Five Notable Releases of the Week (6/30)
Happy Fourth of July Weekend! With the Fourth falling on a Tuesday this year and a lot of people having Monday off, we've got a nice long Independence Day Weekend. If you're in NYC, check out our event guide if you're looking for something to do. There's probably a good chance you're attending a party or throwing your own, and if so, there are some pretty perfect albums out this week to soundtrack said parties. Two of them are high-profile, highly-anticipated major label albums (which both feature Frank Ocean who also features on a new Tyler, The Creator track that came out this week), and there's also one by a young indie rock band from Chicago that I hope doesn't fly too far under the radar.
Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Chicago's Ratboys have been regulars on the DIY indie rock scene for a while now, having toured with Sorority Noise, Slingshot Dakota, Evan Weiss' band Pet Symmetry, Pinegrove, and a handful of others. The run with Pinegrove was especially a good match, because Pinegrove fans should love the stylistically similar Ratboys. Like Pinegrove, they've got enough of an energized sound to make sense on all these indie-punk bills, but they've also got a foot in alt-country. Ratboys' new album, GN -- the followup to their 2015 debut AOID -- has warm, twangy slide guitar ("Elvis is in the Freezer"), real-deal guitar solos ("Molly"), and briskly-strummed, campfire-ready acoustic guitars ("GM"). If you look at their tourmates and their record label and their hometown and you think you're getting some emo band, think again. That said, what sets Ratboys apart from the alt-country of say, The Jayhawks or something, is their strong affiliation with modern DIY-punk. Julia Steiner's voice and the lo-fi guitars have them somewhere in the Waxahatchee/Speedy Ortiz realm. The two sides of their sound come together seamlessly on GN, a noticeably stronger and more confident album than Ratboys' debut.
Jay-Z is basically classic rock for the rap world, and right now he does what a lot of classic rock bands do. His new albums seem to exist to give him an excuse to play the old favorites on arena and stadium tours, and keep his bank account as loaded as ever. He'll probably never make anything even close in quality to Reasonable Doubt or The Blueprint or even American Gangster, but he'll still probably end up on a Rolling Stone year-end list or something. Adding to the cynicism that his new music is more about commerce than art is the very similar album rollouts of his latest albums. His last album, 2013's Magna Carta Holy Grail, was funded by a deal with Samsung and the album was free to owners of certain Samsung Galaxy phones. The new one follows Sprint buying a 33% stake in Tidal, and it’s available only to Tidal subscribers and Sprint customers.
There's something else strikingly similar about 4:44 and Magna Carta Holy Grail though. Magna Carta came out on the Fourth of July, and 4:44 drops at the start of a long Independence Day Weekend. Even if Jay-Z fans can predict that they aren't getting another classic, there's still major excitement and anticipation behind each new album, and I can remember the excitement I had for Magna Carta exactly. I had just gotten to my friend's Fourth of July BBQ, I had the new Jay-Z album, and it was obviously going to soundtrack the first 58 minutes and 56 seconds of that party. These days, I'd probably say that "Tom Ford" and "Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit" are bangers and "Holy Grail" is good mostly for Justin Timberlake's part, and I can't really remember what the other 13 songs sound like. But that day, I had serious excitement to hear that whole album. With the same timing given to 4:44, here's yet another chance to light up those grills and blast whatever new tracks Jay has in store for us.
Except this time, Jay hasn't given us bangers. Magna Carta Holy Grail was as luxurious as luxury-rap albums come (remember its best song was about wearing designer clothes), but 4:44 has Jay getting serious. The only guests are Frank Ocean, Damian Marley, and Jay's mom Gloria Carter, and none of them ever steal the show from Jay. Over minimal beats by No I.D., he raps about growing up in the projects, his drug-dealing past, the hardships of life in America as a black man -- even a rich one -- and his life as a father and a husband. Beyonce (who provides uncredited backing vocals on "Family Feud") sparked rumors of Jay's unfaithfulness on last year's excellent Lemonade, and Jay adds more fuel to the fire on 4:44. On "Family Feud," he raps "Yeah I'll fuck up a good thing if you let me / Let me alone, Becky" (as in, Becky with the good hair?). On the title track: "Look, I apologize, often womanize / Took for my child to be born / See through a woman's eyes." And on opener "Kill Jay-Z," he seems to reference the infamous elevator incident: "You egged Solange on / Knowin' all along, all you had to say you was wrong / You almost went Eric Benent / Let the baddest girl in the world get away." Jay might not have the fire in his voice that he had in his younger days, but 4:44 has his most powerful, sympathetic lyrics in a while.
