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A Special Kind Of Hell: Music Reviews for August 2016

When I started blogging 10 years ago, one of the things I did was reviews based off of 30 second samples on iTunes to determine if new releases were crap or historically crap (2006 was not a good time for music; neither was 2007).  Most of my reviews back then were not...great.  But some are still genuinely funny, and a few might have even had a point.

I've written less and less in this blog, mostly just ceding it to be the shownotes for my radio show Expect The Unexpected.  That's because I've written less and less in general.  I've written a haiku since May, and that's it.  So I figured "Hey, if I'm gonna dip my toe back in the water and see how it feels, how about a consequence-free music review thing?"


Ratings are as always 0 to 5 stars.  0 Star reviews are denoted by no asterisks after them.  Occasionally, I get hateful and bestow a negative rating, but something really has to get under my skin to get one of those.


Let's get started:

Frank Ocean "Blond" *

Fuck.  Way to jump in at the deep end there, Nick.  This is the album everyone is blowing up about, and the anticipation for which has been a meme for at least a year.  Now is as good a time as any to make a confession:

Before I hit play, I had never heard a note of Frank Ocean.

I had no idea what his voice sounded like, I had little clue what kind of "R&B" he does, since that catch-all term has been impossibly vague since I was born, so I really went in with no guesses as to what to expect.

The first thing that pleasantly surprised me is there isn't an over-reliance on the 808 drum kit that has MURDERED creativity for the last 18 plus years in beatmaking.  There's some, but if you use it sparingly and well, 808's can still be effective.  Unfortunately...

Most of this shit sounds like it's half finished.  The only groundbreaking thing this guy did was forget to put drums in half the songs.  The vocals, ideas, cohesion and music all sound profoundly boring, sloppy and scattershot.  "Pink + White" was the only one of the bunch where I liked the beat and the vocal.  "Nights", "Solo (Reprise)" and "Pretty Sweet" have cool beats, but the lyrics and vocal delivery make me not care; and "Solo (Reprise)" is an Andre 3000 verse.  "Skyline To" has lame lyrics, though I like the way the chorus just slams into the end of the verse, like "My turn, fucker."  It has a cool post-chorus keyboard line too, but there's not much to it other than that.  "Nikes" sounds like it's trying to talk deep, but the helium pitch shifting really undercuts the message.  "Ivy" sounds like exhausted-toddler core, with a breathy, nasally delivery that comes off as petulant and plaintive even if that's not the intention.  Like a 4-year old dragging it's feet.

This music is not for me.  At all.  I do not get why this guy is seen as a visionary.  I hear how he's different from the average, but what he's doing has been done before and done better over the last 40 years; the genre is littered with examples.

Britney Spears "Glory"

One thing this album has going for it is you can barely tell this is Britney Spears.  As a matter of fact, the opener "Invitation" reminds me of Frank Ocean.  Her voice is a lot more processed of course, because that's one thing Frank has over Britney, but that's like saying Neil Young is a better pure singer than Tom Waits.

The rest of this album is pretty goddam painful.  The single "Make Me" is the same song you've heard everyone else do in the last 12 months, the slow, synth-drenched dystopian post-pop pop song.  I didn't even get to hear the rap verse in the sound sample.  "Private Show" has some CRINGE lyrics.  "Clumsy" is the first song that has any life to it at all.  It's not good, but it's at least a palette cleanser after 17 tracks of Frank Ocean and the first five tracks of this. 

All in all, this album is too generic to make fun of except for a few instances of painful lyrics.  It's main selling point is a brand name and that it sounds like whatever else passes for popular.


Florida Georgia Line "Dig Your Roots" [NEGATIVE ONE STAR]

God DAMN did I step in a shit pile.  I hate modern country more than room temperature slow jams.  Especially when infused with all the worst parts of Nickelback PLUS attempts at using "hip lingo".  When you're disappointed the opener isn't a cover of "Smooth" by Santana & Rob Thomas, hell, when you'd rather be listening to "Smooth" by Santana & Rob Thomas, you know you done fucked up.  Track three has Ziggy Marley on it for some God-forsaken reason, track five sounds like a rejected Backstreet Boys ballad with twang on it, and "Lifer" barely even has country in it's slow-jam...goddamit, there's 808's ON THIS SHIT!

And if track five weren't BSB enough for you, "God, Your Mama and Me" actually HAS the Backstreet Boys on it.  FUCK this album is a special kind of bad.

Barbara Streisand "Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway"  This review is turning into a special kind of hell for me.  It's hit three of my four food groups for "Nick's Least Favorite Music"s, which are Country, Opera, Showtunes and Lazy Pop Music.  Showtunes have been fingernails on the chalkboard for me because of how unrepentantly corny they are.  Sure, the music I like sucks too, but at least it tries to be cool.  Showtunes?  Normally self-awareness would earn you points, but the very tropes of the genre are cringe-inducing to me.  And I acknowledge the skill it takes to make Broadway: Patrick Wilson on "Loving You" is fucking phenomenal from a skill standpoint.  But I'm never going to want to listen to this stuff willingly.

Ingrid Michaelson "It Doesn't Have To Make Sense" *

I had no idea she was coming out with new music.  I went from loving "Human Again" to liking "Lights Out" to hearing some song from this and thinking "Well, I knew she was trending poppier, but this one's too far for me" about a year ago, and just forgetting she existed.

