Hip Hop

SZA – Ctrl

Listening through Top Dawg Entertainment’s (label home of Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q and Isaiah Rashad) only female artist SZA’s debut full length, Ctrl, I’ve found myself thinking back to Frank Ocean’s masterpieces, Channel Orange and Blonde.  I think this is partially because these are among the best ‘R&B’ (if you can give Blonde a genre) albums I’ve heard over the last few years, partially because the production work of both records is so outstanding, and partially because both artists mine Forrest Gump for sexual innuendo.  But I think the true tying theme is the deconstruction of the complex emotions entwined with physical intimacy; power and control (from which the album takes its name), desperation, self-doubt, moral questioning and ambiguity.  Ctrl is absolutely a sex album, but, in the style increasingly common in today’s nuanced R&B writing (see FKA Twigs or The Weeknd’s older stuff), it’s also an incredibly personal record about what these encounters, these physical transactions of sorts, mean to SZA and her complex relationships, and how that empowers her as a woman in 2017.

Take third-sequenced “Doves in The Wind” (one of the many highlights that grace the album’s near-perfect opening side), where SZA and Kendrick Lamar thoroughly investigate all the connotations of ‘pussy’.  SZA asserts the importance of her sexuality (“You can never trivialize pussy”) and throws shade on anyone who attempts to diminish it (“Your dick is weak, buddy / It’s only replaced by a rubber substitute”), while Kendrick pitches the heterosexual male’s irrational take on the subject (“Niggas’ll lose they mind for it / Wine for it , dine for it – pussy / Pussy got endless prisoners, pussy always revengin’ her”).  Both artists complement each-other in a two-sided but refreshingly female-empowered take on sex.

But then on followup “Drew Barrymore”, SZA can relax into the perfect casual sexual encounter that can exist purely for pleasure, outside of power dynamics – “I’m so glad you could come by / Somebody get the tacos, somebody spark the blunt / Let’s start the Narcos off at episode one”.  This 360 evaluation of relations are part of what gives Ctrl heavy lyrical depth that also tackles depression (“We get so lonely, we pretend that this works/ I”m so ashamed of myself think I need therapy”), body image (“I know you’d rather be laid up with a big booty / You know I’m sensitive about havin’ no booty”) and aging into adulthood (“Hopin’ my 20 somethings won’t end / Hopin’ to keep the rest of my friends / Prayin’ the 20 somethings don’t kill me”).

But aside from its lyrical maturity, Ctrl‘s excellence is deeply indebted to how incredibly appealing and effortless SZA’s flow and cadence is throughout.  From her reggae inspired lilt on “Doves in the Wind” to her sinusoidal rap singing on opener “Supermodel” to the Destiny’s Child-like quickfire of “Wavy”, pretty much every vocal turn on the album is a home run.  She moves between singing, speak-singing and rapping with unexpected contours and emphasis on tracks (such as the Travis Scott-featuring “Love Galore”) like a surfer riding the curl of an endless wave.  And the production techniques applied to the dense and many harmonies that pop up throughout every verse and chorus of the record, including falsettos, echos and left-right panning (perhaps most notably on standout “Prom”), add even more dynamics and dimensions.  Through it all, however, SZA is never reaching, never shouting, constantly maintaining a cool level-headedness even on the record’s most emotional moments.  This choice to stay chill aligns perfectly with the album’s uninterrupted easy-going and minimalist arrangement choices.

Production-wise, Ctrl is full of interesting bells and whistles that tend to stay true to low-energy, bass and drums based arrangements, allowing subtle touches like the woozy, underwater synths on “Drew Barrymore” or the “Hotline Bling”-esque Trop-House notes on “Love Galore”.  As previously mentioned, the harmony and vocal overdub work account for many of the album’s most impressive moments, though crisp instrumentation like the snare drum that finally rolls into the final third of “Supermodel” are as satisfying as they are essential.  SZA makes room for four guest features, which feels like the perfect number, and packs them in toward the beginning and ends of the record, allowing her the space to solidify an identity through the record’s middle third.  Travis Scott and Kendrick both historically bat a high average on their features, but their voices here go above a good verse, syncing perfectly with SZAs relaxed but sexually-charged aesthetic.  Less so, however, for the abrasive Isaiah Rashad on “Pretty Little Birds”, the album’s penultimate cut.

