Take 5, week of 10/26/12: Special New Music Edition

This is a special edition of “Take 5,” where we’ll look at two of the most anticipated albums of the year and if they can live up to the hype surrounding them.

1. There are very few artists now that can conjure up album sales like those from the old days (and by “old days” I mean the late ‘90s and early ‘00s), but if anyone can, it’s Taylor Swift, one of the few pop stars in the old sense of the world. This week, she released her fourth studio album, “Red.” It is already projected to be the largest selling debut of the year, with over one-million copies sold in the first week.

After listening to the album myself, I can say that this is her best yet. She has abandoned all pretense of being a country artist (the bonds tying her to Nashville were thin anyways), and has matured past the teenage mind-set which dominated her first three albums. The lyrics feature moments that you would never think Taylor Swift would sing of (“I’ll do anything you say, as long as you say it with your hands”), and she almost embraces the troubled relationships she sings of rather than acting like a hapless victim, singing on “22” that “you look like bad news, I gotta have you.” This Taylor Swift feels much more real than the ones on her past album, who was almost a too-perfect picture of teenage innocence.

Swift used Swedish super-producers Max Martin and Shellback on this album, and their work really changes the feel of the album. The songs they produced (“We Are Never Getting Back Together,” “22”) are calibrated for pop perfection. The production on a whole is varied and is a kaleidoscopic representation of what popular music is at the moment. There is dubstep (“I Knew You Were Trouble”), a “Joshua Tree” era U2 soundalike (“State of Grace”), and some 70s AM rock for good measure (“The Lucky One”).

Overall, this album represents a big step forward for Swift as an artist. The songwriting feels more mature, and the production leaves the world of Nashville behind. Taylor Swift may be someone in love with the idea of love, who will always be stuck in the cycle of life that leads to these lost relationships, but at least she can make some enjoyable songs out of these missteps.

VERDICT: B

2. The West Coast hip-hop scene has long been in need of the “next big thing,” to carry on the torch of Snoop, Dre and Pac. The Game was supposed to be that figure, but creative and business misfires prevented that from happening. No other artists have come close. Now, however, the world may have finally found that artist. Enter Kendrick Lamar, 25 years old, whose debut album “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” was released this week. Born and raised in Compton, California, Lamar raised a dedicated fan base by releasing four mixtapes and an independent album before this year. With this album, he can already be considered one of the elite artists of hip-hop. 

This is simply the best debut album by a rapper since Kanye’s seminal “The College Dropout.” Kendrick Lamar shows some of the best storytelling ability of anyone in the game today. The album itself is structured as a story, with the connecting narrative being that Kendrick took his Mom’s car to go meet a girl, Sherane, but he runs into friends on the way that nearly get him into trouble. Throughout the album, there are “voicemails” from his mother that ask him to please come home and bring her car back, along with interludes of his friends’ conversations and interactions on the streets.

Lamar eschews traditional braggadocio in his raps. His lyrics encompass themes such as gang violence, police brutality, and the importance of family, all things that helped define Lamar’s life. In an interview with Fuse, Lamar described the album as “a self-portrait.” This autobiographical element comes through plainly in the album, especially on songs like “m.A.A.d city,” or “The Art of Peer Pressure.” He brings you into his life growing up in Compton, almost to uncomfortable levels, as he shows you all the darkness of his childhood.

There are few positives to say about this album that have not been said already. The best hip-hop album of the year, this album is on the level of “Ready to Die” or “The College Dropout” as a debut. On the final track of the of the album, Lamar opens up declaring himself “King Kendrick Lamar,” the greatest of all time. During this rare moment of triumph, it’s hard not to believe him.

VERDICT: A

Nathan Foster brings you the latest news and highlights of pop culture, from the cinema to the music stage, from Hollywood to Broadway.