‘Positions’ doesn’t quite switch up enough

Positions, Republic

No one pumps out consistently strong new music as frequently as pop sensation Ariana Grande. In the past two years, the singer released a whopping six singles and two albums, both debuting at No.1 on the Billboard 200 with Top 10 Hot 100 debuts for each track. Even for a pop star of her echelon, this feat is extremely impressive.

What’s more, Grande accomplished these rare milestones in the midst of some of the most painful, public tragedy imaginable. A tumultuous, grief stricken break-up went from tabloids to the studio, and thank u, next was born.

To that fans and music lovers alike said thank you, but what’s next?

Positions, the singer’s sixth studio album, attempts to answer that question. Helmed by her newest relationship, the album largely draws from the sound Grande mastered with thank u, next. Where the former had a jaded, morbid attitude, Positions reveals a more aloof, cautiously optimistic Grande. She’s more mature, more calm, and more self-aware when it comes to her approach to love.

Conceptually, Positions is one of the singer’s more interesting works. It amply tackles its titular theme in compellingly abstract ways. She looks at love and her life through the lens of various vantage points, interestingly relating her experiences and woes with her increasingly mass audience.

She stews in self-doubt and uncertainty on “off the table (feat. The Weeknd)” and “motive (feat. Doja Cat),” reflects on her life, past and present, with confidence on “just like magic” and opener “shut up,” and imagines herself in her partner’s shoes on closer “pov.”

Regardless of perspective, gone are bonafide hits like “7 rings” and “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” and replacing them are softer, more laid back Kehlani influenced novellas.

One of the most prominent examples of this deeper R&B tinged aesthetic is brought forth in the long teased cut “nasty.” With a lethargic trap drum, ambient atmosphere and relaxed vocal performance from Grande, the single shows the singer in deeper, more sexual territory. Drawing influence from early 2000s R&B and current artists like SZA, this continues on the effortlessly sultry “west side.”

Grande even dips her toes into disco on “love language.” One of the more experimental tracks on the record, it’s the perfect kind of disco for the bedroom. Grande has never sounded cooler or confident, especially on the commanding outro.

The former tracks considered, each song on Positions has a flighty sense of weightlessness. Credited to the joy Grande’s found in her newest love perhaps, this aspect is as much a strength as it is a fault. Upon the first few listens, listeners will fail to latch on to a song or songs that bolster the album. The 14 track record is decidedly slight at 42 minutes.

This dearth of longer or more fully produced tracks may leave many listeners wanting more to the point of dissatisfaction. Positions often plays like the thank u, next b-sides. There are many songs strong enough to warrant a spot on a studio album, namely standouts “just like magic” and “obvious.”

Others like “my hair,” however, lack the conviction and individuality that made thank u, next such a smash. Whether Positions was meant to make waves and redefine Grande or not, fans will find gems on the tracklist to carry them through the indefinite remainder of quarantine.

Grande likely would have benefited from a longer wait before releasing a thank u, next follow-up. With Positions, though, she evidently does as she pleases. At the end of the day, 7 years into her career, she gets everything she wants ‘cus she attracts it.


BLACKPINK lights up the sky in new doc

When it comes to BLACKPINK, the four woman K-pop group that infiltrated 2019’s Coachella with a disciplined mix of cuteness and absolute savagery, many of these details couldn’t be further from the truth. With BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky, the group is introduced and their story of endless effort, constant evolution, and developmental frenzy is revealed.

Director Caroline Suh introduces each member with a rhythm reflective of the group’s easy swagger, swiftly breezing through their impressively dissimilar upbringings. There’s lead singer Jisoo, born and raised in South Korea; Jennie, singer/rapper who spent much of her childhood in New Zealand before returning to her birthplace of Seol; Lisa, rapper and lead dancer from Thailand; and Rosé, a lead vocalist born in Auckland to South Korean immigrants before moving to Melbourne where she grew up.

The four met throughout their shockingly long stint as trainees in YG Entertainment’s song and dance program. American Idol with no off switch, the program saw the girls spend years mastering their craft, testing their chemistry with fellow trainees until they joined one another to become something entirely new to the K-pop genre, BLACKPINK.

