This is imperfect, eclectic, trend-based, and scattered. And also easily Usher's most diverse and ambitious work. Yet, however thin Usher Raymond pulls the cloth of pop music, one thread effortlessly pulls together the album: his voice, a nimble instrument capable of Stevie Wonder-ful melismas, effortless Prince falsetto (e.g. "Climax"), the yelping Marvin Gaye gospelisms of "Twisted" and even full-bodied balladeer wails on "Dive" that would make Steve Perry of Journey blush.
But the songs do a more than passable job of diversifying Usher's portfolio of styles. "Twisted" sounds like Pharrell decided to artificially inseminate Clipse's "Grindin'" with a Jackson 5 song bolstered with very...uh...not Jackson 5 lyrics ("booty substituted, guess that makes it ok") and makes it work. "Climax" is one of the best songs of the year, a spooky, mournfully sexy slow jam about a relationship past its prime, sent into the stratosphere by a vulnerable falsetto chorus and Diplo's I'm-unclogging-a-drain bass/snare/metal-fork/burbling noise of a beat. "Sins Of My Father" showcases a destructively sexy bass groove and lyrics full of verbal voodoo. "Looking 4 Myself" invites Aussie rocker Luke Steele (of Empire of the Sun) to add some Hall & Oates-ian rhythm guitar and some vocals to the most fiendishly catchy song ever written about not being sure who you are, musically. Don't worry, Ush. In this case, the journey gets stuck in my head too.
However, not every song is a horizon-searching effort to find. Second single "Scream" has cringeworthy lyrics "getting drunk off the thought of you naked" and a repetitive, throbbing house beat that even David Guetta would pass on. "Lemme See (feat. Rick Ross)" is sort of formulaic. "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" finds Usher letting himself be headlocked by the Eurodance trend, rather than twisting it into something creative as he has proven he can. Even buzzing rapper A$AP Rocky's collab on "Hot Thing" falls disappointingly flat.
But bottom line, the songs are secondary to Usher's Sinatra-esque gift to bolster them to absurd heights with charisma, honesty and sheer, God-given vocal perfection.
Key Tracks: "Climax", "Show Me (fine, classic Eurodance done in a NOT inane way)", "Looking 4 Myself (feat. Luke Steele)", "Twisted" and "I.F.U" (an absurdly sensual bass/snare jam made even better by some of the best use of woodblock and violin since "Grindin'" by Clipse and "Bust Your Windows" by Jazmine Sullivan, respectively.)
Bottom Line: In a diverse, yet cohesive effort to discover his musical style, Usher settles on, well, absolutely everything and makes one of the most scattered and enjoyable R&B albums since Justin Timberlakes "Futuresex/Lovesounds"
Adam Lambert's Trespassing was the first album by an openly gay artist to debut at number one on the Billboard charts. That fact, both triumphant and sadly indicative of the slowly waning prejudices of the past, colors all of the songs in this spectacular pop album. The duality of the Lambert's open sexuality and his deserved success help charge these songs to transcend pop into a statement, both of Lambert's belief in the power of freedom of choice and the strength of unity forged on the dancefloor.
From the raucous, Queen-recalling, stomp-clap of the title track [Trespassing] to the dark, disco-funk of "Shady" to the skyrocketing, gut-punch chorus of midtempo killer "Better Than I Know Myself", producers' fingerprints are all over these songs. Pharrell's minimal, percussive touch on "Trespassing" (think, "Grindin'" by the Clipse...but switch out the cocaine-rapping for unstoppable, rock-tenor vocals), Nile Rodgers (of disco legends Chic!) adds a disco influence to "Shady" and Dr. Luke's "Better Than I Know Myself" would not sound out of place on a Katy Perry album. But that's ignoring a couple crucial facts. First, Lambert has developed a fiendish melodic touch as a writer and contributes executive production and co-writing credits to all tracks. And second, that voice.
