TIME Music

Listen to Kanye West’s New Single ‘All Day’

It's dark, triumphant and provocative

After months of false starts and exponentially increasing hype — interview quips, leaked demos, a performance at the Brit Awards last week backed by dozens of UK henchmen and a mighty flamethrower — Kanye West is releasing the official version of “All Day,” the lead single from his upcoming new album So Help Me God. Working with contributions from stylish Brooklyn polymath Theophilus London and rising, gritty Minnesotan Allan Kingdom, Kanye splits the difference between the abrasiveness and dark colors of 2013’s Yeezus and his gift for lyrical hooks and radio-friendly structure. It’s not hard to imagine the song’s chorus, and its titular bark, streaming from open car windows around the country by rush hour this evening. (The closing minute, a bizarre stew of cheery whistling and frenzied electronics, seems less likely to land on top 40 playlists.)

Of course, “All Day” is still ripe with the sort of incisive statements about class and race that have marked Kanye’s work from the beginning. Even grandstanding, throwaway lines are wrapped in barbed wire, like his hollered proclamation that, “Like a light-skinned slave boy / we in the motherf—king house!” If this really is “cookout music,” it’s cookout music that demands your attention. So Help Me God still doesn’t have a release date, but with an official single on the books and a promotional machine roaring to life, the release of even more new Kanye West music seems imminent.

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TIME Music

Review: Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late Marks a Transitional Moment

Drake
Cash Money Records

It's an invitation back into the dark lanes, private vehicles, and smoky clubs that make up Drake's world

The hints had been dropping like flies for weeks, even months. Whether springing from NBA basketball players or rap journalism godheads, it was clear that Drake had new music in the pipeline — a renewed full-force assault on the public consciousness after a relatively sleepy 2014. All of the cryptic Instagram posts, pinhole leaks, and rumors climaxed in a flurry of activity yesterday, a stream of appearances and releases that neatly framed his long-running cold war with Kanye West: An atmospheric short film called Jungle was released in the early morning featuring passages of new music, a conspicuous absence at West’s unveiling of his latest exploits in the world of fashion (and some new music of his own), an appearance at West’s Roc City Classic performance where he waltzed in like a plebeian and mingled with writers and fans. And an hour before midnight, the cherry on top: a new collection of songs on iTunes, 17 tracks stretching over an hour in length, called If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. You could apply the same title to every rushed review that’s going to be posted today, thrown together by some fatigued writer who’s spent their early morning hours trying to decipher every new sample and potential petty diss.

The first question this batch of new music demands has to do with its nature. At this early juncture, nobody can agree on how this release should be classified. Is this a mixtape, as most of the pre-release scuttlebutt suggested? Is this an album, something with a little more aesthetic gravitas and conceptual heft, a statement justifying an album-level price? Is it some sort of hybrid conspiracy engine, a tossed together collection of loose C-sides and sketches designed to free Drake from his deal with Birdman’s Cash Money Records? (This is a widespread theory given the personnel drama currently surrounding the label, much of it swirling around Drake’s mentor/guardian angel Lil Wayne.) Stripped of the shadowy machination angle, the hybrid concept seems likeliest. Drake isn’t a notorious archivist, but he’s made a habit of releasing non-album tracks before each of his last two major, official releases; it’s not infeasible that If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is a plus-sized collection of said tracks, given a little more legitimacy by a price tag. (He released a set of three just last fall, in an apparent effort to beat some small-time hackers to the punch.)

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It’s also common knowledge that Drake has already picked out a title for his next official full-length, Views From the 6, and it seems unlikely that he would completely abandon the concept for the sake of a surprise release one February night. It’s a title and idea that holds tremendous importance for him, and it’s not hard to see why: if anything defines Drake it’s his commitment to his hometown of Toronto, as both a native son and now an ambassador. He places tremendous value on the perspective that growing up in the city has granted him, and on his position as its reigning boy-king. Whatever Views From the 6 becomes, it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s going to be accompanied by much greater fanfare, by considerable pomp and circumstance.

