This article previously appeared on Crossfader
We’re here to tell you what’s hot and what’s not in this week’s music roundup
Billy Ray Cyrus – SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT
Genre: Pop Country
Favorite Tracks: “Worry,” “Achy Breaky Heart 25th (Muscle Shoals Mix) [featuring Ronnie Milsap],” “Achy Breaky Heart 25 (Spanglish) [featuring Jencarlos Canela],” “Achy Breaky Heart (Remix) [featuring DJKO]”
Billy Ray Cyrus is a modern tragicomic figure, clearly torn between his genuine love for his children and his equally powerful love of being well-known in his own right. My fascination with him was piqued by 2014’s “Achy Breaky 2,” in which the Notorious BRC, clad in a black muscle shirt and some super cool sunglasses, joined up with obscure rapper Buck 22 for a remake of his biggest hit, which featured an undeniably excessive amount of scantily clad women, a bizarre half-trap, half dubstep beat that feels like EXACTLY what someone his age would think is dubstep, and Larry King. It’s in shockingly poor taste, clearly in response to Miley’s “scandalous” post-Disney phase, and, if you’re into that sort of so-bad-it’s-good type of stuff, utterly hilarious. “Achy Breaky 2” isn’t the only clear example of Billy Ray Ceezy’s debilitating inner conflicts when you include his many appearances in tabloids during the Hannah Montana years, a piteous GQ profile from 2011 that tried to paint him as the exhausted dad of an 18-year-old monster, and a couple of attempts at having his own TV show. His love for his daughters feels genuine, but he also feels like someone who will do anything to get his own career back on track, including making his children famous and piggybacking on their own stuff at any chance he gets.
So, when I saw that Big Billy Style was releasing a record called SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT, I knew this was something not to be missed. With anticipation, I waited, telling myself that I would keep an open mind and a kind spirit toward him. But SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT is astonishingly lacking in self-awareness and completely unnecessary. Most of the songs come from his 2006 record I WANNA BE YOUR JOE, and none of them are really worth anyone’s time. It’s a relatively even split between a mandolin/banjo-driven acoustic sound and a pretty standard electric country one. There’s also a bit of star power, with Miley and Noah, George Jones, and Loretta Lynn all making appearances. And if you’re willing to stick around for all 16 tracks, you’re treated to “Worry,” a bizarre, Talking Heads-reminiscent joint that seems to be constructed from samples of his live stage banter played over a minimal synthesized beat.
The thing that really redeems this thing, though, is the three remixes of “Achy Breaky Heart” that appear here in honor of the song’s 25th year in existence. One, the “Muscle Shoals” mix after the famous Alabama studio, is a vaguely country rock-ish version that’s probably the best version of the song that Cyrus has given us. The other two . . . nah. The “Spanglish” mix is just baffling. Based on the title it seems to be trying for a Latin sound, but it’s definitely closer to Rednex (the Swedish group that brought us “Cotton-Eyed Joe”) with a little dash of Pitbull’s worldwide magic. The last is an EDM mix (only referred to as “Achy Breaky Heart (Remix)) that . . . isn’t EDM. What is really interesting about these remixes is it gives us a glimpse into what someone who is just completely unfamiliar and disengaged with electronic music thinks that electronic music sounds like, which was also part of the magic of “Achy Breaky 2.” Cyrus has created an alien version of music that has become a cultural touchstone for many, and in some ways, these remixes may be the apex of Cyrus’s artistic merit. He forces us to look at ourselves and at the art we consume from a completely different perspective, and the first instinct may be to laugh or dismiss them, but he may not even be making music at this point. Maybe he’s the world’s greatest cultural critic, who’s really to say? To assume intent in art is to misunderstand it. [Adam Cash]
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
Empire of the Sun – ON OUR WAY HOME EP
Favorite Tracks: “Way to Go (Gomez and Tritter Remix)”
