Drake’s “Nothing was the Same”

In 2009, no one would have thought that Aubrey Drake Graham, an up-and-coming Canadian rapper and Degrassi star, would make it big. Nowadays, he’s all anyone’s talking about in the hip hop industry. After his So Far Gone mixtape and his lucrative 2010 debut Thank Me Later, Drake was climbing up the unpredictable ladder of success and fame. It wasn’t until several collaborations with fellow rappers, including Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, that Drake would become the next best thing in hip hop. Two years since his acclaimed sophomore record Take Care, Drake has become an international phenomenon, not just as a singer/rapper, but as a definitive paradigm in pop culture and for popularizing ubiquitous phrases (“YOLO,” to give an example). Despite the rapid growth in album sales and artistic recognition, Drake persists his career with a quiet yet determined attitude as he is surrounded by an overwhelming environment. Incidentally, this past week, Drake released his most personal and most unique album to date, Nothing was the Same.

Unlike his other albums, the guests on Nothing was the Same are minimal and mostly unprecedented, marking Drake’s voice and songwriting as dominant forces on the record. Although some would say that lack of collaboration can be destructive towards a popular artist (i.e. Mac Miller’s disappointing Blue Slide Park), Drake already contains a certain control on how to make an album both listenable and compelling without resorting to mediocrity. Plus, it’s kind of a break from his last two star-studded records, which ranged from Alicia Keys to Rihanna to Rick Ross.

On songs that don’t include featured artists, Drake comes into top form, both lyrically and musically. On the mystifying 6-minute opener “Tuscan Leather,” Drake vents his anxious feelings about fame, media attention, and glory over a glossy beat and a pipsqueak sample, made by rising producer Noah “40” Shebib, who created most of the soulful rhythms heard on “Nothing was the Same.” Much like other rappers, Drake mentions his ways with the ladies on “Furthest Thing” and “Connect.” But unlike certain rappers, he takes the subject matter to a personal level, talking about failed romances and his ambivalence towards falling in love. Occasionally, the 26-year-old Toronto rapper delves into monotonous territory, like on the ambient “Own It.” However, he manages to keep the album interesting on the passionate “Wu-Tang Forever” and funky highlight “Worst Behavior.” Additionally, his most popular solo single off Nothing was the Same, “Started from the Bottom,” has furthered his progression into dominating both hip hop music and pop culture, as the song’s title has become frequently used as an everyday expression among young teenagers.     

Prior to the release of Nothing was the Same, Drake distributed several songs  — “The Motion,” “Jodeci Freestyle,” “Girls Love Beyoncé,” “5 AM in Toronto” — that ended up not making the cut, but became viral Internet hits and held some significance towards Drake’s musical choices. These songs weren’t particularly personal nor did they ponder the captivating topics that Drake would mostly rap about in some of his biggest songs (“Over,” “Best I Ever Had,” “Headlines”). In fact, most of them were about Drake rapping with self-deprecating lyrics and tone. However, it was one way of showing how Drake is developing as an artist who can still make great music, regardless of the subject matter.

In addition to Nothing was the Same’s plethora of evocative songs, it also features one of Drake’s all-time best singles: the smooth, 80s contemporary radio smash “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” Drake repeatedly expresses his true love towards a woman in the alluring hook, “I got my eyes on you/You’re everything that I see/I want your hot love and emotion endlessly.” Though it sounds corny on print, Drake’s surprisingly spot-on falsetto and guest Majid Jordan’s crispy vocals drives “Hold On, We’re Going Home” as a romantic, sensuous ballad. While Drake’s themes on “Nothing was the Same” primarily focuses on love and fame, he also discusses his relationships with friends and family on the smoky, R&B-influenced “Too Much.”

It’s amazing to see how an unlikely rapper turn into one of the decade’s most popular and celebrated hip hop artists. Drake’s journey has led to many roads that include Grammy awards, rap feuds, and platinum records. But he’ll ultimately be remembered several years from now not just as that award-winning, record-selling rapper, but as an individual who helps bring humanistic and emotional issues into hip hop, instead of solely centering on wealth and fame.

Grade: A-
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Tuscan Leather,” “Started from the Bottom,” “Worst Behavior,” “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” “Too Much”             

Vampire Weekend’s “Modern Vampires of the City”

It seems as though Vampire Weekend is trying to stray away from being Vampire Weekend. To put it more accurately, the New York-based quartet are recognized today for their preppy fashion sense, post-collegiate anthems, and Afro-pop oriented sound. Garnering critical praise and an indie-going-on-mainstream status, Vampire Weekend has also acquired a cult following from music listeners, who most likely associate the band as the “ultimate indie pop group.” Unfortunately, this has made it inevitable for the group to leave their comfort zone and to keep continuing to make the same predictable music. Despite the increase of popularity and sold-out concerts, it already seemed like people knew what was in store for new Vampire Weekend music. Luckily, all four band members have taken the extra mile to produce one of this year’s most anticipated and highly acclaimed albums, their third full-length record Modern Vampires of the City.

