(Asylum *** ½)
Despite an impressive array of hits ("I Love It," "Stay Away," "Boom Clap," and this year's breathy, awestruck "Boys"), Charli XCX has never sustained her chameleonlike brand of pop perfection over the course of a full-length album. So her second mixtape of 2017 may be her best collection yet, as well as her weirdest. Enlisting gorgeously malfunctioning production from the surrealist PC Music crew (A.G. Cook, SOPHIE, EasyFun), plus cameos from fellow insider-pop royalty (Carly Rae Jepsen, Tove Lo, Charlift's Caroline Polachek) and bawdy rappers (Cupcakke, Mykki Blanco, Brooke Candy), XCX plays a hook-generating android on the zero-gravity beatlessness of "Lucky" and the positively ear-hammering centerpiece, "Femmebot." And between rap verses on "I Got It," our host has been processed beyond the point of any recognizable being at all. — Dan Weiss
(Shady / Interscope **)
Eminem skillfully stoked expectations for Revival, his first album in four years, with "The Storm," an anti-Trump screed that went viral after its debut on the BET Awards in October. Though many mainstream acts have avoided talking politics for fear of alienating their bases, the Detroit rapper generated buzz by going so far as to unequivocally tell Trump supporters among his fans that they need to choose between him and the president.
On Revival, Slim Shady keeps hammering at Trump, with less success than before. Political punches that don't land are the least of Eminem's problems on Revival, however. The way-too-long album is wildly uneven and uncertain what it wants to be. The opener, "Walk on Water," which features Beyoncé, finds the rapper doubting his self-worth in a way that's both in keeping with the self-critical strain throughout his career and borrowing a theme from "Kill Jay Z," the lead track on the far more graceful 4:44.
But from that somewhat promising beginning, the album works at cross purposes, attempting to reconcile the mature musings of a 45-year-old man with the juvenile wilding of "the old Eminem." There are a few effective tracks, such as "Need Me," a collaboration with Pink that's as much hers as his. But Revival's production is pedestrian at best, with the most disappointing tracks helmed by Rick Rubin.
The idea seems to be to capture a measure of the bratty magic of License to Ill-era Beastie Boys. Instead, the rapper winds up embarrassing himself. — Dan DeLuca
No_One Ever Really Dies
Hop pop multi-hyphenated Pharrell Williams may not need Chad Hugo (his brother in famed production team the Neptunes) and/or their childhood friend rapper Shae Haley to sell records. But in terms of making aggressively angular, oddball New Wave-y funk with Williams' usual ear for contagion — to say nothing of an edgy lyric beyond something numbly dumb like "Happy" — N.E.R.D. is a necessary evil.
To go with its experimental laissez faire sonic vibe (think Williams' Skateboard P phase) and test subject ska tracks such as "Don't Don't Do It" (about the 2016 murder of Keith Scott by Charlotte, N.C., police), rapping guests such as Future and Rihanna tackle trap rhythms with gusto on "1000" and "Lemon,", respectively. Beyond the noise and ruckus, there is a sociopolitical edge to this new N.E.R.D. outing that didn't exist in previous space-soul settings. Not so "Happy" is the panicky "Deep Down Body Thurst," in which Williams pours his heart into the menacing lyric "We're gonna climb your wall / It'd be worth the fall / I sure hope you're just talking man, and that's all." Rather than get Kendrick Lamar or Andre 3000 to do the hard talking, Williams seems to relish his newfound attack-dog tactics. Here's to more of the same in the future. Woof. — A.D. Amorosi