Short reviews: Justin Timberlake, Charlie Puth, Nicki Minaj,…

Quick thoughts on some albums I intended to review but ended up not

Justin Timberlake — Man of the Woods (Genre: Pop/R&B)

Arguably the most cringeworthy album I have heard this year. The production is somewhat appealing here and there, but the country/funk incorporation (what was dubbed as “Americana and 808s”) mostly feels half-baked and derivative, often hurting the sound better than adding anything to it. “Midnight Summer Jam” sounds like Robin Thicke going out of his mind, with some very out of place instruments: a harmonica solo, some strings, and some banging thumps. On the rare, fleeting moments that the production is enjoyable, the incoherent, shallow, and banal lyrics still bog them down: on “Filthy” (and actually most of the album), Timberlake is a horny teenage boy who cannot decide between telling off his haters or hollering booty calls. When he’s not singing about sex, he has nothing to say but still manage to pull some lifeless four and a half minutes out of it (“Say Something”). He even says it himself: “Sometimes, the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all”, but he goes on anyway: “But I can’t help myself”. At that moment, he sounds like it just dawned on him that he messed up, but it’s already too far, so he just ignores it and goes on to do seven more equally vacuous tracks.

The bottom line: half-baked, watered-down R&B and country/funk fusion that for some unfortunate reasons need to drag on for over an hour. No thanks.

Rating: D

Kacey Musgraves — Golden Hour (Genre: Country pop)

Kacey Musgraves moves past the Country sound in her first two albums and opt for a breezy pop sound. On top of that, the tracks are no longer cynical: life is no more a vicious cycle (“Merry Go ‘Round), or a beauty pageant (“Pageant Material”), or a boys’ club (“Good Ol’ Boys Club”), but is full of magic, and of love. While her witty, sassy, and astute commentary on society are sure to be missed, the thoughtful and honest lyrics are still there. And together with the understated songwriting, they create a cohesive and seamless album.

Rating: A-

Essential tracks: “Space Cowboy”, “High Horse”

Charlie Puth — Voicenotes (Genre: Pop)

Voicenotes is a vast improvement over his horrendous debut. Charlie Puth puts his college education into good use here, evident in the way he builds most songs around one or two central riffs. However, he uses one template for most of the songs, and they quickly become unexciting. Look at the opener “The Way I Am”, which opens with a riff, and Puth sings along over the same melody for almost the entire verse. Every time you figure out that a track uses the same template, you look for something more exiciting but there’s not much more that Puth offers. The overreliance on riffs also makes some songs sound longer and much more repetitive than they actually are, which only makes matters worse. At the very least, Puth is knowledgeable enough to conceal the repetitiveness to some extent, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Rating: B-

Essential tracks: “Attention”, “BOY”

CHVRCHES — Love Is Dead (Genre: Pop)

My love for CHVRCHES is dead and I blame it on Greg Kurstin.

On Scottish synth-pop band’s third album, CHVRCHES collaborate with American producer Greg Kurstin (produced for Sia, Kelly Clarkson, P!nk, Lily Allen, Adele, Halsey…), and produce the worst songs from both the band and Kurstin. On the album are some of the stalest, most derivative and uninspired synth-pop of this year. “Get Out” is laziness posing as minimalism: there’s not a lot, if anything, to get into with the hook. Indeed, the first three songs on the album (“Graffiti”, “Get Out”, “Deliverance”) all sound like their songwriters were given a couple syllables to work with and had to stretch them into in entire chorus. The songs without involvement of Kurstin are decidedly more enjoyable: somehow the slow-burn “My Enemy” is more energetic than the fast-tempo “Get Out” (well it’s because its most catchy line consists of more than two syllables and there’s more movement in the melody rather than pointlessly punching the same line over and over). They never come close to what CHVRCHES achieved on their previous albums, however: “My Enemy” is admittedly still a sluggish ballad. Another track solely by CHVRCHES themselves, “Miracle”, starts out strong with some “Clearest Blue” realness, but when the bass drops, instead of the perpetual bliss on the Every Open Eye track, we get this awkward low-energy, Imagine Dragons style “ooh” along section that drags the song down before it can take off. Many other tracks also suffer the unfortunate fate of having an enjoyable verses destroyed by unmemorable hooks.

Rating: C+

Essential track: “Heaven/Hell”, “Really Gone”

However, if you want an actual synth-pop gem, listen to their newest single “Out Of My Head” [ft. WEDNESDAY CAMPANELLA] instead, which will be featured on the Japanese deluxe version of the album.

Nicki Minaj — Queen (Genre: Hip hop)

Queen is Nicki Minaj’s best offer to date, though still plagued by many problems found in her previous albums. Firstly, the album is way too long. There are only a handful of people who can pull off an album that’s over an hour long, and even fewer among them have any album that has 19 tracks. Nicki Minaj is definitely not one of them. Secondly, many of the tracks strike a balance, usually offer too much or not enough. On “Majesty”, Eminem tries too hard and rap as fast as he possibly can, making what would have been a good track feel verbose and confusing. Similarly, “Chun Swae” is promising in theory but then it drags on for six minutes, which doesn’t work out well with its spacey minimalist beat. On top of that, there are forgettable fillers trying to keep the pace but make the audience lose interest instead, such as “Thought I Knew You” or “Nip Tuck”. At its height, however, Nicki Minaj shows us that she still possesses the wit and humor that charmed us. On “Barbie Dreams” she jabs at male hip hop artists, interpolating Notorious B.I.G.’s “Just Playing (Dreams)”, even bringing back her alter ego Roman Zolanski at the end of the track. Similarly, “Chun-Li” packs punchline after punchline, but this time she’s not playing around, she’s coming after her rivals. They better watch out.

Rating: B

Essential track: “Barbie Dreams”, “Chun-Li”

For detailed grading scale, see here.

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