Album Review – Miranda Lambert’s ‘The Weight of These Wings’

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Making a great album is a tough challenge. Making a great double album, though? You’re taking on an almost impossible task that many of the best artists can’t even pull off. I’ve made my stance on album length quite clear, with simple math telling us that the longer an album is the more chances you have of making mistakes. The biggest challenge with taking on a double album is finding enough great content to fill it up from start to finish. Most artists can’t put together 10-12 track length album because writing songs is hard. So when I heard Miranda Lambert’s new album would be a double at 24 songs long, I was worried about it. While no doubt the heartbreak and turmoil she’s experienced over the last couple years while also beginning a new chapter of her life would certainly give plenty of inspiration, I was skeptical if she could find enough for a double album. There would undoubtedly be great songs on it, but there could also be ample bad songs that could drag the good down. Not to mention I’ve lost track of how many different albums from major labels have been wrecked by bad production choices. On the flip side the names involved with the project inspires a lot of positive thinking. So with all of this in mind I dug deep into the mammoth-sized double album, The Weight of These Wings.

The album is broken into two 12 song parts, with the first part being called The Nerve and the second part being called The Heart. I’m going to review the first 12 songs together first and the second set after because this is how the album is intended to be listened. The ominous “Runnin’ Just In Case” opens it up and sets the tone for the album perfectly. Written by Lambert and Gwen Sebastian (who is part of writing some of the best songs on the album), the song is about running from the pain of love or love itself, not exactly sure of which it really is. What really captivates me is the raw emotion on display from Miranda, something that happens a lot on this album.

The decidedly upbeat “Highway Vagabond” is bound to be a future single and I’m surprised it wasn’t the follow-up to “Vice.” While the nature of the song is kind of kitschy, it’s also fun-loving and doesn’t take itself seriously, which is why I think many have already gravitated towards it. The album’s second single “We Should Be Friends” is another upbeat song, which Lambert wrote entirely herself. It’s a clever song about Lambert identifying who she has a friend in, from the frankly honest to the heartbroken. She keeps the song simple and it works. I’m not sure if country radio will get behind it though. I have to say I’m glad there are some upbeat songs on this double album because if it were just entirely heartbreak and dark songs it would be a draining listen. Also by having some lighter songs it acts as a great contrast and helps the darker songs stand out even more.

Lambert sings of helping a friend get out of a bad relationship in “Getaway Driver.” Written with Hemby and her boyfriend/Americana artist Anderson East, it’s a somber Bonnie & Clyde type song. Instead of gleefully riding into the sunset guns a blazing like in the movies, we get something real. Lambert duets with East on “Pushin’ Time.” It’s a song about falling in love, which I imagine is based on these two falling in love. Even if you had no clue these two were together when you listen to this song, you can feel the genuineness and love shine through in every aspect of the song. The steel guitar work by Spencer Cullum goes fantastically with the lyrics. This is hands-down one of the best songs of the album.

The Muscle Shoals-influenced “Covered Wagon” is one of those feel good songs that’s easy to sing along with. “Ugly Lights” sees Lambert incorporating a garage country like sound that Aubrie Sellers really brought to light with her debut album. It really suits both Lambert and the song, which is a sort of gritty and dark tune about hiding in a bar with your broken heart. The lyrics do an even better job of capturing this feeling, which doesn’t surprise me considering Lambert wrote it with Natalie Hemby and Liz Rose. The bluegrass-tinged “You Wouldn’t Know Me” speaks to the truth of not knowing a person just by asking them how they’re doing. A person can change everyday, so you really don’t know someone. It’s one of the simpler, more overlooked songs of the album, but it’s definitely one of my favorites on The Nerve.

There’s a couple of songs on The Nerve that get away from this simplicity and make things too complicated. “Smoking Jacket” is a straight up sex song. This itself isn’t bad; I’m just calling a spade a spade. What else can be gleaned from the line, “every night he makes his magic on me”? That being said this song just doesn’t do much for me, perhaps due to it being too long. One of my least favorites of the album and the worst on The Nerve is “Pink Sunglasses.” The production on this song is just way overdone and self-indulgent. Not to mention the song feels like it drags. It feels like six minutes when it’s only four. This all takes away from the theme of the song, which centers on the sentimental value and confidence one can gain from simple objects.

