Unforgettable, Vol. 21: Lady Gaga – The Fame

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Pop: grab your old girl with her new tricks; if this were Gaga’s first and last album, it would be just as complete as it is in context as a dynasty starter.

The Fame is nothing more and nothing less than a perfect Pop debut through and through. Visceral, catchy, panoramic, reflective, progressive, chock full of hit singles, formidable filler, and fun; foreshadowing or foreboding depending on how you look at it – and yet, so very simple. The Fame is merely a skeleton, and the beats are nothing more than an atmosphere. In Britney’s wake we saw a sea change: where Spears’ genesis was plot-driven – a tale of a singer at the whim of heavy production, and a girl at the whim of a weighty world – Gaga’s voice is the fuel behind The Fame. She gives life to the beats, as much as she injected the joie de vivre back into Pop’s consciousness.

The sound is underground and mainstream, simultaneously past and present. “Just Dance” couldn’t be more straightforward as it rips the disco skeleton from the past, fleshes it out with simple synth layers, and slaps an electro-futuristic veneer on for 21st Century tech propulsion. The beat is a night out: airy synth, simple percussion, minimal layers, basic four-count – nothing crazy, nothing coercive, just dance music. The lyrics are universal: just dance, gonna be okay – and repete after moi.

Gaga is “that girl” from the club. This is the first step of the journey through a tumultuously memorable relationship between lovers, the celebrity and the scene, the artist and the industry, the author and the audience. It all starts with “Just Dance.” You just dance to get to know their name, you just dance to get on Page Six, you just dance to get that record deal, you just dance for reassurance that it’s going to be okay – and this is The Fame.

Beyond that, at first listen, “Just Dance” is any other Pop track, a brilliantly choreographed debut. It couldn’t be more literal, and at a time where the world is a collective skeptic for good reason – the truthiness behind WMDs – that clear transparency was a trailblazing mindfreak in and of itself. Everything the track is not makes it everything it is. It is not new, it is not groundbreaking, it is not particularly deep or profound – and yet, coming from a world of life under-rug-swept it was that very transparency that broke America out of its shell. Just. Dance. No more, no less, no hidden agenda. Before auto-tune and vocoders, before ice and chains, there was lighthearted, carefree disco – the most basic, infinite, constant, life stream of music by method.

Unforgettable, Vol. 20: DJ Shadow – Endtroducing…

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Joshua Paul Davis emerged from the blackout – heroically from the shadows – to redefine an art form, resurrect a genre, and reflect the essence of a culture with his debut album, Endtroducing…. The 1996 release told the tale, that in 2010, portrays modern hip-hop’s epic poem on record. DJ Shadow laid the foundation for hip-hop from the ground up, producing the first album entirely constructed from samples. As he creates the aural masterpiece, he allows the past to dictate the future – grabbing clips from vintage movie reels, and television shows, blending them with layered instrumentals from aged vinyl recordings – and in doing so introduces the world to his own sound, but more so the identity of an urban creative class on the cusp of social impact.

Davis begins the journey putting his best foot forward – fusing no less than seven separate soundbites and a fifteen-second funk jam session – to take the veil off the silhouette and bring the DJ into the light. “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt”‘s unknown narrator echoes “producing…” over chilling piano scales, as the story begins and Joshua sets the stage from a single grain. In the midst of an industry cheapening musical quality in the face of quantity – rationing and rehashing masterful tracks of old like a 20th Century European crusade through Africa – Shadow reminds us that there is an art to the sample; and for a genre founded upon the collage of collaboration, Davis crafts a montage original in its new fusion of old fragments.

Unforgettable, Vol. 19: Britney Spears – Blackout

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2007 climaxed the greatest American tale since The Civil War, and Britney Spears’ Blackout was our living soundtrack. Just as Spears was our brown-eyed girl of misfortune, Blackout is the requiem of our American Dream. Britney was an ideal created in our own image. Our image, our perception of our self worth, in the past decade was dependent upon fame and projected status. Then, more than ever, our identities were aligned with iconographies: Britney was our Miss American Dream, and in 2007 we saw her strip away her white gown.

