Diplo – California Review

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(Mad Decent)

“People love cinnamon… Anytime anyone says, ‘Oh This is so good. What’s in it?’ The answer invariably comes back, Cinnamon,” Jerry Seinfeld said to Elaine when she suggested that Cinnamon was inferior to chocolate.

Thomas Wesley Pentz, aka Diplo, is pop music’s cinnamon. Producer Max Martin is arguably the chocolate, the go-to flavor. When a pop song subverts mainstream production, the answer invariably comes back to Diplo.

He’s the architect behind such hits as Beyonce’s “Hold Up” and “Run The World (Girls);” M.I.A’s “Paper Planes,” and his own group, Major Lazer’s “Lean On.” These smashes did not take the beaten path and often predicated the pop trends to come.

Pentz’s solo work as a producer and global tastemaker has always been on the precipice of the direction of pop and electronic music’s future. By traveling the globe and incorporating the sounds of  its every corner, Pentz has encouraged music’s cultural inclusivity via the internet.

Last week, Diplo dropped his EP, California, the spiritual sequel his only solo album, 2004’s Florida. (Diplo attend college, taught preschool and founded Mad Decent in Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love or the Keystone State deserves at least a song.)

As a solo artist, Diplo has been known as a promoter of electronic dance music in the formats of house (“Be Right There”), New Orleans bounce (“Express Yourself”) and trap (“Doctor Pepper”). On California, he has decidedly played to his productions strengths by working with less caffeine  and sugar.

With a variety of collaborators, the producer uses California to create six separate pop watercolors.

On “Worry No More,” pitched up vocals, sunken guitars and bright keys let Lil Yachty and Santigold aspire to a life of ease.

Desiigner is more “futuristic” than ever on “Suicidal” as his vocals about excess pushing him to the edge interweaves into the snares and tones. D.R.A.M pushes his vocals to the extreme on “Look Back,” which would make more sense as an XX song than a Diplo one.

Two up-and comers from the Soundcloud rap movement appear to mixed results. Trippie Redd gargles and growls over a simple piano and drum beat on “Wish.” Unfortunately, Diplo tries to make Lil Xan a thing on “Color Blind,” to no avail.

Get It Right” is an aspirational high-pitched cut featuring MØ from the Major Lazer Havana concert film, “Give Me Future” soundtrack. DC rapper Goldlink shows up on California’s remix who delivers a decent verse, but slows the pace of the original.

California shows Diplo’s worth as an artist and producer over that of an EDM DJ.It was impressive to hear him avoid the drop and create more complexly emotive beats on this EP. He can work with a wider variety of sound than any superproducer and find the right tune for  any artist’s talents. If his track doesn’t pop, than it’s more than likely the fault of the performer than the producer.

Score: 7 out of 10.

Best Track: “Get It Right” (Remix) [featuring MØ and Goldlink]

 

Under New MGMT: Live at The Anthem

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MGMT Live at the Anthem on March 15th (Photo: Nick Dye)

My friend had a dated reaction when I told him I was attending an MGMT show. In his perspective, MGMT was two guys from Wesleyan who were really into psychedelia. (One of my friend’s favorite rappers is MGMT’s Wesleyan classmate, Heems.)

That is an absurd way to describe MGMT. They’re in their mid-30’s. MGMT has been part of the alternative-rock conversation for a decade.

Oracular Spectacular, their debut album, took the band to the top of the alternative charts in 2007-8. The record spawned three hit singles: “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel” and “Kids.” In all likeliness, one of these songs has been in your head as one point or another.

MGMT was everywhere, but still a band someone had to tell you about. They collaborated with Kid Cudi and Ratatat on “The Pursuit of Happiness.” “Kids” was sampled by Chiddy Bang, who would love to have a fraction of MGMT’s relevance. “Electric Feel” was sampled by both the golden voices of Frank Ocean and, probably, Miguel.

With success off the bat, MGMT chose to experiment rather than build on their debut sound. The next two albums, 2010’s Congratulations and 2013’s MGMT, were made for the band rather than for the fans. Neither album charted well, though many fans worship Congratulations.

Last month, the band returned after a five-year gap with Little Dark Age. The band admitted in a Vice interview that their fourth album was made for their label, Columbia, to make hits again. Columbia’s challenge paid off. Little Dark Age is their most enjoyable and electric album since Oracular Spectacular.