If I had to nitpick, I’d say the more formless, down-tempo songs at the album’s center, “Garden” and “Broken Clocks”, hem closer to a traditional, less unique sound than what preceded and follow them, and the record, while in no means too long (50 minutes and 14 tracks) probably could have afforded to and benefited from their cutting.  Still, “Ctrl” succeeds lyrically and sonically, and in particular SZA’s unique vocals and singing style make it hard to go back to listening to airier or less distinctive vocalists.  As for standouts, “Prom” is a catchy-as-fuck low-key banger and “Love Galore” and “Doves in the Wind” are instant classics (also a big fan of the former’s music video).  I think Ctrl is by far the strongest R&B record of the year, and deserves to be seen as a shining example of the genre’s continued transformation come the end of the decade.

Score: 11 / 13

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Gorillaz – Humanz

God this album is bad.  Every year there’s bound to be one massive disappointment from a critically revered artist, and thus far this year Damon Albarn’s beloved Gorillaz project is winning (losing?) that race by a landslide.  The first Gorillaz album since 2010’s solid Plastic Beach, Humanz arrives two years after Albarn reunited Blur for The Magic Whip, a so-so album that sounds exactly like you’d expect Blur to sound 15 years after their heyday, and three years since his sad, grey, lonely and boring solo album, Everyday Robots.  And it’s a mess in all the worst ways possible.  It’s dense in songs, features and ideas but next to none of them succeed.  It’s way too long, a 20 track, 48 minute slog that feels much longer.  There are six needless, corny interludes.  The vocal features are all over the place; verses from solid performers sound completely out of place on the instrumentals Albarn has built for them, and others are just awful regardless of what they’re rapping / singing over.  There is no trace of personality or presence from the imaginary band that the project takes its name for; rather, Humanz sounds like a collection of unsuccessful demos that should have been titled “Damon Albarn writes subpar, half-baked songs for people he thinks are cool and wants to work with.”

Humanz, like other Gorillaz releases, is a pseudo concept album about the slow, deliberate destruction of humanity at the hands of greed, warfare, deceit, inept government and late stage market capitalism.  And for the most part, the featured vocalists adhere to the theme in their lyrical content.  The album also has a cohesive production aesthetic; dark, heavy, bassy tracks with little in the way of colorful synthesizers or guitars.  And those are the only compliments I can give Humanz.  It’s sort of remarkable that Damon Albarn wrote hits like “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.“, but couldn’t manage to put together one catchy song anyone would remember five minutes after it’s ended.  It’s perhaps even more remarkable that he wrote beautiful, melancholy ballads like “El Manana“, yet not a single song here pulls at any heartstring or impresses with synthetic production.  The instrumentals are incredibly boring, repetitive and lack imagination completely.  Every track is just a 4/4 pounding bass rhythm with a few low, ominous synths, a rap verse or speak-singing passage followed by a ‘hook’ or ‘chorus’ that sounds almost exactly like the rest of the track, like the rest of the whole album, except with some sad, faux-tragic female vocalist or Albarn’s own voice singing banal, nondescript lyrics about how much the world sucks.

The proper opener  is Vince Staples on “Ascension”, probably the best song here (Vince Staples can’t really deliver a bad verse), but the production fails to impress, an uptempo, vaguely dark, vaguely electronic haberdashery featuring a canned gospel chorus sample chanting “higher”.  Things only get worse after that.  “Strobelite” is the worst combination of Albarn’s dancey, techno impulses and inoffensive 80s disco pastiche.  “Momentz” is practically unlistenable, not because De La Soul isn’t spitting as fast as he can, but because the underlying bass pounding out every quarter note sounds fucking awful, the chanted “Momentz!” vocal sample spliced in every 12 seconds or so sounds fucking awful, and the shrieking, wailing “Plastic on the ceiling!” bridge sounds fucking awful.  All the interludes are heavy-handed and completely unnecessary, such as “The Non-Conformist Oath”, where the ‘irony’ of a crowd repeating in unison “I promise not to repeat what other people say!” makes 50 Cent’s fellatio reference on “Candy Shop” appear subtle in comparison.

