Little Simz’ Drops Bombastic Third LP is a Triumph for UK Hip-Hop

Ultimately, GREY Area is a triumph for British hip-hop, a new high for Little Simz herself, and above all, a fantastically fun and impressive album from an exciting young talent.

Little Simz is an underground hip-hop artist from Islington, London. She dropped a multitude of mixtapes and EP’s between 2010 and 2015, but released her studio debut with 2015’s A Curious Tale of Trials +Persons. She quickly became an underground sensation and received massive acclaim from many in the industry. Kendrick Lamar called her “one of the illest doing this right now,” and she was invited as a supporting act on tours by Gorillaz and the legend herself, Ms. Lauren Hill. Her follow up the very next year, Stillness in Wonderland, was based on the classic novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and featured a plethora of creative instrumentals and commanding flows. Now, three years later, Little Simz has dropped her third LP and one of the most anticipated releases of 2019, GREY Area.

While much of this record’s positives are very much expected, there are a few areas where Simz has stepped up her game quite a bit. One such area is instrumentation. “Sherbert Sunset,” or “Venom,” feature not only fantastic drums, but a creatively large pallet. From woodwinds and brass to very well utilized violins and synths, this album never fails to find unique ways to bring in new melodies and ideas.

This is all made even more effective by truly excellent and dynamic production. On a cut like “Selfish,” we’re given an organic, west-coast sound with well placed vocals and synths and a quite a bit of subtlety. A track like the opener, “Offense,” on the other hand, experiments with distortion and more electronic elements, crafting an aggressive and commanding opener. Virtually every track is helmed solely by producer Inflo, and having the one singular vision driving the full album pays off in spades.

There are even a few excellent features here. Chronixx drops a few smooth, reggae-inspired choruses on “Wounds,” which is already one of the most interesting tracks on the album, and Cleo Sol sounds great on “Selfish.” Easily the best feature comes from Michael Kiwanuka, who’s vocal on the closer, “Flowers,” is a highlight, even in comparison to Simz powerful lead.

This brings us to the obvious and expected driving force that makes this project as impressive as it is, that being Little Simz herself. Lyrically, this is Simz’ best work thus far in her career. On a track like “101 FM,” she tells stories with a directness and creativity that is usually reserved for much older and more experienced MC’s. Even more impressive, however, are songs like “Wounds,” or “Pressure,” where Simz speaks boldly on social and economic issues with a fearless style. Lyrically she truly does live of to Kendrick’s praise.

Best of all, however, is the bombastic, commanding flow that is littered across every single track. The attitude on a cut like “Therapy,” or the album’s best song, “Boss,” bleeds through every word. There are strong influences from golden age rappers like Ms. Lauren Hill and Tupac, but cut with strong doses of grime and other British underground styles. Her accent is always used as a strength, often even allowing her to reach for rhymes which would be off limits to an American rapper. Over the fairly short, 35-minute runtime, Simz gives one of the most impressive showings I’ve heard in several years, and she is undoubtedly among the best lyricists in hip-hop today.

GREY Area certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s impressively close. There are a few issues in terms of pacing, with a few of the final tracks beginning to feel played out if the album is heard in it’s entirety, but the dynamic work from both Simz herself and the production team helps to mitigate the few shortcomings in terms of song structure.

Ultimately, GREY Area is a triumph for British hip-hop, a new high for Little Simz herself, and above all, a fantastically fun and impressive album from an exciting young talent.

8/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Advertisements

Kehlani Wows With Sophomore Release

Kehlani is an R&B Singer/Songwriter from Oakland, California. She rose to popularity in  2014 with her debut mixtape, Cloud 19, which was followed quickly by 2015’s You Should Be Here. Both of these tapes were self-released, but the latter was able to catch on in the R&B sphere, peaking at 36 on the Billboard charts, five on the R&B specific chart, scoring a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album, and launching Kehlani as an exciting young voice in a genre with a new life. Later that year, she signed with Atlantic Records and began work on her first studio LP, SweetSexySavage. The record is certified gold and found its way onto multiple end of year lists. It established Kehlani as a major player in the modern R&B scene  and she would go on to headline a massive, world wide tour in 2017. Now, just two years later, she’s back with another record with Atlantic, While We Wait, and it’s quite impressive.

Maybe the most noticeable positive quality of this record is the excellent production and wide sound pallet on these instrumentals. The opener, “Footsteps,” uses natural atmospherics with a well placed vocoder effect and sharp percussion while the closer, “Love Language,” uses what sounds like a xylophone over trap drums to make a unique experience. Even a cut in the middle of the record like “Feels,” features some fascinating effects and organic instrumentation to pull a listener in before Kehlani has even started singing.

