Unapologetic – Rihanna

It’s amazing that Rihanna has released four consecutive albums since 2009. Each album has expressed the diverse and distinctive sides of Rihanna, varying from dark aggressiveness (2009’s Rated R), light-hearted club pop (2010’s Loud), and hip-hop influenced electro-dance (2011’s Talk that Talk).  With each album containing at least a few exemplary songs that have become popular sensations on the music charts (2009’s “Rude Boy“, 2010’s “Only Girl in the World” and “What’s My Name?”, and 2011’s “We Found Love“), Rihanna has evolved into a more sophisticated and focused artist. But the problem is, Rihanna’s consistent songwriting, music production, and touring can all be wasted on one thing — a time to diversify. By that, I mean Rihanna has not had much a chance to expand on her music, which has resulted in her new, disappointing record Unapologetic. Unfortunately, despite that the album is thematically unapologetic and the cover suggests a more raw and vulnerable Rihanna, the 24-year-old Barbadian star struggles to conceive any new material that can put up to the standard of her other popular songs. With no intriguing hooks, a hapless and slightly morose mood, and a somewhat robotic voice from Rihanna, Unapologetic ultimately fails to become another stand-out Rihanna record. One thing, though, that is ironic and slightly riveting about Unapologetic is that Chris Brown, who, as we all know has had a pretty rough history with Rihanna (their 2007/2008 scandal, domestic abuse, and restraining order that broke the power couple off), guest stars on Rihanna’s track “Nobody’s Business;” the irony is that it is probably the best one out of the entire album, being that its jazzy feel and the chemistry between Rihanna and Chris Brown’s voices is undeniably compatible. However, that does not apply to the other guest spots on Unapologetic, which include Eminem, Future, Nikky Ekko, David Guetta, and Kanye West (on a remix of her most popular song currently, “Diamonds”). The 3rd track, “Numb,” has an uneven beat, between trap music and a Jamaican-influenced rhythm, a surprisingly tiresome Rihanna, and an unfortunate appearance by Eminem. This has been Eminem’s third collaboration with Rihanna, the first being Eminem’s excellent 2010 tune “Love the Way You Lie” from Recovery and Rihanna’s own version with Eminem as a guest on Loud. But sadly, this time, Eminem’s volatile raps are not used enough and it almost seems if his voice has been manipulated by Auto-Tune. The same goes for “Loveeeeeee Song,” which features newcomer rapper Future, who is also not been given a chance or an opportunity to express his awesome vocals. The song comes off as a boring, unsatisfactory love ballad, making it one of the weakest off Unapologetic. The dance-induced “Right Now” and “Fresh off the Runway,” both produced by Swedish DJ David Guetta, have no originality or mirth that make up a great, energy-filled dance song. Finally, we get to Rihanna’s most prominent track, “Diamonds.” Though it currently hold #1 on iTunes, it possesses a few conflicting qualities: Rihanna’s voice can be drony at moments and powerful in the chorus; the slow-tempoed, electronic beat can be both absorbing and tasteless. I’d prefer listening to the remix by Kanye West, which features some great verses rapped by West and only more so of a snippet of Rihanna, which probably explains why the brief guest appearances on Unapologetic are weak and tacky. 

Rihanna has made herself out to be a lot of things: Rihanna the Pop Star and Rihanna the Attention-Deprived Victim of a Crime that Happened Four Years Ago. She was able to overcome most of it in 2010’s fantastic Loud and 2011’s slightly-less-exciting-but-still-intriguing Talk that Talk, but in this year’s Unapologetic, it’s all coming back. Its surprisingly disappointing and hook-less tracks struggle to keep up with Rihanna at her current stardom, which may lead to her downfall. But hopefully that won’t be the case, for Rihanna’s ego and prominence is far too great to even become ruined just yet.

Grade: C

Recommended: No
Suggested Tracks: “Diamonds,” “Nobody’s Business


True – Solange

I guess Beyoncé isn’t the only talented one in the Knowles family. Her sister, indie dance artist Solange, is also a singer-songwriter, DJ, dancer, and actress, if anyone remembers the poorly-reviewed Johnson Family Vacation in 2004. Despite her setbacks, she brings her best efforts into her brand new, 7-song, red-album-covered EP True. She released a promotional single, “Losing You,” a few months that received a lot of recognition, for its 80s-pop feel, calypso beat, and Solange’s beautiful vocals, slightly echoing her famous sister, Beyoncé. The best part is that “Losing You” is featured as the first track off of True, getting off to a great start already. One could say that “Losing You” reverberates a similar taste in rhythm and breathy sounds to Sky Ferreria’s excellent track “Everything is Embarrassing.” After the first song comes a diverse set of unique tunes that evoke sensual, alluring beats (“Lovers in the Parking Lot”), Janet Jackson-esque pop ambience (“Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work,” “Don’t Let Me Down”), hip-hop/jazz influenced thumps (“Locked in Closets,” “Looks Good With Trouble”), and that type of music that echoes a 70s R&B nostalgia (“Bad Girls”). Overall, Solange does a superb job of revitalizing her music career, since her 2003 debut Soul Star and 2008 follow-up Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, which topped the charts, but received little critical recognition.

