katy perry - witness by Zack Free

katy perry has never been on the cutting edge of pop music. for the majority of her career, she's occupied an awkward space in the middle of her contemporaries, never quite matching their star-making eccentricities. at its best, her music is a lot like her 2015 super bowl halftime show: technically impressive, but somehow unremarkable. her fifth studio album, witness, makes every attempt to try to change this. its lead single, "chained to the rhythm," has been touted as the world's introduction to woke katy perry. in actuality, it's an incredibly vague (and ironic) disavowal of brain-dead pop music, and probably the worst radio smash that sia has penned since rihanna's "diamonds". the album also tries (and fails) to siphon some life out of its collaborators, a list of which includes purity ring, mike will made-it, dj mustard, and hot chip. however, the record lives up to very little of the excitement that its liner notes might inspire; the material here is largely uninspired, bottom-of-the-barrel fodder that highlights no particular aspect of perry's talent. even max martin's contributions are lifeless, half-baked clunkers that actually weigh the album down quite a bit. "hey hey hey," his worst contribution here, sounds like it's written and performed by "this sick beat" taylor swift. 

the highlights on witness are few and far between, but where the album does succeed, it does so by spinning familiar influences in innovative ways. "pendulum," produced by jeff bhasker and illangelo, draws from the well-tread genres and 80s synthpop and 90s house, but comes out as something refreshing and original. it's an inspiring, gospel-tinged stomper that somehow fits perry like a glove, and it's the best moment here. the only other real moment of innovation on the album is "power," an early cut helmed by the singer and british musician jack garratt. sonically and thematically, it's the most intense record here, bolstered by a surprisingly passionate performance from perry. unfortunately, these peaks are dulled considerably by the songs that surround them. "pendulum," for example, is follow by the album's sleepy, hot-chip produced closer "into me you see," and "power" is succeeded by "mind maze," which is probably the most boring thing that purity ring has ever been involved in. these kind of songs, found in plenty on witness, point to the album's fatal flaw. it tries too hard to prove itself, attempting to cast perry as a forward-leaning pop entity, which she has simply never been. her robotic likeness on the album's cover is a fitting representation; glossy and ostensibly futuristic, but hollow F

gucci mane - droptopwop by Zack Free

gucci mane's release from prison in may of 2016 was a moment of rejoice within the hip hop community. though he had somehow managed to sustain his generous output from behind bars, everybody looking, released the following july, was regarded as a return to form. once one of hip hop's sharpest mcs, gucci had begun to sound like he was going through the motions in the years leading up to his release. with everybody looking, the mc seemed to regain his focus, supplying a tight fourteen song set produced mostly by frequent collaborators mike will made-it and zaytoven.

a year later, gucci is still going strong. his latest release (and his first of 2017) is a collaboration with producer-to-be metro boomin, artfully titled droptopwop. recorded within a period of two days, the project is thrillingly vital, a sonic toast between two of hip hop's hungriest entrepreneurs. metro and gucci have spectacular chemistry, the product of a long-standing working relationship that traces back to metro's high school days, and it shows; this is gucci mane's best set of post-prison tunes to date. the rapper is as nimble as ever, turning phrases with legendary ease ("i'm gucci mane la flare, i make five million a day / hold up, let me clarify, i made five million today"). he invites a few of his contemporaries to the party, including offset ("met gala"), rick ross ("loss 4 wrdz"), 2 chainz and young dolph ("both eyes closed"), and each brings his best. "met gala" is arguably the brightest moment here for all parties involved; offset gives quavo a run for his money as go-to migo, and gucci follows with due immediacy. furthermore, metro boomin's woozy production is hypnotic, made up of little more than a bass drone, some snares, and a synth that sounds like it was ripped from the x-files theme.

unsurprisingly, metro boomin's beats are consistent in their excellence, packed to the gills with haunted synths and overblown 808s. droptopwop is arguably up to par with savage mode, metro's acclaimed mixtape with 21 savage, particularly in terms of its stunning uniformity. the producer is incredibly talented at drawing the best out of his collaborators, laying out brilliant, gritty canvases that add texture to their finished works. the picture that droptopwop paints is one of breezy opulence, like watch the throne redone from memory, and in two days. it's a portrait of two artists in their prime, with no plans of slowing down C+

snoop dogg - neva left by Zack Free

"word on the streets is you ain't what you used to be," an anonymous voice begins snoop dogg's fifteenth studio album, neva left. these aren't new accusations; snoop's credibility as an mc has arguably been on the rocks since the release of his second effort, tha doggfather. his sustained relevance is a testament to his charisma and sheer likeability as a persona. after all, it wasn't lyrical dexterity that made snoop's debut, doggystyle, so impressive. it was his uncanny ability to blend the streetwise edge of gangsta rap and the off-color humor of george clinton's funk, a skill that has influenced several generations of west coast hip hop artists, but has never quite been replicated. even snoop has struggled to rekindle the same flame; he's released several good records since (2006's tha blue carpet treatment is my personal favorite), but he's never reached the peak of his doggystyle days.

