Grip – 5 & A F*** You: Review

Georgia Rapper Grip came soaring exponentially with 2021’s I Died For This?! after a great mixtape the year prior. He continues to persevere and establish himself as one of the better lyricists Eminem has signed under Shady Records. And as told by the lines “Might just pull a DMX and drop two in a year/More truth to spew in your ears in lieu of my peers/A loose screw in the mood to ruin careers,” Grip brings the heat, delivering fortitude that speaks further toward his future with his hunger surpassing many young guns, even if the numbers don’t show. Compared to his contemporaries who are more trap driven, there are layers of grit, excellent song construction, and potently emotive flows that make Takeoffs flow on the opening track of Only Built For Infinity Links feel like a distant memory. Albeit fantastic, there is a rawness to Grip that makes 5 & A F*** You a superb follow-up that sees fully developing the craft of the hook as he continues to offer rhythmically resonant flows and some evolution past the know.

You can chalk the opening track, “Cook Up,” as a lyrical exercise that goes through bullet points that will either work or not based on one’s feeling toward the style, but as it progresses, you’ll notice Grip’s someone to keep those ears perked on. Think how Curren$y and his fandom ride through his style and find the brilliance in the bars he spits–here, Grip flexes hard, weaving crazy double entendres between the quality of his craft behind the microphone and stove. It may not be the most profound, but when “‘94 Flow” kicks in, you hear this rework of lines from “Scenario” by A Tribe Called Quest over these nuanced 90s, dark–tone kicks and gritty layers pushing it further. There is usually something different going on with the beats, and it’s working exponentially. It reminds me slightly of the Amine tape, onepointfive, which was a shift from the more poppish, fun hip-hop work of his debut, Good For You. Here, Grip isn’t changing much from the known, but he’s still crafting and evolving past normative styles we’ve heard since he started becoming more prominent in 2020, like the bombastic, rhythmically destructive “The F Word.” 

5 & A F*** You is a personification of Grip through the turbulence of his post-success life. Some reflections are lighter, barely retreating toward darkness, unless that darkness gets imposed on by his powerful, confident appeal leveling the confidence with humbling lyricism. “Many Thanks” is Grip delivering a beautiful message that speaks to you like he won an award, and his speech is this spirited performance that makes it feel grounded. Even when Grip is flexing, it feels grounded with relatability. In “Da Benzo,” Grip notes he is dropping money on a Benzo and demonstrating other personable issues pointed from the choral lines, “5 Series just got swapped, needed a Benz/My girl say I’m fuckin’ on thots, she leavin’ again (Where you goin’?).” That’s who he’s been as a lyricist, continuously finding ways to evolve and give us greatness. It’s dependent on the production’s tone and the core percussion that paves the field for Grip to rap.

Using status and the tools at his disposal, Grip brings back collaborators from his major label debut to put in the work on this follow-up. Noting it in “Many Thanks,” Grip says in the outro, “Shit, how ’bout we make a project in a week/Like a EP in a week, so, you know, I hit a couple producers/Man, um/Yeah, it was just like, “Yo, I’m tryna do somethin’ in a week”/You know what I’m sayin’? Like, quick, quick as hell type shit.” With it, we hear these crisp beats that add to his credentials as Grip flows remarkably, like the uniquely moody drum and piano patterns as he comes at the music industry and how they care more about a trending song on TikTok over the world around them. How Grip switches flow throughout with finesse, allowing it to be the emotional ship that delivers his true feelings. It isn’t like “Cory N’ Mel” and “Value Mall,” which have more rudimentary, trap-like flows that aren’t so captivating. But as it rounds out, the continuity is fantastic, and ​​5 & A F*** You is another to add to his repertoire of easily replayable albums.

There isn’t much more I can say, really. Just go and seek out this tape and Grip’s other projects cause I guarantee you’ll have a killer time listening.

Rating: 8 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.

The Game – Drillmatic – Heart vs. Mind: Review

There is nothing cornier than hyping yourself up only to fail at delivering convincing arguments toward claims one boldly makes to get eyes and ears. There is an arrogance to it that you love when they can produce, and characteristically, I wasn’t surprised with all the chatter from The Game as we awaited the release of the new album, Drillmatic – Heart vs. Mind. From interviews to random posts on social media and more, he imparted a high standard for fans, who have been starving for consistency since 2016’s 1992. He comes proclaiming: “This album is better than Doctor’s Advocate. Shit, it’s better than The Documentary. I’m not here to gas shit, I don’t even shoot most of my videos, I don’t over promote, I don’t even give a fuck if one nigga buy it…This Drillmatic shit [is] different. This shit got Ye out the house on some different shit. This shit got niggas moving different.” It isn’t. But it’s there, alongside albums in the tier below The Documentary, meaning, despite a flurry of great tracks, it’s overlong, pumping the breaks early as you start to get tired before the last 40 minutes so end.

Though 1992 was a great follow-up, it became drowned amongst albums like Block Wars, Born 2 Rap, and Streets of Compton and some singles; fortunately, Drillmatic – Heart vs. Mind delivers some satisfaction on the consistency front, despite being another unnecessarily long album. At 30 Tracks and nearly two hours, Drillmatic – Heart vs. Mind felt more like a dwindling and tiring process that never proves Game’s point about it being his opus, though that isn’t to say we don’t receive some of his best work in some time. There are moments where, like in The Documentary, sadness, and pain get heard potently–his aggro-sounding flow temper in one direction, turning the notches on another. It gives us a greater understanding of why he makes confident proclamations, especially with certain tracks reflecting the nature of his talents, whether flows or lyricism. We hear these flows coming at a constant, eventually becoming redundant as it progresses, despite his lyricism still shimmering through the cracks.

