The Hot Take: Kanye West, Beyoncé, Drake, Bon Iver, James Blake

Avatar:
Pretty Much Amazing
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
10

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 Kanye West, Beyoncé, Drake, Bon Iver, James Blake, and Kevin Gates.

Kanye West, “Ultralight Beam” (feat. Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price, & Kurk Franklin)

Brooklyn Russell: “We on an ultralight beam! We on an ultralight beam!” sing a million soaring angels, practically lifting the emotionally fragile and vulnerable Kanye West out of the studio and thrusting him directly in front of the pearly gates. If “Ultralight Beam” feels like everything that’s probably because it is everything; worked, tweaked, mulled over, and ultimately perfected—in only Kanye’s signature distinctively imperfect way—but soulful and raw like little else out there in music today. There’s a certain timeless to “Ultralight Beam”, the sublime curtain-raiser on Kanye’s excellent new album The Life of Pablo, a spiritual vibe that could be essential to any time period, and for 2016, it’s downright curative. To think, all Kanye needs here is an eroding gospel backdrop and a revelatory verse from Chance the Rapper to have your heart circling its wagons. While responding to series of questions on Twitter about his recent controversial statements, Rhymefest, Kanye’s former collaborator wrote, “My brother needs help, in the form of counseling.” But what Rhymefest fails to understand about Kanye is that this is the only therapy he truly requires, with the music being a place for both his redemption and salvation. This is everything to Kanye. A+

Zach Bernstein: Somewhere around Yeezus I realized that I will never come even remotely close to understanding Kanye West’s music. Everything he has done over the last year leading up to the bafflingly titled The Life of Pablo (I’m a So Help Me God fan) has confused me—and “Ultra Light Beam” might be one of his most confusingly unexpected and strangely transcendent moments yet. It’s easy to see why West called his new album a gospel record with profanity—that’s exactly what this song is. The organ, the choir—it makes West’s God complex more obvious than ever before, and yet it all comes off as extremely sincere. Normally I hate singing Kanye, but here he actually pulls it off. The-Dream, Kirk Franklin, and Chance the Rapper make for a strange collection of bedfellows (churchfellows?) but all of their contributions work well in turn and contribute nicely to the overall rapturous vibe. I’m still trying to wrap my head around TLOP, but “Ultra Light Beam” is pretty great. B+

Adam Offitzer: An absolute masterpiece of a song. Also, a good reminder that it’s silly to get worried over the quality of a Kanye West album just because of some bizarre and immature tweets. I’ll be watching the SNL performance video for years to come, and expect to keep getting chills at Chance the Rapper’s subtly massive entrance. A+

Beyoncé, “Formation”

Brooklyn Russell: Guys, I think Beyonce might just fuck around and drop rap album of the year. Her latest song, “Formation”, is produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, co-written by Rae Sremmurd's Swae Lee, and features Queen Bey fiercely owning her black Southern womanhood with an unabashed sense of swagger. “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana," she sings, confidently reassuring us of her obvious street level realness. "You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama.” The song is unapologetic and confrontational, a true statement piece, and fits in perfectly in the catalog of an artist whose career—or the Gospel According to Beyoncé—has been an endless celebration of oneself. As evident from her ruthlessly frank social conscience, “Formation” is a reminder to the world that Beyoncé can do whatever the hell she wants, whether that's releasing bombastic, trunk-rattling South of the Mason-Dixon bangers or treating her man to a Red Lobster date in exchange for quality sex. The song also aptly does as much head-fucking as booty-shaking, addressing race, gender, the Illuminati, and sexual politics all at once. It’s a pop song that reaches far beyond the celebrity’s squeaky clean image to be the voice and energy for the underrepresented black female audience in popular art and culture. And as always, Beyoncé does so by being thrillingly relentless (and utterly flawless) in the process because that's when she's simply at her damn best. A–

Zach Bernstein: In just one short week, Beyoncé’s latest offering has become the most discussed moment in music pop culture since…well, Beyoncé. But at this point, between the incendiary video, the Super Bowl outfits and choreography, the instantly meme-able moments and catchphrases (“Red Lobster,” “Black Bill Gates in the making,” etc.), the public praise, the public backlash and the backlash against the backlash, what more can I say that hasn’t already been said about “Formation”? In this case, all I can really do is appreciate a pitch-perfect synthesis of music, media, and message. Beyonce has scaled yet another creative peak - here’s hoping she never stops. A– (docked ever so slightly for only being available on the Microsoft Zune of streaming services)

Adam Offitzer: The “Formation” music video and Super Bowl performance became such a weekend event that it’s tough to judge the quality of the song as just a song. As a statement, it’s lyrically powerful, and as a beat, it’s absolutely bumping. The chorus, on the other hand, is far from Bey’s best. But “Formation” doesn’t need to be as catchy as “Single Ladies”. The message is what she really wants to catch on. A–

Drake, “Summer Sixteen”

Brooklyn Russell: Where previously hard-hitting loosies “Charged Up” and “Back to Back” found Drake picking up the pieces after the damage of “Control”, seeking out a whipping post after the much hyped Kendrick Lamar beef fell through, “Summer Sixteen,” his latest single, merely phones in that energy with those same feigned, tough guy vibes we were introduced to on If You're Reading This, It's Too Late. This is essentially a cut-and-paste of the overtly aggressive, macho Drake we’ve come to know over the last twelve months; tactical, fully armed, strapped to the teeth, and with a complete disregard for anyone standing too close to the target. But it’s a thoroughly unremarkable song, especially for a rapper coming off of a smash pop record like “Hotline Bling”; here Drake drops more forgettable subs at Meek Mill, threatens any Toronto rappers looking to take his spot, claims his private pool is bigger than Kanye’s pool, and even his usually bankable producers Noah “40” Shebib and Boi-1da come up short in capturing the song’s intended unflinching tension and menace. With Views from the 6 starting to look more and more like Drake plotting his great escape from music, “Summer Sixteen” is merely a standard affair from an artist whose sounding too comfortable playing an exaggerated version of self. Did I forget to mention that he recently announced his own line of whiskey? Go buy that, I suppose. C