Empire of the Sun don’t make music interesting enough to justify their grandiose image and name, with last year’s TWO VINES hampered by flat vocals, underwritten lyrics, and a constant devolution into generic Europop drum tempos or percussion blats. Unlike Coldplay, whose strengths are better appreciated in small doses and atrophy with overexposure, Empire of the Sun didn’t seem like a band that would improve when listened to in a 15-minute chunk as opposed to a 40-minute one. There are two tracks of original material here, with the last three slots filled by one of the better tracks from TWO VINES and two remixes of it. Cornelius’s remix just sounds like the home screen music for the Wii, but Gomez and Tritter’s has a quiet restraint and solemnity that adds some much needed emotion to Empire’s music. Neither of the two original tracks leave much of an impression, with “Two Leaves” fumbling a cool, acoustic guitar-assisted opening and dramatic synthetic violins with an undulating progression and unintentionally creepy vocals that drag down the experience. I’m not really sure what the intention of ON OUR WAY HOME even is—it’s not as flabby and overblown as TWO VINES, but we’re inundated with enough synthpop as it is, and I’m not sure what Empire of the Sun are bringing to the table that anyone else isn’t. For now, Gomez and Tritter are names worth keeping an eye out for. [Blake Michelle]
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
Gun Outfit – OUT OF RANGE
Genre – Indie Rock, Heartland Rock
Favorite Tracks – “Landscape Painter,” “Strange Insistence,” “The 101”
The hazy polaroid of a plateau that probably has an official name, but one that I can’t name at this exact moment, really does make for an ideal visual appetizer to Gun Outfit’s newest release, OUT OF RANGE. What’s not shown in the photograph? A junker Oldsmobile, packed to the brim with clothes, trail mix, and an acoustic guitar? A lone person, most likely in need of a shower, looking for discovery of themselves and the world they inhabit?
Gun Outfit, once comprised of only the duo Dylan Sharp and Carrie Keith, is now a five-piece band caravanning the eroding annals of America, expanding their sound to fittingly serve the sublime West they paint on this new album. Sharp channels both his inner Bob Dylan and Lou Reed here, and while the weary cadence works in context, the spittoon drip drawl can sometimes prove to be soporific. The several string instruments provided by multi-instrumentalist Henry Barnes, like the woozy lap steel guitar and sitar-banjo hybrid, while sinuous, at times beget fatigue too and stagnate the album’s westward advancement.
Thankfully, Carrie Keith, who’s wispy vocals resemble Courtney Love at her most assured, brighten up the album. She’s really what keeps the wood-grain Oldsmobile trucking along. While most of the album spends its time in the early morning to midday shifts, midnight sets the backdrop on the tribute to the titular highway, “The 101.” There’s less optimism in the instrumentation as Barnes’s custom instrument and Dan Swire’s plodding percussion soundtrack the night ride, where the headlights can only stretch so far, essentially illuminating the road as you go. At some point, there’s a chance the road won’t continue, and Keith comments on the existential smallness that tends to accompany such drives: “Beauty surrounds you / And that sure is good if you can dance to the rattle from under the hood . . . California’s a legend / What can I say? / On the brink of destruction on each given day . . . At the edge of the world / you look down at your feet.” While more moments of musical variation like these would’ve been appreciated, OUT OF RANGE makes for an adequate musical companion on a long drive for someone with everything to think about. [Nick Funess]
Tim Heidecker – TOO DUMB FOR SUICIDE: TIM HEIDECKER’S TRUMP SONGS
Genre: Comedy, Singer/Songwriter
Favorite Track: “Trump’s Private Pilot”
What joke can possibly be made about a game show host with a long history of money laundering accidentally stumbling into the most important elected office in the United States? Tim Heidecker, the genuinely hilarious comedian behind TIM AND ERIC, DECKER, and a number of other projects, has attempted his very best to earnestly mock Trump on his latest album. Blending a sort of Paul Simon-meets-Elvis Costello-meets-Randy Newman sound, Heidecker isn’t exactly a trailblazing singer-songwriter, but he’s competent enough at imitating one. His previous effort, IN GLENDALE, took many casual fans by surprise; it was jarring to hear a man who’s usually dripping in internet irony and absurdity take a turn for the modest and sincere. That’s not to say it was a failure, but rather just that it expanded the notion of what Heidecker can do and how he would like his music to be perceived, separate from his comedy.
