Review: Suffer On by Wicca Phase Springs Eternal

Adam Mcllwee is a surprisingly influential artist.  He is the founding member of Scranton, PA’s emo-revival flagship, Tigers Jaw, a band known for their uniquely harmonic and heartfelt rock songs that always evoked a strangely otherworldly feeling, both in terms of lyricism and tone.  When Mcllwee left Tigers Jaw in 2013, his intent was to release music as a solo project, experimenting with electronic sounds that were not part of the Tigers Jaw musical pallet.  He ended up getting connected with alternative hip-hop collective THRAXXHOUSE, and then founded the Goth Boi Clique collective, which was brought into the mainstream eye by the pop-punk influenced hip-hop of the late Lil Peep.  Now, aided by Run For Cover Records, he has released his second full length album under the moniker Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, a name bestowed upon him by a tumblr artist (in case you didn’t think this could get more 2009).

Suffer On is a startling return-to-form for Mcllwee.  Although his melodic style never changed drastically from Tigers Jaw to Wicca Phase, the parallels are even more apartment on the new record.  This is largely due to the acoustic nature of many of the tracks.  Previous Wicca Phase releases have featured production from a variety of artists in the emo hip-hop sphere, including Doves, Fishnarc, Nedarb, and the like.  On this record, Mcllwee takes production largely into his own hands, and the result is a more minimalistic sonic world than many fans will be used to.  There are no obvious samples, and very few fully electronic sounds.  Instead, the music is mainly driven by acoustic guitar chords that call to mind the emo music of the Tigers Jaw days.  The song “Crushed” doesn’t even have a beat, and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 2013’s Charmer.  It offers a strong connection to Mcllwee’s emo-rock past.  Fans of Wicca Phase’s acoustic EP, Raw and Declawed, will most definitely be pleased here. 

Lyrically, the album also feels even more personal than past releases.  It deals starkly with the isolation that many with clinical anxiety and depression feel on a daily basis.  Stand out track “Just One Thing” captures this poignantly, “In the darkest of ways I go to sleep / wrapped in a death bag / alone in a death bed / with no one to talk to / still trapped in my own head.”  There is no hiding behind mythology as on 2018’s Corinthiax EP.  Nowhere is this more blatant on “Does Your Head Stop” where he sings, “It’s depression and it takes over totally / I think I’m a fake in mind and body.”  There is not any hope offered here, but a strong focus on the darkness brought on by mental illness. 

Suffer On is one of the stronger albums in Mcllwee’s career.  The consistency of sound and theme are its most powerful traits, as he latches on to one topic and really delves headfirst into it.  Fans of his debut Secret Boy might be a tad disappointed if they were hoping for a more sample-based, electronic sound, but the record serves as a fitting new chapter to a groundbreaking artist who will surely grow in popularity as time goes on. 

Rating: 7.5 (Stand Out)

For info on how we rate albums see our rating scale.

Label: Run For Cover Records

Release Date: Feb. 15, 2019

Review: thank u, next by Ariana Grande

thank u, next definitively places Ariana in the cannon as an era-defining pop star in the vein of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.

Ariana Grande’s rise from teeny-bopper Nickelodeon star to pop icon has felt fast and slow at the same time.  Initially, her music career was aimed to market towards the tween audience that watched her on TV, but she rejected this after releasing only one single.  Instead, we got her excellent 2013 debut, the Babyface-produced Yours Truly, which effortlessly blends the styles of the R&B/pop legends of the 80’s and 90’s with production updates and tweaks that kept it fresh but not trendy.  The beats and R&B aesthetic meshed well with rappers, allowing her singles to cross over from pop to urban charts.  The records that followed saw greater success, as producers used her natural talent and charisma (not to mention that voice) to mold the Ariana brand into a variety of different styles, ranging from EDM to pop-ballads to reggae.  

Although this brought on great success in the charts, there was no clear picture of who Ariana actually was through her music.  In interviews she would clap the label “honest” on all of her songs, but there was always a personal aspect that seemed to be lacking in her music.  Although she had writing credits on many tracks, it was unclear whether or not she was an artist or a puppet, another pretty face and big voice that was in the right moment or the right time. 

