CupcakKe; Queen Elizabitch (2017) Review

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Queen Elizabitch by Tre Simmons

Often in music, one thing we can parse from a song’s title is some kind of implicit meaning that will be mirrored within the song’s lyrics. More creative or less obvious artists often use titles to offer footnotes, extend a story or simply place non-sequiturs into the canons of their craft. Cupcakke (Elizabeth Harris), a rapper from Chicago, utilized the latter strategy to obfuscate the meanings of her song titles when separated from the context of an individual song’s lyrics on her most recent album, Queen Elizabitch. She mentioned the act of doing so on her lively Twitter feed in the buildup to releasing her new album, and said album does not disappoint in offering meanings that can’t clearly be deciphered from title alone. This, along with often vulgar lyrics and a light/dark contrast in song production across the album lead to moving feminist ideology across the course of the twelve tracks offered up on Queen.

Most of the songs with weightier subjects have a juxtaposition of minor key, minimalistic beats paired with blaring synths and dense wordplay. For example, on opener “Scraps,” the Kill Bill siren sounds off, leading into lyrics that skim across several human rights and social justice issues. Cupcakke lets off lines such as “remember times I ain’t have a dime, me and bestfriend sharing clothes,” and, “dark skin or light skin, you still African-American, society got y’all fucked up, y’all out here comparing skin,” which in a brief burst of words helps you recognize not only a small glimpse into Cupcakke’s past with her struggles in poverty as well as her keen knowledge and insight on colorism, or discrimination in the black community (from both black and non-black citizens) on the basis of how light or dark one’s skin is. She acknowledges all of these issues and more across many of the songs here, such as a detailed view of her homelessness of “Reality Pt. 4,” body positivity on “Biggie Smalls” and sex positivity on just about every song here.

The sex positivity is a large part of Cupcakke’s appeal; simply put, the vulgarity she puts into her songs is charming, and empowering. Nowhere on Queen is there a moment where one can or should be blamed for experiencing life vividly through sexual encounters, which more often than not is a part of a young person’s life. She espouses these ideas through tales of her own sexual proclivities, and though she has mentioned that her songs paint her to be more sexual than she is in real life, it allows her audience and herself to find strength in pursuing what they want (consensually, of course.) Cupcakke and Queen Elizabitch do a fantastic job of being a fun, socially aware romp through twelve tracks with a comprehension of problems society faces in a way that’s relatable, yet entirely Cupcakke’s own.

The Active Ambiance of Breath of the Wild

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Breath of the Wild by Tre Simmons

Breath of the Wild is the latest iteration of the successful The Legend of Zelda franchise, and it has succeeded on so many accounts (even becoming the 2nd best reviewed entry in the series) by combining the disparate parts of its predecessors into a fully functioning whole. It contains the cel-shaded beauty of Wind Waker and Skyward Sword; the constant movement and scheduling of non-playable characters in a similar way to Majora’s Mask; and it retains the open world and “choose your own order” feature of A Link Between Worlds. Much like all of the other games in the Zelda series, Breath of the Wild also boasts a beautiful set of sounds and music that fully ensnares players into its fantasy world. Nearly all of the other games in the series include creative takes on 8-bit soundtracks, as well as heavy orchestration and occasional other instrumentation to flavor key areas or games in order to stand apart from other entries. Breath of the Wild does something similar; while still containing past themes and motifs in the many places the protagonist Link can visit, BotW is the most ambient, utilitarian and (in my opinion) beautiful music in the entirety of the Zelda oeuvre, in part because of its sparseness.

Ambient, as put by the musician Brian Eno, is music designed to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” This is to say, ambient music should be able to blend into the background and become one with the rest of the world as it should be captivating and intriguing in its own right. Breath of the Wild succeeds on both fronts; when traversing through the massive region of Hyrule, players can easily become lost in the many quests and enemies there are to triumph over. When facing down a troop of Bokoblins, for example, you can become so wrapped up in defeating said enemies and having weapons left over that the music can become entirely unnoticeable. However, in giving equal or a majority of attention to the soundtrack found within BotW, a Bokoblin fight can become that much more catchartic and triumphant.

Where Breath of the Wild differs from most Zelda games is its heavier use of piano in contrast to prior entries. When riding a horse, for example, a broken, ecstatic melody plays; in the interim during both the day and night, individual notes play in a protracted manner that, when put together, spell out major musical themes of previous Zelda iterations. In effect, it combines a little bit of both old and new music to the Zelda franchise that becomes its own idiosyncratic musical language. Older themes can also be heard when visiting the various horse stables found throughout the game, which hearkens back to Epona, the silent hero’s trusty horse companion. Various piano and accordion melodies can be heard everywhere throughout Hyrule that lend each sub-region its own distinct identity.

