Tag Archives: Pop

M.I.A. – Matangi

“If you wanna be me you need a manifesto” 

Does everyone remember Kala, M.I.A’s real critical breakthrough album, and the reason the radio knows her name? That’s “Bird Flu”, “Jimmy” and, of course, “Paper Planes“, if you need a refresher. And do you remember her manifesto, her clear artistic direction? That fusion of eastern and western musical influences, the bhangra breakdowns and sudden disco flourishes that, at times, rendered her music breathlessly novel to the same western audiences she relentlessly politically criticized (and simultaneously courted)? Of course we do – it’s the reason she’s successfully garnered enough attention to appear at the Super Bowl the same year she decided to flip off the Super Bowl. We loved M.I.A. for that one, right? We loved M.I.A. because she was pop and punk; catchy enough to dance to, controversial enough to appreciate intellectually and Hip-Hop fresh enough to maintain her superiority in both fields. That’s why it’s so damn frustrating, several years later, to watch that artistic focus fade gradually into oblivion. Through some perversion of logic, her music is growing less culturally aware and mature with age, to the point that we get this thing: Matangi, or as we can charitably call it “Not /\/\ /\ Y /\, Right?”


There’s nothing fun about coming down on M.I.A., trust me. But where we once got Kala, her effortless cultural pastiche hip-hop-dance-record-thing – the one where she managed to criticize international crime by posing as an international credit-card fraudster and having us all memorize the lyrics – here the political angle is sanded down to near-inanity. “Boom Skit” is the most politically incendiary thing here, shouting out North American passive anti “brown girl” racism the way it does, and that’s commendable! We don’t like racism, we can all generally agree that racism is some crap and ought to be avoided. “Okay, great, what else?” we’re inclined to ask, and Matangi has frustratingly little to say in addition. Perhaps the fact is simply that a large majority of the educated music-listening populace is post-racism at this point (and let’s face it, it’s not), but that doesn’t change the fact that her messages here largely lack any sort of poignant argument, when there’s an argument at all. And maybe there doesn’t have to be one! But on an album whose major hit – “Bad Girls” – features a fantastic video slamming anti-female-driving laws in the Middle East, we’re allowed to expect a greater level of actual political engagement within the lyricism, which simply never appears. Certainly she name drops plenty of countries to establish her international cred (that’s “Matangi”) reasserts her bad-assery with a decade’s worth of apparently Julian-Assange-approved ‘tent’ puns (“aTENTion”, sigh) and criticizes a lack of western self-reinvention via the world’s final Y.O.L.O. joke (on “Y.A.L.A.”, somehow), and all of that is interesting in its own way, but this is M.I.A., man! We’ve earned the right to expect more, and if she really feels like dropping an album largely devoid of political interest, we can at least expect fantastic songwriting and performance to carry us through, right?

Remarkably, even in all its frenetic genre-gymnastics and cross-cultural musical exchanges (and yes, there are plenty), Matangi still evades any sort of easy purchase for the listener. Naturally, the album varies: “Bad Girls” is as fantastic as it was, uh, last year, “Bring the Noize” is a legitimately fantastic strobing slap in the face, and “aTENTion” manages to sound like gladOS rapping, but there’s so little else to differentiate tracks musically that I find myself struggling to go back and recall each one’s name, never mind its lyricism – and it’s important to remember that M.I.A. is a rapper. “Matangi” is neat initially, but bears an unfortunate similarity to “Boyz” off Kala, and much of the rap in its latter movement is groan-inducing. “Come Walk With Me” will get stuck in your head for all the wrong reasons, and its first half is exactly the worst sort of laser-focused lovey pop we try to avoid from M.I.A.. Its last half is, bewilderingly, hardstyle that samples… a truck backing up and the Macbook volume-indicator. “aTENTion” is grammatically insufferable and rhythmically aimless, and was apparently co-written by Julian Assange following a particularly exciting google search on homophones. Some tracks, like the “Only 1 U” (which sadly feels longer than it is) and the staggering 10 combined minutes of “Exodus” (suitably epic, the first listen) and “Sexodus” (mystifying in its presence), are gratuitously repetitive and aimless enough to be painful on repeat listens. And perhaps I’ve mistaken myself in that last paragraph and there are a ton of clever political allusions throughout Matangi: the key issue quickly becomes that the album does nothing to endear itself aside from singles “Bad Girls” and “Bring the Noize”. If there are politics in here beyond the bluntly obvious, several listens simply aren’t bringing them to the fore. So much of Matangi feels rushed, and despite some fantastic production work – bhangra-core isn’t growing old any time soon – M.I.A. rarely makes any real impression at all, lyrically or vocally. As a case in point, one of the only strong melodies on the album I can recall offhand occurs on the Weeknd-waste “Exodus”… and even then, only because she sings it again as “Sexodus” half an hour later.