Unfortunately, TOO DUMB FOR SUICIDE has Heidecker making a pretty severe miscalculation, attempting to maintain his earnest tone while simultaneously trying to mock a man who is his own self-parody. I’ve said a lot about good and bad comedy in the Trump era already, but it’s worth clearly parsing why this album fails as a piece of comedy. At the end of the day, Trump isn’t the actual joke: the joke is an American political culture that allowed someone like him to ever get within swinging distance of elected office. Jokes about Trump’s shits (“Imperial Bathroom”) and 4chan edgelords (“For Chan”) may be momentarily cathartic, but they provide little actual meaningful humor to give us insight into how we got here. I don’t blame Heidecker, and I still like him as a comedian, I’ve just never expected him to provide sound political commentary. There are moments of self-reflection on TOO DUMB that I appreciate, in which Heidecker reflects on the touchstones of ‘80s culture, action movies and the attraction to shallow wealth, that may have paved the way for Trump on a cultural level, and that’s nice, but there have been people exploring that in a number of different mediums already over the past year. No doubt, somewhere on a Fox News subsidiary website right now, some right-wing pearl clutcher is blogging in terror about this album, but so what? Being slightly offensive isn’t a radical act when our government itself is so nakedly obscene. [Carter Moon]
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
Angel Olsen – PHASES
Genre: Singer/Songwriter, Contemporary Folk
Favorite Tracks: “California,” “For You,” “Fly on the Wall,” “Sweet Dreams”
While much of MY WOMAN benefitted from the gloss of production, Angel Olsen had already proven herself as a lo-fi folk artist with BURN YOUR FIRE FOR NO WITNESSES. It’s no surprise that her collection of B-sides, rarities, and covers, PHASES, delivers. Olsen pulls back the curtain and reveals the cogs and gears of her work, and while for some artists this would mean ruining their illusion, for Olsen, it’s an opportunity to showcase some of her most stunning work to date.
Outside of its context, PHASES is still captivating. Mysterious, emotive, and unabashedly candid, it’s the soundtrack for a misty night drive or a solo cigarette on a motel balcony. Unlike a traditional album, it feels like a group of ideas rather than a fully cohesive thought. In some ways, PHASES is strongly reminiscent of an old family album; there’s a certain delight in putting the pieces together and discovering how the past informs the present. For example, MY WOMAN’s “Never Be Mine” could easily be the child of “Sweet Dreams” and “California.” These songs fall right into place in Olsen’s canon, where the retro sensibilities transcend the acoustics—it’s not just ‘60s sound-alike music, her voice and arrangements spark with the revolutionary excitement of the era. Angel Olsen is a shapeshifter, whimsically shifting genres with a bat of her eyelashes. To each one she fully devotes herself, breathing to life a new persona each time she alters her voice. “Only With You” is sung tenderness of a Greenwich Village folk singer, whereas “California” sounds as if she is channeling the King of Rock and Roll himself. While we wait for the next metamorphosis of Olsen’s career, PHASES is a welcomed treasure trove of curios in which every minute is worth savoring. [Claire Epting]
Quicksand – INTERIORS
Favorite Tracks: “Illuminant,” “Warm and Low,” “Interiors,” “Fire This Time,” “Feels Like A Weight Has Been Lifted”
If I was to make of list of bands with huge potential, but unfairly curtailed careers that I was resigned to never hear any music from again, Quicksand would be very close or at the top. Their youthful hardcore sound was fully realized in their two seminal ‘90s albums (SLIP and MANIC COMPRESSION), but internal conflicts split the band soon after, and in the interim, bassist Sergio Vega would end up working with the Deftones on their three most recent albums. While such a move from cerebral ‘90s DIY hardcore to atmospheric, trying-to-be-shoegaze metal would normally seem quite bizarre, that’s just kind of the band Quicksand is. With crunchy, sludgy riffs, a heavy dose of reverb, cavernous production, and a propensity for loud and quiet dynamics that comes across very naturally, they fit just as snugly alongside Fugazi and At The Drive-In as they do The Smiths (they do a great cover of “How Soon is Now?”) and A Perfect Circle. Furthermore, unlike At The Drive In’s disappointing comeback record, all the original members of Quicksand are involved with INTERIORS.
