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The Sideline Observer

Sports and Culture Commentary

Three Great Albums You May Have Missed This Year

It’s been an incredible year for music. From the Summer of Kanye to the long-awaited projects released by Lil’ Wayne and Travis Scott, music fans have been feasting on great new releases almost weekly, far more often than in years past. With the constant flow of big-name artists putting out music, it’s been too easy to sleep on great projects that may not have received as much commercial success and attention as they could in an slower year. With that being said, let’s dive into three releases that haven’t gained nearly as much traction as they deserve.

Kali Uchis – Isolation

Colombian-American singer-songwriter Kali Uchis is best known as the artist that featured Tyler on her single “Through the Storm,” but not for much more. Isolation was released on April 6, and although she received great reviews from major websites, including an 8.6/10 from Pitchfork and four stars from Rolling Stone magazine, she never received the great streaming numbers that she deserved. Isolation peaked at 32 on the U.S. charts. That’s not nearly as high as it should be.

Isolation is the debut album from Uchis. She’s been gaining traction ever since her 2012 mixtape Drunken Babble but hasn’t ever paired her dynamic voice with the solid production you’ll find on Isolation. Highlighted by singles “After the Storm,” “Killer,” and “Nuestro Planeta,” Isolation is my favorite album released so far this year. Uchis floats through the project with her alluring voice, keeping the album interesting throughout its 15-song, 47-minute run time. She has an innate talent for blending genres, as the album hops from R&B to reggaeton to pure pop banger. Production credits are highlighted by Thundercat, Gorillaz, Kevin Parker, Sounwave, and BADBADNOTGOOD.

With the third track, “Just a Stranger,” Kali establishes the earwormy and excited feeling that continues throughout the album. This track serves as an easy entry point to the rest of the album; Uchis bounces around the track, singing a story of boys that only want her for her “hundred dollar bills.” The earworming vocals from Uchis and Lacy combine for an endlessly catchy song that’s unique enough in its production to keep it from becoming tiresome.

Her light vocals take a somewhat darker turn on “Flight 22,” as Kali compares her feelings for a boy to a 1967 North Carolina flight that crashed mid-air and went down in flames. “So pack all your bags, don’t gotta ask where we’re going to / Don’t wanna be anywhere if it ain’t with you / Nowhere in this world can compare, boy that’s the truth / To wherever we’re going on Flight 22.” It’s not necessarily a unique perspective to love someone so much that you’d do anything for them, but her vocal execution and beat-switch about 2:50 into the song make this song memorable.

The second-to-last track is “Feel Like a Fool,” and the jazzy, funky instrumentation provides for an exciting backdrop for Kali’s proclamations that “it’s no fun to feel like a fool.” Her ability to sing about her heartbreak over such energetic production reflect her flair for a song of pure fun. Her momentum continues until the very end of the album, as on “Killer,” Uchis swoons for the boy’s love that has eluded her all album long. The sweeping strings and interesting production make for a great album-closer, and the lack of a clear conclusion to the album only implies that more incredible work is to come.

This is my favorite album of 2018! On Isolation, Uchis provides a diverse array of sound and genre without ever losing focus. Hop on the Kali bandwagon now, as it won’t be long before she’s one of the most sought-after names in her spheres of R&B, hip-hop, and funk/soul.

Innanet James – Keep It Clean

Innanet James released Keep It Clean, his second album, on Sept. 14. Its 22-minute run time over eight tracks is reminiscent of Kanye’s string of seven-trackers this summer, and although James’ biggest release yet isn’t as impactful or even as good as most of Kanye’s releases, James is similarly laser-focused on creating a solid sound based in strong lyricism and creative production. His biggest single, “Bag,” is featured on the Madden 19 soundtrack curated by Travis Scott; he also earned a Pusha T feature on the sixth track, “Better Without You.” Despite the recognition from some of the biggest faces of rap, the Maryland native hasn’t received nearly enough hype from the hip-hop community.

Hopefully that will be changing soon, as the Rostrum Records rapper continues to put out great music. With Keep It Clean, he’s going to be gaining traction. The best tracks on the project are “Memories,” “Bag,” and “Kept Clean.” Although “Better Without You” is solid, with all respect to King Push, it doesn’t match up as strongly with other songs. It’s a song centered around the GOOD Music President, and it takes away from Innanet’s capacity to shine on the track.

