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.

Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers: Review

Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. The title isn’t reading a mouthful, but the new album by Kendrick Lamar has created a conversation that makes you feel like you were reading one. 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. However, it isn’t an immediate masterpiece or a straight one. It’s progressive but flawed. Kendrick brings many ideas to the fold based on experience where he flourishes in delivering his message; unfortunately, the second half (Mr. Morale) gets a little muted by certain decisions made. It left me hoping it had the same impact as the first (The Big Steppers), but he stumbles over some creative choices that don’t pan out. Though both offer a lot to digest as we let ourselves get consumed by the proverbial introspections from Kendrick.

Kendrick Lamar closes Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers with “Sorry I didn’t save the world again/I was too busy rebuilding mine my friend/I choose me, I’m sorry.” It’s a gut-wrenching punch that hits you in the brain as it establishes in your mind that the style and perspectives taken are the way they are. Kendrick is at an apex where some would think a drop from him would “save Hip-Hop.” But Kendrick is more than just hip-hop; he isn’t out here to sell you popular records, and he isn’t here to deliver a myriad of styles like on DAMN, but he is taking us through the looking glass. Kendrick takes a nosedive with such effectiveness that it breathes intrigue into understanding where he is getting at. This commonality gives it this vitriol that boasts the topics he speaks on, which offers a platitude of reflections that cloud him as he progresses through various aspects of his life, like fatherhood and grief. These notions align within the texts of “United In Grief” and “Father Time,” two of the best tracks on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers

Unfortunately, some lose impact, like “Auntie Diaries” on Mr. Morale and “Rich Interlude” on The Big Steppers, because intention gets slightly derailed due to artistic decisions which drive immense discussion into his approach, but more so the former. “Aunties Diaries” sees Kendrick tackling the double standard with the usage of slurs in hip-hop, reminiscing on his adolescence where he admired his transgender familial members for their heart and hustle. He goes on to mention how it was one of them who showed him his first sheet of 16s, helping to ignite his early love of hip-hop. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stick, as Kendrick’s focus on obtuse song structures has him missing the point. He’s sticking to reality where he deadnames and misgenders his family when there were other avenues he could have taken without censoring himself. “Rich Interlude” loses semblance due to Kodak Black and his controversial history, where he doesn’t embody the wholesome image of success, which further and poorly encapsulates Kendrick’s “product of our environment” theology. Furthermore, it has me question whether Kodak’s inclusion was more musical kinship or a shot at musical redemption.

While Kendrick Lamar values the exploration of parallels through experience, there is further understanding of the dynamics that shape our socio-political discussions and progression toward true equality. However, what’s getting represented is Kendrick’s true nature. We may not acquiesce, but that’s because they evoke “I choose me, I’m sorry” subtly. He subverts our perception of him within these various themes to tremendous effect, despite the complexities of his music. We hear themes like his conflicted normality, his relation to hip-hop, trauma, etc. In “Savior,” he reminds us, “Like it when they pro-Black, but I’m more Kodak Black,” implying that despite the pro-black political bubble we’ve placed him in, his opinions on particular things aren’t far from artists/entertainers like Kodak and Kyrie Irving. It’s a sentiment we get from the lines “Niggas is tight-lipped, fuck who dare to be different/Seen a Christian say the vaccine mark of the beast/Then he caught COVID and prayed to Pfizer for relief/Then I caught COVID and started to question Kyrie,” where Kendrick’s mental lining isn’t far off, but willing to learn. 

Kodak Black’s presence stems from appearing on an interlude to backing vocals and a track that feels lost as it juxtaposes the lyrical content with the embodiments of the rest. “Silent Hill” is more radio-driven; the production is minimalist, weaving these intricate soulful harmonies and crazy percussion patterns, while the two rap about their status and money. Despite Kodak Black delivering a solid verse, it is the only instance where he doesn’t have you slightly groaning, unlike his brief appearance in “Worldwide Steppers.” It’s a unique contrast to The Big Steppers, which has “We Cry Together,” a solid track that speaks on Kendrick’s abusive and dysfunctional relationship with Hip-Hop. It’s heavier like the music on Mr. Morale, while “Silent Hill,” a fine song, doesn’t have any merit within the overall construct.

Surrounding the little that didn’t work is an abundance of mental exploration. Kendrick Lamar spreads lyrical vibrancy with emotional gravitas, so whether he is rapping about trauma with “Mr. Morale” and “Mother I Sober” or talking his shit like on “N95” and “Worldwide Steppers,” he is giving us these auspicious bars/ideas to break apart. On top of that, he is incorporating production that perfectly matches the levels of nuance he offers in his verses. We hear this flurry of big-scope, little-scope productions that fit the nature of the content without getting overdone or undercooked. It buoys many of the various artists Kendrick brings to help build his narratives.

Though pertinent with the Beth Gibbons feature on “Mother I Sober,” their innate-great consistency of them shows in The Big Steppers. From the luminously mystifying vocals of Sampha to Taylour Paige’s remarkable performance on “We Cry Together,” there is a cadence to them, specifically as they work their style over potential reference sheets. But there are some that miss, like Baby Keem on “Savior Interlude.” His verse lacks integrity in the art, and he continues to show how much of a proxy he is for Kendrick when they work together. Fortunately, Keem and Kodak are the only two featured blemishes on the album that weigh it down, and their appearances are brief.

