Semipop Life: Tinashe say relax
Tee Grizzley, PinkPantheress, Lil Nas X, Loona, Illuminati Hotties, and much more!
Her second album on her own label, and whether because of independence, maturity, or free samples of Jay-Z’s new high-end weed brand, she finally sounds relaxed enough about her fun that I can share in it. There’s a sense of play in her vocals, whether fucking around in her upper register or effortlessly switching between rappy singing and melodic talking. The album charts, not entirely linearly, the course of a relationship from attraction to wild sex to break-up to looking at love from both sides now. She’s open to the possibility of going long-term (whatever that means in LA) as long as it’s on her terms, and if it didn’t work out this time, there are dirty pictures in the cloud to remember it by. Beats are mostly slightly alt while keeping the bass bouncin’. The exception is when she goes full modernist on the title track, employing multiple vocal styles to “sing like a choir” that might well decide to do Gregorian chant next. While high, of course.
Grade: A (“I Can See the Future”, “333”, “Bouncin’”)
Tee Grizzley: Built for Whatever
The most consistent street rapper of the last five years, according to a couple of people in my circle and maybe nobody else outside of Detroit. While his admission in prayer that he’s “committed every sin except rape” is just trying to impress the guy upstairs I hope, “shit could get evil” isn’t hyperbole. When he does fast-and-dense only a half-step slower than the elite MCs, he demonstrates more knowledge of ammunition than anyone should have (even if they run a Grand Theft Auto server as a lucrative side hustle), yet all the while he feels infinitely more human than any of the guest rappers who drop in to maximize revenue. His strength remains strategically vague storytelling: the one about running from the cops has the most detail and is presumably the most fictionalized. But even if he has the real-life wit and capital to keep himself out of trouble, there’s no way for him to avoid those late night calls telling him a loved one has been shot or arrested. I hope he can convince those who look up to him that one can “Quit Trappin” as abruptly as he claims to have. In the meantime, or in addition, free Baby Grizzley.
Grade: A MINUS (“Late Night Calls”, “High Speed”, “Grizzley Talk”)
Sho Madjozi: Limpopo Champions League (2018)
This column is by design the world’s tardiest new music review, but here’s one I should’ve got to more punctually: if I of all people am not going to follow up on a viral hit called “John Cena” by listening to the album that preceded it, then maybe I should stick to academics. In South Africa’s post-kwaito dance-off, Madjozi’s playing for Team Gqom: both jerkier and more insistent than rival styles more directly derived from house, though some of the best stuff here is four-on-the-floor, like “Changanya”, in which she raps like Kesha with chops before a surprise old school guitar lick takes us back to Graceland, RSA. In her multilingual syncretism and artsy-leaning-fartsy education she resembles M.I.A. as much as anyone—depoliticized, which is a shame even if I’m afraid to Google M.I.A. these days. But in partial compensation, Mount Holyoake didn’t socialize the songform out of her, or prevent her from writing a plausibly heterosexual love paean as uncomplicated as “I Mean That”. While she fine-tunes her content for the majors, for now her rhythms mean plenty.
Grade: A MINUS (“Chaganya”, “I Mean That”, “Limpopo Champions League”)
PinkPantheress: To Hell with It
This young London art student—her pseudonym is a reference to the classic Steve Martin movie—has become a minor star in the UK and a bigger one on TikTok while remaining shrewdly mysterious: one of her few public biographical details that’s public is that her father’s an academic, which figures. Her debut has ten tracks at under two minutes a pop, each a smartly curated collection of cool sounds—including skittering rhythms pilfered from 30 years of club scenes (2-step, we missed you) and her own wispy voice, highly feminine in the hyperpop fashion—that are cooler in combination. There’s no depth to the break-ups-are-like-car-crashes songwriting, but depth is for millennials. For us elderlies, breakbeats will suffice.
Grade: A MINUS (“Last Valentines”, “Break It Off”, “Noticed I Cried”)
Nathan Bell: Red, White and American Blues
If one can accept the ’Murricana vocals (and I’ve liked a Lucinda Williams album in the last ten years, so in theory I can), Bell is the best belatedly acclaimed new old singer-songwriter in quite a while. The initial selling point was the son-of-a-poet-laureate pessimism (America at the time of writing: bad!), but for me, the music turned out to be more durable. There are straightforwardly effective guitar hooks on top of more intricate work, and trenchant harmony work by Patty Griffin among other ringers. There are drums most of the time. Most of all, there’s a sense of tension that’s often absent from literary Americana and often feels forced when it is there (see: all the other 2010s Lucinda albums): here it flows naturally from his words and his timing. “Running on a Razor” doesn’t exactly have a singalong chorus; it can still cut you.
Grade: A MINUS (“American Gun”, “Running on the Razor (Family)”, “A Lucky Man (For My Father, the Original Dead Man)”)
Lil Nas X: Montero
I’m far from the first to say this, but that someone with a flair for social media and one great hook so quickly became good at music is a pandemic miracle. He can rap credibly (though note that Jack Harlow is a cut above) and croon with surprising vocal range (though he should continue to put in reps on that high-end.) His lack of sonic flamboyance could be read as a declaration that that’s not something a gay musician is required to aspire to these days, but that’s hard to square with any single frame of his videos. His comparative advantage is as a genial deliverer of established pop pleasures—Ryan Tedder’s contribution is completely at home amongst the tracks by adepts-of-the-moment Take a Daytrip. Amidst the fuck-the-haters mood and content, it bodes well that he shows the capacity for introspection and can write movingly about his insecurities. But for now, fuck the haters.
