James Blake’s “Overgrown”

Dubstep has quite evolved. Not only has it produced crowd-pleasing artists, such as Skrillex, Nero, Porter Robinson, Skream, Flux Pavilion, and Major Lazer, but has developed several sub-genres, including witch house, post-dubstep, chillstep, and brostep. Dubstep has revolutionized the music world, as well as the electronic music genre. It has both influenced and divided music listeners, predominately because of its noisy and blaring bass-loaded sound, as well as its takeover on mainstream pop music, for artists like Muse, will.i.am., and Imagine Dragons. However, there are still a few respectable dubstep artists, including U.K. singer/producer James Blake.

His 2011 acclaimed eponymous debut won critics and indie music listeners over with its unique style and clean production. The album broadened the conceptual idea of dubstep by cleverly mixing post-dubstep with R&B, electronic, and dreamy synth-pop. It also introduced Blake’s beautiful tenor, as well as his chilling piano playing. This year, James Blake released an exceptional follow-up, Overgrown. Blake’s second record is his most ambitious, collaborative, and experimental. Overgrown blends Blake’s own post-dubstep sounds with electro-soul, gospel, progressive house, and even hip hop, thanks to a feature from rapper RZA. The album also explores loneliness, unrequited love, solace, and emotional emptiness. But despite these bleak themes, Overgrown is filled with lively beats and an ethereal atmosphere.

On the tranquil title track opener, Blake repeatedly sings the phrase, “Time passes in a constant state,” signifying his inability to grasp the physical and emotional form of love. Some of Blake’s best Overgrown tracks — “Life Round Here,” “Retrograde,” “DLM” — also talk about the overbearing feeling of solidarity over loving someone, which says something about Blake as an artist. He creates beautiful music by connecting various rhythms with relatable lyrics, and the result is both breathtaking and heartbreaking. Blake sings more about love on “Life Round Here,” while being backed by a humming electro-keyboard, funky hip hop thumps, and electronic synths. “Retrograde” sounds a lot like the sequence of the Lars Von Trier film Melancholia, which depicts the feeling of despair before the destruction of the world. “Retrograde” begins with Blake singing and humming softly, while the hand-clapping beat slowly continues into a thrash of glass-shattering synths and Blake proclaims, “Suddenly I’m hit!,” as if the world were intermittently collapsing. “DLM” is Overgrown‘s most bewitching ballad, as Blake layers his elegant voice over his own hums and a dramatic piano.

Although Blake’s engaging second record breaks barriers with different genres, there are a few faults with adding new genres to Blake’s eclectic repertoire. The RZA-featured “Take a Fall for Me” is adequate and RZA raps more poetically than aggressively, but the song feels odd compared with the other Overgrown tunes. The noisy bonus track, “Every Day I Ran,” is also an unnecessary addition to Overgrown and is surprisingly missing Blake’s voice.

However, the second half of Overgrown expands much better on Blake’s musical approach, as it focuses more on electronic than his other used various genres. “Digital Lion,” which features electronic producer Brian Eno, is one of Blake’s most haunting music pieces, as Blake hums and croons over a constantly changing beat of clattering hi-hats, whirring keyboards, and electronic horns. “Voyeur” is one of Blake’s most electronic-induced songs to date, ever since his bone-chilling dubstep track “I Never Learnt to Share” on his debut. “Voyeur” predominantly drowns out Blake’s voice with rattling cowbells, noisy synths, and bass-heavy beats. It’s not a bad thing in this case, as Blake delves deeper into his enigmatic post-dubstep sound. “To the Last,” another outstanding Overgrown track, tiptoes with an ambient neo-soul funk beat and a Sade-sounding Blake.

Compared to James Blake’s effervescent debut, Overgrown is much more eclectic and mysterious, but occasionally misses the musical and thematic element that made the first record great. Say what you will about dubstep, James Blake’s ethos and aestheticism will continue to push him to greater heights and his music will hopefully evoke the same sense of awe as any dubstep artist.

Grade: A
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Overgrown,” “Life Round Here,” “Retrograde, “DLM,” “To the Last”

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The 20/20 Experience – Justin Timberlake

Flashback to 2006: Justin Timberlake had just released his sophomore record FutureSex/LoveSounds, a Prince-influenced album filled with disco-pop, smooth hip hop, and buzzy R&B. His stardom as a solo musician had begun to grow, especially since his 2002 debut Justified. Winning Grammys, touring around the world, and producing three #1 singles, including the memorable “Sexyback,” you could say that Justin was on top of the world. Then all of the sudden, he disappeared off the face of the music world and entered the industry of film and television to focus on acting. This wasn’t exactly the detour people expected, but the results were still satisfying: He has hosted Saturday Night Live 5 times, starred in “Bad Teacher,” “Shrek the Third,” “Friends with Benefits,” and gave an impressive performance in the acclaimed The Social Network. Judging from his experience as both an actor and singer-songwriter, Justin seems to be one of the most multi-talented and culturally adapted celebrities of the modern era. However, his music career seemed tentative. When journalists asked him if he was going to continue to make music, the answer was always ambiguous.

Flash forward to last January: Justin released a mysterious video about a pending record, stating that he’s “ready” to come back to music. Three days later, he released “Suit & Tie,” a surprisingly mature  R&B-funk jam. Produced by longtime collaborator Timbaland, “Suit & Tie” had finally signified Justin’s return to reclaim the throne as a chart-topping musician. The song itself attains a luxurious and classy feel while keeping a vibrant and energetic mood, as Justin sings the slick lyrics and guest feature Jay-Z raps as if he had just crashed a wedding.

