Monday, December 12, 2016

4 Your Eyez Only - J. Cole

While hip-hop is not the normal genre that I tend to review albums in, it is definitely a genre I enjoy and stay up to date on. Ever since my freshman year roommate introduced me to "Work Out", I've delved into J. Cole's albums and anticipated each new one with much enthusiasm. His last album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, had some incredible stand out tracks; from the now overplayed "No Role Modelz" to the revealing and personal "Wet Dreamz", J. Cole created a album full of anthems and radio hits while still crafting great lines and thoughtful raps. 4 Your Eyez Only continues the same direction lyrically, but takes a different approach instrumentally. Subdued is an appropriate word, with the beats becoming much more of a background instead of a focal point and full of jazzy tones and instruments. J. Cole moves from the confidence and occasional swagger of his last album and into a place of passion, vulnerability, and sorrow. According to his producer, Elite, the lyrical content and focus is not necessarily J. Cole's own perspective, but of the people around him. It's important to note that, as he is not always rapping about his own struggles, but instead bringing to light the struggles of people whose voice might not necessarily be heard by such a wide audience.

Now, with all that in mind, the album takes a bit of an adjustment when listening to, especially after his last album. This isn't the type of record that you'll play to pump yourself up, but the type that works very well for late night drives and calm moments of solitude. In the wake of the type of year 2016 has been, this album is a great summary to the struggles of various peoples. From the corruption of the justice system to the hypocrisy and shallowness of the rap game, J. Cole offers great perspectives from within these communities. Stand out tracks like "Immortal", "Change",  and "Neighbors" all highlight issues that J. Cole excels at bringing the spotlight to with his storytelling skills. "Deja Vu" is both satirical and ironic, with a sample of Bryson Tiller's "Exchange" driving the track about a certain girl at the club, which seems to call out all the other rappers that use this sort of content to sell records while doing the same thing (the song is currently the most popular song of the album and on Apple Music overall). Songs like "She's Mine Pt 1& 2" and "Foldin Clothes" go a different route, focusing on the important people in J. Cole's life and how his love for others drives him to prioritize others and their needs above his own. The title track ends the album with an almost 9 minute long post-death monologue spoken to a daughter, although whether it's his own or a close friend is a bit hazy. Throughout the album, the number of shifts in perspectives and personas can become a bit confusing, requiring a few listens to be able to pick apart the different directions the album takes.

Overall, this album is not J. Cole's best, but it is a worth addition to his repertoire. The shifting of perspectives and taking on of different personas to relay their stories is both a strength and weakness of the album. It's both his most sincere and forced album yet, with his own voice becoming hard to discern amongst the adopted ones. The timing is great, with the issues addressed still being very relevant, from the Black Lives Matter movement to the issues of mass incarceration of African Americans. His jabs at other rappers, also highlighted in pre-album singles False Prophets and  Everybody Dies, are appreciated (at least by me), controversial (unsurprisingly), and hypocritical (at times). This album and the production direction reveals a lack of substance in a lot of the songs that are currently hits in the rap game (a sentiment I have expressed for a while now). This album may not produce the radio hits of his last one, but J. Cole retains his status as one of the best rappers of today and continues to stick to his values and ideals.

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Recommended Tracks: "Change", "Immortal", "Neighbors", "Foldin Clothes".

Related Artists: Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Logic.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Everything Feels Better Now - From Indian Lakes

In light of going to see From Indian Lakes tonight in Santa Ana, I thought I'd sit down and put down some of my thoughts about their latest record, Everything Feels Better Now. It's been out for a couple weeks now, so I've had enough time to process it and listen through it enough to begin understanding what the band was going for with this album. It was a bit hard to understand at first with the two singles, "The Monster" and "Blank Tapes". Both were a bit different from each other, and from the last record, Absent Sounds; they weren't quite as intense or large in terms of the sound. "The Monster" took a longer time to grow on me than "Blank Tapes", with the former being a bit different in structure and sound than a lot of previous singles. "Blank Tapes" was a more familiar, and therefore comforting sound, but they were both good to me and played constantly till the whole album was out.

When it was released, it was evident that this was something that was true about all of the songs. While some did include electronic elements, they were less polished than songs like "Come In This Light" or "Sleeping Limbs". It felt more subdued, but not necessarily in a bad way. Retro is the right word for this album. Or chilled out. I find all of FIL's music to be relaxing, but this album took a step back from the huge sound space explored on Absent Sounds and became more introspective in it's stripped down state. "Happy Machines" starts the record off in a more abstract state than their other records have been, perhaps drawing off the acoustic work the band has been doing recently. It's less tight, in the sense that the music allows itself to ebb and flow as it needs to. It feels like it captures the grit of their earlier albums The Man With Wooden Legs and Able Bodies, but with the maturity and complexity they've come to demonstrate.