It’s similarly the case with its production, which contains work from an abundance of producers with enough synergy to keep it afloat, even when some aren’t as interesting as the Game’s content within the track. We hear it on “Outside,” a classic west coast romp that personifies character within the gangster rap realm. “Twisted” similarly lacks the intrigue of other percussion-heavy beats, but like how the swagger boosts the potency of “Outside,” Game’s lyricism does so here. Having lesser production, comparatively, makes other tracks explode on repeat, like “Burning Checks,” Game’s attempt at Drill–and one of my favorites–or the nuanced sounds from late 90s/early 00s gritty NYC street rap on “K.I.L.L.A.S.” They hide amongst varying styles that remind you of radiant melodies and beats that offer stylistic overtures and subtleties within ever-shifting drum patterns on the over or underhead. We hear him rapping over beautifully eclectic percussion on “Nikki Beach,” and then there are the eloquent piano notes playing between rhyme schemes and verses on “Start From Scratch II.” Stagnant transitions aside, there isn’t much on that front that distorts how you take in the sounds.

Though it isn’t pertinent throughout, minor transitional pivots like between “Nikki Beach” and “Talk To Me Nice” push you aside harder as they are complete opposites tonally. Going from this incredible, slightly island-like production to the drilling loudness and annoyance that is Meek Mill’s flow doesn’t give you much to fall back on. It’s a second pair after two earlier tracks, “Chrome Slugs & Harmony” and “Start From Scratch II,” where the transitions sound more seamless, even though the former isn’t as strong, which is the opposite with “Nikki Beach” and “Talk To Me Nice” where the latter isn’t great as the former. That isn’t saying much when features on these tracks can sound mundane in comparison. The outliers here have distinctions in tempo, and these slightly wayward moments further affect the mellow-to-hard sonic transitions on more listen-through–specifically from “Burning Checks” to “La La Land.”

The influx of features on Drillmatic – Heart vs. Mind pushes the album to its limits with seven solo tracks of thirty, including albatross of a diss– “The Black Slim Shady;” it undermines the hardened, testosterone-pumping flows/raps, which contrasts the more personal tracks. Seeing the plethora of featured artists ahead of time offered no surprise as we’ve seen Game do it out the wazoo since The R.E.D. Album. And we’ve seen it work ceremoniously on The Documentary 2 & 2.5; however, it starts to feel more gimmicky, as if Game isn’t capable of giving us something tight and focused like 2016’s 1992. Though I’m not decrying the quality, as some don’t stick to the landing, thus adding more pressure on the project to be its best, but a weak verse or lackluster chorus/hook or even both derail the final product because you’ll then find it hard get through it. Some that come to mind are “O.P.P,” “Talk Nice To Me,” “.38 Special,” and “Universal Love,” further reminding me that Game is at his most consistent delivering tracks solo. 

You love to hear The Game express himself, delivering visceral depth in his storytelling, whether through flexing or being retrospective–especially as you forgive his consistent name drops–most of them are fantastic, like the smooth “La La Land.” But “The Black Slim Shady” stood out like the sorest thumb mostly because it was conceptually, lyrically, and ridiculously bad. I knew The Game was hungry for beef with Eminem after expressing fright in the past, and if you come talking big, one best deliver, and he doesn’t. I found myself picking apart the directions of his various satirizations, narrative pivots, and more; eventually, I started thinking Meek Mill’s first response to Drake is more of a piece of Mozart when it isn’t. It left me feeling mum, at times bored, because I’ve heard Game get down and dirty before and deliver it, specifically with disses, and coming at 110%. Comparatively, this is the first Game project I’ve liked since 2016.

It could have used some trimming to make it feel less bloated and more fluid. The Game tries to bring too much into the fray, making way for tracks to teeter in quality, especially as he tries to connect with the youth and incorporate them poorly, like Blueface on “.38 Special.” It’s like a roller coaster with an appeal to keep riding, even if it isn’t the most extravagantly designed ride. You’re sitting there, headphones plugged in or speaker blaring; the allure comes from your appreciation of the construction of the best tracks, which, in this analogy: the best twists, loops, and turns the ride takes you through. It doesn’t help that this ride will be long as the album caps at two hours, which can feel longer than after 70 minutes. Definitely give this a spin, as I can hopefully guarantee you’ll leave with at least 50% of the track finding rotation amongst your fave rap tracks of 2022, and if not, that’s okay; it isn’t every day you sit back and decide to listen to a two-hour album.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Westside Gunn – Peace “FLY” God: Review

The sheer persuasive prowess that Westside Gunn brings behind the microphone has no bounds. Though I’m being facetious, there is something to how he incorporates vocal gunshot noises before, between, and sometimes after a verse, boasting its poignancy. He’s done it in various ways, and yet, this time, it feels slightly different. Coming straight off the tail end of Paris Fashion Week, where one assumes he visited the Louvre, Westside Gunn delivers a mixtape with a construct akin to an abstract painting. Peace “Fly” God is Gunn’s new mixtape that’s grimy, rough, and naturally flowing; it has these soundscapes take us through exceptional complexions that parallel the artistic energy flowing through his veins at the moment. It’s altruistically flawed, creating a world unparalleled to the apropos standard Hip-Hop he has delivered with his Hitler Wears Hermes series. It follows similar thematic styles of the past; however, the way it’s constructed on these distinct canvases offers an elegant perspective into Gunn, Estee Nack, and Stove God Cooks. 

