Westside Gunn – 10: Review

Hitler Wears Hermes 10, or simply 10. A decade later, Westside Gunn continues to be as ferocious as ever, weaving intricacies of his characters with auspicious production that shifts on a dime as he explores foundational growth as an artist. Though Westside Gunn isn’t present on all the tracks, his energy, and stylistic virtuosity breathe through them. It’s a semblance of Gunn’s craft, buoying rich writing over distinguished production as he reflects on ten years of the Hitler Wears Hermes series. Adding a platoon of features, Westside Gunn doesn’t deliver the best of the series as some come and go with typical expectancy but stands as a statement about his everlasting legacy through memorable adlibs and flows. Many mixtape series have a lasting impact, like Trap or Die, The S.O.U.L. Tapes, and Dedication, amongst others; Hitler Wears Hermes 10 stands tall amongst the many with its consistency and shifting intrigue from tape to tape.

10 opens with a beautifully delivered spoken word verse that captures the depth of art; despite the content, there are layers to the verses than the surface layer of humdrum some conservative people attack hip-hop for being. As Bro A.A. Rashad speaks in the “Intro,” “​​You, the listener, with all due respect/Some of us are here for the art/Some of us are here to try to be far too discerning/When it comes to cultural iconography/And narrative unfoldment within historical alignment to greatness;” it expresses this need to see more than just the apropos rhetoric on display. For Westside Gunn, he is more than the street-slanging luxury; he imbues an essence of humbled living after years of adversity. 10 has themes surrounding gang life, systematic racism, and more, as we see a solid contrast between tracks. With its features, they come understanding and delivering on the assignment, which boasts that success we’ve seen throughout the years.

Westside Gunn comes through with the heat on “Super Kick Party” and “Mac Don’t Stop” with the fierce integrity we’ve heard when he rides solo on a beat, but 10 rides or dies by the features. Though it isn’t a surprise, especially with the last two in the series, Westside Gunn brings in features and subverts our expectancy due to the stylistic area Gunn revolves. However, this time, that isn’t the case; Gunn brings features that offer nuance bars containing histrionics and boasting themes further. Everyone comes with reflections and physical characteristics that establish an identity, whether it features Busta Rhymes with the members of Wu-Tang Clan, along with Stove God Cooks, or Run the Jewels, again with Cooks. Gunn finds ways to incorporate that subtle celebratory aspect by conducting these tracks that fit the mode thematically while having an essence of grandeur.

Unfortunately, despite being a fan, 10 brings Stove God Cooks fatigue, becoming a slight deterrent with his presence being as frequent as Gunn’s. That isn’t to say he doesn’t deliver, but sometimes the lyrical repetitiveness and redundancies can come across as reductive, like on “BDP” and “Science Class.” The latter would have been nice to see Gunn with the last verse instead. However, there are moments where Cooks is fantastic, reflecting greatness when given a proper footing to spit, like on “Switches on Everything” or the glorious posse cut “Red Death.” Beyond Cooks, other features come and deliver on a high, save for Westside Pootie, which is cute but not that effective. Fortunately, most leave a lasting memory with their verses like the aforementioned rappers, Doe Boy on “FlyGod Jr.,” A$AP Rocky on “Shootout In Soho,” and Blackstar on “Peppas.” They assent with Westside Gunn’s style, especially the latter three, who blend into gritty, boom-bap beats, which are equally memorable.

Produced predominantly by Griselda signee Conductor Williams, 10 contains additional production by The Alchemist, Pete Rock, RZA, and Swizz Beatz, to name a few. Besides The Alchemist, the beats from the others bring that New York grit and swagger we’ve come to hear throughout the years. Westside Gunn smoothly shifts from the boom bap to the gritty street-percussion-heavy beats or sometimes jazzy golden age modernism. It helps round out Gunn’s history in the industry and growing prominence mixtape after mixtape. The production allows him to bring continuous intrigue, despite the dark tonal consistencies that shroud these beats atmospherically, but that’s the style fans get accustomed to–for the new audiences, just going through tape-by-tape, you’ll see growth in production choices and quirks within his lyricism.

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.

Joey Bada$$ – 2000: Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

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.

