Indie artist tackles issues of mental illness

Singer-songwriter Aimee Mann has been a force on the music scene since her initial debut in 1982 with the band ’Til Tuesday, and the release of her first solo album, Whatever, in 1993. Mann has just recently released her ninth studio album, Mental Illness, ending a five-year hiatus from the industry.

In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, Mann states that Mental Illness is “the saddest, slowest, most acoustic” album she has written to date. Over the years, Mann has garnered a reputation for releasing, almost exclusively, depressing songs. In the interview, Mann commented about her reputation and how it affected her songwriting process for Mental Illness

“If [my fans] thought that my songs were very down-tempo, very depressing, very sad and very acoustic, I thought I’d just give myself permission to write the saddest, slowest, most acoustic, if-they’re-all-waltzes-so-be-it record I could,” Mann said, according to The Los Angeles Times.

The style of Mental Illness is certainly more raw, intimate and unplugged compared to Mann’s signature rock roots. Here, she channels similar vibes to those present in the soundtrack to the Oscar nominated movie Magnolia, for which she received the nomination for best original song. 

None of Mann’s previous work, however, matches Mental Illness—at least in terms of melancholia. Throughout the album, Mann delves into concepts of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses through the means of characters dealing with a variety of situations varying from heartache to daily life. 

The idea of mental illness continues to be an extremely controversial concept, as its credibility is constantly questioned by society. Many people even deny its existence altogether. 

Mann takes this controversy on by taking common situations that everyone goes through and comparing them to the struggles of mental illness, illustrating just how unbearable the latter can be. The album achieves Mann’s goal of being her most “depressing” work to date, exceeding all previous albums for miles. Mental Illness captures the essence of human struggle with such perfection and beauty.

The album’s introductory song is also its first single, “Goose Snow Cone.” This track deals with the concept of loneliness and feeling homesick—concepts that can resonate with almost anyone. Mann croons about that pit of loneliness that persists, even when in the presence of friends, as well as feelings of insecurity when outside one’s own home. 

“I saw a picture on Instagram of a cat I know named Goose. Her fluffy white face was looking up at the camera in a very plaintive way, like a little snowball, and I started singing a little song about her that turned into a song about loneliness,” Mann said about writing “Goose Snow Cone.” 

“I intended to change the lyrics [of “Goose Snow Cone”], but could never find a phrase to replace the one I started with,” she added. 

This perfectly demonstrates the authentic and intimate quality to Mental Illness.

The powerful imagery and emotion continues in the track “Philly Sinks.” Mann uses this song as the epitome of her album’s concept, giving her listeners an even more stripped down, bare and personal song. 

In “Philly Sinks,” Mann focuses on thoughts of suicide and how easily one can slip down such a path, birthing the actual potential to commit the act and how suicide affects those left behind. Additionally, Mann comments on the death of innocence in our society, alluding to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, as she possibly sees this loss as a cause for increased suicide rates.

Mann promised to produce an album that would exceed her previous works, which were already believed to be rather gloomy. She has certainly established herself as a dominant presence in the indie music scene, especially when it comes to sorrowful pieces.

There’s no doubt that with Mental Illness, Mann has delivered. No track on this album will leave you with dry eyes.

4/5

Drake’s latest project takes a mellow turn

Just under a year after releasing Views comes Drake’s newest musical endeavor. Labeled as a playlist, the Canadian rapper dropped More Life on OVO Sound Radio on Apple Music’s radio station on Saturday March 18. 

Unlike Views, this playlist arrived with little advanced hype—but it’s no small addition to Drake’s musical repertoire. With 22 tracks, More Life is over an hour of Drake grappling with getting let down by friends, family and lovers, all the while exploring the sounds of black music; this ranges from the United States and his hometown of Toronto all the way to Africa and the Caribbean. 

More Life boasts more of Drake’s brooding, melancholic sentiments, while also offering the mic to various other rap and R&B artists. If there is one thing about Drake, he keeps his lyrics personal and honest. In “Lose You” he ponders over losing someone—or some people—close to him while trying to remain true to himself, saying, “Inspirin’ and never takin’ credit/I know I deserve more, I just never said it/Two middle fingers as I make a exit.” 

With relaxed beats enveloping each track, this playlist seems to scream R&B more than Drake’s usual hip-hop nature. Some critics argue that Drake is worn out, but he assures his audience that this is untrue. In “Sacrifices,” Drake openly acknowledges his opponents, noting, “Niggas see me in person/First thing they say is ‘I know you need a break’/Hell nah, I feel great, ready now, why wait?” 

