Lil Baby & Gunna – Drip Harder

Image result for drip harder coverThe year is 2018. Lil Baby and Gunna have narrowly eked out a sales victory over Beyonce and Jay-Z. And the tide of average yet wildly successful trap albums keep on coming. Drip Harder is a collaboration project between two of the bigger names on Young Thug’s YSL label, as well as a sequel of sorts to last year’s high-profile Atlanta collab project SUPER SLIMEY, featuring Thug and Future. Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing across the entire project that gets me excited in any way, and that’s pretty difficult to do – usually there’s at least a couple tracks that’s are at least a lot of mindless fun. The best rap collabs are usually rather unexpected, their differences playing off of each other well – here, I can barely tell which is which, each doing their greatest impression of their label boss. The incredibly uninspired trap production doesn’t do much to help either, running through the same moody trap-piano instrumentals we’ve heard ad nauseam since the genre was popularized.

Both Baby and Gunna adopt a kind of woozy, muffled cadence, seemingly trying to use their voices as another form of instrument like Young Thug does but lacking the charisma and off-the-wall lyricism to make it work. I knew there was a Young Thug feature somewhere on the project on my first listen, and without looking at the tracklist I wondered on more than one occasion if a standard Baby verse was the aforementioned feature – that’s how little of their own identity each of these two carve out here.

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This kind of delivery doesn’t complement such standard trap fare on these beats either, the point of Thug’s popularization of it was that it works on some more experimental instrumentals. Before we get to the top 5 single “Drip Too Hard” and the Drake-featuring “Never Recover”, back-to-back at the very end of the project, we have to suffer through 11 of the exact same, copy-and-pasted song of these two disinterestedly slurring their way through a midtempo hi-hat beat and either the same kind of keys or off-kilter synths in each track. I accidentally left the project on shuffle when writing this review and didn’t notice until 4 songs in because the songs are that indistinguishable from each other.

There are a few tracks like “Deep End” where they end up going completely off beat at times – what is that flow on “he can’t even swim he off the deep end?” Baby honestly sounds like he’s reading his lyrics off of a teleprompter and got surprised by a sudden change in what he had to say. On “World Is Yours”, one of the Gunna solo tracks here, the prominent hi-hat roll that had me at least nodding my head drops out right as the chorus starts, a repetitive and off-key melody that’s delivered at a lower energy level for some reason. Not even Thug himself can save the day on “My Jeans”, these two seemingly bringing out his worst tendencies as he dumbs down his personality and delivers some pretty standard bars about money and the like.

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Gunna honestly has a solo track here called “Style Stealer”, where he accuses people of stealing his. Gunna wouldn’t be here if he didn’t hop on a giant wave of style stealers – he has nothing distinguishable about himself for others to steal. As previously mentioned, the last two tracks are easily the most enjoyable here. Drake steals the show with his opening verse over a Tay Keith beat on the closer before the talent disparity is made evident as the other two return, while the accelerated energy and faster flows of “Drip Too Hard” are very welcome after all the sleepy trap cuts here.

It’s been difficult to write something that’s the same length as my other pieces because there’s been nothing released this year that’s such absolute sonic wallpaper there’s almost nothing that even stands out to write about. Every time I think we’ve reached the peak of the robotic trap music assembly line, these artists putting out multiple projects of very similar, formula-adherent material each year, something like this comes out and surprises me. Remembering that I have to review a 19-track Quavo album in the near future is not helping matters much. Yeah … yeah this is my first 1/10 of the year.

Favourite Tracks: Drip Too Hard, Never Recover

Least Favourite Track: Style Stealer

Score: 1/10

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Twenty One Pilots – Trench

TOP Trench Album Cover.jpgUncategorizable alternative duo Twenty One Pilots release their fifth studio album, and first after becoming household names with 2015’s uneven but hugely successful Blurryface. While I’ve often struggled with the duo’s consistency in the past, as they seemingly mashed disparate styles together for no reason other than the fact that they could, Trench sees them take better control of their more outlandish artistic impulses, combining it with the catchy pop songwriting and heart-wrenchingly descriptive and personal lyrics that made them such a success previously. While their mid-song transitions could still use some work, Trench is the best kind of wildly versatile project that somehow works cohesively, and it’s likely their best work yet.

Kicking the project off with their heaviest song in years, we’re immediately dropped into the droning guitars of single “Jumpsuit”, which introduces just how great the production across the board is going to be on the project – there are so many little details that enhance the world of the song, especially as it ties into the conceptual landscape of the fictional city of Dema that each song is tied to. Something like cutting back to just the menacing bassline for a second in the paranoid second verse works wonders. One of the most consistently engaging things here is how well they’ve fit their more commercially oriented pop choruses so well onto the darker, heavier instrumentals of their past. Writing an inescapably catchy chorus is still one of frontman Tyler Joseph’s greatest strengths, a few of these tracks drawing on 80s synthpop in their most pop-oriented moments. Not many of them stay in that mode for the whole song, but “My Blood” does, and it’s a pretty euphoric experience.

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“Chlorine” might be the catchiest hook of all here, though. A more low-key track, the cascading piano embellishments and major-key fanfare of a bassline add to its memorability. The back-to-back tracks “Nico and the Niners” and “Cut My Lip” both dive back into the subtle reggae influence the band has borrowed from in the past and do it better than ever before. The way the vocal modulations on “Nico” frame the drop into the final, speedy rap verse on the track makes my heart skip a beat every single time, while “Cut My Lip” features a final, repeated refrain built for an arena to sing along to. It’s one of the most emotionally sung tracks here as well, Joseph reaching into his upper register. “Pet Cheetah” is just … absolute madness. The glitchy, lurching synth-bass collides with in-your-face hip-hop production for a track that quickly switches back and forth between the panic-inducing hellscape (in the absolute best way!) of the former and the softer, sung sections of chorus.

