Album Review: Rihanna – ANTI

The biggest question during ANTI‘s protracted rollout was a new one for Rihanna: “What on earth is this thing going to sound like?” Rihanna’s career is built on blockbuster pop jams, and here she is rejecting “Timber” and “Lean On” while promoting “American Oxygen”. She passed on something like “We Can’t Stop”, which is such a Riri song you don’t have to strain at all to imagine her on it, and instead sang the shit out of Kanye and Paul McCartney collab “FourFiveSeconds”. Of the songs teased for this record, only the sneering, glitchy “Bitch Better Have My Money” fit Rihanna’s “give no fucks and take no shit” persona she had been crafting on Twitter and Instagram over the last few years.

And then ANTI arrives, and none of those are on the album.

But even that decision makes sense because ANTI is about subverting expectations that will inevitably end in disappointment. Note that this is a comment on the content of the album, not the quality of the content. As should be obvious to anyone whose paid attention to Rihanna since Unapologetic, there aren’t any chartbusters here in the vein of “We Found Love” or “Rude Boy” (even Unapologetic‘s singles were more about smolder than explosion). Instead, ANTI sustains one long, subdued mood; a night in that keeps the curtains closed, the house door shut, the lights dimmed, drink in hand, and weed to be rolled then smoked. It’s still a pop album, but one filtered through gauzy, electronic R&B whose hooks arrive unhurried.

Nowhere is this displayed more prominently on the dancehall inflected lead single “Work” (work!). Rihanna sounds completely at home on the track, playing with the hook’s repetition until the syllables break down like she’s gleefully singing along to her own song alone at home. It doesn’t scream hostile takeover as a single, but the gentle low-end thump and tropical flourishes should (hopefully) give “Work” a long chart life; even a negligible Drake verse doesn’t hurt the song too much. Potential second single “Kiss It Better” is covered in those watery 80s synths and plush electric guitar sounds that Miguel’s always been fond of, and benefits greatly from putting Rihanna’s vocals front and center. The melody’s solid, and Riri is able to play a lyric like “Man, fuck your pride/Just take it on back, boy/Just take it on back, boy” with just the right balance of frustration and anger and regret and plead to sound believably (relatabily) conflicted.

If ANTI is, on some level, about disappointment, it’s the let down that comes from romance. And, for about four of these songs, it’s the foregone disappointment of scrolling through your phone’s contacts late at night to see who might be up, mentally letting each scenario play out, and deciding none of these will go well. “Kiss It Better”, “Woo”, and “Love on the Brain” all mine this vexation for drama, but none do it better than “Needed Me”, likely ANTI‘s best song. Over an austere, frigid DJ Mustard beat that’s free of his trademark twinkling synths, Rihanna owns the shit out of some dude in his feelings because she, I don’t know, used to call him on his cell phone, saying “Know you hate to confess/But you needed me.” The Drake comparison’s there not just because “Tryna fix your issues with a bad bitch/Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?/Fuck your white horse and your carriage” is enough to send every dude in a Drake song running, but because sonically, Rihanna nails the moody, atmospheric but grounded aesthetic in one song that he’s been chasing since at least “Marvin’s Room”. She hits that same hazy sound on sex jam interlude “Yeah, I Said It”, just to prove the success wasn’t a one-off. That night in alone means talking to people you wish were (or weren’t) there.

That night also means being a little indulgent and a little aimless, and in this regard, ANTI doesn’t always work (work, work, work, work.”) “Desperado” would be a decent third or four single jacked up with extra synths on another Rihanna album, but here, she sounds unsure if she wants to take off with the song’s natural momentum. Acoustic ballad “Never Ending” and distorted Travis Scott collaboration “Woo” both remind me of the weaker material on Beyonce’s self-titled album: okay and inessential while mostly skidding by on the album’s aesthetic and the performer’s capabilities. Rihanna’s cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” could have been indulgent–a pop star covering an indie rock deep cut is almost indulgent by definition–but honestly, she sounds mesmerized on a track where Kevin Parker always sounds tired, like she just enjoys singing this song.

And the same can be said about her throughout ANTI, especially on the album’s last section. Rihanna’s taken more grief than most pop stars for vocals, but she sings the shit out of “Close to You”, “Love on the Brain”, and especially on “Higher”, a two minute track built on a dusty string loop and gospel piano where Riri goes into full blown whiskey-soaked rasping plea. It runs the risk of being too much, and an entire song in this howling style would be grating, but as is, “Higher” is the most impassioned drunk dial you’re gonna hear. The pumped-up doo-wop of “Love on the Brain” deploys her “powerhouse mode” vocals tactically, and works better for it–if nothing else, the song’s proof that modern takes on girl group soul and doo-wop don’t have to be terrible (hi, Meghan Trainor!)

So, getting back to “What’s ANTI sound like?”, the answer is it sounds like the album Rihanna wanted to make. And, despite the occasional misstep, it’s quite good, and proves she can do more than singles pop. For all the romantic preoccupations and longing, this is still a solid record to put on and just enjoy by yourself; the vibe here is don’t kill the vibe (it’s also perfect after a work day). It might get less radio play than her other albums, but it doesn’t sound interested in generating hits, anyway. ANTI suggests for the first time, Rihanna might have a life outside the radio. Hopefully we just don’t have to wait four years to see what happens next.

