Lupe Fiasco – Drogas Light review

lupe-fiasco

Originally published for The Skinny.

Lupe Fiasco – Drogas Light

Album Review

★★

Album title: Drogas Light
Artist: Lupe Fiasco
Label: 1st & 15th / Thirty Tigers
Release date: 10 Feb

Just like the last time he claimed to be retiring from music in 2012, Lupe Fiasco has abandoned that idea again. But this time he’s not just releasing one new album, he’s releasing three, in the same year.

The first in the trilogy is Drogas Light, an album as inconsistent and nonsensical as Fiasco’s Twitter feed. It’s difficult to tell what Fiasco is trying to achieve here: the first half of the album is a mishmash of trap beats and repetitive choruses and the latter half is just all over the place, jumping from genre to genre with absolutely no continuity.

There are some highlights amidst all the madness, however. On NGL, Fiasco sounds as though he’s freestyling, with his stream of consciousness flow hitting as hard as ever and proving he’s still got plenty of energy left in him. The seven-minute long KILL features standout vocals from singer Victoria Monét, whose voice soars gracefully over the track’s subtle, soulful beat, the best on the album. Fiasco flows perfectly over the disco sounds of It’s Not Design but sadly the track is completely misplaced, wedged in between the bizarre country/pop-influenced tracks Pick up the Phone and Wild Child near the end of the album.

In what should have been a return to form for Lupe Fiasco, Drogas Light falls short, instead feeling too rushed and confused to make for any kind of anticipation for the rest of the trilogy that is still to come.


Listen to: KILL, It’s Not Design

The Upside Down: S U R V I V E interview

survive

Originally published for The Skinny February 2017 issue.

Best known for their Stranger Things soundtrack, we talk to S U R V I V E about synths, sophomore album RR7349 and what’s next for the four-piece ahead of their UK tour

For the most part, bands tend to follow a formulaic structure: vocals, guitars, bass and drums. In a synth band, however, roles are not strictly set – or so say Austin-based quartet S U R V I V E, who prefer to let the synths decide.

“There’s no rule necessarily of ‘this is how it goes down’,” explains Kyle Dixon, jokingly referred to as ‘the conductor’ by his bandmates. “Sometimes the synthesisers themselves have limits or can excel at different things,” adds Michael Stein, ‘the best engineer and producer’ in the band and the only member based outside of Austin, in Dallas.

With everyone in the band essentially playing the same instrument, their writing process is often quite different to that of a regular band. “Sometimes one person will have a song that’s 60% done and other people will add parts to it… or some people will get together and work on something,” adds Mark Donica.

“It’s usually one or two people’s individual efforts that eventually becomes a group effort, and after that becomes its own thing for our live version,” agrees Adam Jones, co-founder of Holodeck Records, the label on which the band reissued their 2012 debut album HD015 at the end of last year.

S U R V I V E on new album RR7349

Riding on a wave of unexpected popularity in the latter half of 2016, following the success of Stein and Dixon’s Grammy-nominated score for Netflix’s 80s-style sci-fi thriller series Stranger Things, S U R V I V E released their much-anticipated second album RR7349, named after its catalogue number like all the band’s releases.

“(RR7349) was finished for a while before (Stranger Things)… we were just looking for a place for it to come out,” says Dixon. That place turned out to be metal label Relapse Records, whose roster includes Mastodon, The Dillinger Escape Plan and the charmingly-named Dying Fetus. It might seem an odd fit for an electronic band, but Dixon believes it allows their music to reach a wider audience: “I think a lot of those people will like our music as well as metal,” he suggests, “but they wouldn’t know about us if we put out our album on some other more niche electronic cosmic label.”

Their shared openness to and passion for all kinds of music is what brought them together as a band, with influences ranging from Italodisco to hip-hop. “If you listen to our first EP, you kind of get an idea of how it all started coming together,” continues Dixon. “There’s a little more of a disco thing, it’s pretty cosmic, there’s even a little rap kind of vibe.”

 

The rap influence seems to mainly stem from Stein’s time spent working in a studio in Dallas, where most of his clients were rap artists. “We did stuff kind of around the time that D-town boogie was a thing,” adds Stein.