The final track of The Nerve is “Use My Heart,” which serves as the perfect transition into The Heart. The reason being is the song revolves around the phrase of “I don’t have the nerve to use my heart.” To boot it’s a great song, as Lambert sings of dealing with the inner demons of trying to move on and reconcile with what has happened. Lambert wrote the song with Ashley Monroe and Waylon Payne. I point this out because this is one of two songs this specific troika wrote on the album and both songs are excellent.

Kicking off The Heart is “Tin Man,” probably the most heartbreaking song of the album. It’s about Lambert and the tin man of the Wizard of Oz, who famously always wanted a heart, discussing the merits of having one. She explains to him how he doesn’t know what kind of pain he’s asking for when he asks for a heart and it’s not worth the trouble. By the end of the song she offers to trade her heart, which is shattered into pieces and covered in scars, to him in exchange for his armor. Written by Lambert and Jack Ingram (who is quite proficient in the art of writing about heartbreak), this is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard from Lambert.

Lambert’s sassy happiness shines through on “For The Birds.” It symbolizes her re-awakening so to speak after her breakup, wanting happiness and sunshine back after going through so much darkness. It’s finally finding that light at the end of a long tunnel. “Good Ol’ Days” is about Lambert willing to go back to where it all began for her to rediscover herself and her truth. It’s about re-examining everything and figuring out just where to go from where you’re at currently. The song does a great job of capturing the humility of the subject, which doesn’t surprise me because Brent Cobb and Adam Hood wrote the song with Lambert. “Tomboy” is a personal anthem from Lambert about her and everyone like her. She’s a proud tomboy who does it her way and this is her way of telling young girls it’s cool to be this way too. For this reason I think this would be a great choice for a single.

If you feel like you need more steel guitar in your life, just listen to “Things That Break” and “Well-Rested.” It’s as thick and infectious as molasses on each song. These are classic heartbreak country songs in every sense. There are a lot of great songs I enjoy on this album, but if I had to pick the best one on this expansive double album it would have to be “To Learn Her.” Written by the praised above troika of Lambert, Monroe and Payne, this song is pure country music. If you asked me to define country music, I would point to a song like this one. The heavy steel guitar makes me smile from ear-to-ear. This song is Lambert at her very best.

The other songwriting trio I absolutely enjoy on this album is Lambert, Hemby and Rose, who get their shining moment on “Keeper of the Flame. “ I didn’t even have to look at the credits to know these three wrote this because their fingerprints are all over it. The very best of these three come together to create this soaring love anthem that you just want to listen to over and over again. I even surprisingly enjoy the synthesizer on this song, which gives the song some real energy and urgency. “Bad Boy” is the weakest track of The Heart, but even it isn’t a bad song. It’s the fact that rest of it is so strong that a just solid song doesn’t quite stand out. While the song relies on the predictable trope of falling in love with the bad boy, I really enjoy the instrumentation. The song starts off with a harder rock edge before giving away to twang pedal steel guitar towards the end.

I really applaud Miranda for going completely outside the box on “Six Degrees of Separation.” I love it when an artist tries something completely different and takes risks and this song is a perfect example of why. The vocal layering combined with the grungy guitars and snappy lyrics make for an infectiously great song. Lambert’s ode to the sun “Dear Old Sun” shows a more subdued soulful side of her. It’s probably the most spiritual Lambert gets on the entire album, as you can really feel the heart in her voice as she sings. Then again Lambert bared her entire self in every part of this album.

The Weight of These Wings closes it’s story with “I’ve Got Wheels.” It’s where Lambert finally moves on from her demons. As she sings, she’s got wheels and now she’s using them to get away from the heartbreak that haunted her for so long. It’s that sobering feeling that you’ve finally picked up all of the pieces and can move on with your life to something after being consumed by something old for so long. And that itself is another chapter that won’t be easy, but Lambert at least knows she’s moving forward now.

