TIME Music

Review: Mariah Carey Collects All of Her Hits on #1 to Infinity

mariah carey #1 to infinity
Epic Records

The album provides a reminder of just how thoroughly she dominated the 1990s

If Stephen Hawking can use multiverse theory—the concept that there are infinite parallel universes existing alongside ours — to comfort a One Direction fan upset over Zayn Malik’s departure from the band, then it seems fair to invoke that theory to imagine a realm where “Infinity” is Mariah Carey’s latest chart-topping single. Unfortunately, we’re stuck reckoning with the realities of this one for now, and reality is a place where “Infinity” landed with a thud in the bottom fifth of the Hot 100 upon its release, just the most recent in a string of singles that have failed to recapture the glory of Carey’s insane commercial peak.

It’s a peak that’s currently being celebrated across several mediums, even as it seems more distant than ever. There are oral histories covering the tenth anniversary of the song that launched her mid-career renaissance a decade ago; a Las Vegas residency lasting until the end of July designed to celebrate her greatest hits; and an updated version of #1’s, her 1998 compilation of her biggest (and only her biggest) hits to match. Carey already had 13 #1 hits to her name at that point; in the near-two decades since, she’s added another 5, all of which are collected on #1 to Infinity. As a document of commercial dominance, it’s comprehensive by definition; as a career-spanning encapsulation of a complicated, constantly shifting grand dame, it can’t help but fall short, and its omissions—whether they just missed the top spot or hopelessly flopped—tell just as interesting a story as its tracklist.

Let’s start with the 18 songs that made the cut by hitting the top of Billboard’s Hot 100. If you needed a reminder of just how thoroughly Mariah Carey dominated the 1990s, or a refresher on the staggering force of the numbers she’s put up throughout her career, #1 to Infinity will do just fine. Carey still has the most #1 singles of any solo artist in history, and she’s second all-time behind The Beatles. Looking at the various artists scattered below her, it’s hard to see how anyone could pose a serious threat to those designations in this era of chart fragmentation save maybe Rihanna, who has 13 to her name. Eleven of Carey’s 18 #1s were released between 1990 and 1995, an astounding hit rate over a period that now constitutes just 20% of her recording career. Put this way, it’s easy to understand why Carey may not be particularly fond of this strict, numbers-based framing of her career. Imagine someone was releasing a collection of the greatest moments in your adult life—perhaps the time spanning ages 20 and 70. Now imagine over 60% of those moments came from your 20s. Perhaps you would feel like the bulk of your life—years where you were more mature and thoughtful, where you did many things worthy of recognition — was not being given the credit it deserved. (I know I would.) Time, like pop, can be cruel.

Regardless, #1 to Infinity highlights the sheer athleticism and skill that propelled Carey’s early work. She took very simple songs—both in terms of arrangements and theme—rooted in pop, gospel, and R&B and turned them into feats of strength, granting them dynamism and drama with a voice that juggled power, clarity, and agility with ease. “Vision of Love” doubled as a mission statement and a sizzle reel; “Emotions” was a giddy gallop that captured the dizzying rush of infatuation with stunning leaps between Carey’s low end and whistle register. As the decade continued, she took greater control of her career amid personal turmoil, embracing hip-hop and soul and becoming a more gifted interpreter and songwriter. Where once she would blow through songs with sheer strength, she learned to grasp their curves, to save her heavy ammunition for the biggest possible moments. And when the industry (and many of her fans) had left her for commercially near-dead, she came with one of the biggest hits of her career, one colored by hard-earned wisdom and experience.

Here in 2015, we’re as far away from “We Belong Together” as that song was from “Fantasy,” and that lost decade is the root of this compilation’s greatest tragedy. Judging by its stringent standards, the great majority of the fine work Carey’s done in the last decade might as well not exist. This is the consequence of having your career defined by the idea of “dominance”: anything less is open to, and even invites, ridicule. That’s been the story of Carey’s last ten years: attempts to recapture her phenomenal success treated as increasingly desperate and sad, diva behavior predicated on reputation met with greater scrutiny and laughter, a voice slowly being eroded by time and exertion picked open and apart by on-lookers hungry for disaster porn.

