Saba: Care for Me
The newest release from Chicago MC–producer Saba is a moody collection of atmospheric rap/R&B songs that reflect inner turmoil through catharsis. The album is aggressive and tender at the same time, existing at the weird intersection of both, leaning more toward one than the other in each successive song. Take “Life,” for instance, the third song on the album: starting with a suspicious beat and building up only to be broken down by Saba’s increasingly fast-paced vocals, the production includes a recording of gunshots, yet ends with what sounds like a distorted harp arrangement. The next song, “Calligraphy,” cuts back and forth between Saba’s stressful rapping and a repeating piano arrangement. It’s hard to exist at two opposite ends of a spectrum (of intimacy, of sensitivity), but Saba achieves it without missing a beat, or a verse. The album is kind of like accessing both ends of a nerve, or tasting two flavors of ice cream with a split tongue, and embarking on something completely new, completely mesmerizing.
The album is urban, of its time and reflective of a certain sensibility. Its production glows, yet doesn’t overshadow the rapper’s verses. Each song follows the previous one with a gripping consistency. The album is inviting, as well as being exciting. Saba’s raps shine a light on personal introspection and try to understand the inherited trauma of living. “Jesus got killed for our sins, Walter got killed for a coat,” he raps – this contrast between what is divine and what is human is deeply dramatic and effective. Saba moves without resorting to melodrama, with a steady, all-consuming gaze into his own life to understand and reflect. Against a backdrop of jazz-influenced production, Saba considers modern-day race relations in America, and declares “Everything is grey” – perhaps to take notice of the interfusing pigments of black and white, perhaps to lay down a concrete commentary on his life as a black artist.
The Weeknd: My Dear Melancholy,
The Weeknd surprise-released his new EP of forced melodrama inspired by recent break-ups and personal tragedies. The first lyrics sung on the album are “We found each other” – and thus begins the odyssey of The Weeknd in the river rapids of romantic relationships, less as an epic journey than a whitewater race.
The album feels personal, yes (how could it not be, as The Weeknd practically cries out every verse in every song?), but it also feels forced in order to appeal to the mainstream listener, as if promoting a product for the “break-up” market. I’m personally all for high-profile artists detailing their personal lives by means of clever songwriting and production. This is a risky creative choice, for the people being sung about are, more often than not, other high-profile celebrities. But The Weeknd, although taking this personal risk, fails to say anything even tenuously interesting. “You’re on top, I put you on top,” he sings again and again in “Call Out My Name,” but this hierarchical position game is, put in the simplest terms, banal to the careful listener. The album profits immeasurably without taking any creative risks, or amounting to anything remotely substantial. The Weeknd grows comfortable in the intersection of his past and recent work – and what results is a lost effort.
J. Cole: KOD
J. Cole’s new release broke the record for the most first-day streams in Apple Music’s history, yet it’s not as fascinating as its prospective sale numbers would indicate. The album resorts to minimalistic production again and again, perhaps to highlight J’s verses and vocal performance. It is slightly unsettling and baffling, but interesting nonetheless. The album has its dull passages, but they’re interspersed with shining moments of crisp, clear raps, as in “Kevin’s Heart” and “FRIENDS.” J. Cole, undeniably a major force in the contemporary landscape of hip-hop and rap, is driving the game further with each release. He just needs to step up a bit more to elevate his exploration into unknown territories, and document for us locals what he has seen.