As usual, Joseph addresses some pretty heavy topics across the board here as well. On the track “Neon Gravestones”, he muses on the romanticizing of celebrity suicide over a somber piano loop and skittering drumbeat, acknowledging how much more famous he’d get if he killed himself. As he’s acknowledged having these thoughts in the past, he bluntly sings that if the worst does happen, he doesn’t want his fans to feed into the culture of celebrity and move on. At the end, he switches the narrative, saying to celebrate grandparents who have lived a full and accomplished life instead – the dedication is particularly poignant due to the death of Joseph’s own grandfather, who appears on the cover of the duo’s 2013 album Vessel. The track “Legend” here is a heartfelt dedication to him, featuring a final verse where Joseph outright states that he recorded it on the day of his passing.

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In an album that goes to so many interesting and diverse places so well, a track like “The Hype” feels far too one-note, essentially just structured like an everyday pop song. The falsetto delivery almost reminds me of an older song from a band like Foster the People. As well, Joseph’s rapping has always sounded a little off to me, and while he’s certainly improved here there are a still a few moments where it sounds like it’s just not something he should be doing at the time. On tracks like “Pet Cheetah” and “Levitate” something about the places he emphasizes his syllables throws the rhythm off slightly. “Levitate”, especially, has a pretty great throwback hip-hop percussion groove with the off-kilter Twenty One Pilots edge, but Joseph’s higher-pitched delivery doesn’t fit right with the tone of the track. Follow-up track “Morph”, on the other hand, sees him settle in perfectly. Another exquisitely produced track, the emotion creeps into his delivery over the chilling synth-piano eerie carnival ride of an instrumental. I love how many different places the track goes without losing its essence – through the almost future bass swells, the falsetto pop chorus, the tropical house synths at the end … it’s boundless creativity at work.

Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun have essentially done the best possible thing they could do here after skyrocketing to fame, taking some of the greatest elements of what the general public were drawn to and combining it with some of the greatest elements of what made them unique in the first place. I’m sure their diehard fans are getting even more enjoyment out of the complicated lore behind the project as well. Another contender for the Most Improved Award.

Favourite Tracks: Morph, Neon Gravestones, Nico And The Niners, Pet Cheetah, My Blood

Least Favourite Track: The Hype

Score: 8/10

Logic – YSIV

Cover art for Young Sinatra IV, which features a photo of Logic mimicking the famous Frank Sinatra mugshot.Maryland rapper Logic offers the conclusion to his early Young Sinatra series of mixtapes as his fourth studio album, and the second project he’s dropped this year alone after Bobby Tarantino II. Undeniably skilled and possessing one of the most impressive flows in the game today, Logic’s explosion into the mainstream has also seen him step into an assumed role of changemaker and motivational speaker, not quite backing up the huge ideas he throws around with lyrical substance. On YSIV, he steps back from the preachy and heavy-handed subject material for a bit in his return to the boom-bap sound where he got his start, paying homage to rap history in more ways than one and legitimizing himself in the genre. Of course, many of the things that make Logic so frustrating at times still manifest themselves here, but this is his best work since The Incredible True Story.

Mostly produced by in-house producer and Logic’s close friend 6ix, these beats certainly hit hard in your headphones and it’s easy to see how much Logic truly loves the style – one of the most appealing things about him has always been how much he comes across as one of us, a rap fan who made it big. He’s the kind of guy to use one of J. Cole’s old ad-libs (on “The Glorious Five”) and immediately beam about the fact that he did it on the track. The genuine excitement and earnestness with which he does what he does is obvious from the start, and his legions of fans seem to have gravitated to him just because he’s a good guy – the back half of opener “Thank You” is full of 4 minutes of voicemails from fans from all over the world that confirm this, as they proclaim love for the man himself and how much he inspires them.

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At the same time as he gets caught up in this excitement though, he never really breaks out of emulation of others, or gets stuck on single topics. On almost every song here he throws in a line about boom-bap over mumble rap, using the same rhymes. The opening run from “Everybody Dies” to “The Glorious Five” is essentially 3 of the same song, with a standard heavy percussion boom-bap instrumental and Logic’s breakneck flows and punchline bars. Of course, these songs are still very enjoyable and an excellent showcase for Logic’s talents, it’s just that it feels like he can still give more. He certainly is finding a better way to deliver some of his more inspirational ideas, integrating it into the larger conversation of a song instead of repeatedly hitting us over the head with it – even the Ryan Tedder-featuring single “One Day”, the most Everybody-esque track here where Logic essentially implores his fans to follow their dreams, is pretty great. The bouncy piano instrumental and wide-eyed chorus fits better with Logic’s message.

The middle and back half of the album is where Logic really starts to do some more interesting things. He gets every living Wu Tang member to feature on the 8-minute long “Wu Tang Forever”, and for the most part everyone, including Logic, brings it – enough to keep me completely engaged for the entire duration. Logic might essentially be doing his best Ghostface impression, but he’s always worn his influences on his sleeve and he sounds great on a more menacing instrumental. Best verses? I’ll give it to Method Man and Raekwon. “100 Miles and Running” features one of Wale’s greatest verses in years, and Logic accelerating his flow to a ridiculous speed while bragging about how many syllables he can fit in a sentence. It’s as old-school a beat as you can get with a funk bassline, high-pitched guitar riff and falsetto chorus from John Lindahl, and this seems to be Logic’s element. The more impressive thing is it sounds like he’s just freestyling and having fun – it doesn’t matter if he’s not actually saying anything if he always sounds as in the moment and engaging as that delivery on those repeated ‘everybody ALIIIIVE’s.

