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Saturday, September 23, 2023 — Houston, TX

Looking back at summer music releases

Photo courtesy Parkwood Entertainment

By Jacob Pellegrino     8/23/22 9:53pm

Last year, the Thresher published a collection of smaller reviews and impressions of notable album releases from the summer break. One of the big themes of the past year was a slow return to normal, with musicians feeling hopeful about touring again and connecting with fans. This year, many of the pandemic’s effects can still be seen in releases, with many artists leaning into an introspective style after much time spent alone or only with close friends and family. However, many other artists have done exactly the opposite by embracing energy, making music that could be played in the clubs that have recently reopened. From the 29 summer releases I listened to, the following picks convey a range in genres and provide an image of current trends in popular music.

“It’s Almost Dry” by Pusha T

“It’s Almost Dry” is a diptych showing both sides of Pusha T’s art, juxtaposing two unique pockets of ability throughout. In both his solo career and in his hip-hop duo Clipse, Pusha has worked with two producers who rise above the rest at crafting beats that highlight his abilities: Pharrell Williams and Kanye West. In “It’s Almost Dry,” both producers have very different goals that elevate the album and make it a worthy successor to “Daytona.”

Kanye pushed Pusha in the same direction as “Daytona” — hard, sample-heavy “mixtape raps.” Pusha raps over luxurious beats such as the Donny Hathaway sample in “Dreaming of the Past,” an instrumental Kanye originally did not want to part with.

Pharrell went in a completely different direction with Pusha, asking for a “character, that matter-of-fact evil guy,” and encouraging vocal experimentation with more melodic hooks. To get into character, Pusha T went as far as having Joaquin Phoenix’s “Joker” playing on mute while writing bars for the album. On “Brambleton,” Pusha delivers some of his most open lyrics, rapping about his hurt following a former manager’s 2020 interview on VladTV.

Throughout the album, Pusha T never sacrifices his ability to write clever bars that stick with the listener, such as “I been gettin’ at these coins as I’m breakin’ down a brick / Made the jump to each level, Super Mario exists.” In that line, Pusha cleverly overlays his drug dealing past with a classic video game.

One of the classic critiques of Pusha T and similar artists is that they primarily rap about drug dealing. On “It’s Almost Dry,” Pusha again proves how unfounded this critique is. Throughout the album, Pusha T uses drug dealing to convey profound elements of the human condition. As Pusha T has himself noted, his music continues to have power over listeners for the same reason as director Martin Scorcese’s classic gangster movies: they share a similar commitment to quality and innovate with unique stories through the archetype.

“Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” by Kendrick Lamar

It’d be impossible to write about eye-catching summer music releases and leave out Kendrick Lamar’s “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.” His first album since “DAMN.” in 2017 sees Kendrick writing the most personal verses of his career over introspective instrumentals.

Many artists recently, including Saba and Post Malone, have undergone a similar sonic and topical transformation to Kendrick Lamar in the past year. In “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,” Kendrick embraces an R&B and soul-influenced sound. At the same time, he also shifts to more melodic vocals that complement the new sound.

However, the shift is not just in the aesthetics. While he’s always created lyrically engaging music, Kendrick embraced a personal level of lyricism hitherto unseen in his work. The best example of this lyrical openness is on “Mother I Sober,” the penultimate track on the album. The track deals with his mother being sexually assaulted in the past and how this traumatic event led her to continuously making sure that he was not hurt in the same way throughout his childhood. Although he was not, the questioning left a mark on Kendrick’s psyche. 

The second half of the song shifts to issues Kendrick himself has dealt with. He begins by telling the listener that he “did it sober sittin’ with [himself]” but “intoxicated [by] a lustful nature that [he] failed to mention.” Lust, not drug abuse, he said, led him to cheat on his longtime partner to distract from his unresolved hurt and insecurity. This addiction and his mother’s experience are linked to the Black community in general as Kendrick laments the “generational curse” caused by sexual abuse. Yet, through the track, he sets himself free from it, embracing therapy and positive change.

Other tracks, like “N95,” call back to the contagious energy of past radio hits like “Humble.” Even at his most commercial on the album, Kendrick still uses the masks worn in the pandemic as a metaphor for the figurative masks people wear to conceal their true selves. However, “We Cry Together” is an Alchemist-produced oddball track that contributes to the theme of domestic issues in families, essentially conveying a domestic argument on tape with dysfunction laid bare for listeners.

Kendrick Lamar turned his lyricism inward throughout “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” to a powerful effect that will likely inspire other musicians to be more open in their work.

“Harry’s House” by Harry Styles

During his break from touring during the pandemic, Harry Styles “realized that that home feeling isn’t something that you get from a house; it’s more of an internal thing. You realize that when you stop for a minute.” This reflection is an essential part of “Harry’s House,” an album that refers not to a physical house, but to “a day in [Styles’] mind,” the introspection that happens in his daily life.

On “Cinema,” Styles creates a fun, house-influenced feeling while talking about someone he has feelings for. The chorus emphasizes “I think you’re cool,” but follows it up with the ask, “am I too into you?” While the song sounds confident musically, there is a hesitance to fully commit to the relationship due to personal insecurity rather than the typical superstar fear of being tied down, , which is refreshing to hear from someone as magnetic as Harry Styles. The funky bassline and smooth vocals work well together to create a song worth listening to again.