Peace “Fly” God isn’t something that hits you immediately. Its sonic composition shifts the parameters of what to expect, eventually hearing its fluidity through the verses. It’s a balance between abstract and core-drum beats that continues to batter you with slick bars–and to a lesser degree–flows. Unfortunately, there are moments where you’re left dazed by the production, and the rest becomes the same song and dance. However, Westside Gunn gives us some more gun sounds than the boom, boom, boom, boom, and that’s been enough to retain my attention, especially in the lackluster “Derrick Coleman.” All of that is pertinent in “Jesus Crack,” which takes content from a shallow puddle, but there is swagger and a smooth Brand Nubian sample. Beyond constructing a bold 8-minute epic flex, Westside Gunn takes a chance with Don Carrera’s atmospherically gritty and ghostly production. It’s a notable contrast to Madlib’s soulful work in the second half. 

Production doesn’t come from those two exclusively–Daringer and Conductor Williams taking the helm at the end–but they handle the bulk. In some ways, it plays like Westside Gunn’s journey from thoughts to microphone–feeling the highs within bars about gang life, hustling, and high fashion. It gets delivered to you through the varying production styles, which feed off lustrous moments like the wickedly wild piano overlays on “Ritz Barlton,” followed by a trove of spiritually connected verses that expands on each topic, like fashion on “Big Ass Bracelet.” It sees Gunn and Stove God Cooks focusing on the glitz while reminding us of their grit. Gunn does so with sequences like, “In the ghetto, AP strapped the coke out a soupie (Whip)/Neck full of Veert pearls, lookin’ all bougie” and “Anybody violate, I annihilate (Boom, boom, boom)/I switched the band on the Dick, you rockin’ time today.” Within the context, he offers a distinction that splits surface and reality. Stove God Cooks does similarly, after proclaiming to be a Jay-Z–MF Doom hybrid, with lines like, “​​Either way you die alone, my shooter Pat Mahomes (Brr)/My bullet thrower/I was court-side watching Syracuse play Villanova (Go).” Cooks echoes the accuracy of his shooter’s aim while reminding us of the casualness of his success.

The casual flaunting continues, focusing slightly more on the excess of their success. The flows are grounded and fluid, specifically Westside Gunn, who takes on two Madlib productions solo. They give you a proper descent into his emotional side, like with “Open Praise,” which twists the view of gang life violence, giving us a darker side than arrogance. From the flows to his emotionally gripping singing a the end–he sings about love and envy. There is a consistent quality within the penmanship of these artists, especially their gripping details and stylistic directions. However, the deliveries don’t consistently acquiesce. “Derrick Coleman” is one where the platter we get doesn’t offer anything new. It has crisp production from Madlib, but the flows make it feel more atypical. It’s similarly the case “Big Ass Bracelet.” We get a trove of complex beats that feel like mosaics, painted with great detail. Unfortunately, not all strokes look the same. There are minimal stumbles that deter me as the last two tracks mentioned, but it’s enough to find a place amongst the many releases by Westside Gunn.

Don’t get me wrong, Peace “Fly” God is fantastic and covers ground exponentially. It’s disappointing; however, there are still quality tracks which evokes the replay button, like “Ritz Barlton” or “Horses On Sunset.” It gives fans something to digest while awaiting his follow-up Michelle Records. So enjoy the appetizer cause Westside Gunn’s 2022 is only just getting started.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Nas – King’s Disease II: Review

This year Nas won his first Grammy for Best Rap Album, and it was a genuine surprise as it wasn’t the strongest nominee against the others. However, we take it in stride as it has been a time long-coming. King’s Disease was deserving, and it helps fuel Nas on the follow-up King’s Disease II. And if we’re going to be direct, this is some of his best work since 2012’s Life Is Good. King’s Disease II improves on the problems of its predecessor, primarily the consistency between his solo work and trying to mirror the new generation. Unfortunately, minimal redundancies and a poor verse from A Boogie Wit A Hoodie don’t deter King’s Disease II from being a great album.

Nas always has an arsenal ready to unleash within a beretta he calls the microphone. When Nas raps on King’s Disease II, he paints pictures like Van Gogh: articulate, direct, and vibrant. Nas has never been a singles artist, and his shift into commercialism over the last few years has never translated. Hit-Boy’s production brings the nuance that Nas needs to deliver his best work. His previous work with DJ Khaled felt half-assed and poorly constructed around Nas’ marketing ploys, from Hennessey to cigars. 

The haunting, exhilarating, and refreshing nature of King’s Disease II proves that Nas and Hit-Boy have developed a strong bond like Freddie Gibbs and Madlib or DJ Premier and Guru. The fluidity stands out as it has been a while since Nas has had a producer who understood his directions and dictations. From the smooth bubbles of “YKTV” to the distinguishing jazz-rap on songs like “Composure” and “Rare,” we hear Nas finding comfortability in the varying BPMs. Hit-Boy doesn’t produce the whole album by himself, bringing along Jansport J to add a few notches on two songs.

Hit-Boy’s production fixes issues that befall the album, like the outcome you’d expect from new rappers. On the decadent “YKTV,” New York singer-rapper A Boogie Wit A Hoodie delivers a show-stopping performance that leaves you in disarray. A Boogie is off-key and doesn’t add anything worthy to commend. Unfortunately, YG can’t save the day as it closes, but it isn’t hard to outperform A Boogie. It is like “Brunch On Sunday,” where Californian singer-rapper Blxst feels redundant on the chorus. It took a minute to realize it wasn’t Don Tolliver delivering a stripped-down vocal performance. It would have been more effective, as his background vocals on “Death Row East,” which helps build its haunting atmosphere.

After starting strong, Nas tries to make a drill song with “40 Side,” but he doesn’t feel comfortable since he can’t evoke that same energy an artist like Bizzy Banks can. However, Nas reels us back with a remix to the song “EPMD” from Judas and The Black Messiah. To Nas’ credit, he consistently reels you back in after delivering poorly. “EPMD” features EPMD, who haven’t traded bars since PMD’s 2017 album, Busine$$ Mentality. Unfortunately, you shouldn’t expect the most profound work as both artists are past their prime, and thus, we receive what works for the song. Eminem isn’t the best lyricist today, but he makes sure he delivers by pushing his strengths in one direction. In this case, he plays rhythmic gymnastics and reminds us he is more than rhymes. 