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Being Macklemore Is Complicated: “White Privilege II”

Before getting to “White Privilege II”, you have to understand that if any facet of Macklemore (Ben Haggerty)’s career were different, we wouldn’t be here.

If Macklemore was a white rapper from Detroit or Queens or (I guess) Sydney, Australia instead of a white rapper from Seattle, we wouldn’t be here. If he had rap industry cosign from someone like Dr. Dre or T.I. and didn’t to operate in a DIY vacuum, we wouldn’t be here. If his party banger was the single that resonated with White America and not the two that by intent or by accident threw hip-hop writ large under the bus and inadvertently positioned Mack as rap’s Great White Hope, we wouldn’t be here. If dude was just a better artist (I’ll come back to this one later), we probably wouldn’t be here.

But, because life is a series of events we don’t control, here we are in world where Macklemore and Ryan Lewis released “White Privilege II” the only way a song like this could be: by lobbing it on iTunes at midnight last Friday like a molotov cocktail and clearing the area as fast as possible. “White Privilege II” is a nearly 9 minute mess consisting of 4 wordy rap verses, 2 spoken-word collages, a choir-esque interlude, and a sung outro, all laced with roiling self-loathing, guilt, and cloying purpose. Its tone pivots from slam poetry to After School Special to screaming in the hotel room, each leaning all the way in on Macklemore’s patent earnetness. His scattered approach extends to Ryan Lewis’ production, where solemn, leaden piano gives way and snaps back from a jazzy freakout and vaudeville vamp while occasionally tossing that chanting choir in. “White Privilege II” is, in other words, a lot.

Before anything else, let me say this: “White Privilege II” is worth listening to at least once. It is, at the very least, a genuinely felt piece of art from someone who wants their heart to be in the right place, and is willing to try very, very, very, very hard to say something meaningful, even if they aren’t sure what. It is much better than saying nothing. I’m not going to over-praise Macklemore by calling the song “brave”, but putting it out in pre-release is a gutsier move than it just popping up most of the way through This Unruly Mess I’ve Made.

What I’m not sure of yet is if “White Privilege II” works or not. Part of that is going to be if the song hits that resonance that “Same Love” or “Thrift Shop” did with time, but largely it’s because I’m not sure if this sprawling, restless thing is a noble experiment or just a failed one.

It absolutely doesn’t help that the song’s first leg is also its weakest. This is the slam poetry one, where Macklemore raps about going to a Black Lives Matter protest and feeling awkward. It’s slight because Macklemore wrings his hands over the perceived oddness of being a white dude at BLM event without exploring where his unease comes from, or wonder what it’d be like for black protesters (part of this might come down to perspective. It’s really hard for my black self to resist going “Poor Ben, you felt uncomfortable at a protest.” He went, and that’s great, but dude). There’s some righteous anger there, but Macklemore doesn’t gain much by swinging hard at police brutality.

He finds much more to sink his teeth into during the song’s second and third verses, the former of which is the “screaming in the hotel room” section. Like Kendrick Lamar on “u”, Macklemore is absolutely ripping himself to shreds here as an exploitative faker over freaked out horns while teetering on the edge of self-destruction. It doesn’t quite match “u” in execution (those first few shouts of “LOVING YOU IS COMPLICATED” will never not destroy my soul temporarily), but it’s an arresting performance by a guy who dreads what he’s created.

From there, we get to the most inspired and the only part of “White Privilege II” that’s downright compelling: the “old mom” verse. Macklemore raps from the point of view of a middle-aged white mom praising him for being “The only hip-hop that I let my kids listen to…” and the verse is 1. performed in such a pitch perfect way that I have to think Macklemore has met people like this who terrify him, and 2. a crueler rebuke of Macklemore than what anyone else will ever come up with. It plays to Mack’s strengths as a storyteller while handily connecting white audiences’ reaction to “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love” to their ire for Black Lives Matter protests.

Unfortunately, this is only half of “White Privilege II”, which turns into a chore for its last 4 and a half minutes. You get two sound collages: one of which is a tedious read-through of “I’m not racist” racist shit you see on Facebook, the other is activists talking about Black Lives Matter as a liberation movement for all, and what role white people can take in helping society. Macklemore delivers his #TruthBombs white privilege verse with the same seriousness he used in “Same Love” (ctrl+f “Verse 4” here; it almost sounds better read) that, while it’s great and necessary, feels tiring, and by the time Jamila Woods descends from “Sunday Candy” heaven to sing the outro after seven and a half goddamn minutes, you’re left reeling.

I might be wrong. As a black man, I am fully aware that “White Privilege II” is not written for me. I still maintain it’s a song worth listening to and engaging with, but I also think for how hard it tries, “White Privilege II” is a well-intentioned failure.

Here’s what I keep coming back to: who is this song for? Because I don’t think it knows. The first third or so of it scans almost like an apology to black people or hip-hop fans while the rest is pretty plainly directed at Macklemore’s white soccer mom club. But addressing these audiences this way is baffling: the black community and hip-hop heads have never especially fucked with Macklemore, and the white privilege/supremacy verse itself (y’know, the song’s entire point) is in the last one here. It’s nearly counter intuitive.