This all changed with 2018’s Sweetener, released last August.  The album was a huge step forward from her previous work, lyrically and sonically.  Many of the songs on the first half of the album were structurally progressive, as Pharrell helped her tap deeper into her hip-hop influences and broke her out of the usual pop tropes.  Lyrically, the album delves into more personal territory; many of the songs openly discuss her engagement to comedian/actor Pete Davidson, and also healing from the bombing that famously took place at her concert in Manchester.  It seemed that she had finally found her voice as an artist; her music sounded more her’s than her producer’s. 

Then just when things were going well, her ex-boyfriend, Pittsburgh’s own Mac Miller, died suddenly from a drug overdose.  Her relationship with Davidson fell apart in the wake of this tragedy, and her relationships and life were so analyzed by the media that people started to get sick of her, when in the previous months she had been untouchable.  It is with this context that she released thank u, next a mere six months after her last record. 

The quick turn-around does not disappoint.  The songs sound raw and blunt.  Whereas listening to Sweetener felt like sitting on a cloud, thank u, next feels firmly grounded in reality.  Opening track “imagine” is a classic Ariana ballad that paints a picture of a simple vision of love, the subtext of course being that she knows this vision is impossible.  The sadness in her voice is palpable. Although lyrically it is similar to past releases, she sings it differently than she would have if the song had been released six years ago.  

The second track, “needy,” whips her back into reality.  Over a melancholy chord progression she sings, “And I’ma scream and shout for what I love / passionate but I don’t give no fucks / I admit that I’m a lil’ messed up / But I can hide it when I’m all dressed up / I’m obsessive and I love too hard / Good at overthinking with my heart / how you think it even got this far, this far?”  It’s easily the most vulnerable and authentic she’s ever been on a track.  These lyrics feel real and the simplicity of the instrumentation emphasizes the raw place that these songs came from. 

Ariana does not stay on the sad-girl train the whole album though.  Immediately following “needy” is the bouncy “NASA,” which might be her catchiest song ever.  It’s an ode to being alone, to wanting space rather than being forced into it.  The hook is so addictive that I’ve actively listened to it ten-plus times in a row; it’s the perfect example of what a pop song should be. 

If the entire album was as good as the first three tracks, we would probably have a modern classic on our hands, but unfortunately that’s not the case.  She dips into the faux-Latin trend on “bloodline” which lacks the authenticity of the previous songs, and seems clearly geared for air play and streams.  “bad idea” takes a darker turn, with heavy bass blasts and an ominous guitar hook.  This track features one of the more experimental productions choices, with a brief instrumental orchestra break just when you think the track is ending.  It sounds cinematic and dark, and as it swells, an altered beat kicks on with Ariana’s vocals pitched several octaves down, making it sound almost like a Future track for a few seconds. 

The record has quite a bit of variety stylistically, but sonically all the songs fit in the same world.  It rarely slows down except on the airy ballad “ghostin” which speaks vulnerably about her own faults in her high-profile relationships.  “I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again,” she sings over whooshing synths and sparse strings.  It reinforces that this is a truly personal record, even more so than Sweetener.  Whereas Sweetener felt like a calculated reaction and intentionally big statement, thank u, next has a flash-in-a-pan quality that brings the messages home much more strongly; it showcases Ariana as a songwriter and as a somewhat hardened celebrity.  She sings (and at points, actually raps) with more conviction, more force, more confidence. 

thank u, next definitively places Ariana in the cannon as an era-defining pop star in the vein of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.  Her record is not perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. It is not this record alone that accomplishes this, but the thrill of her artistic progression over the last six or so years.  For the first time, she has truly shown us her flaws, and the result is her biggest statement as an artist yet. 

Rating: 8.0 (Best New Music)

For info on how we rate albums see our rating scale.

Label: Republic Records

Release Date: Feb. 8, 2019

Review: “Everything’s For Sale” by Boogie

“Everything’s For Sale does not sound like a typical west coast album.”

FFO: Saba, Chance The Rapper, Kendrick Lamar

“I’m tired of working at myself, I wanna be perfect already / I’m tired of the dating process, I wanna know what’s certain already / I’m tired of questioning if God real, I wanna get murdered already,” Boogie raps on album opener “Tired/Reflections.”  It’s a startling string of statements for a rapper who is relatively early in his career; the release of Everything’s For Sale marks his first commercial album, although his first mixtape debuted in 2014.  It sets the introspective tone that remains for the course of the rest of the album, as the Compton native raps, and at times almost sings, about depression and lost love. 