In retrospect, it was going to be impossible for Quicksand to replicate the same punkish fire they had when they were 20 years younger. They smartly realized this and have gone with a more morose approach, with vocals that capture resigned weariness after years of rage very well. The overall subdued nature can occasionally manifest in overly dainty guitar-picking or utterly boring songs like “Cosmonauts,” which wastes an intense rhythm guitar build on an airy chorus that’s too in the clouds for its own good. However, the bass is just as rumbly, dirty, and tight as ever, especially on “Fire this Time” and “Feels Like a Weight has been Lifted,” and most of the material balances well between riffs with more body and rawness and ones that flourish with a gothic tinge and delicacy. Lyrically almost nothing has changed from the ‘90s, with a series of simple phrases delivered in a stream that combine into something sinister and oblique like Jawbreaker always did. It’s part of why INTERIORS succeeds as both a throwback and a step in a new direction for a band that realized they couldn’t blaze the same trails they did 20 years ago. Though it won’t 100% please fans who demand something along the lines of MANIC COMPRESSION again, Quicksand have delivered a comeback that can stand on something beyond simple nostalgia. [Blake Michelle]
Sleigh Bells – KID KRUSCHEV
Genre: Noise Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Rainmaker,” “Show Me the Door,” “Florida Thunderstorm”
KID KRUSCHEV is a lot like a repressed feeling of anger—pretty on the outside with a sense of angst resonating deep within. Even though vocalist Alexa Krauss seems to be coming from a dark, intense place throughout this “mini-album,” belting “Sometimes you just want to die” on “Show Me the Door,” KID KRUSCHEV doesn’t feel like an angsty emo album at all. Rather, it comes off as an incredibly appropriate streamlined outlet for expressing frustration with the mundanities of life. “Show Me the Door” showcases creative synths and a sort of pounding techno beat which surprisingly just works. Loud instruments are not unique to this track alone, though, and aside from “Florida Thunderstorm,” each track contains an intense level of instrumentation that is bursting at the seams in the best way possible. On “Blue Trash Mattress Fire” Krauss sings, “‘Cause goddamn, this shit is too much / It’s fucking me up / Enough is enough.” 2017 has been a year of major tragedy and heartbreak in the public eye, making each and every one of those words something that most people can relate to. Krauss has shared that the band’s current mindset is to release shorter “mini-albums” at a more frequent rate, thus giving them the ability to really capture current emotions, and it’s refreshing to see Sleigh Bells taking to outlets other than social media to make these frustrations public. [Emmett Garvey]
Thor & Friends – THE SUBVERSIVE NATURE OF KINDNESS
Genre: Chamber Music
Favorite Songs: “90 Meters,” “An Escapist Theme,” “Resist”
Recently, Twitter began sharing stories about nice, funny encounters with celebrities, and I feel it only appropriate to share one myself. After a Swans show in Santa Ana, a friend and I tepidly approached the stage railing of the small room the experimental rock band had pulverised for two hours straight. If you never got a chance to see Swans in their last iteration, it was an experience of witnessing scorched earth in slow motion, improvised in its chaos and destruction. It was amazing. And as mesmerizing as frontman Michael Gira is, it was Thor Harris, the group’s ultimate secret weapon, a percussion aficionado who was the backbone of the band’s layered orchestrations of hope and doom, who stole the show. As we got to the railing, casually chatting and looking periodically at Harris, who was dismantling his equipment, he noticed us look over and gave a cheery hello. He dropped all the equipment he was putting away, walked over, and proceeded to chat it up with my friend and I for a few minutes. He brought up what an interesting venue we were in, discussed his recent Coachella show, Angel Olsen (who had opened), and he discussed all this with a Texas warmth that left my friend and I riding a wave of slack-jawed happiness the entire ride home. It was only a few minutes, but we both walked away thinking Thor Harris may genuinely be the nicest man on the planet.