Earlier, I said “White Privilege II” wouldn’t exist if Macklemore was a better artist. There are a couple of levels to that. If he was a better rapper or sharper lyricist, he probably would have beat back the appropriation criticisms by now (see: Mathers, Marshall). Likewise, because of his perceived lightweight status, just approaching “White Privilege II” requires some critics/listeners to drop the “Oh, fuck that guy” reaction that comes with news relating to Macklemore. And a lot of the song’s messiness comes from Macklemore being self-aware enough to acknowledge his white privilege, but not self-aware enough to use that privilege in a smart way (see: The infamous Screenshot).

That critical lack of self-awareness is what kneecaps “White Privilege II” chances at reaching mass culture. The song’s most intended audience–let’s say the old mom in the third verse–was introduced to and knows Macklemore from “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love”: songs that sure, have a message, but are pop songs first. They followed a verse-chorus-verse structure with repeated hooks and manageable run times, and, because they fit comfortably next to P!nk and Bruno Mars singles on top 40 radio, were able to win over the masses over time by invading the country’s shopping centers, waiting rooms, and Steak and Shakes. Meanwhile, there are like, seven different reasons why “White Privilege II” won’t get any radio play, and that’s before you get to the content. Risk-averse pop radio isn’t going to play it because it’s a nine minute track without a hook whose structure borders nonexistent, and rap radio isn’t going to play it because it doesn’t hit hard enough  (plus “it’s Macklemore“). On an academic level, it seems apt to fail, as well: it’s been discussed by people of color far more than white people.

So, in the end, “White Privilege II” is like its creator: stuck in the middle between exasperatingly too much and woefully too little, losing with the wrong people, winning with the wrong ones, besieged on every side, but trying so very hard. Macklemore seems almost trapped by his fame and success in a way he finds deeply unsettling, and “White Privilege II”, his shot at getting out, looks like it was thrown away. Maybe it’ll make more sense within the album’s context, or maybe “White Privilege III” will arrive with a clearer sense of purpose. But for now, we’re left with his song, Macklemore’s unruly mess. We heard he was conflicted.

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Radio Rant: Selena Gomez – Same Old Love

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants.

We’ve got kind of an issue here today. One part due to Listmas, one part due to other reviews, and one part due to the charts holding onto the same handful songs for last three months, I’ve recently written about everyone in this week’s top ten already. “Hello”, “Stressed Out”, “Stitches”, and “Here” have all gotten individual treatment, and I just don’t have it in me to write about Meghan Trainor’s latest throwback track, or the shell game Bieber’s playing with “Where Are U Now?” again. So, even though she’s gotten recent coverage, bring on Selena.

Selena Gomez has carved out a lane for herself one of our purest B-level pop artists. That’s not to say that she’s B-listed as a celebrity, but that her career highlights the difference between a pop artist and a pop star. This isn’t a bad thing. While she’s not doing Swiftian numbers, Gomez leveraged her Disney fame to start an adult pop career with five top ten hits over not quite three years. She’s done this without needing a career reset already like Bieber or (probably) Ariana Grande, and has a consistency that Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas haven’t been able to match. And this consistency is reflected in her singles: sometimes she soars, sometimes she whiffs, but it averages out to a potentially resilient career.

All of this makes her easy to appreciate, but means it can be hard to plumb her material for anything beyond “it’s fine.” We’re gonna try anyway. “Same Old Love” is Revival‘s second single following “Good For You”, and while it shares that song’s aspirations of doing you, that’s about all they have in common. “Good For You” was all hazy atmospherics, drum pads, and breathy vocals while “Same Old Love” is pared down to stabbing piano chords and programmed snaps for its foundation with Gomez singing with her chest all the way out. It manages to sound like it belongs on contemporary radio stations, but could have credibly gotten air play at any point in the last few years.

That’s likely due to veterans Stargate and Benny Blanco producing the track. “Same Old Love”‘s verses are made of the aforementioned piano chords and snaps, but the chorus tosses in some flourishes like upstroked guitar to match the piano parts, deep bass, and a synth line that I swear reminds me of an old N64 video game. Even with those extra touches, “Same Old Love” is scaled back from Stargate or Blanco’s usual efforts (Iggy Azalea’s “Black Widow” was another joint project), and the song stands out a bit on the radio as a result. Gomez isn’t trying to rule the charts so much as keep her place in them. The beat doesn’t get in the way, and that might be a problem; it’s fine as a composition, but feels like an outtake or a demo, like a grounding element’s missing.

Gomez’s performance only throws the sparse track in relief. Like I said, she’s singing here with more assurance and force than usual, throwing voice breaks and the slightest hint of a  bratty snarl into her delivery. She throws a little more into the chorus, and while it could be a little grating, a hint of attitude fits her well. The effect does her favors, but hurts the beat by pointing out how little there is to it. Actually, between the upstroke guitars, baby brat vocals, and overall off-kilter vibe, Gomez is doing a good to great Gwen Stefani impression.

She also gets an assist with an uncredited backing vocal from Charli “Huh, this crossover thing’s harder than it looks” XCX, who is also a credited writer. Charli contributes those “Ooh oh whoa oh whoa”s you hear on the chorus, and while it’s cool to hear her on a hit, it’s also really hard to differentiate her and Gomez if you’re not trying. A lot of that comes down to just how in Charli’s wheelhouse “Same Old Love” sounds; with a little extra dressing, it could have fit in on her album Sucker. As is, the song’s too slight to plausibly fit on that record, but considering that Sucker stiffed the charts, I’m not sure that’s necessarily a knock as far as Gomez is concerned. Let’s see some lyrics.

