Friday, August 17, 2018

Levitate (Single) - twenty one pilots

This track is really something else. 

I was excited and surprised to see another single out so soon for the forthcoming album, Trench, from the boys in twenty one pilots. I wasn’t sure what to expect, given the new direction of the first two songs, but I knew I wanted to hear more of this album that I think is shaping up to be really special.

Whatever I thought I could expect, this was not there.

“Levitate” flows flawlessly from “Jumpsuit”, easing the listener into a place of mystery, if only for a moment, before a kick drum and hi-hat provide a sense of urgency and clarity like coming out of fog and seeing clearly for miles. And coming at you at 100 miles an hour is Tyler’s rapping prowess and lyrical mastery, showcased in such a powerful and jaw-dropping manner. The song is under two and a half minutes, in which Tyler manages to lay down nearly 400 words of rhymes (which is even more impressive considering that he’s only rapping for about a minute and a half). I did the math; that’s an average of nearly three words a second, nonstop. That doesn’t do it justice though, just listing off the math and technical aspect of it. It’s something you have to listen to; hear the way he maintains his flow and energy throughout the track, and I’d be very surprised if you weren’t impressed too.

Lyrically, the song is incredibly intriguing. Just take a look at the first two lines/the beginning of the chorus:

"Oh, I know how to levitate up off my feet
And ever since the 7th grade I learned to fire-breathe"

Levitating? Fire-breathing?

There's a lot to try and digest in this song. I won't even pretend like I know exactly what Tyler is talking about for most of the track. There are a lot of references, double meanings, and metaphors that go just a little over my head. It would seem as though a lot of the lyrics are self-referential, with Tyler struggling with a multitude of things like depression, anxiety, self-worthy, and more. I won't try to pick apart the lyrics - I think it's very much an individual experience for this song in particular. But it's very much worth reading through the lyrics to get a better feel for what he's saying (since he goes pretty fast at points), and you can find them here

What I find so intriguing about this song is it's brevity, intensity, and unique structure. It doesn't follow the typical song structure (which is even something that's referenced within the song - how meta), and further showcases the ingenuity and self-awareness of the band. They seem to have a very sharp awareness of their own popularity and uncommon sound, and the way in which those two qualities usually clash. They know the line they have to walk to balance those aspects of their music is a very, very fine line, but if “Levitate” and the other singles have been any indication, the band is on track to do that with Trench.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, August 10, 2018

Swimming - Mac Miller

Mac Miller has always been one of those artists on the very edge of my radar – occasionally veering in closer towards my direct vision, but usually staying far off in my peripherals. I remember (cringingly) enjoying his song “Donald Trump” back near the end of high school, but not really paying much attention until his last album, The Divine Feminine, which felt very much different from both his past material and a lot of rap and hip-hop out there. It felt more concept driven, less focused on creating radio hits as opposed to creating solid, well written music. Soul, funk, jazz, all reared their heads at one point or another over a trap-heavy soundtrack where Miller took a big step towards authentic artistry. Not to say that the album didn’t have it’s pit falls and misteps – the heavy lyrical focus on sex began to unravel some of the more serious and sophisticated aspects of the music. But it was very much a push in the right direction; with The Divine Feminine, Miller gave a clear indication of a desire to grow and progress.

Fast-forward two years later, and I am pleasantly surprised to find myself with the next step in cementing Mac Miller’s status as a lasting, serious artist; Swimming. Following along the same instrumental lines as The Divine Feminine, Swimming sees Miller taking a step back and doing some introspective thinking (thus really taking a step forward). The focus (thankfully) swings away from sex, and instead the album sees Miller’s breakup with Ariana Grande inspiring a season of self-reflection and thoughtfulness – all while avoiding a typical breakup album.

While I’m not a big fan of trap (as I’ve mentioned in previous reviews), I think that the balance of the modern trap sound with a variety of old-school sounds, as well as a more laid-back vibe and pace, helps this album to embrace the trends without submitting to them. Songs like “Hurt Feelings”, “Self Care”, and “Conversation, Pt. 1” are the most obvious examples of trap, but each manages to showcase its influence in different and unique ways. “Hurt Feelings” sees Miller meditating on who he is as a person and how he’s changed over the years, while “Self Care” focuses more on how Miller’s perception of himself and life can affect the people around him (seemingly directed at the breakup with Ariana Grande). “Conversation, Pt. 1” is the most different of the three, with a more moody and darker instrumental that sees Miller rap about being creative and how that pushes him to success while others claim to and fail at trying to match that.

Looking past those songs though, the album explores a lot of space and subject matter, moving past the single-mindedness of The Divine Feminine to really shine in the combination of Miller’s laid back rapping style and the smooth, grooving instrumentals throughout. The intro song, “Come Back to Earth”, sets the bar high, with Miller singing for the entirety of the track over a bright, atmospheric, jazzy instrumental that takes its time. It’s part of what made me give the rest of the album a chance – it captured my attention, and while it’s the only song on the album with that sort of sound, it feels very much like it belongs with and complements the other tracks. Songs like “What’s The Use?”, “Ladders”, and “So It Goes” all utilize more soulful, funky sounds, each with slight variations. The all three have bass lines that help drive the sound and groove immensely, with “What’s The Use?” and “Ladders” feeling more like something you’d want to dance along to while “So It Goes” is more of a relaxing, soothing sound with the bass adding a sense of percussion and rhythm to the free flowing tune.

The strength of this album lies in the strong sense of musicality that Miller exudes throughout. Lyrically, instrumentally, compositionally, he has progressed immensely, even from leaps and bounds of The Divine Feminine. It's this aspect, his self-awareness and slight humility that really push him above many of his peers. My main problem with trap/rap music is it's all about bravado - who's the biggest man, who's the baddest one around. That's what's most common, and the various attitudes that come with that mindset are truly toxic and harmful. So to hear Mac Miller taking elements of the sounds of trap, and combining it with retro and timeless sounds while giving some space to truly introspective and thoughtful topics, that's what makes this album feel so special and worthy of my time. Listening to it is not dictated by the desire to feel cool or pumped up, but instead inspires thoughtfulness and self awareness in my own life. It's an album that creates good vibes and spreads them, and that is certainly something I can get behind. 

Rating: 4/5

Recommended: "Come Back to Earth", "What's The Use?", "Self Care", "Small Worlds",  "Dunno"