Sampa The Great – As Above, So Below: Review

Amongst friends, I’ve come to understand varying perspectives on Hip-Hop are ever-shifting based on the culture. Thus, the way I think Black Thought, Little Simz, or Rapsody are some of the hottest MCs, they’ll prefer to hype up the know–gritty Hip-Hop keen on bars, arrogance, moody drug rap, like Pusha T, Benny the Butcher, and A$AP Rocky. It’s perplexing as Hip-Hop’s growth has been more than just blending sonic influences from regional hip-hop in the US and UK. And it’s because of that growth we’ve been able to see artists embrace genres beyond the immediate know–like Jazz, soul, and R&B–these artists have been able to blend House and Hip-Hop, Regional African Music, past massive pop hits like Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” etc. Sampa the Great reflects this growth, offering a shift from past tracks, blending some minimalism with exuberant production. Sampa doesn’t mince words; she has these creative flows and unique rhythmic patterns that help push themes to the forefront. It’s as effervescent as ever on her follow-up to The Return, As Above, So Below.

As Above, So Below goes beyond to allow inflections of Sampa the Great’s verses to get heard. She’s always been one to express her Zambian heritage musically through features, production, and the incorporation of its languages to boast her identity as a rapper. Though we’ve gotten projects that demonstrated her masterful technical skills, it was only a matter of time: an expansion on the production’s use of African sounds to coat the core hip-hop percussion notes with the evolution of construction. Because of it, it’s focused on central thematic cores, allowing for simplistic themes about perseverance and individuality, like in “The Great Never Forget.” Featuring Zambian musicians Tio Nason, Chef 187, and Mwanje, they bring varying languages of the region, like Bantu and Bemba. It adds depth toward seeing Sampa’s vision, as her roots extend beyond the recent. Incorporating contemporary features boast Sampa’s talent, parallel to rappers like Denzel Curry, Joey Bada$$, and Kojey Radical. Woven in between tracks that hone in on her Zambian roots, which get reflected through language and sound, like the remarkable “Can I Live?” featuring Zambian Rock group Witch or Angélique Kidjo on the closing track.

Now, you might think: “It may be an extra step to translate,”, especially for some, but it’s worth that time as it opens the doors to Sampa’s world. Though we get varying sonic styles and features, Sampa’s Hip-Hop is at her core. She doesn’t forget that it’s a part of her, further shifting styles to embolden her MC-like skills. It’s a continuance of what we got loosely on The Return, seeing Sampa work with artists of varying regions, like South African rapper Ecca Vandal and South Sudanese-Australian Rapper Krown. We won’t hear a constant reverence toward non-sequitur Hip-Hop that matches the grooves and tones of an expected, instead reflecting the flows/rhythmic patterns of the performing artists like on “Lane” with Denzel Curry. Sampa has proven herself with past tracks like “Final Form” and “Freedom,” but when it comes to As Above, So Below, it tries to ground itself with a message before allowing herself to get lost in the metaphors and wordplay. Unfortunately, we hear her get lost delivering choruses and bridges, and at times, minimalist bars loosely, like the lines “Who took fabric, made that shit classic/That shit ain’t average/We did,” on “Never Forget,” or the weak refrain on “Bona.”

But I know Sampa the Great has bars equipped and ready, but what’s important to her is trying to convey a message that speaks identity more than reflecting on the stasis of her career and the future. Though we get some moments of that here, it reflects on her artistry instead of being about how her kind of style has made her successful enough where she exclusively flexes her riches. Her natural confidence only energizes the effectiveness of the themes getting relayed by both sides–blending different artists that shift our understanding of international artists. So when I searched the translation of Chef 187’s verse on “The Great Never Forget,” it dawned on me that understanding it in my native tongue isn’t like understanding how the inflections, flows, and phrasing from bar to bar for those who consume it regularly. It’s similarly the case with features that buoy over the strength of the production, like in the closing track “Let Me Be Great,” featuring Beninese Singer/Songwriter Angélique Kidjo. The feeling is musically joyous, specifically when looking at her clear direction and what she achieves. It’s an experience that elevates everything around it, from its colorful and expansive production to transitional consistency upping the volume of the performances.

As Above, So Below is a triumphant follow-up to The Return. It tells us who Sampa the Great is without taking away from what makes her a fantastic artist: her lyrical and technical skills, seemingly camouflaging within the beat and creating works of art that transcend past the core hip-hop-sphere. It left me hungry for more, despite a tightknit 40 minutes that feels hefty in its thematic depth. I’ll be returning to this frequently, and hopefully, what I heard gets captured similarly with you, the listener.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

JID – The Forever Story: Review

Having the gift of storytelling allows hip-hop artists to add depth beyond the apropos flexing as they take us on journeys toward understanding their message. We’ve gotten various styles, at times becoming more focused on the trickle-down effect–it works for many, but not all. JID is more linear, giving us these intricate flows as he builds the world around him with musical vibrance. Usually tonally split between being frenetic and soulfully slower, there is an equilibrium as it goes through JID’s life with themes centered on family, hip-hop, and his relationship with the people around him. Furthermore, his walls continuously crumble, adding innate vulnerability and giving us a sense of his character, specifically through the guise of Hip-Hop. The Forever Story continues to show the potency of his craft as he bridges styles with effervescent production that boasts the world JID builds with his rhymes, flows, and melodies.

JID and vulnerability are two entities that acquiesces cleanly, spearheading the conversation toward understanding JID’s character. He is world-building and allowing his connection points to progress his messaging. It starts coming at you ferociously with this myriad of songs like “Raydar,” which establishes interconnectivity within the black community, reflecting central aspects that speak broadly while staying close to retaining relativity. It’s on “Raydar” where JID reignites our view of song construction, levying what to expect: “I got the shit you could play for your mama/I got the shit you could play for the hoes/I got the shit you could sell to the trappers,” speaking to his artistic range. And he makes it known with his sonic range on The Forever Story, giving us some heavy hitters, intimate reflections, and mature flexes.

