Coming on the heels of 2011's heralded Tumblr-only freebie effort Nostalgia Ultra, Frank Ocean's proper debut Channel Orange firmly establishes the singer/songwriter as one of music's most unique storytellers. His tales tend toward the hyper-personal and are so steeped in naive optimism—even in the face of tragedy and defeat—that they could easily be read as either deeply moving or incredibly cheesy. At their best, they're both. Frank and producer Malay blend and wear their musical influences proudly, finding a sonic middle ground between vintage Stevie Wonder and recent N.E.R.D. Unfortunately, they tend to favor the formlessness of the latter, as Frank's meandering narratives about drug dealers and users and Los Angeles brats gone wild supersede his concern for traditional hook writing and song structure. But, by the album's second half, this ceases to be a weakness. Late cuts like the taxicab catharsis of "Bad Religion" and "Pink Matter," an epic duet with Outkast's Andre 3000 that invokes the human life cycle and Dragonball Z, operate with such naked honesty that they transcend the need for form.
-- – Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play
Remember when Kanye West threatened to make an album where he would bear his heartbroken soul, align with T-Pain, sing on every song with the then inescapable Auto-Tune effect, and lean on the Roland TR-808 drum machine? It could have been a wreck, a case of an artist working through paralyzing heartache while loose in a toy store. Except West wasn't joking. In various spots across 808s & Heartbreak, the constant flutter of West's processed voice is enlivened by the disarming manner in which despair and dejection are conveyed. Several tracks have almost as much in common with irrefutably bleak post-punk albums as contemporary rap and R&B. For anyone sifting through a broken relationship and self-letdown, this could all be therapeutic.
At her best, Rihanna blends machinated artifice with softness and pathos. She often flits between these two opposites, but her 2010 album Loud strikes a near-perfect balance. Her previous album, 2009's Rated R, was a pessimistic response to a humiliating assault by onetime boyfriend Chris Brown on the eve of the 2009 Grammys. And it's easy to hear Loud as a dialogue with her former paramour, but the album sounds redemptive. It's full of songs about rough sex, like "S&M" and "Skin," but Rihanna sounds like she's embracing her own kinky pleasure, and she sounds angelic over the trance pop of "Only Girl (In the World)." If Rated R was defensive, then Loud strikes an introspective and regretful tone, sometimes with necessary violence on the dancehall-tinged "Man Down," other times with the codependent romance of "Love the Way You Lie." "Maybe I'm a masochist," she sings on the latter. Rihanna's sexual politics are undeniably complicated, but it wouldn't matter if Loud wasn't a great R&B/pop album.
Mosi Reeves, Google Play
Protest as she may -- and she does, claiming in the liner notes that #1's is "not a greatest hits album! It's too soon, I haven't been recording long enough for that!" -- it's hard to view #1's, Mariah Carey's first compilation, as anything other than a greatest-hits album. Carey was fortunate enough to have nearly every single she released top the pop charts. Between 1990's "Vision of Love," and 1998's "My All," all but four commercially released singles ("Anytime You Need a Friend," "Can't Let Go," "Make It Happen," and "Without You") hit number one, with only a handful of radio-only singles ("Butterfly," "Breakdown") making the airwaves, not the charts. That leaves 12 big hits on #1's: all number ones. Since Carey's singles always dominate her albums, it comes as no surprise that #1's is her best, most consistent album, filled with songs that represent state-of-the-art '90s adult contemporary and pop-oriented urban soul. That said, it isn't a perfect overview -- a couple of good singles are missing because of the self-imposed "#1 rule", plus, the Ol' Dirty Bastard mix of "Fantasy" is strong, but fans familiar with the radio single will be disappointed that the chorus is completely missing on this version. The album is also padded with a personal favorite (her Brian McKnight duet "Whenever You Call," taken from Butterfly) and three new songs -- the Jermaine Dupri-produced "Sweetheart," the Whitney Houston duet "When You Believe" (taken from The Prince of Egypt soundtrack), and "I Still Believe" (a remake of a Brenda K. Starr) tune -- which are all fine, but not particularly memorable. Still, that's hardly enough to bring down a thoroughly entertaining compilation that will stand as her best record until the "official" hits collection is released. [The import edition includes bonus tracks.]
In 2011, Abel Tesfaye, aka the Weeknd, released three free mixtapes, House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence. Trilogy compiles them with remastered sound and adds three new songs. Tesfaye expresses unapologetically sordid feelings about drugs, partying, drugs, bad girls, drugs, strippers, drugs, good girls gone bad, and drugs -- all of which serve an identical purpose and get the same level of consideration. There are points throughout these works where Tesfaye is distinctively gripping, supplying deadly hooks and somehow singing for his life despite the cold blood flowing through his veins. When this package was released, he was gaining mainstream momentum with appearances on Drake's "Crew Love" and Wiz Khalifa's "Remember You." His potential is as obvious as his lyrics are toxic.
