TIME Music

Review: Nicki Minaj Reinvents Herself on Personal The Pinkprint

Young Money

Minaj's new LP sees her donning many identities at once — and that's a good thing

“I had to reinvent,” says Nicki Minaj at the beginning of her third record, The Pinkprint. It’s less a rap than a plea. The reinvention in question is “All Things Go,” a Drake-like quietstorm lament about the cost of fame. And a reinvention it truly is.

“All Things Go” has nothing in common with “Anaconda,” Minaj’s raunchy flip of “Baby Got Back” that, depending on who you ask, is either a revelation or out of Revelations. It’s got something in common with “Pills N Potions,” her moody erstwhile Top 40 single, but where the former was made for radio, “All Things Go” was made for being kept up at night forever. “There’s never been such a huge gap between two [of my] singles,” Minaj said about those two, and “All Things Go” widens the gap even more. It’s the track where she stamps her bid for rap history, a counterpart to Jay-Z’s iconic The Blueprint: “This is the Pinkprint,” she says forcefully. It’s also the track where she contemplates giving it all up to be with her family — to take her future kids to preschool — and sounds entirely like she means it.

It’s a contradiction, in other words, and a tough one even by the standards of Minaj’s career, which is both impressive and impressively torn. Nicki has her ever-loyal core fans, her Barbz — all major artists do. But she’s also got the Mixtape Nicki fans, who show up once an album cycle to be appeased by the promo tracks and haughtily bemused by the record. She’s got her Pop Nicki fans, the ones who loved “Super Bass” and “Starships,” although the biggest Pop Nicki fan may be the pop market itself, which demands and demands until artists die. She’s got Character Nicki fans, the ones who can relate every detail of Roman Zolanski, Harajuku Barbie and the rest of Minaj’s sometime personae in encyclopedic detail. Then there are the R&B Nicki fans, the Dancehall Nicki fans, and – as usual, louder than the rest – the haters: the ones who use Minaj as a metonym for bad taste, musical and otherwise and often without listening beyond snippets of the singles, and the patriarchal industry forces at which Minaj has taken increasingly explicit shots leading up to The Pinkprint. It’d be impossible to sate even one of these groups, let alone them all.

Little surprise that her last album, Roman Reloaded, was a fragmented attempt to serve every demographic at once with Nicki content. As a marketing strategy, it’s fine, even smart – one of Nicki’s many underrated qualities is her marketing acumen – but for a grand Blueprint-esque statement, it won’t do. The Pinkprint, mercifully, barely tries to satisfy the masses. The Mixtape Nicki tracks, as usual, were relegated to promotional tracks. “Anaconda” is an anomaly that exists in its own Top 10 partyland. The pop songs might be more lugubrious than the urban-radio fare.

What we get instead are entirely new Nickis, of her own invention and on her own terms. First is Confessional Nicki – in the singer-songwriter sense of introspective ballads designed for wistful use. Much has been made of The Pinkprint being a “breakup album” – specifically, about Safaree “SB” Samuels, her rumored longterm companion. Part of it’s how intensely private Minaj is: the sort of woman whose media statements are things like, “If I call the ambulance, it’s gonna be on TMZ,” and whose relationship, or whatever it was (she’s that reserved) played out largely not in public but in little plausibly deniable lyrical nudges. He’s been more forthcoming – and publicly salty – about its demise than she was. More of it’s the urge to cast Nicki in increasingly salacious and/or gossipy lights, which women – and women of color especially – know well.

But The Pinkprint’s best confessional stretch is barely about boyfriends. (In a Complex cover story, she specifically talked down that idea.) “All Things Go” is starkest when addressing the shooting death of Minaj’s cousin Nicholas Telemaque, and her subsequent self-laceration: “His sister said he wanted to stay with me, but I didn’t invite him… yes, I get it, I get it was all me; I pop a pill and remember the look in his eyes the last day he say me.” “I Lied” is about a breakup, but it’s more about the fear of vulnerability, down to the visceral fear of being touched; in sentiment it’s not far from Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel. The Andrew “Pop” Wansel-produced “The Crying Game” gets starker both in content– “blood drippin’ out your arm on my Asian rugs … now we in the crying game, hearts laced with slugs” – and spiky guitar backing. It’s a hell of a stretch, and it elevates even the more conventionally weepy ballads. Even “Pills N Potions,” which came off simultaneously too druggy and too drippy for the radio, works here, because it has stakes.

Not that The Pinkprint’s a downer. We’ve also got Boss Nicki, happy-drunk on the same ego she laments on “I Lied.” On “Get On Your Knees,” Minaj and Ariana Grande revel in both sexual control and vocal control, of the disarmingly pretty instrumental; thank god it didn’t go to co-writer Katy Perry, who’d make it the guy’s domme fantasy that Minaj and company dismiss. On “Four Door Aventador,” she emulates Biggie in flow, and on “Feeling Myself,” she does it all: getting laid, getting off, getting puns off, hanging with Beyoncé, conquering rap, conquering worlds. There’s also Curatorial Nicki, who assembles cred and taste as well as anyone has year. She’s generous with it, turning over a large portion of her grand statement record to Maya Jane Coles samples, Fatima Al Qadiri takeoffs, luxuriant Jessie Ware choruses and Beyoncé, who brings “Feeling Myself” to a halt – a literal halt, then “please resume” – to celebrate the one-year anniversary of her own imperial phase. It’s returning the favor for Bey’s own “Flawless” remix, far from the girlfights or beefs the media loves to make records like these into. The Pinkprint is devoid of all that; it’s a work of solidarity, of boosting, prolonging, even saving careers (if you’re feeling generous, you could call her Skylar Grey collab that). And specifically, those careers are female.