No song is pretty.  No vocal take is especially memorable or enjoyable.  Danny Brown probably has the best verse here (another rapper who rarely fails to be exciting) but the droning techno R&B number he’s paired on compliments his vocal style like salad dressing compliments ice cream.  There’s a track called “Sex Murder Party” that’s as bad as a song called “Sex Murder Party” could have been (yes, the chorus whispers “Sex murder party”), but far more boring – nothing fucking happens on this song at all!  The record stumbles and face-plants out the door with the penultimate “Hallelujah Money”, which features a bizarre baritone vocal from Benjamin Clementine reciting revolutionary lyrical content expressing the concept that money is the root of all evil (Gasp!).  But the closer is miles worse; an upbeat, positive song that sounds like it was Albarn’s attempt to write for Sesame Street (“We got the power to be loving each other no matter what happens!  We got hte power to do that!”) before Savages’ Jehnny Beth (yes, you read that right) shows up with an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable, nearly campy vocal take that makes me want to kill myself.

And through it all, where the hell are the Gorillaz?  The fictional band is nowhere to be found, no guitar lines from Noodle, no acoustic bass lines from Murdoch, minimal live drumming from Russel and only occasional vocal takes from 2-D (aka Albarn himself).  Albarn stated in an interview that he has 40 more Gorillaz songs that didn’t make the album (there are also six ‘deluxe edition’ songs you can get on iTunes or something).  If these were the 14 best songs he could put together, I can’t even begin to imagine the steaming pile of shit that are those other 40.

Score:  2 / 13

Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls

Young Thug is one of the most interesting rappers to emerge this decade.  Ostensibly an Atlanta-based trap artist, his signature squealing, half singing, notoriously incomprehensible vocal style gives him easily the most unique voice in the game, a voice that’s been (deservedly) championed as well as condemned and imitated ever since his breakthrough single, “Lifestyle“.  He gets featured all over the place (most recently on two standout tracks from Drake’s latest mixtape), wears amazing and provocative outfits, features in a few wonderful music videos, and puts out mixtapes at a clip of two per year or so, his most recent being last summer’s solid Jeffery.  His newest mixtape, Beautiful Thugger Girls, is his biggest departure to date, away from both trap and rapping in favor of slow, smooth pop, sultry R&B, prominent singing, harmonies and acoustic instrumentation (the guitar on the cover isn’t entirely a red herring, despite the fact that Thugger’s holding it upside down).

Of course, for many (but not all), Thug’s Achilles heel has always been his lyrics.  Basically, every Young Thug hook and couplet remarks on one of the following subjects:

a) his desire to have sex with a woman

b) his desire to receive a blowjob from a woman

c) his desire to have anal sex with a woman

d) his request of a woman to let him ejaculate onto her

e) his desire to ejaculate onto a woman

f) his desire to ejaculate inside of a woman

Thus the album’s title, while not especially an apt description of the way Thug talks about women on the record, at least doesn’t seek to eschew the thought and intention behind every Young Thug song, album, mixtape, or what have you.  The record’s opening lyric is “Let me put that dick inside of your panties” (over a pretty sweet reversed acoustic guitar, however).  A sampling of the album’s hooks include “Fuck me, suck me”,  “Gimme the threesome, three three three threesome,” and “You said you gon’ fuck me to death when you see me, you said that you said that!”.  Granted, Thug definitely hedges far more toward admiration for women than misogyny (unlike nearly all of his peers), but aside from a head turning line here and there, Beautiful Thugger Girls contains exactly the vacuous sexual desire and bad puns you’ve come to expect from a Young Thug project.

Which of course doesn’t doom the album whatsoever.  No one’s going into this expecting Kendrick or Vince Staples, and if they were… lol.  But sonically, Beautiful Thugger Girls is for the most part a really nice listen.  Very few of Thug’s peers, especially within trap, can claim a song as pretty musically as opener “Family Don’t Matter”, with its acoustic guitars, tambourine and melancholy choral vocals.  “You Said” features some impressive guitar arpeggios (a sample, but still a good choice) and more harmonies, and “Me or Us” is basically a Bright Eyes song featuring Young Thug.  As far as melodic, singer-songwriter rap is concerned, Thug is setting the bar pretty high.