After the release of their 2008 cult classic self-titled debut and 2010’s similarly appealing Contra, Vampire Weekend used the opportunity to take extra measures and enhance their foreseeable sound by experimenting with different genres. Even if this meant losing fans, their artistic integrity would still remain intact, especially after the circulation of an outrageous hoax of their rumored album cover and title Lemon Sounds in late January. With a three year recording process and taken place in various locations, including New York, Los Angeles, and Martha’s Vineyard, the “anti-publicity” of MVOTC kept the mystery that was beginning to emanate off Vampire Weekend and their predictable aura. Thankfully, the four-man outfit received help from record producer Ariel Rechtshaid, whose mainstream work includes Usher, Charli XCX, and Snoop Lion. Notwithstanding the aid from an unconventional source, Rechtshaid helped Vampire Weekend distance away from the sound they’ve been so heavily associated with, which also meant going back to the drawing board several times and essentially scrapping songs that could’ve easily been catchy, chart-topping hits.

With bewitching lyrics written by lead singer Ezra Koneig and a flawless production, Modern Vampires of the City is an unpredictably insightful, heartwarming, and mesmerizing album that incorporates diverse sounds without losing sight of some of the band’s old practical rhythms. So far, the record has impressed both fans, critics, and even haters, some of whom having encountered a divine change-of-heart thanks to this album. Most of MVOTC‘s best songs can be considered instant masterpieces, much like their previous songs “A-Punk,” “Oxford Comma,” “Cousins,” and “Holiday.” But more importantly, it encompasses much more complex storytelling, darker themes, and unusual recording assets, including pitch shifting on the hyperactive, toe-tapping lead single “Diane Young.” The noisy 60s-influenced jive is one of the most energetic songs off Modern Vampires of the City, as well as one of the many highlights.

With the exception of the organ driven “Don’t Lie,” the fast paced “Finger Back,” and the ukelele-strumming “Worship You,” the majority of the album also evokes a dramatic ambience, which again exemplifies Vampire Weekend’s exploration of diverse sounds. Opener “Obvious Bicycle” instantly sets off a cathartic reaction of subtlety, as the sounds of piano riffs and (what sounds like) a pogo stick play in the background. Two standout tracks in the first half of the record — the atheist anthem “Unbelievers” and the haunting “Step” — are very different in style and lyrics, but both are equally catchy and masterful. “Ya Hey,” another enchanting tune, can be considered the weirdest song off MVOTC, with a pipsqueak vocal shouting the title intermittently, but nevertheless is another great addition to the impeccable work of Vampire Weekend. The sharp violins playing in the beginning of “Everlasting Arms” already grabs you enough to listen to the rest; the ambient “Hannah Hunt” is a delightful love ballad, despite the title deriving from one of Koneig’s college classmates (not lovers); “Hudson” is perhaps their darkest song, with the insertion of a ghostly backup choir and pouding snares, but it’s still very promising. Though the last song, “Young Lion,” is less than two minutes, its spine-chilling, piano driven composition and angelic vocals, is just as spellbinding as the rest of the album.

The album artwork, which isn’t the vintage image of a girl in a yellow, droopy dress that circulated in January, is a picture of Manhattan, taken in 1966 during the smoggiest day in New York. Despite the image’s bleak quality (and the fact that the “smoggiest day in New York” killed 169 people), it invokes a somewhat dystopian future for America, if not to say for Vampire Weekend’s future. But understanding this idea of the past and the future demonstrates the group’s visual aesthetic and analytical insight on life and the world we live in. Perhaps Modern Vampires of the City has not only changed the group’s sound, but indicates how mature they really are as artists and as individuals.

Vampire Weekend has come a long way from being soft-spoken Columbia University undergrads to a musically acclaimed band of 29-year-olds whose sensibility shouldn’t be underestimated by their youth. Somehow, Vampire Weekend has really grown and evolved into an iconic collective and thankfully, the product of their astute attitudes is another great album and one to remember for years to come.

