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Riding the July music tide: Summer Walker, Pop Smoke, Ellie Goulding reviewed

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Summer Walker: “Life on Earth – EP” (Friday, July 10) 

25-year-old R&B singer Summer Walker made her official major label debut just last year with her album “Over It,” which climbed to the top of the Billboard 200 charts. Now, she has returned with a brand-new EP that further explores the smoother, more introspective side of the Atlanta artist.

On “Life on Earth,” Walker takes a trip through the motions of a breakup. The opening track “Let It Go” sees the singer croon about misconceptions, lost love and hindsight after coming to the conclusion that the man in question was wrong from the start. Bolstered by a mellow guitar and a bare-bones trap beat, track one sets the tone for the rest of the project. 

While Summer Walker is the main attraction of the EP, her features undeniably add variation to the slightly repetitive project. Canadian singer PARTYNEXTDOOR brings a much-needed burst of energy in the third track, and takes the EP on a left-turn that effectively propels the entire project forward. While this album’s wordplay, vocals and lyricism maintain a consistent level of quality, the barely-16 minute project can feel much longer at times due to a clear repetition in the song structure and production, which bog down some of the more creative and clever aspects of the five songs.

Despite some mixing and matching, the consistency of the instruments, beats and melodies give Walker’s sophomore EP a mature, “Over It” feel. 

Pop Smoke: “Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon”  (Friday, July 3)

Pop Smoke (Bashar Barakah Jackson)’s death this February shook the hip-hop world to its very core. The tragedy came at the peak of his come-up, directly following his appearance on Travis Scott’s “JACKBOYS” (2019) project, and the release of his sophomore album “Meet the Woo 2” (2019). Following the rapper’s untimely demise, Pop Smoke’s family and management team worked to pick up the pieces of what was lost, and create a posthumous album to encompass who Pop Smoke really was.

The album first met controversy after artist Virgil Abloh released a cheaply made official album cover, which faced backlash and demands for retraction. On July 3, Jackson’s long awaited posthumous project was finally released, with a brand new album cover in tow.

“Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon” isn’t too far of a diversion from the classic Pop Smoke sound. On most of the tracks he brings his familiar Brooklyn drill strains, with punchy lines and his trademark gravelly delivery. Ever since his genesis in the hip-hop community, Pop Smoke has been recognized for his unique voice, and he makes good use of it on “Shoot for the Stars.” Pop Smoke works best when he’s backed by powerful production, bombastic drums and grinding bass noises, which is featured on tracks like “Aim for the Moon,” “Got It On Me,” and “Make it Rain.” 

When Jackson isn’t utilizing his unique talent of harnessing beats like these, he branches out into a number of different styles and sounds, that work to varying degrees of success. Songs like “Mood Swings” with Lil Tjay see Pop Smoke crooning a slew of sexually explicit lyrics over a bare, key driven beat, where he feels far outside of his (and our) comfort zone. However, Pop Smoke’s experimenting can also take him in fresh and new directions. The track “Something Special” finds him assuming the position of something in-between an early 90s R&B artist and a 2010s pop star, bolstered by some of his strongest lyrics on the entire project. 

Another notable aspect of the album are the numerous features which range from melodic trap artists like Lil Baby, Roddy Ricch, and Future, to New York’s own 50 Cent, Colombian singer KAROL G, Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee, and many more. For the most part, these features work to elevate the album, and compliment the tracks that they were placed on. A few artists like KAROL G, however, just don’t sit right with Pop Smoke, especially considering that they’re making a guest appearance on a posthumous album.

Overall, while this 19-track project is far from perfect, and could easily be cut down a few tracks to maintain a higher level of quality, it is a faithful representation of who Pop Smoke was before his tragic death. Jackson’s family and management were able to come through with an incredibly high quality posthumous album in a time when good posthumous projects are a rare occurrence. 

Ellie Goulding: “Brightest Blue” (Friday, July 17)

Five years after her third album “Delirium” (2015) dropped to generally positive reviews, Ellie Goulding is back at it with her brand-new project “Brightest Blue.” Ellie Goulding is unapologetically a pop-star, built on hits like “Love Me Like You Do,” “Burn,” and “Lights.” The 33-year-old singer manages to maintain most of this same bravado, confidence and spectacle on her fourth album, while taking her music into a more mature place.

It’s hard to pick a single genre to pin to “Brightest Blue.” While ‘pop’ is clearly the predominant theme throughout the album, you would be hard pressed to find a single secondary genre. Songs like “Close to You” and “Brightest Blue” have elements of EDM, tracks like “Hate Me” have touches of hip-hop and a few of the shorter tracks, including “Overture,” can even have an orchestral or cinematic feel.

Despite all of this variation, the beginning of the album does drag considerably. The first few tracks seem to pass by in slow-motion, with the opening track “Start” toting a run-time of over five minutes, with far less than five minutes worth of relevant or interesting musical ideas to bring to the table. While individually, the next two tracks “Power” and “How Deep Is Too Deep” are adequate pop songs on their own, their back-to-back placement highlight their blatant similarities, and make two three-minute songs feel like a six-minute one. However, after a short, sub-minute spoken word interlude, things start to pick up. 

For the rest of “Brightest Blue,” Goulding runs through a range of instruments, feelings and vibes, switching up the sound, but keeping the themes consistent throughout. Her use of a vocoder (automatic computerized harmonizer) effect is palpable on songs like “Cyan,” “Wine Drunk,” and “Slow Grenade,” and becomes something of a trademark sound over the course of the 18 tracks, creating an atmospheric harmony that just seems to work. 

For a pop singer, Goulding has an impressive list of features, toting artists including blackbear, Juice WRLD, Lauv, Diplo and Swae Lee. These artists all feature exclusively on the B-Side of the album, but still work to differentiate the sound and tone of the lengthy project. 

Goulding has always been a more of a singles artist, more well known for her standout tracks than full-length albums, and the reasons are evident. While the English singer brings passion, bombast and intensity to a number of tracks, listening to 18 Ellie Goulding songs in a concentrated time period can feel tiresome. While “Brightest Blue” may be worth a listen for its high highs (see “Bleach” and “Close to Me”), it’s not consistent enough to be considered a really top-tier pop album. 

Contact Morris Raskin at mraskin20 ‘at’ stuy.edu.

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Morris Raskin is a high school student writing as part of The Stanford Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.