Following “Raydar,” the sounds that spread throughout shift from the darker percussion to the more neo-soul-influenced sounds containing the stability which allows the beat to coast smoothly. It has this crisp jitteriness, reflecting JID’s flow in likeness. We hear it effervescently on “Can’t Punk Me,” “Dance Now,” and “Surround Sound,” and it’s similarly the case with tracks that focus on the soulful undertones. These tracks embody aspects of JID’s person–“Can’t Punk Me” is a descriptive rag-to-riches tale–“Dance Now” tackles years of doubts, particularly when shifting the corner with a major record deal–“Crack Sandwich” sees JID sharing the dynamic between him and his siblings growing up in the south–JID is coming about these topics with maturity, especially when comparing where he was to now.

On the other end, tracks like “Kody Blu 31” and “Stars” embolden the jazz-rap overtones, playing with instruments and implementing them uniquely. With “Stars,” the live instrumentations steal the spotlight, shining through percussion, invigorating the verses from JID and Yasiin Bey. BADBADNOTGOOD’s input, the live orchestration, shines alongside the hip-hop producers Christo and Eric Jones. “Kody Blu 31” brings out that Blues/Soul influence brilliantly. The postwork on JID’s vocals highlights the emotional weight from predominantly singing when he’s known to mostly rap. That lyrical maturity also gets heard in how he expresses himself in choruses and verses, like the slight digs at stereotypes that come with stardom on “Stars,” speaking to its nature on a grounded scale, considering his status compared to that of label head J. Cole. It’s on these soulful songs where the synergy between the performers and production gets heard potently, especially with the features, one of many highlights on The Forever Story

Amongst the features in The Forever Story, there is a consistency that parallels JID’s masterful lyricism, running dry swiftly on “Bruddanem.” Lil Durk’s delivery isn’t up to par with the poignancy of his verse, which offers an illustrative view of brotherhood in Chicago as it transcends past simple camaraderie–taking bullets for another–further reflecting the lengths they go to protect each other. It gets heard, but it doesn’t match the levels of JID, whose more tame flow expresses the emotional cracks in his voice, like on “Kody Blu 31.” It’s more a testament to Durk not being fully assimilated past drill-like flows. Unlike it, JID shows consistency with construction, mirroring the production with aspects of his feature’s strengths and giving us standout performances that progress the story while staying personally reflexive in their regard. Whether it’s Ari Lennox or 21 Savage, JID creates synergy, enveloping tracks with effervescently purported notions. The Forever Story is grand, almost cinematic, how JID loses himself within the beat and paints these delicate and vibrant scenes.

The Forever Story is a triumph for JID, weaving together his strengths and compacting them cleanly in his own transformative journey. We get a balance between production styles, allowing them to connect through distinct transitions. It left me zoning, retaining it on repeat, and feeling the immersive nature of his music. And with features that boast the messaging of their respective tracks and equally great production, JID continues to add credence to his momentous strength as a lyricist/MC.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Meechy Darko – Gothic Luxury: Review

Brooding in the shadows of socio-systematic hypocrisy moving different communities toward avenues with diminutive lights that lead toward prosperity, Meechy Darko’s debut, Gothic Luxury, encompasses his stylistic personality with bravado, despite production that seems to feel normative at times. In essence, Meechy Darko evolves slightly past loose druggie perspectives on the system and his status amongst contemporaries, expressing contrasts with the ups and downs of fame. In the intro, Meechy utters in spoken word format: “The sinner in Saint Laurent, the demon in Dior/Durt Cobain be the other name, anyway/This album contains sex, drugs, love, pain, a lil fame/Shit that come with the game/Drive a nigga insane,” which lays a foundation for potent narcissism that makes your veins shiver as he goes from track to track. However, stumbling through gritty New York City streets that past rappers laid a platform for, Meechy slightly modernizes via vocals and sonic transitions, turning the beats into stabilized balance beams for illustrative lyrics.

If anything is apparent in Gothic Luxury, there’s instability between fame and different personalities; it’s transparent in verses where he expresses lavish, drug-induced lifestyle shifting between flows and tones on the perspective, like on “Never Forgettin’.” It reflects Meechy Darko’s upbringing trying to echo his will to survive through all the pushback from various external factors. Doubled down with “Kill Us All,” Meechy offers insight into more impetuous drug consumption and the systematic oppression that poorly castrates any sense of progress socio-politically. Though more apparent in the news today, he brings a more grounded perspective on the relationship between the audience and the messenger. He uses it to position himself amongst his contemporaries–in and out of music–who command the stage since Meechy sees himself on this hierarchy where his words have weight, as expressed in the first verse of “Kill Us All.” It adds credence to that outwardly lavish, drug-fueled life without him giving much of a fuck because he’s earned his success.

“Democrat, Republican, they all evil to me

But remember that the Democrats started the KKK

I turn on CNN, they tell me be MLK

Instead of Malcolm X but they both died the same way

You know what goes hand in hand, Hollywood and C.I.A

Operation Black Messiah, it’s the FBI paid

Epstein Island, Q-Anon, and then Pizzagate

It’s crazy ’cause America loved the Black Panther movie

But in ’66, they hated the Black Panther movement

History’s a trip, it’s crazy how they twist and flip the shit

But since the winners write the history, we will not lose again.”

– Kill Us All, Meechy Darko

Solo ventures to having features; the music is a trip through hell after stealing the lush riches of heaven, making the contrasting worlds have more synergy. Throughout Gothic Luxury, Meechy Darko’s turbulent but lavish lifestyle is the selling point. It delivers intricate anecdotes about who Meechy is–a prideful rapper who isn’t afraid to show his upscale presence while living the same outlandish life. Just because he’s making them benjamins, he’s still that rapper who smoked about 100 blunts and didn’t get high. He’s narcissistic, swimming in a pool filled with clothing from Birkin, Gucci, Prada, etc., and indulges amongst the riches his prayers have bestowed upon him while feeling blessed to a slight degree. We hear it clearly on the tracks “Get Lit or Die Tryin’,” “Prada U,” and “Lavish Habits (Gothika).” These tracks give us meaning regarding his perspective on life and hip-hop, specifically how he wants to express himself in a song. His free-flowing demeanor allows him to imbue that confidence without skipping a beat, though that doesn’t always translate to fantastic.