“Take away your things and go/You can’t take back what you said, I know/I’ve heard it all before, at least a million times/I’m not one to forget, you know” The argument’s floating around out there that “Same Old Love” is about Gomez’s famous former beau Justin Bieber, whose tried to rekindle what they had for a while–likewise, people think his “Sorry” and “Love Yourself” are about her. The official party line is that “Same Old Love”‘s about “negative love” and “not necessarily romantic”, so believe what you want.

“You left me in peace/You left me in pieces” This lyric’s great at riding the line between good-clever and ugh-clever.

“I’m so sick of that same old love/That shit, it tears me up” I get the impact that throwing “shit” in there has, especially for Gomez who still seems kinda like a kid, but I’m always confused when designer radio singles throw swear words in the chorus (aside from “Fuck You”. “Fuck You” is transcendent.)

“I’m so sick of that same old love/My body’s had enough” Taking “Your Love Is My Drug” to the logical limit, huh?

“I’m so sick of that same old love/feels like I’ve blown up boy” File this one under “lyrics that aren’t helping the Bieber conspiracy theorists”.

If you want to look at “Same Old Love” as a step forward, you can, but mostly it’s regulated to “it’s fine” status. It showcases Gomez being a little cocky, and more or less works due to the strength of the hook. It’s pop music at its most functional: “Same Old Love” is exactly as good and memorable as it needs to be for Gomez to huff it to her next single without leaving much in its wake. Bring on “Hands To Myself”.

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Fall Out Boy’s Albums From Worst to Best, Ranked

A few years back, music writer Steven Hyden ran a feature for the now defunct Grantland called “The Winner’s History of Rock & Roll”, where he profiled bands from Led Zeppelin onward who, well, “won” rock in the mainstream culture. The piece aimed to seek out who defined what a mainstream rock band looked like, sounded like, acted like, how their videos looked, who they worked with, and what they did for a given era. And these were winners in the biggest sense possible; the winners list wasn’t one of Talking Heads, Nirvana, and The Strokes, but of Bon Jovi, 90’s Metallica, and Linkin Park. While Hyden’s Winner’s History ends in 2013 with The Black Keys, I’d wager that a new winner was about to announce their comeback later that year: pop-punkers turned emo arena rockers Fall Out Boy, 2015’s winning rock band.

The year-end Billboard charts always feature a handful of token rock singles. Last year, Fall Out Boy took two of those spots with “Centuries” and “Uma Thurman” from their sixth studio album American Beauty/American Psycho which sold half a million copies. Doing those kinds of album numbers, plus notching hit singles as a rock band on back to back albums when you’re neither a young group coming up with a rabid fanbase or a warmed over corporate act who can’t keep at for more than an album cycle is practically unheard of in the 2010s (Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, and Mumford & Sons all stiffed the charts in one regard or another, although Coldplay is still early in their album cycle).

And so, to celebrate, I thought I’d rank Fall Out Boy’s discography. This band of misfit Chicagoans went from scene pariahs to world conquerors; there has to be something in their albums that explains it. This ranking’s also going to be interesting for me because, despite this band being arguably the defining group for my teenage years and onward, I’ve gone on record here as not a fan. Let’s call it a growing opportunity. Anyway, as FOB’s lead singer Patrick Stump once said (ish), this ain’t a scene, it’s a GOD. DAMN. RANK. ING. Ahem, sorry.

6. Save Rock & Roll (2013)
Fall Out Boy took a hiatus in late 2009, and announced their return with Save Rock & Roll in 2013. I didn’t like the album when it came out, and it hasn’t gotten any better with time. Fall Out Boy were always a vain and kind of callous band, but they never felt as shallow as they do on SR&R, where the songs lack adventure, and the garish production reduces everything to a bland gruel. To this day, the album remains one great song (the comeback heralding “The Phoenix”), one near great one with hit single “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark”, and nine songs that are more loud than they are spirited.

I’ll say this in my bottom pick’s defense: rather than retread the band’s past, it kept them on the charts by keeping them current like true rock and roll winners. To that end, it almost doesn’t matter that the Big Sean featuring “The Mighty Fall” is terrible, at least it sounds like something made in 2013 that would feature Big Sean. Still, though, if there was one FOB album I’d watch 2 Chainz toss in a fire, this is it.

5. American Beauty/American Psycho (2015)
To prove the reunion wasn’t a cash-in, FOB recorded the follow-up to Save Rock & Roll less than two years later (aside: so long as they’re active, Fall Out Boy have never gone over two years without putting out an album. No matter what you or I think of them, you gotta respect the hustle). AB/AP is just as big, rushed, shrill as its predecessor, but feels more comfortable with itself and a lot zanier. The hip-hop stomp of “Irresistible”, zippy energy of the title track, or that Munsters sample on “Uma Thurman” are AB/AP‘s all on its own, and stay truer to FOB’s roots as a band who’ll try anything it see what works. In concept, I can appreciate an album like this that wants to run away with every idea and be as big as possible. In actuality, too many of the songs seem listless, and the brittle production makes even good tunes like “The Kids Aren’t Alright” a bit of a headache. There’s nothing that would imply FOB would scale back from here, but AB/AP is a competent album, if nothing else.

4. Take This To Your Grave (2003)
Here’s one for you: at their inception, Fall Out Boy was a band made two Chicago hardcore castoffs who switched between guitar and bass, a straight-edge vegan drummer who was originally filling in as a favor, and a shy dude who joined as a drummer and had to be press-ganged into singing instead.