The spare melodies of the soundtrack also continuously change as you face certain trials in the game. Battles against one of the most fearsome enemies, the Guardians, begin with a dissonant piano before leading into a driving, tense 6/8 melody. Said music ends in a literal explosion only once a Guardian has been defeated or trails off into the more serene day or nighttime themes if Link is able to move far enough away from the range of the enemies’ laser attacks. Many other sounds spark interest and keep players on their toes in all areas of Hyrule. One can be taken aback by the sine wave sound leading into the common day and night variations, sparked into action by a puff of smoke which introduces a certain enemy, or simply bask in the field recordings of various real life creatures thoughtfully placed into the background of beach, field and jungle regions.

Simply put, Breath of the Wild takes a lot of care to fully envelop you in its world through stunning visuals, carefully wrought gameplay and its minimalist choices in sound. It has become one of my favorite games to play because of how placid and rich its sonic territory is. The density of the sounds hear never rises beyond three or four elements at any given moment, yet there is a world of depth and attention to detail that busier works can never even fathom. In this way, it reminds me of some of my favorite minimalist works of music; The xx’s debut album, Visible Cloaks Reassemblage and ANOHNI’s version of Oneohtrix Point Never’s song “Returnal” come to mind. Breath of the Wild took core elements of the Zelda world and filtered them in a way where an entirely new idea of the series has been created, and they have amply breathed new life into an already amazing series.

Charli XCX; Number 1 Angel (2017) Review

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Number 1 Angel by Tre Simmons

Charli XCX is no stranger to a good hook; she has, in the past, riddled her songs with them and made other, lesser artists more palatable through her writing and chipmunk squeaked vocals over their tracks (hello, Iggy Azalea). She’s also flirted with the idea of becoming a more concise, minimalist version of herself. On her most recent release, 2016’s Vroom Vroom EP, she utilized the hypermodern production talents of artist and producer SOPHIE to an unfortunately annoying, thin effect. The songs were bolstered by some of her most earworm-y choruses to date, but they weren’t much else. She also tried her hand out with rap cadences across the glossy sheen of the EP, and on Number 1 Angel, she effectively rewrites that EP as a stopgap release between it and her next album as she goes through label troublesNumber 1 Angel rejuvenates the ideas she had across all of her prior albums (mostly excluding the pop punk ready Sucker), and comes back with her strongest work since her major label debut, the stunning dark pop opus True Romance.

The best songs show Charli’s ability to work well with her producers and guest features while simultaneously filling in every space with previously untried rhythms and melodies in her canon. Opener “Dreamer,” featuring rappers Starrah and Raye, lets you know essentially everything you’re going to get into for the rest of the album. Heavily autotuned, constant forward motion and with hook after hook, it establishes the ecstatic energy that continues mostly through the rest of the album until “White Roses,” in what appears to be the antithesis to True Romance late album cut “Black Roses.” Rather than “falling victim to” her lover’s wiles, she sets forth a winter wonderland of a track where she seemingly can’t live without her loved one. Standout track “Roll With Me” is a hyperrave fantasy; it builds on the quick flows she built up on the prior two tracks and funnels it through a candy-coated and brittle thin pop-rave track from previous collaborator SOPHIE that never ceases to put a smile on my face, no matter how often I listen to it. The first three-fifths of the album are full of these joy-inducing moments, whereas post-“White Roses,” the album is content to mellow out and relax a bit.

The album occasionally falters when Charli becomes more beholden to standard current pop tropes; “3AM (Pull Up)” isn’t without its merits, but it gets lost amid the “tropical house” genre that seems to be pop’s recent M.O., and artist MØ doesn’t add anything to the track either with her “Indie Voice” stylings. “Babygirl” and “Drugs” (featuring artists Uffie and Abra, respectively) aren’t lacking in any glaring way other than energy; it feels as though Number 1 Angel mirrors a sugar rush in that aspect, crashing down once the album has rid itself of the sugar high it was on, and “Drugs” clichéd drug-as-love metaphor doesn’t help it in this regard. The album is never a slog to get through, however, and closer “Lipgloss,” featuring Twitter favorite rapper Cupcakke, adds a final dose of candy gloss and gleeful vulgarity to wrap the album up in what is the best feature across the entire album.

