XXXTENTACION – SKINS

XXXTentacion – Skins.pngSince his death this past June, it’s becoming much more evident just how much of an incredible impact XXXTENTACION had on the direction of music and culture. While his projects were uneven and his career was mired in endless controversies, there was always a clear creative spark and an urge to put out something different, something uniquely him. SKINS is his first posthumous release, and standing at only 19 minutes in length, it’s clearly unfinished, most of these songs having issues with mixing and mastering or instances where X was recording a demo vocal to be replaced with something more substantial later. Although there are definitely a few issues with putting this out so quickly to capitalize on his name, looking back at how much the genre he kickstarted has grown has honestly made me appreciate the ideas presented on this tape for what they are – I can tell that if these were turned into full songs, it’d be a huge step forward from 17 and ?. If I’m evaluating this just on the music presented though, this barely qualifies as an album.

It’s immediately evident just how little new material we’re actually going to get here when the instrumental of the first full track, “Guardian angel”, starts playing – it’s just the beat of one of his biggest hits, “Jocelyn Flores”, reversed. X’s rapping on the track is honestly some of the best I’ve ever heard him, urgent and powerful, but the track ends before it even begins – this is just a tiny chunk of something he recorded. I always enjoyed his calmer raps, without the overuse of distortion, the most out of any of his wide variety of styles, and it continues on the next track “Train food” which sees X do something new and put together a full narrative and concrete idea – at almost 3 minutes, it’s an unusually long track for him. X’s lyrics are vivid as he paints the picture of encountering the figure of Death while walking home, enhanced by the sound effect of a punch before he wakes up tied to a railroad track. The repeated lyrics and very minimal instrumental suggest that this could have been even more powerful than it already is – that last verse is chilling and prophetic, as X raises his voice to a shout.

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The track “STARING AT THE SKY”, standing at under a minute and a half in length, sees X revert back to his full-voiced distorted yells and heavy metal production style interspersed with acoustic emo-folk delivery. It’s the kind of material that really made me worried for him on his previous projects, but the addition of a sinister whisper under his repeated yells of “WE’RE GONNA BREAK” is an absolutely terrifying touch that shocked me. It’s not something I’d ever want to return to, but it definitely made me feel something.

The heavy guitars continue to much better effect on “One Minute”, which recruits Kanye West and Travis Barker. Despite some seriously questionable lyrics, West absolutely demolishes his verse, the distorted guitars behind him injecting his confident and charismatic flow and delivery with some serious energy before X enters with a bloodcurdling scream – even if his part is minimal and clearly looped, it’s a pretty mindblowing track all in all.

It’s strange to accuse a 19-minute album of having filler tracks, but some of these songs are blatantly unfinished and it makes me worried that X’s team are suggesting that there is more to come if this is all they could muster to put on his first posthumous release. The tracks “whoa (mind in awe)” and “what are you so afraid of” are painfully repetitive and consist of little more than X’s whoa-ohs, suggesting that they were demos he recorded before adding actual lyrics. Most of the time, it doesn’t sound like he’s fully present in recording, like these were obviously nothing close to the final takes he was going to record.

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A track like “BAD!” sounds like it would have been an obvious hit if it were actually put together with some more effort – X’s words are barely clear, like he was unsure if he’d replace them later. The studio wizardry throughout is so clear, constructing tracks out of bits and pieces that it might not have ever been his intention to fit together. “I don’t let go” is another track that I can see coming together with more work – the glitchy instrumental from Cubeatz reminds me of “Moonlight” and X’s falsetto chorus is pretty enjoyable, despite its repetition without much else to switch up the energy of the track. Like everything else here, the idea is there, but the execution is far from complete.

Most of what I enjoyed from this project is simply from my fascination with the creative processes of one of the most culturally influential artists in recent memory – hearing X’s ideas in their bare-bones form gives me hope that he was moving in a more positive artistic direction, and that some of these tracks could have been a lot better than his previous work. There are a lot of things to like here, but the fact that we never really get to hear them come to fruition makes this a seriously underwhelming release that makes me nervous for just how long we’re likely going to be milking X’s work after he’s gone.