Flashforward through years of touring and smash hit global singles comes their history making Coachella performance. The documentary details the group’s shock and awe in exceeding the bounds of their already multicultural backgrounds to break onto perhaps the most mainstream festival stage in music today.

The documentary drops viewers into the group and their already long established dynamic well into their global success, with noticeably more quietly outgoing Jennie appearing as the evident leader of the group. The first to release her own work in single “SOLO,” she explains that the group is deep into work on their first full length LP; what would become October 2020’s release of THE ALBUM, a record that would skyrocket to the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 charts higher than any female K-pop group has ever gone.

The group then introduces songwriter/producer Teddy Park, a K-pop performer turned producer who helped the group find their sound and become what they are today. He describes the group’s initial release strategy favored singles before leaning more heavily into the personal storytelling of their latest project.

The film is so interesting for its multifaceted nature, outlining the similarly atypical group of women and their worldly experiences. They each possess such specific personalities that, when blended together, shine the light on why the group has become so universally resonant among audiences around the world.

Emotional, revealing, and eye opening for a corner of a massive genre constantly evolving, BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky is nearly impossible to look away from, and soon after audiences will find themselves digging through the group’s growing discography.

Joji drops commercial ‘Nectar’

What happens when new media meets art?

In the 21st century, each decade has produced new avenues for talent of all kinds to achieve the success they likely would not have achieved without technological advancements. This can date back to the days of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. Utilizing the newly minted “reality television” medium, the two socialites became the original “influencers,” ushering in an Instagram-driven age of the self brand and a type of self employment that required nothing but luxury and style.

Today, this now obsolete tactic has created an oversaturated market for influencers far and wide. In need of a new tactic, the public flocked to YouTube and TikTok. Both free form platforms for users to put out essentially anything they want, it has provided an outlet for stars like the D’Amelios and Addion Raes of the world.

On the YouTube side, artist Joji made a stark transition to music, utilizing his steady following on the platform to seamlessly segue into his new role of genuine artist. His single, “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK,” was a huge streaming hit. It allowed the singer to shed the skin of his former persona, leaving room for an easily marketable “sadboi” for the kids of Gen Z.

Clearly an ingenious tactic, the single resonated with users of this demographic. The song was appropriated into one of the first TikTok trends of its kind. Users utilized the song to film their own videos, expanding the already viral nature of the single.

With Nectar, Joji’s second studio album, the artist triples down on this tactic. The sweeping 18 track set features enough melancholy and hip hop influenced beats to dominate TikTok feeds for the fleeting days of the app’s reign.

It’s impossible to analyze Nectar from a purely artistic standpoint. The strategy is too on-the-nose. This, though, doesn’t necessarily discredit the quality of the often high quality record. Is it a few songs too long? Yes. Does it repeat themes to the point of monotony? Definitely. Is it, above all else, emotionally compelling and entertaining? Absolutely.

Nectar is made up mostly of love tunes across the spectrum of pursuit, loss, and the instability between those two benchmarks. The opener, “Ew,” immediately sets the tone of the project. Lamenting the loss of a love and wishing for one more longstanding and true, Joji sounds exasperated. This exhaustion only continues throughout most of the tracks.

The singer goes beyond the science of love to discuss the trappings of fame and the business side of his industry. Standout “MODUS” deals directly with labels and publicity teams forcing an image on him.

“I don’t feel the way they programmed me to feel today,” he sighs. The chorus of the song plays like an eboy version of Adele’s “Someone Like You,” and it’s actually one of the best moments on the album. It’s an interestingly self aware moment for a project seeped in its own commercialism and business oriented structure, actually including a song titled “Tick Tock.”

Another highlight is the Diplo assisted single “Daylight.” It’s a rare uptempo bop in a sea of mid tempo pieces of introspection.

Should Nectar have been abridged to about 12 songs, it would play as a much better album. Joji’s talent as both a songwriter and performer is undeniable since BALLADS 1. He’s shifted his sonics to inconsistent success. Though this work is a symptom of the maneuvers that got him to this point, the strength of the work often shines through the cracks.


A ‘Smile’ filled with cavities

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Smile, Capitol

When it comes to bubblegum, sometimes, if chewed too long, it grows stale.

