TIME Music

Review: On Jessie Ware’s Tough Love, Sadness Sounds Sweeter

Interscope Records

The singer weaves lush melodies out of frustration and taps further still into her soulful side on an impressive follow-up

Jessie Ware can breathe easy: she crooned her way right past the dreaded sophomore slump. The soulful UK songstress quickly and quietly struck gold with her 2012 debut Devotion, a genre-blurring set of delicate electronica (“110%”), soul (“Wildest Moments”) and quiet storm (“Night Light”) best served in the evening hours with a bottle of red. The album landed near-universal critical acclaim, including a prestigious Mercury Award nomination, as well as frequent comparisons to everyone from Adele to Sade.

After two years of touring, collaborations and a marriage, the singer returns this month with her follow-up Tough Love, a collection that is, surprisingly, born largely from broken hearts and hurt feelings. “I’m in a really happy stage of my life, but it doesn’t mean I can’t write about things that affect me or that I relate to from the past,” she said of the unexpected juxtaposition in a profile for The Guardian.

It’s not a bad tack: time and time again, Ware turns sadness into healing sound, from the album’s lush title track “Tough Love” to the Dev Hynes-assisted “Want Your Feeling.” While the lyrics of the latter track might leave Jessie aching all alone, the disco-inflected chorus — which might as well come from the Earth, Wind & Fire catalogue — suggests otherwise.

Tough Love also comprises even more talented hands than her debut — familiar ones, at that: While Jessie’s first outing was produced entirely by Dave Okumu (The Invisible), Kid Harpoon and Julio Bashmore, Jessie’s second serving is helmed by BenZel, the partnership of one of the pop industry’s most reliable beat-crafters, Benny Blanco (Britney Spears, Ke$ha), and rising London producer Two Inch Punch (Sam Smith). As a result, the record finds its footing somewhere in between the left-leaning British electronica scene and a more polished Top 40 pop sound.

Of all the new songwriting collaborators, “Adorn” crooner Miguel is perhaps the most seamless fit; his own R&B fusion is a natural complement to Ware’s own. He assists on “Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe,” an electronic daydream that sways back and forth as Jessie grapples with the idea of getting back together with a former flame: “Do I want you at all? / OK, just a bit, I hate to admit,” she sings. She lays herself barer on “Say You Love Me,” a soulful, guitar-led slow jam written alongside Ed Sheeran. On “Pieces,” recorded alongside Lana Del Rey producer, Emile Haynie, the track plays like a thunderous Bond theme, high-drama and colored by swells of cinematic strings.

But the meatier production isn’t even the biggest change on the album: It’s the singer herself, whose increased confidence comes through in her more assured vocal delivery. There’s even a hint of a more mainstream pop superstar in waiting, as with the single-ready “You & I (Forever),” armed with a M83-like ’80’s electronic pulse that begs for radio. Strong, too, are the fluttery falsetto chorus of “Champagne Kisses” and “Cruel,” a slick, string-filled anthem equipped with one of her strongest hooks to date.

Tough Love is rich, romantic, and thoughtfully crafted, both more ambitious and more intimate than its predecessor. And, in a year of powerhouse pop divas loudly wailing, bang-banging and breaking free on top of the charts, the subdued LP is a much-needed reminder that a little restraint can sound just as sweet.

TIME Music

Review: Lights Burns Bright on Dreamy Little Machines

Warner Bros.

The Canadian singer-songwriter returns with a third collection of sparkling synth-pop gems

Five years ago, the electro-pop landscape looked very different: It was a time when Lady Gaga had her monster paws wrapped tight ’round the world with her brand of macabre “Bad Romance” dance-pop, and when songstresses from across the pond began pouring into American airwaves, including the hard-edged ’80’s-inspired synth sounds of La Roux and the electronic wisps of Ellie Goulding. But just north, a sugary-voiced Canadian songwriter who called herself Lights was quietly making her own ripples in her homeland.