Number 1 Angel stays firmly in the lane of what Charli XCX has done previously, while simultaneously stretching the form and function of what she feels she can get done in a 3- to 4-minute pop track. The album likely will only continue her upward path into the upper echelons of pop artists, and might even bring back fans who were lost on the steely Vroom Vroom EP. If she can continue to hone the incredible energy she has on the best tracks here, she’ll likely forge a signature that will keep herself happy with the content she produces. The most apt way of describing her remaining firmly rooted in her pop strengths is, as she intones on “Lipgloss,” “It’s Charli.”

MovieBabble: a brief word on a fellow media reviewer

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MovieBabble’s article layout, taken from their website

MovieBabble is a WordPress blog designed to review and critically assess new movies and what merits new movies may have. Beginning in late 2016 with a review of “Deepwater Horizon,” the creator (unnamed on their website) has strived to create a space to discuss movies in a way that is accessible to all, while also strengthening their own ability to write about and review that which they love. According to their about page, they “work to extract as much new information about everything movies from storytelling devices, cool camera tricks and anything else you could possibly ever think of.” Being a new follower of the blog, it should be interesting to see the manners in which they progress as a reviewer, as well as how their tastes may change. This could be reflected in the content they produce in addition to the way they visually present said content.

The first thing that sticks out to me about their site is the simplicity of it all. They have chosen, so far, to stick to a standard WordPress format with no extra bells or whistles. They have included their social media, as well as a contact page in order for others to reach out to them, but other than that, the site is relatively bare bones, and this would be one thing that could possibly be changed in order to make the site more visually palatable and draw in new readers. The place in which MovieBabble shines is wholly in the content they produce. From basic reviews of recent movies to some of their best (& worst) of lists through the past and present of cinema, each post is tailor made to the creator’s individual personality and skill in critically assessing film as we know it.

My favorite review of theirs thus far has been the one they wrote for the new film, “Get Out.” It is already one of my favorite movies of recent memory, and the creator brought up a handful of points that I didn’t even think of during and after watching the film. One major point, for example, is how “Get Out” managed to create something heretofore unseen in horror films; not only is Jordan Peele’s story completely original (not being sourced from any other form of media, not a remake, and so on), it also manages to tackle race and identity in ways movies of its ilk have not previously done. There have been Blaxploitation and black-produced or black-centered horror movies in the past, but these movies tend to play up satire and humor more than anything. With MovieBabble’s review of “Get Out,” I was able to think about an already amazing movie in a completely different way.

Overall, MovieBabble does a great job of not only building a repertoire of movies to watch (or avoid) personally, it also shows how much passion and joy goes into writing these articles for the creator of the website. I sincerely hope they continue on in the direction they are going, combining original viewpoints and tried-and-tested methods of writing about the media we consume into its own body of work that shines as a beacon of media criticism and the fun we can have when we participate in critical discussions. While the focus of my blog will continue to be based around music and the avenues we can explore in that world, it’s enlivening to see that other people are equally as passionate about other forms of art and media.

100% Silk; Sensate Silk (2017) Review

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Sensate Silk by Tre Simmons

For many, music and the production thereof is an escape into a near opposite realm to reality. There is freedom in making decisions that can trigger cosmic levels of emotion in a listener, and this is evident on a grand scale with dance music as a whole. It also has a way of creeping into the real world; Ghost Ship, the venue that recently burned down in Oakland, California, was a safe space for people living on the fringes of society, be they musicians, homeless or some variant of a societal “other.” On the night the building was destroyed, the label 100% Silk (a record label devoted to the idea of producing dance music that skews left field, enough to be lumped in with the reductive term “outsider house”) was hosting a showcase night for some of their artists, wherein they lost two of their kin (producers Cherushii and Nackt.) 100% Silk’s new compilation album, Sensate Silk, although announced prior to the events of the Ghost Ship fire, carries a sweetly melancholic pallor after the events that took some 36 lives. It is a wholly singular, cohesive piece of work that demonstrates communality and sincerity when dance music is simultaneously at its most hypnotic and fun.

