Album Review — Jay Electronica’s ‘A Written Testimony’

The long-awaited debut album of Jay Electronica finally arrived. Years of delays and mystery around one of rap’s most promising young artists at the end of the 2000s and early 2010s is over and now A Written Testimony is here. If you’re not familiar with Electronica, read this summary of the wild and unpredictable path of his life. Electronica signed to the legendary Jay-Z’s label Roc Nation nearly a decade ago. Now on his debut album Hov himself makes an appearance on nearly every single track. Imagine having one of the all-time bests in hip-hop as your side man on your debut album. That’s crazy! But it fits with Electronica.

The album opens with “The Overwhelming Effect,” which serves more as a vignette than song as it’s a monologue from Minister Louis Farrakhan set to a beautiful sounding instrumental. That’s one important thing to note up front with this album: for better and for worse, Electronica’s faith, The Nation of Islam, has a noticeable influence throughout. I don’t really want to give my opinion on the faith itself or any other religions for that matter, as I respect all people’s beliefs. So any commentary I have regarding the religious influences on this album are strictly from a musical standpoint (just like my criticisms of gospel music and Kanye’s latest album in the past on this blog). So as far as an opener, it’s fine and I guess gives a dramatic buildup. But I would always rather hear bars to open a rap album.

“Ghost of Soulja Slim” opens not with Electronica rapping, but Jay-Z. And I have to say Jay-Z sounds as hungry and fiery as ever on not just this song, but the whole album. His bars are catchy, have something to say and get right to the point. When Electronica makes his appearance about halfway through the song, he matches Jay-Z’s bars himself. But the song drags on too long with it’s instrumental at the end and the use of the clip of the kids cheering is really annoying. I feel like this song would have been better as the introduction track, as it doesn’t really have a point and has more of an introduction/demonstration feel to it.

“The Blinding” sees the Jays joined by Travis Scott. And it’s obviously a mainstream/streaming play with Scott’s inclusion. But it’s one of my favorites on the album, as Electronica opens up about the making of this album, the pressure of the buildup of the release and how he never wants to let his daughter down. Despite it’s shortness and Scott being kind of shoehorned in, the song does well at telling a great story and giving the listener an appropriate insight into rap’s biggest enigma. “The Neverending Story” has a fun and spacey sound that envelopes the listener from the beginning and I’m not surprised that it was The Alchemist behind this smooth beat. It’s perfect for Electronica to lay down some of his most clever wordplay on the album. I particularly enjoy these lines: “Spread love like Kermit the Frog that permeate the fog/I’m at war like the Dukes of Hazzard against the Bosses of the Hogs.”

Next is “Shiny Suit Theory,” a song that came out years earlier. I’m glad it’s included though because I love the bouncy horns and glimmering chimes that drive the beat of this song. Electronica himself produced this song and it sounds great. Once again this is a song that gives an insight into Electronica’s thinking and a conversation he had with P. Diddy before dropping his album. The bars from both him and Jay-Z are tight and don’t waste any time in getting to the points they’re making. I enjoy the dramatic production on “Universal Solider,” but the bars feel too same-y to me throughout and the over-reliance of religious references doesn’t work for me. And once again I think the song carries on a bit long like “Ghost of Soulja Slim.”

Jay-Z spits absolute fire over great production from Electronica on “Flux Capacitor.” He goes on the defensive over his deal with the NFL and again I love how in the latter half of his career he’s maybe dropping some of the best bars of his career. It’s unfortunate for Electronica though he’s getting out-rapped on his own song and album, but that’s what happens I guess when you have an icon as a sideman on your album. “Fruits of the Spirit” feels more like an interlude than song but it’s still one of my favorite moments on the album. The soulful production of No I.D., one of my favorite producers in hip-hop, and Electronica rapping his ass off (with a sweet Thanos reference to start the song) makes me wish this was a full-fledged song.

I enjoy the different, clinky sound of “Ezekiel’s Wheel” and the inclusion of The-Dream as a feature is a great choice on a chiller, smooth song like this one. The bars from the Jays aren’t bad for the most part either. It’s just too long at six and a half minutes. The bars that are bad though is where Electronica raps: “It could be in Lagos, or Seattle, or Chicag-y/Hotel lobby Grammy after-party, it’s whatev-y.” It’s cringe-y and dumb-y. I do not understand why he felt the need to just randomly add y’s to these words other than trying to make his bars flow together better. Despite this baffling choice, Electronica redeems himself in a big way on the closing song of the album, “A.P.I.D.T.A.” Over gorgeous production from Khruangbin (who you know I’ve absolutely praised), Electronica absolutely pours his heart out over heartfelt bars about the loss of his mother. It’s heartbreakingly touching and beautiful personal song from Electronica that shows why his debut album has been so hyped. It’s without doubt the best song of his career.