“EPMD” is a genuine surprise, like “Nobody,” which features Lauryn Hill. We heard her not long ago on a song with Pusha T, but she delivered a beautiful chorus instead of a verse. On “Nobody,” you’re left with your jaw-dropped as Lauryn Hill sounds like she hasn’t skipped a beat after all these years. It stands out, like most of the songs on this album. King’s Disease II channels varying themes that humble Nas’ views on the world and life. He creates contrasts like the violent and reflective “Store Run” and “My Bible” to the elegance success can bring with “Brunch On Sundays.”

But nothing stands out like “Death Row East.” The song recounts a time when the East/West coast beef hit a tipping point. Suge Knight and Tupac were close to monetizing the Death Row label on the East Coast, which caused tensions to turn into violence. Nas’ delicate attention to detail is the strength of King’s Disease II. On “Death Row East” recounts more than the territorial issues amongst both sides of the country and his attempt to squash any issues. It’s been 25 years since Tupac’s passing, and the way his death affected the hip-hop world was mind-shattering. Nas makes note, with delicate detail, about how he tried to dilute the violence and calm the situation between both sides, as the integration of gangs and hip-hop made it a dangerous world. 

King’s Disease II is an improvement from its predecessor, despite being as equally memorable. The production consistently reels you in, and Nas reminds he has not taken a step back. Like Nas mentions on one of the few highlights: “I’m In Rare Form.” That notion is resonant throughout as Nas’ continuous prudent deliveries balance its weak points.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Pop Smoke – Faith: Review

When news broke of Pop Smoke’s passing a little over a year ago, one of many thoughts ran through my mind; that thought was based on the details about how and why? As one who has been located on a social channel through another user having the ability or software to locate another based on IP address, seeing that he was slowly watched over through his social channels makes the world scarier and adding technology to the list of enemies, falling right under our anguish and doubts with faith. Upon hearing Pop Smoke’s debut album, posthumously released, one could easily hear the young rapper’s talent and exponential growth from his mixtapes. He’s had his fair share of criticism, and though it may not be warranted – it has never benefited Pop to have a plethora of features scribbled throughout. In his follow-up to Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, Faith, continues to remind us of that talent albeit the features and production choices making or breaking the overall need to want to return.

When the features for the track list were unveiled the day before the release date, the amassed hype grew exponentially amongst fans from various communities. On the surface level, they appeal to a broader audience. But with his untimely passing still generating attention, I can’t help but think this was some charitable ploy to get artists he probably wouldn’t work with immediately based on his style and eclectic energy; The Neptunes, and Dua Lipa in particular. Like the eclectic list of features, the album delivers enough obtuse energy you might ponder the intentions behind this project. 

The construction of Faith feels like a poor representation of Pop Smoke’s artistry, where at times it feels like they forcing marketability in pop music. Pop Smoke has shown in the past that he is limited when it comes to creating pop records, despite releasing some quality ones. Faith is like if his manager, Steven Victor, studied the first Michael Jackson posthumous album and didn’t learn from the mistakes on it. It’s a butchery of the work that has been recorded from Pop Smoke. You can sense it in some tracks, like “Demeanor” where Dua Lipa’s vocal and performance sounds exactly as it was, a forced add-on. 

Fortunately, they allow Pop Smoke to shine as an individual, despite a good chunk of tracks feeling like it would have been best to have left them in the vault. The oddity behind it makes it feel like a beautiful exploration into new territories Pop Smoke had the capabilities to branch into, despite falling short from most of these featured collaborators; especially in the features and partially the production. 

Pop Smoke’s keen dominance in New York Drill and Gangster Rap has been a focus for him and us as listeners who saw an ascension in this beautiful hybrid that mirrored two different cultures. And for the most part, the production has great fluidity, but some are pure head-scratchers. “Top Shotta,” for example, is the track produced by legendary production trio/duo The Neptunes, and while the production is fine, the reggae-bounce nature doesn’t mesh well with Pop Smoke’s flows and lyrical style. This goes for the various directions this album takes with his recorded products, like the off-brand and aforementioned “Demeanor” and “Manslaughter,” which takes too many creative choices with the mixing. The Dream doesn’t usually deliver mediocre or yawn-inducing performances, but it begs to differ on “Manslaughter.”

It starts to become a nuisance because you’re delivered, on a silver platter, a project with a minimal margin for error, and it barely leaves that margin. You’re more likely to see the Yankees blow a 5 run lead in the last two innings than think these established veteran rappers would deliver something of substance, but here we are. They orchestrate features like Pusha T, Rick Ross, Kid Cudi, and Chris Brown, and the final products are a bunch of tracks that you’re more likely to skip if you have high expectations for them. Ironically, the new class of rappers outperforms the veterans, bringing their all in tracks where the production elevates their strengths, like on “Genius” with Lil Tjay and Swae Lee or up-and-coming New York rapper Bizzy Banks on “30.”

The moments the album steers itself toward Pop Smoke solo tracks or these tracks with the new class, we are delivered the best tracks on Faith. Other tracks lack an essence of life, mostly because there has to be some empathy to hop on a record and do so with a sense of understanding. “Demeanor” featuring Dua Lipa and “Tell The Vision,” are prime examples of this outside of “Top Shotta.” Dua Lipa and Pop Smoke are some of the most nonsensical pairings between two artists that should have never happened. Dua Lipa’s overly glitzy pop falsetto on “Demeanor” doesn’t compliment Pop Smoke’s overtly twisted and rough ways on the microphone and it’s apparent. The same goes for “Tell The Vision,” which teased potential new, and of quality, verses from Kanye West and Pusha T, only to be left with blue balls from a weak intro and a redundant verse, respectively.

