Semipop Life: The real me
The five-track Western edition of this is one more not-quite-enough EPs in a year of them, but this is easily fixed by dropping “Gashina” and “Heroine” in their rightful fifth and sixth slots. Thus supplemented, this is nineteen hard-beated minutes from a former girl group member who took time off to go to college and returned with an attitude and songwriting chops that evoke actual human relationships. The synths are a lot less lazy than the K-pop norm and the soprano sax comp on “Black Pearl” would make Kenny G tip his hair. With “Gashina” received like she’d declared “it’s Sunmi, bitch,” Sunmi has a edge to her persona not previously found in all-kill level stars, and she barely slows down for the pretty ones until the closing fragment. Inspirational English lyric: “Get away out of my face.”
Grade: A MINUS (“Siren”, “Heroine”, “Black Pearl”)
Future: Beastmode 2
A guy I’ve been skeptical of for like twenty straight mixtapes reunites with Zaytoven, his most simpatico producer, who brings out his most expressive rap-singing since his debut. It’s mixtape rapping rather than album rapping, relying on repeated phrases and patterns, but he grinds harder than usual, with sharp accents and heavy use of his old trick of Autotune-slurring a syllable over several notes. While the women don’t exactly have agency, they’re a little more human than usual (the woman he ditches at a Loews is apparently a real person), and his ennui-with-multiple-luxury-watches comes across as thoughtful rather than rote formalism. Lana Del Rey should take notes on the directness with which he delivers “Damn, I hate the real me,” and even that isn’t as moving as the repeated mantra “I’m tryna get high as I can,” which never gets any higher.
Grade: A MINUS (“Hate the Real Me”, “When I Think About It”, “31 Days”)
I panned her debut, but now that PC Music’s sub-Warholian marketing hi-jinks are as forgotten as your median Turner Prize winner, spinning this with reduced prejudice reveals that not only is there music after all, there’s content. Identity doesn’t seem specific enough, so let’s say this explores what femininity means in the current century: it’s okay to cry if you want to, even if it’s someone else’s party. On the other hand, I’m not sure what “Ponyboy” is clanging on about (I mean I don’t think it’s about The Outsiders, unless Ponyboy and Johnny were into BDSM, which seems plausible) and it’s my favorite thing on the record. May she help Gaga stay gold.
Grade: A MINUS (“Ponyboy”, “Faceshopping”, “It’s Okay to Cry”)
Denzel Curry: Ta13oo
He’s doing as good a job as anyone at combining SoundCloud-era atmospherics with concise rapping: even the multiple tracks about his depression achieve a clear description of his pain, a big chunk of which comes from his brother getting tasered to death by cops. The impressive sonic range includes Billie Eilish and something called “Black Metal Terrorist” that’s not very black metal but is more usefully abrasive than anything Kanye’s done lately. Like every 23-year-old, he probably knows less than he thinks he does, but he’s learning quickly, to the point that he regrets not voting in 2016, though I wish I could be sure he showed up for the midterms. Send him a reminder postcard next time.
Grade: A MINUS (“Black Balloons”, “Vengeance”, “Black Metal Terrorist”)
I got sold on this by a Tom Breihan rave, in which he accurately describes the aesthetic here as classic NY indie rap “pushed out to sea.” The sense of disorientation here is of a piece with Sorry to Bother You and Get Out (The Sunken Place gets mentioned), though in the NY indie rap tradition, this isn’t funny. Instead, you get fragments and echoes and is that throat singing that build a nocturnal alt-city where no one is safe and the lack of object permanence means you can never be sure about what you’re supposed to be afraid of. Except cops: always cops.
Grade: A MINUS (“Dettol”, “Hunter”, “Rehearse with Ornette”)
ODDS & ENDS
Czarface & MF Doom: Czarface Meets Metalface
The best episodes of Batman were the ones where the supervillains teamed up and Cesar Romero and Burgess Meredith tried to out-camp each other, though this could use a Catwoman (“Phantoms”, “Nautical Depth”, “Astral Traveling”)
Red Velvet: Summer Magic mini-album
Megahit, English-language version of previous megahit, one really fun percussive one, plus some moderately sophisticated filler that perishes at the first frost, but they know better than most we might’ve been radioactive dust by then (“Power Up”, “Hit That Drum”)
Shinee: The Story of Light: Epilogue
K-pop’s senior boyband addresses their de facto leader’s suicide with perhaps their strongest, if still mostly recyclable, album: their ’90s R&B rips (the lead single “Good Morning” borrows a 112 tune) sound fresh in this era of downers and not hitting the notes, and the concessions to international markets are negligible (“Good Morning”, “All Day All Night”)
Ariana Grande: Sweetener
Pharrell goes two from seven, the Swedes go four from four, showing it doesn’t matter that she never transcends generic material when it’s by nerds not N*E*R*Ds (“The Light Is Coming”, “No Tears Left to Cry”, “Breathin”)
Drego & Beno: Sorry for the Get Off
Competent guns-and-emotionless-sex mixtape with one remarkable 31-million-views-and-counting track by Drego and the probably more talented Sada Baby, a textbook example of what the YouTube rap audience sees as “good rapping” these days — not mumbling (“Bloxk Party”, “16”)