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End-of-Summer Music Roundup

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It’s been a while since I last wrote. I’ve been patiently waiting for the summer to end so I’d have the chance to write my “End-of-Summer Music Roundup”. I assumed I’d be writing this sometime in early June, but the sun’s been kind this year, and every time I sat down at my laptop, fingers poised to hit the keys and delve into it, that ball of brightness cheekily reappeared, as content at its mischievousness as the smiling (yet thoroughly punchable) mutant sun baby from Teletubbies. It’s now early September, and as I force myself to forgo waiting on the end of summer, those flirtatious rays are still peeping through the window, and all the cherished elements of British summertime are still also present: air-conditioning on full blast indoors, because if it’s slightly warm outside, of course we all want to simulate the Siberian igloo experience inside; and middle-aged men strutting around topless, exposing their beer bellies adorned with enough tattoos to put both Parker pens and octopi out of business.

But while crowds have been gathering alfresco to soak up the sun, à la Sheryl Crow, perhaps they’ve been out of touch with what truly matters: the radio waves (Spotify), and the box (Netflix). In other words, while they’re spending their sunny season socializing and living their lives, they’re missing out on hearing and watching others socialize and live their lives through the media. God forbid these sun-soakers missed the news that the hyphen has been permanently removed from Jay Z’s (formerly Jay-Z’s) name. While they’ve been basking in the heat with few cares in the world, the rest of us have been incessantly troubled by the subtle name change (this is no explicit alteration like Puff Daddy à P Diddy…or Diddy…or Diddy Dirty Money). Grammatically speaking, what if we need to use Jay Z as an adjective? Then is it plausible to reinsert the hyphen? For instance: “That was a very Jay(-)Z performance”, or “Are you using that hyphen in the adjectival Jay(-)Z sense?” Note, of course, that the hyphen should not be confused with the em dash, as in “Jay Z – Jay-Z, as he was formerly known – confused rap fans and grammarians alike with his impetuous hyphen deletion”.

Do these revelers even realize that Kimye had a baby? Do they even know that Kimye is a thing? Though it may sound like a refreshing yet potentially disease-ridden tropical fruit, Kimye is actually a portmanteau of KIM kardashian and kanYE west. How would these sun-coholics know how to react once they finally learn the baby’s given name: North? As in: North West. As in, she’s not just a baby girl, but also a portable compass for journeyers traveling from Florida to Washington state, for instance, without a GPS navigator. Of course, on the way back she would be useless; her counterpart, South East, would be required in her place. (Incidentally, the hyphen issue extends to Kanye’s daughter’s name: does North West become North-West when used adjectivally? Or does it merge into a single word, Northwest?)

Oh – and babies and hyphens aside, Jay and Kanye also released some music this summer. Their albums, along with J. Cole’s Born Sinner, were the big three hip-hop releases of the season, as discussed by the critics on the New York Times Music Popcast. Reviewers agreed to disagree about their likes and dislikes, especially in the case of Kanye’s modestly titled album, Yeezus, which some thought pretentious and others deemed artistically solid. Personally, I found the record aggressive and abrasive – and unnecessarily so – all for the objective of bolstering the ever-growing “Kanye West is a jackass” notion (in President Obama’s words, of course). It appears to me that West knows that his big ego – or, more specifically, the concept of his having a big ego – will sell, so he throws together a messy jumble of mostly hostile tracks, knowing he’ll reap the monetary rewards. It’s an intelligent move from an unquestionably savvy producer. But the more critics praise this work as “creative”, the more he’ll escalate the antagonism and the egotism, however disingenuous, for publicity’s and finance’s sakes. At this rate, with a track on the album entitled “I Am a God”, apparently by Kanye West featuring God, the possibility of a return to the simpler yet vastly superior College Dropout style seems bleak.

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There’s a reason why Jay Z is vastly more respected than Mr. West. Though Jay’s album has an equally arrogant title, Magna Carta Holy Grail, the veteran rapper balances his braggadocio – unarguably necessary in hip hop – with a certain dose of humility. Indeed, he recognizes his unique power in tracks such as “F.U.T.W.” (Fuck Up The World), but this aspect is evened out with more modest elements, such as insights into his doubts as a father in “Jay Z Blue”. But this is irrelevant; as the most famous rapper in the game today, and possibly of all time, Jay Z has reached a point in his career where he can say literally anything he wants and still sell records. Take the track “Tom Ford”, whose hook comprises three distinct statements that, when put together, form no sense of story. “I don’t pop Molly / I rock Tom Ford / International, bring back the concord.” It’s as if someone’s asked him to tell us three completely random facts about himself, and he’s consolidated them into a chorus. A rough translation may read: “I don’t take drugs / By the way, I wear pretty nice, expensive, designer clothes / Oh and before I forget – please sign my worldwide petition for the reintroduction of fast airplanes.”

