Friday, February 24, 2017

Heavy (Single) - Linkin Park

The only reason this review didn't happen sooner is because I wanted to give myself time to reflect on Linkin Park's latest single and really let my opinion of it be well rounded and not a knee jerk reaction. Being my favorite band, I wanted to be able to put my personal feeling aside and try to approach the song with a bit more of an objective view and less of a fanboy blind adoration.

This single is the first new song we've heard since the 2014 release of The Hunting Party, a raw and aggressive album full of heavy guitars and Chester's signature screams (see my review of that album here). "Heavy", ironically enough, is not as heavy as the last release in the slightest. It starts out with Chester's vocals over a fairly minimalistic instrumental, which was probably the goal as to put most of the focus on the vocals. They're very different from what Linkin Park has done in the past; it's more tender, more vulnerable than quite a lot of their previous releases. The band stated in interviews leading up to the release that this album was a different approach for the band; they started with the lyrics and vocals, and then built the instrumental around them, which is the opposite of what they've done before. It definitely shows here, with the fact that there are hardly any discernible guitars and that electronic drums and synths are the bulk of the backing track. It has more of a "pop" vibe than anything else they've ever put out, which has already had polarizing results amongst the fanbase.

The other big factor that sets this song apart from previous releases is the guest artist, Kiiara (her current hit song can be found here, "Gold").  They've done guest artists before, notably on The Hunting Party, but most have either been from rock, hip-hop, or EDM artists. Kiiara is pop through and through, and I think this was a good choice given the direction of the song. Vocally she almost steals the show, but the back and forth between her and Chester really brings the attention the the vocals. Especially near the end, when the instrumental builds for a moment and drums are crashing, the passion and vulnerability in their voices really shines.

I will say, however, that it took a while to get used to the sound. The first few listens left me a little underwhelmed, due to the pop nature of the song and the difference from their previous material. Instrumentally, it's not the most exciting thing they've done, which, as I've said before, was probably based on the decision to emphasize the vocals. However, it seemed to give the song less weight and less depth to it, although I was a fan of the lyrics (especially the line "I know I'm not the center of the universe, but you keep spinning round me just the same").

It was an interesting glimpse into the new sound being explored for the album, but will it go down as one of the best songs from the group? Most likely not.

The rest of the album, titled One More Light, will release May 19th.

Rating: 3/5

Friday, February 10, 2017

I Decided - Big Sean

The latest release from Big Sean is a departure from what we've seen from him before. Dark Sky Paradise was hard and full of huge productions. I Decided takes a step back, peeling off the layers of who Big Sean is in a variety of ways. DSP felt like Big Sean was his most confident, the most reckless, whereas I Decided feels like he's almost lost his way a bit, he's unsure of himself and where he stands in life. It's not a bad thing; it gives the sense of vulnerability. He talked about in interviews that in this album, he explores a concept; the idea that he had a life, he lived it to the end, and he failed at everything, and this is his second chance to actually do things right. It's reflected in the snippets and interludes of his life, where his older self tries giving him advice while he continues to put off the people around him. It's a theme that he touches on in his lyrics as well, with lots of self-reflection and questioning where he stands. It feels like a departure from DSP in that aspect, as well as instrumentally. The layers of the instrumentals and beats are minimal, and the construction for each of these points more attention to the lyrics and vocals instead of drawing the focus back on itself.

The album flows in terms of energy, with the rising and falling of pride and confidence being a major thread.  There are plenty of spikes in energy, with "Bounce Back", "Moves", and "No Favors" really exemplifying the more aggressive side of this album. "Bounce Back" has swagger but it's not the same as what we've seen before from Big Sean. It's not a "oh look at me I'm so badass" kind of swagger, but a "I've struggled and had downfalls but I'm still here so don't screw with me" swagger. He isn't afraid to make boasts because he knows what he's come through in order to be where he is. "Moves" might be the most minimalistic track, with dissonance and a spoken chorus providing contrast to the songs immediately before and after it. It brings to mind Big Sean's releases we've had before, such as "IDFWY" or "Blessings". It's short, concise, and to the point; a star at the top of his game and in control of his environment. "No Favors" is possibly best song of the album. Again, it has that stripped down production; it's not the same Big Sean we saw on the last album. Lyrically this song is incredible, with lines from Big Sean like:

"Kids who get sick with lead, others get hit with the lead,
From where they need a handout
But they tell you put hands up
Only deals I had was from the Sam's Club"

He manages to deal with a variety of issues in such a short span of time. The other stand out aspect is Eminem's verse; it's absolutely insane. He starts off slow, but then he hits hard at popular topics today, from Ann Coulter to Trump in his usual violent, graphic way. It's a reminder to his place within the rap game and his ability to spit bars at a mind boggling speed.

Songs like "Light", "Jump Out the Window", "Halfway Off the Balcony", and "Sunday Morning Jetpack" are parts of the lower end, pulling on the emotional and mental struggles Big Sean experiences. They reveal a star who feels like he's falling, where his confidence isn't bulletproof and he's not afraid to admit if he's made mistakes along the way. "Light" has a real soulful feel to it, thanks in part to Jeremiah's contribution on the chorus and the minimalistic keyboard chords. "Jump Out the Window" catches you off guard with the beat at first, giving it the feel of being harder, but it ends up being way more emotional than expected. The combination of Big Sean's singing and lyrics and the piano in the instrumental really give the song levels of depth without having the song be over produced and stuffed full of sounds. "Halfway Off the Balcony" is easily one of the best songs on the album. It finds Big Sean taking a step back from how he's approached life, maybe growing up a bit ; lines like:

"I realized when it comes to girls
That chemistry means way more than anatomy"

give weight to this argument. The music video is fantastic as well, creating this alternative world of neons and black lights where the young and old versions of Big Sean switch places as the video plays out. "Sunday Morning Jetpack" touches on the spiritual/religious aspect of his life, really being aimed at his Grandma and his relationship he had with her. The strings bring in a heavier emotional tone and feeling of reminiscing. Humility is very present throughout this song.

"Voices In My Head/Stick To the Plan" is one of the other stand out tracks due to it's erratic nature.  It changes tone, it changes speed, it changes vibes, all in such a way that it embodies the internal struggle Big Sean has expressed throughout the album. It's a real testament to his artistry, being able to create something that has levels of meaning and displays conflict explicitly and implicitly.

There are some misses among all these hits, however. "Sacrifices" could have been a great song if not for the featuring of Migos, who, in my opinion, are the cancer of hip-hop. Their presence is felt in the lyrics and the production, pulling from the depth of the rest of the album and feeling like every other rap song out there at the moment. Other songs suffer from a lack of a wow factor, such as "Owe Me", which just lacks something to really grab on or to make it memorable.

Overall, this is a really great outing from the Sean Don. He's growing in his craft, he's expanding his ideas of who he is and what he can accomplish with his music. I'm especially excited for the rest of the music videos, if they're going to be as visually stunning and further explore the themes and story Big Sean began telling with the first two videos.

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Recommended Tracks: No Favors, Halfway Off the Balcony, Jump Out The Window, Bounce Back

Related Artists: Kanye West, Chance The Rapper, J. Cole