The low points come when tracks revert to derivative trap formulas, such as on the Future featuring snoozefest “Relationship” or the familiar dark, ambient flute stylings of “Tomorrow Til Infinity”.  Still, Young Thug’s vocals are truly all over the place on all of these songs, singing in a wide variety of voices, high and low, nailing vibratos, falsettos, interesting melodic turns and intricate harmonies.  Listening to the project is like riding on a Young Thug melody roller coaster, and closer inspection to what he’s doing with his voice, such as on the hook of “You Said” or spitting within the peaks and valleys of the latin-tinged, horn-featuring “For Y’all”, never fails to impress.

Beautiful Thugger Girls doesn’t have the best Young Thug songs (that’d be Barter 6) or make the loudest, most inventive Young Thug statement (Jeffery), but it is both his most cohesive and prettiest album yet, capturing an aesthetic and theme and sticking with it (despite that theme being, well, girls Young Thug is into).  At 14 songs and 55 minutes, it could have used with some pairing of the more uninventive tracks, but it’s still far from the trials of listening through his 18 song, 70+ minute Slime Season mixtapes.  As far as pop music is considered, Thug’s vocals are way more interesting than anything else out there, and as R&B, the tracks sound pretty good and Thug’s flow and acrobatics are typically impressive enough to make up for less interesting song structures.  I’d say this album is about on par with Thug’s two best records and continues to show development, which is a great sign.

Score: 8 / 13

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 narrative concept album, was, besides far and away the strongest album in a strong year, the second rap album I ever got into (the first belongs, perhaps surprisingly, to Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris).  After a few listens, I proclaimed, to no one but myself, really, that Kendrick was the best rapper of all time, and that GKMC was something like The Beatles’ Revolver – so far above every other contemporary album that nothing else even registered as competition.  Clearly this was a brazen position, but after following up with 2015’s consensus album of the year (To Pimp a Butterfly) and now DAMN., which is sure to top many a 2017 year-end list, I feel pretty darn smarmy and pretentious as I watch writers and critics start to gingerly test the waters of ‘greatest of all time’ claims.  To me, DAMN. is Kendrick saying ‘hey, I don’t need an 80 minute concept album to still kick the shit out of every other rapper out there.  I can do what y’all do better than you can, but you can’t even touch what I put out when I’m on my game.”  Thus, DAMN. isn’t a masterpiece the way Kendrick’s last two LPs were, but it’s still the best rap record to come out since his last one.

As many have pointed out before me, just because DAMN. doesn’t hit you over the head with one big, central concept doesn’t mean its at all lacking in themes or motifs.  Just look the all caps, single word track listing evocative of the seven deadly sins or ten commandments.  Songs like “LOVE” and “LUST” or “HUMBLE” and “PRIDE” aren’t sequenced next to each other by accident.  This is an album about the wide range of emotions Kendrick feels after sitting on top of the rap world for nearly half a decade now, contextualized by his status as an influential black man in post-Black Lives Matter, post-Trump America.  It’s political because being Kendrick Lamar in 2017 is inherently political.  It’s dark and maddening, revealing and honest – a glimpse behind the curtain at a rapper who most prominently shows himself through relaying the stories and experiences of others.  “Niggas thought they wasn’t gonna see me, huh? / Niggas thought that K-Dot real life was the same life they see on TV, huh?” he confirms on “ELEMENT”.

Each of these tracks tackles an aspect of Kendrick’s complex personality represented by the title.  On the aggressive thumping “DNA” he flashes boasts tracing back to his African roots – “I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA”, but also makes mention of the violence his family tree has witnessed “I know murder conviction / Scholars, fathers dead with kids / Yeah yeah, soldier’s DNA”.  On “PRIDE” he checks himself and the relationship between his actions and intentions – “I wouldn’t blame you for mistakes I made or the bed I laid / Seems like I point the finger just to make a point nowadays”, but he follows up with “HUMBLE”, the album’s single and biggest banger, in which he instructs every other rapper (*cough Drake cough*) to “Sit down, little bitch, be humble.”  Kendrick is perceptive and introspective enough to rip his own flaws out of them and display them under a bright light like a science experiment, but still human enough to revert back to his own greed for unilateral recognition as the best rapper alive.