After thoroughly listening to The Weight of These Wings from front to back and over again several times, Lambert accomplished something I’ve seen for the first time while running Country Perspective and that’s releasing a great double album. This is an amazing accomplishment that should make her proud because this is nothing to scoff at. If I had to pick the best side, it would definitely be The Heart. There’s not a single bad song on this part of the album, while The Nerve is hampered by the only three missteps of the entire album.

Lambert put every bit of her talent into this album; there was no holding back from her. She utilized some of the best songwriters in country music today, while also showing off her own songwriting chops. We not only get to see her at her most country, but she even takes some risks and pulls them off well too. Frank Liddell, Eric Masse and Glenn Worff for the most part did a great job producing this album and not falling into the usual mainstream pitfalls. Miranda Lambert did something many artists have trouble with and that’s channeling pure, raw energy into beautiful art. The Weight of These Wings is arguably the crowning jewel of Lambert’s entire career.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend? – Yes!

Album Highlights: Tin Man, To Learn Her, Ugly Lights, Runnin’ Just in Case, Vice, Pushin’ Time, Use My Heart, Good Ol’ Days, For The Birds, Six Degrees of Separation, I’ve Got Wheels

Bad Songs: Pink Sunglasses & Smoking Jacket

Wallpaper: None


Review – Gwen Sebastian’s “Throw It Back”

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Blake Shelton’s list of protegés continues to stretch longer every year. This is the case of course because he’s a coach on The Voice, NBC’s music talent show that promises to produce new stars each season (I’ll be talking about this on another day). There have been a good number of country artist that have emerged from the show, all thanks to Blake. One of those artist was Gwen Sebastian, who I find to be one of the more talented protegés of Shelton. I thought her 2014 single “Small Town Soul” was a solid song and I’ve been looking forward to a full album from her. I think she has good potential and with country radio needing more female country artists, I would definitely support her on radio. She has yet to release an album in the last year, but she has released another single, called “Throw It Back.”

So is this another solid offering from Sebastian? Well right away you can tell this is a different sound for Sebastian, as the song kicks off with a banjo and guitar combination that will catch your ear. Then she begins to sing and immediately many problems arise for me. First let’s address Sebastian’s vocals. They annoy me. A lot. Why? The excessive amount of twang in her voice is nauseating. It sounds like she’s been hanging around RaeLynn and her annoying over-twang rubbed off on Sebastian. Go listen to “Small Town Soul.” It’s a night and day difference in the amount of twang in the vocals. I find myself having the same problem with Miranda Lambert sometimes, but she’s from Texas, so the twang in her voice isn’t fake. It’s actually a part of her voice. Sebastian is from North Dakota and people from North Dakota don’t have this amount of twang in their voice.

The second problem I have with this song is the theme and lyrics. Here are chorus lyrics:

“Fireball. Cheers y’all.

Throoooow it back, catch a little buzz. 

Let it get you crazy like a good party does.

There’s a part (???) of me and you at the bottom of the glass. 

Throoooow it back.”

Really deep stuff, huh? A party song about drinking. Now I’m all for party songs and I’ve cited plenty of examples of great country party songs on here. But is this song any different from the crap we’ve heard from the bro country? No. It’s pretty much the same thing and it still sounds just as bad coming from a female country artist. These kind of lyrics have been overused so much that they no longer have any merit. The fireball line just makes me cringe. As for the instrumentation, it’s decent. It at least sounds somewhat country mixed in with the rock influences that permeate much of Miranda Lambert’s singles.

This is a letdown compared to “Small Town Soul.” It’s just another party song amidst the sea of party songs flooding country radio. This song offers nothing new nor creative. I would’ve maybe liked the song a little more if it wasn’t for the excessive twang in Sebastian’s voice. Combined with the sub-par lyrics this makes for a pretty lackluster song. “Throw It Back” just feels like a slightly more country version of Lady Antebellum’s “Bartender” or Little Big Town’s “Day Drinking.” It’s just another carefree song about drinking that I’ll forget about weeks from now. I recommend avoiding this song.