When she does sing, however, the real magic happens. Particularly on simpler tracks like “Too Deep,” or “Butterflies,” Kehlani’s vocal performances are absolutely fantastic. She has a confidence and a power that isn’t overwhelming in quieter sections but builds choruses to impressive heights. Her voice is tuned well on the production end, but there’s so much energy and attitude in her delivery that it’s all but impossible to ignore her.

The album also benefits from some great songwriting, especially in terms of vocal melodies. Take a song like “Nunya,” which has one of the best choruses I’ve heard in a very long time, or its equally singable followup, “Morning Glory.” The choruses are undeniable earworms that will find themselves stuck in listeners heads for quite some time. It’s an often ignored side of R&B music, but singable melodies are an important quality that takes a great record to the next level.

Unfortunately, the album does fall down in one key area, that being features. While 6LACK’s work on “RPG,” is surprisingly impressive, the rest of the supporting cast does nothing but drag the project down. Musiq Soulchild’s verse on the opener, “Footsteps,” is completely out of place and can’t hold a candle to Kehlani’s work on the rest of the cut. Dom Kennedy all but ruins “Nunya,” with a weak flow and boring lyrics and while Ty Dolla $ign’s contribution to “Nights Like This,” is relatively inoffensive, it’s also extremely short and unneccessary. This is sad because rap features are often a strong focal point for a great R&B album, but Kehlani’s own rapping on a track like “Love Language,”  is worlds better than anything these features have to offer.

All in all, this is a very fun record. It bounces from meaningful, emotional tracks to fun and singable cuts effortlessly and Kehlani is an absolute powerhouse across the entirety of the relatively short runtime. It’s a step up from her previous effort, and it leaves me excited for future releases.

While We Wait is an exciting collection of well made R&B that will have many listeners dancing on first listen.

7/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2Nsf33R

Czarface Joins Forces with Fellow Legend for a Fun LP

While Czarface Meets Ghostface may not be hold the attention of a casual listener, it’s an absolute can’t miss for fans of classic, East Coast hip-hop.

Czarface is the an underground hip-hop super group made up of producer 7L, rapper Esoteric, and legendary Wu-Tang MC, Inspectah Deck.  They debuted in 2013 with a self-titled record followed by Every Hero Needs a Villain two years later, both on Brick Records. They signed to Silver Age Records in time for their 2016 effort, A Fistful of Peril and dropped First Weapon Drawn the very next year. Over these four records, the trio had crafted an entire mythology for the Czarface character who is heavily inspired by the lore of 1990’s comic books. In 2018, they paired with legendary MC, MF Doom. The match seemed to be maid in heaven as much of Doom’s discography is similarly comic book inspired. The album, Czarface Meets Metal Face was one of the best rap albums of last year. Now they’re back with another genre legend.

Wu-Tang alum, Ghostface Killah needs very little introduction to any fan of hip-hop. He debuted in with 1993’s triple platinum Enter the Wu-Tang which was followed in ’97 with the quadruple platinum, Wu-Tang Forever. Both of these are virtually scripture for fans of East Coast hip-hop, but Ghostface also has 13 solo LP’s to his name, including his platinum debut, Ironman. Few MC’s in rap history can rival the man’s pedigree, though two who can find themselves on this album with him.

This comes as no surprise, but each artist more than pulls their weight on this project. Ghostface Killah strikes first with an incredible verse on “Face Off,” where he is certainly the best part of the track. He also goes out with a bang on his last cut, “Mongolian Beef.” His flow is, of course, similar to his fellow MC’s, but he differentiates himself with complex, multi-syllabic rhyme schemes and an aggressive delivery.

Inspectah Deck, on the other hand, has a more braggadocios style that really shines threw in the latter half of the record. On tracks like “Listen to the Color,” or the hilariously titled closer, “(Post Credit Scene),” Deck’s performances are dripping in attitude and make a nice counterpart to Ghostface’s more aggressive vocals. His flow is simpler but his lyricism is often the most impressive on a given track.

Surprisingly, however, it’s neither of the Wu-Tang alums who come off looking the best on Czarface Meets Ghostface. That title goes to Esoteric. Across the record, he more than holds his own among fellow legends and on tracks like “Iron Claw,” or “Powers and Stuff,” he outshines them quite a bit. His flow is complex, his delivery is excellent, and lyrically, he lives a ton of unique references as bread crumbs for repeated listeners.

