Fifth Harmony 7/27 Album Review
What is the measure of a woman's worth? Is it love? Sex? Money? Fame? On any given track on the sophomore effort from the all-female group Fifth Harmony, it could be any of those things. The result is an album that veers wildly between healthy, empowering messages and sexualizing, self-objectifying ones.
"That's My Girl" is an empowerment anthem emphasizing the importance of women working hard, taking charge of their lives and not letting manipulative men define them. "You've been down before/You've been hurt before/You got up before/You'll be good to go, go to go/ … You know your worth." Hard work is again encouraged on "The Life": "Ever since I'm young, I'm tryna get it right/Every year I'm working toward a goal." "I Lied" longs for "real love," which the band describes as a guy who gets in touch during the day ("You got that real love/That text in the morning, that real love").
Though quite sensual elsewhere, "Squeeze" nevertheless longs for a safe, accepting relationship ("Face to face/ … This is the safest place I've ever known"). Deluxe Edition bonus track "No Way" also emphasizes unconditional love: "Everyone comes with scars, but you can love them anyway/I told you that I wasn't perfect, you told me the same/I think that's why we belong together and unashamed." "Gonna Get Better" tries to convince a guy that love, not money or material things, is what matters most in a relationship ("I won't leave you for a money man/No matter what we go through/ … But you know all that I want is you"). "Scared of Happy" finds a young woman confronting the fact that she's terrified of a healthy relationship that's actually working. "Not That Kind of Girl" demonstrates self-respect as we hear a woman tell a man in a club that she's not going to jump into bed with him "on the first date."
"Work From Home" finds a woman trying to tease her guy home from work by telling him she's wandering around "wearing na nada" and by sending him sexts. Double entendres fill the song, and guest contributor Ty Dolla $ign compares his lady to a stripper. Similarly, "All in My Head (Flex)" references stripper motifs ("Throwing bills at you") in its song-length exaltation of acrobatic sex ("Flex, time to impress/Come and climb in my bed/Don't be shy, do your thing"). "Squeeze" talks of emotional intimacy … and the physical variety, too. "Write on Me" sensually asks a lover to tattoo a woman ("Everything is blank until you draw me/Touching on my body like you know me"). "Not That Kind of Girl" implies that while sex isn't happening on the first date, a man who treats a woman right can earn that privilege fairly quickly.
"The Life" longs for luxury and inebriating indulgence ("Eating good, getting lit/Living life, feeling rich/ … Poolside, sipping on a Mai Tai/ … This is the life." "I Lied" compares love to getting high.
Profanity on several tracks includes s- and f-words (including one partially bleeped pairing of the latter with "mother"), as well as "d--n" and "a--."
Just as the five young women in Fifth Harmony skillfully blend the popular sounds of the day—pop, R&B, rap and EDM stylings swirling among them—so they also serve up a soufflé of secular society's often paradoxically mixed messages about where a woman should seek to ground her identity.
One minute that means taking charge and working hard. The next it means trying to please a man who compares her to a stripper. If only the genuinely positive messages here could be easily, completely sifted from the damaging ones. Alas, separating the uplifting themes from the demeaning ones on 7/27 is as impossible as trying to separate the five beautiful voices that comprise Fifth Harmony itself.
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Album Review: Drake Views
For a musician as massively successful as Drake is, he's sure mopey. He's got trust issues. He pines for women from his past. And all that bling? Well, it doesn't seem to be making him happy. If anything, it just amplifies his isolation and creates conflict with friends who are trying to con him out of all his money.
Drake sometimes finds genuine satisfaction in caring for others ("Keeping people fed is my only peace of mind now," he says on "9"). He's also aware of how not squandering his success is important for those who work for him ("Understand I got responsibilities to people that I need"). Likewise, "Pop Style" mentions providing for his family. "One Dance" prays for a girlfriend's safe return, asks for "strength and guidance" for friends" and looks to avoid conflict ("I don't wanna spend time fighting"). On "Keep the Family Close," Drake says family members are the only people he can depend upon, contrasting them with friends' betrayals ("Guess that's what they say you need family for/'Cause I can't depend on you anymore").
