Editor-in-Chief and A&E Editor
April was a particularly eventful month for popular music, with some of the industry’s biggest artists releasing albums. So far, May hasn’t been a slouch either, and there have already been a slew of major releases, but it takes some time to let critical opinions grow and change naturally. For this reason, now is a perfect time to revisit April’s standout music, both mainstream and underground.
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth: When it comes to the current state of music, one of the most common complaints involves how “Modern country music can’t come close to the genre’s golden days,” and there is some real truth in the statement. Most of the country music that dominates the charts today sounds more like pop with a southern accent than classic country-western. Still, as is always the case when a style of music begins to decrease in quality, there is a new wave of young artists who honor the icons who came before them, and the past five years have seen a resurgence in throwback country and folk music. While most of these artists exist well below the mainstream, some are beginning to make real waves in the industry. Sturgill Simpson is perhaps the most notable of these so-called “outlaw” country artists who do not bend their sound to fit in with the latest trends. With his third album, the outstanding A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Simpson succeeds not by harkening back to the past but by boldly pushing the envelope and bringing his own vision to the table while still remaining true to his roots.
While Simpson’s last album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, borrowed most heavily from the classic outlaw country sound of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, he brings a more diverse sound to his new release. There is a bolder and more intricate feel to the music here, and it sounds progressive while still maintaining a distinctively country sound. It pays homage to the grander, more theatrical country-western from the 40s and 50s. There are traces of folk, rockabilly, and even classic rock, as Simpson brilliantly reimagines Nirvana’s “In Bloom” as a country standard. The Dap Kings also heavily contribute to the record, adding lush instrumentation that brings out new elements in Simpson’s voice and songwriting.
The lyrics are also excellent, and they only prove that Simpson has a unique knack for blending abstract storytelling with intimate personal moments. There is an unmistakable air of lonesomeness and longing on the album, but it never makes for a depressing listen. In fact, the majority of the music here is quite the opposite. There are moments when the soaring music and vocals combine to create a powerful feeling of triumph and hope.
Overall, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is one of the best albums of the year so far, and it will dispel any rumors that Simpson is a one-trick-pony. He has pushed his music forward with gusto, simultaneously broadening his style and making it more accessible. What he does next is anyone’s guess, but it will almost certainly be phenomenal.
J Dilla, The Diary: Some artists go out of their way to take their sound back to the “glory days” of a genre, but there is no substitute for the real thing, which makes J Dilla’s exceptional The Diary even more impressive. The late producer is widely regarded as being one of the most innovative talents that hip-hop has ever seen, and there has been an abundance of posthumous music released after his untimely death in 2006 from thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare blood disease. However, only a fraction of the albums that have been put out were actually intended to be heard as a cohesive collection; most of them simply compiled and polished his unfinished work. However, The Diary, Dilla’s latest album, is special in the sense that it was recorded in late 2001 as a major release, only to be put aside by his-then-label MCA. Now, Mass Appeal Records has released the long-lost album, and fans will not be disappointed.
While Dilla is known for his production ability, The Diary highlights his often-overlooked skills behind the mic. He leaves most of the production to veterans such as Madlib, Pete Rock, and Nottz. Despite a long list of producers, the album manages to maintain a unified sound throughout, and it gives Dilla room to deliver a more personal lyrical statement than fans are used to hearing. He is just having fun for most of the album, but there are a few tracks that give listeners a glimpse into his childhood and relationships. He makes up for any lack of technical ability with genuine charisma and energy, and it is an enormously fun listen from start to finish.
Hip-hop fans who appreciate the genre’s output during the start of the new millennium will love the record as it carries traces of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele, and even Dr. Dre’s 2001. It is the musical equivalent of uncovering a fifteen-year-old time capsule, and it gives a great snapshot of the genre’s climate at the time. The 90s are often emulated by current artists, but the quality of The Diary may signal in a new era of hip-hop borrowing from the early-2000s.
This album is an absolute must listen to both fans of Dilla and hip-hop in general. It will show even his most devoted fans a different side of his music, and casual listeners will enjoy the album’s consistency and pop sensibilities. Overall, it is a predictably great release from one of the most innovative artists in recent memory, regardless of genre.
Beyonce, Lemonade: It would be nearly impossible to find a popstar as universally worshipped and praised as Beyonce, called Queen B by her insanely loyal fan base. To many, she can do no wrong, and each one of her releases has been wildly successful. They all receive good reviews from critics, but her latest release, Lemonade, is a step above. It has been universally praised as one of the best albums in recent memory, and it currently holds a coveted ninety-three on review-compiling site Metacritic. After hearing the full album, it is not difficult to see why. Even for listeners who have never jumped on the Beyonce bandwagon, Lemonade is an undeniably impressive effort.
Most of the album’s buzz has surrounded the songs that deal with infidelity and marital strife. Fans naturally assumed the lyrics to be about Beyonce’s husband Jay-Z, but the couple has been relatively quiet about the controversy. Whether or not Jay really cheated on Beyonce, Lemonade remains a compelling listen. It is the culmination of Beyonce’s long career, and it is her most eclectic release to date. Everything from trap to country is touched on, and there are some truly interesting musical choices throughout. The guest list is equally impressive, featuring artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Jack White, and James Blake.