The long-awaited debut album of Jay Electronica does not live up to it’s lofty expectations and hype, but A Written Testimony is nevertheless a pretty good album. The production is definitely the strongest point of this album, as a cavalcade of all-star producers and Electronica himself create some exciting and interesting sounds throughout the whole album. The bars on this album are mostly good despite some bumps along the way and the overuse of religious imagery. More than anything I’m glad that Jay Electronica is finally releasing music and I think on his next album we’ll see something even better from him. But for now this is a solid debut.

Grade: 7/10

Album Review — Brandy Clark’s ‘Your Life is a Record’

Brandy Clark’s last album Big Day in a Small Town initially really impressed me, but eventually I found it to be a slightly above average album. And one of the big reasons was the production was all over the place. It just lacked cohesion and I also felt Clark didn’t do enough lyrically to elevate the tired small town themes of country music. So coming into this new record I was a bit unsure of what to expect, although with Jay Joyce returning as producer I continued to expect different sonic choices. And that definitely is the case with this album. But Your Life is a Record is also a much rawer and more personal record from Brandy Clark, which I would argue is definitely beneficial to this album.

Opening track “I’ll Be the Sad Song” lets you feel right away the pure somberness that fuels much of this record (Clark broke up with her partner of several years, inspiring many tracks on this album). And a big part of what helps drive this feeling is the sweeping and gorgeous strings throughout the chorus. It fits the reflective nature of looking back on a lost relationship really well. There’s no bitterness or anger, just a sad realization of what will never be again. “Long Walk” is on the other end of the spectrum, a fun sing-a-long that wishes bad things upon a person you don’t like. The kicker lines of course are “So take a long walk off a real short pier/Take a cinder block with you as a souvenir.” Out of the context of the song this is overly dark and vengeful. But the playful melody and Clark’s tongue-in-cheek delivery make for a whimsical, silly response to a person who’s clearly agitating.

“Love is a Fire” is a smoldering love song that shows off Clark’s passionate side and to excellent effect. I really enjoy the spacey, drifting feeling created by the strings and piano. The lyrics do a great job of painting that imagery of love being this blazing, out of control fire in the listener’s head too. “Pawn Shop” shows how vivid of a storyteller Clark can be, as she tells the duel stories of a woman pawning off her wedding ring and a man pawning his guitar. Each reflect on the loss these items represent and the ending of dreams. But then Clark reminds you that somebody else will buy them, starting dreams anew for somebody else. It’s a really clever look at the duality of life and death, how each are constantly playing off each other and how each gives the other value.

“Who You Thought I Was” is about striving to be a better person after falling in love with someone. The bouncy juxtaposition of the horns, mandolin and flute gives the song an enjoyably fun melody. As for the lyrics, they’re solid, clearly getting across the change in heart of the person who’s fallen in love. “Apologies” has an enjoyable flute and horn section, but the song meanders too long for me. It just feels like this song never leaves second gear and doesn’t ever reach anywhere with it’s message. The lyrics just sort of glaze over you after a couple of listens.  Randy Newman joins Clark on “Bigger Boat” and I just have to be flat-out honest: I do not like Newman’s voice. It annoys the shit out of me. The song has an admirable aim of pointing out the absurdity of the disagreements that run through social media and society nowadays. But it’s just too hokey for my taste. That’s a shame because I do enjoy the production on this track.

I have the same issues with “Bad Car” as I did with “Apologies.” And the other thing that bugs me is I feel like I’ve heard this song done so many times in country music. There’s just nothing that stands out to make it different from every other song that personalizes and gives emotional meaning to a vehicle. It’s not a bad song per se, it’s just fine and I won’t remember it. “Who Broke Whose Heart” fortunately does not have this problem. In fact this is probably one of my favorite songs I’ve heard from Clark, as it’s instantly catchy lyrics and melody hooked me. The production actually reminds me of Electric Light Orchestra in the way it utilizes the strings, horns and guitar. It’s just a really fun song with a surprising amount of bite.