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He shows off some of his most impressive lyricism in a while as well as the album comes to its conclusion: “Street Dreams II” is a vivid and engaging storytelling track as Logic runs through an action movie dream sequence, but the track “Legacy” is where we really get some insight on the perspective he has on his rap career. Logic envisions a future where he devotes so much time to music and cementing his place in rap history that he neglects his family: the fictional Logic states he’ll be remembered for generations, before someone reminds him he won’t even be remembered by his own son. We get some pretty striking verses as he depicts dying of cancer regretful, and some verses from the perspective of his wife and children before deciding as the track fades out “f**k a legacy, imma live my life”.

Logic pays tribute to the late Mac Miller on the track “YSIV”, which shares the same sample as the other Young Sinatra title tracks. A standard 6-minute Logic track of straight bars, at the end he echoes some of Miller’s early lines and reveals that he was one of his first inspirations to start rapping, using the same sample on a track from his 2010 mixtape on the first Young Sinatra.

The really impressive thing here is that this might be the first project where the only reference to Logic’s biracial status is a joke on “ICONIC” about how much he references it. Kidding, but there really is more variety on this project than usual, and it helps. As we close with an 11-minute half-spoken story of his come up titled, what else, “Last Call”, there’s almost nothing here that can’t be directly tied to one of Logic’s peers, but his fandom is part of what makes him so endearing – and with “syllability” like he has, sometimes you just have to sit back and be impressed by a technical showcase.

Favourite Tracks: 100 Miles and Running, Wu Tang Forever, ICONIC, Street Dreams II, Legacy

Least Favourite Track: The Adventures of Stoney Bob

Score: 7/10

Lil Wayne – Tha Carter V

Image result for tha carter v album coverSeven years after the previous installment in the series, after endless delays and contract disputes Tha Carter V is finally here. Its undeniable that Lil Wayne is one of the most influential rappers on the modern era of hip-hop, his specific cadence, punchlines and ventures into rock music seen in the wave of both Soundcloud rappers and mainstream superstars today. Although the project is overlong and doesn’t exactly come across as a cohesive album listening experience, some tracks clearly being from a few years ago, Lil Wayne comes through on this project with his best work in a very long time. While we all thought he was falling off, he was just saving his best for his genre-defining Carter series. Despite a few awkward moments, this is the version of Wayne we look back on with nostalgia.

After a spacey, emotional opening track that features one of Wayne’s most obvious offspring in the late XXXTENTACION, the project explodes immediately with the back to back tracks “Dedicate” and “Uproar”. These two tracks are some of the greatest indications that Wayne is the product of another time, having to adjust my 2018 ear for a second, but that isn’t a bad thing at all – it’s nice to hear where this all came from. “Uproar” sees him navigating deftly through one of those boisterous Swizz Beatz tracks that don’t exist anymore (complete with Swizz’ ad-libs!), but “Dedicate” is the most present and upbeat we’ve heard Wayne this decade, taking some old-school Memphis keys and the same kind of quirky, excitable flow that made Carter III classics so much fun. Samples from 2 Chainz and Barack Obama himself proclaim Wayne’s influence, and hearing him destroy an instrumental like this in the year 2018 really brought a smile to my face.

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Wayne’s wordplay is back in full force here, often taking a simple word or rhyme scheme and drawing every possible usage out of it to fill up half a verse – the ridiculous internal rhymes and use of “mind” and “line” on “Let It Fly” come to mind – or dropping some of those clever punchlines that it takes you a few listens to get. One of my favourites? “She said ‘I will’, like ill with an apostrophe”, from the excellent Ashanti-featuring early 2000s dancefloor throwback “Start This S**t Off Right”. There really are so many aspects of Wayne that were and still are so far ahead of his peers, and his collaboration with Kendrick Lamar here, “Mona Lisa”, shows that. A classic storytelling track, Wayne paints some strikingly vivid imagery in a dark narrative of a double-crossing girl working with Wayne to rob Kendrick, who storms in in-character with a spastic and distressed verse straight from his Butterfly era. The fact that this track, the antithesis of radio friendly, is projected to debut at #1 is a true mark of the thirst for Wayne’s specific skillset. “Used 2” is another great track where he gets aggressive, buried late in the tracklisting. He gets up to a full shout that had my eyes wide open in surprise as he issues threats to his enemies over a Metro Boomin beat.

Wayne’s penchant for melodies and fun, anthemic choruses was always a particularly underrated part of his work, even if he certainly doesn’t have the greatest singing voice to deliver them. Even as the album stretches past an hour in length, some of the later tracks here still managed to surprise with just how catchy they were. This album would have hits on hits in 2011. Tracks like “Took His Time” and “Demon” are perfect examples – the former is almost a combination of styles of the past and present with an upbeat trap-esque instrumental and a gleeful sung chorus from Wayne, but “Demon” is just his lovable weird side coming out in full force, singing “a de-mon with de-mands” in a variety of repeated, intoxicating cadences over a soul sample. You submit to Wayne’s rollercoaster ride as soon as he drops into the verse with a grinning “ooh kill em” on “Dope Ni**az”, another wonderfully dated track with Snoop Dogg. “Dark Side Of The Moon” is a slow jam R&B duet with Nicki Minaj, and not only does she sound incredible, but Wayne sounds legitimately soulful and emotional on his lower harmonies.

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We also get a lot of emotional insight to Wayne that we’d never heard before – on “Can’t Be Broken” he speaks out on his legacy, emphasizing all of the impact that he’s had that can’t be taken away by the amount of time he wasn’t allowed to release his best work, but closing track “Let It All Work Out” really delves deep into his story. He references suicidal thoughts and searching for a purpose on the extended 4-minute verse of “Open Letter” as well, but here he tells the story of the specifics of his suicide attempt at age 12, angry at his mother for doubting his rap career when he was approached by a label at a young age. A sample from Sampha sings the title in the background, and the album closes: “And it all worked out”, his mother saying “Love you, Dwayne”.

