Album of the Month: May 2021


Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Times

Adam Matos, Staff Writer

In stark contrast to April’s award, which easily went to Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine by BROCKHAMPTON, SOUR by Olivia Rodrigo narrowly eclipsed J. Cole’s The Off-Season for May’s award. This was, by far, my closest race of 2021 for Album of the Month and it could honestly still go either way. But, I’ve made the executive decision against co-award winners for Album of the Month, so I picked Olivia Rodrigo’s debut studio album, SOUR. Arguably the most well-known release of 2021, SOUR is Rodrigo’s love letter to teenage romance as well as speaking on heartbreak and finding oneself. Olivia Rodrigo doesn’t fall into the trap of being a bland pop singer and incorporates some experimental yet still catchy pop earworms into her debut. “drivers license” released in early January is one of the album’s lead singles and shows only a sliver of what Rodrigo would go on to include in her May album release. 

“deja vu” and “good 4 u” are the album’s other two lead singles. Both go in different directions and provide new artistic ideas to the album. “deja vu” is an interesting pop song that also includes elements such as a distorted guitar that takes a while to get used to. “good 4 u” provides the album a pop-punk hit and some variety. The album’s opening track “brutal” also includes a pop-punk guitar as one of the main components of the production. Geez, “brutal” is interesting work. At first, I did not like this track but it grew on me a lot. After looking at the entire project from a new perspective after my first listen, where I simply thought it was not interesting, I realized exactly what Olivia wants to accomplish with her debut. The album has a great balance between slow ballads like “traitor” and “1 step forward, 3 steps back” with loud and somewhat abrasive pop hits like “good 4 u”. The raw emotion found on tracks like “enough for you” is also critical to this album’s success. The lyricism and singing are never lackluster and are just about all you could ask for from a debut album. Coming in at 11 tracks in 35 minutes, there is no filler and every song adds to the narrative Rodrigo is trying to portray.

The few downsides of this album are shown in the choices Rodrigo made. This album can be controversial at some times but I think that almost all artistic choices pay off. Some argue Rodrigo’s work is boring and plays it too safe as well as Rodrigo not having a distinct sound, copying past successes such as Taylor Swift and Lorde. To these criticisms, I say if you’re already saying that Rodrigo sounds like Taylor and Lorde after releasing only a debut album, Rodrigo is in for the long haul. I see it as a testament to how talented she truly is to be put in that superstar company so early in her career. The singles on this album are some of the best pop hits of this year with all three of them having their time of being constantly played on the radio. Rodrigo has all the tools to become one of the best pop artists for the next few years and if she diversifies her sound, she has the potential to become a revolutionary in the music industry.

After talking up SOUR this much it might be hard to think another record had the potential to beat out such a great pop album for Album of the Month. Then comes J. Cole’s The Off-Season. After three whole years without a J. Cole album fans were starving for new music. This made it so anything J. Cole put out would be amazing, even though The Off-Season has its flaws. It just seems unimaginative and basic from a fundamental standpoint. J. Cole does not sound nearly as interesting as he sounded on “2014 Forest Hills Drive” or “4 Your Eyez Only”. J. Cole is trying so hard to stay in the mainstream instead of trying something new. It does not benefit the album at all as it just sounds like any other hip-hop record with very, very good production and flows and lyrics from one who is still among some of the best technical rappers. The Off-Season does have some incredibly amazing songs, chief among them “m y . l i f e” featuring 21 Savage & Morray. “m y . l i f e” has one of the most infectious beats of 2021 and amazing flows from 21 Savage but J. Cole really takes over here. The lyricism and flows are, as I said, great; I have no problems with them. However, on some tracks like “l e t . g o . m y . h a n d” and “9 5 . s o u t h” J. Cole makes the biggest music mistake: not keeping the audience engaged and entertained. These tracks truly had the potential to be really amazing. The production on “l e t . g o . m y . h a n d” is amazing and the features from Bas and 6LACK on it really feel like the track is going to have a reason to be here. However, J. Cole sometimes just doesn’t know when to stop and it seems like he has a verse that just lasts forever and doesn’t go anywhere. If you’re going to rap, have reason to do it. “m y . l i f e” has a set-out purpose, and J. Cole’s, as well as 21 Savage’s, verses are the perfect length to keep you entertained throughout the track. I just found myself bored throughout this album. There’s a lot of filler in an album that is relatively short compared to his other works. The Off-Season is 39 minutes long, only 4 minutes, and 1 track longer than SOUR but the former seems much longer.

