Drake Tops Charts, but Struggles Creatively With 8th Studio Release.

Here’s my review of the new Drake album! It’s a long record, and it was a fun one to tackle! Let me know what else I should review!

     Audrey Drake Graham, AKA, Drake is the most successful modern rap artist in the genre by a mile. As such, he needs little introduction, but it may be worth the time to take a short look at his very long and impressive career.

   Drake’s first release was So Far Gone in 2009, but he was already being heralded as an important up and comer in the community before this. Working directly under Lil Wayne, who was the most recent predecessor to Drake’s current throne, he continued the Wayne’s philosophy of hit-making and style over substance. In many ways, Drake was radio ready before he’d even released a single project.

   In 2011, he released Take Care, an emotional record which mixed rap and R&B elements and solidified his softer, singing-heavy style as the standard in rap. From here, he kept up with the times, working his way through trap influences on What a Time To Be Alive, the only record in his discography which I thoroughly enjoyed, and tapped into the trend of overly long albums with 2016’s Views.

   In the past few years, Drake has also had several highly publicized feuds, and has become something of a target for the bulk of the rap community, amid allegations of his using ghostwriters for most of his tracks. Most notably, he feuded with Meek Mill in 2015, with the pair trading a few diss tracks over the span of about a week, and Drake unanimously considered to have come out on top. Then, just about a month ago, he was the recipient of Pusha T’s absolutely brutal diss track, “The Story of Adidon,” for which Drake had no response. And this brings us to his latest release, Scorpion.

   The album is divided into halves, the first of which focuses on Drake’s rapping and the latter carrying more R&B styles. The former of these is the far superior.

   “Survival” is a solid opener, with Drake’s trademark, confident delivery and Wayne-esque wordplay highlighting the track. The instrumental is somewhat repetitive, but enjoyable.

   Tracks like “Emotionless,” and “8 out of 10” are far more introspective than one may have expected on this project, with the latter being my favorite song on the entire album. Lyrically, Drake is far more honest on this album than much of his previous work, and it leads one to wonder if this may have been a more recent adjustment in light of the amount of dirty laundry which was aired by Pusha T.

   The albums lead singles, “God’s Plan” and “I’m Upset,” come back to back and provide the highest point on the record as a whole. The latter of these, in particular, is one of the best tracks Drake has released in quite a long time.

   The instrumentals are especially creative. Tracks like “Mob Ties” and “Can’t Take a Joke” lean heavily into the trap influences which pervade the modern rap scene, while “Elevate,” and “Sandra’s Rose,” are almost orchestral, and very reminiscent of Kanye’s recent work.

   The rap portion of this album ends with “Is There More,” which attempts to explore big questions, mainly asking whether there may be more to life than what Drake has experienced thus far. The lyrics, however, come off as especially vapid and shallow. The opening half of this album, as a whole, is actually quite pleasing but this goes severely downhill in the second half.

   Drake’s return to singing and the softer R&B sound which he came up on is thoroughly disappointing. His style of of bass heavy, simplistic beats faded into the background of his emotional vocals is, to put it bluntly, still stuck in the late 2000’s.

   This may have been impressive and important when he was coming up, but since his transition to rap, R&B has gone through quite the renascence. Artists like Frank Ocean and serpentwithfeet have taken this genre to far more experimental and emotive lengths. Even a mainstream artist like The Weeknd makes Drake’s croons over these particularly forgettable beats sound woefully out of touch.

   Tracks like “Nice for What,” and the odd Michael Jackson and Nicki Minaj features on “Don’t Matter To Me,” and “That’s how you feel,” respectively, are short lived bright spots, but they’re so choked by the meaningless repetitiveness around them that they can hardly shine.

   “Ratchet Happy Birthday,” is perhaps the worst track on this project, in which Drake just genuinely doesn’t seem to care, and likely assumes that most listeners have shut the album off by this time.

   Overall, Scorpion, like much of Drake’s work, is relatively inoffensive, but also unimportant, like a particularly bland wallpaper. The record is clearly made to create as many hits as possible, instead of crafting an album with actual focus and direction. As such, the pacing is terrible, leaving one constantly curious as to how much of it is left, and the decision to split the album is senseless. A much more compelling tracklist could’ve been made by simply mixing the two halves together, and giving listeners some variety along the unjustifiable 90 minute runtime.

