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New albums: Migos capitalizes on party culture, Kid Cudi continues to disappoint

Migos, "Culture"

It may be heavy-handed to say that Migos reached their current popularity thanks to the Internet, but there is some truth behind the statement. To be fair, the Atlanta trap trio have consistently increased their fan base with each subsequent release since their 2011 debut mixtape. But since then, Migos has been less interested in reaching multiple demographics and more focused on exploring their own community, which is probably best summarized by Migos' favorite self-description, "Young Rich N***as."

However, social media follows no discernible patterns in its selection of the next trending topic, and inexplicably, the first lines of "Culture" cut "Bad and Boujee" became Twitter's favorite meme generator (I read "rain drop, drop top" so many times over holiday break that I didn't even bother to memorize the next line). The track suddenly went from trap hit to mainstay in the cultural zeitgeist, and Migos had a megahit on their hands.

For that large audience whose first taste of Migos is "Bad and Boujee" (or even earlier trap staples like 2013's "Versace" or the following year's "Fight Night"), their second studio release "Culture" might seem like the big musical break that Migos has been building toward for half a decade. In actuality, the album is more of a popularity break than anything else; changes in the Migos sound are slim to none from release to release.

That's not to say that "Culture" is a bad release. The members of Migos--Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff--are some of the most charismatic figures in trap, and their music is perhaps most indicative of the genre's potential. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean much. In the short time that trap has been the dominant form of popular hip-hop, it has showed very little malleability. Bling rappers like Migos are all about the party--drugs, money, and the glory of success power the music.

So there isn't much to be said on the musicality of "Culture" that hasn't been said before. Migos started out very young and (at least with an aspiration to be) rich. Years later, they are still young and considerably richer. The party is going harder, the lifestyle's getting better and people are hungry for more Migos. As of right now, more power to them. But the day will come when the youth culture Migos has helped craft leaves them in the dust.

(3/5 Stars)

Kehlani, "SweetSexySavage"

Much like fellow R&B/hip-hop up-and-comers Anderson .Paak and Chance the Rapper, Kehlani Parrish's greatest trait is her immense likability that mainly stems from authenticity. Her real life tells a story of rebranding, following a stint in pop group PopLyfe that made it far in 2011's "America's Got Talent," but left after serious contractual issues. From then on, she dropped mixtapes in efforts to make it in the fiercely competitive female R&B field. Finally, after a Grammy nomination and a hit single off the "Suicide Squad" soundtrack ("Gangster"), Kehlani is gaining popularity with her debut "SweetSexySavage."

More than public recognition from "Gangster" and the Grammys, Kehlani will rise to mainstream recognition thanks to her keen sense of R&B and neo-soul that takes cues from modern trendsetters like Rihanna--especially in terms of melodic arrangement--but nods to idols of years past, like Aaliyah. That being said, "SweetSexySavage" is evidence of a singular artist rather than a copycat. The artist's confidence oozes through, like when she bluntly declares "If I gotta be a bitch, I'ma be a bad one" on album single "CRZY."

Apparently, with lots of personality comes lots of things to say, because "SweetSexySavage" boasts a track list 19 songs long, including bonuses. As is common with lengthy albums, some songs land while others don't, and while Kehlani does a good job of keeping things interesting with different lineups of writers and producers, a one-seating listening reveals some repetition.

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While the album's issues don't outweigh its strengths, some of its overplayed sounds and themes call Kehlani's future into question. Will she continually build and expand upon her sound until she retains a permanent spot in R&B royalty, like Rihanna? Or will her career tread down a road we've seen before, where promising artists make waves with a debut and fade away? If there's a lesson to be learned from popular music's history, it's that no matter how successful a sound becomes, the audience will flock to new things. Forward motion means survival in the industry. But if there's one thing Kehlani's story promises, it's moving forward. Let's hope "SweetSexySavage" isn't her only step in the right direction.

(3.5/5 stars)

Japandroids, "Near to the Wild Heart of Life"

The first change you may notice about the new Japandroids album is the cover. On their first two releases, the indie rock duo went minimalistic, with a black-and-white photo of bandmates Brian King and David Prowse, framed by a thin white square, with the band's name above and the album title below. But with "Near to the Wild Heart of Life," gone are the white frame and words; only a picture of the two adorns the cover. Is this a sign of growth and freedom for the band?

Yes . . . and no. For the most part, the Japandroids of old are still here, but they've made efforts to expand their sound (as much as possible, considering that they only have a guitar and drums) and take songwriting risks. In doing so, they demonstrate their knack for a heartening melody and uplifting lyrics. Unfortunately, many of the songs lack the untethered, imperfect energy that made early-career tracks like "The House that Heaven Built" so terrific.

"Near to the Wild Heart of Life" isn't necessarily a bad listen--"No Known Drink or Drug" is especially good--but it lacks some of what makes Japandroids charming. Instead of focusing on making tighter songs with smoother production, they should stick to lively playing and spirits to match.

(3/5 stars)

Run the Jewels, "Run the Jewels 3"

Killer Mike and El-P rekindle their endearing bromance and undeniable rap chemistry as Run the Jewels on this self-released follow-up to 2014's "Run the Jewels 2." That now-classic mixtape--with its unrelenting, earth-shattering bass and unforgiving war against "fascists and f***boys"--created expectations for an energetic and nonstop thrill ride that would prove impossible to live up to. "RTJ3" isn't without its killer beats, hilariously vulgar lyrics or well-produced hooks. In fact, it seems like Mike and El have matured slightly.

Songs are longer and more nuanced, with melody sometimes taking precedence over rhythm. The duo also tones down their braggadocio on many tracks, focusing more on excellent protest pieces and statements against the elite that feel hyper-relevant now that billionaire CEOs have gone from buying favors from the government to running it themselves.

Still, there are plenty of insults and gloats to be found. "Panther Like a Panther" is an album highlight that starts with El-P reciting some particularly dirty slam poetry to a rapturous snapping applause before morphing into a bona fide banger.

Run the Jewels couldn't recapture the same magic twice with awesome yet overly long "RTJ3," but they come pretty damn close.

4/5 stars

Kid Cudi, "Passion, Pain, & Demon Slayin'"

Why Kid Cudi still retains such a large presence in the hip-hop industry is rather confusing. With his debut album, "Man on the Moon: The End of Day," he rose from a young Kanye co-writer to massive success. While that album will always stand as a pioneering classic, his subsequent releases haven't ever come close to achieving similar greatness. The fact is that Cudi's discography has many more misses than hits.

Unfortunately, "Passion, Pain, & Demon Slayin'" falls in the former category. This is especially a shame considering how promising some of the singles were. "Surfin,'" which features Pharrell Williams, has a solid groove that, while not entirely magnificent, is objectively better than anything on 2015's disastrous "Speedin' Bullet 2 Heaven."

Cudi didn't learn too much from that album's mistakes. While almost every track sounds good to start, they all drag on far too long. With 19 tracks clocking in at a whopping 87 minutes, this album would've been better off using half of those songs and shortening most of them substantially. "Passion, Pain, & Demon Slayin'" takes a lot of great ideas and beats them to death.

2/5 stars