Monday, February 15, 2016

Music Exec. Talks #OscarsSoWhite and why the Grammys aren’t

While the media firestorm continues to swirl around the "white-washed" Oscar nominations, Hollywood is gearing up for another major awards ceremony on Monday: the Grammys.

Voices within Hollywood and the mainstream media have criticized the Oscar committee over recent weeks for their lack of diversity within their nominations: not a single actor or actress of color received a nomination this year.

Grammy Nominee Robin Burgess is the president of the New Orleans-based music management company Burgess Management, which houses 5x Grammy Award winner Terence Blanchard. As an African-American herself, Burgess was particularly struck by the issue and added her voice to the discussion in a Facebook post criticizing Hollywood, and those trying to brush off the Oscars’ oversight by undermining the value of the awards themselves: 

"For those who say the Oscars don't matter… The Oscars DO matter. It is a measurement of success which validates that you belong--in an industry that knows you belong, but won't publicly acknowledge you." She continued, "I personally know many, many great writers, directors, and producers of color who have approached studio executives of all shades, including their own, only to be told their projects weren't mainstream enough."

As Burgess gears up to attend the Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles on Monday, her aforementioned client Terence Blanchard is currently vying for the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Album, she told Critic of Music about how the Grammy awards have managed to reflect the diversity of the music industry:

"By the nature of the music industry, the Grammys are definitely more diverse than the Oscars," she said, "there is a "colorlessness" to music, meaning you are relying on sounds, not sights, to validate your selections… more importantly, you have more executives of color and gender making decisions to traditionally produce or independently produce records that speak to more voices and people like themselves."

The Grammys have also been known to snub artists in their selection process though perhaps not to the degree the Oscars did this year: after the 2014 ceremony, rapper Azealia Banks criticized the foundation for awarding white rap duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album over African-American Kendrick Lamar (who scored the most nominations of all artists this year: 11). 

"The term "right artist" can be completely subjective. There are so many deserving artists in every genre of art. It would be impossible to always recognize the right ones each year for the right project. Sometimes, the timing just doesn't work out and you have to hope that whatever accolades or praise you receive will recognize your contribution to your art or acknowledge your body of work. And there will always be a struggle between artistic merit and commercial appeal."

Even then she notes, winning an award might not be the most important thing, rather inspiring and trail-blazing for other artists: "One of the most touching Grammy moments I can remember was when Ornette Coleman received his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He was being introduced by Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers…Flea gave Ornette Coleman the most moving tribute by sharing how Coleman's music inspired and impacted Flea's own artistry. If that wasn't enough, when the Red Hot Chili Peppers came out to perform, they had a giant spray-painted banner on stage that said "LOVE TO ORNETTE." For me, that moved me more than the award."

The Grammy Awards air from the Staples Center in Los Angeles Monday on CBS at 7 PM CST. Terence Blanchard's latest project, Breathless featuring the E Collective, is available now via iTunes and Spotify. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Album Review: Rihanna - ANTI

Rihanna's 8th studio album ANTI has been infamously plagued by a number of setbacks and delays: the relative underperformance of the albums first three singles that in a strange turn of events didn't make the album they were supposed to promote (the #4 "FourFiveSeconds," #13 "Bitch Better Have My Money," and #78 "American Oxygen"), the approximate release date being pushed back month after month starting in May, and the often complete silence from team Rihanna. Finally, a year after the release of its MIA lead single, ANTI has reached the hands of an unsuspecting public.

The album is a notable departure from Rihanna's previous stylings (hence the "anti"), with the production being notably restrained, Rihanna's Caribbean accent freely flowing, and explicit, unrestrained drug references (notably to crack and of course, marijuana). There's no buoyant synths like in "We Found Love," slamming piano chords like "Diamonds," or even infectious hooks ala "Umbrella." The album is strikingly minimalist, and rarely steps out of its relaxed flow.

Songs like Kiss It Better embrace Rihanna's inner-Miguel, with a solo electric guitar emphasizing Rihanna's thirst for sexual release, while Rihanna works a double entendre in the Drake backed "Work," with the song also asking for sexual fulfillment, but after a year of headlines swirling around ANTI, it could also be addressed to her fans and the media: "What can I say? / Please recognize I'm tryin', babe! / I have to / Work, work, work, work, work, work."