Fivio Foreign – B.I.B.L.E: Review

Stepping out of the shadows of Pop Smoke, Fivio Foreign has grown into his own, continuing to establish drill as a dominant genre/cultural movement in Hip-Hop. These artists have a limited range as a lyricist as the style emboldens different technical feats that an artist masters behind the microphone, like emotional focus and proper diction. Unfortunately, coded within some drill music is hate and anger, with Hot97 DJ, DJ Drewski banning the genre during his show because of the violent-gang-related content that engulfs these songs, and it’s understandable as drill has a lot to offer. Others would follow suit, but like any genre, you can subvert it the known lyrically or musically, and artists like Pop Smoke and Lil Durk did so. Fivio is another one to add to the list, especially after his debut album, B.I.B.L.E, which shows off Fivio at peak strength as a rapper while still progressing with his musical range.

We hear B.I.B.L.E stumbling at times, but Fivio’s musical ambition runs high, and working with Ye boosts the production value made by all producers involved. It tries to do something different with each track, whether it works or not, but there is an intrigue that amasses from it due to the lengths Fivio Foreign can go. He brings emotional depth and the element of surprise, especially with his approach to the themes lyrically. There is nuance in the way he approaches this, reflecting with confidence like on “Slime Them”–featuring a great verse by Lil Yachty–or reflexive like on “Feel My Struggle.” On a lyrical level, Fivio is twiddling his thumbs and delivering half-assery but his rap bars that never feel antiquated. B.I.B.L.E shows us Fivio’s growth as a lyricist and technical rapper. We hear him trying to push different flows and different sonic complexions, which sometimes work, and other times, leaves me feeling underwhelmed due to a lack of synergy.

That synergy is sometimes lost with the features as they become forgettable quickly, like Coi Leray on “What’s My Name” and Chlöe’s verse on “Hello.” It continues with Blueface on “Left Side,” who brings the energy down, and “Love Songs,” where the only ear-popping moment is Ne-Yo singing his line from “So Sick” at the end of a luscious chorus. On the other hand, “Confidence” is the opposite; A$AP Rocky comes and shines, but Fivio is almost non-existent, and the track left me wishing it was longer. However, beneath the fumbles, Fivio doesn’t back down; his flows and verses are better, and it shows, while others falter. But Fivio is there to still catch you in a web of music, specifically from the solo tracks, as he refines and reminds us of his technical talent. I can’t doubt his lyrical prowess under the guise of drill music conventions anymore. His ambition is high, and we hear it as he still tries to rap over uniquely odd samples.

“World Watching” is the most ambitious, of the bunch; it is a hybrid of two variations of “Lights” by Ellie Goulding–the original and the Bassnectar remix. When Fivio Foreign, Lil TJay, and Yung Blue start to sing or rap, the production’s proximity to that of “Lights” overwhelms them, and it leaves me scratching my head. Similarly, “B.I.B.L.E. Talk” feels forced and unnecessary. It’s here to repurpose the meaning of the album, but it gets lost with no fault from DJ Khaled’s delivery. The only interlude, there is little to it that elevates the album anymore. You remove that, along with “World Watching,” there is more cohesion amongst the tracklists. 

Without that cohesion, we get a slight imbalance. Fivio Foreign wants radio-friendly tracks and songs for the ladies, like “Love Songs,” but they mostly miss. “Left Side” seems destined to make a splash on both sides because of the chorus, but Blueface doesn’t add anything to it, and others are mundane in comparison. Other times, the production comes across as overly ambitious, like “World Watching.” However, he has one that works, “Magic City” with Quavo, which perfectly mixes what we should expect from a rap single on the radio. We want to hear them flex, and it does so effortlessly. It doesn’t need the captivating chorus melodies from “Left Side” or “Love Songs” to keep going through some mediocre moments. 

Ultimately, there is a lot to like about Fivio’s debut, and I’ll be spinning for years to come. But like any debut, you will have growing pains, and for Fivio, it’s song construction. A few times, there were moments where I felt songs could have been longer, taken off, or reworked for a better return. It could have elevated B.I.B.L.E to a higher plateau, but it stands firm strong as a solid debut that will leave fans hungry for an even better follow-up.

Rating: 7 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.

