Music Lists

Slept On: The Latest In Underground Rap (March 5, 2021)

New releases from OMB Preezy, Q Da Fool and more

Molly Brazy – Pink Molly

As the holiday drought finally starts to come to a close, new releases have been heating up this week.

Drake announced his return with Scary Hours 2 and Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak debuted their new supergroup Silk Sonic with the release of an infectious new single. Juice Wrld, Justin Bieber, Maroon 5, and a plethora of other pop icons returned with new music this week. Still, on the other side of the spectrum, there were a handful of magnetic underground releases today that deserve a rotation. Here are today's most slept on rap releases.

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MUSIC

Can Trump-Hating Christians Enjoy Kanye West's "Jesus Is King"? (And Other Questions)

Kanye West has seen the light, but what does that mean for the rest of us?

Kanye West's Jesus Is King asks a lot of questions of the listener, though maybe not the kinds that its creator intended.

Then again, for thousands of years, the Bible itself has been raising questions that seem to have nothing to do with its actual text.

One question: If we could erase the events of the past few years—if we could spin time back to before the MAGA hats and the "slavery was a choice" comments—how differently would we receive Jesus Is King? One would imagine that though it might disappoint some West purists and ingratiate some evangelicals, many of us wouldn't have been quite as struck by it as we are. Musically, Jesus Is King is a collage of gospel and rap, a choppy and inconsistent mix of revelations and verses. Technically, it fits into West's varied but always innovative catalogue. And yet, because of the cultural context into which West has released it, and because we can't turn time backwards no matter how hard we try, it's hard to see it as separate from politics.

West isn't the first musician to have a born-again experience. Great musicians often take a sharp turn for the spiritual at some point in their careers, and Christianity seems to be the most common choice. There was the time that Bob Dylan began preaching to audiences, telling them that Jesus was the final product of the a-changing times (he later converted back to Judaism). Elvis created an entire album of gospels (though he was also blamed for the downfall of Christianity). The theme is most prominent in black American music, and West is operating in the tradition of figures like Little Richard, who veered towards rock and roll's satanism in the 1960s, then became an evangelical minister.

Interestingly, most of these artists went through a kind of "wilderness" period, a time when the public turned against them. Many turned to drug use and then to Christianity, and back again, seeking escape and redemption through ecstatic experiences.

Anyone who's been on the Internet in the past five years will know that Kanye West has always sought out ecstasy, and he's been wandering through the wilderness for a while now. He's clearly seen God on some mountain, become convinced that the gospels are the way out of the darkness. And he's known darkness: He suffers from unmedicated bipolar disorder, a consistent theme that can't be ignored in a discussion of West's new work.

This raises other unanswerable questions about Jesus Is King, such as the looming question of just how much Kanye's mental illness has to do with all this. Mental illness and spirituality do tend to run close together, with many revelations resembling hallucinations and sages and the faithful being written off as madmen, and art has balanced on the seam between madness and the sublime since time immemorial.

Rapzilla.com

Christianity's Problem of Evil: Kanye West's Reckoning

West has flirted with Christianity and all its questions since before he was born again, blurring his own selfhood with Jesus Christ since he began creating. His ability to fuse the Bible with camp and sex is what gives a lot of his early work so much power.

A lot of West's best work utilizes Christianity in a healing and humanizing way that's almost entirely absent from Jesus Is King, though at some points, like in "On God" and "Use This Gospel," flickers of the sublime seep through. It's the same sublime that you can hear in full and undistilled form on older songs like "Saint Pablo," ringing clear through lyrics like, "Looking at the church in the night sky / wondering when and where God's gonna say hi." The song takes on Biblical proportions, invoking a sense of spirit even in the most secular listener, perhaps by evoking some Bible verses. "When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place," reads Psalm 8:3. "I see Thy heavens, a work of Thy fingers, Moon and stars that Thou didst establish."


Objectively, the Bible is an extraordinary body of work, one that taps into the primal desires that unite humankind. How else could it have flooded so many millions of people with a fiery, supernatural kind of passion? There's something alluring about its promise of sacredness, it's clear pathway to heaven, its promise that no matter how much you've sinned, all you need to do is swear your soul to Jesus just before you die, and you'll be redeemed. If you've ever really regretted your past actions, if you've ever felt truly lost, you can see why Christianity is so appealing. At the core of Christianity is the promise of unconditional forgiveness through faith alone.

