When it comes to modern music listening, with every album released the discerning — legally minded — fan faces three choices: skip it, stream it, or buy it. Every Tuesday Bro Jackson tackles a sampling of recent notable releases, telling you what to bypass, what to queue up in Spotify, and what to actually drop your hard-earned dimes on and purchase online, on CD, or on vinyl — in a culture of impermanence, the ultimate show of respect.

Drake
Nothing Was the Same
[Stream It]

Drake is rap’s best curator and most honest storyteller. His chemistry with close friend and go to producer Noah “40” Shebib is the reason the guy has made a series of memorable, borderline classic albums. Dude is Russell Wilson in a time when Jay is Tom Brady and Kanye is Peyton Manning. I suppose Colin Kaepernick is a better example since he’s been to a Super Bowl, but he’s definitely more Kendrick Lamar. And without stretching the idea too far or writing up a post-Buzzfeed click bait story about rappers and their NFL starting quarterback dopplegangers,[ref]Dibbs.[/ref] if we’re over-thinking it Childish Gambino–brash, young, incompetent, tasteless–is Blaine Gabbert.
The point is that it’s Drake’s era and moment and we’re finally underway as the 30-plus vets start to cede the spotlight in terms of real life sales. In the wake of 2011’s stupid good, insanely influential Take Care, he’s made another long, deftly presented LP that will undoubtedly dominate football season. Despite a throwaway Jay verse here and an insufferable Big Sean appearance there, for Nothing Was The Same Drizzy has forfeited the DJ Khaled surefire bangers, Jamie XX experimentation, and even blessings from clique regulars Lil Wayne and Rick Ross. Instead of Rihanna’s elevation, it’s 25-year-old singer Jhené Aiko singing the hook to “From Time.”

A technical, lyrical lyricist rapper Drake has never been. In fact when he tries to go into his version of beast mode things get embarrassing (see: the laughable “I came up from the underground” lyric about paying for a J Dilla beat; his flatline attempt to go in over a Just Blaze track on Take Care). But his distinct patterns make for digestible, great listens. On “Tuscan Leather,” the all in, meta, six-minute opener, son dusts up his voice and the raspy patterns mirror how worn out he claims to be from work. When Drake raps, “I send all my money to islands and eat with Italians” it is fairly meaningless, but his confident command of the vocal booth owns the line.

Where Drake shines is when he gets personal, reflective, and emotional. Drake underling The Weeknd caught fire in 2011 because he bit the Toronto isolation, frigid bedroom manifestos, and recorded a series of compelling EPs. But on tour in real life, with resources, nobody told him that his overt sexual advances and party girl courting was actually gross. This month’s Weeknd release, Kiss Land, is a miserable failure bound by its prog, tough sledding musicianship and woman problem. Performing live in Austin, Texas this week, The Weeknd spent a whole song showing two naked Asian girls having sex on his three arena screens. It was in atrocious taste; especially given the the crowd was largely made up of young women and young men that want to be an Internet sex god like The Weeknd, who of course filmed it all on their phones.

Drake has similar misogyny issues because of his love for the word “bitch,” affection for strippers, and how the standard fare hip-hop diatribes blanket his weepy r&b love notes. The guy is just so honest about his flaws that he becomes an anti-hero that I root for. On 2011’s “Marvin’s Room” he rapped that he was addicted to naked pictures of women–he basically tells us he’s way too into porn. True to form, “Furthest Thing” is the introspective, romantic, downtempo anthem carefully nestled at track two; the good news is that it’s almost as good as “Houstonlantavegas,” “Karaoke,” and “Shot for Me.”

Drake wins because he carries the whole album without having to hit up T.I. or Swizz Beatz–or up and coming dudes from his class like Kendrick–and because of Drake’s steady performances and 40’s beats the pair pulls off a truly great album. But this is the fourth Drake record that sounds like a Drake record. Thematic territory covered on all four Drake records: Becoming a martyr for his prescription-fueled mom and vagabond dad; taking on the reigns for his generation; being wary of jealous rappers; the one that got away and became a wedding planner in Atlanta; how good the rap in Houston is; after party perils; humanizing strippers while copping to his deep passion for strippers; an affection for early ’90s r&b samples.

Nothing Was the Same is a goal-line touchdown. — Ramon Ramirez

 

Arctic Monkeys
AM
[Stream It]

The Arctic Monkeys were one of the last bands I got into before I graduated college. “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor” is one of the best rock songs of the last 10 years and to this day it sparks a sudden urge in me to mosh.

The best thing about that song and the Monkeys’ classic debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, was the energy. They created the soundtrack for being young and brash the same way the Strokes briefly were the sound of being young and cool. The band has since been plagued with capturing lighting again, while continuing to progress in interesting directions.

I bought their second album Favourite Worst Nightmare only to be disappointed it wasn’t like their first.[ref]I revisited Favourite Worst Nightmare earlier this year and boy, I was wrong. It’s a much better album than I thought in 2007 and it’s aged well.[/ref] I bought their third album Humbug and all I remember is the first song. I couldn’t even tell you about their fourth album because hearing one of its notes bored me. That’s how much I stopped caring and I figured that just like the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party and other bland wave rock bands from the mid-00s, the Monkeys fizzled out as they grew up.

That is, until I heard AM. All it took was the first three songs to know the Monkeys were back. Who knew that moving out here to Los Angeles would reignite that mojo of one of England’s best bands of the last 15 years?

The opener “Do I Wanna Know?” has a killer riff with a pulsing drum-beat and hand-claps that beg you to sing along with Alex Turner as he wonders if somebody feels the same way he does about them. “R U Mine” takes that same message and makes it even more straightforward with the music kicking in higher gear to fit his honesty.

