intro (#FREEJT)," which sees JT calling Yung Miami from prison, and Yung Miami rapping her ass off in reply ("Lord knows that I miss her/But Ima hold this shit down for my sister"). Then the drums drop out and it switches to JT on the phone, and she assures us: "When I come home, it's over for y'all hoes." A lot of the material on the album was recorded before JT's sentence began, though, and the highlights are plenty. The biggest standout is the club-ready "Twerk," which was recently released as a single but was updated with a verse from Cardi B for the album version. With its golden age hip hop turntable scratches and DJ Mustard-era hand claps, it sounds both retro and modern and it comes with a hook that's tailor-made to get people moving. "Broke Boy" sees City Girls at their toughest and most booming, while the Jacquees-featuring "Give It A Try" is a smooth slow jam, and City Girls are just as good at both. They probably still have a ways to go before one of their own songs gets the kind of attention that "In My Feelings" got, but Girl Code is boiling over with potential, and if and when City Girls' major moment comes, they sound ready for it.
Damon Albarn has been having one of the most prolific outbursts of his career. The past four years have seen him release his first proper solo album, the first Blur album in over a decade, not one but two new Gorillaz albums following a hiatus for that group, and now he's putting out The Good, The Bad & The Queen's first album since their 2007 debut (not to mention he's done a few other collaborations and side projects in that time). The supergroup -- Albarn plus The Clash's Paul Simonon, The Verve's Simon Tong, and Afrobeat legend Tony Allen -- debuted with a concept album about life in London and war, and their sophomore album Merrie Land (produced by frequent Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti) is another England-obsessed album that comes during another period of unrest for England: Brexit. Brexit is the theme driving these new songs, and to quote Paul Simonon, the album title "kind of alludes to people’s nostalgic, sentimental vision of how England used to be. And it never really existed." You can hear that in the music; even more so than their debut, Merrie Land mines the tradition of English music hall by way of The Kinks. It sort of sounds like a fantasy of what you might expect English music to sound like from afar, but it doesn't take long to realize there's also a dark side. A song like recent single "Gun To The Head" sounds so much like British Invasion that it almost comes off like parody, but the haunting psychedelia of songs like "Nineteen Seventeen" and "The Great Fire" show GBQ are not content to stay in whimsical, revivalist territory. Tony Allen really shows off his knack for intricate rhythms on those two songs, and he does so again on "Drifters and Trawlers," the song where his Afrobeat history and his bandmates' strongly British histories most openly clash. The album has its imperfections, it has its moments that sound like songs Albarn himself has written better in the past, but it's full of enough interesting ideas and has enough of a seamless flow that it's very easy to return to. Of all the music to come out of this prolific outburst that Albarn's been having, Merrie Land is some of the most instantly satisfying.