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Meghan Thee Stallion’s “FEVER” has enough heat to last you all summer

by Staff

by Bernadette Bruu, WRUC Senior General Manager

(This review was originally published in the Union College Concordiensis on May 23, 2019.)

You may have only learned about her recently, but she’s been at it for years, her talent bubbling under the surface of an industry that wasn’t ready for her until now: Megan Thee Stallion, a 24-year-old Houston native who wields a perfect combination of unexplainable magnetism and raw lyrical ability. She’s been rapping since 2016, but last Friday marked the release of her long-awaited studio debut “FEVER.” It joins the ever-growing number of successful releases by Black women rappers in the past year, which suggests that tangible changes to hip hop’s male-dominated landscape are in the works.

Every track on Thee Stallion’s latest project is a refreshing, even genius interpretation of a hip hop standard: the trap anthem, the hometown shoutout, the sugary downtempo cut for listening alone in your room. Over the course of its forty minutes, “FEVER” crackles, blazes and smolders, playing with style and story but remaining red-hot throughout.
The album is the first project by a woman to be released by record label Entertainment 300, which boasts the membership of modern hip hop magnates like Young Thug, Rich the Kid, and Migos. Ever since Thee Stallion signed in late 2018, rap circles have been watching closely, sometimes too closely; the five-foot-ten “stallion” has received all the standard backlash directed at women rising to the top.

She spoke out on this double standard in an interview with Vulture, explaining, “Women have to be the best and then some. A man can get on a track and literally make two noises and be the GOAT. When you listen to a girl rap, she gotta have all the bars, all the flows, be melodic, she gotta look good. They expect so much of us, and I mean, I like to work, so I’ll do it.” On “FEVER,” it’s clear that Thee Stallion has put in that work.

An immediate standout feature of the album is that almost every song could be played at a party. Whereas many rap albums today feature two to four lead singles the artist hopes you’ll add to your pregame playlist, Thee Stallion offers a multitude of veritable bops with beats for dancing and lyrics for shouting.

“FEVER” wastes no time getting to these highlights — the opening track “Realer” is a thrilling introduction to her confident persona, emphasizing how neither critics nor overbearing men can threaten her success. She also assures she’s “still hanging with the same crew;” she’s authentic despite her stardom. This trend of repping Houston and her modest roots continues throughout the album, adding depth to her fearlessness.
For the most part, the tracklist alternates between catchy hook-driven songs and wordier endeavors that show off her talent. “Hood Rat Sh–” is balanced out by “Pimpin.” The fast-paced “W.A.B.” is followed by crooner “Best You Ever Had.” “Cash Sh–,” featuring fellow Southern rapper DaBaby, is a perfect medium in terms of style. To a simple but infectious beat she provides imagery of her encounters with guys who underestimate her: “He told me send me a pic ’cause he miss me / I told him send me a stack if he really / I don’t be trusting these tricks ’cause they tricky.” She’s confident, and constantly invites other women to follow in her stead: “I’m a finesser and I’m a fly dresser, move to the top floor and flew in my dresser / My b—–s hustle, make money together.”

“Simon Says (feat. Juicy J),” “Shake That,” and “Dance,” the last interpolating a 2012 club hit by Juicy J himself, are tailor-made for dancing with abandon. In addition to rapping, Thee Stallion attends Texas Southern University, and these songs are no doubt inspired by its vibrant social life.

Interspersed, however, is “Money Good,” a bouncing ode to the strange experience of being humble in your success, but self-assured enough not to let criticism get the best of you. The lines “Throw up where I’m from, let ’em know I’m still hood / I ain’t had to get nobody hit but I could” reference this balance she has obtained only with time and persistence, and “Ratchet” echoes it later on. Thee Stallion has always transcended fame by finding the middle; when she tours, she throws widely-advertised open parties where she is a guest like any other.

Unlike other projects by artists still establishing themselves, “FEVER” does not front-load the best songs. Big Drank and Running Up Freestyle, the penultimate and final tracks respectively, are the album’s must-listens. They most effectively blend Thee Stallion’s innovative, of-the-moment style with that of hip hop’s legends. “Big Drank” is a smooth tribute to Pimp C, one of her idols, while the impeccable final freestyle clearly belongs to a woman who grew up listening to Lil Kim and who now hangs out with the high-energy City Girls (see the name-drop in “Realest,” plus they toured together).