LDA is a reflection on an over-connected society. The opener, “She Works Out Too Much,” is about swipe-right-or-left dating and the complicated ease of discarding people. “TSAMP,” stands for Time Staring At My Phone.

The strongest songs are the title track and “Me and Michael.” Both tunes are the synth-pop-rock you should expect from MGMT. “I dream in stereo/The stereo sounds strange,” frontman Andrew VanWyngarden hauntingly growls. The hooks are almost as catchy as the big three off Oracular.

My friend John invited me to join him at MGMT’s ides of March show at the Anthem at the Wharf in Washington D.C. I had heard that MGMT concert had been trips back in their late-00’s heyday. It had to be worth a look, even a decade later.

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MGMT opening their show to “Little Dark Age” (Photo: Nick Dye)

After 2013’s MGMT, the band went on hiatus. John saw one of their shows before their break. He said they were fed up back then. They clearly needed some space. The same band he saw was not the one playing at the Anthem.

Little Dark Age has reenergized MGMT. They’re touring off an album with much more chutzpah than the previous two. They opened with the title track emitting a haunted energy to start the show.

The latest album has enough glam and glitz to support a big, visual show. VanWyngarden and Goldwasser performed in front of a LED display similar to the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Complementary visuals were displayed on the projections behind them. The optics were delightfully trippy and cartoonish with haunted mansions for “When You Die” and a fake iPhone screen during “TSLAMP.

The majority of the show showcased songs from LDA. The band played the three big hits off the Oracular plus “Of Moons, Birds and Monsters.” They also provided something for the diehard fans by playing the title track off Congratulations. (Apparently, nobody wanted to play or hear anything from MGMT.)

Concertgoers were surprisingly young considering MGMT’s decade-long career. You might expect MGMT’s fans to be the same age as the band members, but the majority were in their early twenties, like myself who listened to them between middle school and high school. (Two exceptions being the teenager who filmed the entirety of “Electric Feel” on his Android in front of my face — and also that of  his dad.)

The enthusiasm was high for the hits, but that was always a given. The crowd knew the new album and clearly enjoyed most of it. “Me and Michael,” garnered as much enthusiasm as “Time to Pretend.” Arguably, the most excitement from the diehard fans was for “Congratulations,” as a surprise.

The band doesn’t act like they’ve been doing this as long as they have. VanWyngarden spoke nervously and softly between songs, if he spoke at all. Goldwasser didn’t muster a word. MGMT just came to play the songs. The only theatrics were VanWyngarden singing on a exercise bike for “She Works Out Too Much” and splicing in the theme from The NeverEnding Story in the middle of “Kids.”
MGMT can still put on a fun show after a few missteps. Debatably, LDA is a return to form quality wise, but it’s definitely one for the band’s energy. Visually, they put on a great show.  Sonically, the new songs lost a little oomph live, but that could be blamed on the overly spacious Anthem. Overall, they delivered on a tracklist that rounded out the entire MGMT experience.

Nick’s Pick: Leon Bridges – “Bad Bad News”

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(Columbia)

Nick’s Picks is the name of my former column for the Colorado College student newspaper, the Catalyst. Here at Skraphouse, it’ll be the name of songs I’ll choose to highlight. It’s like my version Pitchfork’s Best New Tracks.

On first listen of Leon Bridges’ new single, “Bad Bad News,” I was caught off guard as I thought it was another new Anderson .Paak song. I hope Bridges would take that as a compliment because .Paak is one on the most talented and smoothest R&B artists of the last five years.

“News” is a pivot from Bridges’ excellent debut Coming Home, which was inspire by gospel, soul and early rock ‘n roll. The new Bridges is interpolating R&B, funk and jazz. His voice bounces off the drums with a silky falsetto. At the end, he’s riffing on the guitar like he’s at a New Orleans jazz club. While the song title suggests sadness, the song itself conveys the confidence of well-tailored velvet suit on a man whose comebacks outweigh his setbacks.

Lil Yachty – Lil Boat 2

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(Quality Control/Motown/Capitol)

Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty, two fluorescently haired performers, were honored as XXL Freshmen in 2016 without truly being rappers. Yachty and Uzi will always be at odds with each other because their similarities are unavoidable.

Uzi and Yachty’s respective debut albums, Luv is Rage 2 and Teenage Emotions both dropped in 2017. Luv was a major commercial and somewhat of a critical success, while Emotions was neither.

“I’m a rockstar,” Uzi gargled on the hook of fellow Philadelphian Meek Mill’s “Froze.” His musical influences Goth and Emo. Uzi cited Marilyn Manson and Hayley Williams of Paramore as role models.

