Various Artists – Hidden Figures: The Album review

Soul meets space travel on the soundtrack for forthcoming film, Hidden Figures. It comes courtesy of Pharrell Williams – who also worked on the film’s score with Hans Zimmer – and features guest spots by Lalah Hathaway, Mary J Blige, Alicia Keys, Janelle Monáe and Kim Burrell. Continue reading

Best albums of 2015: honourable mentions

AOTY 2015 - Hon college: Shareefa Energy, Masayoshi Fujita, Wondaland, Tara Busch (1448x815)Where did 2015 go, ay? It seems like only yesterday that I was writing about my lofty ambitions to hear 150-plus albums this year, and pointing out the absurdity of that goal. Well, I managed to listen to a fair number of the albums on my original preview list, and I’ve soaked up an even greater number than last year. But still, with an ever-growing to-listen-to-list, I’ve been in a state of never-ending improbability to hear all of the records that have come into my orbit this year.

Still, here we are once again, after a year of trials and tribulations, hurt and pain, success stories and retirements, sorrows and separations, fading dreams and whispers of hope, quiet triumphs and steady commitments – and that’s just the news.

In the world of music, things have been as turbulent and trying as ever, while still being encouraged and unimaginably fruitful. They’ve been new streaming services, new business models, new artists and, of course, new albums. Once again, I’m here to offer my thoughts on latter, with the hope that you’ll discover a piece of music that makes your life that much brighter.

Saturday begins my annual albums of the year round-up in earnest, where I run down 50 albums I’ve heard this year and deem to be among the year’s best. But, starting this year, I’ve decided to precede my main list with a selection of honourable mentions.

This unranked appetiser, which includes albums, EPs, mixtapes and even a spoken word poetry piece, is a chance to recommend a shade more 2015 releases that are worth listening to. Continue reading

Jam of the Week: Janelle Monáe & Jidenna – Yoga

Janelle Monáe & Jidenna - Yoga, single artwork (1400x788)Progressive-agent-of-equality-cum-band-leading-music-CEO, Janelle Monáe has come good with the new material she’s championed so far from her fellow Wondaland Records artists. Jidenna’s ‘Classic Man’ was a Drake-like club appetiser that set Wondaland’s men and women of elegance away from contemporary hip hop tropes. ‘Yoga’, the new track from Janelle Monáe & Jidenna, is equally as stylish. It bears a groove that you might expect from a Beyoncé or Rihanna track, spliced with Monáe’s encouragements of “baby, bend over”. It’s a steamy, beautifully direct pop anthem from an artist who appears to be having a tonne of fun with her creative power. Continue reading

Jam of the Week: Jidenna – Classic Man (ft. Roman GianArthur)

Jidenna - Classic Man, single, 959x539 croppedEarlier this month, the genre-bending queen of pop for the discerning music fan, Janelle Monáe, revealed plans to unleash her Wondaland Art Society, the fellow artists and songwriters she’s collaborated with on her first two studio albums (which are among the finest records of the current decade), upon the Earth. Through a partnership with Epic, Wondaland Records is fostering and releasing music from Monáe’s close-knit inner circle. A compilation is due in May featuring music from all five of Wondaland’s current roster, including Monáe herself, who will debut ‘Yoga’. Continue reading

Janelle Monáe review – atomic energy from this flawless performer

O2 Brixton Academy, LondonJanelle Monae, Brixton Academy, London, by Aaron Lee, 09052014, 01 (1448x815)Waiting outside the Brixton Academy on the eve of Janelle Monàe’s sell-out show, the scene resembled more of a fashion parade than a concert for a lady who is undoubtedly one of the finest talents to emerge since the golden age of soul music.

Monáe’s fans – self-proclaimed ‘fandroids’ – were out in force. Girls strutted around in striped leggings, while others had donned tuxedos and bow ties, their hair whipped into the icon afro-hawk of their idol. Most of the gents, too, had swapped casual polo necks for suits, braces and shoes. The sight of all this, the effort, the enthusiasm to get wrapped up in the artist’s world, it was unlike any concert I’d been to before. And it only heightened the anticipation for the coming show. Continue reading

Music acts to watch in 2014

Any avid gambler will tell you that you can never have too many good tips. And while, in this case, tip-offs about 2014’s likely breakthrough artists come a dime a dozen, here are a selection of bold, up-and-coming artists that deserve your attention.

Sampha press photo 03 (724x408)1. Sampha
The buzz around this 24-year-old south Londoner has reached a new high. Already a runner-up in the BBC’s Sound of 2014 list and many others, new single ‘Too Much’ confirms the excitement is warranted. Continue reading

Best albums of 2013: top 10

Aaron's best albums of 2013 collage 10-01 (2500x1000)Here we are. The final 10 and my chosen favourites. Over the first and second parts of my album round-up, there have been disappointments (yep, no Bowie, no Kanye), there been surprises and there has even been some grief.

