Ben Affleck’s acting career has had its successful moments, as well as its failed moments. But fortunately, so far, his directing career is continuing to be on a very successful path. Following up his second critically-acclaimed film, The Town, in 2010, Ben Affleck achieves another great milestone with Argo. It provides a star-studded cast of old-school actors, which includes Ben Affleck himself, Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad,” “Drive”), John Goodman (“The Big Lebowski,” “Monster’s Inc.”), and Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”). The story revolves around a CIA classified operation made in the early 1980s to help free six American hostages from the Canadian Embassy in Iran. A CIA agent (Ben Affleck) uses the idea of producing a “fake” movie, with the help of Hollywood producers (John Goodman and Alan Arkin) to use Iran as a location scout and have the six hostages pose as crew members in order to maneuver them out of the trouble country. Although, in reality, this has not been considered noteworthy in history, it is incredibly historically significant, as well as meticulously and informatively honest. The movie itself is bold, intense, exciting, gripping, and shows an abundance of conviction, from its writing, directing, and acting. It also issues a lot of wit and comic relief– especially with actor veteran Alan Arkin – as well lots of 80’s nostalgia. Argoshows a balance between international tension and international cooperation, given that it is a historical period drama. A lot of what Argo conveys is what we, in fact, still see today, as the Middle East conflict has erupted over time. Ben Affleck has an eye for showing his directing side, as well as his writing side – 1996’s Good Will Hunting earned him and Matt Damon an Oscar Best Original Screenplay nomination. Let’s just say, from watching Argo, Ben Affleck is definitely headed back to the Oscars, hopefully with more than one nomination. See the trailer here.

Recommended to See?: Yes
Possible Oscar Nomination?: Yes
Grade: A+


The Heist – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

The most recently talked about collaborators in rap culture today are Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Both have been freshly renowned, joining the top list of other music collaborators, which include Kanye West & Jay-Z, David Byrne & St. Vincent, Chiddy Bang, WZRD, and Shwayze & Cisco. The Heist is Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ first full-length collaborative rap album to date and, so far, their success has been hitting the charts. But from listening to album, it’s interesting to see how they’ve come so far, especially in the rap game. The Heist is both what a listener of mainstream rap and hip hop wants and what a diverse listener of any music veers a little from. But I have to say that it keeps anyone entertained, especially with producer Ryan Lewis’ sick and stimulating beats. The album starts with a small yet powerful harpsichord, which lays out rapper Macklemore’s lyrics on “Ten Thousand Hours.” Next comes another piano-filled gospel tune “Can’t Hold Us,” but Macklemore’s lyrics aren’t as strong on this one. The third track of The Heist is, as everyone may already know, “Thrift Shop,” the most popular and catchiest off the duo’s album. It may be their best work, but also struggles lyrically: The beats are definitely worth listening to, providing a funky trumpet and hip hop vibe, but Macklemore’s rap, as well as featured guest Wanz’s rap, are both unbalanced and faulty: Wanz preaches, “I’m gonna pop some tag/Only got twenty dollars in my pocket/I’m hunting, looking for a come-up/This is fucking awesome,” which segues into Macklemore’s profane statement, “Walk up to the club like, ‘What up, I got a big cock!’/I’m just pumped, just bought some shit from the thrift shop.” “Thrift Shop” may not provide the smartest choice of words or even a good message – being thrifty and Macklemore bragging about all the clothes he bought – but it does seem to attract an audience, including myself. The next track, “Thin Line,” literally starts out with a flat telephone line, which is an stylish layout for the rest of the song. The next few raps off The Heist are slightly divided, with some authentic rhymes and rhythms (“Same Love,” “Make the Money,” “Jimmy Iovine”) and some dull and monotonous tunes (“Neon Cathedral,” “BomBom,” “White Walls”). Although “White Walls” does featured recently renowned rapper Schoolboy Q, his appearance doesn’t even seem that shown. The last part of The Heist provides an intriguing set of strong rhymes: The songs include the rhythmic and moving “Wing$,” the head-bopping “A Wake,” and the effervescent “Gold.” The next track, “Starting Over,” which features Ben Bridwell, a band member of alt-indie rock Band of Horses, is something of a dream scape but also repetitive and mediocre. The album closer, “Cowboy Boots,” a surprising country-electronic ballad, is an extremely disappointing end of The Heist, being that it has no relevance nor is a good mix for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ first album.
Although the beats and rhythms to The Heist are undeniably engrossing, it lacks what makes up a great rap album – diversity, perseverance, and lyrical brilliance. Macklemore has his moments, both great and memorable, but also has his downfalls. It’s hard to tell what’s in store for Macklemore’s future, as he provides an unclear message, as well as an unusual blend of different genres that integrates into hip-hop. Fortunately, with producer Ryan Lewis’ genius mixing and flow, The Heist definitely pulls off as a good first attempt for each of their careers.
Grade: B
Recommended: Songs individually
Suggested Tracks: “Ten Thousand Hours,” “Thrift Shop, “Same Love,” “Gold” “Jimmy Iovine

