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Review: Maroon 5 Still Deftly Navigating the Pop Moment on New LPs

Album Review: Justin Timberlake – Man of the Woods

Single Review: Camila Cabello – Havana / OMG

Album Review: Taylor Swift: Reputation

Album Review: Fifth Harmony: Fifth Harmony

Maroon 5Review: Maroon 5 Still Deftly Navigating the Pop Moment on New LP

On the sixth M5 LP, Adam Levine nuances a role he plays well: the Top 40 old-soul navigating whatever the pop-music moment throws his way. He works well alongside young talent, trading playful "hey now, baby"s with SZA over crisp brunch funk on "What Lovers Do" and ascending into falsetto sunshine with Julia Michaels on "Help Me Out." Kendrick Lamar provides a high point simply by showing up for "Don't Wanna Know." Whether skating over house beats on "Plastic Rose" or cruising through a ballad like "Denim Jacket," Levine proves himself a pliant star of Jacksonian ease and Stingly self-assurance.

After making their introduction with the poignant guitar-centric Songs About Jane in 2002, Maroon 5 went on to craft hit after hit across the following four albums, all of which have been No. 1 or No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart. While some from-the-beginning fans have longed for a Songs About Jane Pt. 2, the pop-rock band instead evolved their sound, combining each member’s impressive musicianship with groovy experimentation – and on the group’s sixth LP, Red Pill Blues, the result may be their most polished yet.

The 15-song record presents the most electronic production the band has seen to date. They’ve found a way to harness that in classic Maroon 5 fashion, though, supplementing the synthy bass lines with irresistible beats and smooth vocals. This was immediately evident from the album’s lead single, the SZA-featuring “What Lovers Do,” which provides a perfect segue to the rest of the record with buoyant brightness and a bouncy hook.

Starting out the album with a multi-layered rhythm reminiscent of a Weeknd track on “Best 4 U,” Red Pill Blues takes fans on a rollercoaster ride of melodies and feelings from start to finish. And while there are heavier thumps behind the instruments on songs such as “Wait” and “Lips On You,” the amped-up production doesn’t take away from the artistry. More over, there’s still plenty of acoustic influence behind the beats, especially apparent in tracks like “Bet My Heart” and “Girls Like You,” and even a 7-minute jam session at the end of "Closure" -- a refreshing new addition to the band's catalog.

One of the other standout differences on Maroon 5’s latest LP is the amount of team-ups: Collaborations account for 6 of the 15 tracks, far more than any other record in their discography. But rather than taking away from their own talents, the variety of the featured artists – from Julia Michaels (“Help Me Out”) to Kendrick Lamar (“Don’t Wanna Know”) – further demonstrates their versatility and sprinkles unique flavors on the album with tracks like the wavy LunchMoney Lewis-assisted “Who I Am” and whispery croon “Whiskey” with A$AP Rocky.

Arguably the track most reminiscent of Maroon 5's first album is "Denim Jacket," essentially an electronic version of a ballad, as Levine sings of a lost love with hopeful regret. Another breakup sentiment is portrayed in the form of a snappier electro beat in "Plastic Rose," one that's a little bitterer in its message. It's this lyrical and musical contrast that shows Maroon 5's expertise, a reminder that no matter the change in sound, they can still produce profound sounds. And when it comes to the lyrical content, Maroon 5 has remained prolific in their various portrayals of relationship talk, whether it’s through metaphors (“All you gave me was a plastic rose”) or punchy opening lines ("Are we taking time or a time out?/ I can't take the in between").

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Justin TimberlakeAlbum Review: Justin Timberlake – Man of the Woods

Justin Timberlake simply wants too much on Man of the Woods.

Global pop star Justin Timberlake is currently going through a period in his career in which his authority is being questioned. With only four albums in about fifteen years (before last week), Timberlake was always perfectly efficient and never really failed to get the hits, but his latest campaign supporting his fifth album Man of the Woods has not been an easy ride. First singles ‘Filthy’ and ‘Supplies’ received mixed reviews from critics and fans and his Super Bowl Halftime Performance from last weekend was widely criticized for being too safe and a tad boring. So far, the reactions to the record itself haven’t been exactly what Timberlake and his team were probably hoping for. So where is it all going wrong?

