Album: Flying Colours
Label: Black Box
Released: October 15, 2013
Shad’s fourth effort, Flying Colours, is an amalgamation of all sorts of traits, both old and new.
It features the cheeky, witty, honest flow that is characteristic of Shad’s skill, but it is used in new confrontations with personal development, heritage, and history, as heard on “Fe Sum Immigrins” and “Remember to Remember”. It includes the indie rock infused hip-hop production that is bright and bold, but also demonstrates creative extensions with moodier, electronic-inspired slow tempo songs such as “Dreams” and “Progress”. It’s as accessible and as relevant as the rest of his work, but it also demonstrates significant creative growth, making for a more mature offering.
For an evolving artist like Shad, Flying Colours is an ideal product, not only because it showcases a Shad that is comfortable with his talents, but it also shares a side of him that is confident enough to take the right kind of risks without isolating his fans or bringing in new ones. In fact, based on a recent tweet from A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammed, who shared Shad’s video for “Stylin” with the comment “2014 looks promising with artist like @shadkmusic”, it seems like Flying Colours will be the ticket that will see him soar.
Artist: Kanye West
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam
Released: June 18, 2013
After a first listen, Yeezus does not seem like an easy album to love. Compared to its 2010 predecessor, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it’s obnoxiously loud, seemingly experimental in all of the wrong ways, and at times, lyrically inept. In fact, it may even take a few rounds to warm up to it, and another handful to realize that most of what this album should be praised for lies in the precise skill involved in assembling the ten songs that make up Yeezus, each of which are incredibly layered and draw from varying genres and artists from around the world. When you begin to break it down, you realize that Kanye West has created a spectacle of an album that is yes, crazy, but also all sorts of genius, giving him even more credit than an initial survey of the album might tip-off. Every note is calculated, every interpolation of samples is well-timed, and every song serves as bullet point of what’s bugging Kanye West these days, as the content of his lyrics have become recurring themes in his subsequent interviews and rants on stage. Kanye has never been so loud or aggressive as he is on this album, and while some may still suggest that this is a result of an incredibly inflated ego, it’s the kind of effort that requires a very, very confident mind behind it.
Whether it is the rock-n-roll rhythms of “Black Skinhead”, the cinematic quality of “Blood On The Leaves”, which flawlessly integrates Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit”, or the minimalist hip-hop beat dressed up in a chic electronic disguise on “Send It Up”, Yeezus is bold in all of the right ways. It’s an artistic manifesto, an outwardly frustration with the state of entertainment today, and the type of creative extension that does not need refined lyrics to make it’s point. As Kanye rapped on opener “Yeezy season approaching/Fuck whatever y’all been hearing”, he always intended to make a stand out album. Perhaps his approach obviously cried out for attention, but it deserved it, too.
Album: Days Are Gone
Label: Polydor Records
Released: September 30, 2013
This LA-based trio of sisters put out an album wrought with inspiration from the talents of Fleetwood Mac, ‘90s-esque R&B and guitar rhythms that evoke images of a sunny day in California.
As a result, Haim’s debut, Days Are Gone, often transcend the indie pop genre it tends to be boxed into, but also successfully embraces its own place amongst modern music. Lead singer Danielle’s vocals make it particularly easy to navigate the decades-spanning influences heard throughout the album, especially given how flawlessly it morphs from self-empowering on “Forever” to the ‘80s anthem quality of “Don’t Save Me” to love-sick and escapist on “Running If You Call My Name.” The swirls of pop, striking electric guitar chords, hand-clapping rhythms and dance-worthy interludes are nearly synergistic in nature, making for a breath of fresh air that will be enjoyed all the way into the new year.
Album: Cut 4 Me
Label: Fade To Mind
Released: October 1, 2013
Kelela’s Cut 4 Me is a pretty ambiguous creative space as it is plays around with a range of sounds, going from ambient and atmospheric in one moment and a watered down hip-hop texture in the next. By doing so, it successfully showcases Kelela’s ability to flow across different genres and figure out how she wants the listener to hear her. Sometimes she’s ghosting over bubbling patterns like on “Do It Again”. In other moments, such as grooving “Keep It Cool”, she commands attention with bursting crescendos before fading into a sweet coo during the chorus. “Cherry Coffee” is a particularly striking ballad reminiscent of more traditional R&B.
Cut 4 Me stood out against major releases because it was unapologetically R&B and relied more on Kelela’s delivery instead of overdone production. It not only demonstrates Kelela’s desire to experiment with her own sound, but it also serves up an incredibly smooth listen that makes you aware of her the extent of her capabilities. Hopefully a label will pick her up to help maximize her talent and spread word about the new fearless voice in town.
Album: The 20/20 Experience Part I
Artist: Justin Timberlake
Released: March 15, 2013
When Justin Timberlake returned to music after a seven-year hiatus, there was a lot of pressure and anticipation given the success of his sophomore release, FutureSexLoveSounds, which was inspired by his then relationship with Cameron Diaz and a production partnership with Timbaland. On The 20/20 Experience Part I, Timberlake drew from similar elements to create an encompassing sonic experience, throwing out traditional song models only to replace them with eight to ten minute structures that allowed Timbaland’s clean production to take the spotlight while Timberlake ghosted over with sometimes sly and slick vocals, like on “Tunnel Vision”.
It’s a mature offering, obviously influenced by his head-over-heels love affair with now-wife Jessica Biel, but it also shows a new creative range that Timberlake picked up in his years away from music. On “Strawberry Bubblegum”, he paints a cinematic view of flirtation and falling in love over a smooth, ambient-esque beat with highlighted strings, but later becomes bold on “Let The Groove Get In”, where he draws from Latin sounds to create a dance number reminiscent of Michael Jackson. “Mirrors” is a classic Top 40 offering, with a sing-a-long inducing chorus. “Blue Ocean Floor”, the conclusion of the album, is a haunting ballad that showcases a new sense of vocal control. The 20/20 Experience Part I was not only an impressive feat for this growth, but also for demonstrating everything that pop music was sorely lacking due to Timberlake’s absence.