There’s so much great stuff here that I never thought I’d hear again from Wayne, so I don’t want to nitpick the filler tracks and misfires too much, but the middle sees him revert back to his worse tendencies of crooning and awkward beat selection a few times as well, on tracks like “What About Me” and “Problems” that could have easily been cut.

As another installment in Tha Carter series, this project isn’t anything like the cohesive, carefully thought out classics of the past. Taking Wayne’s situation into consideration though, this is just about the best thing we could have ever expected. It’s incredible that we get this much new great Wayne music in 2018. One of the biggest forefathers of modern rap has returned to reign supreme.

Favourite Tracks: Dedicate, Start This S**t Off Right, Used 2, Mona Lisa, Demon

Least Favourite Track: Problems

Score: 7/10

Machine Gun Kelly – BINGE

Image result for BINGE mgkSeemingly capitalizing off of the many new eyes on him in the wake of his feud with Eminem, Midwestern rapper Machine Gun Kelly drops a 9-track EP that includes the now-massive diss track “RAP DEVIL”. Once a prominent force in the indie rap scene, Kelly’s 2017 pop-rap collaboration with Camila Cabello, “Bad Things”, exposed him to a much wider audience. While he certainly skews more hip-hop heavy on this EP, it still pales in comparison to a lot of his early work, especially from a lyrical standpoint. Kelly has seemingly diluted himself into a much more marketable, palatable figure, and while there are still some brief moments here where we’re reminded of what he can do from a technical standpoint, it’s telling that “RAP DEVIL” is one of the best tracks here, and Kelly didn’t even win the battle.

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The project only runs 24 minutes in length, likely demonstrating just how quickly this thing was thrown together – a lot of these tracks end before really reaching anywhere concrete. After a pretty awful Auto-Tuned warble for a minute-long intro, the project properly starts with the track “LOCO”. The track immediately drops into a droning extended bass note and trap beat, Kelly’s higher-pitched, exuberant voice sounding out of place on the instrumental while he delivers some particularly blunt and cringeworthy punchlines. I honestly used to be a pretty big fan of Kelly’s 5 or so years ago, and to hear him resort to a modified Migos flow on the chorus and a couple repeated ‘yeah hoe’s is a significant fall from grace into lazy mediocrity. He gets a little sharper and more animated on the next track “GTS”, which features a pretty fun electronic woodwind noise on the instrumental and a blistering 2nd verse where Kelly gets angrier, but it’s counteracted by his delivery on the chorus and the strange background layering of a sung note during what would otherwise be one of the more impressive technical moments here.

There are so many tracks here that are almost there and some aspect of them just throws the whole thing into disorder, which I suppose is representative of a guy with some real talent who has lost his way on the way to superstardom. Short (under 2-minute!) track “NYLON” starts promisingly with a few quotable bars and Kelly finally switching up his flow to ride over a half-time, nicely minimal acoustic trap loop, but the awkward layering (which I take is meant to make him sound tough…?) comes back in and the track is cut off abruptly with some heavy Auto-Tune and a skrrrrt. “LATELY” and the 24hrs-featuring “SIGNS” are two more lifeless trap cuts that I suppose act as filler on an EP that doesn’t even hit the 30-minute mark.

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It’s not like Kelly isn’t capable though: the excellent Eminem track “Killshot” aside, I honestly think “RAP DEVIL” is a very solid diss track with some creative displays of wordplay and battle raps obviously inspired by the very target of the song. It’s significantly longer than anything here and for Kelly to keep up his spirited jabs for almost 5 minutes without much material to go off of is very impressive. Eminem said it himself, Kelly does intersperse a few compliments towards him here and its tough for him to hide just how much of his inspiration he does take from Mathers – this track is the most obvious example. “GET THE BROOM” is the really the only other enjoyable track here, featuring a fantastic dark electronic piano instrumental that’s the only one that truly fits Kelly’s attempts at malice here. He alternates from a calmer tone to a louder yell as the track goes on – it sounds like a more spastic Blocboy JB song.

This review is shorter than usual since there’s so little of substance to even write about here. The BINGE EP is so blatantly a quick cash grab for the rapper looking to extend his cultural relevance past a pop hit that most people associate with the feature. Maybe a removal from the public eye is what it’d take for him to stop chasing trends and return to the technical showcases and fire in his voice that he showcased in the past.

Favourite Tracks: GET THE BROOM, RAP DEVIL

Least Favourite Track: SIGNS

Score: 2/10

Brockhampton – iridescence

Brockhampton Iridescence.jpgHip-hop/R&B supergroup (or “boyband”, according to leader Kevin Abstract) Brockhampton, fresh off the success of their Saturation Trilogy last year, have had one of the most meteoric rises in popularity in recent memory. Formed through interactions on a Kanye West fan forum, the group certainly emulates his flair for the experimental, blending together abrasive, complex instrumentals, introspective and personal lyricism, and calmer singing performances. Their fourth (but debut major label) album, iridescence, kicks off yet another trilogy as their frantic release pace continues. While it’s easy to pick out the clear best and worst contributors in the 14-member group and there are a few experiments that don’t quite connect, the project throws a gauntlet of novel ideas and adventurous choices at the listener – and surprisingly, most of the chaos comes together to create a degree of cohesion I’d never expect. The group moves seamlessly past the departure of main mic presence Ameer Vann, removed from the group after sexual misconduct allegations. Brockhampton aren’t perfect, but in today’s musical landscape, they’re a very exciting and dynamic force.

