Rae Sremmurd – SR3MM/Swaecation/Jxmtro
Brotherly hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd embrace their inner OutKast on the third in their Sremmlife album series, branching out and turning into a sprawling triple disc edition that allows a full album for each member to shine individually. Rae Sremmurd’s youthful, jubilant cloud-rap sound is often a joy to listen to, with great beat selection and the two rappers balancing each other out – but individually I begin to miss some of that interplay that makes them so unique. The lesser known of the two, Slim Jxmmi, definitely gains the upper hand with his grittier Jxmtro, but for most of the project I just want the heights that they reach together on SR3MM.
The main appeal of Rae Sremmurd is contrast of the boyish, carefree yelp of Swae Lee brought down to earth with a more technical verse delivered in Jxmmi’s growl, and they demonstrate this over some pretty impressive production handled mostly by proven hitmaker and frequent collaborator Mike Will Made It here. He delivers his trademark high-tempo and erratic material that fits perfectly with someone as eccentric as Lee. Single “Powerglide” is one of the best tracks across the whole project – it’s 5 and a half minutes of absolute madness, a speedy violin instrumental, Swae Lee’s melodic rap delivery giving way to Slim Jxmmi’s goofy, old-school flow. It’s a constant rush of energy. The Weeknd lays down a great, melodic feature over the clicks and clacks of the contemplative 90s piano instrumental of “Bedtime Stories”, but for the most part SR3MM works so well because you can hear how much fun the duo are having bouncing ideas off of each other, and the instrumentals are creative enough, yet still maintaining the basic tenets of modern hip-hop, to just be an engaging and fun time.
Some of the worst times on this initial section are segments where the energy is lost through an extended Swae Lee singing section, and that’s basically what we receive for a full project on Swaecation. Lee definitely has a good grasp of what makes a good melody, delivering some pretty catchy choruses on tracks like “Touchscreen Navigation”, but most of these songs are one-note and go on for too long, needing an appearance from Jxmmi to return the track’s sense of direction and forward momentum. After the constant knocking hi-hats of SR3MM, Lee’s meandering, indulgent falsetto singing tracks feel a lot more boring. Not even Young Thug, a master of this element, can save “Offshore”, a track that goes on forever returning to a melody that ends abruptly before it gets good. Lee’s flow is too sparse to keep the spacey cloud-rap style interesting most of the time, repeating the same melody line with too much empty space on tracks like “Heartbreak in Encino Hills”. I do like those panflutes on “Heat of the Moment” though.
Jxmtro, by contrast, is a more straightforward album where Jxmmi draws on the more aggressive side of his flow to deliver some hard-hitting, short tracks. Often utilized less than Lee in their collaborative work, it’s great to hear Jxmmi hold his own by himself. “Brxnks Truck” and “Players Club” are an insane one-two punch to open up the album, Jxmmi delivering a rapid-fire triplet flow over a beat that keeps on cutting out at just the right moments on the former while the menacing piano instrumental of “Players Club” makes it sound like OG Maco’s “U Guessed It” if it were actually … a real song. Even this starts to lose steam as we get into the later segments though. It almost sounds like he’s trying to emulate Lee’s style on some of the later tracks, especially “Growed Up”, and while he’s great on these short tracks he’s ultimately not charismatic enough to carry a full album.
Swae Lee’s appearance on Jmxtro, on the ecstatic “Chanel” that also features a show-stealing verse from Pharrell Williams, proves that even when the two brothers are in the midst of discovering what works for them on their own, they work best together. SR3MM is overall an interesting experiment, an inconsistent mixed bag with some incredible highs.
Favourite tracks: Buckets, Powerglide, Brxnks Truck, Chanel, Bedtime Stories
Least Favourite Track: Offshore
SR3MM: 8/10 – Swaecation 3/10 – Jxmtro 7/10
Charlie Puth – Voicenotes
Nostalgic pop singer Charlie Puth makes one of the most incredible improvements I’ve ever seen on his sophomore album Voicenotes, losing the Motown-emulating cheesiness of his obnoxious debut project and venturing into a soundscape of 90s R&B and pop which is much more comfortable for him. It’s clear that he drew heavily from Boyz II Men, who actually appear on the project on the song “If You Leave Me Now”. Overall, Voicenotes is full of the same kind of retro-pop bliss that artists like Bruno Mars and Carly Rae Jepsen have perfected, and it makes for an enjoyable journey through those classic 90s chord progressions.
