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
Michael Christmas – ROLE MODEL
Genre: Alternative Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “These Days,” “Upset,” “Growing Up”
I often notice an off-putting middle ground between rappers that bask in their hardness and rappers that play their success off as a joke. Sometimes that semi-serious demeanor can lead to hip hop anthems that are both playful and gritty—Das Racist, Rome Fortune, and even Aminé all fit comfortably into this niche. On his latest release, ROLE MODEL, Boston rapper Michael Christmas fails to blur the lines between solemnity and humor very well.
Mr. Christmas has the type of flow that I would have seen as clever when I was a 16-year-old, releasing the frustration I felt towards my Algebra 2 teacher by playing rap songs that endorsed smoking pot while driving in the car with my mother. Now that the novelty of jovial hip hop has worn off, when distinguishing between rappers that stand beside Chance the Rapper on his pedestal and those that are unsuccessfully trying way too hard to emulate him, Michael Christmas falls into the latter category.
“Girlfriend” is the song I imagine I would have pregamed a party to if I had actually been invited to one during my high school career. Christmas speed raps the lines, “Now when I pull up I don’t talk too much / Cause I be too nervous like awkward stuff /S he whispered some shit and I lost a nut / I fell on the floor I could not get up,” and though he has an impressively nimble flow, the lines come off more as a perverted Little Miss Muffet than the work of an artist who knows what he’s going for. “Polo Sweater” showcases Odd Future funny guy Domo Genesis rapping over a beat that sounds like a hipster’s take on a Lil Jon banger. Though it does not contribute much to the overarching hip hop scene, there is something festive about a guy with Christmas in his name dropping a track called “Special Occasion”; while I was hoping that I might be able to add the song to one of my yuletide mixtapes, unfortunately the special occasion Christmas raps about is “Smoking Jamaican.” The track ends with a sample of police officers telling a mother her son has passed out in the street, a drunken mess—I’m sad to say that even the track on ROLE MODEL I hoped would be worthy of the Christmas brand name is a letdown.
Michael Christmas has done a good job of fitting into a niche dominated by kooky jokesters with a penchant for old school production chops, making Podcast-core music that would be great opening for Reggie Watts if he ever sought out a rapper for one of his comedy shows. But his work is lackluster when analyzed from a critical standpoint, even if I do commend him for dropping three albums in four years and finding widespread critical acclaim. For more discerning listeners looking for jammable summer alt-rap, I would encourage you to give Toro Y Moi and Rome Fortune’s recent EP a listen. [Ted Davis]
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
Late Bloomer – HEAVEN
Genre: Indie Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Complacency,” “Heaven,” “Listen,” “The Truth,” “Life Is Weird”
My first introduction to “Heaven,” Late Bloomer’s earnest, crunchy, and yet altogether polished single, was via a Tweet from rock writer Ian Cohen claiming it to be the best fake Everclear song since Joyce Manor’s “Last You Heard of Me.” Tongue-in-cheek joke aside, being a fan of the “Santa Monica”-crooning ‘90s rockers, I immediately pressed play to find that the comparison was apt, perhaps even more so than the Joyce Manor parallel. The band’s latest, WAITING, is a larger embrace of that glimmering, polished post-grunge rock sound, a tone that was certainly lying dormant in their last record, THINGS CHANGE, but manifested itself then in a loose and wiley garage thrash that felt more at home on Burger Records than alt-rock radio at the turn of the century.
