Mac Miller The Divine Feminine Mac Miller The Divine Feminine

Review: Mac Miller's 'The Divine Feminine' Will Make You Fall In Love, But Only Because Of Its Sonics

Mac Miller experiments with jazz and funk influences on his new album, and it works. 

In what seems like a rebranding strategy or maybe just an artist’s evolution, Mac Miller is stepping away from his friendly, rebel-rousing and stoner sounds that he first introduced himself with in 2007. The Pittsburgh native recently debuted his fourth studio album, The Divine Feminine – a 10-track ode to his relationship with love and the female body. And while it’s sobering at first listen, what stems from jazz-infused instrumentals, sophisticated rhymes and a lot of singing, is Mac’s best album.

The album doesn’t nab the top rank for its lyrical content. Although there are hints of influence from his last major studio album, GOOD:AM, it isn’t his play on words or clever metaphors that stand out. Let’s be real: the love-oriented LP focuses more on admiring “p***y” than it does on the art of loving or the exchange of emotions between two lovers. Nevertheless, the success of Mac’s album has everything to do with its sonics.

The rapper’s collaboration with Bilal on the introductory track, “Congratulations,” sets the pace for a well-produced and passionate project. And while listeners may have gotten a kick out of Mac’s opening line, “And you too divine to just be mine/You remind me of the color blue/Girl I’m so in love you,” his vocals take a backseat to the enchanted melodies of the piano keys and the violin that builds in the background and carries the song through. In addition to leading with rhythmic instrumentals, Mac constructs a sort of funkadelic groove very early on. And speaking of groove, Anderson .Paak may have been the perfect feature to help flesh out the funk sounds. Their collaborated single, “Dang!” which was released earlier in the year, serves as that summer block party jam led by an electric guitar and Donnie Trumpet-inspired horns.

The horns only become more prevalent as the playlist rolls over into “Stay.” The song, which may be one of the rapper’s most romantic tracks on the album, is a crescendo of trumpets and saxophones, only softening on the hook when Mac pleads with his girl to bypass all of the arguing and meaningless fights and stick around. The rapper incorporates a woman’s drawn out groans and other sex noises over classic, 90s instrumentals as a transitioning tool to “Skin,” the sex-crazed anthem on the album. By contrast to the first three tracks, the up-tempo groove dissolves, taking listeners from the block party to a dim-lit underground lounge.

But Mac picks up momentum once again with “Cinderella” featuring Ty Dolla $ign on the hook. With Ty taking over for the vocals, the song sounds like a the modern-day fairytale – the rapper and his girl jump in bed with each other only to realize after the fact that there’s more than sexual tension. And that’s where “My Favorite Part” comes in. The collaborated single with recently confirmed girlfriend, Ariana Grande, is a soulful illustration of the best parts of being in a relationship. As expected, Ariana steals the show as she pours over the track with a series of soothing notes. But as she and Mac continue to harmonize over the soft plucking of guitar strings, the song definitely refocuses on the album’s central theme of love.

During a recent interview with The Breakfast Club, the rapper noted that outside of their romantic relationship, the two make magical records together. And it’s safe to say, he wasn’t wrong. Unless you’re Jay Z and Beyonce, a couple duo runs the risk of translating as corny and forced. But Mac and the pop princess do a great job of staying clear of call and response-type vocals. Kendrick Lamar also helps to defuse any lingering stench of lovey-dovey clichés on “God Is Fair, Sexy Nasty.” The seductive track leads with a ritzy, jazz-inspired intro, unravelling into K.Dot’s melodic chorus. “It sounds like being in the ocean, relaxing, calm, floating, and just like there and comfortable in your thoughts,” Mac said of the collaboration on Beats 1 Radio. While probably not the climax fans could have expected, the song’s “floating” nature is the perfect metaphor to the overall feeling of being engrossed in love.

The Divine Feminine is a project meant for the live stage. As seen during Mac and Anderson .Paak’s performance of “Dang!” on the Late Show or his performance of “We” with CeeLo Green on the DirecTV’s Audience Network, his tracks' sonic bridges and powerful instrumentals really captivate live audiences. In terms of content, Mac Miller probably still has some work to do when it comes to fleshing out his outlook on romantic love. But with only 24 years of age under his belt, that will mostly likely come with more experience.