Grade: 3.5/10

The Hodgepodge: Open Thread Q&A

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Due to being swamped with stuff this week, I didn’t have time to write an opener in the Hodgepodge. I had a topic in mind, but I needed to have more time to really flesh it out. So no opener this week. However since this is the case I thought it would be a good time to have an open thread Q&A in the comments. That means you can ask me any music related questions. Perhaps you want my thoughts on a certain artist or an upcoming release. Or you want to know my favorite country song from the 90s. Whatever you have on your mind throw it at me. I’ll take any questions about the site too. I promise next week I will have a normal opener. So be sure to ask me questions in the comments below!

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Gary Allan’s “Hangover Tonight” is now out and will impact radios on March 2. I’ll have my review on it sometime next week.
  • Drake White, a new country artist that is signed to Dot Records (along with Maddie & Tae), just released his debut single “It Feels Good.” It’s an interesting song and we’ll have a review on it soon too.
  • Gwen Sebastian just released a new single titled “Throw It Back.” I haven’t got a chance to really listen to this one yet. I think Sebastian has good potential and could be a solid female country artist on the radio for years to come.
  • Ashley Monroe’s “On To Something Good” is now available everywhere for purchase and streaming after being a Spotify exclusive for a couple of weeks. This is one of the more pop sounding offerings from Monroe. This will be reviewed soon too.

Throwback Thursday Song

Zac Brown Band – “Natural Disaster” – This is arguably the best song Zac Brown Band never released as a single. It’s catchy, it’s country and the instrumentation is fantastic. Many people don’t bother to check out the album cuts by Zac Brown Band, but that’s a big mistake. In fact when I see people complain about this band making too many beach songs, I laugh and ask them if they’ve ever bothered listening beyond their singles. Nine times out ten they say no. Anyway if you haven’t heard this song, give it a listen.

My Non-Country Song of the Week

Favored Nations – “The Setup” – This pop infused EDM song is fun and a great song for work outs. It’s also the conclusion song on Grand Theft Auto V‘s campaign. It’s how I found this song, along with several others. They do a great job with their radio station on their games. Their country music station plays Waylon, Cash and Haggard. Not a single bro-country song in site. Keep having an awesome taste in music, Rockstar Games!

Tweet of the Week

Some great Twitter advice.

An iTunes Review on Sturgill Simpson That Will Make You Face Palm

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This was left under Simpson’s latest album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. I got nothing to say except take a look at the bottom left hand corner of the review. That says it all.

That’s it for the Hodgepodge this week! Be sure to sound off in the comments! 

Review – Craig Wayne Boyd’s “My Baby’s Got a Smile on Her Face”

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In 2014 it became pretty obvious that country music is the most popular genre in music. The popularity of bro country shot it into mainstream and the incorporation of pop elements has allowed the genre to remain in the mainstream conscious. Why else do you think Jason Aldean and Sam Hunt had such big years last year? Another thing that has benefitted from the increase of popularity of country music is music talent shows. Whether it was American Idol, The Voice or that new music show on ABC that I’ve completely forgotten about with Brad Paisley, country music artists have done pretty good on it in recent years. Just look at all of The Voice alumni I’ve reviewed on the site (Gwen Sebastian, RaeLynn, The Swon Brothers, etc).

One problem though that everyone notices is that after the show these artists drops off the face of the earth. One minute they’re in the spotlight and next they’re just another artist struggling to make it. I thought these shows are supposed to make stars? Other than Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, almost all of the other winners disappear after the show. Several months after finishing runner-up on season six of The Voice, Jake Worthington has yet to release any new music. How is this show beneficial to him again? Well the people at The Voice finally wised up for season seven as the finalists all performed and released an original song at the end of the show’s season. This is great for the artists, as it will help them springboard into the “real world” of music.

Today I take a look at season seven winner Craig Wayne Boyd’s single “My Baby’s Got a Smile on Her Face.” Now I no longer watch The Voice, but I do monitor it just to make sure I don’t miss anyone interesting. It’s a good thing too because Boyd is certainly interesting. Just like Worthington he played a lot of traditional country music throughout the season (Cash, Haggard, Strait) and also paid tribute to fallen outlaw singer Wayne Mills (who mentored both Boyd and Blake Shelton early in their careers). Boyd isn’t some fresh face either. He has toured around the country and opened for big acts such as Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser and Brantley Gilbert. So don’t worry, Boyd has “paid his dues.”

