REVIEW: It Was Divine

“I’m not asking for too much/I’m asking the wrong motherfucker

Just ’cause we’re in love/Doesn’t mean that we’re right for each other”

Alina Baraz croons this out of pure self-love in “To Me”, the emotional turning point of her masterful debut studio album, It Was Divine. If emotive self-transformation were a sprawling mansion, It Was Divine would be the blueprint – each track is an artfully composed mood in itself, while the album narrates a tumultuous relationship from start to finish.

Baraz introduces her R&B-soul dreamscape with “My Whole Life”, a romantic carpet-ride of a song that perfectly encapsulates the overwhelming wonder of finding ‘the one’. Backed by romantic string instrumentals, Baraz repeatedly choruses: “I can see my whole life when I’m with you”, as if transfixed by the extent to which she can imagine the entirety of their joint futures. From this track onwards, Baraz constructs a spitting musical image of early relationship paradise: songs in the album’s first half are lush with motifs like vibrant sunsets, distinctive perfumes, and lavish resorts. “Off the Grid” featuring Khalid reflects the effortless nature of being comfortably in-tune with one’s lover – Baraz and Khalid sing promises like “Say the word and you know I’ll follow/Off the grid in the El Dorado/Could be nice in the summertime/We could sit inside, in the silence”. According to an Apple Music interview, Baraz describes their frequent collaboration as “effortless” and “in sync”, as the song’s infectiously vibe-able chorus suggests.

“Can’t keep makin’ a home out of you/Just ’cause you’re asking me to

I’m not asking for too much (Can we do it over?)”

“To Me” and its subsequent interlude, “Memo Blue”, effectively transition the tone of It Was Divine from hopelessly-in-love to reprocessing love as an independent emotion. “Memo Blue” resembles an immersive ASMR experience – the plinking of piano keys awakens Baraz from her rosy paradisal getaway, followed by soul-searching lines “I can only meet you as deep as you have met yourself/I can only reach you from where you are”. Baraz follows these important realizations with the hypnotic “Who Got Me”, a song of pure self-love featuring springy drum beats and Baraz’s distinctive, ethereal warble. By the song’s third verse, Baraz seems to transcend any doubt expressed by “Who got me like I do/When all of this is through”. The instrumentals recede while her voice, a born-again bird surging towards the sky, swells into a higher key.

It’s only fitting that Baraz ends It Was Divine with “The Beginning”; the album commands a similar regenerative power that reflects Baraz’s intent to introduce a new chapter into her music. This album is pure, unadulterated art, and Baraz’s ‘divine’ energy ties the work together with not a song out of place. I would highly recommend adding It Was Divine to your music libraries and watching its superbly aesthetic lyric videos on Youtube.


REVIEW: Mary Ventura and The Ninth Kingdom: A Story

As much as Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom bears a whimsical title similar to that of a fantasy bildungsroman, this short story, recently recovered from the Sylvia Plath archives, is anything but. Underneath Plath’s vivid narrative lie dark ideas that foreshadow the author’s first major suicide attempt in 1953, mere months from when she finished writing the story in December of 1952. Upon its completion, during which Plath was a 20 year old student at Smith College, Plath submitted the story to the Mademoiselle magazine where it was rejected and largely forgotten until its official publication last June by Harper Perennial. The story follows a young woman named Mary Ventura and her reluctant journey by train to an indeterminate location referred to as ‘the ninth kingdom’. Shrouding the ninth kingdom is an unsettling aura of mystery – it is both Mary’s final destination and the last station of the train’s travel north – and despite Mary’s various inquiries, the reader remains equally in the dark of what is to await her.

“There are no return trips on this line,’ the woman said softly. ‘Once you get to the ninth kingdom, there is no going back. It is the kingdom of negation, of the frozen will. It has many names.”