In all of this, the album feels remarkably rushed. The first half of the record sets an electronic-r&b atmosphere, while the latter half seems to fall into a mix of styles unidentifiable to Rihanna, and feels much more like an effort to recreate sounds found on critic's 2015 year-end lists. Take for instance "Never Ending," which could (ignoring the weaker lyrics) find a placement on Lord Huron's Strange Trails, and even emulates a happier twist on Sufjan Steven's Carrie and Lowell. Or the lackluster organ backed blues ballad "Love On The Brain," which showcases Rihanna's inexperience at the form. The most blatant sin however, is the Tame Impala cover creatively hidden under the title of "Sale Ol' Lies" (as opposed to the song's actual title "New People, Same Old Lies"), which is a blatant exposure of ANTI attempting to recreate the critical success of Impala's hailed album Currents.

Oddly enough, the album shines when it's the least "anti" anything, with the spectacular closing ballad "Close To You" crushing 2012's "Stay" with its emotional weight and understated instrumentation.

ANTI is at its best when Rihanna isn't trying to impress the audience she hasn't tapped into yet in her decade long career, and falls flat in its most desperate attempts to gain new fans. When Rihanna doesn't care, she's the most genuine. When she exposes her weaknesses and insecurities while simultaneously trying to hide them, ANTI loses its bravado.

Overall: 6.6/10

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Album Review: Rachel Platten - Wildfire

"I miss my home / But there's a fire burning in my bones," horrifically cliche'd and creatively drained lyrics like this are just one of the horcruxes for an album plagued by lifeless and unidentifiable singer-songwriter pop.

Platten's songwriting style can be broken down into two parts: forced rhymes and disconnected imagery; the latter mystically leading people to the belief that Platten is somehow an original and half-decent lyricist. She shamelessly indulges in overdone lines and ideas: "I'm a lion, I'm a tiger / I'm a caged-bird, I'm on fire." Make no mistake, just because this 34-year-old writes her own songs doesn't mean she has a sliver of the maturity, wisdom and sensibility as any 16-year-old slam poet in the country.

Over-produced, bland pop productions try but fail to hide the faults of the lyricism. Each song stuffs as many elements of 2015 Adult Contemporary and Top 40 Mainstream production as possible; from fluttering synths in "Angels in Chelsea" to the bombastic drums that can be found in almost every single track, there's nothing redeemable on the album that one couldn't find in a ten second snippet of any Sia song. Even worse, the album offers the 47th rip-off of Sara Bareilles' "Brave" that we've heard since it's 2013 release: "Stand By You."

"Fight Song" may have been a guilty pleasure with it's easily memorizable lyrics and melody, but you're better off staying as far away from this album and likely anything else Platten has to offer in the future.

Overall: 1.8/10

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Album Review: Troye Sivan - Blue Neighbourhood

The debut album from YouTube star Troye Sivan features collaborations with Betty Who and Broods, and was preceded by the single Wild and an eponymous EP.

WILD: The lyric "cause when you look like that / I never ever wanted to be so bad" is so understated. It's simple, and though Sivan's delivery is stone cold, the desire is cutting. It's bouncy, sleek and simply enjoyable.

FOOLS: Here Sivan sounds emotionally constipated here; he just lacks the natural skills of a singer, and has to rely on blatantly teenage lyrics and smooth synths to make his point. Fools is perfectly adequate, with no terribly egregious qualities, but nothing worth remembering.

EASE (f/Broods): The first verse is perfectly teenage. The lyrics are so sweet in the chorus, but Troye sounds so distant, and even pained as opposed to comforting. Again, the production is doing most of the work here.

TALK ME DOWN: This ballad comes a bit too soon: the dramatics here feel wildly out of place at track No. 4, especially after the first three tracks. This has potential, but this song needs plenty of support, and though Sivan sounds willing to provide it, the song just ends up having an identity crisis, with banging drums under "I wanna hold hands with you."

COOL: This sounds like the area Sivan should focus more on: these nonchalant, confident grooves work with Sivan's vocal (since he has proven inept at handling other emotions). That being said, the BPM range in the first half of the album has varied by about 10 so far, and holding out hope for any dramatic changes in that seems unwarranted, creating an overwhelming anticipation for suffocation in the latter half.

