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 Beyoncé, Radiohead, Chance the Rapper, James Blake/Bon Iver, and Drake.
Beyoncé (feat. Kenrick Lamar), “Freedom”
Adam Offitzer: A true stunner on an album full of them. A
Elena Badillo: This song was my immediate Lemonade first-listen favorite. As it often happens with the best albums, your “favorite” changes day by day. Still, I just can’t help listening to this track over and over again every time I put that record on; it remains so gloriously powerful. I’ve never heard Beyoncé sing like this before and Kendrick’s addition couldn’t be more appropriate here, both thematically and musically. As summarized by its live-recorded final verse, the song’s lyrics revolve around finding inner strength amid pain: a “bitter love” in the case of Beyoncé, a “nation’s hypocrisy” for the always socially aware Kendrick. The juxtaposition is perfect, and made alive by impressive musical arrangements. A
Luis Tovar: Jeez. What a song.
“Freedom” sounds like the culmination of Beyoncé’s landmark career so far. Despite sharp references to Aretha’s eternal “Think”, Yoncé’s “Freedom” keeps its feet firmly in the present (that crucial period of time so often ignored by quixotic pop music). In less than five minutes, Beyoncé touches on every one of her favorite themes: Black womanhood, romantic violence, social violence, and, crucially, self-determination. With a fist in the air, she summarizes an 18 year career most would give their first born for, and she reminds us why Queen Bey will continue to reign. Lemonade, the best album of the year and many other years, is the album Beyoncé has been preparing to record since her “Say My Name” days. “Freedom” enters the lofty Beyoncé canon not only as her boldest thematic achievement, but her towering musical triumph. A+
Luke Fowler: Everything Lemonade is in one song: bombastic, diverse, angry, and excellent. Beyoncé’s middle finger is fully up (put ‘em hands high!) on this track, but the message she has is more empowering than caustic. Kendrick Lamar masterfully drives the point home with a verse that could have comfortably fit on To Pimp a Butterfly. You should already know what high praise that is. (His line about “misleadin’ statements ‘bout my persona” made my eyes involuntary widen on first listen.) Great feature. Great song. A–
Marshall Gu: Makes me yearn for revolution-calling R&B songs from the 60s, like Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street.” This one’s just incredibly lame-sounding, from the organ screams to the military march to Beyonce’s cries for freedom from the oppressor; everything sounds mechanical, like it was created during an 11 o’clock board meeting from a bunch of suits. Add to this the potent problem that the message is generic and no details are given, such that it’s hard to take this seriously as the anthem it wants to be (as opposed to say, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”), and the cynic inside me can’t help but think it’s all a pose riding on the case-du-jour. But Kendrick Lamar verses are always a treat, and this one’s no different, from the introducing countdown (“Ten Hail Marys”; “Channel 9”; “Eight blocks left”; etc.) before he leaps into “Jump in the aqueducts / Fire hydrants and hazardous” and commences a machine-gun assault of mono-syllabic words. C+
Elena: I think that, among all the things that Radiohead does impeccably fine, is communicating with its public. Previous to the release of Radiohead’s crazily expected ninth album, fans and critics anxiously wondered what turn would the band take this time, and of course, were eager to search for any hints— except the band wasn’t giving many. That changed when lead singles “Burn The Witch” and “Daydreaming” were released. Together, those two tracks told us a lot about what was yet to come. Just as “Burn The Witch” signaled A Moon Shaped Pool’s strong leaning towards orchestral string arrangements, “Daydreaming” signaled the album’s gloomy ambience, drowned in sadness and resignation. The track is a dense, beautiful, and rare ballad that subtly experiments with piano and synths. Also, it was so Radiohead to embed those cryptic backward lyrics in the end, waiting to be deciphered by the nerds! B+
Luis: I’m putting “Daydreaming” alongside “How to Disappear Completely” and “Pyramid Song”. So, yeah, that means this is an A+ (yep, another one.) Come at me, Paranoid Androids.
