Listens for the Week #24
Every week, I offer three recommendations: something new, something classic, and something I love. This week, I’ve been far too busy with university to listen to much music, but every now and then I’ve spun a record or checked out a new album on my breaks between essay-writing sessions. Not everything I’ve heard has been great, but with my first wave of assessments finally over, I’ll be catching up on the gems I’ve missed for the rest of the month.
Gorillaz – Cracker Island (2023) [Electropop]
Usually I’d use this section to recommend a brand new album I’ve fallen in love with, but since Cracker Island is the only new record I checked out this week, I suppose I have no choice but to talk about it. I have been a Gorillaz fan my entire life. I grew up on their music, playing the “Clint Eastwood” and “Tomorrow Comes Today” videos on loop before I was even in nursery. I rediscovered them years later when I got my first phone – a device so flimsy it couldn’t even install Spotify, so all I had to listen to was a file for Plastic Beach which was already downloaded when I got it. I have so many fond memories attached to Gorillaz, from the exciting (albeit messy) comeback that was Humanz to the thrill of having a new song each month through the Song Machine series during lockdown. The reason I’ve gone on so long about my history with Gorillaz is because, with Cracker Island, I felt nothing at all. I didn’t get that sting of nostalgic excitement from the news of a new album, nor did I get much enjoyment out of the singles. For the first time, I didn’t care that the band were releasing music. Despite my lack of anticipation, I felt obligated to check it out. Seeing as I had no expectations, I was not disappointed, but I was somewhat surprised by the lack of creativity on display. Cracker Island is the blandest, most uninteresting Gorillaz album to date. The whole project has this buoyant electropop soundscape, with the same fast-paced percussion and chirping synths throughout, but they do nothing interesting with the sound. The beats feel so simple – the majority of tracks melt together into a mess of unremarkable sound. The hooks are basic, the lyrics are passable, and Damon’s vocals don’t leave much of an impression. While Humanz had its outright terrible moments, it still had brilliant highlights, but Cracker Island has neither. This album resides in that dreadful limbo between good and bad – not awful enough to turn it off, but not interesting enough to hold your attention for a full song. Even the features feel like afterthoughts. Beck and Stevie Nicks can’t save their respective tracks when the melodies are so derivative and the production feels so synthetic. Bootie Brown and Tame Impala on “New Gold” play their parts well, but there’s still a lot to be desired when the production, once again, sounds like the work of a computer simulating what electropop should sound like. “Cracker Island” is the strongest song by far, kicking off the album on a high with these punching drums and catchy backing vocals from Thundercat. However, with the title track being the first song on the album, the project feels so much worse for the rest of its runtime, never reaching the height of its opener again. Cracker Island is, unfortunately, yet another disappointment from Gorillaz, and leaves me even less interested in where the band goes from here.
Kool G Rap – 4,5,6 (1995) [East Coast Hip Hop & Boom Bap]
A mountain of classic hip hop records dropped in ’95, and 4,5,6 is one I wish I had discovered earlier. Kool G Rap is a monster on the mic. He has a dominating presence that makes every verse sound like his best. The production is vintage boom bap, with the prominent bass on “Ghetto Knows” and the ominous piano loop on “4,5,6” making for some of my favourite moments. He’s a brilliant lyricist but his delivery is the main appeal, spitting each bar with so much aggression. The album isn’t perfect like many ’95 classics, but my issues with the record are minute. For example, the sparkling synths and spacey instrumentation of “Fast Life” lack a certain punch, but the Nas feature more than makes up for it. Overall, the record is filled with unforgettable verses, sharp boom bap production, and some of the finest hip hop songs to come out of the ‘90s.
Something I Love
Blank Thought – My Life Flashed Before Me [Underground Hip Hop & Ambient Hip Hop]
Producer Blank Thought’s newest album is one of his most atmospheric yet, with some tracks seeing a variety of guests rap over these frigid stretches of ambience without a drum to be heard. “At Your Door (Life As It Is)” is among his best beats to date, with this ominous synth melody giving the track such a sinister tone as Emilio Myles and Bloodmoney Perez offer these swaggering verses. “A Dark World” is another obvious highlight. The song starts quiet, with no more than a distant droning noise rising and falling in the silence of its opening. Then, as the track progresses, the bass stutters into earshot, and when the drums join in, the throbbing bassline comes into full form and floods the listener’s ears. The dichotomy between the more ambient and abrasive moments makes for an engaging contrast, keeping the album fresh throughout. The range of features provide some much-needed variety and stop the more uneventful beats from becoming monotonous. I prefer the darker moments on the project to the ambient passages, with “Definition” and “Heart of Glass” being among my favourite songs. I can appreciate the dense atmospheres Blank creates on the calmer tracks, but in terms of replay value, I find myself revisiting the more in-your-face songs far more. My Life Flashed Before Me is yet another captivating release from the producer, and I look forward to see where his sound goes next.