EVERY MAN SHOULD KNOW
Harry Connick, Jr. (Columbia)
More so than many performers, the multi-faceted Harry Connick, Jr. - who has obvious talent as a singer, conductor, pianist, actor, and composer - has been caught in an identity vortex throughout his career, with listeners wondering if he's playing the role of New Orleans jazz ambassador, Frank Sinatra crooner, or something else.
This collection of 12 new original songs, while clearly a cut above average in the usually weak easy listening genre, unfortunately won't do much to advance his branding. Nobody should expect Connick, who turns 46 this September, to rekindle the early days of his storied career, when he was such a teenage heartthrob he might have been confused with someone who'd landed on the cover of Tiger Beat magazine a generation before.
But a little of his When Harry Met Sally magic would be nice. The title track's solid. There are glimpses of his greatness as a performer of romantic songs, with hints of jazz, gospel and even country.
But ultimately, this disc is not that romantic or insightful. The lyrics are generally distant and mundane in comparison to what we've heard before and several songs, if not over-produced, are just bland, even with guest appearances from Wynton and Branford Marsalis. For a collection that's supposed to bare his inner heart and soul, we're just not feeling it.
-- TOM HENRY
KANYE WEST (Def Jam)
One of the many striking and often shocking metaphors within “Yeezus,” the new album from rapper Kanye West, arrives halfway into the 10-song release, during a song called “I’m in It.” It involves a quote by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Thank God almighty, free at last,” raps West, referencing a phrase from 50 years ago that the civil rights leader used in relation to the plight of African Americans.
The line as used by West is notable for what it’s not: a charged reference to black freedom. Rather, those that are “free at last” aren’t enslaved humans but a woman’s breasts, released from the bondage of a bra during a bathroom tryst. The song, which could be called bawdy were it not so lyrically dark, is one of many on West’s sixth solo studio album that reference — and commingle — sex, ethnicity and / or power.
“Yeezus” is the most musically adventurous album West has ever released, a wildly experimental work that features tracks produced by Daft Punk, Hudson Mohawke, Rick Rubin and others. It’s also West’s most narcissistic, defiant, abrasive and unforgiving. Those who can’t stomach the polarizing Chicago rapper and producer will have a replenished arsenal at their disposal. Those looking for a progressive, assured and kaleidoscopic rap album, though, should pop it on at full volume and close your eyes.
Though only 40 minutes long, “Yeezus” weighs a ton, heavy with gravity and mouthiness, yowls, synthetic noise, deep beats and screams. A multi-dimensional contradiction, West tosses out rhyme-schemed similes that employ racial ideas rich with symbolism but often in service of harsh lyrics that suggests he either doesn’t appreciate or care about original intent. It’s a baffling, frustrating and often confusing move. But then consider the source.
Musically, this exploration is fascinating. “Yeezus” is minimal but powerful, a record filled with more aural space than anything on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” his excellent 2010 album. “Guilt Trip,” especially, is a wild digital experiment with space: Cosmic video-game synthetics race through the beat-thick track, warbling and weaving bursts of noise that sound time-traveled from 1982. “Send It Up” is equally stupefying, a next-level freakout that sounds as weird and progressive as anything on the experimental beat scene. Ditto the sonically beefy modular synths in “Hold My Liquor,” with beats built by Young Chop.
What is new, though, is his increasing disregard for musical conventions. Sounds that draw on the popular “trap” movement abound, and pop kings Daft Punk produce a number of next-level beats that suggest the disco of “Random Access Memories” is merely one of their many strengths. The best of them, “New Slaves,” is a serious jam, a nuanced rhythmic breakdown as aggressively out-there as it is hardened.
-- RANDALL ROBERTS, Los Angeles Times
THE WACK ALBUM
The Lonely Island (Republic Records)
The Lonely Island pull another magic trick out of the fun box — and it's their third studio record, "The Wack Album." The Weird Al Yankoviches of the 21st century tackle sexual etiquette, double standards, general stupidity and wardrobe malfunctions with the help of Solange, Ed Norton, Pharrell, Too $hort, Kristen Wiig and Robyn, among many others.
The jester minstrels' lead single, "YOLO," is an anthemic track deriding the oft-used acronym with guest vocals from Adam Levine and Kendrick Lamar. "3-Way (The Golden Rule)," originally released in 2011 with Lady Gaga and their always game collaborator Justin Timberlake, offers a classic R&B sound.
Another standout on the 20-song list is the tongue-in-cheek "Hugs," where the threesome — led by Andy Samberg — lay the rules for a good platonic "upper body grip," while the bouncy "You've Got the Look" reveals an unexpected side of Hugh Jackman, who shows off his pipes and sense of humor.
Unburdened by the bland, nonsensical lyrics of the mainstream, their sexy hooks work for and against them. Sometimes the track sounds so authentically straight up that some might miss the genius of the words.
-- CRISTINA JALERU, Associated Press