Mariam doesn't know how to write about herself without referencing Lorde songs. She fakes glory in California, where nothing is wrong, and nothing is true.

Ludacris, The Moody Rap Album, And The Year 2004

Ludacris has released an album in 2015 that sounds like it’s from 2004, and this is a good thing. There’s no way to begin talking about Ludacris really. Ludacris has always been omnipresent and invisible, everywhere and nowhere, always straddling the line between Serious Rapper Who Critics Could Love and party bro. Never quite a has been, and never the sole artist on everyone’s lips. Prolific and pervasive, credited with mainstreaming southern rap, a Grammy award winner with eight albums to date, and an actor in Crash and Fast and Furious, and yet, a question mark hangs; who is Ludacris, who is Ludacris really, and how do we talk about him. Asinine questions, if Ludacris wasn’t dealing with them (almost embarrassingly head on for 2015) on Ludaversal.

Which is all to say that I don’t always understand Ludacris, or, if I do, and when I do, I don’t know how to quantify that comprehension in words, and Ludacris feels the same way, about himself, and about me, probably. Ludaversal shows a Ludacris who knows himself deeply, and doesn’t, a Ludacris who knows how to quantify his experience and himself in words, eloquently and lyrically, and then doesn’t. The end result of Ludaversal is something that teeters on the edge of an endearing, abrasive sincerity and a kind of scary confusion, and by that I mean the end result of Ludaversal is the year 2004.

See, it’s easy to dismiss Ludacris as a joke(r), it’s been a sentiment attached to him in the past (unfounded, see: eight albums and several Grammys) because Ludacris talks shit, Ludacris is good at talking shit, the first line on Ludaversal is a shit talk, “Ain’t nobody fuckin’ with me when it come to getting lyrical…” and it’s electric, every line tumbles out like a punch, perfectly executed and natural, because really, words exist only to be sucked into Ludacris’s mind and spit out in a new grammar breathlessly. “They say Luda why you rapping so fast? / I’m like bitch, why you listen too slow?” It feels personal, a stomp in your face angry tirade at no one in particular, and also, at that one person who ignored you once at that one party.

The first three songs off Ludaversal are all personal, really, and there’s no pause, no breath, we are pulled from the elevated challenge of “Ludaversal Intro” right into “Grass is Always Greener,” pushed into “Last year I got the Ferrari that I always wanted / Drove it crazy got sick of it had to trade,” pushed into “I got hits, start trippin’ I wasn’t underground / Got underground start trippin’ I need hits.” Which, like, listen: Has anything ever been more about anxiety? Presumably yes, but also, the last line of the song is “we’ve been conditioned to think,” and I’ve tossed and turned about that, because, right? You can rhyme line after line of lyric about anxiety and unhappiness, write slanted emotions on unlined paper, you can drive on the freeway at midnight with windows down and the wind blowing through your hair, and still feel trapped in your head, you can communicate and communicate and communicate, and live and live and live, and work and work and work, and still arrive at the same conclusion Ludacris did: we’ve been conditioned to think. And there hasn’t been a more interesting way to say I wish I would stop thinking sometimes, then with the heavy sigh of acceptance and resolved relief of “Grass is Always Greener.” We’ve been conditioned to think, full stop.

The last of the Ludaversal’s Holy Trinity is another classic Ludacris shit talk, “Call Ya Bluff,” is one of the album’s singles and is objectively Special and Important because it is Ludacris’s 2015 version of “Get Back.” The “Call Ya Bluff” video sees Ludacris fighting the camera, punching it, flipping it off, once again going after everyone and no one, and one specific person too. Except this time, it’s all slightly tilted–a shit talk, belted out in a small, run down house that cuts abruptly to an office in the middle of the second verse, and it sees Ludacris tilting back, rapping and blowing cigar smoke at you. It’s heavy handed, the visual callback to the past, and the grand solemnity of the present. Mostly though, this song is Special and Important because Ludacris warns, “You think it’s funny cause it’s sunny where your house is / Bitch, I’ll put my muddy ass boots where your couch is.”