Though the story makes for a one-sitting read, Mary’s allegorical tale requires more than a once-over in order to extract Plath’s views on female independence, fate, and mortality. What strikes me as most interesting is how the story not only ends but begins with a sense of finality: from the moment Mary climbs aboard her train of fate, she crosses an implied point of no return. Mary’s parents dismiss her concerns and assert that “Everyone has to go away sooner or later”, plunging Mary into a seemingly inevitable state of oblivion and compliance. Following this, a secondary character whom is referred to only as “the woman” emerges; unlike Mary, the Woman has taken the train before and is knowledgable in the ‘rules’ which passengers must abide by – one could interpret her as the classic teacher in a bildungsroman, or even Mary’s innermost thoughts, personified. This is emphasized by how Plath’s attentive prose draws a stark contrast between the Woman’s comforting presence and the bleak, sanguine train environment. Plath paints Mary’s surroundings in smoke and blood, a foreboding palette interrupted only by moments of the Woman’s “tenderness” and gentle guidance. The colors orange and red seem to flood Plath’s imagined world; from the plush seats and red ticket stubs that match Mrs. Ventura’s “painted red mouth” to the ominous sun visible from the train window, an “orange color… deepening into red”.

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom is, as Plath affirms, a ‘vaguely symbolic tale’ – however, as with any allegorical tale, it’s difficult to ascertain what the ninth kingdom, the train, or Mary’s escape truly represent. Taken optimistically, the train and its oblivious passengers could represent a clockwork lifestyle from which Mary springs free out of sheer will, empowered by a refusal to accept a predestined path. However, interpreted with Plath’s battle with depression and early suicide, the train ride could represent a grappling with the truth of one’s impending doom, with Mary’s escape alluding to choosing premature death instead. With Mary’s premature suicide or train departure comes the ultimate irony – though freedom blooms from the ending’s springtime imagery, Mary is forever shackled with oblivion over her journey’s defining question: “But what is the ninth kingdom?”

REVIEW: Before Love Came to Kill Us

If Jessie Reyez’s Before Love Came to Kill Us was a quarantine essential, it would be a serrated knife used to saw through a loaf of thick-crusted, homemade bread. Released this year on March 27, Reyez’s debut studio album wastes no time ripping into the artist’s grittiest emotions and slicing away with expansive, genre-bending gusto. The versatility of Reyez’s vocals and unapologetically blunt lyricism are present throughout the album, with sounds ranging from the swaggering, synth-infused “Ankles” to the reproachful Spanish ballad “La Memoria”. Though colored by a multitude of musical genres, each song seems to inflect different emotional responses to the messiness of love and the realization of one’s own mortality.

Reyez introduces her work with a distinctive vulgarity, declaring “I should’ve fucked your friends/It would’ve been the best revenge/For the fire that you started”, before continuing to saw away with impassioned remorse at the memory of her ex-lover. Reyez’s raspy declarations are accompanied by the almost ironically soft tones of a piano and string quartet, reflective of how the song’s mood glides through extremes. The singer slips between the fiery indignation of being “sick with feeling like I deserved better” and the quiet jealousy of “if I blow your brains out, I could guarantee that you’ll forget her” – delivering unforgettable lines with no semblance of mercy.

Before Love Came to Kill Us includes several of Reyez’s previous releases – like raw 2017 single “Figures”, and”Imported”, a slinky R&B collaboration with 6LACK. Though the tracks fit in thematically, with “Figures” cracking down on post-breakup hurt and “Imported” commenting on immigration and casual love, something about each seems to disrupt the album’s emotional flow. Perhaps the two singles flavor differently in emotional maturity – while the rest of Before Love Came to Kill Us exudes loud confidence even while tackling great insecurity, “Figures” and “Imported” display vulnerability more blatantly.

One of my favorites from this album is “Ankles”, a gloriously self-assertive production drawing upon both choir and trap sounds that make the listener feel as if they were curling their lip at their own unsavory ex. Reyez chants along with the instrumentals by continuously bearing a disparaging truth about her ex’s future: that regardless of who he finds, “these bitches can’t measure up/To my ankles/Levels? (Nah)”. She does this while bearing the truth of her own realizations – that the ex and their relationship, in all its cheating toxicity, had managed to string her along with guilt – not once, but twice. Reyez finishes her masterful rampage surrounded in ticking drum beats and the last strains of a choir, asserting that like her ex’s future prospects, he is “backwards, 2 feet/Shallow, too real”.