Yet the albums Carey has released in the last decade are her most satisfying by a wide margin. They’re personal, creatively vibrant, and funny as hell (mostly intentionally), the work of an artist comfortable in her own skin and voice and enthusiastic about the music she makes and loves. She’s become an impressive storyteller, a musical historian excavating frothy disco and lithe funk, and a voice reporting from the frontiers of new love, fading love and motherhood. This version of Carey is partially reflected in the hits that made the cut here, at least, like the aforementioned genuine heartbreak of “We Belong Together” and the dexterity and relaxed silliness of “Touch My Body.” It’s also present in “Infinity,” not a hit in this universe but an excellent example of what Carey can do now. It manages to balance a caustic hilarity with a chorus that’s quite wrenching; it mixes French, Fritos, and the Kermit sipping tea meme with ease. More than anything, it’s performed with the confidence and panache of someone who knows how it feels to be on top of the world, even if she’ll never reach those heights again.

Carey is gutting through weeks of performance and promotion right now, and there’s plenty of schadenfreude to be had. There are notes she can’t hit without the help of backing singers and tracks, demands that are outlandish at best, silhouettes that can’t quite match the ones she sports on her contemporary album covers. That’s all part of the game, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. But even on its own, #1 to Infinity is a reminder of the incredible skill and performance that enabled all of this pageantry in the first place. As a jumping off point, it’s a window into two and a half decades of high caliber pop music that’s only gotten better with age.

TIME Video Games

How Destiny Is Changing to Give Players What They Want

Bungie

A Bungie insider took us inside the process

It’s a divisive game. Depending on who you ask, Destiny is either the first truly next-gen console experience or an over-promised, under-baked revenue machine for mega-publisher Activision Blizzard. But there’s no disputing the 2014 title’s phenomenal commercial success.
Pitting players from around the world—Guardians, in Destiny parlance—against the forces of the nebulous Darkness on behalf of benevolent orb The Traveler, the game marries the fluid gunplay of the studio’s classic Halo games with the loot-collection of RPGs like the Borderlands and Diablo series. Destiny enjoyed one of the most successful launches in gaming history when it went on sale last September (despite a lukewarm critical reception), and over 20 million players have created their own Guardians. (Exact sales figures haven’t been released by the company.)
A major part of the game’s success is its focus on community, including the design of its endgame activities. Destiny‘s most challenging and creative tasks are strikes and raids, multi-stage encounters that require anywhere from three to six people to complete. In particular, raids like the Vault of Glass and Crota’s End revolve around puzzles and mechanics that are almost impossible to complete alone. Even the Crucible, the game’s player vs. player (PvP) arena, is framed as a training exercise for the universe’s Guardians: they’re fighting each other so they can become strong enough to tackle and defeat the larger evil forces assaulting their universe. The game is constantly making it clear that players are in this together.
That focus is also reflected in Bungie’s management of the people that make up its player community, a constantly shifting group of people. Headquartered in Bungie’s own forums and in the game’s extremely popular sub-Reddit, the hardcore fanbase’s relationship with Bungie tends toward a default state of genial exasperation: they love the game, have spent enough time with it to worm out every crack and crevice, and want the studio to fix every flaw even as it is sometimes creating new ones.
David Dague (a.k.a. DeeJ) is one of Bungie’s community managers, tasked with serving as conduits for whatever sentiments players happen to be conveying on a given day. They’re the ones who filter and send information back and forth between the player base and Bungie’s technical teams, whether through informal interaction or standard missives like the Bungie Weekly Update, a traditional home for bad jokes and hints at upcoming changes.
This is a pivotal time for Bungie. The studio is about to introduce major changes to the game’s reward mechanisms and content through its second DLC release, House of Wolves, scheduled for release on Tuesday May 19th. The expansion pack includes a new narrative and accompanying set of missions, a new social space for players, dozens of pieces of new gear, a materials exchange, a new co-operative endgame activity, and a new competitive PvP event.
In some ways, the size and breadth of House of Wolves feels like it couldn’t have come together without the frosty feedback the studio received regarding their first piece of DLC, The Dark Below, which was derided for being skimpy on content and for changing key parts of the player experience without advance notice or consultation. With the expansion’s release on the horizon, TIME spoke to Dague about what he’s learned since the game’s launch, how House of Wolves and future changes to the game will affect his role, and his favourite pieces of community-created world-building.