HEAVEN (f/ Betty Who): This is... genius? One of the first instances of Sivan using the pronoun "he" for his romantic interest, coupled with a female vocalist singing the same is a beautiful juxtaposition. The nostalgia here is tangible, and though there could be a tad more longing in the vocal, and some lyrics are clunky - "the truth runs wild like a tear down a cheek" - Heaven is an instant standout.

YOUTH: How did we get from Heaven back into the same close-minded conceptual framework as the first four tracks? Yes, we get it, you want to be young forever and run away forever with your lover, cool. Find a less blatant cliché to express that next time. At least the production is on point as always, and seems a bit fuller here as well.

LOST BOY: The dramatic intro gives hope for something different, but the production runs to the same area of radio readiness that plagues the album. Troye sounds too afraid to commit to his emotions, and that holds songs like Lost Boy back from being great, leaving it an acceptable "good."

for him. (f/Allday): With the title being lowercase, this song screams "different" before the track even starts. Unfortunately, it's the wrong kind of different. While Troye's departure from the ocean of synths should be marked positively, but this awkward combination of the 2000s pop and 90s R&B doesn't do anything effectively, and is easily dismissible by its sister tracks.

SUBURBIA: This is a safe choice for an album closer. Conclusive enough to sum up the album sonically and somewhat thematically, though the "suburbia" metaphor that's supposed to encompass the entire album feels underdeveloped and unexplored.

Most of this album feels carried by the work of others: the aesthetic comes straight from a High School junior's Tumblr (a good one at least), the production ends up carrying a majority of the album and the basic Pop song structure is wildly overdone. That being said, Troye choose nothing bad. He sticks to the same formula throughout, and it works. The hooks and blatant desire for radio success should be overwhelming, but Troye's confidence and introverted boldness makes the album work. Make no mistake, Blue Neighbourhood is horribly one-dimensional: but at least Troye choose a good dimension to work with.

Overall: 6.3/10

Friday, November 20, 2015

Album Review: Adele - 25

After largely disappearing from the public eye from the past three years, the (arguably) biggest star of the millennium is back. Coming off the unfathomable success of Adele's sophomore album "21" - 30 million albums, 3 #1 hits, over half a dozen Grammy's - 25 is tearing records down on its own. 

21 was largely pulled by four fantastic songs: The epic "Rolling in the Deep," the masterful "Someone Like You," the dramatic "Set Fire to the Rain" and the underrated magnum opus "Turning Tables." The rest of the album was largely uneventful, but the four aforementioned tracks were so damn good that it didn't matter. 25 doesn't have a blatant standout group of songs; while lead single "Hello" largely triumphs over its neighbors in a similar manner to Rolling in the Deep, no song is bold enough to warrant any comparisons to the Big Four of 21.

What is perhaps 25's biggest fault is that it feels ironically rushed. After four years, one would think that 25 would be fully developed in every foreseeable direction. Yet the tracklisting is on Beyoncé's "4" level of horrendous: "Hello" is the only understandable choice as it's a clear album opener, but the terrifyingly poppy "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)" as track number 2 while songs like "Love in the Dark" and "All I Ask" are stuffed in the albums latter half? A clear mistake on the part of team Adele.

Then there's lyrical clunkiness: "Sometimes I feel lonely in the arms of your touch." Just say "arms" Adele, it's understood that when you're in someone's arms they're touching you. "It feels like we're oceans apart / There is so much space between us," when you say "oceans apart" it's also understood that there's "space" between the two parties. Simple mistakes and redundancies like this are almost unacceptable for an album that's largely expected to be perfect.

Yet somehow, some way, through these faults, 25 still shines. Adele's vocal delivery is unlike any of her contemporaries - no, she's not Whitney, her technique is still decent at best, and her range is largely limited - but she pours every drop of her heart into her delivery so daftly and unapologetically that it's often breathtaking. She's one of the few singers who deserves the moniker of "being able to sing the phonebook." 

The songs themselves also rarely falter sonically, all being enjoyable listens even with awkward lyrical choices and faulted track placements. While everyone will be disappointed to learn that there isn't a ballad with the elegance of Someone Like You, they should at least be able to settle with Rolling in the Deep's sister Hello.

No, 25 is not the best album of the century, hell even the year, but it will likely endure as a classic anyways thanks to the limitless transcendence of Adele.

Overall: 7/10