Calvin Harris' career sure is an interesting one. A decade ago, he was a buzzy electro-house producer. At some point he hopped on the increasingly popular EDM bandwagon, and last year he headlined Coachella. And then, at the height of his success, he appears to have left EDM in the dust. Calvin Harris put out a few singles last year, and the biggest one was the Rihanna collab "This Is What You Came For." It's still a clubbier track than anything on Rihanna's very-not-clubby ANTI, but it was a noticeable change from Calvin's recent EDM singles. Where you expected a drop, the song almost got quieter instead. And it worked really well.
Calvin goes even further in that direction on Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, an album that shows off a knack for hip taste-making and lite-funk slappers. The lead single and opening track is the excellent "Slide," which sort of gives Frank Ocean a similar treatment that "This Is What You Came For" gave Rihanna. Coming just a few months after Frank released his anti-commercial Blond and Endless, it gave Frank an addictive song for the dancefloor. Just to up the appeal, it's got verses from Migos who are dominating the rap and pop worlds right now. Most of the other guests are cool rappers and R&B singers too, including Young Thug, Future, Travis Scott, Schoolboy Q, D.R.A.M., PartyNextDoor, Nicki Minaj, Big Sean, Snoop Dogg, and Pharrell. Future and Young Thug are both on lead singles too: the rubbery soul of "Rollin" and the nu-disco of "Heatstroke," respectively. Not that Calvin Harris hasn't worked with cool artists before, but this is noticeably more tasteful than when his singles featured Hurts and John Newman. Future and Young Thug are more in R&B mode on this one, but Schoolboy Q raps his ass off on "Cash Out" and Nicki Minaj does the same on "Skrt On Me" (and sings too). On "Holiday," Snoop Dogg takes us right back to the G-Funk era. The record isn't without a few lower points but there's nothing truly skip-worthy. The whole album just feels like a listenable, enjoyable pop playlist -- perfect to throw on at your party this weekend.
The impossible-to-pin-down Florida rapper has seen a real boost in his career since last year's Imperial mixtape. The buzz led to a deal with Loma Vista Recordings (Spoon, St Vincent, Iggy Pop), who gave Imperial a physical release and now dropped the five song 13 EP while we await Denzel's next full-length project, Taboo. He made it with longtime producers Ronny J and FNZ (among others), and the only guest spot comes from rap weirdo Lil Ugly Mane. It's over and done with in less than 15 minutes and Denzel spends the whole time in beast mode. He's got fun, bragging lines ("Fucking with a black star but I ain't Mos Def") and more serious stuff too ("They wanna scan on my wrist / My whole life been at risk... On my hate government shit"). After making waves in the underground for some time, it's looking more than ever like Denzel is about to blow up. If the quick and dirty 13 is any indication of what Denzel will achieve with Taboo, the anticipation for that album should be pretty high right now.
In hindsight, it's kind of amazing how quickly chillwave rose and fell. It was only just hanging on as a trend by the time Washed Out released his debut album (2011), and it was completely dead by the time he put out a followup (2013). Washed Out -- or as you non-chillwave kids know him, the guy who wrote the Portlandia song -- was one of the pioneers of this sound, thanks to his early EPs, and even he couldn't keep it alive. With Mister Mellow, his first album for hip hop label Stones Throw after leaving Sub Pop, he's sort of stopped trying. It's not miles away from his early material, but this one's rooted less in dreamy psychedelic pop and more in '70s funk and soul (making it feel right at home on Stones Throw). He's got some nice-sounding stuff on this one. If you roll your eyes at chillwave's psuedo-nostalgia, I might not recommend watching the visual album, which is a little too vaporwavey for 2017, though the skits with SNL's Kyle Mooney are pretty funny (especially the one about the album having 13 songs). As a piece of music, though, Mister Mellow really does have its moments.