TIME: With almost eight months since release in the bag, how has your approach to communicating with the player base changed?

Dague: During the first few months after launch, the conversation we had with the emerging player base was very reactive. It seemed like we were always rushing to explain events from the previous week. Since then, I’ve been invited to work a lot more closely with the Live Team that supports the game. Along with Bungie User Research and Destiny Player Support, this enables us to include the community in the process that changes the way we all play. Now, the conversations we have with our players are a lot more forward-looking. We’re always building a bridge to the next update.
How does handling communication for a massive, public-facing property like Destiny differ from a more private communications role?
It’s so crucial to remember that Destiny appeals to many different types of players for different reasons. Our last report was that 20 million people had created a Guardian in our world. The challenge is to craft a message from Bungie that’s relevant to all of them. Every player of Destiny is important to us – from the Raiders to the Crucible warriors. It’s rare that they will all follow the same narrative from moment to moment. You gotta try and find a balance.
I know the game is designed around the concept of the community, but from a distance, the size of said community on Reddit and the Bungie forums is astounding—did you expect this level of activity and engagement?
“Hoped” would be a better word. We make games in the hopes that players will experience them. The world of Destiny is so much more interesting when it’s packed with interesting people. To see the way players have flocked to that Tower standing over a city in need of heroes has been amazing and humbling and inspiring. It’s definitely more than I can handle alone, which is why I’m grateful for the special teams on Bungie.net that help track feedback and tackle support issues. And what is this Reddit you speak of? Can I have a link?
The segment of the player base that’s active online has gotten up in arms over a few communication decisions in particular, namely the communication surrounding exotic upgrade paths and the decision not to include a raid with House of Wolves. What’s your biggest regret in terms of community management to date?
I think the way we revealed the Exotic upgrade paths for The Dark Below was the single most educational moment for me, personally. Every day is a chance to learn more about the community that plays Destiny. That was certainly one of them. It’s no coincidence that the kick-off to the conversation about House of Wolves started with a live demonstration of how to upgrade some of the more popular items in the Guardian arsenal. We even invited members of the community to participate and make sure we got it right.
How is the release of House of Wolves going to change your relationship to the community, if at all? (I realize it’s not going to have a giant impact on the structure of your updates or anything like that, of course, but it does seem like it’s going to address many of the thorns in the community’s side.)
That’s impossible to predict. After all, both parties get an equal say about the quality of a relationship. Our goals at Bungie are always to deliver an experience that people will love. Now that we’re dealing with an engaged player base, instead of a hopeful audience in waiting, we can prove to them that we’re listening. We want the Guardians of Destiny to feel like they’re a part of our creative process, and so many components of the House of Wolves player experience was inspired by their feedback. We hope that comes across when they embark on the adventure.
How do you envision your role changing as Destiny shifts from its DLC phase to a more mature state/as Destiny 2 enters more advanced stages of development?
I definitely don’t want it to change too much. The best thing about my job is knowing the heart of the player through the stories they tell about the game. I want to continue to help our team anticipate their audience, and I want to keep helping the leaders of our community to find an audience for their own voices. The things that we’ve learned about the players of Destiny make us better at talking to them, so I have no desire to migrate to a role where those lessons wouldn’t be valuable. Also, I’m not a very good concept artist and I use a calculator to do startlingly simple math, so certain career paths at Bungie are just blocked by the fates.
Do you have a favorite piece of community-generated lore? If so, what is it?
That’s easily the hardest question you’ve asked. You’re asking me to play favorites with a galaxy of rock stars. We have this ensemble of role-players who have taken to Twitter to personify characters from Destiny. With every announcement or community engagement, I can expect everyone from the Cryptarch to the Queen’s Brother (even favorite weapons) to show up and share their perspective – in character. It’s pretty hilarious, and just another example of how we’ve rooted their imaginations in this brave new world. I hope they never stop.
TIME Music