Although the transparent and hardened nature of Boogie’s lyrics share a lot of commonalities with his Compton predecessors and peers, Everything’s For Sale does not sound like a typical west coast album.  The jazz chords and luxurious, natural sounding-beats call to mind the hip-hop that has been coming out of Chicago, with huge influences of soul and jazz.  And, when Boogie gets more melodious with his bars, the notes he hits end up sounding more than a little like Chance The Rapper, with all the endearing raspy-pitchyness (for example, listen to the hook on “Silent Ride”).  This combination of west coast and Chicago sensibilities helps the album stand out, taking influence from two different worlds. 

The record is most enjoyable when Boogie locks into a groove and runs with it, as on album highlight “Lolsmh (Interlude).”  The first half of the track features one of the sweetest instrumentals on the album as Boogie delivers some vulnerable bars, “It’s hard for me to be happy / Wish my girl would just dump me / I done showed you all my ugly, but why the fuck you ain’t judge me? / No, my skin ain’t thick, it’s thin, it probably bleed soon as you touch me / I love it if you hate me, I hate that you fucking love me.”  His flow is flawless and delivery sincere (calling to mind Saba’s incredible CARE FOR ME); on tracks when he is on, he is a very captivating and believable. 

Some of the more misguided moments on the record come in the back half.  Eminem is allowed to spit more “legacy-defending” trash all over the second half of “Rainy Days,” which feels unnecessary, especially as Boogie was holding down the first half of the track fine all on his own.  At points the album bops back and forth thematically, making for a slightly disjointed listen.  This is something that will likely come with time, as he finds his niche and perfects his craft as an MC. 

If you’re looking for bangers, Everything’s For Sale is not the place to go (except for the hilarious “Self Destruction”), but if you’re fan of diaristic rap albums, this is definitely one to give a listen.  At 38 minutes, it hits the right amount of breadth without dragging on and asking for too much.  It’s a solid beginning to what could be a promising career. 

Score: 6.8 (Solid)

For info on how we score albums see our rating scale.

Release Date: Feb. 1, 2019

Label: Shady Records/Interscope Records

Review: “i am > i was” by 21 Savage

Popularized largely as the result of his work with producer Metro Boomin in the later part of the decade, 21 Savage is one of the Atlanta trap scene’s up and coming stars, and he comes out swinging for the fences on his December release.  This is a guy who wants to prove that he’s not just a fad or free loader riding on the capes of his contemporaries.  For the most part, his sophomore album i am > i was succeeds at this goal, solidifying him for the time being as one of the stronger members in the mainstream trap scene.

My favorite aspect of 21 Savage’s sound is his singular voice.  It’s hard, but also strangely soothing.  Unlike other comparable artists like Future or Travis Scott, he rarely employs auto-tune in his music, or he does so more sparingly; he sounds much more natural than most for the style of music that he makes.  He is cool and confident; he sounds streetwise, but above all real.  21 and his producers recognizes this strength and capitalizes on it.

Opening track “a lot” is the perfect intro and example of this.  It’s smooth and easy, with laid back beats and a melodic soul sample that carries the listener effortlessly into the record; it’s the type of song you would hear cruising with the top down on a breezy day.  Although the lyrics are stereotypically hip-hop (how much money you got / how much money you got / how much money you got) in a braggadocios sense, it’s not distracting because it’s not anything you wouldn’t expect.  If you’re listening to 21, you’re probably there because you like rap, and are used to these tropes.  The trend continues throughout the rest of the album, in the sense that the lyrics do not break into any new territory and sometimes border on cliché, but it’s ultimately okay because that’s not why anyone listens to 21 Savage anyway.

Where the record succeeds is in providing hot trap anthems to soundtrack your parties and car rides.  Taken at face value this may denote a weak album, but that’s not what I’m trying to say.  Sometimes you just want a solid album to have fun with and turn up to with your friends, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  i am > i was is just that.  It illustrates the growth of an artist over time in terms of providing a more fully developed image, which establishes him as a star to keep an eye on as his career develops.

