Sam Smith finds his voice on ‘The Thrill of It All’

In 2014, Sam Smith took the world by storm with his smash hit song, “Stay With Me.” The single, and subsequent debut album In the Lonely Hour, went on to become widely successful. Smith earned several Grammy awards for “Stay With Me” and the entire record. The collection produced fan favorites like “Lay Me Down” and “I’m Not the Only One.”

Following this surprising and record-breaking success, the pop singer recorded “Writing’s On the Wall” for the latest James Bond film, winning an Oscar in the process. Soon after, though, the artist vanished from the spotlight.

"The Thrill of It All" Sam Smith
The Thrill of It All, Sam Smith

After three long years, Sam Smith returned with a sharper, more focused record. The Thrill of It All presents a more confident artist who knows who he is and what style suits him best. Unlike In the Lonely Hour, Smith’s sophomore LP retains a more cohesive sound throughout its 14 tracks. It is less experimental and far superior to the singer’s already impressive debut project.

The Thrill of It All is a soulful album that features very simple instrumentation. Its sound may remind listeners of other artists like the late Amy Winehouse or Adele, an artist who continues to record old fashioned records with mass appeal. 

Thrill opens with the lead single “Too Good at Goodbyes.” Smith sings of his familiarity with betrayal and heartache — emotions he now shields himself from. The rest of the album continues to discuss the multi-faceted beast that is love, while delving into concepts like identity, spirituality, and the strange dichotomy they seem to present.

One key track is “HIM,” where Smith sings about his desire to feel at home in a church while also being able to have a relationship with another man. The track’s gospel theme contradicts the sacrilegious narrative to profound ends.

Other tracks discuss Smith’s current dissatisfaction with the ways of the world. “Pray,” for example, presents a worried Smith fearful of the current political turbulence. On another track, “Scars,” Smith delves deeper into his past family life, exposing deeply personal pieces of himself. 

Although the album is very strong in terms of lyrics and production, it’s somewhat slow pace causes the record to drag a little bit toward the end of its run time. Those who can lose themselves in his voice and storytelling will overlook the slow tempo of most tracks, while others may succumb to their boredom.

Like his first album, The Thrill of It All has a plethora of love songs. The singer discusses the highs and lows of relationships. He presents himself as the victim and antagonist. He laments a past flame on “Burning” and “Palace,” while reflecting on his decision to leave a lover on “Midnight Train.”

The Thrill of It All may very well be the Smith’s magnum opus. It’s straightforward production allows the singer to drive the project with his emotive voice. While each song has a similar sound, the lyrical diversity truly distinguishes each track. It would not be surprising if the collection of songs was recognized at next year’s Grammys.


Miley Cyrus’ ‘Younger Now’ is a well-intended mess

Foam fingers, nipple tassels and mini pig tails — these are just a few of the iconic objects popularized by Miley Cyrus. Throughout her career, the pop singing sensation has consistently shocked, surprised and horrified many people. 

"Younger Now" Miley Cyrus
Younger Now, Miley Cyrus

On her latest album Younger Now, Cyrus trades twerking for twang — the pop star has shedded her highly sexualized persona and replaced it with a level-headed country girl.

Cyrus began her rebranding after almost a decade of experimentation and controversy. This began with the release of Younger Now’s lead single “Malibu” earlier this summer. The single was much more understated than any of her previous work, and it presented a tame Miley which went deliberately against her previous declarations. The single was strong in its simplicity, as was its follow-up “Inspired.”

Younger Now’s release cycle shifted gears with the obvious Bangerz era apology track “Younger Now” where the album gets its name. The track is poorly written, and the vocalization feels eerily halfhearted. If Cyrus claims she’s “not afraid of who [she] used to be,” why would she try so hard to rebrand herself?

Many of the tracks on the record are just as vapid.

The album is boring and forgettable, and in going back to her roots, Cyrus loses what made her so popular. The singer is known for her powerful voice, yet the album’s ambient production overshadows that. She comes across as monotonous a lot of the time.

This is due to the juvenile songwriting throughout, especially on tracks like “Bad Mood” and “Thinkin’.” What’s interesting, though, is that Cyrus’s music felt more authentic on Bangerz than on Younger Now. Where Bangerz showed Cyrus unapologetically breaking boundaries and testing limits, Younger Now feels, though well-intended, haphazard and messy. 

Younger Now can be compared to Lady Gaga’s latest effort Joanne.