At our darkest hour, our brightest supernova wanted nothing more than to go that extra mile for us. We created a monster mistress, a pop iconography reflecting our wildest and greatest desires – embodying our most visceral conquests. She was the broken kingdom, and on behalf of her mortal peers she sacrificed herself for our entertainment. She was our gladiator and our samurai on a kamikaze mission to kill the very same system which produced her. Even with her back against the wall she was our central focus, how something so perfect could be so not – and how such reckless power could destroy our most divine wind. We watched her spiral through insanity, as cameras flashed her dancing deliriously to music only she could hear. Even though we led her to this position of mania, she gave us permission to send her on a suicide mission: before the flashing lights, she was to touch the sky and nosedive in a sacrificial spectacle fit for a fallen empire. She gave more when she had nothing to give, because we asked for it – because the same guys who told us that she was the most valuable dream, told her that her value relied on our affirmation; she Merrill Lynched our Pop selves. Her punishment was her penance, and as much hers as it is ours. The opening is the standing reminder that even after she fades, the irremovable, unstoppable, perpetuating danja remains.

Unforgettable, Vol. 18: La Roux – La Roux

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The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill painted a music scene reflective of urban culture on the brink of a new millennium; eleven years later we – as a culture and creative class – have evolved and devolved from that reality. We have since found our souls in the synthetic, and were given our new sonic aesthetic with an anthemic 2009 soundtrack of our virtual reality.

Enter La Roux. La Roux is music that reaches beyond sound, into the mood and mindset of an apathetically passionate generation. Literally, “La Roux” is founded upon adamant ambiguity, fusing the masculine “Le Roux” and the feminine “La Rousse” to mean “The Red-Headed One.” That “One” would be none other than the Annie Lennox-esque frontwoman Elly Jackson. Jackson’s pale features beneath a fiery red coif depict brilliantly the sonic aesthetic of a colourless coloured culture.

Unforgettable, Vol. 17: Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

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In 1998 Lauryn Hill released a cultural landmark – one part enemy of the state, one part love story – which entirely rewrote the curriculum for hip-hop on the brink of a new millennium. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is H.E.R. story – of hip-hop and its truest personification. Lauryn recorded The Miseducation to resurrect a genre, a culture, an artist, and a girl headed towards commodification.

“Lost Ones” comes in right after roll call, on the heels of a visibly absent – but always present – Hill. This is the anthem. This is L. Boogie’s freestyle to introduce her voice and her vantage. Here we hear Lauryn literally taking it to the streets, and revisiting hip-hop’s roots: the battle. She is not battling any other one MC, she is battling them all – and the modern concept of what it means to be an MC. She knocks out her bio in 4 lines or less:

It’s funny how money change a situation,
miscommunication leads to complication;
my emancipation don’t fit your equation,
I was on the humble, you on every station.

Who knew that ten years from then: she would be the exile that turned on the industry in the face of the corporate stranglehold on creative expression, she would be seen as a misunderstood genius whose public persona would be miscommunicated as “crazy,” whose post-success emancipation didn’t quite fit the conventional mold, and who would inevitably – beyond the crazy – seem quite content with herself working the unplugged circuit while hip-hop superstars dominated the auto-tuned airwaves? She did – here.

Unforgettable, Vol. 16: Madonna – Confessions on a Dance Floor

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In 2005, Madonna dropped the world like a discoball. She created one of the decade’s best albums as she had created her entire career: by producing a self-context so great that it becomes the world’s Pop conscience. If “the main problem with 2008′s Hard Candy was that Madonna seemingly didn’t care,” and “with American Life she cared too much, to the point where it came across pushy and self-important,” 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor was the perfect medium where she cared-enough-to-count. Madonna’s greatest strength is her narcissism. She is Pop, and Confessions is nothing short of a brilliant response to Madonna’s answer to her own morning inquiry: “Mirrors, mirrors on the ball: whose four minutes saves them all?”