The recently tumultuous career of pop superstar and record breaker Katy Perry has reached an impasse. After 2017’s Witness was a personal disaster for the singer, Perry felt the need to recalibrate to the sound that shot her to fame. It;s not a strange move for a pop star of her level. Actually, it’s more of a learned track; a crutch used to course correct a media attacked image. From Taylor Swift’s reputation follow up Lover to Britney Spears’ Blackout successor Circus, pop stars often toe the line between light and darkness driven by their public perception at the time.

The problem with notions like these is that, because these artists are so far removed from the everyman, they often overestimate how necessary sonic retreads are. Witness, while a huge underperformer relative to Perry’s previous work, had its moments. “Chained to the Rhythm” is an expertly crafted pop single that painted the national political anxiety that was suddenly spread throughout America.

The entire LP was a failed experiment, but that doesn’t suggest an artist should stop taking risks altogether. Unfortunately, musicians at this level of commercial success often feel the pressure to appeal to the masses at the expense of their artistry. Smile is a symptom of that – a fine, middle of the road pop record that the listener will listen to once, hopefully in full, and immediately forget about once it’s completed its run.

Even fireworks have to fizzle out eventually.

The album’s narrative largely tells a tale of personal redemption. Opening with “Never Really Over,” a year-old smash single, Perry expresses the undying nature of a deep love. Regardless of its existence in the present moment, it marks her forever. Sampling Dagny’s incredible “I Love You Like That,” the song remains the strongest on the album.

The following songs are disappointing, spreading platitudes of self-love, growth, and resiliency. The latter theme spotlit on “Resilient,” is a grating chant with little to offer but juvenile lyricism. This plague continues on “Cry About It Later” and “Teary Eyes.” The former, meant to be the anchor single of the album’s release, features one of the weakest hooks in the singer’s discography to date. At the time of this writing, its difficult to recall what “Teary Eyes” sounds like – it’s that forgettable.

Draping her best Post Malone costume, Perry adopts a hip hop beat with “Not the End of the World.” Again, it’s not a horrible track, it simply lacks a personality sharp enough to leave an impression on the listener. Perry, as fans know her from Teenage Dream and Prism, dissolves beneath the smoke and mirrors of desperate mass appeal.

This is perhaps no more obvious than on the title track, single “Smile.” Its repetitive, concise, and boring. Where most songs have bridges, the track showcases what was meant to be a dance break, but instead feels like a rapper missed his deadline to throw a watered down verse in support of the singer.

The album, while filled with cavities, beams in moments. Most previously released tracks are great. “Daisies” accomplishes what other positive anthems on the record fail to get across. Its stadium boom and powerful vocal elevate it from the crowd of shrugs. “Harleys in Hawaii” is another tasty treat. It features Perry’s signature lower register, seductively taking listeners with her on a one on one vacation. She’s in love on the track, and rarely for this album, it feels authentic.

The final two tracks, “Only Love” and “What Makes A Woman,” continue the conclusion on a high. The former, surely succumbing to the clichés of earlier moments on Smile, is set apart for its honest lyrics. The track is truly personal to Perry’s experience, allowing the viewer a chance to empathize.

The soft punctuation of “What Makes A Woman” ends the album well enough. It encapsulates the main takeaway of the record; Perry has recovered from personal strife, but her music has yet to progress and push any more boundaries.


Monét hunts for stardom on ‘JAGUAR’

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JAGUAR, Tribe Records

Powerful and mysterious, Victoria Monét embodies the jungle cat with charisma on the aptly titled JAGUAR. A small collection of 9 impressive tracks, the album is a slight showcase of Monét as she continues to grow into herself.

The R&B singer songwriter is no stranger to the industry. Backing one of the biggest albums of 2019 in thank u, next, its increasingly clear how deeply the artist influenced the latest sound of Ariana Grande – one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. Her name is credited on nearly every song on the record, pointing to her ability to encapsulate the vernacular and attitudes of a new generation.

JAGUAR is not much different. While a significant shift from the work on the aforementioned juggernaut of a pop album, the project exists in a similar lyrical playground. Like the animal she embodies, Monét stalks the line of surface pop and more meaningful messages of self-empowerment and confidence. It plays as an extended resume for an artist still waiting for her increasingly imminent day in the sun.

Opening with the previously released “Moment,” Monét declares herself as an up next A-lister. “So fuck a fantasy, this your motherfuckin’ moment,” she states. Both to the listener in herself, Monét instills a sense of confidence that immediately envelops the listener into the sultry funk of the record.

