The Hot Take: David Bowie, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak

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Welcome to The Hot Take, a feature where a selection of writers discuss some of the noteworthy single releases of the last couple weeks. This time we take a look at the new singles from the late, great David Bowie, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, and a triple dose of Kanye West

David Bowie, “Lazarus”

Justin Pansacola: Bowie making his death part of his art is one of the strangest turns in music history and it makes it hard to critique. How would you rate Bowie’s performance of his own secret impending death? Today “Lazarus” is intensely gloomy jazz, and despite all the strides toward freedom, it’s hard to feel anything but dread. It’s going to be an immortal song, which would I assume would be mission accomplished for Blackstar as a whole. A

Adam Offitzer: Pretty impossible to review this one as just a “song” with that music video, released in this context. Not to mention that opening line: “Look up here, I'm in heaven.” Completely haunting, riveting, and beautiful.

Nathan Wisnicki: I kinda don’t wanna talk about this, because it forces me to raise some uncomfortable truths in the wake of a death that’s affected me more than any pop star’s death of my lifetime. Specifically, that Bowie was a great singer, a quester for beauty in many different forms, a beautiful and stoic man with great taste, and never actually a particularly brilliant songwriter when he didn’t have Mick Ronson, Brian Eno, or Nile Rodgers holding his hand. “Lazarus” is actually somewhat more interesting than most post-1980 Bowie songs, what with its skronky-scratchy guitar, New Orleans funeral horns, active bass line, and Bowie’s own unsettlingly committed vocal. And yet it’s still pretty dreary, and musically inert despite all the snazzy details. Oh well. Time to go listen to “‘Heroes’” and cry to the stars again. B

Austin Reed: Whether we’ll ever admit it again, each of the writers tasked with reviewing “Lazarus” for this Hot Take is feeling uncontrollably compelled to compartmentalize all their feelings for David Bowie into this very tiny writing space. What happened early last week has affected the very fabric of music, both as an art form and as a business, but the death of David Bowie can’t shake the way we hear music as a result of him. He has molded so much of pop culture just by existing on an observable level, and “Lazarus”, to me, kind of sounds like Bowie’s optimistic overview of the kingdom he created. Hopefully he’s happy with his work, because his influence is as alive and relevant as ever. Rest in peace, Starman. Thank you for writing us one last love letter before you left us. B+

Kendrick Lamar, “Untitled 2”

Justin Pansacola: There’s something about these “Untitled” performances that seem perfect for small TV show stages and lights. The blistering word count with nary a hook in sight makes it feel like an exhibition, and we all become spectators at a sporting event. Who else comes up with a song and just seems like he's showing off? Maybe this free flowing form wouldn't work on an album, but I’m a fan of the way he uses talk show appearances. Every time he steps in front of their cameras, it has the potential to be must-see television. B

Adam Offitzer: Along with all of his other talents, Kendrick also has a knack for creating consistently spectacular TV moments. From his first “Untitled” song on Colbert, to his infectious “i” on SNL, to his artistic “These Walls” on Ellen, Kendrick brings down the house any chance he gets to polish a unique performance. Unlike traditional “great performers,” however, Kendrick isn't exactly one to prompt a sing-along, or to engage the viewers directly—instead, he operates in his own world, driven by total focus and intensity. With the keys pounding and the cymbals clashing for the fierce final minutes, Kendrick struts and stomps from side to side, in step with the beat, lost in the music, on his own level. We’re lucky he even lets us catch a glimpse. A

Nathan Wisnicki: This is a delightful piece of music on its own terms—the warm guitar; the way the whole thing continually eases down and opens up into an open-skied comfort and then pulls back up into something tighter before revving up hard for the outro; the innate musicality in Kendrick’s own street-patter poetry, which just gets better and better. But I definitely recommend watching the live clip from The Tonight Show, where you can see Kendrick with his head in the groove and his mind on the words, flicking his arms to raise and wave, spinning his hands as the words flow ever-onward. And when the jazz piano starts improvising? Oh, man. Delightful! A

