Hip Hop

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

Kool A.D. – The Natural

I find some humor in the fact that the first two albums of 2017 I’ve written about both came out in the waning days of 2016.  They’re also both rap albums, but in that regard they couldn’t be further away on the spectrum of hip hop. Where Run the Jewels are a serious, tightly produced, extremely aggressive duo, Kool is basically their exact opposite; far from serious, rambling on and on over endlessly repeating beat loops, encouraging everyone to chill out, reflect, find the subtle beauty in everyday life and smoke some weed.

As an Oakland rapper who constantly shouts out East Bay spots (“Alameda In N’ Out, Berkeley stand up, West Side Oakland, Fruitvale, Lake Merritt, East Side Oakland / Acid visions in an El Cerrito parking lot”), I feel some regional attachment to an artist that I haven’t since I started following music (Houston’s indie rock scene was… lacking). The former Das Racist member dropped 10 mixtapes on his Bandcamp in 2016, two of which had 100 tracks. I listened to another two of these when they dropped (Official and Have a Nice Dream), and although I enjoyed both (Official was superior imho), they were both experimenting with a particular sound, and didn’t hold a ton of replay value for me.  The Natural, on the other hand, is the most straightforward Kool tape I’ve heard since 2013’s Not O.K., and I can’t stop listening to it.

The formula here is simple; find a sunny/jazzy/80s pop music beat, loop it for 3-4 minutes, then casually ramble through bars that sound half-freestyled, throwing in as many non-sequitur pop culture references as possible and flavor with dashes of philosophical epiphanies that emerge like moments of acid clarity in the midst of gnarly trip. Pretty much the exact opposite of RTJ.  The rhymes flow loosely, easily, with Kool often laughing or trailing off, getting himself back on track with a “I feel like (insert celebrity name)”.  The songs often end when it seems like Kool has simply run out of things to say and has grown bored of the beat. Production is a non-factor here; the beats just loop until the song ends with no interruption.  There are few hooks (one of note is on “This Mane (Reprise)”, which is a reworking of one of Official‘s best tracks) and only three features across the fifteen tracks.  But there is also a formula to enjoy this album; throw it on in the background, enjoy the chill beats, and occasionally a lyric will grab you and make you laugh or think (often both) either for its absurdity or its profundity.

With no lyric sheet to be found on the internet, you have to pull the lyrics the old-fashioned way, through listening. Here are some of my favorite lines I’ve collected over the seven or eight listens through I’ve given this thing in the last few days:

“Look at the sun, look at the sun, okay stop looking at the sun now, close up your eyehole, open your third one / try to understand if you even know what love is” -The Natural

“I feel like Bill O’Riley, I got no feelings / but it’s still fuck Bill O’Riley and his whole feelings” – The Natural

“This is my music my music is me, it’s really good sometimes, but other times it’s bad, but that’s whatever it’s love” – Respect, Acknowledge

“Young alphabetical male with the money / With the B.A., the B-A-star-select cheat code styles of the previous ages” – Punic Wars (Scooby Doo)

“The young fresh prince, the young restless, trees for breakfast / I said everything all times it’s all time / all time is illusory, that’s shout to Albert Einstein” – Lay Up

“Your boy transcend counties / in a horseless carriage / life is a divorce-less marriage / all homicide, suicide / life is truly divine, please cherish it / all ideas are embarrassing” – Love, Love, Beautiful Love

Through it all, Kool comes across not like the ‘too smart for his own good to the point where maybe he’s a dick‘ guy from his Das Racist days, but as someone who has truly found peace and happiness in their life and is half trying to convey it through raps, then realizes that such ideas and feelings can never be translated, and thus devolves into his own silly pop culture references that crack him up.  This isn’t a style unique to Kool (see Lil B), but he does it in such a likable way, over beats that sound friendly and familiar, melting into one after another with ease.

My favorite moment on the album comes from ‘Rest In Power Dr. Sebi’, where Kool gets on a particularly emotional rant of listing off celebrities that at first don’t feel linked at all, but slowly reveal their subtle connections: “I’m lil Yachty on a boat / I’m Yo Gotti at the Rob Lowe roast / Fuck Ann Coulter / Jill Stein for president / peace Allah Baraka plus Barack Obama”  (he also later shouts out Haruki Murakami, my favorite author). This album is one of personal, favorite moments. The point in the final song, ‘Respect, Acknowledge’, where the beat changes and Kool states, almost as if he’s genuinely surprised, “And we still rapping, it’s still the same song / It’s all the same song” is another favorite.