REVIEW: The Spell Book for New Witches: Essential Spells to Change Your Life

I should preface this review with the universal acknowledgement that just like the weird side of YouTube that many quarantined individuals may find themselves stumbling into, there exists an equally bizarre side of Amazon – and this book hardly scratches its surface. While on a similar downwards trajectory across Amazon’s vast niche book collection, I came across a plethora of modern witchcraft guides, including Ambrosia Hawthorn’s The Spell Book for New Witches: Essential Spells to Change Your Life.

For someone with no prior witchcraft knowledge besides having happened across a handful of Vox witch documentaries, this book managed to clear up any confusing spellcasting terminology. A good quarter of the book is dedicated to understanding the art of spellcasting and educating the reader on spellcasting preparation, which rings true to its intended audience of ‘new witches’, or beginner practitioners. In Part I, Hawthorn clarifies commonly confused magic terminology, such as witchcraft versus Wicca, and even briefly delves into its ethical obligations, warning beginners of the Law of Threefold Return and knowing one’s place within cosmic law. Though I personally have no plans to sew poppets or charge clear quartz under the next full moon, I’m grateful for the author’s emphasis on exercising reason, caution, and stable-mindedness under all spellcasting circumstances.

Hawthorn divvies Part II of the spell book, the spells and their recipes, into seven categories of use: ‘Romantic Love’, ‘Money Matters and Prosperity’, ‘Work and Career’, ‘Friends and Family’, ‘Health and Healing’, ‘Protection and Forgiveness’, and ‘Well-being, Success, and Abundance’. Though I expected witchcraft to require a number of obscure ingredients and esoteric performing instructions, Hawthorn’s spells stress the ‘practical’ in practical magic, with most spells requiring 10 or less ingredients and tools combined. While describing the core principles of witchcraft, which include celebrating your life and sexuality, Hawthorn explains that spellwork should be fueled mainly by “a respect for nature and the mystery of the universe”. She characterizes magic as existing all around us, therefore crystals and herbs should be drawn upon as secondary sources to harnessing our personal power and energies.

Hawthorn’s book promises a wide range of spells designed to suit your every need – whether that be finding a lost item, curing heartbreak, or designing a custom healing sigil. The performance rituals range from simply harnessing crystal energies to boiling herbs; many of the spells can double as quarantine-induced-boredom cures, as Hawthorn makes a point to include cookie recipes, soap, and other self-care spells. Some spells that might be particularly useful to unmotivated students such as myself include: ‘Money Manifestation Crystal Grid’, ‘Wealth Manifestation Rice’, ‘Acceptance Talisman Spell’, and ‘Anti-Procrastination Oil’.


REVIEW: The Results of My Poor Judgement

Olivia O’Brien is no stranger to heartbreak pop – just one look at her flourishing discography reveals the 20 year old’s familiarity with penning infectiously catchy songs marked by the relatable angst that all young romance is home to. Those unfamiliar with O’Brien’s recent work will likely recognize these doleful vocals from her breakthrough collaboration with gnash in 2016, “i hate u, i love u”. With The Results of My Poor Judgement, O’Brien retains that earnest emotionality, yet with greater verve and a more mature outlook on love and heartbreak. According to O’Brien, this “micromixtape” is a set of three sonically consistent songs that should elicit the same emotion, which she commits to in “Was It All In My Head?”, “Josslyn”, and “Sad Together”. The Results of My Poor Judgement, released this year on February 7, follows her 2019 micromixtape It Was a Sad Fucking Summer in an inferred narrative sequence – while It Was a Sad Fucking Summer channels the sweet and sour sentiment of reflecting on a failed relationship, The Results of My Poor Judgement conveys a deeper understanding of post-heartbreak injury. Though O’Brien herself indicates that the contents of her micromixtapes are not experientially bound, as songs can be revived from old sound experiments that don’t fit into a full-length album, I interpret The Results of My Poor Judgement as the flurry of realizations one experiences near the ‘acceptance’ stage of a breakup.