“Die Hard” and “Purple Hearts” have these contrasting shimmers reflecting on the track’s components. Both have dual features, and both use them differently. On “Die Hard,” Kendrick Lamar brings Blxt and Amanda Reifer of Cover Drive to deliver a balanced remedy of soulful melodies in the chorus and post-chorus to complement Kendrick’s flow as he raps about his fears in opening up in a relationship. “Purple Hearts” sees Kendrick, along with Summer Walker and Ghostface Killah, delivering visceral verses relating to love in a relationship and the hardships which come from it. Summer Walker is a standout all-her-own, like Taylour Paige, both of whom encapsulate the last two tracks on Mr. Morale. In the previously mentioned “Mother I Sober,” Kendrick Lamar takes trauma head-on; he’s rapping about his past, reflecting the directions taken to escape memories, like in the second verse where he notes: “​​I remember lookin’ in the mirror knowin’ I was gifted/Only child, me for seven years, everything for Christmas/Family ties, they accused my cousin, “Did he touch you, Kendrick?”/Never lied, but no one believed me when I said “He didn’t,”/Frozen moments, still holdin’ on it, hard to trust myself/I started rhymin’, copin’ mechanisms to lift up myself.” There is a lot to digest and endure as he pours out his heart with more than internal conflictions.

But that is what Kendrick does, he tackles trauma and other themes head-on. More so in past albums, but he is keeping centered despite missing the mark a few times. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers reestablishes Kendrick’s artistry at a cost, but he does so in his own right, even if we don’t see eye-to-eye with the way perpetuates these thoughts.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Jack Harlow – Come Home The Kids Miss You: Review

Establishing himself as an artist with great potential, Jack Harlow delivers less than projected on Come Home The Kids Miss You. Unlike the visceral shiftiness of That’s What They All Say, this follow-up by the Kentucky rapper misses the mark. It’s underwhelming. Jack Harlow is too linear as a lyricist, layering corny rap bars that are nuanced to his character but still lack that oomph of peak creativeness. There is never a sense that Harlow is trying to use his storytelling talent to its max potential. He has matured, but that maturity feels askew as he boasts himself to an established globe-trotter that has amassed a kind of lifestyle mirrored by his analogies. Within Come Home The Kids Miss You, some solid tracks come together by fit, but at times, Harlow sounds like he is drowning in establishing something he isn’t, which is a modest carbon copy of Drake. There are some clean beat-flow switches and some smooth lyrics in the crevices, though ultimately, there isn’t much to herald in high regard. 

When Jack Harlow came through with the first single for Come Home The Kids Miss You, “Nail Tech,” something cliqued that might have made you think Harlow would grow exponentially from a technical perspective. It got subsequently reaffirmed with the boldness of “First Class,” which saw a wicked awesome flip on “Glamorous” by Fergie as he rapped humbly about his growth in music. Though it gets subverted with the slight boredom deriding Harlow’s flows and content–which doesn’t stray from its core themes of excess and success–certain tracks slide over others due to quality, despite not being as great as the two singles. A lot of it becomes more apparent between the more stripped-down production, allowing him to show vanity, but you hear a discerning difference compared to more cross-appeal-driven tracks. On “Poison,” he becomes the third fiddle to the eloquence of the production and Lil Wayne’s fun and short verse. It isn’t the first time for Harlow; the beats take the wheel consistently, even when they are tame.

What’s striking about the production: it stays on a consistent wavelength tonally. It plays with percussion to elevate or deescalate the tempo without detracting you, and it gives enough Jack enough range to switch between trap and direct rap. It’s similar to Jack Harlow’s straight and linear bars that are as corny as lamenting the times he chased after the girls he was attracted to, one that specifically wore Aeropostale and Abercrombie. His creativity wanes, and if you listen closely, it becomes more apparent how poor it is. On “Movie Star,” after it becomes a snooze-fest with his first verse, Harlow raps: “But I’m just so inspired by the way you wear that thong/You know I like to dictate things, Kim Jong/I know that drink strong/You know we keep that bourbon out the barrel, Diddy Kong.” He’s trickling down to using off-color references to make a rhyme connect. That’s only one aspect of Harlow’s poor lyricism on the album, but often it doesn’t get balanced by his flows, as it feels like Harlow is trying too hard to assimilate styles cohesively.

Unlike the production, Jack Harlow’s lyricism makes you take a step back with lines like “I don’t care what frat that you was in, you can’t alpha me, keep dreamin’/Pineapple juice, I give her sweet, sweet, sweet semen” on “First Class.” In “I Got A Shot” amidst flexing, Harlow drops this sidebar: “She think I’m cold, I seen her nipples (Seen ’em).” In “I’d Do Anything To Make You Smile,” Harlow offsets the weirdness with cordial corniness with lines like: “Nice dress but your birthday suit’s a better outfit.” Surrounding these lines, Jack is rapping about women and his successes concerning status without much effect. He never keeps it interesting as sometimes it mirrors aspects of Drake, like the flow switches and writing structures, and the sound of it makes me want to listen to CLB instead, even if it’s as weak as Come Home The Kids Miss You. Though no fault of his, as he tells us early on, he wants to drop the gloves and brush off the humbleness; however, there is no arrogance or emotional finesse to hook you vigorously; he’s simply there, and his features do so similarly. 

