Man, I feel old. Is this what the kids are listening to these days? (I’m 22.) There’s something tremendously uninspiring about so-called “brostep,” even distasteful – its desecration of the U.K. bass cultures to which it owes its existence, maybe, or a lack of subtlety so pronounced it’s almost aggressive. I’ve read eloquent defenses of the big “drop” as the postmodern EDM equivalent of a classic rock guitar solo, which makes sense but doesn’t really redeem decades of bad guitar solos, if you know what I mean. Sonny “Skrillex” Moore came up through rock subcultures before becoming one of today’s most popular DJs, and as far as I can tell, becoming Skrillex is the only major artistic risk he’s taken. Debut Recess sounds alternately reheated (“Try It Out,” a pale second to Skrillex’s remix of Birdy Nam Nam’s “Goin’ In”) and undercooked (all the awkward attempts to add reggae to the mix). Throughout, the DJ’s aesthetic A.D.H.D. gets the better of him, resulting in overstuffed songs that can’t focus long enough to even fully land one of his own trademark stomach-gurgle bass drops and don’t offer any other kind of thrill as compensation. It’s hard not to hear these songs and think how much more effective they’d be with half as many tracks running in the studio – I’m sure there’s an actual track somewhere deep inside the mess that is Diplo team-up “Dirty Vibe,” but good luck finding it. Unsurprisingly then, even given Skillex’s history, the finest moments here are the understated ones: Skrillex-does-Disclosure cut “Stranger” isn’t breaking new ground, but its streamlined structure is more danceable than the bludgeoning chaos found everywhere else on Recess. The best song here, far and away, is Chance The Rapper collaboration “Coast Is Clear,” which (like A$AP Rocky’s appropriation of that Birdy Nam Nam remix for “Wild For The Night”) points toward promising potential for Skrillex as a rap producer. Even amidst the album’s most unique and sophisticated production, however, Chance’s likable presence remains engaging only in spite of some of his dumbest lyrics to date. Ultimately, the highlights here are still middling fare, and mostly, I just couldn’t wait for Recess to be over. D [Samuel Tolzmann]
Neneh Cherry, Bank Project
Twenty-four years ago, Milli Vanilli won the Best New Artist Grammy over Neneh Cherry. Such an ignoble (and much-cited) bit of trivia is worth noting not only to ridicule the farce of that particular Grammy category, but to highlight an extraordinary fact: Cherry, now aged 50, has released a fine album after most of her peers have long become footnotes of popular music history.
Blank Project is Cherry’s follow-up to The Cherry Thing, her 2011 collaboration with jazz outfit The Thing, and her first solo LP in almost 18 years. The album’s status as a solo effort demands an asterisk, one in the form its producer, Kieran Hebden of Four Tet. Hebden supplies Blank Project with far more than a soundtrack. His sly mix of electronic and analog textures is a coup on par with Cherry’s penetrating lyrics and vocals.
Few melodies escape the album’s percussive sonic fabric to leave an impact, however. On “Out of the Black,” a duet with Robyn, two generations of Swedish pop meet with the fanfare of a shrug. But Blank Project never aims for luxuriance. Neneh Cherry instead undertakes – and nails – a riskier feat: a reflection on midlife that sounds both wise and inventive. B+ [Peter Tabakis]
Kid Cudi, Satellite Flight
Kid Cudi has had a maddeningly inconsistent career, with moments of brilliance overshadowed by albums loaded with filler and songs lacking basic melodic structure. Since his excellent debut full-length album, each successive record has come with massive hype, often prompted by Cudi himself. The confident artist proclaimed that his 2012 rock project WZRD was revolutionary, “something the world needs to hear.” It really wasn’t. But in an out-of-character move, Satellite Flight was released with virtually no build-up, instead dropped at midnight on a random Tuesday in February. So yes, Cudi tried to pull a Beyoncé, and it didn’t exactly work – die-hard fans got pumped up, but the album was widely met as little more than a blip on the radar in a packed music month. In many ways, the haphazard release of the album matches its quality. It’s certainly a well-crafted, conceptual record – as always, Cudi has put plenty of time into developing a unique, signature atmosphere that is present throughout. Some of the songs are purely instrumental, a bizarrely perfect soundtrack for a late-night spaceship ride. These cinematic tracks – especially “Return Of The Moon Man” – are adequate mood-setters, but little more. And the songs with Cudi’s signature sing-rapping range from cool (“Going To The Ceremony”) to uncomfortable (“Balmain Jeans”). Simply put, it’s just another Kid Cudi album – a scattered collection of songs developed as a concept album, but never fitting together to form something great. C [Adam Offitzer]
Tokyo Police Club, Forcefield
Forget #tbt. Reach for a copy of Forcefield, Toyko Police Club’s latest drop for an instant sensory hit of the Mid-Noughties. With its whipped-up guitars, scratched-out bass and plaintive vocals, its like the last ten years didn’t even happen. And according to vocalist / bassist David Monks, they’ve given recent music inspiration a miss. He shrugs: "Since writing started for Forcefield in mid-2011 there have been so many trends and every kind of ‘wave.’ We saw them all come and disappear or change into something broader. It left us wanting to make something that would last. We ended up rediscovering energy and guitars and simple, direct songs."
You kind of have to wonder whether "rediscovering… simple direct songs" is another way of saying "we didn’t push ourselves hard enough." Still, Forcefield a passable, fun album. Eight-minute marvel "Argentina (Parts I, II and III)" is a real indie indulgence that bears all the traditional hallmarks: climatic drum builds, thundering basslines and climatic, driving guitar riffs to get carried away on. And the theme continues along the track list: "Hot Tonight" and "Toy Guns" are sweet pop songs, and "Through The Wire" does that rollicking slow-burn thing that Haim do so well on their own, "The Wire." Want to dance? "Tunnel Vision" is a proper head-nodder - you might even be tempted to try a mini-mosh.
It’s true, you haven’t heard an album like this for ages. Unless you just found your iPod classic from 2006. C+ [Miranda Thompson]
Rick Ross, Mastermind
Rick Ross’s sixth album Mastermind showcases what capable, if thoroughly unchallenging, middle of the road hip-hop sounds like in a post-Yeezus and -good kid, m.A.A.d world. The album rides a fixed, mid-tempo groove – sometimes assaultive, other times colorless – that’s dotted with some first-rate hooks (see Betty Wright’s enthusiastic performance on “Sanctified”) and a who’s who of guest appearances (from Kanye West, Jay Z, Big Sean, Lil Wayne, The Weeknd on down). Ross’s lyrics regularly feel ripped from a dog-eared copy of The Official Rap Manual, if not a Jay Leno monologue from the mid-90s (Janet Reno and David Koresh are name-checked on different tracks).
With the exception of a few minor highlights – lead single “The Devil is a Lie” (featuring Jay Z), soul-zapped “Sanctified” (featuring West and Big Sean), the vibrant “Supreme” (written and produced by Scott Storch) – Mastermind passes by as a single, indistinguishable blur. To the credit of Ross and his many co-producers, the experience is rarely leaden and often engaging. Nevertheless, Mastermind feels like a throwback to the recent past, from which raps’ visionaries have already delivered us. C [Peter Tabakis]