Having performed and recorded behind the scenes with everyone from Shearwater to Bill Callahan to Flock of Dimes, Harris has stepped into the spotlight over the last year in a big way, from teaching us how to punch Nazi’s, to (maybe) running for governor of Texas, to recording two solo records under the name Thor & Friends. Alongside musicians Peggy Ghorbani and Sarah “Goat” Gautier, the group have just released their sophomore record ,THE SUBVERSIVE NATURE OF KINDNESS, a soundtrack of warm, free-flowing instrumental orchestrations centered around the wooden, earthy tones of xylophones, vibraphones, and marimbas. The songs here feel deeply lived-in and tirelessly rehearsed, with no stone unturned, but they never feel stale. The strings on these songs are effervescent, providing a gauzy texture of comfort, especially on “90 Meters,” where they offer a sense of childlike wonder to the world. The musicianship alone is awe-inspiring, but what’s satisfying is how gratifying these compositions are, each with their own narrative. Even a track like “Creepy Carpets,” comparatively one of the shorter songs on the record, soundtracks a dreary sense of discovery from beginning to end, with all the anxiety and hesitation that comes with it. And when Thor & Friends sense you’ve become too comfortable in the driving lushness, they channel some of the unrelenting discomfort that Swans music tapped into, like with the rolling coos and taps that counterbalance “Swimming with Stina,” or the claustrophobic vocals that rest above the piercing strings on “Grassfire.” On closer “Resist,” a calm overtakes the album, musically channeling the concept of kindness and its healing power. With euphoric musicianship and unparalleled warmth, THE SUBVERSIVE NATURE OF KINDNESS is a welcomed break from the harsh, noisy realities of the world. [CJ Simonson]
Wiz Khalifa – LAUGH NOW, FLY LATER
Genre: Pop Rap
Favorite Tracks: “Royal Highness,” “City of Steel”
Similar to the news of JFK’s death, one will always remember where they were when they first heard Wiz Khalifa. Me? I was in middle school on a very boring bus ride to some sort of field trip. I remember using up most of the data on my phone plan to stream his song “No Sleep” over and over again. See, to a 7th grader, Wiz has that effect. Fast-forward seven years, and it’s sad to say Wiz has lost hold over me. I haven’t listened to Mr. Khalifa in some time, missing most of his albums since ROLLING PAPERS, but the great thing is that on LAUGH NOW, FLY LATER, Wiz leads off right where I left him. I understand that Snoop Dogg has made a career out of rapping about weed, but for some reason when Wiz Khalifa does it it doesn’t quite feel the same—rather just corny and commercialized. You could make the argument that Snoop possesses these same qualities, but Wiz tries to be a carbon copy of Snoop Dogg, which in my eyes, makes him less likable. The mixtape honestly feels like a giant plug for his new strain of weed, “Khalifa Kush.” On “Weed Farm,” Khalifa raps, “Roll the paper I ain’t smoking blunts / O a day, That’s two pounds a month,” and then proceeds to regurgitate that same sentiment over and over for the rest of the song; and also all of the songs on this project and every other song on every other project he’s ever done. It’s boring and monotonous. I wanted LAUGH NOW, FLY LATER to change my opinion on the Taylor Gang C.E.O., but that’ll have to be put off yet another time. [Emmett Garvey]
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
Yelawolf – TRIAL BY FIRE
Genre: Country Rap
Favorite Tracks: “Daylight,” “Sabrina”
As the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Crossfader, it typically falls on my weary shoulders to perform clean up, bravely wading into the fields of bad music and television that no contributors will willingly touch with a 10-foot pole. I hoped and prayed someone would step up to the plate for Yelawolf’s TRIAL BY FIRE the past few weeks, but alas, here we are. Coming up a comparatively long time ago with his debut in 2005, and his popular Trunk Muzik series of mixtapes and albums circa 2009-2010, Yelawolf came into our consciousness as a white rapper signed to Shady Records. But as a 38-year-old, it seems like the man born Michael Wayne Atha is taking a step back from going toe-to-toe with the young up-and-comers, content to operate in the much-derided (and rightfully so), brave, bold, and generally unexplored frontiers of country rap. So to a certain extent, there’s really not much of a clarion call I can make against TRIAL BY FIRE; this is so tied to a niche fan base and specific demographic appeal that one