We have a lot to look forward to in Solange’s career because her potential exceeds far more than what most people expect of an unkown singer, especially from an EP like True: her brilliant yet simple artwork, the mysterious ambiguity of her album’s title, and her surprisingly entertaining 7-song set. Solange’s influential use of funk-inspired jazz, R&B, soul, and indie pop is well-put together and overall makes her into a naturally distinct music artist.

Grade: B+
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Losing You,” “Lovers in the Parking Lot,” “Locked in Closets”

Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell adds another phenomenal film to his plethora of good films, which include Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, and 2010’s acclaimed The Fighter, which won Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress. This new entry, Silver Linings Playbook, plays out fantastically, with an outstanding cast, committed performances, an intriguing story, sincere direction, and a powerful script. It stars Bradley Cooper (“The Hangover” series), Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone,” “The Hunger Games,”), the always-legendary Robert DeNiro, a surprisingly spellbinding Chris Tucker (“Rush Hour” series), and Jacki Weaver (“Animal Kingdom”). Each of their characters convey an enormous amount of passion and authenticity. Although Silver Linings Playbook tackles a rough subject (mental illness) with touching romance and earnest comedy, it perseveres through its charm and charisma, both from the story and Cooper and Lawrence’s strong chemistry. The story takes place in Philadelphia, PA (home of the Philadelphia Eagles, which, in the movie, is the family’s favorite team), and revolves around the troubling life of bipolar Pat Solitano (Cooper), who was released from a mental health facility after seeing his wife cheat on him with another man and almost beating the man to death. His estranged parents (DeNiro and Weaver) are slightly skeptical about his return, but Pat’s life changes when he meets Tiffany (Lawrence), who had also been in a mental facility after the death of her husband. Both start in what seems like a nervous friendship, but blossom into a romance that is both sympathetic and endearing. Silver Linings Playbook does contain a few scenes that may be uncomfortable, especially since both Cooper and Lawrence’s characters have some instability from adjusting back to their lives at home. But, like always, their unwavering acting makes up for it. Composer Danny Elfman, who has done a lot of Tim Burton films, displays both a magnificent and dramatic score; Silver Linings Playbook also offers an amazing soundtrack. The movie primarily gives a lot of insight as well, revolving around the ideas of family coming first, stable relationships, and staying positive in the worst situations. Blending all those ideas with great acting and sensitive direction makes Silver Linings Playbook another great cinematic hit, as well as a very possible Oscar choice.

Grade: A
Recommended: Yes
Oscar Nomination?: Yes (Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Screenplay)

See the trailer here.

Paradise – Lana Del Rey

By now, people are pretty informed on who Lana Del Rey is. The American singer-songwriter rose into fame in 2011 for her fantastic, sleeper hit song “Video Games.” After receiving gradual recognition, she stirred controversy by performing what was considered “the worst music performance ever” on Saturday Night Live. Even through the criticism and online discrimination, Lana Del Rey released “Born to Die” and “Blue Jeans,” another two crazy-good tunes that led to her 2012 debut Born to Die, which received polarizing reviews. Again, this year, Lana Del Rey reveals her new 8-song EP, Paradise, which is used on its own and as a reissue for the “deluxe edition” of Born to Die. Many reasons of why Lana Del Rey is considered a deplorable pseudo persona is due to her consistent melancholic and tedious tracks, her lack of diversity, and controversial themes, which include incest, antifeminism, and prostitution advocacy. But the many reasons of why she is also considered a pop culture icon is because of her infatuating and vibrant music videos, her sensual, crooning voice, her mellow mood, and being a true artist, in the sense of integrating indie pop and alternative hip hop music. In Paradise, we see Lana Del Rey in the same basic form she has provided for music listeners in Born to Die. Songs individually could be deemed as simply the best work Lana Del Rey has done so far in her career, but the album as a whole seems pretty repetitive, melodramatically produced, and overall, too similar to Born to Die. However, the first track off Paradise, “Ride,” is actually surprisingly a great start for the 8-song EP. The 5-minute song is an intriguing pop ballad that includes some explicit lyrics, which can be just Lana Del Rey trying to esteem herself within the alternative hip hop culture. Some critics even say that “Ride” sounds similar to acclaimed British singer-songwriter Adele, but others may beg to differ. The 10-minute music video of “Ride,” is trying its best to be a “Lana Del Rey” video but comes off predictable and peculiar (Lana’s character is a prostitute hanging out with a biker gang). The second track, “American,” is another great addition to the list of actually good Lana Del Rey songs and brings a better-paced tune to Paradise. But, yet again, Lana Del Rey disappoints and actually comes off a little too explicit, lyrically in the detached “Cola” (My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola/My eyes are wide like cherry pie). Again, she comes off a little too over-the-top in “Body Electric”, referencing famous actors and actresses as if she were related to them (Elvis is my daddy/Marilyn’s my mother/Jesus is my bestest friend). Fortunately, the next song is “Blue Velvet,” which is a cover of 1950s R&B group The Clovers and is, of course, coincidentally the same name to the acclaimed 1986 thriller directed by David Lynch. Its jazzy nostalgia and engaging sound makes it one of the most compelling off of Paradise. Unfortunately, those 15 seconds of fame — rather 2 minutes and 39 seconds — end quickly as Lana Del Rey transitions into the last three songs “Gods & Monsters,” “Yayo,” and “Bel Air,” which contain no genuine or diverse originality, making it an uneasy ending to Paradise.