Night Visions – Imagine Dragons

I first discovered Imagine Dragons after watching the movie trailer for the highly anticipated but sadly disappointing The Words starring Bradley Cooper, a few months ago. The song “Demons,” which is by far my favorite track off the album, was playing in the preview. I also discovered their other moderately popular song, “It’s Time,” from the Perks of Being a Wallflower trailer. Both songs are great individually, but in contrast with each other, you can tell Imagine Dragons has a dynamic and unusual sound. Night Visions starts out with the powerful rocker, “Radioactive,” in which I instantly saw Imagine Dragons as the indie alternative/rock/soft pop band it had been described as. Although “Radioactive” is an intriguing and dominant song off the album, the lyrics are a bit muddled (“Welcome to the new age/I’m radioactive/radioactive.”) The next few songs were all captivating, but again, only as individual songs. As a whole, the album compilation doesn’t really show where Imagine Dragons is going. Another great tune “Tiptoe,” is a similar song to “Radioactive,” but at a faster beat and more coherent lyrics; the aforementioned, catchy “It’s Time” and its opposite, dramatic tune, “Demons;” another soft-hearted melody “On Top of the World,” but with another incompatible rock jam, “Amsterdam.” The second half of the album, primarily, is about the same, with “Hear Me,” “Every Night,” and “Bleeding Out” playing in a steady correlation of similar resonance. “Underdog” is a unique, almost electronic-sounding jingle that stands out from the album, but also as the least compatible out of each song off the album. The 9-minute track “Nothing Left to Say” is fortunately the exact opposite of “Underdog,” being that it is not only the most compatible song, but also the strongest and grittiest on the album. After around the 6-minute mark, there’s silence – which seems to be an odd and unique trend in most songs nowadays (similar to Beach House’s 16-minute track “Irene”) – and then there’s a short but sweet hidden track “Rocks.” The album closer, “Cha-Ching (Till We Grow Older)” is a nice song, but it is not a great conclusion to the album, nor does it demonstrate the type of music Imagine Dragons is going for.

Night Visions is messy, in both a good and bad way. The eccentric and eclectic sound of the album does have a grabbing intrigue, mixing rock with pop, electronic, and grunge. But at the same time, it has its faults. Each song, individually, would be great if only it would make better sense as to what Imagine Dragons wants to convey on the album. However, Imagine Dragons does a satisfactory job of keeping a listener entertained.
Grade: B
Recommended: Songs Individually
Suggested Tracks to Listen to: “Demons,” “It’s Time,” “Radioactive,” and “Tiptoe

The Origin of Love – MIKA

After a three-year hiatus from his second album The Boy Who Knew Too Much, Mika has finally reached his potential, with his new third full-length LP The Origin of Love. Not only is this Mika’s finest work, but also helps express his inner self, lyrically and melodically. Mixing a fantastic blend of synth-pop with piano riffs, keyboards, and dreamy echoes, this proves Mika can not only sing, but also convey his message through music. The first self-titled track is a soft yet acceptable opener for the album, with beautiful echoing vocals and a smart use of quasi-auto tune. Then it continues right into an ocean of captivating and evocative melodies, such as the catchy, romance-filled “Lola,” the disco-loving groove “Stardust,” the electronic jam “Make You Happy,” and the piano ballad “Underwater.” After that is “Overrated,” another disco pop jingle, which starts out very similar to Kanye West’s 2008 jam “Paranoid.” The next track, “Kids,” is the weakest song off the album and reflects some of the album’s faults. Its annoyingly slow-paced blend of electronic and rock is somewhat dull, which can be detrimental to the album’s core. “Love You When I’m Drunk” is a pumped up vibration and slight improvement from “Kids,” but also is similarly dull, mostly through its stilted lyrics (When I get sober/I know I’ll get over you/I only love you (3x)/When I’m drunk). The next track, “Step With Me,” begins with a wondrous sounding hook, almost hauntingly similar to Alice in Wonderland. However, the chorus sounds like a country ballad trying to be pop or a pop jingle trying to be country. Fortunately afterwards, “Popular Song” comes on, being possibly the most ridiculous but catchiest tune off The Origin of Love. For those who hate horrible raps and rhymes, but love the hit Broadway show Wicked, “Popular Song” is a perfect choice. Although Mika and unprecedented rapper Priscilla Renea try their best to use explicit language, the bridge and chorus beg to differ, with a likable jingle and la-las, echoing Wicked’s hit song, “Popular.” This is definitely Mika’s strong suit, embodying his message of self-empowerment. The next track, “Emily,” is another appealing disco jam with a fast-paced French chorus. “Heroes” is probably Mika’s most vulnerable and softest song off the album, which can be both beneficial and unpleasant. Knowing that Mika is a hell of a performer, singer, and artist overall, it’s hard for him to translate that into a softer version of himself. But, as always, Mika demonstrates the contrast between the levels of softness and loudness in his music, which make his album generally diverse. The last song is possibly next to “Popular Song’s” ranking as the best and merriest tune of the album – the Pharrell Williams’ produced “Celebrate.” This song expresses not only a fun message of celebrating life, but comes off as extremely memorable, with its poppy noise, electric guitar riffs, and unforgettable chorus. Although Pharrell’s small appearance on his own track is unnecessary and superfluous, Mika definitely knows how to close a show.