Zach Bernstein: Damn, Drake really goes in on this one, doesn’t he? While Kanye has been busy in church, Drake has been busy building a bigger pool. For arguably the biggest rapper in the game right now, there’s nothing particularly exceptional about this track - solid beat, some well-timed punchlines and braggadocious threats, and a golden Khaled cameo at the end. This seems perfectly in line with newer, harder Drake, and at this rate, Views from the 6 will be the logical spiritual successor to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. B

Adam Offitzer: The difference in production quality between “Summer Sixteen” and every single track on The Life Of Pablo continues to highlight just how big the gap still remains between Kanye West and Drake. At this point, the only argument for Drake might be that he has better “flow.” But when most of your songs have virtually the same beat, it’s not too tough to nail down a great flow. Drake is a fun rapper, and a remarkable personality, but when it comes to musical creativity, Kanye is just working on another level. C

Bon Iver, “Haven, Mass”

Zach Bernstein: Speaking of somber wintry crooners, welcome back Justin Vernon! “Haven, Mass” is textbook, 2011-era Bon Iver - vaguely poetic and inscrutable lyrics, atmospheric instrumental that slowly recedes into the background, town that doesn’t actually exist, etc. Bon Iver’s music is true definition of “mood music,” and this number really isn’t any different. It has a wistful, but somewhat disposable beauty to it - probably best heard sandwiched between similar Bon Iver offerings, one piece of a prevailing mood rather than a standalone, truly unique composition. B

Adam Offitzer: Another pretty one from Vernon. Miss this guy's voice so much. B+

Luis Tovar: Though not released officially, it is very exciting that this old b-side—from around the time Vernon was working as Kanye’s transcendent hook-boy on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—was unearthed at the same time Bon Iver announced that they were ready to make new music. It is not a remarkable Bon Iver song, but it is a reminder of the sort of magic this band can come up with even on lesser tracks. B+

James Blake, “Modern Soul”

Zach Bernstein: Oh my, this is gorgeous. James Blake has the vocal timbre of a less weepy Sam Smith, and his vocals are stunning here—the perfect combination of pristine, haunting tone with strangled, ugly hints of the tortured soul lying beneath. That somber, atmospheric piano refrain sounds a mid-winter walk in the woods, while that racing beat transplants that mood to an empty, 3am city street. This is truly excellent—modern soul, indeed. A–

Adam Offitzer: This track’s title seems to be a statement itself—Blake’s signature blend of piano, electronica, and experimental ambience has always been labeled as a uniquely modern brand of soul, and now he’s openly embracing that label. Sometimes, his icy sound hits hard and lingers, sometimes it washes away quickly. I’ll need a few more listens on this one to know for sure, but it seems like “Modern Soul” is a lingerer. B

Luis Tovar: Damn. Its treacly title aside, this song is really lovely, though I don’t see myself wanting to hear it again once I finish writing this. So, James Blake is going in circles, guys—beautiful, perfectly symmetrical circles full of feeling, sure, but at one point he seemed to be something of a groundbreaking talent. Now I get the sense that he can’t get over how fractured and emotional his really too affected, lifted-straight-from-the-Delta voice sounds over discordant piano riffs. It’s been a while since I’ve heard Blake take even 10% of the risk, say, Jamie xx took in In Colour last year. However, I am digging the new promo pic that came with (ugh) “Modern Soul”. That scruff is a good look. B–

Kevin Gates, “Jam” (feat. Trey Songz, Ty Dolla Sign, and Jamie Foxx)

Brooklyn Russell: Just when you thought Kevin Gates was all about drug deals, crime scenes, and trap houses, he goes and pulls out a love song, of sorts, from his songwriting hat. Although Gates largely rides solo on Islah, his impressive debut album, “Jam” finds the Baton Rouge rapper in rare form, playing well with others; here he receives some assistance from Trey Songz, Ty Dolla Sign and Jamie Foxx. But frankly Gates, whose a rare triple threat in today’s rap music scene—rapping, singing, and writing his own songs—could've just as easily handled the ballad all by his lonesome. “Spit all in-between both cheeks, now I spread ‘em/ Bet the neighbors know my name when you keep sayin’ Kevin,” Gates raps on the appropriately raunchy opening verse to “Jam”, a song that plays out like an NC-17 version to Twista’s 2004 breakout hit “Slow Jamz”. “Candles by the bed, God damn this a movie/ Stuffin’ you with dick while my finger in your booty,” he continues, with each explicit word spilling out ever so smoothly, ultimately sticking to his partner like hot wax. Say goodbye to the days when K-Ci and JoJo ruled over every PA system across America and enter the era of broadcasting that night’s round of bedroom athletics. B+

Zach Bernstein: Oh I’m very sure that this song received more than a few spins on Valentine’s Day. It reminds me of Kanye’s “Slow Jamz,” not least of which because of the title and the Jamie Foxx feature. This is really smooth—not much more to say than that. B

Luis Tovar: So this song is technically flawless, right? I didn’t like Islah as much as the Internet wanted me to, but “Jam” is an instant-classic. A