Speaking of Kendrick Lamar, it has been noted that Lemonade takes a lot from Lamar’s own To Pimp a Butterfly, already looked at as one of the decade’s best hip-hop albums. Both records are extremely ambitious and deal with heavy themes such as love and race, but Lemonade is unmistakably a Beyonce album. Her voice carries each song, and the production gives her room to really shine. It is hard to say if she has improved as a singer, but her talent is even more evident when she is working with an album as good as this. It has been easy in the past to label her as only a pop diva, but now she seems more concerned with challenging herself creatively. There are not any songs that feel designed to be lead singles; instead, they all are catchy in their own right and feel like parts of a greater whole. Personal drama aside, Lemonade is a must hear from one of music’s biggest stars.
Drake, Views: Has any rapper ever capitalized more on insecurity and being stunted emotionally than Drake? Probably not, and Views, the latest release from the Canadian-born superstar, will not change his image as a “sensitive” rapper. He spends virtually all the record lamenting the dark side of fame, his troubled romances, and supposed friends who have betrayed him. The lyrics walk the line between honest and petty, and it seems almost hard to believe that being a successful rapper/singer could be quite this tormenting. The fact that the album boasts a massive list of additional writers and producers also lessens the “personal” appeal of his music, and there are moments where Drake comes off like a caricature of himself. These problems could cripple a release from some artists, but Views succeeds due to Drake’s improved vocal delivery and, mainly, the fantastic production.
The beats on the album are the biggest draw, and they instantly put listeners directly in the middle of Toronto, a city that lacked a sound in hip-hop before Drake gave it one. There is an icy feel to each beat that mirrors the tortured “lonely at the top” theme found throughout. Drake’s choice of beats has always been good, even when he underperformed as a rapper. Views might be his best release sonically yet, and it gives the album some serious appeal.
Drake is great behind the mic when he moves past his favored topics, and he raps like someone confident in his place at the top. It has become harder to knock him for his actual rapping, even if there is debate over how much of it he actually writes. His singing has also improved, and some of the “ballads” on Views are good enough that they almost make you wish that he would abandon some of his tough-guy rap posturing. There are also some vaguely Jamaican dancehall influences on the album, and they work despite seeming somewhat out of place.
Still, it is hard to ignore the feeling of redundancy or stagnation on the record. Drake has spent his career on an upward slope, going from a novelty act in his early career to one of rap’s most talked about performers. Last year found him actually getting involved in a rap beef with former-friend Meek Mill and (arguably) coming out on top, and his joint-mixtape with Future seemed like an indication that Drake was evolving as a rapper. Views is, unfortunately, a step backwards, but it is pretty good as far as retreads go.
Royce Da 5’9, Layers: Born Ryan Daniel Montgomery, Royce Da 5’9 has emerged as one of the most skilled rappers working today. A Detroit native, he is a longtime collaborator of Eminem, and the two rapped together as Bad Meets Evil during the mid-to-late-nineties. The two even had a track on Eminem’s sophomore album, The Slim Shady LP. After the album launched Eminem to the top of the charts, it seemed like everything was in place for Royce to emerge as one of hip-hop’s brightest new stars. However, he had a falling out with Eminem around the turn of the century, and his career went through a series of peaks and valleys for the first half of the decade before he was sentenced to serve a year in prison for a DUI in 2006. When he was released, he came back onto the scene with a newfound passion and hunger, and he slowly became one of the most respected artists working in rap’s underground. Once he reconciled with Eminem and put out a wildly successful Bad Meets Evil album in 2011, he broke into the mainstream in a big way, gaining a whole new group of fans and maintaining his status as a critical darling. Now, only two years after his acclaimed collaboration with DJ Premier, Prhyme, Royce has released his sixth solo album: the aptly titled Layers.
The record features everything that the rapper’s fans have come to expect: intricate, twisting rhyme schemes and sleek production. There is no doubting Royce’s skill behind the mic, and he sometimes entirely abandons traditional rhyme structure, instead opting for a more free flowing style. He does not possess technical skill alone, however, and there are enough extended metaphors and left-field references to satisfy even the most discerning listeners.
As is usual for one of Royce’s solo projects, he is completely candid when discussing his personal life. He breaks down his marriage, his relationship with hip-hop music, his alcoholism, and much more on the record. He also addresses more general political issues on album standouts “America” and “Pray.” His tendency to divulge more information than necessary is still present here, and there are moments where it feels as if he is venting through tracks rather than crafting completely coherent statements, but this is part of what makes him such a compelling artist. Regardless of how off-track his lyrical rants go, he always brings them back for an interesting conclusion, and the fact that he is able to mix his unique style of lyricism with powerful personal statements is a testament to his growth.
It can be common for albums from technically gifted rappers to focus primarily on the wordplay, sacrificing musicality in the process. Layers has no such problems; it has no shortage of radio-worthy hooks and trunk-rattling beats. Even if the nature of Royce’s heady brand of hip-hop has kept the album from peaking on the charts, it has the potential to find an audience among more casual listeners.
There are some artists who are so reliable that any of their projects are almost guaranteed to be good, and Royce is one of them. There were no doubts among the hip-hop community that Layers would be a great listen, and he has met expectations. Even if Layers does not go down as Royce’s magnum opus, it is another well-crafted addition to his increasingly impressive catalog.
These are just a few of the best releases of last month, and releases from PJ Harvey and A$AP Ferg also made waves. 2016 has been a great year so far, and the state of popular music seems to be improving steadily. If this trend continues, you can expect both the industry’s biggest names and its best-kept secrets to put out great albums.