The Origin of Loveexplores the themes of affection, lust, celebration, and of course, the origin of love. Being that his first album, Life in Cartoon Motion, was an uneasy beginning, and his second album, The Boy Who Knew Too Much, was, to some extent, a better improvement, Mika’s third full-length LP has definitely been his best and finest work yet. Hopefully, his next album will be even catchier than The Origin of Love has already proven to be.
Grade: B+
Recommended?: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Make You Happy,” “Stardust,” “Popular Song,” “Celebrate

Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City – Kendrick Lamar

Over the course of hip-hop history, many rappers have been discovered through their striking lyrics, explicit language, and the stories they share. Today, the next rapper to join that group of great historical rappers is Kendrick Lamar. After debuting his first hip hop record Section.80, which received a lot of acclaim but only some recognition, Kendrick returns with his new, excellent follow-up record good kid, m.a.a.d city. A lot of what Section.80 doesn’t have is what Kendrick’s new album does have and more – his story. Kendrick grew up in the ghetto of Compton, CA, living with intrusive parents and hanging with dangerous gangs. The subtitle to good kid, m.a.a.d city, “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar,” refers to the interludes at the end of each track, containing dialogue and voicemail recordings of his mother, father, and a series of gangs. This idea helps make Kendrick’s album more authentic and down-to-earth. The title, good kid, m.a.a.d. city, even evokes an essence of deprived childhood, a dangerous lifestyle, religion, and misfortune. Kendrick Lamar transcends into his story through dark, religious undertones (the haunting first track, “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter” and the genius “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”), as well as freestyling dark humor (the outlandish yet brilliant “Backstreet Freestyle” and the R&B mix “The Art of Peer Pressure). The next two tracks both blend true diverse music and symbolize the excellence in sampling music: “Money Trees,” which features rapper Jay Rock, utilizes a great sample from alt-indie rock band Beach House’s “Silver Soul” off their 2010 album Teen Dream. It then segues into “Poetic Justice,” a soulful homage to Janet Jackson’s hit song “Any Time, Any Place” from her 90s album, janet. It also features fantastic rhymes from acclaimed rapper Drake. As an art form, rap helps two or more artists join forces and both “Money Trees” and “Poetic Justice” epitomize the elegant art of collaboration. The next two tracks literally represent the title of Kendrick’s sophomore album: “good kid” is a simple storytelling of some of Kendrick’s childhood life and “m.A.A.d. city” is a more aggressive and complex rap, providing featured vocals from Compton legend MC Eiht. Both these songs, with their style, transition, and opposing views, effectively symbolize the separation and detachment of Kendrick’s early life, which is a true highlight in the album. The next two songs also connect, one to the other, and involve the struggles with urges and depression: the luminous and evocative “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is almost similar to Kendrick’s first acclaimed single, “A.D.H.D.” from Section.80 – both discussing the troubles and dangers of partying, alcohol, and sex; and the 12-minute anthem “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” may be long for some listeners, but shows Kendrick’s complex and attention-grabbing arrangement of his life story. The last two tracks off good kid, m.a.a.d city vary in captivation and conviction: “Real,” featuring soft vocals from Anna Wise, is a real Kendrick song – it supplies a subtle, poignant beat, matching perfectly with Kendrick’s lyrics. It may be the slowest and hardest to listen to (other than his 12-minute track), but it’s worth listening to, at least for a while; the last track, “Compton,” contains great material, especially from the bold, old school NWA rap icon Dr. Dre, but it should add more to complete an already great album. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t shine as much as the other tracks, therefore making it a mediocre album closer.

We learn a lot from Kendrick’s history on good kid, m.a.a.d city, which is why it should become a rap classic – it contains gripping and mesmerizing lyrics, unique and powerful beats, and, as every rap album should, a story expressing what Kendrick really wants to rap about. good kid, m.a.a.d city is an almost perfect and almighty album, evoking themes of childhood, struggles, and faith. This will definitely lead Kendrick’s life to happiness and hopefully away from the one he raps about.

Grade: A+
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Backstreet Freestyle,” “Money Trees,” “Swimming Pools (Drank)

Also, enjoy Kendrick’s new, exclusive J Cole-produced single “The Jig Is Up (Dump’n)