Perhaps (and here's where I buy my train ticket to hell), that promise of easy forgiveness has something to do with why Christianity has incentivized so much evil. Hatred for those who sin is written into the Old Testament itself, which legitimizes the genocide and massacre of the Canaanites (Numbers 21:2-3; Deuteronomy 20:17; Joshua 6:17, 21) and other societies, and the god of that holy book is vengeful, vitriolic, and totally unforgiving.

None of this is to say that Christianity is evil. Undistilled, in its perfect form, tempered by Jesus Christ's gospel, Christianity—like most religions—is a pure and compassionate religion, dedicated to getting people to be kind to their neighbors and to treat themselves and others with love. There are also countless different forms of Christianity, and it can never be distilled into the binary of good or evil (even though much of the faith is built on that very binary). Christianity also has a sacred and ancient position in the black church, one that West is definitely channeling. "Gospel is a music of the overwhelmed, the weary," a genre built on a sense of "black perseverance" which "comes and goes on Jesus Is King," according to Vulture.

But to make a sweeping statement, when Christianity meets the brokenness of humanity on Earth, when it brushes up against the chaos of the contemporary world and all our human greed and desire and falls into the hands of the ruling class, it seems to have a tendency to grow contorted and cruel. This rarely causes it to lose its persuasiveness, though, and because of this, it has too easily become a powerful weapon that legitimizes colonization, enslavement, fear of otherness, and all manners of evil masquerading as holiness.

So it is with Jesus Is King, an album that performs faithfulness and promises redemption but cannot be taken out of the context of who Kanye is and what he seems to stand for. Perhaps West's new album is, if not perfect, pure in intention. But when it crushes up against the reality of what's going on in America right now, when it's listened to through the lens of West's values and politics, it begins to crumble.

Empty Promises: America and the Church

Jesus Is King is not an empty album, but it's built on empty ideals. Pitchfork called it an "album of slogans," and its few non-denominational verses are full of consumerist statements. The Ringer calls it an "altar call to the captive Instagram generation propped up on the most digestible bits of Christianity, diluted in the language of self-care." Often, the album's message only highlights the emptiness of the foundations it stands on.

This emptiness is not new. It's existed in every church that preached kindness but burned dissidents at the stake. It exists in governments that preach liberty but incarcerate their poor for minor offenses. It's at the heart of the Trump Administration, and in this day and age, West's music—no matter how holy it seems to be—can't be extricated from West's relationship with Donald Trump.

Though the president hasn't yet commented, West's album has pleased Donald Trump Jr., who Tweeted, "Kanye West is cracking the culture code." It's been praised by Pamela Geller, notorious for her anti-Muslim sentiments. As Jay Connor writes, "All the wrong kinds of people love Jesus Is King."

Is it wrong to denounce Jesus Is King because of West's politics? There's a fundamental dissonance here, perhaps a central dissonance of our time. Can we separate the art from the artist, the church from the state, the politics from the human? What could be wrong with a religious album, one that preaches love—and isn't it hypocritical to let political differences get in the way of this love?

The problem here is that, from a liberal or humanist perspective, it's simply impossible to extend love and compassion to people who are willing to deny others' humanity and right to exist. Christians have the right to be Christians, obviously, but worshiping Jesus Christ shouldn't give you permission to be a terrible person.

In the middle of Kanye West's Sunday Service, a preacher stands up and delivers a sermon about John 3:16, which he describes as an "ocean of love written in blood." "You're invited today," he says. "It doesn't matter how far you've fallen... It just takes one step back. One step of repentance."

WATCH FULL STREAM | KANYE WEST | JESUS IS KING | SUNDAY SERVICE EXPERIENCE | THE FORUM | 10/27/19www.youtube.com

But does love have to be written in blood? Does repentance always equal redemption? Why is a religion that preaches love and life so popular with a political party that is allergic to the concept of taxing a wealthy few in order to support the weak? None of these questions can really be distilled down to the level that statement implies, and yet more and more, I find myself asking these kinds of questions, getting lost in their loopholes, realizing that political differences can stretch as deeply as religious differences, and that both conservatives and liberals see the others as Satan.

