As electronic dance music approaches new levels of overwhelming Michael Bay–style intensity, the longstanding critical distinction between wacked-out avant-garde innovation and corporate mush begins to look dated if not irrelevant. Maybe it feels a little silly to claim that the DJ Snake style of whomping arena techno equals radically uncompromising innovation, especially when most people consider it functional and content-free clubstep. But if “Turn Down for What” isn’t the best Lil Jon song since “Snap Yo Fingers” if not “Get Low,” my name must be Sonny Moore.
tUnE-yArDs: Nikki Nack
(4AD, 2014) [BUY]
Having broken through to a relatively large audience on the strength of 2011’s w h o k i l l, Merrill Garbus takes her one-woman-band art project to a more intricate and difficult place. While by no means abandoning her do-it-yourself lo-fi principles, her music has gotten richer, more complex, and harder to listen to, packed so densely with sound effects and unexpected samples it flows less like an indie record than a stream of sheer information overload.
Like Vampire Weekend, Garbus loves to fuse various foreign elements onto a core Western style, the latter in this case friendly campfire folk-rock, the former including Haitian rhythm, Mbuti harmony, buzzing synthesizer, oddly disconcerting found noises, and a startling plethora of layered, edgy drum loops bouncing off each other and giving the music a tense, nervous drive. Eager and energetic, she subsumes percussive dissonance in cheerfully childlike, familiar-sounding melody, and when her assorted ingredients come together, as on “Water Fountain,” they produce a jumpy, nutty, unpredictable groove. Theoretically, the exuberance in this groove should lend some warmth to her explorations of such socially conscious themes as income inequality, rape culture, the notion of artistic authenticity, and cannibalism, making left-wing political protest actually fun for once. Unfortunately, the groove proves less engaging than earnest left-wingers might hope, its Beckian junk aesthetic dividing the music into obscurantist fragments that fans find gleefully subversive and I find willfully contrarian.
Garbus is a visionary, in command of her own wacked-out collage. But given her wide range and mad conviction, ultimately her style relies too much on standard postmodern cut-and-paste technique to count as a true synthesis. Maybe she could hire an executive producer to give her next album a unified sound. Then again, that might compromise her integrity.
Lykke Li: I Never Learn
(Atlantic, 2014) [BUY]
As famous for her dark Romantic worldview as for her eclectic, spiritual style of Gothic balladry, Swedish femme fatale Lykke Li attempts her scariest, gloomiest statement yet, and achieves it, sort of. While her tune sense remains exceptional, this is still a silly breakup album, especially when she tries to simulate emotional paralysis musically.
Li is one of those succès d’estime considered commercially viable only among rock critics, but I understand the impulse. Not only does she possess an unusual talent for big, singable choruses, but she belts out every note with the wild pathos of a crazed karaoke queen from hell. She imaginatively blends soaring piano hooks, cannily arranged orchestral backup, doleful acoustic guitar, and murky keyboard ambience without indulging in overdubbed overkill, and there’s a propulsive if misty bounce to her atmospherics that eludes dozens of avant-airheads pursuing a similar effect. Nevertheless, she also embraces every cliché about sad relationship laments; for all its richness, her music ultimately remains static, an echoey, spooky backdrop for vocal histrionics that suit crisp verses like “A devil’s hand across my heart/As we dance through the dark” all too well. Unless you concentrate hard, these fuzzy moodsongs quickly evaporate, with only the occasional tortured scream piercing the haze.
As Carrie Battan claims in Pitchfork, rather less archly than was intended, Li really is “the type of person who assumes a direct correlation between anguish and artistic value.” It must be hard, the life of a chanteuse in the 21st century.
Pharrell Williams: Girl
(Columbia, 2014) [BUY]
In 2013, renowned producer/rapper Pharrell Williams conquered the radio as the mastermind behind Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and 2 Chainz’s “Feds Watching,” popularizing a brand of minimalist electrofunk whose clean edges and streamlined sweep should serve as a model for beatmakers everywhere. On his long-awaited solo album he drops his hip-hop credentials and embraces sheer soul-inflected pop, apotheosizing his new signature sound.
This isn’t quite the voracious commercial coup it’s being marketed as. Quite explicitly, Williams is an aesthete; he’s not above shameless hooks, but only if they enhance his chic, well-crafted sonic constructions. In fact, this record blends together so subtly and seamlessly it takes time to realize just how shameless it really is. Calm, controlled, light, smooth, elegant, sprung, layering icy washes of keyboard over sharp rhythm guitar and spiraling drum machines, this is the postdisco groove Daft Punk was too classy for. Its buoyant drive cruises into action with such poise and hummability even the kitschy Hans Zimmer violins mesh perfectly with his syncopated beats and summery vocal harmonies, not to mention his jangly guitar riffs. When he slows it down a little on “Lost Queen,” everybody on the dancefloor breathes a sigh of relief and wipes the sweat from their foreheads.
Winding his music tighter than ever before, covering everything in glassy polish, murmuring self-consciously romantic confessions in a creamy falsetto, he’s outgrown the urbane aggression of his earlier music in favor of something slicker and happier. A long and distinguished career as a crooner awaits him.
Rick Ross: Mastermind
(Slip ‘N Slide/Def Jam, 2014) [BUY]
Most gangsta rappers exaggerate their involvement in the drug trade, but former corrections officer Ross has always been particularly shameless about pretending to be a mafioso. Having founded his own record label and assembled a whole posse of sidekick MCs even blander than himself, he’s a commercial force to be reckoned with, and he’ll only go away once American men finally outgrow macho sentimentality once and for all.
Bellowing his generic tales of thuggish decadence over glittering slices of crunked-up beatmastery, Ross belongs to the ever-growing nonlyrical movement in the hip-hop game — he’s so busy selling crack and shooting rival dealers he obviously doesn’t have time to write lyrics, let alone make them rhyme or anything. His dull, rhythmic, chanted style of rapping suits his canned-symphonic, rapid-fire-percussive keyboard-heavy background, achieving a level of musical hostility unbeknownst to lesser mobsters than he. Where the received, male-identified aggression purveyed on last year’s MMG crew album remained relatively pro forma, this is his big solo statement, and although he’d never go soft, he does feel compelled to treat his fans to some good old-fashioned self-expression. So he soaks his club anthems in cheesy orchestral strings, lets his sensitive side show, worries about his own mortality, and wonders, “Do thugs cry?” None of which spares us from “What a Shame,” in which he assassinates rival rappers, or “War Ready,” in which he earnestly celebrates gang violence.
To claim that commercial rappers brutalize their black audience with racist stereotypes is itself a racist stereotype. But with Ross it seems pretty accurate.