   Instead, Drake delivers an album which is fantastically competent and well-produced, but ultimately vapid and heartless.

4/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/2o9McLtDM7mbODV7yZF2mc

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Death Grips Are Back, and They Pack a Punch!

Death Grips is an underground, experimental hip-hop trio based in Sacramento, California. They rose to popularity in 2011 with the release of their self-titled and Exmilitary EP’s. These two projects circulated quickly through internet communities and eventually landed them a deal with Epic Records, and there, they released their first two full length LP’s, The Money Store and No Love Deep Web.

The latter record’s, now infamous, cover featured a photo an erect penis, on which the title of the album was written. This was one of the first of many indicators that Death Grips refused to play by the rules and modern conventions of the music industry.

Musically, the trio tends to reinvent themselves from album to album, while keeping hold of their violent, punk-inspired style. MC Ride has consistently served as a forceful frontman, while Zach Hill’s drumming and Andy Morin’s production shift all around him. This album is no different. Year of the Snitch aims to incorporate a multitude of brand new elements and genres into an already stacked deck, and succeeds for the most part.

As per usual, the latest Death Grips album is less like a movie, and more like a jigsaw puzzle. Slowly unpacking this project is a large part of what makes Death Grips’ music so enjoyable. The heavily layered sound leaves much to be found.

“Death Grips is Online” is a raucous, EDM jam which combine with the unique, high speed drumming to create a genuine sense of panic and confusion. This trend is repeated, with a few dreamy choir samples and oddly uplifting guitar on “Hahaha.”

Tracks like “Flies” and “Streaky,” on the other hand, manage to recreate this EDM-inspired sound with slower tempos and far less maximalist textures. These seem to be far more accessible to outsiders than much of Death Grips’ body of work, simply by virtue of their calmness and more mainstream influences.

This mass appeal is almost Immediately squandered, however, by tracks like “Black Paint,” and “The Fear.” Here, the groups captures more of their roots, however shifty those may be, than anywhere else on the project. The vocals on “Black Paint,” in particular, harken back to the No Love; Deep Web days of a Death Grips, and its a fun sound to hear again.

The album also transitions well from song to song, featuring bazar futuristic instrumentals from Morin, drummed over wonderfully by Zach Hill. “The Horn Section,” is one noticeable transition that features magnificent drum work.

Year of the Snitch is at its best, however, on tracks like “Shitshow,” and “Disappointed.” On these songs, the punk and noise rock elements which are so new and unique to this album are out in full force, and to wonderful effect.

This is an album that takes a few listens and quite a bit of concentration. Death Grips have never been known for dulling their creativities to cater to their growing audience and this is yet another example.

There are a few clear faults, not the least of these being the complete lack of direction. There are a few clear intentions, mainly that they would like to include a few of the new styles they’ve picked up, but the project as a whole tends to sprint chaotically from idea to idea. This also has repercussions on the pacing which often feels far too fast and as if the new sounds are being presented for far too short a time to showcase them.

In many ways, though, its this chaos which drives the project. The group almost feel like gatekeepers, holding back insanity, and wielding it masterfully.

After many confused listens, I’ve chosen to settle on an absurdist interpretation of this record. Death Grips seem to be grabbing at very popular styles such as hard rock on “Shitshow,” or pop rap on “Streaky,” (hence the Lil’ Wayne-esque lighter noises) but running them through the very powerful absurdity filter.

Having found what I could, however, I see this album as an interesting step that ultimately lacked direction. Its enjoyable enough throughout the vast majority, especially thanks to Hill’s amazing drumming skills, but Ride is far less prominent piece here, and Morin’s futuristic production tends to be the only predictable bit, save his sampling, which is awesome!. Regardless, Death Grips is one of the most important and creative hip-hop acts of all time, and they deserve all the respect they get and more.

This album can be intensely off-putting and daunting at first, but seeing it within the confines of conceptualized absurdity does seem to give a listener even the tiniest foothold into the bands intentions and accomplishments.