Rating: 6.0 (Solid)

For info on how we score albums see Our Rating Scale

“Amity” by Nedarb reviewed by Ian Miller

Indie hip-hop icon Nedarb Nagrom is arguably one of the most influential people in the underground scene. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ve probably heard his music if you’ve ever opened the soundcloud app. Not only has he served as the producer of big-name artists such as Lil Peep, but he is also a member of emo hip-hop supergroup Misery Club, not to mention the cult-famous Goth Boi Clique. Ned has become somewhat of a tastemaker, breaking artists and connecting with people that have genuine star-power. Part of this comes from his love of hip-hop and emo culture, which shines through on his solo debut Amity.

Amity is a banger. The production doesn’t stray far from Ned’s usual sound, featuring pulsating 808s, plenty of lo-fi high hats, and dark synth textures that are the staple of most trap music. The first section of the album showcases Ned’s emo-rap style that he’s helped create. The songs feature many of his usual collaborators from the Goth Boi Clique crew and associates: Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, Lil Tracy, Horsehead, Mackned, and fellow Misery Club members Lil Zubin and Fantasy Camp among many others.

Album highlight “Feeling” (feat. Horse Head, Lil Lotus, and Jon Simmons) encapsulates the emo aspect of Ned’s sound very well. The track begins with a lo-fi guitar sample, calling to mind the pop-punk ballads of the mid-2000s. In comes Horse Head with a bubblegum pop-punk melody for the hook, almost fooling you into thinking you’re listening to a pop-punk record, but when Lil Lotus takes over the verse and the hi hats and drums kick in, you remember that it’s 2019 and not 2009. It sounds very punk (in a 2020s way), and hilariously emo.

Nedarb switches gears around the middle of the album, opting for a real rap sound. The juxtaposition is a tad bit jarring, but still works because of the similarity in the production choices. The guitar samples are absent, but the lo-fi beats and booming bass remain. I had never heard anything produced by Nedarb that fell outside of the emo-rap domain, and it was refreshing to hear him do something different, as on the track “2003” (feat. Big Baby Scumbag & Little Pain), dispelling all myths that Nedarb only makes music for sad white kids.

The greatest strength of Amity is the successful combination of emo and rap culture, which many have cringed at.  It is a sound that’s not for everyone. Prior to the 2010’s, the two scenes were often thought to be mutually exclusive. In the mainstream-eye, rap was for the tough and emo was for the sensitive. As someone who has taken a lot of inspiration from both subcultures, it is refreshing to see an artist who successfully resolves the two, showing that they can co-exist in a natural way, like two friends from different neighborhoods just hanging out.

What keeps the album from launching to the next category is its lack of musical diversity. Although it features both emo and rap songs, by the end of its 16 tracks, it can begin to feel a bit monotonous. If there had been a bit more variety, it might make the record more listenable to casual fans. However, this does not keep it from its biggest success: being a celebration of one end of the soundcloud universe from one of the people at the center of it. If anything, this release is further evidence that this brand of hip-hop is here to stay for the next few years.

Score: 7/10 (Stand Out)

For info on how we score albums see Our Rating Scale

“Lou Reed 2000” by Lee Scott Reviewed by Ian Miller

Hailing from Runcorn, England, rapper/producer Lee Scott’s new record Lou Reed 2000 is a lo-fi stinger. On early album highlight “TITLE TRACK,” Lee samples Lou Reed interview clips in which Lee answers the questions himself. “You seem very withdrawn . . .” says the interviewer, to which Lee disdainfully spits, “Cause I don’t like talking, I’m depressed / one-word answers, Lou Reed talking to the press.” This line might be laughable in the voice of a less mature rapper, but Lee’s deep, ghoulish sneer combined with the easy, hard-hitting beat make it sound like a threat. The track is underlined with jazz chords that call to mind King Krule, an aesthetic that is kept throughout the record’s concise 30 minute runtime. The message is here from the beginning: Lee is sad, but he’s also tough as nails.

Lou Reed 2000 is full of these types of punchlines. “ROCKET FUEL” finds Lee musing on the ins and outs of his day-to-day over a familiar beat while he sardonically raps, “Corner shop survivalist / fingering your pie n’ chips.” This sounds like a guy who wants to be taken seriously, who has his chops, but at the same time does not want to be taken too seriously. He plays the depressed thug character in a way that sounds authentic, but at the same time seems to imply that it is a character. Lee’s having fun on these tracks even when the lyrics would not necessarily suggest it.

