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

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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

XXXTentacion’s “17” Manages To Wow And Fall Short, All In 21 Minutes!

     Florida rapper/singer/songwriter XXXTentacion made a name for himself in the underground rap scene with hard hitting tracks which focus on sex, violence, and mental illness. Most notably, his 2017 single “Look at Me,” garnered mild critical recognition, along with massive commercial success, putting X on the map as one of the leading artists in the increasingly overpopulated world of underground hip hop.

X went on to be named as a featured artist in 2017’s XXL Freshman class, bringing with him possibly the most devoted fan base of all the artists named in this year’s issue. His live work as well as tracks with frequent collaborator Skii Mask, The Slump God, brought X to the forefront of his scene, all without a full LP release seemingly anywhere on the horizon. That is, until the end of August saw the release of “17.”

Going into this record, I had no clue what to expect. XXXTentacion had shown almost no common threads through what work he had released. From the angry, Denzel Curry-esque hype track “Look At Me,” which I liked quite a bit, to his ultra-angsty performance in the XXL cypher, which I disliked quite a bit, it seemed the only thing I could expect from an XXXTentacion project was unpredictability, and I was not disappointed.

“17” opens with an explanation from X that this record is “a collection of nightmares, thoughts, and real life situations.” The track comes off as a bit pretentious, but overall, I appreciate the honesty of an artist saying that this is something different and that he hopes his listeners will be open minded and enjoy it.

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The track, “Jocelyn Flores” follows, and is by far the highlight of the record. It tells the story of X’s girlfriend committing suicide, and goes on to hint that members of his family have chosen the same path. It’s honest, groovy, and features a wonderfully organic sample as a main hook. My only complaint would be that the song is far too short, and doesn’t explore these themes well at all. This is an all too common complaint throughout the entire project.

The acoustic guitar grove, “Depression & Obsession” follows and again we see X’s commitment presenting his ideas in unique ways. It’s interesting and the contrast between the upbeat acoustic grove and the dark lyrics frames X’s disconnect well, but again the track is too short and doesn’t finish what it starts.

“Everyone Dies in Their Nightmares” and “Revenge” follow, continuing the style of a low key rap track followed by light acoustic guitar riff backing dark lyrics. Lyrically, the tracks don’t touch on much different than what’s already been established, but the ladder track is a bit more catchy than its earlier acoustic counterpart.

“Save me,” is, by far, the low point of the record. The instrumentation is distorted to the point I couldn’t tell you if I’m hearing a piano or guitar. The vocals are equally poorly mixed, coming through as too clear and not fitting with the music. The track never really finds its feel, and its awkward throughout its short two minute runtime.

Luckily, the project is saved by the similar, but much better, “Dead Inside (Interlude.)” Again the instrumentation and vocals are overly distorted, almost as if the entire song was recorded on an iphone, but the piano plays most of its melody on the higher end, which cuts through well, and though the vocals are almost incoherent, its the emotion behind it that matters. The song is barely a minute long, and sounds almost like an after though from its predecessor, but it effectively saves the record. “Dead Inside” is one of the few times where it seems like X is being completely honest and vulnerable with us.

“Fuck Love” follows, featuring a vocal hook from underground vocalist Trippie Redd, providing a valuable break from X’s emotional vocal style. Redd’s hook is far more straight forward and less tortured, which gives a very effective respite from the emo stylings that threaten to bog the project down at times.XXL-Freshman-00-480x320

With “Orlando” and “Ayala (Outro)” we hear what amounts to an ending for this story. Tentacion rap/sings about his feelings of isolation and sadness, all over low-key instrumentals that force an audience to listen, as they provide little highlights to hold us in.

Upon finishing this record, my feelings are as mixed as the were going in. On the one hand, I’ll give XXXTentacion credit, as this record is anything but pandering. It would’ve been all too easy for him to make an angry record which would be a mild commercial success and probably silence most of his critics who pan him as inaccessible. Instead, he went with a deeply personal album that, aside from the opening explanation, doesn’t seem to care what a listener thinks, or even if anyone listens at all. He never goes for sick instrumentals that will draw listeners in even if they don’t care about his lyrics. He doesn’t even allow himself to sit in one single genre long enough to gain popularity by connection. It’s incredibly clear that X made this record for X, and that comes with its own benefits and downfalls.

Above all, I wish the record had been longer. The entire project totals at 21 minutes and I’m surprised it lasted that long. Many of these ideas felt like they could’ve made better songs, but instead they come across as unfinished demo’s. I can’t help but feel that “17” would’ve made a much better EP. Combine a few acoustic tracks, combine a few low-key raps, and combine the interlude and outro and we’re left with five excellent songs. But XXXTentacion moved 70k in the first week, so the LP is a clear commercial success.

“17” isn’t a record for the beginner, or even the casual fan. For X’s devoted fanbase, though, it provides an excellent and much desired peak into the psyche of the troubled young teen, who, above all, values honesty in his music. The production is week at times, and the lyricism ranges anywhere from bold and impressive to pretentious and whiny. I did enjoy this record in places, though, and where it shines, its bright! There’s a lot of promise here. I only hope that the follow up finds X in a bit better mental state, and ready to deliver a more consistent LP that will thrill from start to finish.

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