Grade: A
Recommended: Yes
Top Tracks: “Obvious Bicycle,” “Unbelievers,” “Step,” “Diane Young,” “Ya Hey,” “Young Lion”  


Charli XCX’s “True Romance”

Throughout the last few years, European electro-pop music has sustained mainly because of the growth of young female singers, producers, and chart-hitters. These vibrant electro-pop performers, which include Swedish singer Robyn, Welsh singer-songwriter Marina + The Diamonds, and Norwegian DJ Annie, have obtained praise from critics and huge cult followings from both foreign and American pop fans. But in more recent events, another bright, young musician has also become part of the Euro-pop females: 20-year-old Charlotte Aitchison, known professionally as Charli XCX. Although she debuted unofficially in 2008 without much recognition, she eventually trascended her obscurity with her renowned synth-pop single “Nuclear Seasons” in 2011. Though the critical success of “Nuclear Seasons” skyrocketed in the indie music scene, as well as her feature on pop duo Icona Pop’s summer smash, “I Love It,” the release of her anticipated debut seemed ambiguous and unlikely. Fortunately, it wasn’t until this year, and one mixtape later, that her much-delayed, first major-label record, True Romance, debuted. Despite its original release date of April 2012 and its lengthy recording process (since 2010), True Romance is worth the wait; XCX’s debut is a passionate, powerful, and uplifting album, filled with catchy bubblegum-pop and R&B funk.

Unlike the discordance and disparity of Charli’s continuity, True Romance is refined and tweaked to the point of utmost perfection. At times, True Romance feels a bit lost and out of touch from reality, but XCX’s crystalizing vocals, explicit lyrics, and infectious beats steer clear from becoming too convoluted. Instead, they blend effortlessly and thoroughly into a colorful, mind-melting fantasy. Other than the instantly catchy opener “Nuclear Seasons,” True Romance is also filled with a palette of easily memorable tunes, such as the Gold Panda-sampled “You (Ha Ha Ha),” the blippy, electronic toe-tapper “Take My Hand,” and the seductive and soulful “Set Me Free (Feel My Pain).” In addition, True Romance can also be very sophisticated in sound and in lyrics, resulting in either a gratifying (“Stay Away,” “Grins,”) or a fairly disappointing outcome (“So Far Away,” “How Can I,” “Cloud Aura”). In some cases, certain songs are just plain and simple British electronic club-pop, such as the heavy synth jam “What I Like,” the buzzy “Black Roses,” or the breathy album closer “Lock You Up.”

From an artistic viewpoint, True Romance reverberates the moodiness of 1970s art pop with an early 90s feel. This amalgamation of periods in music also creates a slight nod towards XCX’s prominent line in Icona Pop’s “I Love It”: “You’re from the 70s/but I’m a 90s bitch.” Though True Romance evokes musical influences from the 70s, it mirrors more of a 90s pop album, hence the album’s thematic and euphonic juxtaposition between the past, the present, and the future. This type of retro vibe can be heard especially on one of True Romance‘s standout tracks, “You’re The One,” an oozy ballad, reminiscent of Whitney Houston and Christina Aguilera, both of whom are from the 70s and 90s, respectively. Other times, however, Charli XCX easily manipulates synth-pop by mixing hip hop and a universally panned feature from Brooke Candy in the album’s weakest track, “Cloud Aura.” Although “Cloud Aura” derives from XCX’s disjointed 2012 mixtape Super Ultra, its place in True Romance shows that the album isn’t perfect, but that its best songs make up for its flaws.   

Maybe it’s just awkward timing or her naiveté, but Charli XCX demonstrates the complex True Romance with grace and passionate ethos. Like the Quentin Tarantino movie it was inspired by, True Romance is a savvy spectacle of Euro-pop music and a great start for the young Charli XCX.   

Grade: B+
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Nuclear Seasons,” “You (Ha Ha Ha),” “Take My Hand,” “Set Me Free (Feel My Pain),” “You’re The One”

Phoenix’s “Bankrupt!”

Being one of the most popular bands in music currently must be a daunting experience. Especially if one of those bands were to win the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album, produce two #1 smash hits, venture on four world tours, and recently headline the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. In this case, that band would be French-based quartet Phoenix. Since their inception as a band, Phoenix has released five albums, including this year’s Bankrupt!. However, much like other famous indie-rock groups, they began with almost zero recognition. Their 2000 retro-funk debut United and 2004’s nonchalant follow-up Alphabetical played small parts in defining the early age of indie rock music, though it had little effect on the American radio charts. Luckily, two years later, the release of their indie breakout It’s Never Been Like That intrigued music listeners and critics alike. Even though Phoenix had somewhat found a place in the music industry, their obscurity hindered them from becoming the alt-rock, synth-pop outfit they are known as today. Fortunately, they got the huge breakthrough they deserved in 2009 with the release of their brilliant fourth record Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Combining the elements of alternative lo-fi and electro-rock, Wolfgang was not only an unexpected commercial and critical success, but a Grammy-winning musical masterpiece. Their two awesome mega-hits, “Lisztomania” and “1901,” became the paradigms of Phoenix’s defining attributes as a rock band, which led them to perform both tunes on Saturday Night Live, as well as in commercials and many other venues. Four years later, the Versailles outfit releases Bankrupt!, another exceptional record but far different from its predecessor.