The project opens with the blistering track “NEW ORLEANS”, featuring a relatively simple yet endlessly energetic repeated siren blare punctuated by the occasional tribal ad-lib and crunching percussive bass as four of the group’s best rappers each offer their own, uniquely competent verse. One of the greatest things about Brockhampton is just how different the strengths each of their members can bring to the table can be, working together regardless. Joba immediately stands out from the pack on the opener with his distinctly high-pitched tone and double-time flow before Merlyn Wood’s layered, more aggressive approach closes the track that drops us head-on into the sensory overload that is iridescence (Can we just talk about how much Merlyn demolishes the short interlude “WHERE THE CASH AT” as well?). The transition into the soulful piano and backing gospel choir of “THUG LIFE” is absolutely flawless, the two really sound like a single song. We’re frequently whiplashed back and forth between the calmer and more abrasive sections of the album, but the transitions are so well-executed that it just feels like the exhilarating rush of a single project with surprising twists and turns.

Image result for brockhampton 2018The group can be so hyperactive at times that you get caught off guard by the poignant and personal lyricism from a few of the members, especially with something like Kevin Abstract’s verse on “WEIGHT”, speaking openly about his struggles with accepting his sexuality as the track explodes from the orchestral opening into a drum-n-bass breakbeat as other members discuss other “weight” hanging on them since the fame, delving into topics like depression, substance abuse and artistic pressures. It’s a shifting, changing odyssey of a track, Joba’s chopped and frantic vocals sounding like the inner voice in his head as more of a boom-bap beat re-energizes the track as it rushes towards its conclusion.

The back half of the project is just as strong. “J’OUVERT” is a monster of a track, establishing an eerie ambience that’s perfect for both Matt Champion’s deep-voiced snarl and Joba’s erratic and panicked delivery as he builds up to a full-on horrorcore-esque scream on his verse. Inspired by a street festival in the Caribbean and producer Jabari’s Grenadan heritage, the brief motifs of celebratory percussion and horns, as well as a patois sample from Grenadan artist Lavaman, that fight through the industrial muck to be heard just enhance the madness even more. Kevin Abstract and quiet standout Dom McLennon take some of the more direct approaches on the project as they rhyme over a Beyonce sample on “HONEY”, displaying some impressive flows before the 2nd half picks up even more with a half-time hi-hat beat and beautifully layered vocals – it’s just a random moment of instrumental tacked onto the end of a song that might be the best musical moment on the album.

A few times, Brockhampton throws way too much at the wall and the track slowly starts to disintegrate and fall apart as it goes on. “BERLIN” begins as another great punishing, minimal experimental hip-hop track that almost reminds me of a Die Antwoord song with bearface’s falsetto rap chorus and grinding industrial bass before the track awkwardly shifts through a few calmer phases, closing out with what seems like an improvised synth solo as the huge percussion hits return. The group try to blend completely disparate sounds together, one lingering behind and fading out as a new one enters, and the handoffs aren’t always as perfect as the transitions between songs here. “DISTRICT” is another one that you can’t help but nod your head to with that glitchy, distorted synth line in the background, but the disparities between the various members begin to make themselves clear.

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It’s hard to know exactly what I want to be different on these tracks, since there are so many different elements at play here. At times, it feels like the disparate approaches of the members succeed to varying levels on one instrumental, and I want more changes to suit their individual styles, but the group can’t always figure out exactly how to maximize the potential of all of their members at the same time. The explosive tonal shift in the outro here is an example, being completely unexpected and awkward. At the same time, I can’t fault the group for experimentation – there aren’t many people who are trying out the kinds of crazy ideas here with this rate of success at making them work. I find myself impressed by the sheer audacity to try laying these ideas down even during the weaker parts of the project, enjoying them anyway. The final three tracks of the album slow things down, the softer sides of Brockhampton’s talents taking over, but the return of the London Community Gospel Choir at the close of “SAN MARCOS” over an introspective acoustic guitar loop is an emotional peak that not just everyone can reach.

A lot of people are very excited about Brockhampton for good reason – there’s almost nothing about them, from the construction of the group, to the topics they address, to the sonic adventures they take us on, that isn’t a complete breath of fresh air in hip-hop and music in general. With more focus, they have the potential to contribute to some all-time classics.

Favourite Tracks: SAN MARCOS, HONEY, NEW ORLEANS, J’OUVERT, WEIGHT

Least Favourite Track: TAPE

Score: 8/10

6lack – East Atlanta Love Letter

Lowkey alt-R&B crooner 6lack (yes, pronounced “black”) unleashes his sophomore project East Atlanta Love Letter after the success of his Grammy-nominated debut Free 6lack. Not changing up the formula that worked out for him in the past, 6lack still represents yet another of the scores of alt-R&B artists that rose to popularity in the wake of The Weeknd’s unlikely ascent to pop superstardom, many artists emulating the nihilistic lyrics, somber, moody instrumentals and intentionally emotionless and desensitized delivery of some heavier topics that he helped popularize in the early 2010s. While there isn’t much we haven’t already heard before on this project, the main thing that distinguishes 6lack from his contemporaries is the gravel in his voice and his very open approach to relationships in particular in his lyrics, especially after recently becoming a father. Still, most of this 14-track project fails to capture my attention, lingering in the hazy alt-R&B sludge.