The worst moments on The Pinkprint are the ones where men lumber in to ruin the mood, whether they be Drake, Chris Brown and Lil Wayne trading locker-room inanities on “Only,” or Dr. Luke, who produces both that track and the dismal radio castoff “The Night Is Still Young.” They’re not only unwelcome — they feel tired, as if they’d have been dated years ago. (If you’re not feeling generous, you could call her Skylar Grey collab that too.) They’re necessary intrusions of commercialism that belie Minaj’s claim she “ain’t gotta rely on top 40” and undermine what’s presumably meant to be a classic.

But maybe those are the wrong expectations. Maybe The Pinkprint isn’t so much The Blueprint as, as the cover art hints, a fingerprint: something indelibly unique to one person, to Nicki. At this, it succeeds entirely.

TIME Music

Review: On Sucker, Charli XCX Outdoes Her Peers

Charli XCX Sucker
Atlantic Records

Sucker contains a dressing room’s worth of new styles and a Top 40 playlist’s worth of pop moves

To those who know Charli XCX from “Boom Clap” — the sugary, besotten cut from The Fault in Our Stars turned breakout hit — she’s a newcomer: another bratty new face from a pop machine that stamps out bratty new faces. In reality, Charlotte Aitchison is already a pop lifer at 22, on about her fourth reinvention. First, she was a Myspace DIYer, then a gothy ‘80s maximalist, then a crushed-out chillwave purveyor, and now an unlikely teenpop starlet. Madonna would be dizzied by reinvention at this pace: Sucker is not Charli XCX’s debut album but her third.

It’s also the normal pace pop runs at in 2014, where artists’ A&R reinventions – the retoolings upon retoolings that precede artists’ debut – take place not behind label doors but on SoundCloud, across blogs and otherwise in public, allowing each successive style to sweep in a new microdemographic of followers and fans. “Tweenage spitfire” might seem a stretch for someone whose prior demographic was mostly pop nerds and indie fans, but you could hear it coming. You could hear it on one-off “SuperLove”; you could definitely hear it on radio smash “I Love It” (which Charli gave to Icona Pop thinking it didn’t fit her sound — so much has changed in so little time); and you could infer it from her entry into the major-label songwriters’ gallery, penning tracks for up-and-comers like Ryn Weaver and Bella Thorne, her Disney doppelganger. Even her earliest shows in smallish venues, pulsed with bumping-and-grinding star charisma, made for huge arenas.

“Boom Clap” is a songwriter’s pop song, a smart song – drunk as much on love as it is on form and onomatopoeia, and full of enough Charli touches to sound like hers. Still, it’s far more saccharine than career highlights “Stay Away” or “You’re the One.” It suggests a worst-case scenario of polishing away everything that made Charli XCX compelling, turning her into a could’ve-been story like X Factor personality bomb Cher Lloyd (homogenized by Simon Cowell’s Syco) or British musical polyglot A*M*E (by Max Martin’s proteges).

Fortunately, Sucker is not that album; it only resembles a traditional teenpop debut during its draggy final stretch. It’s also not True Romance. That album was great for its deathly serious melodrama, but Sucker is great because it takes nothing seriously. Credit Aitchison, who’s proven herself adept both at musical reinvention and at industry politics. “I proved a point to my record label that I wasn’t f-cking around,” she recently told TIME. “I can write big pop songs, but I can A&R myself as well.” What she’s A&Red herself into this time is something like a late-‘90s movie soundtrack, down to a Republica homage: lead track “Sucker.” The rhythms and sass come directly from “Ready to Go,” but the bridge — “Sitting on a plastic speedboat in the ultraviolet ocean, playing cool songs, trying to show off,” shouted singsong — is pure Charli, both in acid-trip surrealism and in attitude. Single “Break the Rules,” paced like an EDM stomper, takes ‘90s Shampoo and Garbage and turns them into ‘10s treasure. Icona Pop drove pop off this particular bridge years ago, and it’s thrilling to hear an artist revive these pleasures without the guilt.

Even the bad ideas work. “London Queen” is like the Ramones as interpreted by Mary-Kate and Ashley, punctuated with Britishisms “Oi!” and “Wank!” like emoji. When she chirps things like, “When I’m driving on the wrong side of the road, I feel like J! F! K!” it’s embarrassing on the first listen. But on subsequent plays it’s exuberant, and great fun.