Yet Jay is untouched by critics. He doesn’t hold his own lyrically these days, but he’s still so amiable in that he can brush pride off (his shoulder) and team up with pop’s sugary superstar, Justin Timberlake, for the album’s opening track, and go on the road with him on the Legends of the Summer tour. This is something his pal Kanye cannot yet do: perhaps envious of Jay’s newfound touring partner, he lashed out at a recent show, spouting “I ain’t fucking with that Suit and Tie” – referring to the other JT and Jay-Z collaboration. (Did you notice that natural use of an adjectival “Jay Z”? You’re welcome.)

The Legends of the Summer tour kicked off at the Yahoo! Wireless Festival in London, two days of which I attended back in July, thus joining the rest of the sun revelers. In addition to the headliners, I had the distinct pleasure of watching the (indirect) contest between Miguel and Trey Songz as to who can be the douchier R&B crooner. Both artists scored several douche points for lifting up their shirts on multiple occasions to reveal their show-off 12-pack abs to the gushing audience; but the coveted douchebag award had to ultimately go to Trey for not only performing his douchey-lyric-laden song, “Dive In” (incidentally not about his experiences at public pools), but also taking breaks to shout out to the audience asides such as “How many ladies out there ready for me to dive in?” and “I’m swimming, I’m ain’t gonna drown”. Suffice to say we were all relieved to hear of Trey’s safety. Furthermore, Miguel’s rendition of “Adorn”, other than being the only track of his people recognized, was admittedly sing-alongable – and he was gracious enough not to kick any fans in the face this time around.

Hip-hop royalty shone at Wireless. Snoop Dogg, also known as Snoop Lion, formerly known as Snoop Doggy Dogg (a series of name transitions totally free of hyphens), played a set brimming with career-spanning hits, from “Drop It Like It’s Hot” to “Still D.R.E.”; the crowd was so adoring of the Compton legend that all he had to do was stand still for an hour and not waste any energy on performing – which was just as well, because marijuana is a known detractor of stamina. A$AP Rocky played a set, and might as well not have bothered. A long time now since Jay Z and Nas’s beef was buried, consistently underrated Nas showed off his unrivalled lyrical skills and social clout during his set, while super-group A Tribe Called Quest reunited for the first time in 20-odd years to achieve a similar feat, also bringing politics into the equation with frontman Q-Tip’s shout-outs for Trayvon Martin, whose aggressor, George Zimmerman, had been acquitted earlier that day.

Opinions about the best rapper in the game aside, all these towering acts were still merely a warm-up for rap giant Jay Z and Justin, the latter now automatically venerated in urban music merely for his association with Hova. Timberlake behaved as was to be expected when given equal standing with a more powerful, distinguished and probably formidable co-performer (Jay Z grew up selling crack cocaine in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn; Timberlake is the son of a preacher and was a Disney Mouseketeer opposite Britney Spears and Ryan Gosling): namely, he threw out unnecessary F-bombs at times and even inserted a rendition of “Niggas in Paris” into pop ballad “Cry Me a River”. But all this is forgiven (and appreciated, really), as Timberlake is indubitably musically gifted: not only were his vocals faultless, he also showcased his other talents as he played the piano and even the electric guitar.

Like at the Watch the Throne gigs, Jay seemed happy to take the back seat and allow the younger artist take the helm, with Justin truly shining as he performed back-to-back hits; but the true magic emerged when the duo teamed up, from the opening “Holy Grail”, to a clever blending of “What Goes Around…Comes Around” with “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, to JT pre-cursing “Empire State of Mind” with the inspiration itself, Sinatra’s “New York, New York”. Clearly, though, the highlight was when the schmaltzy and guilty-pleasurific “Mirrors” dropped. It’s SO good. So I walked away from the festival a happy bunny, until I squeezed onto a packed Underground train – and as numerous other Londoners sweated and coughed over me in the routine tube fashion, I opened my drawstring bag to find that my pasta salad saved from earlier had burst and covered my headphones, books and wallet with honey-mustard dressing and a putrid stench. What else was I to do but eat the pasta out of the bag for lunch the next day?