"Hype" admits, "Chasing women is a distraction" and honestly ponders what comes after reaching the top of the heap ("I don't know what else is left for me"). "Feel No Ways" tells a paramour he's feuding with, "There's more to life than sleeping in/And getting high with you."
"Faithful" finds Drake promising to live up to that lofty word ("I won't have affairs, I'm yours, girl/Faithful, faithful, faithful, faithful"). "Fire & Desire" looks forward to marriage with someone Drake respects ("I just wanna wife/Keep you in front, never in the back/And never on the side, yeah"). "Redemption" wonders, "Why do I settle for women that force me to pick up the pieces?" Elsewhere on that song, Drake vulnerably admits that the affirmation of those close to him is important ("Certain people need to tell me they're proud of me/That mean a lot to me") and realizes that his workaholic tendencies tend to have a negative impact on his relationships. That song also asks, "Who's gonna save me when I need savin'?"
"Weston Road Flows" shows that poverty can't stand in the way of brotherhood. Then the song emphasizes the connection between success and hard work, advising, "Don't let your newfound fame fool you or cloud up your judgment" and even admitting, "Money can't buy happiness."
Harsh profanities (f-words, s-words, n-words, "b--ch," "a--," etc.) earn iTunes' "Explicit" warnings for 18 of these 20 tracks. Add to that drugs and graphic sexual encounters.
"U With Me?" states, "My house is the definition/Of alcohol and weed addiction." "Weston Road Flows" tells us, "I'm happiest when I can buy what I want/Get high when I want." Guest rapper Future's contribution on "Grammys" mentions the prescription drugs Xanax and Percocet, as well as cocaine.
"With You" talks of deliberately plying women with alcohol ("Mixing vodka and emotions, tapping into your emotions") before moving on to casual sex ("Choose your lover for the moment"). "Faithful" includes an explicit reference to a woman's sexual anatomy, then instructs, "On my way from the studio, so get undressed/Let's do the things that we say on the text/I want to get straight to the climax," then concludes with another reference to a woman's orgasm.
"Controlla" repeatedly references "aggressive" intercourse and includes a winking allusion to the size of a man's anatomy. Coitus gets even more acrobatic on "Child's Play," which includes references to a woman having sex with athletes on a basketball team and trading sex for new clothes. There are, again, explicit references to sexual body parts, and the song suggests that a man would be crazy to trade endless casual sex for marriage ("Married in our twenties? Now where's the fun in that?")
Still more sexual content turns up on other tracks (a couple of which talk about "grinding"), as do other references to drugs and alcohol. "Redemption" threatens, "I'll kill somebody if they give you problems," then rhymes, "Master bedroom's where we get it poppin'."
On "Still Here," Drake brags that it's his wealth and celebrity that put him on not just fans' maps but also God's. He chants, "I gotta talk to God even though He isn't near me/Based on what I got it's hard to think that He don't hear me/Hittin' like that 30 on my jersey, man I'm gifted/Whole lot of sixes, but I'm still like/Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah/Six-point star, lion of the Judah" And then the song ends with this spiritually self-focused worship refrain: "Wow, all praise to the most high up."
The view from Drake's lofty perch near the top of the rap pedestal is a lonely one. Amid the melancholy fog where he generally spends his time, Drake occasionally has some perceptive—if fleeting—moments of introspective insight.
But after spending the day looking at life from all the angles in Drake's Views, I was just tired. Twenty downbeat tracks exhibit a worldview that's still as empty—filled, as it is, with self-love, sex, drugs, alcohol and crates of cash—as it was when last we heard from Toronto's native son.
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Ariana Grande: Dangerous Woman
Ariana Grande certainly didn't hang out in role-model land very long. And on Dangerous Woman she's gleefully lit the match on any lingering hopes that the nice girl from Nickelodeon's Sam & Cat might still be loitering about somewhere in the back of her personality.