Elsewhere, Charli XCX easily outdoes her peers. “Gold Coins” is Lorde’s “Royals” with the saturation and satire cranked up, and the broke bitterness even more acute. Throwbacks “Need Ur Luv” and “Breaking Up” (on the former, shades of The Chalets) should render would-be doo-wopper Meghan Trainor entirely irrelevant. Given her younger fanbase, “Body of My Own” can’t go past PG-13, but smartly, it reserves its best euphemisms for the music – the “Turning Japanese” quotes, the effervescent bridge-as-climax. “Doing It” is pastiche worthy of last year’s Haim album, and fans of early Madonna will get much from “Dress You Up” pings and eerily reproduced vocal shimmer. And while Rivers Cuomo cowrite “Hanging Around” sounds exactly like early Weezer, its spoken-word bridge is as much a throwback to – again – Aitchison’s own “Stay Away.”

Sucker is full of callbacks like these: “Doing It” is like a sequel to “Take My Hand,” and “Body of My Own” outsulks anything on True Romance. It’s fitting. While Sucker contains a dressing room’s worth of new styles and a Top 40 playlist’s worth of pop moves, Charli XCX is a smart enough songwriter to make them her own, and magnetic enough a presence to make that a winning prospect.

TIME Music

Review: Jessie J’s Sweet Talker Leaves a Sour Aftertaste

Republic Records

On the U.S. follow-up to Jessie J's debut Who You Are, she shows off everything except who she is

Jessie J’s weathered a lot of music-industry nonsense for someone bequeathed its never-ending support. She attended the BRIT School with Adele and Amy Winehouse, which for awhile in the U.K. seemed like a guarantee of two albums and a critical lovefest, but despite efforts spent on everything from industry awards to premature Video Music Awards facetime to make Jessie J happen, she didn’t happen – outside the U.K., that is. Despite teaming her with familiar producers like Claude Kelly (“Price Tag”) and Dr. Luke (“Domino”), her last album, Alive, wasn’t released in the United States. Though she’s moved to Los Angeles (in part to flee gossip), after three albums, the stateside market’s still not quite sure what to make of her.

Jessie J isn’t unaware of this: “As soon as I had a bob, my music sounded like Katy Perry’s. Now I’ve got short blonde hair, my music all of a sudden sounds like Miley’s and Pink’s,” she said last year. “As soon as I go dark, I’m sure I’ll have comparisons to Rihanna.” It’s hard not to feel for her. Though the ample criticism directed her way is mostly because her music isn’t good, the phenomenon is real and shared by nearly everyone — women, especially – who attempts to go from songwriter to star and finds they’ve peddled their sonic personality to the better-known stars who’ve cut their songs. Cornish’s confusion seems genuine — it’s natural to be confused when it seems you’re doing everything right to only moderate success.

Fortunately or not, Sweet Talker has solved the problem of doing everything right. Jessie J has admitted the album was made unusually fast, and it comes off as both slapdash and retooled to an inch of its life. Though Cornish is an accomplished songwriter — the sticky hook to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” is hers — she has very few credits here. The big names involved like Max Martin, The-Dream and Diplo present a sonic panoply that’s only notable for who isn’t there — namely Pharrell, who was supposed to work with Cornish on new material that was presumably scrapped. The only recurring themes are a breathless forced energy and a frenzied vocal and production crusade against the haters, the loud, the doubters and, on lead track “Ain’t Been Done, the “unbelievers.”

This theme isn’t new for Jessie J — Who You Are had the clownish “Who’s Laughing Now” — but Sweet Talker has it almost everywhere, from “Masterpiece” (“If you don’t like my sound, you can turn it down”) to “Loud” (“I tried to drown them all out in my sound, but they won’t stop until they tear you down”). The latter, despite a briefly pretty turn by pop violinist and YouTube celebrity Lindsey Stirling, comes off particularly tone-deaf, a way of taking haters and making them self-fulfilling prophecies.

The one distinguishing factor of the Jessie J Brand, as demonstrated on Sweet Talker, is that she can sing. Yuks about pop stars aside, this is a curious statement to make in 2014, as the year’s biggest divas, our Beyoncés and Arianas, aren’t short on chops. Nevertheless, Sweet Talker proves, at exhausting length, that Jessie J can indeed sing — enthusiastically, frequently, sometimes sharply. (That said, it’s best when she sticks to singing; the “hip-hop” tracks come off like Cornish heard talk of a rapper “spitting” and thought they meant it literally.)

It’s clear that, like much of the music industry, Jessie J’s team is taking cues from Beyoncé; mercifully, this comes not in the form of release-gimmick shenanigans but a certain heft to the vocal production. But what Beyoncé had that Sweet Talker does not is innovative production. “Fire” and “Get Away” are dull vocal showcases. “Bang Bang” is soul via claustrophobic digital compression, but it’s tolerable compared to the fetid swirl of classic-rock guitar and stomp of “Burnin’ Up” (which boasts the album’s worst lyric, the needlessly spelled-out “subliminal sex”). “Personal” — written by R&B aspirant Elle Varner — aims at “Pretty Hurts” but lands instead on “Pretty Hurts,” if Katy Perry did it as was threatened.

