Poptimism’s dark side rears its head on Twin Shadow’s third LP Eclipse. After deriding his own music as “too elitist,” George Lewis, Jr. switches out guitars for…not guitars, and stakes pretty much everything on an album of enormous, heart-on-sleeve arena ballads that should validate an oft-mocked pop form but too often invites that same mocking. Eclipse sounds lab-engineered to achieve the kind of sound critics tend to call “cinematic,” but it comes off like more of a made-for-cable retread of a Beyonce power ballad. The lyrics are steeped in unredeemed clichés (to take but one example: the awful sex metaphor “you eclipse me” more than earns the album its title’s hopefully inadvertent Twilight reference), but as anyone who’s heard a good power ballad knows, the right melody and production can redeem the weakest lyrical conceit.
A pity, then, that the music here is even more predictable than the language, slipping at times into Now That’s What I Call The ‘80s musical theater: every emotion is telegraphed so far in advance that by the time the Big Moments hit, it’s with a profound sense of déjà vu at best and bleak boredom at worst. For instance, the de rigueur Dev Hynes-isms of boy-girl duet “Alone” are so rote that you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d heard the song somewhere before (or for falling asleep in the middle).
Frustratingly, a few of the songs on Eclipse really do hit that arena-pop bullseye, but stacked alongside so many other songs mining the same territory, they become irritating by association mm – “When The Lights Turn Out” uses deftly arranged strings to elevate the gaudy camp in spite of itself; “To The Top” is so, so, SO LOUD that my brain just sort of crumples before it, which isn’t an endorsement exactly but is probably, I think, the intended effect. In the end, the only tracks that emerge from Eclipse unscathed are “Turn Me Up,” which sounds like a Jessie Ware song, and “Old Love/New Love,” a big, cheesy house number. Neither sounds much like Twin Shadow in a way anyone could pinpoint; in trying to reinvent himself, Lewis has effaced himself. Just about anyone with access to the technology and a Spotify playlist of late ‘80s hits could have made Eclipse – but it would still have been terrible. D+ — Samuel Tolzmann
Action Bronson’s second LP Mr. Wonderful probably will not forever alter the trajectory of hip-hop – but to be fair, that is not its intention. From its inception, the rap career of the former gourmet chef born Arian Asllani seemed like a bit of a troll, and yet here we are with his nimble, breezy major label debut. Bronson just wants to indulge in his craft, enjoy himself, and pay homage to his 90s New York rap influences – Mr. Wonderful accomplishes all of those goals quite satisfyingly.
The album’s production, much of it coming courtesy of the Alchemist, Party Supplies, and Mark Ronson, employs old-school jazzy riffs and interpolations of classic rock to cultivate a light, party-friendly atmosphere on tracks like “Falconry” and “Only in America.” Action Bronson joyfully embraces his food-loving, larger-than-life persona, setting the album’s predominantly jocular tone on opener “Brand New Car” with his hilariously off-key warbling over a piano riff lifted directly from Billy Joel’s “Zanzibar.” His lyrics address the dilemmas of hip-hop stardom – thirsty gold diggers (“Baby Blue”), partying (“Actin’ Crazy”), and trying to make your mother proud (“The Rising”). Guest Chance the Rapper is the front-runner for my favorite lyric of 2015 so far in the scathing kiss-off “Baby Blue” – “I hope you never get off Fridays / and you work at a Friday’sthat’s always busy on Fridays.” Mr. Wonderful goes by quickly and goes down easily, with only a few brief blips into somewhat sluggish musical and lyrical territory.
Bronson seems fully aware that he’s hardly the likely candidate for a burgeoning rap career – Mr. Wonderful acknowledges this artistic self-doubt and question of authenticity with tracks like “City Boy Blues” and “A Light in the Addict.” However, Bronson emerges proudly from the morass with a bold ego and confident delivery. He certainly sounds a great deal like Ghostface Killah, but unlike other artists accused recently of co-opting hip-hop sensibilities purely for fame, Queens-born Bronson comes across as a genuine, appreciative product of his environment, as evidenced by the snippets of curbside conversation and shoutouts to Billy Joel and Chuck Knoblauch that pepper his songs. Self-aware in all of the right ways and delightfully crass in all of the wrong ones, Mr. Wonderful is ultimately a bit of a lark, but it is also far more enjoyable, far more self-aware, and far wittier than it needed to be. B — Zachary Bernstein
Dark Sky Paradise
For a long time, Big Sean was a forgettable presence at best, but somewhere along the line he transitioned from C-list guest-verse go-to to A-list guest-verse go-to, and sometime between the “ass shake”/”ass-quake”/”ass-state”/”ass-tray” run on “Mercy,” delivering the whisper heard ‘round the world on Ariana Grande’s “Problem,” and generously (foolishly?) letting Kendrick spit the verse of his life on “Control (HOF),” Big Sean became respectable, an artist worth paying attention to in his own right. As his first proper full-length since this sea change occurred, it’s no understatement Dark Sky Paradise has nearly all of the GOOD Music affiliate and Def Jam signee’s reputation riding on it. Cynics might hold that it’s because of its cannily curated carousel of hotshot producers from DJ Mustard to PARTYNEXTDOOR, or its high-risk-high-reward stable of superior guest rappers, but don’t listen to ’em: pretty much everyone who shows up to Dark Sky Paradise brings their A-game, and that includes Sean himself.
Dark Sky Paradise lacks cohesion as an album, but on a track-by-track basis, it positions Big Sean as a wonderfully versatile rapper whose personality and style hold together even as he adapts to a range of contexts: hip, moody post-Drake introspection (“Win Some Lose Some”); slink R&B duet (Ariana Grande and Jhene Aiko ably lend their services here); inspirational treacle like the John Legend/Kanye collab “One Man Can Change The World.” Sean sounds as comfortable in any one of these situations as any other, and when he’s given really strong material, it’s glorious: Mike Will Made-It hands him four minutes of dark, trappy synthetic horns for the title track and Sean just tears that shit to pieces in double-time, and elsewhere, I don’t think the Mustard-produced monster jam “I Don’t Fuck With You” needs any introduction or further praise. Point being, it’s true that “All Your Fault” is basically a Kanye vehicle that bites the post-MBDTF GOOD Music singles Sean made his name guesting on, but when he scoffs, “People ask me how to make it, / I’m just like, Man, you want the crown bitch, you gotta take it, straight up,” consider yourself instructed. If you’re seeking 0-to-100 upward mobility in hip-hop, here’s your role model – straight up. B