“Can We Be Strangers” is a devastatingly great heartbreak song. This relationship has soured to the point of where the narrator just wishes they had never even met each other in the first place. And the way Clark delivers the chorus is painstakingly and soulfully beautiful. The horns and strings perfectly complement this song too, not taking over and instead adding dramatic gravitas that only enhances the emotions. “The Past is the Past” wraps the album up in a nice bow, with Clark reaching the point of letting the past go and moving forward in her life while still letting herself feel the heartbreak from the situation. As I said it’s a fitting and mature conclusion after the myriad of emotions Clark expresses throughout the album. Lessons have been learned and now a new life begins.

Despite a few hiccups, Brandy Clark takes a big step up from her last album with Your Life is a Record. I think the production is the biggest improvement, as it flows together really well from start to finish. I really enjoy the incorporation of the flutes in this album, as it’s something not really utilized as much in country music. The songwriting stumbles in a few spots, but for the most part is pretty good and at times great. There’s a surprisingly nice mix of emotions on an album centered around a breakup too. Most importantly, Clark rewards you for listening to the whole album, giving you the emotional journey with the fittingly positive, yet realistic destination.

Grade: 8/10

Single Review — The Dixie Chicks Return with a Bang with “Gaslighter”

It’s been 14 years since the Dixie Chicks have released their last album. Country music hasn’t been the same since, as you can’t deny their leaving/dismissal and absence in the genre had a lasting impact in many ways. Well after years of rumors, they make their return with a new album coming out on May 1 and they’ve just released the lead single from it, the album’s title track.

Now normally in this new era of Country Perspective I don’t discuss or review singles because there’s just so many and I’m an album listener, not a singles listener. But I have to make an exception and break my own rule because this song is just too damn good for me to not talk about and review. Right away this song blasts you with the type of harmonies I’ve been wanting to hear and shouting from the rooftops about for years in review. Acts today just don’t utilize harmonies enough, but this is what makes the Dixie Chicks so great. They utilize their strengths to the very best and their harmonies are very much a strength.

The story the song tells is of a man who was a grand puppet master, successfully manipulating and controlling a woman for what sounds like years before she woke up and is now calling him out on his bullshit, a gaslighter. Each member of the trio takes their turn on lead, each adding another layer and detail to the story that gives you an exact look into this toxic relationship and the freeing liberation being experienced by the woman who’s finally rid of him. The production is big and soaring, an instant foot-stomper with thumping drums and an infectious hook. Collaborator Jack Antonoff definitely added his influence, as he’s known for bringing a stunning level of polish and catchiness to the music he touches.

I was already excited to hear the new album from the Dixie Chicks, but this new single just takes it to an even higher level. And the early reception of the majority of listeners seems to indicate the same. The Dixie Chicks are back and this is great not just for country music, but all music.

Album Review — John Moreland’s ‘LP5’

You would be hard-pressed to find many songwriters in music today better than John Moreland. His albums over the last decade contain some of the rawest and realest lyrics you’ll hear and his new album LP5 is no different. “Harder Dreams” opens the album, serving as a commentary on modern media, ads and the difficulty of realizing individuality in a world where everybody wants you to be something else. Right away you get to hear the new production approach Moreland and his producer Matt Pence take with this album, incorporating airy synths and drum machines. Just like Moreland’s last album Big Bad Luv, I love the different approach he takes with the production. And rest assured this isn’t the first time on this album I come away impressed by the instrumentation.

“A Thought is Just a Passing Train” has a catchy and bouncy feel thanks to some well-deployed drum loops throughout. The song though reflects on how dark thoughts can pass through your mind, but Moreland ultimately telling the listener to let their shame of this darkness go and to be easier on oneself. I enjoy the vocal effects used by Moreland too, as it gives the song a more ominous and serious tone. “East October” is another song focused on darkness, this time on what appears to be a fallout of a relationship and leaving the man questioning how he can continue on alone. Atmospheric guitars, drum loops and melodic pianos blend together to create a lush, sobering, mellow sound that set the perfect background to the lyrics.

“I’m Learning How to Tell Myself the Truth” is about a man recognizing the lies each person in the relationship is telling themselves. He then comes to the conclusion that he just wants to “move her” and seeing things more clearly than what he has been seeing. It’s a moving and honest song about…well honesty. But what makes this song so good is how Moreland’s lyrics dance around kind of vaguely throughout and at the end they all add up, leaving me as the listener with a sort of “a ha” moment of realizing what this song is all about. A lot of songwriters who use abstract lyrics fail to make them work because most listeners aren’t able to derive the message, but Moreland excellently deploys subtlety to tell this song’s story.