I feel like listening through The Natural is an exercise in stepping into Kool’s house, smoking a j with him, then listening to him freestyle as you drift in and out of paying attention. But when you’re there with him, and you get it, it’s warm, inviting and rewarding.  What can I say, I really like this album.  Now I have to go from these warm East Bay vibes to the cold new xx album that I feel like I’m gonna hate and I’m not siked.

Score: 9/13

Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3

Run The Jewels became the first major artist to drop an album in 2017 by technically dropping it in 2016, as a surprise Christmas release (although I don’t think anyone’s going to retroactively edit their year end lists, so for all intents and purposes this is a 2017 release).  So why is the duo, composed of Atlanta’s Killer Mike and New York’s El-P, a big deal?  Well they’ve put out two consistent, aggressive, intelligent rap albums (the aptly titled RTJ1 and 2), the latter of which was Pitchfork’s top album of 2014 (which was by far the weakest year of the decade – I mean, the consensus best album was… The War on Drugs?).  Their whole shtick is that they give no fucks, their brags are self-aware and funny, their flows are hard hitting and aggressive and relentless, their production is pulverizing, etc etc.  And they’re also both over 40, so that’s pretty cool.  Some would probably even call them the second best hip hop act out there (after Kendrick of course).  So they’re a big deal, the album is a big deal.

RTJ3 is, in a word, unsurprising.  It sounds exactly like RTJ have always sounded.  It sounds like RTJ1 and like RTJ2, so the name is once again apt.  El-P’s production is great as usual (if not a bit homogenous), the flows are fast and never ending, the brags are aggressive.  Not 20 seconds goes by without a verse, the tracks rattle off one after another without a moment of pause.  There are exactly two featured rappers (a below average verse from the incredibly above average Danny Brown and another uncredited one from Zach De La Rocha at the very very end), otherwise it’s just an El- and Mike-athon.  But despite being exactly what you’d expect and likely what everyone wanted, I’m feeling pretty ‘meh’ about this record.

Oh but HR it’s Run the fucking Jewels!  You can’t call them ‘meh’!  They’re the best!  They’re so aggressive!  They’re so sick of your bullshit!  I get it.  But they were that in 2014, too.  I guess I wanted them to change things up.  I thought that maybe this would be the album that Run the Jewels would get political, seeing as how Killer Mike was a Bernie surrogate, but aside from socially conscious one liners and a fleeting reference to Trump (though honestly I’d be surprised if a single rap album came out in 2017 that didn’t reference Trump), this album isn’t any more political than RTJ1 or 2.  I thought maybe it would be the album where they try to weave in some kind of coherent story line, or talk about their newfound fame in a unique and interesting way, or get really personal (which they actually do on the final two tracks), but no – for the most part, RTJ are still just talking about how big their dicks are.

But HR!  Doesn’t a mediocre RTJ track still kick the shit out of every wannabe Drake’s best song?  Yeah, I guess so.  So then don’t 14 RTJ tracks kick the shit out of every wannabe Drake album?  Not necessarily.  51 minutes of El and Mike aggressively and intelligently bragging about how good they are at rapping just feels less compelling and less interesting than inconsistent but unique records by ‘lesser’ rappers like Swet Shop Boys or Mac Miller, no matter how professional and consistent those 51 minutes may be.  And at that point I’d rather just listen to RTJ2.

Another thing that strikes me is that there isn’t a notable banger or obvious single.  I mean, they’re sort of all bangers, and I really wouldn’t be surprised if any one track was supposed to be the single, but nothing grabs me the way ‘Jeopardy‘ or ‘Blockbuster Night’ did off RTJ2.  There are certainly impressive moments (I like Mike’s super quick tempo at the end of ‘Call Ticketron‘, which I find myself enjoying more and more despite a pretty obnoxious hook), but even picking which songs are my favorites is difficult because they all feel so similar.  The song structures are frequently identical [Mike/El verse -> hook -> El/Mike verse -> hook] and lyrically they don’t really stick to one consistent theme (save for the standout ‘Thursday in the Danger Room‘ right at the end, a very personal meditation on the death of friends and family), and so I find myself choosing which tracks I like better based solely on how much I like the hook (none of which I love).

I’m sure this album will garner critical acclaim, including Pitchfork’s best new music honors (my guess is 8.6) alongside an 8 from Needle Drop, and not undeservedly so; if you’ve never heard Run the Jewels before, you’ll very likely be extremely impressed.  But I don’t think I’m greedy for wanting something new and different from what we’ve come to expect with this project, seeing as how there are no shortage of hip hop releases from talented artists experimenting with new ideas. Essentially, I’d rather have seen RTJ try something new and come up short of their previous work than just write the same ten songs for the third time.

Score: 9/13