Gucci Mane – Evil Genius

Image result for gucci mane evil geniusAtlanta rapper Gucci Mane’s output since being relased from jail in 2016 has been so prolific that the timespan of just under a full year since his last project is an unusually long gap for him. It’s certainly given him some of his best sales in a while. He’s stated that he was trying to link up with the best personnel he could and make one of his “best projects ever”, but I’m not sure he accomplished that despite the time off. Evil Genius is one of the safest and by-the-numbers rap albums I’ve heard all year, Gucci toning down the more comical and cartoonish sides of his lyrics and delivery to fit into more of a generic trap mold. Across 17 tracks, it’s pretty difficult to tell most of them apart. One of the things that is most appealing to me about Gucci, especially on his features, is his effortless charisma and mic presence – most of that is lost here.

One of the reasons Gucci works so well as a feature is how different from most rappers his delivery actually is, adding to the variation in approaches on any given track – across this project, as usual he’s more laid back and yet possesses this kind of 21 Savage-esque coldness. One of my favourite Gucci tracks is actually his “Finesse The Plug Interlude”, where he delivers threats with a kind of cheerful shrug and high intonation. But carrying a full project by himself, his somewhat sleepy tone gets a little boring – especially when there’s no interesting instrumentals to keep him afloat.

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The two opening tracks “Off The Boat” and “By Myself” are pretty good examples of what’s wrong with this project – both of them have pretty every-day, bass-heavy and relatively empty trap instrumentals that you could hear anywhere else, and their lack of variation and relatively low energy make Gucci’s quieter flows blend in to the background and his sudden bursts of energy feel out of place. The latter ends with some comically over-enunciated words and a shouted playground chant of a flow over an incredibly minimal beat. My favourite track on here is actually “Father’s Day”, an interlude-length track with a spastic and upbeat instrumental from Metro Boomin where Gucci reaches his energetic peak on the chorus as he emphatically proclaims his status as the one who started a wave – just as I was getting into it on my first listen, it ended.

As expected, some of the features here add spice to what Gucci brings to the table and contribute to some of the better tracks. “BiPolar” is enlivened by some quicker hi-hats than usual from OG Parker, but especially Quavo’s melodic interjections on the chorus to enhance Gucci’s more static flow and keep the rhythm afloat. Kevin Gates’ in-your-face presence and quicker flow on the track “I’m Not Goin’” is a welcome addition, especially in comparison to Gucci’s awful singing voice on the chorus, and Youngboy NBA fulfills a similar role on the track “Cold Shoulder”, where Gucci actually gives a pretty great performance to match – the addition of a quick triplet at the end of a couple lines in the chorus is something that I could only expect from someone like him. This is one of the best beats on the project as well, some creeping low synth tones raising the stakes. Single “Wake Up In The Sky” with Bruno Mars and Kodak Black is Gucci’s peak aesthetic, and a fun enough track even if I wanted Mars to show off a little more. An effortlessly cool, laid-back track, all three artists dial their voice back to a too-cool-to-care, relaxed cadence and completely sell it.

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Most of these tracks feel like filler when they’re so short, Gucci rattling off one or two repetitive choruses with some low-effort verses in between before we immediately move on to another half-baked idea. The run from “On God” to “Lost Y’all Mind” gives me whiplash from how quickly these ideas are created and abandoned before anything is developed properly. Most of these tracks honestly aren’t too bad – “Lost Y’all Mind” might be my favourite track in the middle with that glitchy, melodic beat – but the fact that they sound so similar and end quickly like a couple focus groups went through a checklist and each presented their own version of a Gucci song makes me wish there was a little more variety and innovation across the board here. By the time we get to the end of the tracklisting I’m seriously tired of the excessive number of tracks with the same skillset being presented – tracks like “This the Night”, “Mad Russian”, and “Lord” are seriously uninspired and could easily have been cut.

There’s been a few average rap albums as the year comes to a close and it looks like there’s still going to be a few more – the genre’s seriously taken the year over, with high-profile releases coming almost every week. Evil Genius doesn’t do enough to make the personality of one of the most personality-driven rappers stand out from the rest, and it’s pretty disappointing as a result.

