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Nicki Minaj, Animal Collective, and Death Cab lead a busy week in new releases

Left to right: Avey Tare of Animal Collective, Nicki Minaj, and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie
Photo: Tim Mosenfelder (Getty Images), Jamie McCarthy (Getty Images), Timothy Norris (Getty Images)

Nicki Minaj reaches for the throne room, Animal Collective unearths an interesting live artifact, Death Cab do more Death Cabbing, and more in this week of new releases.

And in case you missed it, read our featured review of Mitski’s Be The Cowboy, also released today, right here.


Nicki Minaj, Queen

[Young Money]
Grade: B+

After a seemingly endless string of shifted release dates, Nicki Minaj has finally graced her subjects with her fourth studio effort, Queen. Four years removed from 2014’s The Pinkprint, the self-proclaimed hip-hop royalty clearly had a lot to get off her chest, unleashing a barrage of bars on her rivals, suitors, and stans for a full, furious hour. She sounds determined with this album to return as the undisputed head of the class—especially after Cardi B’s critically acclaimed and commercially successful debut earlier this year. She knocks the Bronx rapper twice (for using a ghostwriter and for being a former stripper, which feels like an off-brand insult from the artist behind “Anaconda”), and spares the feelings of no one else. Musically, she avoids flavor-of-the-moment trend-hopping in favor of lusher, more broadly poppy production, and it pays dividends, from the earthy patter of opener “Ganja Burns” to the Beatles-inspired “Majesty” to the dancehall collab “Coco Chanel.” Ultimately, though, Queen is a little longer and more haphazard than it should be, especially for a claim to the throne of hip-hop. It’s a lot of fun, but not quite the instant classic for which Minaj seems to have been aiming.


RIYL: Drake. Rihanna. Lil Wayne. Bawdy shit-talk.

Start here: “Barbie Dreams” is a masterful rework of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Dreams” on which Minaj drags ex Meek Mill, cunnilingus-fearing friend DJ Khaled, and—perhaps the easiest target in the world—Drake. [Nina Hernandez]


Animal Collective, Tangerine Reef

Grade: B (visual album); C- (audio album)

The worst way to engage with Tangerine Reef is by listening to it. A studio re-creation of a film-festival performance by three-fourths of Animal Collective—the group’s most pop-minded member, Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox, sits this one out—the record captures all the noodling self-indulgence that makes the psych-poppers such a maddeningly inconsistent live act. But Tangerine Reef is an incomplete object in this form: It’s accompaniment, not feature presentation, the drowsy soundtrack to the iridescent undersea visuals of Australian filmmakers Coral Morphologic. The aquatic After Dark doesn’t so much complement the indistinct melodies as justify them, as dozens of coral blooms pulse in time with “Hair Cutter,” and spawning sea anemone give shape to the scrapes and squiggles of “Airpipe (To A New Transition).” It’s hard to imagine anyone diving into Tangerine Reef more than once, but its twitching tendrils and abstractly erotic imagery are a smart embodiment to the cutesy/creepy Animal Collective aesthetic, a sensibility that’s always existed at the intersection of the Muppets, Mummenschanz, David Lynch, and David Cronenberg.


RIYL: Desktop media player visualizers. The scenes from Twin Peaks: The Return with The Evolution Of The Arm. Getting stoned and watching Blue Planet.

Start here: For the ears, Tangerine Reef never gets better than the reverb-drenched opener, “Hair Cutter.” For the eyes and ears, the outer-space ping-ponging and five-note organ pattern of “Inspector Gadget” feel suitably alien next to close-up footage of a sea cucumber at meal time. [Erik Adams]


Oh Sees, Smote Reverser

[Castle Face]
Grade: B+

Basic rock theory says prog and punk are opposing forces. This law does not hold in the musical universe swirling around John Dwyer. In his 21 years leading Oh Sees (formerly with a “Thee,” sometimes abbreviated OCS), the garage-rock Demogorgon has moved from freaky folk to candy-colored clatter-core too powerful to corral. Smote Reverser, the group’s 21st album, picks up the proggy, kraut-flavored vibes of 2017’s Orc and pushes even further into the cosmos. Dwyer’s crewmates on his mission are drummers Dan Rincon and Paul Quattrone—lockstep pounders who together form a Teutonic mutant octopus—bassist Tim Hellman, vocal harmonizer Brigid Dawson, and keyboard adventurer Tomas Dolas. Together, these Oh Sees try Iron Butterfly biker rock (“Enrique El Cobrador”), crispy scuzz-metal (“Overthrown”), and even a funky number Steely Dan might dig (“C”). The 12-minute “Anthemic Aggressor” is Fela Kuti’s “Zombie” played by actual zombies. Here’s the one rule to memorize: The longer Oh Sees go, the more wicked they get.


RIYL: Prog. Garage. D&D. Wienerschnitzel. Baking out your airbrushed van just off school grounds.

Start here: Blending riff-rock with jazz-funk in a sinister style only Dwyer would dream of, “Nail House Needle Boys” has everything you could want—plus a breakbeat. [Kenneth Partridge]


Death Cab For Cutie, Thank You For Today

[Atlantic Records]
Grade: B-

Ben Gibbard and company have gotten very good at what they do. Thank You For Today, Death Cab For Cutie’s tightly crafted ninth studio album and first since 2015’s Kintsugi likely won’t disappoint fans—but it’s also hard to muster tremendous enthusiasm for it. Almost everything here feels a little too safe—the songs largely repeat the same patterns over and over, the band’s minimal and genteel guitar melodies paired to steady rhythms that gradually swell in the transition from verse to chorus, synths rising, followed by an instrumental bridge and refrain-aping coda. The most musically distinct song on the record, first single “Gold Rush,” starts almost like a Spiritualized track, but the silly, whispered repetition of the title throughout falls flat. There’s a downbeat, melancholic vibe to the proceedings that is both classically Death Cab and also a little deflating, as though the band knows the emotionally minor-key formula that has worked and is merely sticking to it. There are still quite good songs—“Summer Years” is the band’s earnest indie-rock sound distilled to its purest essence, and “When We Drive” is an elegiac look at long-term relationships through the metaphor of a road trip—but there’s no “Doors Unlocked And Open” or “Ghosts Of Beverly Drive” to shake things up. It’s another solid Death Cab For Cutie album, but it lacks vitality.


RIYL: Death Cab For Cutie. Walks in the rain. No irony within a hundred miles.

Start here: “Autumn Love,” with its jangly Americana riffs and “oh-oh-oh” backing harmonies, makes for a refreshing and hummable entry, one of the brighter spots on the record. [Alex McLevy]


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