And this analysis is completely divorced from the musical and emotional characteristics of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, all of which scream “transitional moment.” With each new major full-length, Drake has pushed through major leaps in maturity and technical skill and shifts in his artistic sensibility. Take Care took the amateurish appeal and grabs for legitimacy of Thank Me Later and blew it to smithereens, opting instead for baroque flourishes and stylistic breadth; after grabbing the sceptre with that album, follow up Nothing Was the Same was colder, more paranoid, stripped down to sinew rather than drunk and bloated on excess. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late doubles down on the latter movement: it’s positively icy, continually unnerved, an extrapolation of the grimmest moments on its predecessor.

DRAKE ~ JUNGLE from OctobersVeryOwn on Vimeo.

Its rare moments of warmth, like penultimate track “Jungle,” melt and seem to throw off heat because everything around them is frosted. If Nothing Was the Same was a glimpse at an artist just starting to realize the weight of the crown on his head, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late captures a monarch compromised by the demands of his kingdom: the pressure to stay relevant, the hordes of fake friends and snakes aiming daggers at his back, the struggle to find anyone true to share in your success. (And looming above it all, a genuine anger that anyone would have the audacity to challenge your reign.) There are recurring sonic maneuvers that tell you everything you need to know about this tape’s relationship to Drake’s back catalogue, most notably the beat switches scattered throughout: used on Nothing Was the Same to signify moments of triumph or joy, here the effect is like driving through a tunnel and emerging under night sky. The scenery has changed, but the darkness is still palpable.

If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late isn’t a transformative release, then, but that’s not a statement about its quality. This is an hour of music that’s often thrilling, occasionally transcendent, and always uncompromising when it comes to its creator’s vision of contemporary hip-hop. At this point, Drake’s influence on the genre is so pervasive — he lives in every dewy piano melody, every tone and texture with rounded edges, every moment of vulnerability or emotion — that it’s easy to take his skill for granted. There are perhaps only three artists working with this singular sort of taste, this ability to bend the confines of a genre to their will. Even on a record where the presence of his usual consigliere Noah “40” Shebib is diminished, each arrangement employs the same palette and achieves a startling thematic consistency. In a purely technical sense, Drake is far gone from the mediocre-to-abysmal flow he displayed on early mixtapes and Thank Me Later; here, he rips through dozens of different patterns, plays with pitch and dynamics like it’s second nature, references flows made famous by his contemporaries and adapts them for his use. He makes himself part of the continuous conversation and exchange of ideas that helps to make hip-hop volatile and exciting. When everything clicks together, the results are absolutely invigorating. The new Toronto anthem “Know Yourself” snaps together like tiny pieces in a music box and ignites behind the chant, “I was running through the 6 / with my woes,” and PARTYNEXTDOOR feature “Preach” takes the muted throb of the xx and ends up flipping it into a genuine club candidate, like a caffeinated Burial composition in miniature.

Because of the rich myth and personalities that are already swirling around If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, many people will be tempted to spend more time focusing on the recent past and future than on the music itself. How long has this been planned? Will Drake release another album this year, one that’s more of an authoritative statement than this? Did he “win” by stealing Kanye’s thunder and burying his new material under an avalanche of frenzied tweets and blog posts? Just how many petty shots at Yeezus and his inner circle did he lick off on delirious closer “6PM in New York?” But this release deserves more than that, regardless of its ultimate place in Drake’s year or discography. It’s new music from a transformative, uniquely talented, and influential artist operating at the peak of his powers — an illustrator nonpareil opening one more door to the dark lanes, private vehicles, and smoky clubs that make up his world.

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TIME Music

Review: Fifth Harmony’s Reflection Has Many Layers

Fifth Harmony
Epic Records

Reflection covers a surprising amount of stylistic ground

It’s hard to imagine the existence of American girl group Fifth Harmony without the influence of their male British predecessors, Nickelback fans/tousled imps One Direction. The girls mirror the boys in many ways, from creation myth to their purposeful cultivation of camaraderie. Like One Direction, Fifth Harmony was cobbled together from a gaggle of unexceptional soloists on The X Factor by impresario Simon Cowell; like One Direction, they ultimately finished in third place, and have flourished despite leaving the competition without a victory. And like One Direction, the bonds between each member are key to the group’s image and songwriting. Companionship, loyalty, trustworthiness, positivity: they’re core values for the young women of Fifth Harmony, and they run like veins through the great majority of their recorded output to date.

