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Beyoncé & Jay-Z: OTR II review – heart-stopping scenes from a marriage

Review: Camila Cabello Eschews Bangers on Personal, Low-Key Solo Album

Review: Maroon 5 Still Deftly Navigating the Pop Moment on New LPs

Album Review: Justin Timberlake – Man of the Woods

Single Review: Camila Cabello – Havana / OMG

Jay-Z and BeyoncéBeyoncé & Jay-Z: OTR II review – heart-stopping scenes from a marriage

As self-mythologising couples go, not many come close to Beyoncé and Jay-Z. The pair’s first collaboration, ’03 Bonnie and Clyde, was a tale of devotional love accompanied by a video featuring Beyoncé as the ride-or-die moll to her rumoured boyfriend’s gangster. It’s a story they’ve stuck to over the years – this is their second On the Run tour, and the theme remains intact: the film that punctuates this first night show introduces “the gangster and the queen” and keeps returning to an image of a hotel room carpeted with cash. Yet the intervening decade and a half – and an infamous few seconds of CCTV footage from an elevator – has complicated what was once a straightforward way to bolster each other’s brands. Far from living in codependent bliss, theirs is a relationship now defined in the public eye by betrayal and rage. As the pair detailed on their respective recent albums – Lemonade and 4:44 – Jay-Z was unfaithful, almost letting, as the guilty party put it, “the baddest girl in the world get away”.

So the narrative has been recalibrated: the pair begin proceedings by hammering home the deathless nature of their love rather than its perfection. On a colossal screen, footage and slogans reinforce this idea of resilience, taking in a staged argument between the pair and never before seen pictures of their baby twins. The effect feels remarkably intimate for a stadium show, but also scrupulously posed – a tone that can feel disorientating as Beyoncé switches between songs about crazed lust and ballads about romantic betrayal (most starkly on 2006’s newly relevant Resentment).

But anyone hoping for this psychodrama in cartoonish panto format would have been sorely disappointed. The pair gaze at each other moonishly from the get-go: a vision of matrimonial love that, considering they are explicitly cashing in on their interpersonal trauma, can come off as slightly one-dimensional.

Which is not to say the show that services this message isn’t staggeringly impressive. The Beyoncé-mania that has gripped pop culture in recent years isn’t just poptimism gone mad: this is a woman who matches increasingly sophisticated and trailblazing material with once-in-a-generation onstage charisma. Her swagger is such that it can feel like the power dynamic between the two performers has been upended – once the sidekick, nowadays she’s the one taking her rapper husband for a ride as he hitches his wagon to her staggering cultural capital.

At first, this shift is writ large: Jay-Z initially seems as though he’s keeping the stage warm for Beyoncé while she gets her breath back. By the end though, he’s not been outshone – mainly because of his arsenal of glorious modern classics (99 Problems, Niggas In Paris, Big Pimpin’) and perhaps partly because of his excessive costume changes, which put Beyoncé’s meagre half-dozen sequined leotards in the shade.

Where Jay-Z does his hits justice, Beyoncé provides both the little treats – mouthing along to Jay’s raps; showcasing a peerless range of screwfaces; mercilessly barking “sing it” to her apparently lax fanbase – and a couple of heartstopping one-offs. She’s chameleonic, segueing from an imperious rendition of Lemonade’s Led Zeppelin-sampling Jack White collaboration Don’t Hurt Yourself to operatic singing, flanked by her dancers in a renaissance tableaux. During Sorry, she pauses midway through to turn the lyric “suck on my balls” into a faintly chilling haka-style refrain (hilariously, the song is followed by Jay-Z’s deeply-ironic-in-the-circumstances 99 Problems).

While Beyoncé’s recent shows have been characterised by identity and politics – her Coachella performance celebrated black college culture; her Superbowl show paid tribute to the Black Panthers – that’s not the MO here. But the slivers of material in that department are worth waiting for. Excerpts from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists speech gets pride of place on the massive screen; Sorry is punctuated by Beyoncé asking women in the audience whether they’ve “had enough”, in highly charged fashion. Jay-Z takes the mantle when it comes to race, airing the video for 4:44’s The Story of OJ after a female dancer twists and turns to Nina Simone’s Four Women.
The pair bow out with their evergreen 2003 hit Crazy In Love, a rendition of Jay Z’s Young Forever, and a film that sees them reconvene at the altar. It is hard to digest this smooth romantic arc when everyone knows how fraught their relationship has been – but that feeling is offset by the sheer majesty of their creative partnership, which surely only death could do part.