When it comes to instrumentals, unfortunately, we have a somewhat mixed bag. There are moments of brilliance from 7L without a doubt. The “Macho Man” Randy Savage soundbite in the opener, “Back at Ringside,” is excellent and using what sounds like Donkey Kong 64 theme as the driving melody on “Morning Ritual,” may be one of my favorite details ever in a track. In fact, on a cut like “The King Heard Voices,” the beat as a whole is one of the best in recent memory.

However, most of the record is a bit lacking in interesting ideas. Songs like “Czarrcade ’87,” and “Masked Superstars,” are noticeably repetitive, but there’s a bad tendency on the whole album to gather just a few interesting samples that sound good on first listen but very poorly cover for the lack of depth or layers on these instrumentals. Most of the tracks come off as just similar drum beats on loop.

On the whole, this album is a treat. Three all time great MC’s find themselves working together and, somehow, none of them have lost their edge. While many of the instrumentals find themselves lacking, they’re good enough and certainly aren’t the focus. Instead, the lyricism and mythology is on full display and we’re left with an enjoyable collection of hip-hop tracks.

While Czarface Meets Ghostface may not be hold the attention of a casual listener, it’s an absolute can’t miss for fans of classic, East Coast hip-hop.

6/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2U65p9t

Lucky Daye Serves Up Bombastic, Funk Inspired EP

With a strong cocktail of Motown, funk, R&B, and more, Lucky Daye has crafted another dynamic project and focuses all ears on his upcoming LP.

Lucky Daye is a singer, songwriter, and rapper from New Orleans, Louisiana. He signed to RCA and Keep Cool late last year and released his debut EP, I, which was fairly well received.  It was heavily R&B centered while pulling in elements of funk and Motown to make for a dynamic and enjoyable listen. He’s announced a full LP for sometime in 2019, but he strikes again in February with yet another exciting EP, fittingly entitled II.

The project opens with “Karma,” which features the strongest funk influences thus far in his career. The lyrics are fun, the slap bass is nasty in the best way, and the kick drum is absolutely thunderous. The vocal melodies on the verse are addicting and the spoken section at the end is hilarious. The overall track is a perfect opener that leaves a listener anxious to hear the rest.

“Paint It,” follows and keeps every bit of the momentum rolling. The balanced, harmonized vocals are an excellent touch, not to mention the infectious and exciting performance from the lead vocalist. The drums and synth lines feel ripped directly from an 80’s synth-pop hit, and the spacier bridge is a nice change of pace. The closing rap has an excellent flow and though the lyrics are somewhat comedic, they fit the song very well.

The third cut, “Real Games,” is the best cut on the album. The heavily effected guitar lead sets a danceable grove over relatively simple drums. The more psychedelic choruses provide a dynamic change up and the bombastic horns bring the powerful Motown influence screaming to the forefront. The strong vocals and songwriting continue here, but they’re made even better by the explosive instrumentation and unpredictable changes including the excellent, slower final verse.

“Misunderstood,” closes the record and is, unfortunately, the weakest of the bunch. The drums are at their best here and the piano and lo-fi production is a nice choice. However, much of the funk and Motown influences are pulled back in favor of what is, essentially, an R&B track with a few jazz elements. It’s by no means a weak track, but it kills the momentum for a thoughtful piece that never reaches it’s goals lyrically, and so feels like a bit of a mood killer.

Overall, II is an extremely exciting EP from a very young new artist. He has a versatile sound and a bold aesthetic vision.

With a strong cocktail of Motown, funk, R&B, and more, Lucky Daye has crafted another dynamic project and focuses all ears on his upcoming LP.

G Herbo Stumbles on Third Studio Album

While Still Swervin’ features more than its fair share of strong moments, it’s G Herbo’s weakest effort to date and the first to sound like he just didn’t try.

G Herbo is a rapper and producer from Chicago, Illinois. He debuted in 2014 with the Welcome to Fazoland and Pistol P Project mixtapes. He quickly became a key part of the later years of the Chicago drill movement, long after the successes of genre staples like Chief Keef and Lil Durk. Nevertheless, he found substantial success and eventually found his way onto charts and released his first LP, Humble Beast in 2017. Shortly after, he signed with 808 Mafia and released his sophomore record, Swervo, which received mild acclaim from critics, including this website.

His success hinges on a few things but none more than his flow. His style is hard-hitting and violent, perfectly in line with the sound that put drill rap on the map. He also writes with quite a bit of raw passion, refusing to turn away from the harsh realities of life in downtown Chicago. His rough voice plays well against the classically hectic instrumentals of trap music and makes for a tight package that is extremely enjoyable for fans of his style of music. He doesn’t aim to reinvent the wheel, but he does what he does very well. He aims to continue that style with Still Swervin’ which is his most mixed effort to date.

