End of an era: summer music in review
This past summer represented a shift after an untraditional year for musicians. Artists used to making their money from touring began to become more optimistic about their return to the stage. Tours were announced, albums were released and the music industry inched towards a post-COVID world. The emotions inspired by such a time, the hope, pain, dissatisfaction and excitement, all contributed to a unique roster of music and announcements. These smaller compiled reviews will hopefully help to convey this unique era in music.
“CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST”
Tyler, The Creator is the odd musical chameleon who can adopt countless styles while still maintaining his own unique sound. June brought the release of “CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST,” Tyler’s seventh project and a manifestation of his dream in 2010 to have a “gangsta grillz tape.” By working with DJ Drama, the creator of the wildly successful Gangsta Grillz mixtape series in the early 2000s, Tyler incorporated classic elements of the series like DJ Drama’s ad-libs and narration and saw a strong return to rapping. However, even with the experienced mixtape creator, Tyler handled much of the production and made the final selection of material - something DJ Drama normally does when producing a Gangsta Grillz tape.
The album embraces an idea of travel: both physically and stylistically. Starting with the cover, which features a “permanent license of travel,” the idea of movement and luxury permeates the album. “HOT WIND BLOWS” similarly includes a DJ Drama introduction, telling the audience that “we just landed in Geneva…. we on a yacht.” Stylistically, this idea is even more apparent with the range of musical idioms that Tyler works in throughout the work. The first introduction for many listeners was the song “LUMBERJACK,” a high energy track that relates to Tyler’s experience with a new Rolls Royce that he drove to Utah to go sledding. The energy works as a celebration, seeing the heights Tyler has achieved while integrating stylistic elements of previous albums.
The energy is contrasted by elements like the sprawling introspection of “WILSHIRE” and the romantic crooning of “SWEET / I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE.” “WILSHIRE” tells the story of a relationship, from its beginning to its unsuccessful end, with some of Tyler’s most personal rapping over a relaxed instrumental. The song puts vulnerability and desire front and center as Tyler falls for a woman in a relationship who he tries to be close friends with while hoping for more. This personal lyricism is a change from his earlier work and shows a sort of growth as a musician.
Tyler is also one of the musicians leading the return to live concerts in the spring, even organizing three small shows for fans and for him to get back into the groove of performing. These shows happened in Los Angeles, CA; Dallas, TX; and Brooklyn, NY and were announced the day they happened via a text to people who had signed up for messages on his website. The enthusiasm at the shows, along with the excitement at the return of live music made the events something to remember. Shortly after the three secret shows, Tyler announced a full tour for “CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST” with Kali Uchis, Vince Staples and Teezo Touchdown as support.
“Happier Than Ever”
“Happier Than Ever” is a stylistic embrace of Billie Eilish’s inimitable vocal performance and more melodic past songs. The “bad guy” singer abandons the heavier sound of many of her previous hits and focuses on an introspection inspired by her single “my future” from 2020. The album also features diverse production from Finneas, Eilish’s brother and musical collaborator, that pulls the focus onto Eilish’s lyricism and voice, whether smooth or distorted. “Happier Than Ever” has variety that keeps the listener engaged and allows the album to be interesting on multiple listens.
The album begins with the song “Getting Older,” a reflection on aging from a young musician who has spent many of her formative years in the spotlight after the success of “ocean eyes.” It features reflective lyricism and slower vocals that compliment the deep melancholy of the track. The chorus’ “things I once enjoyed just keep me employed now,” echoes the disillusionment of countless other musicians while the verses are deeply personal meditations on growing older in the spotlight.
Songs like “NDA” are closer to the “bad guy” style of Billie’s music and utilize vocal effects to create a haunting atmosphere. However, although the musical style is similar, the lyrics are much more tied to issues with notoriety and personal relationships than the bravado of songs like “bad guy.” “NDA” has a pulsating beat that pushes the song forward as Eilish begins by detailing her personal experience with a stalker who repeatedly showed up at her front door and attempted to gain entry to the house.