It’s always been evident that Pop has always had the talent, and with what has been said to be in the vault you’d expect better from the producers and orchestrators. But ultimately they took the opportunity to cash in on his legacy to find a happy medium between tracks for the fans and those to reel in the money. And though there is minimal-moral problems with it, you’d think they’d try harder to deliver something of worth, opposed to continuous snooze fests that will easily have you turning this off quicker than the stove when the pasta is burning.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

10 Years Later: Kendrick Lamar and The People of Section.80

Section.80’s is a complex album that rarely strays away from these dark and conscious themes. But it isn’t completely wound tightly, sometimes using a few different characters in his generation, taking influence from its effect on their adolescence. These characters have been silhouettes wandering through shadows since the peak of Reaganomics and influencing the broken youth. They contain negatives derived from social-political biases within structured systems, which have shifted the lives of people in poorer communities. At 10 years, Section.80 isn’t talked about as much as his subsequent work, and who knows why that is; however one thing is known, without the critical and audience success of it, maybe Kendrick wouldn’t be where he is now, but he made it as the bridge to give his story a deeper understanding on his follow-up album. 

Before the anticipated release of Section.80 in hip-hop circles, there was a belief this could make or break Kendrick Lamar’s career. We’ve known through his mixtapes that his technical skill was on point and his lyricism had enough equilibrium to keep his name high. What left that doubt was the lack of proof that Kendrick could conceivably create a proper song, or rather a variation that isn’t using rudimentary hip-hop instrumentals. He has never laid out a universally appealing track that can hit various ears and eyes swiftly, no matter the formatted radio. Despite a lack of radio presence he made waves with Section.80‘s only single “HiiiPoWer.”

“HiiiPoWer,” produced by J. Cole, brought the appeal fitting into a trend of the movement era in Hip-Hop, where you were either directing the generation to niche cultural dynamics, whether it was a form of dance or a performance empowering a group that believes in the truth. Though it stands for something more, Kendrick brings this sense of unison within the track, explaining how censorship and oppressive social views can impact aspects of the culture. He mentions how Lauryn Hill and Kurt Cobain were influenced by the industry and music’s overall part of defining aspects of capitalism. As well as breaching into conspiracy-laced thoughts regarding the deaths/murders of black leaders and more. It laid out an idea of where the direction of his album could be – in-depth social criticism.

Topics of social criticism from institutionalism, systematic racism, and more. Kendrick makes note of these structured and stereotypical systems that have been taking back a turn from what could have been progression in what is known today as Reaganomics. He starts this with three tracks that lay a paved path of visuals filled with stuff that has happened to him, based on bias or other means. “F*ck Your Ethnicity,” and “Hol’ Up,” are two of these tracks. The former is fueled with anger and the latter is satirically braggadocios taking jabs at himself through a tinted lens where he is only seen through the color of his skin.

“A.D.H.D.” is the last of these tracks, and the most notable one outside of his anthem “HiiiPoWer.” It could be the unique and slightly infectious chorus line where his pronunciations of words and soft-spoken harmonizations, which is the antithesis of what people thought he needed to do to breakthrough. It would become a silent precursor to the kind of approach his first pop single, “Swimming Pools (Drank) had, never deterring from authenticity. Section.80 was about the bigger picture. The way Reagan and (mostly) republicans attacked the drug trade, mental health, and trickle-down economics laid the way for harsher upbringings for many; specifically those least likely to afford the help. It led to people trickling down into their own vices and losing themselves because of the stresses around. It would be reflected in those times through various mediums.

Reaganomics and actions made by the Reagan administration, for the uninformed, allowed for a free activity market, which made way for a divide based on income imposed by a town or cities distribution of the budget spending. It also lowered taxes on high earners and caused the ripple effect we see today where we see some of the wealthiest people getting tax breaks and more for things meant for the less affluent. The drug trade was also a heavy pivot point as well, where minimalist and innocent possession could have led down an unruly path of mental anguish. It was worse with the way it grew within these impoverished communities and created a new stigma within the way they were policed and more. This is just putting it simply. However, when Kendrick Lamar makes note, on the track “A.D.H.D.” that this woman he is talking to him calls him a crack baby, it brings to light what she meant for people like them who were born in the 80s, which was when the peak of the crack epidemic began to unfurl.

He continues to criticize this on the track “Ronald Reagan Era,” which is a tale of a dystopian Compton, California overrun by gangs in the drug game, during the crack epidemic. But Kendrick weaves his raps/tracks as both a warning to the youth, using fictional characters as a cautionary tale, while also applying a lot to himself and how it reflected on various moments in his life. On other tracks, he uses characters as examples for these cautionary tales.

One of the characters, Keisha, is one of these aforementioned characters who receive a three-part narrative, describing the hardship and tribulations that come from prostituting and waning your confidence for bigger aspirations. His shifts in perspectives and tone, on these tracks, allow for his messages, within the themes, to land with impact. It’s from understanding and hearing the pain with the way their stories play out and the emotions they feel throughout. 

These people have been victims of biased governing and more. For example, in the news, we have heard and seen how poorly structured the education system can be based on demographics. One area could have consistently better establishments and workers in place to keep it functioning with preciseness and swiftness in higher-earning areas, opposed to others. Because of this, it becomes harder for some people to make it to graduation, and afterward, it could be seen, mentally, like it would be easier to push drugs or by other means, like prostitution (in Keisha’s case), or robbery, as opposed to working two to three jobs to make ends meet. Everyone has their path and sometimes they take risky and poor-choice ventures, but the world around them isn’t there to help. This is something Kendrick would later reflect upon himself, on “Poe Mans Dreams,” as he remembers his uncle’s trial and the implied notion that one seems to usually follow a similar path. 