This sense of self-promotion continues on “Big Boss,” an smooth, silky interlude. It acts as a bridge perhaps the biggest standout on the album, “Dive.”

Similar to Wale and Rihanna’s “Bad,” the track’s production weaves the sound of a bed spring with classic funk in horns and drums. It slyly flips the script on the traditional R&B sex songs often put out by male performers. Monét is in complete control here, commanding her partner through a night in bed. The singer’s voice is immediately disarming on the track.

The crux of the album lays in its title track, “Jaguar.” The latest single off of the album, the track bridges the slower, more sensual R&B of the first half with the dance beats of the latter portion. More, it showcases some of the stickiest songwriting on the entire record, with Monét dissolving into her pop persona seamlessly. It paves the way for the fun collaboration with SG Lewis and Khalid in “Experience” and lead single “Ass Like That.”

The final two tracks continue the hot streak. With an album so slender, each song needs to have enough weight to standout. With JAGUAR, it’s evident Monét delicately strung together these songs to formulate the album’s world. “Go There With You” features the playful contemporary voice the singer penned on thank u, next. “We’re picking fights like its fortnite,” she asserts. Youthful and provocative, it’s a deep cut that bleeds gold.

Concluding the album is the sexually fluid “Touch Me.” Reminiscent of other R&B artists from Kehlani to SZA, the song is another smash. Describing the song in a discussion with Apple Music, Monét stated, “Instead of thinking about this song completing the project, I wanted it to be more of a pathway into part two for when the project completes itself as an album.” It’s the perfect “to be continued” title card, departing before overstaying its welcome.

The album is, well, a jaguar – light on its feet, quietly confident, and quick. At just 9 tracks, it’s a smooth shot of tequila. “Get to know me inside. If you love me, show me,” Monét pleads in the album’s final moment. It’s this call to action to everyone listening that she leaves listeners with.

Victoria Monet has declared her presence, and demands those supporting her to make it known.


Dominic Fike’s ‘What Could Possibly Go Wrong’ is some superstar shit

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What Could Possibly Go Wrong, Columbia Records

“Call me what you want, when you want, if you want,” Dominic Fike stated in his breakthrough single “3 Nights.” Aloof, monotonous, and oh so cool, the single instantly shot the singer into the realm of artists to be born out of the Frank Ocean incubator.

Drawing inspiration from the likes of the aforementioned mogul and his group Odd Future, Fike is one of many contemporary artists to blend pop, rap, and R&B in a way that feels like what can only be described as Gen Z punk. It’s brash, rebellious, and manic.

This cocktail of carnage continues as it’s spread across the sporadic and emotional tracks on Fike’s debut album What Could Possibly Go Wrong. Dropping the question mark, the album title is less a question than a powerful statement of what, exactly, has gone wrong for Fike throughout the early years of his still steadily progressing career.

Thematically weaving together tales of toxic relationships, family and self destruction, the project is, for better or worse, a concise, raw glimpse into the mind of the Florida artist. It plays largely like demo tapes, with Fike adopting an often jarring blend of rock, rap, R&B and pop. Its a free flowing stream of consciousness, decidedly messy and intentionally imperfect.

Opening with “Come Here,” Fike doesn’t grip the listener so much as he forces their attention on him. Like The 1975’s “People” off their recent project Notes On A Conditional Form, it’s an urgent, impactful introduction to the project.

Fike’s self destruction continues most notably on tracks “Superstar Sh*t,” “Cancel Me” and “What’s For Dinner?” On the former, Fike outlines the ongoing loss of a relationship that directly resulted from his sudden success and the pitfalls associated with fame in the digital age. Doubled down by the production, Fike sounds like he’s literally underwater, trapped and drowning in a bottle of his demons.

On “What’s For Dinner?” Fike perpetuates this narrative, discussing his struggles with drugs and alcohol and its influence on his personal relationships. “I just got back from the gastroenterologist. He told me that I can’t drink, so now I be high and shit,” he concedes, disappointed.

“Cancel Me” combines this mental strife with the family theme. The stickiest track on the album, “Cancel Me” is one of the strongest singular statements Fike offers. It’s an often tongue and check declaration of his apathy towards the Hollywood machine. Not only that, it influences thoughts of nostalgia and longing for a past life outlined on “Good Game.”