But Jack Harlow has shown us he has earned an elevated status in hip-hop and pop, but the final product shows us differently. It sounds more like an artist delivering on auto-pilot without taking the time to listen to himself. Harlow brings plenty of interesting features to Come Home The Kids Miss You, some of which reflect the hierarchy of his state. Unfortunately, most are afterthoughts like Justin Timberlake on “Parent Trap.” It was a feature–on paper–that immediately piqued my interest but muddled when the chorus hit. Justin Timberlake continues Harlow’s streak of feeble choruses, though it gets interesting in the second half as it implements more break-hip-hop styles instead of the simple soul chords. Other than Timberlake, Drake, and Lil Wayne, bring quality verses and properly outshine Harlow on his record.

Come Home The Kids Miss You is boring, and it’s disheartening; you’d hope Jack Harlow to add more than some standard rap bars about flaunting his successes. But at the end of the day, it’s retroactively forgettable and a step back for him. If you’re a fan, there will be some stuff to enjoy, but ultimately, you’re better off just keeping Future on repeat. I mean that wholeheartedly.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

Vince Staples – Ramona Park Broke My Heart: Review

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.

Let’s hit play on “Papercuts”; Vince Staples raps about the importance money has on him as he pushes aside an element of internal happiness. Like Vince Staples, I’ve understood him to a degree; he feels slaved over in the industry, finding less care in creating at a certain speed because his craft takes time. He isn’t an everyday rapper willing to drop a few minutes to make a pop record–we have learned from J. Cole that he got told he needed a single to sell on his debut instead of keying in on a balance of authenticity with his style. Even with Vince’s most popular tracks, he kept it 100 to his style, which shows a parallel in his artistry, where he can elevate a pop song if asked to appear on one. He’s done it before with “&Burn” by Billie Eilish. Despite the directions he takes, it’s thematically and lyrically consistent because he is zeroing in on his heart, his home.

When rapping, Vince Staples has a tremendous effect on the album as he taps into a line where he can distinguish the love for Ramona Park and the music inspired by it. There are an array of emotions that push these songs into having definition within the confines of his arc. It all pans out as intended, except for “DJ Quik,” which left little impression on me, despite a great use of a “Dollaz + Sense” by Quik himself. The lyrics in the verses are on point, but his slightly basic and slightly dronish delivery on “DJ Quik” doesn’t make an impression, knowing “Magic” comes next. Though there isn’t a linear direction that Vince takes us through, it’s more like recollecting through pictures. It’s like he opened a picture book from his life in Ramona Park and compares and contrasts it with the present.

Thinking of it as such allows for contrasting flows between tracks to work, for the most part–née “DJ Quik” to “Magic.” These shifts can come out in a somber tone like on “East Point Prayer,” which adds gravity to its themes of gang violence and selling drugs; it’s the opposite with “When Sparks Fly,” where Vince personifies love through his flow. Unlike other tracks, these two have specific parallels that aren’t subtle. They carry more as the pivot point in the middle where the album begins to mold into a cohesive structure. Some parallels can come from the production side, like when it transitions from “DJ Quik” into “Magic” and “Rose Street” into “The Blues.” Or it can come from the lyrical side like “East Point Prayer” to “When Sparks Fly” or “Papercuts” to “Lemonade,” which shows two sides to his feelings behind making money.

However, for “East Point Prayer” and “When Sparks Fly,” the latter speaks about the love between a person and a personified gun, like how a gearhead names their car–it’s like a child. Another parallel comes with the content of “East Point Prayer,” which sees both rappers talk about their resilience in escaping a life set by the foundations around them. Lil Baby delivers an equally powerful verse that reflects the business side, showing that no matter the profession, you can grow and evolve from someone better than “a product of the environment,” as he raps. It’s all buoyed by its production.

The production contains a downbeat consistency with few overlays that make every track worth wild. Though, it’s hard to meet the production of tracks like “Lemonade,” “Magic,” and “Slide” has Vince Staples putting on his musical cap and trying to continue to reflect the eccentric flows and melodies of his first few albums. “Lemonade” and “Magic” are elevated higher by the featured artist, Ty Dolla Sign and DJ Mustard, respectively. The same goes for Lil Baby on “East Point Prayer.” The cloudy-synth base production drifts you into a terrain of open consciousness. There is a balance between the two, though it may not be for everyone, as Vince stays consistent with the introspective lyricism.