Across WAITING the guitars are emboldened and enveloping, harkening back to a rock sound that hasn’t been fashionable in decades. There’s a unguardeness to the drums, and the vocals are as raw and strained as ever, sometimes ringing out in the back fo the mix with a tired howl. Producer Justin Pizzoferrato, known for engineering and mixing post-hiatus Dinosaur Jr. and ‘90s-indebted acts like Parquet Courts, Speedy Ortiz, and California X, brings a similarly fuzzy blend of slacker alt-rock and radio-friendly punk nuance here. It’s a sound that favors the band’s big choruses really well, especially on songs like “Listen,” “The Truth,” and “Make It Go Away,” and with messier, more chaotic cuts like “All I Need Is You” and “Sleeve,” you get the throws of DIY punk colliding with the radio-ready sheen of a different era. WAITING, in its own way, feels desperate. It was created by an act whose previous albums flew incredibly under the radar, never quite reaching that online indie rock Valhalla, and so there’s no reason to not leave it all on the table. That, combined with a lyrical exploration of existential worry and doubt, create an on-the-ropes rock record that just doesn’t come along very often any more, the kind of make-or-break album that feels like if it doesn’t hit then they go away forever. I don’t know if that would’ve been true of the now fittingly named Late Bloomer, but WAITING certainly elevates the band to great new heights. Everclear comparisons be damned, this kind of down-and-out rock sound deserves your attention once again. [CJ Simonson]
Meek Mill – LEGENDS OF THE SUMMER EP
Genre: Trap Rap
Favorite Track: “Stay Woke”
2018 has been chock-full of major hip hop releases, and Meek Mill’s first post-prison EP has been swept under the rug as a result. To its credit, LEGENDS OF THE SUMMER is refreshingly brief in comparison to his last album, and “Stay Woke” works as an introspective protest song that interpolates a Grandmaster Flash opening to tie Meek into the long history of rappers coming to terms with the societal and material conditions that their art is intrinsically tied to, for better or worse. It hits the perfect spot between political and personal, especially that one line about his dreams of playing football being ruined after a ball got deflated by a dope needle, which got me hyped for what else Meek had in store. Even with the expectation that an EP isn’t supposed to a cohesive experience, LEGENDS OF THE SUMMER’s inconsistency in terms of quality and style is still a problem. Outside of the opening two bars, and a passing mention in the second verse of “Milidelphia,” and the aforementioned first single, any juicy details about his arrest and trial are pushed to the side in favor of dime-a-dozen bangers and attempts at romantic R&B that don’t mesh well with the numerous references to women’s wetness and a strange, J Cole-esque joke about premature ejaculation. His verses hit a few snags as well; the second verse of “Dangerous” sounds eerily similar to Kanye and is too awkwardly blunt to be romantic, ruining a chorus with great chemistry between Jeremih and Pnb Rock, and the outro of “Millidelphia” has an unnecessarily different fidelity and flow than the rest of the song. Meek doesn’t have to make more socially conscious music; if he wants to make DJ Mustard ripoffs (“1am”) and fill songs with snare rolls, ad-libs, and desaturated loops (“Millidelphia”), then that’s his right, but “Stay Woke” hinted at a restored hunger and purpose that the rest of the EP can’t compete with. [Blake Michelle]
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
Teyana Taylor – K.T.S.E.
Favorite Tracks: “Gonna Love Me,” “Rose In Harlem,” “WTP”
Teyana Taylor is a Harlem musician, dancer, and model whose career has existed largely in the shadows of big name collaborations. Signing to Pharrell’s Star Trak Entertainment label, choreographing and appearing in music videos for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and now releasing records through Kanye West’s GOOD Music, all haven’t been enough to stop her latest release, K.T.S.E., from being the most glanced-over installment of Kanye’s five-micro-albums-in-five-weeks manic marketing campaign. K.T.S.E. is arguably the least Kanye album Kanye has ever taken credit for; the record’s 22 minutes of refined soul come off more as a Parkwood Entertainment project than a record that appears next to KIDS SEE GHOSTS and DAYTONA. But this is a welcome surprise. Kanye inundated his fans with five Fridays of frequently half-baked, underwhelmingly produced mini-collections that, with the exception of KIDS SEE GHOSTS and K.T.S.E., often sound like the work of a madman as opposed to the mad genius Yeezy proclaims himself to be.