I say all this because it helps contextualize their debut album Take This To Your Grave as more a proof-of-concept than anything else. Fall Out Boy’s first album is tight and likeable, but weakest in their pre-hiatus discography for a few reasons. While it’s energetic, the hooks aren’t as sharp as they are later; it’s hard to differentiate even decent songs like “Sending Postcards From A Plane Crash (Wish You Were Here)” and “The Pros and Cons of Breathing” once they end. Stump’s pretty green as a singer here, too, not doing much to separate himself from the glut of early 00s pop-punk dudes singing about girls. The album’s full-throttle tempo’s good for jamming along, but it’s missing that Fall Out Boy bounce.

Take This To Your Grave is the only FOB album I didn’t experience contemporarily. I don’t know how much that’s colored my view of it, but looking at the album compared to what comes next, it feels slight. Ultimately, TTTYG comes up short because FOB aren’t especially realized as “get in the van” types playing day slots at Warped Tour, and if you want to argue that they arethen this album’s nothing but a practice swing for From Under the Cork Tree.

3. Folie a Deux (2008)
Albums release right before a band goes on hiatus or split end up being interesting the same way those last few doomed dates are before a break-up: all of a sudden, you’re looking at details like a “date night” consisting Olive Garden and a Gerard Butler movie, or bringing labelmates and scene buddies in to sing your old hits on an outro like those details were warning signs all along.

Folie a Deux isn’t Fall Out Boy’s best album, but it’s handily their most fascinating. The band hadn’t taken an honest break in fours years that included extensive touring to a highly devoted fan base, prolonged media attention on Pete Wentz and Patrick Stump, and recording three increasingly large and involved albums, and you can hear the fatigue catching up to them all over Folie a Deux. It has that blown out, battered sound of an artist trying to grit their teeth, pull through their exhaustion, and just will an album into existence (see also: The Beatles’ Let It Be, Arctic Monkeys’ Humbug, Yeezus). FOB’s songs have always had a level of emotional detachment despite the “emo” tag, but Stump sings Wentz’s lyrics like “I must confess, I’m in love with my own sins”“I’ve got troubled thoughts, and the self-esteem to match/What a catch”, and album opener “I’m coming apart at the seams/Pitching myself for leads in other people’s dreams” with an earnestness previously missing. The music looks at pop, rock, soul, and tinges of punk and metal through a funhouse mirror, resulting in synth-tinged stompers like “I Don’t Care”, chamber poppy “What a Catch, Donnie”, hair metal-with-horns and piano rocker “Headfirst Slide Into Cooperstown On a Bad Bet”, and Pharrell produced “w.a.m.s.”

But Folie a Deux doesnt’ rank high just for being weird, but for having some of the band’s best songs. Fans didn’t know what to make of “I Don’t Care” in 2008, but years later, it’s a killer diva cut for Stump. “She’s My Winona” is near melodically unmatched in FOB’s discography, and downright joyous, too–try not to singalong to the chorus or that “Whoa-oh-oh-oh whoooaa” hook. And “America’s Suitehearts” and “What a Catch, Donnie” are both top 5 contenders, period. With a few stronger songs (there’s a bit of a mid-album stumble) and better production, it’d be Fall Out Boy’s best album. As such, it doesn’t quite pass muster, but it’s probably my favorite of theirs, nonetheless.

2. From Under the Cork Tree (2005)
Yes, Fall Out Boy, you were more than we bargained for.

But, they proved they were here to win. Second record From Under the Cork Tree takes everything that worked on Take This To Your Grave and jumps over it. The ridiculously tight rhythms do more than standard pop-punk beats, the overcaffienated riffs develop into actual, lethal hooks, Patrick Stump discovers his range, and the band’s identity snaps into focus. Like, you’re not gonna hear “Dance, Dance” and think of someone other than Fall Out Boy, and the record’s first half is the band’s best run of unleaded pop-punk. It’s also their bitchiest album by a country mile; not until you hear “Why don’t you show me a little bit of spine you’ve been saving for his mattress”, “I’m just a notch in your bedpost, you’re just a line in a song”, and the entirety of “I Slept With Someone In Fall Out Boy And All I Got Was This Stupid Song Written About Me” all within the same hour that you realize just how big the chip was on Pete Wentz’s shoulder.

Of all Fall Out Boys albums, this was the one where nostalgia hit. In retrospect it’s basically an accomplished pop-punk album, but between Cork Tree and My Chemical Romance’s Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge picking up steam with the “Helena” video, you could watch the emo pop phenomenon take on in real time. Tons of kids bought this record, and “Sugar, We’re Going Down” is a legitimate rock radio staple people still know (a few of) the words to–it kills at college bars around 1:30 AM, if you ever have the chance/right jukebox. Without Cork Tree doing so well, it’s hard to say that people would have given The Academy Is…, Say Anything, Paramore, Gym Class Heroes, and especially Panic! at the Disco (*please click here for Ranting About Music’s in-depth look at PatD’s albums) the time of day. And while it’s good, it’s still not Fall Out Boy’s best album.