7/10

Kanye West Phones it in for Ninth Studio Album

     Kanye West is a man who needs little introduction. He debuted with his “Higher Education Trilogy,” which ran from 2004 to 2007 and featured three of the most revolutionary records in rap history. The career that followed was nothing short of incredible, seeing Kanye drop a total of nine studio albums, each radically different from each other and often more than a few years ahead of his contemporaries, conceptually. Throughout Ye’s decade and a half long career, genres and rappers have come and gone, but his quality content has always been a staple in the hip-hop world. So too, has his controversy.

   From his early entry to the game amidst near constant criticism and accusations that he was softening the genre too much, to his very public beef with 50 Cent. From his infamous TIME Magazine cover to his online pleads with Mark Zuckerberg for a multi-million dollar loan, and of course his constant stage storming impulse and subsequent Taylor Swift beef. Observant fans and music lovers have developed this general rule of thumb: as soon as Kanye does something ridiculous and lands in headlines, new music is following close behind. This rule proved exceptionally prophetic when West’s vocal support for Donald Trump and ensuing disagreements with fellow musicians was followed, not only by the newest Pusha T album, on which he worked heavily, but with another album of his own, simply titled: Ye.

   This record stands out in Kanye’s discography for a few key reasons. The first of these is its length. On the whole, the seven songs come in at just under 25 minutes, meaning Ye would easily qualify as an EP rather than an LP, had he chosen to market it differently. The second difference is the lack of a theme.

   Historically, each Kanye record is meant to move in a wildly new direction. This was true, even within his debut trilogy, with each albums sounding far different than its predecessor. On Ye, however, Kanye seems even less focused than normal, finding a few interesting beats and rhyme schemes, but never really stumbling upon one unifying theme. But, there is quite a bit to enjoy.

   The opening track, “I Thought About Killing You” is one such enjoyable moment. It finds Kanye speaking freely in a sort of stream of consciousness while manipulating the pitch of his voice and finding his way to a few repeated phrases, all over a simple but spacey beat. The vocal performance is reminiscent of some of Childish Gambino’s early work, but the lyricism is much more impressive. There’s no real word play or anything on this track, but it’s interesting to hear West just say the kinds of things that people aren’t supposed to. He doesn’t try to be clever, and even jokes about how he should probably sugar coat it, but he refuses to and when he finally breaks into a more fully formed outro, he’s putting a solid finish on my favorite track of the project.

   Sadly, its all downhill from there. “Yikes” comes off like a B-side from 2016’s The Life of Pablo with a few regressive statements about women tossed in for good measure and “All Mine” is an alright track ruined by terrible lyrics and a grating, falsetto hook.

   Of course, this is followed by the worst track on the whole album, “Wouldn’t Leave.” This functions, essentially, as a public love letter to Kim Kardashian. Kanye apologizes for the apparent stress that his recent political outbursts have brought upon his wife, as well as constantly affirming that he still loves her. While the track is somewhat listenable and the runtime is mercifully short, it’s still one of the worst tracks in Kanye’s career.

   “No Mistakes” is quite enjoyable and provides a brief respite from what we’ve just heard. The lyrics are, again, cringe-worthy, but the instrumental is sweet and soulful, and the beat is worth listening to.

   The record closes with “Ghost Town” and “Violent Crimes,” both of which are quite enjoyable and show off Kanye’s production skills well. Again, the lyrics are exceptionally poor, even for West, but tracks are smooth and very listenable. The texture of the backing vocals on “Violent Crimes” is very creative, and the Nicki Minaj feature is even worked in quite well, considering her usual ability to ruin any song she touches.

   Overall, Ye is undoubtedly the worst project in a long career, but its not completely without merit. A few of the tracks will certainly find their way into public favor, and the album as a whole sounds like seven very solid demo’s for a new, full length Kanye West LP. Sadly, this record needed at least another year worth of work, filling out the runtime, finding central lyrical and musical themes, and just generally improving the quality of the whole project. Instead, we were given an unfinished and uneventful half hour of music, which does little to excuse his recent erraticism and will likely be remembered as the first, and hopefully only blemish on an otherwise legendary career.