After starting her career writing songs for the television series Instant Star, Lights (real name: Valerie Poxleitner) eventually transitioned into singer-songwriter-mode; she landed a few hits at Canadian radio, including “Drive My Soul” and “February Air,” before the release of her 2009 debut, The Listening. Two years later, she returned with a grittier sound on Siberia, a chillier, left-leaning collection that predates what would eventually become radio’s brief love affair with dubstep-infused pop. Now that dance festivals and superstar DJs have flooded the mainstream, synth-pop isn’t the chart rarity it was when Lights was still writing her debut — but with her third studio album Little Machines (due out on September 23), the songwriter stays true to her own sound while adapting to some newer noises within an increasingly overstuffed genre.

Co-helmed by longtime collaborator Thomas Salter, Drew Pearson and mixed by Mark “Spike” Stent, the singer’s third full-length outing moves away from the dub textures of her last LP and returns to the brighter sparkles of her debut, but aims higher — and further. Little Machines is the singer’s most broadly appealing record to date, offering a mixture of starry-eyed sentiments, propulsive beats and razor-sharp hooks — much in the same way that fellow Canadian songsmiths Tegan & Sara crafted their acclaimed indie-gone-pop 2013 album, Heartthrob.

Lead single “Up We Go” led the charge with an enthusiastic burst of glittering self-empowerment, marking one her most assured cuts to date: it’s an undeniably catchy kick-off, if not slightly too on the nose with today’s trends. Album opener “Portal,” by contrast, expands in the speakers as one continuous, chill-inducing whisper, confident vocals and robust production pointing to her evolution as an artist. But despite her sonic maturation, nostalgia courses through the record. Standouts like the sleek and dreamy “Speeding” and “Running With the Boys,” the album’s namesake, bounce along atop romantic, ’80’s-leaning synthesizers and licks of New Wave guitar, as she dreamily recalls days gone by. Meanwhile, the anthemic “Same Sea” packs crashing post-chorus breakdowns, while “Muscle Memory” is a chunky slab of synth-pop that stabs at the speakers not unlike something from CHVRCHES’ back catalogue.

But perhaps the most poignant is the album closer “Don’t Go Home Without Me,” a deeply romantic tribute to her partner, which underscores Lights’ hopeful state of mind: “This is the song I will sing to you when you’re old and tired / I will sing it to remind you that I’m old beside you,” she pledges. Sure, the underlying synth-pop pulsations might one day sound dated — but the song’s sweet melody, as with the many highlights on the record, feels pretty timeless.

TIME Music

Jennifer Hudson Teams Up With Pharrell and Iggy Azalea on “He Ain’t Going Nowhere”: Listen

Jennifer Hudson sparkles on a Pharrell-produced, Iggy Azalea-assisted disco cut from her forthcoming LP

Jennifer Hudson‘s ongoing flirtation with the dance floor continues. After supplying the satisfyingly slick “Dangerous” several weeks ago, the American Idol alum returns today with “He Ain’t Going Nowhere,” another strut-friendly, nostalgic cut from her forthcoming LP JHUD, due out on September 23.

Crafted by Pharrell, the sass-filled disco ditty packs dirty bass licks and sparkling synths, recalling many of the producer’s nu-disco revival gems released over the past few years, (including the bulk of Madonna’s Hard Candy, Miley Cyrus’ “On My Own” and Kylie Minogue’s “I Was Gonna Cancel”). Later on, Aussie rapper and Song of the Summer ’14 supplier Iggy Azalea comes in over the beat with a spitfire verse for arguably one of her stronger assists to date: “See, I know your weak spot so I always go there/And I bet that’s the reason he ain’t goin’ nowhere,” she taunts.

“[Pharrell and I] were able to use music and soul to actively reminisce on those fantasy nights of the ’60s and ’70s,” Hudson said of the track to Buzzfeed. “We really worked to keep the sound relatable but the way the bass hits your chest and the guitar licks sort of tingle your ear really work well to transport you to a time in music history I just live for,”

It’s a catchy offering, although truthfully, Pharrell has supplied this sort of production time and time again. Rather, it’s J-Hud’s full-bodied, diva-sized vocal delivery that makes the song a standout. Listen up top.

