I really do have questionable taste sometimes. This was supposed to be hip-hop month until I fell for the “Britney Spears of the Middle East.” Although I’d like to be one of those people who believes that everybody should open their minds to international pop as a way of making yourself a better, knowledgeable, and tolerant liberal, I cannot tell a lie. The real reason I think you should listen to international pop is because it’s just so insanely awesome.
Young Money: Rise of an Empire
(Cash Money, 2014) [BUY]
Lil Wayne typically swerves between visionary/insane mixtape mode and straightforward megaplatinum pop-rap, and it should come as no surprise that his second crew record falls squarely into the latter category. Designed to showcase all the lesser rappers on his vanity label because said rappers aren’t good enough to warrant their own full-length albums, it’s subpar by definition, loaded with verses Wayne ghostwrote for his protégées and, uh oh, verses they wrote themselves.
As usual, the established Young Money sound remains superlative. Shiny, metallic, glazed over with childish fascination, the tinny yet rich keyboard loops and rattling trap drums that define their sonic signature provide a tough musical core, piercing or rumbling into your ears as the case may be. This album’s beats veer a little towards the grander, more regal end of the spectrum, which depending on who’s rapping can turn sillier than was intended, but what does that matter with such a complete set of juicy productions? Nevertheless, all the standard crew record objections apply here, starting with a crew that epitomizes everything crude and lazy about modern pop-rap — only when Nicki Minaj lashes out against sexist posers on “Lookin Ass” can you hear Gudda Gudda whimpering in the corner. In fact, Minaj, Wayne, and Drake are the only remotely interesting rappers here. Exactly why infuriatingly squeaky Lil Twist and grim Euro (that’s his name) clock more mic time than all three is for them to know and hip-hop radio to regret upon discovering the “new Lil Wayne single” is nothing of the sort.
With the principals in utter command and the numerous star producers making sure the music bangs, this is a solid and enjoyable piece of filler product. It does leave much to be desired in the persona department, though. One thing that makes Wayne so great is his outrageously gleeful, brashly girlish giggle. For lesser MCs to imitate this vocal affect while chanting macho platitudes represents an admirable clash of style against substance!
Kid Cudi: Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon
(Republic, 2014) [BUY]
Anybody worried that hippies are a dying breed need look no further than eclectic stoner-auteur Kid Cudi. Twenty minutes shorter than his previous hour-long albums, his most experimental composition to date is deliberately transitional, a “bridge” between 2013’s Indicud and the projected future release Man on the Moon 3, which may explain its solemn lack of focus.
Nominally hip-hop, Cudi’s music encompasses an impressive range of pop and antipop styles. His delicately ethereal synthesizers strain rigidly over the grand guitar riffs he counterposes them against, and the ambient keyboard patterns ringing out in the background add crucial mass and thickness to a synthesis whose sluggish, heavy weight drags you along in the undertow. Sometimes he drives this textured confection with subtly layered but brisk percussion tracks, sometimes he just lets it shimmer and shiver out in the cold, and either way its bodily release proves appealingly relaxing. Then again, the same musical blend exhibits very little melody, and often his sonic juxtapositions — breathy hum over chugged guitar, impassioned wailing over amorphous electronic squelch — turn unpleasant to listen to, wallowing ominously in their spooky loneliness. The lethargy in his voice, as mellow and dazed as the morning sun, sums up his message to the world exactly.
Cudi has created an engaging and humane style of trip-hop, uniquely recognizable in a genre that cultivates mechanical alienation. But its essential impulse is that of escape, the sound of curling up under the covers, staring at the ceiling above you, and spacing out on the finest California weed.
Iggy Azalea: The New Classic
(Island, 2014) [BUY]
Having become famous through modeling and her tour with Beyoncé, self-styled Australian rapper Iggy Azalea makes her big debut statement, intended to conquer both the pop and hip-hop charts in a glorious crossover marketing scheme. Even if she were half as commercially viable as she believes herself to be, this would be rather improbable, as her pop waters down previously known styles of dance music and she treats hip-hop like a secondhand genre exercise.
Although gatekeepers hate her guts, I quite like the idea of Azalea. White, female, Australian, she’s triply foreign to hip-hop, and theoretically capable of bringing new attitudes and perspectives to the game. Unfortunately, she happens to be thoroughly horrible at rapping. Her vocals, her rhymes, her sense of rhythm, whether she’s trying to sing or sneer, whether her producers come from the Atlanta trap scene or the London underground, whether she’s keeping up with a swaggering in-your-face banger or, more often, an inspirational anthem in the Pitbull/Flo Rida style, all in that insufferably fake black/Southern accent — every time she opens her mouth it’s like she’s scraping her teeth down a blackboard. Her music generally adds buoyant pop hooks to harsh clubstep beats, with fairly satisfying results. Often such hooks manifest themselves in enjoyably cheerful keyboards and bells and vocal samples, adding variety and range to an otherwise spare sonic palette. But always her signature cadence prevails. As aggravating as Caillou, only worse, the only noise she’s capable of is an appallingly crass and piercing whine.
Most of these songs she just wrote so she could have some hits, but don’t think she doesn’t have anything to say. Her dominant theme, believe it or not, is the exhausting nature of fame; she spends quite a lot of time defending herself against paparazzi and anyone from the media who wants to intrude on her privacy. The culture industry being as it is, these people actually exist.
Nancy Ajram: Nancy 8
(In2musica, 2014) [BUY]
Anointed the “Britney Spears of the Middle East” by none other than Oprah Winfrey herself, this world-class Lebanese diva delivers yet another masterful pop bestseller. As befits a recognized international icon, it’s a perfectly elegant and stylized formalization, augmenting the sharp scales and tangled beats of Middle Eastern music with universal ideas about energy and the big chorus.
I wouldn’t exactly compare Ajram to Britney. She’s grander, more regal, less girlish, and as a vehicle for catchy hooks, her style of slicked-up bubblegum will sound disconcerting to outsiders and maybe to insiders as well. Her rhythms, lighter and spikier and more layered than commercial convention dictates in any genre, spring nervously up and down with a skittish tension that provides gripping contrast with the superficial plastic gloss that sticks to them like candy paint; they’re worlds away from the straightahead four-four of Western rock or the constant chugging surge of Eurodisco. Supposedly, the electronic production modernizes a style of Egyptian folk music associated with integrity, authenticity and the like that often shows up on the Arab pop charts anyway. But such distinctions are beyond the grasp of an outsider like me. What I hear is a fiery, committed groove record whose jagged, kinetic edges and wily, slippery riffs played on flowing rhythm guitar, schlocky flutes, and flamboyant waves of Hollywood strings send it careening into untrammeled disco glory.
As with most foreign-language pop music, this album topped the charts in Lebanon and Egypt while remaining totally obscure stateside. It would be a thrill to hear the superbly self-assured blast of “Ma Tegi Hena” charging out into the world from American radio.