Arts

The vinyls of the featured artists
Zofka delivers her spicy takes on MONTERO and Coldplay's collaboration with BTS. Image: Hailey Otten/Fulcrum
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New Album: MONTERO, Lil Nas X (Sept. 17 2021, Columbia Records) — 6.9/10

MONTERO, Lil Nas Xs’ full-length debut, was a surprisingly good album. It was a cohesive collection of hit after hit, with some mournful confessional ballads peppered in. It’s a bold move — a sufficiently mainstream but slightly esoteric interpretation of pop-rap — and it worked!

My positive listening experience was a shocking contrast to the extremely low expectations stemming from the sickening overuse of the “Call me when you want, call me when you need” verse from the eponymous single that was released months before the album. I like the new TikTok trend from “Industry Baby” ft. Jack Harlow — that one’s pretty good. I don’t understand the thirst for Jack Harlow, he’s literally just Some Guy.

For the record, I was not a fan of the false pregnancy promotion strategy. It seemed confused in its intentions and I had to log off Snapchat for several days to avoid the “Lil Nas X is PREGNANT??” explore page stories from the Daily Mail. I guess you could make the argument that it was a “Michael Stipe has AIDS??” 90s reference — the media has historically not treated gay musicians with respect or with any measure of journalistic integrity or fact-checking. Maybe it was that or maybe it was just for shock value. Either way, it can’t be ignored when discussing the album, and I don’t like that inseparability. Seems like a stunt to me.

Stunts aside, MONTERO is an impressive reflection of our current moment. In “Scoop”, he raps: “I be in the crib going crazy.” Isn’t that how we’re all feeling? Personally, I relate to “Scoop” as I like to do Pilates. ‘Like’ is probably the wrong word: I do Pilates. I don’t enjoy it. I be in the crib, going crazy. Doja Cat has a short but straightforwardly playful feature that I wish was a bit longer. This a gripe I have that’s consistent with the entire album — Lil Nas X is at a point in his career where he could get any feature he wants, which is why he has a cast of the most relevant female pop culture icons of le moment on his album — but he doesn’t quite let them shine. I liked the Miley Cyrus feature — not necessarily for the quality, but for her relation to Billy Ray Cyrus, who featured on an Old Town Road remix. She sounds pretty hoarse, so much so she may have been doing an impression. Megan Thee Stallion’s verse in “Industry Slime” about girls being violently jealous on Instagram was oddly prescient in the wake of the Facebook hearings, during which a Facebook whistleblower revealed that the company knew of the negative impact Instagram had on the mental health of young girls. I mean, how many girls have wanted a BBL after seeing Megan’s huge ass become a pop-culture symbol? “I’m just such an obsession.” She’s right. I really liked all of the women features — gender-bending in hip-hop roles is always fun, like the all-male chorus of backing vocalists in Salt-N-Pepa’s 1994 hit “Shoop” in contrast to the traditional male rapper and female support combination.

Thematically, I felt like Lil Nas X went a bit heavy on the meta industry criticisms (read: way too heavy). It’s not really the best content for a first album. Like, he’s not Kanye. He’s not 20 years into a career. Maybe if it was a couple of songs, but it felt like they all referenced fame, money, and the nebulous and all-encompassing “industry.” Besides fame, the album addressed Lil Nas X’s struggles with his family and his identity. These struggles are linked. He sings with melancholy about being bullied. The question underwriting the album is: has fame solved his problems, or has it made them worse?

The recordings of news anchors commenting on “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” topping the charts were a bit gauche — maybe it’s because I’m an album purist, but I don’t think the single and the album should be entirely separate entities, especially when the content of the album was obviously changed due to the response to the single. What if the single had flopped? what would the album be about then? It would probably lean more toward complaining about the single’s failure.

The album’s production was neat and tidy, with the classical guitar and horn section mixed in well with the modern hip-hop beats. It was clear that Lil Nas X had a sonic vision and that it was realized.

Overall, Lil Nas X has proved he isn’t just a novelty one-hit wonder with an oddly retrospective debut album. I look forward to his future work.

New Single: “My Universe,” Coldplay feat. BTS — 3/10

“My Universe” is a single from Coldplay’s upcoming album Spheres, out Oct. 15. At time of writing, it’s #1 on the Billboard hot 100, edging out Lil Nas X’s “Industry Baby” and Justin Bieber’s “Stay”.