The production all over the album is excellent.  The choruses and hooks often feature guest soul singers and see Kendrick dipping into one of the many voices he commands (high pitched, slurred, low and drugged, robotic), effectively creating a subconscious backdrop to the true Kendrick present on the verses.  The arrangements are more minimal and straightforward than much of To Pimp a Butterfly, but I think that only serves to strengthen the tracks, focusing them more singularly around Kendrick’s voice on the album on which he delves the deepest into himself.  Accordingly, there are no guest verses (just Rihanna, Zacari and Bono on three of the hooks).  The low key, chilled-out tracks like “YAH” and “FEAR” (which refer to one another) ride great slide guitar riffs, spacey, echoing vocals and 90s boom-bap beats.  “HUMBLE” and “DNA” hit harder than just about everything since Danny Brown’s last album, and they don’t really make any attempt to conform to the trap zeitgeist.  The Bono feature, “XXX”, goes over way better than anyone probably expected (which was probably a bad bet – it is Kendrick, after all).  “ELEMENT”‘s hook of “Imma make it look sexy,” is already a universal catchphrase.  Even the ‘corny’ love song that takes a break from harrowing self-surgery rides a sweet, catchy hook and Akon inspired flow that would have been a top five single for someone like Drake. (Sidenote: does anyone else miss Akon?)  In short, Kendrick can do any style, any tempo, and any aesthetic better than anyone else can, and on DAMN. he manages to do it while simultaneously peering deeper into his soul than Drake’s managed on all six of his albums combined.

No review of DAMN. would be complete without mention of “DUCKWORTH”, the final track.  This is a story song in the truest sense – it’s the true story of Kendrick’s father meeting Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, the owner of the record label that’s had his back since the beginning.  Kendrick flashes legendary story-telling skills for only a single track, but it’s enough to recognize just how far he’s come since GKMC.  How many internal rhymes are in “That’s when affiliation was really eight gears of war / So many relatives tellin us, sellin us devilish works / Killin us, crime, intelligent, felonious, prevalent proposition with 9’s”?  How does he manage in four lines (“Southside Projects, Chiraq, the Terror Dome / Drove to California with woman on him and 500 dollars / They had a son, hopin that he’d see college / Hustlin’ on the side with a nine-to-five to freak it”) to do justice to one young man’s courageous life-changing decision?  How does he have the vision to foresee his life’s alternate path (“Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg would be servin’ life / While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight”) and then tie that all back to the album’s introduction, where Kendrick is killed, perhaps rendering the entire record a concept album after all?  Because it’s fucking Kendrick Lamar, the best rapper of all time.

Score:  12/13

 

 

Drake – More Life

On More Life‘s “Gyalchester”, in reference to where he ranks among the planet’s current crop of rappers, Drake states “I know I said top five, but I’m top two / And I’m not two”.  I absolutely believe Drake thinks he’s the best rapper on the planet – he smashed the Spotify streaming records twice! – but most familiar with the rap game would fail to see things that way (especially when the undisputed king recently murked him on back to back tracks).  I’d put Drake somewhere around 10th myself, probably after Kendrick, Danny Brown, MC Ride, the guys in Run the JewelsVince Staples, A$AP Rocky, Chance and Earl Sweatshirt.  But one thing is for sure – Drake is the most listened to rapper on the planet, and not for no reason.  He puts out a new project every year, often twice a year.  The list of collaborators on his albums reach to every corner of the hip hop sphere.  He has built up an image and actively maintains it and evolves it, moving from sad boy to asshole and back again on a semi-annual basis, all while being a genuinely funny SNL host.  And he puts out both catchy, poppy songs that land all over the charts as well as deeper cuts that see him exploring new styles.  Drake’s not top 5, but he’s not, like, Kodak Black, either.  His music is generally likable, even when it’s a massive disappointment.

The majority of the criticism I’ve seen about More Life stems from two general camps.  The first is along the lines of “Oh, Drake called this a “playlist” rather than an album or mixtape because it lets him use half-baked ideas, over-stuff the track list, and include Views b-sides under the guise that it’s still original content” (though I’m pretty sure all the Views b-sides still made it onto that record).  The second is that Drake is co-opting a bunch of foreign styles and ideas, white-washing them, and presenting watered down versions to the masses, specifically dancehall (Jamaica), grime (England) and trap (Georgia, state, not country (though that would be awesome)).