The ethereal, ephemeral mood set on Sensate Silk is carried across the entirety of its eleven tracks. Each artist takes their time in layering on shimmering, star-kissed synths and band filters to the standard four-on-the-floor workings of house music. Some songs (such as PARC’s “Silk Road” and Westcoast Goddess’ “Untitled Soul ’98) are content to amble on near or well past the ten-minute mark, while other tracks are slightly more economical, though none of the songs here have any sense of immediacy (the shortest being slightly over 5 minutes). When taken as a whole, Sensate Silk almost feels like looking at an immaculately constructed monolith from various angles; each piece works so well together that it would be anathema to remove anything. That being said, highlights do rise up occasionally. The opening and closing tracks (Keita Sano’s “With The Lights” and aforementioned “Untitled Soul ‘98”) in particular do an amazing job of setting up what is to come and offering a reprise of sorts of the themes contained throughout each song. Much like the best dance music from other artists and labels, you can lose yourself in these tracks, luxuriate in the warm synths and syncopated hi-hat/kick drum combos of knowing these songs will always be here, and maybe even feel a little sad about having to return to the real world in little over an hour.

That warmth is reflected in the real world of dance music all across the globe; clubs and dancefloors are safe spaces for many who have felt unwanted in their everyday lives. From the many house parties thrown in New York, Detroit and Berlin, to specific venues, such as Fabric in London and multimedia events like the Boiler Room series, Ghost Ship was one in a long lineage of shelter to the cold, occasionally uncaring outside world before its untimely demise. The artists at 100% Silk, as well as many others around the world, will continue on in hopefully being a safe presence for those who flock to the comforts dance music can provide. If Sensate Silk is any indicator, these types of labels and artists will continue to be consistently engaging and inviting when everything is sailing smoothly or when the world has been thrown into chaos. Sensate Silk can and should be a balm to heal weary hearts in need of music to zone out to or dance one’s ills away.

Migos; Culture (2017) Review

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Culture by Tre Simmons

It’s a well-known internet fact that Migos are a better group than The Beatles. While this might be overstating the case of Migos as a cultural phenomenon and critically/commercially/fan acclaimed rap group, the trio of rappers have seen a level of prolificacy matched with a consistency few besides the Fab Four can claim. Their forefathers are Outkast and the Dungeon Family, who channeled in a sweet, slightly psychedelic and all-together innovative manner of combining technical potency with an ingratiating sense of humor, topped off with a set of producers who create catchy, menacing beats for them to rap over. Simply put, Migos are at a cultural pinnacle, staking claim to #1 sales, rave reviews, and a fan base that simply won’t quit. On their new album Culture, they have made their best work to date and have firmly established the idea that they are a force to be reckoned with.

Beginning with opener “Culture” (featuring producer/yelling connoisseur DJ Khaled), Migos stretch out their now-signature triplet flow (among many others) over the various productions given to them from a star-studded cast of beatmakers, including the aforementioned Khaled, as well as Metro Boomin’, Cardo and Nard & B. There is a blues/psychedelic/trap hybrid moving through most of the songs, and as usual, a bass-heavy low end to round out every lyric and mad-hatted ad lib throughout the album. Lead single and standout track “Bad and Boujee” extends their cultural currency, with appearances from fellow rappers Travis Scott and OG Maco appearing in the music video. The collaborative efforts continue sparsely throughout the album, but are utilized to maximum effect (including another sterling verse from post-prison Gucci Mane on “Slippery,” and my personal favorite song “Deadz,” featuring equally idiosyncratic rapper 2 Chainz). Not one to let their guests outshine them in any way, however, Migos get in some of their strongest hooks here that even outweigh the memorability of their earlier, simplistic choruses that began their cultural cache in the first place (compare the hits “Hannah Montana” and “Versace” to the inescapable “rain drop/drop top” chorus on “Bad And Boujee” or the crooning, sing-songy melodies on “What The Price”).

Their punchlines continue to shine, as well as the duality evident between the more hedonistic respects of their lifestyle and religious beliefs. As evidence, you can look to “still be playing with pots and pans/call me Quavo Ratatouille,” and contrast this with verses from guest appearances on Young Thug’s “Quarterback” from 2015, featuring lyrics such as “the world is gonna end one day/read it in Revelations,” as well as references to a passed grandmother giving her blessings on “Out Yo Way.” Migos are equally in reverence to those who raised them and made them who they are, and the manner in which they currently live their lives. On Culture, they have created a singular piece of work that extends their reign as one of the (possibly, best) rap groups in the annals of rap history by simply doubling down on everything that has made them successful thus far. They may not quite be on the level of legendary that a lot of people give to four mop-top British men who (admittedly) altered the pop zeitgeist (especially if fellow group Rae Sremmurd have any say), but Migos have definitely crafted a unique lane of Culture all their own.