The holiday season is normally a dead zone for interesting new releases. Once the second week of December rolls in, it's hard to find anything that doesn't involve Santa, reindeer, or Mariah Carey's deathless vocal chords. But if all you wanted for Christmas was some forward-thinking hip-hop or R&B slow jams, this winter break was surprisingly fertile. For those who spent the last month in a hungover turkey coma, here's a guide to the new music you missed over break.
Angel Haze: “Dirty Gold”
When I think Black Synagogue, the first thing that comes to mind is a be-yarmulke'd Drake in the HYFR video. For Angel Haze, the associations are slightly different. Her song of the same name—released on the album “Dirty Gold”—represents everything that's right about her debut album—and everything that's wrong. A combination of whip-smart flow, soaring pop hooks, and heavy subject matter—ranging from religious brainwashing to gender roles, certainly make the track and the album an attractive proposition. However, both are let down by dated dubstep-lite production, bloated track lengths (Black Synagogue lasts a mind-numbing seven minutes), and a reliance on sampled dialogue that makes for a disjointed listening experience. As mixed as the album is, Haze's personality is not one to ignore. Give it a listen, if only to recognize a feisty rising talent.
Justin Bieber: “Journals”
Surprisingly, Justin Bieber has matured. Not lyrically—Bieber clearly didn't get the memo that referring to women as “females” is neither cute nor romantic—but the JBiebz sound has definitely metamorphosed into something more marketable to the discerning listener. Bieber's handlers have tapped into the current vogue for '90s-style R&B slow jams, which click surprisingly well with his controlled yet emotive vocals. He also picked some stellar collaborators: R. Kelly enhances “PYD” with his trademark caramel croon, while Chance The Rapper lays down a witty, playful verse that lends “Confident” some legitimate hip-hop cred. As much as he tries, Bieber's music is still anything but seductive (“sexual romancing” anyone?), but with tracks like the highlight of the album, “All Bad,” he seems to have perfected a form of low-key apologia that reaches the eminent heights of late-period Backstreet Boys—an unexpected joy.
Mike WiLL Made It: “#MikeWiLLBeenTriLL”
Or, “How many memes can I fit into my mixtape title?” This buzzing producer has been churning out hits for Future, Kanye West and Juicy J for years now, but it took a certain former Disney star with a penchant for twerking to catapult him into mainstream consciousness. His first release post-“We Can't Stop,” “#MikeWiLLBeenTrill” shows off not only the Atlanta native's versatility and eye for a hook, but also his ubiquity. Name a major league rapper and they'll probably crop up on the tape. Burbling synths and stuttering drum samples characterize “Beach Is Better,” a standout from Jay Z's tepid 2013 album, while 2 Chainz, Gucci Mane, and Big Sean meld seamlessly with Mike WiLL's beats. WiLL's muse seems to be Future, who appears on eight tracks. The two gel incredibly well, particularly on the aggressive 11-minute “Sh!t Megamix” and “Faded,” a high point of Future's career and an unfairly ignored song.
And Beyoncé may have released an album, or something.