4/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/5EBGCvO6upi3GNknMVe9x9

A$AP Rocky Returns With Bold New Sound

     A$AP Rocky burst onto the scene in the early part of this decade with a few very impressive mixtapes. From his earliest releases, Rocky carried with him a very distinct aesthetic which was impressively well developed for such an early point in his career. At the time of his 2013 major label debut, LONG.LIVE.A$AP, his rhythmic flow, cocky lyricism, and penchant for selecting spacey, progressive beats had put him and his A$AP mob at the very cutting edge of the rap game.

   His 2015 follow up, AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP, divided his fanbase, with some feeling that Rocky had sacrificed content for aesthetic, while others, myself included, felt that his sophomore project had served to further establish his the A$AP Rocky aesthetic. Dreamy instrumentals and heavy hitting flow combined on this project to build one of my favorite rap projects of all time. Thus, I was very excited for A$AP’s return, here in 2018.

   From the opening beat on “Distorted Records,” there is a clear shift. The sugary instrumentation is nowhere to be found, leaving listeners, instead, to a more Yeezus-esque experimentation that creates a much heavier sound when mixed with Rocky’s still hard and confident delivery.

   While this sound is quite jarring and interesting on early tracks like “Fukk Sleep” and “Buck Shots,” it begins to get old as the record drags on. Rocky could’ve avoided this had he done more with this experimentation, but instead, he provides little more than trap drums with heavy bass.

   The real highlights of this album come on tracks like my personal favorite, “CALLDROPS” and “Changes.” Here, Rocky croons a sort of stream of consciousness over long, dreamy instrumentals which, while being reminiscent of his earlier tracks, work in the albums overarching sound well. These tracks serve as an example of just how well this record could’ve worked.

   A$AP’s lyricism leaves something to be desired here. There may not be any lines that stick as poor, but nothing at all shines as being well written. He often contradicts himself, saying that he doesn’t care about lists, just after having said that if there is a list, he should be number one. The main themes of his writing center on his own vanity with a few comments on race and the A$AP mob as a whole sprinkled in. This is, of course, no different than past work, but there is such a lack of creativity here, that the vanity often comes across as totally unwarranted and even annoying.

   Feature wise, the record does well. The Kodak feature on “CALLDROPS” is somehow one of the best on the project, maybe only second Frank Ocean’s work on “Purity,” closes the track list on a high note. Even the more forgettable guests, Juicy J on “Gunz N Butter,” for example, do add something important and notable to the tracks while still finding their niche in the very new sound of this record.

   Ultimately, TESTING often falls short of the expectations set for it by Rocky’s past work, but it does succeed in forging a brand new path of its own. This path is wonderfully complex and inventive on some tracks, and yet barren and repetitive on others. While I find myself somewhat disappointed, I can’t say that I was unchallenged by this project, and that is quite a redeeming quality.

4/10

Post Malone’s Ambitious Sophomore Release Finds Room for Plenty of Hits and Misses

     Post Malone’s rise to the higher tiers of the Hip Hop world has been relatively quick. From his 2015 breakout single, “White Iverson,” to his subsequent major label debut, Stoney in 2016, Malone quickly made a name for himself as a reliable producer of atmospheric, beat-centric tracks which make a perfect soundtrack for late night driving, or late night drinking, depending on your preference. Some have criticized his approach as being quantity over quality, and his music as “sonic wallpaper,” that isn’t meant to be listened to as much as played in the background. While some of this is true, Beerbongs and Bentleys marks Malone’s second 18 track project in two years, and the record stays relatively entertaining throughout which is more than can be said for most long rap albums released today.

   Malone makes an interesting change on this album that is apparent from the opening track. Gone are the nocturnal, bass-heavy beats of Stoney, in favor of lighter, happier beats that are much heavier on the higher end. While the change can be jarring at first, its an interesting move that serves to differentiate the sophomore effort from its predecessor.

   The track-list itself is not without highlights. The albums single, “Rockstar” is solid, though 21 Savage’s feature is a bit of a blemish. “Takin’ Shots” and “Psycho” feature entertaining bars and catchy vocal choruses, and “Stay” is a welcome step outside of the repetition of the album, making it probably the best track on the project.

   These hits, however, are hindered by weak tracks like “Spoil My Night,” and “Zach and Codeine.” On top of that, the album really limps over the finish line with a weak handful of tracks rounding out the list. The lineup could’ve been stronger around fifteen tracks.

