Listens for the Week #43: Travis Scott, N.I.N., Carly Rae Jepsen, Len-Dor, Rakim, Deftones, Nirvana
This has been a week of pleasant surprises. After five long years, Travis Scott made his return as a solo artist with UTOPIA, a brilliant album that exceeded my sceptical expectations, despite the lead single “K-POP” making me twice as doubtful. Even more surprising, Carly Rae Jepsen released The Loveliest Time, an unexpected sequel to last year’s The Loneliest Time, somehow outdoing herself yet again.
My Favourite Albums This Week
Travis Scott – UTOPIA (2023) [Pop Rap & Trap]
I’ve always had mixed feelings towards Travis Scott’s music. Rodeo blew me away; its follow-up, Birds In the Trap Sing McKnight, felt colourless and bloated; ASTROWORLD showed so much promise, but didn’t reach the euphoric highs of his debut. Either stunned or bored by his music, I wasn’t quite sure how to feel going into UTOPIA, but I was pleasantly surprised by its excellence. Instead of the traditional trap soundscape Travis has embraced the past few projects, UTOPIA is a vibrant melting pot of different ideas, never settling on one sound. “HYAENA” is a fantastic opener where a wave of synths slowly rises over a chatter of brutal drums, all the while Travis offers a relentless flow, matching the chaotic energy perfectly. Other highlights include “MELTDOWN” with its determined feature from Drake, as well as the rage-influenced synth-work of “FE!N”, the emotional balladry of “MY EYES”, and the house-inspired grooves of “DELRESTO (ECHOES)”. “TELEKENESIS” is another stunning moment on the project – while Travis offers some eccentric vocal inflections, Future provides a deeply emotional performance, leading up to the grand climax of the track, where a swell of synths introduce SZA’s powerful crescendo. Only a few songs left me unsatisfied, such as “MODERN JAM”, where Teezo Touchdown meanders through his verse, causing the song’s structure to collapse. Another qualm I have with UTOPIA is the sheer number of features. While the hidden guest list is exciting on the first listen, by the fifth listen, it becomes apparent how frequently they outshine Travis himself. Often, the guests complement Travis and add power to his presence, but in cases like Beyoncé or Playboi Carti, they overpower him, and in turn weaken UTOPIA’s identity as a Travis Scott album. There are plenty of highlights and standout moments, but in future, I’d like for Travis to cut back on the guests and allow his own talent to take precedence.
Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral (1994) [Industrial Rock]
A classic album I didn’t discover until recently, The Downward Spiral is the quintessential album in industrial rock. Full of growling riffs, thundering synth passages, and dusty drum-work, the album’s soundscape is as careworn and desolate as Trent Reznor’s subject matter. Sonically, it feels like a spiral, with the thickening chaos of the album’s sound harmonising with the increasing darkness of its lyrical content. Reznor switches back and forth from rabid yelling to passages of whispered vocals, either roaring above the instrumental or performing so quietly his voice is smothered in guitar. The dark, menacing layers of instrumentation create a feeling of dread too vivid for words to properly explain. Contrasting rumbling guitars with a jab of sharp synths, the band perfectly balance sounds new and old, but it’s Reznor’s emotionally drained performance that makes The Downward Spiral whole.
Something I Love
1. Carly Rae Jepsen – The Loveliest Time (2023) [Dance-Pop]
The exciting follow-up to 2022’s The Loneliest Time, Carly somehow managed to outdo her last project, once again crafting one of the best pop albums of the year. Like its predecessor, on The Loveliest Time, Carly experiments with a number of different styles, turning the album into a collection of vibrant ideas with a foundation of pop. My favourite song on the record, “Psychedelic Switch”, takes on a straightforward dance-pop sound, where a groovy guitar riff floats over an expanse of synths and bass, creating a sound as dense and funky as a Daft Punk track. The intro, “Anything to Be With You”, adapts a more acoustic style, with prominent drums that overpower sublayers of guitar, giving Carly’s repetitive vocals prominence as they echo over the thunder of percussion. “So Right” sounds like a song straight from the classic Emotion, where Carly’s soothing chorus adds to the lush, danceable atmosphere of the track. From its eclectic soundscape to the hypnotic instrumentation to Jepsen’s lovestruck vocals, The Loveliest Time has all the ingredients of an amazing dance-pop record, and is a clear contender for album of the year.
2. Len-Dor & Rhook Beats – A Few Pages from the Dark Ages (2023) [Underground Hip Hop]
Four months after The Truth They Deny, Toronto MC Len-Dor is back with another project, with instrumentals handled by producer Rhook Beats. The album covers themes of social inequality and injustice, but also of self-reflection and change, with Len-Dor showing off his strength as a lyricist by dipping one foot into political hip hop and the other into introspective rap. His ferocious presence gives every verse a powerful impact, gliding over the slick range of beats provided by Rhook. “We Living” is a dramatic fusion of hardcore and jazz rap, with sombre horns weaving in between Akeel’s profound words. “Mesmerize” may have my favourite instrumental on the album, where Rhook mixes together horn samples with a rippling synth-line soaked in bass, making for a sound as laidback as a D’Angelo track but with the light punch of a J Dilla beat. A few guests pop up here and there, with my favourite appearances being Donnie Quest and 8ch2Owens on “What I See”, both of whom bring a savage energy to match Len-Dor’s swaggering delivery. Overall, A Few Pages from the Dark Ages is a brilliantly produced album, and Len-Dor’s sharpest effort yet.
My Favourite Songs This Week
1. Eric B. & Rakim – “Follow the Leader” (1988) [East Coast Hip Hop]
Often overshadowed by its more influential predecessor Paid In Full, there’s an argument to be made that Follow the Leader is the better Rakim album, and its title track is proof enough. Rakim flows like it’s his last ever verse, rarely taking a pause to breathe as he massacres the sizzling bassline with some of the most braggadocious lines of his career, letting you know exactly why he calls himself the leader of rap music.
2. Deftones – “MX” (1997) [Nu Metal]
One of the last tracks on Around the Fur, “MX” is a bizarre cut where Chino’s moody, droning vocals contrast the whispered questions of a woman in the background, creating a strange back and forth between his hedonistic stanzas and her sexually playful questions. All occurring over a roaring backdrop of pulsing guitar and battering drums, all the elements culminate into a surreal but equally entertaining highlight of the nu metal classic.
3. Nirvana – “Serve the Servants” (1993) [Grunge]
The intro to the classic In Utero, this is one of my all-time favourite Nirvana songs where Cobain dives into his relationship with his father, or lack thereof. Emotionlessly narrating his apathy towards his father and his contempt towards the media, Kurt’s anguished vocals are as raw as ever, floating over a perfectly gritty instrumental.