The opener "Light Me Up" sounds like the typical good Ingrid song, anthemic but somehow restrained.  "Whole Lot Of Heart" is chill, maybe a bit too simplistic and laid back for a track 2, but it could grow on me.  "Miss America" is a little too poppy for it's own good, but it's not offensive to the sensibilities or anything.  "Another Life" is...there, I guess?  It says "love" too much in the chorus to be taken seriously.  "I Remember Her" is a painfully average ballad, as is "Drink You Gone".  "Hell No" is the song that put me off Ingrid when I saw the video, which came out right about the same time Instagram filters that put animal faces or crowns or whatever on you became popular.  And the song "Celebrate" sounds like it's a few twangs and bro Country lyrics away from belonging on the Florida Georgia Line album.

Easily Ingrid's worst album.  Certainly the least inspired.  It's not even close.  The other depressing thing is it's slightly better than "Blond", so this makes it the new leader of this review so far.

Glass Animals "How To Be A Human Being"

For the first three seconds, I was already ready to crown this the new leader of this review; not even gonna lie.  "Life Itself" is about ten years out of date as a pop song, but it beats the shit out of most of the songs I've heard so far tonight.  Of course, that's all before the lyrics, which are passé to the point of appendicitis.  (I don't even know what that means, but it's the most clever turn of phrase that has anything to do with this review so far.)

And then the rest of the album just kept sucking.  This is the kind of white boy meh you've heard on alternative stations since 1997 except more poppy and not as good.

Young Thug "Jeffrey"

This is sort of unique, I gotta give it that.  But it's unique in how it sounds like a stroke patient who had half their language center taken out during a lobotomy wears their psychosis proudly like a cloak.  I know the track "RiRi" is supposed to refer to Rihanna, but it REALLY sounds like he means the other, more offensive meaning with how he fucking "flows" on it.

For those that might take me to task for being on some "get off my lawn" shit or say I don't know hip hop because I'm the whitest motherfucker you've ever come across on the internet (a charge I don't really deny, btw) I submit as examples: Kendrick Lamar, Vic Mensa, Schoolboy Q, YG, and even Vince Staples: all newer rappers that put out shit this year that makes this shit look foolish.  Young Thug is in that lane of "I don't rap, so you can't judge my flow, but hold up because when I'm singing you can't judge that either because I'm just a rapper" that Fetty Wop, Future and Desiigner have already occupied.  At least the chorus to "Trap Queen" is sorta catchy; this shit is just the ramblings of a mind that may not be there to be diseased.

Also, on the "you can't judge me because..." front: This isn't even an album.  It's a mixtape, because it turns out Young Thug has never released an "album".  If it's just a mixtape, the criticism is invalid, because "Well, wait til you hear the album, THEN we'll give you the real shit."  This is ten songs.  It's around 40 minutes.  You're charging people for it.  It's a fucking album.  Hell, last year when he released "The Barter 6", it was initially promoted as Young Thug's debut album.  Then the label back-peddled and said it was a "retail mixtape".  Fuck you, man.  If it's longer than an EP and you charge for it, it's an album.  Quit trying to change definitions just to avoid people calling you out for putting out whack shit.  Because that's the only reason you can continue to exist: if you keep shifting the goalposts, no one will be able to take a clear shot of kicking your ass right through them and out of the public arena for good.  The minute you put out a "real" album, the gimmick is over and you'll be subjected to some "real" criticism.  But that's bullshit too, because I'm not the first person to call Thug out for being whack.  And I certainly won't be the last.

Here's the thing, though: the music itself is so typical of modern mainstream hip hop that I can't even really get mad at it.  Not really.  It doesn't evoke much of an emotional response, save for "[sigh]...again?  Whatever..."  And in the world we live in today, I can avoid the SHIT out of Young Thug.  This is the first time I've even heard the guy. 

Everything about him is hype, from his cross-dressing to his status in the game...even to his status as a rapper, since he sings everything and doesn't even rap.  Yet there are critics out there who would champion his cause as an innovator.  Well, what say they?  Here's some new-agey vagaries from Meaghan Garvey of Pitchfork:

"[...]what may not be legible at first glance reveals itself patiently over time ... More than anything, Barter 6 feels like a 50-minute performance of what rap, as a form, can do: rap that need not transcend itself, towards High Art on one hand or commercial art on the other, in order to succeed in 2015."


I know.  I've written enough term papers and read enough academic fanboy bullshit (read: peer-reviewed articles) to know it when I see it: You don't even understand your own review.  Granted, I have no idea what context that statement is in; I copied it from Wikipedia and quoted the source, but SHIT does it sound like nothing.

And that, ladies and gentleman is the problem with all seven albums I've reviewed here this week: None of them feel like they have a reason to exist.  Hell, most of the material is so sparse and minimalist it barely even exists in the first place.  Is that to hide from the potential criticism?  If the music pretends it's not there does it think I can't be disappointed in it for not DOING anything?  Fuck kinda bullshit is that?  At least when I put out a song, I KNOW it sucks.  But I fucking OWN it.  I put my back into it and say "THIS is my shit.  DEAL with it."

Kind of like this blog.  I posted it.  Feel free to criticize it.  Lord knows it's flawed.  That's not even self-deprecation; that's acknowledgement.  I own that.  And that's the difference.  It is time for musicians to stop being afraid.

Make.  Some.  Kind.  Of.  Fucking.  STATEMENT.

(P.S.: I have "Trap Queen" stuck in my head because it's catchier than anything I reviewed.  I didn't even hear it and now I have to deal with getting it out of there.  Thanks a lot pop music for not being catchy anymore.)

(P.P.S.: Wyclef Jean is on this "mixtape", but not on the song called "Wyclef Jean".  He's on the song called "Kanye West".  I give up.)


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