That’s lot of comparisons, again, but Sweet Talker’s best moment comes when Cornish stops dwelling on them and embraces the derivative. In a world where Ariana Grande’s Mariah revivalism has made her a genuine star, the similarly ‘90s-indebted “Seal Me With a Kiss” isn’t exactly a risk, but Cornish lets up on the vocal assault, the need to make her stamp, and sounds breezy, even fun — two words rarely applied to her. For all the straining on Sweet Talker to make Jessie J a star, she’s best when just focusing on making good pop.

TIME Music

Review: Weezer Insists That Everything Will Be Alright in the End, and It Is

Republic Records

Weezer heads back to 1994 — with mixed results

It’s generally a bad sign when a band starts out its new album campaign by apologizing, particularly when that band spent the better half of the 2000s in unfettered self-indulgent decline. Yet that’s exactly what Rivers Cuomo does on the lead single of Weezer’s ninth album Everything Will Be Alright in the End, renouncing his past few years of radio rumspringa, B.o.B appearances and other cross-promotional musical detritus: “Sorry guys, I didn’t realize I needed you so much / I thought I’d get a new audience / I forgot that disco sucks … Maybe I should play lead guitar and Pat should play the drums.”

There’s something more than a little rich about this. That song, “Back to the Shack” is mostly the same song as “Memories,” from new-audience-era Hurley, and cowriter Jacob Kasher is signed with super-producer Dr. Luke. More to the point, a song that from the start pleads with the Weezer Cruise demographic to return with their fandom and their dollars doesn’t have much room to go on about obscurity and feelings and how you “can’t put that on sale.” But there are just enough flashes of self-awareness – like that conspicuously pricey sheen of power-pop gloss, and a just-emphasized-enough “turn up” pun – to suggest it’s maybe part joke. Maybe Weezer’s in on it, for the first time this decade.

But if “Back to the Shack” doesn’t quite work as a lead single, it does work as a promise: that Everything Will Be Alright in the End will be Weezer returning to “the place where the lightning struck.” That’s back to 1994, to Blue Album collaborator Ric Ocasek (The Cars, Nada Surf, Hole) and his spit-shine production, and back to, as drummer Patrick Wilson enthused, “the tight structure of Blue Album with a little more abandon like Pinkerton.”

In other words, the album’s a deliberate, slightly abashed retcon, an album from a world where nothing since 2000 happened and the albums that did happen were far more palatable. As usual, the order of the day is dad, band and girl problems, expressed via dorky off-kilter Cuomo conceits – Patrick Henry, Cleopatra and Stephen Hawking – alongside meat-and-potatoes power-pop. The character-study-if-you’re-nice shtick of Pinkerton reappears, too, in slightly diluted form: the right-outta-alt-lit “Lonely Girl” (which interpolates the Blue Album’s much-loved closer “Only in Dreams”) and “Go Away,” with the welcome addition of Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino calling Cuomo’s persona on his crap. Cosentino’s presence on Everything Will Be Alright is one of the few holdovers from 2010-era Weezer — specifically the band’s habit of pairing Cuomo with a series of decreasingly simpatico duet partners, from Paramore’s Hayley Williams to Sara Bareilles to Lil Wayne’s rap-rock guy Kevin Rudolf. Luckily, Best Coast’s self-loathing power pop is close enough to Weezer’s own self-loathing power pop that it seems far more natural.

The Blue Album ranks-closing is so strong, in fact, that it makes everything that’s off-brand come off organic: the aforementioned duets, The Darkness co-writes and the falsetto that comes with them, the radio-rock whistling. It’s an easy shot that Weezer lands near-perfectly. “Eulogy for a Rock Band,” much like U2’s recent “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” is an earnest remembrance both of rock in general and of one unnamed Great Act — but much unlike U2’s mandatory moment of worship, it serves as a touching requiem because it doesn’t set its stakes too high. They reserve that for the album’s closer – a litmus test for listeners, either the album’s highlight or nadir: a three-part, largely instrumental suite comprising multiple showy solos, every sugary pop-punk harmony in the book, climaxes upon climaxes, a children’s choir, a title drop, and the title of “The Futurescope Trilogy.”

It’s not much of a litmus test, though. If you’re sticking around with Weezer at all in 2014, you’re likely the sort of person who’s got the gene that makes you start, somewhere around the second half, grinning happily. It’s the same gene that allows you to shrug off the idea of a self-consciously riffy album-closing “futurescope trilogy” as Rivers just being Rivers. It might be Everything Will Be Alright in the End’s greatest, most improbable accomplishment: making that prospect sound not awful, but maybe even pretty good.

TIME Music

MDNGHT Catch a Lovely “Breeze” in New Video: Premiere

Watch the premiere of the U.K. quartet's latest music video

Manchester’s MDNGHT (pronounced “midnight”) take their inspiration from a number of sources: the house revival that acts such as Disclosure and Clean Bandit have made the top trend of the U.K. and now, increasingly, the U.S. as well; the drifty, tropical dance music that’s swept Europe for the past several years; the synths that strobe across dance floors during the, well, midnight hour.

