Curated for each issue of Content by Universal Grammar, Album Picks are highlights of recent music releases by some of Universal Grammar’s favorite artists. These picks read less like reviews and more like contextual introductions to each artist and their work: they aim to explore the cultural impact of the release itself in 300 words or less.
Release date: May 18, 2017
My Danish dude is back. Full Crate is one of the finest producers of soul music not on American soil. His ability to cross genres and still apply a soulful touch is proving an asset in his latest release, the Vogue EP, a modern, post-Drake, global club opus.
My introduction to Full Crate was with vocalist Mar back in 2010. The Danish duo make music together as Full Crate x Mar, their Dilla-soul-Ummah style provided by Full Crate’s production and Mar’s timeless R&B crooning. I was an instant fan. Unbeknownst to me was Full Crate’s DJ prowess and his catalogue of remixes showcasing his versatility in production. Upon discovering his SoundCloud offering, I was introduced to his On Her Own EP, released on the London imprint Get Twisted, which revealed a deeper house sound, though still injected with the warm, soulful strain he stands for.
In his latest release, he doesn’t disappoint. Highlighted by the opening single “Vogue,” featuring “gold on everything” Trinidad James on vocals, the album also addresses trap, future bass, house, UK garage, R&B, Afro, and Latin vibes throughout. The Dutchman’s vibes, you can truly feel, come from his globetrotting as a DJ, with these sonic elements beautifully and seamlessly threaded from track to track and within tracks. The Vogue EP is the early soundtrack blueprint to my summer of 2017, with a nod to global soul.
Whatever Makes U Happy
(White Room Records)
Release date: April 28, 2017
JMSN is a songwriter who doesn’t cave from wanting to share his heart and soul with the world. His newest album, Whatever Makes U Happy, continues to wax melodious upon the issues of the spirit, crafting elements of the blues and neo-soul into eight tracks of hazy, hip-swaying contemplation.
The opening song “Drinkin’” is an expressive confessional on the sorrows of a life lived in libations and love, while “Always Somethin’ ” dwells on the pains of receiving more wrongs in life than rights. “Love Ain’t Enough” depicts a man in turmoil, and “Slide” sees him pulling away from familiarity to find his way again. “Where Do U Go” feels like a ’70s noir film with its melodic strings and haunting guitar. Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” comes to mind. “Slowly,” “Angel,” and “Patiently” cap the album with a tenderness that comes from finding one’s self, again, out of the mire.
Longtime fans of JMSN will find the right notes being played here, while new listeners will enjoy the throwback sensibilities, like a jam session in the deepest corner of a broken heart.
(Top Dawg Entertainment)
Release date: June 9, 2017
Ctrl is SZA’s debut studio album, released as the highly anticipated follow-up to Z, her 2014 EP. The only female artist signed to TDE, the New Jersey native diversifies the label by delivering a narrative proper to her audience, the millennial woman.
While production on the album is independently solid and features many of the same producers as on Rihanna’s 2015 Anti album (such as Travis Scott and Scum), SZA’s conceptual songwriting is what sets her apart from her contemporaries and truly steals the limelight.
This is not a pop album by any means. The opening track, “Supermodel,” sets a weighty precedence for the emotional instability of the entire album, provoking an immediate visceral response with lyrics like “Let me tell you a secret / I been secretly banging your homeboy.” The lyrical context of each song delicately balances between sexual and somber, sensual and neurotic, frank and emotionally complex. There is a rawness and a quality of depth to SZA’s writing that is unmatched in today’s R&B.
The album begins and ends with recordings of SZA’s mother, weaving a narrative of guiding light to love and life, further hinting at SZA’s intrinsic need to feel something deeper, despite recurring themes of bitterness towards exes, self-esteem vs. the female ideal, and being a “side-chick.”
Release date: April 14, 2017
Was it a coincidence that Playboi Carti’s widely anticipated debut mixtape/album was released the same day as Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN? Considering how both artists contrast lyrically and career-wise, perhaps.
Playboi Carti’s self-titled album’s strengths lie in creating deeply moody environments via lo-fi beats, hyper-distorted synth noises, and soothing ambient loops. The album’s opener, “Location,” created by Brooklyn-based producer Harry Fraud, is cinematic and ethereal, with notes of jazz and “vaporwave.” Utilizing Window’s 98 and retro Playstation chimes, the song is oddly nostalgic and Carti’s raps seem to drift through comfortably and accordingly.
A majority of the mixtape was produced and handled by up-and-coming producer Pierre Bourne, whose delicate sound could be comparable to the likes of Clams Casino. Bourne’s “Magnolia” is infectious with an emphasis on repetitive, fluttery flutes paired with a hard-hitting bass. With album features such as Lil Uzi Vert and Carti’s mentor A$AP Rocky, one can anticipate an album that’s nearly all adlibs. Mindless, effortless bars, but catchy and eclectic nonetheless. Many rap connoisseurs, or anyone with a mild inkling for music, might easily write this album off as lazy, prodigally one-sided—the absolute epitome of “mumble rap.” However, like many works of art, this one must be accepted and appreciated for what it is. Playboi Carti’s debut album is like a BLT or a plate of dirty rice: it may not be the finest gastronomic experience, but if one can appreciate it for what it is, it’s actually very enjoyable, somewhat complex in flavor, and digestible.