For this review, I am intentionally omitting any mention of “lowlights.” Quite frankly, there are none. With such diversity in track style there is something for everyone, from the R&B fan to the trap elitist. None of this is on accident. “FEVER” is ultimately a study in meticulously calculated balance — women rising to the top must be able to shift effortlessly between hot and cold; cockiness and humility; elegance and rage. Megan Thee Stallion wants us to know that if we let her lead us toward this triumphant dexterity, she won’t let us down. On “Simon Says,” she reminds us that she’s the “hottest out, but you already knew that.” So, if you don’t know — now you know.

Lana Del Rey’s Norman F*cking Rockwell is Musical Literature Incarnate

by Staff

by Marie Lindsey, WRUC Music Director

(A similar version of this article was published in the Union College Concordiensis on October 3, 2019.)

Norman Rockwell, American painter, illustrator, and novelist was born in New York City in 1894. By 1916 Rockwell began his work as a popular illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post. He created 321 covers over a span of nearly five decades for the magazine, and is best known for his work capturing the image of the everyday Americana in oil. His name is synonymous with the image of a classic, if unattainable, American lifestyle.

It’s no wonder why singer Lana del Rey, known for bringing Americana aesthetics into the almost-mainstream in the early 2010s, would choose to title her fifth album “Norman F*cking Rockwell.” But unlike Rockwell, Rey has shown a remarkable capacity for growth in her art. In her early career, she often leaned into the indie pop trends of the day. However, since the release of Honeymoon in 2015, Rey has shifted into the realm of classical instrumentation and psychedelic rock. 

“Norman F*cking Rockwell” was composed by Del Rey and Jack Antanoff, who then collaborated with many producers, including Rick Nowels, Andrew Watt, Happy Perez, Kieran Menzies, Dean Reid, and Mighty Mike. This attention to detail is not lost on listeners: “Norman F*cking Rockwell” presents the strength and purity of Del Rey’s vocals woven between instrumental elements such as violin, cello, harp, mandolin, piano, electric and acoustic guitar, flute, keyboard, and electric synths.

It is clear that Del Rey’s artistry lies in her ability to create as a poet first and a musician second. Although neither art form is superior to the other, her work as singer-songwriter is so powerful in that each aspect of her work is an interwoven extension of the shifting creature that is the sentiments of her lyricism. Del Rey has carved her way into the art scene as a writer who sings rather than a singer who attempts to write. Her music has a clear plot, complex imagery, and the ability to captivate listeners. Furthermore, the simple beauty of her soulful vocals as well as her dedication to creating quality music through collaboration in studio production suggest that Del Rey has successfully composed an album that exists simply as rock, but can also be classified as more specifically psychedelic rock, pop rock, or soft rock.

In her song “The Greatest”, she says “my friends, we miss rock and roll,” and yet, as she mourns for the decades of raw rock, vibrant venues, and the grating loyal burn to the musical minds of the 1960s and 70s, she is arguably emerging one of the defining rock musicians of the 2010s.

  The era which she has so fervently desired since her other hits like “Brooklyn Baby” or “Groupie Love” can be felt in the harmonies buried in “Norman F*cking Rockwell”, “Mariners Apartment Complex”, “Doin’ Time”, “Love Song”, “Cinnamon Girl”, “How To Disappear”, “California”, “The Next Best American Record”, “The Greatest”, “Bartender”, “Happiness is a Butterfly” and “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it [as written]”. 

On top of all this, Del Rey has been working on a book of poetry which she intends to release for only $1 a copy. Independent of her work for this most recent album, Del Rey also released a song called “Looking for America” in response and protest to the steadily rising number of mass shootings in our country. Finally, she has also been working on an album called White Hot Forever which is scheduled to be released in 2020.

“Nah, actually, this is for me”: Noname’s Room 25 takes on self-care and cartoon disillusionment

by Staff

by Bernadette Bruu, WRUC Senior General Manager

(A version of this article was published in the Union College Concordiensis on September 19, 2018.)