So does Matangi have an ace in the hole? It does, insofar as much of the production is brilliant: “Only 1 U” might be forgettable lyrically, but its the boom of its heavy beat and ritual chime, electric zap and plethora of other seemingly-random samples do much to endear it aurally. “Bad Girls” runs on a combination of bhangra beats, plucked strings, and a slithering club chant that’s nigh-impossible not to dig. “Bring the Noize” is simply a blast, and even “Matangi”s percussive ‘Matangi’ sampled choruses are fun and appropriately, excitingly foreign. “Lights”, to its credit, has some fun vocal harmonies going on, and some clever lyrical turns. Every track on the album jumps sporadically between production styles, beat constructions, traditional instruments and glitchy connections – and all of that is great  because no one has managed to steal this from M.I.A. just yet. Even Matangi‘s handful of slow tracks manage to feel suitably heavy – even if they fail to differentiate noticeably from one another. The issue isn’t that M.I.A. can’t write songs – she clearly can, and we’ve seen her do it successfully dozens of times before. Matangi suffers from a distinct lack of direction – and if her intended direction legitimately was “unfocused, overwhelming confusion” we have much bigger problems to discuss.

Matangi is, apparently by design, a dense and frequently frustrating listen. It’s certainly concentrated, despite running 15 tracks, and any extended listening period is appropriately exhausting. That said, Kala by its novelty was exhausting too, and managed to be exhausting without feeling stretched out, rushed or samey. Matangi suffers from all of this. Tracks fail to make individual impressions, and while beat production is often brilliant, vocal production is often shrill and irritating (instead of the no-doubt intended percussive). The Weeknd shows up for some reason and fails to utter words. This album is a full 15 tracks in length, and I can only name about 5 after roughly 5 listens. So while Matangi is no doubt novel, it also utterly fails to make an impression beyond acting as an appendage to M.I.A.’s discography. Yes it’s there, but we know she’s capable of so much better. M.I.A.’s brilliant, she can do it, and her fans deserve it. So let’s rewind to ‘better until Matangi is as forgotten as /\/\ /\ Y /\.  

C

Or, sigh, Vicki Leekx.

Published right here, December 2013.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Lady Gaga – ARTPOP

 “[Artpop is] a celebration and a poetic musical journey [that displays a] lack of maturity and responsibility” 

No kidding.