Gothic Luxury stumbles less frequently, but when it stumbles, it stumbles harder than expected. “Hennessey & Halos” has overindulgent production; “Prada U” has an uninteresting flow and percussion, which made me feel like it tries too hard to fit an atmospheric aesthetic instead of feeling natural like on “The MoMa.” The beat plays with jazz sounds, which lets both rappers breathe without over-textualizing the sounds. But what felt right were most of the features on the album; from Black Thought to Denzel Curry and Busta Rhymes, they imbue that darkened aesthetic smoothly–along with other features like Kirk Knight, relegated to chorus duties, and Freddie Gibbs with his slightly memorable verse.

Meechy Darko had a vision and delivered on it as best he could. It’s why we can feel a discernable consistency in the sonic aesthetic, despite the twists he takes vocally. Shifting away from the Flatbush Zombies, Meechy beautifully expresses who he is and offers an understanding of his style. He’s darker than the others from the group, and the sound boasts his identity in Hip-Hop. It’s enough to keep you intrigued as his career continues to grow beyond the Zombies, especially with the maturity he brings with the delivery of the underlying themes like excess and drug use. It was an interesting listen, one where I implore you to give a spin, specifically for another perspective on success.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Danger Mouse & Black Thought: Cheat Codes – Review

When it comes to The Roots or Black Thought–as a solo artist–even the pseudo remixes on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon–Black Thought never disappoints, even when your anticipation is high. With Cheat Codes, his new album alongside musician/producer Danger Mouse, Black Thought emboldens his status in Hip-Hop, delivering an influx of lucid and poignant verses. There is constant intrigue in Thought’s words as he gives perspective parallels to the simplicity behind the realism, amongst other styles like flexing and relevant criticism. The music takes you by the horns, offering a refreshing album that finds home on stoops with the homies where you’re blaring it from speakers, despite some minor drawbacks from weak featured performances.

Black Thought morphs imagery fluidly, barely seeming to skip a beat like he’s some rap prodigy, but that’s been evident since trading bars with Dice Raw in the 90s. Cheat Codes takes us back 20-30 years when sampling was a check-mark component of Hip-Hop/R&B, though Thought and Danger Mouse craft it with nuance. It’s a driving force behind Cheat Codes, as it shifts through varying styles contextually, from reflective raps to evoking multi-layered flexes, etc. Though on a vague level, it is reflective of most rappers–how Black Thought writes and spews off the dome offers clean structures and intricate rhyme schemes. There’s innate synergy, especially with the shift toward a style more potent from 1993–2006–think J Dilla, DJ Premier, Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, The Hitmen, etc. Danger Mouse, a veteran from the era, brings seamless craftsmanship as the samples get incorporated into the beat/production for Black Thought to spit profusely. “No Gold Teeth,” amongst others, encompass these samples as the glue between sounds, allowing us to stay keen on the distinct switches between beats.

“No Gold Teeth” is a keen example of both and a favorite. It gives us a detailed retelling of Thought’s career and how the grind reflects the earned confidence he imbues with his status as a rapper–one example: “Philly ain’t known for cheesesteak sandwiches only, stop/Yo, I’m at the top where it’s lonely/I got everybody mean-mugging like Nick Nolte/But nah, I won’t stop, won’t drop, won’t retire.” Like “Close to Famous,” it’s an inner jolt where he doesn’t push aside the kind of feeling that comes with one’s history and allows it to be a given to maintain focus as a proper form of rags to riches. It’s how he can keep others mean mugging without relenting on the abundance of grandeur. He mentions chains in passing as an achievement instead of a representation of net worth. Danger Mouse incorporates the opening string orchestration and some humming from the song “Stop” by South African Trumpeteer Hugh Masekela, which gets used as a contrast to Thought’s tone. 

Similarly, with the sampling in “Saltwater,” Danger Mouse incorporates sequencing from Italian Rock Band Biglietto Per L’Inferno’s operatic “L’amico suicida,” establishing the tone for the track eloquently. Featuring Conway the Machine, Black Thought, and Conway trade verses that position themselves on this tentpole of unfuckwithable, or one not to fuck with based on how they describe themselves. Like when Conway raps, “Look, they heard me rhymin’, they wanna know where they find me at/The grimy cat from the May Street trenches, insomniac/Three in the mornin’, lurkin’ in that Pontiac/Where I’m from, you gotta take your pole even when you go to the laundromat (Keep it on you).” Black Thought intersects criticisms toward youths aiming to rap for the glamour–forgetting how some come from these grimy roots striving for a voice instead of the money, then shifting to display a difference when it comes to the power of words, like when he rapped: “We pass the baton like a drum major at Howard/We transfer the power for salt, water, and flour/My pen packs a dawah, Akira Kurosawa/My ideas is gunpowder, secure the tower.” The layers within this sequence are also potent throughout the album; it has more standing on the solo ventures, unlike most with features.

Conway, MF DOOM, Raekwon, Killer Mike, and ASAP Rocky have an excellent presence on these features, the former three more so than the latter two, but a few others seem to disjoint from what is effervescently flowing through Danger Mouse and Black Thought. There is a clear synergy between Thought and these featured rappers, but not all can match the lyrical and technical poignancy of the reference sheet Thought delivers. It’s especially the case with El-P on “Strangers” and Joey Bada$$ & Russ on “Because,” which brings forth ubiquitous bars that don’t feel fresh and new, instead becoming a reflection of past selves that aren’t as interesting. It feels more of a throwaway when pinned up against the complexities of “Belize,” which comes across as an expanded flex that attacks various angles from both Thought and MF DOOM– posthumously.