Boyd’s new single “My Baby’s Got a Smile on Her Face” isn’t terrible nor is it great. The instrumentation is certainly solid. It plays right into Boyd’s wheelhouse of a rock country feel (with a few fiddles thrown in) while also being friendly enough for soccer moms. It goes perfectly with the radio friendly, upbeat lyrics that are borderline milquetoast. This song is very safe and doesn’t take any chances. It’s definitely going for a universal feel that appeals to a wide swath of listeners. I’m neither offended nor impressed, although after a few listens it makes me sleepy. It’s just another song to me.

While this will have no bearing on the grade, I have to say something about the music video. Specifically I want to bring up the casting of the woman in it. She looks like she’s around my age and yet she is supposed to be Boyd’s “baby” in it. For reference, Boyd is in his mid-30s. She passes more for his daughter than girlfriend/wife. This comes off as a little creepy and off-putting, a sentiment shared by many in the videos’ comments too.

Nevertheless this song is doing what it’s supposed to do and that’s get Boyd noticed by the country music audience. It shot up to #1 on the Billboard Hot Country chart in the first week of January. It has since fallen out of the top 25 completely, but still not many artists can claim to have a #1 song and I’m sure it brought him some new fans in the process. I think Boyd is capable of producing great music that is certainly much higher in quality than this single. “My Baby’s Got a Smile on Her Face” is just an average showing that I’ll probably forget about a month from now.

Grade: 4.5/10

Ranking Mainstream Country Music Artists: Grade C

Two weeks ago I began the task of ranking all of the artists in mainstream country music. Handing out grade A and grade B rankings was quite easy because people don’t get angry when you’re positive. Today however is when the ranking begin to take a negative turn. To see the artists I considered Grade A, click here. To see the artists I considered Grade B, click here.

Keep in mind these rankings were entirely compiled by yours truly. It’s only my opinion. The only artists I’m considering in these rankings is mainstream country artists that are on major labels and/or still get radio time. I’m also including legends and acts that are too big to be considered independent artists. The way I determine these rankings is by looking at the overall body of work of the artist, as well as taking into account the most recent offerings from them. So bro country artists that have been churning out hit after hit will be lower on the list. If an artist made bad music in the past, but is now putting out better music lately that will help them. But that bad music won’t be forgotten either. One more thing: attitude and respect for the genre will be considered. The rankings will be determined by grade. Now I’ll take a look at part three of this series, the artists I feel are worthy of a C grade.

Grade C

Today’s artists I would consider to be middle-of-the-road or average in the world of mainstream country music. A lot of these artists have released good music and bad music, which explains why they’re in the middle. Some simply haven’t done enough yet to garner a higher or lower grade. I consider this the most polarizing grading of the series because there will be an artist or two you feel should be higher or lower. In fact I’ll start with the most polarizing choice of the most polarizing grade…

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Miranda Lambert – Unlike other traditional country fans who monitor mainstream country music, I haven’t been as impressed as them with Lambert’s body of work. Yes she’s done good work with the Pistol Annies, which has promoted two talented A-grade artists in Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. She has also released a few good songs (“House That Built Me” and “Only Prettier”). However I’m going to point out what no one else points out enough. All of her songs are about passive aggressive violence against men who do women wrong or caddy, sarcastic vulgarity against people who do wrong (Kerosene, Gun Powder & Lead, White Liar, Baggage Claim, etc.). Her excessive twang has also annoyed me and I know several other country fans who don’t listen to her for the same reason. In my mind she’s pretty average compared to some of the best female artists in the independent and Americana scenes. Sorry Miranda fans, but she just doesn’t impress me.

Blake Shelton – I feel like I’m being generous with Miranda’s husband. I will never forget the monstrosity that was “Boys ‘Round Here.” I consider it one of the worst country songs of all-time. I think what saves Blake in my mind from being lower in my rankings is the early half of his career. I enjoyed a lot of his early work and I will occasionally listen to a few of these songs. There’s no doubt he has talent as an artist, but his terrible attitude and his pandering to corporate country demands makes it hard to like him at times. If you just disagree with him or write a bad review about him, he’ll send his army of sheep fans after you on Twitter. Shelton just can’t take criticism and to me that has been his ultimate downfall into the embarrassment he is today.