K.T.S.E. finds Kanye’s production the most graspable it has been since MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY. “Rose In Harlem” has an early hip hop shimmer that masterfully welds LATE REGISTRATION-era soul sampling with Taylor’s radio ready vocals and New York City pride. “Gonna Love Me” opens with a bouncing, Tomppabeats-esque, guitar-driven beat that is gorgeous but also sounds like a Yeezy takeoff of a SoundCloud deep cut. Fortunately, Taylor is able to offset the redundant tendencies of Ye’s production, redeeming the track by pumping it full of popstar neo-soul. “WTP,” while undeniably the funniest track on the album, also proves that republi-Kanye is weirdly capable of putting his name on gay bar anthems. Though the recurring “Work this pussy” sample makes for an unexpected closer to an album whose themes are overarchingly romance and hardship, it is also the track that takes itself the least seriously in the broad scope of Kanye’s five week churn of releases.
Sadly, K.T.S.E. sank to the bottom of June’s hip hop release flood. As I write this, K.T.S.E.’s most popular Spotify track has two-and-a-half million plays while, on the other hand, KIDS SEE GHOSTS’ most popular track, “Reborn,” has 33 million streams. YE’s biggest hit, “All Mine,” is rapidly approaching 90 million streams and Nas and Pusha T are also both exceeding Taylor, with roughly nine million and 16 million plays on their albums’ respective hits. It is as easy to blame sexism within the music industry for Taylor’s relative obscurity as it is to chalk it up to the album’s late release date. It is unfair to see one of the most eclectic Kanye collaborations in a long time overshadowed by his more grandiose endeavors. Unfortunately, it is the same shadow that has cast itself on Teyana Taylor’s career since she broke into the scene. As a music fan, give Teyana a listen and do your part to help KEEP THAT SAME ENERGY exist in the spotlight it deserves. [Ted Davis]
Years & Years – PALO SANTO
Favorite Tracks: “Hallelujah,” “Lucky Escape,” “If You’re Over Me, All For You”
Years & Years’ sophomore release, PALO SANTO, is an album that, by halfway through, exudes a palpable, cyclical energy. One moment, we’re headfirst in the zealous, ‘80s-reminiscent “Hallelujah,” getting under to get over, but by “Lucky Escape,” we’re in deep disarray, soaking up the toxic remembrance of someone special, with a mid-2000s R&B flair, of course. Throughout the entire album, almost every emotion of being with or moving on from someone is explored, and the song’s messages and sense of tone aren’t the only things that seem to be oscillating. Track titles, including “Preacher,” “Hallelujah,” and “Sanctify,” show that Years & Years have not completely left the deep religious allegory of the debut record COMMUNION behind. Thank god for that—COMMUNION was not only an immersive masterpiece of varying emotions, but it’s one that if tossed aside by the prospect of new songs would do no justice to the band’s capabilities. Through the finesse of harmonies, including the juxtaposition of fast beat with hard lyrics, or even the choral integration on “Here,” the trio have shown transparent vulnerability in every creative choice, and while listening to PALO SANTO, one can vividly hear their musical influences, background, and compassion.
Years & Years should also be commended for the ambition of the album’s narrative structure and visuals in the accompanying short film, yet while other artists that employ narrative structure like St. Vincent, Lord Huron, and Beyoncé succeed, the visuals behind PALO SANTO don’t exactly follow suit. While the story’s writing and production value aren’t to blame, it seems to be more a matter of the rigidity of them; without the album, the context of the film seems so deadset it’s hard to not relate the songs to it, rather than our own lives.
Regardless, PALO SANTO is an absolute triumph. PALO SANTO is not a listen-once-and-toss-away album, and with every new listen, one will only find another lyric dripping with accessibility. I must admit, when a lot of the singles were released I was worried that those were going to be the best tracks, but I could not have been more wrong. Every song is aching to find a counterpart to the writer and will leave you feeling almost as if you wrote it; Years & Years have taken a huge step to musical monarchy with PALO SANTO. [Jesse Herb]