The result is an extremely entertaining listen. “Something’s always got to give, and it’s usually me health / I’m in a league of my own, losing to myself,” closes off the final verse of “ROCKET FUEL,” while a dreary keyboard lead brings it to a close. It sounds like something you’d listen to on a rainy Saturday afternoon, considering going outside and doing something, but the sounds of the record make you want to stay in-doors, and that somehow makes you feel cool. It’s a very specific mood.

Speaking of which, mood is easily the biggest strength of the record. Sonically, it is consistent the whole way through without being repetitive, which is pretty remarkable given that most of the songs have a similar tempo and arrangement. Instead, it builds up the world around the listener, enveloping them in Lee’s (usually unpleasant) consciousness. Lines like, “They say everybody has a dream, well I don’t / I just wake up sometime mid-afternoon and think to meself I should get a scran in soon,” capture a sense of apathy (and maybe buried longing) that seems more rooted in blues and jazz traditions than the emo-rap of today. This is also supported by the chord choices and sparse vocal melodies that appear occasionally throughout the record. The blunt lyrics being contextualized in this sonic atmosphere adds to the authenticity of the message.

Lou Reed 2000 is a wonderfully immersive record that does not ask too much from its listeners. It’s possible to just enjoy this for the music alone and the sound of Lee’s voice, without needing to digest the lyrics. It is a versatile album that is perfect for listening on your own, or in the car with your friends on the way to Taco Bell at night. To anyone who is a fan of lo-fi or jazz rap, this is a record for you.

Rating: 6.8/10 (Solid)

EDIT: The original published version of this review included misquoted lyrics; this mistake has been corrected.

For info on how we score albums, see Our Rating Scale

Metro Boomin – “NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES” Reviewed by Ian Miller

 

For those not in the know, Metro Boomin is one of the most in-demand producers in hip-hop music at the current moment.  He is behind many of the biggest trap hits of the past five-ish years, including Future’s “Mask Off,” “Bank Account” by 21 Savage, “Congratulations” by Post Malone, and Kodack Black’s “Tunnel Vision.”  His solo debut, NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES dropped a few months ago, in which he expands his sonic vision over the course of a full length record.

Although the album is wholly produced by Boomin, he does not lend a verse anywhere on the record.  The vocals are provided by the usual suspects; 21 Savage, Travis Scott, Young Thug, and Swae Lee (and others) all appear at various points throughout the album, giving it vocal variety and a collaborative feel that works mostly to its benefit.  Album opener “10AM/Save The World,” (with Gucci Mane) kicks things off slowly, with Boomin’s trademark dark production and cautionary beats.  Moody strings and piano chords set an ominous tone, and the gorgeous orchestra swells in the outro set an ominous and epic tone straight from the beginning.

This moody vibe continues for the next several tracks, as on the Travis Scott auto-tune crooner “Overdue,” and the dynamic “Don’t Come Out The House,” as 21 Savage alternates between a whispered and mono-tone delivery with his signature trap flow.  Elsewhere, Swae Lee provides melody, as everyone offers the usual swag-trap punchlines.

The strength and weakness of the record is how Metro Boomin uses the artists that he helped break into the mainstream to his benefit, bending them and contorting their voice to suit his needs.  At a run-time of 44 minutes, NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES does not overstay its welcome.  The songs often flow seamlessly into each other, giving it a cohesive feel.  Nowhere does it feel disjointed; it is clearly Boomin’s project.  He is the visionary behind the release, and his presence is felt strongly throughout.  The vocalists are simply along for the ride, and it’s fun to listen to what they bring to the table.  They are there to pay homage to Metro, giving him shout outs on several tracks.  It feels like a posse album similar in some ways to Kanye’s Cruel Summer (2012), which was a collaborative release from the artists on his label.  Everyone on here sounds like they’re having fun, and when the artist is having fun, the listener usually is too.

But, this is also what holds this record back from standing out over other mainstream trap releases in recent memory.  The features have a certain vapid quality to them, and while this is prevalent in a lot of trap music, it comes through in the fact that this is not their own record.  This album is a good example of what it’s trying to do, which is make a moody trap banger that exemplifies the sound that Metro Boomin has helped define.  If you’re in the mood for this sound it will hit the spot, but does little to merit listening in a different context.

Rating: 6.2/10 (It’s solid)

For info on our rating scale see https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/