On Wolfgang, Phoenix sounds relaxed, fluid, and incredibly catchy. On Bankrupt!, Phoenix sounds much more ecstatic, but equally discordant and strained. It’s as though they are aware of their success and popularity, which, in this case, can be overwhelming, thus resulting in a tense and anxious (albeit appealing) record. Bankrupt! is heavy on synths and hooks and light on lyrics and introspection, which says something about Phoenix’s central focus on the album’s sound. Although Phoenix incorporates a diverse set of K-pop fusion, acoustic guitar riffs, and ethereal synthesizers, the result is slightly unsettling and manic, unlike Wolfgang‘s calm and composed rhythms.

Bankrupt! begins with the epic, heavily promoted crowd-pleaser “Entertainment,” which is one of Phoenix’s most mainstream songs to date. Despite “Entertainment”‘s lively Japanese-infused production, memorable resonance, and diverse remixes from Dinosaur Jr., Blood Orange, and Dirty Projectors, it contradicts itself with the self-conscious lyricism: The uplifting chorus builds up with grandeur, but ends with lead singer Thomas Mars’ confusing proclamation, “I’d rather be alone.” The fact that “Entertainment” sounds like a riveting live performance rebutes Mars’ solidarity, making the song an arguably adequate Bankrupt! tune, in terms of both lyrics and sound. Despite this semi-setback, the rest of Bankrupt!‘s first half encompasses the album’s best tracks — “The Real Thing,” “SOS In Bel Air,” “Trying to Be Cool” — and an overall enjoyable tone. “The Real Thing” and “SOS In Bel Air” share a simliar uptempo cadence, but each track contains some of Phoenix’s finest moments as musicians. “Trying to Be Cool” opens with a gentle guitar riff, followed by handclaps, electronic twirls, and mid-90s art pop. The themes of Bankrupt! — loneliness, anxiety, glamour, materialism, fashion, romanticism, and the cult of celebrity — are seen within these three standout tracks, as well in some of the second half of Bankrupt!.

Right smack in the middle of Phoenix’s fifth record is the 7-minute title track, which marks the endpoint of Bankrupt!‘s steady pacing. The title track, similar in length and ambition to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix‘s vivacious “Love Like a Sunset,” and It’s Never Been Like That‘s “North,” bears the most diverse moments in Phoenix’s career, as well as their most unnerving. Beginning with a quiet, double-speed guitar riff and ambient electro noises, the title track stops short of 2 minutes with an echoing piano, followed by what seems like an undeclared “bass drop” and a cacophony of harpsichords, twinkly keyboard harmonies, and stuttering, strobe-light synthesizers. This moment in Bankrupt! isn’t their worst, but perhaps their most confusing, considering that Phoenix deviates from using heavy electronic in the majority of their songs. However, the chaotic beat stops suddenly again and fortunately turns into an enchanting, acoustic-filled dreamscape of elation, accompanied with Mars’ dreamy voice.

However, like the exclamation point in the album’s title, Bankrupt!‘s second half tends to overemphasize the utilization of synth-pop. But, it nevertheless maintains Phoenix’s sincerity and authenticity as a close-knit rock group. Following the title track is the sleazy sonic jive “Drakkar Noir,” which transitions gradually into the washed out, slow jam “Chloroform.” Both songs signify Phoenix’s French influence with a mix of seductiveness and electro lo-fi. Ostensibly, “Chloroform” sounds a little like a slowed-down version of “1901,” which makes sense, since both songs were paired together during Phoenix’s Coachella performance with R. Kelly’s famous hits “Ignition” and “I’m a Flirt.” “Don’t” is another exceptional Bankrupt! tune, but the tedious chorus makes the song seem a lot longer than it already sounds. Phoenix successfully attempts to use 60s-influenced rock and “sha-la-la-las” with late 80s-influenced shoegaze on the dazzling “Bourgeois.” Bankrupt! closer “Oblique City” is unfortunately the album’s weakest track. Unlike most of Phoenix’s epic album closers, such as Wolfgang’s spill-chilling “Armistice,” “Oblique City” deceptively reverberates recycled Phoenix material into a mediocre conclusion.