Reflection is Fifth Harmony’s debut full-length — an EP, the sprightly Better Together, came out in October 2013 supporting debut single “Miss Movin’ On” — and it covers a surprising amount of stylistic ground. This is by no means an an album standing at the vanguard of contemporary pop and R&B, but it doesn’t need to be: four of the group’s five members are still teenagers, after all, and it’s perfectly natural that they’ve spent their first full album together mimicking recent high points in their favorite genres. More importantly, they’re agile, and have an intuitive understanding of how their differences in vocal texture and range can impact their songs by introducing surprise and tension. Over the course of the album, the group moves from percussive, horn-stabbed black pop (excellent lead single “BO$$”) to squelching, simple knockoffs of producer DJ Mustard’s signature sound (“Top Down,” the title track) to more traditional piano-led R&B (“Everlasting Love,” “We Know”), and capably handles each new style. There are a few guest verses that feel tacked on to appease commercial interests, but they’re ultimately unnecessary; when given the chance, it’s obvious that the girls are comfortable with hip-hop, with the Beyoncé-esque snarl and purr of “Reflection” serving as ample proof.

Like a kids’ movie that’s been stuffed with subliminal jokes for parents, Reflection is an album with multiple layers. Younger, less knowledgeable fans will enjoy the melodies and singing on their own merit, and savvier listeners will chuckle at the obvious sonic references and flashes of inspiration. Tyga feature “Like Mariah” is a good example, with novice listeners getting a sunny slice of pop-R&B and veterans smiling at the “Always Be My Baby” sample that anchors the song.

Reflection is certainly enjoyable on a purely musical level, but Fifth Harmony’s perspective and positivity is often even more exciting. This is a group that’s funny, self-assured, and inspiring in their best moments. The aforementioned “BO$$” is a good starting point, and an example of the power of representation: over punchy horns and a kinetic rhythmic tapestry, five young women of color demand worthy partners, spell out their confidence, and shout out role models like Michelle Obama and Oprah. It’s a vital, palpably youthful song — how many other groups could get away with referencing the Nae Nae and using “bae” without looking like dorks? — but that doesn’t undermine the respect they deserve. Throughout Reflection, men are portrayed as nuisances or problems to be tackled together rather than opportunities for competition or sources of conflict; at their best, they’re equal partners in romantic relationships and friendships. On “Worth It,” the girls use the chorus to repeatedly re-affirm their self-worth; on “Suga Mama,” they’re affectionate but unwilling to fund their deadbeat boyfriends’ lavish lifestyles. There’s a radiant self-love and genuine closeness bursting from the album, whether through the positive body image promotion on “Them Girls Be Like” or the circling of wagons on vocal showcase “We Know.” And there’s no better peak than mission statement “Reflection,” which flips the script on a sultry ode to a partner into a hilarious, fierce celebration.

It’s not a stretch to state that with a little more work and personal growth, Fifth Harmony can mature into the kind of role models — both musical and social — that have so profoundly impacted their work to date. The girls have plenty of time to find a distinct musical identity, but it’s clear from Reflection that they have more important pieces in place: precision, agility and a strong sense of self.

TIME Music

Review: Belle and Sebastian Are as Nice as Ever on Their New Album

belle and sebastian girls in peacetime want to dance
Matador Records

The band’s ninth studio album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, is flavored with political awareness and a sonic adventurousness

Many things have changed since Belle and Sebastian formed in Glasgow nearly two decades (!) ago — the band’s sound, its composition, the size of its fan base and magnitude of its influence — but their music has retained one essential, appealing quality: kindness. In the band’s world of sound, characters are mostly flawed and sometimes flailing, but never handled with malice or pity; they’re celebrated for their imperfections. That kindness is intact on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, the band’s ninth studio album, albeit flavored with political awareness and a sonic adventurousness that’s unprecedented in their discography.