Last year’s Into the Night EP earned the quartet acclaim abroad, and “Breeze,” out in September, expands on their nocturnal sound. Flecks of guitar, piano stabs and wall-of-sound background vocals gathering around Jordan Lewin’s breathy falsetto; the lyrics may be about faffing about and going where the breeze blows, but sonically, it’s a gust. The video nods to MDNGHT’s live-house background while providing an ideal dusky, half-urban half-beachside visual accompaniment. Watch it below.

TIME Music

Sofi De La Torre’s ‘Vermillion’ Is Your Gorgeously Gloomy Song of the Summer

Certain lines in pop songs can stop you in your tracks under the right conditions. Sofi de la Torre’s “Vermillion” has one; it might hit best at dusk, outside under an artificial scatter of light: “I love these streets, but they weren’t meant for me to walk.” The Spanish singer-songwriter, now living in London, has garnered acclaim overseas — she cracked the German charts with a single from the YA-fantasy film Rubinrot (Ruby Red) — but “Vermillion” suggests both a potential crossover bid and a more introspective sonic turn.

The sound of “Vermillion” — half dream pop, half Italo disco — has a lot in common with the shimmery synth pop of Say Lou Lou (“Better in the Dark,” “Everything We Touch”) or the numbed confessions of Tove Lo (“Habits (Stay High)”), but it’s less showy than either. The original track is spare, built on an isolated kick drum, nocturnal synth throb, and little more, and captures a certain late-night, post-drink existential pathos that’s near-universal; it’s equally haunting in house remix form (by Andre Crom and Chi Tanh). Its video, shot in the parts of L.A. that resemble deserted suburbia more than neon famescape, provides an ideal evocative backdrop.

TIME Music

Robin Thicke’s Paula Gets His Sound Back, Not His Self-Respect

Star Trak / Interscope

The crooner's concept album about his ex-wife is perfectly pleasant — as long as you don't read the news

This is not a good year to be Robin Thicke. If you believe the headlines, his love life is currently in a state of unmitigated disaster, and his public image might be even worse as he releases his seventh studio album, Paula – named after his very publicly ex-wife Paula Patton. Lead single “Get Her Back” is currently less known for its throwback R&B than for its BET Music Awards debut, in which Thicke pled for his wife’s good graces, and for the music video – featuring purported text messages between Thicke and Patton, among other salacious things – that’s drawn accusations of stalking. Most recently: while Twitter Q&As are, as Nick Cave once griped, standard practice for any artist worth his PR campaign, and always draw their share of jokers, Thicke’s #AskThicke effort was thoroughly mocked from start to finish.

None of this was inevitable. It’s hard now to imagine a time when “Blurred Lines” wasn’t snark-bait, but when it came out, critics saw it mostly as a goofy takeoff of Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie.” The track went on to ride the Timbaland-Pharrell resurgence to the peak of cultural ubiquity, not to mention the charts. There were basically two ways Thicke and his label could capitalize on his unexpected No. 1 hit: One, double down on Thicke’s contemporary disco-inflected soul, which had just come back into vogue — Blurred Lines had plenty of traditional R&B to go that route — or two, chase the crossover by updating Thicke’s louche-loverman image to show he’s also a man of modern times, and modern sounds (specifically EDM). Thicke chose the latter.

It didn’t work out too well. Unlike almost all of Thicke’s material to date, both follow-up singles from Blurred Lines – whooshy-synth Kendrick Lamar/2 Chainz collaboration “Give It 2 U” and solo “Feel Good” – were produced by will.i.am, and sounded like it. The former stalled at No. 25 on the Hot 100, and the latter pretty much didn’t chart at all, even on the R&B chart that’s been Thicke’s stomping ground for years, even more so lately. Moreover, the blunt come-ons of both tracks didn’t do much to dislodge Thicke’s image problem. Thanks to his sudden ubiquity and mass accusations that “Blurred Lines” was misogynistic (most of which might have been better directed at the Terry Richardson-esque nudie video than the widely misinterpreted lyrics), Thicke started coming off less as a bedside crooner than a terminally old-school sleaze, like Leisure Suit Larry. Then came the separation, then came the begging. As a result almost no one can talk about Paula without talking mostly about Paula.

But Paula, the album, is almost willfully safe. There’s no EDM, no guest rappers. Gone are the high-profile, high-BPM collaborators; instead, like much of Thicke’s oldest work, the credits are filled with august session musicians like guitarist Bobby Keyes and members of Thicke’s own band like drummer Lawrence “LB” Breaux. The album’s conversant with decades of R&B history: samples of the classics, call-and-response with female background singers (“Black Tar Cloud”), elaborate lovemaking metaphors (“Love Will Grow Back”) that evoke a PG-13 version of The-Dream. There’s very little to suggest it was recorded at any point past 1980, and it’s a delightfully pleasant listen if you forget pretty much everything about Thicke’s year.

But even the personal stuff – and there’s plenty, if you want to look for it – isn’t anything new, both in Thicke’s career (he’s long traded on the kind of happily/sexily married image that bolstered Beyonce’s latest work) as well as in a long tradition of excellent R&B. Billboard writes:

Marvin Gaye’s 1978 “Hear, My Dear” — a bitter ode to his ex-wife, Anna Gordy — was selfish yet vulnerable, inspiring a lifetime of imitators. On the thrilling “Terius Nash: 1977,” a scorned The-Dream depicted ex-wife Christina Milian as a gold digger and threatened to crash her next wedding. Usher practically flung divorce papers at his ex, Tameka Raymond, on 2010’s “Raymond v. Raymond.”