Waking Up from the God Dream: Where Does Kanye Go from Here?

As I wrote this article, I was listening to Kanye perform his Sunday Service experience at the Forum in Los Angeles. He alternated new songs from Jesus Is King with some of his more religious old songs, including the chorus of "Ultralight Beam," a song I once listened to with the same reverence I imagine some people cling to Bible verses with.

The Sunday Service version was beautiful, but I missed the rap verses. I missed the anger, I missed the raw humanity that gave Kanye West's music its sense of true ecstasy.

Still, I understand his decision to defect to Christ. There's so much fear around, it's easy to want to find a solution in a man who promises he'll save you, be it Trump or God, in someone who promises he'll smite anyone who gets in the way of your right to liberty and redemption.

I know that no matter how much any of us says or writes against Kanye, I understand why he chose to defect from the pain of reality, into the sweet dream state of Jesus Christ's forgiveness. I think to survive everything that's coming, we do need spirituality. We need to confront our minds before we can change our reality, and we cannot survive and change the world while believing that we have no purpose or guiding light.

But we don't need the kind of Jesus Christ that Kanye West is preaching about right now, not the kind that believes in covering up and ignoring the horrific evils of America in exchange for a perfunctory faith and a deluded nationalism. We need (or perhaps I dream of) the kind of Christ who appears on "Ultralight Beam," who exists in the nightclubs as well as at the altar, who doesn't tacitly endorse hate or forgive just because he's been asked. West is so close. Perhaps he's just a revelation away from embracing a more empathetic and socially aware kind of understanding. If he ever does, that's a Sunday Service I'd wake up for.

MUSIC

YBN Cordae's "The Lost Boy" Is an Instant Classic

The 2019 XXL Magazine Freshman Class honoree's debut album demonstrates why he deserves our respect.

XXL

If you've never heard of YBN Cordae before, that is bound to change in the days and years to come.

So long as he keeps making music with the same level of passion and skill that he demonstrated on his debut album, The Lost Boy, his name won't be forgotten. On every track of his record, the 21-year-old emcee approaches the mic with the confidence, command, and charisma of a veteran rapper. In fact, at times his flow is reminiscent of fellow North Carolina native (and collaborator on the album), J. Cole—an impressive feat given the fact that it took even Cole a couple of albums to truly find his voice, whereas Cordae seems to have already honed his prior to his first official release.

Of the 15 tracks on The Lost Boy, not a singe one of them is a throwaway. From the album's opener, "Wintertime"—a retrospective look at how Cordae overcame hardships like depression, addiction, and poverty—to the full-circle outro, "Lost & Found," where Cordae reflects briefly on how he was once lost but has since found himself. Cordae begins the album looking over his shoulder and ends it by living in the moment as he stands on the precipice of a very promising music career.

Other highlights along the way include the Anderson .Paak-assisted and J. Cole-produced, "RNP," which sees .Paak and Cordae exchange kid-n-play bars back and forth, conversing and pushing each other's rhymes further with each line. There's a certain alchemy between the two on this song that hasn't been heard since the heydays of Dr. Dre and Eminem, or Q-Tip and Phife Dawg on early Tribe records. It's as fun as it is enjoyable.

In fact, every one of the features on The Lost Boy is handled well. Cordae hasn't simply featured artists here for clout or merely for the sake of collaborating; every song that has a guest feels as if it truly called for the artist in question. Whether it's Pusha T going hard on the haunting "Nightmares Are Real," Ty Dolla $ign blending perfectly into the melodic, homecoming anthem, "Way Back Home," or Chance The Rapper lending some characteristic sunshine to the feel-good gospel chords of "Bad Idea," Cordae (and his collaborators) reminds listeners of the fact that a great artist works in service of the song before all else.

The Lost Boy is one of the most substantial debut albums to drop in quite some time. Front to back, this record is full of gems that are sure to stay in rotation for years to come. This is what an excellent rap album sounds like. And YBN Cordae is just getting started.

The Lost Boy


MUSIC

BJ The Chicago Kid's "1123" Is an Underappreciated R&B Gem

While 1123 doesn't make as many grand gestures as its predecessor, the album's trimmed hedges give it mainstream listenability, while offering just enough idiosyncrasies to make it sound like something new.