TIME Music

Betty Who Gets Hearts Racing With New Song “Runaways”: Listen

Betty Who and her bad boy beau go Bonnie & Clyde on a new highlight from her upcoming debut

Betty Who has a knack for capturing the very essence of euphoria — from her glittering, Whitney Houston-inspired 2013 debut single “Somebody Loves You” to her crunchy anthem “Heartbreak Dream,” she manages to create lightning-in-a-bottle bursts of pop time and time again. Ahead of the release of her debut LP Take Me When You Go on October 7, the rising pop diva has delivered another heart-racing rush with “Runaways,” a sleek and shimmering highlight from the upcoming record.

“We sneak out late after midnight, highjack your daddy’s car / You’re my best bad kind of habit, I’m your backseat movie star,” Who purrs above a steady ’80’s-inspired synth pulse. It’s an all out us-against-the-world teen rebel anthem, armed with the kind of unstoppable, sing-along yelp of a chorus (and an even more catchy chant afterward) that makes everything feel infinite.

TIME Music

Jhené Aiko Provides (Soul) Food For Thought on Souled Out: Review

Def Jam Records

With her debut LP, Jhené Aiko transforms heartbreak, tragedy and existential crises into a dreamy escape

Jhené Aiko is best known today for drifting slow jams like the Childish Gambino-assisted “Bed Peace” and “The Worst,” but she first got her footing in the industry well over a decade ago — as a would-be teen pop star. Back in the early ’00’s, the singer was supplying features on cuts by the R&B group B2K while, oddly, being marketed as the cousin of the group’s Lil’ Fizz. (She is not.) Before she would go on to release her debut, however, label tensions flared and Aiko opted out, heading to school rather than pursuing another deal.

Several years later, after giving birth to a daughter and some fairly dramatic shifts in the R&B marketplace, the singer returned to the studio in what would be a major transformation with 2011’s Sailing Soul(s). The critically acclaimed mixtape boasted acts like Kanye West and Miguel and led Aiko to a record deal with mentor and producer No I.D., who helped helm her 2013 Sail Out EP. That, in turn, led to her long-awaited debut, Souled Out, a conceptual chronicling of the singer’s journey from darkness to light, rooted in tales of tragedy and spiritual awakening. Aiko’s newfound style lies somewhere between the soothing sounds of Sade and what can be nebulously described as “future R&B,” a broad spectrum of pioneering music-makers making tunes best served in the midnight hour, including The Weeknd, Tinashe and FKA twigs.

That’s not to say her journey is a solo affair: Along with No I.D., a host of rising and established hip-hop producers and songwriters are attached to the project, including Kid Cudi collaborator Dot da Genius, Fisticuffs, Common and Key Wane. There’s even an unexpected assist from Nordic-pop pioneers Royksöpp, who supply one of their most muted productions to date with “Promises,” a gentle ode to Aiko’s daughter, Namiko — and her late brother.

Souled Out is personal, but that’s more than a buzzword: Embedded in the hazy melodies are vulnerable insights into Aiko’s private life, from her fears as a single mother to the death of her brother Miyagi two years ago. His loss vibrates through the album, including the slow-marching highlight “W.A.Y.S.” — which stands for “Why Aren’t You Smiling?”, Miyagi’s favorite saying. Aiko pledges to persevere for the sake of her daughter on the uplifting empowerment anthem, employing the Buddhist philosophies to which she subscribes to guide the way: “There’s really no end, there’s really no beginning/There’s really no real, there’s really no pretending,” she sings.

Jhené is a self-proclaimed wanderer, moving from place to place — and person to person: “Please say you’ll be my nothing/And I will give you everything,” she sings on the seductive “It’s Cool.” Not that she’s entirely free of catching feelings, as with “Lyin King,” a bass-heavy kiss-off to an ex-beau: “Mr. Serial Lover, I wish your mother loved you like I could’ve/That way you would’ve known how to love a woman,” she scolds. (Ouch.)