With “Good Game,” Fike creatively adopts the perspective of his father. A slower, sunnier track, it illustrates the flawed, encouraging support from Fike’s father. More important, it’s a depiction of his father’s ploy to motivate Fike away from suffering a similar fate. The safety of the guitar riffs envelopes Fike as he smoothly delivers the goods, free from the corruption and fraught nature of the LA music scene.

Fike takes a play from the book of John Mayer for “Vampire,” drawing inspiration from Mayer’s “Neon” and “Vultures.” The track’s opening guitar riff is immediately reminiscent of the former, with the titular bloodsucking nature of LA culture lending itself to the latter’s lyricism. The track is an evidently tired metaphor only forgiven by Fike’s charismatic delivery and sticky vocals.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong also outlines the facets of Fike’s romantic life through the lens of several relationships. The brilliance of this comes in the dichotomy of tracks “Why” and “Chicken Tenders.” On “Why,” Fike challenges his partner to think more deeply on why she navigates her suffocating job, relationships and colleagues with such complacency.

“You ever wonder why?” he asks her.

That rumination quickly resolves into one of the album’s more positive tracks “Chicken Tenders.” Living lavishly in a hotel room, Fike outlines the gluttonous glee of constant food and sex within the solace of a private environment.

That euphoria is proven fleeting, as outlined on one of the final track “Wurli.” Coming in towards the finish line, this gem of a song is easy to overlook, but it features some of the most emotionally palpable lyricism on the album. Painting the portrait of a relationship where Fike lacks all control, it adds another layer to the album’s toxicity.

The only main pitfall of the record is its length. Many of the songs feel unfinished, leaving the listener dissatisfied and longing for more.

Perhaps it was never meant to be finished. Rather, it’s a choice on an album where no decision feels rushed or accidental. Listeners are put in the frame of mind of the artist behind the curtain, feeling exasperated, fleetingly thrilled, and emotionally effected.


Taylor Swift outdoes herself on ‘folklore’

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folklore, Republic Records

Taylor Swift wasn’t kidding when she exclaimed, “I promise that you’ll never find another like me!” The hook to her 2019 album Lover‘s laughably bad lead single, the statement has never reigned more true than it does today.

Gone is any trace of that pop star. In her place is a daring songwriter unafraid to explore the depths of her emotion and mastery of narrative.

On the eve of its release, Swift announced folklore, a 16 song collection of indie folk songs birthed from the imagination of an indefinitely quarantined Taylor Swift. In describing the album, Swift states, “I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing from the perspective of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t.”

This diversity of perspective and point of view enriches Swift in a way listeners have yet to hear. In reflecting on her own life, Swift thinks of a childhood friend with a difficult home life (“seven”), cloaks herself in a fable of a woman seeking vengeance on a town that has wronged her (“mad woman”), and celebrates unconditional love (“invisible string”).

Swift extends her talents beyond herself, applying her imagination to the folklore that aptly titles the record. Blurring the lines of history and fiction, Swift creates a trilogy of nostalgic tracks. These songs (“cardigan,” “august,” and “betty”) play with time and perspective, depicting a high school love triangle and its permanence in the memories of each party.

Further expanding the already quietly epic saga are songs alluding to history. On “the last great american dynasty,” Swift tells the story of Rebekah Harkness and her Holiday House, the Rhode Island mansion Swift would come to own. Like “mad woman,” Swift delicately sprinkles herself in the story, weaving her own mistakes into the fabric of Harkness’s life and story. Similarly, one of the most poignant moments on the record comes in “epiphany,” during which Swift pays homage to her grandfather while empathetically thinking of health workers working on a new kind of front line.

Much of the strength of folklore lays in the proof that overexposure and fame taint even the strongest of creative minds. In fact, the singer’s strongest musical statements were created from the privacy of her several homes across the globe. From reputation‘s “Delicate” to Lover‘s “Cornelia Street,” Swift has come into her own as a private person.

This newfound seclusion has really given Swift the necessary space to thrive in her exploration of the craft that brought her so much obsessive scrutiny and attention.