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Megan Thee Stallion’s Southern Rap 'Fever' Dream

Hot Girl Meg is already an urban legend. You can see her on the cover of Fever, looming over a luxury auto in skin-tight leopard print as flames and horses erupt behind her. It’s the undeniable movie poster aesthetic of blaxploitation icons like Pam Grier’s Coffy. It’s a perfect fit for rapper Megan Thee Stallion, whose music channels a Southern rap tradition full of larger-than-life figures like Trina, Gangsta Boo, and her hero Pimp C.

The 24-year-old born Megan Pete started rapping in childhood after accompanying her mother, Holly Thomas aka rapper Holly-Wood, to recording sessions in Houston. Megan’s career began with freestyles at college parties, and she released three mixtapes in three years with her mother as her manager, building her buzz while still completing courses. The rapper is slick and authoritative on the mic as she channels alter egos like Hot Girl Meg, who she calls “the party girl, the polished girl, the turn-up queen.” Her debut album Fever, released last week, is a showcase for this alter ego. Hanging with Hot Girl Meg makes for a fun 40 minutes.

Though her profile has risen to the level of Drake Instagrams and Khalid features, Megan Thee Stallion does not make pop music. She raps, she’s excellent, and she knows it. “I’m a real rap bi**h, this ain’t no pop sh*t,” she ad-libs victoriously on her first song “Realer.” Sure, pop music has eagerly siphoned from rap this decade, but rappers have been drawing lines in the sand since Q-Tip said “Rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop” in ‘91. Nowadays, the A Tribe Called Quest auteur is still pushing rap forward as an executive producer for Fever.

“Sex Talk,” the album’s lead single, is a showcase for Megan’s bars. “I’ma bust quick if your lips soft,” she raps in short bursts around distorted bass and snaps. “Rock that ship ‘til ya blast off.” In her second verse, she accents the offbeat to boast, “I should be in museums because this body a masterpiece.” Though the song’s popularity was eclipsed by the video release for last summer’s more bombastic “Big Ole Freak,” it’s a fitting introduction to Thee Stallion: her range of staccato to elongated flows is catnip for heads like her who grew up on freestyle DVDs, paired with a blown out beat riding the minimalist wave that’s subsumed parties across the country.

Sex is the main concern in Megan Thee Stallion’s work, followed closely by money. Such confident sexuality from a black woman has unfortunately drawn criticism and retrograde questioning from some in the media, but she’s undaunted. “You let the boys come up in here and talk about how they gon’ run a train on all our friends and they want some head and they want to shoot everything up, and they want to do drugs,” she told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “Well, we should be able to go equally as hard. I don’t want to hear none of that ‘That’s offensive!’ or ‘All she talk about is p***y.’”

Megan’s mercenary demand for her pleasures is a refreshing gender swap of rap tropes. On “Running Up Freestyle,” she raps, “He say I should be nicer, well your d**k should be bigger.” She’s blunt enough to make me clutch my pearls on behalf of my gender before I burst out laughing. Later in “Sex Talk,” Megan kicks a would-be lover out when she cues up trap music and he asks “Girl, you tryna trap me?” She’s offended by the insinuation she needs to keep a captive, when she doesn’t need anyone she doesn’t want in the moment. It’s a role reversal that plenty of female rappers have executed previously, but few with the same raw skill.

“Hood Rat Sh*t” opens with a sample of a 2008 viral video, a 7-year-old explaining his desire to do “hoodrat stuff” with his friends. The uptempo drums bounce around cavernous piano chords with gleeful menace like a gaggle of unsupervised kids. Megan’s rhymes launch into double time in the lead-up to the chorus, which she spits like a playground taunt. In the third verse, she gives an evocative example of the title: she’s at the strip club drinking Henny from a champagne glass, “eating chicken wings with a thick bi**h” who’s dancing like the diamonds in her necklace. Her swaggering flow sounds like the reincarnation of Pimp C, with the tall tale verses to match.