Cheat Codes continues to show Black Thought’s dominance as a lyricist, accompanied by fantastic production from Danger Mouse and delivering platters of whimsically thrilling verses. But like past realized projects, Thought seems to stumble with making sure the performances are up to par with the direction he wants to take, because there are many here. Though it isn’t hard to be too distinguishable, comparatively, some get notice, and you’re quickly yawning after the final outcome. It’s a fantastic album nonetheless and definitely encourage all hip-hop fans to take a seat and indulge.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Joey Bada$$ – 2000: Review

Whether thematically or through an expansion of congruent or parallel tales in sequel albums, we’ve seen them match the quality of their predecessor at times, but not at the consistent peak of the original. We’re talking the Blackouts, Blueprint 2, Man on The Moon 2, Marshall Mathers LP 2, and Only Built For The Cuban Linx Pt. 2, to name a few, but we have had rare contrasting improvements, like with Tha Carter II, but ultimately, sequels are way too common. So, when a new one is released, the hype scale skews up and down depending, and there is no in-between. Joey Bada$$ joins the lot with his latest album, 2000, an update to his debut 1999 mixtape that bridges the two with lyrical content and production style, and your hype scale should heighten. Like 1999, 2000 has an excess of boom bap and jazz rap. 2000 reminds us that Joey can command a smokey jazz lounge with crisp flows and emotionally draining lyricism.

When P. Diddy utters these words rhythmically, “Can you say New York City?/Now as we proceed/To give you what you need(Bad Boy),” you get the ting that you’re in for something extraordinary. Though it isn’t the right word to define most choruses on the album, Joey Bada$$ at least reaffirms Diddy’s words, specifically calling him the baddest. Equipped with spectacular co-productions from Statik Selektah, Chuck Strangers, Kirk Knight, and Erick the Architect, amongst others, Joey comes with smokey flows and poignant lyricism, offering a breakdown of his person in front and behind the microphone. From expressing his career doubts throughout or a continuous bounce of confidence like in “Where I Belong,” Joey acquiesces with fluidity as we picture his emotions in these larger-than-life scenes within the verse. Doubling down on “One Of Us,” there is smooth progression between tracks, maneuvering our emotional reflection. 

Unfortunately, Joey still hasn’t grown much when writing choruses. That isn’t to say he’s an albatross, but it’s stagnated, and at times, mundane 1-2-3-4-5 old school choruses don’t have that same pizzaz. It makes individual songs have some that come across like speed humps on a residential road like the potent “Eulogy.” Joey Bada$$’s weakness for writing captivating choruses stays near the front, especially on some highlights: “Cruise Control” and “Brand New 911.” It doesn’t get pushed aside, but its verses and production are enough to keep you returning. The crisp and smooth boom bap–soul hybrid beat from Mike-Will-Made-It, Marz, and Cardiak on “Cruise Control”  focuses on the nuances of the genre, using pianos subtly beneath the percussion, guiding it through the confines of slight decentness. Joey has the right approach for the melody, but it isn’t that interesting. It’s another track that adds affirmation to Joey’s coolness when exuberating confidence that ends with Nas giving us a short speech about Joey’s character, grind, and talent. 

“Brand New 911” has more of a nothing burger of a chorus–fortunately, it isn’t one of those asking for a highlight, and we get lost in the whim of vocal gun noises and slick verses from Joey Bada$$ and Westside Gunn. Like Gunn, most features acquiesce with Joey’s boom bap/Jazz centrism, further giving us highlights to replay, like “One Of Us,” with the Larry June or JID on the aforementioned “Wanna Be Loved.” They properly balance with Joey’s solo tracks that there wasn’t a moment that left me feeling like they didn’t fit. However, that’s more due to the quality of work focused on, unlike Chris Brown, who comes as his haphazard self, offering nothing but an underwhelming verse in an otherwise underwhelming track. But in essence, 2000 is more of a reflection of his career, specifically in growth, as we hear him tackle varied reflection points, like that high feeling of achieving success on “Make Me Feel.” 

See, Joey Bada$$ dropped 1999 and got talked about as this old soul bringing a modern flavor to a style that wasn’t as prominent as the 90s, especially with his quintessentially driven flows. He had swagger and ways of weaving smooth, hypnotic fluidity through multi-syllabic bars, and I remember hitting me when I heard him go toe-to-toe with Capital Steez on “Survivor Tactics.” The growth of Joey Bada$$ has been gripping and pertinent amongst others in the New York scene of the 2010s like groups Pro Era, Flatbush Zombies, Underachievers, Phony Ppl, and more. His growth since Capital Steez’s suicide and his manager’s death; it’s been a rough ride for Joey. Though it wasn’t pertinent, the subtle darkness loomed at the sounds never got brighter with immediate releases from Joey. I remember how Summer Knights reflected darker overtones, and Joey reflects how everything’s been since. We heard it throughout 2000, but significantly on “Survivor’s Guilt.”

Ending with “Survivor’s Guilt,” we hear the emotional weight Joey Badass bared throughout the years, despite having proper clarification to defend particular actions. Like how he flies a bit high and mighty and still can’t offer sound reasonings for having someone like Chris Brown on a track–friendship isn’t the best defense, and it minimally dilutes its gravitas, especially with how poignant “Survivor’s Guilt” is. Though, as a whole, 2000 has a lot that merits multiple listens, specifically with the first half–that alone will offer a rewarding experience with hearing contrasting and parallel allusions between 1999 and 2000.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Kota the Friend – MEMO: Review

Within New York’s underground scene, Kota the Friend imbues that old-soul mentality in production, lyrical, and technical work. He’s bringing an influx of bars that keep themselves grounded in reality, specifically through the eyes of an independent hustler. It’s been pertinent from his yearly album releases and mixtapes that contain random 70-120 second tracks with loosie verses, allowing his fan to eat continuously. But as he keeps growing, there are only specific directions one can hear him trekking, and his latest release, MEMO, sees Kota taking one of them with something this is personal and flawed. Past projects saw him expressing distinct aspects of his life and his family; however, Kota’s passion allows MEMO to feel somewhat fresh, despite falling into basic flexes here and there. On MEMO, Kota The Friend has two sides, one, which offers a savory palette as he opens the door toward his hustle, and another that allows him to build character by rapping about the depths of his world inside and out of rap. 