1. Infinity On High (2007)
The longest standing criticism of Fall Out Boy that’s gone from (depending on who you talk to) 2005 or 2007 to now is that they sold out or they’re no longer a “true” pop-punk band. Setting aside that the “not a real band/sell out” argument is one the least productive things you can say about an artist, it also misses the point to Fall Out Boy. Don’t let Take This To Your Grave fool you: playing fast and loose with form and genre while keeping big riffs, clever (slash “clever”) lyrics, and pop choruses is wired into this band’s DNA far more than Vans slip ons and long sideburns ever were.

Infinity On High is the album that proves it. The material was written while touring, and as a result, the guitars, bass, and drums have a loose, natural chemistry that makes for standout rockers like “Hum Hallelujah”, “Fame < Infamy”, or “You’re Crashing, But You’re No Wave”, and that confidence helps the band ease into new elements like strings, bouncing soul (“This Ain’t a Scene…”), dalliances in Weezery power-pop (“I’m Like a Lawyer…”) and even a piano ballad with “Golden”. Wentz drops some of the lyrical pettiness, but it’s Stump who steals the show on this one. If Cork Tree was about him developing confidence and presence, Infinity On High is where he truly lets loose, pulling off shit like this and layering tracks with his own harmonies. He sounds fully realized here, and so does the band behind him; “The Carpal Tunnel of Love” is a heavyweight emo jam on its own, but it’s arguably the band’s best song all because Stump sings the fuck out of it.

And Infinity On High doesn’t lack for strong material elsewhere. “Thnks Fr Th Mmrs” is the band’s most enduring non-Cork Tree single, and the mid-album run from “I’m Like a Lawyer…” to “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am?” is solidly bulletproof with a few great songs littering the back half. FOB cranked out Infinity less than two years after its predecessor; partially because they wanted to keep their profile and momentum going forward, but they were also on a creative hot streak. Even now, this album is the one they’re chasing: Folie is the comedown from the High, and post-reunion records Save Rock and Roll and American Beauty/American Psycho are lobotomized and lobotomized-but-somehow-zanier takes on Infinity respectively.

Maybe if they were never destined to save it, this album is the one that proves Fall Out Boy was meant to win rock and roll. They were able to harness their sound and tweak it to trends, while still keeping a lead in their own scene and up-size without difficulty. I still wouldn’t call myself a fan of theirs, per se, but they’re better than I gave them credit for. Thanks for the memories, dudes. And some of the songs, I guess.

Ranting Research Notes
1. I always thought that the bassline to “Dance, Dance” was Pete Wentz’s lone quality bass riff, and it turns out Patrick Stump wrote it. Go figure.
2. The Alluded to Fall Out Boy Top Five Songs List (in loose order): “The Carpal Tunnel of Love”, “Dance, Dance”, “She’s My Winona”, “Thnks Fr Th Mmrs”, “Saturday”.
3. Fall Out Boy dress like fairly normal dudes in the “Sugar, We’re Goin Down” video, only to go for the slack formal wear and eyeliner with “Dance, Dance”. “Helena” was released between the two.
4. Speaking of video, Fall Out Boy exist in that fun span from 2006-2008 where even TV performances and music videos uploaded to YouTube look like they were shot with a Razr.
5. The band’s 2002 demo Fall Out Boy’s Evening Out With Your Girlfriend wasn’t counted because they’ve essentially disowned it, and a label only did a reissue without their consent. 2013’s hardcore EP Pax AM Days and last year’s Make America Psycho Again remix project were similarly nixed, although here’s how I’d rank the three: I’d rather take my chances with Panic! at the Disco’s new album.

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The Enduring Identity of David Bowie

David Bowie died yesterday.

This is a factual statement, but somehow feels implausible and a little unfair. He had just turned 69 on Friday! He emerged from semi-retirement just two years ago with a pretty good album, and followed it up last week with an insane record that feels vital while his contemporaries are making inessential solo records and cover projects. Sure, interviews and tours were still off the table like they’d been since 2006, but the man’s recent work radiated life. It felt like throwing something off-balance; the cosmos just came for an old school rock icon two weeks ago. If most of us were asked “who do you think would live forever?” I’d wager “David fucking Bowie” would be a common answer.

If you’re here, I imagine you know the beats of Bowie’s story from “Space Oddity” to Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke to bleached pophead to 90s goatee to the Blackstar. At the very least, you’re probably aware Bowie was “that redhead with the lightning bolt”. Honestly, I’m not a Bowie expert–you’d have to dedicate a solid few months to this archive panic of a discography for that–but I know and love a lot of the man’s work, and his passing’s made me realize just how much he resonated with me.

And, based on the massive outpouring of shared grief and Bowie stories, I’m not alone in that. Seeing Lemmy and Bowie go back to back confronts a sad truth: as more rock icons reach a certain age, rock icons succumbing to said certain age is going to be a more frequent phenomenon going forward. And while they’ll hurt, I can’t see many of them tripping people up as hard as David Bowie has.

Let’s talk about David Bowie and identity.

If most people get into older rock (let’s say anything before 1980), it’s going to be when they’re a teenager, and still tacking down their identity. In that time, you’re looking at guys like Mick and Keef, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and–sure, let’s add him–Lemmy. They’re gods of cool, but it’s this very masculine white dude kind of cool that seems innate, and something your dorky ass isn’t going to imitate no matter how much swagger you affect or how detached you try to look while wearing sunglasses inside. It’s that jockish cool that, let’s face it, if you’re looking for an identity through music, you already know isn’t for you. And then, you look at Bowie during the Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane years: this campy, androgynous, bisexual alien as played by a man with dyed hair, makeup, and a killer wardrobe.