And that voice indeed. Because honestly, from his days on Idol to his rushed, irregularly glammy first album...his voice, literally soars over all. His tender, falsetto start to ballad "Outlaws Of Love" is spun sugar, which slowly builds into crystalline, rock-candy wails by the end. And the songs lyrics ("Everywhere we go /We're lookin' for the sun /Nowhere to grow old/We're always on the run/They say we'll rot in Hell/But I don't think we will/ They've branded us enough/Outlaws of love) bravely stakes out Lambert's place as a stalwart, un-pushy, activist as well as a true-blue pop musician. And his voice, literally and metaphorically, is stronger than ever.
Key Tracks: Cuckoo (pop confection with a funky beat-breakdown in middle and a funny double entendre about a "straight jacket"), Outlaws Of Love (killer ballad that showcases his versatile voice and wrenching lyrics), Nirvana (a Zen-calm midtempo number with gorgeous vocal harmony), Runnin' (a pounding, sinister club thumper with some low (!) notes on the verses
Bottom Line: Well-crafted, thoughtful, hellishly catchy sophomore album with diversity and danceablity to spare.
The second single from Justin Bieber's upcoming studio album "Believe" is a pop song. Although I'm sure this comes as a surprise to no one, what is shocking is that it's sounds like a pop song...from the 1950's. Right down to the downtempo piano ripples, crisp finger-snaps and heartache-filled, lovelorn chorus, this song brings back nods of "Tears On My Pillow"-esque doo-wop. The song itself is not too lyrically dense, but shows off a softer, less braggadocious side to JB, or at least a less awkward introducing-my-falsetto-and-saying-"swag"-every-third-word side. However, Justin still needs a bit more time to grow into his changed voice. It has improved even since his awkward Justin Timberlake impression on "Boyfriend" but still sounds a bit nasal frm time to time. But slight vocal woes do little to sink this well-crafted summer sailboat of a pop-song. Prepare yourself for hearing this every single day this summer on the radio.
Bottom Line : Charming, simple and classy -- despite all appearances, a catchy (if less than vocally unique) pop song for the summer. Think of it like a glass of sweet tea -- standard, but beloved summer fare.
The marriage of freedom and the internet has existed since the genesis of the Web, yet this union has not always yielded good results. Despite allowing the popularity of countless valid and innovative musical acts from Das Racist to The Weeknd, this immense network has also forced us to have to stomach countless half-baked (pun intended) Gucci Mane mixtapes and more Mac Miller leaks than any man should have to endure. But then cometh those rare acts that make us once again hail the internet as a catalyst for amazing music distributed to and created for the fans.
For example, this series of [free] EPs (freEPs?) by up and coming R&B crooner Miguel, is a well-crafted, fan-minded, diverse yet cohesive collection of music that delivers for the wonderful price of free-ninety-nine. Miguel himself is most well known for his small-time pop-radio hit "Sure Thing", a heartfelt neo-soul number with a Biggie Smalls style pitched-down chant keeping it's retro feeling, well, kinda new. That sentiment persists in this collection, the concept of borrowing ideas -- from taut, Prince-style funk ("Party Life", my personal favorite "Adorn") to a clattery, semi-sinister club groove reminiscent of Timbaland ("All...") and making them all sound fresh. Even the weakest point of Art Dealer Chic (Volume 2's slightly disrespectful "Broads") is made more than bearable by Miguel stopping the track after the first chorus to say he is leaving the songs' verses open for singers/rappers to record there own feature into the song. A fitting ideal, exemplary of a forward-thinking and caring musician who loves his fans.
But none of this would matter if the songs weren't catchy, well-sung and well-composed. And I am thrilled to say they are. From the brutally introspective "All..." to the Boyz II Men-recalling "Gravity" to the falsetto harmony drenched, sexy, slinky "Adorn" to the downright steamy "Arch N Point" (as in "arch your back and point your toes"...like, uh, a dancer...) to the staccato guitar bursts, pitch bent synths and woodblocks (?) of "Party Life"...all the songs are well-composed and genre-hoppingly well-executed. And vocally, Miguel is up with the big dogs of the soul-ar system, wielding a spry, crystal clear tenor that echoes Babyface with rare flashes of Prince (or at very least, Usher)- worthy falsetto guaranteed to make women light-headed and guys, well, impressed.
Bottom Line : This young artist has whipped up a delicious, diverse grab-bag of R&B seasoned with salty originality and zesty promise of retro-modern revolution if he continues to follow his muse.