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Camila CabelloReview: Camila Cabello Eschews Bangers on Personal, Low-Key Solo Album

Only 20, Camila Cabello is already a seasoned veteran of the pop-star wars. Born in Havana, raised in Miami, she blew up with the girl group Fifth Harmony, who formed on The X Factor before scoring superb hits like "Reflection" and "Work From Home." Although Cabello was the most high-profile member of Fifth Harmony, this group wasn't built to last, and Cabello broke away in one of the messiest, most shade-intensive pop splits of recent years. This was not exactly a love-and-kisses farewell: When Fifth Harmony performed at the VMAs last fall, they took the stage with an anonymous fifth member, then abruptly launched her offstage before they removed their hoods to sing "Angel."

Cabello's long-awaited solo debut is a personal statement, low-key and mellow even when it's infused with the rhythms of her Cuban-Mexican heritage. Her massive 2017 radio smash "Havana" is the centerpiece, as she rides a steamy piano groove with Young Thug. Camila is sleek pop that gets straight to the point, just 10 songs around the three-minute mark, eschewing celebrity guests or big-name producers. Given the hit collabos she's done with stars like Pitbull ("Hey Ma"), Shawn Mendes ("I Know What You Did Last Summer") and Machine Gun Kelly ("Bad Things"), it's a surprise is that Camila is so stripped down, always focusing on her voice. She leaves out some of the songs she's already dropped, like the brooding "I Have Questions" or "Crying in the Club." She also scrapped the awesomely melodramatic original title she announced: The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving.

Cabello doesn't go for club bangers here – "Havana" is the nearest Camila comes to a dance track, yet even that song is a bittersweet reverie of diaspora romance. She gets intimate in the reggaeton lilt of "She Loves Control" or the light tropical steel-drum breeze of "Inside Out," where she swerves between English and Spanish. Although she told Rolling Stone she aims for "a good balance of the emo and the happy," this girl definitely puts more of her heart into the emo. Cabello has a real flair for melancholy piano break-up ballads, as in "Something's Gotta Give" ("your November rain could set the night on fire") or "Consequences," where she ponders the high price of love: "Dirty tissues, trust issues." She also goes for the Ed Sheeran-style acoustic-guitar lament "All These Years" and the sultry "Into It," where she announces, "I'm not a psychic but I see myself all over you."

Cabello really hits her stride in "Never Be the Same," which sounds like Brian Eno's alien-prog masterwork Another Green World souped up into sputtering glitz-pop, with producer Frank Dukes (fresh from his work on Lorde's Melodrama and Drake's More Life). Cabello whispers about how love messes with the chemicals in her brain, over those ominously droning synths. It's Camila Cabello at her best – even at her most tormented, she sounds totally confident and totally herself.

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Maroon 5Review: Maroon 5 Still Deftly Navigating the Pop Moment on New LP

On the sixth M5 LP, Adam Levine nuances a role he plays well: the Top 40 old-soul navigating whatever the pop-music moment throws his way. He works well alongside young talent, trading playful "hey now, baby"s with SZA over crisp brunch funk on "What Lovers Do" and ascending into falsetto sunshine with Julia Michaels on "Help Me Out." Kendrick Lamar provides a high point simply by showing up for "Don't Wanna Know." Whether skating over house beats on "Plastic Rose" or cruising through a ballad like "Denim Jacket," Levine proves himself a pliant star of Jacksonian ease and Stingly self-assurance.

After making their introduction with the poignant guitar-centric Songs About Jane in 2002, Maroon 5 went on to craft hit after hit across the following four albums, all of which have been No. 1 or No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart. While some from-the-beginning fans have longed for a Songs About Jane Pt. 2, the pop-rock band instead evolved their sound, combining each member’s impressive musicianship with groovy experimentation – and on the group’s sixth LP, Red Pill Blues, the result may be their most polished yet.

The 15-song record presents the most electronic production the band has seen to date. They’ve found a way to harness that in classic Maroon 5 fashion, though, supplementing the synthy bass lines with irresistible beats and smooth vocals. This was immediately evident from the album’s lead single, the SZA-featuring “What Lovers Do,” which provides a perfect segue to the rest of the record with buoyant brightness and a bouncy hook.

Starting out the album with a multi-layered rhythm reminiscent of a Weeknd track on “Best 4 U,” Red Pill Blues takes fans on a rollercoaster ride of melodies and feelings from start to finish. And while there are heavier thumps behind the instruments on songs such as “Wait” and “Lips On You,” the amped-up production doesn’t take away from the artistry. More over, there’s still plenty of acoustic influence behind the beats, especially apparent in tracks like “Bet My Heart” and “Girls Like You,” and even a 7-minute jam session at the end of "Closure" -- a refreshing new addition to the band's catalog.