To the first point, I say simply, Drake put out a collection of original music, I’m going to evaluate it the same way I evaluate any album, EP, mixtape, soundtrack, etc.  He could have put it out exclusively as a video laserdisc and called it a ‘laserecord’ and I wouldn’t have given a fuck.  If there’s shit on it, people will call it a shit playlist.  I don’t believe in raising or lowering expectations based on if the release is free or physical or what have you.

To the second point, I’ll say yeah, Drake draws from styles that he had no part in helping form, and delivers his own version.  Is that a problem?  Music is a art – no one owns trap music.  If Drake makes shit trap music, then call it shit, but don’t get on his case for making trap music to begin with.  Did George Harrison ‘whitewash’ traditional Indian music?  Did the Beastie Boys co-opt ‘black music’?  God, who the fuck cares if Drake raps in a fake patois or a fake British accent – no one is being exploited here, there are no victims as a result of Drake messing around with silly accents.  The only one at risk is Drake himself – if the music is corny and sucks, then he’ll lose cred and play counts.

More Life, at least to me, is interesting and cool because it is a record of Drake trying on other people’s ideas.  Just when his trademark ‘style’ was getting stale, Drake took the opportunity to throw it all at the wall to see what sticks, with a few traditional Drake tracks thrown in, and a ton of traditional Drake themes, tying the whole project together.  “No Long Talk” is a grime song.  Drake raps about his ‘tings’.  “Passionfruit”, “Madiba Riddim” and “Get It Together” draw from the same low-key, tropical house vibe that fueled “One Dance“, and Drake similarly abandons rapping for singing.  All three songs are warmer, chiller and catchier than similar outings from Views.  “Portland” is basically a Migos song, with Quavo delivering the same style of ad-libs on the chorus that endeared me to “Get Right Witcha“, the flute riding the beat throughout sounding like a perfect match for the production on Culture.  Similarly, “Sacrifices” is a fucking Young Thug song, not just because it features Young Thug and a trap beat, but also because Drake imitates Thug’s cadence and vocal styling to a tee.  Honestly, it’s probably my favorite song here – the beat dropping out in favor of solo piano on the hook is amazing.  2 Chainz’ verse is great, and Thug’s verse brings some nice energy at the end.

“Fake Love” is “Hotline Bling” 2.0, but I don’t really mind, I think the beat is catchy enough, and I like the use of the “Pick up the Phone” sample (great song, btw), I just wish it arrived earlier in the track list.  Ditto for “Ice Melts”, another Thug feature, which is the funnest, sunniest song here but unfortunately arrives in the penultimate position of an 82 minute album.  Kanye on “Glow” is kind of awkward, and I think the album could have benefited more from aggressive Kanye than sing-songy Kanye, but his inclusion adds to the album’s theme of being a showcase for some of rap’s biggest names, including SamphaTravis Scott and Mercury prize winner Skepta.

Lyrically, its the same old Drake bullshit.  There’s a fair bit about women (I especially like “I drunk text J-Lo / Old number, so it bounce back”), but mostly Drake is talking about his paranoia regarding and distrust of those he surrounds himself with.  This concept was most thoroughly explored on the best song on Drake’s best album, “Energy“, and the fact that Drake still obsesses over it, after years of fame fame and more fame, is worth noting.  The whole message of the record is summed up in a voicemail from his mom at the end of “Can’t Have Everything”:

“You have reason to question your anxieties and how disillusioned you feel, as well as feeling skeptical about who you believe you can trust. But that attitude will just hold you back in this life, and you’re going to continue to feel alienated.”

Never before have I seen Drake’s trademark internal struggle so concisely summed up and slain before, and by his own mother no less!  Similarly to how Frank Ocean’s mother’s voicemail warning him about using drugs fit perfectly within the story of Blonde, so too does the voicemail from Sandi Graham.  But there is additional destruction to the fourth-wall when considering that Sandi is likely referring to the same songs that bookend her speech, and because Drake sings about communicating with her so often.