“Memories” is a weaving track with an entrancing bassline perfect for Innanet’s high-pitched voice. This song begs comparison to J.I.D., minus a degree or two of the tilt to the Atlanta rapper’s almost-screeching pitch. But Innanet’s flow is constant, as he moves around the beat with finesse, giving lyrical purpose to the funky beat; “You know you out Maryland / you ridin’ with a terrapin.” Shoutout the DMV. Taliwhoah, a British R&B singer, delivers the hook, keeping solid pace with the rest of the song, matching Innanet in flow and in energy.

“Bag” is the track best fit for a Madden soundtrack. The beat has a strong presence of trap drums and bass, but supporting piano melodies contrast the snapping drums to create a driving song clearly influenced by Kaytranada. On this track, Innanet spits even more lighthearted and energetic bars about maneuvering with the bag and chasing the check. He’s chasing the check so hard he’s like “Carl Lewis really running the best.” James is an easy artist to get behind, as his playful attitude comes off as very endearing.

“Kept Clean” is the album’s conclusive outro track. The song has a feeling of appreciation for what Innanet has been able to achieve thus far in his career, but carries strong ambition. James raps about how he’s going to be flexing harder in the future, even dictating that he’s going to be ordering bagels with salmon and asking for the “cream cheese on the side.” The track, produced by fellow Marylander CPSL0CK, leaves the listener simultaneously satisfied and excited for more.

Maybe it’s just me as a Maryland guy wanting to support hometown artists, but this album gave me a taste of what Innanet is capable of as an artist, and I know I’ll be eagerly awaiting anything he puts out in the future.

Blood Orange – Negro Swan

Blood Orange’s fourth studio album, Negro Swan, provides for a strong look into Dev Hynes’ deeper feelings. The entire album was written and produced by Hynes, so there isn’t a moment on the album that doesn’t directly reflect his own inner workings.

In a press release before the album was put out, Hynes described the album as “an exploration into [his] own and many types of black depression, an honest look at the corners of black existence, and the ongoing anxieties of queer/people of color.” His ability to strikingly capture each of these themes on the 16-track, 50-minute album puts together one of the strongest and most thorough releases of 2018.

Although you won’t hear his name come up often in conversation, Hynes has received great critical acclaim. He earned an 85/100 on Metacritic and four stars out of five from the Rolling Stone. Opening the album to see features from Puff Daddy, A$AP Rocky, and Steve Lacy would suggest those to be the best of the album, but the project’s best moments come from Hynes’ most solitary work. Hynes places a skit about a person vowing to “do too much” at the end of the opening track, a sentiment Hynes fulfills throughout the album.

Along with the personal meaning, diversity of sound is what makes this album one of the best to come out this year. Hynes’ songwriting keeps the album interesting at all points, and his talent in production shines through to make this album a pleasant listen when experienced actively as well as passively. It’s an album that’s easy to sink into, but it always has the potential to jolt you out of the same hypnotic state that it can sink you into. Great description in that last sentence

“Charcoal Baby” exemplifies this concept perfectly. The track is opened with a poppy melody sung by Hynes, as he effortlessly glides through the track, supported by almost sleep-inducing synths that are suddenly cut short with a surprise saxophone section. This kind of creativity is what keeps drawing me back to this album. Hynes has a keen sense of accessible-yet-complex production; some of the least impressive songs are the ones where he cedes attention to other artists.

“Nappy Wonder” is a great example of Dev’s varied instrumentation. He keeps his vocals limited after the intro to the song, leaving plenty of room for him to play around with the production that feels cautious at some points. The track eventually finds its answer with a prominent electric guitar towards the end of the song, followed with some abstract piano notes that dot the end of the song. The repeated phrase, “feelings never had no ethics,” give voice to the dissonance featured all across the song.

Hynes’ status as a consistent songwriter for even bigger artists like Solange and Carly Rae Jepsen further illustrate his great talent, and if his continued excellence on Negro Swan is any indication, Blood Orange will be a household name in the greater music scene in no time.

-Michael

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