Austin Reed: Let’s assess: The only officially documented version of “Untitled 2” exists as the live-audience-studio recording from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Which means the version we hear was recorded in one sitting. Which means all those lyrically insane twists and turns went down in front of about 250 completely unaffiliated people. Which means the odds were incredibly high that something could have gone wrong in the delivery. But the odds lost. “Untitled 2”, in fact, is Lamar’s catchiest, most well-rounded and most accessible track to date. And the fact that it went down in the face of nearly insurmountable adversity? Ah, fuck it: It’s the best Kendrick Lamar song yet. There. A+

Kanye West, “FACTS”

Justin Pansacola: What we like about Kanye is his ability to switch it up and try new things (or other people's things.) So sometimes we have to accept these experiment fail. “FACTS” blows up the lab. It has all of Kanye’s confidence without any of the glamour, cleverness or aspirational power. Listening to “Only One” the morning of January 1, 2015 was a great way to enter the new year, but this meandering Nike dis track has me worried it’s a bad omen for 2016. C

Adam Offitzer: On New Year’s Eve 2014, Kanye gave his daughter a soulful lullaby, with Paul McCartney on the organs, and posted it to SoundCloud for the world to hear before bed. On New Year’s Eve 2015, Kanye gave Nike a slap in the face, with a half-assed Drake beat, and posted it to SoundCloud for the world to laugh at. “FACTS” certainly won’t be getting a Grammy performance, and it won’t have a Spike Jonze music video to go with it. But it will be remembered in its own way, as a goofy novelty track to remind us that Yeezy Season is coming. C+

Nathan Wisnicki: This is so openly half-assed (from the very first line) that it doesn’t really warrant any discussion, other than to wonder why he’d bother releasing it in the first place. I mean, it’s clearly not gonna be on the album, so, what? To dick around with a lower-drawer Future beat? To lessen people’s standards for the album and then (hopefully) blow ‘em away extra­-good? To see how bracingly corny he could get over so dreary a beat? Who knows, who cares. D

Austin Reed: I’d like to think that, as recompense for making us wait approximately 18 months longer for a Yeezus follow-up than we ever thought we’d have to, we’d be greeted by an album pre-release a little more exciting than this…thing. Thankfully, the other two tracks Ye has dropped since “FACTS” are literally a billion times better. Single-biggest issue: “Yeezy, Yeezy, Yeezy just jumped over ‘Jumpman,’” is like the most repeated line in the whole song, but who gave a shit about “Jumpman,” in the first place? Austin, Austin, Austin just jumped over that small rock over there. It’s not like I’m going to write a song about it. D+

Kanye West, “Real Friends”

Justin Pansacola: A sigh of relief. For some reason, Kanye West getting specific feels refreshing. These days his most memorable songs have been explosions of arrogance, fame, and all the neurosis that come with it. They’re exciting, but general. Kanye storytelling his way through his friendships gets a boost from the intimacy and introspection. It feels like another solid act of chiseling his public image, or another defining entry in his character arc.

Adam Offitzer: With its ridiculously timely references to Steve Harvey and Odell Beckham, and a sampled Drake hook, it seemed pretty obvious that “FACTS” was a throwaway track Kanye recorded a few nights before. But on Twitter, the instant reaction to “FACTS” was still concern: Is Kanye washed up? Out of ideas? “Real Friends” ended that concern pretty quickly. With a spare, twinkling beat, icy cold and full of warmth all at once, it's a beautiful track, right at home with Kanye’s other low-key ballads (“Big Brother,” “Blame Game” and “Spaceship”). A–

Nathan Wisnicki: Personality-wise, Kanye does seem to be back in the “real world” again: more down-to-earth, less feverish. But his music just keeps getting sparer and darker, and he might approach something close to despair. The barely-hanging-on piano reverb is just scarily gorgeous stuff, like sadly looking up at the sky and realizing that what you thought was a planet seems to be flickering, and you realize it might as well be artificial and it might not matter anyway. The Auto-Tuned voices are layered in their exaggerated artifice, and though it would’ve been nice if there were a decent vocal hook here, the glass harmonica pitch of that closing voice makes up for a lot. A–