Ziggy Stardust caught on, yes because David Bowie was charisma incarnate, but also because he used life as an alien was a way to show the fluidity of identity in real-time. For kids who turned to rock because they felt like losers, freaks, or weirdos (“a little queer”, if you will), Bowie and Ziggy represented endless and exciting possibilities about self-expression. He showed that there was more to rock’s cool than macho posturing, that the genre could have a theatrical side, and how its sexual expression could be exciting and liberating (non-musical sidenote: I’ve never actually seen Labyrinth, but I’ve enough first person accounts about Bowie and his codpiece causing kids’ first “Why, hello there” moments to know it’s a Thing. Also, tell me you’ve never wanted someone to look at you the way Bowie does in this last gif). And, as he went through the years, Bowie demonstrated that said identity could take on whatever form you felt comfortable with, so long as it was what you wanted to do. Coming out of a year that Wesley Morris at New York Times called “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity”, Bowie and his many forms have a new resonance in popular culture.

That resonance also comes from the fact that, even when he was out of the spotlight, Bowie felt culturally present in a way that Dylan or the Stones haven’t for years, if not decades. Part of that was his work ethic; even as late as the early 00s, he was still releasing albums that–if they weren’t always good–at least sounded contemporary, and his 2010’s work was still fully engaged (The Next Day is Bowie’s own career retrospective, while the just released Blackstar is a scorched Earth jazz rock affair whose solemnity came into hard focus today). But the other part is how visible his legacy was even when he was still alive: he was still a known force in rock, and one of our defining pop stars underlined his influence in her first music video.

Thinking about Bowie and identity, it feels worth noting that Ziggy Stardust came to Earth to save it and spread a message of peace. That Bowie died peacefully while with his family, and not by rock and roll suicide, feels like a fitting end to that transmission. David Bowie showed us, showed me at least, that the world could be a weirder, more exciting place if you embraced your own fluidity. You might blow your own mind.

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What If Kanye West Just Doesn’t Release SWISH?

As much as 2015 was defined by a glut of stupid great albums, it was also defined by three big name no-shows that seemed like sure things: Frank Ocean, Rihanna, and Kanye West. Of the three, Frank Ocean is the most open and shut situation with an announcement last year slating the album for July, and then, save one cancelled appearance at FYF, nothing since. Rihanna’s ANTI seems to both exist and not exist simultaneously: one week, her camp says it’s coming any second, the next, there’s buzz about her still looking for songs. Things get weirder with Kanye and  SWISH: we got three singles for a presumed promo cycle early last year, an album name change, a few songs chiefly used to soundtrack Kanye’s fashion line, and whatever you want to call “FACTS”. The blustery “it’s totally finished” hype statements from the last year clash with this “time to buckle down and work” tweet last month from Kanye, and lately I’ve been wondering:

What if Kanye just doesn’t release another album?

Okay, deep breath, because there are a few qualifiers: I’m not ruling out production jobs, guest verse features or collaborations (I wouldn’t want to live in a world without the possibility of Watch the Throne 2), or the idea that Kanye would return to albums eventually, I’m just saying what if he’s done with the “record–>single–>album–>videos–>tour–>record–>repeat” cycle? We could be waiting for a Yeezus follow up for years.

Of course, this is speculation bordering on conspiracy theory, but there’s enough evidence to make the case. You listen to 2015’s main Kanye tracks: the parental lullaby “Only One”, Rihanna featuring acoustic jam “FourFiveSeconds”, and grimy, mean-mugging “All Day”, and while they’re all great, they sound like an artist tinkering in private. Ditto for his “Say You Will” remix with Caroline Shaw, and reworked 808s shows last year; the material’s compelling, but more focused on proof-of-concept than world (or radio) domination. The three singles come and go of their own accord without a unifying energy or sound. Most of this could be applied to Rihanna’s 2015 songs, but Riri seems committed to ANTI enough that she’s going on a tour for it a tour for it at the end of next month, and an app. Kanye’s most recent SoundCloud loosie was a What a Time to Be Alive aping track with Metro Boomin, which is the very definition of fucking around.

And then, you look at Kanye’s non-musical life, and SWISH slides even further down the priority list. Most of his 2015 was spent focused on his fashion line (potential name: Dystopia By Yeezy), and, I’d presume, raising his child and preparing for his second one. He’s got a full family with obligations now, and that has to make it harder to do shit like spend a year exploring sounds with Jon Brionworkshop around the clock in Honolulu, labor away in hotel rooms across the world, or Rick Rubin guided eleventh hour sessions. For Kanye (and a lot of artists), recording an album is a life consuming experience, and when life gets in the way, well, you end up being Tyga’s executive producer while you’re waiting to hear back from the fashion team.

So, getting back to that “What if”, I think we’ll still see plenty of Kanye both as a public figure and as a featured artist, but I feel like projects where he’s leading the charge will be harder to come by. And, let’s step back for a second and appreciate the man’s 2010’s hot streak: you didn’t have to love everything on My Beautiful Dark Twisted FantasyWatch the ThroneCruel Summer, or Yeezus, but the fact that those projects were all in a little under four years is damn impressive. Add on the relentless work ethic before that (four albums in five years), and the man’s earned the right to take the time off, if nothing else.

