Travis Scott Drops Bloated Third Release, “ASTROWORLD” in Time for Lollapalooza Performance

     Travis Scott is rap/hip-hop artist based in Houston, Texas. He debuted in 2013 with his self-released mixtape, Owl Pharaoh, and followed up just a year later with Days Before Rodeo. Each of these performed fairly well, and landed him a major record deal with Epic Records, on which he released his first major label LP, and biggest hit to date, Rodeo.

   This debut was extremely successful, riding what was then a fairly fresh wave of R&B flavored trap music to a platinum certification and a slot on several “best albums of the year,” lists. His ability to meld catchy hooks with hard hitting bars set him apart from the a sea of repetitive rappers of the day, and his connections with people like Kanye West, Juicy J, and Metro Boomin among others allowed him to drop a feature heavy debut and insert himself into the work of these artists as well.

   From here, he dropped another platinum record in 2016’s Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight and a relatively successful collaborative project with Quavo in 2017 entitled Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho. The success and critical acclaim which Travis gained over his short career led him to headline this year’s Lollapalooza, and on the night of his performance, he dropped ASTROWORLD.

   The record itself is, honestly, is a bit underwhelming. There are plenty of interesting ideas at play here, but most of them quickly devolve into boring renditions of the same song. Take a track like “WAKE UP,” for example, which opens with an interesting acoustic guitar hook that’s quickly joined by predictable trap drums and sexually explicit lyricism. Another example of this comes on “NC-17,” which features an eerie, high-pitched hook which raises listeners hopes in the front of the mix for the first few bars, but is quickly buried by a textbook trap beat, and only slightly redeemed by a shockingly listenable 21 Savage feature.

   On the subject of features, this may be the one front which provides a bit of flare. Drake’s verse adds quite a bit early on to “SICKO MODE,” The Weeknd is a solid addition to “SKELETONS,” and “WAKE UP,” and Frank Ocean is, as one would expect, excellent on “CAROUSEL.” Juice Wrld and Shek Wes are also quite impressive on “No Bystanders,” which is likely the best track on the album.

   The early half of the record, as a whole, can get one’s hopes up as “STARGAZING,” serves as a fun intro, and the dreaminess of “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD,” will leave an earworm in listeners minds for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, this doesn’t last for too long.

   The bulk of this project is a bit of a slog, not only due to the rather unjustified 60 minute runtime, but because so many of these songs are so similar. The final handful of tracks genuinely bleed into one another with such a lack of uniqueness that I would have difficulty pointing out one or a few worst offenders by name. Suffice it to say, that the record is extremely bloated, which is certainly its fatal flaw.

   ASTROWORLD may serve some, less picky listeners well, particularly if one is searching for a relatively enjoyable wallpaper for a late night drive, but if this record is gifted one’s full attention, it will likely leave listeners bored and checking their watch. There are virtually no egregious missteps, but even fewer high points.

4/10

HEAR ASTROWORLD: https://open.spotify.com/album/41GuZcammIkupMPKH2OJ6I

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G Herbo Strikes Again With Powerful Sixth Release

     G Herbo is a Chicago based, drill rapper whose hard hitting flow and impressive lyrical abilities have allowed him to rise to the top of a dilapidated sub-genre as the only significant mainstream export from the Chicago drill-rap scene since the likes of Chief Keef and Lil Durk in the early 2010’s. His discography includes four excellent mixtapes and a solid studio LP, all of which precede this, his sixth release.

   Swervo may seem to be, at first glance, just a collection of fourteen trap-bangers, some better than others, featuring a few of the better known, young trap stars of the past few years, but upon a closer listen one will notice that Herbo’s newest record, a collaboration with producer Southside, is one of the most diverse and unique albums that the genre has to offer.

   The bangers are far from missing, however, as tracks like “That’s How I Grew Up,” and “Bonjour,” very much follow this mold, checking off the list of heavy bass, trap-drums, repetitive choruses, and braggadocios lyricism. Further, the title track and the opener, “Some Nights,” borrow a few of these tropes as well, with the latter featuring one of the hardest verses I’ve heard in a very long time.

   Southside’s production is also tip-top throughout, his famous work ethic leading to an extremely competent and consistent product. Tracks like “Huh,” and “Focused” benefit from Southside’s work tremendously with very unique and thoughtful beats setting their foundations.

   Feature wise, this album is much better than one may have expected. Their are only four features on the project, and each of them really make the track their own and stand out well. 21 Savage gives, perhaps, his first ever good performance, while Juice WRLD creates an almost Post Malone-esque, auto-croon banger that is one of my favorite tracks on the whole project. Chief Keef’s contribution is all but negligible, but his presence on the album grants more name recognition and gravitas. The only truly bad feature comes from Young Thug on “100 Sticks,” where he seemed to decide that he should just make odd, dog-like noises in the background throughout the entire song.