“A think piece in the rap song, the new age covenant,” Noname conjectures ironically in “Blaxploitation,” the second track off her self-released Room 25, out September 14. The Chicago-born rapper’s second album is full of what made her 2016 debut Telefone a cult favorite on the alternative rap scene: lyrical dexterity coupled with organic storytelling, made unforgettable by her signature silky-but-earnest voice.

On Room 25, Noname’s gentle flurry of brutal honesty is back, this time to wax poetic on self-development in a post-analog world: where is home, exactly? Clean vocal energy backed by production invoking Old Hollywood with a crooked twist suggests that while Noname doesn’t know the answer quite yet, she’s eager to share what she’s learned so far. It’s the world’s most compelling journal entry, with verses jumping expertly from sentimentality to politics, from disillusionment to reclamation — a frenzy representative of Noname’s ever-running mind. On the surface the album is redemptive, but at its core, Room 25 pushes for catharsis with an eye towards perpetual personal growth.

The opening track “Self” establishes explicit borders for the thirty-four-minute odyssey. It begins with a repeated four-chord progression typical of jazz music and a series of maybes, big and small: “Maybe this is the entrance before you get to the river / Maybe this your wifey just wanting a clean divorce,” to name a few. Right away she is unapologetic, almost blunt, but gracefully so. She maintains a smooth delivery as she continues nimbly winding the thread, the pace quickening. Suddenly, she pauses and asks, “Y’all really thought a b—- couldn’t rap, huh? Maybe this your answer for that.”

She then begins to weave substance into a confident beginning, engaging with public history by name-dropping Ronald Reagan and the popular theory that he was at least in part responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic among low-income Black communities in the late twentieth century. She then immediately cuts short her theorizing to say simply, “Nah, actually, this is for me.” This statement functions as an abstract for the album — whatever she may tell us going forward, she wants us to take it in the context of her individual journey, rather than raising it up as an activist anthem. Like her contemporary SZA’s 2017 album Ctrl, this album intends to focus on the hyper-specific experiences of one woman which by the end feel universal somehow.

Noname is no stranger to the cleansing power of the spoken word — she got her start in 2010 performing slam poetry and rapping on what FADER Magazine calls the “poetry-adjacent Chicago rap scene.” Origins are a strong force on Room 25, both in lyrical references to Chicago’s South Side and in general poetic spirit. Noname’s preferred genre of poetry seems to be that which deals heavily in personal testimony for personal benefit. In FADER’s pre-album release interview with the young rapper, she tells them, “I’m not trying to be the anti-something or pro-something else…[m]aybe this project will show some of those people who think that I am this very, like, conscious female rapper that I’m just as regular and normal as everybody.”

However, the album’s second track “Blaxploitation” reveals that it may be impossible to remain apolitical when there’s so much at stake. “I’m struggling to simmer down, maybe I’m an insomni-black / Bad sleep triggered by bad government,” she confesses, “Put a think piece in the rap song, the new age covenant / If you really think I’m cooking crack, then pass me the oven mitts.”

This last line has somewhat of a double meaning. Noname first dares critics who claim she’s too preachy to confront her directly. On another level, she’s referencing the 1970s film genre called “Blaxploitation,” for which the song is named. Films of the genre were directed by white people and shamelessly portrayed stereotypes of Black people. However, over time they were reclaimed by pioneer activists any means by which Black-centric stories could be told should be seized by the community itself. The genre here serves as a symbol for the twisted modes of repossession necessitated by the dysfunction of a ‘post-racial’ society.

Aside from but connected to the Blaxploitation framework in Room 25 is the use of minstrel tradition as a metaphor for sustained modern racial exploitation. Direct and indirect call-outs are combined with co-opted minstrelsy staples like ‘jive talk’ and musical score. For instance, the instrumental profile of “Self” is reminiscent of midcentury jazz lounge arrangements — subtle piano and jazz guitar along with soft doo-wops that sound like saxophones seal the deal on the reference to entertainment styles watered down by white people but with origins in Black culture.

“Blaxploitation” has an accompaniment straight out of Tom and Jerry: anxious and decidedly vintage. Skipping ahead to “Window,” album producer Phoelix’s use of strings and chimes transports listeners to an old-school Disney movie they can’t quite name, one where the characters wear white gloves and speak in an exaggerated dialect. Sound familiar? The chronology of the minstrel tradition as having been the basis for early (and later) cartoons is well-documented. Minstrelsy’s shadow can be seen in Looney Tunes, Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop and Dumbo, though practically all animation inadvertently retains these uncomfortable traces.