Much of what we’ve come to appreciate from Herbo is here on the record. His flow is hard hitting on tracks like the opener, “Sacrifice,” and “Do Yo Sh!t.” Several tracks, including these two, have no chorus or hook and instead consist of one long verse from Herbo that feels almost like a freestyle. While the flows can often feel repetitive, they hit hard enough to keep a listener entertained.

His lyrics are fairly impressive on more than a few occasions as well. Tracks like “Yerk 30,” and “Wilt Chamberlin” are some of the best on the project because of Herbo’s braggadocios lyricism and creative imagery. He’s at his best when he’s writing about his money and street cred, though his rare attempt at telling a more vulnerable story on the closer, “Hood Cycle,” feels surprisingly genuine.

The few features that do appear on the record run the gamut from the fantastic work of Pretty Savage on the album’s best track, “Bug,” and the very funny “Shakey Skit,” to the sleepy performances from Gunna on “Trained to Kill,” or Juice WRLD on “Never Scared,” both of which suck the life out of otherwise enjoyable tracks. Aside from Pretty Savage, however, none of the features feel necessary or even helpful, especially since Herbo has such a dynamic voice as he shows on tracks like “Ok.”

This is still more than I can say for the production, however. Nearly every instrumental on the album is either boring or unlistenable. The manic energy of old school drill rap is gone in favor of nothing beats like “Up It,” and “Visionary.” Virtually the entire album is drenched in uninventive trap cymbals and the occasional accent which is generally abrasively mixed and completely out of place.

The worst quality of the record, however, and one that plagues the entirety of the nearly 50 minute runtime, is G Herbo’s inability to stay on beat. It’s especially bad in the first half, with tracks like “Scratchy & Itchy,” and “Bought a Tool,” sounding as if the vocals were recorded totally separately and just layered over the existing beat. Not to be outdone, however, the latter half contains “Boww,” which is easily one of the worst rap songs I’ve heard in many years and the worst on the album by a mile.

The album is an odd outing for Herbo and disappointing to say the least. With a solid debut and an even better sophomore effort under his belt, this record would’ve been the perfect opportunity for his sound to pierce the mainstream bubble. Unfortunately, even its best moments are pulled down by structural problems like weak instrumentals and off-beat rapping that are so severe that the LP never does quite find its footing.

While Still Swervin’ features more than its fair share of strong moments, it’s G Herbo’s weakest effort to date and the first to sound like he just didn’t try.

3/10

Boogie Drops Strong Major Label Debut

Everythings For Sale is a very strong debut from an exciting young artist.

Boogie is a rapper and vocalist from Compton, California. He made a name for himself in the underground world with his debut mixtape, The Thirst 48 in 2014, before breaking through a year later with his follow up, The Reach. He was immediately notable for his ability to bring his own real life experiences to his lyrics in a visceral way in addition to his unique, gospel inspired beats. He signed to Eminem’s Shady Records label in time to release The Thirst 48 Pt. II as a continuation to his debut mixtape.

After signing he received a strong push from the label, including a ton of features with artists like Denzel Curry, Royce Da 5’9, and a strong cypher at 2017’s BET Awards. When his major label debut, Everythings For Sale was announced, anticipation was high as Boogie’s unique sound was expected to benefit quite a bit from the full funding treatment. Despite the odd decision to release such an anticipated project in January, this record certainly didn’t disappoint.

The full studio treatment comes through immediately in the form of excellent beats and a wide instrumental pallet. From the bombastic horn section on “Who’s Fault,” to the reedy woodwinds on “Silent Ride,” listener’s never quite know what to expect on a track and it works extremely well. Not to mention the live drum kit on tracks like the “lolsmh,” interlude that benefits from sharp rimshots and explosive cymbals.

The features list also shows signs of the new studio, though the performances are a bit of a mixed bag. They range from JID’s fantastic verse on “Soho,” and Eminem’s technically impressive pass on “Rainy Days,” to 6lack’s formulaic and boring work on “Skydive II,” which all but ruins what could’ve been the best track on the record.

As for Boogie himself, he’s fantastic. Lyrically, he deals in topics like mortality and death before switching effortlessly to a track like “Self Destruction,” that focuses on drinking and partying and then coming right back to a track about his divorce. He’s incredibly heartfelt and visual, particularly on the more nocturnal tracks like “No Warning.”

The most noticeable and strongest aspect of the record is Boogie’s flow. From the opener, “Tired/Reflection” where his tight scheme plays well off of the jazz instrumental, to the closer, “Time,” where he’s far more relaxed but no less emotional, his rapping is simply captivating. In fact, it’s the tracks that lack a rap verse where the record does fall short.

