Friday, January 5, 2018

Review Round-Up

Welcome to this week's Review Round-Up. This week we have two albums that couldn't be further apart. One that's pure Trap, attempting to monopolize the genre as two mainstreamers unite, and one that's pure Indie Pop, obsessed with the cheesy concepts of romance

Travis Scott & Quavo | Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho
Trap | Listen

A Trap album. That's the best, and most efficient way to refer to Travis Scott & Quavo's collaboration tape Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho. With how predictable the genre has become over the past year, what with Soundcloud artists continuing to define the norm, few ideas from even the most prominent of stars have been noted. For the first 20 seconds of Huncho Jack however, it felt like that was all about to change. 'Modern Slavery' doesn't open with bars, bass, or hi-hats, but with a soulful Otis Redding sample from 'Coffee & Cigarettes.' What ensues after that light of ingenuity dims can only be considered a monumental cocktease. Not the track itself, as 'Modern Slavery' stands as one of Huncho Jack's best, but the album and its total lack of originality. For once this year, Trap offered us something tangible. A glimpse into the potential of the genre when delectable flavor is sprinkled on top. One of its most intriguing figures, Travis Scott, teaming up with one of its most desirable, Quavo. It should've been a match made in heaven. Instead, the two meander lazily over subpar beats, failing to muster the courage to say anything that would prod predictability and convention.

To add insult to injury, Huncho Jack's best track comes at the very end with 'Best Man.' Having your closer standout isn't a surprise, what is is Scott's concentrated verse that swerves away from the ad-lib scorched, autotune-laced found elsewhere, replacing it with personal anecdotes that harken back to his esteemed Rodeo days. While Quavo refrains from such soul-searching, 'Best Man's' general tone is one that's more earnest and forthright than anything the Migos rapper has been apart of. However, what dots the inside of Huncho Jack is a different story. From 'Moon' to 'Saint Laurent Mask,' 'Go' to the title track, Huncho Jack is overspilling with sequestered, and horribly dull bangers, the kind that recall Culture's dominos of duds. Both Scott and Quavo sound uninspired throughout, a combination of Trap's trendy nonchalance and the duo's desultory state. Language, as to be expected, ranges from fundamental braggadocio ('Dubai Shit') to drug and alcohol compulsion ('Saint') to overt sexual deviancy ('How U Feel'). More often than not, the three sides act as nothing more than interchangeable one-liners, meaning very few tracks actually have purpose contextually.

Really, there's nothing of interest to gleam from Scott and Quavo's rapping. Even their flows, the Trap staple, has grown stale with limited improvement over the years. The beats are more rewarding however, albeit infrequently. 'Black & Chinese' has a devious kick to it, one found in the programmable loop built into the backbone. 'Motorcycle Patches' finds similar pacing but with a beefier set of percussion that's darker and more distressed. Hats off to Southside for producing the two aforementioned beats. And lastly, 'Where U From's' tense string arrangement mixes nicely with the repined bass, one that Scott sings over gravely using his Kid Cudi influence. That's about where the compliments cease though. With Huncho Jack, it's hard to avoid making eye contact towards the duo's lethargy. Their 'do everything by-the-books' mentality works in direct contrast towards the rebellious state they insist upon. The project screams promotional stunt, grabbing ahold of a community reeling from a exhaustive year with a quiet December. It put Travis Scott and Quavo's names back in the mouths of fans, even though the material they've produced certainly won't accomplish the same feat.


Francis & The Lights | Just For Us
Indie Pop | Listen

Ah, the ever-elusive surprise release. An event, this time around, made even more rare by the not-so popular name attached to it. Unannounced album drops are easy for established artists, like Kanye West, Beyonce, or Kendrick Lamar, as their fans create the hype and promote the occasion themselves. However, Francis & The Lights is no A-list star. With that being the case, risk certified, Francis' best bet was to go all or nothing. Rather than tilt his narrative by proving naysayers wrong, the singer best known for collaborating with Kanye West and Bon Iver on 'Friends' seeps further into triviality by releasing a meager 27-minute project of illformed, and seemingly incomplete ideas. With the abundance of new releases at a listeners' fingertips, someone whose been grappling for the limelight for well over a decade needs to do better than that. Just For Us is a project for Francis and his small, but committed followers. If cosigns from Kanye West and Justin Vernon failed to garner much of an audience, ten unassuming Indie and Synthpop ballads won't soon do the trick.

With all that said, Francis' style is still one that's quite original. Even though his contemporaries, like Son Lux, James Blake, even The Social Experiment, sit comfortably in his niche of sleek, refined, and colorful synth-driven R&B, the moment a Francis song plays, like any number on Just For Us, you know it's him. Problem being, more often than not, what Francis gains in sugary sweet production (see opener 'Morning') he loses in transparent lyrics that evoke limited imagery while sounded dated at the same time. This can best be seen on 'Back In Time' and 'Never Back,' two tracks that act as part one and two to each other, using the weak and simplistic concept of time as the linkage. Rather than toil over more interesting dialogue, Francis resorts to stating that you "can't go back in time cause that's not the way time moves." You don't say? Much of Just For Us' romantic spooling's unravel as such, including the mushy 'I Won't Lie To You' and the corny 'Breaking Up,' a track that uses, perhaps cleverly, a phone disconnect as the breaking point of a failed relationship. The general problem with all of these concepts however is that they've been tried and tested ages on end. Lyrically speaking, Francis brings even less to the table than his 2016 LP Farewell, Starlite!

That's half of where Just For Us' partiality emerges. There's just no depth to his words. They're baseline material for a romantic endeavor that happens in poorly-executed, and eagerly churned out, Romcoms. The other half is the production, although in this regard I'm less harsh. Francis' minimalistic style has always sounded unfinished. Through a certain lens, that's exactly the unique draw. Here though, with such short track lengths (seven tracks are under three minutes), the structuring never once builds to something meaningful. Each piece acts as an unfinished sketch, lacking the necessary ingredients to make it special. The highest achievements, like 'Morning' or 'Never Back,' earn a cute grin as the sensory deprivation, mixed with the jittery piano, draw comparisons to D.R.A.M., of all people. Just For Us' finale, 'Cruise,' is really the only track that feels fully realized. Partly for its length, but mainly for its decision to build upon that which begins it. Unfortunately, the combination of Francis' tone-deaf autotune and abysmal lyrics ("and they may say it's not for children / of course it is!") greatly diminishes 'Cruise's' potential worth. A fitting statement to the entirety of Just For Us. It's a cutesy album that'll barely register, if at all, in the grand scheme of modern R&B.


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