So here we are again, it’s always such a pleasure. Remember when we tried to turn to bikes? It’s 2013 and we’re all back in Gaga-town, USA. It’s been a long while, hasn’t it? Years have passed since Lady Gaga pleasantly surprised me with her wackiness and secret identity as an Autobot. I’m not kidding! Born This Way was a cool couple of discs, stretching Gaga’s obsession with leather studs, Meatloaf and Queen into 17 whole tracks of vocal acrobatics, at least one LGBTQ anthem, and incredible bizarrity (“Highway Unicorn“). But of course, it’s Gaga, and so we can’t expect her to do the same thing twice, and she left herself with two clear options: play it safe, or lose her damn mind. It’s a stretch to suggest she’s done both. This is Gaga, though, and she’s getting older, so there are things we get to expect by now: her voice is more distinct than ever, as is her style, and she’s improved as a singer again. Less fortunately, Artpop presents the worrying argument that Born This Way and Fame Monster weren’t her personal touchstones; The Fame was. And that ought to be sort of disappointing, for anyone hoping Freddy Mercury and Meatloaf could be her key muses; The weirder Steph gets the better, the music critic has to say. Fortunately we’re beholden to no such beliefs in the club, but a critical cruise down Artpop‘s logical continuity won’t take us anywhere particularly exciting, despite her artistic aspirations. My Artpop could mean anything, she croons on “Artpop”, ironically one of the album’s weakest cuts. But could it, really? Primarily it seems to mean: 1. I’m cool. 2. I’m secretly not cool (and I know it). 3. I have sex like a wildcat, possibly too often, and 4. I’ve done some drugs in my time. I refuse to interface with Lady Gaga’s claims that Artpop represents a post-Warholian aesthetic, because no one knows what that means. Her grandiose speech is, though, a clue as to what she’s up to here: Artpop, so frequently, is all pomp and no deep statement. This is a shame, if only because Gaga’s quickly becoming the Peter Molyneux of pop music, talking everything up to a ludicrous level to which her products don’t necessarily rise. So when someone like me approaches Artpop, they hope desperately for that flurry of insane artistic activity that Lady Gaga promises every single time she produces an album – and that lyrical ambition simply doesn’t materialize here, however often she intimates it. Oh well. We sigh, that’s fine. It’s synthpop, it’s club-pop, a genre where a lyrical message is often more of a fun bonus than a necessity. Approached on that level, its own level, Artpop is pretty solid! It has to be – this is Lady Gaga, she’s the millennial Queen of this Stuff. So let’s all pay attention like we have to: court is in session.

For everything that’s going to come after, Artpop gets off to a roaring start. Maybe you haven’t seen “Aura”‘s Robert Rodriguez-directed music video yet, or heard Gaga’s Faster-Pussycat whine on track, but it rocks. The flamenco guitars stir up dust, the beat drops like a ton of bricks, Gaga’s hitting peak-weirdo – but of course all of this would happen; Infected Mushroom produced the track. Oh, my bad, INFECTED MUSHROOM: Israeli psytrance pioneers and general symphonic-dance gods. That’s cool and unexpected and ambitious, it’s everything I want from Lady Gaga and none of the filler. That is, until we hit the inevitable ‘Gaga Breakdown’ about 75% in. This part’s important, because it’s going to happen on almost every track here. It’s the bridge, of course: the point that the beat drops out, rises slowly, Lady Gaga stands up from her Salvador Dalí piano and serenades the crowd with her crazy pipes. She can do this! She will do this, but it kills the flow of the track – and it happens on almost every track. To the point that I had to name it, and start pointing it out like a glitch. It’s a nod to pop convention, certainly, but Lady Gaga seems so absurdly past the point of needing to throw back the curtains and wail that it seems unnecessary; not to mention utterly sabotaging the flow of the Mushroom guitarscape she’s coiling across for the rest of the song. (It’s a promo video but whatever; Rodriguez.)

From there, the album’s off at a run and Gaga’s playing bumper-cars with a variety of genres and influences. “Venus” is runway-pop with an obsession with Greek myth (and to her credit, some clever wordplay and Bowie-esque space-travel). “G.U.Y.” Gaga putting her “Poker Face” gender-twist hat back on and having some fun with acronyms and gender dynamics. “Sexxx Dreams” is masturbatory both stylistically and lyrically, and sounds like Justice. “Jewels n’ Drugs” has T.I. in killer shape, Too Short present and, uh, Twista of all people – and the star herself cleanly showing up the rich-bitch competition in the female club-hop department. “Donatella” does this too, so we can ask, fairly, if she’s been listening to The Millionaires at this point (ugh). In fact, as we go on the touchstones become even more obvious: “Manicure” is worryingly similar to a lot of Chantal Claret’s work, specifically “Pop Pop Bang Bang“. “Do What U Want” runs like “Stylo” and features Gaga emphasizing the primacy of her mind and voice over her body… a message that R. Kelly’s slithering feature manages to immediately undercut. Whoops. They come faster from there: “Dope” – Meatloaf, “Fashion” – Bowie, “Mary Jane Holland” and “Artpop” – Gaga, actually, in a fun turn. Her career’s finally reached a length where she can reference her own material and voice, which works to her credit as an evolving artist. “Swine” is an odd moment and her most deprecating, coming off a touch like Depeche Mode might have written the lyrics in a fit of synthy, gothic melancholy. It’s by far her most self-deprecating track and a shockingly cruel one, which also means it comes as a pleasant surprise on an often-innocuous album. “Applause”, of course, is the hit, and largely impervious to the rest of the album’s art direction. It’s also the last track, and hits as a surprise; intentional or otherwise, putting your hit single as the album’s final track always speaks to a certain confidence. Or hubris. Or insecurity.