of them liberal, Hollywood-elite city slickers wading into the swamp to lay critical waste feels almost distasteful. And to its credit, it’s an undeniably faithful realization of the strange, twisted desire to combine country and rap that made the likes of Bubba Sparxxx and Cowboy Troy people we even sort of pretended to pay attention to. If you ever heard an Eminem record but thought it needed more harmonicas, string instruments, electric blues guitar, and Kid Rock, then boy, do I have an album for you. But at the end of the day, Yelawolf still manages to maintain a sense of technical competency and snarling twang that keeps TRIAL BY FIRE listenable, if not ever particularly gripping. The highlights include the twilight desert swagger of “Daylight,” reminiscent of the theme song he turned in for SONS OF ANARCHY, and the extremely bizarre “Sabrina,” a minimalist, harried, vaguely unsettling, and, dare I say, experimental story of a father searching for his missing daughter. As for the rest, I’m content to let Yelawolf kick up his feet, shotgun a few beers, and let himself have a good ol’ country hootenanny with his pals without saying much more than that I don’t expect an invite. [Thomas Seraydarian]
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
Yo Gotti – I STILL AM
Genre – Trap Rap
Favorite Tracks – “Backgate,” “Rake It Up (featuring Nicki Minaj),” “2908,” “One on One,” “Around the World”
I STILL AM. It’s not exactly a mystery to what Yo Gotti is referring to in the title. Gotti has always been reliable in adhering to the latest trending sounds of rap, and what’s continued to stick with him in all of songs is his southern flair and the hood that he grew up in. While it can be a songwriting tool, it also threatens to undo all that’s built. Gotti confronts this concept of the hood still writhing in him on “One on One,” where he raps, “I know this rap shit my blessin’ when I ain’t in the hood shit be / gettin’ borin’ / I’m so used to hustlin’, I’m so used to thuggin’, I don’t know how to / ignore it,” struggling with the possibility of moving on from all that he knows, from what has shaped him, and got him to where he is today. It’s an intricate sentiment, an admittance of a different kind of addiction, way bigger than drugs, money or anything tangible. Meek Mill makes for a perfectly appropriate feature alongside him, another rapper who’s finding it hard to navigate fame without entertaining past criminal activity.
Yo Gotti’s grainy voice shines in contrast to the more playful, soulful beats on I STILL AM. The arresting choral reinforcement on “Back Gate” gives Gotti’s recount of drug-dealing misadventures a haunting atmosphere; the dulcet, looping sample of “How Can I Pretend” by The Continental IV on “2908” provides a spacious conduit for one of Gotti’s most graceful flows. The album ends with its most cheerful song, “Around the World,” a paean to his old stomping grounds. Forget wearing it on the sleeve, Gotti’s got “Ridgecrest” etched into his skin, and no matter where he goes, people know his roots. Even with all the international travel his fame has afforded him, he ends up right back there: “Right back to my hood / Right back to my gun / Right back to the Crest / Right back to my bunk.” It’s still worrisome when a talented artist can’t escape a potentially dangerous environment or mentality (look at DMX or 2Pac) but Gotti seems comfortable, and his constant salute to his home is a humbling reminder of how far he’s come. [Nick Funess]
Yung Lean – STRANGER
Genre: Cloud Rap, Alternative R&B
Favorite Tracks: “Red Bottom Sky,” “Push / Lost Weekend,” “Salute / Pacman,” “Hunting My Own Skin,” “Fallen Demon,” “Agony,” “Yellowman”
I have spent the past two years aggressively arguing for Yung Lean’s legitimacy as a musical artist, even going so far as to write my collegiate thesis on it. As for STRANGER, this is the first time my initial reaction isn’t to passionately defend his undeniably unique, and equally undeniably contentious, artistic vision and palette. At this point, there’s nothing else I can tell you to get you to take him seriously—if you remembered the bucket hat and memes while listening to late 2016’s FROST GOD and ignored the fact it’s about as straight-laced a rap mixtape as we’ll ever get from Lean, it’s a losing battle to argue otherwise. Though he’s always unapologetically made exactly the kind of music he wants, this time around it feels like he’s fully standing on his own, and if nothing else, STRANGER proves without a doubt that there’s a challenging and vibrant creative vision that acolytes always knew resided in Jonatan Leandoer Håstad.