Kota the Friend usually delivers raps relative to the range of accomplishments and his hustle to achieve them. It isn’t like last year’s To Kill a Sunrise, where Kota’s flexing gets nudged up slightly, eventually becoming redundant–on MEMO, there is little nuance as they still don’t feel as realized. It gets boasted by solid production, but it isn’t enough to keep you glued consistently. “Jumpman” is subjected to this as Kota retreads lyrical chalk on the pool stick for a table full of emotional gravitas. It isn’t like the more fluid and gripping “Needs,” which threads the needle smoothly. It’s dynamic with its approach to the subject matter of confidence in one’s successes and getting humbled on a daily. It isn’t like “Up,” where Kota speaks on his daily grind and hustle, but with mediocre trap flows and not so interesting Trap-Jazz Rap hybrid in terms of production.

It, again, becomes apparent, stylistically, on “Father’s Day.” It isn’t dynamic, or does it offer a sense of grit like “Daughters” by Nas. I could hear Kota express love, but he speaks for the present while taking shots at his baby moms. It loses traction, unfortunately landing, between the emotionally pertinent “Avery’s Interlude” and eye-opening “Dad’s Interlude.” Some tracks embolden themes of family, survival, and the will to continue without getting held back due to external forces. It could be personal or business-driven, as Kota would bring up on the album that he’d continue to produce at an independent label. It reflects the sounds which exuberate off the album, like on the acoustic-driven “Empty Cup” and the freeform jazz piano of “Soho House.” It is like many tracks on the album, which don’t adhere to radio conventions, having its own identity despite the not-so-captivating ones, like “Fone Call,” “Father’s Day,” and “Jumpman.”

“Empty Cup” is a 180 from the boom-bap-influenced production, outshining the lot. It’s a tender track about self-love and acceptance, which breaths solemnly, allowing Kota to break his wall down further. It exceeds the greatness of “Fone Call,” which adds little on both sides of the aisle. The production starts off interesting but then recedes into slightly more derivative percussion beats as Kota raps about love in various forms, whether sex or treatment of a significant other. It’s a perplexing direction that offers a weak contrast to “365 Days of Peace” and “Empty Cup” as his emotions and sounds flip drastically. For “Fone Call,” it starts with some quick and plucky guitar strings before becoming a redundant and near-whole sequence of hi-hats and drums.

Ultimately, what makes Kota the Friend’s work appealing–his flows and lyrics, explosive with rhythmic grace. It becomes more noticeable as you continue to progress after the first Interlude. We get fluid progression between the more explorative tracks–the previously mentioned “Empty Cup,” the two penultimates “Good To Be Home II,” and “Good Friday.” They offer something different and riveting, grounding the catchiness of the choruses, especially on “Soho House,” which continues the consistently significant work he puts out with Hello O’shay. It isn’t the most transcendent, or does it offer anything new; however, it is an effective summer track. The melodic catchiness will hook you like the opening track “365 Days of Peace” does. “Good To Be Home II” and “Good Friday,” like these mentioned, are perfect examples of Kota’s greatness, budding slick verses, and clean boom-bap beats.

With Kota, you get Boom-Bap and modern drum-heavy beats, but other times, you get surprised. MEMO has one surprise, and that makes up enough for the duds. Unfortunately, these duds are hard to look past, and the good amount of good is fodder for another Kota album that won’t match the clear synergy with that of last year’s To Kill A Sunrise. However, there is enough for fans to trek into and come out enjoying; I was one of them. 

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

Lupe Fiasco – Drill Music In Zion: Review

Drill Music In Zion. On its surface, you’d expect Lupe Fiasco to rap over or incorporate elements of drill music, and who would blame you. Since Lasers, Lupe Fiasco has taken creative turns left and right, from concept albums to underwhelming sequels and stylistic changes. But Drill Music In Zion is different. Lupe is looking at hip-hop in its current state and juxtaposing–because of apparent negatives–Drill Music’s acceptance in Zion or the “Kingdom of Heaven,” considering the hypocrisy of haters and naysayers who call out Drill, but not the contextual musicality or cultural identity. There is understanding toward it. Lupe is creating conversations around history in music, and the socio-political spectrum, instead of sanctifying the sub-genre. And Lupe isn’t without bringing forth a topic and shifting our familiarity on its head, at times failing like on “Words I Never Said” and his perception of 9/11: 

“9/11, building 7, did they really pull it?/Uh, and a bunch of other coverups/Your child’s future was the first to go with budget cuts.” 

– Lupe Fiasco

On Drill Music In Zion, Lupe Fiasco is effective when he’s focused on one prerogative, but when there is a shift of topics in hip-hop, it affects the steady trajectory the album travels. That isn’t to say he misses the mark by incorporating the final piece of his “Murals” trilogy–which slaps–or his ability to blend both. Most flows are on point, boasting his lyricism. Unfortunately, some choruses don’t hit, breaking the construct, but Lupe’s verses stay consistent on the lyrical side; what he writes brings depth, but his flows aren’t always there. It’s what contrasts “Kiosk” from “Seattle” and so forth. 

The main criticism of Drill music comes from its violent content. That’s a central focus of Lupe on Drill Music In Zion, but it’s looked through different angles. From New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ war against the style for its “glorified violence” and ways to push forth violent threats under the guise of disses, it isn’t as predominant issue as they make it out to be. We’ve heard about Fivio Foreign’s Best Friend, TDOTT, and most recently, the Lil Tjay shooting in Edgewater, New Jersey. But that’s only the east coast; it’s everywhere. And It isn’t just drill music. Because of that, it adds more weight to the first verse of “On Faux Nem:” “Rappers die too much/That’s it, that’s the verse.” It subverts the directness delivered in the intro’s first four lines: “Drill music, pop that pill music, kill music/Desecrating the temples in the ghetto/Funeral processionals increase their frequency/Because we can’t break the spell of Geppetto.” When it’s trendy, it becomes the focus of conversation, which is off-putting because not all deaths and news regarding violence is gang-related–Pop Smoke was doxxed in LA by robbers, which went wrong. But it didn’t stop first instincts–something to do with his correlation to the Crips, but that is just one aspect. It’s an ongoing endemic (gun control and so forth) that isn’t all singled and rooted in a particular community.