Timberlake announced the album with a promotional video in which he spoke about going back to his roots and how the record is an ode to his family. Understandably, some confusion arose when the two first singles were mainly futuristic bops. After hearing the full record multiple times, it is clear what Timberlake and the Neptunes tried to create here, but it did not all work. Timberlake did not want to let go of his brand of futuristic pop, soul and contemporary R&B completely and it is a hell of a job to combine this with country and Americana sounds. Man of the Woods constantly evokes the reaction: “I see what you tried to do there, but it didn’t quite work.”

When listening to Man of the Woods I can’t help but feel that Timberlake is desperately trying to underline what the album means, especially in terms of lyrics. Tracks like ‘Living off the Land’ and ‘Flannel’ feel contrived and try-hard, because of the words in which the themes of the record are thrown at us with a complete lack of subtlety. This however does not mean that all of Timberlake’s country aspirations are going nowhere. Third single ‘Say Something’, assisted by Chris Stapleton, is easily one of the best songs on the album with an undeniable radio chorus. Together with the gospel inspired title track, it is one of the few instances in which the worlds of contemporary R&B and country and Americana actually successfully come together. The harmonica on the otherwise hit worthy ‘Midnight Summer Jam’ feels out of place however and even the personal topics of last two tracks ‘The Hard Stuff’ and ‘Young Man’ (written for his son) come across as slightly cheesy and lack the emotional power one would expect in songs like these.

At the same time Timberlake and his team did mage to create a handful of tracks that sound natural and effortless. ‘Higher Higher’ is the highlight starting out with an acoustic guitar, building into a breezy, laidback instrumentation, serving hook after hook. This is a more than worthy addition to the highs of Justin’s discography. To a lesser extent, the same goes for the groovy and funky ‘Montana’ and the infectious ‘Breeze off the Pond’. These more straightforward songs focus on one main idea and soundscape and the execution is impeccable, without any unnecessary added outros or interludes. If only Justin Timberlake would have followed the same pattern for the whole record. There is nothing wrong with ambition, experimenting and throwing together completely different styles, as long as it all comes together in a cohesive and most of all believable body of work. Unfortunately that is not what Man of the Woods is.

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HavanaSingle Review: Camila Cabello – Havana / OMG

Camila Cabello launches two singles at once

After a whole lot of drama with her former band mates, Fifth Harmony’s Camila Cabello decided to go solo last year. After collaborations with Shawn Mendes and Machine Gun Kelly she released her solo debut ‘Crying In The Club’, co-written by Sia, earlier this year, followed by the ballad ‘I Have Questions’ as a promo single. Cabello and her team gave ‘Crying In The Club’ some time to make an impact on the worldwide charts which resulted in a spot in the top 50 in the US and a 12th position in the UK. As the September release date of her debut album is coming closer, she is now moving on with the release of the double summer promo release ‘OMG’ and ‘Havana’.

On her new tracks Camila gets some help from contemporary rappers. ‘Havana’ features Young Thug while Quavo (who is basically on every pop star release these days) raps on ‘OMG’. ‘OMG’, co-written by Charli XCX and produced by Stargate, explores Camila’s more urban side, but not in the most original way. The lyrics are quite predictable while the production isn’t anything too special either. The hook leaves your head easily so the chances of this doing better charts wise than ‘Crying In The Club’ are slim, but with ‘Havana’ Cabello does have a potential late summer hit. The rhythm is catchy, the vibe seductive and this type of track works wonders for her type of voice. The light summery production by Frank Dukes is flawless and although the rap by Young Thug does not do the flow justice, it is not as uneventful as Quavo’s work on ‘OMG’. As a fun little something to keep her fans content during summer, this double release works and ‘Havana’ is enough to keep us interested in the upcoming album.

Update: As I correctly predicted (for once in my life!), ‘Havana’ is turning into that late summer hit it so deserves to be! It is already top 5 in the UK charts and still rising in the Billboard Hot 100 as well. A Bit of Pop Music is not the only big fan, as even Justin Bieber shared the track with his over 90 million Instagram followers. Might have something to do with that outstanding performance she did at Jimmy Fallon!

