5 Albums 5 Thoughts: Kanye West, Drake, Red Velvet, Mamiko Suzuki and Little Brother

Welcome to my newest music series, 5 Albums 5 Thoughts. On a weekly basis (hopefully), I will present five music projects that I listened to recently. Four will be new, with the fifth always being a throwback.

I’ve done music reviews in the past, but it has been years now without me doing it. Hopefully, I can hone my review writing style while discovering some neat music. The obvious disclaimer to put out is that these reviews are just how I see things. They’re just opinions, they’re just my perspective and they aren’t fact.

Here’s the pilot episode.

Kanye West – DONDA

27 tracks – 01:48:48

Kanye West is controversial. He’s unpredictable. He’s often hated or dubbed ignorant for thoughts he has put into the mainstream. To some, mentioning his name in conversation is cause for eye-rolling no matter what follows.

But despite Kanye West’s dozens of controversies, he continues to have the music industry at his fingertips whenever he wants. Many complained about the roll-out of DONDA, worrying that the album would never release or that the tease for it would be too long-winded. While the promotional build-up was hard to predict at moments, in retrospect it could be dubbed a massive success.

Holding three live “listening parties” from July to August, Kanye was able to pack football venues and play his album – which was still in progress. En route to a final product abruptly dropping in late August, many were watching his every move. And despite already teasing his songs to the public, the official release of his album was still a big deal. While it’s worth hypothesizing that this path to an album release could have been why it was a hit, it’s also worth pointing out that it’s Kanye West. The worst album rollout ever could still be a success for him. But it’s an interesting debate to have.

There are mixed feelings here. There are amazing, thrilling parts of the album that feel like the innovative Kanye that everyone loves. But at other times there are long, drawn-out tracks or head-scratching editorial decisions. Spanning nearly two hours in total, it’s hard to tell how much the good outweighs the bad on this album.

Kanye doesn’t hesitate to take a backseat for a large portion of the album, allowing over two dozen famous artists to hop on tracks. This undeniable all-star team shines at moments but also has its downfalls.

In arguably his best appearance on a record since his breakthrough song “Big Drip” in 2019, Fivio Foreign teams up with Playboi Carti to deliver a strong drill track in “Off the Grid.” Carti returns just a few tracks later to seamlessly fit on “Junya,” which includes a powerful church organ in the background. Vocal talents The Weeknd and Roddy Ricch leave a mark in their respective appearances, and the same can also be said about Don Toliver’s short showing.

There are too many names to mention, but those are the most notable ones involved in the star-studded lineup.

Other cases feel confusing or borderline exploitative. “Tell the Vision” is a solo track involving the late Pop Smoke, an artist that has been stretched for two feature-length albums and a dozen-or-so features since his early 2020 passing. The team behind the song seemingly abandoned all quality control, grabbing what sounds like an unfinished demo from the Brooklyn drill artist and pairing it up with a short piano sequence. Pop’s vocals grapple with the beat, as they are often hard to hear and sometimes drowned out by background noise captured in the recording.

The final 20 minutes of the album are remixes/alternate editions of songs that come on much earlier in the project. This features DaBaby, Marilyn Manson, Jay Electronica and others. None of it brings much to the table that is worth noting.

The late tracks contribute to an issue that this album has in length. While the project certainly hit its stride at points, with some stretches of songs being a great combination, by the end it feels like a long-winded marathon that had finally come to a close. You need to dedicate a serious amount of time in your day to listen to this album and to hear it back many times after will take even more.

The generosity with features and hard-to-place theme makes it way too long and hard to enjoy front-to-back. The low points of the album take away from some really graceful high points, giving an unsatisfying feeling by the end.

Kanye is certainly back, and this album will certainly be one of the most discussed of 2021. But when comparing it to his older work, it is hard to give it high praise. The greatest moments of this album will likely be remembered by the public, with other forgettable or worth forgetting parts being discarded.

Drake – Certified Lover Boy

21 tracks – 01:26:02

Drake is one of the most popular artists in the world. It was no surprise that when his long-anticipated album Certified Lover Boy came out this weekend that it was a big deal. After all, fans had been expecting it since last year and had numerous false alarms about the album drop that kept them on their toes. Despite Drake’s album taking longer than expected, he was undoubtedly in the public eye the entire time. Fans had a lot to consume over the past year or so, being given 14-track mixtape Dark Lane Demo Tapes, three-song release Scary Hours 2, and numerous singles and features along the way.

Many observations about “CLB” ironically work for DONDA. Due to timing and not-so-private beef between the two artists, their two projects have been compared endlessly for the past few days as if it was some type of Verzuz between the artists.

Like Kanye West’s release, Drake’s project is long, gets tiring near the end and could have left a lot more on the cutting-room floor. With a playtime of 86 minutes and 21 songs in total, many selections go forgotten by the end of listening – even after numerous plays.

Certified Lover Boy brings a lot to the table that we have already heard. Drake’s flows, beats and style have remained quite unchanged in recent years. Sure, at moments a small tweak to the playbook makes things interesting, but otherwise, it’s what you expect. The side to Drake that still remains most fulfilling is his songwriting. The rapper often delivers clever metaphors and punchlines that, while covering the same topics over and over, at least have some change in them.

There are stretches of the album that aren’t that exciting. However, the top half of the album is where some of the stand-out tracks come in. The intro track “Champagne Poetry” is quite easily Drake’s best solo appearance on the album, flowing over two of the less aggressive tracks on the project to provide a slow and welcoming start to the endeavor. Track eight sees the official release of “Not Around,” a song that fans became familiar with before it was repackaged here as “TSU.”

