Allison Stewart and David Malitz
Thanks to his 2010 time capsule hit “Black and Yellow,” 23 year-old Wiz Khalifa was a star long before “Rolling Papers,” his new major label debut, was released. Hook-saturated and amiable, “Papers” takes the hip-pop trend advanced by artists such as B.o.B. and runs with it; this is a hip-hop album for people who didn’t think they liked hip-hop albums.
Under the aegis of pop producers such as Stargate (the team responsible for Katy Perry’s “Firework,” perhaps one reason the disc is closer to Perry’s vibe than to, say, Eminem’s), “Papers” suggests an updated version of something by long-ago pop-rap titan Nelly, if Nelly sang a lot about blunts, gold diggers and driving around — which he may have done, it’s hard to remember.
“Rolling Papers” serves up singsongy playground hip-hop and a bumper crop of synthy jams, none of which displays an ounce of excess energy or a hint of venom, even the ostensibly mean ones. On “Rolling Papers,” everything is shiny, everything is cool, everything is mellow. There are even songs on it — ballads! — that sound like love songs.
If you’ve only heard “Black and Yellow,” you haven’t heard the best of Khalifa, who uses the great “Rooftops” to expound upon fame’s more realistic perks. Instead of drinking Courvoisier at strip clubs at 4 a.m., he waxes rhapsodic about eating at Whole Foods and drinking lemonade on fancy planes. “Used to not be allowed in the building / But now we on the rooftop,” he crows, though wouldn’t it be better if they let him inside?
Best of all is “Roll Up,” a flawless jam that’s soft around the edges: “All you do is pick the phone up, lady / And I’ll be there when you call,” Wiz wheezes sentimentally, adding, “I could be your best friend / And you be my homie.” It’s a summery hit in springtime that inhabits a category of its own: the Hallmark Banger.
— Allison Stewart
“Roll Up,” “Black and Yellow,” “The Race”
This year, David Lynch added recording artist to his resume, which probably says something like “director, film noir icon, inspiration for your nightmares” at the top. The results were surprising — straightforward electro-pop that was more bright and bouncy than dark and sinister. So Lynch won’t be providing the soundtrack to his own movies. No problem. Alex Zhang Hungtai is more than up to the task.
As one-man-band Dirty Beaches, Hungtai writes songs with the same vision as the director of “Blue Velvet” and creator of “Twin Peaks.” (He’s admitted as much in interviews.) His creations are distinctly American and exist where the innocent and inauspicious intersect. Swaggering ’50s rock-and-roll and the bleak, minimalist drone of electronic music pioneers Suicide serve as the basic building blocks on his third album, “Badlands.” Songs slowly chug forward, are recorded at such a low volume and are blasted with so much echo and reverb that they sound like the ghostly remains of a half-century-old jukebox.
It’s Hungtai’s vocals that make for the sinister element in the equation. He doesn’t say much, but his repetitive shrieks are almost always shiver-inducing. Words are less lyrics than they are mantras — “Speedway! Cadillac king!” he exclaims repeatedly on the opener, while the title of “Sweet 17” transforms from a wobbly warble to a vicious howl.
“True Blue” is the gentlest song — think Roy Orbison if he wore even darker sunglasses — and, like the rest, it never veers from its straight-line course. And that restraint is what makes “Badlands” such an enthralling listen. There’s a faint sense of unease throughout, as if something sinister is lurking around a corner. It’s rarely the case, but it sure keeps your heart beating fast.
— David Malitz
“Speedway King,” “Sweet 17,” “True Blue”
Sisters Tina and Erica Campbell, now on their sixth disc as the superduo Mary Mary, make contemporary religious music set to a secular beat. The sisters love R&B — not vintage, Aretha-style R&B, but the sort of late ’80s/early ’90s New Jack Swing-style R&B once beloved by artists like Salt-N-Pepa.
Their latest, “Something Big,” mixes those old grooves with new-ish electro-dance ones. Dated, endearing and awkward, “Something Big” sounds like it was made by energetic soccer moms with a fondness for Teddy Riley and Jesus, though not necessarily in that order.
The album is divided into two types of tracks: the overtly devotional (such as the stomping, call-and-response title track and the clattering marching band anthem “Something Bigger”) and the sassy, the latter a grouping of Oprah-esque, generically life-affirming songs about staying positive (such as “Survive,” a cheery piano ballad).
“Something Big” is filled with throwbacks that don’t seem to know they’re throwbacks, such as the first single “Walking,” an irresistible self-help seminar wrapped in what might as well be a Jodeci song. Mary Mary also dips a toe into modern day R&B with “Never Wave My Flag,” which kicks off with a grand, Kanye-like electro-operatic fussiness before morphing into a familiar up-tempo pop song about overcoming adversity (“Seems like I should run away / Because life is hitting me in the face / Not today”) — precisely the sort of thing the sisters do best.
— Allison Stewart
Recommended tracks: “Walking,” “Never Wave My Flag”