Drake has gone from sensitive Canadian kid actor to the most popular MC in hip-hop. The worst you can say about him is that he’s not the best pure rapper out there and lacks street cred; that’s still true. But as songwriters go, they don’t get much better. Drake is a new kind of hip-hop star, one less concerned with a hard image than he is with making interesting music. Barring the debatable “Wu-Tang Forever,” this is some of his best material yet. “Started From the Bottom” take a cue from his bud The Weeknd with a relentlessly bleak backdrop and a weary tale of success, like he’s reached the top of the mountain barely breathing—it’s a hell of a way to start a blockbuster album. “Hold On We’re Going Home” has been all over radio, with good reason, like a hip-hop version of Daft Punk’s latest album, all throwback funk and good time vibes, with Drake’s typically lovelorn lyrics. Despite the flak Drake gets for his rapping, Nothing Was the Same features some of Drake’s best rhymes yet, only including a handful of guest spots (2 Chainz and Big Sean add some welcome outside voices on “All Me”) and instead delving deep into Aubrey Drake Graham’s psyche and insecurities. “I hate that mom’s cooped up in her apartment, tellin’ herself that she’s too sick to get dressed up and go do shit” he says on the wrenching “Too Much.” Drake breathlessly delivers “The Language” in triplet cadence and lightens the mood (“She just wanna smoke ‘n’ f*ck, I said, ‘girl that’s all that we do’”). By the time he delivers the line “just give it time, we’ll see who’s still around a decade from now” on epic closer “Tuscan Leather,” Drake’s got little left to prove. If the haters provide fuel for his fire, haters keep hatin’ cause Nothing Was the Same is a beautiful smackdown.
Amid the countless recent reunions of '90s bands, the timing seems perfect for the return of Sebadoh. While he's been toiling beneath the din of J Mascis' guitar heroics in the reunited Dinosaur Jr. for years, Lou Barlow's second-fiddle position in that band hasn't given enough of an outlet for Barlow's own songwriting. Thus Barlow sounds hungry on Defend Yourself, the first Sebadoh album since 1999. "Can you tell that I'm about to lose control?" he asks on the outset of the album on "I Will," over a serviceable melodic jangle. That statement proves true, as things get more interesting as Defend Yourself progresses. The stuttering "Beat" provides ample room for Barlow to shred both his guitars and vocals. It sounds as though Barlow's world is coming apart in the rumbling "Defend Yr Self"—an understandable position, given the end of his marriage, which provides bitter fuel for Barlow's fire on this album. Songs like "Oxygen," an upbeat indie pop-rocker, and "Once," a tentative instrumental, provide respite (though "Oxygen's" typically caustic lyrics remind us that even the shiniest apples from Barlow are laced with arsenic). But Barlow's at his manic best in songs like "Inquiries," which heaves into a nauseating (in a thrilling way) final portion, or "Final Days," which pairs headlong, full-band rush with world-doubting lyrics ("it's all made up and a waste of time" Barlow sings under his breath). With a mouthful of bile, Barlow spits out the songs of Defend Yourself. The resulting record feels as crucial and relevant as anything he's been a part of.
Janelle Monae's The Archandroid was a landmark R&B album, released in 2010 when Monae was only 24 years old and poising her to accept the baton from her predecessors. With The Electric Lady, she accepts entry into that pantheon of great soul artists, and even collaborates with several of them. Her duet with Prince, "Givin Em What They Love," is a raunchy bit of slow rolling rock 'n' roll that does the Purple One proud, with Monae giving a snarling, Karen O-like performance. She enlists Erykah Badu to collaborate on "Q.U.E.E.N.," for a jam that's both glitzy and soulful, unafraid of seeming both current and strange ("Is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror? And am I weird to dance alone late at night?" Monae asks). But her duets fellow new guard members are equally thrilling, on the sassy title track with Solange, jazzy "Dorothy Dandridge Eyes" with Esperanza Spalding and showstopper "Primetime" with Miguel. The music is remarkable and unpredictable throughout, from the loungey outro to "We Were Rock N Roll" to the Flaming Lips synths and Brazilian jazz chords of "Ghetto Woman." And impressively, with all these big names, Monae remains the star, singing and rapping like the second coming of Lauryn Hill. On her own, her songs are no less striking, singing an uplifting hymn with "Victorious" and closing things out beautifully on the reggae-tinged "What An Experience." What an experience The Electric Lady is, indeed!
Out Sept. 10
Canadian indie R&B artist The Weeknd returns with a new album following his three mixtapes and their eventual compilation (Trilogy). Expect Kiss Land to live up to its name, judging by the sexy, Portishead-sampling “Belong to the World” heard below.
Out Sept. 17
The first album in 14 years from Sebadoh, the great indie rock band featuring Lou Barlow (also of Dinosaur Jr.), should be a hoot! Even if you’re new to the band, Barlow’s gritted-teeth delivery and brittle guitarwork are a thing to behold.
Deluxe CD $19.98
Deluxe LP $26.98
It’s been four years since the last Neko Case album, but one listen to her verbosely titled new album and you’ll know it was worth the wait. As on her previous albums, Case borrows from folk, country and indie rock, opening with stunning guitar atmosphere on “Wild Creatures.” On “Night Still Comes” (download or listen free), she weaves beautifully strange melodies, both highly catchy and melodic and slightly discordant. Both lyrically and vocally, Case continues to be one of the strongest of her generation, articulating the intersect of man and nature with gorgeously twisted language. “I’m gonna go where my urge leads no more … a boreal feast, let it finish me please, as I revenge myself, all over myself,” she sings on “Night Still Comes.” Over jaunty electric guitar, she forcefully sings “I’m a man … that’s what kind of animal I am” on “Man,” continuing the gender play on acoustic ditty “I’m From Nowhere” (“I was surprised when you called me lady, ‘cause I’m still not so sure that’s what I want to be,” later qualifying that statement with “’cause I remember the ’80s, and I remember its puffy sleeves”). Though her lyrics are often clever, they’re more revealing here than ever—the most striking moment here is “Near Midnight, Honolulu,” a paralyzing portrayal of casually witnessed emotional child abuse that she then turns inward. Whether she’s describing the strange, corporeal world in which we live or her own inner workings, Case is always invigorating to listen to, perhaps never more so than on The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight...