Usher, Not Sounding Like Himself

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Usher’s Hard II Love album cover c/o RCA Records

 

It’s no fun when one of your favorite artists puts out a record that you’re not into.

Usher dropped Hard II Love two weeks ago and I had some comments about it. Sold them to Billboard. I’ll start first by saying I absolutely love three tracks on it (“Need U,” “Missin’ U,” and “Crash”) and there are—fleeting as they may be—some moments that feel really good to me. But overall, I didn’t enjoy it much and, essentially, my biggest gripe is that it didn’t sound like an Usher record.

Usher Sounds More Like His R&B Contemporaries On ‘Hard II Love’

Art is a representation of where its creator was at the time they made it. So if Usher ever reads my thoughts on his latest work, he may think, “What do you mean it doesn’t ‘sound like an Usher record’? I sang all that on purpose with my voice!”

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Fair enough. If he’s happy with the art he made, good on him. I will always respect a creative that gets their vision out.

Anyway, here’s the piece. I’m such a fan of his that I kind of felt bad being so harsh. I’ve been to at least three Usher concerts and will gladly go to another. So if you see me grinding up on my girl at one of his shows in the future, know that all criticism came with love. Like when one of the homies says your outfit isn’t as good as it could be, then suggests better options. Cool? Cool.

Lady Gaga, Dropping the Illusions

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Lady Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion” single artwork c/o Interscope Records

 

The last time I saw Lady Gaga in person, she was wearing a massive blonde wig, a flowery red leotard with a matching keytar around her neck and closing down New York City’s Roseland Ballroom.

The time before that, I saw Gaga artRave performance at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in front of a larger-than-life sculpture of herself custom-made by Jeff Koons. On that same night I reported on how she debuted Volantis, a flying contraption that she hoped would spark the minds of thinkers and maybe propel her to being the first artist to perform in outer space on some one small step leads to pop music on Pluto ish. Gaga’s a woman that’s no stranger to eccentricities.

I’ve always been a fan. Though as she became one the biggest pop stars ever, I wished for her to show people her talent without the frills. Not because I didn’t like or enjoy Lady Gaga, The Spectacle (I have a thing for oddballs, weirdos and theatrics). I do. But more as a middle finger to folks who credit her success to her antics and not her skill. When most people think of Gaga, I’m not sure what comes to mind first. Is it the egg or the meat dress or the smash records? Is she a pretentious Broadway nutbag or a great creative mind with pipes that could blow the roof off your house?

LADY GAGA / JOANNE NEW ALBUM OCT 21

A photo posted by Lady Gaga (@ladygaga) on

 

After three LPs worth of kookiness and as many years without a solo album, Gaga returns this fall with Joanne. On this set—its title coming from the singer’s middle name—she’s about to give me what I’ve been wishing for.

In the interview above, she seems to be very aware of just how out there she’s been and how people perceive her. “I’ve always kind of wanted to make things that were kind of absurd and interesting and melding pop culture with technology and fashion and art and music,” she tells Sway Calloway. “So I did beckon for [the perception that I’m from outer space].”

Joanne‘s first single “Perfect Illusion” is a rock love story where Gaga realizes that the object of her affection actually doesn’t love her at all. The romance was all a rouse. On a macro level, the song could be applied to the facades we all often face and how it’s important to recognize that people aren’t always being their true selves. “Not everything is what it seems” is not a new phrase, but we’ve all fallen for the okie-doke. Great song, better message.

But what I’m more-so talking about right now is the visual aspect of this 2016 Gaga. In the “Illusion” video she just dropped, her look is bad-ass basic. In a black tee, cut-off jeans and Doc Marten boots, she looks like she could be in a #MyCalvins ad. It’s a performance video with her (along with Joanna executive producer) playing to and moshing with an audience. There’s no dramatic narrative or costume changes into peculiar get-ups. But the video’s still worth several viewings. Gaga told Sway that this is who she is now.

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still from Gaga’s “Perfect illusion” video c/o Interscope Records

 

“I’m 30. I want to wear my jeans and some flat shoes,” she says. “I want to take my makeup off and I want to sing at the top of my lungs on my piano and the guitar.” The outfits never made her. And while Gaga’s on this run, she’ll be proving it.

Sign me up. I’m in.

Frank Ocean, ‘Blonde’ and Why We Shouldn’t Rush Art

 

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Frank Ocean | Blonde album artwork c/o Boys Don’t Cry |
additional editing by Brad

 

“In the four years spent away from being an active performing artist, Frank Ocean lived.”

I wrote a piece for Billboard about the crazy anticipation and rush fans put on Frank Ocean to release new music after being relatively silent since his Channel Orange debut in 2012.

Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’ Proves Why Artists Shouldn’t Be Rushed

Over the weekend, Frank dropped new two projects–a proper sophomore album called Blonde  and a visual album, Endless. My story essentially is about how good things come to those who wait when you’re dealing with an artist the caliber of Ocean. Here’s an excerpt from it:

These things take time. And now that it’s out (finally!), it’s clear that Ocean’s was well-spent. In those exaggerated, agonizing years that fans complained about what he was doing while not feeding their voracious appetites for his particular brand of mood music, it’s clear that his travels, explorations, extensive introspection and, yes, even the moments that he seemed to just be goofing off, equated to him making another masterpiece.

Can you tell that like the album? Well, it’s pretty damn great. I’m still digging into it, Genuising lyrics, hearing interesting sounds in the background and trying to piece together storylines. If I have to wait another four years for his third album, I gladly will knowing it’ll be Orange or Blonde quality (though I, of course, hope it doesn’t take that long).

Here’s a bit that was left on the editing floor of the Billboard story about Frank’s artistic growth:

In all that time “off,” he was growing, if not in that obvious way of a wider octave range, definitely in terms of self-assurance and confidence in his own skin. Look no further than the “Nikes” video for evidence. Ocean sits in front of his car dressed casually, except that he’s wearing eye liner dramatically stylized around his lids. Later in the visual he wears a white Balmain jumpsuit adorned in pearls.

Frank Ocean Nikes Video

“Nikes” video still c/o Boys Don’t Cry

His faces shimmers with sweat glueing gold glitter all over. He’s an angelic figure of sorts rolling on a theater stage as the devil tap-dances in the balcony (it’s worth noting that Frank’s lips appear to have smudged rouge lipstick on them). He’s making grander statements, revealing more of himself than ever before through his art. Certainly more than he could or would have years ago. In that regard, Frank’s return yields a greater result than that of, say, a Justin Timberlake or an Adele, who both took several years off before releasing albums.

My current favorites from Blonde are “Nights,”  “Self Control” and “Close to You.” I’m sure that’ll change in due time. Go give it a listen a let me know what you think of it.

 

PartyNextDoor Px3 Review for Billboard

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Px3 album cover

 

Here’s the Billboard review I did for Party’s new album. Excerpt below: 

On his latest studio effort PARTYNEXTDOOR3 (P3), Party is picking up where he left off two years ago when he dropped his PARTYNEXTDOOR TWO (the follow-up to his self-titled 2013 mixtape). To say he’s matured would be an overstatement. PND’s remained the same topically, keeping his subject matter acutely focused on his relationships with the opposite sex. He’s three projects in, but a fan probably couldn’t tell you much about his family or political views from his catalog. Thankfully, he continues to do what he does well — lifestyle music with vibes fit for chic, chill nightspots where downtown studs and beauties collide, be it in his native Toronto or Los Angeles.

Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Revisionist History’ Has More Gems Than A Jeweler

 

I’m really impressed by how Malcolm Gladwell uses unique entry points to tell stories on his podcast series Revisionist History.

Carlos Doesn’t Remember” starts off as a story about a child gifted with intelligence that lives in a crappy LA neighborhood, but turns into a lesson on how some of America’s smartest kids will never get an opportunity to realize their potential, because they’re impoverished and don’t have an advocate or solid service fighter for them.

Food Fight” starts as a piece about cafeteria food and universities, then becomes a well-done exposé on how, typically, a college with 5-star cafeteria and fancy dorms likely is syphoning funds from the school that could be better used to help enroll students that need financial aid (though Bowdoin College doesn’t much like how they were represented).

The Big Man Can’t Shoot” begins as a story about notoriously abysmal NBA free throw shooters, then whirls into a lesson on how those that care the most about how they’re perceived by others (“Am I cool?” “Do people like me?” “Am I the only person doing this?”) limits their willingness to be their best selves. Wilt Chamberlain shot free throws underhanded  (“grandma style”) for one season and it was an immense help, resulting in his best year percentage-wise from the line. And then the next season, it plummeted back to the horrendous percentage of yore because he decide that he’d rather shoot overhead, be “cool” and miss than underhand, be “uncool” and make. Amazing.

Just today, I listened to him talk about a pastor that was dumped by his church because his son is gay and an acclaimed university that has a building named after a racist U.S. president. But the message within those stories is that communicating thoughtfully and tactfully lends itself to achieving the change you’d like to see in people that are in the wrong. It’s so good.

When my dad is telling lengthy, long-winded stories—as entertaining as they often are—my mom often says, “Land the plane!” She means, “Get to the point.” But as I’ve learned, if you stick around for whatever he’s talking about, everything will make sense in the end and there will be numerous gems and lessons to pull from. The journey/story is worth it. Revisionist History reminds me of that.

So this is me endorsing Revisionist History. Enjoy.