Favourite Tracks: Father’s Day, Lost Y’all Mind, Wake Up In The Sky

Least Favourite Track: By Myself

Score: 3/10

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Wiz Khalifa – Rolling Papers 2

RollingPapers2Cover.pngNot to be outdone by Drake’s smash hit Scorpion, Wiz Khalifa’s sixth studio album Rolling Papers 2 has arrived in the similar form of a 25-track album by a rapper who sounds like he’d rather be anywhere else most of the time, save for some infrequent bursts of the charm we’ve come to love from them in the past. Khalifa’s latest certainly falls victim to loading an album with filler to benefit in the streaming game, especially when Khalifa’s subject matter or delivery has never been the most varied, slowing most of these tracks down with his sluggish flow. Still, there are a surprising amount of hits here all the same – Khalifa stands out when he’s audibly having fun, bringing to mind the joys of his older material.

“Hot Now” and “Ocean” are two pretty weak opening tracks that preview most of the material here – Khalifa was never meant to be an autotuned trap-rapper, but everyone seemingly adapts to this mold nowadays regardless. The sung hooks here sound so much less exuberant than the more natural, fun ones on a classic track like “Roll Up”. His flow on these tracks and many others here leaves a lot to be desired as well, leaving a lot of empty space without the technical skill to elevate the moodier trap instrumentals that are in fashion at the moment. Khalifa’s detached and slightly off-kilter flow doesn’t line up on most occasions here, but when the tracks get more energetic he does demonstrate abilities that can exceed even his guest features here – he delivers easily the best verse on “Blue Hunnids”, speeding up his flow and injecting his delivery with more emotion, I’m just left wondering why he doesn’t come as hard on most of these songs.Image result for wiz khalifa

The same goes for his lyrics – on tracks like “Rolling Papers 2” and “B Ok”, we get some of the most personal and compelling lyrics we’ve ever heard from Wiz, speaking about his strategies to avoid getting caught up in the extravagance of fame and even opening up about the heavy emotional toll of his relationship with Amber Rose and the death of his transgender sister on the latter. However, on the vast majority of songs here we get repetitive and redundant hooks and the same old punchlines and subject material regarding Khalifa’s drug of choice – he’s got the potential to be so much more than an average party rapper. I definitely understand why Khalifa does go in this direction, I just wish there was more balance, especially on an album so long. “Late Night Messages” might be the most egregious example of all these negative aspects colliding, as Khalifa attempts to layer his Auto-Tuned vocals on the hook, the result being pretty unlistenable since there isn’t an actual harmony there. Khalifa is at his best at his most authentic – we’ve always been able to get a pretty good idea of who he is, for better or for worse, but seeing him chase trends so hard is disappointing since he’s not exactly one of the more talented or innovative rappers out there, losing the one aspect that makes him interesting.

Of course, on 25 tracks, some things have to connect and we do get moments of all of Khalifa’s best aspects, and sometimes the best parts of the track do come from the many features. Relatively unknown identical twin duo THEMXXNLIGHT deliver a great hook on “Mr. Williams/Where Is the Love” that also has a technically skilled verse from Curren$y that makes Khalifa’s slurred vocals sound laughably out of place. This transitions into the best track here, “Penthouse”, where Khalifa and Snoop Dogg reignite their undeniable chemistry over a looped, minor-key piano instrumental and fun trap instrumental that accommodates Khalifa’s hook and an absolutely hilarious verse from Snoop well. The two are intentionally goofy on the track. Snoop says “wheeee!” in a high-pitched voice as an ad-lib. Hearing the two have fun is what sells it.

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“Hopeless Romantic” is essentially just a Swae Lee song, but his catchy, childlike melodies over the Young Chop beat and a better-than-average verse from Khalifa where he shows off his triplet flows make the track a standout. Khalifa’s always sounded like he belongs more to an older era of rap music, and his old-school sing-song flow on a song like “Karate/Never Hesitate” and G-Funk homage on the excellent “Gin and Drugs” stand out amongst the endlessly repetitive trap instrumentals here. “King” is one of the best solo tracks here for similar reasons I mentioned earlier – Khalifa delivers a fun and quotable hook and turns up the technical skill for the 2nd verse.

Rolling Papers 2 might have been a legitimately good album if it was cut down significantly by a Khalifa who had a better understanding of where his greatest strengths lie. In it’s current format, it’s quite the chore to get through at times despite the moments where he does what he does best and gives us these endearingly goofy and fun rap tracks, but Khalifa’s adherence to trends that don’t fit him here bring the project way down.

