21 Savage, “I Am > I Was” (Epic)
For New Year’s resolution-makers intent on self-improvement, the first album to top the Billboard charts in 2019 has an appropriately inspirational title straight out of a self-help book. Pronounced “I Am Greater Than I Was,” the sophomore release by the 26-year-old Atlanta rapper born Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph makes good on its claim.
21 Savage is indeed greater than he was. “I Am” is a major step forward from his 2017 debut, “Issa Album,” in both thoughtfulness and musical variety, distinguishing the rapper as a street-hardened thinker with an understated delivery. That comes across in places you would expect, such as “Letter 2 My Momma.” But it’s apparent also on harder cuts, like the formidable opener, “A Lot,” in which he mourns the loss of a younger brother and makes room for guest J. Cole, who accuses competing rappers of using bots to inflate their music streaming numbers. Other big-name acts who drop in include Childish Gambino, Schoolboy Q and Post Malone, who featured 21 on “Rockstar” and returns the favor on “All My Friends.”
Dan Deluca, Philadelphia Inquirer
Brett Young, “Ticket to L.A.” (Big Machine)
Young seems almost too good to be true. A 6-foot-6 former college pitcher who turned to music after a career-ending elbow injury, he cut his artistic teeth in the singer-songwriter clubs of his hometown of Los Angeles before moving to Nashville to pursue country music. And those roots show in the reigning Academy of Country Music “new male vocalist of the year’s” second album as he strikes a balance between the different, but complementary styles of music.
The pop-leaning title track could have come from “Your Body Is a Wonderland”-era John Mayer, as Young tells a sweet story about meeting a woman at an airport after their flights are delayed. The new single “Catch” has bits of Hootie & the Blowfish mixed with a late-’90s singer-songwriter vibe. And he even teams with Gavin DeGraw for the pop-rock “Chapters” that has an Ed Sheeran feel.
That Young can blend so much pop into his sound and still manage to be a major country up-and-comer shows how much both styles have changed recently. Country embraces outside influences much more, while pop radio doesn’t seem to have much room for guys with guitars who aren’t redheaded Brits.
However, Young is actually strongest when he sticks closer to classic country. The gorgeous throwback “Where You Want Me” sounds like a great ’70s Ronnie Milsap single, while “Change Your Name” has the timely feel of Chris Stapleton, though Young sticks with his clever wordplay, singing, “Only thing about you that I’d change, I’d change your name.”
Regardless of the style, Young, who co-wrote 10 of the album’s 13 tracks, tells his stories well. “Ticket to L.A.” will likely be his ticket to country superstardom.
Glenn Gamboa, Newsday
• Randy Houser, “Magnolia”
• You Tell Me, “You Tell Me”