And from

Unwilling to be disheartened by the performance of her debut, her follow-up ‘Havana’, featuring rapper Young Thug, is showing great signs of promise. ‘Havana’, the song’s title, capital of the Caribbean island Cuba, and also birthplace of Cabello, shows Cabello taking us back to her Latin roots and embracing them. The opening melody of the song already has the listener’s heart beat rising as its intense Latin flavours and sounds increase the heat already. Then comes the chorus, with Cabello’s sultry vocals and the ‘Oh nah nah’ heightening the listeners’ intensity with the song.

The lyrics in the first-verse are however rather predictable, they seem to sound like something put together in the first attempt or in a late-night writing session. Despite the lyrics not spiralling much out of the creative zone, the chorus and concept of ‘Havana’ make up for this, and it still sounds great! The start of the song is one big, dramatic, intense and fiery Latin bop. First impressions of this song are positive, they show Cabello taking us back to her Cuban heritage.

Moving on however, verse three, which guest features rapper Young Thug, is a disappointment. It seems even though she has left Fifth Harmony, some FH traditions have followed Cabello into her solo career. This tradition that has followed is the unnecessary featuring of rappers. You can take the girl out of Fifth Harmony, but not the FH out of the girl! But the song could have been just as amazing without Young Thug, in fact better.

Young Thug adds a downer to ‘Havana’. The song, at first, is something very sensual. With Camila’s lead vocals it gets hotter and hotter and bubbles over with the spicy chorus, creating something which gives the listener goose-bumps. The guest appearance of Young Thug cools this intensity with his generic rap, immature and lazy-sounding vocals, which have no relevance to the song’s message. Shut up and let Camila sing! However, this is forgivable as there has been a growing trend this century where many artists needlessly use rappers on third verses of their songs. That infamous third verse!

After the guest appearance from Young Thug, the chorus comes again. The vocal ability portrayed by Cabello is outstanding, it is unlike any artist on the charts right now. Her distinctive tone enables her to stand out and become one of the most instantly recognisable voices on the radio. As well as her vocal ability adding to the uniqueness of the song, the cultural aspect of this single distinguishes it too. ‘Havana’, as Cabello’s birthplace, has a deep connection with her and the love she has left behind in her native land, when she says, ‘half of my heart is in Havana’ it allows fans and listeners to feel a sense of relatability and insight with Camila as it is so personal. This is a very powerful tool employed by Cabello as the songs doesn’t just tell a story, it tells her story!

‘Havana’ is already showing promising signs of success and overshadowing the unfortunate performance of ‘Crying in the Club’. The song has already reached Number 1 on the UK iTunes Charts and has narrowly missed the UK Number 1 spot as well. There is still plenty of time for Cabello to achieve her first ever UK Number 1 though, and ‘Havana’ certainly has the potential to get there. Despite the not so great guest appearance of Young Thug, the song is probably one of the best songs of the year and it is remarkable that Cabello (only aged 20) has written and performed something so mature. It is deeply impressive display of her natural-born talent.

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Taylor SwiftAlbum Review: Taylor Swift: Reputation

"In the middle of the night, in my dreams/You should see the things we do, baby," Taylor Swift tells a guy on the song "… Ready for It."

Taylor, is that you?

As a teen country crooner, Swift wooed young fans with wide-eyed songs of love and romance such as "Today Was a Fairy Tale," "You Belong to Me" and "Love Story." She was in love with love, her effervescent lyrics were effused with wonder and possibility.

But it's a long, long way from being 16 to being 27—especially for any entertainer trying to stay relevant. Swift has managed that task, to be sure. She's arguably the biggest musician on the planet today. Her sixth album, Reputation, is Swift's fourth in a row to debut with first-week sales of more than a million units.

But success has come at the expense of Swift's once-winsome innocence. Now she's more likely to sing, "This is how the world works/You gotta leave before you get left." And, sadly, there's a lot more cynicism like that packed into Reputation's 15 tracks.

Pro-social Content

"Call It What You Want" includes some self-aware moments as Swift admits, "And I know I make the same mistakes every time/Bridges burn, I never learn." The song also praises a partner who "really knows me." "End Game" voices a desire for a permanent relationship ("I wanna be your end game"). "New Year's Day" quietly expresses fears about a cherished relationship ending: "Please don't ever become a stranger/Whose laugh I could recognize anywhere."