Ludaversal also gives 2015 a Miguel song, or, half a Miguel song, but also really, a Miguel song. “Good Lovin” is not my favorite song off the album, mostly at my own fault, my inability to weave through regret, or my inability to admit regret, to contend with mistakes I know I’m making as I make them, but making them anyway. “Good Lovin” is all of that, it is following through with the wrong when you know it’s wrong,  it is admitting the wrong, but still feeling entitled to the Right, whichever, whatever it may be. It’s cheating on your partner, and facing that seeming injustice you inflicted, while simultaneously recognizing that the world is unfair anyway, and you’re not the sole executor of injustice, “I got a empty hole in my chest / How do I fill it? Somebody give a prescription / I guess I gotta learn to live with regrets.”

The album peaks at “Ocean Skies,” a moving catalog of Chris Bridges loving his abusive and alcoholic father, missing his abusive and alcoholic father, forgiving and excusing the pain his father’s life wrought for the pain his father’s absence has crystallized, “waking up, crying in the night, hearing arguments / Hands off my momma, somehow I knew he was the cause of it…He had the biggest heart / but also liver damage” “Ocean Skies” is sad, and only sad, and it’s threaded with the hope that keeps sadness alive, “I feel so hollow inside / Gotta keep my eyes on the prize / Cause I’m steady wishing you were here / To see the goals that I plan to reach.” It’s emotional, it’s ambitious, it’s moody.

Ludaversal amplifies a recent trend that’s described every major rap release in the last year or so as “moody.” This description is fair, because moodiness is interchangeability, moodiness is the breathing that happens inside the sullen, inside the melancholy. Moodiness is to be human really, because humanity is the continued communication of a fractured, oscillating self, propelled by a swinging beat and narrated by the sadness and bravery of survival. So it’s surprising, I think, a little bit, that after decades of exceptionally “moody” rap albums, we’ve just now turned the corner, in the last five years, and have collectively decided that rap albums are as equally moody as [white man with a guitar], that rap albums are not just exclusively Angry or Aggressive, that rap, in fact, is the moodiest of all genre’s, that the form itself is moody. Anger and aggression in rap have been commodified, extracted from the place they come from and framed so as to exist as images that ignore and dismiss the moodiness, the interchangeability that they speak to. Which isn’t to say anything really, except that it’s curious, that decades of moody rap has existed and it’s only just now being recognized as such.

Still, this is a review of Ludaversal, and not an examination or indictment of the word moody and the way it is or is not applied to rap, except that it does relate to Ludaversal because Ludaversal is moody, it is as moody and radical as any rap album before it, and as moody and radical as any rap album after it, but it does manage to operates outside of the cultural phenom of the Moody Rap Album. Ludaversal is not the rap album that will produce long thinkpieces by white men, because it’s not made to produce long thinkpieces by white men, it’s made, as Luda himself said, so that “I can be back in the barbershops.” It’s a rap album from 2004 that lives and breathes 2015 and keeps its eyes on tomorrow.

Ludaversal is a good listen. Even if it’s not your thing, it’s a good listen.

Talking to Myself: Fifth Harmony’s “Reflection”

So much of girlhood feels guilty sometimes. Everything is marketed at teenage girls, but when teenage girls consume what is thrown at them, the object of their consumption is pushed aside, relegated as low brow, unworthy of the attention of men in scruffy beards and leather boots, unworthy of cultural examination. There’s this sense, when you’re 15 and still wearing the Kohl’s jeans your mother bought you, that the only way you can operate successfully in this world as a girl is if you co-opted male angst as your own. You’ll get to a point, of course, when you, a 16 year old girl, will embody male angst better than any boy, you’ll get to a point, of course, when you will realize, I am better than this boy talking to me about Led Zeppelin.

If someone was to scoop that fleeting moment of knowledge, and unroll it, they would come up with Fifth Harmony’s Reflection. Reflection is the mythology of your origin story, Reflection is your most intimate moment of self knowledge, spread out over a pop album. Reflection is that small, packed moment of enlightened, empowered possibility, it’s you, asking yourself: what if I was the one in control, what if my experiences were standardized, what if I had all the power and men just had to deal with it? Reflection is the journey from What If, to This Is, it’s the journey from finding your confidence, and negotiating it into power.