None of this is a stretch when a closer look is taken at the lyrics of various songs on Room 25. In “Blaxploitation,” Noname delivers some of the most pointed verses of the album. “Penny Proud…pissing off betty the boop / Traded my life for cartoon / Dance, monkey, dance” draws a connection between early-aughts cartoon favorite The Proud Family and minstrelsy, suggesting that today’s push for diversity may yield a successful reversal of the venomous traditions of the past. The second verse takes a different turn; Noname doesn’t shy away from indictments of the casually-problematic: “Hillary Clinton, who masqueraded the system / Who chicken-boned, watermelon-ed / Traded hoodie for hipster, infatuated the minstrel…” Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was often accused of pandering to the Black community, and Noname’s mention of the infatuated minstrel is meant to call out the complacent, who supposedly fell for Clinton’s trick.

Noname continues her condemnation of everything exploitative in what very well may be ‘jive talk’, a form of slang associated with midcentury Black jazz musicians and frequently appropriated by white people in minstrel shows. “When we cool, they cool, we die, it’s coon / We supa fly indigenous, now hop to the moon / Who brought the movie to America? It’s still coming soon,” she says, fully expressing her disillusionment with public history and its insistence on nostalgic amnesty.  Finally, in “Window,” the track with the most obvious Old Hollywood flair, she snaps, “This song ain’t even about you, Daffy Duck,” reinforcing the reclamation of the style and preparing listeners for more personal content, as unbranded as can be by the oppressive innocence of the past.

The most sentimental snippets on Room 25 come by way of “Regal” and “With You,” wherein Noname embodies unrestrained dignity in depicting her pitfalls, regrets and deepest wishes. “Regal” has her chanting an almost-prayer: “May my road turn right, may my fists turn heaven.” On “With You,” she laments, “Gave you a taste of my redemption and now I want my drink back / Somebody hold me like I’m almost enough.” As the penultimate song on the album, “With You” begs for an empowering take-home message, but Noname would rather remind us that real life’s loose ends don’t tie up so neatly. Even after growth, she (like all of us) can’t help but remain wistful: “So you really don’t think about me? And you really don’t miss me?… Everything is everything, just know that I love you,” invoking Lauryn Hill’s pro-change hit to suggest that while she has moved on and rebuilt, she holds onto a softness from the past, and that just might be alright.

Furthermore, all of Noname’s vulnerable moments are followed by a punchy comeback or a wake-up call. Introspective verses in “Window” are interrupted by a chorus sung by Phoelix: “Quit looking out the window, go find yourself / Come get the bag with your kinfolk, don’t doubt your wealth.” Self-reflection is crucial, but only when it’s balanced by thoughtful action. Sitting inside ruminating, whether on heartbreak or politics, is unproductive. In ready-made radio hit “Ace,” a feature from Saba aptly summarizes Noname’s doctrine of perseverance: “I do not fall to no pressure / … I just raise the bar, I look at it with a measure.”

Honorable mentions for album highlights include: “Montego Bae,” which chronicles the wanderlust of overworked women waiting to live out their ownStella Got Her Groove Back, features a Jamaican instrumental setup but uses the jazz lounge piano of “Window,” possibly to emphasize that the fever dream described by the lyrics is just that; and “Regal,” the singular verse of which delivers some of the cleverest lyrics on the album:

"Africa's never dead, Africa's always dying
No more apples or oranges, only pickles and pacifists
Twitter ranting for martyrdom unified as capitalists
Give 'em death be gone, give 'em Teflon Don
Give 'em Rice-A-Roni politics to bear more arms
And watch the bears come out..."
And watch the bears come out…”

These lines are also possibly the most similar to Telefone-era Noname in that they are snowballs, small visions that tumble deftly into something bigger. The most stirring feature of Noname’s music is that it initially appears light, happy even, until she strikes a soft blow like the one above, which takes you by surprise and raises the hairs on your arms — but only if you’re listening closely.