It broods, it's more haunting than anything they've put out before. "Hello" is an excellent example of this. The combination of the low repetitive bass with the finger-picked acoustic guitar lays down a foundation for Joey Vannucchi's echoing and harmonized vocals to float in like a whispering ghost. It's hard to listen to this one and not find yourself giving all your attention to it. "Come Back" is similar in terms of the truly haunting vibe; the simple melody that starts off the song captures your imagination, and Vannuchi begins crooning about a lost lover, a ghost of a relationship who's time had come and gone. The contrast between the sharp drums of the verses and the minimalistic approach to the pre-chorus creates a striking moment, forcing the listener to really give it their attention and not just let it be background music.

Now, not all of the songs on this record will keep you up at night (just kidding); some still embody the sense of urgency that FIL has mastered. "Sunlight" has that dreamy sense, both in sounds that melt together and lyrics like "we're swimming in the sunlight" that really give the song a fantastic, otherworldy impression. "The Monster" is probably the most intense song in terms of tempo and instrumentation, being much faster than most of the other tracks. It gets you tapping your foot along to the beat, which is more of the focal point of the song than the other instruments. It also feels more compelling, it has a dark sense despite it's fast pace and it draws the listener in in a way that gets your heart rate going; not necessarily because the monster in question is out there, but perhaps, as the lyrics seem to suggest, it's within each of us. "Nome" is not quite as fast paced as the previous two songs, but it has that larger sound in the chorus that gives it the familiarity of the Absent Sounds. It creates a great contrast as well, similar to what I discussed in "Come Back", where the verse is more muted and the chorus comes roaring in. "Feel Love" is probably the most upbeat song on the record, in terms of the tempo, sound, and lyrical content. I wouldn't say its happy, but I also wouldn't say it's sad. FIL is good at making music that makes you feel good without it being generically upbeat, a trait hard to come by in music. 

Overall, this album wasn't the band's strongest work, but I don't mean that as criticism. They took a step back from the intensity of Absent Sounds and tried for a different kind of intensity. It was the right step for them creatively, and while I might not consider this album to be their best album yet or my favorite, I know it was what they needed to do; therefore it was the best album for them to do right now. If they were focused on getting radio play and topping the charts, they wouldn't make the kind of music they do. FIL makes music, (at least this is what I've gathered), for the sake of creating and expressing the things they find beautiful and terrible and necessary. It's always an honor to listen to their hard work, and I highly recommend giving them a chance if you haven't yet. 

Overall Rating: 4/5
Recommended Tracks: "Hello", "Come Back", "Bare It", "Blank Tapes". 
Related Bands: Lydia, Moving Mountains, A Will Away

Saturday, April 30, 2016

"Bored To Death" - The Birth of a New Blink Era

The one thing that would draw me back into the blogging world: new Blink-182. After a lengthy absence of new material and more than enough drama, the world finally gets to hear what the new Blink lineup, sans Tom Delonge and including the newest member, ex-Alkaline Trio Matt Skiba. It premiered on the radio Wednesday, and has been taking the Internet by storm since, as well as the announcement of the upcoming tour with A Day To Remember, All Time Low, and The All American Rejects (trying not to freak out and failing). 

The build up to this song had been pretty intense. The band imploded last year (for more of my thoughts see this post) and from the ashes emerged the two sides: Tom and his solo projects, and Mark and Travis determined to put all their effort into making Blink what they thought it should be. Tensions have been up and down since, but it appears that the members are still on good terms, and a future of the original line up is still a possibility. 

However, the new song is the topic at hand. I'll be honest, I was apprehensive about the new lineup. I know that bands go through lineup changes, but Blink has been one of my favorites for a very long time. And the vocalists are what help give bands their uniqueness, one of the features that provides distinction from other bands. So I was a bit removed from the waiting process, not really feeling excited about the new material because of the changes.

When I first heard the new song, I was in the car on my way to Disneyland. I happened to be listening to the right station for the world premiere of the song, and found myself in a state of shock that I was hearing it. They played it twice, back to back, and after the end of the second play, I found the reason for my shock shifting.

I was shocked with how much I liked it.

It's a really great song. It feels like Blink, with some hints of Box Car Racer and +44 mixed in (naturally). The intro guitar riff does feel a little too much like "Adam's Song" (go do a side by side listen and tell me they're not related). But the chorus is huge, the verses keep the pace up, and the bridge is this slow building cacophony - but in a good way. Matt Skiba fits very naturally into the sound of the group as well. I think the big part for me that made it sound so good is that it felt like they were pleased with the product they had produced. They had focused and worked hard, which is something that didn't happen as well with Neighborhoods

I found myself feeling a bit ashamed of how anxious I was about the song, and stubborn in my thinking that it wouldn't be as great without Tom. The original lineup will always hold a special place in my heart, but I'm excited for this new future, and what's in store for this band.