This is taken into account with the lines:

“I used to want to see the penitentiary way after elementary

 Thought it was cool to look the judge in the face when he sentenced me

 Since my uncles was institutionalized

 My intuition had said I was suited for family ties”

– Poe Mans Dreams by Kendrick Lamar

These topics become a prominent part of social criticism from Kendrick Lamar, going as far as putting himself front and center as the personal example of how it can affect one’s psyche for the good or the bad. Some people see a way out, they fail and never have a plan B, but Kendrick has that hunger and he made it possible by standing out on others tracks that breathe confident arrogance, which, based upon what he hears, makes it sound authentic to what he preached and why he can come across like does. And it becomes apparent how long has come since Overly Dedicated with the constructs his songs. He boasts confidence, implying that he’s come to take the throne from the King of Hip-Hop on “Rigamortis.” It takes that arrogance, deriving from motivation, and expressing confidence to be something bigger than he is at that moment. The has the production of this track helps in showing his chameleon-like flows as he raps over a hard jazz orchestration that is not influenced by any hip-hop whatsoever.

This continuation of brilliance comes in other aspects, like the sequencing/transitioning of “Kush & Corinthians” to “Blow My High,” which beautifully contrast each other smoothly. The former focuses on distinguishing the split between morals and the way one easily succumbs to action at the behest of earthly vices. “Blow My High” takes a contrasting approach as Kendrick boasts about trying to live to the highest without anything ruining his flow. While “Kush & Corinthians” focuses on morals and religion, “Blow My High” negates these morals and eventually succumbs to his vices.

The array of lessons imparted through painted themes/stories on the tracks are topics that deserve a discussion. Many of these stories bridge the examples toward the tones and notions Kendrick takes on his subsequent album. It doesn’t matter how one feels about the quality of the song, like “No Make-Up,” whose themes I’ve mentioned loosely previously. We get a sense of who Kendrick Lamar is and what made him who he is, as he delivers an autobiographical tale about his life on Good kid, m.a.a.d. city. 

And at this point, revisiting Section.80 offered a lot more than it did the last time, which was five or so years ago. The music begins to encroach deeper areas, you get a sense of what is being said and how these problems have affected lesser social classes, and how Kendrick had to witness and bear a lot of mental pain trying to figure out his purpose; specifically in the kind of music he made. Before Section.80, Kendrick was just a rapper with crazy technical skills and to a lesser degree songwriting skills, but that grew and we witnessed an artist emerging into his own, July 2nd, 2011. So as you go back and listen to the album after rereading this, you will find a newfound appreciation for seeing him go through trials and tribulations as a songwriter and succeeding.

YG’s Opus – Still Brazy: 5 Years Later

For many, It’s hard to distinguish an artist’s opus when many one-up the previous work at times – see The Black Album by Jay-Z in comparison to The Blueprint. But at times you see greatness amongst those who keep it close to 100 on their roots, improving on the music you grew with and recorded prior to making it, and elevating to a new level. For west coast rapper YG, it was Still Brazy, which was released five years ago. Still Brazy oozes West Coast Gangster Rap and G-Funk directed within a niche demographic, but universal to the overall love within the hip-hop community. However a lot of his forays into pop and more rounded universal hip-hop sounds have been extremely hit or miss for YG, all the while growing on the charts. And though it hasn’t been the ten-year mark, at five years Still Brazy makes a case for being a bona fide classic.

YG has charted high a fair amount, especially on tracks that incorporate or feature A-list musicians like Drake, Big Sean, and Jeremih, but unless YG is headlining it doesn’t always come across as authentic. YG has made the radio-track his way with the Jeezy and Rich Homie Quan featured, “My N*gga,” and the monstrous “Big Bank,” with Big Sean, Lil Wayne, and Nicki Minaj. These are standouts due to YG orchestration, unlike “Ride Out” from the Fast and Furious series and “Gucci On My” orchestrated by Mike Will Made It and co-featuring Migos and 21 Savage. Ironically, the third single of My Krazy Life, “Who Do You Love?” featuring Drake, didn’t peak high, peaking at 54 on the Hot 100, opposed to “My N*gga” at 19. It shows that star power doesn’t always equate like you’d expect.

However, since the release of Still Brazy YG has been on a minimalist decline with these unique directions he has taken post this album, but he has never shown a decline in his technical and lyrical abilities. Sometimes it feels as if he is trying to commercialize himself to a level by trying to find ways to incorporate artists that don’t mesh with his style and incorporating himself on pop songs like “I Don’t” with Mariah Carey and tracks with G-Eazy and Macklemore. And If I’m being frank, he has shown a lot of misses on the tracks he is featured on, like his basic verse on “Slide,” with H.E.R. What separates this from Still Brazy is the authenticity behind creating music attune to the style reminiscent of a golden age in the 90s.

That is what makes Still Brazy a phenomenal album. It was like this once and a lifetime album where instead of trying to eclipse pop-chart numbers and more, he found a happy medium where he could keep the authentic g-funk sound as a resonating base and elevate his range more on some of his subsequent albums. However, Still Brazy’s inherent focus on the funkadelic and gritty extravagance has made it one of the more unique gangster rap albums of the 2010s. It isn’t completely confined by trying to overlay pop-like and universal glamorization and instead keep it nuanced to the culture of the west coast. And In simple terms, it stays niche to sounds that are isolated to the culture of that area, like Spice-1 from the bay and the Geto Boys chopped and screwed style from Texas. But it’s usually when an artist sticks to being authentic, without a worry of trying to break through the radio waves.