But S U R V I V E’s music is rooted in 70s and 80s electronica, with nods to krautrock, psychedelia and dark ambient music. “We all started getting into old stuff from the 70s and the 80s, and listening to similar music,” says Donica. “But we gravitated towards the more serious-sounding… I don’t want to say ‘darker’ stuff.”

“What would Eno say?”

The band’s 70s obsession becomes even more apparent when at one point during the conversation, Stein holds up a card which reads ‘Try faking it.’ It’s taken from Oblique Strategies: a deck of cards with a different statement printed on each one, which was released by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975 as a way of helping artists combat creative blocks.

“When you weren’t sure what to do in your writing or whatever, you would just draw a card; these really obscure statements,” says Dixon. “You’re supposed to take the advice or just interpret that statement however you want to.” Do they ever use them to help with their own creative blocks though? “If somebody sees them sitting there and we’re in a crunch or something, we’re like, ‘Wait a minute, what would Eno say?’” concludes Stein.

With a brief stint of UK and European shows coming up this month in support of the album, the band have started to think about transporting all the equipment needed for their live show across the pond. “We’re having to change the set-ups a little bit for flying everything but generally they’ll be comparable to what we would have here,” says Dixon.

Although they don’t have strictly set roles during the writing and recording process, when it comes to performing live there is a little more regularity. “Kyle always has the drum machine,” Jones explains. “And I always play the keyboards that have multiple notes and all the chords, but then everything else can be anybody.

“A lot of the time, when we bring a song from the studio into the live setting, we’ll just devise how it makes the most sense for us to play it. Sometimes somebody just wrote a part that they enjoy playing a lot so they want to play it live. That’s cool, they can do that if their gear allows them to.”

S U R V I V E’s plans for 2017

While they’ve toyed with the idea of making music that isn’t completely synth-based, the chances of any of their upcoming work straying too far away from their blueprint is unlikely. “We’ve used samples and other weird stuff that isn’t quite synthesisers before so yeah, I would say I could see us making some music that wasn’t synth-based,” says Jones. “It might be more abstract and weird but we’re not going to whip out acoustic guitars or anything like that anytime soon, that’s for sure.”

The others seem less open to the idea, however. “I can’t imagine us making a record that isn’t heavily reliant on synths,” counters Dixon. “They’re all going to be synth-based but we might have a non-synth element at some stage.”

Most recently, the band curated the music for Sensory, the multi-dimensional ‘Immersive Restaurant Experiment’ at Sugar Mountain Festival in Melbourne, Australia. Collaborating alongside visual artist Daniel Arsham and chef Peter Gunn, together they created a 60-minute set menu narrative bringing together food, sound and visuals.

They’ve even had time to start work on a new album: “We’ve got some progress done on a new album but it’s still in the works,” explains Jones. “Over the next year, we’ll probably finish it up. But I think we might do a couple of smaller releases, like EPs or various other non-LP stuff if we can, maybe remixes or a live album,” he adds. Just don’t hold your breath for that acoustic S U R V I V E album coming out quite yet.


S U R V I V E play The Art School, Glasgow on 20 Feb & Deaf Institute, Manchester on 21 Feb

Laura Marling & BBC SSO @ Glasgow Royal Concert Hall Review

laura-marling

Originally published for The Skinny.

Laura Marling & BBC SSO @ Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 19 Jan

Review

★★★★

Shining a light on female artists is very much at the forefront of this year’s Celtic Connections festival, so what better way to kick off proceedings than with a night full of incredible female performances?

Scottish singer-songwriter Karine Polwart shouts out ‘female power’ during her performance on the festival’s opening night at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, acknowledging many of the women performing at the evening’s event and throughout the festival, as well as those working behind the scenes. This follows a bill of eclectic folk-based artists from near and far, ranging from young Scottish talents Rachel Sermanni and Adam Holmes to Sahrawi singer Aziza Brahim.