   Malone’s performance across the album is respectable to say the least. He commands each track with energetic and unique performances that really leave something enjoyable to be found even in the worst tracks.

   Conversely, almost every feature on this album is terrible. The aforementioned 21 Savage nearly ruins one of the best tracks in the lineup with his sleepy, boring flow and uninventive lyricism. Nicki Minaj’s performance is characteristically irritating and really doesn’t fit in the track at all. Aside from these two, Swae Lee and Ty Dolla $ign give relatively inoffensive performances, but add little their tracks other than a slight break from Malone’s superior performance. The only features with any value fall on the same track, coming from YG and G-Easy on “Same Bitches.”

   My only other issue with this record maybe slightly unfair, but it comes from the lack a variety. Post’s insistence on avoiding the title of “Rapper” comes from his ability to sing and play guitar, as well as his eclectic tastes in music. In many ways, he’s not wrong. His acoustic work has been quite impressive in viral videos and one off releases, but this title is hard to avoid because when it comes time to lay down a record, audiences hear nothing but traditional rap music. While this may be a bit of an unfair attack, as Beerbongs and Bentleys is actually less repetitive than most similar projects, it would be nice to be treated to more than just one song featuring an acoustic guitar, and even that song is heavily produced.

   Overall, this is an impressive Sophomore release. While Malone may not have completely found his voice, he’s certainly closer and much more unique on this project. The record gives me hope for the future, even if it doesn’t wow me in the present.

6/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/6trNtQUgC8cgbWcqoMYkOR

YOUTUBE: https://youtu.be/kBwsRdX_pEA

J. Cole Drops Interesting Addition to Impressive Discography

     If you don’t listen to rap music, or you’ve lived under a rock for the past decade, J. Cole is an impressive, if a bit overrated rapper who is best known for going double platinum with no features on his major label debut, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. His 2016 follow up, “4 Your Eyez Only,” was a genuinely admirable effort which established Cole as one of the leading voices in the recent movement of “conscious rap.” However, “KOD” breaks the J. Cole mold in many ways, which are made clear by the title track, which falls second on the list, and aren’t explained until the last couple songs.

   “KOD” is a bit of a shock for many long time fans. Whether it’s the uncharacteristically aggressive delivery, or the oddly braggadocios lyrics, Cole seems to be on a different wavelength than we’ve ever heard. While “Photograph” and “The Cut Off,” return briefly to more Cole-esque instrumentals, the lyrics and delivery are still distinctly different. Each of these songs, partly by virtue of their strangeness, and partly due to a lack of form, fail to capture listeners in the early minutes of the project.

   This changes, however, with “ATM,” which sees Jermaine finally feel at home in this new style. It also sees him, hopefully intentionally, biting the types of quick and internal rhyme heavy flows which have recently risen to prominence in the Florida scene, with artists like Denzel Curry and XXXTentacion. This track, I would imagine, tips off most careful listeners that some kind of trick may be afoot. And by the first vocals of “Motiv8” the gig is up.

   Again, J. Cole is mimicking a popular rap style, this time that of the online, Soundcloud scene, and putting it to use in a really effective way. “Kevin’s Heart” continues this trend and is one of the most intriguing tracks on the entire project.

   With “BRACKETS,” however, Cole returns to form to deliver a very thoughtful commentary on the systematic issues which plague people of color in this country, a topic which he is quite well versed in. The odd, pitched-up voice which speaks on the bridge serves to create a funny skit/interlude in the song before Cole comes back with one of the best verses he’s crafted throughout his career. It’s emotional, it’s intelligent, and it’s what most fans were expecting when this record was announced.

   The “Once an Addict” interlude is similarly emotional, this time speaking to his mother’s alcoholism, and his early introduction to the idea of using substances to numb one’s pain. “Friends” and the “Window Pains” outro follow this formula of one long, lyrically thick verse sandwiched between dark, catchy hooks, and its a formula that fits Cole’s style of writing quite well.

   The record closes with “1985 (Intro to “The Fall Off”)” which has set the internet aflame since its release with talks of the many disses toward the young rappers of the day. While my opinions are a mixed bag on the actual politics expressed in the track, and I may write at another time to discuss my views on this verse, there is no denying that J. Cole’s flow and lyricism are impressive on this track as they are on the project as a whole.

