Article by MYLES E. JOHNSON
Mortality is never an easy thing to grapple with, which is why I usually refuse. I’m aware that one day most things, including me and my mom, will die. I’m just as aware that the constant awareness of this fact might send me to an even earlier grave than I am already destined for, so I usually practice being grateful, present, and holding on to things that feel like forever. Things that feel like forever to me include music and the people that make music. With music, musicians are able to make such important moments and attach themselves to such profound emotions. This is a kind of magic, a kind of power. People that make music have a deep control over all things precious and infinite. I find this as something to be respected. I expect the superstars of today to respect that power, especially since they hold infinite precious moments of the millions they hold captive in their hands.
Alas, like everything else, expectations die too. Rihanna and Kanye West have recently released their newest projects. Usually, this would be a musical pop event that I’d be excited about, especially now. See, David Bowie is dead. Vanity of Vanity6 is also dead. For modern music, Rihanna and Kanye West carry some of that Vanity and David Bowie spirit. Kanye West would love to be viewed as hip-hop’s David Bowie, or maybe, just the next David Bowie in some ways, a type of art-rap genius that hybrids music, technology, and fashion, and transcends gender roles. Rihanna, I imagine, would not be possible without a slew of pop divas, including Vanity. This woman of color that used sexuality and wit as a means of exploring dance and music seems to be a heavy influence in the storm of Rihanna, whether Rihanna is aware of it or not. These are heavy times in music. All of our icons are dying and you begin to look around and wonder who will satisfy the voids left. In this case, who will be our nasty girl or space oddity?
Rihanna released a highly anticipated album entitled, Anti. The album had enough singles to make an EP, even though only one of them actually graced it. These singles were as diverse as Rihanna’s outfit choices and together they made Anti especially exciting to hear though, I had a few questions about it: Would we be getting more folk-pop style songs like “FourFiveSeconds”? Would this be an album full of trap anthems à la “Bitch Better Have My Money”? Would this be an album of lush surreal Frank Ocean-penned hymns like “American Oxygen”? No one really knew. This had me, and a few others, at the edge our seats. Was this going to be Rihanna’s The Velvet Rope or at least, her BEYONCÉ where her history and heart are just as exposed as her body?
I was truly anticipating this work because I thought finally for Rihanna, the sound would meet the aesthetic. Perhaps, this is projection but I was never just enamored with Rihanna’s style, beauty, or body. I always felt this was a woman not afraid to appear as though she has lived life. I got a taste of this woman with videos for “We Found Love” and both the song and visual for “Stay”. I knew Anti was going to be her magnum opus. Rihanna fell short, not just slightly, but largely. This is an album full of experimental sounds and ideas that never seem to feel fully formed, or even engaged with. “Consideration” is made interesting by Rihanna’s island vocals and SZA’s gymnastics, but even on first listen, I thought there could be something added, or taken away, or expressed to feel as important as it was marketed to be. This trend does not stop here. That is the continuous cycle, even with single “Work” that is slinky, sweaty, and sexy, but with further investigation is just beyond that point and lazy. It sounds like Rihanna going through the motions. There are songs that don’t absolutely disgust you, but still don’t sink under your skin like Vanity singing about her makeup does. The only songs that have fully thought out ideas and feel like songs we were actually supposed to hear are “Desperado” and “Higher”. “Desperado” finds Rihanna exploring a harmful lover over skeletal beats with lyrics that read as just as dystopian as they are romantic. This is a song, Rihanna. “Higher” finds Rihanna’s voice cracking and yearning, and although her vocals won’t be everyone’s taste, it leaves the listener loving or hating it. It demands reaction. This is art, Rihanna. After listening to this album again and again, I couldn’t help but think that Rihanna has yet to use what makes her a pop star to the fullest capacity. I think of how instant this album would be if there was a film or video for each song. This is not an insult, but Rihanna is simply not a Beyoncé, or Adele, or Lady Gaga where her music and voice is enough and this album is proof of this fact. Rihanna on Anti finds herself exploring sounds and ideas that are more interesting than Rihanna herself, which leaves her delivering shallow material, alienating pop fans and giving other fans a snack before consuming an artist that sounds just as fascinating as they look. Overview: 5/10
Like Rihanna, I was waiting for Kanye West’s latest redemption, The Life of Pablo. I was waiting for him to remind me and the world why it doesn’t matter who he argues with, what harmful thing he says, or who he is married to. These things don’t matter because we are dealing with a musical titan able to transcend all circumstances to create one great album. That was a Pablo Picasso dream. Pablo unfolds more like a Pablo Escobar assisted murder scene. It begins with the beautiful “Ultra Light Beam” that mixes gospel and gothic chords to create a tension for most notably, Chance The Rapper to find gold inside of. Sadly, the album moves so far left that it never feels right. This album feels like experiments and sounds being made just to appear interesting. It’s Kanye West lost on Tumblr and discovering Radiohead on Spotify. It’s avant-garde for no other reason, but to seem progressive and edgy, and sadly, more often it comes off as messy and blasé. The lyrics are as clumsy as something you’d expect from your 13 year-old little brother that just learned how to masturbate to write (“What if we fuck, right now? What if we fucked, right now?” Well, then finally maybe somebody would be satisfied, Kanye. That’s what would happen.)
“Freestyle” and “Highlight” would be unimpressive if it weren’t for the fact that they’re incredibly sad songs. Knowing how far Kanye West fell from his concepts and lyrics from yesterday, the only time this works is on “Famous”, where surprisingly Rihanna’s interpretations of Nina Simone save the song from falling victim to the same ridiculous chaos the rest of the album was fated to. Rihanna and the Nina Simone sample lead the chaos with melody and softness that makes the whole experience listenable, and dare I say it, enjoyable. “FML” also seems more passionate about expressing emotion than appearing edgy and experimental that it grabs the listener, and takes you on one of the only soulful moments on the album. Sure, The Life of Pablo is bad, but it gets sad when you listen to it while remembering the old Kanye, the Kanye that engulfed himself into his work, the Kanye that listened to his A&R and Rhymefest, the Kanye that made good music and wasn’t just signed to Good Music. Overview: 5/10
Physical mortality is hard to grapple with, but isn’t the only thing that is. Artistic mortality is one that can be just as hard to witness as well. We often forget our icons and many great artists lose track, lose their sense of self, or sense of purpose for whatever reason, just like you and me. It just feels sad that with all of our icons turning into memories, we’re left with these dissonant divas more interested in perpetuating their brand, instead of creating new little nasty worlds for us to live in here on Earth, or Mars.
Not one to mince words, Myles E. Johnson is a magical writer, curator, and friend of FTS that is sure to leave you spellbound. The author of popular children’s book, Large Fears, he is New York-bred, though he currently calls Atlanta home. Having been featured on the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and more, Johnson is on his way to becoming a household name and surely a black queer artist to continue to watch out for.