"I used to feel so obligated to be so much more," she sings on the bluntly titled "I Don't Care." "I used to let some people tell me how to live and what to be/But if I can't be me, then what's the point? No/I don't care about it anymore/ … I love me." Families to Miss Grande: Message received, loud and clear.
"Be Alright" is one of the album's few attempts to be sweet and tender without veering into sexual territory. Amid struggle and uncertainty, Ariana tells a beau, "But the hard times are golden/'Cause they all lead to better days/We're gonna be alright." "Leave Me Lonely" demonstrates self-respect and restraint as Ariana wisely tells a bad boy not to come back ("So when you walk out that door/Don't you come back no more/ … You're a dangerous love/Baby, you're no good for me, darling"). "Sometimes" promises commitment ("I ain't even think of leaving sometimes/I ain't even think of letting go"). Deluxe Edition bonus track "Knew Better/Forever Boy" treads similar territory as Ariana repeatedly vows, "You're my forever boy."
How much does Dangerous Woman focus on sex? Let me count the ways: Seven of 11 tracks on the base album and all four of the Deluxe Edition bonus tracks revolve around that subject. Here's a representative sampling:
"Moonlight" finds Ariana singing breathily, "Puts his lips on my neck/Makes me want to give him my body."
"Dangerous Woman" gushes, "All that you got, skin to skin, oh my god/Don't ya stop, boy." The track also suggests, "All girls wanna be like that/Bad girls underneath, like that."
"Into You" brags that Ariana's up for any game her man wants to play ("So name a game to play, and I'll roll the dice, hey") and eventually trades coy flirtiness for more direct instructions ("So, baby, come light me up and maybe I'll let you on it") as she says she's on the verge of losing control ("I can't wait no more/I'm on the edge with no control").
The reggae-themed "Side to Side" finds Ariana telling a guy with a "bad reputation" that she wants to "rock with your body." She brags, "Tonight I'm making deals with the devil." Guest Nicki Minaj's contribution is too graphic to print in its description of the male anatomy. Her raps also include the put-down "b--ches" and a use of the f-word.
On the sex-themed "Let Me Move You," Ariana profanely tells a lover, "And I don't normally say this, but, g--d--n, you're the best, best, best." Guest Lil Wayne crudely imagines intercourse with his singing co-partner on the song, again with lyrics too explicit to print.
"Everyday" uses that word to describe how frequently Ariana and her lover do some "good s---" together.
"Greedy" uses a suggestive double entendre ("You know that I'm coming tonight") as Ariana confesses, "I'm just physically obsessed/And I'm greedy."
Bonus track "Thinking Bout You" hints at indulging a masturbation fantasy during a lover's absence. Additional bonus tracks "Touch It" and "Bad Decisions" are likewise completely focused on sex.
"I Don't Care" tells fans and critics alike, "Now I laugh about the things that used to be important to me/Used to have a hold on me, used to have a hold on me/Like what do you think." But these days? "I don't care about it anymore."
In some contexts, not getting worked up over others' opinions and criticism can be a mark of healthy self-confidence. In this case it's more like Ariana Grande is simply weary of anyone suggesting that the myriad reckless choices she's provocatively indulging might not be as awesome as she insists they are.
Ariana is absolutely infatuated with the idea of embracing—and I do mean embracing—dangerous men who make her feel daring. And she's urging her fans to become similarly obsessed.
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Gwen Stefani Review: This Is What The Truth Feels Like
Shattered love. Blossoming love.
That's the stark thematic contrast found on Gwen Stefani's first solo album in a decade, This Is What the Truth Feels Like. In one old-school, Madonna-like pop song after another, Stefani unpacks the heartbreak and disorientation she experienced in the wake of her divorce from Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale after 13 years of marriage (upon discovering his affair with the family nanny). Mingled amid those mournful, melancholy musings are songs about falling for fellow Voice coach and country crooner Blake Shelton.
Never mind that Shelton's marriage to country star Miranda Lambert recently dissolved amid acrimonious allegations of cheating. And that's not ancillary (read: gossipy) information here. It's merely a sobering reality that's difficult to push out of your mind while listening to often-fragile Gwen getting drunk on the joys of a fresh love.