The last two albums have something else in common, too – they’ve been released when Nash and Usher were at career crossroads, specifically about how much they should tailor their sound toward a crossover. Usher pursued pop full-throttle, a decision he’s spent the past few years maneuvering around; Nash, meanwhile, floundered, his “Umbrella”-sized hits fewer and fewer and his music and image mired in increasingly ugly scandal.

With respect to Thicke, as Maura Johnston notes in Wondering Sound, 2014 isn’t exactly flooded by traditional soul. The R&B albums chart is a mishmash of new poppy efforts from Pharrell and Jennifer Lopez, old poppy efforts from Justin Timberlake, Jhene Aiko and Beyoncé, and foregone-conclusion institutions like John Legend, Mariah Carey and posthumous Michael Jackson. It’s hard to imagine Thicke in this company on sound alone. But fortunately for him, it’s a time-honored practice to goose music that isn’t exactly in sync with the prevailing sound with tabloid excitement – the music is sold with the gossip. This is how Lana Del Rey got buzz for an album of untimely alt-country and torch songs, and how Kelly released two albums of perversely (and not at all pervertedly) throwback soul, getting residual hype off all the gawkers who half-jokingly salivated for Black Panties.

Will any of this work for Thicke? “Get Her Back,” unsurprisingly, has yet to become a hit, and though there’s still time – “Blurred Lines” was a sleeper – it seems unlikely. None of the other tracks on Paula are obvious crossover candidates, either. Then again, he might not really need it. Superstardom was an odd fit at an odd time for Thicke, and Paula accomplishes two things. It reassures his core, album-purchasing fans alienated by Blurred Lines’ new sound – as Johnston writes, “the “her” [of ‘Get Her Back’] could very well be his former audience.” It also provides enough headlines of the no-publicity-is-bad-publicity variety to keep him in the pop eye. Even so, it’s a sign you’ve had an awful year when Paula is pretty much your best bet.

TIME Music

A Beginner’s Guide to Solange’s Music

Vulture Festival Presents MIA + Solange
Solange performs at Webster Hall on May 10, 2014 in New York City. Stephen Lovekin—2014 Getty Images

Solange's oeuvre deserves more attention than it's received since video leaked of her allegedly assaulting her brother-in-law Jay Z

By now you may be aware that Solange, Beyoncé’s younger sister, is in the news for allegedly getting into a fight with Jay Z on an elevator after the Met Gala. Probably inevitably, considering the number of stars and star-orbiters involved, the altercation spawned a lot of Internet jokes – there’s about a 50% chance none of them will be remotely funny when the full story inevitably comes out, so caveat meme-ptor – and a lot of explaining by the media of who exactly Solange is, some of it rather silly.

So here’s who Solange really is: an R&B artist, director and tastemaker (with label Saint Records), who’s made music for about a decade that varies from hooky to restrained to wildly creative and to – for lack of a better word – “indie.” She’s rubbed off on her sister, too; Solange has both directly written for Beyonce – B’Day’s “Get Me Bodied” and “Upgrade U” were both her co-writes – and influenced her in subtle ways, like introducing Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek to the Beyoncé songwriters’ circle.

In other words, there’s a lot in her career to catch up on, so we’ve put together a quick introductory course: the big singles, as well as a couple of the best album tracks.

(A quick note on song selection: A decade is a lot of music to cover, so we’ve limited this to solo tracks – no covers, which rules out her much-praised version of Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness is the Move,” and no collaborations, which rules out… a lot.)

“Losing You”

For a lot of people, this is Solange’s best-known track. The critically beloved lead single from 2012’s fantastic EP True, “Losing You” begins as a splashy street-party affair like Solange’s previous album Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams – more on that later – but quickly settles into a more melancholy groove. Over brooding synth pads, Solange handles producer Dev Hynes’ hymnlike melody like she’s turning and turning over the memories of a snuffed-out relationship: “Tell me the truth, boy, am I losing you for good?” The track doesn’t mope; it just doesn’t know what to think. Which means it can go on forever.

“Sandcastle Disco”

Unlike True, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams (2008) was a full album, both in terms of runlength and in terms of being a big statement: Solange’s first album in five years, and a musically omnivorous offering of bandleader Motown and dazzling pop that sounds flung into the future and past at once. R&B isn’t always too kind to these sorts of statements – for every Janelle Monae who’s celebrated for this kind of musical creativity, there’s an Amerie (and dozens more, actually) who slips mostly into obscurity – and it’s a testament to Solange’s connections and skill that it received the lasting praise it deserved.

Sol-Angel produced a few singles, but “Sandcastle Disco” – a minor hit in the UK – is among the most immediately catchy. Written with a pre-overexposure Cee-Lo Green and hyperprolific (if these days mostly, sadly, forgotten) R&B production duo Soulshock & Karmin, it’s a sunny, shuffling cut that wears its vulnerability like sandals soon to be tossed off.