That kind of occasionally snappy lyricism keeps the otherwise gentle pulsations of Souled Out feeling fresh, employing expressions that wouldn’t sound out of place on, say, Rihanna’s Twitter timeline: “Have you seen my f–ks to give?” she deadpans on the “The Pressure,” a weed smoke-filled cut inspired by the stress of working on her LP. Flourishes of live instrumentation keep the record vibrant as well. “Brave” saunters into sad-girl Lana Del Rey territory with its Western hip-hop swagger and surf guitar (“You’re so brave, stone cold crazy for loving me”), while “Eternal Sunshine” — one of two songs inspired by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — drifts in like a lullaby along a hypnotic piano riff.

It’s also a record that’s unwaveringly the artist’s own: With long stretches of instrumentation, there isn’t a radio smash to be found— this is a slow-burning escape, not a a pick ‘n mix of hit singles. With calm assurances and honey-soaked melodies, Souled Out flows from start to finish like a modern meditative chant.

TIME celebrities

Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams Were Doing Stuff This Weekend, Too

Kelly Rowland tied the knot and Michelle Williams released a new video while everyone was talking about Solange, Jay Z and Beyoncé

Beyoncé’s greatest asset is that she is Beyoncé. Her greatest weakness, however, is that she is Beyoncé. When you’re Beyoncé, the world bows down to your every ***flawless move — even when you’re just trying to ride an elevator in privacy. (Unfamiliar with the feeling? Take a look in the mirror. Are you Beyoncé? Chances are, you’re probably not Beyoncé.)

As you may have already heard, a flaw was detected for the first time in the Carter-Knowles Dynasty since its inception well over a decade ago after someone (who is soon to be fired, deported and quite possibly executed) at NYC’s Standard Hotel leaked security footage of Solange Knowles allegedly attacking Jay Z in an elevator at a Met Gala after-party over the weekend.

And while the Internet continues to play detective to discover the root of the conflict (and/or just makes memes and Twitter hashtags), the real question remains: What were the other members of Destiny’s Child up to? Just trying to live, love and laugh — that’s what.

Did you know? Second lead vocalist of the group Kelly Rowland reportedly got married to her manager Tim Witherspoon on May 9. Yes, married! But unless you’re a truly devoted Rowland Stone, you probably didn’t know. Why? Because, like the majority of “Survivor,” King Bey’s gone and taken all the glory — even without intending to do so.

According to US Weekly, who just couldn’t resist dropping in the #SolangeGate scoop by the third sentence, the “Rose Colored Glasses” diva and her beau enjoyed their matrimonial kisses down low — in Costa Rica, to be exact — during a “quick, simple ceremony” with “only around 30 people” in attendance… including Beyoncé and Solange, of course. Congratulations to you, K. Row. We wish you many years of wedded bliss!

And then there’s Michelle Williams, our generation’s very own Mary Magdalene (in the upcoming revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, anyway) — or, as the darker corners of the Internet have come to recognize her, #PoorMichelle.

The Unexpected chanteuse was caught on video over the weekend, too — and it was one that didn’t involve elevators or roundhouse kicks to the face. ‘Twas the long-awaited video for her sizzling 2013 cut “Fire,” off of her forthcoming urban inspirational record, Journey to Freedom. No drama here — just an empowering, holy twerk-friendly anthem for the clubs.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled Beyoncé.

TIME Oscars

Would the Oscars Have Loved Lana Del Rey If She Wasn’t So Young and Beautiful?

The singer's Gatsby theme "Young and Beautiful" was brutally snubbed at the Oscars — and some suspect foul play

Pop music fans are always quick to go to bat for their favorite artists, whether or not it’s justified — but the outrage was well-earned when Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” was passed over for an Oscar nomination this year.

And yet, the aching, wistful ballad, used as the theme song for Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, wasn’t just snubbed for a Best Original Song nod at the 86th Academy Awards — it may have been legitimately sabotaged. So what happened?

When the song first premiered last May, reactions ranged from contempt (Rolling Stone‘s Jody Rosen called it “a drag”) to praise (“a sweeping epic,” Entertainment Weekly declared). And despite Del Rey’s polarizing position in pop culture — she’s either considered an inauthentic construct cooked up in major label board meetings or The Most Beautiful Poet In The Land Of Gods & Monsters — the general consensus remained more or less the same: “Young and Beautiful” was the most quintessentially Lana Del Rey song that Lana Del Rey had ever recorded.

