Albums of the week: Ariana Grande, Busted and AJ Tracey
Ariana Grande - thank u, next
Considering Ariana Grande is now de facto the most powerful force on Planet Pop, there is something disarmingly fragile about the 12 songs collected on thank u, next. They’re silken and soft, all pulses and chimes, sweet like pillow talk. “Lately I’ve been on a roller coaster / Tryna get a hold of my emotions,” she discloses on needy.
But do not mistake a confession of vulnerability for weakness. The song has something in common with Cardi B’s Be Careful, which also reclaimed a supposedly negative female trait as a source of strength. She can be needy, sure. But don’t it feel good to be needed?
Grande has indeed been on quite the rollercoaster — it has barely let up since the terrorist atrocity at her 2017 concert in Manchester. Last year she mourned the death of her ex-boyfriend, rapper Mac Miller, and called off an engagement to the comedian Pete Davidson (in ghostin’, she apologises for “puttin’ you through more than one ever should”). All the while she has upheld a release schedule of a kind rarely since the Beatlemania era.
Her last album Sweetener only came out six months ago; the singles here (thank u, next; imagine; and the My Favourite Things-sampling 7 rings) have already topped charts and broken Spotify records. In the streaming era, why wait?
And the songs themselves sound fleet of foot, intimate and immediate. Compare this to Taylor Swift’s eye-of-the-storm album Reputation, which manoeuvred into place like a piece of heavy artillery. Grande’s modus operandi feels so much better attuned to the way fans connect to musicians today: “If I’m hurt, I ain’t gon’ lie about it.” Why should she?
by Richard Godwin
Busted - Half Way There
Busted bombed when they tried to reinvent themselves as a stylish synth-pop trio a couple of years ago. With racing riffs and perky choruses restored under the guidance of rock producer Gil Norton (Pixies, Foo Fighters), the pop-punk boy band’s fans have returned to the fold. There’s shameless nostalgia on All My Friends, Reunion and the single Nineties, which references Oasis, Nirvana and Macaulay Culkin. Anybody who loved Busted in their teenage years may become a little giddy on hearing this album’s wistful tunes. The feelgood factor peaks with It Happens, a self-aware ballad on which their comeback is rolled into an uplifting message of empowerment and hope. Busted sound ready to embrace their man-band destiny.
by Andre Paine
Mercury Rev - Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited
Difficult second album syndrome is not a new affliction. In 1967, Bobbie Gentry’s debut release, Ode to Billie Joe, knocked Sgt Pepper off the US number-one spot. The 1968 follow-up, The Delta Sweete, peaked at 132. Now the psychedelic duo behind Mercury Rev are shining a fresh light on its songs, inviting women including Norah Jones, Beth Orton and Hope Sandoval to sing the Deep South tales of Gentry — who is alive but no longer involved in music. It’s a stunning collection, resting on a sumptuous cushion of hazy, echoing sounds — soulful strings, restrained guitar and a rich grab bag of other tricks. The guest singers have different voices but share a casual, sleepy delivery that maintains a coherent tone and makes this far from a novelty compilation. It’s a treasure.
by David Smyth
Salif Keita - Un Autre Blanc
Malian singer Salif Keita has one of the great voices of Africa and was a star of the late Eighties world music boom. As an albino he has spoken out against the discrimination they suffer. He says this, his eighth solo album, will be his last. I wish it was a better finale. The opener Were Were has many of the worst features of contemporary African pop with relentlessly programmed beats, although Salif’s vocals are arresting. The Auto-Tune on Gnamale is horrible against the choral vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But there are some treasures, including Itarafo, featuring the powerful vocals of Angélique Kidjo, and Tiranke, which is more sparse with just guitar and ngoni lute where the Salif magic endures.
by Simon Broughton
AJ Tracey - AJ Tracey
On his eponymous debut, AJ Tracey continues to experiment confidently with a manifold range of styles similar to one of his inspirations, Drake — a fan of his. Fusing grime, rap, drill, dancehall and afrobeat, no genre is off limits for the Ladbroke Grove star, whose innovation has caught the attention of audiences here and in the US — a notoriously difficult market for UK grime artists. Tracey’s melodic sounds here should translate well across the Pond. His skill at switching between styles is impressive, as is his ability to surprise — Country Star is an unforeseen journey into acoustic balladry. More familiar perhaps are his collaborations (ones with Giggs and Not3s here work well) and his welcome return to his grime roots.
by Elizabeth Aubrey
Driftglass - Cassie Kinoshi & SEED
Last Friday’s stellar album launch at Kings Place proved the point: Cassie Kinoshi is one of the most talented bandleaders and composers currently working in Britain. This solo debut sees the alto-saxophonist and Tomorrow’s Warriors graduate steering a ten-piece collective of accomplished young players including pianist Sarah Tandy, trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey and Theon Cross on tuba through a big-hearted project laced with pride and pain, drawing on black British history to make statements about now, and the Afrofuture. There is inventive soloing from the likes of guitarist Shirley Tetteh, along with grooves from West Africa, the Caribbean and inner city London, with ‘Wake’, a powerful paean to Grenfell featuring vocalist Cherise Adams-Burnett, a highlight. The seed has been well and truly planted
by Jane Cornwell