A few more notes: The video for “Sandcastle Disco” is Solange’s directorial debut, and the clip’s poppy and splashy (and slyly self-aware – there’s a takeoff of Andy Warhol’s soup cans that shouldn’t be spoiled if you haven’t seen it.) “Sandcastle Disco” is also one of those tracks that sounds even better remixed. There are several mixes (most can be streamed), and in with the usual get-in-dance-get-out club remix fare are two standouts. King Britt’s house-piano reduction is ahead of its time (specifically, the house revival of the past two years), but I’m partial to Gomi’s mix, a wind of sounds against which Solange’s melody sounds as fragile as claimed.

“Would’ve Been the One”

If “Sandcastle Disco” is a bit self-conscious, a glitter-snowglobe version of its Motown source material, “Would’ve Been the One” is closer to the real thing: a piano-led sparkler, Solange belting and cooing the melody as flashily as possible. It’s one of the best showcases of Solange not just as a trendsetter or curator of sounds, but a singer, a song interpreter and a versatile one at that. The fact that it sounds timeless is just a bonus.

“Wonderland”

Solange’s debut, Solo Star, often gets overlooked, probably because it’s not trying to be an ambitious art piece with track titles like “Cosmic Journey” featuring Motown touches like historical nods, but a commercial R&B album, at least theoretically intended to move units. That didn’t quite happen, but it may just be a matter of luck, because Solo Star is a commercial album released in a year – 2003 – when commercial R&B was really, really good. (Solange has defended this point repeatedly in interviews, calling out people who pontificate about new R&B without even being familiar with the old stuff.) The stutter hook and skipping beat, by producer Rockwilder, are products of a radio landscape the Neptunes helped shape – and the fact that lead Neptune Pharrell’s producing everything again should clue you in to how good that was – and the radical optimism of Solange’s lyric is a nod to what she’d come up with next.

“Bad Girls (Verdine Version)”

True has yet to get a follow-up album, probably due to Dev Hynes’ feud with Solange. Even the subsequent singles didn’t quite connect – but it wasn’t for their quality. It’s just that True is a restrained, introverted kind of album, that works best as a whole, a sustained mood. “Bad Girls” is the moodiest of all, Solange taking a slow jam from Hynes’ project Blood Orange and flipping the lyric into a sort of answer song. (It’s best if you listen to the two tracks in tandem.)

Oh, and the Verdine in the title? Bassist Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire. The past year or so have seen lots of artists re-recruiting the great disco, funk and session musicians of the ‘70s – chiefly among them Chic’s Nile Rodgers – but true to True’s form, Solange is restrained about it. Part of that’s because she can be – it’s a lot easier to get Verdine White on your song when your last name is Knowles – but even so, it’s a statement, Solange claiming musical stature like it’s no big deal. By this point, she’s earned it.

TIME Music

Mariah Carey Ends the Hip-Hop Drought With “Thirsty”: Listen

Def Jam Records

After a few misfires, the diva nails her latest Me. I Am Mariah... The Elusive Chanteuse cut

Mariah Carey, by now, is a musical legend with a legacy as smooth as her voice. Even so, the leadup to her 14th album, the impeccably titled Me. I Am Mariah … The Elusive Chanteuse, has been a bit bumpy. Soft-rocking Miguel duet “Beautiful” was a hit, but throwback R&B tracks “The Art of Letting Go” and “You’re Mine (Eternal),” while classicist and impressive, underperformed – though not as much as Rick Ross showcase “Triumphant (Get ‘Em),” which Mariah was barely on. The song was relegated untriumphantly to promotional-single status and dropped from the album’s lineup.

“Thirsty,” which premiered today, is almost like an attempt to fix that, to get the hip-hop-influenced track right. Producer Hit-Boy (a couple of his eponymous hits: Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Paris,” Beyoncé’s “XO” and “Flawless”) gives Carey one of his signature beats: a minimalist synth hook that breaks into martial strings or imperial sangfroid when the mood calls for it. And this time Atlanta rapper Rich Homie Quan’s the one who gets dominated by Carey’s larger-than-life presence; he warbles Future-ish backing vocals on the hook while Carey dismisses the titular “thirsty” braggart.

The anti-scrub track is one of Mariah’s best looks – sometimes she even names names, as with Eminem on “Obsessed” – and as always, Carey makes it seem and sound utterly effortless. Listen below.

TIME Music

REVIEW: Michael Jackson’s Legacy Gets Honored (Mostly) on Xscape

For the first time in posthumous MJ history, the music can speak for itself

Old musicians don’t die. They don’t even fade away. They just become franchises. Like most artists who’ve been around longer than an album or so, Michael Jackson has a considerable vault of unfinished, unproduced or just unreleased tracks; and like most artists who’ve set multiple sales records per album, he’s got a vault that’s prime for plunder.