Fifth Harmony is the girl band of your dreams, closer maybe to TLC than the Spice Girls, but they’ve struck a perfect in-between. There are five girls in Fifth Harmony, and it’s time you memorize their names: Ally Brooke Hernandez, Normani Kordei, Dinah Jane Hansen, Camila Cabello, and Lauren Jauregui. They were put together in 2012 on the second season of the (now cancelled) American X Factor, after none of them were able to continue on as soloists. They’ve toured with Demi Lovato, they’ve released a commercially successful EP, and this debut album has been a long time coming.

Reflection is experimental. Not just in sound, but conceptually, Reflection is about discovering yourself and tasting that discovery, playing dress up with it, trying on all the different iterations of it until you find the place that feels Solid, the place that can Command. The first half of the album is a declaration–it’s making sense of your secret and learning it’s boundaries. The second half is a power trip–it’s the smug, knowing execution of your secret.

“Top Down” announces the album with a saunter, “Top Down” is letting yourself in on your own secret, it’s deciding: I like it here, and I want to stay. “BO$$” spells out c-o-n-f-i-d-e-n-t and molds it into a persona, gives it a traceable shape, and sasses you around while doing it. “Sledgehammer” is learning how you feel when you have a crush, it’s labeling the intensity of your desire, discovering its extremity, and celebrating it.

Then there’s “Worth it,” and here’s the thing about “Worth It,” and confidence, and you: Learning how to wear confidence is not always intuitive, no one figures out how to express their confidence in a way that fits right, right away. There’s a vulnerability to learning how to show your confidence, and “Worth It” embodies that vulnerability. It is a song about learning how to speak your confidence out loud for the first time, “give it to me / I’m worth it / baby I’m worth it,” it wills others to see your secret the way you see it, and validate you. It demands attention rather than compels it. And maybe that’s not sustainable, to demand attention, to put your hand on someone’s shoulder and say hey, hey listen, I’m Worth it. But it’s so right though, isn’t it? “Worth it” is like that one time you shared one of your best friend’s secrets: the knowledge you had only seemed interesting and important if it could be shared and whispered about with others.

At “This is How We Roll,” the album dips, not in quality, but in feeling. On every album there’s a song you seem to love against your better judgement, and this Dr. Luke produced track is it on Reflection. “This is How We Roll” is a Kesha song, it’s about survival, it’s about participating in the gestures of life when you feel a little bit hollow, “pull your camera out / ‘cause someone’s gonna wanna see this / take this picture, snap it / post it for the world to see,” is going through the motions of life for the sake of other’s consumption. This is what you listen to when someone’s picked at your strings, when someone’s made you doubt yourself a little bit, and you feel like you’re at a loss. So you reinforce your lifestyle, you repeat it, half heartedly, but incessantly, until it starts to feel real again and your body gets some of its blood back.

Reflection has two clear love songs: “Everlasting Love” and “Like Mariah.” “Everlasting Love” is as indulgent as a love song can get; it is, more than anything, not about a specific person, but an admission that you believe in a soul mate, and it details what that will look for you. It is aspirational, it’s saying I know what I want, and then pointing to it. “Like Mariah,” from a pop standpoint, is the most important song on the album. It’s Fifth Harmony cunningly inserting themselves into the pop landscape, and pulling it off.

“Them Girls Be Like,” is a fun, attitude-infused, and daring, if fleeting, song. This is the song that will make every boy talking about Led Zeppelin bristle, he will shake his head, “what a shame, a song about Instagram,” he’ll say, and you’ll side eye him and post an unfiltered selfie from his messy room. “Them Girls Be Like” is rooted deeply in its time, it negotiates the self with today’s vocabulary (“Do you ever post your pics with no filter / hashtag I woke up like this too?” / “Take a selfie every night / get at least a hundred likes”) and it’s one of the highlights of Reflection. This is when the album begins to challenge the deeper claws of girlhood, this is when Reflection starts to know that there is a bridge from What If, to This Is, that there is a way to perform confidence that ignores its audience. There is a way to perform confidence that is celebratory and self sustaining, there is a way to perform confidence that is powerful.