Also, I couldn’t make it through this review without saying that the 7th track on this album, “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l”, has the same guitar loop as Portland rapper Aminè’s 2020 hit “Can’t Decide”. I understand the reason the producer on both of these tracks, T-Minus, reuses the loop but it just makes “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l” unlistenable to me. Every time I hear the beat I think of “Can’t Decide” simply because I’ve listened to that track so much and basically memorized Aminè’s version of the entire song. This is a personal issue I have with the album but it definitely tarnishes the listening experience for me. “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l” is one of the most popular songs from The Off-Season, and has one of the hardest features of 2021 from an amazing feature artist in Lil Baby. Lil Baby has built a strong reputation as a featured artist after his appearances on “Wants and Needs” by Drake and “can’t leave without it” by 21 Savage. 

Almost half of the tracks on this record have features, contrary to SOUR which has an astounding 0 features. Most tracks on The Off-Season also have sampled production meaning that the beat has loops or vocals that are sampled from other, typically older songs. The production is one of the major selling points of The Off-Season even though it can get repetitive at some points. The sample on “t h e . c l i m b . b a c k” is truly amazing but the song itself features true painfully long verses and a somewhat catchy chorus for a 5-minute track. I do need to highlight the final two tracks, which are among some of the best on the album and some of the best songs released in May 2021. “c l o s e” and “h u n g e r . o n . h i l l s i d e” are two tracks that I don’t have any complaints about. The former is some of J. Cole’s best technical rapping and the entire track is an exhibit of Cole’s amazing flow and rhymes. The latter is almost as cinematic as the tracks on Cole’s former albums and carries my favorite message from this entire album. “h u n g e r . o n . h i l l s i d e” discusses J. Cole’s success and attempt to not let it overtake him. The backing from Bas and chorus vocals overall make this track a picturesque ending to a somewhat dull album. This album has some amazing standouts that are in contention for some of the best hip-hop songs of the year with “m y . l i f e” and “c l o s e” but the album overall leaves a lot to be desired. 

Overall, this Album of the Month was very hard to decide and I still thoroughly enjoy The Off-Season. Both of these albums are fantastic and I recommend checking both of them out. They are very different in style and genre but they both have their pros and cons. J. Cole’s The Off-Season is undoubtedly a solid project. SOUR by Olivia Rodrigo is just a little bit more solid. 

With all this on the two true contenders for this month’s award, now I will dive into some albums that were good but not really thought about for the trophy. There were three albums that I listened to that I thought deserved at least a shoutout for the month of May. These three albums are Forever Isn’t Long Enough by Alfie Templeman, Scaled and Icy by twentyone pilots, and Bright Green Field by Squid. These three albums are different in a lot of ways but also have some similarities. 

I’ll start with Forever Isn’t Long Enough by Alfie Templeman. This album is a solid all-around effort from Templeman on his debut album but it lacks in its memorability. Almost all the songs are incredibly forgettable, the only standout being “Wait, I Lied”. The tracklist starts very good but as it continues on the songs seem to blend together and it just goes down as boring indie pop. On the other hand, the songwriting is top-tier on tracks “Everybody’s Gonna Love Somebody” even though other songs seem to merge. However, if you like artists like Tame Impala, I would definitely recommend you check out this project.

Scaled and Icy is the sixth LP from twenty one pilots and features the duo’s typical pop-rock style. Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun give us some hits and some misses on this project. The concept for this album is not necessarily original but interesting to see how it plays into the music. It focuses on isolation, an interesting topic, especially during these pandemic times. Trench, their last album before Scaled and Icy, was a huge step in the right direction, but this project does not follow up their most critically acclaimed project in a good way. Scaled and Icy is not by any means a bad album, I just can’t seem to get into it even though twenty one pilots has been one of my favorite duos for a while. 

Finally, this last album is probably what Album of the Month would have gone to if SOUR or The Off-Season. Squid, a punk band from the United Kingdom, released their debut full-length album Bright Green Field. Bright Green Field reminds me of Black Country, New Road’s debut For the First Time which was released this February and was in close contention for Album of the Month. Bright Green Field is a very interesting artistic piece and I would not recommend it to the faint of heart. It is hard punk and the sound choices are phenomenal. The vocals are definitely an acquired taste but once you start to enjoy them the entire album falls in place. The concept is fantastic and it is simply so different from anything else I’ve ever ventured into. I would recommend checking this album out. Chances are you won’t like it, but that’s just part of the charm.

That’s about it. Album of the Month for May 2021 goes to SOUR by Olivia Rodrigo, although it was a tight race. A lot of great albums dropped this May and it’s probably the best month for music so far this year. We’ll see what June has in store for us; I’ll see you then!