The conclusion of Room 25 is a song titled “no name.” It does not blend the previous songs together, but rather picks a bouquet from their overtones, adding some new observations in the process. The words range from post-industrial — “Medicine’s overtaxed, no name look like you / No name for private corporations to send emails to” — to classically poetic  — “I sewed the answers in linen, dance ’em under the thread.” The unsettling that’s-all-folks whimsy of the beginning tracks is replaced by gentle piano and a simple snare drum. Noname has found her sound, and with it, a cause for celebration. Thus “no name” is a waltz, lovingly dedicated to quirks, altruism, Chicago and morning sunlight.

Consequently, Room 25 is a lesson in purification for its own sake. Before Adam Ness and Yaw enter with a true crooners’ outro, Noname utters her last words on the album over a sustained violin note: “When we walk into heaven, nobody’s name gon’ exist / Just boundless movement for joy, nakedness radiates…”

Post-Hot Girl Summer, here are 5 women rappers to check out this fall

by Staff

by Bernadette Bruu, WRUC Senior General Manager

(Originally published in the Union College Concordiensis on September 19, 2019).

This past spring, I wrote a feature on Megan Thee Stallion’s first studio album, Fever. Since then the Houston-based rapper has become one of the biggest names on the hip hop scene, having skyrocketed to broad fame after her single Big Ole Freak gained popularity among Millennials and Gen Z ready to embrace their inner wild side.

Many a music journalist has pointed out that Thee Stallion’s ascent both results from and encourages women’s growing desire to take control of their everyday lives. Sure, they can vote, but they can’t dance on a table without being called any number of pejoratives. Thee Stallion wants to change that, as she’s noted in interviews. It is high time women took control without concern for men’s feelings. That process, according to the Houston artist, starts with unapologetic lyrics and the molding of summer 2019 into “Hot Girl Summer,” a phenomenon so widespread that it had corporate Twitter accounts scrambling to incorporate the phrase into their marketing.

Women rappers tend to be controversial figures. In fighting tooth and nail against an industry that doesn’t see them as legitimate, they are perceived as too aggressive, too sexual, too vulgar to be taken seriously. This explains why rappers like City Girls, Azealia Banks often get close to fame, but are soon swiftly “eliminated” by critics.

However, all of this is beginning to change. Hot Girl Summer and its shameless celebration of women, especially Black women, living their best lives opened the floodgates for dozens of other women rappers to grow in recognition and revenue from streams.

In fact, Complex Magazine’s XXL Freshman List, a compilation of what it predicts will be the biggest up-and-coming rap acts, featured three women this year, the most ever to make a single list. Meg the Stallion was one of them; the others are numbers one and two on this list. I’ve also added three others you should be streaming this fall.

Without further ado, here are five ladies spitting verses on par with or better than those of your favorite male rappers:

1. Rico Nasty

One of the 2019 XXL Freshmen, Rico Nasty draws new fans to her with a sound and look all her own. Together with producer Kenny Beats (who has worked with), she merges trap, punk and bubblegum pop to create songs that float above genre conventions and take the listener with them. Her 2018 album Nasty is great for those just getting into her – you’ll find many tracks suited to pregames and cardio workouts alike.

As for recommendations, if you like more experimental stuff, check out her 2019 EP Anger Management. Truth be told, though, you can’t go wrong with any of her projects so far. They’re all high-powered hidden gems you’ll wish you had discovered earlier.

Beyond music, her style and persona are so unique as to be unforgettable. She pairs punk fashion with staples of hip hop aesthetics, adding brightly colored hair and makeup where necessary. While she may look unapproachable, her public manner is friendly and open, with all the buoyancy as you would expect from a twenty-two-year-old who happens to be one of the most captivating personas of the moment.

2. Tierra Whack

The yin to Rico Nasty’s yang, Ms. Whack has all the makings of the next Frank Ocean. She’ll rap and croon on the same track and make you wonder why you’re crying right now. She completes the trilogy of women rappers on this year’s XXL Freshman List, and the designation is well-deserved: everything she puts out is crafted with the precision of a watchmaker and the passion of a painter. Resultantly, her songs are all works of art. Check out her 2018 album Whack World for a sampling of her mini-tracks, and while you’re at it, listen to the singles “Only Child” and “Wasteland.” You’ll thank me later.