Grade: A MINUS (“Sun Goes Down”, “That’s What I Want”, “Industry Baby”)
Loona: [&] EP
Winners of the increasingly random major K-pop group of the year sweepstakes. They get their penchant for drama out of the way early with a minute of Vegas DJ entrance music and the coinciding drop and chorus of “PTT”. Then it’s bubbly pop stitching together quantity-slightly-over-quality hooks supplied by a United Nations of topliners, with a little more cosmetically-implanted bottom end than usual and some genuine melodic delights, like the tonal center on “Be Honest” shifting in the opposite direction to expectations. A brief dance in mid-tempo land suggests that’s where the majority of the twelve of them are most comfortable singing. But the ballads are well-sung too, and more importantly they’re at the end.
Grade: A MINUS (“Be Honest”, “PTT (Paint the Town)”, “WOW”)
While the element of surprise is gone, the beats are often denser and harder than on Deviancy. If anything, the album sounds a bit too much like a typical good industrial Satanic work, so that the gendered and usually intersectional nature of her demons sometimes gets lost. Guests including Sad13 and fellow trans rapper Censored Dialogue (plus Angela Davis) provide some clarity, however, and the legitimacy and intensity of her pain and rage is never in doubt. If you’ve preferred your devil music from Robert Johnson to Marshall Mathers to be more about catharsis than transgression, you might enjoy this a lot. And you might worry for her.
Grade: A MINUS (“Terror Packets”, “I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and Dresses”, “666 in Luxaxa”)
My excuse for not keeping up with bleeding-edge dance music as avidly as other pop genres used to be that I didn’t take the right drugs; now it’s that I don’t know enough Berliners (and that newborn sounds will enroll in K-pop soon enough.) If this Resident Advisor podcast is representative, I’ve only missed gradual evolution: techno seems to be trending a bit funkier, deep house a bit more sparsely furnished. More rockistly and more importantly, Honey Dijon does a fine job weaving the familiar quasi-Roland kicks and hi-hats into a narrative about the club as a locus for Black LGBTQ+ expression and enjoyment. With Grace Jones holding down one end and Octavia St. Laurent at the other, even the most abstract bloops seem to challenge binaries: female vs. male, house vs. techno. And regardless of one’s current state of club rust, the mix makes one want to answer the refrain “can you dance to my beat" in the affirmative.
Grade: B PLUS (Chris Nazuka: “Oceanside”, Yaleesa Hall & Malin: “Artin”)
Hamdi Benani, Mehdi Haddab & Speed Caravan: Nuba Nova
Benani was a white-suited classical Malouf singer and violinist who died of COVID not long after this was recorded; Haddab’s an oud-playing raï modernizer in the manner of his buddy Rachid Taha; Speed Caravan’s his band, a long-time favorite of Zaha Hadid, and boy are there a depressing number of dead people in this sentence. Benani handles the repertoire—largely Algerian standards—capably, though it’s hard to say exactly how great he was from this record alone. Haddab and his crew have a few tricks up their sleeves (a talkbox, why not) while fulfilling the rock basics as competently as any export-oriented Afropop. When they hit Benani’s signature “Jani Ma Jani”, it’s one world.
Grade: B PLUS (“Jani Ma Jani”, “Namdah Ouen Goul”, “Hosn El Habib”)
Tuneful, crisp, casually leftist: what’s not to love? Yet I hesitated initially because there are too many slow ones, even if Sarah Tudzin’s audio engineering background ensures they pop, and because even the fast ones felt somewhat second-hand. But the used parts are carefully assembled into novel combinations. Primus verse riffs make the chorus of “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA” sound like her wisest words, although the generational-chantalong bridge is more indicative of the typical mindstate of terminally online pushing-30s—masochism, depression, complaints about the DNC that seem disconnected except inasmuch as they fit with the masochism. Elsewhere there’s joy too, in pool hopping and purloined guavas. So really it’s just that there are too many slow ones.
Grade: B PLUS (“Pool Hopping”, “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA”, “Joni: LA’s No. 1 Health Goth”)
Dave: We’re All Alone in This Together
He’s a fine rapper, maintaining clarity no matter how many consonants he drops, and an even better writer, showing deep comprehension of poverty and multiple immigrant diasporas, though he sounds like he has the most fun dropping gratuitous Call of Duty references. Vocals aside, though, several of the musical choices are regrettable, with the talky codas particularly grating (wow, Nina Gold is attached to your movie? I guess the Casting Directors' Guild are grateful for the attention.) They devalue the one spoken bit that’s the heart of the album: his distraught mother tearfully telling of her history as an asylum seeker in detention, and of how making it to Streatham didn’t end her pain. And yet it’s placed in a no-win position, eight minutes into a song over the same low-key chords as Dave’s extended a cappella segment, which is a tour de force but also exhausting. The other great musical idea is on “Both Sides of a Smile”, when Dave’s rap gradually transforms into ShaSimone’s, forcing a woman’s perspective into a first-person role. It’s a breathtaking trick. Then James Blake sings for five more minutes.
Grade: B PLUS (“Heart Attack”, “Both Sides of a Smile”, “Clash”)