There are plenty of negatives to More Life.  It’s too long.  A lot of the songs (specifically on the back half) are boring, lag behind and feel like filler.  It’s all over the place (though as I said before, that’s somewhat to its benefit).  The sequencing doesn’t really make sense (which you think would be of paramount importance for a ‘playlist’).  Drake’s not saying anything new or inventive, his bars and flow aren’t always tight, and his voice can sound tired after awhile.  But I find myself truly enjoying listening through this thing, and with some editing, it could have been a very strong album.  The good songs are better than the best songs on Views, the hooks are catchier, the structures, beats and features more varied and colorful.  This isn’t a bad project, it’s just way too loose and scattershot to be a great one, either.  Which no one, probably not even Drake, believes it was meant to be.

Score: 8/13

Big Sean – I Decided

I kinda can’t get over just how much Big Sean sounds like Drake.  His flow and cadences sound like Drake – check out this verse from lead single “Bounce Back” (which is probably the best song on the album).  The first time I heard this song on the radio I actually thought to myself “Huh, this new Drake song is pretty good”.  His voice sounds like Drake.  His hooks sound like Drake. (Okay, that last one was actually Drake.  It took me two full minutes to realize.)  His beats and production sound like Views-era Drake (which is by far the worst Drake to imitate).  He sings about the same things Drake sings about – girls he wishes he could have another chance with (“Left and now you back inside my life / It’s gon’ take more than that to set it right, though”), his mom (“Mamma you too good for them men / Even dad, you too good for him”) and feeling like he is the savior his city needs to put it on the map (“When the whole town on their feet / And they all just waiting on you to speak / That’s when you realize that this is bigger than me”).  Let’s let alone the fact that Danny Brown released an amazing song about Detroit less than six months ago and is a top 3 rapper in the game.

Aside from sounding like a watered down Views and lacking in a single ounce of originality, I Decided is an unoffensive listen.  Only one these songs really sucks (more on that later), and the aforementioned Bounce Back, along with the opener”Light”, which features a decent Jeremih spot, are actually pretty good cuts.  Sean digs into his family’s past, citing his father’s upbringing in conservative Louisiana, and also settles into some quick, double time flows that Drake doesn’t ever really touch.  But things take a turn for the worse on the fourth-sequenced “No Favors”.  Not only is this track wayyy too long (5.5 minutes), but it also features an Eminem verse that I guess was intending to unite two Detroit rappers but fails so hard it completely ruins any momentum the album had going.  Eminem is as deft and visceral as ever, but fifteen years after his heyday, taking aim at female celebrities (“I’m pissing on Fergie!”) sounds more misogynistic than it did then and comes across as desperate and awkward.  The shot at Trump sounds like Eminem is just dying to insert himself into the rappers vs. Trump war, and his voice and flow are completely out of place amidst Seans’ dark, silky, minimalist Drake (ahem, Noah Shebib) production.

From there, the album really never gets back on its feet.  The songs start to sound similar and by the halfway point it seems like Sean has pretty much run out of ideas.  There’s a decently fun dance track about making “Moves”, there’s the ‘sexy’ (and boring) “Same Time, Pt. 1”, the bitter (but hardly personal) post-breakup “Owe Me”, and “Voices in My Head / Stick to the Plan”, which starts with the chillest, lowest-energy verse on the record before suddenly shifting into a trap song with the most obnoxious hooks I’ve heard all year (“Stick to the plannnn! Stick to the plannnn! STICK TO THE PLANNNN!”).  The song does sort of redeem itself at the very end with some incredibly quick flow that’s actually really impressive and plays into the theme of voices in Sean’s head giving him contradictory advice.

I’ll throw some points out for sequencing the last four songs as the “important subjects” tracks, with Sean going out feeling moral and righteous after singing about church, how much he loves his mother, how blessed he’s been to make it in rap, and how important his city is to him.  But all of these sound like Chance with no instrumentation or energy, Kanye with no personality, or Drake, and so beyond the thematic link, they do little to impress.

I Decided isn’t really a bad album, it’s just incredibly boring and unoriginal.  “Bounce Back” sounds like the song that is big on the radio for 2 weeks before being relegated to obscurity, and nothing else here is memorable or interesting.  I get that comparing Big Sean to Drake is kind of a cheap shot and certainly an unoriginal thought in and of itself, but their music is beyond similar – it sounds like a ripoff.  Listen to this album and tell me otherwise.  What is Sean saying that any other ‘lyrical’ rapper isn’t?  Where are the bangers?  Where are the features (that don’t make me wanna throw up)?  Even when Sean is having fun, he still gives off the impression that the very idea of enjoying the act of rapping is completely futile.  I don’t really get why Big Sean is on the radar.  There’s nothing to see here.