Though Bankrupt! may not be as stellar as Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, it still proves that Phoenix can make great sound and audiences dance at live performances. Phoenix’s outstanding members, which include the aforementioned Mars, bassist Deck d’Arcy, keyboardist Laurent Brancowitz, and guitarist Christian Mazzalai, are more determined than ever with Bankrupt!, though their ambition might have gotten caught up with the distress and apprehension over their recent success. In some cases, that kind of superstardom usually gets deep into the head of the band and ultimately steers them into the wrong direction. With Phoenix, superstardom has neither steered them into the wrong nor the right direction, but into a place of excited and anxious contemplation.

Grade: B+
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Entertainment,” “The Real Thing,” “SOS in Bel Air,” “Trying to Be Cool”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Mosquito”

The late-90s and early 2000s was a period where post-punk, garage-rock music was revived. Novelty music groups, such as The Strokes, Bloc Party, The Rapture, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, developed and invigorated East Coast clubs. Lo-fi and alternative rock were enhanced and adopted by many up-and-coming bands. One of these bands, the aforementioned Yeah Yeah Yeahs, have especially evolved over the course of a decade with three records (2003’s Fever to Tell, 2006’s Show Your Bones, and 2009’s It’s Blitz!). The New-York based trio have also performed in front of young audiences and recently played at SXSW and Coachella. This year, the YYYs have returned with a somewhat fresh new look (lead singer Karen O’s dyed blonde hair, perhaps) and a brand new record, Mosquito.

In recent interviews, Karen O and her bandmates, Nick Zinner and Brain Chase, have discussed their ideas and thought processes on the production of Mosquito and the general notions on their idiosyncratic sound as a band. Despite their sincerity and innovative spirit, Mosquito surprisingly falls flat. Compared to their excellent, dance-pop LP It’s Blitz! and their punk-rock debut Fever to Tell, Mosquito suffers from tonal inconsistencies, bizarre artwork, an ambiguous theme, and a confusing message. Sometimes, though, you could understand why Mosquito has this unpredictable aura, since the YYYs are always unpredictable. However, Mosquito is more sporadically shambolic than brilliantly, unintentionally clever.

Fortunately, Mosquito is not without its highlights: Early into the album is “Sacrilege,” a jittery pop-rock song, with some semi-religious undertones and a message about sexual irreverence and its result of overwhelming guilt. Most of it is mysterious, until it ends with a passionate gospel choir shouting “Sacrilege!,” as if the message they were conveying turned from insightful to exaggerated and delirious. Neverthless, it’s an original and highly diverse track off Mosquito. “Subway” and “Wedding Song” are quiet, alt-rock ballads about romance, which may sound cheap and banal. But with Karen O’s breathy vocals, Nick Zinner’s gentle guitar licks, and Brian Chase’s nice-and-easy drumming, both tunes are worthy of something off of the clumsy Mosquito. The electro-rock jams “Always” and “Despair” aren’t as powerful or as addictive as “Sacrilege,” but they’re nice to listen to.

Unfortunately, Mosquito deteriorates into utter mediocrity with head-scratching tracks like “Under the Earth,” “Slave,” and “Area 52,” possibly the YYYs weirdest and worst song. Why sing about aliens? What happened to singing about defiance in electro-dance power ballads like “Heads Will Roll?” I understand that Karen O’s outlandish persona and errratic voice make the YYYs different from other alt-rock outfits, but making the kind of songs from Mosquito, such as the queasy “Buried Alive” and the noisy title track, is artistically going in the wrong direction. When Karen O emphatically and brashly yells on “Mosquito,” “We’ll suck your blood! We’ll suck your blood! We’ll suck your blood!,” it becomes too edgy and unconvincing and strongly stresses the topic at hand — not abrasiveness, not feminine dignity, but mosquitos.

For the most part, Mosquito is full of blaring, absurd rock songs that should be eradicated and used for other mediocre alt-rock bands. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs can do a lot better, since they’re already equipped with evocative songwriting, head-banging music, and dignified ethos. Mosquito is a confusing, underwhelming, and incredulous result of the YYYs. But despite this setback, the YYYs have already come so far in the music world, it hardly matters. Though it sounds corny, it’s all about the production, the artistic genuinity, and Karen O boisterously singing her heart out at concerts, even if it concerns the evils of parasites.

Grade: C
Recommended: No
Suggested Tracks: “Sacrilege,” “Subway,” “Always,” “Despair,” “Wedding Song”