One track that stands out from this playlist is “Passionfruit.” Musically more upbeat than most of the other tracks, Drake croons in his balmy voice, “Passionate from miles away/Passive with the things you say/Passin’ up on my old ways/I can’t blame you, no, no.”

It seems like Drake is ready to explore other facets of music production through his experimentation of marketing More Life as a playlist. Playlists tend to be made up of songs brought together under an overarching theme or mood. Besides “Fake Love,” there are no standout party anthems, however—something that Drake always manages to include on all of his other albums. The mood of More Life is an air of tranquility and placidity, as evoked by each track.

A review from Slate refers to More Life as “long and meandering, but never exhausting.” This description perfectly encapsulates the playlist. The review goes on to name Views as “Drake’s safest and most unadventurous album to-date.” More Life was a bit safer in terms of musicality, in my opinion. The beats are a bit redundant, and sometimes his raps become monotonous. 

Drake certainly stepped out of his comfort zone in terms of format, though. By playing around with brief interludes from artists Jorja and Skepta and by shifting from an album format to a playlist, Drake’s passion for music remains clear, even if some of the tracks fall flat.

More Life seems like a playlist that will continue to grow on fans with every listen. Drake remains a master of his craft, and only time will tell with what he chooses to experiment with next.

Chance the Rapper first Grammy winner without label

Twenty-three year old newcomer Chance the Rapper took home three Grammys last Sunday. He is the first artist to ever win the award without a record label. (Matt Sayles/AP Photo)

There is much to talk about in the days following the 59th Grammy Awards—from Beyoncé’s show stopping performance while pregnant to Adele’s big wins—but perhaps the most talked about artist of the night is newcomer Chance the Rapper. 

The Chicago native won three major awards on Sunday Feb. 12—best new artist, best rap album and best rap performance—and he did it all without a label, choosing instead to give his music to listeners for free. 

With a career that began when he was just 18 years old touring as Childish Gambino’s opening act, Chance—born Chancelor Johnathan Bennett—has created a total of three mixtapes, the latest of which earned those three Grammy wins.  He then released them online for listeners to stream—completely free of charge. 

Both Acid Rap and Coloring Book have received rave reviews from fellow rap artists, critics and former White House inhabitants (Malia Obama is a fan). In fact, Coloring Book, with its authentic themes of “God, love, Chicago and dance,” beat out some huge names in the category for best rap album, including DJ Khaled, Drake and Kanye West. 

Although he’s certainly had the chance to sign with many major labels, Chance decided to stay independent, which allows him to “offer my best work to people without any limit on it” and work more creatively and freely. Plus, Chance has said that he doesn’t want to be a part of the record labels’ “dick-swinging contest” to get the most and best rappers.

And his refusal to sign with a record label hasn’t hindered Chance in the slightest. He’s written for and learned from West, collaborated with Lin-Manuel Miranda and toured with Macklemore. 

“I honestly believe if you put effort into something and you execute properly, you don’t necessarily have to go through the traditional ways,” Chance said.  

So how exactly does this 23-year-old rap genius make a living? The answer is simpler than expected—by selling concert tickets and merchandise. That’s it. Being an independent artist comes with some seriously dedicated fans. Who wouldn’t appreciate being able to legally and easily download quality content straight to their iPhones and computers?

Although he doesn’t come without his fair share of history, everything about Chance seems to be genuine: his love for his new family—as he has a young daughter with girlfriend Kirsten Corely—his dedication to producing meaningful music and his determination to tell the truth. 

In fact, Chance is an active fighter against gun violence in his hometown of Chicago and is a part of the My Brother’s Keeper campaign, which strives to address the challenges faced by young black individuals and to promote racial equality. 

As for the rapper’s next move, it could be anything; he’s independent, after all. But for now, he’s followed up his Grammy wins with the announcement of his spring tour, which will be sure to keep Chance out of record labels’ reach.

Musical mixtape serves as social commentary

The Hamilton Mixtape premiered on Friday Dec. 2 to great anticipation and fanfare. The album consists of songs from the Broadway phenomenon “Hamilton,” as written by the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, but sung by our favorite musical artists. Miranda began the mixtape that eventually led to the creation of his famous musical in 2009. The album features 22 songs from the original score, featuring artists including Usher, Sia, Alicia Keys, Jimmy Fallon, Kelly Clarkson, Chance the Rapper, Andra Day, John Legend, Ashanti, The Roots and many more. Miranda has suggested that this is only Volume I, with a second volume expected to release shortly afterward.

The album’s songs are similar in style to the original score, which drew a widely positive reception from both critics and audiences for its unprecedented and unique portrayal of a common historical narrative. The experience of The Hamilton Mixtape does not just come with the music itself, however; with it also comes its place in the current political and social atmosphere of the country.

While most of the album is composed of covers, there are also a few uncut versions of songs that are not featured in the musical. This includes “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” which is performed by a diverse group of artists, comprising of Somali-Canadian rapper K’NAAN, Mexican-American singer Snow Tha Product, British-Pakistani actor and rapper Riz Ahmed and Puerto Rican rapper Residente. This song deviates from the rest by rooting itself in the present, referencing the current status of immigrants in the United States.

“It’s really astonishing that in a country founded by immigrants, ‘immigrant’ has somehow become a bad word,” the song says.

The song also tackles issues of border security, discussing the contributions immigrants have made to this country: “We’re America’s ghost writers, the credit’s only borrowed.”

The foundation of “Hamilton” itself lies in its ability to redefine the role of immigrants and minorities in the whitewashed landscape of American history. The story of Alexander Hamilton is told using a fusion of various musical styles popularized by minority groups, including R&B, rap and other combinations of hip-hop with ballads and show tunes.

The cast is also made up of many diverse performers. With members of the LGBTQ+ community, African Americans, Hispanics and Asians—in combination with the musical’s current role in pop culture—reassurance is provided to marginalized people living in fear of the current issues surrounding society. This includes everything from police brutality to hate crimes.

In terms of the lyrical content, Miranda’s creative genius shines through with the inclusion of his early demo songs, “Wait For It,” featuring Usher, and the new take on “Satisfied” with Queen Latifah, Sia and Miranda himself.

Miranda’s combination of modern American musical sound with a retelling of the classic white dominated story of this country’s origins sends an important message about the changes that have since transformed the face of this country. The new face of America is a diverse melting pot of brown, black and white faces that embody the true American values of freedom and liberty.

The Hamilton Mixtape serves to show that our history and our present don’t have to be mutually exclusive; rather, the two serve as two pieces of a puzzle that complete each other and paint a bigger, more important picture. The Hamilton Mixtape embraces change and addresses the diverse America, establishing its connection with the past and its continued presence in the future.

Buffalo band turns 90s influences into original, modern sound

Stress Dolls—a student band out of Buffalo—recently released their self-titled EP on Thursday Nov. 10. The release of this album comes directly after the band’s performance right here in Geneseo, with fellow student bands Ponder the Giraffe and Scarecrow Show. The album features a variety of musical influences, ranging from grunge to indie rock, but lead singer and guitarist Chelsea O’Donnell’s distinctive vocal tone helps deliver a unique twist. Even with the stylistic differences in the songs, the common theme running across the entire album is its ability to revitalize music from the 90s and early 2000s.

The album begins with “Crazy,” which starts off with heavy drums that slowly build into the chorus. O’Donnell belts, “The whole world’s gone crazy and so have I” as the song continues to describe the frustration that befits its title. “I am sure, I am sure I was better before/Are you sure, are you sure, you were better before?”

The lyrics accurately convey the emotions that accompany the song’s subject—it is definitely a song you can sing out loud.

“Pills” switches gears from the previous track; it still retains the band’s overall musical style, however, while the lyrics again reflect the track’s title. While the theme of “Pills” might seem a little familiar, this song discusses the reality of these pills, what they provide and what they mean for the people who take them.

This sense of reality can be seen through the lyrics, “I take my pills they keep me sane/Well they can save me from dying but they don’t save me from shame” and “But with those pills/He’s found his way.” O’Donnell’s voice is slightly sweeter here, but with the same inflection heard in the entire album.

“Swollen” takes on a different tempo from the previous tracks. There is more of an alternative rock influence that can be heard in “Swollen,” such as with the line, “I’m swollen from the tip of my spine to the back of my neck/And I know it/But I stand up straight so it won’t reflect.”

The song begins to talk about being “swollen,” perhaps as a reference to preventing the world from seeing your fear, as conveyed in the lyric, “Shielding ears from what is real/I know nothing is absolute so accept the truth.”

This song strikes a deeper chord, however, which is delivered well through its lyrics. “Swollen” allows the listener to understand and to relate to what O’Donnell is crooning about—all without requiring her to spell out the message of the song.

The final song on the album, “Curves and Edges,” is a combination of many different components seen previously throughout the album. The lyrics seem to discuss society and the experiences of going through life.

“If you’re young then you’re pitied/If you’re old you’re ignored,” she sings. O’Donnell speaks about her own experience with this current issue: “I’ve got no curves just edges/In case you didn’t notice.”

The Stress Dolls do an incredible job of taking musical influences from popular genres that aren’t as common today as they were a decade ago. Through EDM influences, the Stress Dolls bring back nostalgic feelings, all the while managing to stay current by rooting themselves in their own unique and distinctive style—one that is sure to stand out.