Is it good? Well yes: like I said, it has to be. “Dope” features Rick Rubin production and a straight-faced acknowledgment of Lady Gaga’s now-renowned drug habits. “Jewels ‘n Drugs”, for all its club-girl goofiness, has a beat like a bejewelled trap hit. “Venus” is a grower, and weird enough to be compelling after “Aura”‘s initial shock wears off. The melodies are strong and the 4-on-the-floor is firmly in check. It’s all danceable, all the production is stellar, Gaga isn’t known for missing notes or wasting an opportunity to stretch her voice. Stretching her voice, specifically, happens a lot here, and it’s Artpop’s only real innovation: anyone looking for Lady Gaga kicking and screaming, laughing and chatting and doing her best Milla Jovovich impression – well all of that happens in the first few tracks here. Born This Way played around with the notion as well, but on Artpop it’s so much more exaggerated. Listen to “Swine” to see what I mean: she growls, squeals and screams throughout the album as well (albeit more subtly) and those moments stand out when placed alongside the calmer slant of “Dope” and much of “Gypsy” toward the end.

Artpop‘s greatest talking-point, though, has been its supposed self-awareness and deprecation. Of course this occurs, it’s all over the place and done to great effect. Should that be surprising, though? Most of those lauded “introspective” tracks fall in the last half, and yes there’s a lot of self-acknowledgment and winking and deprecation going on, and word is all of this is new for Gaga. Um, guys? The Fame. The Fame Monster. Born This Way’s motorcycle-hybrid-sexpot, constant winking humour and religious imagery play. Highway Unicorn. Self-awareness is and has always been Gaga’s major virtue – of course she’s absurdly talented, and her performance capability is beyond criticism at this point. But to suggest she’s only now breaching the topic of her own egoism is absurd. Gaga’s self-awareness is the reason she still has a career, and likely the reason she’s given so much control over her appearance and stage-presence. That’s great! But it certainly isn’t new, and better – even laugh-inducing – examples exist all over the place on Born This Way (“I don’t speak German but I wish I could”).

The problem with a person like me reviewing a girl like Gaga is this: no one’s buying a Gaga album for thematic variety or compelling lyrical structure, let’s face it. Or even if they do, the sequencing is designed to minimize distinction between tracks. No one wants to let the beat drop, and she isn’t writing songs necessarily; she’s crafting house opuses, synthpop jams, Meatloaf-meets-disco hits. And that’s just fine! It also means that for her to do anything but that specific BPM she’s addicted to is often mistaken for experimentation; that’s not what it is. That’s… songwriting. No one can blame Gaga for playing it safe, but the novelty of her physical appearance so often overshadows the fact that she has yet to produce a remarkable album – because she isn’t necessarily producing albums yet, with Born This Way her only (bloated) exception. They’re selling on the strength of the singles, but the sequencing has yet to mean anything distinct, and she’s still rewriting Bad Romance roughly once a disk. Now is it cool? Oh yeah, of course it is, you can wander through and point out the bangers left and right, the production is gorgeous and lush and colourful. But it’s all on that aesthetic Rick Ross level of cool, that innocuous level where you’re really only paying attention to the riffs and the production values because you’re afraid to criticize the lyricism or analyze the record for themes and sequencing and so on, the things we properly (reasonably) expect from albums. Is that what Anti-Warholian means? Maybe it’s just Skrillex syndrome (or let’s generalize – marketing), but Gaga has yet to release anything whose track diversity, lyrical chops or sequencing has rendered me anything but dulled by the 5th Judas re-up. I just listened to Born This Way now; I got to track 10 before I moved on to another task. Can you name Born This Way‘s remaining 8 tracks? So we’re left with this – a familiar product, a firmly in-the-pocket update to everything we already knew about Lady Gaga.  She’s not lyrically ambitious (seeeex), I’m not her target audience, and I’ll just keep on quickly checking in until we get something out of her that’s as substantial as the time she puts into her live shows and her artistic aspiration. That said, we know it can happen because her talent demands it, and I think we’re about 3 years away from Gaga’s Bat Out Of Hell (or more excitingly, her Ziggy Stardust) – so if you need me, I’ll be outside the club keeping tabs until then.