   This brings us, naturally, to the weak spots on Swervo, and there are a few. “Tweakin,” and “Pac n Dre,” focus, almost exclusively, on acts of oral sex and thus grow tiring very quickly. In addition, the “Who Run It” remix serves as a terrible finish to an otherwise admirable record. Then, there’s the use of the classic, drill-rap trope of multiple voices talking all at once, a style which I never cared for, and which certainly doesn’t help establish a more solid tone on this album.

   But any issue there is to be taken with Swervo will be blasted away with G Herbo’s incredible performance on this album. His lyricism is tight, his flow is brutal, his hooks are singable, and he’s somehow able to perfectly capture the aesthetic of the drill-rap scene, long after its sell by date.

   He shines especially bright on “Letter,” in which he makes a list of very candid and vulnerable wishes to be a better man for his forthcoming child. He speaks to the horrible violence and dangerous world he grew up in, and his desire to protect his child from the same fate, all while writing smoothly and naturally.

   All in all, Swervo is an impressive project, and will likely lead Herbo further down his path to mainstream acclaim. The bangers are exciting, the heartfelt moments are surprising, and everything in between is performed with heart. With the relative death of the Chicago trap scene, which produced gems like Signed to the Streets 2 and Cursed With a Blessing, it is refreshing to hear that the style may not have breathed its final breath.

   The album is by no means perfect, but it is certainly worth a listen for rap fans, if for no other reason than to keep up with one of the hottest acts coming out of the underground today.

5/10

Denzel Curry Comes Back Strong With Unique Sophomore Project

     Denzel Curry is a Florida based rapper who rose to popularity with his 2015 single “Ultimate.” It was loud, hard-hitting, and extremely lyrical and, although the song stood well on its own merits, it got most of its exposure by becoming a part of popular meme. Regardless, Denzel found his way on to the much maligned 2016 XXL Freshman Class and gave, probably, the only impressive performance in a terrible freshman cypher.

   Later that year, he released his major label debut, Imperial and everything changed. The LP was violent, vulgar, and filled its 40 minute runtime with a breakneck pace. It’s jazz influences balanced well against Curry’s rapping style, which can best be described as “lyrical trap.” After the albums tremendous success, Curry made it clear in interviews that he planned to take his time on his follow up and that he was determined to push himself as an artist to create something that was truly special, so when TA13OO dropped over a three day period as three separate EP’s, the question arose: did he succeed? The answer is mixed.

   The album is certainly quite a change of pace from his previous work. The jazz elements are essentially gone, which one would expect given the quick fall from the zeitgeist which jazz rap suffered, and the tempo’s are much more varied, often slowing to a smooth croon in a few choruses, such as that of the album’s title track and opener.

   The slower, simpler vibe is also prevalent on tracks like “CLOUT CO13A1N” and “MAD 1 GOT 1T,” both of which are high points on the record. The bass heavy mix on these tracks is an excellent choice as well, as it grants a kind of gravitas to Curry’s vocals.

   Classic Denzel is still here, however, and on tracks like “ZUMO,” “VENGEANCE,” and my personal favorite track, “PERCZ.” Here, Curry unleashes with an unstoppable flow, tight rhyme schemes, and a raspy vocal quality which refuses to be ignored. This is Denzel’s wheelhouse, and it shows.

   The instrumentation is quite interesting on this album as well. Tracks like “CAZH MAN1AC,” and “Z1RENS,” are built on electronic tracks which, while relatively inoffensive, can sometimes verge on distracting.

   “ZW1TCH 1T UP,” and “ZUPER ZA1YAN ZUPERMAN,” on the other hand, are made darker through the use of lead melodies in the instrumental which were very heavily derived from the soundtracks of early horror and mystery films.

   On top of all of this, the record is also doused with solid features. Unsurprisingly, JPEGMafia is by far the best of these, but Nyyjerya’s work on “CAZH MAN1AC” and J.I.D.’s on “Z1RENZ” are definitely ear-catching.

   If there is a complaint to be made here, it falls on the album’s tendency toward the forgettable. “THE 13LACKEST 13ALLOON” and the closer, “13 M T” hold very little in the way of notable moments, and the same goes for “13LACK 13ALLOONZ” aside from a unique sound which doesn’t exactly work and a fantastic transition in the final few moments which is, admittedly, a highlight of the project. Overall, as well, the album seems to drone on if one doesn’t, as a listener, make an effort to differentiate one track from another.

   All in all, this is a solid sophomore release for a promising young artist, however, I can’t seem to shake a lingering sense of disappointment which is likely caused by the album’s inability to escape the shadow of its more coherent and memorable predecessor.

7/10

HEAR TA13OO: https://open.spotify.com/album/6idVoBWP2mt1qoMtASm3gc

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

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