The track “Unfair” opens the project, a shorter track in which 6lack emotes about two parties failing to see eye to eye on their desires in a relationship with some Auto-Tuned falsetto notes, the track opening with some frigid synths and watery piano notes before the telltale trap beat picks up in the second half – 6lack is back to the same tricks, and this track definitely establishes the atmosphere of the project. There are times here when his producers come through and craft an engaging instrumental around his unique voice and we get some pretty fun trap-flavoured material – the track “Loaded Gun” is another trap-piano cut from producer Bizness Boi where 6lack comes across like a more charismatic Bryson Tiller on the mic with a quicker, slightly melodic flow, the instrumental cutting out at the right times for his gravelly voice to shine through. He even demonstrates some pretty great harmonies on the track. The same producer returns on another upbeat track in “Let Her Go”, which is an equally catchy trap instrumental where 6lack’s hooks don’t really match up – the repeated note in the chorus doesn’t sit right with me for whatever reason, and neither do his lyrics where he is indecisive over whether he would regret leaving the mother of his new child for one of the “distractions” on tour.

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6lack’s singing voice is at its best on the track “Sorry”, and it shows that he really does have potential with the right kind of approach – the track is only slightly different instrumentally, but this time the piano is accompanied by more prominent orchestral swells, the percussion sounding like more traditional R&B which frames his vocals better. J. Cole’s appearance taking over the second half of “Pretty Little Fears” is another highlight of the album – Cole has really retuned in a huge way, and he elaborates on the world 6lack builds with a calmer verse proclaiming his love for his wife with some genuinely heartwarming lyrics, a nice break from 6lack’s outlook.

Most of the project is a chore to get through, however. I thought an appearance from Future on the longer title track would inject some energy into 6lack’s meandering vocalizations over sparse percussion that colours most of the tracks here, but Future actually adapts to 6lack’s style instead. The two trade lines, even repeating some of each other’s motifs and verses as they both attempt some complex vocal runs through their Auto-Tune machine that just ends up sounding like a mess … that thing can’t make just anything at all sound good! Too many of the tracks here end up sounding the same, the instrumentals mostly comprised of isolated trap hi-hats and orchestral-themed creeping and moody soundscapes. When 6lack brings more of his hip-hop side to the table, injecting some energy into an instrumental like that can be a lot of fun, but we mostly just get the over-indulgent and melodramatic singing material that he can’t pull off as well as most of his contemporaries.

The back half is essentially all filler, even featuring some issues with mixing and mastering that are too obvious to ignore – especially regarding Offset’s awkward feature verse bringing the Migos flow to an environment that doesn’t accommodate it in the slightest on the track “Balenciaga Challenge”. The choice of tracks “Switch” and “Nonchalant” as singles instead of anything in the first half is a truly strange decision. The presence of a Drake-esque knocking hi-hat beat (produced by one of my favourites in pop producer Joel Little) on the former is definitely a nice change of pace, but the melodies still come together awkwardly, like he’s just slightly off-key in a few places, and the effect placed on his vocals make it sound like he’s singing underwater – it’s a very rare miss for the New Zealand producer.

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“Disconnect” is another track that sounds like they were going for a hit with some of 6lack’s most melodic hooks on the project, but the tempo of the song is a complete snail’s pace and since 6lack has far from the greatest singing voice in the world, it’s hard to get through. The final four tracks are essentially the same alt-R&B slow ballad copy-pasted and it’s tough to find individual things to comment on. I did enjoy the concept of closing track “Stan”, flipping the narrative of the Eminem classic to speak on his own pursuit of a fan, while Khalid’s feature on the track “Seasons” is as underwhelming as most of his solo work.

East Atlanta Love Letter doesn’t have much going for it in the way of showing 6lack’s personality, artistry or originality, falling short of the successes of his debut project. It’s clear that this trend and this genre are here to stay for the foreseeable future – would it hurt anyone to switch it up in the slightest?

Favourite Tracks: Pretty Little Fears, Loaded Gun, Sorry

Least Favourite Track: Nonchalant

Score: 3/10

Tori Kelly – Hiding Place

Hiding Place Official Album Cover by Tori Kelly.jpegR&B singer/songwriter and one of the most impressive technical singers in the game Tori Kelly finally releases her second studio album after 2015’s Unbreakable Smile, teaming up with multiple Grammy-Award winning gospel artist Kirk Franklin to go in a heavily Christian-influenced direction. Franklin has recently contributed to albums by Kanye West and Chance the Rapper and is credited as a writer and producer on every track here, matching up his always enjoyable brand of jubilant soul to the vocal clinics that Kelly puts on here. While a few of the slower tracks here do extend a little long and verge into the territory of prioritizing the ideology behind the lyrics more than the enjoyability of the song itself, old-school gospel music is a great fit for Kelly’s ridiculous vocal runs, and she certainly shows off her skillset here.

The project kicks off with a bang on the track “Masterpiece”, which features Christian rapper Lecrae. A church organ slides into the enormous and uplifting chords coming from the backing gospel choir and horn section as Kelly breezes through some truly Aguileran vocal acrobatics before the breakbeat drops and the track turns into a pretty standard upbeat R&B track you’d find on one of her albums regardless. Tori Kelly’s voice would be instantly recognizable anywhere, usually staying in an impressively high belting range accompanied by the trademark emotional little breaks and squeaks that make her so distinctive as she ascends up and down the scales in seconds on almost every end to a musical phrase. The track really picks up near the end with more of a trap-influenced breakdown, the choir returning to shine over the more minimal, half-time instrumental before Lecrae drops in with an enjoyable verse.

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There really is something undeniable about the specific chords associated with gospel music, and Franklin is the best man to turn to in order to bring them out. The combination of old-school gospel sensibilities with the 90s R&B style Tori brings to the table with her vocal delivery makes for the kind of display of musicality that makes your face scrunch up and make some involuntary noises of excitement. Take me to CHURCH! The track “Help Us To Love” plays out like a late-90s slow jam, featuring soul singer Anthony Hamilton’s backing vocalists the Hamiltones sounding like Boyz II Men as they complement Kelly’s emotional pleas for a world full of more love. “Sunday” is another great track where Franklin adds some classic 90s hip-hop sounds to an acoustic funk guitar pattern and walking bassline. Tori comes through midway through the track with a beautiful harmonized scat solo and it really reminds you just how boundless her talent is – classically trained, she can tackle anything from pop to jazz to gospel effortlessly.