As entertaining an artist as Timberlake is, I was not prepared for The Justin Timberlake Show, aka the MTV Video Music Awards 2013. JT performed an entire setlist in 15 minutes, within which was sandwiched the much-hyped *N Sync reunion. For a whole week, Twitter, Buzzfeed and all the other sites I use as a distraction at work from time to time (or rather, all the sites I browse at work while using work as a distraction from time to time) were “blowing up” with updates of the boyband’s reconciliation; as twentysomethings asked “will they?” and “won’t they?”, Beliebers and One-Directions tweeted: “Who or what is an *N Sync?” As I felt the irritation of these ignorant youngsters churning inside, I realized how my generation’s parents must have felt when we mocked their old-timey music, thinking for half our lives that Fleetwood Mac was some kind of first-generation Apple computer made from timber.

After all the buildup, the reunion did happen, but lasted approximately two minutes, after which Fatone and friends were shoved offstage before an encore of “Mirrors”. But it wasn’t just the over-abundance of Justin that signaled the desperation of the once-glorious VMAs. The scandalous award show with which I grew up in the late 90s and early 00s – spawning timeless performances like Britney on stage with a Burmese python around her neck, and Britney stripping off for a raunchy rendition of “Oops, I Did It Again”, and Madonna kissing…Britney – is now an utter mess, devoid of interest, and Britney, and laughably trying to exist while MTV today plays a grand total of 0 music videos. The VMAs now merely create scandal for the sake of it, in an attempt to live up to what it once was – which would explain the gag-inducing display that was Miley Cyrus and the Twerk-a-thon.

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I need not write an account of what happened during those dreaded minutes: if you haven’t heard by now, you must be living inside a giant, furry teddy bear like the one from which Cyrus strutted out, tongue out to one side – an image that would recur time and time again during the performance, in memes and gifs in days to come, and in many normal people’s nightmares. We all knew what was to befall us, having seen the video for “We Can’t Stop”: Hannah Montana twerking. We were forced to watch what looked like a pancake gyrating as the little white girl aimed to shake what her momma never gave her; and as if it that wasn’t enough, she insisted on grinding that pancake into sleazeball Robin Thicke’s crotch while he stood there dressed like the McDonald’s Hamburglar with the stripes the wrong way round. I still haven’t the faintest clue “what rhymes with hug me”, but what I do know is that I was repulsed as 2 Chainz and the stupidly talented Kendrick Lamar joined Thicke for another track, while Miley seemed quite contented to stand in the corner, tongue still out, fingering herself with a giant foam finger. Next time you’re at a baseball game, my advice would be to think twice before picking one of those fingers up to innocently support your team with – it might well have been in or around Miley Cyrus’s vagina.

Kendrick Lamar must have been embarrassed to be associated such a sham, given his unfathomable adeptness, lyrically speaking. Again, for those sunbathers’ benefit, Kendrick delivered the rap verse of the year, killing and calling out Big Sean on his own track, “Control”. In the most talked-about verse for a long time, the biggest new star in hip hop spits a rhyme that indirectly wiped the floor with aging rappers, and directly challenged his peers to step up their games: Kendrick summoned Drake, J. Cole, A$AP Rocky and a host of other young emcees to come out of whatever giant, furry teddy bears they were hiding in and to join him in the ring – tongues intact and without foam fingers in this case, please.

Yet amidst the shambles of the night, from somewhere in the middle of the twerkage wreckage came a faint flicker of hope. Two commercials aired during the US broadcast of the VMAs, both advertising Beats by Dre headphones, but in reality advertising the return of one of Kendrick’s – and just about every other modern-day rapper’s – heroes. In the first TV spot, we are given the lowdown in a few words projected rapidly onto the screen: Eminem. MMLP2. Executive producers Dr. Dre and Rick Rubin. 11/5/13. But it was the second, longer spot I saw first; I was in Paris at the time, waking up for sightseeing duty in the early morning, and was prompted by a tweet or two to watch the ad, which featured a blond-haired Eminem, swagging in front of a speakers in a plain white tee, reminiscent of “The Real Slim Shady” video, now 13 years old. Was this a dream induced from the fatigue of climbing up the Eiffel Tower the day before (rapping Drake’s “Started from the Bottom” to myself all the way up, by the way)? Clearly not, as the whole ad was spliced over a brand-new track, “Berserk”, different from anything I’ve ever heard from Eminem, an homage to the Beastie Boys and to old-school hip hop in general. The Marshall Mathers LP 2: ingenious publicity-wise, and brave and perhaps stupid in what it must live up to – that is to say the seminal 2000 album that sent stunned parents of America into a frenzy. The suspense is already thickening, and it will certainly take more than a head of freshly dyed hair to settle critics come November.