3. Leikeli47

This artist is constantly trying her hand at new styles, ranging from glamorous bass-heavy tracks for voguing to dancehall-inspired songs for winding your hips, somehow succeeding magnificently at all of them. There’s a Leikeli47 song for every mood and occasion. She has an impressive discography that goes back a few years, and unlike some other artists, her older material is just as good as her newer stuff. This consistency pairs well with her anonymous identity – she wears a mask while performing and for all promotional photos – lending her a sort of omniscience in the alternative rap scene, taking after the first famous mask-wearing rapper MF DOOM.

As mentioned, most of Leikeli47’s content is high-quality, but my personal recommendations are her 2018 concept album “Acrylic” and her 2017 project “Wash & Set.”

4. Little Simz

This list would be incomplete without a mention of the female rapper disrupting the UK rap scene. Little Simz is tough as nails. Having found her unique voice, she uses her music to project an invincibility usually reserved for male rappers. Because grime and drill, the most popular types of UK rap, are dominated by a chorus of similar male voices, hearing those lyrical modes appropriated by a more feminine voice is blissfully refreshing. Her tracks are also catchy as hell. Listen to “Selfish,” “101 FM,” “Pink Youth,” and/or anything from her 2019 album GREY Area.

5. BbyMutha

Writing, recording and performing music is hard enough, but BbyMutha does it all while taking care of two young children. Her decision to integrate motherhood into her identity as a rapper is radical in an age where women in all fields are expected to choose between childcare and career advancement, and furthermore, between being seen as a mother or a “powerhouse,” two ostensibly mutually exclusive identities.

BbyMutha’s music is a perfect example of how having a signature style can benefit the right person. While other rappers on this list, who are younger and/or childless, have the time and energy to play around endlessly with different techniques, BbyMutha knows her strengths and doesn’t need to take risks to prove she’s full of talent. Tracks like “Rules,” “Indian Hair,” and “Sailor Goon” are lyrically rich, discussing subjects with a specificity that separates her from other rappers who rely on taglines, ad-libs, and the slang of the moment to craft their verses. If you listen to none of my other recommendations in this article, do yourself a favor and stream “Sleeping With the Enemy” featuring Kindora. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Looking for more? Check out these lesser-known ladies: Yung Baby Tate, Kamaiyah, Flohio, Koffee, Bali Baby Kash Doll and Snow Tha Product. If you haven’t yet dipped your foot into the world of female rap, you have so much to look forward to.

Drip king Gunna releases first studio album

by Staff

by Bernadette Bruu, WRUC Senior General Manager

(Originally published in the Union College Concordiensis on February 28, 2019.)

“To drip is to be a king…to drip is to be a winner,” says Sauce Walka, half of rap duo Sauce Twinz and alleged pioneer of the modern use of the word “drip” in hip hop. Thought to be a derivative of the slang term “sauce,” drip has been a constant theme in the music and marketing strategy of Atlanta rapper Gunna, from his chart-topper “Drip Too Hard” with fellow Atlanta scene hero Lil Baby to four mixtapes between 2016 and 2018 whose titles all feature some use of the word. On February 22, Gunna extended the motif with the release of his first solo studio album Drip or Drown 2. This project acts as Gunna’s professional introduction vis-a-vis the general public, with all the perks of studio recording at his disposal. Drip or Drown 2 is smoother and more calculated than past mixtapes.

The album opens with “Wit It,” a powerful genesis that provides a context to “Outstanding,” the melodic self-congratulatory anthem that follows. A vertigo-inducing amalgamation of strings, synth, and hi-hats backs the line “I still got vintage garments as old as my granny / Got my interior almond and outside candy,” resulting in an entrancing listening experience. The speed at which Gunna delivers lines suggests the title “rapper,” but his inflection is that of a singer, not an emcee. Like his mentor Young Thug, he explores his full vocal range over the course of a single song, with a bit of help from autotune.

Unimpressive tracks to skip are “Richard Millie Plain,” “Baby Birkin,” and “Big Shot.” Drip or Drown’s weaknesses don’t count against its strengths, they just decrease the album’s replay value (it does, however, have excellent shuffle potential). The other obvious pitfall is a lack of diversified beats, a production misstep which seems to have shoehorned Gunna into using many of the same flows throughout the album.