After the opening three songs, the lyrical content of the album gets more explicitly Christian as the songs become more traditional, taking away from my personal enjoyment and replay value of the album even as Kelly continues to display some seriously impressive vocals. Apparently, she will release another, more commercial album relatively soon, and I’ll be waiting impatiently for that one. “Just As Sure” is more of a pop/folk style song, Kelly dropping down to a lower range than usual in a duet with singer Jonathan McReynolds over a calmer acoustic guitar pattern. With McReynolds’ higher tenor voice, it’s interesting to hear Kelly’s capable vocals in support rather than taking the flashier role in a duet and the two really do sound great together – I can’t deny how beautiful their harmonies and the backing choir that appears at the track’s conclusion are, but there’s only so many ‘Jesus I love you’s I can take seriously.

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The track “Psalm 42” is based off of the words of an actual Biblical psalm and is the most low-key track here, extending to 5 and a half minutes as Kelly repeats most of the same phrases for the whole duration – turning these ancient words into a pop song makes for some awkward syllable emphasis as well, making the chorus easily the least memorable on the project. “Soul’s Anthem (It Is Well)” closes out the project with an extended, percussion-less display of Kelly pushing her voice to its limits in praise in a kind of freeform call-and-response with the choir that leaves me in awe of her talent but unlikely to return to the song due to it losing its sense of rhythmic structure that holds everything together. “Questions” is another slower track that features some awkwardly phrased and painfully blunt Christian doctrine referring to important world issues in its lyrics, but gave me the most visceral reaction of any here as Kelly layers her vocals to incredible, chills-inducing effect in the second verse.

As a huge fan of Kelly’s musical style without the faith she speaks of, it’s hard to know how to quantify or analyze the project due to its ability to resonate differently with different people. The combination of the massive talents of Kelly and Kirk Franklin do create some of the most incredible musical moments I’ve heard all year – but for me personally, its hard to get over some of the less contemporary aspects of the project.

Favourite Tracks: Masterpiece, Sunday, Help Us To Love

Least Favourite Track: Psalm 42

Score: 7/10

MAGIC! – Expectations

Image result for magic expectations coverNot much came out this week, so here’s something that’s a lot more popular in my home country of Canada: Pop/reggae band MAGIC!, fronted by prominent pop songwriter Nasri Atweh, drop their third studio album Expectations (didn’t we already have 2 other major albums with this title this year??). The group veers closer to pure pop music than ever before, offering a relatively safe and inoffensive album as their popularity in the rest of the world wanes coming down from 2013 #1 hit “Rude”. Atweh’s voice is still as impossibly smooth and enjoyable to listen to as ever, but Expectations loses a lot of its power through the songwriting and structure here.

The project opens with the title track, which immediately drops into the familiar “One Dance” watered-down dancehall groove and one of those choruses that consists of a drawn-out syncopated syllable: “Eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-expectations”. One of the things that drew people to MAGIC! at the height of their popularity was the fact that their reggae fusion sound was completely unique on pop radio, and to see them immediately revert to these tired trends at this point is disappointing to open the project. Their roots aren’t gone completely though, and the reggae style reappears on tracks like single “Kiss Me”, which has a definite feel of 80s pop – the staccato jumps of the underlying guitar groove almost remind me of Toto’s classic “Africa” and the track is just as maddeningly catchy. The ending of the track is MAGIC! getting its closest to recapturing something special, Atweh ad-libbing some runs over the repeated hook as the horn section roars in.

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Atweh’s voice is the strongest point on the album, and we get to hear it in a way we haven’t really before on the acoustic track “More Of You”, an angle the band hasn’t explored often. The strummed, minimal romantic ballad places his vocals at the forefront, and the track gets very emotional with the same kind of believable, honest delivery we’ve heard on the band’s more passionate singles and some beautiful harmonies – the piano finally comes in to sell the track as it reaches its conclusion. “Appreciate You” is another reggae-tinged track that closes out the stronger run at the beginning of the project, those classic rolling drum fills a staple of the genre but still so missed in the current landscape of music.

Atweh has been in the business a while as a successful songwriter, and he certainly has a strong sense of musicality and knows how to write a good pop song if he needs to. There are a few tracks here that do fit the bill, but fail to go the extra mile and excite, not measuring up to their previous similar works or breaking out of the mold of pleasant, safe pop songwriting or structure. “Core” is a track that drops into a fun electronic instrumental chorus after being built up by some full harmonies supporting Atweh’s lower, tender and emotional delivery that he is known for, but again it’s something that sounds like it would be more in place in the musical landscape of 3 years ago. The back half of the album is filled with more uninspired and unoriginal tracks, mostly full of awkward and cliched songwriting and strange sonic choices that signal some serious desperation and losing sight of what made the group interesting in the first place.

“Darts In The Dark” begins as a promising track with more of a rock/ska sound before dropping into an overproduced electronic chorus that completely clashes with the sound of the rest of the track and is startlingly loud in the mix. When the synth pattern continues over the drumbeat of the remainder of the song as the two elements combine in the end (in predictable pop music fashion), the two rhythms don’t come together at all and create a jumbled mess. Tracks like “Motions” and “How You Remember Me” are underwritten, repeating a single phrase for most of the chorus, while the sound of the tracks don’t do much to distinguish themselves from the stronger yet similar songs in the first half – the latter especially is another surprising misfire from someone as experienced as Atweh, the percussion dropping out for a louder, harmonized first chorus but deflating the building energy of the track in the process.