Favourite Tracks: One Minute, Train food, I don’t let go

Least Favourite Track: whoa (mind in awe)

Score: 4/10

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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

Rapid Fire Reviews (Logic, Lil Yachty, XXXTENTACION)

BobbyTarantino2.jpgLogic – Bobby Tarantino II

The newly minted king of woke rap enters another instalment into his less formal series of mixtapes after breaking through to the public in a major way with his latest album Everybody. While Logic does show both a hilarious level of self-awareness at how annoying his preachiness can be and a large sample of the technical skill we know he possesses, Bobby Tarantino II falls short of its predecessor by turning up the blatant copying of other successful rappers he has always been accused of to the most obvious degree yet. As well, it’s strange to hear Logic back on this material he acknowledges himself is fun and meaningless in that earnest, awkward, high-pitched voice we heard singing about suicide prevention. His creation of an album that was trying so obnoxiously hard to spread a message has created a no-win situation for him. As Pitchfork wrote, “Once you’ve gone full Macklemore, you can’t walk all that sanctimony back”.

The project opens with a Rick & Morty skit in which the straightforward Rick prefers “Mixtape Logic” – criticizing “oooooh, equality” – to the idealistic Morty’s “Album Logic”, and it’s honestly great to hear how self-aware Logic is about his own music, and there really are some tracks here that call back to the quality of his music before the fame. Opening track “Overnight” brings to mind the standout track on the first Bobby Tarantino mixtape, “Super Mario World”, as Logic addresses his detractors over a fuzzy video game-esque synthline and trap beat. “Contra” feels like classic Logic as well, his delivery energetic and his speedy flow relentless. “Indica Badu” is a great microcosm for Logic’s career recently, the verses displaying the greatest extent of his enormous talent and technical skill – even bringing out what might be featured artist Wiz Khalifa’s career-best verse – before ruining it with a basic hook inexplicably delivered in the most annoying possible falsetto voice.

Sometimes I feel like I criticize Logic much more than he deserves, since it is clear that his potential is limitless. Even on projects that are as solid as this one, his brief deviations into his worst tendencies are frustrating. Logic has always been accused of lifting ideas from his contemporaries such as J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Drake, and it seems like his latest fascination on this project is none other than Travis Scott, as half of the project is filled with the eerie, laidback trap instrumentals and melodic Auto-Tuned yelps he is known for, particularly on “BoomTrap Protocol” and “Wizard of Oz”. He shows an affinity for jumping on trends in a different way with the awkward Marshmello collaboration “Everyday”, the watered-down Chainsmokers-lite EDM instrumental not complementing Logic’s awkwardly sung hook. Even when Logic is on a mixtape where he acknowledges that he’s going to flex and little else, he still feels the need to insert a few lines about self-love, being a good person and the like that weren’t present on his earlier projects. Although these are just side deviations on this project, his surface level approach to these topics is still annoying.

The majority of the tracks on this album are actually pretty impressive in comparison to Everybody, and even though I try to separate the art from the artist as much as possible, hearing the tiny inklings of his pandering, public persona on a project like this brings me out of the experience.

Favourite Tracks: Overnight, Contra, 44 More, Wassup

Least Favourite Track: Everyday

Score: 6/10

LilBoat2.jpgLil Yachty – Lil Boat 2

SoundCloud rap pioneer Lil Yachty, still only 20 years old, releases the followup to his major label, genre-shifting debut Teenage Emotions with a sequel to his successful Lil Boat Since Yachty was truly one of the first people to popularize what has become commonly known as mumble rap with his endearingly haphazard approach, the genre has shifted a bit more towards the “sadboi” stylings of people like Lil Uzi Vert and XXXTENTACION, who I’ll cover later in this review, passing Yachty by. Lil Boat 2 goes a bit darker than his previous work in response, foregoing his melodic exploits for eerier instrumentals and straight rap bars. While he makes a significant improvement in this area, one that suffered on his previous projects, the loss of Yachty’s distinct personality on this project brings it down.

There’s always something to be said for the sheer sense of joy to be making music Yachty communicates through his excitable and childlike delivery. I used to say that it made up for Yachty’s lack of musicality, but that has certainly improved across the board on this project, as he is capable of pulling off speedy triplet flows without falling off the rhythm as he had in the past. Tracks like “BOOM!”, “DAS CAP” and “POP OUT” are incredibly fun for this reason, Yachty repeating the title as a high-pitched adlib in the background while rapping better than we’ve heard him before. Yachty’s lyrics are absolute nonsense, but it honestly fits this persona at this point. “she ready” is easily the best track here, and possibly the closest track to his older style, a falsetto melody in the chorus set over another great addition to the flute trap instrumental trend. “MICKEY” shows his newfound harnessing of his rapping ability, holding his own with Offset and creating a flow I haven’t heard before in the chorus by drawing out his final syllables.