From the collection of producers, there is some equilibrium in bringing a sonic consistency that you can distinguish where you have to focus on his verse. Ramona Park Broke My Heart is a lot to unpack, and the experience is rewarding. We continue to get a different Vince Staples that isn’t bent on the avant-garde and instead keying in on his roots, specifically in its production. Personally, I felt immersed in Vince’s work as he took us down new avenues expanding sounds over the production’s base drum patterns.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Benny the Butcher – Tana Talk 4: Review

There isn’t a moment where a member of Griselda strives, each manifesting a hearty platter for hungry fans to indulge. Album to album, mixtape to mixtape, there have rarely been moments that see them dwindle toward the sometimes tried consistency of Curren$y, instead offering up something fresh on the lyrical side and the production side, as they embody a different approach to the music. Benny the Butcher is constantly mounting layers in his lyricism, even when he’s speaking about the trials and tribulations of the drug game, during and after one’s shift to a different career path – case in point, rap. On his third studio album, Tana Talk 4, Benny offers up that finely chopped lyricism and perfectly cooked sauce from Beat Butcha, The Alchemist, and Daringer. 

Benny the Butcher is keen. He knows what he wants and delivers translucent flows, immersing himself in the production. It makes his verses flourish through the different tempos, whether it goes on an uptick or downtick based on the content. He delivers with impact, along with sous chef J. Cole on “Johnny P’s Caddy,” trading verses detailing their rags to riches as an artist through the eyes of respect. It fits the mold of the Tana Talk series as it has been personal to Benny the Butcher, and it weaves a path that covers subjects like violence, drug use, and humbling yourself amongst your riches due to past reflections. On “Super Plug,” Benny starts laying it down and describing the differences between vague verbiage and detailed imagery when describing the horrors of dealing. It’s given a perspective that gets used to lure in those to the drug game: riches for the family and homies quicker than your 9-to-5. Benny isn’t just talking drugs to talk about drugs; he is rapping in-depth to his perspective – which can be akin to others. 

These sentiments get reestablished throughout Tana Talk 4, notably on “Bust A Brick Nick.” Benny the Butcher reminds rappers why they can’t talk shit on his level – it refers to the shit that Benny went through –for example: getting shot during an attempted robbery, he just happened to be there – it’s similar to 50 Cent as he kept mentioning his nine bullets wounds on Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Benny doesn’t sugarcoat why he puts himself on this upper echelon. On “Bust A Brick Nick” he raps: But it’s over, and that was my fourth felony, certainly/Got a warning, I’d be in Lewisburg right now if they search me/Locked in with plugs, so I know that shit y’all coppin’ no good/To get the drop (What’s that?), I’m the type to send fiends to shop in your hood,” boasting his status, while on the other end having perspective as evident with the line: “Blue steel knife for the jugg so don’t be that life that I took (N***a).” It’s a constant reminder that he keeps mentioning.

He is always looking to bring something creative into the fold, like on “10 More Commandments,” featuring Diddy. Many of us fans have gotten used to hearing his explicit and detailed talk about the drug game, reminding us as much with a follow-up to The Notorious B.I.G. song and showing us how things have changed over a decade. Opening with the lines: “Soon as they let me eat, knew the streets was my expertise (Uh-huh)/I kept discreet contacts with my connect, so they let me eat (Uh-huh)/A rapper, but I was a drug trafficker ‘fore I left the streets/These ten more crack commandments, Frank White, rest in peace.” Diddy comes in to talk about generational culture and how values transfer, despite the system faltering progressions in the community. 

But Benny the Butcher speaks more than just his time in the drug game – listen to The Plugs I Met 1 & 2 – it gets to other personal levels, ones where Benny senses self-doubt. The depth and quality of his lyricism hold no bounds, delivering a beautiful parallel with the production that shifts in tempo from the dreamy “Tyson vs. Ali” to the jazzy heavy “Thowny’s revenge,” there wasn’t a moment that I drew back due to quality. There is this effervescent charm and energy that derives from Benny’s demeanor and approach, you can’t help but feel entrenched by his words.

Unfortunately, the lows on Tana Talk 4 come from poorly timed lines, like on “Billy Joe” and slight redundancy on “Uncle Bun” and “Back 2x” with 38 Spesh and Stove God Cooks respectively. The latter two pass by quickly, one becoming forgettable as I listened on and the other just an oversaturation in concept without nuance. The former – though not “bad” – it feels poorly timed with the lines: “They give a dope boy life, say we destroyin’ communities/I let ’em make me out the villain, I stay poised as Putin be,” considering where we are. Hindsight being 20/20, there are other allusions one can make – though I don’t know how the process works, I don’t know if the track could have been removed prior.

Benny the Butcher continues to show up and deliver, even when the subject stays more consistent than manufactured beer. Tana Talk 4 lives up to the wait and delivers hard-hitting bars that shine brighter than its production, while still allowing it to thrive, especially during repetitive beats in content. As far as Hip-Hop projects, there has been a consistent uptick in Q1 of 2022 that brings glee to my ears – Benny is just one of many.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

The Cool Kids – Before Shit Got Weird: Review

Maybe nostalgia is catching up with me, or The Cool Kids continue to tap into a soundscape that elevates Sir Michael Rocks’ swagger in his flows and unique contrasts between two eras. Well, maybe it’s the former as it became a struggle to finish their new album Before Shit Got Weird. If you remove the production, you’ll hear a paradigm shift in quality – Sir Michael Rocks has taken minimal steps back as a lyricist, and Chuck Inglish has grown into consistency with his writing. Taking influence from the golden age of hip-hop where we had acts like Eric B. & Rakim, Gang Starr, De La Soul, LL Cool J, The Cool Kids found a balance between the old and the modern in their production style, which complements their foundation behind the microphone. Sir Michael Rocks has fun with it, and Chuck Inglish plays lyrical games, and as they try to deliver a good product – somewhat – on Before Shit Got Weird, which misses the spark, especially from Michael Rocks. 