Unforgettable, Vol. 15: Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pill

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Where we left off at Danger Mouse’s fusion of two absolutes – black and white – we delve further into the foggy haze of the future by looking back at where it all began; for this generation, we emanated as products of irony with one hand in our pocket searching for a jagged little pill to cure the confusion. Music is the most wonderful of all drugs; amidst the plethora of genres, artists, tracks, and tribulations Alanis Morissette’s album stands out as the Raggedy Ann within the proverbial valley of the dolls.

The 1995 culture-defining album Jagged Little Pill still stands as the most angst-ridden-apathetic, yet understated-articulate anthem for those on the fringe of Gen X and Gen Why Care? The tone, the timbre, the subdued style, and subjective substance flow as effortlessly through the recording as any given listener no doubt flowed through their bleak, semi-charmed life.

The only way to get through such a gray existence is to live through it and learn what you can in the meantime. “You Learn” rhythmically trudges along repetitiously like any given soldier plodding along a warpath, from seventies Vietnam to the 21st century Twietnam, the lyrics trek through the track as the anthemic voice in the back of any disillusioned youth’s head en route through battleground life:

I, recommend getting your heart trampled on to anyone, yeah. I, recommend biting off more than you can chew to anyone; I certainly do. Swallow it down (what a jagged little pill). It feels so good (swimming in your stomach). Wait until the dust settles. You bleed you learn, you scream you learn. You live you learn; you lose you learn.

It’s all about the little things, making the most of the mundane, if only for the sake of making something out of nothing – “life is plain; no pain, no gain, if I could I would resurrect: kurt. cobain.” *snap* *snap*

Alanis exudes a sense of beautiful contradiction. She’s starkly pure and clean, but worn and weathered. She’s bitten, but not broken. She’s bitter, but sweet. Her sound is folksy, but soulful and universally appealing. There are multitudes of layers within the simple acoustics. The sound lulls the listener into a deceptive state of passivity, while the sentiment strikes with the force of a lost lover’s scorn.

I want you to know… that I’m ha ppy for you. I, wish nothing but – the best, for, you both.

“You Oughta Know” is the Canadian “Not Gon’ Cry” meets Waiting to Exhale Angela Bassett meets 10 Things I Hate About You Julia Stiles meets criminal-minded Fiona Apple meets Betty Friedan meets the grit-flinging female to which Al Green awoke one Southern morning: it’s the fury against which Hell can nary hold a flame – it’s knocking at Uncle Joey’s door and it’s everywhere you look.

And every time you speak her name, does she know how you told me you’d hold me until you died, til you died? But you’re still alive…

… likely not by choice.

Unforgettable, Vol. 14: DJ Danger Mouse – The Grey Album

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Venturing out of the kaleidoscopic jungle fever pitch of M.I.A.’s Arular we find ourselves at the concrete crossroads between Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects and London’s Abbey Road with DJ Danger Mouse’s brilliant return to basics, the masterful Jay-Z versus The Beatles mash-up, The Grey Album. The Grey Album is a cataclysmic crux of two epic absolutes: The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album with the rhapsodic rodent at the helm. Burton blurs the lines and illuminates the bonds between good and d’evils to create a gritty grey area – platinum records sans the shine.

The Grey Album is a cultural reflection and blueprint. It is a hybrid of two artistic absolutes: Jay-Z’s Black Album as the pitch black to which he faded – the close to a career, the retirement, the sendoff, the assumed end; The Beatles’ White Album as their rebirth – the first album after the death of their manager Brian Epstein, and the first album on their own record label Apple – donning a pure white album cover with nothing but “The BEATLES” in black. The mash-up flips the roles and sees Hov’s requiem lyrics as a renaissance.

