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

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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

Thoughts on J. Cole’s Claim to the Rap Throne

Jermaine Cole is, undoubtedly, one of the best artists of the day. However, his work is still ahead of him when it comes to carving his niche amongst names like Biggie, 2Pac, Jay Z, Eminem, Andre 3000, and more.

Yesterday, J. Cole set twitter and the music world ablaze with the release of his first single of 2019, “Middle Child.” Over a bass-heavy beat and between catchy hooks, Cole unloaded on a few topics, focusing mainly on his position in today’s hip-hop scene. While the entire track was extremely well written, the following verse in particular seems to have set off an all too familiar conversation across the hip-hop community:

“To the OGs, I’m thankin’ you now, was watchin’ you when you was pavin’ the ground. I copied your cadence, I mirrored your style. I studied the greats, I’m the greatest right now.” The question we’re left to ponder, of course, is simple. Is he right? Is J. Cole the top talent in the industry in 2019? He’s certainly attempted to lay claim to the title more than a few times over the years, but having just put his fifth platinum album under his belt with 2018’s KOD, the question seems increasingly persistent.

Firstly, it’s worth looking at Cole’s case. As I mentioned, 2018 saw the release of his fifth consecutive platinum album, which is no small feat. Only 10 artists in rap history have more than five platinum albums in a row and, of the ten, only Kanye West could still be considered at his peak. Additionally, though it’s become something of a meme in recent years, J. Cole’s last three albums have accomplished their certifications without a single feature.

On top of sales, he’s shown a remarkable amount of talent over his main run. Each of his verses is well crafted and his flow is slowly becoming iconic. Not only have his albums been impressive, but his non-album singles have been even better. “High for Hours,” is one of the best hip-hop tracks of the decade, “Everybody Dies,” was a perfect response to the rise of the soundcloud/mumble rap in recent years, and “False Prophets,” was a measured and thoughtful response to the outrages actions of Kanye West. It’s in these responses and commentary where we find him at his best. While his albums can often fall short, J. Cole drops better singles than anyone in the game.

He definitely has a strong case and it just keeps getting stronger with tracks like “Middle Child,” but on the other hand, the rap game is in an impressive place right now. When it comes to lyrical ability, artists like Aesop Rock and Open Mike Eagle are doing fantastic work, and of course, legends like MF Doom, Jay Z, and Killer Mike are still creating some of their best music, but Cole still stands unique among these artists in many respects certainly above them in notoriety. Unfortunately for Jermaine, there is still one artist who exceeds him in nearly every aspect, and that man is Kendrick Lamar.

Kendrick’s major label run at Top Dawg covers Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, one of the best breakout albums of all time, To Pimp A Butterfly, arguably one of, if not the best album in hip-hop history, and DAMN. which was one of the best albums of 2017. Of course the question is subjective, but for my money, Kendrick Lamar has long surpassed any artist in today’s scene and begun jockeying for position among the all-time greats.

Where Cole writes excellent verses and singles, Kendrick puts together full albums of breathtaking scale and sound, each wildly different than the one before. Where Cole’s flow is recognizable and strong, Kendrick plays multiple characters, each with unique flows, tones, and lyrical tendencies, characters which develop across his discography to act as metaphorical stand ins for a multitude of larger ideas. Where Jermaine is beginning to settle into his sonic identity, Kendrick’s instrumentals vary wildly in each record from a masterclass in West Coast boom-bap to a jazz epic helmed by Kamasi Washington to some of the best trap beats in the genre.

Coming into 2019, we’re all enjoying a fantastic era of rap music which will continue to draw comparisons to the golden age of the 1990’s and Jermaine Cole is, undoubtedly, one of the best artists of the day. However, his work is still ahead of him when it comes to carving his niche amongst names like Biggie, 2Pac, Jay Z, Eminem, Andre 3000, and more. On the other hand, Kendrick Lamar continues to be one of the best artists in the entire modern music industry with one album after another telling remarkable stories with unparalleled lyricism and he is, without a doubt, the best rapper in the game today.

HEAR MIDDLE CHILD: https://open.spotify.com/album/3XzSOIE6zGLliuqsVGLmUc

Earl Sweatshirt Drops Unique and Enjoyable 3rd Album

Some Rap Songs will likely be adored by true fans, but may not connect with the uninitiated.