When The Cool Kids returned, they didn’t hold back. Special Edition Grandmaster Deluxe is a fantastic album that feels well-rounded to fit both artists’ strengths while allowing room for growth within the foundation of the sound, like “Break Your Legs,” featuring Travis Barker and HLXT. Before Shit Got Weird is the opposite. It’s a bloated, boring mess that carries with it great highlights, but a pace that wanes your boredom scale. But as I was listening, I started wondering when I’d get to certain points on the album, like the Chance the Rapper feature, but mainly that middle sector, where there is a blend of solo tracks and ones with great features (on paper). Unfortunately, most of this area slows down from a solid opening, eventually becoming lost as they weave the narrative together. 

Before Shit Got Weird contrasts eras in society, or rather the parameters which affect The Cool Kids, like in “HIBACHI,” where Sir Michael Rocks creates his Venn-Diagram for the value of monetary gain. In the track, he argues the idea of someone’s self-worth by their material goods – and using weird analogies in the process. In it, he raps, “Global warming ain’t real, then why they got the better ice/Let’s go, used to think rich was an Audemars….’Til I met a nigga named Hanz with a bodyguard/N***a great-granddad designed on the Autobahn.” He has a poignant idea and immediately misses the mark by diluting it with ear-popping lines like the global warming one. However, sometimes their lines come in the form of confusion as it feels like I haven’t been this aware of it. In “DAPPER DAN LEATHER,” Chuck Inglish raps, “Up in King of Diamonds like let me get that pasta/Oh, it’s on the floor, baking bread, we need a lot of dough” or on “I’m Coming Over There,” where Michael Rocks poorly deliver a checklist methodically.

It leaves me questioning the direction. Most times, The Cool Kids focus on the now while barely differentiating complexities in hip-hop culture. I revert to “HIBACHI” and “TOO BAD,” which do little with their premise and are otherwise filler. It continues with slight redundancies that I wondered if this is before or after “shit got weird.” It’s a simple mess that would have gotten saved by some more effort, unlike the production, which Chuck Inglish and Beat Butcha. As well, the skits and interludes barely move the needle for its identity. They bridge what is rarely there and truncate the progression of the pace. Chuck Inglish and Beat Butcha keep the production interesting by playing with the percussion while offering something fresh each time.

However – beneath its problems – there are some fun highlights, like Atlanta rapper KEY!, whose energy turns “HIBACHI” from being another boring track muddled within the tracklist. Many of the features are fun and offer a little more than Sir Michael Rocks and his retreat into mediocrity. Gabby!, Pac Div, and Chance the Rapper stood out amongst the many, but more so Chance, who dives back into his bag and pulls out one of his better flows in a while.

Before Shit Got Weird doesn’t have the usual Cool Kids charm. It leads to a stagnant path drawn by an inebriated person as you make way with what feels authentic and what feels mundane and just there – if there is any feeling left, after listening to the album, it is to load up their 2008 EP The Bake Sale and 2017’s Special Edition Grandmaster Deluxe and replay them again. Even with solid production, from smooth electronic-centric drumlines on “HIBACHI” to nuances of mid-2000s kicks and claps on “Strictly Business,” you hear something captivating in each production. Unfortunately, it can’t buoy the album any higher than a level of mediocrity.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Big K.R.I.T. – Digital Roses Don’t Die: Review

Big K.R.I.T. is distinguishable in many ways – quality being one of them – but they don’t benefit his bottom line when the production wanes between forgettable and spectacular. It’s not hard to when the spiritual and influential overtones of southern hip-hop charm your ears into your bass-infused beats; however, some of that now beguiles you into reflecting where K.R.I.T. has been heading since surprising his trifecta of EPs in 2018. Throughout these EPs and his subsequent album, he skewers between offering a palette of introspective raps, more introspective raps, and some flex raps. Fortunately, his new album, Digital Roses Don’t Die, offers a cleanse that teeters between good and great. K.R.I.T. isn’t past his “My Sub” series days; he just fails to exemplify his artistic growth with that same bravado that captivated my ears in 2014.

Despite being a slight uptick, from Big K.R.I.T.’s last album K.R.I.T. Iz Here, Digital Roses Don’t Die still sees the Mississippi rapper continuing to drive slightly on auto-pilot. It is an issue that got nudged off because K.R.I.T. was coming off a monstrous effort in 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time, which explored two sides with visceral imagery and production. There is a parallel effort in making something that stands over the previous album as he sands down the rough edges. Interestingly, he does so by weaving four sections that paint the portrait we get for the album cover. K.R.I.T. makes it work, even if he twiddles his thumbs with some flows resonant of the past without an extra push of energy. It continues to push that recent rocky up-down battle with quality, and the album makes it known quickly.