In January 2017, 24 million people watched as a young crooner named BJ The Chicago Kid stepped up in a clean navy blue suit to sing the national anthem.

America watched with dread as Obama gave his final speech as the 44th president of the United States. Breaking from tradition, he delivered it at McCormick Place convention center in his hometown of Chicago rather than at the White House. BJ's rendition of the "The Star Spangled Banner" was as passionate as it was mournful. "As soon as I was off, I turned around and said, 'What just happened?'" the Motown singer later recounted of the experience. "Like, that's when reality set in. My hands were shaking like I was getting ready to sing, but I already sang."

BJ—real name Bryan James Sledge—appeared on stage as a stranger to many, but the singer's 2016 major label debut, In My Mind, had just been nominated for a grammy. BJ himself had received four nominations in total. His breakout project was met with critical acclaim and came at the tail end of a difficult 15-year grind for the singer. True mainstream fame has still eluded him, but he's always had a notable presence in most respected circles. He is a regular aid in TDE and has worked extensively alongside every member, as well as Kanye West, Stevie Wonder, Jill Scott, Anderson .Paak, Dr. Dre, and Anthony Hamilton.

Many call him a revivalist and a trendsetter, though BJ has never embraced titles and says he doesn't even listen to the radio. "I love what music is, but I just know who I am," he told Beats 1 Radio. His sophomore effort, 1123, likely won't achieve the attention it deserves, as it was overshadowed by the debuts of YBN Cordae and Chance The Rapper's latest, but its release alongside such mainstream heavy-hitters confirms that BJ truly tunes out the gossip and stays focused on the music.

While 1123 doesn't make as many grand gestures as its predecessor, the album's trimmed hedges give it mainstream listenability, while offering just enough idiosyncrasies to make it sound like something new. Anderson .Paak's rapping sounds especially silky alongside old school DJ scratches and BJ's illuminating voice. "Playa's Ball" makes the most out of Rick Ross's deep growls, while "Worryin' Bout Me" pushes Offset's bravado into a slightly new direction. The record is not without its snag—"Rather Be With You," and "Close" never truly achieve lift-off—but BJ's talent is electric. And while 1123 is not a genre-bending masterpiece, it's eclectic enough to remind us that BJ has already achieved monumental success and that mainstream fame is soon to follow. When it inevitably arrives on his doorstep, it will have been on his terms.

1123

MUSIC

Anderson .Paak's "Ventura" is Scripture in the Age of Anxiety

The California rapper's latest is a combination of disparate genres and conflicting emotions. In that, it's visionary—though not always pleasing to the ears.

Since he released O. B. E. Vol I under the pseudonym Breezy Lovejoy in 2012, Anderson .Paak has been a master at synthesizing contradictions, using genres like instruments in his chaotic modern orchestra.

His newest release, Ventura, builds on this tradition, staying true to his eclectic brew of soul, jazz, and hip hop, embracing hybridity to form music so expansive, it's sometimes hard for the ears to hold.

This complexity is both Ventura's defining characteristic and its fatal flaw, depending on who you're asking. It's a breathless roller-coaster of an album; even its celebrations of love and joy feel intricately mapped. Paak's creative vision is a racehorse bucking at a gate, always threatening to spill over.

Anderson .Paak - Ventura (Teaser) www.youtube.com

This is apparent on the song "Chosen One (feat. Sonyae Elise)," where Paak seems to be trying to control his voice, collapsing into a Frank Ocean-type lullaby on the refrain, "We should be loving each other crazy. We shouldn't wait. We don't have to, but we have to." Even in the slowest parts, there's always a sense of urgency; he never seems able to resist throwing in an intricate horn riff, a choppy burst of strings, or a church harmony. And always, there are those subdued but urgent beats, underlying everything like a fast heartbeat. Overall Ventura is characterized by this duality—anxiety layered against reverent stillness, cool detachment versus intense care. It's the musical embodiment of trying to give off an aura of confidence, knowing full well you're capable and in no real danger, but still feeling sweat trickle down the back of your neck.