When Stuart Murdoch cobbled together a band for a Glaswegian music business course in early 1996, the music he had been writing was hushed, insular, and tender, and it remained that way for about a half-decade before Belle and Sebastian’s palette started to expand. On mid-career highlights Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pursuit, Murdoch and co. added spice to their strong melodies and capable arrangements by folding in the sounds of Northern soul, symphonic ’60s pop, and ’70s glam, a tasteful and deft incorporation of influence. Despite that sonic expansion, the band’s songs remained resolutely focused on their interior world, a cluster of relationships and personal exploration that felt detached from anything resembling a larger picture. Belle and Sebastian dealt in songs about love, songs about faith, and songs about Belle and Sebastian; they were detached from any larger narrative, save trifles about potentially gay baseball players. (Summed up in one song, from 2010’s Write About Love: “I’m Not Living in the Real World.”) That’s changed on Girls in Peacetime…, an album where the songs brush up against political turmoil and international strife even as they’re served with typically wry humor. Songs about clubbing are given choruses like “Jump to the beat of the party line,” sleepy reveries are titled “Today (This Army’s for Peace),” and characters like the titular “Allie” find themselves paralyzed by the tumult of the world around them.

The roots of this expanded world view are complex — perhaps equal parts maturation on the part of the band members and aftershocks from last year’s Scottish independence movement, which the band supported — but whatever the cause, it comes with omnivorous sonics to match. Girls in Peacetime… was produced by Atlanta’s Ben H. Allen, a veteran with credits on albums by Animal Collective, Deerhunter, and Bombay Bicycle Club; he has a good hand with bright, rich arrangements. The new direction that’s received the most attention is the band’s turn towards the erudite, silky European dance-pop of the ’80s and early ’90s, as heard on lead single “The Party Line,” disco odyssey “Enter Sylvia Plath,” and the Balearic-flavored “Play for Today.” It’s not a bad look, even if it’s reminiscent of superior work three decades earlier by groups like Pet Shop Boys. But there are other surprising turns on Girls in Peacetime…, from the gaseous dream-pop of Sarah Martin’s “The Power of Three” to the jaunty, percolating middle-aged funk of Stevie Jackson’s strong “Perfect Couples.” It’s an album on which no two songs in sequence draw from the same well, and that makes for a varied and mostly engaging listen. Unfortunately, the experience is somewhat hamstrung by a tendency to sprawl more than necessary; the album clocks in at over an hour in length, and over half of its songs stretch over five-plus minutes. It’s a surprising problem, given that the band can typically tout economy as a strength, with a discography full of albums that are punchy and efficient.

Even with all of the new ground being tread, the album’s one true highlight happens to be the song that hews closest to the simple, warm pop gems that earned Belle and Sebastian a following in the first place. Opener “Nobody’s Empire” contains some of Murdoch’s most personal writing to date, a document of his battle with chronic fatigue syndrome — and subsequent recent relapse — that in turn became part of Belle and Sebastian’s creation myth. (Murdoch wrote much of the band’s early material while grappling with his condition in the early ’90s.) It’s touching and luminous, and serves as evidence of their depth of skill when it comes to pop songwriting; when you’ve been doing something well for twenty years, you develop a knack for pace and scale that emerges organically. The other tracks on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance don’t always share that natural ease and comfortable size, but their musical diversity and geniality render them worthwhile for listeners amenable to Belle and Sebastian’s particular brand of craftsmanship.

TIME Music

Review: Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special Is at the Mercy of His Collaborators

Mark Ronson, 'Uptown Special'
Allido Records

The British super-producer has style to spare on his latest LP — even if most of it comes courtesy of his high-profile friends

Blessed with the facial structure of a moderately successful model and a Rolodex befitting someone raised among British musical professionals and the cultural elite, Mark Ronson was one of the first musicians to become a solo commercial commodity off the strength of his work as a producer. His taste forged in the crucible of the New York City club scene, Ronson vaulted to fame in the UK after producing much of Amy Winehouse’s landmark second album, 2006’s Back to Black. His own second album, the upscale covers record Version, debuted at #2 on the British album charts one year later, with assists from Winehouse, Lily Allen, and other big names. In the years since that ascent, he’s worked with just about everyone, from Bruno Mars to Adele to Lil Wayne to Paul McCartney. Now, he’s releasing his fourth album Uptown Special in a musical climate that’s a little more amenable to producers stepping out from behind the boards.

