This week in music
What A Time To Be Alive – Drake & Future
With the release of their collaborative mixtape, Drake and Future find themselves in an enviable but equally unfortunate position. They didn’t drop a single, they didn’t promote the record, they merely leaked the fact that the tape existed, and it immediately became the most anticipated release in months.
The positives are obvious: the album is going to sell great, and any rapper would kill to be at the center of culture the way these two are. Unfortunately, the negatives become just as obvious once you listen to the record.
If "What A Time To Be Alive" were some anonymous Soundcloud page you stumbled across, it would be a pleasant surprise to say the least. Considering what we know these guys are capable of though, I can’t help but feel underwhelmed.
Drake has become infamous over the last few years for his Midas touch. He remixes a hot track, and it instantly becomes the hottest track. Many people have accused this record of sounding like a series of Drake remixes of Future tracks, but frankly, that sounds much more interesting than what "What A Time To Be Alive" really is. Drake doing his best to fit into a bunch of fully formed Future tracks would likely lead to a pretty high rate of success.
Instead, we have a record full of Drake and Future avoiding their strengths and playing to their weaknesses. Drake’s vulnerability, his creative flows, his dynamic song structures; they’re all missing. Future’s bombast, his hooks, and his surprising emotion are all cut down.
The record opens with “Digital Dash,” where Future sounds like he is doing a cold read of lyrics he just wrote. He raps as if he is talking to himself, trying to memorize his bars. “Live From the Gutter” is essentially forgettable, besides a small burst of energy from Drake. “Plastic Bag” is an embarrassingly corny misfire; the type of track I thought was far in Drake’s past.
While "What A Time To Be Alive" stumbles regularly, it is far from a disaster. “Diamonds Dancing” is so damn good it nearly justifies the entire existence of the project. Future croons, “Sipping on Dom Perignon for no reason,” then transitions perfectly into whatever his version of a falsetto is. When Drake joins him on the hook, their styles finally become cohesive for a moment. Metro Boomin, executive producer and the true breakout star of this record, comes in with the perfect drums for the moment. It all comes together for one of the better tracks either of these guys has made.
Drake has his most energetic and unique flow of the album on “I’m the Plug,” coming in like a firecracker in the middle of an already high-energy track. Both rappers bring their A-game on “Jumpman” as well as “Big Rings.” There are plenty of enjoyable tracks here, but a lack of consistency and cohesiveness damages the overall strength of the record.
The saddest thing of all about this record is Drake’s continued artistic decline in the full-length medium. While he continues to dominate the entire musical scene, this is his third consecutive release that is worse than the one before it. While "If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late" and 2013’s "Nothing Was The Same" struggle through tracks of filler, Drake drops tracks like “Hotline Bling” and “0 to 100/The Catch Up," some of the best tracks he’s ever recorded, on his Soundcloud. It’s a confusing development in the career of one of the most fascinating and successful rappers in history. If the promised "Views From The 6" doesn’t live up to the high standards of the classic "Take Care," his throne may be in jeopardy.
Fetty Wap – Fetty Wap
New Jersey rapper Fetty Wap has already transcended any risk of being a one-hit wonder, considering every song he has dropped all summer has been a hit by some definition or another. His only worry at this point is peaking too soon. Listening to his debut album, released September 25th, it’s clearly not a concern on his mind, and by the time the album is done, it’s unlikely to be a worry of yours either.
The album opens with the reason the album exists in the first place. “Trap Queen” is the song of the year, and one of the boldest and most unique debuts in recent pop music history. Need proof of what an impressive accomplishment this song is? First, go listen to three covers of the co-song of the summer, The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.” Given that they are acoustic guitar covers of a great pop song, they are inherently bad (more on this later); but they’re pretty listenable. They aren’t completely unjustified.
Fetty is the only one who can do Fetty, and no one else’s interpretation is worthwhile. Ed Sheeran did a relatively high profile cover of “Trap Queen” which did great business with the blogs. I attempted to listen to it for the sake of this review, and ended up with a relatively pleasant nap instead.
Fetty Wap’s distinct voice and incredible knack for pop songs does not wane when “Trap Queen” ends. The 10 best pop songs of the year very well may be found on this album.
"Fetty Wap" is a culmination of all the things that have been happening to pop music over the last half-decade. While EDM seized the throne of “official party music” from hip-hop, and rock began to disappear from the public consciousness completely, rap as a genre realized it had the chance to do more. Drake decided to try and make you text your ex, Kendrick Lamar decided his albums should really be movies; Fetty Wap decided to make you fall in love. His debut is the most romantic rap record I’ve experienced.
People in Facebook comment sections and forums dedicated to complaining about Pitchfork may think Fetty’s use of auto-tune tarnishes his application into the world of “real music;" but in reality, it’s an ambitious entry in his musical universe. Saying he would be nothing without it is like saying The Rolling Stones would be nothing without guitar. It’s one of those things you can’t disagree with because it’s literally true, but what does it actually mean?
Fetty proves his chops as a songwriter time and time again throughout this album. From the dynamic structure of “679,” to the constant hook that is “Time,” to the pop onslaught of “Jugg,” to the banging trap excellence of “Boomin.”
Sure, the album is about 3 songs too long, and Fetty throws his friend Monty at least two too many features; but the highs here are so high that no low could bring it down. Drake & Future could learn a thing or two from Fetty Wap about satisfying expectations.