There is no hiding Big K.R.I.T.’s talent. He is one of the few rappers who blends the modern direction of southern hip-hop with the old-soul flair of the loud bass percussion that emboldened the productions of Outkast and UGK. The production side of Digital Roses Don’t Die shines brighter than the lyrical side since K.R.I.T. comes at it mostly solo, allowing for his words to come across more clearly. However, this is where we see K.R.I.T. as an evolving artist and less of someone who continues to rap without a sense of direction. That is potent, especially as K.R.I.T. continues to impress with what he does. It benefits the album that it isn’t as clustered with producers, instead of tightening the work between a few, including himself.

After igniting a modest fire under his first section, some of Big K.R.I.T.’s grounded work comes through, specifically in “Cum Out To Play,” which sees a more sensitive as he sings. It blinded me from remembering some of his mediocre effort on “Show U Right.” It has a slight groove, but it lacks the swagger of “Rhode Clean.” The kind of swagger that oozes off K.R.I.T. is usually unworldly, and like “Rhode Clean,” there are various levels, like on “So Cool,” where a smooth cadence laces the chorus and verses. “All The Time” mirrors it with tempo switches that has a more aggressive demeanor to it. However, there is more to Digital Roses Don’t Die that underlines the swagger. K.R.I.T. is singing more and more on the album, allowing for his emotions to bloom and feel fully formed. 

How Big K.R.I.T. weaves these songs together is interesting in concept, as he takes various approaches to base and complex meanings of what surrounds the word. With “Fire (Interlude),” we receive various aspects of igniting flames; unfortunately, the non-flex centric track falters in between the immense swagger. It’s similarly the case with the tracks that follow “Water (Interlude).” In the interlude, Big K.R.I.T. says, “The dude drops a love that watered our passion/The flame dies, the ground moves, the wind blows/But let the positive hydration be our caption,” as it alludes to how we keep memories in a modern age. Each track features some essence of water: 

“Boring” sees Big K.R.I.T. watering down the flame from “Show U Right,” and ironically, the water is the fire that ignites higher. K.R.I.T. brings the bravado. K.R.I.T. brings the witty thematic play as he makes being a responsible adult has hyphy as partying and doping.

“Would It Matter” has Big K.R.I.T. watering down expectations but disavowing those expectations as means to say beauty is subjective.

“Generational – weighed down,” sees Big K.R.I.T. tempering his status quo. He is successful with a checkered past and still lamenting about his doubts, like his ability to be a proper parent, knowing his life, and so forth. 

It flows the same for other tracks based on the context in the interludes; it has depth, and Big K.R.I.T. is grabbing the bull by the horns, making sure he endures longer than last time. It works the best under Earth, as opposed to others.

Ultimately, Big K.R.I.T. has something here, and it works. He coasts a bit, and it’s slightly evident with songs like “It’s Over Now,” but there are enough quality songs to call this a good album, even though replayability lacks the energy of past albums like Cadillactica. There is no true song in the vein of “My Sub” or “Keep The Devil Off,” off 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time; fortunately, that isn’t a heel turn, and you can readily return to this album – more so if you are a fan of K.R.I.T.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

$not – Ethereal: Review

Over the past decade, it’s become aware that a co-sign from an artist of S-tier status isn’t as prominent as it was before the social media boom. Like Kid Cudi and the rise of “Day N Nite” on MYSPACE, there are many who make their boom without the backing of another artist to redefine it. Now, a co-sign has become beneficial if you make it so – we’ve seen some artists fizzle a bit, and others take that next step. For Florida rapper $not, he has taken each feature after his standout hit “Gosha” and has made a continuous statement about his will in the rap game. That candor spread through past albums, and it continued when he dropped “Doja” featuring A$AP Rocky. He is gaining more exposure; however, it is only the tipping point; $not follows it up with the album Ethereal as it shows an evolution in his craft as he comes into his own. His sound is more profound and clear, and it shows proper direction through a whirlwind journey of a career.

When a friend played me the video for “Doja” by $not, I got transfixed by the unique hybrid of hyphy East Coast Hip-Hop topped with coatings of cloud rap toppings. It gave me an ethereal zone that took me back to the first time “Yoshi City” by Yung Lean got played for me. So as I plugged in my headphones and jacked into the album, it took me to another level of musical bliss. Unfortunately, Ethereal, as great as it is, trips along the way with tracks that muddle at first listen and retroactively proves why with the overall quality. It reminds me that you have to take every diamond in the rough with seriousness as you never know what you’ll get. That is definitively the case with $not’s third album, Ethereal.

Ethereal keeps a smooth transition from start to finish, with moments that make his best qualities stand out. Within these transitions are the muddled tracks I spoke on. However, it’s specifically the case with songs “ALONE” and “FIGHTING ME.” The former features Trippie Redd; however, the song’s construction makes it fly by without hearing Redd’s rock-like vocals. There are moments where you can’t differentiate on a first listen, and returning shows how mediocre the song compares to others. The production mirrors some of the more maligned melodic-rap productions we hear today, except the rock flair Trippie Redd adds isn’t attention-grabbing and generic. $not doesn’t offer much lyrically, wasting its energy.