B

Originally reviewed right here, November 2013.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Steve Aoki – Wonderland

Steve Hiroyuki Aoki (a.k.a. ‘Kid Millionaire’) is an interesting character, and not just because of his Dad, or the fact that none of his musical guests have reached a consensus on how to pronounce his last name. Hang around long enough and you’re bound to hear his mangled surname circulating in dance-music crowds, whether for his own production and DJ work, or the fact that he founded Dim Mak records (giving us everyone from Battles to MSTRKRFT). Steve Aoki’s been around: he’s released tons of remixes and been featured on The Bloody Beetroots tracks and helped birth Zuper Blahq – which is why it’s sort of mystifying to find that, at 33 proud years of age, he’s finally releasing his debut album.

There are a few natural advantages that come with waiting several years to release your first LP: Aoki’s audience is already out there, he’s already won DJ awards, and he’s gone and made a whole pack of celebrity friends in the process. Many of those friends make appearances on Wonderland, sometimes providing the personality and dramatic flair that Aoki’s productions deserve (and subsist upon), and sometimes just appearing. Wonderland is, mostly, an electro-house album with a penchant for pop hooks – I’ve already mentioned that this sort of music has a time and a place – and so far as it hopes to get people all excited and sock-hopping after a few drinks, it succeeds. That being said, at 100% guest-act capacity, Wonderland isn’t really about Aoki anyways: it’s about his colleagues, and the degree to which his production can support, supersede, or salvage their performances. Ultimately, a great deal of your enjoyment here is going to be in direct correlation with your appreciation for tightly-produced dance anthems and your corresponding ability to ignore shaky lyricism, the odd generic performance, and Rivers Cuomo’s attempts to drop a rhyme over rave beats. Yeah.

That said, let’s dig in: Wonderland has the inglorious honour of opening to Rivers Cuomo rapping. Rivers Cuomo of Weezer is going to bless you with the whitest rap verse of all time (finally), and yes it’s groan-worthy. Thankfully, Aoki has the good sense to back Rivers up with some dirty rave synths, disco strings and a thumping house bass, the combined might of which save “Earthquakey People” from b-side status (though oddly not from a late-album sequel). Pay attention to that last bit, because it’s going to come up later: Aoki saves the track. As in, Rivers Cuomo is committed to eye-rolling verses like “Earthquakey people, ready to shake with the power of sound” (though his voice fits the tune), and somewhere Aoki thought to himself “Oh geez, I’d better drop stomping synths under this, or people are going to laugh” – and so he did, and as we’ll see, this more or less becomes Wonderland’s guiding philosophy. “Ladi Dadi” follows and recalls Doug E. Fresh in name, but results in more of a watered-down “LaLa” – complete with a voice like Ashlee Simpson’s – over sparkling dubstep-light that occasionally breaks into house. It’s passable and generic and it’s going to go over well in clubs because it’s fun and fast and features a dubstep drop, but there’s nothing ambitious going on when Wynter squeals “A little smokie-smoke/don’t mean a dirty joke”. “Dangerous” stumbles into third, featuring an unusually swear-y Will.i.am – sorry, that’s Zuper Blahq – dropping the lyrical gem, “I’m a bad motherfucker/I smash up the party like a bad motherfucker” over flaring organs straight out of “Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff”. Again the production is infectious (vocals and all), but the lyricism is distractingly stupid, and for some might entirely break the track (should we just expect this from B.E.P. alumni now?), and Aoki again finds himself playing lifeguard, buoying a dull performance with ten years of solid DJ experience. The rest is largely the same: “Come With Me” is Polina playing the generic club-anthem card over heady bouncing synths that work well enough (and happily reminded me of Sonic when I first heard them). Again, its lyrics are very much your standard ‘oh look it is night be with me I want you’ fare, and are the sort of thing that’s utterly inoffensive in a club, but make a difficult case for home ownership beyond the odd late-night spin. Lil’ Jon and Chiddy Bang then show up to remind us that women are hot over some heavy percussion that (again) dips into house – but never anything overly engaging – and effectively crystallize Wonderland’s key weakness: despite his clearly valiant work to the contrary, Aoki’s celebrity guests are left to define Wonderland, and they aren’t an altogether safe bet.