Rising Charlotte rapper DaBaby adds a verse over bellowing 808s on “Cash Sh*t.” When Megan says “That’s my dog, he gon’ sit down and listen,” DaBaby describes fixing his partner’s weave during sex and incorporating headlocks into new positions. On its own, his verse might be too direct, like a stranger leering from the end of the bar. It’s perfectly absurd on Megan’s album. He works as a foil to the main attraction, like he’s just trying to keep up.

 

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The only other guest on Fever is Juicy J on “Simon Says,” where he also supplies a beat that sounds like a house party in the middle of a home invasion. “Simon says bust it open like a freak,” Megan raps like a nursery rhyme, a fitting match for the originator of “Slob On My Knob.” The song was the center of a minor controversy over the album release weekend when singer Wolf Tyla implied she had a writing credit and drew an indignant response from Megan. The facts became harder to parse from there. Maybe Tyla wrote the hook, or maybe Juicy did and asked her to record a reference track. (A just okay hook to go to bat for as an unknown ghostwriter, frankly.) In an era where the world’s biggest male stars snipe at each other about fragments of songs they’ve written for one another, this shouldn’t be a story, but a rising female rapper can’t allow any question of her bona fides.

Even if “Simon Says” is entirely ghostwritten, the Three 6 Mafia homage is far from an aberration in Megan’s catalog, or even on Fever. Juicy J produced two other album cuts, future strip club anthems “Pimpin” and “Dance.” Fellow co-founder Project Pat contributes to “W.A.B.,” built around a sample of the group’s “Weak Azz Bi**h.” Three 6’s influence is apparent in so many strains of modern hip-hop, but on Fever Megan places the Memphis collective alongside Houston and New Orleans in a firmly Southern context. The album concludes with Megan declaring herself “Hot Girl Meg from the motherf**kin’ South,” and it doesn’t feel like a conclusion, just a tantalizing cliffhanger promising further misadventures.

Fever is not perfect. “Best You Ever Had” strays a little too close to pop. Halfway through an album of knocking beats, it’s jarring to hear Megan’s voice coated in electronic sheen, sharing space with a recorder loop. In headphones the project becomes a bit repetitive in the back half, but it won’t be noticeable blaring out of club speakers. Given how quickly she’s befriended so many other stellar young female rappers, it would have been great to hear her spar with some of them on her debut.

Nevertheless, Megan Thee Stallion is picking up the baton for Southern hip-hop with a quick tongue and trunk rattling beats optimized for twerking. She inherited the legacy from her mother, as well as an unstoppable work ethic, the kind that kept her from cancelling shows even after her mother’s tragic death this spring because “I know she wouldn’t want me to stop.” Not long ago, a buzzy mixtape rapper signing to a major label like 300 Entertainment was a one-way ticket to clunky albums overstuffed with radio bait. Fever’s cohesion is a testament to Megan’s talent and dedication. Look forward to partying with Hot Girl Meg all summer.

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Bradley Murray

Jamila Woods Resurrects Legends On ‘Legacy! Legacy!’

Three years ago, Jamila Woods entered the scene as a woman grounded in her self-hood on her debut HEAVN. The album is a memoir of her upbringing on Chicago’s South Side and her introspections are comfort food for anyone on a search for their center. She digs up memories such as pride in games she played growing up on “Popsicle (Interlude)” and runs down why she’s worthy of all good things on the healing self-love anthem “Holy.” The sound is dripped deeply in neo-soul and hip-hop, in the family of her Chicago peers Saba, NoName, and Chance the Rapper.

Now the 29-year-old returns evermore enchanting on her sophomore effort, Legacy! Legacy! This time, the singer-songwriter puts herself in direct lineage with legendary black artists, writers, poets, and musicians by naming each of the project’s tracks after them. Woods was inspired by these heroes on her journey as an artist, published poet and community organizer. But she’s not simply riding on the shoulders of these legends. She’s using lyricism and storytelling to resurrect them as if they were to speak to us today.

