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Album Review: Maroon 5 - Red Pill Blues

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

Maroon 5Album Review: Maroon 5 - Red Pill Blues

Adam Levine’s band return for their sixth album of smooth, professional, antiseptic soft-rock, which somehow also features Kendrick Lamar, Future, and A$AP Rocky.

Adam Levine’s voice is one of the most benignly ubiquitous sounds in pop. It is air-conditioning, it is tap water, it is a thermostat set to 72 degrees. It’s coming, right now, from behind that potted plant over there. It doesn’t even belong to Levine’s throat alone—it is a sine wave that has also been loaned out to Akon, to Bruno Mars, to Nico & Vinz. It’s a voice that can sound vaguely like the Police, vaguely like Hall & Oates, or vaguely a young Michael Jackson. On 2012’s “One More Night,” it sounded vaguely like Rihanna. Forget his role as actual judge of singers—his voice has been its own franchise for years, rebooting itself year after year.

The fact that there is a band behind Levine, with lineup largely intact and original members miraculously unfired is a fact that seems to surprise even the band’s fans (they call themselves “Marooners.”) Here’s a fun test: Google “Maroon 5 members” and behold just how many results focus on the fact that yes, the band does have other members. It’s hard to blame these poor Marooners. Pulling my headphones off in the coffee shop where I was listening to this album, I discovered the same Maroon 5 single playing quietly over the system that I had just finished listening to. They are a piece of our built environment, and caring about them seems like a strange philosophical test: Can you care about bathwater or halogen lamps? Do you know that Maroon 5 has recorded five previous studio albums?

They have! Their sixth, Red Pill Blues, generated a groundswell of online response insofar as people wondered if the members knew that “the red pill” is a toxic term inextricably linked to the alt-right (turns out: No, they did not know this.) The band (for the record: Levine, along with Jesse Carmichael on keys and rhythm guitars; Mickey Madden on bass; James Valentine on lead and rhythm guitar; Matt Flynn on drums; and then PJ Morton and Sam Farrar on assorted other keys, MPCs, and filigree) have always had a shrewd and easy touch with soft rock, and opener “Best 4 U” reasserts their dominance here. The keys twinkle with a hint of wry humor; the guitars are there to remind you, distantly, of the existence of guitars, little dots and blobs surrounded by starchy white silence. Levine’s voice murmurs and glints in the corners of the arrangement, and the total effect is exactly as pleasingly immaculate and numbing as all soft rock should be.

The band themselves have always been tight and professional and smooth, and they remain truly excellent at this sound. But this sound alone, regrettably, doesn’t guarantee the kind of chart success that being Maroon 5 dictates. To help scale that mountain, which gets taller every album cycle, they’ve pulled several of One Direction’s songwriters into their orbit. That includes John Ryan, a covert pop operator who has landed co-writing credits on an impressive 27 1D songs and who also loosed Jason DeRulo’s unholy “Wiggle” into the universe. He pops up multiple times on Red Pill Blues, from the spiraling wind-tunnel “whoo-oo-oo” hook of “Wait” to the finger-picked guitar of One Direction dead ringer “Bet My Heart.”

Also pulled into the tractor beam is Starrah, whose onomatopoetic hooks on songs like Jeremih’s “Pass Dat,” Kevin Gates’ “2 Phones,” and Katy Perry’s “Swish Swish” pop up here on “Girls Like You” and “What Lovers Do.” Everything and everyone that pops up on a Maroon 5 album sounds somewhat leached of their essence, though—SZA duets with Levine on “What Lovers Do,” and somehow, that slightly anarchic mischief that enlivens and animates CTRL is gone completely. You wonder what filter they passed her vocal take through to render her so inert.

You also wonder, sadly, the same thing about Kendrick, who wanders through “Don’t Wanna Know” sounding pretty confused about how someone of his immense stature should be spending his cultural capital. A$AP Rocky, on the nonsensically worded ballad “Whiskey” (“I was so young/Till she kissed me, like I’m whiskey”), sounds equally lost, a designer t-shirt left in an Old Navy dressing room. Only Future sounds at home in these antiseptic environs.

It’s this utter lack of libido that ends up making Red Pill Blues so difficult to even finish. Soft rock and sex have a tricky relationship, and so do sex and Hot 100 pop. It’s the ostensible subject, or the ultimate aim, of 99% of the material, but actual, physical copulation is a nasty rumor to most of these songs. On “Lips on You,” Levine offers, in a gentlemanly way, to go down on you; the offer might be sexier if the heart-thump of the drum programming and the new age synth didn’t sound like Sting was servicing you in a Pier 1 Imports store.

The mixing on the album was done by Serban Ghenea, a secret-weapon pop engineer who has mixed hundreds of Hot 100 songs. His songs are distinguished by their naked-smooth surfaces that erase any hint of pumping blood. His work is astonishing, in its way, a series of swooping stainless steel curves that mark out our pop landscape. He’s a perfect partner for Levine, who sounds more appealing the more he transforms himself into a bouncing sound effect. On “Help Me Out,” he rackets around the twinkling synths in his head voice, sounding at least as nimble and half as human as they do. He is the perfect coach for a show simply called “The Voice:” disembodied, inhuman, he dances across the surface like laser light.

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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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