The evening’s headliner Laura Marling performs orchestral reworkings of tracks selected from across her five albums, arranged beautifully by Kate St. John. Accompanied by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jules Buckley, Marling begins with epic versions of the tracks that opened her 2013 album Once I Was an Eagle; Take the Night Off, and I Was an Eagle.

Marling tells the audience she’s learnt a lot about Glasgow’s history during her two days in town, and how much she has enjoyed her time in the city, before introducing Goodbye England (Covered In Snow). It’s a slow-burner, but as more audience members begin to pick up on the joke, ripples of applause break out and eventually lead to cheers. Patriotism is certainly alive and well at Celtic Connections.

Returning to the stage for her final song, Marling performs latest single Wild Fire, from her upcoming album Semper Femina, alone with just her acoustic guitar. The closer proves that Marling can put on a spine-tingling performance like no other, with or without the bells and whistles.


Part of Celtic Connections festival 2017

Khalid al Khajah – Open Review

khalid-al-khajah

Originally published for The Skinny.

Khalid al Khajah – Open

Album Review

★★★★

Album title: Open
Artist: Khalid al Khajah
Label: Self Released
Release date: 7 Jan

Written, produced and recorded entirely in his living room, Edinburgh-based Khalid al Khajah’s debut EP Open is a wonderfully soulful collection of songs with an extra intimate feel.

‘I must have lost my mind on Melville Drive,’ Khajah gives a not-so-subtle nod to an Edinburgh street on Open’s second track Melville Drive, whilst recounting a messy break-up. The track sets the tone for the rest of the EP, blending dark, moody electro-R’n’B with neo-soul, funk and jazz tendencies.

Citing the likes of D’Angelo and Prince as key influences, it’s clear to hear these come into play. Open is a smooth, sensual funk/neo-soul track that wouldn’t be misplaced on a D’Angelo record and Through Waiting has Purple Rain-era Prince written all over it in the desperation of those echoey vocals and the sparseness of the production. But there are also hints of more modern influences on the electro-R’n’B, radio-ready track When the Quiet Comes, with its thumping drum samples, wobbly synths and distorted vocals.

Open is a seriously promising debut release from the 25-year-old Bahraini artist, and a breath of fresh air for a genre that could do with some revitalisation within the Scottish music scene.

Albums of 2016 (#4): Anderson .Paak – Malibu

anderson-paak

Originally published for The Skinny December 2016 issue.

Malibu well and truly plunged Anderson .Paak into the consciousness of the music industry and music fans all over the world. He’s been riding that wave ever since

‘Smoother than a motherfucker,’ sings Anderson .Paak on Suede, released in 2015 under the guise NxWorries – a collaborative project with hip-hop producer Knxwledge. He’s describing a car, but he may as well be describing himself. .Paak’s music, just like his persona, is inherently smooth: an eclectic fusion of funk, jazz, soul, hip-hop, R’n’B, trap, disco and psychedelia that sounds like the past and the future combined.

Suede was a turning point for .Paak (formerly known as Breezy Lovejoy). The track grabbed the attention of Dr. Dre and .Paak’s six-track contribution to Dre’s 2015 comeback album Compton brought him in to the public sphere, as well as allowing him the opportunity to meet and work with a range of producers and artists who would go on to help form the sound of his second album Malibu.

Released back in January, Malibu is a powerfully honest insight into .Paak’s journey through life so far, and that journey has been anything but easy. By the time he was 17, .Paak’s father, mother and step-father had all been sent to prison and he had witnessed his family being torn apart by drug addiction, gambling addiction and domestic violence. On the album’s opening track The Bird, he wastes no time in getting down to the gritty details, singing about his turbulent upbringing and family issues: ‘My sister used to sing to Whitney / My mama caught the gambling bug / We came up in a lonely castle / My papa was behind them bars.’

On the album’s lead single The Season / Carry Me, he continues to delve into his past, again alluding to his upbringing but also discussing his own money problems. Struggling to succeed with his music, .Paak spent a period of time homeless before he got a job on a marijuana farm in Santa Barbara: ‘I was sleeping on the floor, new born baby boy / Tryna get my money pot so wifey wouldn’t get deported / Cursing the heavens, falling out of orbit.’ The track stands out as the most personal on the album, with Paak addressing how his personal struggles left him conflicted with his faith, as he forced himself to stay motivated.

