Despite being labeled a “mixtape,” Drake’s fourth album, finally out physically, is yet another slice of excellence from the Toronto rapper. Opener “Legend” again details Drake’s meteoric rise along the lines of Nothing Was the Same’s “Started From the Bottom” (“If I die, I’m a legend,” he declares after detailing his successes) over a spare, ghostly beat. But it’s never all about braggadocio with Drake, as paranoid lyrics like “it’s so hard for me to let new people in” seep in. That continues onto single “Energy,” with its refrain “got a lotta enemies” and lines like “I got girls in real life tryin’ to fuck up my day/Fuck goin’ online, that ain’t part of my day.” Drake gets a lot of grief for complaining, but he’s also his own worst enemy and critic, calling himself out for “thinking about money and women 24/7” on “Know Myself” in a way that helps make him more compelling. Those other Drake complaints—that he’s not hard enough, that he’s not the best pure rapper—are routinely silenced by the pure quality of tracks like “Madonna,” a perfect example of how Drake’s unique cadences and lyrical candidness more than make for any perceived weaknesses. If You’re Reading This doesn’t have a crossover track with appeal approaching megahit “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” but Drake doesn’t really need that at this point to make a strong album, and the production across the album is stellar nonetheless, freeing Drake and his collaborators to focus in on what makes him sound great rather than individual tracks. No-nonsense beats by Boi-1da jibe well with PartyNextDoor’s codeine-fueled productions, among others who worked on the album. If You’re Reading This’ 17 tracks run long without the bigger production of a similarly long album like Take Care, but there aren’t really any weak songs, either. Latter-half tracks like his back-and-forth with Lil Wayne (who’s in fine form here) on “Used To,” the reflective raps on “Now & Forever” over Eric Dingus’ “Trap House 3 Remix” (no, that’s not Grimes) and suddenly animated closer “6PM in New York” all count as highlights. However much If You’re Reading This might be a smaller release between blockbusters, it feels as essential as anything Drake has done.
Odd Future cohort Earl Sweatshirt can be forgiven for his claustrophobic album title. At only 16, he was plucked from his budding rap career by his mother, responding to his drug use and poor grades, and sent to a reform school in Samoa. Since returning, he’s talked about having a tumultuous time partying on tour and struggling to get his life and health back. The result of all that back and forth is I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside, and album that doubles down on the grim paranoia set forth by his last album, the excellent Doris. Earl has a way of expressing his pain honestly while keeping his rhymes engaging instead of seeming like a diary pour—“ Picked the road that got twists/I'm holding my dick and playing cautious,” he says on “Mantra.” On the grim “Faucet,” he raps about not knowing where to call home and who to call a friend (“I feel like I'm the only one pressin' to grow upwards”). The stunning “Grief” offers imagery of Earl facing panic attacks, grabbing for the Xanax bottle and reminiscing about drugs and girls on tour over a murky beat but ultimately coming out of the haze, finishing off with the lines, “I just want my time and my mind intact/When they both gone, you can't buy ’em back.” I Don’t Go Outside is focused nearly to a fault, but in keeping the album as variations on a theme, it helps further establish Earl as a compelling character—the tortured wayward son, reveling in and revolted by his own hedonism—crafting a potent statement in the process. The distilled paranoia of I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside easily makes for one of the most memorable hip-hop albums of the year.
Katie Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee project has grown from the home recordings of a promising young singer/songwriter to the full-bodied sound we hear on Ivy Tripp. Over a river of fuzz and organ drone, Crutchfield sings more warmly and confidently than ever on opener “Breathless.” Lyrically she can be oblique on songs like “Poison” (“Your birthday party tongue dripping/You'll summarize/Travel the world ivy tripping”), but the scenes she paints are evocative nonetheless. She pushes her sound further into brightly hued Pavement-style indie rock on tracks like “Under a Rock” and ’80s college rock on “The Dirt” while expanding it with a simple electronic beat and catchy backup vocals on “La Loose.” But some of the most stirring moments on Ivy Tripp are its sparest, as she turns staring at the ceiling midday and turning over love and life choices into Ivy Tripp’s best track, “Stale By Noon,” singing over a simple organ lick. I wasn’t sold when I heard her last album, Cerulean Salt, but Ivy Tripp feels whittled down to perfection. It’s an impressive songwriting showcase for Crutchfield and a significant leap forward.
“Death With Dignity” opens Carrie & Lowell as a touching elegy to Sufjan Stevens’ mother, yet it also could describe his relationship to his own music. “I don’t know where to begin,” he sings, and “I’ve got nothing to prove” over a familiar bed of bluegrass-inspired folk. Stevens was like the A-plus student of indie pop, turning out album after album of perfectly manicured orchestral folk-pop, but I felt like he lost his way a bit with The BQE, an album and project that felt unwieldy, as well the hectic electro-folk of The Age of Adz. Carrie & Lowell, by comparison, is one of his most stripped-down albums to date. That’s not to say it doesn’t have his trademark fixation on detail— songs shift halfway through, like “Should Have Known Better’s” turn into stuttering, laptoppy acoustics and choral touches, or “Drawn to the Blood’s” extended string finale; “you checked your text while I masturbated,” he sings casually, telling a girl she looks like Poseidon in the sexually turbulent “All of Me Wants All of You.” Lyrically and musically, Stevens remains a curious tinkerer, but Carrie & Lowell never feels busy in the slightest. It’s an intensely focused work, one that places Stevens’ voice and songcraft over bells and whistles. Whereas locations and history seemed to hold Stevens’ interest in the past, here he’s death-obsessed (and still spiritual as ever). “Fourth of July” feels romantically morbid and carries the happy refrain “we’re all gonna die,” and on “The Only Thing,” he sounds stricken with grief to the point of barely being able to keep going on. Stevens’ way with language, drawing on mythology and Christian imagery, and ascendant voice keeps the songs from wallowing too deeply, even as they describe an immense sense of loss, allowing those moments when he does break—“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’” “Fuck me, I’m falling apart”—to land all the more effectively. Without the filter of a state’s history or the heavy religiosity of Seven Swans, Carrie & Lowell finds Stevens turning his studious eye inward to fully explore his own grief, and the results are never short of breathtaking.
Vulnicura is the album Bjork fans were longing for. Co-producing with white-hot underground beatmaker Arca, Bjork crafts some of her most singular and affecting music yet, writing complex string arrangements that elevate the drama in songs like “Stonemilker” to that of classics like Homogenic’s “Joga” or “Bachelorette.” Vulnicura measures the effects of the end of a relationship—the end of Bjork’s partnership with artist Matthew Barney serves as the catalyst—and she acts as an emotional scientist on tracks like “Lionsong,” tinkering with what’s left in the aftermath (“Should I throw oil on one of these wounds? But which one?”) amid vocal manipulation that calls to mind her work on the voice-centric Medulla. As that striking album art portrays, the core of Vulnicura is a gaping wound. On “History of Touches,” she sees every touch and sexual ecounter as a singularity, illustrated by electronics that glow like an aurora borealis. But her shield of objectivism crumbles on “Black Lake,” Vulnicura’s absolutely devastating centerpiece. Over 10 minutes, Bjork details how hitting absolute bottom at the end of a relationship that feels like a life’s worth of work coming to and end. Every so often, the music, a dark swirl of strings and beats supplied by Bjork and Arca, cuts out for a strange, long coda that feels like a necessary swallowing of air before she delivers the next stanza, sometimes wearily, sometimes desperately. Each time it hits like a punch to the gut. She’s simply never done anything so affecting before; given her catalog, this alone is remarkable.