Nas & Hit-Boy – Magic: Review

Months after the riotous King’s Disease II, Nas and Hit-Boy reunite for their third collaborative album in Magic; unfortunately, it is far from magical. Nas and Hit-Boy take a new approach oozing nostalgia for 90s Hip-Hop, with the delivery being 50-50. Hit-Boy is back in his bag and finding his path within these sonic complexions with slight modernizations. It rarely feels forced, and yet the album didn’t leave me hungry for more – take into account that King’s Disease III is on its way; Magic is just the interlude. It’s a complex view of Nas’ past through various topics – sometimes he uses it to keep his status in check and other times, to reflect different connotations of the term magic. Fortunately, Magic doesn’t skew away from its sonic and lyrical direction, but it also doesn’t feel like anything special. As hyped as one can be with new Nas for Christmas, it’s an album with few highlights that move the needle, and for the most part, it’s a bit dull.

To call a Nas album dull is rare; the last one was Nasir, and before that, 1999’s Nastradamus. So as Magic kept playing over and over again, only a few made an impact, while others took a minute to grasp me from Nas’ complex lyricism to Hit-Boy’s production, albeit treading familiar territory. Nas’ bravado is also on full display, giving us some stellar flows – it mirrors with Hit-Boy’s production. There isn’t an abundance of originality, as there are moments that have a lot of glamour to sound resonate of a time instead of feeling loose and free. It’s an album I wanted to enjoy more than I did, but sometimes its essence of claps and hi-hats doesn’t let Hit-Boy fully morph it into his sound. In the song “Wave Gods,” Nas proclaims that he and Hit-Boy are the new Gangstarr, and if you were to tell me DJ Premier produced this album, it’d be believable. It’s no knock to Hit-Boy since he eventually shows flashes, but he doesn’t distinguish himself from the pack. 

“Wu for the Children” is one example of Hit-Boy divulging from the standard set of sounds from the 90s Hip-Hop folder on Pro Tools and creating a beat that blends nuances of soulful beats into a piece of blissful originality. It translates with Nas’ lyricism that focuses on themes of regret and acceptance – it’s a reflection of what-ifs and career parallels; in the song, Nas makes this comparison: “Me, Jay, and Frank White is like Cole, Drizzy, and Kenny” – Frank White being Notorious BIG. It is a reflection on how Nas views the next class of Hip-Hop heavyweights as he compares them to the former during their early prime. The way he weaves the story with fluid sequences brings value to his emotions, similarly like “Meet Joe Black.” 

Nas has a safety net for particular flows, but occasionally he breaks from the mold. Like the previously mentioned “Meet Joe Black,” Nas’ emotions are heightened, giving us more impactful flows to boast his braggadocio-don’t-fuck-with-me attitude. Like the lyricism for most tracks, “Meet Joe Black” is full of great metaphors, allusions, and character-building as Nas lets an unknown artist or person know they should not mess with him. However, within the confines of tracks like “Meet Joe Black” and “40-16 Building,” Nas delivers unique bars. There’s the referential one in the former; he uses the surface-level concept of Meet Joe Black (the film) to signify he’ll kill you – it is a film about a man tortured by Death in the body of a young man (Brad Pitt). In the latter, he delivers some corny lines akin, specifically, in the chorus, which has Nas referencing cryptocurrency in a double entendre with the word crip.

Magic is a bit conflicting because there are rarely any tracks that hit at 100%. “40-16 Building” fumbles at times, and on “The Truth,” Nas relays a tried message that probably won’t hit as many people. It could be because it’s been a topic of conversation throughout the ages – i.e. young rappers painting images of fun and enjoyment from drugs, gang activity, and partying like crazy. It’s a mix of this and more, and the levels of which there emoted. Some people lived that life, and others perpetuate themselves to look hard, and that impact holds weight. Nas makes that known, but it doesn’t add anything to the conversation to move that needle. It’s what makes me feel that Magic could have shaved one or two songs to deliver a slightly better EP – the other track being “Ugly.” 