Malibu is just as much a confessional tale as it is a masterclass in musicianship. Along with his band The Free Nationals, .Paak has developed a signature sound that is as equally intimate as it is commercial. The flow of tracks is brilliantly crafted, encapsulating all of .Paak’s influences, from the disco-infused Put Me Thru, and Am I Wrong, to the intimate R&B slow jams Lite Weight and Room in Here to the funk/rap tinged Your Prime and Come Down.

The album credits read like a who’s who of hip-hop, with production from 9th Wonder, Kaytranada and Madlib and appearances from ScHoolboy Q, The Game and Talib Kweli highlighting just how wide .Paak’s circle of friends has grown. .Paak has returned the favour to many of his collaborators and continued to expand his circle throughout the year, jumping on tracks with ScHoolboy, Kaytranada, Mac Miller and Odd Future’s Domo Genesis.  And to top it all off he didn’t let the year end without finally dropping the NxWorries album that fans have eagerly been waiting for. If 2016 has been anyone’s year, it’s been Anderson .Paak’s.

Hot New R&B Vol. 10

col10

Originally published for The 405.

As we near the end of the year, we only have time to squeeze in one last handful of hot new R&B for 2016 and, as always, we’ve got some absolute tunes for you all to enjoy.

This month, we’ve been blessed with a new Tinashe mixtape, the debut EP from Jorja Smith, the announcement of a new Childish Gambino album, a new single from LA duo THEY., the debut mixtape from Liana Bank$ and we even got to have a quick chat with exciting newcomer Ama Lou, following the release of her debut single.

Tinashe – Nightride

If you, like many other R&B fans, were stunned by Tinashe’s early mixtapes but have been disappointed with the musical direction she has taken since then, fear not as her new mixtape Nightride takes us back to old school Tinashe.

Along with the mixtape, Tinashe released an accompanying short film of the same title, directed by Stephen Garnett. The opening scene sees Tinashe expressing her frustrations, seemingly alluding to her ongoing struggles with her record label and not being able to put out the kind of material she wants.

To clear up any confusion over what Nightride is, Tinashe confirmed that it is the first of a two-part project, which is to be followed up by her continuously delayed second album Joyride early next year. Whatever it is, it’s Tinashe at her best.

Jorja Smith – Project 11

 

19-year-old Jorja Smith has been steadily releasing singles throughout the year, which have showcased her R&B, soul, jazz and hip-hop influences, culminating in the release of her debut EP Project 11 this month. Her soulful voice, clever lyrics and storytelling delivery prove Smith to be wise beyond her years and draw more than a few comparisons to one of her biggest influences Amy Winehouse.

The EP covers a range of styles: beginning with the jazz-influenced opener ‘Something in the Way’, followed by the piano-led ballad ‘So Lonely’, the delicately soulful ‘Carry Me Home’, which sees Smith team up with Maverick Sabre once again, and concluded with the politically-fuelled ‘Imperfect Circle’. Project 11 is a triumph and positions Jorja Smith as the most exciting new voice in UK R&B.

Childish Gambino – Redbone

Is there anything that Donald Glover can’t do? Fresh from creating and starring in the critically-acclaimed HBO TV series Atlanta, he has announced a new album under his musical alias Childish Gambino, titled Awaken, My Love! and due out 2nd December.

To whet our appetites, Gambino dropped two new singles this month: ‘Me and Your Mama’ and the more recent ‘Redbone’. Both tracks suggest that Gambino has taken a turn for the experimental, with the former a mammoth psychedelic, gospel-influenced track, suggesting that Gambino’s been listening to a lot of Pink Floyd, and the latter so funky it could bring Prince back from the dead. *Disclaimer: I cannot guarantee that this track will bring Prince back from the dead but it is very good.

THEY. – What You Want

 

If you thought R&B couldn’t be heavy, then think again because LA duo THEY. are proving just that. Drew Love and Dante Jones have cited their eclectic musical tastes as the reason for their genre-defying sound: rooted in R&B but also taking influence from rock, rap and pop.