 The album closes with “Love Of My Life,” a sparsely arranged metaphorical track that seems at first glance to be about someone. However, it is really a tribute to Harry’s home country of England. It’s a fitting end to an album about belonging and an expression of his deep love for where he grew up. It’s a fitting end to an album about belonging and the parts of home beyond the physical location, as it emphasizes the feelings and memories associated with the country rather than simply landmarks

Harry Styles created a personal expression of his everyday musings and thoughts, and the more acoustic stylings of the album mix with influences as diverse as house music to produce something deeply compelling.

“Gemini Rights” by Steve Lacy

Grammy nominated for his production work with The Internet while still a teenager, Steve Lacy has always been an artist to watch. While his previous solo work has always been well made and enjoyable, “Gemini Rights” is a revelation in his artistry. It’s an immensely interesting album, layering a range of styles, instrumentation and vocals to create a deeply rewarding listen.

The first single from the album, “Mercury” is a great introduction to this new expansion to Steve Lacy’s sound, beginning with almost flamenco-like guitar that leads into an immersive sound. The track has incredibly satisfying changes in vocal melody along with a beautiful layered production.

As with much of his previous work, love and relationships are the main theme that pull together the album. “Buttons” is a wistful love song that captures both the initial intensity of falling in love with someone and a reluctance to give up on them after being treated badly. Interestingly, the track consists of one long verse followed by an outro, eschewing traditional song structures. “Give You the World” is a love song that features some of Lacy’s best vocal work on the album. It’s a fitting ending to the album that pulls together the ideas expressed throughout, eschewing traditional song structures. “Give You the World” is a beautiful love song that features some of Lacy’s best vocal work on the album.

Steve Lacy’s artistic evolution on “Gemini Rights” is an incredibly exciting revelation that proves his skill as an artist and his vision for experimenting with new sounds.

“Jack in the Box” by j-hope

As the first BTS member to release an album since the announcement that the members of the group would be focusing on solo music, all eyes were on j-hope. Primarily a rapper, j-hope’s album strays from BTS’ pop releases like “Butter” and “Dynamite” in favor of a darker, hip-hop-influenced sound.

Listeners’ first introduction to this deep dive into j-hope as a solo artist is the song “MORE,” a rumination on his art and dedication to improving. j-hope tells his fans, “my work makes me breathe, so I want more,” emphasizing the necessity of art in his life. The song’s structure is a rapped verse over a traditional hip-hop beat, heavy with snare, that broadens out into a rock chorus backed by a full band. The push and pull between these two elements in the song drives it forward. In the pre-chorus, j-hope’s vocal delivery on “bring it all, I’m doing it all” would be at home on a 90s grungy, alternative rock record.

The brief, 21-minute long album ends with “Arson,” one of the most fun songs vocally on the album. j-hope’s flow has a frantic necessity to it that makes the track interesting and enjoyable to listen to. His placement of stressed syllables every so often creates an almost lurching feel, mirrored in the music video, where he stumbles through a burnt-out landscape with totaled cars. “Arson” uses fire to symbolize rebirth and a fresh start, and now that he’s lit the flame, even he can’t stop it.

“Jack In The Box” is an album that does a great job of differentiating j-hope from the group that he’s been a part of for so many years, leaving the listener wanting to hear more.

“Renaissance” by Beyoncé

After the pandemic kept people inside and away from others, Beyoncé celebrates the reconnection made possible in recent months in “RENAISSANCE.” The project is a vibrant dance album that embraces house production and has an incredible sense of movement.

In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Beyoncé said, “With all the isolation and injustice over the past year, I think we are all ready to escape, travel, love and laugh again. I feel a renaissance emerging, and I want to be part of nurturing that escape in any way possible.” While the album is not as personal or lyrically diverse as its predecessor “Lemonade,” it succeeds at its mission, creating music that listeners can move with and gain confidence from.

The lead single from the album, “BREAK MY SOUL,” provides an introduction to Beyoncé’s embrace of house music with sample-heavy house production, a style that continues throughout the album. Although it is a change for Beyoncé, there’s a strong sense of continuity as the music reprises many of her regular themes of self-confidence and strength.

A highlight of the album, “AMERICA HAS A PROBLEM,” is based on “America Has A Problem (Cocaine)” by Kilo Ali. The original 1990 track discusses cocaine and its effects through the metaphor of a woman. In her version, Beyoncé puts herself in the place of the woman in the original track, comparing herself to the addictive nature of the drug. Her comparisons are heard over an infectious beat sampled from the original track. Combined with a catchy refrain, Beyoncé's characterization of herself as an addictive substance appeals not only to her lover in the track, but also to her listeners.

“RENAISSANCE” is another strong effort from Beyoncé that broadens the musical elements that she incorporates while sticking to her typical subject matter but reflecting it on a new backdrop. It is an album tailor-made for the present, when people are beginning to feel comfortable finding their places again at clubs and other large social gatherings.

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