Ultimately, you take what you are given, and that is an album with a lot of pluses and a good amount of negatives. It may not be as memorable amongst the pantheon of Nas albums, but there are enough highlights to keep that Nas hunger filled until King’s Disease III. Magic will hit accordingly for many fans, but it won’t for others, and they will feel what I did when listening to the album.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

Joell Ortiz – Autograph: Review

Joell Ortiz has always been one of the unsung heroes of the east coast, infusing his Latin roots into the gritty street raps that made us distinct from other areas. From his debut, The Brick: Bodega Chronicles, to 2019’s Monday, Joell has gone through his trials and tribulations to mature into the rapper he is today. He has always carried a distinct swagger in his flows, never deterring from his slick multi-syllabic progressions that come in smooth succession. It continues on his new album, Autograph. It is a reflection on his career and life over the last 15+ years, taking us through these various layers that reflect the nature of his music and human being, continuously leaving us in disbelief that Joell is consistently loaded and ready to unleash at any moment.

Autograph is in many ways like 2019’s Monday, where Joell Ortiz is still more reflective – the unique difference comes from the type of production he raps over. Monday was nuanced in boom-bap New York rap, keening on percussion and slight jazz overlays, while Autograph is less monochromatic and provides us more palettes to get a taste of, even when some songs fail to hit the landing. For Joell, it’s usually the case when he falls deep into his bag and lets his emotions regurgitate standard lyricism, despite intentions being true and holistic. It isn’t to say that there isn’t any depth to these songs, but the semi-straight forward storytelling isn’t as profound in something like “Lifeline” in contrast to “Sincerely Yours.” 

The various platters Joell Ortiz has stirred up for us to indulge range from elevated boom-bap base constructions to gritty-mood-inducing street production – the focus underlying within the string sections that gorgeously overlay subdued and slower percussion patterns. The elegance comes through with a perfect crescendo of acoustic guitar and high-pitch hi-hats on “Therapeutic,” which sees Joell rap about the duality and complexities of music and how it can help ease the mind. Joell tells us a story where he describes a shit-day Sunday; we see his high get hit with constant jabs below the torso, as it pushes him down and wears him down. From that, he relays his feelings over instrumentals in his files as he writes over with beautiful synergy in the rhyme schemes. 

It’s a testament to Joell Ortiz’s producers on the project – The Heatmakerz and Apollo Brown return to deliver their naturalistic mind-melding production, as some of Joell’s usuals. The Heatmakerz, along with Salaam Remi, bring that New York City/Borough sound – there are moments you lose sight of the release date with nuances steering toward a darker side of hip-hop from the early to mid-2000s. Apollo Brown brings that equilibrium with his scratch-heavy style that you’re left in awe with the percussion, despite Joell’s delivery trip-ups. 

Beyond the production, Joell’s style warps our minds with his progressive storytelling technique and shifty historical analogies. He opens Autograph with sports analogies – the 90s and 80s – to his person, like relating his fight throughout his career to Charles Oakley’s in the garden during his tenure with those rough-dogs New York Knicks that were heavily physical, making that a staple of their defensive play. That same tough mentality rides with him through his career, considering his placement as an underrated rapper, unlike his peers like Joe Budden and Royce Da 5’9’’. 

However, nothing matches the tightness of brotherhood, and that’s what is represented on Autograph, as Joell Ortiz brings now-defunct Slaughterhouse member KXNG Crooked and The Lox’s Sheek Louch. Sheek Louch makes it known on the song “Love is Love,” where he trades bars with Joell, composing the sentiment opposite the title, ultimately reflecting a tight-knit kinship where they retort that they have each other’s back. It speaks on the brotherly love by personifying their strength as a testament toward that notion of having the backs of homies, even when it can get violent. Like Louch, KXNG Crooked, and others, the delivery on almost every song is as expected, consistent and captivating – there is never a moment where you’re distracted from what they present you. 

And that is because Joell Ortiz is going in one direction, considering Autograph is, in the most basic way, a concept album that flows through Joell’s existence – he takes us from his early roots, reminding us of his Hot97 Freestyle when he was a teen to his first sense of hope as 50 Cent grew to be from the ground up. His life gets intercepted by the clique, eventually seeing himself up there making music under Dr. Dre and Eminem’s labels, respectively. Most of the stories have a lot of depth, with smooth and elegant flows and rhyme schemes that Autograph becomes a straight shot that can stay on repeat without getting tired. 

Joell Ortiz strides in sync with his emotions on Autograph as he restores himself amongst a pantheon of greats. He doesn’t teeter blurred lines and keeps it straight with his bars, blending unique analogies with his trademark swagger. It is one of my personal favorite rap projects of Joell’s.

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.