Perhaps the best evidence of that climate is the performance of the album’s lead single, the Bruno Mars feature “Uptown Funk”; it surged to the top of the American charts, Ronson’s first single to impact Stateside listeners in any significant way. The song is a great example of what Ronson does so well: he takes familiar, comforting sounds and genres — in this instance, the jumpy and crackling Minneapolis funk of the early ‘80s — and revives them, working with ruthless precision and genuine reverence for the source material. It takes serious craft to keep recreation on the right side of pastiche, and it oozes from “Uptown Funk”: the electric purple texture of the synths, the loose slap of the rhythms, Mars cracking wise like he just spent a weekend watching Morris Day live bootlegs.That craft is evident throughout the remainder of Uptown Special, too, whether Ronson is writing nebulous Steely Dan-esque jazz-funk rips with fellow superproducer Jeff Bhasker or summoning the impressionistic quality of Stevie Wonder’s ‘70s run with the help of the legend himself. In yet another show of Ronson’s eclectic contacts list, venerated author Michael Chabon contributed lyrics throughout the record, and his work infuses Ronson’s compositions with a sort of sordid California ennui.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPf0YbXqDm0

“Uptown Funk” wouldn’t exist without Ronson, but it’s a hit thanks to Mars, the pint-sized dynamo and world-class frontman; in conversations with casual music listeners, I found many of them had no idea the song wasn’t entirely his. And when a partnership doesn’t quite click — like Ronson’s work with Tame Impala vocalist Kevin Parker, a little too sleepy for this setting — there’s nothing he can do to keep the ship from sinking. It’s a problem that leaves Uptown Special in an uncertain place.

There’s no denying that every inch and detail of the album rings with real skill and intelligence, and yet the success of Ronson’s work is still ultimately at the mercy of his collaborators. His work is immaculate, but reliant on hired help for real vitality. When your signature is polish, it can’t really stand on its own.

TIME Music

Madonna’s Next Album Is Shaping Up to Be Her Best in a Decade

The singer's surprise release of several new songs reveals that the Queen of Pop hasn't lost her edge

When a handful of Madonna demos leaked last week — an event she called “artistic rape” and a “form of terrorism” — she decided to fight fire with fire by releasing the official versions of six songs cut from her upcoming thirteenth studio album, Rebel Heart. The bundle of new tracks represent her first collection of new material since 2012’s MDNA, a lukewarm flirtation with contemporary club music. Thing is, though, there’s a joy to every new Madonna release that’s just separated from determining the quality of the actual music: at this point in her career she’s pop’s cockroach, resilient and hardy and shockingly adaptable. With each new record, there are lessons about the genre’s present and near future in the specific sounds and figures she chooses to help realize her vision.

Based on this first batch of Rebel Heart material, Madonna is looking to strike a balance. First, there’s are the figures at the centre of EDM and synth-pop, her chosen modes of operation — meaning writers and producers like Diplo, Avicii, and Savan Kotecha. Then, she ropes in artists working at the vanguard across a variety of genres, from superstars like Kanye West to relative nobodies like producers Ariel Rechtshaid and Sophie. This is a savvy move — what a surprise, a smart play from one of the canniest pop stars to ever roam an arena — because it allows her to play to the masses while still pushing boundaries.

The songs that lead off this first Rebel Heart blast, lead single “Living for Love” and “Devil Pray,” could fit in neatly on the radio beside this year’s British house-pop crossovers and Avicii’s own “Hey Brother.” The ones that close it, namely the abrasive half-rapped Kanye collaboration “Illuminati” and caffeine-drunk trap anthem/Nicki Minaj feature “Bitch I’m Madonna,” hew closer to the spirit of PC Music’s obscure SoundCloud accounts and the sharp edges of Yeezus.

And because Madonna exists in rarefied air, the kind reserved for luminaries like herself and Prince and very few others, each of her new releases is less of an independent statement than a response to everything she’s done before, another chapter tacked onto an epic novel with no definite end. The tones, themes, and imagery that make up her musical toolbox — the frank sensuality, the various methods of intoxication, the lapsed Catholicism, the uncompromising confidence — are gospel at this point, and they elevate some of the more forgettable Rebel Heart material to a base level of pleasure. It’s fun to hear Madonna deliver a line like, “It might sound like I’m an unapologetic bitch / but sometimes you know I gotta call I like it is” (and try on 2 Chainz’ flow, just for kicks) because she has three’ decades worth of unapologetic bitchiness in her back pocket. It’s an easy score, sure, but it’s effective. And if the complete version of Rebel Heart, due March 10th via Interscope, can deliver a few more of those easy scores alongside a bit more adventurous songwriting, the album could be Madonna’s finest in almost a decade.