Andy Kellman, Rovi
Beyoncé Knowles was always presented as the star of Destiny's Child -- which probably shouldn't be a big surprise since her father managed the group. So it was a natural step for her to step into the diva spotlight with a solo album in 2003, particularly since it followed on the heels of her co-starring role in Mike Myers' 2002 comedy hit, Austin Powers in Goldmember. Still, a singer takes a risk when going solo, as there's no guarantee that her/his star will still shine as bright when there's nobody to reflect upon. Plus, Survivor often sounded labored, as Knowles struggled to sound real. The Knowles clan -- Beyoncé and her father Mathew, that is (regrettably, Harry Knowles of "Ain't It Cool" is no relation) -- were apparently aware of these two pitfalls since they pull off a nifty trick of making her debut album, Dangerously in Love, appeal to a broad audience while making it sound relatively easy. Sometimes that ease can translate into carelessness (at least with regard to the final stretch of the album), with a prolonged sequence of ballads that get stuck in their own treacle, capped off by the unbearably mawkish closer, "Gift from Virgo," where she wishes her unborn child and her husband to be like her daddy. (Mind you, she's not pregnant or married, she's just planning ahead, although she gets tripped up in her wishes since there's "no one else like my daddy.") Although these are a little formless -- and perhaps would have been more digestible if spread throughout the record -- they are impeccably produced and showcase Knowles' new relaxed and smooth delivery, which is a most welcome development after the overworked Survivor. Knowles doesn't save this voice just for the ballads -- she sounds assured and sexy on the dance numbers, particularly when she has a male counterpart, as on the deliriously catchy "Crazy in Love" with her man Jay-Z or on "Baby Boy" with 2003's dancehall superstar, Sean Paul. These are the moments when Dangerously in Love not only works, but sounds like Knowles has fulfilled her potential and risen to the top of the pack of contemporary R&B divas. It's just too bad that momentum is not sustained throughout the rest of the record. About halfway through, around the astrological ode "Signs" with Missy Elliott, it starts crawling through its ballads and, while listenable, it's not as exciting as the first part of the record. Still, the first half is good enough to make Dangerously in Love one of the best mainstream urban R&B records released in 2003, and makes a strong case that Knowles might be better off fulfilling this destiny instead of reuniting with Destiny.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
Since Michael Jackson botched his first hits collection by pairing it with a new album of material in a double-disc set, making it considerably less attractive for those legions of listeners who want just a single disc of hits, it's both inevitable and welcome that he attempted another compilation a few years later. This second collection, Number Ones, was released in the wake of the 2000 blockbuster Beatles 1, which rewrote the rules of modern-day hits collections from major artists, since it not only contained a generous, representative cross section of hits, it had a specific focus and did gangbuster business. An avalanche of similar-minded compilations by other titans followed, notably Elvis' 30 #1 Hits and the Rolling Stones' Forty Licks, and MJ's Number Ones is part of that wave. For some artists, sticking to number one hits isn't a bad way to make a collection -- the Beatles are a perfect example, actually, since even if 1 didn't contain such seminal items as "Strawberry Fields Forever," it still offered a full, representative portrait of their career. Jackson doesn't fare so well by the number one rule. First of all, he doesn't strictly "follow" the number one rule, leaving behind the number one hit duet "Say Say Say" with Paul McCartney, substituting a 1981 live version of "Ben" for the original hit, adding "Break of Dawn," an Invincible album cut never released as a single, and including "Thriller," "Smooth Criminal," and "Earth Song," none of which hit number one, and the latter wasn't even released as a single in the U.S. (there is, of course, the requisite previously unreleased song, the OK slow jam "One More Chance"). Then, there's the fact that Thriller changed the business, inaugurating the era of the blockbuster album that rode the charts for years, spinning off hit singles every quarter. Thriller generated tons of hits -- six of its nine tracks hit the charts, but only two of them hit number one. Its successor, Bad, had seven of its 11 songs hit the charts (one other, the CD bonus cut "Leave Me Alone," was a staple on MTV), and of those, five peaked at number one. So, by sticking to number ones, and adding "Smooth Criminal," this collection skews very heavily toward Bad, at times playing like an expanded reissue with bonus tracks. This may be a fairly accurate reading of chart positions, but it doesn't result in a particularly representative collection, since the brilliant Off the Wall is granted only two songs, leaving behind such charting hits as "Off the Wall" and "She's Out of My Life" (both gold singles, mind you), and Thriller is represented by only three tracks, with such defining songs as "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "Human Nature," "PYT (Pretty Young Thing)," and "The Girl Is Mine" being left behind. These two albums are the core of Jackson's legacy, and it simply feels wrong that Number Ones gives them short shrift. Dangerous also is neglected, providing just one selection, when on the whole it had far more memorable songs than HIStory or Invincible. But these problems are inherent with any collection that concentrates just on the charts, not the music that got the songs on the charts in the first place. And while Number Ones contains enough of the big songs to recommend it for those listeners who are looking just for a cross section of the biggest hits from Jackson's career, it is also true that the perfect Michael Jackson hits collection has yet to be assembled. Maybe next time, particularly if he's granted an entry into Sony's generally excellent The Essentials series.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
R. Kelly tames his ambitions a bit on TP-2.Com, assembling a simple sequel to his classic 12 Play album from 1993 rather than another epic venture like his double-disc, all-bases-covered R. album from 1998. The straightforwardness is somewhat of a welcome endeavor. As breathtaking as had been R. -- an album that straddled the huge gap between the sort of radio pop associated with Celine Dion as well as the street rap of Jay-Z and Nas -- it also seemed too overblown at times, as if Kelly had something to prove during an era of double-disc epic rap albums. So to see him return to the simple singles approach of 12 Play is refreshing, particularly since he has plenty of singles to work with here, just as he had with TP-1. Kelly furthermore unleashes his singles -- "I Wish," a mass-appeal vocal pop number with an urban edge; "Fiesta," a Latin Invasion cash-in that aims for the dancefloor; and "Feelin' on Yo Booty," a whispery come-on for all the weak-kneed ladies and some of the mindful ones too -- with tailor-made remixes to ensure himself broad airplay. Only one of those remixes is here though, the "I Wish" one, so take heed. There's no Jay-Z-featuring remix of "Fiesta" and no up-tempo one of "Feelin' on Yo Booty," yet TP-2.Com is a strong album nonetheless, three steps ahead of practically every other non-rap urban album from 2000. It does seem like Kelly is coasting a bit here at times, though, particularly when you hold TP-2.Com up against its massive predecessor, but even when R's lounging, he's generally ahead of the pack.
Jason Birchmeier, Rovi