Album: “A Color Map of the Sun”

Grade: A-

The buzz about the new Pretty Lights (aka producer- songwriter Derek Vincent Smith) album, “A Color Map of the Sun,” (Pretty Lights Music) is all about the process behind its creation.

Instead of once again digging through crates of vintage vinyl to cobble together samples for his eclectic-sounding, hip-hop-infused electronica, Smith worked with dozens of musicians to create new music, in a variety of styles, that he would then sample into his songs. It was a remarkably work-intensive plan, made even tougher by his decision to record the original music using pre-1970 equipment to give everything a warmer sound.

However, how Smith made “A Color Map of the Sun” happen wouldn’t really matter if the resulting songs weren’t so compelling. On “Around the Block,” he combines neo-soul and dubstep, while dropping in ’90s-styled glitchy sampling and a great verse from rapper Talib Kweli — bringing together styles from the past five decades in one song. For “One Day They’ll Know,” he downloads blues, jazz, trip-hop and classical-sounding string sections into a more aggressive, dubstep-fueled setting.

The unique combinations will likely draw in many first-time listeners. The strength of the songs will keep them coming back.

— Glenn Gamboa, Newsday


Album: “MCII” (Merge)

Grade: A-

Guitarist Mikal Cronin, based in California’s Bay Area, is strongly associated with his rowdy garage-rock-playing buddy Ty Segall, in whose band he regularly tours. On “MCII,” the 27-year-old singer’s second solo disc and first for indie stalwarts Merge, he confidently steps out on his own with a 10-song collection of catchy tunes. MCII splits the difference between strummy, bittersweet pop like the harmony-happy “I’m Done Running From You” and the chugging power chord crunch of “See It My Way.” Cronin’s sophomore release is a self-querying coming-of-age record, with the shimmering “Peace of Mind” at its core.

— Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer


Album: “Born Sinner” (Roc Nation)

Grade: B

Rapper J. Cole doesn’t quite know who he wants to be on this, his second album. He’s got a crown reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat on the cover of “Born Sinner’s” deluxe edition. Cole samples Notorious B.I.G., the Whispers, and even comedian Mike Epps throughout, pens an ode to Nas, and pairs with the remnants of TLC on the caramel soul of “Crooked Smile.” That’s some strong evidence of an old-school cultural revolution afoot. Yet for all his snagging of the Afro-American ’80s and ’90s, he’s got a fondness of hard futurist bass sounds and a love of aged and lilting jazzy melody and post-Bop rhythm that carries through to his most thrillingly mellifluous songs. So maybe Cole doesn’t know who he wants to be. He sounds good trying to figure it out. Though Cole has guests in fellow young MCs Kendrick Lamar and Miquel, “Born Sinner” is an all-Cole creation, especially considering that he produced most of it. Lyrically, he’s still green — “Land of the Snakes” heavy-handedly rants against LA, while in “She Knows,” he awkwardly posits himself as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the club, battling temptation. Luckily, all else is golden.

— A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer

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