Artists show promise, progress in January albums

By Beckett Bathanti – Editor-in-Chief – sbathant@unca.edu

Editor’s Note: This will be a monthly column highlighting the best albums from the previous month. Justin Bieber’s Journals was actually released in late December, but it is too excellent to ignore.

Justin Bieber – Journals

Justin Bieber’s 2014 is already an interesting one; and it is a shame his tabloid-fodder exploits overshadowed his newest release, Journals.

After a couple months of weekly leaks, Bieber compiled those leaks and some unreleased tracks into his most fully-realized attempt at rhythm and blues yet.

A slick, often uninhibitedly libidinous album, Journals includes guest appearances by Chance the Rapper, Lil Wayne and Big Sean. He works mostly in a breathy come-hither croon but occasionally drops into a slightly less believable leer. On tracks like “Pyd,” featuring R. Kelly and the phenomenal “Hold Tight,” Bieber sounds more mature and confident than ever in his role as a sex symbol, even if his still-reedy voice gives away his true age.

Where Bieber’s underappreciated 2012 album, Believe, found Bieber at a crossroads of radio-ready, EDM-flavored pop and hip-hop driven rhythm and blues like his sublime Drake duet, Journals features no recognizable potential hits. Only two of the album’s 10 singles cracked the top 20 on the U.S. Billboard charts. The Future-assisted “What’s Hatnin’” is a serious standout and might have a chance on hip-hop radio if anyone took Bieber as seriously as they should.

His obnoxious image and ever-present whispers of appropriation hold Bieber back, but another album packed with as much vocal talent and hip-hop star power should make the 19-year-old an undeniable talent outside the teeny-bopper set.

Dave Simonett – Razor Pony EP

Half of Trampled by Turtles’ greatness lies in their ability to play flawlessly at a high-level speed. The other half lies firmly in the songwriting and vocal abilities of front man Dave Simonett.

Trampled by Turtles would be another bluegrass band with tremendous musicians, destined for a small-niche audience if they utilized more twang-filled vocals or contrived lyrics. With Simonett’s rich voice and chorus-writing abilities; however, Trampled by Turtles manage to transcend the genre and sell out mid-size venues across the nation.

Simonett’s second solo effort, a seven song EP called Razor Pony, explores much of the same territory as Tramped by Turtles’ most recent full-length, Stars and Satellites. Desolation abounds as Simonett all but abandons the rollicking instrumentation that make Trampled by Turtles such a tremendous live band.

“Repetition” is the only remotely upbeat song on the album, relying on electric guitar to offset Simonett’s lonely lyrics.

Album-closer “Wyoming” is as windswept as its namesake and a complete surprise. A droning, nearly 12-minute song with no vocals, it draws you in as it murmurs along, feedback and electronic beeps mingling with muted guitars.

Test – Crabs and Blow

Affiliated with Future’s Freebandz imprint, Baltimore rapper Test contributed minimal, forgettable verses to Freebandz’ excellent compilation tape last year. Surprisingly, Test has no trouble carrying a solo project.

At 26 tracks, Crabs and Blow is definitely bloated with filler and could be about 10 songs shorter, but by the end of the tape, Test emerges as a strong addition to Future’s stable of young melody-happy rappers.

Lyrics are mostly beside the point here, but there are gems sprinkled throughout if you can wade through the generic flexing and preening.

On “First 48,” Test is “so comfortable, I fornicate on my court date” and sounds absolutely defeated on “Gifts and Curses” as he talks about losing his mother and cooking crack instead of reading books.

For the most part; however, Test’s voice and delivery is the real allure. His voice is nasal and he sounds uncannily like Lil Boosie here and there. He seems comfortable jumping from choppy flows to triplets to auto-tuned singing and has a few really great hooks. “Family Ties” is such a great song that even a really weak slow motion verse from some dude named Ban Band$ can’t derail its infectiousness.

Beat selection is on point; the tape is filled with shimmering Zaytoven-inspired beats that will knock your socks off if you throw it on in the car.

Young Thug and Bloody Jay – Black Portland

Young Thug is having his moment and he seems intent on bringing his buddy Bloody Jay with him. A nice gesture perhaps, but Young Thug is the real star here, and their joint mixtape Black Portland only serves to further illustrate this.

Occasionally, they enjoy moments of true cohesion, like on the unhinged “Movin’” and the aggressive “No F**k” and the results are transcendent.

For the most part, Young Thug steals the show, as he tends to do.

On “Florida Water,” Young Thug manages to pronounce the title as “flodda woodah” and only gets looser with his syllables from there.

“4eva Bloody” finds him delivering his most pop-sounding hook in years and Bloody Jay contributes a great shouted verse.

The best track is Young Thug’s solo track, “Danny Glover,” which is currently lighting up clubs and hip-hop stations across the nation.

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