“Two Stars” is a peaceful and easy-feeling instrumental that shows another side to Moreland I’m happy to see. So many songwriters get hung up in the lyrics and don’t pay attention to the production, but Moreland is clearly not one of these songwriters. “Terrestrial” explores each sides of a relationship, the joyful beginnings and the sorrowful end. This might be my favorite on the album, as the lyrics are beautifully descriptive of each side of the relationship coin and the production is rich and textured. The mix of instrumentation in the bridge, largely driven by delicate plinking of the piano, gives me chills with it’s serene sound. My only complaint is I wish it was longer. Well done to Moreland and Pence.

Moreland once again does a great job of using abstract lyrics to tell a story on “In Times Between.” This one is about the crushing and lingering heartbreak after breaking up. The last lines in particular are so devastating, yet just drive the point of the song home so well: “But lately I’ve been feelin’ like I’ll never sleep again/I sit up in a satellite and watch the cold world spin/But damn it all to hell, but don’t it mean a thing?/The love we knew so well was barely hangin’ on a string.” After that dark note, Moreland lightens things up with “When My Fever Breaks.” It’s a heartwarming love song, a side I’m glad that Moreland opened up thanks to his newfound marriage on his last album Big Bad Luv. While it may not quite punch the gut likes his dark songs for many, I think he can write the love songs just as well too.

“I Always Let You Burn Me to the Ground” once again sees Moreland and Pence find a good balance of drum loops and synths to create an interesting and vibrant sound. It’s another love song that features solid songwriting, but doesn’t quite stick as well emotionally for me as “When My Fever Breaks.” Moreland delivers another enjoyable instrumental with “For Ichiro,” which I thought would be about the legendary outfielder. But Moreland said it was basically just a random shoutout. Damn. Still a funny little story behind the song though. The album closes with “Let Me Be Understood,” which features some well-placed, warm harmonica licks throughout. The song itself is about being accepted and understood for who you are, not who you once were. It’s a nice choice to end that album, as Moreland clearly seems to be drawing from his experiences of growth and change, reflecting on the man he once was and the man he is now.

LP5 is another fantastic album from John Moreland. He’s always been a great songwriter since his first album, but it’s the recognition to grow and experiment with his sound starting with his last album that’s taken him to a whole new level in my mind. Too many singer-songwriter artists think they have to stick to a stripped-down, folk-y sound for their lyrics to be taken seriously. At the same time, drum machines are dismissed as “not real instruments” used by pop stars. Well with LP5, Moreland proves both these claims to be moot.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review — Tame Impala’s ‘The Slow Rush’

When it comes to Tame Impala, there can be a split amongst it’s fans and it all centers around the last album Currents. And it’s understandable, as the sound of Tame Impala is decidedly different pre-Currents and post-Currents. Personally, I prefer post-Currents, as I find the production to be the big reason I prefer this era of Tame Impala. Currents is in fact one of my favorite albums of the 2010s and I’ll most certainly be talking about it more when I conduct my best albums of the 2010s list. Tame Impala’s new album The Slow Rush picks up right where it left off.

Now one thing to know right up front about Tame Impala if you’re not familiar with the act is it’s only one man who’s writing, producing and making the music on the albums: multi-instrumentalist Kevin Parker. And it’s easy to see he’s a perfectionist when it comes to his production, hence why it’s been five years since Currents. So when it comes to listening to Tame Impala, it’s immediately the first thing you notice and therefore must be the first thing that has to be discussed. It absolutely dominates and smothers every other aspect of Tame Impala’s music. It’s both good and bad. It’s good in the sense because there’s just so much attention to detail and it’s so grandiose and over-the-top that it overwhelms your senses in a good way. It’s bad in a way though too because it’s so hard to focus on everything else, most notably the lyrics. So one big recommendation I would make when listening to Tame Impala and this album is to wear headphones.

The ethereal and echoing “One More Year” opens the album and the song (and the whole album) explores a relationship one year into it. It reflects on how the relationship came to be, the joy of being in it still the same, but also the doubt and fear of the commitment aspect creeps in too. This seems to be fully fleshed out throughout the album. But I have to point out these particular lyrics towards the latter half of the song come off as lazy: “We got a whole year (One more year)/Fifty-two weeks/Seven days each/(One more year) Four seasons/one reason/one way.” It feels like filler. And as I said above the production drowns out the lyrics so that for many listeners that this just glazes over, but once you start closely examining the lyrics you see there are a few moments on this album where the lyrics feel phoned in.