Album highlights include “Outstanding,” “Cash War,” “One Call,” “3 Headed Snake (feat. Young Thug),” “Same Yung N—- (feat. Playboi Carti),” and “Who You Foolin.” Promotional single “One Call” has darker tones that Gunna matches with a lower vocal register. Unequivocally catchy, this song is Gunna’s boast of his hit-making abilities.

The penultimate “Same Yung N—-” makes use of layered vocals, putting it in the running for the album’s best song. “Who You Foolin” is another strong contender — driven by a simple snare and a nuanced harp, it’s a blissful listen. “Who you think you foolin’? We not new to it / We countin’ fluent,” Gunna grumbles before immediately and expertly launching into falsetto: “We don’t need no one vouching for us.” It’s a brief but triumphant ode to self-made success and the unique pride that comes from having to watch your own back.

The title of Gunna’s studio debut implies a choice: one drips, or one drowns. At first it seems as though Gunna has won this uphill battle, with all his talk of foreign cars, designer clothing, and social climbing, but by the last song, it becomes clear that “drip or drown” is a perpetual struggle experienced by those like Gunna who navigate the music industry and life itself without pre-established, inherited connections. In this framework, Gunna is not a deity but a guide, his fluid delivery the map that will lead us to drip equilibrium.

Ssion delivers glitter-covered dance punk on new album “O” (2018)

by Staff

by Bernadette Bruu, WRUC Senior General Manager

(Originally published in the Union College Concordiensis on May 30, 2018.)

To hear one of alt-pop artist Ssion’s songs is to enter into an alternate reality, one that fuses the visual culture of David Bowie and The Psychedelic Furs with an equally larger-than-life approach to musical composition not unlike those undertaken by Madonna and Prince. It’s no wonder that Ssion’s founder and frontman Cody Critcheloe (hereafter “Ssion”) lists as some of his influences.

The extension of a small punk band from Kentucky, Ssion is best described as a multiplatform creative project with a vision that reaches far beyond its underground roots. May 11, 2018 marked the release of their second studio album, but they’ve been creating raucous anti-establishment content since the early 2000s. The thirteen-track “O” stays true to its contrarian tradition, but despite, or maybe because of, their DIY modus operandi — skillfully built on electronic patchwork and drag culture references — critics are giving Ssion the praise usually reserved for pop icons, with good reason.

Above everything, an attitude of unapologetic queerness encapsulates the overtones of “O” and glazes each song with a sort of wistful and yet witty glamor. The first track “Big As I Can Dream” is an Old Hollywood ballad for the fringes of Gen X — like if “La La Land” were a gay film that premiered at Sundance. We then transition seamlessly into what Ssion referred to in an interview as his “humble attempt at Bohemian Rhapsody,” an instant classic in the making titled “Comeback.” It was released as a single back in 2017 and has become representative of Ssion’s new-and improved image, in the making since 2001 and revived by a musical landscape that is finally receptive to the celebration of LGBT culture and history.

The first half of the album is wholly upbeat, adapting many structural features of 1980s pop and new wave. Songs like the feature filled “Dogs like Asphalt” is a euphoric shouting match that professes “I’m a doll in the valley of the dogs,” while “Inherit” rolls so smoothly that it sounds like Mel Gibson’s lost passion project. It gets conceptually darker with experimental tracks like “The Cruel Twirl” and “1980- 1989.” We don’t know exactly from what life experiences Ssion is drawing from, but we know it makes us want to scream, cry and dance all at the same time.

The sequence mellows with the wistful “Let Me Down Like U” and “Tell Me About it,” and rounds out with the interlude “Free Lunch (Break)” before finishing strong with “Heaven Is My Thing Again.” This conclusion is a self-righteous tale of discovery, with lyrics like “Long live the king inside my head,” suggesting a possible rejection of the dominant culture that suggests gay individuals won’t get into heaven. It also positions “heaven” as a lover, sending the same message of shameless commitment to seeking out and preserving personal source of happiness.

The end of “O” leaves us with a feeling of restlessness, but it’s surprisingly sustainable. Both his new and old content point to the possibility that ambitious visionaries like him are never content with the status quo. For them, life is a raucous and glittery protest march, and they’re the ones holding a megaphone up to the crowd.