TIME Music

Review: David Guetta Falls Behind His Contemporaries on Listen

Atlantic Records

The super-producer who helped make EDM part and parcel with mainstream pop doesn't sound so fresh on his latest LP

Though he’s frequently lumped in with wunderkinds like Avicii and Skrillex as part of this decade’s EDM wave, David Guetta is actually a member of a completely different generation of electronic sculptors, one with roots in the clubs and scenes of the ‘80s and ‘90s that reigned when some of his contemporaries were still in diapers. Long before he mastered the art of the EDM-pop crossover, Guetta was just another capable DJ operating on the periphery of the French dance scene. He was a tangential figure present during the rise of French touch, a strain of dance music made distinct by the use of filtered and warped funk and disco samples that bloomed at the end of the ‘90s in France; Guetta failed to reach the heights of contemporaries like Daft Punk and Air at the time, but his 2001 single “Just a Little More Love” was enough to spark a full-length of the same name and a burgeoning European stardom.

As the decade progressed, Guetta racked up hit singles across the continent, but failed to achieve any sort of international success — the U.S. included. That changed with the release of 2009’s One Love, a star-studded affair that cracked American charts in a major way with help from collaborators like Akon, Kelly Rowland, and Rihanna. By this point, Guetta had largely abandoned the subtlety and playfulness of French touch for giant synth hooks, a focus on vocal takes, and the influence of modern hip-hop and R&B — but after a look at the chart figures for a single like “Sexy Bitch,” can you blame him? The set of singles that One Love spawned, and production work on The Black Eyed Peas’ titanic hit “I Gotta Feeling,” were some of the first volleys in what would become contemporary electronic music’s assault on listeners around the world.

Meanwhile, Guetta continued to explode: 2011’s Nothing But the Beat solidified his position as one of the world’s preeminent producers, with three top 10 U.S. singles and features from Usher, Sia, and Nicki Minaj. Beyond sheer numerical force, Guetta’s work on Nothing But the Beat penetrated the public consciousness in a way few producers had done to that point, paving the way for a new reality where they become stars in their own right rather than studio forces; every time “Titanium” played over gym loudspeakers or at a high school dance, it affected a tiny change in the pop landscape. Guetta is releasing his sixth studio album, Listen, out Nov. 24 on Atlantic/Parlophone, into that new landscape.

According to Guetta, Listen is his most personal record to date, though you’d be hard pressed to tell unless you did a little research beforehand. He wrote much of the album in the wake of a divorce from his longtime spouse, but it only bears fruit on the album in subtle ways: chords that are unexpectedly melancholy, lyrics that are a little more somber than his usual hedonistic celebrations. These are necessarily subtle changes because Guetta’s music is explicitly designed to achieve ecstatic, cathartic climaxes, the kind that’ll help listeners forget their own problems, and those moments remain the focus of Listen. A more palpable shift the record makes is one towards basic melodies on piano and guitar, and songs with a classicist streak built from the ground up on those melodies. The Emeli Sandé feature “What I Did for Love” opens with a garish piano line where it might have charged in on a beat in years past, taking its time to grow to its full size.

Listen’s main problem lies with its vocals, which are varied and largely anonymous despite another cast of international stars. Though Guetta takes a few sonic risks throughout the album — there are songs flecked with strings and country guitar, there are ballads and reggae tracks, there’s a lot of paint thrown against the wall — the performances that anchor these songs are sadly conservative, boilerplate house fare from an array of vocalists lacking any real character. Even stars who possess a semblance of distinct tone and texture, like John Legend — typically rich and soulful — are robbed of those qualities by overprocessing. The only vocalist who manages to stand up to the force of Guetta’s production is Sia, back for another few rounds after “Titanium,” who carries “Bang My Head” and the melancholy closer “The Whisperer.” And although Guetta can still craft a stadium-sized synth hook with relative ease, something about Listen — its structure, its lyrical content, its tones and decisions — feels a little outdated, like it would’ve sounded more at home a half-decade ago than now. That’s the trouble with a genre as vital and volatile as contemporary EDM: artists who reigned over their peers one year can find themselves struggling to keep up by the time they’re ready to release their next record. And while Guetta was instrumental in conditioning popular music for the rise of DJs and producers with his last two records, Listen finds him falling a half-step behind today’s dominant forces.