At which point, presuming the summer hasn’t become irregularly Indian and stuck around all the way through the fall and into Guy Fawkes Day itself, the sun-soakers should be back indoors, tattoos once again unexposed for the good of humanity, and will be able to make their own minds up about the record. As for the summer shenanigans just passed, they’ll have to take my word as truth. Though they may return, skin red and peeling like tomatoes being savagely julienned, to politely disagree about the merit of Yeezus or the Jay Z/JT dynamic, they will surely find the Twerk-a-thon just as harrowing and violating as the rest of us, and may be forced to find comfort in hibernating in a giant, furry teddy bear – only to find inside a menacing Miley, tongue and all, ready to murder them and sell their organs in return for a lifetime’s stash of foam fingers. Serves them right for being able to enjoy the sun while the rest of us are working overtime, not unlike Miley’s buttocks. And as I conclude here, I’d just like to point out that no hyphens were harmed in the writing of this article.

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Album Review: The 20/20 Experience

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Just when we thought that maybe – just maybe – the coast was clear and that someone else could have a turn at bringing sexy back, our collective thunder was stolen by the return of the phrase’s originator – this time around embodying SexyBack in the form of a slick and snazzy Suit and Tie.

Six years ago, Justin Timberlake seemed to leave music by the wayside as he delved purposefully into a movie career. While he was serious about the professional change of track, fans perhaps struggled to label him an actor; just as it’s hard to view Matt LeBlanc in a movie and not see him as Joey Tribbiani, we watched The Social Network and half-expected Joey Fatone, Lance Bass et al to jump out from behind the set and join Timberlake in a rendition of DIRTY DIRTY DIRTY DIRTY POP (POP POP POP YOU CAN’T STOP). But the film world accepted his genuine career shift and threw several success-earning roles at him – which made it even more doomful for supporters of his musical alter ego to expect a comeback.

The simple fact is that Timberlake is neither a pop star nor a movie star: he’s a superstar. It’s hard for anyone to dislike JT (the fact that he can be recognized simply by initials now reinforces the notion of his superstardom); he’s taken seriously by the movie-watching public, college kids who prolifically Facebook-shared his now-legendary “Dick in a Box” and “Motherlover” sketches on Saturday Night Live, moms who find his always-polite demeanor on talk shows endearing, rappers he’s worked with from T.I. to Snoop Dogg, and of course, twenty-something women who grew up with his washboard abs all over their bedroom walls. I think even the seemingly callous Eminem, who once rapped “Instincts to kill *NSync, don’t get me started / these fuckin’ brats can’t sing, and Britney’s garbage”, may now bite his tongue – I wouldn’t even be surprised by a future collaboration.

In other words, the world was waiting for his return to music. JT could have released an 80-minute album of bleating noises over a cowbell and the public would have eaten it up. But instead, his efforts have gone into his third studio album, The 20/20 Experience. The record is upbeat and buoyant in tone, and plays with a range of distinct styles and genres; this is a more mature (now married) Timberlake, who effuses a sense that things are going well – but there’s no hip hop-style bragging, but rather, it’s demonstrated assuredly and artistically.

2002’s Justified was a quintessential pop album, with still-catchy hits like “Rock Your Body”, and was thus perhaps an extension of the *NSync feel. 2006’s FutureSex / LoveSounds was edgier (insomuch as JT can be considered edgy), with heavy hip hop influence and a defining futuristic mood, probably best summed up by the synth-led rhythm of “My Love”. The 20/20 Experience goes in the opposite direction and embraces the past, with an incontestable retro feel right from the very top with the opening track, “Pusher Love Girl”, a hark-back to slow-tempo, old-school R&B, a track that immediately shows off Timberlake’s signature falsetto.