Despite all the Blaqstarr and Angger Dimas and The Exploited (!!!) cameos going on, Wonderland passes by in a blur, albeit one that would definitely improve with the application of alcohol. It’s a thirteen track album, and you aren’t going to be able to recall (or name) every track by the end, but that isn’t to say there aren’t hills and valleys: when Wonderland hits, it hits very nicely. “Livin’ My Love”, complete with perfectly idiosyncratic verses by LMFAO and NERVO, excels with its turbo-charged pop bounce and the sheer energy of its participants (and is likely Aoki’s finest production here). “Cudi the Kid” sneaks up like a Cudi track ought to (but rarely do on his own albums), drifting through Aoki’s house-synth haze and Cudi’s immaculately autotuned drawl, with Travis Barker doing his damndest to imitate a drum-machine in the background. Sure there’s a weird little dubstep-style drop (of which there are many on Wonderland), and the lyrics are nothing groundbreaking, but again it’s the sound of three people doing what they like best, and working in concert to pull it off with heart. Heck, despite all of my heckling I even have a favourite track from Wonderland, and one I’ll be preserving for later: “Ooh” featuring Jacksonville newcomer Rob Roy. Swaggering out the gate with his best André 3000 impression in tow, he sells “Ooh” on charisma alone. He’s also the only artist here that manages to push Aoki into a background role, which he happily inhabits with dubstep wubs and electric, accenting strings. It’s a strange track, sold largely on the timbre of Roy’s voice, but he fits so nicely between the now-requisite dubstep-ery that’s it’s hard to complain. Unlike so many of the all-stars on Wonderland, Rob Roy’s a (relative) newbie and seems genuinely excited to be on deck; if Wonderland gets a single, this better be it. His enthusiasm is catching, and points out exactly what Wonderland needed: more energetic artists riding the crest of their exposure (like Aoki himself).

Wonderland’s a difficult one to assess. On the one hand, these tracks are perfectly handy for the club, and given the right pair of headphones (or monitors) they’ll all thump pretty well (aside from astounding punk-oddity “The Kids Will Have Their Say”). They’re fun tracks and Steve Aoki knows what he’s doing on the production end of things, despite a bit of over-reliance on the quickly-drying ‘brostep’ effects. On the other hand, Aoki spends so much of Wonderland apparently floating his guest-artists’ dime-a-dozen performances that it’s difficult not to be distracted by the lack of surprises, especially as a home-listener that doesn’t review dance albums en scène (that is, drunk/dancing at a club). Wonderland is always capable, occasionally quite fun, and generally hampered by its lack of lyrical and musical knockouts. I have faith in Steve Aoki’s production abilities, I really do – we might just want to tell a few of Kid Millionaire’s millionaire friends to stay home next time.

6.5

Reviewed right here, January 2012

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,