After Timberlake fans and the media grew with anticipation about Justin’s return and his first new single, the tracklist and album artwork soon came out for his upcoming third record The 20/20 Experience. Although Justin had taken a 7 year hiatus from producing music, he still retains the same engaging sound that won critics and fans over with his first two albums. The 20/20 Experience takes on a whole new standard of pop by fusing together decades worth of groove funk, blues, calypso, electronic, and R&B. Despite the somewhat old-fashioned vibe, The 20/20 Experience contains 10 songs that sound both nostalgic and contemporary. The atmosphere is both heart-achy and lavish.

Starting off with the eloquent, dizzyingly bluesy “Pusher Love Girl,” Justin proceeds to sing and croon over a course of 8 minutes about love, drugs, and how loving a girl is like doing drugs. The themes in Timberlake’s new record are predominantly about love, sometimes subliminally about wife Jessica Biel, but he grows more in depth with his soul, as he sings about classiness, sex, romance, reminiscence, and introspection. The 20/20 Experience also expands on the length of Timberlake’s songs, ranging from 4 to 8 minutes. Justin still contains the ability to emotionalize and sensualize each song, such as the safari-styled 7-minute groove, “Don’t Hold the Wall,” the vivacious Latino-pop-influenced “Let the Groove Get In,” and the snappy, electro-pop jam “Strawberry Bubblegum.” Justin also is able to maintain his eclectic use of hip hop with the catchy “Tunnel Vision.” He continues to mature over the album with jazzy ballads, such as “Spaceship Coupe” and “That Girl,” but he also attains a newer use of 80s chantey rock with the effervescent “Mirrors.” Justin closes the show with the simple but mesmerizing “Blue Ocean Floor.”

Achieving to grab the audience and the critics once again, Justin Timberlake has effectively improved on his sound but without washing away music influences that have helped him make his previous two albums. All I can say is: wow. Luckily, we’ll be hearing more from Justin later this year with the release of a second volume of The 20/20 Experience.

Grade: A-
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Pusher Love Girl,” “Suit & Tie,” “Mirrors,” “Let the Groove Get In”

Unorthodox Jukebox – Bruno Mars

Ever since we first heard doo-wop, mainstream pop artist Bruno Mars on B.o.B.’s breakout hit, “Nothin’ on You,” his career has steered in many different directions. Even before “Nothin’ on You,” Mars had written and co-written several hit songs, such as Flo Rida’s “Right Round” and Knaan’s “Wavin’ Flag.” After gaining recognition from collaborating with B.o.B. and Gym Class Heroes’ frontman Travis McCoy for “Billionaire,” he released Doo-Wops and Hooligans, which garnered mixed critical reviews, but was commercially successful and nominated for Grammy Album of the Year in 2011. His infectious, but overplayed hit tunes, “Just the Way You Are” and “Grenade” won listeners over, as well as his awesome music video for “The Lazy Song.” Mars’ voice is considered to be the reason of his enormous success, as well as his musical influence of slow-jam reggae, mainstream rock, and pop. This year, Mars has actually improved very much on his potential as an aesthetic music artist with Unorthodox Jukebox. Though the album cover doesn’t prove to be much (a gorilla embracing an old jukebox) nor has attained as much reception with mainstream music listeners as Doo-Wops did, Mars has advanced into his own field, adding more depth into his magnificent voice and catchy instrumentals. Of course, Mars maintains similar themes in Unorthodox Jukebox, such as romance, fun, girls, and heartbreak (the quintessential topics of a pop artist like Mars). The first track, “Young Girls,” is a surprising and attention-grabbing ballad that actually assists Mars’ tenor and helps deepen the genre of melancholic pop. Mars’ second track and hit single, “Locked Out of Heaven,” is another fun and pleasant jingle that may not surpass the catchiness that “Grenade” or “Just the Way You Are” had, but it does overcome the annoying conformity of mainstream pop. “Gorilla” is a electronic-inspired rock song that almost sounds like a chiller version of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” or a modern pop form of AC/DC. “Treasure” is almost a 70s disco inspired tune that almost transforms Mars into a jazz hip hop artist of soul, a very unique and distinctive side of Mars we haven’t seen yet. The rest of the improved Unorthodox Jukebox is a variety of both beautiful and disappointing music: The bland, 80s rock-inspired “Moonshine” doesn’t really shine at all, making it one of the weakest of Mars’ follow-up; the piano-driven “When I Was Your Man” definitely feels familiar to other slow pop jams, but, again, Mars’ incredible vocals doesn’t disappoint; the foot-stomping, tuneful “Natalie” almost feels like it should be sung in a joyous church choir; the relaxed, reggae jingle, “Show Me,” again emphasizes the unique musical styles of Bruno Mars; “Money Make Her Smile” is another disappointing addition to Unorthodox Jukebox, offering an annoying and confusing mixture of electronic, soul, and rock; and the album closer, “If I Knew,” is a 60s-inspired slow, bluesy tune, where Mars croons and swoons with the electric guitar strumming. It’s not the greatest ending to Mars’ second album, but it’s nevertheless effervescent in every way.

Surprisingly, Bruno Mars has returned to recording music with an enthusiastic spirit, a never-disappointing singing voice, and a variation of musical influences from different eras, ranging from the 60s to today’s modern music. Unorthodox Jukebox is, without a doubt, an improvement from Bruno’s mediocre debut Doo-Wops and Hooligans. Bruno Mars is as lively as ever and his lyrics aren’t as unusually catchy and unpleasant at the same time  (as “Grenade”‘s message about “catching a grenade” for a girl conveyed that it would be the ultimate sacrifice to win a girl over). Thankfully, Bruno Mars has returned, in an even more evolved form of himself.

Grade: B+
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Young Girls,” “Locked Out of Heaven,” “When I Was Your Man,” “If I Knew”            

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”