But the other part of the “What If”, the argument that makes it interesting and separates Kanye from Rihanna is that his discography as it stands makes a near perfect arc. Going from the rising action of the College trilogy to crippled loss of 808s & Heartbreak to MBDTF‘s maximalist appeal to the abrasive deconstruction of Yeezus is an incredible There and Back Again, right down to closing Yeezus with the corroded take on vintage Kanye that is “Bound 2”. As he once said, the man is so self-conscious, so this arc probably hasn’t escaped him. What’s more, Kanye is pushing 40 in a scene where north of 35 qualifies you as an elder; it’s entirely possible that he doesn’t feel the need to put out another album right now. Drake, Kanye’s most direct successor, proclaimed last year if he died he’d be a legend. Ye already is.

Now, watch him drop SWISH next week.

Ed: Two days later…


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Radio Rant: Twenty One Pilots – Stressed Out

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Ugh.

The start of the year’s always anticlimactic. The short, cold days no longer have that holiday glow, you have to take all the decorations down, and because I have an early January birthday, I always feel Old this time of year.

Similarly, Ohio’s very own Twenty One Pilots are a band that have always made me feel Old. I’ve known about them since a friend introduced me to “Holding Onto You” in 2011, and eventually I grouped them with other “big online presence” artists like Lorde, Halsey, and recently Alessia Cara in the category of artists whose music I like, but their aesthetic makes me painfully aware that I’m just far enough outside their target demo for them to look well-meaning but a bit silly (sidenote: Cara’s “Here” made it onto my ten top hit songs list of last year. I guarantee it would have been number one two years ago, and probably wouldn’t make the list going forward).

This goes double for Twenty One Pilots, who are quite well-meaning, but also quite silly. Almost everything you need to know about them is in “Holding Onto You”: here is a group who is entirely too much (Tyler Joseph has a rap voice that sounds like Billy Corgan doing “Love The Way You Lie”), maddeningly catchy, and a bigger messiah complex than Bono and Kendrick Lamar collaborating on a charity single. They are ardent in their belief that they make real music and emphatically not rap. They wore ski masks and knit hats in 90 degree heat and humidity when I saw them live last year. They lather themselves up in grease paint Imperator Furiosa style and encourage their fans to do the same because their record is about insecurity or some shit. They tour their number one album by bringing out people in hazmat suits labeled “Fame” and “Success”. They end their shows with “We are twenty one pilots, and so are you.” They’ll save your heavydirtysoul, man (okay, let me pull back a second: I like TOP’s music well enough, and as evident from my love of The Wonder Years, I’m not opposed to over-earnest bands, but guys, come on).

So when I saw “Stressed Out” nestled within the pop chart’s top twenty a notch below a Future/Drake banger, I was surprised. “Stressed Out” is one of the more straight ahead songs off last year’s blurryface; it mostly stays in that loose live-band hip-hop groove while occasionally throwing piano and some eerie synth in the background. The beat drops out a little at the chorus and hits a little harder on the bridge, but doesn’t do anything strange aside from me want to listen to the Pixies. I get why this is the song that caught on; it’s the one without nu-metal guitars or reggae overtones, but I kinda like those more grating parts of TOP’s personality.

I know I said vocalist Tyler Joseph reminds me of a Billy Corgan/Eminem hybrid, but there’s also a lot of Gerard Way in there, too. He has some of the brainy/bratty over-enunciation Way would use on clean vocals, and the strung out sneer on “My name is blurrrryyyyyface, and I care what you think” could come from an MCR single. Joseph’s vocal style–an up and down wordy cadence with nasally, occasionally needling delivery–fits well on “Stressed Out”, and I’ve always kind of theorized that if Twenty One Pilots had been founded in 2003 instead of 2009, they’d be an emo band.

The fact that they’re signed to pop-punk/emo-pop label Fueled By Ramen, the only label whose bands can still cross over, only strengthens that theory. Twenty One Pilots draw from the same themes of sadness and heartache that emo-pop bands have written about since time immemorial 2003, complete with Pete Wentz-style “Tell me how clever I am” phrasing.

“I wish I found some better sounds no one’s ever heard/I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words” I mean, you guys seem to be doing pretty well for yourselves as is.

“I wish I found some chords in an order that is new/I wish I didn’t have to rhyme every time I sang” Get it? Because that line doesn’t rhyme? It’s so meta, so real.

“Wish we could turn back time to the good old days/When our mama sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out” That chorus doesn’t rhyme either. I don’t know if this proves or disproves the song’s point. It’s also one of blurryface‘s weaker choruses?

“My name is blurryface and I care what you think” The character “blurryface” is supposed to be a representation of all of Joseph’s anxieties and insecurities. I think it barely registers on the album, and adds nothing of value. Then again, one of my favorite records last year was a double album that used dream sequences and doppelgangers as a metaphor for manic depression, so what do I know?

“Out of student loans and treehouse homes we’ll always take the ladder” Oh my God, this fucking band.

“We used to play pretend, used to play pretend, money/Used to play pretend, wake up you need the money” Ah yes, “growing up sucks”. Well, at least emo-pop’s writing about something more intricate than “my ex-girlfriend sucks”.

End of the day, I think it’s interesting to see Twenty One Pilots having an actual hit, but I kind of wish it was something louder, like “Tear In My Heart” that made it big. “Stressed Out” is okay, but when I listen to blurryface, it feels more like an extended interlude than a fully formed idea. That’s just my opinion, though, you don’t have to care what I think.

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