From Tupac and Jam Master Jay to King Von and Young Dolph, Lupe reminds us it’s more than the surface layer of Drill music. What Lupe Fiasco wants to get across: external cultures infiltrate and establish a base within the genre. It’s more complex than Lupe’s lines in the interlude: “Nah, Nah we can’t, we can’t talk about that/We gotta talk about something else/I mean, because it’s hypocritical, nigga, you got guns,” pondering why they have to represent a lifestyle that one escaped through music. It further perpetuates new tonal meaning with sound. And It all comes down to the numbers, and it sells. That’s the unfortunate part.

Now, is there violent content? Yes. Is it glorified? That’s hard to answer, primarily because the bridge gets built between lyrics and beat. Think about how certain Juice Wrld tracks perpetuate his depression, and for some, it’s second nature because the production gets flurried with insane pop appeal. At that point, the listener should be able to separate the two upon further listens. So, to focus on that, when other genres like gangsta/reality rap, the east coast adjacent mafioso rap, hardcore, horrorcore, and more have been in the same boat. It’s not the music. It’s larger issues than it, like infrastructure, gun control, etc. The naysayers look at the genre through tinted lenses, where all that comes out, are the negatives. It’s scapegoating, and Lupe tries to keep that in focus, despite musical shortcomings, like the mundane histrionics about the commercialism within hip-hop–chains, spinning rims, etc–in “Kiosk,” which fails to hit the mark.

In other tracks, he is rapping about musical parallels that connect both sides, making way for non-drill listeners to open their minds; I mean, shit, it took me a while back in the day to get acclimated. And we hear it but he keens into it on tracks like “Precious Things” or “Autoboto,” where Lupe brings up past segregation, which created these distinct neighborhoods, which eventually got pitted against each other through external issues. He uses it to construct conscious parallels with his alter ego Carrera-Lu (his flashier side), one where each acknowledges who they represent–the aware Lupe and the swag-filled and sometimes violent Carrera. “Precious Things” uses anthropomorphism to bring forth the hypocrisy of homonyms, like the questioning of having body parts get incorporated, like arms.

Like “Precious Things,” most tracks carry an emotional depth that perfectly contrasts arguments made about the subgenre, but most importantly, the culture. It has a built foundation that it expands on, but at points, the production can feel wasted or singular. There are vibrant Jazzy, at times freestyling, like on the title track, and other times are more singularly driven, like “Seattle,” though it is a solid track, the production isn’t as interesting as his verses. They aren’t detractors, as they acquiesce in a great three-track run from “Drill Music In Zion” to “On Faux Nem.” Drill Music In Zion isn’t Lupe’s best, but he offers plates with material that might make you reconsider your opinion on Drill. 

Rating: 7 out of 10.

The Weekly Coos: Top 15 Albums of The Year So Far

15. Wet Leg – Wet Leg

“Wet Leg captures you with melodic mysticism and lush instrumentations morphing beyond surface layer cohesion between drum patterns and electric guitar riffs, especially when the band steers toward pop-rock instead of post-punk overtures.”LINK TO REVIEW

14. 070 Shake – You Can’t Kill Me

“You Can’t Kill Me isn’t like 070 Shake’s previous album, specifically in the construct of the production. It isn’t devoid of complex layering with the sounds, but it doesn’t deter you by taking a distinct direction that never lands, though some tracks fly past the radar because of uninteresting production. There is a frequency to it, and 070 Shake comes at it with full force and develops a sense of emotional gravitas.”LINK TO REVIEW

13. Avril Lavigne – Love Sux

“…I haven’t always been absent from her music – some highlights here and there – and it’s a good thing I wasn’t as Avril Lavigne has come with her best work since 2005’s Under My Skin. Love Sux is a dynamic shift from blending nuances of the past with oblique pop. Love Sux knows what it is: lyrically poignant, blending commercialized lingo with riotous rock or rounded pop-punk ballads.”LINK TO REVIEW

12. Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers

“It’s a complex text that wants you to decipher beyond the surface layer verbiage, and Kendrick doesn’t make it pleasant. It’s provocative, but that’s a given for him. With complex text, there is complex production, but here, he is building toward growth and showing us a reenergized side of him.”LINK TO REVIEW

11. Conway the Machine – God Don’t Make Mistakes

“When attempting to bring bangers, he doesn’t stray far from his identity, lyricism; it continues to be a staple of his craft. There’s constant activity on God Don’t Make Mistakes, his major-label debut. There is crisp production from a range of producers, who provide tonal consistency, and there is Conway’s lyricism that never falters.”LINK TO REVIEW

10. Hurray for The Riff Raff – Life On Earth

“LIFE ON EARTH lands on impact with moments of catching wind as their sound evolves through each track. Alynda Segarra is trying new things, and as she weaves these complex layers in her writing, the production builds till we don’t have one flavor; we have many.”LINK TO REVIEW

09. Florence + the Machine – Dance Fever

“From the more personal and soul-filled High as Hope to the radiant baroque-pop on Ceremonials, Florence & The Machine have delivered consistently remarkable work, especially with Florence Welch’s ability to meld within any style taken with immense bravado. It’s what has her shining through on their fifth album, Dance Fever.”LINK TO REVIEW

08. Daddy Yankee – Legendaddy

“Daddy Yankee made reggaeton what it is today, allowing for a free flow of ingenuity to become universally accepted as new artists create their foundation. LEGENDADDY takes various eras of reggaeton and weaves them into a musically transcendent timeline of music history, with Daddy Yankee surprising us at almost every turn.” – LINK TO REVIEW