Score: 4/13

Migos – Culture

I’ve sort of been putting this review off – not because I hate the album, or haven’t spent time listening to it, but just because I’m having trouble coming up with an opinion I can definitely stand behind.

The expectations from so-called ‘lyrical’ hip hop (Kendrick, Earl Sweatshirt, Das Racist, etc.) are different from rap where vocal delivery and beats are more important and the lyrics need not venture past well-trodden territory.  Migos fall pretty firmly into the latter category, and although nothing else about the album is revolutionary or particularly innovative, there isn’t really a bad or obnoxious song on here, either.  I’m new to Migos – I first heard the Atlanta trio last year when Quavo was featured on the awesome Travis Scott / Young Thug collaboration “Pick Up the Phone”.  This new album of theirs has been hailed as their best, which I don’t doubt, but it has also garnered some pretty serious critical praise (best Atlanta act since Outkast? Really?) that I can’t help but feel is more a result of Migos being a likable, of-the-moment, started from the bottom, chart-topping zeitgeist force in trap music than this record actually being something special.

Culture is 13 tracks long and runs about an hour, which is sort of a relief considering how bloated big rap releases have become.  Every single track rides a dark, minimalist trap beat, with no absence of rattling high hats and melancholy piano loops.  They all feature ad-libs after almost every line, frequently by not the rapper currently spitting but by one of the other members of the trio.  They all have hooks that range from catchy and fun to fine.  The lyrical content rarely makes a pointed statement beyond your typical trap fare (drugs, gangs, cars, girls, guns, money) but some turns of phrase are more clever than others.

And there really isn’t a bad song on here.  I think the best tracks come on the front half – the #1 single “Bad and Boujee” is obviously great, combining fun wordplay and a catchy hook (although, as many before me have pointed out, the final verse by guest Lil Uzi Vert ruins the end of the song), though my favorite track may be the follow-up “Get Right Witcha”, whose hook I really enjoy, especially Takeoff’s ad-libs of ‘woah’ and ‘wow’ and ‘hold up’.  The mid album cuts “Slippery” and “Big on Big” are further examples of how likable, easy-going and unoffensive trap can be when it sounds as effortless as it does in the hands of Migos.  Young Thug, Rae Sremmurd, Desiigner – they can all be off-putting when they try to tweak the formula in the wrong ways, but Migos generally steer clear of any rough patches.  The triplet flows of each member never stray from the beats, and I like all three of their voices, which, pleasantly, err on the side of soft and relaxed rather than aggressive.

Gucci Mane’s feature sits naturally among his Atlanta peers.  2 Chainz’s feature is short, and his voice certainly stands out, but it also goes over well.  Lil Uzi Vert’s is bad, as mentioned previously, and Travis Scott’s is fine, but otherwise it’s a constant trade off between 2 to 3 of Migos at a time.  Certain spots on the record are highlights, like the sweet, melodic “Skrrt Skrrt” through the hook of “What the Price” and Takeoff’s verse on “Deadz”, which strikes as the most technically deft and aggressive on the record.

My biggest gripe with the album is just that it never really deviates from a formula, and any one of these beats and verses feels like it could have been spliced into one of the other tracks.  The back half of the record also gets a bit tiring, and I feel that 10 consistent trap songs would have made for a more compact, compelling listen than the drawn-out 13.  The last three tracks being the weakest and least necessary further emphasizes that point.  There isn’t really an emotional or musical climax, there doesn’t seem to be a centerpiece unless you count the back to back bangers “Bad and Boujee” and “Get Right Witcha” sequenced fourth and fifth, respectively.

All in all, the record is never bad, a bit long, a bit repetitive, occasionally great (often on the back of the flows) and fun and exciting, very consistent, but never innovative or head-turning.  It’s better than fine, but maybe slightly less than good.  I’ll probably spin a few of my favorite songs from it throughout the year, but I don’t have any strong desire to listen through it cover to cover again.

Score: 7/13