Both projects attempt to find some sort of authenticity and take confessional approaches. Further, they aim to blend country and pop, a feat no one has accomplished since Taylor Swift’s career-making Fearless in 2008. Cyrus attempts to redefine herself and show audiences the kind of artist she truly is. Younger Now is just as cultivated as Cyrus’s previous work. The only difference, however, is how uninteresting this new image is. 

The peak of Cyrus’s contrived madness came with what remains her best album to date: Bangerz. The record came out of nowhere and spawned three hits: “We Can’t Stop,” “Wrecking Ball” and “Adore You.” The songs were each accompanied by videos designed to spark conversations, though their content was compelling enough to stand out on its own. “Adore You” features some of Cyrus’s most emotional, raw and intriguing lyrics and vocals. She knew Bangerz would be controversial, and the contention was what made the record so phenomenal.

Cyrus continued to experiment with different sounds, as she was experimenting with substances like cannabis. Her free album Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz was equally as ambitious as Bangerz. It showed the singer delving into psychedelic pop and freeing herself of the constraints of mainstream pop music. The songs “Karen Don’t Be Sad” and “Dooo It!” are both unique and show a different side of the Nashville native.

Cyrus’s latest project was intended to be accessible to the masses — to bridge the divide worsened by today’s political climate. By toning down everything that made her stand out, Cyrus fails to say anything of substance. Younger Now is decidedly passive and therefore falls victim of dullness. For an artist who made a career out of surprising, and often extremely interesting, music, Cyrus failed to make a compelling “back to roots” album.


‘Melodrama’ encapsulates young life, alone

“Brand new sounds, in my mind,” sings a now 20 year-old Lorde on “Green Light”, the first single off the pop phenomenon’s sophomore record Melodrama.

Lorde, Melodrama Cover
Melodrama, Republic Records

This introductory phrase describes the new era of Lorde’s music perfectly. While not all the sounds linked to Pure Heroine are absent from the New Zealand singer’s second record, Melodrama feels more cinematic – more expansive and exploratory in sound. It uses various sounds to capture the complex feelings Lorde possesses during this phase of her life.

Lorde has described Melodrama as a concept album depicting a house party. The album is an introspective journey of the psyche. It has that sense of euphoric madness (“Green Light”, “Homemade Dynamite”), that feeling of loneliness and existentialism (“Liability”, “Writer in the Dark”), and that closure and relief one fights hard to find after a night of romance and partying (“Supercut”, “Liability (Reprise)”, “Perfect Places”).

Melodrama is a very experimental album.

Lorde takes many risks, and the results are mostly successful. The artist has grown vocally and lyrically. She has gained experience and perspective on life since the surprise success of Pure Heroine launched her into the limelight.

She explains the confusion, euphoria, and complexity of being young on “Green Light”. She further explores the physical and emotional hangover of a night of partying with “Sober II (Melodrama)”.

Throughout the partying, Lorde navigates the depths of her own emotion. The memories flash before her like a “Supercut”. She remembers the beautiful beginning stages of a relationship on “The Louvre”, the first signs of trouble with “Liability”, and the bitter end on “Writer in the Dark”.

The album takes snapshots of these emotions and brings them into a party setting. The songstress is able to portray universal feelings of detachment and solitude, putting them into the context of the iPhone generation.

The songs are incredibly well-produced, with Jack Antonoff overseeing the bulk of the project. The main issue with Melodrama is the record’s flow. It feels choppy at times, most especially the transition from “Hard Feelings” to “Sober II”. The songs are both strong on their own, but the musical transition is jarring. Further, “The Louvre” is the only track that demands an immediate second play.

Melodrama will inevitably draw several comparisons to Pure Heroine. While it may never reach the heights of Lorde’s debut record, it will stand alone as a strong body of work. Its diverse array of sounds, masterful lyrics, and thought-provoking themes are enough to satisfy fans and may draw in new listeners.

This Lorde is different. She is more hopeful and less apathetic about the world around her. Where Pure Heroine was a time capsule of teenage life, Melodrama is the bridge to adult life – uncertainty and all.


‘DAMN.,’ Kendrick

“Y’all got ’til April the 7th to get y’all sh–—t together,” raps Kendrick Lamar in his first single of 2017, “The Heart Part IV.” This line, and the entire song, sent the world into chaos in anticipation of a new Lamar project. Since the beginning of his career, Lamar has been known for his powerful lyrics and dense, conceptual albums.