The micromixtape opens with reflection and self-doubt; “Was It All In My Head?” is part straightforward pop, part mixed-feelings. O’Brien berates herself repeatedly throughout the song, “I must be crazy, insane/Get way too carried away/…Been romanticizing/About all these boys who ain’t never gon’ like me” while simultaneously questioning whether the relationship and her partner’s romantic sentiment were as authentic as she had perceived them to be. On the receiving end of mixed signals and desperate for a rational explanation, O’Brien concludes that yes, even in a reluctance “to move on”, the essence of the relationship was a complete mental fabrication.

“Josslyn” is undoubtedly the highlight of the micromixtape – the song is a satisfyingly pounding barrage of “screw-you” sentiment, aimed to evoke guilt in amateur and serial cheaters alike. Galvanized over the fury of being cheated on, O’Brien flippantly asserts “But know we’re off and we’ll never be on again/I hope that it was worth it fucking Josslyn/Don’t wanna fight I just never wanna talk again/I hope that it was worth it fucking Josslyn”. Though fans question the origin of the title and partake in virtually tearing the anonymous ‘Josslyn’ apart, O’Brien expresses clear disapproval over this socially-ingrained practice of shaming the “other-woman” and not the disloyal partner themselves. In an interview with Zach Sang, O’Brien asserts that the anger in “Josslyn” is intended for the cheater and the cheater only – resentment towards the “other woman” is wrongfully displaced and perpetuates placing unhealthy trust in those who have failed you.

Whether you’re in the midst of a messy breakup or ambivalent to relationship drama in general, I would recommend giving The Results of My Poor Judgement a deep listen.

REVIEW: Chilombo

Like the Big Island, Chilombo‘s recording location, and its steadily pulsating, molten rock phenomena, Jhené Aiko’s third album ebbs and flows with healing power while narrating the singer’s personal journey through grief and self-discovery. Musically, the album is a tranquil R&B production flooded with Aiko’s characteristic zen vocals and effortlessly savage lyricism. Though critics have described the work as excessively drawn out and maybe a little too zen, I have increasingly found Chilombo to be a calming and humanizing presence amidst such global chaos.

In addition to the Island’s volcanoes, which Aiko likens to the eruptive energy of “Triggered (freestyle)”, she cites the use of traditional Buddhist singing bowls throughout her album. Aiko has long dabbled in ‘sound-healing’ or ‘music-therapy’, a practice which we receive a full introduction to in the singer’s attempt to open up and realign the body’s different chakras. In addition to being highly soothing, Chilombo is also charged with sex and defiance – in “Pu$$y Fairy (OTW)”, Aiko riffs her way through declarations of her own sexuality, asserting “‘I got you sprung off in the spring time/Fuck all your free time/You don’t need no ‘me time'”. The track carries a hypnotic dance rhythm while detailing the give-and-take of pleasure in an intimate relationship, and is purposely set in the key of D, which corresponds to the chakra associated with sensuality and located in the pelvic area.

Other favorites of mine include “Born Tired”, “Lightning & Thunder (feat. John Legend)”, and the various interludes that serve as peaceful prefaces to the narrative-style songs that follow. In “Born Tired”, Aiko infuses acoustic instrumentals with somewhat of a musical pep talk, encouraging the listener to “Rest your weary heart/Dry your teary eyes/I know you are scarred/And torn apart inside/Darling so am I”. The message is uplifting yet grounding, a defining characteristic of Aiko’s music which I thoroughly appreciate. Instead of pushing forth a high-energy beat with unrealistically upbeat advice, Aiko aims for unfiltered empathy in “Born Tired”. This sense of self-acceptance and positivity is somewhat of a theme in Chilombo; rather than considering “Triggered (freestyle)”, and “None of Your Concern (feat. Big Sean)” as diss tracks towards her on-and-off partner Big Sean, the singer considers them more as meditative outlets for “talking shit out of frustration and passion”. “Lightning & Thunder (feat. John Legend)” sets itself apart from the rest of Chilombo with the blissfully unaware, head-over-heels sentiment conveyed by lyrics such as “What kind of spell do you have me under/What in the hell? Starting to wonder/I am not well, I’m going under”. Aiko and Legend’s voices merge to further the song’s dreamy, entranced mood, resulting in a track that perfectly encapsulates the lack of control over one’s own fuzzy headspace that inevitably arises in the process of falling in love.