“One for the Road,” aided by Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, sounds like winding down a night out and keeping the fun times live. Homme made his own great rock record this year with his main band, and adds a nice, heavy touch that made this one of my favorites on the board.

If the debut was about not caring and enjoying the moment, AM is realizing what happens when you start caring. What happens after the moment and you lose that someone and reflect instead of thinking you’ll just find another that night.

Musically there’s an edge in their sound that has lagged on previously releases. Even as the second half slows down, there’s still something that makes you want to keep listening. There’s more harmonies than before and I can hear an R&B element in songs like “Snap Out of It” or the beautiful closer, “I Wanna Be Yours.”

That’s the excitement that I felt was missing as they experimented beyond the loud energy of their first two records. Five albums in, I’m glad the Arctic Monkeys figured out how to grow up without being boring. — Evan Barnes


Dream Theater

Dream Theater
[Stream It]

Typically, when a band releases a self-titled album late in its career, it doesn’t bode well. An eponymous record for an aged group tends to result from a lack of new ideas and the desperate hope that going self-titled will result in a refresh or something of that sort, and it doesn’t often work.

But sometimes, they actually do serve to reflect a change, sometimes in sound, sometimes in personnel. For veteran prog rockers Dream Theater, it’s the latter. After splitting with drummer and founding member Mike Portnoy, the group brought in session drummer and Berkley faculty member Mike Mangini to play on 2011’s A Dramatic Turn of Events. Although he entered the fold as a permanent member of the band, all the drum parts had been written before he stepped foot in the studio, making his influence on the album non-existent. Enter the refresh. Dream Theater is the group’s first album written as a whole with Mangini, and it’s another slice of flashy progressive musicality from one of the genre’s longest lasting outfits.

Tired of utilizing bits from old movie scores to introduce their shows, the band created “False Awakening Suite” to open the album, an intentionally cinematic pseudo-instrumental they’ll use to begin concerts on the next tour. It starts off well, but then detours into something akin to most of the group’s frenzied instrumental sections, so it loses a bit of impact. It’s not as powerful as pieces like “Also Sprach Zarathrustra,” which they used a couple of tours ago, but it’s solid and will allow the band to showcase only their music from start to finish.

As a prog band, Dream Theater has always fought a battle to gain notoriety and earn listens from an audience that prefers their music in three to four minute bursts. To that end, they’ve slowly transitioned their albums to feature more accessible tunes, a feat made more difficult by James Labrie, the band’s classically trained vocalist that can hit a high note with the best of them, but whose sound doesn’t exactly scream modern rock. That fact won’t ever change, but the band has done a great job of finally learning how to play within the constraints set forth by Labrie’s vocals, and Dream Theater features some monster hooks. “The Looking Glass” is a thinly veiled Rush tribute with an arena rock chorus; “The Bigger Picture” starts off slowly before exploding into a fist-pumping anthem; and “Along For The Ride” is one of the band’s best ballads to date. In short, the band has written some true possibilities for radio-rockers. Lead single “The Enemy Inside” still contains the classic prog elements the group is known for, but hidden within a blistering riff that puts most of today’s hard rock bands to shame.

Not one to forget their roots, the album closes with the 20-minute “Illumination Theory,” a multi-part epic that goes from brooding foreshadowing to to high-octane rock to a momentum-killing five minutes of nature noises and orchestral sweeping, before finally returning to an ever-ascending climax. It’s one of the band’s better long-form pieces in some time, and were it not for that ill-advised stall in the middle, could have been one of their best.

Dream Theater hasn’t changed much over the years, but they’ve yet to release a bad album. They know their sweet spot, and their content to stay within it, serving up progressive metal feasts that boast skilled technical musicianship and a flair for composition. Dream Theater is no different, but it’s one of the band’s more interesting albums, as they push their attempts at accessibility to the forefront in much of the record. But, being Dream Theater, for every catchy chorus and hook, there’s an odd time signature, a stilted riff, a forceful insertion of notes into a space that doesn’t seem capable of handling them. This constant juxtaposition makes Dream Theater a unique album, one that very well could be another entry into today’s modern rock, 4/4 dominated canon, but never will be, because the musicians are just too talented to stay put within that box.
— Robert Rich


2 Chainz

B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time
[Stream It]

2 Chainz is something of a superhero in a decade where rappers are either posting all of their illegal activities on Instagram for attention or reclusively having seizures in their private jets. Tauheed is invincible and getting stronger over time. Sure, he got robbed in the Dirty Bay, but anyone who saw him weave between cars like “Temple Run” knows it’ll take more than a gun to stop him. Like his multiple chains, under his superman suit is yet another superman suit. He begins the album yelling at his mom and cooking crack as a backup career. After the paranoid and insouciant first single “Feds Watching,” our hero stumbles his way past Drake, Ma$e, Rich Homie Quan, and Lil Wayne verses with all the grace of a grandfather using his first iPhone, not to mention a Mannie Fresh 400 Degreez outtake, and whatever you’re supposed to call a Diplo song with Fergie. Only once T-Pain shows up does 2 Chainz show the soul underneath his jewelry on the nearly seven-minute storytelling centerpiece, “So We Can Live.” Tity Boi gets pulled over by the cops, terrified of going to jail. Not until the “Outroduction” does his reason for living come fully into focus: “Two kids later, I mature like fine wine.” It’s why he stunts, it’s why he puts up emotional barriers, it’s why he grinds as hard as he does. Two kids, four bracelets, one big ass heart. — Clyde Lovelette