With folklore, Swift takes this isolation a step further, veiling once on the nose songwriting in freshly tinged metaphor. With the help of The National’s Aaron Dessner, longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff, and indie king Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Swift begins again.

For the first time, Swift desolves beneath the surface of these stories. The music is no longer the diary of a naive suburban girl. This is a fully matured woman collecting scattered memories and stories, weaving them together in an intricate tapestry broadcasting the emotional spectrum. At its center, as it always is with Swift, is love.

This is an album Taylor herself needed to write, but the constraints of superstardom, pressures of pleasing the masses and those who dare lock her in a box prevented that, until now. Drawing inspiration from artists like Lana Del Rey (“cardigan,” “seven”) The Cranberrys (“august,” “mirrorball”), and sprinkles of her own past work (“Safe & Sound,” “Holy Ground”) Swift amplifies her songwriting. She shatters the magnifying glass that is the modern media’s exploitative infatuation with women in power.

In this deconstruction, Swift finally sheds the image she’s been running from since 2017’s reputation. With Lover acting as a necessary palette cleanser and closure to the pop chapter of the singer’s career, folklore is a new beginning in so many ways.

Many albums of this length, including some from Swift’s discography, unavoidably include a few duds. With this album, though, not a single song is worth skipping. While the final third of the album is noticeably slower, it only brightens the spotlight on Swift’s astonishing, unparalleled lyricism. Closing the album with “peace” and “hoax,” Swift challenges listeners to think of a better songwriter in the industry today, and they’ll likely struggle to muster one.

For anyone to doubt the limitless talents and constantly impressive metamorphosis of Taylor Swift at this point is as fleeting as the romance the singer relates on “august.” Unlike that subject matter, it will take more than a bottle of wine to sip away folklore.


Chloe x Halle level up on ‘Ungodly Hour’

Chloe x Halle, Ungodly Hour
Ungodly Hour, Parkwood Entertainment

There’s a moment in the middle of Chloe x Halle’s stunning sophomore effort, Ungodly Hour, when their evolved personas really take shape. “When you don’t have to think about it, love me at the ungodly hour,” the duo coos on the title track.

Its this newfound confidence, self-assuredness and effortless cool that echoes throughout the immaculate 13-track collection. The duo has evolved as artists, women and performers – and this development shines as brightly as the chrome angel wings on the album’s artwork.

Drawing inspiration from modern and 80s Pop, throwback R&B, Hip Hop and elements of Blues, Chloe x Halle are able to refine the strongest sounds of their debut The Kids Are Alright and double down on what sets them apart from peers in their genre.

The album is instantly gripping with “Intro” and “Forgive Me,” establishing the two as strong, unapologetic, and independent. The openers immediately set the tone for a complete evolution.

The self-actualization continues on “Baby Girl,”  a tropically influenced mid tempo bop. More, the track is an internal pep talk to keep pushing and turning dreams into realities.

This narrative bleeds into the album’s second single, their most accessible track to date in “Do It.” Light, groovy, and lots of fun, “Do It” could be the breakout that shoots the duo to superstardom.

One of the strongest elements to the record is its cheeky attitude. It’s abundantly clear Chloe x Halle are having fun on several of these tracks. On “Tipsy,” the sisters playfully threaten their lovers with a fatal ultimatum. “If you love your little life, don’t fuck up,” they command.

On “Busy Boy,” the singers kiss off immature boys and their wandering, noncommittal attitudes. Both tracks lean heavily in the pop space, a perfect reflection of the lyrical tone of the songs.

“Ungodly Hour” is a well kept secret and pleasant surprise. Chloe x Halle enlist the help of Disclosure for production on the track, a well placed declaration of their worth.

Ironically, one of the weaker moments on Ungodly Hour comes in the some of the biggest collaborations. Mike WILL Made-It and Swae Lee visit to deliver “Catch Up,” the album’s decent but forgettable lead single. Its the rare moment on the record that feels overly pandering to an audience more than happy to sit back and hear the exclusive talents of the songstresses.

Arriving at “Overwhelmed,” one of the many stripped down vocal gymnastic interludes the women have made their signature, Chloe x Halle take the opportunity to be vulnerable. Maintaining the bounce of rest of the tracks, “Lonely” dives deeper with lyrics that are so intimate it feels as if Chloe x Halle are in the room with the listeners, comforting them with words of affirmation.