Buoyed by powerful lyricism and a more toned-down production, Eilish’s emotions and personal experiences take the front seat on “Happier Than Ever.” Starting with the contrast between the cover, a close up of Billie Eilish crying and the positive title, the album is a meditation on unmet expectations and dealing with the pressure and stress of being a public figure.
Like Tyler, The Creator, Eilish is also embarking on a world tour in the spring to debut her new songs for a live audience. The tour features appearances from Willow, Duckwrth, Jessie Reyez, Jungle, Arlo Parks and girl in red on different dates. This desire to tour and connect with fans stymied music releases for the majority of the pandemic even as artists created “lockdown records” made possible by the break from touring schedules. Now, artists are ready to release their work into the world and move forward with touring schedules.
“The House is Burning”
Almost five years after his proper debut album, Isaiah Rashad returned reinvigorated and refreshed with “The House Is Burning.” Rashad’s debut “The Sun’s Tirade,” was released to widespread acclaim, but shortly after its success, Rashad struggled with addiction. His struggles with alcoholism continued until he eventually moved back to Chattanooga, Tennessee to live with his mother. After checking into rehab, Rashad was able to find his way back to stability and recover his ability to record music and form meaningful relationships. This is the Isaiah Rashad that we see on “The House Is Burning.”
Even after such a long break from music, Rashad still had an active fan base for his album, a testament to the lasting power of his lyricism. The album is a “passion project” for Rashad that he compared to the movie The Hateful Eight and Blade Runner as, “You really have to like the premises of those two movies to get into them.” The art exists for the audience who can connect with it but primarily for Rashad himself.
The album draws heavily from Southern rap and includes a range of sounds with some more energetic songs and other slower ones. The first single for the album, “Lay Wit Ya,” features a dirty south inspired beat with smooth vocals that see Rashad collaborate with fellow Tennessee rapper Duke Deuce. Another higher energy cut is “From The Garden” with Lil Uzi Vert. Rashad’s jagged, staccato flow gives the song a sense of movement that is buoyed by horns in its introduction. Other songs, like “Headshots (4r Da Locals),” feature a more R&B influenced style. The song’s hook is about “getting shot” as a metaphor for “not drinking too much, not killing yourself, and not slipping and getting [messed] up.” The song also addresses Rashad’s struggles with alcohol addiction and how it used to affect his life and music.
On “The House Is Burning,” Isaiah Rashad delivers a varied interpretation of Southern rap. Rashad’s lyricism and smooth vocal delivery create an opportunity for listeners to connect to his healing journey after a difficult year.
Rashad recently announced a fall tour called “Lil’ Sunny’s Awesome Vacation” to support his album. The tour title calls to a more carefree feeling for many concertgoers who might not have gone to show since the pandemic began. Fifteen of the tour dates sold out during presale, a testament to Isaiah Rashad’s lasting popularity, even in the wake of a large absence from recording.
“King’s Disease II”
Nas released “King’s Disease II” on August 6th, a follow up to the 2020 Grammy winning “King’s Disease,” the album sees Nas in peak form continuing the success of the original. “King’s Disease II” keeps up Nas’ strong lyricism and production in a longer album that can truly satisfy fans.
Nas’ lyrical storytelling has always been one of the things that makes him an engaging artist to listen to. At his best Nas’ songs tell complex stories and convey a range of emotions not often seen in music. One of the most notable stories on “King’s Disease II” is told on “Death Row East.” Nas recalls ending his beef with Tupac Shakur and the attempt to start Death Row East, an east coast branch of Los Angeles’ Death Row Records. The new branch of Tupac’s label would have worked to promote unity between the east and west coast rap scenes and end the long-standing feud. The track recalls the meeting of Nas and Shakur in “Bryant Park” to “speak direct” and their plans to “reconnect” again three days later. However, the untimely shooting of Tupac in Vegas on September 7, 1996 ended these plans.
