Monthly Archives: November 2012
Taylor Swift – Red
You don’t even have to listen to Red to know that Taylor Swift is trying something new here—just look at the cover. Her name isn’t handwritten. Her face is obscured in shadow. She has bangs. All this screams that the 22-year-old Swift wants to be taken more seriously, and after her dear-diary breakup songs pigeonholed her as an eternal teenager, who could blame her? But as the lead single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” indicates, Swift isn’t ready to give up her bread and butter. Like her other records, Red is mainly packed with songs about regret, heartache and puppy love, her lyrics jumping between poignant, endearingly clumsy and just plain awkward.
Instead, what sets Red apart is how she finally makes the great leap from country to pop, successfully making the crossover like no one since Shania Twain. It’s something Swift was inching closer and closer to with each successive record, but what’s surprising is the extent to which she embraces new styles. She tries a little bit of everything, collaborating with Britney producer Max Martin for her forays into dance-pop (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “22”) and faux-dubstep flourishes (“I Knew You Were Trouble”); she takes stabs at quirky indie pop (“Stay Stay Stay”) and melancholy, dreamy folk (“Sad Beautiful Tragic”), and finds the time to duet with Ed Sheeran and Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody. Meanwhile, she draws on U2’s majestic stadium rock on the magnificent opener “State Of Grace,” where she shows a greater sense of dynamics than ever before.
But for all the musical adventurism, it’s still Swift who takes center stage, and she commits fully to her eclecticism in both her songwriting and performances. Other then the occasional banjo or lovelorn ballad, the only thing remotely “country” about Red is that she still lays all her sentiments on the surface, which bodes well for when she mines new lyrical territory like on the carefree yet conflicted “22” and the borderline paranoid “The Lucky One,” where she begins to doubt that there’s a happy ending to her Cinderella story. Since Red has no real musical center, it can sometimes come off as overlong or disjointed, since Swift doesn’t seem sure which direction she wants to head in. Yet even if it’s a transitional album, it’s an often superb one, catchy and captivating in equal measure. And if nothing else, that means that Swift is not only maturing as a person but maturing as an artist.
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
For some hip-hop fans—mostly the hardcore and buzz-watchers—good kid, m.A.A.d city was inevitable. Kendrick Lamar had made a hugely impressive showing on some of his early mixtapes, and now that he was moving to a major label (signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath, distributed through Interscope), many felt that it was only a matter of time until he released his masterpiece. And with good kid, boy, does he deliver. It’s a complex, intelligent, thoroughly modern album, one that approaches age-old hip-hop subjects like economic woe, gang violence and youthful recklessness with uncommon clarity and maturity. Structuring the record around a series of flashbacks and stories starring a high-school-aged Lamar, he illustrates his hometown of Compton in vivid color, filling his verses with detailed characters and creating an absorbing sense of place. Throughout, Lamar proves himself a startling lyricist, adept at both longform narratives and cutting one-liners, exploring teenage boastfulness (the brilliantly arrogant “Backseat Freestyle”), illusions of power via violence and wealth (“Money Trees,” “Real”) and how your friends aren’t always the best influences (“The Art of Peer Pressure,” “Swimming Pools (Drank)”). Plus, that major-label budget means he was able to clinch big-name producers, like the Neptunes and Hit-Boy, who all turn in great work, full of spacy basslines, clever hooks and spooky special effects, all of which find a balance between carefree nostalgia and creeping dread. And then, of course, there are the wonderful guest turns from the likes of Drake and label boss Dr. Dre, the latter of whom sounds hungry and revitalized on the root-for-the-home-team closer, “Compton,” which is one of the few moments free of darkness.
With its gritty, through-the-eyes-of-a-kid storytelling, it’s easy to say good kid is Lamar’s take on Illmatic (especially since he directly references “NY State Of Mind” on one track), but it’s a little patronizing. Lamar’s working on his own terms here: Where Nas’ debut was trimmed and concentrated, good kid, m.A.A.d city is ambitious and sprawling, with several lengthy, verse-heavy tracks, including the 12-minute centerpiece “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst,” where Lamar reflects on the consequences of memorializing his community in music. And “consequences” is the key word here, since the marvel of this record is how it investigates the real-life consequences of the crimes and brash behavior that many other albums are content to glamorize and leave alone. Lamar knows there are terrible lows that come with the fleeting highs, and as the album winds down, he begins to doubt if those highs are worth it. With its dark, detailed subject matter and lack of obvious singles, good kid, m.A.A.d city takes a few listens to fully unpack, but once it’s sunk in, it doesn’t get out. Easily one of the best albums of 2012.