One of the other standout differences on Maroon 5’s latest LP is the amount of team-ups: Collaborations account for 6 of the 15 tracks, far more than any other record in their discography. But rather than taking away from their own talents, the variety of the featured artists – from Julia Michaels (“Help Me Out”) to Kendrick Lamar (“Don’t Wanna Know”) – further demonstrates their versatility and sprinkles unique flavors on the album with tracks like the wavy LunchMoney Lewis-assisted “Who I Am” and whispery croon “Whiskey” with A$AP Rocky.

Arguably the track most reminiscent of Maroon 5's first album is "Denim Jacket," essentially an electronic version of a ballad, as Levine sings of a lost love with hopeful regret. Another breakup sentiment is portrayed in the form of a snappier electro beat in "Plastic Rose," one that's a little bitterer in its message. It's this lyrical and musical contrast that shows Maroon 5's expertise, a reminder that no matter the change in sound, they can still produce profound sounds. And when it comes to the lyrical content, Maroon 5 has remained prolific in their various portrayals of relationship talk, whether it’s through metaphors (“All you gave me was a plastic rose”) or punchy opening lines ("Are we taking time or a time out?/ I can't take the in between").

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Justin TimberlakeAlbum Review: Justin Timberlake – Man of the Woods

Justin Timberlake simply wants too much on Man of the Woods.

Global pop star Justin Timberlake is currently going through a period in his career in which his authority is being questioned. With only four albums in about fifteen years (before last week), Timberlake was always perfectly efficient and never really failed to get the hits, but his latest campaign supporting his fifth album Man of the Woods has not been an easy ride. First singles ‘Filthy’ and ‘Supplies’ received mixed reviews from critics and fans and his Super Bowl Halftime Performance from last weekend was widely criticized for being too safe and a tad boring. So far, the reactions to the record itself haven’t been exactly what Timberlake and his team were probably hoping for. So where is it all going wrong?

Timberlake announced the album with a promotional video in which he spoke about going back to his roots and how the record is an ode to his family. Understandably, some confusion arose when the two first singles were mainly futuristic bops. After hearing the full record multiple times, it is clear what Timberlake and the Neptunes tried to create here, but it did not all work. Timberlake did not want to let go of his brand of futuristic pop, soul and contemporary R&B completely and it is a hell of a job to combine this with country and Americana sounds. Man of the Woods constantly evokes the reaction: “I see what you tried to do there, but it didn’t quite work.”

When listening to Man of the Woods I can’t help but feel that Timberlake is desperately trying to underline what the album means, especially in terms of lyrics. Tracks like ‘Living off the Land’ and ‘Flannel’ feel contrived and try-hard, because of the words in which the themes of the record are thrown at us with a complete lack of subtlety. This however does not mean that all of Timberlake’s country aspirations are going nowhere. Third single ‘Say Something’, assisted by Chris Stapleton, is easily one of the best songs on the album with an undeniable radio chorus. Together with the gospel inspired title track, it is one of the few instances in which the worlds of contemporary R&B and country and Americana actually successfully come together. The harmonica on the otherwise hit worthy ‘Midnight Summer Jam’ feels out of place however and even the personal topics of last two tracks ‘The Hard Stuff’ and ‘Young Man’ (written for his son) come across as slightly cheesy and lack the emotional power one would expect in songs like these.

At the same time Timberlake and his team did mage to create a handful of tracks that sound natural and effortless. ‘Higher Higher’ is the highlight starting out with an acoustic guitar, building into a breezy, laidback instrumentation, serving hook after hook. This is a more than worthy addition to the highs of Justin’s discography. To a lesser extent, the same goes for the groovy and funky ‘Montana’ and the infectious ‘Breeze off the Pond’. These more straightforward songs focus on one main idea and soundscape and the execution is impeccable, without any unnecessary added outros or interludes. If only Justin Timberlake would have followed the same pattern for the whole record. There is nothing wrong with ambition, experimenting and throwing together completely different styles, as long as it all comes together in a cohesive and most of all believable body of work. Unfortunately that is not what Man of the Woods is.

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HavanaSingle Review: Camila Cabello – Havana / OMG

Camila Cabello launches two singles at once

After a whole lot of drama with her former band mates, Fifth Harmony’s Camila Cabello decided to go solo last year. After collaborations with Shawn Mendes and Machine Gun Kelly she released her solo debut ‘Crying In The Club’, co-written by Sia, earlier this year, followed by the ballad ‘I Have Questions’ as a promo single. Cabello and her team gave ‘Crying In The Club’ some time to make an impact on the worldwide charts which resulted in a spot in the top 50 in the US and a 12th position in the UK. As the September release date of her debut album is coming closer, she is now moving on with the release of the double summer promo release ‘OMG’ and ‘Havana’.