Favourite Tracks: Penthouse, Gin and Drugs, Hopeless Romantic

Least Favourite Track: Late Night Messages

Score: 4/10

 

Fifth Harmony – Fifth Harmony

Image result for fifth harmony self titledFifth Harmony’s third studio album and first as a quartet comes only 15 months after last year’s 7/27. Self-titling their album in an attempt to reclaim identity as a group after the departure of Camila Cabello, Fifth Harmony offers more of the same on this project. Similarly to all of their past projects, the album contains both hits and misses due to the insistence on splitting the album between purely pop tracks and songs which add more of a 90s R&B/hip-hop flair.

The latter has always been their strong suit, and there are quite a few very strong tracks here despite the album’s brief runtime. While overall the project feels rushed and is a slight step down from 7/27, Cabello’s departure allows for some much-earned time in the spotlight for the remaining vocalists – and all four are still at the top of their game.

There are so many writers on this project I don’t even want to begin making sense of the list but they link up with some tried and true producers here. They recruit “Work From Home” producer Ammo for a few more pop tracks, as well as R&B veterans like Tommy Brown and Harmony Samuels. Skrillex appears out of nowhere to throw a trap beat and some woozy synths on “Angel”.

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The biggest revelation here is that Fifth Harmony seems to be living up to the second part of their name more than usual. The chorus to “Sauced Up” is especially delicious, but overall they throw some harmonies on just about every chorus here which was surprisingly absent from a lot of their past work.

I appreciate how some of the lesser-used members get to own their own verses now, all of them are pretty spectacular vocally and now it is easier to distinguish between them. Normani especially surprises me here. Her softer-toned alto contrasts well and stands out from the pack. As soon as she dropped into that 2nd verse on “Down” I felt like a new Fifth Harmony was blossoming – where’s that voice been before?

“Deliver” and “Lonely Night” see the group hitting their stride in the middle of the album – these are two of their greatest tracks yet. The girls have always had some percussive vocals that pair up best with some harder-hitting beats, and “Deliver” is certainly accommodating to this. Calling on The Stereotypes, they deliver a piano instrumental that provides a great bassline and R&B piano chords. The pre-chorus is one of the greatest musical moments on the album, as the chords start to ascend into the chorus and Dinah Jane sings some bouncy syncopated rhythms. This could be a classic Destiny’s Child track.

“Lonely Night” reverses that energy into a takedown of a man’s behaviour punctuated by some sassy “bye bye”s. “You look everywhere but my eyes? Bye bye, bye bye” is a great line. This is the kind of song that throws an offhand shot at Cabello.

We get what is perhaps the best musicality on this album as the delivery becomes more rhythmic and adds some great harmonies on the chorus as the stripped-back guitar instrumental allows room for them to shine. Dinah Jane once again attacks at full force on the song’s bridge. She lets some of her island flavour creep into her vocals, starts spelling out “LONELY” and angrily declares “this your woman, so get it right”.

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Outside of the big catchy radio single – which is still unbelievably infectious but doesn’t really measure up to “Work From Home” – a lot of the poppier tracks here falter. The lyrics are often pretty weak which is hilarious because there may be more writers on this album than I’ve ever seen. Basing an entire hook around your “pumps and a bump” on “He Like That” isn’t gonna work with me.

It’s been a joke on the internet since the release of “Down” that a typical Fifth Harmony chorus basically just repeats the song’s title ad nauseam. While it isn’t quite that bad, almost all of these songs are underwritten. Luckily, the associated hooks are sometimes catchy enough to carry them. But without the 90s piano to provide more substance behind their huge vocals or the speedier hip-hop delivery that comes so naturally to them, about half of a Fifth Harmony album always feels way too generic and these lyrics don’t help in that regard.

You would think that the dance break with the annoyingly squeaky instruments cliché would be getting played out – both on their last album and pop radio in general – but once again it appears on “Messy” and “Make You Mad”. Fifth Harmony as a group is so much more energetic and charismatic to be singing campfire songs about love and friendship on a sleepy pop track like “Bridges” – even if I appreciate them taking an all-too-obvious shot at Donald Trump’s wall. Still, Fifth Harmony is a group who harnesses the energy of a sassy dismissal like on “Lonely Night” much easier.

Fifth Harmony is more of what I have come to expect, as they prove they are still very effective without Cabello. Despite the more commercial tracks, they still give me enough glimpses of their electrifying energy.

Favourite Tracks: Lonely Night, Deliver, Sauced Up, Down

Least Favourite Track: Make You Mad

Score: 6/10