The song soon went on to become Del Rey’s most commercially successful song since her October 2011 debut “Video Games,” rising to an all-time peak of #22 on the Billboard Hot 100. (She would later shatter that record with Born To Die‘s “Summertime Sadness,” thanks in large part to a club-ready remix by EDM maestro Cedric Gervais.)

It’s no surprise, then, that the song was met with Oscar buzz. But by the time the nomination window came rolling around toward the end of 2013, “Young and Beautiful” was already mired in scandal.

According to a Deadline report from December, an anonymous envelope was “mailed to various members of the Academy’s music selection committee,” which included a print-out of a fake Variety web article alleging that Lana’s song was somehow ineligible for the Best Song nomination due to “a technicality involving The Great Gatsby‘s changed release date.” Upon further investigation, Academy members realized that the article was in fact doctored. (Stop me if you’ve already seen this plot play out in a Hitchcock flick — or maybe Clue.)

From Deadline:

Insiders said attempts to figure out the sender were unavailing, so the studio and Interscope focused on setting the record straight with the Oscar committee member who reported receiving the missive and others who might have. Warner Bros, which has several songs from the Baz Luhrmann-directed film on the just-release long list of 75 eligible tunes, is now recutting a music featurette to emphasize the collaboration between Luhrmann and Del Rey on the song, which plays in the scene where Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) regales Daisy (Carey Mulligan) with the grandeur of his mansion. And yes, the song is Oscar-eligible.

By the time nominations were announced, the damage may already have been done: The song was left off of the final list of nominees — even after a second controversy swept the category. (Yes, really.)

Upon the announcement of the official nominees in mid-January, one song in particular stuck out as a fairly unusual entry: Composer Bruce Broughton’s “Alone Yet Not Alone,” the title track of a small, independent Christian film, which brought in less than $150,000 at the box office.

By the end of the month, the curiously below-the-radar selection had been pulled from the category — which has happened a mere handful of times in the history of the Academy Awards. So why was it removed? Because of an e-mail reportedly sent from Broughton to 70 members of the Academy, politely encouraging them to consider his song for the nomination. But the message alone wasn’t enough to cost the song the nomination: It was the fact that Broughton is an executive committee member of the music branch of the Academy, and previously acted as an Academy governor up until 2012. As a result, his influence on voters was called into question.

Regardless of whether or not the Academy was right in pulling Broughton’s nomination, the fact remains that “Young and Beautiful” sat there in silence, shedding a lone, glamorous tear while a battle of technicalities raged on in front of her innocent eyes.

You could blame the mystery envelope, which could have come from any number of nominees, or perhaps a nefarious pop star rival vying for the nomination from the same soundtrack — et tu, Fergie? (Kidding!) You could blame the subtle shades of insider trading that led to the eventual disqualification of one entry. Or just blame the fact that the Great Gatsby producers decided to throw five (5!) songs up for nomination from its own soundtrack. But whatever the reason, Lana was ruthlessly, sincerely snubbed.

It’s not that the song would have stood much of a chance for victory, to be fair: Judging by the general response from the public, Frozen‘s ubiquitous “Let It Go” (the soundtrack from which it hails has hit #1 on the Billboard 200 5 times this year) and Pharrell’s inescapable-yet-undeniably-infectious Despicable Me 2 theme “Happy” (which just hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week) are the most likely victors in the category. But Lana deserved the recognition. (Hey, at least the Satellite Awards had the decency to award Lana for Best Original Song.)

Moreover, Lana’s far too busy putting the finishing touches on her Born To Die follow-up Ultraviolence with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach (among other rumored collaborators) to be bothered about some award, anyway. (It would have been nice to see her work the red carpet in some gorgeous gown — but I digress.)

There’s only one question that remains when it comes to Lana Del Rey: Will you still love her when she’s no longer snubbed and ineligible?

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