Review: Mumford & Sons’ Switch the Sound Up on Wilder Mind

mumford and sons wilder mind
Glassnote Records

The band is finally starting to catch up to its success

Though they’ve spent the last half-decade defying rock’s slow, paleontological decline, it’s been tough to shake the feeling that Mumford & Sons have just been engaging in a phenomenally successful dress-up session. Formed in 2007 around the songs and personality of Marcus Mumford, the London foursome turned their appreciation for American folk and roots music and a shared interest in literature and religion into a sort of American drag: they became Southern men of letters, yowling and croaking and yelling, indulging their wildest and weightiest thematic whims. It doesn’t exactly sound like a foolproof plan for commercial success, and yet that’s exactly what the band achieved in short order. Under all of the affectations and complicated narratives lay massive hooks and a good, if overused, grasp of the power of dynamics. Their 2009 debut Sigh No More went triple platinum in the United States, and its 2012 followup Babel sold almost as many in a depressed record-selling climate. The four British crate-diggers now made up the most popular rock band on the planet.

If you’re a believer in the power of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” you might have trouble with Wilder Mind, the band’s third full-length: the album is radically different from their first two, though the progression is intuitive. Mumford & Sons have left their beloved folky affectations behind, swapping out those influences for sounds from the last 15 years of mainstream rock music; put another way, they now sound like they’re trying to be the biggest band in the world, rather than a revival act that somehow stumbled into the role. They worked with a new producer, veteran British boardsman James Ford, instead of Babel and Sigh No More honcho Markus Dravs, and Mumford opened up the writing process to accommodate his bandmates (two of whom were coming out of long-term relationships) where he’d handled the bulk of the lyrics in the past. Finally, they split time between their London and New York, writing and demoing in Brooklyn with The National’s Aaron Dessner. The sum of all this change is a band that’s never sounded more confident or comfortable in their own skin.

Wilder Mind‘s improvements aren’t easy to quantify, but they’re pervasive: every song displays some sort of improved command, whether through a better established setting or a better sense of space and pace. You can hear the ghosts of other bands running through the record, too: The War on Drugs’ dreamy American motorik, the simmering moodiness of Dessner’s own group, even the gentle melodicism of early Coldplay (particularly on the simple, stunning “Cold Arms”). But Mumford and his bandmates hold their own against this tide of influence where they may have collapsed earlier, thanks to the strength of their songwriting and a maturity missing from their first two records. “Tompkins Square Park” and “Ditmas” give the album roots, a pair of charging break-up anthems shaped by New York nights; “Believe” flips the band’s religious side into a soaring, skeptical ballad about a couple starting to fall apart. And “The Wolf”—its title perhaps a slight nod to “The Rat,” The Walkmen’s thrashing 2004 classic—is their best song yet, an explosion of fervent lust that barrels through headphones like a runaway train. It’s exhilarating and dense.

The album isn’t perfect, of course: Mumford and his bandmates still have a predilection for overwrought, overly ambitious lyrics, and if you pay too much attention to what they’re saying you’ll find yourself losing a step because you’re trying to parse some new inscrutable phrase. But it’s easier than ever to simply lose yourself in the sound. “The Wolf” is a good example: Mumford could be scrolling through his contacts and yelling out random names, but that wouldn’t detract from the song’s urgency, the surge of its guitar riffs or the cloudy blast of its drums. Wilder Mind is a document of a band whose skill and curiosity are finally starting to catch up to its success—one that might actually be ready to lead its chosen genre.

TIME Music

Watch the Video for Erik Hassle’s Funky New Single ‘No Words': Premiere

The Swedish crooner's new single has the makings of a summer smash

 

Take a look back at Erik Hassle’s discography, and you can watch a young talent finding his footing in slow motion. There’s the potent, precocious singer, breaking through with straightforward pop; the bruised, lovesick guy incorporating his beloved soul music into throbbing, greyscale electro-R&B; and now the seasoned veteran, ready for a leap to North American stardom and striking a balance between swirling, sunny joy and familiar longing. Hassle has just released the first single from his upcoming third album, the funky “No Words.” Today, TIME is premiering the video for that song, which captures two friends receiving an unexpected guest — and ultimately a messy breakfast.