Kendrick Lamar, "DAMN."
DAMN., Vlad Sepetov

With Section.80, Lamar introduced himself as an artist in a troubled community. He explored more deeply his struggles in Compton that listeners first heard in the instant 2012 classic, good kid, m.A.A.d city. With To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015, Lamar did the opposite of what rappers do today. The rapper avoided capitalizing on his successes with a mainstream project, releasing the jarring, jazz-influenced record, a commentary on racism in modern America and the corrupt relationship between label and artist.

Lamar’s impressive work only increased hopes for his latest project, DAMN., which was released on April 14. Unsurprisingly, Lamar exceeds expectations with an album unlike any he has ever released before. DAMN. features a much more straightforward and familiar approach to its production. The narrative is more loosely constructed than that of his previous albums, but the record is still cohesive. It delves into several issues the Compton rapper has discussed before but in a new, creative way. Additionally, it discusses new issues faced by the rapper in the current peak of his career.

The album opens with the calm introduction, “BLOOD.” Lamar tells a story of himself on the street approaching a blind woman, attempting to help her. The blind woman then shoots the fictional Lamar. Her blindness parallels that of the ignorant people in America today. The track concludes with an excerpt from a FOX News broadcast in which Lamar’s previously released single “Alright” is criticized for glorifying violence.

The track segues into the album’s first full track, “DNA.,” in which Lamar celebrates his heritage and the qualities of a rapper today. The song sets the tone for the rest of the record, and it establishes the complexity of the record and Lamar himself. The next track, “YAH.,” continues Lamar’s criticism of FOX News. He claims the news show manipulates Lamar’s name in order to gain ratings from viewers. Kendrick Lamar struggles with his star presence in the media because he feels it fails to accurately represent his artistry.

The next track, “ELEMENT.,”  is another response to the criticism thrown at Lamar throughout his career. Lamar raps that he will never be taken away from his craft and will continue to focus solely on his art despite the distractions. The chorus suggests that if Lamar must call out his peers and indulge in the pettiness of “beef” with other artists, he will do so in his signature style. One line in the song, “I don’t do it for the ’Gram, I do it for Compton” implies he makes music for his community, not for social media consumers.

“FEEL.” is the next track on DAMN., and it is a self-aware analysis of Lamar and the world around him. His status as a star makes him feel isolated, but in a way, he wants this isolation.

The following song, “LOYALTY.,” shows Lamar and superstar Rihanna rapping about remaining true to friendships and romantic relationships. Of course, Lamar takes this a step further and questions the audience, asking them if they are loyal to honest ideals or simply materialistic things. Rihanna closes the track by stating the difficulty of remaining humble with so much success, directly bridging this track with the next one, “PRIDE.” This track reveals Lamar at odds with himself, further emphasized by the shift in his voice from a high to low pitch throughout the track. This track delves into the overall concept of duality throughout the album — the conflict between indulging in self-promotion and doing the right thing.

The next track, “HUMBLE.,” picks up the pace of the record, directly opposing “PRIDE.” It shows Lamar satirically boasting his successes, while urging his peers to be humble about their accomplishments. Continuing on the duality theme, the next tracks, “LUST.” and “LOVE.,” complement each other.

“LUST.” discusses the monotony of a rapper’s lifestyle, and Kendrick’s tired voice implies this throughout the track. The lust refers to that of sex, wealth, and fame and success. “LOVE.”, one of Kendrick’s most beautiful tracks, shifts from the idea of lust and gives an ode to Kendrick’s fiancé, Whitney Alford. The soft tone remains for the political “XXX.”, but an abrupt beat change parallels the themes of the track. Kendrick addresses the ideals of youth in the hood, describing “Johnny”’s desire to be a rapper. The surprise guest Bono provides a chorus in which he describes America has a “sound of drum and bass”, a place filled with gunshots and violence. 

The last few tracks of the record continue to maintain the themes of religion, pride and discontent with the world. “FEAR.” is a seven-minute epic that takes listeners through his life. At age seven, Lamar feared being beaten for misbehaving or showing any weakness. At 17, he was afraid of being yet another kid in a body bag. At 27, his self-doubt and fear of being judged overpowered him. The fear of judgment continues in “GOD.,” in which Lamar equates himself to God, only to be humbled by Him. This relates to earlier in the album, when he tells his peers to be humble.

The final track “DUCKWORTH.,” tells Lamar’s amazing origin story. Its narrative follows the young lives of Anthony, the head of Lamar’s record label Top Dawg Entertainment, and Lamar’s father, Ducky. Ducky worked at KFC and gave Anthony, known for shooting up establishments, extra food to get on his good side. Because Ducky survived the encounter, Lamar is able to fulfill his prophecy as the greatest rapper alive today.