In a self-aware corny flaunt, Drake teams up with Future and Young Thug for “Way 2 Sexy,” sampling “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred. It’s fun and will undoubtedly be a party track. Many tore apart the song, but I’m willing to go to bat for it. The same cannot be said for the early track “Girls Want Girls,” which is one of the more painful listens throughout. Many Drake and Lil Baby songs are safe, as they can fall into the category of good or boring – but this one takes the rare path of borderline unbearable.

Many of the songs in the second half of the album don’t add much to the album. There becomes a point in listening where the album is less of a hobby and more of a chore to listen to. The negative feelings on this album are not projected on every song in it. Instead, it goes to the numerous tracks that weigh down a few keepers.

Drake’s commercial success from this project has already been proven. He has already broken records with this project and will continue to do so. But that’s always been the headline. And fittingly, as the headlines remain the same, the music practically does as well.

Red Velvet – Queendom

6 tracks – 00:19:34

Fans of Red Velvet had a lot to look forward to in their recent EP due to the wait that came before it. A year without music from an artist might not seem like too long for some. Fans of Lorde just patiently waited out a four-year absence from their favorite New Zealand pop artist. But in K-pop, and especially the world of label SM Entertainment, the output is frequent. Red Velvet had released 13 mini-albums and two full-length albums from 2015 to 2019, making their absence in 2020 a dramatic change compared to the past. Not only did these releases stay consistent, but there was high quality to all of them.

And sure, fans got solo releases from group members and some duo projects, but nothing beats the full thing. That’s exactly what people got in August, as the group returned with Queendom.

Queendom is great. It features fun, poppy songs that cater to the “Red” theme of the group more than “Velvet.” The group continues to be an example of an act that makes start-to-finish listening experiences that put real effort into b-side songs just as much as singles – this is a reputation they have built for themselves and still reinforce to this day.

While the EP presents great tracks that will definitely be remembered, there’s a feeling that this project is hard to compare with older work. Other projects, including the incredibly special album The Perfect Red Velvet, feel like not only a big moment for the group but a big moment for the genre of K-pop. That’s an incredibly high bar to clear, and it’s likely unfair to complain that a goal like that wasn’t met on this project. There’s a lot to like here, but the excellence shown by this group in the past leaves a feeling of wanting a little more.

Queendom has been carefully approved by many critics and, as expected, loved by fans. While not providing a cutting-edge sound that has been done at times by the group, they were able to return with a satisfying sound that was welcomed with open arms by their patient, but also eager fanbase. And for people who have waited longer than any other time in their fandom for the group, that’s more than enough.

Mamiko Suzuki – ms

9 tracks – 00:33:29

Mamiko Suzuki is best known for being one-half of Japanese rap-pop duo Chelmico, but that hasn’t been her only work in music. She has featured on songs in the past and had her solo debut EP in 2017, Deep green.

With Chelmico band member Rachel on maternity leave briefly this year, it presumably freed Mamiko out of the group’s busy schedule and allowed her to make her own album – so she did. Nine-track project ms came out last month, presenting a more relaxed and laid-back style than usual. The songs on this might not be something all Chelmico fans will love. The group’s fast-paced, chaotic and often energetic style isn’t shown on this. Instead, a different side to Mamiko’s music is displayed.

Rightfully picked as the two singles for the project “Lazy river” and “じゃむ” are the biggest highlights of the track. Other standouts are “mani” and “judenchu.” While the project isn’t appealing to all or even most fans who know Mamiko from her other work, the music on this shows Mamiko’s range as an artist and is worth looking at.

Throwback of the Week: Little Brother – The Minstrel Show (2005)

17 tracks – 00:55:32

All albums have a concept, but not all can be concept albums. In the grand scheme of things, only a small percentage of albums can hold that title. It’s not an arrogant way to put down projects, as the barrier for entry of making a concept album is quite low, and the title doesn’t hold prestige.

But often concept albums aren’t carried out by artists. In some cases, they are done but not fully utilized. In The Minstrel Show, a 2005 album by rap duo Little Brother, the idea of a concept album is done masterfully. The 53-minute project plays out as a taping of a minstrel show. Using skits and subtle lines placed in tracks, the group does a great job at telling a story rich in satire.

The long-term storytelling of an entire album is not their only skill. The album ties some tracks together in clever, unrelated ways to one another that makes it an enjoyable listening experience. For example, the abrupt ending to “Beautiful Morning” picks up in “The Becoming,” with the half-delivered line in the first song being reiterated on the next under a new beat.

Following the hit song “Lovin’ It,” a one-minute skit plays that have that same song playing in the background. The skit, a father scolding their son about not picking up the phone for them, leads into “All for You,” a track about fatherhood.

On all tracks is not just an ability to maintain the concept and structure of a project, but to also tell a story over the course of a song. With just a playtime of less than an hour through 17 tracks, The Minstrel Show is a beautiful short film disguised as a hip-hop album.

Video of the Week

LEX – なんでも言っちゃって / Perfume (feat. JP THE WAVY)

Here’s a quick escape. Imagine you’re LEX or JP THE WAVY. Your agenda for the day? Find the best streetwear, jewelry and kicks. While jamming to the tropical-themed hip-hop track, take a trip with the duo as they hit up the Harajuku fashion district and get what they want.

Mix of the Week

Channel Tres – Mixmag LA rooftop bumpin’ house set

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