A picture may tell a thousand words, but music can paint a million different images. Which is why no amount of text could ever capture how those moments of musical elation feel. Still, if you’ve faced struggles and doubt this year, then, in their own way, each of these 10 albums offer reasons for you to press on in search of better days to come. Continue reading

She’s just a Cybergirl

For the past month I have been embroiled in a wondrous chase. A chase so thrilling it feels as though I’ve left the physical part of me behind every time I tune into its hyperactive frequency.

A city, a futuristic metropolis materialises all around me. High-speed vehicles zip this way and that overhead and law enforcement patrols cruise the skyways for in search of troublemakers. Here, down in the grimy low levels things are no less busy, with the streets and back alleys teeming with the homeless, the forgotten and those who scrap a living on the suffering of others. Cleaner bots, gangsters and unlucky merchants fill these streets. Suddenly an android hurtles past disappearing into the gloom of a neighbouring alley. And all at once the sound of sirens can be heard drawing closer and closer. The deathtroopers are approaching…

That’s one instance of how three consecutive songs from Janelle Monáe’s first EP, The Chase, make me feel. Honestly, how can it have taken me this long to discover her transcendent sci-fi music when it’s practically been staring me in the face for months?

Comprising soul, R&B, rap, pop, jazz, dub, funk, dance and a whole blend of other genres that I can’t classify, it would be an understatement to say that her EP and debut album, The ArchAndroid, weren’t meteoric in scope. Yet Monáe navigates and combines these genres with profound skill and purpose. What spurred me to purchase her music was hearing the song ‘Tightrope’ during Edger Wright’s New Year’s Day show on BBC 6 Music. An immediately chatty dance track, I was sold one that alone.

What I didn’t realise was just how deep her emotional touch would be with the breadth of her stupendous sounds. Tunes like ‘Many Moons’, ‘Faster’ and ‘Oh, Maker’ took me on an astral hike like never before. Impossible to resist, these tracks just send my body into overdrive. Even when confined to the drudgery of my commute and expected behaviour on public transport, a brilliant tableau of imagery is flowing in my mind’s eye as Monáe’s music and messages engulf my senses. And this isn’t your usual ‘girl meets boy and falls in love’ lyrics. She manages to express serious social commentary on race, segregation and war through a conceptual allegory which forms the basis for her image. As Tony Renner says, Monáe’s albums are to be listened to in their entirety if you wish to experience the full impact of her art.

Which brings me to the thing that makes Monáe even more special to me: her sci-fi styling. There are few musicians I’m aware of that could pull off the Blade Runner-esque transience that she as accomplished.

And it comes as even more of a surprise, and indeed a huge delight, that it should be a black female artist. Her persona goes against the grain of many of her female peers, who, even if they are intelligent enough to challenge social hegemonies, prefer to conform to the stereotype of ‘hip hop honeys’ which the world seems to feel is their role in life. (Her music contains what been coined as ‘Afrofuturism’.)

Getting back to the sci-fi presentation, it’s so well realised that I couldn’t help but be drawn in. I recall spying her album cover briefly in a print advert last year and thinking nothing of it – I judged it purely the one Isaac Asimov-like image. How foolish I was.

Janelle Monáe is a contemporary visionary.

She inhabits her alter ego of Cindi Mayweather, an android who has fallen in love with a human, Anthony Greendown, in this hash postmodern world, where many of today inequalities still exist. As a result of her affection, she is now on the run from the Wolfmasters and their merciless band of bounty hunters in a city built on social stratification.

Monáe has formed this as part of an overall concept series, called Metropolis, which is comprised of four suites (so far Suite I: The Chase and Suites II and III: The ArchAndroid). In the linear notes of each CD, you can read a brief synopsis which sets up the musical journey you are about to experience. With her lyrical expressions about cybergirls, cold wars and neon valleys, depictions of sci-fi classics bubble up in my brain.

I hear social uprisings, resistance against oppression and that unsolvable conundrum of ‘why’ midway through ArchAndroid. Then, ‘Mushrooms & Roses’ and ‘Wondaland’ take me on an altogether more dreamy escape that feels like discovering a little sanctuary inhabited by those that have fled from the evils of the world. To use a more direct example (lyrics from ‘Many Moons’): “And when the world treats you wrong, just come with us and we’ll take you home…” makes me think of the moment when David is temporarily rescued by a group of outlawed mechas in Steven Spielburg’s Artificial Intelligence.

If you’re interested in finding out more about this pioneering artist, Rockaliser Baby has made some great observations on her and the conceptual direction, BBC Introducing did an early spotlight in 2009, and LaShawn Wanak has more insightful words on the music itself, its influences and how it makes her feel. io9 also spoke to Monáe about more of her sci-fi inspirations.

What I have experienced this month is a euphoric rhapsody of style and substance that’s about as frequent in life as a comet’s orbit. Janelle Monáe is a woman after my own heart. She connects with me on so many levels, be it her exciting blend of musical styles or her science fiction imagery, that I relish the thought of waking up to join her on the run once again. It would take some seriously malicious rewiring for me to resist the call of her future endeavours. All I really want to do now is share her spectacular music with others so we might immerse ourselves in Metropolis together.