"Delicate" reveals a flash of "old Taylor" as she articulates some insecurities about something she told a new crush ("Is it cool that I said all that?/Is it chill that you're in my head?"). Meanwhile, "King of My Heart" exclaims, "You are the one I have been waiting for."

"Getaway Car" ends with tearful regret over cheating on someone. "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things" salutes those who've remained faithful to Taylor during all her ups and downs, especially her mother: "And here's to my momma/Had to listen to all this drama."

Objectionable Content

Album opener "… Ready for It" sets the tone for much of what's to come here with its suggestive story of a woman seeking to tame a known bad boy. She tells him, "Touch me, and you'll never be alone." Then comes this sultry tease: "Oh, are you ready for it?/Baby, let the games begin." On "End Game," we hear, "I just wanna be/Drinking on the beach with you all over me." Later, she adds, "It's like your eyes are liquor, it's like your body is gold."

"Dress" might be the most plainly problematic song on the album, with Swift telling a man, "I don't want you like a best friend/Only bought this dress so you could take it off." Elsewhere, she sings, "I'm spilling wine in the bathtub/You kiss my face, and we're both drunk." She also instructs him to "carve your name into my bedpost."

"Delicate" briefly wonders if it's too early for sex with a new beau ("Is it too soon to do this yet?") before obviously plunging right into it ("Do the girls back home touch you like I do?/Long night, with your hands up in my hair"). (That song also uses the world "d--n.") "Dancing With Our Hands Tied" likewise waxes poetic about indulging in carnal pleasures ("And darling, you had turned my bed into a sacred oasis.").

"Don't Blame Me" gushes about intoxicating physical intimacy: "I get so high, oh/Every time you're, every time you're lovin' me/ … Every time you're, every time you're touchin' me/ … Oh, Lord, save me/My drug is my baby." That rush is so powerful, in fact, that Swift sings of completely surrendering herself to it: "Shakin', pacin', I just need you/For you I would cross the line/ … My name is whatever you decide." She also sings, "And baby, for you, I would fall from grace/ … If you walk away/I'd beg you on my knees to stay."

"So It Goes …" delivers still more of the same. Even though Swift says a man "did a number on me," every time they get together, the result is passionate, almost violent sex: "You know I'm not a bad girl, but I/Do bad things with you/ … Scratches down your back now." "King of My Heart" tells someone, "You're all I want, I'll never let you go/King of my heart, body and soul/ … The taste of your lips is my idea of luxury." "Call It What You Want" references having a "lover."

"Gorgeous" narrates the story of a woman who wants to go home with someone other than the guy she's with. "Getaway Car" also involves cheating on a partner, as Swift compares a dysfunctional relationship to two people robbing a bank and leaving that third person behind.

"I Did Something Bad" uses the s-word, and Swift sings, "They say I did something bad/Then why's it feel so good?/Most fun I ever had." Near the end, she compares herself to the victim of a witch hunt, complete with being burned at the stake: "They're burning all the witches, even if you aren't one/ … So light me up."

Trust, it seems, is a casualties on "Look What You Made Me Do" (which is allegedly about Swift's famously feud-filled relationship with Kanye West): "I'll be the actress starring in your bad dreams/I don't trust nobody and nobody trusts me." Swift also alludes to the fact that previous (and more innocent) iterations of her public persona are now deceased: "I'm sorry, the old Taylor can't come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, 'cause she's dead!"

"This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things" mocks the idea of forgiving someone: "'Cause forgiveness is a nice thing to do/Ha ha, I can't even say it with a straight face."

Summary Advisory

There was a time—and it seems a long time ago now—that Taylor Swift's love songs offered a relatively wholesome alternative to the sexed-up music of her contemporaries. That time has passed.

Track after track here brim with both coyly suggestive lyrics and others that leave less to the imagination. Swift's longing for lasting love does surface in a few songs. But most of the time, it seems she's willing to settle for a lusty night with a "gorgeous" partner instead.

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Fifth HarmonyAlbum Review: Fifth Harmony: Fifth Harmony

What do Fifth Harmony and the Big Ten Conference have in common? Both names include numbers that no longer correspond to the groups they represent.

