Artist: Rita Ora
"I don’t want to hear sad songs anymore, I only want to hear love songs," Rita Ora sings on ‘Your Song’, the lead single off her new album Phoenix. And it appears that the singer has made exactly the album she would want to listen to, as there is no shortage of love songs on the Yugoslavia-born British artist’s sophomore release.
Phoenix marks her return with a new set six years after her debut, although it hardly feels like it has been that long given that the entertainer hasn’t really been absent from radio or screen in the interim. The singer released a slew of singles and featured on a handful of collaborations in the last few years. In fact, six of the 12 tracks on Phoenix came out before the album; a couple of them - ‘Your Song’, ‘Anywhere’, ‘Lonely Together’ - even came out more than a year ago. That may be why Phoenix doesn’t feel very fresh and seems more like a compilation of singles rather than an artistic statement.
Phoenix doesn’t serve as a vehicle for musical exploration. Instead, each track on the disc was clearly made with commercial aspirations, designed to seamlessly fit into the mainstream. Which it does. But while these well-made R&B-tinged electropop tunes are catchy and chart-ready, they don’t often venture into exciting, inventive directions. The generic musings about love also keep the material from feeling lyrically distinctive.
Some of the song selection is also a bit curious. Ora relegates herself to a featured appearance on her own album by including Avicii’s ‘Lonely Together’, and she has also chosen to include the much-criticised ‘Girls’ (which features Cardi B, Bebe Rexha, and Charli XCX), despite having apologized for the offense caused by how she expressed herself on that track. (Both these collaborations could have easily been moved to the deluxe edition and replaced by newer songs from the extended version, like the standout ‘Falling to Pieces’ which deserved to be a part of the main set.)
Phoenix certainly is pleasant, enjoyable dance pop, but it would have been more rewarding if the artist had been willing to take more risks, create more interesting musical textures, and come up with fresher material for the record.
Highlights: ‘Anywhere’, ‘First Time High’
Artist: Zayn Malik
Album: Icarus Falls***
Comprising a whopping 27 tracks and nearly an hour and a half in length, the English singer’s second solo LP focuses mainly on sentimental songs well suited to his voice. Zayn, who co-wrote each of these tracks with the help of a number of contributors, unsurprisingly, sings about love and relationships in the safety of his sonic comfort zone. It’s the sound of a singer who has found his niche; it’s not a particularly unique niche, as it is shared by everyone from The Weeknd to Nick Jonas, but it’s fairly enjoyable nonetheless.
Effectively a double album divided by an interlude, the record offers moody tunes with a backdrop of often sparse R&B beats. But while Icarus Falls is remarkably coherent, it doesn’t present enough variety to justify its length. Variation in tempo and bolder musical choices would have helped make the material more exciting. Other than ‘There You Are’ - perhaps the strongest chorus on the set - nothing really stands out in the first half; the second half is sonically and thematically more interesting and also includes both of the record’s featured appearances (Nicki Minaj on ‘No Candle No Light’ and Timbaland on ‘Too Much’).
It’s easy to see why none of the album’s singles have found any traction. But while the material may not be very immediate, with 27 tracks on offer, there is a lot to explore here; you have to give the individual songs repeat listens to get acquainted with them. If you enjoy mid-tempo R&B-flavoured pop, then Icarus Falls is the album for you. Fans will certainly enjoy this selection and appreciate the singer’s progression. For everyone else, there are several good pop songs here; you just have to look for them.
Highlights: ‘There You Are’, ‘No Candle No Light’