Xscape, out on Epic Records May 13, is the latest haul from that vault — and yet another in the sequel-crazed franchise that is posthumous Jackson. As with all posthumous records, the idea is inherently iffy, and it’s especially so in Jackson’s case given his beleaguered relationship with Sony and the dubious conditions of his death. A placeholder order page on iTunes had several reviews questioning the entire merit of the enterprise, sound unheard; they’re not fringe opinions but perhaps mainline. Nor does the posthumous Jackson business have the greatest track record, particularly when modern acts get involved; 2010’s disastrous Michael was marred by unfortunate Akon and Lenny Kravitz guest spots and credits-truther controversies; a few years later, on the reissues of Thriller and Bad, in with the demos and rarities were ill-advised remixes like EDM lunkhead Afrojack contorting the title track into a club thumper, complete with Pitbull and his moonwalk-related dad jokes.

None of this has escaped anyone involved with Xscape. “This isn’t record company greed, it’s art,” L.A. Reid said introducing the album at a listening party at Rockefeller Center (the first time in the U.S., though the Brits heard it roughly a week prior). “Some people say these are just outtakes left on the cutting room floor, but ‘Wanna Be Starting Something’ was written for Off the Wall. ‘Billie Jean’ almost didn’t make it [onto Thriller]!” If the powers that be sounded a tad defensive, it was only of Jackson’s legacy, specifically his “Jackson moments”: those first-burst encounters with Jackson’s music that make him worth the pre- and posthumous ado.

If Xscape is anything, it’s curated: eight tracks selected from 1983 to 1999. (The compact tracklisting means a couple promised tracks didn’t make the cut, including one, untitled for now, that reportedly would have included features from D’Angelo, Mary J. Blige and ?uestlove.) They’re unreleased, but they’re not new per se; it’s 2014, after all, and leaks are routine, and the appetite for unreleased Jackson material is much more voracious than anyone wants to admit. Despite the largesse of Epic Records and Jackson’s estate, much of this material had leaked at some point, in some form or other, and while most of it’s been scrubbed from the Internet, vestiges remain: bedroom acoustic covers, unsanctioned remixes, snippets from commercials, transcriptions of Jay-Z and Justin Bieber verses that were at one point attached, respectively, to “Twelve O’Clock” (now the memely, if unnecessarily tabloid-baiting, “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?”) and “Slave to the Rhythm.” (Part of Xscape’s “curation,” it seems, is curating the Google results to keep Biebs out of his legacy, which is downright noble.) But they’re not old, either.

Timbaland, who executive-produced the album with help from Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Jerome Harmon, Stargate and John McClane, gave the old recordings some modern production juice, calling the process — to some press joshing — “contemporization.” But to their immense credit, unlike some recent “contemporizations” (Drake’s mopey exhumation of the Aaliyah vault comes to mind), the material on Xscape seldom sounds gimmicky, or too full of its producers’ personal brands. Even producers like Stargate, who sound so identikit-distinctive you can usually reverse-engineer songs they’ve had a hand in, go subtle. It helps that Jackson’s voice is too singularly frenzied to be overshadowed in a mix; it helps even more that occasionally, as on “Xscape,” the contemporizer and original producer (in this case, Darkchild) were one and the same. Only once on the album do things get glaring: “Blue Gangsta,” which even in its original form seemed like a concept missing its video-PR tour, is so much like beatboxed-and-screwed Timbo that it’s almost funny. Everything else is – stunningly – mostly natural.

Again, it helps that Xscape comes frontloaded with the safest (and earliest-recorded) track, now assisted by Justin Timberlake: “Love Never Felt So Good” is an opulent, warm disco-soul floorfiller in composition and, judging by a couple couples, in practice. It evokes Off the Wall as much as dead-on 2014, because these days disco is so trendy it practically comes pre-contemporized. “Loving You” is even more earnest, and if anything, its lonely-August nostalgia is only enhanced by its extramusical conditions. There’s the odd intriguing production detail — the four-four kick thump and synth line woven through Jackson and Stargate’s escalatingly dramatic “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” sounds as much like the ‘80s as, oh, Kate Boy, and “Slave to the Rhythm,” now de-Bieberized, is burbling protofeminist electro that’d suit any decade — but the bulk of the album rests, as is to be expected, on nostalgia. Funk cut “Chicago” hews too close to “Billie Jean” in sound and subject matter; later on, “The Way You Make Me Feel” makes an appearance – although, to be fair, there are worse tracks to evoke so heavily.

What isn’t present, by design and thankfully, is anything that acknowledges the past Posthumous Jackson flubs, or much controversy at all; as was Jackson’s tack, it’s all confined to the music. Late-career “Xscape” rages against the system, specifically “the man with the pen that writes the lies that hassle this man,” but not too obtrusively to pop. “A Place With No Name” is as much about its paranoid cautionary-fairy-tale story — a woman shows up out on the backstreets to spirit/seduce people to a place where, as Jackson screeches, “you have a friend!” — as its loping America sample. But controversy, once it meets the press, will out. It’s telling that the one track of the eight that’s received the most pre-coverage is the aforementioned “Do You Know Where Your Children Are,” which was quickly singled out as either Jackson’s response or brushoff of his abuse allegations. This is not only bunk – the track was written in 1985, and its title practically carbon-dates it to well before any of that particular controversy came out – but especially disappointing given the rest of Xscape. After all – possibly for the first time in Posthumous Jackson history – there’s enough music to speak for itself.

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