Last December, Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello decided to part ways with the group. In an interview with Girls' Lena Dunham, Cabello said one of the reasons she left was because she wasn't comfortable with the band's increasingly sexualized image. "Unfortunately, sex sells," she said. "There's definitely been times where there's stuff that I have not been comfortable with and I've had to put my foot down."

Cabello did just that when she metaphorically stomped out of the group. And in her absence, well, not much has changed—besides the number of singers in the group.

Pro-social Content

"Bridges" is the only song on the band's third album that doesn't focus on sexual or romantic relationships. Instead, it delivers a plea for unity in our politically polarized times. "We build bridges/Oh, we build bridges/No, we won't separate/We know love can conquer hate." We also hear, "All I pray is we break our chains/Because love's worth fighting for."

On "Lonely Night," a woman demonstrates self-respect by telling her guy, "If you don't treat ya' mama right, bye-bye, bye-bye." "Don't Say You Love Me" calls out a smooth-talking cad for the gap between his big promises and his inability to deliver on them ("So don't say you miss me when you don't call/ … Don't say you love me unless you do"). "Messy" challenges a beau to accept her as she is, because she's not going to pretend to be something she's not: "I'll tell you straight how I feel with no filter/ … Yeah, I can be messy, yeah, I admit it/No secrets here."

Objectionable Content

Album opener "Down" (featuring rapper Gucci Mane) is a deeply problematic song. On it, the four remaining members of Fifth Harmony minimize being attracted to bad boy who, they admit, has a terrible reputation. "Nothin' that a little love can't fix." Later, lyrics tell us that he's the kind of guy they'd break the law to protect: "There ain't no kind of situation/Where I wouldn't cross a line for you/FBI interrogation/I would get up there and lie for you." And the song's chorus equates love with being held down, a phrase that's never explained clearly: "Long as you're holding me down, down, down/I'm gon' keep lovin' you down, down, down." Later in the track, Gucci Mane objectifies a woman even more when he raps, "You make a man feel like you won a trophy."

"He Like That" is all about sex: "Pumps and a bump, pumps and a bump/He like the girls with the pumps and a bump/ … He like that bang, bang, bang." The song compares sex to drug use ("I'm like that drug, drug, drug/He trip when he on it, one taste and he want it") and implies that a guy has a penchant for prostitutes ("He got a thing for them girls that make their money overnighting"). Still, the infatuation with yet another shady character is irresistible: "I know he bad for my health, but I still wanna try it."

"Sauced Up" celebrates getting drunk and dismisses any concern about consequences: "We can get sauced up/Forever we're young, we'll never get old/ … I be like, 'So what?'" The song also dismisses the idea that regret might come with the sunrise: "Blame it on drunk love/We can explain it all tomorrow." More references to drinking and gambling ("Put your cards on the table/Keep it a hundred, baby, show me what you're made of") turn up in the last verse.

"Make You Mad" finds a woman wanting to make a lasting impression, sexually speaking ("I'm gonna make sure I'm the best you ever had") and alludes to a booty call ("It's in the night, I hear you call in the midnight hour/That's when I come alive").

"Deliver" embraces more self-objectification: "I can overnight this body if that's what you need/ … Yeah, my baby knows that I deliver/ … I'll give you something that you wanna unpack." "Angel" brags about not being one of those heavenly beings. There's a vague reference to being in "handcuffs" (and it's unclear whether it's an S&M allusion or a reference to being arrested). Other lyrics allude to dancing like a stripper, and we hear four f-words as well.

On "Lonely Night," a woman tells a guy, "get ya' s--- together" four times.

Summary Advisory

Back in 2016, I described Fifth Harmony's second album, 7/27, as one that "veers wildly between healthy, empowering messages and sexualizing, self-objectifying ones."

The only difference this time around is that empowering messages here are fewer while the sexualizing, self-objectifying kind are more frequent. The band also glorifies reckless behavior while laughing off the suggestion that unwise choices might lead to unwanted consequences later on.

In the end, this album's isolated upbeat moments hardly serve as an effective antidote to the toxic ones that lace the majority of the tracks on Fifth Harmony—especially for young fans of this influential band.

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