22, A Million by Simone Dupuy
In 2012, Justin Vernon released an album independently under the name Bon Iver, deriving from a French phrase meaning “good winter.” Indeed, the band’s first two albums — which gleaned Grammy recognition and a solid indie fanbase — featured mostly folksy songs with nostalgic prose that pair well with a mug of Earl Grey and the crackling of a fireplace. Though Bon Iver hinted at an inclination toward auto-tuned vocals and suggestions of computer-generated tunes in their sophomore, self-titled album, I’m not sure anyone expected such a jarring electro-folk hybrid in the band’s recently released third album, 22, A Million.
The first song, “22, (OVER S∞∞N),” resembles more of hodgepodge of eclectic sounds than an introductory track. There’s a recurring, single-note, synthy feedback noise, some melancholy-yet-jazzy sax and a healthy serving of interestingly affected voice samples. Though not necessarily unpleasant, it is clear from the strangely formatted title and arguably even stranger sounds that the band is trying to shock listeners. The band is possibly even trying to indoctrinate us into an almost experimentally electronic and noisy album, not for those who know the band only by “Skinny Love.” Though they’re listed nearly everywhere as an “indie folk” group, I’d describe this stage of Bon Iver’s career more along the lines of “if Phil Collins went in a really weird direction after leaving Genesis.”
And, indeed, it does seem very ’80s-inspired, which is something a few fans will be expecting given the group’s prior work. This is not a decade that brings folk music to mind, but, as I’ve mentioned, neither is this album. Aside from retro bass and techno touches, the record is often reminiscent of EDM with its heavy doses of electric drums, static-y beats and what I call “bass farts.” A few times, I expected Kanye to jump in with a verse.
Tracks like “715 – CRΣΣKS” and “29 #Strafford APTS” are more like the band’s well-known tunes in their almost gospel-like, building harmonies. Still, these vocals masquerade behind a proverbial shitload of Auto-Tune and are really just a chewed-up bone thrown to curmudgeonly fans like me who prefer the rainy-day vibes from old jams like “Holocene” and “Blood Bank.”
Though the album is not particularly consistent with its two predecessors, it is consistent among itself. The music itself sounds interstitial, never quite resolved, while the lyrics reflect this with tales of waiting and searching. With autumn finally showing its colors (figuratively here in Santa Barbara), I was hoping for a more traditional set of songs from Bon Iver to listen to while wallowing in self-pity in the midst of midterms and romanticizing the fleeting rainy weather. That is not what I got, and, in all honesty, I will probably never listen to this album again. I encourage you to test the waters of this new style yourself, but if you need me, I’ll be listening to “Re: Stacks” on loop pretending 22, A Million never happened.
A Seat at the Table by Molly Guillermo
Solange Knowles’s A Seat at the Table is a declarative demonstration of black excellence in music. The 21-track R&B album, which Solange wrote, arranged and co-produced, is part memoir and part evaluation of racial politics in America, as well as a celebratory expression of black identity.
A Seat at the Table contains remarkably smooth beats produced by Raphael Saadiq and spoken-word interludes performed by rapper Master P, but it also produces a strong thematic progression of Solange’s search for self-empowerment. The album celebrates blackness in a world that doesn’t always allow people of color the space to do so. The first track and first song written for the album, “Rise,” describes the healing process Knowles has been through in writing the album. Tracks such as “Weary,” “Cranes in the Sky” and “Mad” express the anger, grief and dissonance black women experience as a result of racism and prejudice. The burden of educating others is too often placed unfairly on people of color, who then find themselves tirelessly justifying their right to be angry. The R&B singer criticizes the stereotype of the “angry black woman,” a term often used to invalidate women’s anger, in “Mad.” The track describes the songstress’s attempts to suppress her pain. In “Cranes in the Sky,” the singer grieves, “I tried to drink it away/I ran around in circles/but that just made me sadder.”
The singer wrote on Instagram, “When I first started writing this record I was tired, filled with grief, and feeling broken … I wanted to tell my story, our story, in my own words, and in my own voice.” In “Don’t Touch My Hair,” Solange refuses to compromise her beliefs or her identity to satisfy others. She sets boundaries by telling white people who fetishize and alienate black women by non-consensually touching their hair to back off.
The progression of the album continues. “Where do we go from here?” she asks in “Where Do We Go.” Master P answers this question in “Interlude: For Us By Us”: “If you don’t understand my record, you don’t understand me, so this is not for you.’” The interlude inspires Solange to begin to create a space for herself by allowing herself to rest. In “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care)”, she sings, “Baby, it’s war outside these walls/A safe place tonight/Let’s play it safe tonight.” Artists Nia Andrews and Kia Rowland go on to sing an acapella interlude, “I Got So Much Magic, You Can Have It,” that celebrates blackness. “Don’t let anybody steal your magic” is the defining rhetoric, both of this interlude and Solange’s journey.
The album ends with a spoken-word interlude by Master P called “Closing: The Chosen Ones.” The final lyric, “Now, we come here as slaves, but we going out as royalty, and able to show that we are truly the chosen ones,” evokes regality. Solange has not only endured personal suffering, but identifies also with the suffering of all black people in America. At the conclusion of her journey, she recognizes herself and other people of color as the “chosen ones,” who deserve to be honored for their strength.
