Rob Sheffield’s excellent 40-year retrospective piece in Rolling Stone on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours reveals how context determines reception: national crises highlight the political nature of erotic sagas. Erotic sagas are always political, though. This applies to the four albums reviewed below, several political despite themselves, each of which messes with established forms while representing desire. Art usually does this; crises demand we notice.
King: We Are King (King Creative)
No matter how much R&B has flourished in the past year, this collaborative vocal trio feels like an anomaly: they take turns singing, they avoid flashy gestures and individuality, they’re proud to code as pop-functional over ballad-expressive. Breathlessly shimmery, their debut is the kind of subtle stunner that covertly plays in your subconscious for weeks before approaching confidently and asking, “Remember me?”
This album’s wonder is its sonic lushness – glittery keyboards, sleek guitars, horns swaying, three silken female voices murmuring in each others’ ears, each instrument’s watercolory edge bleeding into the others to form a wall of deliciously layered sound. Creamy melodies and relaxed tempos prove ideal for a wallow in electronic and vocal texture so sybaritic they bypass conventional quietstorm modes and arrive in a soundscape overwhelming in its calm. Amber Strother, Paris Strother, and Anita Bias blend their voices to embody a group so unified the product demonstrates ego death. Floaty ephemerality being a hallmark of countless R&B records whose details evaporate in the sun, what’s King’s secret? Richer, deeper, tastier, fluffier textures distinguish them, and that’s not a copout answer – a genre that illustrates enjoyment of desire only works when the music is seriously physically pleasurable. I’d highlight the agile vocal spirals in “Carry On,” or the tentative whistle in “Love Song,” or the sublime swell of “Red Eye” as particularly so, if relaxed immersion in the totality weren’t the ideal listening strategy.
It’s rare a debut should glisten with such expertise; one wonders where they could go from here. They’re so assured in their marvelous blandness that the likely answer is nowhere. Skillfully navigating the sumptuous is a worthy career path.
M.I.A.: Aim (Interscope)
M.I.A. has never made a bad album, but the electrodance singer-songwriter has made a few messy ones, given to a style of defiance that teeters between pointed provocation and randomized trope-slinging. On this turn toward minimalism, the simplicity of her tropes matches the elegance of a cleaner, prettier, sharper, wickeder, more streamlined variant on the digital abrasion she specializes in. It’s her most delightful project since 2007’s beloved Kala.
I won’t call the album an EDM move when she’s always thrown thick electronic buzz in listeners’ ears and the term EDM refers to vaguely tropical power ballads with anonymous guest singers. In fact, the buzz has receded; nothing but the thinnest and most repetitive of synthesizer loops will do as she sidesteps previous modes of sonic overload for a deliberately crude, simplistic, spare clarity. She foregrounds musical elements that code exotic (oud, kazoo, Asian percussion, high, squiggly keyboard) and fit in harmonically, as suits an album whose songs concern, dwell on, or simply project signifiers relevant to borders, refugees and othering. While “Survivor” hints at uplift, her exceedingly basic lyrics dodge constructive messages and instead just throw the topics out there (“Borders what’s up with that/politics what’s up with that/police shots what’s up with that/identities what’s up with that/your privilege what’s up with that/broke people what’s up with that”) as reminders of modern life’s obstacles. The aesthetic strategy succeeds because simplicity leaves no room for misunderstanding and because Middle Eastern scales and the melody bank for hot dance hooks overlap. On “Go Off” and “Bird Song,” the two are indistinguishable.
Don’t credit the election for electrifying this music; generalized urgency plugs in anywhere, at any time. The more grotesque the time the more intensely it plugs in. Here’s a rallying cry: “We get out our tent/then we climb over the fence.”
Young Thug: Jeffery (300 Entertainment/Atlantic)
The most incomprehensible rapper ever to deconstruct human speech drops a gaggle of well-regarded mixtapes every year, each one an immersive tour of free-associative phonetic play. This one’s a highlight, as crisp beats and tight song structures encourage his most outrageous, polymorphous tendencies as well as choruses one could hum.
Direct comparison with 2015’s astonishing Barter 6 reveals why this particular installment feels like familiar territory: Young Thug’s vocal signature has congealed. Once he rapped, mumbled, growled, and changed voices at will. Barter 6 marked a turning point in its near-exclusive focus on the liquid melodicism of his Auto-Tuned high range, a mode he’s inhabited consistently since. Be thankful his high range still contains so much room for improvised invention. This is the voice made inevitable by years of gimmicky pop-rap vocoder, a streamlined electronic howl swooping through melody lines in a graceful diver’s arc, its quavery pitch defining the intersection between anguish and glee – except when he mimics gunfire or chews consonants into a moist hash or ties two words into a knot with his tongue or coughs up a hairball that unravels into a pretty tune or does his best impression of how Harambe the gorilla would sing if Harambe could sing. Quick snare drums and chintzy keyboard figures in the established rattling-trap style inspire purely sung moments like “Riri,” whose barked seal noises prove quite the earworm, and “Pop Man,” in which he croons “Wet wet!” persistently and percussively into an echo chamber of moans and purrs and gasps and chirps. Elsewhere, overdubbed exclamations produce vocal polyphony while the keyboards shine and flicker.
This isn’t as total a mindfuck as past mixtapes, but there are worse patterns he could settle into. Working his way through, syllable by syllable, he won’t stop until he’s guzzled down and regurgitated the entire English language.
Sheer Mag: III 7” (Wilsuns RC/Katorga Works)
Four punchy songs available for free online by a band which has mastered the EP form constitute one of 2016’s best straight-up rock albums. Jump around with sufficient energy to this music and don’t be surprised at the urge to play the whole thing over again from the beginning.
These days punk bands on Bandcamp outnumber Starbucks’ in upscale neighborhoods. Sheer Mag are special because their proper stage is the arena, not the basement (although who knows how these things are measured anymore) Steady tempos, spiky chords under rousing power riffs, and melodies whose urgency conjures an illusion of scale typify “a gang of punks with a not-so-secret love of Seventies classic rock,” as Rolling Stone’s Simon Vozick-Levinson describes them. The guitar riffs tend to be low and heavy on “Night Isn’t Bright,” quick and piercing on “Worth the Tears,” yet always generate a satisfying interlocking crunch. Assuming the distortion isn’t in her throat, Tina Halladay yells into a scratchy microphone that transposes the aforementioned crunch to her vocals. Their strategy balances elements that code “classic rock” and would sound corny on their own, like tuneful grandiosity and major-key chords and unfrenzied drumming, against elements that code “punk,” like amplifier static and dirty recording and frenzied singing. Two received genres can cancel out each other’s icky qualities. The hybrid intensity that results feels fraught and wonderful.
I rarely condone fist-pumping but here’s an exception. They’ve announced an upcoming full-length. I hope they record a Great Album, in all its monumental glory, that raises the roof, gets your blood up, and rocks out with abandon.