Various Artists: Insecure (Music From the HBO Original Series)

In the pilot episode of “Insecure,” the critically lauded HBO comedy series created by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore, Rae’s eponymous character Issa is at a crossroads. She’s in a stable but stale relationship, and the occasion of her 29th birthday has her wondering if she’s wasting time on a romance that’s heading nowhere. Issa decides to take her best friend Molly, who’s also feeling unlucky in love after a streak of failed flings, to an open mic night in hopes of setting her up with someone new—but secretly to reconnect with an ex-boyfriend. Before long, egged on by said ex, Issa winds up on the stage rapping about “Broken Pussy,” a term that she coined to explain Molly’s recent poor run of form (“Maybe it’s really rough, maybe it’s had enough.”)

The resulting cheesy freestyle, set to the tune of Kelis’ twinkly 2006 hit “Bossy,” makes the cut as the second song on Insecure (Music From the HBO Original Series). Its placement injects a welcome dose of Issa’s personality (both fictional and real—Rae wrote the song with Wilmore) into the soundtrack, while acting as the skeleton key to understanding the rest of the selection; back on the small screen, “Broken Pussy” costs Molly the attention of a potential love interest and leads to a big fight between the two, but they reconcile easily by the end of the episode. The show “Insecure” excels at tracing the professional and affective tribulations of young black adults in L.A., but it stands apart for its depiction of the unbreakable black female friendship at the heart of the story.

Insecure (Music from the HBO Original Series) celebrates this dynamic with 16 songs: mostly by or about women, almost exclusively by black artists. Arkansas-native Kari Faux kicks things off with “No Small Talk,” an anthem for the self-possessed, recorded previously for her 2014 EP Laugh Now, Die Later. A ringing phone blends in with a hard-hitting drum pattern to buoy Faux’s cool-but-confident delivery, replete with nods to Pimp C and 2 Chainz: “Three cellphones and I still don’t ever text ‘em/Catch me out in public and you know I’m flexin’.” Faux makes another appearance on “Top Down” assisted by Brooklyn MC Leikeli47, whose cadence recalls that of fellow New Yorker Amil. The song, a bouncy electropop composition about riding around in a drop top feeling like a million bucks, was commissioned for the first season finale.

Much of the soundtrack appeared across “Insecure”’s 8 episodes to date, curated by the show’s eminent musical consultant Solange Knowles, who knows a thing or two about elucidating the black female experience on wax to dazzling effect. The feel-good anthems give way to songs that address a range of romantic entanglements. “Girl,” a standout track from the Internet’s 2015 album Ego Death, is expertly reimagined as an electric-guitar-driven ode to the feminine by SoCal ensemble 1500 or Nothin. Guordan Banks switches between the high and low register over a slick bassline on “Keep You in Mind,” a call for moving past the coy stages of flirtation onto something more serious.

Although Faux’s “Top Down” is the only original song on Insecure, the rest were chosen carefully to illuminate the main characters’ tastes and animate the world that they inhabit, situated for the most part in predominantly black South L.A. neighborhoods like Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills. This is achieved by featuring either the work of local artists, like the 1500 or the Internet themselves (“Just Sayin/I Tried”), or songs that evoke a similar sense of place, like the sunny strings of “Palm Trees” by D.C. rapper GoldLink.

Considered independently from the influences of the show, the “Insecure” soundtrack works as a seamless collection of hip-hop, soul and R&B. The list of performers runs the gamut from established artists like D’Angelo (“Sugah Daddy”) and Thundercat (“Heartbreaks + Setbacks”) to emerging talents like TT the Artist (“Lavish”) and Banks, who claimed his first Billboard #1 with “Keep You in Mind” last summer. In recent months, the well-timed placement of a song in a new TV series has taken on renewed importance as a means for new artists to raise their profile. “Insecure” was already renewed for a second season and while the protagonists’ fate is surely the highest priority for fans, a chance to devour the forthcoming score can’t be too far behind.

Little Simz: Stillness in Wonderland

Rapper Simbi Ajikawo, who records as Little Simz, is by all measures on an upward trajectory, with comparisons to iconoclasts like Lauryn Hill and praise from craft-minded virtuosos like Kendrick Lamar (the latter said Simz “might be the illest doing it now.”) By last year’s A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons, she’d experienced enough fame to be ambivalent about it—“the type of music that ain’t never gonna sell,” she rapped on “Wings.” But sell it did, enough for Simz’s next album to feature notably well-curated guests (though not Lamar; that collaboration will probably be pretty great whenever it inevitably happens). All of which served to set her up nicely for her new album, which is…a concept album based on Alice in Wonderland.

The reference to the children’s story is a metaphor, naturally—“It’s about situations I’m still trying to get my head around, and places where I’m still trying to figure out who to trust, or who not to trust,” Little Simz told Vice in late 2016. (The exact situations are a bit amorphous—in other interviews she’s suggested the music industry, or escaping into art, or escapism in general.) But the conceit is the biggest problem—there’s a limit to how many takes can be drawn from a book of Victorian math jokes and accompanying film of Disneyfied drugginess. Alice is also more suited to satire or farce—Carroll’s original idea—than serious subjects or earnest introspection, the two modes of this album. “LPMD,” the first track, features a conscious Chronixx verse on Bob Marley, Black Lives Matter, and pineal glands, followed by a birdsong-flecked interlude featuring a spacey, pitch-shifted Cheshire Cat that evokes, depending on how charitable one is, reggae or a spa. A point is being made here, but perhaps not the intended one.

On Stillness in Wonderland, befitting the title, Simz eschews the vivid psychedelia of peers like Janelle Monáe in favor of a muted, atmospheric approach. There are a couple of overt references—a “white rabbit” clip recurs throughout, and “King of Hearts” takes advantage of Alice’s most confrontational character to let Simz take off heads with Chip (still atoning for his kiddie-grime past as Chipmunk) and Ghetts. But for the most part, the wonder is in the arrangements. Much of Stillness features gorgeous production; touchstones might be early Martina Topley-Bird or last year’s KING album.

But Stillness in Wonderland comes off more as a sparsely edited mixtape than a self-contained album: heavy on atmosphere, light on songs. Simz is remarkably prolific—this is her 11th release—and the album often feels fragmentary: tracks have five ideas in the space where one should be, promising experiments are shoehorned into a concept that perhaps might not have been there. On “Picture Perfect,” she plays Wonderland MC over jaunty brass; if only there was more to say besides “Wonderland is amazing, ain’t it?” 

Unusually for such an introspective album, the guest spots are welcome respite.“Poison Ivy” is a standout, a duet with longterm collaborator Tilla about a toxic-yet-compelling relationship, personified in a distorted, prickly guitar line tried to build an alluring soul duet atop. On “Shotgun,” there’s a gossamer hook by the always-welcome Syd, and then there’s Bibi Bourelly’s Rihanna-polished swagger on “Bad to the Bone.” It’s probably not coincidental that these two tracks are both more polished, with a radio-pop sheen totally out of place with the proggier stuff, and contain relatively few Alice references; Simz’s grappling with fame may well be a holding pattern. “I don’t want to be an overnight sensation/I’m tryin’ to make a record you can’t stop playin’,” SiR says on “One in Rotation”; there’s some false dichotomy shit going on here, and then the track cuts off, abruptly, as if snapped out of a dream.