Yachty’s attempts to get grittier on this project often leave his tracks a bit empty. The most appealing thing about him in the past was his ability to create joyful, catchy melodies with a positive and idealistic outlook on life. In comparison, a track like “OOPS” sees him drop his voice lower to match the featured 2 Chainz over a very minimalistic trap beat set to nothing more than some low, rolling bass notes. There’s not enough to hold his slightly off-kilter flow in place. Yachty was never meant to follow trends, so seeing him veer closer to the patented and popularized Migos sound is disappointing. Both Quavo and Offset appear here, and “GET MONEY BROS.” sounds more like a Migos leftover than anything else.

There aren’t many new concepts to be found here, and even though that is what drew me to Yachty in the first place, his relentless attack to these tracks and clear improvement of an area of his work contribute to another respectable project from him. Now that he’s proven himself here, can we get back to those tropical, fun tracks?

Favourite Tracks: she ready, MICKEY, DAS CAP, BOOM!

Least Favourite Track: GET MONEY BROS.

Score: 6/10

XXXTENTACION-Sad-Changes-Single-Cover.jpgXXXTENTACION – ?

Diverse and controversial emo rap enigma XXXTENTACION’s sophomore album expands him into the mainstream even further, improving his songwriting ability and singing voice from the disjointed and disappointing debut 17 despite his insistence on keeping many of his tracks infuriatingly short, ending before any concrete ideas take off. Emerging onto the scene with shockingly distorted and aggressive tracks like “Look at Me!” X has since reverted to folk and emo-rock emulating guitar-based tracks with depressing lyrical content regarding his personal life and his own issues, of which he has many highly publicized examples. While X certainly shows the ability to pick out a great melody is there, proving he’s much more than we initially thought, there are far too many terrible and confusing musical decisions across this project for it to be truly enjoyable. X’s music is too much of a disturbing cry for help at this point.

Previously we only heard X’s singing voice on some lo-fi, depressed, uncomfortable moaning melodies but he certainly finds a few places to hit his stride as a songwriter and vocalist here. The track “Moonlight” is incredibly catchy, set over a unique glitchy synth instrumental – I really wish it was longer. This transitions into his first top 10 hit, “SAD!”, the plaintive melody of which has clearly resonated with people despite the uncomfortable message disguised within that hits a little too close to the abuse we’ve heard he’s capable of in the news. The chemistry he shows with Joey Bada$$ on “infinity (888)” is pretty undeniable as well, X dropping some rapid-fire triplet flows over a boom-bap instrumental featuring a melancholy, distant saxophone.

Despite the successes he finds on this album that weren’t present on the dismal 17, there are still quite a few moments where he takes the vibe of that album and escalates it to an even more obnoxious place by fleshing it out into what is … well, ALMOST a full song. Opener “ALONE, PART 3” is more of the same whining over sad guitar patterns, whereas X goes full screamo on tracks like “Floor 555”, reminiscent of his early work – the level of anger he displays here is genuinely terrifying and worrying as he blows his voice out on the chorus – as well as the Travis Barker-featuring “Pain = BESTFRIEND”. These just leave me hoping X gets some serious help. The right way to do this is “the remedy for a broken heart (why am I so in love)”, which sees the trademark folksy guitar patterns juxtaposed with a faster flow from X and a few sparse trap hi-hats that represents the first time he convinced me that this genre-mixing is possible. The back half of this album is a complete mess of genres that just alerts me to X’s instability more than anything else. He brings on 13-year old Matt Ox on “$$$” for an intolerably Auto-Tuned hook and disappears for most of the track on “I don’t even speak spanish lol”, an extremely basic reggaetón track that shows … that X heard “Despacito”.

The title ? is quite appropriate, since it is never quite sure of what it is. The real thing that will keep me from returning to the project, however, is just how real X’s pain sounds on this project, and it is impossible to empathize with him. His unhingedness creates something worthwhile on a few brief occasions, but mostly just creates messy exhibitions of his sadness and anger that leave me concerned.

Favourite Tracks: Moonlight, the remedy for a broken heart (why am I so in love), infinity (888)

Least Favourite Track: Pain = BESTFRIEND

Score: 3/10