It’s not hard to imagine “No Words” streaming from car windows and beach radios this summer. It might be the finest thing Hassle’s released to date, and you can hear little pieces of his diverse taste in each new minute: the sprightly little riff, pulled from some lost French touch classic; the prim, excited strings emerging in the chorus; his expressive vocals, brushed with grit and able to scale impressive heights. There’s a palpable warmth to the song that differs from the chillier material on Somebody’s Party, the 2014 EP that counted rising rapper Vic Mensa and “2 On” star Tinashe among its guests. But if you slip beneath the surface, there’s a helplessness running through the song, the kind that emerges when you realize you can’t put your feelings into words — the kind, as Hassle puts it, that you feel when “you’re not able to speak up at the right time.” It was inspired by what Hassle calls “a really weird love coma.”

“I knew that I wasn’t gonna get this girl that I wanted, but I was still so stoked about her,” he says. He’s hoping to release his album later this year, and promises it’ll be “more groovy [and] more up-tempo,” while expanding on the emotional and lyrical themes expressed on Somebody’s Party.

Hassle also counts himself among the members of Sweden’s most recent wave of exported pop musicians, a diaspora that’s more stylistically diverse than ever. A far cry from the halcyon days of ABBA and Ace of Base’s goofy, impeccably structured pop, contemporary Sweden is a hub for moody, brash electro-pop, thanks to performers like Icona Pop and Tove Lo; chart-conquering EDM from Avicii, Swedish House Mafia (and its individual members), and Alesso; and introspective, idiosyncratic singer-songwriters like Lykke Li and The Tallest Man on Earth. To hear Hassle tell it, there’s a real kinship between these artists. “Sweden is not very big in the music community,” he says. When he moved to Los Angeles a few years ago, he found that former classmates and acquaintances were right in his neighborhood, recording music halfway around the world. “We’re everywhere right now,” he says.

He’s currently touring across North America supporting avant-pop dramatist Twin Shadow, keeping an eye on his beloved Paris St-Germain — Hassle was an aspiring footballer as a kid, and PSG is vying for both the French domestic championship and Europe’s top trophy, led by Hassle’s countryman Zlatan Ibrahimovic — and continuing to prep material for his next full-length. And if “No Words” becomes Hassle’s first major hit on this side of the pond, aided by a little heat and summer sunshine, it’ll just be a matter of time until Hassle’s crossing the continent as a headliner.

Watch the video for “No Words” up top.

TIME Music

This Is Why Joni Mitchell Is Your Favorite Musician’s Favorite Musician

Pre-GRAMMY Gala And Salute To Industry Icons Honoring Martin Bandier - Arrivals
Steve Granitz—Getty Images/WireImage Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell attends the Pre-GRAMMY Gala and Salute To Industry Icons on Feb. 7, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.

The singer-songwriter, who was hospitalized last night, gave voice to musical feminism in an era where women had to fight with tooth and claw for artistic legitimacy

Music fans around the world steeled themselves for tragedy on the evening of March 31 when Joni Mitchell was hospitalized after being found unconscious in her Los Angeles home. Recent updates indicate that Mitchell is doing well and recovering—a tweet from her official account sent early Wednesday morning placed her in intensive care, but “awake and in good spirits”— but still, it provides an opportunity to reflect on the sheer weight of Mitchell’s discography and the breadth of her influence, the tendrils of which snake through the last 40 years of popular music.

Mitchell was born in Canada in 1943 and spent her childhood in rural Saskatchewan, a survivor of a late polio epidemic and passionate about the arts. She moved through Toronto and New York as a young woman and moderately successful songwriter before being discovered by the legendary musician David Crosby in a Florida club. She moved to Los Angeles shortly after and released her debut album, Song to a Seagull, at the age of 25. This marked the beginning of one of the most impressive decades a musician has ever had, one characterized by incredible productivity and spurts of sheer genius. From the stark, largely acoustic folk-pop of her first few records—an approach that climaxed with Blue, a wrenching post-breakup self-examination that stands as her most popular work—to the pioneering, ambitious jazz fusion of The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira, Mitchell forged a new kind of art-pop: lyrics that moved with the delicacy of poetry and challenged both the personal and political; arrangements and melodies that were complex and winding; a voice that cut through unworthy suitors and flimsy sexism like a knife through butter. Alongside contemporaries like Carole King and Carly Simon, she gave voice to musical feminism in an era where women had to fight with tooth and claw for artistic legitimacy. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Steely Dan: Mitchell hung with them all. In many cases, she beat them to the punch.