Unforgettable, Vol. 13: M.I.A. – “Arular”

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Where we left off with the sonic schizophrenia of Kenna’s face, we now delve into M.I.A.’s socially schizophonic scape. Maya Arulpragasam came onto the scene in 2005 with her debut, Arular. M.I.A. mirrors the past – leading by sample – and marks the future. From sound to sentiment to style, she lays the groundwork for the new underground of which she spoke in NME

In people’s hard drives and their brains, it just hasn’t been outputted yet. We need a digital moshpit like we’ve never seen, harder than how people were doing it in the punk era. We need that energy, but digitally. It’s coming.

On the brink of her third album, and apparent rebirth, it’s important to see that we still have the same M.I.A. – with the same perspective – in a different package.

Arular came out when I was a freshman in college, and – in conjunction with the urban landscape of Manhattan as my backdrop – was instrumental in my musical maturation. Just as New York is a microcosm of the world, so Arular was a concentrated synthesis of sounds and global societies. Just as I was cementing my identity as a world citizen, so M.I.A. was constructing our cultural identity.

M.I.A.’s eponymous track – “Untitled” – marks her signature as much as ours: a general in the midst – and at the helm – of a lost generation. More so than most, Arulpragasam embodies this era: missing in action – we may not know where we are or what we’re doing, but we’re doing it big. Arular is that electronic indigenous sound of an era on the cusp of tradition and innovation. As M.I.A lays down her blueprint electronic to lead a tribe in the midst of unparalleled transition, so Arular reflects that ambiguity in being born free.

Unforgettable, Vol. 12: Kenna – Make Sure They See My Face

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GLADWELL: Welcome to Blink Radio. I’m Malcolm Gladwell and we’re here with Kenna who’s just about to unveil his newest work on the masses. Hello Kenna.
KENNA: Hello Gladwell.

Where Lupe Fiasco took a grip on reality and let his cool set the pace, Kenna Zemedkun pushed his mind to a fever pitch and made sure the world saw his face. Make Sure They See My Face is sonic schizophrenia. Kenna runs the gamut of sounds, styles, and sentiment in this psychotic masterpiece expressing the brilliance in bi-polarity.

Make Sure is a true catharsis, Kenna literally explodes onto the album with “Daylight,” a track best described as a sonic corona crowning an eclipse. The beats are bombastic funk; there’s synth riding along with acoustics, stratospheric effects alongside static bass, but it makes sense. From the ground up he takes solace in the places where most artists steer clear: the crazy. The only structure here is stream-of-consciousness, but with that he lets go and lets the listener into his mind – no matter how mad it may seem.

GLADWELL: Without being too aggressive, and after hearing a little bit of what you’re doing on this euphonious ride, you seem a little all over the place. Is there a reason for that?
KENNA: Well, that’s a good question. I… think maybe I’ve just been a little… schizophrenic.

Make Sure is Blink Radio. Though it is Kenna’s second album, it is his phonic first impression. From one blink to the next Zemedkun gives a track-by-track, beat-by-beat snapshot of his artistic identity; and for every blink, there is a sonic boom.

Unforgettable, Vol. 11: Lupe Fiasco – “The Cool”

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Whatever it was that N.E.R.D. was in search of: Lupe Fiasco found with his 2007 release The Cool. What is Cool? Cool is a living contradiction. Lupe doesn’t avoid the nature of Cool – he clutches to it like an insomniac to the other side of the pillow. This album lives The Cool through and through.

“They thought it was cool to burn crosses on your front lawn as they hung you from trees in your backyard. They thought it was cool to leave you thirsty and stranded, Katrina! He thought it was cool to carry a gun in his classroom and open fire, Virginia Tech, Columbine – Stop the violence! They thought it was cool to tear down the projects and put up million dollar condos, Gentrification. They think it’s cool to stand on the block hiding product in their socks to make quick dime bag dollars. They think it’s cool to ride down on you in blue and white unmarked cars busting you upside your head. Freeze… ‘Cause the problem is we think it’s cool too. Check your ingredients before you overdose, on The Cool…”

Unforgettable, Vol. 10: N.E.R.D. – In Search Of…

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The “Unforgettable” project takes a look at the key and important albums that have come to define the alternative experience. With the deluge of music in the present era, these “unforgettable” and ultra-important gems are lost in the undertow.