They turn the attention inward on the final moments of the album. “Don’t Make It Harder On Me” relates the complexity of being in a relationship when someone else grabs one’s attention. The song may have benefitted from a quieter production with the vocals taking up more of the spotlight, but it remains a gripping and vocally impressive inclusion to the track list.

“Wonder What She Thinks of Me” succeeds where “Harder on Me” falters. Halle’s vocals are astonishing, only further supplemented by the emotion delivered by Chloe. Their complementary sounds have never blended better than on this track.

What’s most brilliant about the record and the multi-talented Chloe x Halle is just that – their talent. Bringing together innovative production (“Tipsy”), unparalleled vocals (“Don’t Make it Harder On Me”) and nuanced songwriting (“Lonely”), the duo are unmatched in focus and consistency.

Ending with “ROYL,” Chloe x Halle remind the listener they are still the playful girls of The Kids Are Alright. Only now, they have scars and mistakes, and they are better for them.

“Watch out world, I’m grown now,” Chloe x Halle asserted on their debut. With Ungodly Hour, they prove it.


Gaga repairs her wings in ‘Chromatica’

What do you call a Mad Max themed gay club?

Chromatica.

"Chromatica," Lady Gaga
Chromatica, Interscope Records

A self-described dance record, Chromatica is extremely theatrical – an operatic symphony set to the best club soundscapes of the last few decades. Executive produced by BloodPop, the album is an extremely singular vision through which Gaga can fully execute her storytelling.

The record has a clear three-act structure, broken into segments by “Chromatica” interludes each setting the tone and providing delicious musical segues into each chapter. The story reveals itself to be one of redemption. In Act 1, Gaga seeks a love, fails, and is left to pick up the pieces. Act 2, specifically outstanding for the segue into “911,” tests her strengths and her grieving process, exposing moments of weakness and pain intercut with episodes of extreme confidence and progression. It isn’t until Act 3 when Gaga discovers her one true love: music. With the help of Elton John, whose personal narrative immaculately thematically aligns with the album’s story, Gaga expresses this.

Like many pop albums before it, when the flamboyance of Chromatica is stripped away, it is a classic tale of overcoming heartbreak. The point isn’t to tell an unfamiliar story – it rarely is in pop music. Instead, its to welcome the listener into a world of hope that transcends any sort of turmoil they are feeling.

Gaga and her producers’ ambition knows no bounds on Chromatica. The cohesive sound is impressively maintained throughout the album’s 16 tracks. This is as much an asset as it is a weak point. Several songs on the record build endurance only to be undercut by an underwhelming or trivial dance break.

Most prominently suffering from this anticlimax is “Rain On Me,” Gaga’s viral smash with Ariana Grande. Where it resonated with a public looking for hope and acceptance in an incredibly strange time, the track remains, well, not that good.

Like her duet with Elton John (“Sine From Above”), this collaboration utilizes the history of the guest artist to enrich the theme of the song. Anyone who knows Grande knows she has dealt with a lot in the past few years, not to mention her artistic imagery featuring rain and tear, and “Rain On Me” is a good fit because of this.

That said, the single suffers from a less than stellar chorus with the post chorus following suit.

Similar are later tracks “Enigma” and “Replay.” Featured in the album’s second act, the two songs encapsulate the duality of strength and weakness Gaga faced post breakup. In the context of the album, their presence is clear. As single tracks, both are easily forgotten.

Not all of the middle section of the album is like this, nor is the album generally. BLACKPINK lends a much needed injection of style and sleekness to the record, deepening Chromatica with the strongest club banger on the album. “Sour Candy” is a sultry, confident bop from a group of women expertly balancing their sex appeal and power.

Equally euphoric is solo standout “Free Woman.” One of the few tracks to reflect inward, it’s confident and one of the more danceable tunes on the album. The mode of communication Gaga utilizes here lyrically lays in subtext. What often appear as basic pop melodies are really layered insights into Gaga at this point in her life.

Another great example of this is the track “Plastic Doll.” Gaga fittingly uses the seasoned metaphor of the novel female pop artist – the plastic doll that everyone loves, for a time. She’s top shelf, meaning she can withstand the short attention spans and sexist career cycles of women in her genre. Underneath all of these appearances, though, is a deep sadness stemming from the broken-hearted insecurity within the artist.

