Natalie PrassNatalie Prass
Natalie Prass (or, your fool, as she mostly refers to herself on her stunning debut) is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter. She began her career as a back-up singer for Jenny Lewis. Spacebomb’s Matthew E. White produced her eponymous debut. This is about all you will find on Ms. Prass, anywhere online. But her biography is the only thing that’s minimalist about 2015’s best rookie.
The album overflows with musical explosions à la Illinois or Joanna Newsom’s later masterpieces. Though Prass is certainly a gifted singer, her voice never steals the spotlight. She attributes far more attention to the whimsical harps, trumpets, and strings that keep her soul warm after weeks of a rainy relationship. And that’s the time frame of the majority of the album, the final days of love and the turmoil that follows, as she details exactly with the phrase “our love is a long goodbye” on the opener. This track, “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” perhaps details the fissures in a relationship best, though the rest come very close. The percussionless “Christy,” for example, meanders through the case of a love intruder with such skepticism, evoked somewhat through her words, but mostly through fluttering, minor string patterns. My personal favorite, “Reprise,” finds Prass literally speaking the lyrics to an earlier track, “Your Fool,” but in a much more effective way. Having replaced the heavy drum with cooing woodwinds, her bold words take the stage, and she leaves a relationship with confidence, rather than fear.
Like power co-newbie Courtney Barnett, Natalie Prass succeeds by repeatedly acknowledging her own insecurities and naiveté. There’s no place for arrogance in a new-timer, even when it might be well deserved. Pratt knows this, and opts to rather analyze the intricacies of her victimhood, an abyss well worth exploring. Hats off to this fantastic singer-songwriter for not only emerging from the fog so quickly, but also for crafting a dynamic album that is bigger than its size and very deserving of the praise it will undoubtedly receive. B+ — Matthew Malone
B4.DA.$$ (Before Da Money), the proper debut album from fast-rising, 20-year-old Brooklyn MC Joey Bada$$, is the sound of a child’s hip-hop fantasy fulfilled, warts and all. Over a combustive fifteen tracks, Bada$$ unpacks the trappings of financial success and the strivings that brought him to his present moment, weaving a narrative of religion (“Christ Conscious”), sex (“Like Me”), and the redemptive power of music (“Peace of Mind”). Money becomes both a blessing and a curse (the instant classic “Paper Trail$”) - this is hardly a new idea, but the MC’s youthful energy and palpable hunger elevate the music and lyrics alike.
In the closing radio snippet on “Big Dusty,” Bada$$ discusses the importance of his Brooklyn childhood and his family’s Caribbean roots – influences that dominate his debut. Chopped and screwed cabaret piano, swirling strings, and jazzy horns recall the heyday of 90’s New York hip-hop, while Bada$$’s flow moves fluidly between muscular, aggressive intonation and more relaxed, lazy delivery on the reggae-channeling “Hazeus View.” The sorrowful, anxiety-ridden “Black Beetles,” on which Bada$$ mourns the possibility of a “world war sequel and doomsday prequel,” is one of the most genuinely moving pieces of music to be released thus far in 2015. Not to fear, however, as the triumphant “O.C.B.” and “Curry Chicken” bring the record to a close on a swaggering high note. “This ain’t the world we thought it was when we was in preschool,” Bada$$ opines, but his debut is content to embrace the emotional spectrum of this current world – both its dizzying highs and crippling lows.
B4.DA.$$ has its flaws – as the MC’s lyrics grow increasingly introspective and brooding in the record’s second act, so too do the beats become muddled and less compelling. However, it is certainly a solid and promising debut from a richly talented MC with the potential to help others with his music in the same manner his forebears inspired him. His album sets that aspiring tone early on with the fiery, Azar Lawrence-sampling “Save the Children.” Here’s to one child no longer in need of salvation.B — Zachary Bernstein
Tetsuo & Youth
“I prefer my pictures in word form,” raps Lupe Fiasco on “Mural,” the opening track of his fifth album, Tetsuo & Youth. Indeed - many, many words. Fiasco has always been a rap purist believing in Hip-Hop with two capital H’s, holding fast to the genre’s political roots and its valuing of lyrical and vocal dexterity. Condemning the misogynistic and materialistic excesses of top 40 rap radio, Tetsuo & Youth pushes the limits of the genre with lengthy, 10-minute rants and chorus-less tracks that offer their own different kind of excess. Fiasco’s work is an intellectual exercise that takes hip-hop back to its spoken word roots, but unfortunately sacrifices much of the fun in the process.
Let’s get one thing straight – there is no denying Fiasco’s technical and poetic abilities as an artist. The techniques of assonance and extended metaphor that Lupe exercises are undoubtedly impressive. On “Dots & Lines,” he manages to rhyme velocity with viscosity with geometry all in a breathless five seconds, but as lyrics to what seems like a sex jam, it’s all a little too dense. On “Prisoner 1 & 2” and “Deliver,” socially conscious tracks discussing the prison system and food delivery in dangerous neighborhoods, respectively, his message is well-intentioned and important, but delivered in too hectic and virtuosic a manner to unpack – and there’s certainly a lot to unpack here. Eight of the album’s proper thirteen tracks clock in at over five minutes, three of which almost reaching double digits – considering the second word in its title, the album is surprisingly wearying and exhausting.
Elsewhere, the songs that might have comprised Tetsuo’s more accessible material, such as the organ-fueled “Blur My Hands,” do not boast particularly memorable hooks. Generic hard rock, Rick Ross-esque bass rattlers – Lupe’s voice is the most distinct part of this album. There was a time when Fiasco produced more mainstream-friendly material, some fantastic (“Kick Push,” “Daydreamin”) and some abhorrent (the Modest Mouse-sampling “Show Goes On”). That’s not to say that Lupe should made a Flo Rida album – the density of Tetsuo & Youth just could have benefitted from even the slightest dose of levity to throw its rhetoric and messages into sharper relief. C+ — Zachary Bernstein
Just when you thought Bruno Mars and Jessie J’s synthetic doo-wop #TBTs were disappearing, 21-year-old Meghan Trainor steps in with a vibrant, sassy album full of horns sections and double bass. The annoyingly titled Title calls upon Grease-era R&B as obviously as possible in order to, I believe, appeal to reluctant parents forced to listen to hits in the car—look at her, born in the 90s and she knows what soul sounds like. And fear not, it’s clear that Ms. Trainor is no one-hit wonder. Title is chock-full of groovy slam-dunks like “All About That Bass” and “Lips Are Movin” that will slay the charts. Her voice is truly killer, and her persona is just off enough to be unique-and-not-weird. But what scares me about Ms. Trainor is that young people will easily confuse her for an idol, what with her funk PSAs regarding weight and attitude. “Be who you want to be,” she tries to say, but instead fills her lyrics with tone-deaf knight-seeking tropes. On “Bass,” her rationale behind accepting her body is not because she is okay with it, but because “boys like a little more booty to hold at night.” Tracks like “Mr. Almost” and “Dear Future Husband” only confirm that Meghan’s vacation to the 1950s seek to revive the MRS degree as much as the trumpet solo.
It is nice to hear serious work go into instrumentation, though. “Bang Dem Sticks” and its ilk will flourish on stage, requiring full jazz ensembles rather than some beanied hipster with a laptop. For the most part, though, this array of living orchestral parts doesn’t supersede the trite moves on Title. Trainor recycles the themes from every forgettable Billboard alumnus from the past decade, with a bit more color here and there, but not enough to distinguish herself from the pack. The singles are where Trainor shines, but there's little else to take in. D+ — Matthew Malone