1989 – Ryan Adams
So back to the whole “guitar covers of great pop music are inherently bad” idea.
When Ryan Adams announced he was doing a song-for-song cover of Taylor Swift’s "1989," it seemed like one of those really interesting things that gets announced, but never actually happens. Unfortunately, as of September 20th, it has happened.
Despite what I know about this type of project, I allowed myself to be excited. Swift’s "1989" is a pop opus, and one of my favorite albums of all time. I figured Adams’ rendition would be fascinating, and reopen the conversation about how wonderful the original is. Neither of these hopes were satisfied.
[pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="left" background="on" border="none" shadow="on"]Opener “Welcome to New York” is immediately striking and worrying, given that Adams is leaning into Bruce Springsteen vocal affectations so hard it sounds more like Jimmy Fallon doing an impression.[/pullquote]
First of all, Adams’ covers never comes into the ballpark of fascinating. Instead, they range from embarrassingly terrible “Blank Space," to pleasant and listenable “I Know Places."
Adams makes a series of fatal mistakes on this album. Opener “Welcome to New York” is immediately striking and worrying, given that Adams is leaning into Bruce Springsteen vocal affectations so hard it sounds more like Jimmy Fallon doing an impression. Adams also makes the number one mistake of every kid with an acoustic guitar in a dorm room; he changes pronouns so he doesn’t end up saying things like, “He’s so tall, and handsome as hell.” No one is going to get confused about your sexuality, Ryan. Just sing the songs.
Adams also has a knack for choosing the wrong direction with most songs on this record. He changes melodies when he should stick to them, and doesn’t vary enough when the song needs a shakeup. Part of the problem should have been obvious from the beginning: most of these songs are too good to require a cover. Of course the cover of “Blank Space” is a disaster, how could you possibly make “Blank Space” any better? Taking the energy out of “Out Of The Woods” isn’t going to make it more heart aching, because it can’t be. You can’t make “Shake It Off” into a bummer ballad, and who was asking you to?
Unsurprisingly, the few places where Adams succeeds are where Swift did not. Adams manages to make improvements on the album version of Katy Perry diss track “Bad Blood.” Unfortunately, Swift already took care of the re-imagination of the worst song on her album. Simply by adding a couple Kendrick Lamar verses and some trap drums to the chorus, she transformed it into a number one hit.
Adams doesn’t necessarily improve “This Love” or album closer “Clean,” but he at least does them justice. Adams also does justice to the songs closer to his wheelhouse. His takes on “I Know Places,” “I Wish You Would,” and “Wildest Dreams” are all decent. On the other hand, you can’t help but miss the original production on glitzy, high-energy tracks like “How You Get The Girl,” “Shake It Off,” and “All You Had To Do Was Stay.”
Above all else, the most frustrating part of the Ryan Adams "1989" experience has been the conversation surrounding it. Glowing reviews from The Telegraph, The New Yorker, and The A.V. Club have met this album with as much validation as Swift’s original masterpiece received.
It may seem meaningless, but it contributes to a tradition of prejudice against non-rock music that is growing more irrelevant by the day. Adams himself said on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 radio show that Swift is the glue that is holding rock music together. While my favorite analysts of culture seem to understand that, the culture as a whole doesn’t. Adams’ boring, unnecessary cover of this century’s best pop album didn’t help.
Slime Season – Young Thug
While we’re on the topic of prejudice against great music, let’s talk some Young Thug.
Thugger is one of the most prolific, consistent, and acclaimed rappers working in 2015. Yet there’s no artist with a bigger gap between the critical conversation about him, and the conversations I seem to have about him. Most fellow hip-hop fans I meet seem to be ignorant of his existence (this changed slightly with this summer’s smash, “I Know There’s Gonna Be [Good Times]”), or they consider him a complete joke.
Well, if it is possible for that to change through sheer force of will, Thugger is going to pull it off. Already under his belt in 2015 is his excellent commercial debut, "Barter 6," a massive beef with Lil Wayne (apparently settled judging from Wayne’s great feature on this album), and a series of excellent singles. "Barter 6" is minimalist and restrained in a way that is surprising, while ultimately successful. "Slime Season" leaves those tendencies in the dust, for better or for worse. At 18 songs, the mixtape is unruly and overly long, but rarely boring.
"Slime Season" is not Young Thug’s strongest release, and not as consistent as "Barter 6." It does contain some of his best songs, and serves as an excellent showcase of what he is capable of. We get the full range of Thugger’s personas on "Slime Season:" Villain Thug, Monster Thug, Friendly Thug, and, the most successful in my book, Lover Thug.
Album standout “Rarri” finds Thug exploring a new part of his register, screaming from the bottom of his soul on the hook. “That’s All” is romantic, funny, and a piece of pop bliss. With all due respect to classic “Lifestyle” and "Barter 6" standout “Can’t Tell,” “Calling Your Name” may be the best song Thugger has ever produced. It’s some sort of funky new-age ballad where Thugger turns in a one of a kind performance.
The mixtape is exhausting to listen to from front to back, in good ways as well as bad. Much like "Fetty Wap," it is a purely singular piece of music, with slightly less highs than Fetty's debut. The only lows to be found are a few filler tracks that come across as repetitive and unnecessary.
On "Slime Season," Thug consistently shows more range, finesse, and ideas than so many of his peers; not to mention a unique and strong collection of instrumentals. If he keeps producing quality content at this rate, it’s only a matter of time until the general public starts to notice.