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December Album Picks: Charli XCX, D'Angelo, Nicki Minaj

Posted by Billy Gil, December 23, 2014 03:30pm | Post a Comment

December often doesn’t have the same number of big new releases as other months. But in this age of Beyonce-ing albums at the end of the year, there are still a few winners that slip into the end of the year.

 

D’Angelo Black Messiah (CD, LP out 2/10)

d'angelo black messiah cd lpThe long-awaited Black Messiah caps off 2014 as the year’s best soul album. But to call it soul or R&B would be reductive. Even more so than D’Angelo’s previous two albums, the excellent Brown Sugar and neo-soul masterpiece Voodoo, Black Messiah eschews any preconceived notions of what R&B, pop, music in general should be. Black Messiah draws upon a rich history of black music, notably blues, jazz and gospel and funk, and blows them out into billowing, smokey jams that seep under your skin, work their way into your veins. “Ain’t That Easy” rides hard on The Vanguard’s hip-hop beat and raunchy funk chords, while D’Angelo delivers an impassioned vocal and conciliatory lyrics like a sleek modern-day update of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” “1,000 Deaths” lays out Black Messiah’s other theme, starting with a powerful passage by an African American preacher that rails against the presentation of Jesus as a white savior. Over The Vanguard’s stuttering, skronking beat, D’Angelo’s multitracked vocal paints a harrowing picture but makes its most memorable couplet a rallying cry for the oppressed (“A coward dies a thousand times/But a soldier only dies just once), ending in an ecstatic, Prince-worthy cry and Hendrixy guitar explosions. Like Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah albums, or (aesthetically) like Kanye West’s Yeezus, Black Messiah is remarkably adventurous throughout. “The Charade” shuffles along a beat reminiscent of Radiohead’s “There, There,” dazzles with springs of sitar and builds to a thick climax. Similarly, “Back to the Future (Part I)” and “II” breaks up a future-funk suite about breaking up, keeping you engaged with its heady groove. Black Messiah’s more accessible moments make for some of the loveliest songwriting D’Angelo’s put to tape, with lush devotionals like “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” and “Really Love” and the jaunty alien jazz of “Sugah Daddy” making for perfect mixtape material. D’Angelo definitely kept us waiting a while for this one, but his remarkably consistent catalog to this point shows that the best things come to those who wait. Truly, Black Messiah is a densely layered soul masterpiece.

 

Charli XCXSucker (CD)

charli xcx sucker cdAn exploding cherry bomb of new wave beats, hip-hop breaks, punky guitars and Charlotte Emma Aitchison’s impossibly sexy vocals, Sucker is everything you want from radio pop in one album. Aitchison has a preternatural way of making her British-girl-in-L.A. thing work, like she’s blasting Gaga and the Go-Go’s out of a pink convertible cruising from Chateau Marmot to Venice and arriving in the studio to sing some perfect pop song she just thought of. Dynamite pop songs like the ubiquitous “Boom Clap” (from The Fault in our Stars) and bad-girl anthem “Break the Rules” sit nicely next to gnarlier pop-punk tunes like “London Queen” and “Gold Coins” and danceable jams like “Doing It.” Every song on Sucker sounds like a hit, and deserves to be, yet it’s also a seamless, smart listen that leaves you with a new favorite every time. I’m pretty sure Charli XCX is a pop hypnotist—just go ahead and try to turn it off.

 

Nicki Minaj The Pinkprint (CD, Deluxe CD)

nicki minaj the pinkprint cdIf you thought Nicki Minaj was going to get less confusing, less thrilling, less frustrating or less fascinating on her new release, you were wrong. The Pinkprint is less divided between straight up hip-hop and pop-oriented tracks than the similarly imperfect Pink Friday, whose first third ultimately redeemed the rest of the album. Instead, she’s able to draw up some tracks that do both things quite well, from the sleek R&B heartbreak of “Buy a Heart” and Caribbean-flavored “Trini Dem Girls” to sexually empowering duets with Beyonce (“Feeling Myself”) and Ariana Grande (“Get On Your Knees”). The biggest change here is Minaj’s ability to be direct and personal without relying on jokes or cartoonish delivery. The album’s first three tracks find Minaj reflective after the end of a long relationship, making her heartbreak palpable in some of her best tracks yet. As usual, the singles are either irritating or dumb fun, depending on your mood and outlook, but the rest of Pinkprint is worth sticking around for, particularly a slew of bonus tracks that find Minaj playing faster and looser, closer to the playfulness of her best mixtape and guestwork. Imperfect as she is, you’ll never be bored with Nicki Minaj.

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Album Picks (146), New Albums (213), New Releases (214), Charli Xcx (2), D'angelo (6), Nicki Minaj (13)