Though the light began to fade from her solo work after the ’70s closed—her most notable releases in the years since have been reinterpretations of songs written then, newly colored by age and experience—she was already impacting future generations’ leading lights. Joni Mitchell will live forever as your favorite musician’s favorite musician, a position she’s held since the dawn of the ’80s, impacting superstars and hidden gems alike. Prince called The Hissing of Summer Lawns “the last album [he] loved all the way through,” and quoted Court and Spark hit “Help Me” on “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”; Björk counts her 1977 double album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter among her all-time favourites. There are entire musical sub-genres it’s tough to conceive of without Mitchell’s spirit hanging over them, like the spectral freak-folk that flowed out of California in the mid-’00s.

And then there’s Taylor Swift, pop’s reigning titan, a disciple of Mitchell in ways both obvious and subtle. There’s her writing, ripe with reflection but capable of sharp evisceration, and her complete ownership of the music she makes; there’s the album she named Red, her cap tipped to Mitchell’s Blue. There are songs like “Blank Space” where Swift sings about changing herself for a man and getting drunk on jealousy with a surprising, stately, clipped sort of grace.

It can take you back four decades to Mitchell’s “California,” where she asks a partner, “Will you take me as I am? / Strung out on another man?” even as she’s catching sun and drinking wine in Greece. Mitchell asked the question, but the answer didn’t really matter; listeners knew she’d end up fine either way. Swift is the same, walking the trail Mitchell blazed.

TIME Music

Listen to Rihanna Collect Her Debt on a Swaggering New Single

Roc Nation

The singer follows up the light and lovely "FourFiveSeconds" with the woozy urban banger "Bitch Better Have My Money"

Even in relatively quiet years, Rihanna casts a wide shadow over the world of pop music. The depth of her catalogue of hits is almost unrivaled, with 26 landing in the top 10 in the last decade alone, and she’s sharpened the tools she uses to create them to the finest possible points: a voice that’s flexible enough to fit into any genre, a preternatural sense for sounds and trends ready for a bigger stage, and a devil-may-care je ne sais quoi that resonates with young people in a way many of her contemporaries can’t manage. She’s been dangling her upcoming eighth studio album, widely known as R8, above the heads of fans and label executives for about a year at this point, and she’s just premiered the second single, “Bitch Better Have My Money,” on radio stations across America.

It’s a world away from the gospel-tinged campfire folk of the album’s first single, Kanye West/Paul McCartney collaboration “FourFiveSeconds.” This one is hypnotic, thudding, and confident, but the core’s the same: her voice, which seems to be reaching new heights. Here she’s strident and percussive, hammering out the hook with abandon; it’s surely only a matter of time until Vine’s littered with inspired, barking debt collectors. R8 is on the horizon.

Read next: Get Ready to Whistle Along to Hilary Duff’s New Single

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

 

TIME Music

Why Zayn Malik Has the Makings of a Great Solo Star

16th NRJ Music Awards - Red Carpet Arrivals
Pascal Le Segretain—Getty Images Zayn Malik attends the NRJ Music Awards on Dec. 13, 2014 in Cannes, France.

It's not yet clear what Malik's departure will mean for One Direction—but on his own, he could forge an impressive career

If you found yourself anywhere near a computer or smartphone early Wednesday afternoon—any device with the ability to access Twitter, really—you could hear the muffled wailing of pop fans and cute boy enthusiasts the world over: Zayn Malik, the one with the smoky voice and the perfect hair, announced that he was leaving One Direction, thus rendering the band a foursome. And while that grieving process shouldn’t be compromised in any way, shape, or form, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what Malik’s departure is going to mean for the future of the band, and what his own future as a recording artist might hold.

In the four years since their debut album, 2011’s Up All Night, One Direction have transformed from a ragtag band of imps with more promise than vocal talent into a group of tonally distinct, creatively ambitious young men with appetites and attitudes. To these ears, Malik was at the core of that evolution: he was the band’s strongest and most readily identifiable singer, his voice coloured by a little musk and a pinch of salt. On the band’s latest album, last year’s very strong Four, he led off highlights like the tender “Night Changes” (a song rendered rather poignant if you pretend it’s about the band breaking up!) and anchored the middle of the lusty, crackling “No Control.”

Malik may have a considerable sonic presence on the band’s best and recent work, but he hasn’t had a major hand in their shift towards taking charge of their songwriting. Former bandmates Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, and Harry Styles have stepped up the magnitude of their contributions; between the three of them, they were credited with writing all but four of the sixteen tracks that made up Four‘s deluxe incarnation. Malik is only ever credited in tandem with other bandmates, and has only four such credits on the album. He may have influenced the band in other intangible ways, ones that don’t show up in any formal capacity—writing and production credits are just one set of windows into the creative process—but it feels safe to suggest that the band will continue to churn out stadium-ready power-pop, even in his absence. The texture and sensuality he lent to their vocal arrangements will be missed, but they can carry on without him.

His future as an artist in his own right is much less certain. To hear Malik tell it, he’ll be taking an indefinite leave from the spotlight—in his statement, he said that “I am leaving because I want to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time”—but it’s still fun to speculate about the music he could make when he decides to return. He’s talked about how he listened exclusively to R&B and hip-hop before joining the band, and his voice is well suited to the shadow and sinew that characterizes the sounds of those genres today. It’s not hard to imagine him emulating Nick Jonas’ recent embrace of lithe, lascivious funk, or dirtying up Sam Smith’s pristine pop-soul; if a move were to come out of left field, he could pair well with avant-pop auteurs like Dev Hynes or Jamie xx, or vocalists like Jessie Ware.

He’s still only 22, and his tour of duty with the world’s biggest boy band will earn him plenty of coverage when he decides to make his next move. For now, there’s only one thing to say: goodbye, Zayn. We’ll always have those midnight memories.

TIME Music

Review: Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit Makes Listlessness Vital

Courtney Barnett
Mom + Pop Music

Even her minor efforts glow and sparkle with attitude, intelligence and good humor

Courtney Barnett likes to write songs that drift and meander, smirking and sardonic, until they snap into impressive focus. When you stumble into one of those moments without expecting it, you’ll find yourself remembering it later with unusual clarity. On her impressive debut full-length, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, the Melbourne singer-songwriter shows herself to be possessed of uncommon wit and incisiveness; she’s come to serve as an avatar for a generation of young people with uncertain futures, iffy finances and one tentative foot into the arena of adulthood.

Barnett’s breakout single, 2013’s “Avant Gardener,” was a rambling journey from her backyard garden to the back of an ambulance, thanks to either a panic attack or a fit of allergies; even as she was being ferried to an emergency room, she couldn’t keep herself from cracking wise about the potential hospital bills and her inability to handle a bong. It’s not an intense or propulsive song by any means, but it manages to pick up steam off the strength of its lyrics, crackling and word-drunk. Like a rapper capping off a freestyle or an author cranking out paragraphs in the zone, you can feel Barnett deriving strength from every wry observation and piece of wordplay. She has a way of making listlessness feel vital.

Her first album-length release, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, was really just two smaller releases bundled together, and so Sometimes I Sit and Think… is her true debut. It builds on the promise of her early work and yanks it up a couple notches, with writing that’s funnier and more poignant than ever and music that’s strong enough to match. Barnett is an avowed fan of bands like Pavement and the Modern Lovers, and their influence is subtly exerted throughout the album — “Small Poppies” in particular sounds like the kind of paranoid, smoked out jam Stephen Malkmus could churn out with one hand circa Wowee Zowee — but she’s really participating in a larger tradition of wordy, whip-smart rock bands, one starting somewhere around the Kinks. Her guitar melodies are sharp and bright, but make no mistake: the focus is on her voice and words, the twin engines that drive her compositions. Spending time with any of these songs is like meeting someone new at work or a bar and finding yourself immediately blown away by the heat radiating from their brain, the speed with which their thoughts unfurl, the intensity of their convictions.