DAMN. is yet another conceptually fascinating album from Lamar. It has a more mainstream production than that of To Pimp a Butterfly, but that only helps the album. Because the production is not complex to comprehend in and of itself, listeners can focus more on the bars in each song. The lyrics are some of Lamar’s best, and the diversity of the tracks is impressive. As he said he would, Lamar has created yet another classic.


Less love, ‘More Life’

Music distribution has changed drastically over the last few years. With the introduction of streaming platforms like Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music, artists have tailored their marketing strategies to fit new trends in music streaming. One such artist is R&B and hip-hop artist Drake.

More Life, Drake
More Life, Republic Records

In 2016, Drake released his fourth and most commercially successful studio album Views. The album broke sales records and set a new trend for streaming in the new age of music.

Where Views failed to garner the critical acclaim of the rapper’s earlier work, it succeeded among fans. The record’s success led to a stadium tour that only further established Drake as the biggest rapper in music today.

In keeping with the momentum of his Summer Sixteen Tour, Drake announced his new playlist More Life in late November. What sets the 22-song set apart from a mixtape or studio album is its informal presentation. The stream-of-consciousness narrative provides scattered glimpses into Drake’s life. More Life is better than Views in several ways, and Drake brilliantly utilizes a new and original marketing strategy to release the project.

Drake and his label OVO debuted the More Life playlist on the 39th episode of OVO Sound Radio, a radio station on Apple Music. This release strategy allowed Drake to be more experimental with the work.

The work opens with back to back uptempo tracks “Free Smoke” and “No Long Talk (feat. Giggs).” With these introductory songs, Drake reminds his listeners that he’s still the champion of rap and can set aside his softer side, replacing it with harder flows.

After these tracks, though, Drake returns to his successful dancehall formula with the tracks “Passionfruit,” “Get it Together,” “Madiba Riddim” and “Blem.”

While some of these tracks are far stronger than others, their aesthetic is comforting and provides fans of “One Dance” and “Controlla” with more of the same. One track, “Jorja’s Interlude,” even contains a sample of Drake’s own “Doing It Wrong,” implying the artist is seeking to reclaim the glory associated with his critical peak Take Care.

While the curation of More Life is impressive and original, it does not earn points for originality. Like on Views, Drake is plagued by the alienation of being at the top of the music industry. More Life perpetuates the already tired subject matter associated with much of Views.

What’s most interesting is that these attitudes possessed by Drake are addressed by his own mother on the track “Can’t Have Everything.” Drake’s mom urges him to adopt a more uplifting mindset. This positivity is reflected in the tracks “Ice Melts” and “Do Not Disturb.” “Ice Melts” provided a lighter tone that was absent from the overserious Views, and More Life could have benefited from more tracks like it. While More Life indulges in a lot of the same subject matter, it shows Drake working to return to form.

In terms of content, More Life is typical Drake. It shows the superstar using the same conversation topics to say the same things. More Life‘s saving grace is its style. Featuring popular artists and rappers such as Young Thug, Travis Scott, Sampha and Quavo, More Life exceeds Drake’s sonic comfort zone. “Do Not Disturb” is an outro that perfectly reflects the playlist’s nuances.

While inconsistent in quality, More Life is an ambitious addition to Drake’s discography.


Kehlani brings the heat on ‘SweetSexySavage’

“Typical story of an Oakland girl, typical story heard around the world,” an exasperated Kehlani Parrish sings on “Not Used to It.” The R&B singer, known for her performances on America’s Got Talent and mixtapes in recent years has anything but a typical story and her album proves it.

SSS Kehlani
SweetSexySavage, Atlantic Records

In the years following her America’s Got Talent opportunity, Nick Canon contact Parrish after hearing her music on SoundCloud. From the conversation came two mixtapes, one of which, You Should Be Here, earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album. 

Immediately building off this momentum, Kehlani trekked back to the studio to record her official debut album, SweetSexySavage.

Getting SweetSexySavage released was a long, difficult process for Parrish. The singer/songwriter had a rough few months leading into the album’s release, coming close suicide after several tumultuous personal expierences – some in the eye of the public. 

Her past experiences all appear on the record in some form. The album holds 17 tracks on its standard version, and although some fail to make a lasting impression, the album is rich with vulnerable lyrics and a layered production.