“No one ever really dies… You believe that? Well, if not – for you – it’s almost over now.”

Where we left off with Justice’s French futuristic opera, we pick up with the album that almost was an electronic “eh,” but instead became a funk-infused flashback that found more in searching than most others did in attaining.

Pharrell “the Imperial Skateboard P” Williams, Chad Hugo, and Shay Haley, better known as N.E.R.D., while on the brink of The Neptunes’ next-level stranglehold on Western radio, retreated to Europe to release their highly anticipated debut album as a trio. Then, as modern lore has it, they recorded the original as an electronic album, decided it was trash (read: American Top 40 Treasure), went back in the studio to record the album with live instruments, and shipped it as a proper international release.

In 2010, in the spirit of moving on to the next one: I say we all embark on a similar search.

Unforgettable, Vol. 9: Justice – †

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At a time when nothing was sacred, everything real was artificial, and “America” was the culprit: we found freedom in the music – we found our Jesus and our Kubrick. Justice’s 2007 release Cross was the literal presentation of Arcade Fire’s standout album; the neon bible was authentic synth soul. The French came to the rescue again – via Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay – in a musical Yankee liberation movement. Cross was the 21st Century Lady Liberty, a shining beacon of hope for the sonically stranded stateside souls. Before Justice, it was just us brother – lonely.

When something falls out of place, take your time and put it back… to the start we go as Cross opens with “Genesis.” This is the kind of track that takes you back to confession, kneel before the turntable altar: because Justice is taking you to Church – not merely metaphysical, but a complete out-of-body spiritual experience.

Unforgettable, Vol. 8: TLC – CrazySexyCool

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T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli: from the shade of a summer block party, to the champagne room of your mans-an-em’s favorite bar. The move from Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip to CrazySexyCool, showed a growth during the two years in between that sounded like twelve –– age: ain’t nothin’ but a number. The anthemic urban contemporary album is a staple of 90s music; it is like any hustler’s down-bottom: your ride or die, never fail, glitzy/grimy when you need it to be, solid go-to. The group matured, but more importantly, they did so together. Their sophomore effort reflected the urban music world’s trinity: three distinct parts of the same unified entity. The sound and demeanor reflect a subdued confidence, the sleeper swag so indicative of 90s female R&B music. The title says it all, and it is really all you need: Crazy, Sexy, Cool.

Unforgettable, Vol. 7: Aaliyah – Aaliyah

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Age ain’t nothin’ but a number, gettin’ down ain’t nothin but a thang…

so simple, so straight-forward, so smooth –– so very extra smooth. At 14, Aaliyah set the foundation for a theme that would resonate through her career. Aaliyah was (forgive the overused terminology, but) subterranean silk sleeper swag: well-versed within the R&B/Hip-Hop arenas –– though never breaking to Beyonce or Alicia Keys status (which added to her persona –– she wasn’t a diva, she was fierce just being Babygirl), enlisting on the likes of two unknowns: Missy Elliott and Tim Mosely (Google them, I think they’ve got some independent tracks on YouTube) after working with the 90s R&B staple, R. Kelly, smooth vocals –– not overbearing but instrumental in her signature harmonies –– and so incredibly laid back in a take-it-or-leave-it way.

Her classic “street but sweet” aura personified the era of urban contemporary music. Forever under the lingering shadow of controversial marriage rumors, her age was nothin’ but a number indeed; and forever in the midst of an unfaltering ability to effortlessly exude –– and be the essence of –– urban contemporary culture meant gettin’ down (and making music for you to get down to) was nothin’ but a thang.

Unforgettable, Vol. 6: Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak

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If Graduation is Fame, 808s & Heartbreak Kills. In the wake of Graduation’s superlative Indian summer high, 808s and Heartbreak is the inevitable comedown – the crash of the coldest winter. West described this album as “Pop Art,” in its ability to merge hip-hop credibility with mainstream appeal to innovate authentic music in a way only paralleled by Pink Floyd: Welcome to heartbreak – the dark side of the moon.