07. Black Country New Road – Ants Up There

“On Ants from Up There, the band isn’t as altruistic musically; they immerse themselves into balancing the external with the internal. Because of this, Ants from Up There shines, spotlighting itself as one of the best rock albums over the last few years.”LINK TO REVIEW

06. Kilo Kish – American Girl

“Building a foundation on Experimental and Alternative R&B/Hip-Hop, Kilo Kish branched out and used the basis of what works, adding elements that see her evoking elements of Pop; however, it can become forgettable, especially with her 2016 album, Reflections In Real Time. As a follow-up, America Gurl improves on some of the off-electronic overtones and transitions, with Kilo Kish growing more into who she is as an artist.”LINK TO REVIEW

05. The Weeknd – Dawn FM

“In a proposed trilogy, After Hours is now the appetizer, as we hear his progression in maturity – musically. However, The Weeknd gives us an afterthought – after the fun and thrills, what was it all for when you’re still left gutted with past regrets. He takes note of late-night radio and creates a similar atmosphere to parallel the sentiments of the average listener – it also maintains a proper balance of genre influence and his intricate ear for music with his producers.”LINK TO REVIEW

04. Rosalía – Motomami

“Motomami takes experimental directions, allowing Rosalía to explore beyond her comfort zone while retaining a sense of authenticity along the way. It breathes fresh air as she detaches from flamenco-pop past – there are minor blemishes, but it circulates into one cohesive romp that’s constantly catching you by surprise.”LINK TO REVIEW

03. Vince Staples – Ramona Park Broke My Heart

“The first sounds we hear are waves slowly crashing along the sands of Long Beach, California. We immediately fade into Vince Staples rapping as the faint sounds of the waves blend in the background, and we get reintroduced to inside his head. Ramona Park Broke My Heart is a shifting paradigm of lies and heartbreak, cornering any sense of hope to succeed. Vince Staples’ mind has hypotheticals, realizations, and growing pains that reflect how he views his career after many years under a label–sometimes, of his personality; other times, reflective of his career. But there is more to the project than the parallels in his potent lyricism, which is a constant on Ramona Park Broke My Heart. He is showing us behind the broken walls that surround him. Vince is giving us a lot to break down, from the emotionally-lyrical side and the production, which brings a continuation of greatness heard on his self-titled release last year.”LINK TO REVIEW

02. Bad Bunny – Un Verano Sin Tí

“Though I wasn’t the craziest on El Último Tour Del Mundo, what he did with a futuristic concept lyrically, was awe-inspiring, especially as he continued to grow artistically. Similarly, the album prior, Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana, did as the title suggested. Bad Bunny came at it with something new and different, blending various notes from diverse genres and showing us a free-spirited approach to the music. That continues on Un Verano Sin Tí. It’s an album resonant on the vibes, particularly in its construction, which plays in a nearly perfect crescendo from start to finish. He brings fresh features and unique directions we’ve heard a sampling of before; however, here it’s refined, coming at you with various sounds fit its beach/summery aesthetic, despite some lesser tracks, comparatively. It all culminates in excelling the idea Bad Bunny had when creating Un Verano Sin Tí.”LINK TO REVIEW

01. Angel Olsen – Big Time

“After reinventing herself with different aspects of pop–All Mirrors–and past stark and flaky atmospheres in folk and rock, Angel Olsen continues to shape her art, making music resonant with her identity on her new album, Big Time. In an interview with Pitchfork for the album, Angel Olsen said, “I have learned to let go of the labels and embrace what I’m feeling in the moment. And I ended up making a country record, or something like a country record.” Big Time is emotionally potent and sonically harmonious, bringing new dimensions to her artistry. It skews from modern country conventions, rooting itself in more traditional country, giving her vocal performance depth, reeling you with captivating emotional performances and a sense of whimsy.”LINK TO REVIEW

Raury – Strawberry Moon: Review

Atlanta singer-songwriter and rapper Raury has always had this drive to be authentic and expansive, but it doesn’t always reflect positively, leaving some bumps along the way. It’s perplexing; when I first discovered Raury, he had these unique complexions of folk, hip-hop, rock, and soul with inconsistent vibrancy. From solid mixtapes with Indigo Child and Welcome To The Woods and a mediocre debut in All We Need, the open avenues for Raury have him waning and further stunting proper creative growth. It didn’t leave an impactful memory, save for a few; however, like the previously mentioned mixtapes, Raury continues to deliver a tape that sees him taking a new direction and rapping more on Strawberry Moon. He shifts from the folk-driven sounds of the past and elevates his delivery to a different plane of great psychedelia.

Strawberry Moon’s linear progression makes the sounds acquiesce on waves of avant-garde production. Raury doesn’t scale back and instead builds upon atmospheric textures that flow through the veins in his craft. His music grabs you, then gravitates toward depth-filled moods which reflect his inner-subconscious, which perpetuates how it bounces off us. It’s been resonant on more minimalist tracks like “Cigarette Song” and “Friends,” contrasting the energetic “Amor” and “Devil’s Whisper” from Indigo Child and All We Need. Raury doesn’t tip-toe either side of the aisle, finding a sense of equilibrium and letting his vocals guide us through the darkly vibrant production. It hits you instantly with “Heatwave;” it delivers raw instrumentations that grind through some synths before Raury jabs with this crazy verse and slightly grungey guitar riffs. He’s rapping again and doing it frequently.

Hearing Raury back in a hip-hop element has been sorely missed, and the growth he has shown is consistent, even when some moments aren’t that great and kinetic. It isn’t often that we hear him dig into this bag of tricks. He complements the production keenly, never deterring you from what he wants you to listen. It’s more effervescent when Raury brings a clean balance of verse-chorus-verse, particularly with the rapping and not the singing. Though he’s rapping a lot on Strawberry Moon, the balance with the singing on choruses offers weight and dimensions to his artistry, even when it isn’t that captivating. There’s a difference; he can carry the song through the finish line without a moment where the vocals become detached from the sound. It’s one of the few reasons there have been some loose comparisons to Andre 3000 of Outkast, the other due to his eclectic flows and ambitious creative directions. Unfortunately, that ambition gets too much at the tail end. The last few tracks give us Raury trying to expand range, which turns into some off-putting styles that either work or don’t. Whether it’s the foggy nature of “Her Smile” to the overly modulated and produced “Phases.”