The influence of artists like Chance the Rapper is worn quite boldly on his sleeve, and it works on a track like “Live 95,” where the old school, R&B vibe lends itself to Boogie’s strong ear for melody. Unfortunately, his singing is hardly capable of carrying a full track. This becomes painfully obvious when one hears a song like “Swap Meet,” or “Skydive.” Here, the lack of a strong verse makes the tracks feel somewhat aimless, and by the time they end, they feel like nothing more than unimportant interludes.

Luckily, this is rarely the case as the majority of the album is excellent. Everythings For Sale simply doesn’t feel like a debut LP as Boogie’s meaningful lyricism and wide array of flows makes him a strong front man for such a well made record. Boogie is one of few young and exciting acts on Shady Records and with this being his first LP on the label, he’s showing quite a bit of promise. One can only hope that the label will give him ample opportunity to succeed and that he keep up the strong performances on future releases.

  Everythings For Sale is a very strong debut from an exciting young artist.

6/10

Future’s Newest Album is a Slog With Little Reward

Future’s clear desire to grow artistically has bottomed out in trap music’s lack of depth and his own lack of ingenuity to leave us an album of nothing but style over substance.

Future is an Atlanta based rapper/producer. He was extremely influential in the commercial success of trap music, with his 2012 debut Pluto and 2014’s Honest going gold, establishing Future as a top player in the rap world. This was confirmed in 2015 with his solo LP DS2 going double platinum while What a Time to Be Alive, his collaboration with Drake, went platinum as well. Since 2015, he’s released three more records, each of which reached number one and sold over a million copies.

Future’s sound is extremely controversial as he is often credited as a precursor to mumble rap. His heavy use of autotune, bass-centric beats, and constant use of triplet based flows are all imitated so often in the modern rap scene that his influence simply can’t be ignored. That being said, he’s also criticized quite often for meaningless lyrics, repetitive tracks, and an inability to evolve with the genre. On recent releases, Future has adopted the nickname of “Hndrxx,” a moniker which seems to be aimed at rebranding toward a more artistic vision. Unfortunately, those releases also showed very little growth from the sound he came up on. Now, early in 2019, Future treats us to an hour long seventh LP entitled WIZRD.

In the interest of fairness, let’s start with the good, scarce as it may be. The production, which I will complain about later, was at least quite smooth and competent with a few shining moments. “Promise U That,” features an interesting chorus of voices which, in stereo, surround the listener for a nice effect. And tracks like “Servin Killa Kam,” and “First Off,” use glossy, bass-heavy beats that fit the tone of the record well. Tracks like “Call the Coroner,” and “F&N,” also feature fun intros and transitions.

Additionally, the lack of a true chorus on tracks like the opener, “Never Stop,” make Future’s admittedly repetitive flow sound quite a bit more intense. Unfortunately, we’re now left to turn to the issues on this album and they are plentiful.

First and foremost, Future is one of the least dynamic rappers in the game today. Whether the track is intense and upbeat like “Jumpin’ on a Jet,” and “Goin Dummi,” or more melodic like “Ain’t Comin Back,” and “Crushed Up,” his flow is virtually identical, despite the fact that it somehow doesn’t work with either sound. The abusive use of autotune gives his voice a tinny quality that makes his weak flows even more unbearable and leaves me wondering how he ever reached this level of popularity.

Lyrically, the record is about as uninteresting as one would expect. While tracks like “Rocket Ship,” and “Temptation,” are packed to the brim with noticeably cringe-worthy lines, it’s tracks like “Stick to the Models” and “Face Shot,” that are perhaps more frustrating as not a single word is memorable or interesting. Everything is just thrown away and could’ve been written in five minutes.

Above all this, though, the album has a single fatal flaw which simply can’t be overlooked. Namely, every single beat sounds identical to the one before and after it. Tracks like “Overdose,” “Krazy but True,” and the closer, “Tricks on Me,” feel like nothing more than wallpaper because there isn’t a single moment where a track sounds unique or interesting. It’s so repetitive that the rather weak breakdown on “Baptiize,” feels like a much needed release. Even the features on “Unicorn Purp,” are buried under the lack of variety, which is made worse by the push given to the bass and snares so that any changes that are made feel slight and unimportant.

In the end, WIZRD will likely find major success, as have Future’s earlier endeavors, but it seems to be yet another indicting piece of evidence that trap music has passed its prime.

Future’s clear desire to grow artistically has bottomed out in trap music’s lack of depth and his own lack of ingenuity to leave us an album of nothing but style over substance.

2/10

HEAR WIZRD: https://open.spotify.com/album/3LpIwZdzFwc10psLingT8x