While it has clear highlights, some of the record comes off painfully commercial. It’s a far cry from the “art pop” the singer has intended to be known for. Where albums Born This Way and The Fame had a lot to say under their glossy production, Chromatica does little to transcend the lived in heartbreak narrative. It lacks the edge that made her two strongest albums pop classics.

Chromatica closes with Gaga’s best “Vogue” impression under the pseudonym “Babylon.” Meant to close the album on a confident note, Madonna’s presence is palpable and impossible to ignore. If nothing more than slightly jarring, its enough fun to hear on the ride home from Chromatica.

At the end of it all, the record sounds exactly as expected. Fans of strobe swaying Gaga will lose it over the collection, while those looking for something new or innovative will shrug and move on as if they never heard the record.

In other words, Chromatica is for the Little Monsters turned Kindness Punks. For proof, see the type of merch Team Gaga is selling.


‘Dedicated Side B’ arrives just in time for summer

Sitting on a pile of songs and not sure which to release? Drop two albums!

Thinking about which hook works better with a certain song? Record both!

Carly Rae Jepsen has had an interesting career in pop music over the last decade. She burst onto the scene with the enduring earworm “Call Me Maybe,” a single that shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June 2012 and became an even bigger cultural moment for that entire summer season.

With the accompanying album’s release, Kiss, it became apparent that the singer would simply be a one hit wonder.

While that remains incredibly untrue, Jepsen has never really reached the commercial heights she did with “Call Me Maybe” nearly a decade ago. Instead, and for the better, she’s found her niche audience, producing volumes of expertly crafted pop music for true fans of the genre.

In 2015, Jepsen released one of the best albums of the decade with Emotion. Track after track, the 80s inspired dance record is incredibly fun and even more interesting. Jepsen’s unique vocal and doe-eyed perspective is escapist heaven for the listener. That isn’t to say the album didn’t have thought provoking or cheeky tunes (see “Boy Problems” and “LA Hallucinations”). The album undeperformed commercially, but remains discussed in the pop music conversation.

Doubling down in that sweet spot was Dedicated in 2019. More of the same A-list pop, Dedicated took a more indie approach, with key highlights in opener “Julien” and Jack Antonoff soaked “Want You in My Room.”

As if the album didn’t have enough bangers, Jepsen unveils Dedicated Side B. The 12-song collection is a homerun lap celebrating the sound of Dedicated with a tinge of spice. From tropical soundscapes to 80s synths, the expansive confection is delightfully breezy.

The album is a clear celebration of love. It bleeds passion and positivity, painting a portrait of unconditional love Jepsen feels for the source subject. Side A, ironically, is the better half. The front 5 songs are each incredible in their own right.

The electropop opener “This Love Isn’t Crazy” sets the tone before stripping things down for the funky groove of album standout “Window.” Both songs adopt a narrative of Jepsen encouraging her partner their love is worth fighting for.

Following these are “Felt This Way” and “Stay Away,” two sides of the same coin. Using a very similar interpolation and identical lyrics, both tracks shine and work well in the context of the tracklist. Finally, “This Is What They Say” is the cherry on top the first lap of songs, acting as the most danceable tune thus far on Side B.

The album begins to lose steam as it intentionally slows down with “Heartbeat.” It becomes clear why the next few tracks were left of the original Dedicated, but things comeback with “Comeback.” Joined by Bleachers, Jepsen turns inward for a song about herself. It’s a beautiful moment in the album even further enriched by Antonoff’s assist. It could just as easily been featured on Bleachers’ 2017 album Gone Now.

Continuing to rejuvenate the record is the high energy “Solo,” a song about a night of independent fun sitting a top a waterbed of synth. Its the perfect embodiment of dancing away the pain of heartache.

The album closes with “Now I Don’t Hate California After All,” a slightly jarring, but extremely cute closer. Its beachy production rounds out the lyrics about the golden state. Not too deep or thoughtful, the surface level mid tempo jam is nothing but fun.

That seems to be the intent of the record. Arriving in time for the beginning of the summer, Dedicated Side B is a slight, fun pop album and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Would it have been stronger abridged to an EP? Maybe, but volume and feeding her fans consistent tunes has always been Jepsen’s game – and it still pays off.