"Used to Love You" navigates Ms. Stefani's pain upon discovering that her husband had been cheating on her. "I thought I was the best thing that ever happened to you," she unloads. "I thought you loved me the most." Later she says of Rossdale's choices, "You thought/There were no boundaries/ … I guess nobody taught you/Nobody taught you how to love." Similarly, "Red Flag" laments not seeing warning signs in her marriage and recognizing them for what they were. "Naughty" alludes to catching her husband in his infidelity, after which she tells him, "No matter how hard you try, you're never washing out the stain/Because you're addicted, so addicted to the shame."
"Me Without You," then, is a post-divorce empowerment anthem that explores Gwen's journey to rediscover herself ("I can finally be myself, be myself/ … I forgot how good it felt, good it felt"), while "Make Me Like You" includes honest lyrics describing her hesitancy to plunge into a new relationship ("I really like you, but I'm so scared/Why'd you have to go and make me like you?"). And there's more introspection on "Truth," where the singer ponders how people might respond to news of her new relationship ("I really don't wanna embarrass myself/And no one's gonna believe me, not even myself/And they're all gonna say I'm rebounding"). "Asking for It" asks if her new man is willing to accept her, weaknesses and all ("Are you sure you wanna love me?/ … I know that it's a lot to handle me/ But it, it is, but it is what it is/It's all a part of my broken history").
Grief, meanwhile, loiters precariously close to bitterness on "Used to Love You" as Gwen Stefani admits, "I don't know why I cry/But I think it's 'cause I remembered for the first time/Since I hated you/That I used to love you."
By today's standards—even as they're defined by yet another popular Voice judge, Adam Levine—Stefani never ventures too far into explicit naughtiness. Still, her playfully suggestive lyrics are hardly mysterious in their sexual meanings, either. "Misery" proclaims, "You're like drugs, you're like drugs to me," then practically begs a man to come over for a tryst ("So put me out of my misery/Hurry up, come see me/ … At the door/I'm thinking things I never thought before/Like what your love would taste like/Give me more").
More of the same fills "Your My Favorite" ("The way you kissed me wasn't typical/Take me out of my body, something spiritual/Think I need seconds, maybe thirds or fourths"). Still more smooching fans physical flames on "Where Would I Be?" and "Make Me Like You." "Send Me a Picture" flirtatiously, suggestively pleads, "Send me a picture right now," one with "no filter" and one that will "show me what you're doing, boy."
Stefani's description of what truth is (on "Truth") makes it all about emotion as she equates certainty with feelings ("So this is what the truth feels like/ … And I'm feeling it, I'm feeling it/Something about this just feels so right, alright"). Guest contributor Fetty Wap defines a successful romantic relationship in materialistic terms on "Asking for It" ("Baby, let's fill the swimming pool with money/Make it splash in, yeah, baby").
Gwen also proclaims that she's seen and done it all, including drugs ("Shook it, stirred it, smoked it/More than I can count").
By the time I finished listening to This Is What the Truth Feels Like, I felt like a protective older brother reacting to news that his little sis was being manhandled by life's big baddies. On "Rare," Gwen Stefani vulnerably admits, "I am broken, I am insecure/Complicated, oh yeah, that's for sure/I feel worthless, I've been hurt so bad/I get nervous that you won't love me back."
That's a precarious precipice, for sure. And it's like she's not even aware of the danger. Because when she's not articulating the agony her ex-husband put her through, she's all in—both emotionally and, it would seem, physically, too—for the new guy she herself has admitted will be seen as her "rebound."
Stefani insists that she can feel the truth of her latest relationship, and she desperately wants to believe it will be the real deal this time around. But feelings are flawed barometers of solid substances such as truth—both for pop stars like Gwen Stefani and for all of the rest of us who internalize the familiar-but-still-problematic philosophy she espouses.
If it feels so right, it can't be wrong, she gushes.