It’s a good pop song, I guess? It’s not a great pop song. It’s not really catchy and it’s difficult to identify a central riff. It’s not abrasive to the ears, that’s all I can say, but it will soon be ruined by radio overplay and then swiftly forgotten in five months’ time. I’m honestly not sure what to make of this collaboration. It feels like someone inputted popular musical artists, regardless of genre, into a slot machine and this was the combination that came out.

I’m not in the BTS army, so I can’t tell which ones are singing and which one’s aren’t. But I do like that they sing in Korean as well as English. I know from BTS stans that they were disappointed in “Dynamite” becoming such a big song because they were singing in English. The mid-verse language switch is kind of fun.

Instrumentation-wise, those little percussive guitar jangles at the end of the verses are more annoying than anything. So is the obnoxious slap bass. Do real instruments mean rock is back? Rock is back!

Discovery: Whip-Smart, Liz Phair (1994, Capitol/Matador Records) — 7.5/10

On Whip-Smart, Liz Phair’s second album, Phair metamorphoses from an indie-rock phenom to a commercially successful indie darling. With her signature pared-down guitar strums and contralto voice, Phair handily avoids the sophomore slump.

Phair and her backing band, consisting of guitarist and producer Brad Wood from her previous album, Exile in Guyville, began recording in Chicago before moving to Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas. Escaping the bustle of Chicago for the remote locale lends a unique flavour to this laid-back album.

If her first album, Exile in Guyville, is a frustrated expression of female sexuality, Whip-Smart is a sigh of relief. Phair led us through the gauzy stages of a budding romance with a gentle hand. The opener, an out-of-tune piano ballad, “Chopsticks” is a stream-of-consciousness retelling of her meeting a boy at a party. She drives him home, then drives back to her own place, because secretly, she’s timid. Guyville, being a retelling of a Stones album, is all macho vitriol. Whip-Smart is gentle and fearful, like holding a robin’s egg between your fingers, afraid to crush it.

The album’s second track and big hit, “Supernova,” is an unashamed power pop love letter to a new flame, whose “eyelashes sparkle like gilded grass.” This obsessive praise plays over a pumping, distorted guitar riff. The subject of “Supernova” is perfect: he’s an angel, a supernova, a friction blast. The music video was a 90s staple, and for good reason (it features a bashful Phair looking away for the censored “f*ck like a volcano” line). Whip-Smart is inseparable from the 90s female singer-songwriter boom, and “Supernova” is that cultural essence distilled into a song.

Another feature of the album is the male backing vocal throughout. On the plaintive refrain of “Nashville”, one of the two songs on the album named after a U.S. city (the other being Dogs of LA), we can hear a low male voice during the outro of repeated “I won’t decorate my love” punctuated by horn blasts. The effect is that they both won’t decorate their love. I think this a thematic choice that represents a union and reflects the song’s content. It describes a boring but fulfilling relationship, like after you’ve settled down.

“And I’m looking for somebody to do/my thinking for me.” “Go West” and its many lyrical enjambments is a demonstration of Phair’s college-cultivated poetry abilities. “Go West” is one of the mid-tempo pop tracks on the album, and one of the more wistful. On vinyl, this song closed the A-Side — probably because the song describes a new beginning and the end of a chapter.

The album’s title track, “Whip-Smart” is, unfortunately, one of the more forgettable. Over cricket chirps and jaunty percussive bongos, Phair recites a children’s rhyme as the chorus. I get the effect, but it seems a betrayal to her songwriting ability to use someone else’s words.

Contrast that with the angriest song on the LP, “Jealousy,” in which Phair slut-shames her new boyfriend for dating girls before her. “I can’t believe they let you run around free.” She sings in a twisted reversal of traditional gender roles. To her, he is tainted — I doubt this is how Phair really feels — and I’d bet that it’s a comment on how men perceive her and the various casual partners she describes in her previous material.

“May Queen,” the closer, is my favourite song. It wraps up a positive album with a distinctly negative spin. The instrumental intro builds up anticipation to a vengeful first line: “Don’t be fooled by him.” Great song to shower to (no one can see your tears in the shower).

I think Whip-Smart can be understood as a narrative describing the lifespan of a romantic relationship: the shy beginnings in “Chopsticks,” the all-encompassing obsessiveness of new love in “Supernova”, a depressive slump in “Dogs of LA,” the questions about the future in “Whip-Smart,” anger and fighting in “Jealousy,” and finally the insults and impending breakup of “May Queen.”