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