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The sole highlight of the back half is “When The Trust Is Gone”, another complete sonic deviation into more of an R&B territory but one that really works for the band, using their funk-infused reggae sensibilities for a bouncy old-school soul instrumental like the ones we heard on Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love, complete with an impressive guitar solo … and then the album closes with whatever that obnoxious pitched vocal on “A Little Bit Of Love” is.

MAGIC! was never the most innovative band, but they were a unique presence in pop music when they debuted 5 years ago. Atweh still carries a few of these tracks with his vocals, and some of that uniqueness does remain, but for the most part Expectations is far too safe to linger in my mind.

Favourite Tracks: When The Trust Is Gone, Kiss Me, Appreciate You

Least Favourite Track: Darts In The Dark

Score: 4/10

Joey Purp – QUARTERTHING

Image result for QUARTERTHINGChance the Rapper affiliate and SAVEMONEY Crew member Joey Purp finally delivers his debut studio album, 3 years after exploding onto the scene with his 2015 mixtape iiiDrops. The Chicago rap scene has been thriving in recent years, and Purp maintains his standing as one of the most creative artists from the city with this project, continuing to contrast his blunt and straightforward raps with some of the most innovative and quirky production we’ve heard on a rap album all year. Working with local jazz/funk collective The Social Experiment, the combined efforts make QUARTERTHING one of the best rap projects of the year.

Similar to his last project, QUARTERTHING opens with a grand and cinematic number in “24k Gold/Sanctified”, which features R&B vocalist Ravyn Lenae. The track cascades through sections of triumphant and explosive piano loops and live percussion, harmonized choral backing vocals and quieter sections as Purp draws out a half-sung “I’m still aliiiiiive!” Purp’s emotionally charged delivery frequently sees him perfectly balance a characteristically Chicago soulful timbre and pushing his vocals to the point of a borderline out-of-control shout. The tracklisting really dives into completely unique territory with a seriously impressive run beginning with its second track, “Godbody Pt. 2”, a continuation of a track from iiiDrops introduced by none other than the RZA. Purp’s flow dexterously navigates through chaotic rolling drum fills and a seriously funky descending synth-bassline in an absolute sensory overload of a track, Purp at what might be his most technically impressive on the album as the instrumental cuts out at the most opportunistically euphoric moments.

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One of the greatest things about QUARTERTHING, strangely, is some of the abrupt endings and shorter tracks here, and that is because of just how versatile Purp is. When under most circumstances this might be annoying, Purp cutting off some of these tracks midsentence with a second of static before catapulting listeners into a completely different sound is absolutely exhilarating and just makes his talent all the more impressive, and makes me want to play the full album instead of individual tracks. “Hallelujah” is a shorter, celebratory track featuring some blaring horns from Nico Segal (formerly Donnie Trumpet) that tumbles into the back-to-back party tracks built for the Chicago juking dance style in “Elastic” and “Aw Sh*t!”. I’ve always loved Purp the most in this style, introduced to me with 2015 standout “Girls @”, the more minimal instrumental and Purp’s deeper vocals delivered with a fun-loving wink making a completely unique-sounding track – nobody else is rapping over instrumentals quite like these. The latter especially is a blast, Purp delivering some quotables over a skittering breakbeat and handclaps as his vocals are chopped up in the background – the track ends with what sounds like the trap version of an ice-cream truck, because why not. It’s all Purp’s off-the-wall aesthetic.

Talking about this project in chronological order is a lot of fun, writing as I listen through, because every twist and turn the tracklisting takes is surprising. The title track “QUARTERTHING” shows yet another dimension for him, Purp at what might be his most aggressive delivery yet as he distorts his vocals and lowers to a menacing drawl over some eerie sliding synths, a droning bassline and off-kilter Pharrell-esque percussion. The ridiculously strong first half of the album closes with “Paint Thinner”, the only track here that’s unabashedly trap music, but Purp makes it work for him by applying a speedy yet much more straightforward flow than usual and somehow making it sound great anyway – he drops into the Migos flow for a few bars at the start of the second verse just to show how different what he’s doing really is.

The second half definitely lags behind, but it was a pretty difficult act to follow. The song “2012” features a much calmer instrumental of higher-pitched synths that doesn’t really fit with Purp’s energetic yelps in the forefront – the man thrives in the chaos. The lack of distracting bells and whistles exposes Purp’s weaknesses as a lyricist for a second, his delivery sounding strangely one-note. “Fessional/Diamonds Dancing” sounds more like Purp trying to fit in with modern rap trends than anything else here, adopting a bit of a Blocboy JB slurred cadence here that feels more inauthentic than his genuine joy just to be here on every other track, while “Karl Malone” is essentially a combination of the previous two criticisms – he layers his voice in Auto-Tune and raps over a menacing sparse piano beat … OG Maco he is not, and the track drones on and falls apart.

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Still, the fuzzy synth-bass and quirky bleeps and bloops of braggadocio-laden track “Look At My Wrist” is no less of a complete shot of adrenaline despite the underwritten hook – I love how every aspect of the track just starts gradually speeding up at the end, like Purp is unable to be contained. “Bag Talk” and “Lebron James” are more of Purp elevating unique instrumentals with his Energizer Bunny self as well.

Purp, for the most part, has done something pretty incredible in creating an album that flows together perfectly in certain areas, each track impressive and engaging for a completely different reason. Even with the inconsistencies, you can listen to the whole thing and not realize that 40 minutes have gone by due to how much of a mic presence Purp possesses. I’ve been waiting 3 years to see what he could deliver on a full-length studio album and like usual, he impressed.

Favourite Tracks: Godbody – Pt. 2, Aw Sh*t!, Hallelujah, Paint Thinner, 24k Gold/Sanctified

Least Favourite Track: Karl Malone

Score: 8/10