By: Neil MacAlister, Geron Malbas, and Courtney Miller
Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 by Black Thought and 9th Wonder
Black Thought is one of the greatest living rappers, hands down. His work as frontman for the Roots has been immaculate for more than 30 years, but his solo output has been scarce. Following a live-recorded mixtape with J.PERIOD a few years ago, Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 is the second Roots-less project Black Thought’s released in his entire career.
Streams of Thought finds him in the same ‘grown-man rap’ lane as Jay-Z and Phonte on their latest projects, and like his aging contemporaries, the 46-year-old veteran is bringing a perspective of wisdom and experience to a genre that’s often dominated by the younger up-and-coming. For this EP, Black Thought teamed up with 9th Wonder, one of the most illustrious producers in hip hop, and the pairing works perfectly. 9th’s sample-heavy, neo-soul production is nothing short of spectacular, giving Thought free reign to exercise his impeccable lyricism, considerable vernacular, and mind-bending rhyme schemes. The combination of two of the genre’s most revered artists could only lead to a truly magnificent EP, and input from Rapsody, Styles P, and the Soul Council certainly doesn’t hurt. – NM
ye by Kanye West
There’s a lot wrong with ye, just like there’s a lot wrong with Kanye West right now. West went from being a somewhat problematic egomaniac to a dangerously ignorant, MAGA hat-wearing lunatic, and his public image has never been more divisive. His only saving grace would have to be his music, but ye is not the redemptive arc we asked for: the album is the off-the-cuff ramblings of a mentally unstable man, and at no point does West come close to justifying his offensive remarks. Instead, he simply expresses himself the only way he knows how: through beautiful music.
Ye was crafted a few weeks prior to its release, and it shows, mostly in the frequently sloppy writing. But despite its immense flaws, I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since it dropped. From the production to the sequencing, the Cudi hums to the gospel of Charlie Wilson, this album is yet another West masterpiece. West lays his psyche barer than he has since 808s & Heartbreak, even if that psyche is problematically ill-informed. Despite this, ye somehow manages to outweigh its many lows with its soaring highs. There’s no redemption in ye: there’s simply a seriously damaged man, expressing his damage in the most beautiful and captivating of ways. – NM
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino by Arctic Monkeys
Back in 2013, their album AM took the world by storm, presenting a sound that was dark, intense, and unequivocally rock. After taking a five-year hiatus, Arctic Monkeys returned to the music world with their sixth album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino that turned their hard-rock trajectory around to one of lounge music. With their deviation away from the style that skyrocketed them into mainstream rock, should we have expected or even wanted this particular album?
The answer to both questions is yes. Their third and fourth albums, Humbug and Suck It and See, respectively, hinted at Arctic Monkeys’ desire to experiment with a more laidback and less guitar-heavy sound. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino presents themes of science fiction, technology, and stardom, doing so through intricate lyricism and jazz-like instrumentation. Songs like “Four Out Of Five,” “The Ultracheese,” and “She Looks Like Fun” showcase an incredibly different sounding musical idea, but they leave behind a familiarity that’s distinctly Arctic Monkeys. The change in sound allows us, as fans, to grow with the band. While the album may be out of left field upon first listen, the multi-layered sound and Alex Turner’s vision will reveal themselves once you give it a chance. – GM
Love Is Dead by Chvrches
For an album that opens pretty strongly, Love Is Dead really fizzles around the ninth track, dropping first down to mediocre, then down to awful, and then burbling back up to just below “ugh.” If I could only evaluate the first nine songs, this album would be a solid indie synth-pop record, but God, those last four songs really did it in.
“Graffiti” brings you into the album with a strong up-tempo jam that sounds like it’ll be a staple at concerts, with lyrics meant for crowd sing-alongs. This upbeat rhythm continues through “Get Out,” but “Deliverance” sees a tone change, getting a little deeper lyrically and a little more purposeful musically.
I have mixed feelings about “My Enemy” because I think it has the potential to be a really nice duet for the genre, but Matt Berninger’s featured vocals are extremely lacklustre. There’s also way too much of the echo effect in “Forever,” but it’s a decent tune if you ignore that.
For no reason should you listen to “God’s Plan.” It’s dissonant and cacophonous and simply does not work as well as somebody thought it did. It’s not worth the therapy you’ll need to purchase after this dumpster fire. – CM
Cinematic by Owl City
This sounds like it came out circa Ocean Eyes, only with more traditional instruments, and I am so here for it. Owl City’s gravitated away from his electronica roots in recent memory. This is a nice pseudo-throwback, with familiar Owl City-esque language, as he calls himself an “oddity” in the song “Fiji Water.”
“The 5th of July” tells the heartwarming story of how Adam Young, Owl City’s founder and primary member, was born. It’s both well-crafted, with a melody that suits the tone of the lyrics, and honestly penned. There’s a couple of songs like that; “Not All Heroes Wear Capes” is an ode to Owl City’s Superman, his dad.
There’s one particular lowlight that I’ll personally pass on, though it might be someone else’s jam. It wasn’t even bad, per se, but I found it unnecessary because I’ve never wondered whether Owl City should try to rap. If you have, give “All My Friends” a whirl. The alt version is better.
Other than that, imagine Ocean Eyes with a bit more maturity, a lot more honesty, some guitars, and that sweeping kind of cinematic artistry that defies explanation. Cinematic is a must-listen. – CM