Eventually a single off Still Brazy went on to have a moment in the limelight, without really charting. This track is the politically charged “FDT,” which stands for Fuck Donald Trump. It didn’t commercialize well and went off being a stand alone hit/anthem for four years as the United States suffered through four years of slightly imbecilic command. The monstrous noise it made and the anthem that grew from it only went up as he delivered a remix with G-Eazy and Macklemore together at the initial height of their popularity. It never really steered people toward the album and it suffered in creating hype outside the huge hip-hop community. It stinks because it seems like the general public who knows the song, may only know the words opposed to the rappers who deliver them. Coincidentally it is a bona fide g-funk/political hip-hop anthem, and a good amount of the music is a derivative of g-funk and west coast hip-hop.

This isn’t the album’s only foray into politically and socially charged tracks with it closing strong with tracks “Police Get Away With Murder,” and “Blacks & Browns.” The latter features LA Hispanic rapper SadBoy Loko delivering verses detailing daily discrimination and other occurrences that happen to both the African-American and Hispanic community, going deep from the black on black violence, police bias, and more. It’s finely tuned g-funk production oozes within the crevices of the verses and boosts this track attention grabbing prominence – ten fold.

Outside these tracks mentioned prior, others relate to the life that comes from his gang affiliations and creating complex pictures of the social dynamic that is rooted within the social history of Los Angeles. This gang affiliation has led to things going awry at times, one time of which, he documents on “Who Shot Me?” This track details his thoughts and paranoia after he was shot on his way out of a session at the studio. It breaks down his psyche as he tries to ponder who and why, relating back to relationships with people. Still Brazy doesn’t glorify a lifestyle and instead makes statements by painting a picture, however he does glorify a culture within certain aspects of LA in some of the singles and others in the track list. 

Uniquely the commercialization of Still Brazy is niche and thus has never been able to see a wide range of appeal. As an east coast writer, a lot of the music on hip-hop stations range from the hot commodity in melodic-trap rap and rappers primarily on our side of the coast. When I went to Los Angeles, on their hip-hop stations, they played Kendrick Lamar, Nipsey Hussle, and Anderson. Paak a bit more frequently. So tracks like “Twist My Fingaz,” didn’t have that wide range, but it’s production and infectious agro-fun dance energy makes it sound naturalistic to that culture. 

Further down the line, YG brings a dominating force on both spectrums as a feature in Lil Wayne. And what makes this track interesting is that YG took the opposite approach to what you’d expect. The production and the content of the song – lyrically and tonally – don’t go down the rabbit hole of a banger and instead they deliver a smooth bounce-funk centric track. “Why You Always Hatin’” takes a similar approach, despite being more commercial. It features Drake and Californian rapper Kamaiyah on a track that boasts their prominence and successes, while calling out critics and people who disregard their style and want different and profound pieces of work. 

He redefines a lot of these notions on the standout non-single “Bool, Balm, & Bollective.” He comes across with a nonchalant and chill demeanor about his life and his progression forward as he shrugs off the bullet wounds. His fresh approach makes his internal feeling of too hard to kill more refined and unlike many flex raps we hear today. If only it closed the album it would have been a beautiful crescendo on repurposing a lot of what was expressed. But the cultural consistency of the tracks on Still Brazy elevate this to new levels of nuance that other rappers grasp and make their own, and not many have that sound YG delivers without skipping a beat in authenticity.

Lil Baby & Lil Durk – The Voices of The Heroes – Review

Like people 1.5 times my age (27) and older, the intrigue in this new trend of melodic rap/hip-hop has been something we complain about when compared to others who deliver in more esoteric and nuanced ways, like Denzel Curry or 21 Savage. However there have been a few that have kept my attention, even if a little belated in the trend; and from the few that have, Lil Baby and Lil Durk have released their first collaboration, The Voices of The Heroes. This LP from the Atlanta and Chicago rappers, respectively, arrived with a lot of buzz and heartwarming gestures as it was pushed back a week so it wouldn’t compete with DMX’s Exodus. And despite the hype, the album delivers exactly as expected – mild. It’s riddled with so many sonic and contextual redundancies, it’s hard to distinguish these tracks apart without hearing the producer’s ad-libs at the beginning of the tracks, but there is enough to keep your interest at various moments. 

The initial hype behind the release of The Voices of The Heroes had some merit from Lil Baby’s monstrous 2020, and Lil Durk turning out some consistently great verses since Drake’s “Laugh Now Cry Later” and reaffirming on “Every Chance I Get,” off DJ Khaled’s latest release. But the production comes from 12+ producers that don’t bring much to the table, so the way the autotune is used to inflect and add layers to the flow gives it that extra boost to make the production become an afterthought and the rappers take center stage. 

A lot of the production hits the same notes, where the little differences come from them subtly sprinkling underneath the base of the production. You can tell who mainly produces what by the intro drop that hypes the producer’s name. And though a fan of it, it feels like this overly reliant on it to keep the monstrous percussion and bass keep its redundant consistency hidden from the overall spectrum. From Wheezy to London On The Track and Murda Beatz, the many co-producers make it seem that there should have been some derelict of the duty to make it sound different, but the landscape is a flat terrain. You’ll either find songs that are good and bad based on what Lil Baby and Lil Durk bring to the table with their verses, delivering auspicious themes. 

The Voices of The Heroes is filled with themes they’ve tackled before. Some pertain to the struggle imposed by societal and political influence on minorities, and others to their wealth in a generalized sense. And Lil Baby and Lil Durk bring a lot of energy and bravado in their deliveries on most of these tracks with enough momentum to keep some of these on loop. There are many moments that keep you flowing with that constant momentum like on “2040,” or “That’s Fact.” It benefits that a lot of the production has that repetitive consistency so it is almost natural for them to flow over them. But it’s when they steer in a more conscious – or rather conscious based on their standards – that they shine as rappers. 