The album has many themes, primarily the three in the title. 

Kehlani shows multiple sides of herself on the record. On songs like “Advice,” “Hold Me By the Heart” and the closing “Thank You,” Kehlani is at her most vulnerable. With “Advice,” Kehlani ponders why she allows herself to endure the pain of a broken relationship. In “Hold Me By the Heart,” she pleads with her lover to sweep her up and help her through life. In “Thank You,” Kehlani shows her genuine appreciation for the fans that helped her through a rough time and allowed her to make the record. Her authenticity is felt not only through the lyrics, but through the emotion of her voice as well.

On the more sexy side are songs like the juggernauts “Distraction” and “Undercover.” “Distraction” was one of the lead singles, and deservedly so. It is a surefire pop hit that has that sexy R&B flare many look for in mainstream radio. “Undercover” is not as powerful, but it is a smooth jam that takes Kehlani to the bedroom.

Finally, Kehlani expresses her power throughout the “Savage” tracks. These include “CRZY,” “Do U Dirty” and “Too Much.” While all are strong songs, “CRZY” and “Too Much” are two of the records’ best songs. 

“CRZY,” the album’s lead single, shows Kehlani proving her worth as a badass. It is the perfect showcase for how powerful her vocals can get. This will surely be a highlight during her Coachella set in April. “Too Much” skillfully samples Aaliyah’s “More Than a Woman.” It shows Kehlani’s growth in relationships, with her moving on and establishing herself as too good for her lover and his games.

The dense SweetSexySavage excels with its sleek production. 

Kehlani’s ability to tell stories in the format of these songs is refreshing, as confessionals are usually more raw in instrumentation. Her advanced lyrics catapult the singer past several more traditional pop artists of today, and this album ensures her trajectory to amass a larger following. Though a few tracks could have been left out in the final cut, the overall product is diverse and always entertaining. 

Kehlani will only improve from here.


Bruno Mars over confidently presents new album ’24K Magic’

After a four-year hiatus, Bruno Mars finally returns to the music scene with 24K Magic, his third studio album.

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24K Magic, Atlantic Records

Mars has been known for releasing sleek, concise albums that integrate catchy hooks into a strong cohesive work. This is still the case, as he captures the funk and soul he strived for with the creation of this album. 

With only nine songs, 24K Magic plays at a mere 33 minutes. The first half of the songs on the record is high tempo, high energy and incredibly catchy. Nearly every song on the album is produced by first time producers Shampoo Press & Curl.

In the second half of the album, Mars slows things down with ballads that resemble those of Michael Jackson during the height of his career. While the production is clean and well-mixed, the ballads can’t support the shallow lyrics present on most of the album.

Mars kicks off the album with “24K Magic,” an electrifying introduction to his new sound. For the first time, Mars establishes himself as a top dog and boasted about his riches. While the song is undeniably catchy and sounds like a younger sibling to the Mark Ronson collaboration “Uptown Funk,” it feels like a sellout.

One of the most troubling lyrics within the opening song is, “bad b—tches and your ugly ass friends.” Gone were the serenading words of chart-topping hits such as “Locked Out of Heaven” and “Just the Way you Are.”

Mars sounds less like he would catch a grenade for his lover and more like he would refer to women as grenades with this new attitude. 

Mars soon undercuts this attitude, however, with the second song “Chunky.” The mid-tempo jam has Mars describing his ideal woman. Its catchy, funky and empowering. This duality is an example of much of the back and forth Mars takes in describing women in the album.

Following “That’s What I Like” is the album’s second pre-released single “Versace on the Floor.” With a resemblance to “When I Was Your Man,” Mars slows things down for a powerful ballad with a synth backed by handclaps. The song is sexy and catchy, but easily forgettable compared to the other tracks on the record.

“Finesse” provides a much-needed beat change for the record, but its content is too hollow to reignite the excitement of the early tracks on “24K Magic.” Mars closes the album with a more raw, slow-burning ballad “Too Good to Say Goodbye.” The song represents the deeper, meaningful lyrics Mars is generally known for. The song saves the album from being completely hollow. 

With 24K Magic, Bruno Mars brought together a collection of songs into what could be his most sonically cohesive album yet. While the lyrical content at times felt shallow and insincere, Mars clearly had a lot of fun in the recording process. Fans of his previous work will mostly be satisfied by the fun, danceable tracks on the album. The record was undoubtedly fun and smooth, but it was not deep enough to warrant a second or third listen.