“I thought of it not so much as writing songs about these people, but thinking of the songs as self-portraits,” she explained to Pitchfork in an interview. “I was looking through the lenses of these different people, their work, things they said.”

The result is 13 tracks of her soothing lullaby, free-flowing melodies, and sing-songy raps of gratitude for each of the lessons she learned from these greats.

There is “Betty” dedicated to Betty Davis, an unsung funk musician whose empowered spirit was ahead of her time and caused her to be shunned from the spotlight. Davis was also married to jazz pioneer Miles Davis, who she influenced in the latter part of his career. The marriage ended in a rocky divorce and Jamila considers whether this hindered Betty’s success by flipping her story into a song about guarding her light around toxic masculinity and men who could interrupt her growth. “Let me be, I'm trying to fly, you insist on clipping my wings,” she sings over the piano-led track, produced by Chicago producer OddCouple.

Woods continues to explore relationships on “Frida,” a funky boom-bap number produced by Chicago-based Slot-A, who produces most of the album. The track draws inspiration from the Mexican icon Frida Kahlo’s relationship with Diego Rivera. The couple lived in separate homes connected by a bridge while they were together. Woods uses this as a symbol for maintaining your own space to find self, whatever that may look like, even when you’re in a partnership. “Multiply my sides, I need a lot of area/A savior is not what I'm seeking/I'm god enough and you be believing,” she commands.

Although Woods shines on her own tracks, one standout feature is Brooklyn emcee (and current touring mate) Nitty Scott on “Sonia.” The track is inspired by a poem written by Black Arts movement poet Sonia Sanchez in the voice of an enslaved black woman who was finding power in detailing the trauma of her condition. Similarly, Scott lays out all her experiences with toxic relationships on a verse that should be studied by all young woman as a relationship manual. “All the women in me are tired/Listen, ni**a/My abuela ain't survive several trips around the sun/So I could give it to somebody's undeserving son,” Scott quips. Woods also describes finding clarity on relationship issues after talking them out with her mother, grandmother, and cousin. “I knew I could do it 'cause if my blood went through it/I knew I could endure it, I knew that I could heal it,” she croons.

When she’s not breaking down the personal, Woods takes on race politics. On the gritty “Miles” dedicated to the aforementioned Davis, Woods embodies his rebellious attitude toward racism. “You could make me tap dance, shake hands, yes ma'am/ But I'm a free man now,” she flexes on the track’s first verse. The song also tells of a man who took the oppression he faced and poured it into mastering his musicianship. Davis talks about this in a 1962 Playboy interview, where he explained that when he was in high school he knew he was the best trumpeter in music class, but all the white students would win the first prizes in contests. “It made me so mad I made up my mind to outdo anybody white on my horn,” he recalls. “If I hadn't met that prejudice, I probably wouldn't have had as much drive in my work.” Davis went on to become one of the most influential jazz artists in the world. Woods calls on that pride he had in his genius, as she references Davis’s 1950 album Birth of Cool on several lines, including, “You can't fake the cool/I could do it in my sleep.”

The spacey-electronic “Octavia” echoes the late science fiction author’s notable ability to manifest her success through journaling. Butler was one of the most prominent black women to write in a mostly white and male-dominated genre, publishing dozens of books, and was the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant, among other awards. During Butler’s rise, she wrote out her goals in a series of affirmations that were put on display in an exhibit called “Octavia Butler: Telling My Stories” at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California in 2017. One of the notes read, “My books will be read by millions of people! I will buy a beautiful home in an excellent neighborhood!” On the chorus, Jamila borrows one stunning line from her notes: “I write it down, it happens next/So be it, see to it.”

Woods talks candidly to white Americans about their privilege and how it blinds them from reality on “Baldwin” in the same way James Baldwin did in his writings. Baldwin once wrote in a 1962 essay in The New Yorker: “Now, there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure. And it is clear that white Americans are not simply unwilling to effect these changes; they are, in the main, so slothful have they become, unable even to envision them.” Woods keeps the same energy when grieving about gentrification — which is now a fabric of life in most American cities — and the stress it can bring black natives of big cities. “You could change a hood just by showing your face / Condo climbing high, now the block is erased / (You don't get it, get it),” she spits.