And while one would hope that such a seasoned artist would have been through enough to recognize the peril of capitulating to that old lie … perhaps hope is not always the best strategy.
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Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: This Unruly Mess I’ve Made
This Unruly Mess I've Made is an apt title for the sophomore effort from rapper Macklemore and his behind-the-music producer partner, Ryan Lewis. As was true with the duo's debut, 2012's The Heist, This Unruly Mess careens between the sublime and the salacious and the ridiculous. One minute, Macklemore's rapping about the joys of piloting a moped in "Downtown," the next he might be letting loose a litany of obscenities while pouring out his insecurities, challenging listeners to confront racism or pondering the advice he'll someday give his newborn daughter.
"Growing Up (Sloane's Song)" unpacks Macklemore's hopes for his daughter. (Macklemore married his longtime girlfriend, Tricia Davis, in June 2015, shortly after Sloane's birth). "I just wanna be a good dad/Will I be? I have no idea," he says, and then he encourages Sloane to imitate her "tough" mom, keep broken hearts in perspective, pursue her passions and focus on others' needs.
Offering a glimpse into Macklemore's experience attending the Grammy Awards, "Light Tunnels" confesses his uncertainty regarding how he's supposed to act ("I watch the other people that have been around for a while/Just excited I got invited, feeling cool in the crowd") even as he skewers the music industry's narcissism ("'Cause tonight we toast our accomplishments/Insecurity dressed up as confidence") and perceptively observes how "celebrities who take selfies with celebrities" get exploited by executives who want to profit from their foibles and failings ("They want the gossip, they want the drama/They want Britney Spears to make out with Madonna/They want Kanye to rant and to go on longer, 'cause that equates to more dollars").
Macklemore has long been open about his struggles with addiction. Accordingly, most references to drugs and alcohol here have a cautionary feel, especially on "Kevin," which memorializes a friend who died of an overdose at the age of 21. Macklemore clearly recognizes the tragically destructive influence of drugs and drink ("Wings clipped by the grip of 80 milligram sniffs of Oxycontin/Every day through the nostrils/Death a line or two away and a couple of tall cans"), even as he's honest about his own temptation to use such substances to dull the ache of his guilt ("I'm already feeling hollow/Might as well go crack a seal and might as well go chug a bottle"). Still, he knows deep down that it's only a "Band-Aid [for] that problem."
"Kevin" also condemns doctors who overprescribe such meds and criticizes a culture that's addicted to them ("Got anxiety, better go and give him a Xanax/Focus? Give him Adderall. Sleep? Give him Ambien/ … So, America, is it really worth it?"). Similarly confessional, "St. Ides" chronicles Macklemore's struggle with alcohol addiction.
Meanwhile, death is deemed a spiritual reality on "Kevin," ("You never know when God is gonna call, man"), as the lyrics honestly speak to how tragedy makes holding on to faith difficult ("'Cause I hate myself/No praying's gonna cure this pain"). Positive (passing) references to God show up on "Light Tunnels," "Brad Pitt's Cousin," "The Train" and "Need to Know," the latter of which suggests that we've tried to replace God with material things ("I'm tryna find God through a purchase, I'm not tryna go to church"). "White Privilege II" packs a great deal of complex soul searching into a track that challenges listeners to think seriously about racism ("It seems like we're more concerned with being called racist/Than we actually are with racism").
Though it's been roundly ridiculed in some reviews, the Deluxe Edition track "Spoons" offers a real-world (albeit frankly explicit) take on sexual intimacy over the long term in a committed relationship. Macklemore and his wife aren't always on the same physical page, he admits, but he emphasizes that intimacy is more than just sex ("Every time I go to sleep/I wish that you were next to me/Two people that were meant to be").
Whether they're serious and sober or asinine and absurd, what's indisputable is that Macklemore & Lewis are all in when it comes to their unusually Messy contribution to popular music. More often than you might think, that messiness shows up in positively provocative ways. Almost as often, however, cursing, crudity and caustic counsel rise only to the level of poking and provoking.
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