Music Reviews

Album: The Blueprint 3

Artist: Jay-Z

Grade: II.1

Alarm bells ring when any artist releases an album entitled The Blueprint.

It’s hubristic for a musician to set their music on a pedestal above others. But hubris is what hip-hop is all about, that and being the best, and that’s something that Jay-Z has held a solid claim to be for nearly a decade. After all, The Blueprint 3 is part of a series, the third in line after 2001’s triple-platinum-selling The Blueprint and its 2002 follow-up. Since then, Jay-Z has come in and out of retirement, headlined at Glastonbury and played at the inauguration concert of President Obama. It’s fair to say that if anyone can claim to know what the blueprint for a hip-hop album is, it’s Shawn Carter.

It’s a pity then that this album is so unsatisfying. With guests ranging from Rihanna to Luke Steele of electro-pop duo Empires of the Sun, Jay-Z has no material barriers to making whatever music he wants. However, fifteen years on from his debut, it’s not clear that he knows what he’s trying to say. Take the ham-fisted “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)” for example. The song sets its sights on the hip-hop zeitgeist, but with a staid guitar line and none of Jay-Z’s truly cutting lyrics, it comes off as calculated, and, let’s face it pop fans, not half the tune that some of T-Pain and Kanye West’s singles are.

Oh yes, Kanye West. A man whose last album consisted entirely of auto-tuned vocals but who features on The Blueprint 3, one whole song after “D.O.A.” Huh. “Run This Town”, the track with West and Rihanna, is actually quite good. So is much of the album. But the problem, as the man himself calls it on the opening track, is thus: “I don’t run rap no more, I run the map.” Jay-Z’s more important culturally now than he is musically relevant. The question is whether he’s happy to be resting on his laurels.

Karl McDonald

Album: Humbug

Artist: Arctic Monkeys

Grade: II.2

One of the problems with being a realistic, kitchen sink-style songwriter is that, if you become successful, you’re going to end up removed from the people and places you made your name describing. This phenomenon scuppered Mike Skinner’s career, as each successive Streets album moved further away from the housing estate stories of his early work. Morrissey did a little better, taking up character-based songs where personal tales of Mancunian teen woe once stood. For Alex “you’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham” Turner (now resident in New York), there doesn’t seem to be a problem yet.

The vignettes of the everyday are fading, but you can’t suppress imagination. From the psychedelic concept jumble of “Potion Approaching” to the hilariously heavy-handed sexual innuendo of “My Propeller“ (“Coax me out my love and have a spin of my propeller”), words are playthings for Turner. Three albums in, he’s earned a rightful place for himself in the pantheon of great British raised eyebrow lyricists.

Does that make Humbug a good album? Sort of. There’s a sense of unease about the music that’s sometimes disconcerting in a good way, but it gets tiring as the record wears on. Josh Homme, chief Queen of the Stone Age, co-produced the album, and though the thumping drums and driving guitars are definitely indigenous to Arctic Monkeys, there’s a sense that there’d be a more elegant album here if the desert rock knob wasn’t turned up so high.

When it works, it can be as immediate as anything the Arctic Monkeys have done before, but overall Humbug is a little too difficult to like. It feels like a stopgap, a signifier of their development as a band, but nothing special on its own.

Karl McDonald

Album: xx

Artist: The xx

Grade: III

Like last year’s darlings Glasvegas, the xx are a couple of black-clad and bequiffed boys and girls whose mission is one of amalgamation – flicking some extra-generic sparks at poor old indie rock to see what lights. But while Glasvegas stuck howling guitars over a doo-wop beat, west Londoners the xx have a passion for contemporary R&B as much as they do The Kills. Other similarities abound, from urban themes to a shared weakness for layered soundscapes – like the Scots’ debut, xx is awash with guitar and synth drones.

Early singles “Basic Space” and “Crystallised” had me interested. There is an endearing naïveté on display, a sprightly two fingers to the more intellectual approach taken by west London contemporaries Burial and Four Tet with regard to sound layering and production. Coming from such a young band, this is not so surprising. The dubby drums and slurred, R&B-inflected vocals sound, at times, spine-tinglingly fresh. It is of such stuff that NME dreams are made. “Crystallised” is the most effective example of their sound the band’s best song. Singers Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim managed to worldly-wise whilst demonstrating a vulnerability that is surprisingly touching.

Unfortunately, the appeal of “Crystallised” is frustratingly unique when compared with the rest of xx, which is narrow musically and lyrically without much ambition. Hammy metaphors of drowning and suffocation abound. The former vulnerability is replaced by an unconvincing jadedness, dull rehashes of the same broken relationship/repressive city life parallel. Youth may well not be on the side of the xx – a little maturity could inject them with those vital ingredients that are sadly absent from this debut.

Darragh McCabe

Album: Get Colour

Artist: HEALTH

Grade: I

It’s striking that a band making what is essentially loud, experimental music would decide to name their album Get Color. Colour is what you associate with pop music – catchy and accessible to everybody. HEALTH tick none of those boxes. They’re danceable, yes, but it’s the kind of post-apocalyptic dancing you do to music that uses peals of feedback as its melodic hook. So why Get Color? Why not Get Black? Get Dark? Darkness seems, on the surface, like HEALTH’s forte. Built over an intense drum beat, “Nice Girls” approximates a particularly dead-eyed version of Liars, and the robotic sound of “Death+” is as ear numbing as industrial noise can get.

The lyrics are never audible, But that’s part of the charm. Because the songs aren’t so much narratively about things as they are complete auditory experiences, as pretentious as that sounds. You can describe something to someone with as many words as can muster and they’ll still translate it back into a picture in their heads. It’s better to show them. That’s what HEALTH do. They take things like aggression, fear and joy and turn them into slabs of danceable noise.

The key is “Die Slow”, their best and most accessible song yet. Driven along by a continent-sized bassline and BJ Miller dominating his drum-kit, even the most close-minded club attendee is going to be sucked magnetically to the middle of the dancefloor when this one comes on.

That’s what Get Color means, then. Get Color in the sense of hewing pop music from pure noise, but also Get Color in the sense of bringing a whole new innovative palette into play. You won’t hear many albums as simultaneously abrasive and immediately appealing as this, so my advice is to put it on in the dark, as loud as it deserves, and get a little colour yourself.

Karl McDonald