On Legacy! Legacy!, Woods took her ability to paint her rage with social conditions and complex emotions within intimate relationships to the next level, solidifying her as a modern day griot. Yes, this album on the surface is inspired by historical figures but, as promised, the songs aren’t simply biographies about their accomplishments. Woods studied what made each of these individuals human and transformed those insights into a cohesive oral history that connects the past to the present. It’s not an album to be digested in one sitting. She is inviting us to join her in remembering these legends more deeply beyond social media posts that dilute their legacies to soundbites, photos and quote posts on their birthdays. The eras from which these icons rose to prominence passed, but the lessons they offer are timeless. Count on Woods to keep them alive and make sure they’re told.

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Review: Anderson .Paak Reroutes To 'Ventura'

Just five months after his last album Oxnard, singer/producer/drummer/entertainer extraordinaire Anderson .Paak is back with Ventura, his fourth studio LP. Depending on who you ask, the new project is either a surprise second course, or a round of comped desserts to make up for an overdone entree.

The Korean-African-American musician born Brandon Paak Anderson spent the first half of this decade intermittently recording under the name Breezy Lovejoy, converting rock songs into R&B, and drumming for an American Idol alumnus. In 2015, he emerged into the national spotlight thanks to six features on Compton, the long-gestating Dr. Dre album formerly known as Detox. He took advantage of the attention and released two full-lengths in 2016: Malibu was a sprawling solo album that showed him equally deft with bass-heavy club tracks or Sam Cooke-esque soul. Yes Lawd!, a collaboration with producer Knxwledge under the name NxWorries, was a chopped up stoner odyssey, Madvillainy if DOOM could sing as well as he spit. That same year, .Paak announced that he had signed to Dr. Dre’s label Aftermath in a brief but celebratory video featuring the rap mogul himself.

.Paak took nearly three years to unleash the full power of the PR by Dre machine: he debuted the lead single on Zane Lowe, soundtracked an Apple ad, and compared the album to landmarks like The Blueprint and The College Dropout. When Oxnard finally dropped last November, reviews were generally positive but mixed, and it peaked at 11 on the Billboard album charts. Enough fans felt the singer had strayed from his post-millennial soul sound that his own mother felt the need to clap back. With a sprawling summer tour schedule looming, .Paak released his follow-up, Ventura, last Friday.

To hear the artist tell it, that was always the plan. “I told Dre when we were maybe about 80 percent into the Oxnard record that I wanted to actually do two records and he started scratching his head. ...I was like, ‘Let me do two, man. One will be gritty, one will be pretty,’” .Paak told HipHopDX. It’s clear that both albums were compiled from the same sessions, but they are distinct. While Anderson .Paak’s last project emphasized the Michael Bay-sized hip-hop beats that Dr. Dre perfected at the turn of the millennium, Ventura has a more soulful sound. It doesn’t slap, it grooves.

As the cover portrait of the artist with his child suggests, Ventura is an intimate record. He’s focused on sex and love in the long term, the ups and downs of relationships years after the introductory one night stands other pop stars sing about. His blunt-burnt yet sweet voice conjures a charming scoundrel character on record, a dad celebrating Friday night with a popped collar and glass overflowing with dark liquor. It’s a compelling persona .Paak previously exaggerated to cartoonish proportions on Yes Lawd!

Here, his pen shines on the small moments that hint at big feelings. On “Jet Black,” .Paak and his girl are getting physical for the first time in some time, sharing the peak of an unfamiliar high. “It’s been a while, baby, come here,” .Paak beckons. The house beat burbles with slap bass and descending organ as Brandy sings “Feels like someone lifted me.”