The turning point happens at “Reflection,” the title track. “Reflection” is a “***Flawless” manifesto. It’s what has to happen before ***Flawless. “Reflection” is you when you’ve figured how out to become pervasive to yourself. It’s the soundtrack to your selfies, the soundtrack to that sadness that sometimes lingers in your bones. “Reflection” is about standing in front of a mirror (or, more likely, staring into your front facing camera) and talking to yourself out loud, having a sensory, tactile experience of yourself, both embodied and disembodied. “Reflection” is about consciously reworking your secret. Your self knowledge is powerful now not because it can be shared, but because it gives you the upper hand, “don’t need no filters on pictures before you post them on the ‘gram / you could shut down the internet / they don’t even understand.” They don’t even understand, they don’t even know, but you do,  you know, and that’s enough.

“Reflection” is a celebration, not just of you and your unfiltered selfies, but of the act of inserting yourself into the world with your vision. “Reflection” is also your map; in the second verse, Lauren threatens, not once but twice, “don’t you ever get it confused,” and it’s hard not to think that she directs this threat both at the world, and then at herself. At the bridge, Aly asks, “mirror mirror, on the wall, should I even return his call?” and she’s not asking because she’s trying to protect herself from potential hurt, she’s asking: knowing everything I know about myself, is he even worth it? (the answer is no, he is not worth it, but you will probably return his call anyway and that’s why you’re the best). “Reflection” is a jam, it is edgy and smooth, it sways and shakes, it pleads and declares, and it deserves a place on every playlist.

From there, the album feels rooted, it doesn’t need to vocalize its knowledge of itself, that knowledge exists intuitively. The best thing, maybe, about so many of the songs on the second half of Reflection is they live in a world in which women are inherently better than men to the point that it no longer needs mentioning. At the same time, all the songs recognize that men are a thing we have to contend with, that men are sometimes a thing we want to contend with, and the second half is asking, how do we contend with men while maintaining our power, how do we do that without letting men take all that power again?

All the songs after “Reflection” look at men with a raised eyebrow.  In “Suga Mama,” the girls ask, “Is you gon’ get a job? I guess I got the cash / I’ll take one for the team.” “We Know,” is a song about girls huddling together, telling each other their secrets, helping each other navigate themselves (and men) tenderly, delicately, but with that quiet regal power of girlhood.

“Going Nowhere,” is what would happen if your raised eyebrow had its own special vocabulary. “Going Nowhere” is how I wish I could have spoken to so many dismissive boys in the past, it’s how I hope to speak to so many dismissive boys in the future. No other song on Reflection captures, with such refinery, the experience of vocalizing your powerful confidence. This is a song that demands emotional and intellectual equality in a relationship, and says, bluntly, “I still want you / but I don’t need you / You should be happy that I’m still here for you / I don’t have to be.” This is “Reflection” when “Reflection” is in a relationship, it’s a whole song of five girls yelling I am better than you, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t like you or want to be with you.

The album ends with “Brave Honest Beautiful,” and there’s no other way the album could have ended. If Reflection, from its first track to its last, is about negotiating confidence into power, then “Brave Honest Beautiful” is you that whole time you were figuring it out. “Brave Honest Beautiful” is when Fifth Harmony announce themselves as Fifth Harmony, the song starts with a chorus of Ooh’s and a shout out to each individual girl in the band. That detail alone maybe sums up “Brave Honest Beautiful.”

“Brave Honest Beautiful” is your definition, it’s all that stuff that makes you you, beneath your confidence, beneath your power. It’s full of big dreams and humbled, tortured reassurances. The rest of the album might be you, talking to yourself but “Brave Honest Beautiful” is the girls of Fifth Harmony talking to you (and themselves).

Reflection is ultimately adolescent, in that it’s about adolescence, but it is also adolescent itself, it’s young, it’s about learning yourself when you’re young. It is adolescent in a way that you’ll never quite lose, because that bridge between confidence and power is constant, it’s always happening, when you’re 15 and 19 and 25 and 31. Some days will always feel like “Worth It,” like you tugging at sleeves and saying don’t you see me, come, look at me. Some days will feel like “Top Down,” like you relearning your secrets with a sway of your shoulders. Some days will feel like “Sledgehammer,” and some like “Reflection.” You’ll always feel a little young about everything, and that’s the point of Reflection, it’s the adolescent girly language you’ll always need to figure yourself out.