Still only 20 and racking up a variety of questionable moments and online posts, Tennessee rapper NLE Choppa has already made a bit of a musical journey since breaking out into the mainstream as a teenager with a chaotic and aggressive twist on his local trap music scene. Returning with Cottonwood 2, which is only the 2nd official studio album after that initial debut, Top Shotta, releasedas a 17-year-old, Choppa has since scored the biggest hit of his career after an X-rated anthem exploded on TikTok and brought him into Spotify’s top 10 and started to diversify his sound – on his latest, he flirts extensively with New Jersey club, drill and some more melodic pursuits as well. Of course, the album gives him a lot of space to do it, running well over an hour in length. And while it’s admirable to see someone who many likely believed would be one-dimensional branching out, it actually feels like Choppa is actually spreading himself too thin here. Moving away from his strengths and giving listeners watered-down versions of a variety of styles, like Choppa admits on the album’s final track, it’s “a lot to digest.”
The opener “TALK DIFFERENT” kicks off how you might expect an NLE Choppa album to, with a bass-heavy trap beat, but then Choppa starts leaving moments of silence between his lines and leads into the chorus with a strained, pitchy sung hook. The mantra-style repetitive chorus does hit hard and honestly just shows that some artists’ strengths lie more in, well, the less artistic side of things. Choppa is at his finest when he’s at his most chaotic, personifying your intrusive thoughts. “BEFORE I” was supposed to be the typical hard-hitting Choppa tune, as he attacks the beat with some frenzied flows, but most of the track is also accompanied by a legitimately headache-inducing cicada buzz that sounds like a trap hi-hat roll pitched way up. When you think it’s gone, it just returns at an even higher pitch. Less unlistenable are the tracks “DROP TOP” and “AIN’T GONNA ANSWER,” some of the more successful bangers on the project. The dramatic trap-piano beat of “DROP TOP” might be the finest instrumental here – especially when it’s flipped and chopped up to accommodate NLE’s flows – while the central “mm-hmm” hook is definitely memorable and catchy. And despite the fact that Choppa basically used the same beat already on an earlier album, the old-school energy of “AIN’T GONNA ANSWER” complete with DJ scratches, his relentless flows, and a guest spot from the always-on Lil Wayne make it a clear standout. Also near the beginning is “DO IT AGAIN,” the first taste of his forays into Jersey club music – though his nasal, uptempo approach doesn’t initially seem to gel with the more percussion-free, bass-heavy world.
Before he goes full drill later on, the track “MO UP FRONT” works out quite well because it blends Choppa’s typical wheelhouse with elements of drill mixed in. The syncopated rumbling bass in the back and Choppa introducing the track with four of his signature “ayy” ad-libs shows you that it’s going to be another fun one as he jubilantly celebrates all of the ways that the money is coming in. Unfortunately, however, it’s the last one before things start getting a little rocky. The second line of “AUTOMOBOOTY” finds Choppa talking about how he doesn’t care if his girls shower and proceeds to some lyrics that are so overtly sexual that they overshoot serving their purpose and come back around to awkward territory. The chorus from Modesty genuinely sounds like she’s trying to keep herself from laughing after being handed a truly ridiculous hook. “CHAMPIONS” needed the flow from “DO IT AGAIN” that didn’t fit the more chilled-out instrumental, because this one has the opposite problem. After a speech about how it’s anyone who has their back against the wall’s anthem and a horn section beat, Choppa sounds like he’s falling asleep on the track with some dead-eyed triplet flows and an accidental Macklemore interpolation. “ALL I KNOW” is a brief track without much of note past a tired beat switch, while “IN THE UK” finds Choppa tackling the most generic drill song of all time, complete with middle eastern samples and sword noises. The sound is still refreshing and fun enough that it’s cool to hear his take on it, but he didn’t have to say “bruv” or call Boris Johnson a nonce. “DOPE” fares a lot better, as Choppa actually outraps Fivio Foreign in his own territory with one of his most unique flows on the project.
Out of all of the melodic attempts on the album, the track “PRETTY BROWN” might be the only one that’s so bad it’s good. It’s definitely the one that got stuck in my head the most, but outside of the catchy hook the rest of the track is just a mess. Choppa doing melodic verses finds him rhythmically lost, while his romantic come-ons make him sound like one of those overzealous Tinder flirters posted online to be made an example of. “HABITS” keeps the X-rated attitude up, as Choppa’s awkward lyricism squanders a cool beat with some ghostly filtered vocal samples. “HOME” and “ROUND & ROUND” see him return to the Jersey club scene, the former bordering on hyperpop with its sample chops and clashing with Choppa’s sadboi crooning in front and the latter finally succeeding at fitting the club energy with vapid lyrics and a catch melody abound bouncing around – but that being said, it’s still far from where his strengths lie. “STOMP EM OUT” brings things bam on track with a repetitive and bloodthirsty trap anthem, but the album is truly getting exhausting by this point.
The project’s final series of tracks does pick things up in a couple areas – but none of them are due to Choppa himself. “THUG IT OUT” has an Honestly, Nevermind style house beat and Choppa has absolutely no idea what to do with it, making it the most rhythmically devoid track here. “GLIDE WITH ME” finds him referencing “real eyes realize real lies” unironically and barely improves on the rhythmic front despite a more ear-grabbing violin-backed beat from d.a. got that dope, while “SLUT ME OUT,” of course, only seems to be blowing up because people are ridiculing it. A couple features near the end, however, make the most of the basic frameworks they’re placed in. G Herbo brings the grit and fire that’s missing from most of the album to “DISABILITY CHECKS,” while Queen Naija sounds stellar singing on “ON GOD.” Closing track “COLD GAME” actually does see Choppa keeping up with Rick Ross despite the track feeling tailor-made for the big boss, finally making a more laid-back sound work for him.
Ever since breaking onto the scene with a promising debut, NLE Choppa’s career has mostly just seen diminishing returns – which might not be too surprising, given just how much he proves he’s not the most stable person around. All I ask is that the next project be under an hour.
Favourite Tracks: DROP TOP, AIN’T GONNA ANSWER, MO UP FRONT
Least Favourite Track: THUG IT OUT