.Paak heats up a similarly chilled relationship on the luxuriant “Make It Better.” “Meet me at the hotel motel, though we got a room at home, go to a place that we don't know so well,” he murmurs. Over a laidback thump, .Paak tries to reignite passion in order to save his relationship. His voice desperately yelps on the chorus as the pressure he feels to reconnect emerges, but it quickly subsides into sweet nothings. Smokey Robinson’s backing vocals float in like he’s playing on a radio outside the lovers’ motel room. They’re buried low enough in the mix to suggest that if you’re cool enough to get a feature from a quiet storm legend, you’re cool enough not to rub it in.

Ventura’s precursor was stocked with verses from luminaries like Snoop Dogg, Q-Tip, and Kendrick Lamar, but Ventura’s only guest rapper, Andre 3000, appears on the first track, “Come Home.” It’s a rough start. The song opens with a piano melody that loops but never resolves, creating an anxiety similar to an iPhone alarm clock tone. .Paak begs for someone to come home, but it’s unconvincing, like he doesn’t yet understand why they left in the first place.

While Smokey’s feature is masterfully underplayed, Andre 3000’s verse gets a garish spotlight. Since Idlewild, 3 Stacks has made a habit of releasing guest verses on occasion in lieu of making an album of his own. When he’s on, he’s one of the best rappers alive, but “Come Home” is a rare misstep. The Outkast rapper fills entire bars with syllables about asking for forgiveness on a moped with a puppy, but it doesn’t feel charismatic. Fitting Willy Wonka, Tilikum, and Billabong into the same verse is admirable in a technical sense, but it feels like Andre’s “Rap God” technique for its own sake.

The album finishes much stronger. The last track “What Can We Do?” is built around a chiming sitar, and it savors contentment like a West Coast “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” .Paak duets with Nate Dogg on the hook, using recordings made before the legend’s untimely death in 2011. The deceased vocalist was a key G-funk ingredient, but his voice sits comfortably in a sunnier sound. It’s a credit to .Paak that the faux studio banter that closes the song feels natural.

The other features are similarly complementary to .Paak. Lalah Hathaway coos in unison with him on the disco half of “Reachin’ 2 Much.” Jazmine Sullivan plays the other woman, forced to climb in through the fire escape to retrieve her rings and “Good Heels” the morning after. Only Sonyae Elise spars with her host, offering a righteous rebuttal to his demands for the women in his life and sarcastically suggesting that he might be the “Chosen One.”

.Paak name drops to a few key inspirations in his lyrics as well. Later in “Chosen One,” he raps, “Heard your fans want to keep you in the underground, cool, when I blow up say I did it for MF DOOM,” a reminder of his pre-fame time in LA’s crate digging underground scenes. He contemplates leaving a relationship on “Reachin’ 2 Much” and all he can offer is “I’ll see you next lifetime, baby, what did Badu say?”

Like Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah diptych a decade ago, .Paak’s lyrics about current events are enough to provoke reflection without detracting from the physical pull of the grooves. He nimbly raps “Chicken wings and sushi, I’ve gotten used to the perks, narrowly escaping the holy war on the turf” on “Yada Yada.” Lead single “King James” praises people with public platforms for refusing to go along with a murderous status quo, promising to jump over any wall and bring the neighbors with. In the midst of his “Winners Circle” flirtation, .Paak raps “When I get the gushy, I go dumb like the President.” It’s not a jaw-dropping lyric, but it’s comforting to know that a bar that direct will be performed in arenas across America this summer.

Anderson .Paak’s talent is unquestionable and his spotlight is well-deserved, especially knowing he’s endured homelessness and familial legal trouble on his come-up. To his credit, he appears to be striving towards a magnum opus, a landmark album that becomes a household name like The Chronic or Midnight Marauders. Despite his strong catalog plus a plethora of excellent features, .Paak has yet to deliver that opus. (Yes Lawd!’s destiny as a cult classic aside.) Ventura is a fun, pleasant listen, and an improvement on the bombast of Oxnard. Like most double albums, one gets the feeling that there’s a great forty minute playlist waiting to be assembled from their best tracks.

Ventura ultimately doesn’t quite match the highs of his earlier albums, but it’s a leisurely stroll in the right direction. Nearly a decade into his recording career, it’s proof that .Paak can always find his way to the next beach.

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