Strawberry Moon starts running at full force, giving us these varying flows that constantly keep us glued to our headphones. Raury raps and rap-sings with swagger that his words become realized. The bravado in the rhythm has Raury boasting with a slight edge with his bars. At the beginning of the second verse of “2020 Vision,” “Shit I been conquering demon/Shit I been battling me man/Angelic beings I’m seeing/I just woke up dreaming,” which continues this mental reflection on the industry and life in the first verse. He raps, “I never answer my phone/And since a nigga been on/I’m living in paranoia/I’m living in paranoia/And locking all of my doors, yeah/And shutting every window/And playing Super Nintendo,” displaying a potential divide between identity and selling out. It shows that if he takes off restraints and gets reminded of his craft, he can deliver tracks as impactfully fantastic as “Devil’s Whisper.” “Channel Zero” and “Cloak” are evident of that. There is also a proper balance between the way he sings, wherein he offers more emotional depth like “Feel Good,” but it isn’t as consistent as the rapping.

Though it isn’t some profound piece of work, but Raury is growing and shifting. He’s offering a lot of unique strokes of the paintbrush to the construct and complexions of the sound that you get a sense he is one to something. And he may be, as this new direction reflects his strengths on many fronts. It caught me by surprise, despite not wowing me completely; however, if you are a fan, definitely give this a spin.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

Boldy James & Real Bad Man – Killing Nothing: Review

Hip-Hop collective Real Bad Man; that’s a name that’s synonymous with ethereal and soulful production that stays on a tempo that keeps you lifted. The percussion styles have great and subtle nuance, and a tangible slow tempo gives whichever rapper a boost when delivering their verses. Though his most prominent work has come with Boldy James, continuing to strive with their follow-up to Real Bad Boldy, Killing Nothing. As it is with many Boldy tapes, there is a collection of carefully constructed tracks that fits the tone. It doesn’t matter whether Boldy is speaking on the realities around him through anecdotes of street life or expressing characteristics molded by it. Entwined with the production by Real Bad Man, Killing Nothing is another record to get stored and kept spinning as Boldy James and Real Bad Man keep the back-to-basics street raps fresh, despite its flaws.

Like Real Bad Boldy, Killing Nothing continues to pick up where the last left off with a flurry of tracks that paint a picture of Boldy James. The track progressions layers depth to the mountable areas Boldy goes into, like the gang violence and regrets in “Water Under the Bridge” and “5 Mississippi.” Boldy’s constantly coming in different directions with the content, applying realistic details in his storytelling to build the world around you as you listen. It’s what keeps these tracks in a consistent tangent of greatness for him. Killing Nothing is like its namesake within the crevices of these street-hustlin’ type tracks, Boldy is expressing the duality between lives he’s been living with a history dating back years. In “Hundred Ninety Bands,” Boldy raps about his successes in contrast to his past life in a rags-to-riches-like structure. His themes recycle, but Boldy stays consistent.

It’s a consistency that keeps you keened in at most of the lyricism, like when he rapped, “See straight through these pussy niggas like a CAT scan/Pockets full of blue money or a trap benz/I’m just tryna get my top blew, fuck a lap dance” on “Ain’t No Bon Jovi.” Though it isn’t much to praise his lyricism, as Boldy James has consistently delivered verses with multi-layered reality spread with direct detail and a tightened story arc. However, Boldy’s weakness remains front and center, and it’s the lack of effort in the hooks. They feel like extensions to the verses that rarely build you up toward anything; other times, he delivers dull hooks, like on “Medellin,” which loops the lines “Since a youngin’, been peddlin’, put that on Evelin/We the medellín, while these niggas just be medellin’.” It’s one or the other, and often you lose sight of the hook as sometimes it recycles aspects of past flows, which is uninteresting. It’s the case with “5 Mississippi” and “Seeing Visions,” which have me waning interest for 20ish seconds of a track. Though it isn’t the case for many, Boldy’s more personal ones bring a flip in energy as his vocals become slightly sullen, or he takes a fun turn with “Bo Jack (Miller Lite).”

Killing Nothing is effervescently transitioning track to track, swaying you by the hazy flows and consistently great lyricism. Though it can be a detriment as every track can’t keep the locomotive moving. “Sig Saur” and “Cash Transactions” are two tracks that get lost within the fold of the tangential production that keeps it afloat, along with Boldy James’ verses. There are moments where the tracks fade into the abyss as it hides amongst the others surrounding it, like the quality verses from Boldy and features Crimeapple, Rome Streetz, and Stove God Cooks. These faults make Killing Nothing a slightly jumbled album that has many prominent aspects that represent 75 percent or so of a track, but there are some things you have to let slide for the spin to stay consistent. Though a hefty piece, it buoys on the complexities of the production by Real Bad Man, who circumvents these beats in a linear direction with subtle scratches and soulful samples within. 

But underneath the scriptures, Real Bad Man shines. Their production work takes different shapes, sometimes showing the subtle influence from the 90s low-tempo dark-boom bap and west coast, except adding some midwestern flair to match Boldy James’ direct approach with the rhythm. “Medellin” and “All The Way Out” are examples of such: the former gives us a subtle but effective percussion-heavy bap, and the latter takes funkadelic notes, notches it up, and weaves it in with a unique pattern that elevates Boldy ten-fold. But it’s ever-shifting, at times bold, with the overhead style, like on “5 Mississippi,” which uses an acoustic guitar to give the track a dark western twang.

Killing Nothing is this excellent record with replayability and slight shortcomings, but it has enough in the tank that you never worry about it running on E. The more you listen, the more you pick up on different anecdotes in the production that have me putting it on a similar pedestal with his other albums. Though it may not be as strong as last year’s Bo Jackson, Boldy James keeps reminding you why he is a potent lyricist.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.