These tracks become a lesser problem, as $not offers enough to elevate the 14-track album to new heights. “Euphoric” sees $not channeling an inner Juice Wrld with its production style, adding his subtle touches before switching tempo and giving us a dynamic shift with the emotions behind the context of its chorus. The chorus sees $not speaking of the divide between his character and others – this speaks more on his adolescence with the lines: “Fuckin’ on your ho, we the Bang Bros (Woo)/This a Glock, we don’t even name bro/We is not the same bro (Huh)/Open up your eyes, let ’em inside.” In his verse, he subverts the dark bravado by delivering pensive bars about what’s inside: “Fighting all my demons in a past life/This gon’ be the last time/Told my shorty, “I just wanna die.” His tempo and vocal switch add definition to the demons he speaks on. 

Opposite “Euphoric” comes a track like “5AM,” where $not deliver a great chill-out/cloud rap where he embodies that laid-back maturity to counteract some of the deeper parts of Ethereal. Many of these tracks balance cloud rap elements(atmospheric sounds) with bombastic drum-percussion, and in “high IQ” the acoustic guitars. $not keeps a consistent prowess, even when the tracks don’t contain the strongest lyricism. It’s easy for a rapper to lose themselves in redundancy, but like an essay, it needs supporting examples to keep it afloat. It’s the case with “Benzo;” $not has a lot of fun flexing, even though some of the stuff he raps about, we already heard some other variation. But $not’s flow, rhyme scheme, energy, keep it in steady rotation with other tracks that go hard – production-wise.

$not’s continuous toe-to-toe with his features proves to be another highlight, whether it is A$AP Rocky on “Doja,” or Joey Bada$$ on “How U Feel,” $not brings his A-game. It’s a true personification of his talent with the pen and paper. There is no need to bout them against each other – i.e. who killed who on the verses – and retroactively, we have to see how they match in lyrical and technical quality. “Halle Berry” is unlike these tracks since $not take a step back and lets Juicy J ride the beat with a verse better than most of what he put out with his collab tape with Wiz Khalifa. It’s not the only surprise, with $not giving us the antithesis of this on “BLUE MOON,” which sees $not letting his guard down and dueting with singer Teddi Jones over an acoustic guitar-driven ballad.

$not comes and delivers an auspicious follow-up to Beautiful Havoc, one that leaves me excited to continue to listen as he develops. His strengths are on full display, even with the occasional misstep, and that is what keeps you reeled into his boat. Ethereal makes it all prevalent as he lands the typical I’m Here For Good statement, and like many, I’m all here for it. 

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Ché Noir – Food For Thought: Review

There aren’t many individualized locations with hip-hop scenes as prosperous as LA County, Fulton County, and New York City, to name a few; however, there have been some that have enough noise to produce talented rappers that have become part of our musical rotation. Philadelphia produced Memphis Bleek and Freeway; Portland has given us Amine, Illmaculate, The Last Artful, Dodgers, but then there is Buffalo, New York, whose dormancy finally ended with a boom of rappers emerging, like Armani Ceaser and Benny, the Butcher. Amongst others from Buffalo, the continuous stride of these rappers has kept my ears close to the play button, but Ché Noir takes a huge slice. Ché Noir first caught my ear with her collaboration with Detroit producer Apollo Brown, and since one could say I’ve been a fan. Food For Thought continues to prove that, as Ché delivers righteous and detailed bars – on top of bars – with wicked rhyme schemes and old soul flow. 

Food For Thought is a minimal step back for Ché Noir, conceptually. She holds back from delivering layers of riotous and provocative lyricism in exchange for a complex vision of the now and future based on past lessons. It isn’t a problem for Ché since it won’t dissuade fans who are used to her direct-heavy hitting and colorful flows, but as it rounds out, you hear some lyrical repetition. Though these introspective raps aren’t lacking from intricate rhyme schemes, and there is no sugarcoating it – opening with “Splitting the Bread,” Ché makes it known that she is ready to bring lyrical heaters. She raps, “Bitch, I rap better than thesе niggas, do not compare me/These bars give you food for thought, this shit is like commissary/A lot to carry, shot, buried,” with virtuoso and confidence that it makes up for those heel turns that remind us to stay grounded. 

These heel turns show as Food For Thought progresses – for example, on the track “Bless The Food,” Ché Noir delivers a message to us about her keys to success through spoken freeform prose and verse. In the song, she raps: “Look, Tattoos on my ribs, a bible scripture I always knew what God had for me/I’m still fighting demons, shit like mortal combat to me/Fuck friends, I need more shooters,” reflecting on the contrasting dualities between the ideals of friends and people who’d ride or die for you. I mean that wholeheartedly. “Friend” is a loose term, but someone who’d help you hide a body or run into a gun battle with you. She doesn’t create overflow with the heavy-introspective raps and offers enough complex bars to keep you in a free-flow meditative state. It reflects with the skits that give us a reflection of her beliefs and her methods for success.

