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Best of the Month: February 2021

Slowthai -- TYRON

[Method/AWGE/Interscope Records]

Two years after the release of his debut album, Nothing Great About Britain, UK rapper Slowthai introduces TYRON to the world, a tasteful mix of loud-mouthed boasting and introspective reflection. The 14-track album is split evenly between aggressive songs spelled out in caps lock, and the latter half stuck in all lowercase which provide softer, more personal moments. This balanced contrast between certified hip-hop bangers and thought provoking pop-rap provides listeners with plenty of variety on TYRON, so there is a little something for everybody on this album.

Slowthai opens his record with standout features from Skepta and A$AP Rocky on “CANCELLED” and “MAZZA”, both of the pre-released singles from TYRON. Upon first listen, it was easy to see why Slowthai chose these tracks to put in the limelight. “CANCELLED” takes shots at cancel culture, with both rappers claiming they are too big to be cancelled, clearly unafraid of polarizing their audience. While Slowthai matches the energy and aesthetic throughout the track, Skepta’s bars seemed to outshine in terms of creativity. The luxuries of fame are the central focus of Skepta’s chorus:

Twenty awards on the mantelpiece

Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury

Girls in the crowd got their hands on me”

The hot streak continues on the next track “MAZZA” with the always-popular A$AP Rocky. When asked about the title, Slowthai had this to say, “Mazza is ‘mazzalean’, which is my own word… It’s just a mad thing. It’s for the people that have mad ADHD, ADD, and can’t focus on something—like how everything comes and it’s so quick, and it’s a rush.” Slowthai himself struggles with ADHD, which he references in his music. The fast-paced and wild songwriting is balanced by clever wordplay from A$AP Rocky, rhyming “Molotov” with “Mazel Tov,” and ending his verse with an impressive and seamless transition back to Slowthai’s chorus.

Slowthai finishes the vaunting first half of his album with the track “PLAY WITH FIRE.” Slowthai’s fiance Katerina, who is a singer and songwriter herself, provides the backing chorus vocals on this track, which I found to be catchy and complemented many of Slowthai’s verses. Towards the end of this track, there is a beat switch that introduces more thoughtful and emotional lyrics from Slowthai, which sends us into the second half of the album.

Slowthai opens up the lyrical second half of his album with the song “i tried.” I found this song to be super introspective and balanced in the lyrics. Slowthai uses the phrase ‘i tried’ in two ways here, in that he tried to be both a good and bad person in his past. He has put plenty of effort into making a good life for himself and his family, but simultaneously recognizes that he has also made choices that have negatively affected his life.

Slowthai continues speaking his mind on later tracks such as “terms”, featuring Dominic Fike and Denzel Curry, who both supply the chorus, which ended up beeing the standout on this song. Fans of Dominic Fike will immediately recognize his vocals and Deznel Curry provides backing ad-libs throughout.

We see some of the most emotion from Slowthai on “push”, which is built around acoustic guitar backing and spacey vocals from singer and songwriter Deb Never. Slowthai speaks about both acceptance of his position and a hope for change on this track. The line “When push comes to shove, you gotta push” really struck a chord with me. I interpreted the message as saying when conflict arises or you encounter an obstacle in your life, you should face it head on, but not cause a bigger issue. Don’t ‘shove’ the person or problem away, but don’t just leave it alone either. You have to push through, a message we see many times on TYRON.

Slowthai’s TYRON overall expands on the ideas and emotions presented on his debut album, and further differentiates his boastful rap persona from the more down-to-earth feelings he opens up with by splitting the albumin half. Solid features and changes in sound and melody throughout ensure the listener gets something new with every track, and there is a new lyric to find with every listen. Slowthai had this to say about the album via his Instagram:

“this album was created during a difficult time in my life, i am far from perfect but i’ve learnt a lot about myself whilst creating this album and i will continue to grow into a better person for myself and aim to be a reflection of what i want to see in this world.

i hope this album can be the light if you’re in the dark, and to know you’re not alone. it’s okay to be yourself, fuck everything else. learn, grow, aim to be better than you were yesterday.”

UK rapper Slowthai has proven he is more than a loud-mouthed personality, but someone who struggles, and can connect with others over these struggles. Fans of Slowthai, or any UK rap, will fall in love with this album and the heartfelt messages at its core. [Trey Mead]

Listen To: “MAZZA”

RIYL: Skepta, Dominic Fike, Stormzy

Black Country, New Road -- For the first time

[Ninja Tune]

Post-punk freshmen Black Country, New Road have been making waves all around the experimental rock scene for the last few years. The band has been regular touring mates with indie darling black midi and recently starred in a live show with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien. The music media has been all over the band with interviews and live sets only from the band releasing two songs two years ago(?).

The true magic of the coverage on this band has been in those two songs they released. The first of the two is “Athens, France”, whose only physical release was on an independent rock compilation called Speedy Wunderground Year 4. The song showcased some really creative ideas in dynamics with a wildly memorable vocal performance and the heavy-handed Slint influences.