Yachty, however, doesn’t exist in one genre. “1Night” off of Lil Boat and the Diplo-assisted “Forever Young” off Emotions are pop. The Young Thug and Quavo-assisted “Minnesota” sounds like they’re cooking in the traphouse with an E-Z Bake Oven.

If Uzi’s 90’s icon is Marilyn Manson, Yachty’s is Bart Simpson. Yachty’s schtick is being a child where Uzi’s is being Emo. Yachty is “King of the Teens,” but he’s twenty. He’s a lewd, sugary troublemaker.

On first listen, it’s clear Yachty is lost like your average 20 year old. Not poetically like Lorde on Melodrama, but like a college sophomore who needs to choose a major before summer break. He can’t pick a subject to focus on, but he doesn’t have the skill to double major.

Criticism and his colleagues’ success have pushed him in the wrong direction. Joe Budden, the rapper turned talking head, was critical of Yachty as a weak mumble rapper. Yachty protested to Budden that he wasn’t a rapper. Instead of staying true to himself, he tried to prove himself to the elder statesmen.

Also, Migos, Yachty’s labelmates at Quality Control, are off-the-chart successes since “Bad & Boujee.” Offset and Quavo appear three times on his new album, Lil Boat 2, which is odd because Yachty reportedly has a collaborative project on the way with Takeoff, the one Migo who doesn’t show up.

Yachty wants success like his QC brethren. The Atlanta trio became the C U L T U R E because they paved their own lane and everyone wanted to be them. Yachty started his own lane, but it wasn’t getting him to the finish line fast enough.

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Lil Yachty performing at Echostage in Washington D.C. on his 20th birthday. (Photo: Nick Dye)

Most of Lil Boat 2 sounds like rejected tracks from Migos’ nearly two-hour album, CULTURE II. Yachty is angry he hasn’t gotten his due respect, as a rapper, not as a pop artist. The lack of success is affecting his mood. However, Yachty got his reputation because he was trying to spread positivity like when he recorded verses over the Super Mario 64 menu song.

Two tracks, “Love Me Forever” and the PNB Rock-featuring “She Ready,” sound like authentic Yachty tracks. One glimmer of hope comes at the end with “66,” a collaboration with soundcloud rapper Trippie Redd. The closer is on-brand pop-trap. Lyrically, Yachty’s stunting about cars and women over what sounds like the product of both Metro Boomin’ and The Chainsmokers. (This is not a Chainsmokers endorsement.)

Lil Yachty isn’t really a rapper. Everybody thinks he is even when he says otherwise. He allowed himself to be measured by benchmarks set for rappers. Yachty is a pop star and should write pop songs. He’s never going to be a rap phenom like Migos. He could be the rap-game Charli XCX.

XCX blew up off from Myspace like Yachty on Soundcloud. She received hits with collaborations with Iggy Azalea and Icona Pop and a single on the Fault in Our Stars soundtrack. She released a major album Sucker that was received much like Teenage Emotions. Charli XCX was set up to become a Camila Cabello-level star, but she decided to go her own way.

She started collaborating with outsider producers like the PC Music collective and fringe artists like Cupcakke and Brooke Candy. In 2017, releasing Number 1 Angel and Pop 2 and the inventive single “Boys” instead of the Sucker follow-up. Those mixtapes were critical smashes while reinterpreting pop and bringing outsiders into the fray.

“1Night,” was a revelatory pop-rap hit and“Broccoli” was a party starter that basically set off the flute rap wave months before “Mask Off” and “Portland.” Yachty is a pop creator like Charli, but subpar rapper and singer. He’s also a ray of positivity and creativity. His music is fun because he’s a kid.

Yachty has a crew of oddballs in his Sailing Team collective with his underrated producer TheGoodPerry (fka Burberry Perry) and up-and-comer Kodie Shane. He’s done multiple collaborations with Diplo who could help him branch out to other interesting producers with pop idiosyncracies.

Lastly, Yachty should embrace the competition with Uzi and challenge him as a peer. Uzi is an original who’s songs  always sound like they were made for just him. Uzi has challenged rap by making the songs he wanted to make, not obliging a system. Where Uzi makes emo rap, Yachty makes pop rap. Uzi is doom and gloom and Yachty is candy and sunshine.

Score: 4/10

Best Track: “66” featuring Trippie Redd

Albums worth listening to instead of Lil Boat 2: