Trap

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

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

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