This isn't to say that Paak is compensating for something. In fact, he's probably one of the only musicians around sophisticated enough to make music that's this intricate without losing its emotional center. The album never swings into the territory of bad jazz jam bands, aggressively trying to one-up each other with the next solo; every instrument and line feels like an honest, necessary manifestation of a feeling. It's just that this particular feeling is frenetic and ceaseless, switching between influences. It's not hard to imagine that Paak suffers from insomnia: this is music that sounds like overthinking. But it also sounds like an early-morning meditation, watching the sunrise and embracing the new day. That's Ventura, and that's Paak: love and fear, panic and wisdom, deep breaths in the eye of a storm. It's a portrait of the human condition, a promise that there's hope embedded in every fear.

"Twilight" is an example of a song that splits the distance between detachment and urgency, layering blurry piano and horn riffs over an insistent beat. "You're my twilight when it's all dark," he sings; the song could work for a spin class or a night drive, but doesn't feel perfectly suited for either; too fast to be chill, too slow to play in clubs, it instead bridges the gap. It doesn't fit into a box—and in that, it's visionary.

Part of Ventura's multifacetedness comes from the fact that it features so many guests—André 3000, Smokey Robinson, Lalah Hathaway, Jazmine Sullivan, Sonyae Elise, Brandy, Nate Dogg, and Nas. One can imagine that his studio was a kind of carnival, producers and featured artists running in and out, players at the top of their game staying up into the morning. In the middle of it all is Paak's distinct voice, his effortless bars, and delicately hoarse vocals shaping the action that surrounds them.

The California rapper has lived a lot of lives, and you can feel them all bubbling up at different places on Ventura. Raised in Oxnard, he began producing music in his bedroom and his first gigs were playing drums in church. Later, he worked at a marijuana farm and was suddenly fired, finding himself homeless with his girlfriend and child. From there he navigated the Los Angeles music scene, eventually becoming the highly respected jack of all trades he is today.

Though at times Ventura gets lost in its own vast scope, there are points where it all comes together, achieving an almost perfect equilibrium. The final track, "What Can We Do? (feat. Nate Dogg)" is an example of this; it's an exuberant, wistful celebration that feels like an exhale. "What can we do to make it feel just like it used to feel?" he sings; and in terms of narrative, that line is the album's heart. "Make It Better (feat. Smokey Robinson)" does the same while traversing the same theme—come back, we can fix this.

Anderson .Paak - Make It Better (ft. Smokey Robinson) (Official Video) www.youtube.com

Though this message sometimes seems to refer to one relationship, at times it translates to something much larger. "King James" is one of the most sophisticated and hopeful protest tracks released in recent memory. It threads knotty horns over a funk bass line, and its lyrics are full-on cries for revolution. "If they build a wall, let's jump the fence. I'm over this," he sings. "What we built here is godly. They can't gentrify the heart of kings." It also talks about gun violence and Colin Kaepernick, weaving contemporary references into more ageless questions like, "What about the love?" There, again, is that oscillation between modern, claustrophobic anxiety and the sort of perspective that comes from detached enlightenment. Maybe there are two Anderson .Paak's: the one who's alive right now, full of rage and ambition; and the one who's lived many lives, the preacher who's come to deliver his gospel. They're both present on Ventura.

Ultimately, amidst the contradictions, there's one defining characteristic here—hope. Even through anxiety and fear, even in political madness or apocalyptic news, there's a way forward. Maybe it's too late to find stillness or escape, Paak seems to be saying, but in facing the storm, there's love to be found. You can make an album that's funk and jazz and soul and a million other things. You can be a million contradictions in one. Even if your heart's in your mouth and you're sweating through your jacket, it's possible to walk on.

Image via billgrahamcivic.com



Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York. Follow her on Twitter @edenarielmusic.


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MUSIC

6 New Songs You Should Hear this Week: Music in the Eye of the Storm

Featuring Tash Sultana, Anderson .Paak and Smokey Robinson, Khalid, Lostboycrow, MADELIN and more

This was an incredible week for music, with releases from the likes of Khalid, Sara Bareilles, Aurora, Marina and the Diamonds, Weyes Blood, Mac DeMarco, Vampire Weekend, and Anderson .Paak promising to brighten your day no matter what kind of music you're into.

Here are some of the week's best new tracks—some by lesser-known artists, some instant classics, but all finding some kind of peace within chaos, whether through forgiveness, self-love, wistful nostalgia, or comfort in one's makeshift family.