The production sounds off without being conscious of which song is currently playing. It is a slight detriment as it maneuvers through having one cohesive sound with its boom-bap style, DJ scratches, and energy. That modern and darker approach to boom-bap retains its spirit, but it becomes muddled due to its poor sonic consistencies, specifically in the percussion. There is minimal elevation on Ché Noir’s flows, and it tends to make a few songs underwhelming, especially when it does so similarly for the featured artists. It isn’t to push down, or disrespect the quality of the production, as the sound does come off clean and finished, but sometimes I, unconsciously, miss the features within the simplicity. Fortunately, we aren’t getting hindered in the final product; it meshes with Che’s style – others like Rome Streetz and Ransom assimilate compared to slight deviations from their style, especially Ransom.

Ultimately, Ché Noir is barely against the ropes, inclining to prove to us her hunger to succeed in the hip-hop game. There is no doubt she has a slight struggle since her style isn’t the hot-topic we get from many STAR-like Hip-Hop artists. But she’s an emcee willing to dig into the trenches and get her hands dirty instead of letting the backend guide them to the bigger stage. Her flows guide her, and we will see her conquer bigger stages. It’s the kind that oozes through your ears as it warps you to that authentic hip-hop old heads have been claiming for more with the rise of melodic trap rap.

Food For Thought is like many introspective hip-hop projects, offering little difference; however, Che Noir has enough firepower to keep your interest. It has a steady progression that your ears never tire within the 35 minutes, and there is something new to take out of it. It leaves me excited for what she has next in the pot, stirring and steaming, waiting to get served in a golden bowl.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Earl Sweatshirt – SICK! : Review

One thing has always been evident about Earl Sweatshirt’s talent: his lyrical and rhythmic skills are unmatched by most artists today, even though his topics may not reflect the modern, pop-like, hip-hop interest in fans. I’ve had conversations with friends where they express how hard artists like Pooh Sheisty or Nav go as lyricists; it isn’t the same with rappers focusing on lyricism more than production (vaguely). But Earl continues to show us why he dominates his side of the genre with his new album, SICK! As a producer, Earl underwhelms for himself, not others. It is noticeable in his sophomore release, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Like Going Outside – slightly on Some Rap SongsSICK! does not have production from Earl; instead, he focuses on giving us his best through powerful storytelling and lyricism. 

SICK! is like past work by Earl Sweatshirt, except elevated to a higher plateau where you are getting the apex tier from both sides of the studio. An uptick comes from Earl’s flows. In the past, his emotional delivery fluctuated and sometimes faltered to keep energy amid the darkness. It was evident that Earl was finally letting loose on I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Like Going Outside and now, comes to his own, on SICK! His flows are energetic and immersive, to a fault, but it makes you sense what he is trying to convey. In a sense, Earl always reflects meaning with visceral analogies and rhyme schemes, but on SICK!, more layers get established. It creates emotional parallels that riddle him and society during a tumultuous time.

It overlays with the moods and vibe that embolden the album, like self-assurance and anxieties, amongst others. In “Lobby (Int),” Earl makes his way to cop some marijuana, eventually ending with an assailant killing him and fleeing. The nature of his lyricism allows for different parallels to generate from his actions. Earl flow through his internal thoughts about the situation, creating allusions to hiding face – he raps on the track: “I happen to know the assailant/I’m happy to throw off the trail/Cover your nose, it’s surveillance,” displaying notions of individualism in the face of group mentality. These bars reflect the nature of individualism on both sides of the mask debate. Save face for yourself, not others – “cover your nose, it’s surveillance” being evidence for it.

SICK! has a few instances where it contains broader lyrics reflective of our surroundings, whether physical or mental. Some are personal to Earl, like on “2010,” or universal like “Tabula Rasa,” which features Armand Hammer. The track explores the notion of finding positives within faults. The three keep it poignant and personal; however, their talk about overcoming setbacks gets fueled by their tone and energy. Fortunately, it gets support from a plethora of fantastic beats ranging from The Alchemist to Navy Blue, including past collaborators like Samiyan and Black Noi$e. Like Dawn FM, SICK! is built to have unique cohesion from start to finish, and it isn’t due to the nature of the song’s lengths or content. Instead, that’s from the production side. In doing so, they give the music a bigger atmospheric platform to deliver with impact. The track transitions are like stagnant coughs where each subsequent track, arrives with more depth than the previous.

Unfortunately, some cracks appear along the way as Earl Sweatshirt minimally loses energy in his delivery. We’ve heard it before, but Earl doesn’t always translate when he blends styles, like on “Titanic.” Its overly glitzy production and hyphy backing vocals create an awkwardness parallel to Earl’s trap-like flow. But as much as he tries, his energy sometimes contains nuances of mellow-drone-like tones. For example, the title track suffers from his drone-Esque delivery akin to flows on tracks like “74” off Feet of Clay. It isn’t like “2010,” where he takes that energy and brings flair with bravado. We’ve heard it before, especially after some of the lackluster flows on Doris, on his sophomore effort. With “Mantra” as evidence, it’s great to hear Earl consistently grow. 

Earl Sweatshirt’s prowess is unmatched, and yet, there were a few issues that left it from feeling like a perfect cohesion of sounds that keep you invested. It’s a fantastic album with enough weight to make its 24-minute run time feel longer in your mind. SICK! is another solid entry for Hip-Hop to begin the new year. Cheers Earl.

Rating: 8 out of 10.