TIME Music

Review: Mary J. Blige Turns Dance Diva on The London Sessions

Capitol

On her new album, the R&B queen teams up with top UK talent with thrilling results

Artists who prove themselves adaptable or resilient become particularly beloved because they represent a suspension of mortality, creative or otherwise. People hope and wait for signs of life — for a few more transcendent Aretha performances on a covers record, for a surprise release from David Bowie, for sparks at a secret Prince show — and look to their heroes for the vitality they want to sustain in their own lives. So when Mary J. Blige — the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, and an institution for over two decades — made some surprising creative decisions at the start of this year, you could feel ears around the world pricking up.

It’s not as if Blige has slowed or disappeared in recent years; from 1997 to 2011, she released a new collection of original material every two years like clockwork, and has put together a Christmas album and a soundtrack album (for Think Like a Man Too) in the last year or so alone. But her recent projects have seemed explicitly designed to appeal to her base — namely adult black women, the kind who have followed her through personal turmoil and tremendous success since the halcyon days of What’s the 411? and My Life. The Think Like a Man Too soundtrack was her worst performing release ever by nearly an order of magnitude, and her most recent original full-length, 2011’s My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1) failed to spin off any sort of lingering hit, despite the best efforts of collaborators like Drake and Rick Ross. Mary was still doing Mary — weaving wrenching tales and delivering honest truths about love and loss, joy and pain, struggle and survival, all framed by classic soul — but it was a less and less valid mainstream proposition.

It seems overblown to say that everything changed in January of this year, but everything changed: when Blige joined UK dance-pop sensation Disclosure live in New York City to perform their song “F for You,” and subsequently released a studio version of that collaboration, it revealed an alternative path forward for her. Why fight to rejoin the mainstream when you can skip it entirely and become part of the vanguard once again? She came alive on “F for You,” recast as a spark plug superdiva taking a flame to Disclosure’s glossy, skittering garage (the British dance subgenre, not the structure). When she popped up again a few months later to perform “Stay With Me” with nascent pop-soul star Sam Smith at the Apollo Theatre, an exciting but isolated partnership began to look more like the start of a trend. And then, in September, an announcement: Blige’s next studio album would be The London Sessions, a collection made with the help of the UK’s finest young hitmakers and veteran American producer Rodney Jerkins, a.k.a. Darkchild.

It’s hard to overstate just how savvy, and inspired, this decision was for Blige. British pop exports have ruled the charts this year, from Disclosure’s slow burning single “Latch” and Smith’s handful of huge hits to mid-tier efforts from artists like Naughty Boy and Clean Bandit; by aligning herself with these artists, she’s sipping from a pop fountain of youth and subverting everyone’s expectations of what a Mary J. Blige record can sound like in 2014. Beyond that, the artists she’s chosen to work with revere her — something she makes clear throughout The London Sessions by including spoken clips of testaments to her relatability, her talent, her legacy — and know how to best frame her voice, whether in familiar or surprising new contexts. The result is a record that somehow straddles the line between a comforting, casual experience and a foray into uncharted, dynamic terrain.

There are tracks on The London Sessions, like “Doubt” and “Not Loving You,” that aren’t much of a departure from the music Blige has been making for two decades: confessional, sung with power and depth, and built to cultivate a connection with the listener. They are, perhaps, a little more spare, and inclined towards a clean, cool sound rather than oppressive warmth. In their finest moments, like on standout “Whole Damn Year,” they bear the weight of experience with grace and wisdom. Blige understands the time it’s going to take to heal properly because she’s had to do it before, and where a younger singer would wilt at the idea of a year out of the game she accepts it, serene.

And yet the album’s most exciting and lingering tracks are the ones where Blige cedes control and morphs into one of the world’s most skilled dance vocalists, putting her agility and power to work within the tighter confines of a sturdy pulse and a web of synths and samples. Disclosure collaborations “Right Now” and “Follow” are sleek and stunning, busy yet still soulful; on “My Loving,” she inhabits a ‘90s house track that could’ve ruled the radio alongside her own singles two decades ago. These would be fine songs even if performed by someone with half of Blige’s chops, but the pleasure and surprise that springs from hearing her subvert expectations and try something new elevates them to another level entirely. And while it’s tough to predict Blige’s next step given this hairpin turn, The London Sessions is proof positive that she’s still a creative force with great instincts.

