Selected Album Reviews 6.28 – 7.05, 2011

July 11, 2011

Big Sean: Finally Famous (released 6.28.2011)

While Sean might think it far past due that he is “Finally Famous” with his debut album, some of us might wonder why he is famous at all judging by this sub-par release. His mixtapes garnered the attention of Kanye West who signed Big Sean to his “G.O.O.D. Music” label and backed this album as executive producer. The beats provided by ‘Ye are the only thing that really work here, because “good music” it’s not. Big Sean bites and mixes the styles of other current top sellers which can be the only reason he provoked so much pre-release hype–Kid Cudi, Drake, Wiz Khalifa, Currensy and Kanye himself are the apparent influences worn on his sleeve, but he manages to bring forth usually only the less than great aspects of those artists. There is no lyrical substance present here; granted not everyone can nor needs to be a Talib Kweli, but if this is the most exalted and anticipated young MC of the moment then hip-hop is in regressive trouble. If you’re going to forego substance you have to at least be exceedingly gifted with pop hooks, charisma, rhyme veracity, or skill and Sean is none of those things on this album. Kanye lost the majority of his conscicious substance by the time he released “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” last year but at least he made up for it with sonic brilliance and unparalleled song craft; Eminem dropped all pretense of substance or moral standing with this summer’s “Bad Meets Evil” reunion but at least he let loose with unbeatable rhyming skills to mesmerize listeners. Big Sean lazily twists through bars and when he can’t find anything to rhyme with a pun he drops a trite and tired “bitch” at his listeners. With Chris Brown belting out the hook he tells us how much alcohol and sex he can pound out in one night (“My Last”). He recruits Khalifa to brag about his weed consumption (“High”). He bites Drake hard but lacks Drake’s humor and charisma in “Marvin and Chardonnay.” Whenever he anticipates that we at home aren’t digging on his quality of music he preemptively tells us to “suck ten d***s” (“So Much More”). The obligatory modern hip-hop ballad about making it and reminiscing when he hadn’t made it yet (“Memories”) is the worst of its kind yet despite a hook by the great John Legend.  Every song on this album shoots for club-banger status and is crafted with the same played out and repeated hooks by folks like The Dream.  Yet Big Sean simply doesn’t have the talent, the rhyme skill, or the personality, at least not as evinced on “Finally Famous,” to justify repetition of those songs into such a status.            Rating: 2/10

Lloyd: King of Hearts      (released 7.5.2011)

Lloyd has been making R&B and pop for about 15 years despite being only 25 years old (he started out in the teen pop act “N-toon” before later moving onto a  solo career). Lloyd still sounds young when he croons, which leads to some odd moments in which the perception of the singer’s age and the content of the lyrics clash. “King of Hearts” opens with a song that has an undeniable bounce and fun groove, “Dedication to My Ex (Miss That),” yet will deter many listeners with its over-the-top crude chorus. Despite an undeniable mean-spiritedness to that song and the crudeness of the language, it does nonetheless work in that it comes off tongue-in-cheek and all in good fun; it also helps that Andre 3000 contributes a verse, his second guest spot on a record this month after a long abscence from the public eye (perhaps paving the way for the oft-rumored Outkast reunion album). There are several bubblegum R&B moments of joy on the record–“Jigsaw,” and “Lay it Down,” for two. There is at least one totally sincere and heartfelt ballad with almost no sleaze (“Angel”). There are also some faltering missteps where the sleaze, corniness, or silliness just amps up too much and offsets the admittedly precarious balance most of these songs walk in terms of quality. Lloyd’s talent is never in question; despite vocals that are misleadingly youthful, Lloyd can certainly hit great notes and he knows how to sing catchy hooks. Though “King of Hearts” is in many aspects disappointing, at least it shows an artist who even with a decade in still has great potential. After this album wraps you may be apt to wonder about the quality of R&B these days–sure Trey Songz, The Dream and their ilk can craft a catchy tune and even situate them in lush soundscapes, but their ability to write a universal  or straight-forward love song that truly works without superficiality or sleaze seems slight. Rest assured, real R&B is still being made, if only by older (in years) artists–check out the decades in the making debut album of Charles Bradley which features the incomparable Menahen Street Band, “No Time for Dreaming,” or the latest (and perhaps best yet) work from Raphael Saadiq, “Stone Rollin” both released this year as proof.                    Rating: 5/10

Beyonce: 4     (released 6.28.2011)

Beyonce is a great pop star whose success has never stopped her from trying new things in the studio, things that don’t veer too far from the trends and sounds that keep her mainstream but which  incorporate new sounds, ideas, and rhythms. She has released a canon worth of pop classics charting all the way back through to her “Destiny’s Child” days but “4” may very well be her first great record. Her lead-off single “Run the World (Girls)” which slots in at the last spot on the album, is by far the most edgy outing Bey sonically makes this time around, coming off as an MIA-influenced blast of world-pop and feminine assurance of power that might be her best single ever (yes, even better than the stuck in your head “Single Ladies”). Nothing pushes genre boundaries as much as that one on the rest of the album, but practically every song on “4” is a pop pleasure featuring a great hook (or two), a nice beat, and a nice vocal range. Album opener “1 + 1” suffers a little lyrically from poor metaphors but otherwise delivers with a great slow burning vocal and a very eigthies-era Prince guitar riff. “I Care” has a great drum-beat backing that Beyonce rides throughout superbly; “Best Thing I Never Had” is a ready for radio kiss off; “Party” gives us an intro from an uncredited Kanye and a great return from Andre 3000 and is the first truly club ready song on the record marking the half-way mark. “Love on Top” is a disco throwback that works without being dusty nostalgia, and the fusion of global pop influences in “Countdown” make it a great album highlight. Marriage seems to suit Beyonce well in that the love songs though likely inspired by the same guy all sound creative and real; the entire record proves that “mainstream pop” and “redundant crap” don’t have to always be synonymous.  Rating – 8/10

PS: referencing Talib Kweli in the Big Sean review reminded me that his latest protege, female rapper Jean Grae has a new mixtape, “Cookies or Comas” available for free around the web. She shows promise of being an excellent MC, and though much of this introductory mixtape is devoted to building a rep out of scathing battle raps and is thus a bit light on conscious substance, I have high hopes for her debut record. Jean Grae: Cookies or Comas rating – 7/10

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