Austin Reed: All this time waiting for Swish has given me ample time to do what I do best: Sit around, eat gummy bears and speculate on stuff. More specifically, I’ve been speculating on which version of Kanye we’ll hear on this LP. When scanning his catalog, it’s clear West is the most versatile hip-hop artist of his time—he raps with unrivaled wit and cultural wherewithal, and he produces like a drug-addled wizard with an inexhaustible supply of tricks. From LP to LP, the formula never duplicates, which is why it’s so difficult to predict how a Kanye project will sound. Luckily, several arrows are pointing in a less industrial, more lyrical direction. “Real Friends”, West’s second pre-released single, channels all the best parts of “Heard ‘Em Say” and “Good Morning” into a more updated formula. The result is gorgeous. A–

Kanye West, “No More Parties in L.A.” (feat. Kendrick Lamar)

Justin Pansacoal: Maybe I expected more from the first Kendrick and Kanye song, but “No More Parties in L.A.” is surprisingly thin. The song works, but it should do more than just work. It suffers from Kendrick disappearing before the halfway mark and the disconnect between the beat and the bars. The music doesn't dictate the drama or the flow of the words, which is okay, but starts to sound one note when it goes on, untouched, for 6 minutes. Still, I laughed out loud more than once and there's a warm familiarity to hearing Kanye use soulful samples. B-

Adam Offitzer: “No More Parties In L.A.” isn't exactly a musical achievement in any way—the beat is low-key and relatively unchanging—but it’s a nice masterclass in flow from two of the all-time greats. It’s remarkable that Kanye has now released three songs in three weeks, and yet Swish is still a total mystery. Let’s hope the album is a bit more ambitious in its production than this track, but no less full of the infectious excitement and enthusiasm on display here. B

Austin Reed: I don’t really know why I’m so surprised the vibes I’m picking up from these new Ye tracks; I suppose I had it in my head that SWISH wouldn’t deviate that much from previous avenues like “All Day,” or “Only One,” or pretty much anything off Yeezus. But of these three new Kanye joints, “No More Parties in L.A.” seems most determined to demonstrate the author’s desire to play in other sandboxes. “L.A.” is West at his most lyrical since Late Registration; I’m actually not even sure this song has a chorus. What it does have, however, is Yeezy and Kendrick Lamar spitting bars upon bars of content that would make Q-Tip jealous he didn’t write it himself. B

Anderson .Paak, “Come Down”

Justin Pansacola: I can already see the hundreds of b-boy YouTube videos set to this in 2016. And with good reason! I didn’t realize there was a need for strong, James Brownian funk in pop music until someone fulfilled the order. A song with this pace and bass makes you want to see it live. It activates the imagination. B+

Adam Offitzer: Soulful, scintillating fire. "Come Down" operates with the funky spirit of To Pimp A Butterfly's best beats, featuring a little more joy. B+

Nathan Wisnicki: Funky, funky shit! There isn’t much new here, of course, what with everyone chasing the Neptunes aesthetic again of clipping spare old-school funk down to the bare essentials. But a winning formula is a winning formula, and that bass line is disgustingly good. Plus I find it interesting how Paak’s own voice sounds like a male version of Cookbook-era Missy Elliott, even though the two are from opposite sides of the country. Those horns, the sing-along toward the end, the guitar lick that comes in all too briefly midway through…looks like I have to play catch-up to see what else I’ve missed from the guy. A–

Austin Reed: I’m so stoked Anderson Paak made the first Hot Take of 2016. Dude is a shining star—when it comes to the James Brown diet adopted by vanguards like Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo and Bruno Mars, Paak might be the newest torch-bearer. This track “Come Down”, is a slick, soulful banger fit for like any occasion given its subject matter (it’s about partying, and that’s it). What’s most impressive here is his range; traversing between quick-trigger bars and Saadiq-esque melodic interludes at his own leisure, Paak demonstrates a refined and well-tempered talent capable of changing the game entirely. Keep him on the radar for the rest of the year, and check out debut LP Malibu if you haven’t already. It’s awesome. B+