neva left seems poised to achieve that feat, and its dogged determination (*wink*) is simultaneously its saving grace and its downfall. the production work is stellar, a pallet of stone-cold bangers that consistently hits the sweet spot between current and retro. snoop's lyrics, however, have never sounded so forced. age doesn't have to be a boundary (redman and method man sound positively lively on "mount kushmore"), but it occasionally seems like one here; uncle snoop is literally the uncle at the barbeque on the painful "go on," and on the pervy "toss it," the MC ogles his children's classmates ("she said she went to school with my young son / fuck around and get popped with the bop gun"). the high points here occur when snoop stops trying so hard. he sounds right at home on the tracks produced by long beach legend dj battlecat, even if one of them is a pretty faithful revamp of tha doggfather's "vapors." however, "lavender (nightfall remix)," a collaboration with hot canadian items badbadnotgood and kaytranada, takes the cake. it's a "fuck tha police"-esque call to arms against police brutality, floating in a queasy soup of g-funk. its controversial video, which dropped back in march and features the mock assassination of a figure named ronald klump (subtle, huh?), strikes that perfect balance of weight and levity, and is easily snoop's best visual since 2007's outrageous "sexual eruption."

fifteen albums in, snoop dogg knows what works. he has a comfortable niche where he consistently excels, and in its best moments, neva left is a fitting reminder that he's one of hip hop's most dependable icons. the most progressive aspect of snoop's career, ironically, has been a defiant resistance to conformity. for this reason, the purpose of neva left is somewhat redundant; he's never given a damn what people thought before, so why start now? D+

arca - arca by Zack Free

put plainly, alejandro ghersi has made some of the most exciting music of the 21st century. coming to prominence with his work on kanye west’s yeezus, the venezuelan-born artist known as arca has since helped craft excellent projects for fka twigs and björk, cementing his position as one of electronic music’s greatest new innovators. on his first two studio albums, xen and mutant, arca spoke with twisting walls of sound, captivating through his pure skill as a sound engineer. however, with his third, self-titled effort, ghersi adds a new layer to his compositions: his voice, equally enrapturing in its grim sincerity. he sings exclusively in spanish here, but even if you don’t speak the language, it’s easy to fall prey to his hypnotic abilities with melody. “desafío,” for example, is bursting with vocal earworms, a fact that becomes less shocking when you take into account arca’s consistent position on the fringe of pop music over the last few years. none of this, however, is meant to suggest that his soundscapes are any less engaging. they’re a bit sweeter sounding, but no less cold or barren; “anoche,” for example, sounds as dark as its namesake (“last night”). it might be his most accessible effort yet, but arca is not to be taken lightly - it’s the sound of an artist coming into his own B+

kendrick lamar - damn. by Zack Free

the heart-stopping apex of kendrick lamar's warped masterpiece, to pimp a butterfly, is an unsettling moment of inner clarity: "why did I weep when trayvon martin was in the street, when gang banging make me kill a n**** blacker than me?" "hypocrite," he growls, and you can feel him staring himself down. it's the kind of self-realization that artists dream of, and it's all over his fourth studio album, damn. musically, damn. is a jolting departure from the rich, wailing jazz of butterfly, focusing instead on the marriage of mammoth 808s and grim, twisted samples. there are also notable elements of psychedelia, a quality that gives parts of the album a gauzy, dreamlike atmosphere. lyrically, kendrick is in rare form, invoking the heady violence of some of compton's greatest disciples, but not without examining its cost. this album's "blacker the berry" moment is sandwiched within the stunning two-parter, "xxx." "ain't no black power when your baby killed by a coward," he grimaces, advising a mourning friend to get even. moments later, he halts the song to discuss the importance of gun control with a group of children. "pray for me," he pleads, and kendrick's conflict comes into blinding focus. damn. ends up acting as an indefinite bridge between lamar's bildungsroman, good kid m.a.a.d city, and his world-tackling to pimp a butterfly, a struggle to reconcile what he knows with what he knows is right. it's just as socially relevant as butterfly, and an essential piece of the kendrick puzzle A


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j cole - 4 your eyez only by Zack Free

j cole’s last effort strove to be a classic and suffered greatly for it. luckily, the swollen ego that drove 2014 forest hills drive has humbled a bit (if only a bit), and 4 your eyez only, the north carolina rapper’s fourth studio album, is his strongest to date. at its peak, eyez sports a world-weary wisdom that (purposely) hints at 2pac, adding broad strokes to the gruesome painting shakur never got to finish. It’s also cole’s shortest project to date, and its brevity works in its favor, acting as a leash that keeps the mc from getting too far ahead of himself. it may not be the classic that he’s been aiming for his whole career, but it’s certainly progress C+


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childish gambino - "awaken, my love!" by Zack Free

donald glover has hit his stride. fresh off the success of atlanta, his critically acclaimed fx series, the renaissance man (finally) comes into his own musically on “awaken, my love!” forgoing completely the cornball-isms that have defined his career as childish gambino, glover expands his vision to include acidic funk and throat coat soul that draws liberally from legends such as parliament ("zombies"), curtis mayfield ("baby boy"), and prince ("redbone"). this is not to say that hip hop has taken a back seat; musically, “zombies” and "california" include sly winks to ol’ dirty bastard’s “brooklyn zoo” and n.w.a.’s “express yourself,” respectively, and the introduction to “me and your mama” sounds like 8ball & mjg in space. “awaken” adds yet another color to glover’s coat of many, and successfully leaves us wondering where he’s headed next B+


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