Opening track “The Way I Am” introduces listeners to the kind of syncopated hooks and dramatic synth swells we can expect over the course of the album, one of the most unapologetically 90s songs here that could easily fit on an album like Justin Timberlake’s Justified. Puth’s speedy delivery mirroring the main guitar riff that ultimately creeps back in underneath the explosive chorus is a great use of layering. I knew we might be getting something enjoyable when I heard the surprising singles “Attention” and “How Long”, carried by a fun bassline groove and some jazzier chords than I expected from Puth. It’s all the more impressive that Puth produced the album nearly singlehandedly – coordinating all the vocal layering and interlocking musical elements here takes some serious skill and musicianship that I had no idea he possessed. Apparently a classically trained musician with perfect pitch, Puth knows how to structure chords to their greatest potential. Puth dives directly into the world of 90s R&B balladry with tracks like “Patient”, an earnest, somber track pleading for foregiveness directly from the Boyz II Men bag of tricks. This stuff was so popular back then because it really works – we don’t hear much of those classic pinging percussive noises or harmonies quite like this anymore.
He keeps it up through most of the back half, breaking out the vocoder for “Slow It Down” and closing with the beautiful piano ballad “Through It All”, reaching down into his lower register over a jazzy backing choir comprised of himself. The crown jewel might be penultimate track “Empty Cups”, a bouncy ode to house parties that’s endlessly replayable. The way the music cuts out before Puth drops into the chorus with that trademark wispy falsetto is perfect. Puth stated that he tried to write his chorus like a verse here, and the quicker delivery works well over the sparse bursts of inviting synth-bass chords.
This is still the guy who put out a single like “Marvin Gaye” we’re talking about, and he definitely doesn’t lose all the cheese, he just learns how to deliver it in a way that’s less annoying. Still, tracks like “Change”, featuring the legendary James Taylor, and “BOY” come across as awkward in their lyrical content – the first a fake-woke anthem as Puth attempts to capitalize on the troubled political climate without actually saying anything of consequence and the second dealing with rejection by an older woman and containing some pretty ridiculous lines: “You won’t wake up beside me cuz I was born in the 90s”.
This is guilty pleasure material through and through, and Puth’s defiance of pop trends to explore a dearly departed area of music to this particular reviewer is much appreciated. His capable vocals and musicality make Voicenotes a surprisingly great listen.
Favourite Tracks: Empty Cups, Slow It Down, The Way I Am, Attention, Patient
Least Favourite Track: Change
Playboi Carti – Die Lit
Well, here we are. I didn’t want to do it. I knew I probably wouldn’t like it. Then the rave reviews started coming in so I started wondering if I’d missed something about Playboi Carti, the trap rapper who is essentially nothing but one giant ad-lib, distilling the most obnoxious trends about trap music into one pointless exercise in minimalism. I was right the first time. Die Lit is the first major label studio album for Carti, teaming up with enigmatic trap savant Pi’erre Bourne across an hour of repetitive phrases, uninspired delivery and Carti making a bunch of really, really strange noises.
Die Lit is a long 19 tracks, most of which consist of repeating the same couple lines for the entire duration. While others claim that Carti’s unorthodox approach “recalibrates the brain’s pleasure centers”, as Pitchfork claimed, Carti isn’t present or likable enough on these tracks for me to submit to his jubilant disregard for song structure. His vocals often feel muffled behind the production, a strained, nasal bark that’s frequently buried behind the 5 adlibs he sticks onto the end of every line. His guests often make things a small bit better, but even someone who is pretty much the antithesis to Carti in Skepta – an aggressive, technically skilled grime rapper – gets lost in the watered-down sludge of “Lean 4 Real”. Nicki Minaj’s feature on single “Poke It Out” is the most enjoyable moment on the whole album, and it’s a pretty average verse by her standards – it’s pretty fun to hear her try to emulate Carti’s style for a bit though.
The whole thing is just exhausting to listen to in a world where trap is the most popular style, since Carti is just a reflection of these trends without anything that makes him unique, like trap that was created in a lab by robots without any semblance of anything human infused into the music. It’d be great if Carti could ever string a phrase or a complete idea together – there are so many other artists who are uniquely funny, more skilled, vary their flows, and still have fun with the trap format that gets them attention. It’s a testament to just how much Carti can bring down a track with his lack of musicality when all of these beats are hitmaker Bourne’s – there are genuinely some decent instrumentals on here that just have the energy completely sucked out of them by Carti’s disinterested drawl – “Shoota” is quickly becoming a hit with its shimmering, orchestral synth lines.
Die Lit is certainly unlike anything we’ve heard before, but at the same time, it’s only this way because I previously thought it impossible to replicate trends to such a degree that the artist loses a distinct sense of self. I criticize people for using the Migos flow or riding dancehall or tropical waves, but at least you can still usually identify something unique and worthwhile that each person brought to the table. Carti is trap minimalism for the sake of minimalism, and simply ad-libs and mumbled triplets do not a decent trap song make.
Favourite Tracks: Poke It Out, R.I.P. Fredo
Least Favourite Track: Home (KOD)