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.

Image result for gucci mane

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.

Image result for gucci mane live 2018

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

Advertisements

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.

Image result for machine gun kelly

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.

Image result for machine gun kellyMGK wearing the “Killshot” shirt

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

Rapid Fire Reviews (Rae Sremmurd, Charlie Puth, Playboi Carti)

Image result for sr3mmRae 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

Scores:

SR3MM: 8/10 – Swaecation 3/10 – Jxmtro 7/10

Overall: 6/10

Image result for voicenotesCharlie 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

Score: 8/10

Image result for playboi carti die litPlayboi 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)

Score: 2/10

Big Boi – Boomiverse

Image result for boomiverseAtlanta rapper and former OutKast member Big Boi has released his third solo album and his first in 5 years. His previous project, 2012’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, never really lived up to the widespread critical and commercial acclaim of his debut, but this project here is certainly a swing back in the right direction. Musically, Boomiverse is a complete mixed bag which holds it back from becoming truly great, but this is a fun collection of songs for a variety of occasions. It is all held together by some great features and of course, Big Boi’s calm and dexterous flow that always served as the contrast to Andre 3000’s chaos.

There is a wide range of collaborators on this album, which likely contributes to how all over the place it ends up being. Big Boi recruits quite a few of his old friends, turning to established rap producers such as Organized Noize, Mannie Fresh and even the legendary Scott Storch, who lends a beat to “Order of Operations”. But for crossover appeal, he also brings in modern-day producers known for making more commercial bangers such as DJ Dahi, who contributes what might be the poppiest song of his career on “Mic Jack”, 808 Mafia’s TM88, and even the combination of Dr. Luke and Cirkut, pure pop hitmakers, on “All Night”.

Image result for big boi

On the mic, we have old OutKast collaborators like Sleepy Brown and Killer Mike, who predictably knocks it out of the park on all 3 tracks he appears on here, as well as other southern rap stars young and old – Gucci Mane, Pimp C, Curren$y. Snoop Dogg comes out of hiding to deliver a spectacular verse on “Get Wit It”, while pop hooks from Adam Levine, Eric Bellinger and LunchMoney Lewis swing things back the other way. When you thought the genre hopping was getting out of hand, we get “Chocolate”, a completely misguided electronic dance track that Big Boi still somehow manages to save with his personality.

The main appeal of Big Boi’s music is his technical ability and overall demeanor, which can really tie together such a wide variety of instrumentals. Big Boi’s voice is the universal solvent of rap music. Who knew he would be able to make a whole project with an indie band like Phantogram? Still, he’s at his best on the more standard rap tracks, especially when they have a little extra aspect of something creative.

“Kill Jill” is an absolute knockout of a banger featuring fellow Atlanta larger-than-life mic presence Killer Mike and a menacing Young Jeezy on the hook. The beat has trap elements, but it also samples Japanese hologram sensation Hatsune Miku quite heavily. “Mic Jack” is another great track that features a poppier, bouncy instrumental and an Adam Levine feature, but we still get a rapid-fire flow with that deep voice that brings to mind OutKast tracks like “The Way You Move”. Sleepy Brown, who of course was featured on that track, just so happens to appear on this one briefly as well.

OutKast was almost more about the interplay between the two characters than the spectacular music they were creating, and Big Boi by himself is still a fun enough personality that when he delivers a straight pop track like “All Night”, complete with a piano sample that would make D.R.A.M. proud, it’s still enjoyable to hear the veteran artist having so much fun making music.

Image result for big boi live

Boomiverse could have benefited from more organization, perhaps a reordering of tracks or better selection of what ultimately made it onto the project. Placing a pop-rap track like “Mic Jack” in between the two most unapologetically Atlanta tracks in “Kill Jill” and “In the South” doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it would serve better next to the Dr. Luke track “All Night”. Many of these tracks aren’t bad at all, but the lack of cohesion in the album takes a lot away from the listening experience.

A few of the pop tracks here are a little awkward, not quite figuring out how to shoehorn the hook in or contrast it well with Big Boi’s all-out assault on the mic, like Eric Bellinger’s hook on “Overthunk”. As well, Big Boi doesn’t even try to pretend like he’s making any sorts of new developments in his career, and as a result we get a few tracks that come across very dated. We need to leave things like Sleepy Brown’s talkbox hook on “Freakanomics” in the 90s where they belong, regardless of how great Big Boi’s verses are.

You’ve almost got to listen to this project out of respect for all Big Boi has done, and even though it’s becoming clear that he’s turned this into a science and he’s coasting a little bit, he’s still just as technically proficient, hilarious and fun-loving as ever before, and it makes for a pretty good listen. Now where, for the love of god, is that Andre 3000 solo project?!?

Favourite Tracks: Kill Jill, All Night, Mic Jack, Freakanomics

Least Favourite Track: In The South

Score: 6/10