Listens for the Week #34: Formerly Known As, Beyoncé, Spellling
Every week, I offer three recommendations: something new, something classic, and something I love. Recently, I’ve been getting myself ready for a Beyoncé concert by going back through her glamorous discography of pop and R&B, and since this past Friday was quite underwhelming for new releases, that is almost all I’ve been listening to.
Formerly Known As – On Death’s Door (2023) [Abstract Hip Hop]
Despite this week being lacklustre in terms of new releases, one project did catch my eye, and that was On Death’s Door. This is the first full-length collaboration between hip hop producers Blank Thought and Mashoni Beats, coming together to form the duo, Formerly Known As. The album works in a pattern, with Mashoni producing the odd-numbered tracks and Blank producing the even-numbered. While each producer has their own distinct sound, on this project, their styles blend into this dark fusion of abstract griminess and haunting ambience. A whole cast of underground rappers are involved, each bringing their own ferocious flavour to the tracklist that keeps the record engaging throughout. Rapper Twogeebs is a standout on the track “descending”, flowing with his signature bravado over a dirty clamour of drums and bass. “all there is too it” is another eerie highlight where Mashoni crafts an unforgettably haunting soundscape. Sinister piano notes ebb and flow out of earshot while the grumbling bass pulses, all while rappers MXSA and Sincerely Yourz dominate the foreboding sound. Capturing a sense of terror and atmosphere I haven’t heard in any rap album this year, On Death’s Door is a must listen for any rap fan. Exclusive to Bandcamp, it is well worth the money.
Beyoncé – Lemonade (2016) [Contemporary R&B]
Her most powerful, emotional, and varied work, Lemonade is a modern masterpiece. Dissecting her own turmoil after being betrayed by her partner, the album explores so many avenues of love and hate, and the soundscape is accordingly diverse. The album opens with the quiet piano ballad “Pray You Catch Me”, setting the thematic foundations for the record as Beyoncé sings about her heartache and hope that Jay-Z will take notice of how he has damaged her and their life together. “Hold Up” is a playful change of pace, with the resentful subject matter of the previous song persisting over a chirping, upbeat instrumental. This dichotomy of the sound and lyrics acts as a metaphor for Beyoncé’s need to stay composed despite her misery. Each song has its own unique flourish, from the country-inspired “Daddy Lessons” to the explosive rock sound of “Don’t Hurt Yourself”. The album reaches its peak on the penultimate track, “All Night”, a lush, uplifting ballad that ties up the thematic strings of the album with the message that her love can persevere through the greatest pain. Lemonade is not my favourite Beyoncé album, but with its cohesive sense of writing and exciting diversity of styles, there is no denying that it is one of the finest records of the past decade.
Something I Love
Spellling – The Turning Wheel (2021) [Art Pop]
One of my favourite albums this decade is The Turning Wheel, an enchanting pop album with some of the most unique vocals and most mesmerising production I’ve heard in the genre. Spellling herself is a magical vocalist whose high-pitched vocals hook me on every word, giving each track a sense of surrealness with her abstract lyrics and quivering high-notes. The instrumentation is gorgeous from the outset, with the wave of intersecting horns and strings on the opener “Little Deer” starting off the record in the most triumphant fashion possible. This level of detail and power persists throughout The Turning Wheel. My favourite song is the entrancing “Boys at School” – the track opens with a burst of organs before making way for Spellling’s balladry over a quiet piano melody. Then, as the song builds, everything ceases to introduce this spiralling synth passage, looping over and over with layers of percussion and electric guitar winding around the hypnotic noise like a musical helix. These densely detailed moments are what make The Turning Wheel one of my favourite albums in pop history.