On her new tracks Camila gets some help from contemporary rappers. ‘Havana’ features Young Thug while Quavo (who is basically on every pop star release these days) raps on ‘OMG’. ‘OMG’, co-written by Charli XCX and produced by Stargate, explores Camila’s more urban side, but not in the most original way. The lyrics are quite predictable while the production isn’t anything too special either. The hook leaves your head easily so the chances of this doing better charts wise than ‘Crying In The Club’ are slim, but with ‘Havana’ Cabello does have a potential late summer hit. The rhythm is catchy, the vibe seductive and this type of track works wonders for her type of voice. The light summery production by Frank Dukes is flawless and although the rap by Young Thug does not do the flow justice, it is not as uneventful as Quavo’s work on ‘OMG’. As a fun little something to keep her fans content during summer, this double release works and ‘Havana’ is enough to keep us interested in the upcoming album.

Update: As I correctly predicted (for once in my life!), ‘Havana’ is turning into that late summer hit it so deserves to be! It is already top 5 in the UK charts and still rising in the Billboard Hot 100 as well. A Bit of Pop Music is not the only big fan, as even Justin Bieber shared the track with his over 90 million Instagram followers. Might have something to do with that outstanding performance she did at Jimmy Fallon!

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Unwilling to be disheartened by the performance of her debut, her follow-up ‘Havana’, featuring rapper Young Thug, is showing great signs of promise. ‘Havana’, the song’s title, capital of the Caribbean island Cuba, and also birthplace of Cabello, shows Cabello taking us back to her Latin roots and embracing them. The opening melody of the song already has the listener’s heart beat rising as its intense Latin flavours and sounds increase the heat already. Then comes the chorus, with Cabello’s sultry vocals and the ‘Oh nah nah’ heightening the listeners’ intensity with the song.

The lyrics in the first-verse are however rather predictable, they seem to sound like something put together in the first attempt or in a late-night writing session. Despite the lyrics not spiralling much out of the creative zone, the chorus and concept of ‘Havana’ make up for this, and it still sounds great! The start of the song is one big, dramatic, intense and fiery Latin bop. First impressions of this song are positive, they show Cabello taking us back to her Cuban heritage.

Moving on however, verse three, which guest features rapper Young Thug, is a disappointment. It seems even though she has left Fifth Harmony, some FH traditions have followed Cabello into her solo career. This tradition that has followed is the unnecessary featuring of rappers. You can take the girl out of Fifth Harmony, but not the FH out of the girl! But the song could have been just as amazing without Young Thug, in fact better.

Young Thug adds a downer to ‘Havana’. The song, at first, is something very sensual. With Camila’s lead vocals it gets hotter and hotter and bubbles over with the spicy chorus, creating something which gives the listener goose-bumps. The guest appearance of Young Thug cools this intensity with his generic rap, immature and lazy-sounding vocals, which have no relevance to the song’s message. Shut up and let Camila sing! However, this is forgivable as there has been a growing trend this century where many artists needlessly use rappers on third verses of their songs. That infamous third verse!

After the guest appearance from Young Thug, the chorus comes again. The vocal ability portrayed by Cabello is outstanding, it is unlike any artist on the charts right now. Her distinctive tone enables her to stand out and become one of the most instantly recognisable voices on the radio. As well as her vocal ability adding to the uniqueness of the song, the cultural aspect of this single distinguishes it too. ‘Havana’, as Cabello’s birthplace, has a deep connection with her and the love she has left behind in her native land, when she says, ‘half of my heart is in Havana’ it allows fans and listeners to feel a sense of relatability and insight with Camila as it is so personal. This is a very powerful tool employed by Cabello as the songs doesn’t just tell a story, it tells her story!

‘Havana’ is already showing promising signs of success and overshadowing the unfortunate performance of ‘Crying in the Club’. The song has already reached Number 1 on the UK iTunes Charts and has narrowly missed the UK Number 1 spot as well. There is still plenty of time for Cabello to achieve her first ever UK Number 1 though, and ‘Havana’ certainly has the potential to get there. Despite the not so great guest appearance of Young Thug, the song is probably one of the best songs of the year and it is remarkable that Cabello (only aged 20) has written and performed something so mature. It is deeply impressive display of her natural-born talent.

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