   This project is an interesting addition to Cole’s discography. On the one hand, his penchant for keeping young rappers in their place consistently is refreshing, and likely necessary to insure that hip-hop, which is by far the most vibrant and impressive genre alive today, doesn’t go the way of its predecessors and over-commercialize to the point of dullness. However, some criticism my be in order for Jermaine as well, as he doesn’t seem to challenge himself to grow and change as much as he challenges the younger generation. Cole’s evolution has been fairly minimal since 2014FHD and that doesn’t show any signs of changing. So while he spends much of his time performing the much needed task of rap’s “gatekeeper,” artists like Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, and Danny Brown are continually growing and the additions of brand new rappers like Denzel Curry threaten to leave him in the proverbial “dust.”

   This album itself is fun, but it ultimately suffers from being disjointed. The first half, full of J. Cole mocking the flows of popular rappers could likely have been trimmed down to a separate EP or even just a few singles to be released before the real album dropped, which should’ve either stuck closer to the sound of the second half, or even experimented with more progressive sounds and flows. The second half is, however, far too enjoyable to allow this project  to receive too low of a rating.

6/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/4Wv5UAieM1LDEYVq5WmqDd

YOUTUBE: https://youtu.be/kBwsRdX_pEA

Cardi B Drops Extremely Competent Major Label Debut

     Cardi B crushed the billboard charts in mid 2017 with her first major label single, Bodak Yellow. The track’s charismatic vocals and heavy trap influence rocket it to number one on the billboard chart, the first song by a female, solo rapper to do so since Lauren Hill in 1998. She beat out Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” and went on to have the longest run at number one of any female, solo rapper ever. In short, Cardi B’s success didn’t take long to catch up with her bombastic lyrics, and the music world was hotly anticipating her inevitable LP release.

   In the meantime, new fans found two well rounded, if a bit unfocused mixtapes in Cardi’s catalog to tide them over. Those projects, however, set expectations quite a bit lower than they clearly should’ve been. From the opener, Invasion of Privacy’s purpose is clear. Cardi is here to prove herself, and this record is how she’s going to do it.

   The beats on this record are excellent and diverse. Tracks like “Get up 10” and “Bickenhead” feature busy, bass heavy trap-influences, while tracks like “Bodak Yellow” utilize minimal backing tracking, and lean heavily on Cardi B’s performance, which works well. On top of that, tracks like “Be Careful” and “I Like It” utilize upbeat, major-keyed instrumentals which contrast heavily with the dark tone of the record, the latter track being built around an interesting sample of Tito Nieves’ iconic, Caribbean party anthem, “I Like It Like That.” These tracks had easily the most potential for failure, but instead they work surprisingly well.

   However, that’s not to say that there are no bad instrumentals on this project. The hooks on “Drip” and “She Bad” grate the nerves and nearly ruin the tracks. Similarly, the melodic background of “Thru Your Phone” seems to contradict the lyrical tone of the track, and ends up being only distracting.

   The features on this record are a bit of a mixed bag. SZA features on “I Do,” and as one would expect, she elevates the track significantly. The same is true for Chance the Rapper on “Best Life,” which is one of my favorite songs on the list. Kehlani’s feature on “Ring” is relatively inoffensive, but doesn’t really add anything beyond a catchy hook. 21 Savage’s feature on “Bartier Cardi” is, unsurprisingly, boring and irritating, but it doesn’t ruin the track. The only feature that accomplishes this would be the Migos feature on “Drip,” in which the group essentially takes over, treating Cardi like an afterthought on her own record and creating, by far, the worst track on the record.

   When it comes to Cardi B herself, though, listeners will likely be quite impressed. Her vocal is powerful and unique, allowing her to be extremely versatile in taking confident leads over a plethora of different instrumental styles.

   Lyrically, anyone previously familiar with Cardi B are likely not surprised by the lack of spins this record will receive from the local Christian radio station. Each verse is riddled with sexual themes and vulgar language, accentuated by interesting rhyme schemes. What she lacks in storytelling, she more than makes up for with attitude and word play.

   Overall, the record is solid! It won’t change the rap landscape or go down in history as a classic, but it will serve as an excellent jumping off point for what promises to be an exciting career.

6/10