The album also features the return of Hit-Boy’s production for Nas, a strong contribution started in “King’s Disease.” Hit-Boy lends a sense of consistency throughout the album and his beats cater to Nas’ storytelling and rapping to elevate the album. For example, on “Death Row East,” Hit-Boy crafted a beat reminiscent of those of Johnny J, a frequent Tupac collaborator to “sound like a beat Pac would’ve gotten on fr.” This attention to detail keeps the album flowing incredibly well and amplifies the effect of Nas’ rapping.
Nas also reunites with Ms. Lauryn Hill, who was featured on Nas’ “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” in 1996. Not only an effective reunion, it is a rare feature for Hill, an artist who has largely chosen to drop out of the public eye. The song works as a parallel or inverse to their previous collaboration, which imagined power and notoriety. Here, Nas and Lauryn Hill imagine a world before “anyone wanted a photo” of them, “some place to be nobody.” Hill’s verse is a standout on the track addressing her years “living too uncomfortably” in the public eye as people “wanted the spoils” of her work without doing the “labor.” Other notable collaborations include “EPMD 2,” the first time Eminem and Nas have done a track together.
Nas’ “King’s Disease” series has shown consistent quality throughout 2020 and 2021, with “King’s Disease II” an improvement over the already noteworthy original. The combination of Nas and producer Hit-Boy showcases the peak of their abilities and a rare synchronicity between producer and rapper.
Boldy James reunites with producer The Alchemist on “Bo Jackson” to bring his tales of struggle together with meticulously crafted instrumentals. James and The Alchemist began working together all the way back in 2013 on “My 1st Chemistry Set,” a partnership that was rekindled on 2019’s “Boldface” EP and solidified on the superb 2020 album “The Price Of Tea In China.” With “Bo Jackson,” Boldy provides vivid imagery and creates vignettes to inhabit, if only for a moment.
The album is named after baseball and football player Bo Jackson, the only professional athlete to be named an All-Star in both of the two sports. The connection continues on the album cover, a collage of football and baseball cards of Jackson. Advertisements also referenced the “Bo Knows” Nike ad campaign with billboards emblazoned with the declaration that “BOLDY KNOWS RAP. ALC KNOWS BEATS.” Jackson’s versatility as an athlete is reflected in the range, both sonic and lyrical.
Production-wise the album benefits immensely from The Alchemist’s intense attention to detail that allows the lyrics to shine and creates unique and engaging soundscapes. For example, on the intro track, “Double Hockey Sticks,” Boldy begins with a more relaxed flow with an Alchemist beat that seems like it would be at home in a movie soundtrack - a muted circling feeling. Then, at around the halfway point the beat becomes a more intense version of itself, rising in pitch on the main loop to create a feeling of continually ramping up while Boldy picks up a more aggressive flow.
Another highlight is “Photographic Memories,” a track that also includes features from rappers Earl Sweatshirt and Roc Mariano. Much of Alchemist’s best work utilizes looping vocal samples to create a dense baseline that draws listeners into the world of the music. The soaring repetition of the beat creates a trancelike effect that enhances the verses above it.
James’ power as a lyricist is that he can create worlds through evocative language that fleshes out the vignettes or stories contained in his songs. The track “Speed Trap” creates an image of moving drugs in a car and “Watchin' out for the highway patrolmen and them speed traps.” Boldy’s delivery and lyricism creates a stressful atmosphere, especially with the affirmation that, “If they knew what was in that Honda, probably serve life.”
Like Nas and Hit-Boy, Boldy and The Alchemist amplify each other and work off of one another’s cues to create work that lasts and rewards repeated listening. “Bo Jackson” is no exception to that rule and is yet another reason to check out Boldy James if you have not already.
Despite the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the return of festivals and concerts over the summer seems to have energized musicians even as many turned to more introspective lyrics over the past year with more time for self reflection. The era of “pandemic albums” seems to be ending as artists embrace the return to personal connection with audiences and sounds that can feel at place in stadiums.
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