Solange has created a beautiful and deeply personal album, rife with classic instrumentation and jazzy R&B beats defined by her strong and clear voice. A Seat at the Table is black excellence and black affirmation at its finest.
Atrocity Exhibition by Ryan Hikes
In a recent interview with Complex, Danny Brown said that his artistic vision for his music is to “paint my own path and do something nobody else did because originality is everything to me.” Brown accomplishes this goal with his new full-length studio album Atrocity Exhibition, tackling the otherworldly, experimental beats all over this record that very few other rappers would even attempt to rap over.
Lyrically, Brown returns to the more personal content of his breakout 2011 album XXX centered on his mental problems and drug use. However, Atrocity Exhibition does not simply celebrate drugs and partying, nor does it wholly condemn it. Instead, it portrays a person experiencing the highs and the lows of life. For example, the song “Get Hi,” which features a comedic hook by B-Real, seems at first to be an innocuous weed anthem. However, in the context of the album it amounts only to a temporary high, which may only lead to worsening depression akin to the “Downward Spiral” described in the first track. This song features unsettling guitars and industrial percussion that bring to life its hazy, eerie lyrics as Brown describes a depressive episode where he “feel like no one care, so I isolate myself and don’t go nowhere.” He then tries to quell this depression by “drowning [his] frustrations in an ocean of sin.” This is the tension of the album, as Brown seeks to relieve his pain, even though he knows it’s only pushing him further down this “Spiral.”
This tension is realized in the instrumentals, as some of the best bangers of the year share a track list with some of the most soul-bearing raps since Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Incidentally, Kendrick features in one of the lead singles of the album, the posse cut “Really Doe,” along with Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt. One of the highlights of the album, all four verses bring the energetic flow that makes a great posse cut, and it’s hard to pick a favorite feature, though Black Milk brings an excellent beat in his one production credit. Paul White, who is coming off a successful collaboration with Open Mike Eagle this year, remains on top of his game with a production credit on ten songs. A key standout from White is the sixth track, “Ain’t It Funny,” which features looping samples a muddy driving bass reminiscent of Grime music with high hornlike synths that create a creepy, funhouse beat. However, despite the exciting bangers of the album, the looming shadow of Brown’s depression remains in the background before being addressed with force on the final cut “Hell for It,” in which Brown reasserts control of his life by promising to keep fighting for his art despite his other problems. Ultimately, Atrocity Exhibition does something quite remarkable among today’s hip-hop releases and remains cohesive in content, while tackling a variety of instrumentals that keep you interested throughout the 46-minute runtime of the record.
Overall, this album is the perfect mix of unique artistry in the hip-hop medium: everything from the dark personal lyrics that present the highs and lows of a strained mental state to the eerie, experimental beats that seem to mesh perfectly with Brown’s unique yelping vocal delivery. Atrocity Exhibition is the realization of Danny Brown’s desire to create something absolutely original and is one of the best hip-hop releases of the year.
The Altar by Malei Guzman
Two years after the release of her debut album, singer-songwriter Jillian Rose Banks, better known as BANKS, released her sophomore album titled The Altar. The album was released at midnight on Sept. 30 2016. In this album BANKS experiments with her sound plenty, but also defines who she really is and who she wants to become as an artist.
She starts the album off with an indie pop sound, and as it progresses it transitions into a much slower, alternative R&B sound. The album touches many subjects, but the main theme that appears often is self-love and breakups.
The song “To the Hilt” is a piano ballad about how hard it is to go through a breakup. It’s deep, it’s sad, it’s beautiful. Honestly, listen to this song when you’re having feels.
Her lead single, “Fuck with Myself,” is an anthem for everybody. It shows the beauty of loving yourself. BANKS herself has mentioned that this song can be interpreted in many ways. It has multiple meanings like, “I’m freaking awesome and I love myself,” or, “I don’t need anyone but myself!” It leaves one with the strong impression of, “I love myself because I am an awesome person, and if I’m the only one that can see that, it’s okay!”
The song “Weaker Girl” also shows the strength within that comes with learning self-love. It’s a much slower song than “Fuck with Myself,” but it definitely shares the same message. The song explains the importance of loving yourself and surrounding yourself around people just like you. Being around people who share similar goals, interests and mindsets is a lot more important than one may think. The song is about a toxic relationship in which her boyfriend did not appreciate her for her greatness. He saw her as a toy; she was weak, and that gave him power. In the song she explains that she is not weak. She does not need someone who keeps brining her down; all she needs is herself and someone just as badass as her.
In the song “Mother Earth,” we can hear the rawness of her voice. It’s soothing and it has a lot of true and powerful emotion to it. The song uses just a guitar for the instrumentals rather than her usual electronic, rap-inspired beats, which makes it great. We can hear her actual voice shine through, not one that is overpowered by the beat.
Even though The Altar has a sound very similar to BANKS’s debut album Goddess, her sound on this album shows the improvement she has made with her voice. It shows how comfortable she has gotten over the years with her unique style of music.