There’s something to love in almost all of Sometimes I Sit and Think…, but single “Depreston” has earned a great share of the plaudits directed towards the album, and rightfully so: it’s the best example of the way Barnett can pull off a hairpin turn with just a line or two. She does it there with a handful of trinkets and a handrail in a shower, transforming a gentle short story about a move away from rapid gentrification into a heartbreaking meditation on mortality and the size of the world. By the time she’s repeating the line, “If you’ve got a / spare half a million / you could knock it down / and start rebuilding,” you find yourself mourning the loves and losses of a woman without a name, one who lives only in a song. It’s utterly devastating, and yet the palate cleanser that comes after “Depreston” is even more lovable. That’s “Aqua Profunda!,” a two minute blast from a municipal pool that finds Barnett nearly drowning because she’s trying to impress a looker in the next lane over. It’s funnier than it sounds; in fact, it’s uproarious, dense with quotable quips and pieces of personality, with shiny riffs buzzing like static off a blanket. (The best line, tossed off like loose change: “I sunk like a stone / like a first owner’s home loan.”) This is why Barnett’s made one of the strongest albums of the year: even her minor efforts glow and sparkle with attitude, intelligence, and good humor.

TIME Music

REVIEW: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly Is an Angst-Filled Anthem for Blackness

Shaun White's Air And Style Music Festival
Scott Dudelson—Getty Images Kendrick Lamar performs onstage at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Feb. 21, 2015

The rapper's third album issues challenging questions about black identity and leadership

Kendrick Lamar’s rapid ascent to a place near hip-hop’s creative and commercial peak can be traced to his command of three key skills:

1. On a purely technical level, he’s one of the most exciting rappers of his generation, possessed of both impressive agility and the capacity for tremendous force. When he’s on the mic, beats are less constraints than canvases — he doodles on and around them with abandon.

2. He’s fearless, a quality that frequently manifests itself in the sound and effect of his voice: it cracks and spits, carries feeble melodies, bears the weight of rich stories.

3. As a narrative sculptor, he’s fearsome, stitching together fully realized characters, lived-in locations and generational angst into snapshots of life for the young, black and questioning.

All three are in full effect on Lamar’s third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly, which had been scheduled for release on March 23, but dropped early, the night of March 15. While the album’s extreme density warrants plenty of digestion time, it’s apparent from the first few listens that it’s worthy of the same sort of praise won by its predecessor, 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city.

GKMC was so thick and compelling it earned the subtitle “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar.” A crackling, tense journey from the streets of his beloved Compton, Calif., to a throne somewhere high above the city — part thriller, part romance, part introspective diary entry — it managed to balance oodles of exposition and plot work with radio-friendly singles and jazzy, intricate composition.

Sonically, Lamar veers in a more contemplative direction. Butterfly boasts a warm, murky stew pulled from the last several decades of compassionate, inventive black music: the 1970s soul and funk of Stevie Wonder and George Clinton’s Funkadelic; the descendant G-funk of mentor Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg; the weird and technically audacious work of the Soulquarians at the turn of the millennium. The instrumentation is live and hyperkinetic, thanks to contributors such as bass virtuoso Thundercat and a crew of other crack session musicians. The focus is on atmosphere rather than hooks or lead melodies.

Lyrically, Butterfly is another plot-centric, thematically complex release. Surprisingly, it parallels the last few releases from Lamar’s rival and sometime nemesis Drake: both artists have been transformed by sudden fame, and their music reflects the trials and joys of their upward trajectory. But while Drake has emerged from superstardom calcified, Lamar questions whether he should leverage his celebrity to become a standard bearer for blackness. The inquiry comes to define the album: How can you fight for love on behalf of your people when you can barely find a reason to love yourself?

The answer doesn’t come easy, and Lamar struggles to uncover it even as he rails against the demons and constraints that make his journey more difficult. He takes them on with characteristic ferocity and incisiveness: alcohol, depression, systemic racism, police brutality. The album climaxes with an imagined conversation with the late legend Tupac Shakur — his responses sampled from a 1994 interview Shakur gave to a Swedish radio host — in which Lamar grapples with the weight of black leadership and galvanization, a responsibility he claims to inherit from a range of black luminaries, from Nelson Mandela to Michael Jackson. It’s certainly a bold gambit, but it’s also a good example of his blinding, mighty ambition. Lamar wants nothing less than greatness, and To Pimp a Butterfly is yet another step forward on that path.

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