Latest single ‘What You Want’ is taken from the duo’s upcoming debut album Nü Religion: HYENA, due out in February next year, and combines a guitar-led hook with R&B sensibilities and sparring rap verses to form the duo’s unique sound. THEY. were definitely listening when Kanye said “rap is the new rock’n’roll.”

Liana Bank$ – Insubordinate

 

Sometimes you just want to put something on to turn up to and Liana Bank$ has given us just that with her debut mixtape Insubordinate. Not a stranger to a hit, the Queens-based singer has already racked up writing credits for Rihanna and Nicki Minaj but she has decided it’s her time to shine now; and shine she does. Bank$’ style is very much radio-ready R&B, with tracks like ‘Plead the Fifth’, ‘Stamina’ and ‘Lost’ demonstrating this perfectly. However, Bank$ also shows her softer side on the more downtempo, trap-influenced ‘LVLUP’ and ‘Off’. If you like sassy, party R&B then Liana Bank$ is the one for you.

Ama Lou – TBC

With the year drawing to a close, it seems like the perfect time to look forward to next year and the artists we think are going to be huge in 2017. One of these artists is 18-year-old North Londoner Ama Lou, who recently dropped the video for her debut single ‘TBC’. We had a quick chat with Ama to talk about her new single, North London and her plans for 2017.

Can you explain a bit about the inspiration behind your new single ‘TBC’?

‘TBC’ is about race relations in the US – historic and modern, feminism and the revolutionary revolting youth of today. I wrote it from an observatory point of view and then in first person when it come to the chorus. I was inspired by my recent time spent living in New York and all the people I met, as well as historic and recent events in North America today, such as Black Lives Mattter, police brutality, slut walks and LGBTQ rights. But I was inspired by anyone and any movement that stands up for rightful change, these usually being movements against oppressed minorities: race, gender, social injustice or otherwise.

Exmoor Emperor produced the track – how did you meet and what made you decide to work together?

They’re amazing. My manager found them and asked if I liked their sound. It was random and by chance, but we clicked instantly. They are true creatives. I think we just vibed off each other because they got exactly what I was trying to do with my writing but then brought a whole other sound to the table. They’re just amazing guys.

You worked with your sister Mahalia John and Jack Bowden on the video for the track – what is the concept behind it?

I did – great team! The concept was that we wanted to introduce me as an artist but then replicate visually the space I had been in when I wrote ‘TBC’. The video is a day in the life of Ama Lou, intertwined with the subtle undercurrent of all the issues that the song represents. The people in the video are genuinely my best friends. We are just hanging out, skating, but then the cutaways reference police brutality.

I wanted it to represent how all this stuff is going on around us and we are constantly reminded through social media and TV but however much we observe and feel, it sometimes lacks the knowledge of how we can do anything about it. I wanted to use my life as an example of the juxtaposition: me being from and growing up in London, observing all the awful things going on in the US and the world today; that juxtaposition being a representation of how most of the world sees hardship and oppressive events. But then, on a more positive note, showing the hope in my generation and a lot of the refreshing ideology that we have and work we do.

The Levi’s Music Project recently released a short film about North London’s, particularly Tottenham’s, creative history. Being from North London, how much do you think the creative scene in that area has influenced you?

I love North London. I think it’s so powerful creatively because of its diversity. It sounds cliché but I know that for me at least, growing up I was surrounded by people of all different cultures, races, religions and classes and all those different factors just melded together so you all identified as being from an area rather than being separated by your different factors. I think being from North London means you are unforgivingly inspired by the different cultural traits and ideologies created by such a diverse community.

You’ve said that you spent five weeks in New York by yourself after you finished school – why did you decide to do this and why did you choose New York?

I knew I wasn’t going to university so I wanted something to throw myself at. I wanted to avoid that weird waiting period of nothingness after you finish school. I chose New York as I think it just seemed exciting, like there was a lot going on there. It’s also a transport city, which was essential as being completely independent while I was over there was really important to me.

Finally, what can we expect from you in 2017?

Bangers, just absolute bangers.