On the London On The Track produced “Still Hood,” Lil Baby and Lil Durk vibrantly deliver this anthem where they exclaim with emotional weight the notion that you can take the kid away from the hood, but you can’t take the hood away from the kid, though in this regard its meaning is more aligned with the PTSD that comes from it. On the track, both Lil Baby and Lil Durk trade off verses, retelling their life and the huge contrasts it has to their person today. These artists have climbed the ladder of success and often let their appearance tell different stories about who they are, opposed to the person they rap on their tracks. And with unique twists, they take the approach to redefine music as they call out faux “hood” rappers and personalities on “Lyin’.” As they have done throughout tracks on the album, they’ve delivered bars after bars that carry depth about their past life and their current life. For example, we’ve seen rappers like YG flaunt like these artists, but like others he still has affiliation with a street gang and that life is still part of him, despite his monetary wealth. The same goes for Lil Durk. But as it is with them all, they try to spread awareness through their music. 

However, there are more moments than not where it treads too much on redundancy that you find yourself going back to older tracks evoking similar themes. “Okay,” is one of those where they spend too much focus on the flex, that everything that is already problematic with the production becomes more apparent. The percussion led production is one-dimensional and doesn’t go anywhere interesting. Lil Baby and Lil Durk can’t save this as they bring a slightly weak delivery that becomes sleep inducing. They do something similar on “Hats Off” with Travis Scott, where the construct is fun and infectious as they trade off on many occasions before Travis closes strong.

The Voices of The Heroes is muddled with a bloated tracklist running 18 tracks long, but there is fortunately enough to keep the music flowing. Lil Baby & Lil Durk have great chemistry and their future looks bright if they continue to collaborate. Their stylistic similarities and energy they have consistently stored in the tank can keep any fan somewhat invested throughout.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10.

DMX – Exodus: Review

DMX’s career was one to always admire as he fought against the odds imposed by his mental psyche, by unifying themes of blood and brotherhood, amongst others, like religion. He never shied away from this and allowed his music to embody everything about it, as it is with his first posthumous release, Exodus. On this final – recorded for – outing, DMX brings back that grit and grime of New York, without feeling outdated and nuanced with Swizz Beatz co-lead production work taking the driver’s seat and letting DMX cruise along delivering some of his best work since 1999’s …And There Was X.

When Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood released, it heavily contributed to the contextual direction DMX went about delivering his message, in his loud and sometimes aggressive demeanor. His bars expressed different sub-textual themes deriving from togetherness and societal views, like brotherhood – blood and the world around him – via drug abuse and gang violence. His dogs (dawg) are his dogs (dawg). Exodus doesn’t forget that and DMX embraces his current life and its direction as he tries to make his way back onto the scene. And fortunately the highs on this album overvalue the middling low points.

However, Exodus has a strong opening and a strong closer, with a plethora of solid percussion and great/classic features, like another rare presence of Jay-Z and Nas on one track and a phenomenal posse cut with The Lox. On “Bath Salts” DMX comes at it with a different idea and focuses on the context of the song in that way, opposed to Jay-Z who is just casually flexing his riches without feeling refreshing. It retreads a lot of what he raps about recently, without the creativity. It could be because it has been around in rough form for 2012’s Life Is Good by Nas. Amongst them, the varying features of classic artists and newcomers bring unique ranges in its sonic structure.

From the construct of the Lil Wayne featured “Dog’s Out,” where the chorus feels middle of the pack and less infectious than Lil Wayne’s flows, and the unique inclusion of Bono on “Skyscrapers,” it leaves room for some admiration when listening to the rhyme scheme in the verses, but not everything hits the landing. Wayne and DMX are solid, but the production feels a little basic and one dimensional, further losing sight of the bigger scope. There are moments where the production comes across bombastic and one-note like the honest, but bland “Money Money Money” with Memphis rapper Moneybag Yo. Along with DMX there are some solid rap bars here and there, and ultimately deters into mediocrity. You appreciate the direct approach, despite it getting minimally overbearing in the spiritual content at this point, and other times he delivers it beautifully.

“That’s My Dog” is the title of the posse cut that opens Exodus with a vibrant and gritty New York flair to light the flames for DMX’s last waltz. Many of the tracks evoke a production akin to the rooted NY aggression and rawness that made DMX such a profound name in the music world in the late 90s. His first came as an unlikely superstar after the tragic deaths of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G., with that raw dog energy bringing a new energy to the summer in both coasts. The transcendent transition from that to philosophizing on others made him this unique first in hip-hop. This happens as the album starts to close with “Letter To My Son” and “Prayer,” which evoke teary moments from the listener, as DMX delivers a letter to his five year old son Exodus, who will only know his father from brief memories and from music, and a final prayer. This final prayer comes from DMX reciting the lessons learned from his wrong and the future we hold as we mold society to see the truth.

DMX has always demonstrated this demeanor to be more of an amalgamation of his emotions being circumvented into disdain and levying that anger with the bass-heavy production akin to Swizz Beatz style. Swizz Beatz comes in to flex that creativity with some slight nuance with the over abundant bass overlaying the hypnotic percussion and further defining what filled the void in New York Hip-Hop at their early peak, but with a modern twist. There are moments where it’s hard to define the direction of the production, outside of a few notable Swizz Beatz commonalities, like the melodic switches in the instrumental for the hook and more. This can be hit or miss at times, but it’s usually this breath of modern fresh air for X and the constant fluidity of the beats from start to finish really identifies the music DMX always had prepped for this major release, the first since 2012’s Undisputed.

Exodus is a beautiful swan song, as we hear DMX’s lasting partial words, and not his last, as he transcends into being one of Hip-Hop new angels, watching over us and the game. Swizz Beatz gives us a remnant of the past, while keeping it fresh for the times as X delivers some of his best work in some time. We’ll miss you X.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.