     Earl Sweatshirt is a rapper and producer from Los Angeles, California. He’s best known as a member of the rap super group, Odd Future along with Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean among others. While his fellow OF members have reached much success in recent years and stepped out from the shadow of the group, Sweatshirt has struck up more of an underground path to fame. After a few self-released mixtapes, he made his major label debut on Columbia in 2013 with Doris. The album was mildly successful, in fact more so than it’s 2015 follow up, I Don’t Like Sh*t, I Don’t Go Outside. The latter, however, became a massive cult hit, slowly building a small but dedicated fan base.

   His flow is heavily inspired by his Odd Future counterparts, particularly Tyler the Creator, who’s early work is remarkably similar to that of Sweatshirt. The fanbase, though, was far more drawn to his lyricism, which is quite impressive. He writes with brutal cynicism and focusses heavily on dark topics. His storytelling is excellent and, especially on his second record, he has an excellent ability to paint a picture. After seeing the strange cover and title for Strange Rap Songs, I knew I was in for a unique experience, and Earl didn’t disappoint.

   The first thing you’ll notice about this record is extremely short runtimes and long tracklist. The longest and perhaps best tracks the album are the opener, “Shattered Dreams,” and “The Mint,” each clocking in under three minutes. These actually feel like complete ideas, though they’re essentially just long verses, as Earl lets the beats shine a bit longer and the latter features a fantastic soundbite. The rest of the album is somewhat woven together.

   Because of the quick changes, we’re given one fantastic beat after another. The closer, “Riot!” is completely instrumental and utilizes a catchy, well played horn passage near the end while tracks like “The Bends,” and “Veins,” are built around well cut vocal samples which are used to set tone as well as rhythm. Earl shows versatility around every turn as the music simply refuses to sit still for more than a moment.

   His flow is also quite listenable. “December 24,” and “Cold Summers,” feature the kind of classic, Earl Sweatshirt flow we know and love, as do “Red Water,” and “Onmyway!” Here, he’s unrelenting and with the slight tinge of violence and intensity. On the other hand, tracks like “Nowhere2go,” and “Eclipse,” display a sleeper, more laid back form of the same sound.

   Overall, the record shows a reckless disregard for tradition. “Loosie,” and “Azucar,” find Earl barely clinging to the beat of minimalistic instrumentation with a bizarre transition between the two. Furthermore, several tracks mix the beats louder than Earl’s vocals and his vocal constantly fades between vocal effects.

   Not every risk pays off though. “Playing Possum,” is the only moment on this very short project which I would truly call boring as it is devoid of rapping and instead built around selections from speeches by two women over a relatively weak beat. “Peanut,” seems to never quite find its rhythmic footing, and though I have respect for the experimental nature, it ultimately misses wide of the mark.

   In total, Some Rap Songs is a unique listening experience which really must be taken in in one sitting to be appreciated. When Earl stays in his wheelhouse he is quite effective, but the branching out yields a bit of a mixed bag of results.

   Some Rap Songs will likely be adored by true fans, but offers little for the uninitiated. 

5/10

HEAR SOME RAP SONGShttps://open.spotify.com/album/66at85wgO2pu5CccvqUF6i

Vince Staples Drops Yet Another Excellent Project

FM! aims to carry out the unique concept of a fun 20 minute car ride, bumping along to the FM radio, and having a good time doing it, and Vince executes this to perfection.

     Vince Staples is a rapper from North Long Beach, California. He gained notoriety in the hip-hop community with a series of four mixtape releases between 2011-2014. After the success of his last mixtape, Shyne Coldchain II, he was picked up by Def Jam Records and dropped Summertime ’06 in 2015 to universal critical acclaim and reasonably impressive commercial performance, thanks to the record’s lead single, “Norf Norf,” and the infamous reaction video made by a young mother, upset that her children had heard the lyrics. From here, Staples dropped Big Fish Theory in 2017, which was widely considered one of the best projects of the year.

   His musical style is quite unique, sporting a chaotic flow which often emphasizes strange rhyme schemes, and a hectic delivery on virtually every track. All this performed over traditional boom-bap instrumentals with distinctly industrial and psychedelic slants. In recent years, Vince has shown himself to be very lyrically talented and incredibly articulate in interviews and public appearances. Coming off of two hits in a row, the question begged itself: Could Vince Staples go a perfect three for three with FM! The short answer? Yes.