Their second single, “Sunglasses”, is a hulking 8-and-a-half minute monster with post-rock instrumentation, nail-biting vocals, time signature changes, and cacophonous freakouts. Even though it was just the band’s second release, they showed the performance chops and chemistry of a band that’s been touring for years. Also, their unique inclusion of saxophone and violin into this stiffening song structures brought them an edge above the competition.

Since they’re a regular touring band, they’ve had numerous songs on the backburner to throw on their debut: the public was just wondering what it would look like. Live shows were chock full of a lot of ideas plus renditions of the two aforementioned singles in completely different form.

So the record comes out, For the first time it’s called and it’s only six tracks! Two of the six are redone versions of “Sunglasses” and “Athens, France”. The second of the two is a couple steps ahead in terms of production but still offers the same raw appeal as the original. The angular intro grooves incorrectly in the exact right way and the thrilling sway of its spastic bridge section gives me a head rush every time. The guitar tones are sharp and the violin embellishments complement the soft outro but keep the riffs nice and dissonant.

“Science Fair”, a favorite of their live sets, is here in its dissonant beauty and delivers probably the most stomach-churning edge of any song. The functions in two linear but clear crescendos into unease as Wood recalls a story of deep embarrassment at a science fair where he catches a girl on fire and then proceeds down a path of villainy. The free jazz saxophone work and scratchy guitar strumming makes for terrifying sequences of unease while the saxophone and violin ostinatos are oddly warm.

This album seems to be able to shift from comforting tones to gut-wrenching pain at the flip of a dime like on “Sunglasses”. While I absolutely loved the original version, their revised version shows maturity in their various performances, not only in changes in lyrics but even more focus on dynamics. The warm swell of the first half of the song rings with a strong sense of trembling self-hatred and the second half oozes more inflated egoism. I still can’t get over how much I love the guitar parts on each side of the midpoint, they feel like a mix of Slint melodrama with Neil Young delicacy. I’ve been listening to this song for about half a year and I couldn’t be happier with the new rendition.

As apocalyptic as this album can be, it can flip the script and maybe something truly heart-warming like on “Track X”. Departing from the anguish of the rest of the album, “Track X” is about a blossoming relationship from Wood’s past. The dream-like feeling of this track feels like a safe haven from the storms on the rest of the album.

The most jarring moments on the record are totally the bookends, both of which show the band’s love for Klezmer--freaking Jewish folk music--and their tenacity in playing it too. Starting with “Instrumental”, a klezmer jam with bombastic drum beats, suffocating synth swells, guttural guitars. As the piecewise jam unfolds, the band comes together as one and flies forward at the listener with the force of the bus. The jam sets the perfect scene for the record, displaying the dynamics and emotions to come.

On the other end is “Opus” a masterfully crafted song that switches back and forth from an anxiety-inducing klezmer jam and a swaying mellow section that tackle cycles of destruction. The mellow section’s melody falls like a leaf in the wind while the contrasting jam features riffs that shoot upward showing this back and forth struggle. In the end, both sections meet at the same tempo and fizzle out in a beautiful yet pathetic mutter.

Honestly, I fucking loved this record. It was hard to try and put in a tight review how much I loved it but it’s just so packed full of personality and dynamics that it would’ve been hard to express my love for it anyway. For a debut record, it shows so much promise for the future of this band and I’ll be on the edge of my seat for whatever the band has next.

Black Country, New Road deliver the most exciting rock album of 2021 so far with For the first time, a dynamic, riveting debut record that only leaves the listener wanting more.

Listen To: All of it, but especially “Sunglasses” if you must

RIYL: black midi, Slint

“Change of Scenery II” by Quinn XCII

(Columbia Records)

Quinn XCII has been slowly but surely rising in popularity over the past five or so years, so when his newest album Change of Scenery II hit number one on the Apple Music charts within a day, I wasn’t shocked. Quinn XCII has consistently pumped out great music for years now, and Change of Scenery II, the follow up album to Quinn XCII’s 2015 album Change of Scenery, is definitely an album that keeps the pattern going.

The way I see it, Change of Scenery II is a love letter to being in your twenties that isn’t afraid to share the highs, lows, and anxieties that come with living through what’s arguably the most independent era of your life in today’s age. The album is calm but charming throughout, manipulating both pop and electronic tones to convey messages full of nerves, love, and honesty about the oddity that is the social climate in a decade driven by technology, fame, and a mental health epidemic.

The album begins with a minute long instrumental interlude called “We Made This Album In Newport” that makes you feel nostalgic but you don’t really know why. The interlude builds up to a climax that doesn’t happen; instead, the song cuts out and is abruptly interrupted by the beginning of the next track, “Distracted Youth”, and it’s extremely satisfying to listen to. Quinn XCII covers all sorts of topics, from falling out of love in “SOS” to the freedom and impulsivity of youthful people in “Mexico City” to keeping in touch with friends from college in “Look How Far We’ve Come”. He even collaborates with some other great artists on this album such as Jeremy Zucker and Alexander 23; my favorite song on the entire album is actually a collaborative track with Chelsea Cutler called “Stay Next To Me”. [Rebecca Potters]

RIYL: gianni & kyle, Jon Bellion, Bryce Vine

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