Monday Mixtape August 13: Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande & Tomberlin
Every Monday, Up All Afternoon delivers the Monday Mixtape. It's six tracks to start your music-consuming week off the right way.
Nicki Minaj feat. Ariana Grande, "Bed"
Has there ever been a more thorough case of wasted potential than Nicki Minaj? When she first started popping up on mixtapes almost 10 years ago, she was a verbally adroit rapper with neck-snapping skills—there had not been an MC with her combination of technical mastery and chaotic charisma since Eminem first started dropping tracks in the late '90s. Her 2010 debut Pink Friday was a banger, but even then you could tell that she aspired to more than just being a 21st century Lil Kim. Every album thereafter drifted further away from her core skill set, culminating in naked plays at pop supremacy with RedOne-assisted concoctions like "Starships."
Minaj's new album Queen makes another attempt at reconciling her natural gifts with her need for cross-genre recognition, and the result is an overlong and a bit of a mess. (Apparently 2018 is the year of crossover starts splitting the difference between their appeal on dull double-length LPs—see Drake's Scorpion.) Despite all the buzz that Minaj has received for her willingness to shit talk on some of the rap-oriented tracks, the best song on Queen is her most naked pop play: A duet with Ariana Grande called "Bed." It rules.
Ariana Grande, "God Is a Woman"
And speaking of Grande, this new song from her forthcoming album is also a killer track. I've been hold and cold on Grande for most of her career—I find most of her songs forgettable but "Problem" remains one of the definitive tracks of this decade. She has made plenty of plays for a grown and sexy sound, but "God Is a Woman" actually gets there.
Tomberlin, "I'm Not Scared"
Sarah Beth Tomberlin's debut album At Weddings has been talked about a lot in indie circles thanks to her slightly askew origin story: She was raised a strict Baptist in Kentucky, only to drop out of a Christian college after a rejection of her faith that is at least partially tied to her discovery of the music of Conor Oberst, who then subsequently signed her to his Saddle Creek label. But forget all that, because the songs on At Weddings are minimalist masterpieces, loaded with ghostly melancholy and gorgeous ache. Though the arrangements are simple, there's a heft to these songs (and to Tomberlin's voice) that transcends her youth. If you described "I'm Not Scared" to me, I would probably hate it, but the execution is stunning and I can't stop listening.
Swearin', "Untitled (LA)"
There's a subgenre that exists only in my head called the Hard Jangle, wherein '90s alt bands (usually fronted by women) played generally clean guitar lines with just enough toughness and fuzz to let everyone know they mean business. Belly is the definitive Hard Jangle band, though Throwing Muses, Gin Blossoms, Sarge, Juliana Hatfield, Buffalo Tom and the Lemonheads all fall into that category. Alison Crutchfield's Swearin' doesn't entirely fit into that mold—the project is definitely born more out of Nuggets garage rock and low-fi punk—but I get the same kind of vibes from every new Swearin' tune. They haven't put out an album in five years, and it's nice to have them back.
The Smithereens, "Blood & Roses"
I always wake up with songs in my head, and it's almost always something mildly obscure from my personal past. Sometimes songs stick around morning after morning, supplying a constant internal soundtrack to making the coffee and feeding the cats. I have not thought about this song in decades—not since it was in regular rotation on the Hartford modern rock station's New Wave lunch hour back in the late '90s—but it's back and I'm not mad at it. It's a just-ominous-enough indie dirge with some Britpop sheen and some goth darkness that totally works.
Method Man, "Grand Prix"
The Wu-Tang Clan's first breakout solo star continues to be its most consistent performer a quarter-century later. Ghostface's highs have been higher and RZA can still bang when he's not making movies, but Meth has been steady as hell (unlike other members of the Clan, he's never really had a bottoming out). "Grand Prix" expertly melds modern trap production with Meth's tried-and-true flow, and it's a minor revelation. I probably shouldn't be surprised at this point, considering Method Man managed to make a song about a Batman villain sound badass. Is there anything he can't do?