Unforgettable, Vol. 5: Kanye West – Graduation

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Graduation is that October Song” masterpiece: a piece of art that needs no external interpretation because it is complete in and of itself. At the most superficial and benign level, Kanye is Alex Trebek and Graduation is “Jeopardy:” a series of answers engaging you to question.

It is a fact that when immersed in the surreal, people’s ability to make sense of the world around them is increased. The fragmented fantastical enhances our ability to connect themes and build structure – when given fantasy we are best equipped to perceive reality.

Thus is Kanye’s Graduation. An artist of West’s caliber is beyond “this world;” his ability to connect words, ideas, art forms, the abstract and concrete, is unreal. Nowhere is this more present than in his masterful encapsulation of modern life – above and below: Graduation.

Unforgettable, Vol. 4: Amy Winehouse – Frank

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Amy, Amy, Amy… born to blossom, bloom to perish, sleep to wake again. Drake says you can’t bring the future back, but when Winehouse asks of herself in 2003’s Frank “Where’s my moral parallel?” she defied that theory. Back to Black was the fateful answer –– the artistic masterpiece, and beautiful disaster –– but as it preceded the U.S. release of Winehouse’s true debut, pre-“Rehab Frank became the answer to its own question.

Unforgettable, Vol. 3: Amy Winehouse – Back to Black

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As the old saying goes, “the sun never sets on England;” so the new saying seems to be, “the talent never fades in Britain,” and in both cases it is in the darkest moments where light burns brightest. Enter Amy Winehouse. Before Hov’s heavily-mediated man-on-a-mission 2009 Auto-Tune massacre, Amy killed it softly; before Roc Nation rocked “all black everything,” Amy Winehouse took it Back to Black. Let’s revisit the death and renaissance of rehab.

Unforgettable, Vol. 2: Lily Allen – My Second Mixtape

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Fresh off the heels of her brilliant My First Mixtape, Lily Allen released the appropriately-titled follow-up, My Second Mixtape. Compared to MFM, MSM is darker, heavier, more urban, more chaotic – like Day & Night. It’s unforgettable because from the mindset of a young artist facing the sophomore slump – an artist fed up with the scene, coming down from the freshman high, in search of a definitive, unique voice and place — comes the musical mosaic of an artist on the brink of senior status.

Whereas MFM was a UK millennial girl’s devil-may-care-but-i-care-greatly look at her persona in relation to music – all of it – MSM delves deeper to the core of her person in the midst of modern music. Like MFM, MSM has an infectious sound; it is a smattering of drum n bass, r&b, rap, psychedelic, etc. There’s dozens of themes and messages hidden within the lyrics, titles, and beats – again, Lily requires dissertations not reviews – but beyond the complexities is the simple fact that everything this girl produces, makes sense. More importantly, everything she produces makes sense of everything of which she is a product.

Unforgettable, Vol. 1: Lily Allen – My First Mixtape

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Good Morning. What’s so special about Saturday morning? Depends on whether the Friday night before it was memorably forgotten… Art is said to imitate life, but it is an amazing moment when the imitation collapses in the presence of life as art. Much like that one strikingly familiar stranger from an otherwise forgettable Friday night, Lily Allen is that one perfectly imperfect artist – person – in an otherwise forgettable genre of overproduced pop avatars – personas. Her understated introduction to the world, My First Mixtape, was that Saturday morning wake up from the flashy Friday night of .com 40 puffery. Fear not: all isn’t lost in the MySpace generation; for the ten thousand avastars, there is Lily Allen: the reason, that just so happens to rhyme with silly. So, allow me to reintroduce herself…

My First Mixtape is a taste of why Rolling Stone said,” Lily Allen is not just a pop star. She’s a genre.” Vis a vis, Allen’s albums don’t call for reviews; they call for deconstructions.