Luke: Not as immediately striking as “Burn the Witch”, as far as A Moon Shaped Pool’s singles go, but it might be the best thing on the album. I’ve already seen a lot of people comparing it to Kid A, and it makes sense; if you took the tone of “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, the lyrics of “How To Disappear Completely”, and the composition of “Everything In Its Right Place”, you’d get something akin to this. It’d be enough for this to sound like a combination of three of the best songs from one of the best albums of all time, but the sublime, slow-burning string arrangement elevates it from an admirable rehash to a standout in their discography. Incredible. A
Marshall: Heard this one for the third time ever after a few beers on a mostly empty streetcar ride home on Thursday night. Ideal setting for Radiohead—lightly buzzed while gazing at all those downtown buildings in their well-lit and interchangeable glory. This one’s good, even if I won’t seek it out too much: the keyboard melody that they guide through their newfound minimalism adoration is gold (I really like how they resolve it), and the song climaxes well: Thom Yorke wandering while younger memories whisper truncated warnings. B+
Chance the Rapper (feat. Saba), “Angels”
Adam: “Angels” has been in my life since October, soundtracking countless commutes and serving as a constant source of joy. But in the context of Chance's cathartic Coloring Book, it’s something even greater, a crucial part of a cohesive whole. While not quite a concept album, the mixtape is bound together by consistent feelings throughout—feelings of joy, gospel, community, religion. And as the mixtape’s centerpiece, "Angels" functions as a perfect exclamation point—or in many ways, multiple exclamation points, each punctuation marked by each burst of Donnie Trumpet’s blaring horn. Just a few songs after calmly listing the blessings that keep falling in his lap, Chance triumphantly salutes the angels who help make it happen. If music is really all we got, thank goodness we’ve got Chance. A
Elena: I love every ingredient here: amazing vocals, stunning brass instrumentation, joyful xylophone, flawless production. And probably most of all, that super smart rapping, only comparable to that of Kendrick. The result is a tremendously uplifting yet thought-provoking autobiographical celebration whose inclusion in Coloring Book feels just right. B+
Luis: I love this guy. He’s so sweet. Coloring Book is so warm. So happy. So fucking endearing. He got me doing front flips. A
Luke: This track’s been out for a bit, but I have no qualms with revisiting it because it’s wonderful. Steel drums, horns, and an irresistible sense of joy collide in a sunny ode to Chance’s home city of Chicago. What’s not to like? A–
Marshall: It’s like Chance the Rapper’s the only person in the world who wants to make feel good music for the purposes of feeling good, even though he manages to sneak in a line that recalls the paranoia of “Pusha Man” (“It’s too many young angels on the Southside / Got us scared to let our grandmommas outside”). And while the song gets me going, I don't think it's a good showcase of either Saba or the Social Experiment—Saba (who provided the knotty verse to Donnie Trumpet’s "SmthnthtIwnt") is delegated to hook duty and the production isn’t as lushly detailed as songs from Surf (though there are some nice marimbas/steel drums). Still: Chance the Rapper is one of the three best rappers out there right now, and his verses here are as good as expected for someone who has nowhere to go but up. A–
James Blake (feat. Bon Iver), "I Need a Forest Fire"
Adam: While Blake’s new album can fall into lulls of beautiful boredom, “Forest Fire” stands out thanks to the welcome guest appearance from Justin Vernon’s thrilling, familiar voice. A–
Elena: The soothing beauty of this song, as happens with many of the tracks in James Blake’s new record, gradually engages you deeper and deeper until you somehow end up playing it on repeat. But besides the lovely features of the song, the fact that it’s the result of a collaboration with Justin Vernon and superproducer Rick Rubin is noteworthy and a definitely non-trivial achievement, in terms of Blake’s consolidated ascent in the music industry. Also, I officially love that “Whooo!”. A–
Luis: This is pretty, but damn do I hate Bon Iver’s “Woo!” that opens the track (sorry, Elena!). I guess it’s James Blake’s way of alerting the listener that “I Need a Forest Fire” is going to be a Michael Jackson deconstruction or something. Whatever, it makes my skin crawl. But as far as Michael Jackson deconstructions go, this is one of Blake’s better ones. He really is like a child pulling apart all of the aspects of a good R&B song just to see how it works. And all of the elements are given ridiculous amounts of room to breathe and become illuminated by the twin vocals of Justin Vernon and our boy James. And those vocals—they are awfully nice, aren’t they? I don’t recognize that sample stuttering in the background, but it’s fun in an anonymous early- kind of way. It’s a fun nod to Blake’s UK bass music roots. He hasn’t left them behind, per se, but he has just built on top of them an architecturally significant—and cold—modern house. I can appreciate it. Sometimes I appreciate it a lot, but I don’t think I’ll be moving in. B
Luke: James Blake featuring Bon Iver is the indie equivalent of a Desiigner/Future collab. Make of that what you will. The reverb and the backing sample create a pleasing atmosphere (if there’s one thing that’s stayed constant across James Blake’s three albums, it’s the impeccable production), but when listening to this, I get the distinct sense that he’s already showed his full hand when comes to what he can do musically. Not a bad track, but not a necessary one either. B
Marshall: Likely the third best song off The Colour in Anything, and, like “CMYK” and “The Wilhelm Scream,” mostly because of the driving sample. Justin Vernon’s voice is still one of the most annoying things in the world when not under Kanye’s command, and his opening “WHOOOO!” is off-putting; his voice is the dictionary definition of faux-soul, so it makes sense he and James Blake are friends. B–
Drake, “Feel No Ways”
Adam: Everyone has their favorite version of Drake, and this is mine—when he’s in pure “Hold On We’re Going Home” mode. A–
Elena: Apart from “One Dance” and “Hotline Bling”, this might be the less boring track in one of the most boring albums I’ve heard this year. Still, it’s really boring. Drake does a couple of nice things with his voice at 1:06 and 1:09, though. C
Luis: This is the most Drake song ever, and I mean that in the nicest way possible, because despite being the ultimate fuckboy (and having an annoying penchant for cheese), I like Aubrey. He has a great ear for simple tunes and he’s obviously tapped into something special. (Can you think of many other popular artists who can convincingly be called the voice of their generation?) Musically, “Feel No Ways”, and the rest of Views, break no new ground for Drake. It actually reminds me of some the good songs on his mostly shitty debut LP, which is to say it sounds like an 808s and Heartbreak b-side. Still, when Drake focuses on songcraft instead of meme-able bars, he can steal my breath away with the prettiness of his little melodies. His forthright storytelling also gets me—when he’s not being cloying or gross. Consider this: “I tried with you/ There’s more to life than sleeping in/ And getting high with you/ I had to let go of us to show myself what I could do.” Yeah. That’s peak Feels Drake. B+
Luke: Pretty average Views track here; self-pitying lyrics, mildly interesting samples, and passable singing. The drum track’s oddly compressed, as if it were taken from a low-quality source. I’m trying to think of more concrete criticisms to give here, but as someone who’s never one to shy away from an obvious joke: this track makes me feel no ways. The strings and synthesizers at the end are pretty, though. C
Marshall: Some nice drum programming doesn’t make a song, Drake. But it’s one of the better songs off Views because at least it has some nice drum programming. B–