   To begin the long answer, we’ll start with Vince’s flow, which reaches new heights on this LP. His performance on tracks like the opener, “Feels Like Summer,” and “Don’t Get Chipped,” is expected as he delivers bar after bar over a driving beat, but songs like the title track or the closer and best track on the record, “Tweakin’,” see Staples taking on a new tone, playing with a strange accent on the former and dancing triplets over a slower, spacier instrumental on the latter. He’s beginning to come into his own aesthetically, and this shows through his ability to apply his touch anywhere.

   Above this, the beats on this album are fantastic. “Outside’s” eerie guitar lead, the strange, epic tone of “Relay,” and even what sounds like a xylophone on “No Bleedin’.” Each and every song features a broad instrument pallet, responsive drum work, and an interesting tone. Vince’s fantastic performances are elevated indefinitely by such powerful instrumentals.

   And, of course, the skits and sound bites here are especially enjoyable on this album. Working to develop the concept of this entire project as a 20 minute slice of an FM radio station, “New Earl Sweatshirt,” “Brand New Tyga,” and “(562)-453-9382” each run under a minute. The third is absolutely hilarious as a man calls into a radio station to compete for concert tickets. He is asked to name seven celebrities who’s names start with the letter “v” and is only able to muster “Venessa Williams” before his time is up, failing to consider Staples at all.

   These interludes are excellent, as is the overall concept of the album. With a runtime of only about 20 minutes, the concept keeps the project to a perfect pace, meaning it never drags or overstays its welcome. As with about 20 minutes of an FM radio show, FM! can easily be taken in over a short, morning drive, and it would seem that that is it’s purpose.

   In the end, I’m left with very little to complain about. Of course, the album won’t change the course of music history, but it’s a blast to listen to. Vince Staples set out to make a quick record to play as a soundtrack to a short drive around town, and he succeeded perfectly.

   FM! aims to carry out the unique concept of a fun 20 minute car ride, bumping along to the radio, and having a good time doing it, and Vince executes this to perfection.

7/10

HEAR FM!: https://open.spotify.com/album/1XGGeqLZxjOMdCJhmamIn8

Takeoff’s Solo Debut is Competent, but Uninventive

The Last Rocket does what it sets out to do quite competently, but the finished product is hardly distinguishable from the piles of trap music on the radio today.

     Takeoff is a rap/hip-hop artist from Atlanta Georgia. He is best known as a member of the massively successful trap trio, Migos, who’s 2017 LP Culture, and it’s lead single, “Bad and Boujee,” turned the hip-hop community on it’s head and ensured several more years for trap music at the top of the rap world. The group has continued their massive success with Culture II and the upcoming Culture III, scheduled for release in early 2019.

   Takeoff’s flow doesn’t particularly stand out from his fellow Migos members, but the group’s style as a whole has been something of a revolution in the rap world. Their bass-heavy, maximalist instrumentals, and triplet-centric flow has become the standard sound for the new wave of trap music. After the success of his group mate, Quavo, Takeoff has decided to branch out with his own LP, The Last Rocket, and it’s exactly what we expected.

   Oddly enough, one highlight of the record is found in the soundbites. The opener, “Martian” begins with an extended clip of an official sounding man counting down to liftoff, and “None To Me,” opens with an older man talking about “the fame, the money, the cars.” In most cases, this is a small point, but adds to the general production quality of the project, which is excellent.

   This production quality really rears its head in a few of the dreamier tracks. “She Gon Wink,” features chimes and an active flute part which are almost as effective as the heavily. Processed vocal line on “Last Memory.” None of these tracks, however, compare the spacious vibes on “Infatuation,” the best track on the LP, which calls back to the 90’s era of R&B with a driving beat, a pulsing synth, and an almost comically smooth, high-pitched lead vocal.

   In many ways, Takeoff even surpassed expectations, particularly with his flow. Starting this record for the first time, I was expecting a constant barrage of triplets with little variety, but I was given a pleasant supply. Particularly on cuts like “Vacation,” and “Insomnia,” Takeoff delivers a hard hitting and dynamic performance, which I wasn’t prepared for. Even on a track like “Bruce Wayne,” his groggy, mumbled flow fits the instrumental quite well. However, he did slip into old habits more than a few times.

   “Lead the Wave,” and “Casper,” are perhaps the most glaring instances of this as they are back to back and feature nearly identical, triplet-heavy flows for the majority of their runtimes. Here I found myself quite disappointed, as I’ve heard this flow of this type of instrumental far too many times, as is. And it’s this very complaint which leads me to my main critique of The Last Rocket.