The key to unpacking STRANGER resides in acceptance that it is ultimately flawed, occasionally even mortally so. But even though I continue to insist I never liked Yung Lean ironically, I’m not going to pretend that there wasn’t a certain sense of aloof, internet-predicated detachment between artist and output in the salad days of Leandoer. That is nowhere to be found on STRANGER; this is Yung Lean as raw, honest, and intense as we’ve seen up to this point, doing away with the mainstream-adjacent features he’s been cultivating with past projects and letting us get an unfiltered glimpse into a passionately troubled mind many wrote off as a forgettable joke. This is certainly one of the most boundary-pushing and experimental hip hop releases of 2017, structurally loose, daring in its production, and willfully opaque in lyricism and delivery, elements which consistently work for and against it throughout its runtime. And yes, Yung Lean’s at the volatile age of 21, and I can assure you you’ll find some missteps in the bunch that speak of a lack of self-consciousness (“Skimask” is among the bottom of the barrel, at least in my opinion). But only an outsider can work without any expectation placed upon them, and when STRANGER works, it really works.
Perhaps not first off, but certainly among the more notable aspects of the album is Yung Gud and Yung Sherman’s production. Always among the more defining facets of the Yung Lean experience, they’ve pushed their melancholic Arctic soundscapes into something much more ambient, all-encompassing, and haunting. Minimalism doesn’t quite do it justice, and STRANGER regularly tiptoes around having ambient and art pop as its most identifiable sonic references, especially towards the end; Lean demonstrates a commendably chameleonic ability to make use of an instrumental backbone many rappers wouldn’t, and couldn’t possibly be capable of touching (“Fallen Demon,” “Agony,” and “Yellowman” are an absolutely unprecedented way to end something even remotely affiliated with hip hop). You tell me what other rapper in 2017 is working with a children’s choir and I’ll buy you lunch. His lyricism still leaves something to be desired (well, it reflects an accurate regurgitation of the superficial American pop culture a Swedish teenager intimately plugged in online would have grown up and assimilated into his identity, but perhaps that’s a topic for my collegiate thesis), but there is a surprisingly established range and confidence here that manages to almost sell even the most initially inaccessible cuts (“Silver Arrows,” “Metallic Intuition”). Nobody else could sing, rap, and/or caterwaul their way over something like the laconic “Push / Lost Weekend” or the curious electropop of “Hunting My Own Skin.”
Almost nowhere over the course of STRANGER does the old Yung Lean come to the phone, and there’s an interesting movement buzzing in the background decrying his unwillingness to return to familiar tropes and cater to his old fans. But as an artist already intensely despised by the mainstream, his 2017 output has Yung Lean making music that’s . . . even less marketable? STRANGER is daring in its refusal to even entertain notions of traditional genre identification. STRANGER is innovative in its production and further melding of cloud rap and alternative R&B. STRANGER is occasionally alienating and enraging in its unwillingness to meet you even close to halfway. But listen to “Hurt” and then STRANGER; that is practically the definition of growing up. [Thomas Seraydarian]