Eric Church – You can pretty much take what I just said what was the worst about Miranda and the worst about Blake, combine them together and that is what my problem is with Eric Church. He’s another average artist who panders to fans who want traditional country music back on radio and are completely unaware of the country music world outside of the mainstream realm. His whole “outsider,” “outlaw” image makes me want to puke and his ego seems to be growing bigger with each album. Just like Blake, his early material is great. But with each album his music has steadily gotten worse. I didn’t get a chance to review The Outsiders album, but I did listen to it and I found it be quite mediocre. But hey according to Church he did invent beer and truck related songs.

Keith Urban – The Australian pop country artist has always been about average to me. I’ve never been really angry at him for a song or something he has said, yet I have never thoroughly enjoyed one of his songs. I view him as the Switzerland of country music and that’s probably one of the safest spots to be in the genre.

Big & Rich – I’ll just repeat what I said in my review of their album Gravity: “The country duo of John Rich and Big Kenny of Big & Rich have always been interesting. They’ve proven they can make quality music (“8th of November” and “Lost in This Moment”), but also stupid novelty music (“Save A Horse” and “Comin’ To Your City”). So there are times when you want to applaud them and then other times where you’re just flat-out embarrassed for them. One thing about their dumber music though is they’re willing to admit up front they’re not being serious with it, unlike bro country where their dumb music is actually trying to be serious when it’s the furthest thing from serious.”

Jake Owen – I went back and forth on Jake Owen’s placement in my rankings. He released one of the worst country songs of 2014 in “Beachin’.” However his bro country music isn’t as offensive as the other bro country music on radio. Owen is also a pretty nice guy and has said in interviews he wants to make more serious music. He’s started to back this up by releasing “What We Ain’t Got,” a great single with substance. We’ll see what his next album is like because that will determine if he moves up or down in the rankings.

The Eli Young Band – The Texas band is in a pretty unique position. They’re still beloved in the Texas country music scene and get radio play too. Ever since they went mainstream though I haven’t enjoyed their music as much. Nothing really stands out about this band.

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Gretchen WilsonThe precursor artist to Miranda Lambert. Really Wilson laid the blueprint to Lambert’s career. Go back and listen to Wilson’s songs like “Redneck Woman” and you could easily picture Lambert singing these songs. Wilson has shown she is capable of producing great music, but like Lambert the amount of twang in her voice sounds almost fake. I’m sure it isn’t, but nevertheless it’s annoying. Despite their similarities though I would take Wilson over Lambert. In fact Wilson might be having the success Lambert is having right now, but Wilson peaked too late and she didn’t marry a loudmouthed tool shed another country star.

The Band Perry – This is another group that just doesn’t stand out much to me. Their singles on radio have irritated me because the hooks of those songs were quite annoying. They did improve some in my eyes recently when they performed a beautiful cover of Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” on the 2014 CMA Awards, proving they could perform real country music. I hope this performance opened up their minds and convinced them to make more traditional country music.

The Swon Brothers, Danielle Bradbery, Cassadee Pope, Gwen Sebastian – I felt it was appropriate to group all of The Voice alumni together. They all impressed me more on the show than they have with their careers after the show. Blake Shelton endorsements on Twitter don’t sell a lot of albums nor impress critics like me.

Tyler Farr – “Redneck Crazy” is horrible and a song I wish I could destroy with a sledgehammer. It was creepy, in poor taste and probably one of the worst song choices I have ever heard for an artist to start their career out with. “Whiskey in My Water” was nothing special. However I did enjoy “A Guy Walks Into a Bar” and found it to be a solid song. I also thought he did a good job with his cover on The Doobie Brothers tribute album. It feels like to me that his career is stalling out and it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he left Nashville. He could actually be a great artist if he went out on his own. We’ll wait and see.

Brett Eldredge, Casey James, Frankie Ballard, Kristian Bush, Kelleigh Bannen – Meh.¯\_(ツ)_/¯

That’s all for part three. Be sure to check back for part four where I breakdown the D grade artists.