   Trap music has sat atop the rap zeitgeist for quite sometime at this point, and thus, trap albums begin to face an entirely new round of troubles. Namely, what purpose does your album have for existing? Listen to a track like “Soul Plane,” or “I Remember,” and you’ll see what I mean. This record adds nothing to trap cannon that hasn’t been done better in the past. While Takeoff’s work, as with that of any Migos member, is of a higher quality than the bulk of this scene, but it remains mostly unremarkable in it’s cannon.

   The Last Rocket is a fun listen and it even has a few exciting moments on the first half of the forty minute runtime, but the majority is unnecessary and unmemorable. For a debut LP, the record feels remarkably tired and overdone, leaving little room for a musical future.

   The Last Rocket does what it sets out to do quite competently, but the finished product is hardly distinguishable from the piles of trap music on the radio today.

4/10

HEAR THE LAST ROCKET: https://open.spotify.com/album/5XRCcUfwtLNQflDd9cfz4U

Open Mike Eagle Mixes Chaos and Psychedelia on Newest EP

While What Happens When I Try to Relax lacks the focus and conceptuality of previous Open Mike Eagle Projects, his ability to spread this chaotic thought over smooth, psychedelic instrumentals makes for a fun listen that you’ll leave on repeat for a few days.

     Open Mike Eagle is a rapper and comedian from Chicago, Il. He is an absolute rockstar of the underground hip hop world with a unique flow and breakneck work ethic. He’s released nine LP’s in ten years, his latest project, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, finding it’s way onto nearly every end of year album lists in 2017. In addition, he’s released seven EP’s over this time and What Happens When I Try to Relax is the latest on this list. Having missed my chance to review his last record, I was determined to catch his next release, and luckily I didn’t have to wait long.

   The EP opens with “Relatable,” which sets the tone quite well, striking an almost epic feel in the opening verse despite the minimal beat. Mike’s flow is fairly simple but effective, and lyrically, he dances well between punchlines and serious diagnoses of his mind state and inability to cope with stress. He forgoes a chorus in favor of an excellent trumpet solo from Jordan Katz which acts as a kind of bridge between the track’s two verses. Overall, and excellent opener.

   “Every Single Thing,” follows with one of the funniest intros I’ve heard in a very long time which quickly dissolves into a much harder hitting track than it’s predecessor. Jumping from video game references to commentary on racism, Mike builds himself as a character in a very interesting way. His racial comments are particularly brutal, rapping “How it’s both sides, we both ain’t dyin’.” The instrumental is again, this time building mainly on slowly developing synth leads.

   The best track on the record falls square in the middle with “Microfiche.” Over the nondescript, psychedelic beat, Mike’s flow is unstoppable, mixed perfectly between lyrically heavy-hitting and melodically soft. The rapped hook is fun and singable and topics range from drug use to, again, video games, through politics, and a dash of mental health. His ability to filter his hectic lack of focus through a soft, listenable aesthetic is a microcosm of what makes What Happens When I Try to Relax such an enjoyable project.

   The follow up, “Single Ghosts,” is far more nocturnal as Mike tells a very October-appropriate tale of falling in love with a ghost. This track blurs the lines between comedy and horror rap in a unique way. I have the utmost appreciation for his replication of the Ghost Busters hook, and I enjoy the switch up, however, this will likely be the track I find myself revisiting the least.

   “Southside Eagle,” is up next with an excellent, dreamy chorus as the opening. While the flow is a bit boring, Mike’s lyrics about seeing fellow rappers around him but feeling out of place, as well as his lines examining the effects of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” on the lives of bullied youth, are especially thoughtful and a perfect example of what makes him such a beloved feature of the underground hip-hop scene.

   “Maybe Gang” closes the project very well. Much of Mike’s flow is comedically inept, though the several of the rhyme schemes are quite elite. The hook is an ear worm, one the only of it’s kind on the record, and the trap cymbals that adorn the entire track set the tone in an interesting way. It’s a respectable closer for a more than respectable project.

   This EP is fun, it’s comical at times, and more than anything, it’s supremely listenable. As Open Mike Eagle bounces from topic to topic with flow and conviction, there’s nothing to do but bob your head and try to keep up.

   While What Happens When I Try to Relax lacks the focus and conceptuality of previous Open Mike Eagle Projects, his ability to spread this chaotic thought over smooth, psychedelic instrumentals makes for a fun listen that you’ll leave on repeat for a few days.

4/10

HEAR WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I TRY TO RELAXhttps://open.spotify.com/album/7qTEGu0Gvikwk1n8SwjmEL