“Instant Destiny” is an instantly catchy song with one of the stronger hooks on the album. This song is about letting the love in a relationship dominate your emotions and essentially letting all the problems come off as trivial (such as traffic). It’s a fun and groovy love song. “Borderline” is a great modern take on disco that avoids the cheese of the genre and focuses more on a funky bass-line that draws you right in. This honestly feels more like a song from The Weeknd with it’s club feeling and Parker’s voice delivery, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s a great song, but I would remiss if I didn’t point out the canniness.

“Posthumous Forgiveness” is a perfect example when Parker puts an equally great amount of effort into both the lyrics and production, as he explores the complicated feelings he has towards his now deceased-father. He’s angry at the lies his father told him and how feels betrayed by them, watching his father go to the grave without it ever being addressed. But at the same time he forgives him and wishes he was still alive to share all of the things happening in his life now. It’s a beautifully tragic look into a complicated relationship and shows how fantastic of a songwriter Parker can be. I also love how the beat changes from dreary and dark when Parker is expressing anger, but then shifts to a more shining and upbeat sound when he pleads that he wishes his father was still alive.

The tropical funk of “Breathe Deeper” is instantly infectious and I love the shimmering effect the keys give the song as they interlude throughout. It comes off a prove it song to me, as Parker professes to his love that he can handle the relationship. The infectious groove with the commanding lyrics make for a great song, except it feels so unnecessary for it to be six minutes long. It becomes meandering by the end, as this song could have easily just been four minutes and gotten across the message. The beat change at the end feels like overkill too, showing the cons of taking a perfectionist attitude with production.

“Tomorrow’s Dust” should have been left on the cutting room floor, as it has both the least memorable beats and lyrics. The song is about finding it wrong to connect with an old soul and seeing wrongness in others and quite frankly it’s all an unfocused mess. There’s just no direction or purpose in this song, as it ultimately says nothing to me. It’s too abstract in it’s approach, not to mention the song feels longer as a result. Thankfully the album gets back on track with “On Track.” It’s an upbeat and optimistic song about reassuring one’s self that you’re on the right path and overcoming the mistakes of the past while acknowledging there will still be more mistakes and failures to come. It’s staying focused and not letting the past nor future bring you down. The drums and the airy synths give the song an appropriately reflecting yet hopeful feeling.

The bounciness of “Lost in Yesterday” makes it one of the funnest moments on the album. The song is about facing the memories and demons of the past, facing fears and shedding the things that feel like that hold you back. Once again Parker shares a genuinely heartfelt and healthy message of building off mistakes and making yourself into a better, happier person. It’s also yet another example of Tame Impala at it’s best because the songwriting feels like it’s given the same amount of attention as the production. “Is It True” brings more funky and groovy goodness on an album already full of it. Once again the bass liner is killer from Parker. The lyrics are strong here too, as Parker’s love questions if it’s true when he says he loves her. I thoroughly enjoy and am amazed at how Parker captures in the lyrics the simultaneously contradicting feelings of being head over heels with someone while also being absolutely terrified of expressing it (along with the doubt of both with Parker saying he loves her).

“It Might Be Time” is about grappling with that doubt from both internally and externally, looking for all the excuses of why the relationship can’t work. At the same time it’s acknowledging the change happening around you and in your own relationship, causing more fear and doubt. Ultimately Parker realizes he has to embrace it all and not run from it. I love the frenetic nature of the drums and guitars, lending well to the nature and theme of the song. “Glimmer” sounds like it’s song title, a glimmer of hope and resolve in the face of this fear and doubt. The short song (well more of an interlude) consists of Parker repeating over and over “I just wanna let it all go,” referring to the doubt.

This gives way to the final track “One More Hour,” where Parker finally sheds all the past doubts and demons. He fully embraces the changing dynamics of his life and the love he has, using it to center him as he faces the future head on. The concluding absolute resolve and growth that is demonstrated in this song (and whole album) is fantastic. The production is also once again amazing with the soaring and space-y sounds of the synths, guitar and drums crashing together.

The Slow Rush is another great album from Tame Impala without a doubt. But it’s also hard not to see this album is a few missteps away from equaling the brilliance of Currents. It lacks focus in a few spots and there’s one song that just isn’t needed. But this is also a bit nitpicking admittedly. The production from Parker is once again deeply rich and textured, engulfing you with it’s fantastic details. And the songwriting mostly hits. So ultimately I can say this is one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2020.

Grade: 9/10