TIME Music

Review: One Direction Hit Their Stride on Four

Columbia Records

On Four, One Direction's members are more involved in the composition of their material than ever before

In recent years, the release of a new One Direction record has become a November tradition on par with Black Friday sales and the first chilly blasts of winter. After being cobbled together by impresario Simon Cowell as part of the British version of The X Factor, the quintet — composed of Liam Payne, Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson, Harry Styles, and Zayn Malik, if you need a refresher — has released an album every year like clockwork: no earlier than November 9th, no later than November 25th. All of them top the Billboard charts in their first week available. The music contained within each record has remained consistent, too: the band specializes in affable, buoyant pop-rock, drunk on youth and young manhood and sung largely in unison despite the small army of capable vocalists on hand.

At first glance, last year’s Midnight Memories was similar to the band’s first efforts — a perky lead single, a few folky stompers for balance, lyrical emphasis on love and lust and living in the moment — but a closer look at the album’s credits revealed a shift in their songwriting process. Working with veteran songwriters/producers Julian Bunetta and John Ryan, the band’s members — Tomlinson and Payne, in particular — began to play more of an active role in shaping their sound, with songwriting credits on all but two of the album’s fourteen main tracks. The result was a record that leaned toward arena-filling classic rock and power pop via chunky, bold riffs, spacious percussion, and booming chants; when it clicked, like on the spunky “Diana” and the Big Star-aping “Little Black Dress,” it revealed a valid alternative vision of chart pop that eschewed the dominant contemporary influences of dance and hip-hop, a vision almost unique to One Direction.

The band’s new record, simply titled Four, continues that evolution: its members are more involved in the composition of their material than ever, and the album as a whole takes another step towards the stadium-sized rock first suggested by Midnight Memories. There’s something endearing to the revelation that left to their own devices, One Direction’s members just want to make heart-on-sleeve, slightly cheesy ’80s arena anthems in the vein of Journey, Bryan Adams, and Bruce Springsteen circa Born in the U.S.A.; it does more to contribute to their obvious cultivation of a cool “we’re just regular lads!” identity than a year’s worth of goofy interview clips and candid documentary footage. Their take on the sound is immaculate: arrangements are grand and spacious, with guitar lines glistening and rhythms cavernous and blooming, and the band’s increasingly distinct vocals — allowed to sparkle via the use of harmony more than ever — at the forefront. Songs like lead single “Steal My Girl” and the dramatic “Fool’s Gold” have an expert sense of pace and scale, building from relatively quiet openings to giant, gorgeous climaxes, and even less ambitious songs like “Fireproof” and “18” feel designed to reach the back corners of the biggest venues on the planet.

The material is helped along by the fact that the band’s members are becoming more compelling, and recognizable, singers. Early One Direction records and lead singles often sound like they’re being performed by a cute gang of urchins, talented but lacking formal training: a pleasant overall sound, but thin and homogeneous. On Four, it’s easier than ever to pick out the voices of each member, from Tomlinson’s sweet, feminine tenor to Malik’s muskier, more sensual tone and Styles’ raspy swagger. Small steps from tone to tone within each song lend them a dynamism and varied palette that earlier compositions lacked, and when they come together to form a tricky, shifting tapestry on the golden, folky “Fireproof,” it’s the album’s best moment.

Four also sustains the subplot that becomes increasingly prominent with each new One Direction record: the boys’ maturation into men, and the constraints placed on that maturation by the demographic facts of their commercial proposition. Each member is now in their early 20s — old enough to try their hands at “18,” an Ed Sheeran-penned weeper about loving like you did at that age, without it becoming too laughable — and there are moments on the record where their sexuality, while remaining thinly veiled, is palpable. Take “Girl Almighty,” a high-energy gallop framed as a toast to the female form that’s largely an excuse for the band’s members to yelp, “I’d get down on my knees for you!” Most songs are less explicit with their innuendo, of course, but tracks like “Fool’s Gold,” “No Control,” and the spunky Styles-penned “Stockholm Syndrome” are ripe with lust and physical expressions of affection. It’s fun to find the spots on each new record where the band’s burgeoning adulthood pokes through their polished veneer, but it’s even more exciting to think about what’ll happen when their identity takes a step forward to match the progress they’ve made musically.

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