The retro atmosphere allows for some corny lyrics, clearly written tongue-in-cheek, and surely a homage to the love songs of the ‘50s that covered up sexual content with harmless-sounding words (an example that comes to mind is from the rock ‘n’ roll classic, “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, with the deceiving lyrics: “I’m like a one-eyed cat, peepin’ in the seafood store”). Timberlake’s versions include “Won’t you be my strawberry bubblegum / Then I’ll be your blueberry lollipop / And then I’ll love you ‘til I make you pop” – from the similarly laid-back track, “Strawberry Bubblegum”. One of my favorite tracks, “That Girl”, is in the same nostalgic style, this time flirting with the doo-wop genre; it is reminiscent of something you would hear from The Temptations on an episode of The Ed Sullivan Show.

“That Girl” also stands out for the reason that it’s the only song on the album that’s shorter than five minutes in length. The majority of the tracks are seven or eight minutes long; sometimes this elongated technique works, but at other times it doesn’t. They follow in a similar vein to successful songs from FutureSex / LoveSounds such as “What Goes Around Comes Around” and “Lovestoned / I Think She Knows”, where the melody would break down halfway through the song and the pace would shift dramatically (to the point at which you’d question if you were still listening to the same song); Timberlake and long-time producer Timbaland are trying to recreate the same magic but end up overdoing it a tad. However, Timbaland’s influence is still felt in the production, as well as in his signature interjections (à la “Cry Me a River”), which work well in tracks like “Don’t Hold the Wall” and “Tunnel Vision”.

The eight-minute method is effective in “Mirrors”, the current single, mainly because it’s so good that you want it to go on for eight minutes – I’d probably be even happier with sixteen. And possibly even more pleased if the entire album was just “Mirrors” repeated over and over again. It’s undeniably poppy in structure (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus) and in sound (it’s catchy as a common cold in a hospital sauna), which is why it’s a sublime choice for a single. It’s also vintage JT, packed to the brim with falsetto – and he and Timbo nail the long-song format, getting the second part of the eight-minute extravaganza just as catchy and falsetto-y as the first. It’s SO good. But despite its poppiness, it still fits with the style of the entire album, and does not stick out crudely as a moneymaking hit.

If there’s a track that does do that, perhaps it’s “Suit and Tie”, the lead single – but maybe that’s just because it’s the only song with a featured artist, and none other than the superstar to top all superstars (sorry, Justin): Jay-Z. On paper, it’s a match made in Heaven, chiefly because “JT and Jay-Z” has such a tongue-twisting ring to it, and it’s clear they think so too – they’re going on tour together this summer and I’ve already bagged my tickets – but the song falls flat. It’s slick, it’s retro, it’s classy, but there’s just something missing. Even Jay’s verse is slow, labored and simply a bit dull. Perhaps it’s like a clash of the titans and superstars work better alone – but if Jay and Kanye can do it, surely the inoffensive-by-comparison Timberlake can get a slice of the action?

But the album is solid, and the more I listen to it, the more I want to listen to it. Does it live up to the hype? Probably not. But that’s only because the hype was suffocatingly overdone – but it had to be, for JT’s homecoming was no small matter. There were his Grammy and Brit Awards performances, his return to Saturday Night Live as both host and musical guest (and induction into the elite “Five-Timers Club”, where he joins Steve Martin, Tom Hanks and other huge names who’ve hosted five or more times), and his appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon for an entire week, which came to be known as Justin Timberweek. In the face of all the hysteria and his unfathomable popularity, it could have been easy for JT to churn out an uninspired record with umpteen collaborators and guest rap verses, and sell just as many – if not more – copies, but with the exception of the Jay-Z inclusion, he was having none of that. Instead, what we’ve been handed are ten eclectic tracks – including an apparently Latin-influenced “Let the Groove Get In”, which sounds like it features Gloria Estefan on the bongos – with an overarching retro mood personified by the new, determined-not-to-sell-out JT and his accompanying band, The Tennessee Kids. The boy done good.

How would I grade it? I guess I would award it a well-deserved 16/20 (though The 16/20 Experience just doesn’t have the same appeal). But it’s clear that he’s home, and Hollywood is going to have to wait their turn. My only fear is overplaying “Mirrors”. It’s just way too good.

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