1. Anderson .Paak and Smokey Robinson: Make It Better

Anderson .Paak - Make It Better (ft. Smokey Robinson) (Official Video) www.youtube.com

This is the sonic equivalent of a long, deep drink of water at 3 AM; somehow refreshing on a soul-deep level, it's enhanced by cinematic strings and Smokey Robinson's '50s soul-style harmonies, which rise and fall over a punchy beat. It all comes together to form a song that's joyful and full of life, equal parts experimental and true to its influences. "Make It Better" is about deciding to work on a relationship instead of letting it fade away, and it's the perfect soundtrack for anybody trying to do the same. It also sounds tailor-made for a walk in a park on a spring day after a long, dark winter, or for a reconciliatory dance in the kitchen as the sun rises; in short, it sounds like a quiet redemption.

2. Tash Sultana: Can't Buy Happiness

Tash Sultana - Can't Buy Happiness (Official Video Clip) 4K www.youtube.com

Tash Sultana has returned with a luxuriously dreamy new single, her first release since 2018's excellent Flow State. "Can't Buy Happiness" is a slow burn, beginning with a still, quiet reflectiveness that bursts into full-on ecstasy about halfway through. Sultana has never been one to hold back, and here she unleashes the full scope of her voice, guitar, and creative vision, creating a psychedelic firework display that ebbs and flows with all the violence of a tropical storm. You might have to take a breath afterward because this is a rollercoaster in the best way, a wild ride through rich sonic textures, crashing waves, and flawless, emotive guitar riffs.

3. Noname: Song 32

Noname - Song 32 www.youtube.com

Noname is one of the best in the game right now, and she's returned to solidify this representation with a subdued new track called "Song 32." Her crystalline bars fit neatly over a sparse beat and erupt on the chorus, before settling back down into the rhythm and then rising back up again. It's a calm, gentle, and yet softly assertive composition; and ultimately, it sounds like a woman at peace with herself, keyed into her own strength. "I'm the best of America," she repeats, letting the music take over for a moment before launching back into her effortless, intricate verses.

4. Lostboycrow: Cody in the Valley

Cody in the Valley www.youtube.com

The rising singer from East L.A. has been touring relentlessly and steadily releasing bits of his first LP Santa Fe. This week, he dropped a new addition featuring the title track as well as "Cody in the Valley." The latter is misty, mournful pop at its purest; it's a sultry and unaffected tune that begins with pristine piano and builds up to a guitar-streaked chorus, fleshed out by rich harmonies. It's a song for sunsets and smoky nights and carries with it some of the nostalgic, saturated gloom of early Lorde; and it's a promising addition to Lostboycrow's growing body of impressive work.

5. MADELIN: Monarch

Monarch www.youtube.com

Experimental pop artist MADELIN just released a new single, and it's an eclectic and euphoric dance track that carries with it all the energy of a summer night in New York City. She told Popdust, "Monarch is inspired by the colorful intensity of the New York City and Brooklyn queer nightlife scene. I wrote it at a time in my life when going out and seeing all the unique, beautiful, artistic drag queens and club kids was the only thing making me feel truly alive. It's about being inspired by other people's creativity and getting closer to your own, feeling the collective energy of misfit humans together in one space, getting lost in the adrenaline, love, and beauty of a fleeting moment."

"Monarch" does justice to this mission. It's a gleaming collage of synths and beats, a danceable and energy-filled celebration of all the joy, strangeness, and communion that Brooklyn nightlife and queerness have to offer. Check out Popdust's 2018 interview with her here.

5. Khalid: Paradise

Khalid - Paradise (Audio) www.youtube.com

Though he's no longer a young dumb broke high school kid, Khalid is still just as good at creating effortlessly catchy tunes as he was back then. His songwriting talents have grown over the years, though, and Free Spirit showcases his knack for turning ordinary experiences into cinematic events. "Paradise" in particular is a casual, ultra-relaxed tribute to escapism, a song that seems made for smoke-filled rooms and late nights. His falsetto rises above a fluorescent beat, and a buoyant guitar outro adds to the song's carefree, dreamlike atmosphere. It's one of the highlights of his all-around fantastic sophomore album.


Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City. Find her on Twitter @edenarielmusic.


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