Paradise is primarily up-and-down, melodically and lyrically, and Lana’s continuous attempt of alluding to celebrities, sex, drugs, explicit language, and pop culture can come off as annoying and overambitious. But there are, of course, at least a few songs that match perfectly with Lana Del Rey’s style and allure. It may not be her best work, even as a whole, but Lana Del Rey makes it work, at least for some.

Grade: B-
Recommended: No
Suggested Tracks: “Ride,” “American,” “Blue Velvet

(III) – Crystal Castles

Not many music artists are into the dark-electro pop field. At least not many good artists. Except for Canadian electronic experimental duo Crystal Castles. They had recently released their third jam-packed, rave-enhanced album (III), after launching their career with their previous well-received albums, their debut Crystal Castles in 2008 and its successor (II) in 2010. With (III), Crystal Castles has effortlessly epitomized the emphatic noise of pop and dark electronic beats, with haunting lyrics, groovy samples, and serene echoes. However for some music listeners, Crystal Castles may come off too strong and a little too intense — and to some extent, unusually creepy. But with lead singer Alice Glass’ varying voice and producer Ethan Kath’s effervescent sound, Crystal Castles has helped bond a huge gap between pop and electronic. (III) gathers some similar-sounding songs to that of their prime resonance, which include the rave-infused “Plague,” and the hip and slow-tempoed jingle “Kerosene.” Crystal Castles definitely reaches a huge milestone with “Wrath of God,” a head-banging rage-filled song that uniquely defines the link between slow electronic and pop-induced disco. Ultimately, “Wrath of God” automatically becomes one of the strongest off of (III). “Affection” is a tune very much alike to Crystal Castles’ acclaimed track “Baptism” from (II). “Pale Flesh” and “Sad Eyes” depict both of a somewhat melancholic and joyful rhythm, fusing together through staggering electronic clicks and blips. Interludes like “Insulin” define Crystal Castle’s unique style very well, but it is not a high point within the album. “Transgender” comes off as a deep and dark hole of imaginative thrill, making you think of the music in those old Super Mario games when Mario went into Bowser’s castle or playing Slenderman on your computer. “Violent Youth” contains a lot of similar material from “Pale Flesh,” which, in this case, is still beneficial to the album, providing a steady consistency throughout each track. Both “Telepath” and “Mercenary” offer a relatively edgier sound out of the rest of the album. The last track “Child I Will Hurt You” is probably one track off of (III) that will be easiest to listen to, mainly because of its interesting similarity to Beach Houses’ “Wishes” and that it is the softest and calmest track out of all of Crystal Castles’ albums. But that can also be said about their last track “Tell Me What to Swallow” from their self-titled debut and “I Am Made of Chalk” from (II). I guess this shows that to every dark side, there is always a good one as well and that out of every sad beginning, the outcome is mostly a happy ending.

(III) may not live up to the standards of Crystal Castles’ two previous albums and especially not with their classic hits, “Alice Practice” and “Not in Love,” but they do provide a wide variety of new material that is engaging and mind-numbing. Crystal Castles’ innovative and stylish sound make them stand out of the crowd of so-far unrecognized electro-experimental noise duos.

Grade: B+
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Wrath of God,” “Affection,” “Pale Flesh,” “Child I Will Hurt You