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New Releases: Kanye West, Kelly Rowland, J. Cole, Mac Miller

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Kanye West at Governors Ball 2013. (Maria Ives for Radio.com)

Kanye West at Governors Ball 2013. (Maria Ives for Radio.com)

Every Tuesday, Dan Weiss runs down the week’s new full-length music releases, from charting hits to more obscure depths, the underrated and the overrated, from a critical pop fan’s perspective.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Kanye West – Yeezus (Def Jam)
Kanye’s so important that this review could be comprised entirely of complaints leveled at his newest and possibly weakest record, and the product itself would still stand tall above the woeful state of rap and rock as we know it, if not quite in his own catalogue. So let’s get to that, shall we? The limits of Yeezy’s self-aware humor come down on his likability, which is finally at zero, which is also what he’s selling. Tasteless as it be to make a souvenir bachelor party hodgepodge before his kid popped out, here he is bragging about having other women and mining schoolbus humor from the Black Panthers’ raised fist symbol. He samples Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” for a his very own Eraserhead nightmare of fatherhood and has the nerve to call out all black people for materialism after only six years ago he claimed to shop so much he can speak Italian. He remains the all-time most conflicted star in his historically conflicted genre; Robert Christgau once wondered aloud if Kanye worshipped Christ or Mammon and the answer here is, himself. But when he announces “I Am a God” with that key article “a,” he positions himself in the tradition of Zeus and his demigods as fallible, petty morality studies. Simply cycling through the above makes this an undeniably engaging listen even if one suspects Trent Reznor could’ve grafted more detail unto “Black Skinhead,” “New Slaves,” et al. than Daft Punk. Ye’s only a god insofar as he continues to validate himself in the rap press long after we wanted to nail him to a cross. But Abe says, man, you must be putting me on.

 

J. Cole – Born Sinner (Roc Nation)
It’s easy to forget J.Cole is kind of a big deal. With the five-minute opener and gospel choirs on call for the hour-long trials and tribulations of a Born Sinner, this is the old-money opus trailing Kanye by at least five albums and a considerable gap in talent. That is, the kind of guy who worries about letting Nas down and named his debut The Sideline Story. He’s quite musical (peep that debut’s final four tracks, and Amber Coffman of Dirty Projectors’ buried hook here) and too self-conscious to function, but who could resist a chart-topping rappers’ follow-up that’s so retro it has skits? “LAnd of the Snakes” and the Kendrick Lamar duet “Forbidden Fruit” showcase his famous “flow,” while that sax-honking Nas tale is more personal and honest meta-rap than the pre-Maybach Wale could’ve ever put to the page. Still, for personal and honest, you could do better with his Truly Yours EPs.

 

Kelly Rowland – Talk a Good Game (Republic)
Imagine playing second-fiddle to Beyoncé and you have a good idea of why the congenial Kelly Rowland doesn’t mind her fourth album being mistaken for her first. Fourteen years removed from “Say My Name,” she’s making far less jittery music with something to prove. It’s Bey who flaunts the technical skill, the world-cracking voice, the song-slogans destined for drag shows. But Rowland’s a classic anchor with plenty of personality of her own, and Talk a Good Game has good songs top to bottom and over half of them are much more: producer Mike Will Made It’s addictively tinkly “Kisses Down Low,” rubbery pro-kink opener “Freak,” spare, bluesy abuse threnody “Dirty Laundry,” gorgeous doo-wop ballad “Stand in Front of Me” and swirling closer “Number 1.” But only Pharrell’s contribution (with Pusha T, natch) “Street Life” approaches the frenetic vibrancy of Destiny’s Child’s greatest. Flaunting your sanity has its low-risk limits.

 

Mac Miller – Watching Movies with the Sound Off (Rostrum)
Wiz Khalifa’s blander buddy got the picture quick (think a 1.0 Pitchfork review helped?) by trading sales for cred on the order of guest spots from Earl Sweatshirt, Action Bronson and Kendrick’s next-in-lines Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul, with no less than Flying Lotus and Pharrell on production. This doesn’t mean his rapping’s evolved much harder than “I’m Kenny Powers/You more of a Debbie Downer” and genital jokes. But the screwed-jazz stoner fog of the music is some of the year’s best in his genre, and he can take credit for much of it himself. The inside-out dissonance of “Bird Call” recalls both Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury and Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. All in all, the follow-up to a No. 1 album that features a self-nude cover and a lead single helmed by Flying Lotus deserves its props. Better than Tyler, The Creator’s Wolf, in any case.

 

3OH!3 – Omens (Photo Finish/Atlantic)
When they briefly follow the lame-aphor “kickin’ like Karate” with a rhyme for “massage me,” you briefly recoil in horror that 3OH!3 about to smirk out the word “misogyny” in some kind of we’re-in-on-it maneuver. Instead we get “I used to have two girlfriends/Now I got none/Cuz my number two girl found about one.” It’s too bad pickup artist jerkolas need sex-shaming in their platform. Even Kanye’s lewdest cracks generally outclass 3OH!3, which doesn’t stop this album’s only musically grand moment from ripping him off circa 8OH!8s at the end. Their onetime punchline Helen Keller knew more about sex.

 

Also out this week: Hanson’s Anthem, Empire of the Sun’s Ice on the Dune, Sigur Ros’ Kveikur and Austra’s Feel It Break.

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