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.
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.
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.
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.
Throughout the years, one half of the duo The Underachievers, Issa Gold has always presented himself as the most sincere and conscious rapper of the two. It adds equilibrium when performing with his counterpart, AKTHESAVIOR, whose reality-driven apprehensiveness is reminiscent of the early days of reality rap (Gangsta Rap). This constant from Issa has made him stand out amongst his New York peers, who deliver with heightened personalities from the production. It breathes with the way he delivers his verses with a heightened focus on the themes, ranging from depression, suicide, drug abuse, and more. On his new album, Tempus, Issa takes us on a journey of self-exploration as he breaks down his stories to deliver proper relativity.
Issa Gold calls Tempus a self-conscious rap album, which by my understanding is less social commentary and more personal. Unlike conscious, backpack rappers of the 00s like GLC and Kanye West, it isn’t using social commentary to buoy his themes, and instead, he uses it as pen and paper to evoke what he feels as if it were a personal show without the preachy therapy part. This music speaks to a deeper audience who deal with constant self-doubt, trying to find understanding within the good-bad parts of life. He reflects one aspect of it, by detailing these varying actions that have affected many relationships down the line, like on the track “Regret,” which has Issa mounting these things he regrets like lying to his parents and skipping class to take prescription drugs and get faded off liquor.
This introspective journey goes deep into a lot of rooted issues of the common man, broken into squadrons filled with remnants of stories that don’t morph together in a tangent timeline. Instead, they are seeds that grow quickly as you pick each one like it was a sample CD player and headphones at your local record store. Issa Gold brings attention to this with the fluctuating production that flips between slower-tempo ballad-like hip-hop and more energetic doubt with the dark instrumental overtones. He benefits from the producers who graced him with beats to boast his themes. Many of them stemming from the localized-hip hop tree as they have a history of working with artists more in tune with their geographical representation in style, opposed to universal appearance. It’s this morphed chemistry that allows him to find ease when inflecting his words with emotional grit in rhythm and flow.
Fortunately, Issa Gold doesn’t deviate from his sense of focus consistently, except for the times he flexes his provocative technical skills. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything ad the range of his verbiage, as is evident with the few tracks that open the project, like the aforementioned “Regret” and “Withdrawn,” which expresses his weaknesses with being as open as he thinks he should be. It morphs around relating to people who carry with them a reserved demeanor in life. It’s an inflection that surrounds him with doubt, despite any form of reassurance. It creates staggering ideologies; specifically with how he implements his views on Christianity in his verses, attributing spurts of assurance that human’s basic timeline is more than bleak.
Issa Gold processes these ideas further on the track “Fictions,” dividing thoughts about the subjective perspectives that define good and evil, as parts of evil remain dormant within like he mentions in the opening lines of the first verse: “I heard God love his children, even Satan got his heart / So why everybody ’round me walk around inside the dark? / I heard life is like a beach ’til you learn that there was sharks.” He raps about this constant turmoil with himself that swims around his being with a snapping nature of a silent ocean killer, like a shark.
If there is anything to strike Tempus with is the swiftness of the ending, as the last track and a half swiftly move in pace and you’re right away taken to the start – “Envy,” beginning a new cycle. However this can be a minimally consistent issue, the tracks don’t lose sight of the delivery. You could be going through two to three tracks at 2 minutes 30 seconds each, and despite a moderate pace, there is rarely a moment you forget what Issa Gold is rapping about. It’s ever so rare to see an album with enough purpose and direction, that one iota is to contain enough relativity that an artist reaches beyond the measures of the technical walls that split them from the fans – i.e. sending direct messages on social platforms.
Tempus exceeds beyond the parameters of the walls it imposes on itself for a marketable reach, but Issa Gold has never been one to glamorize success as his mental health still hits him in strife. These recurring themes have been a looming shadow on the rapper as he comes to grips with the way life changed. He may not have the appeal of New York rappers who encompass, the currently trendy, New York Drill sound and expand it to fit the unique niche of their verbal artistry.
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.
Posse Cuts have been a cornerstone in hip-hop as a way to build up and deliver these mini events that last forever. They are usually compiled of four or more rappers delivering verses as a cohesive squadron over these gritty instrumentals, influenced in style by the nature around them like the south’s heavy bass. But because of the rose-tinted glasses, a very few of these posse cuts aren’t as great as we like to remember. I’ve always been an avid fan of the posse cut because of the visceral imagery and technical structure that comes from the themes they evoke, with an onslaught of topical takes, like the recent remix of “Fight the Power” that was released in 2019. In many of the posse cut there are themes that extend beyond the simple flex, like Jay-Z’s “Reservoir Dogs,” and creates a statement about the socio-political climate or to give the culture more diverse representation.
With the release of new albums from a master of the posse cut, DJ Khaled, and new supergroup Mt. Westmore (Ice Cube, Too Short, Snoop Dogg, & E-40) on April 30th, I have compiled a random collection of 15 Great Posse Cuts of the last 30 years.
MARS (DREAM TEAM) – CORMEGA FT. AZ, REDMAN, & STYLE P
Cormega has been an unsung hero of the 2000s for New York hip-hop, as he has dwelled within the second tier of artists delivering consistent quality and gaining a reputation amongst many hip-hop artists; some are heavy weights and others are not, but what this is track is, is another reaffirmation that these artists together are a dream team. And having any of them perform is like a shift in direction toward mars. With the production evoking an essence of golden age 90s hip-hop with soul boom-bap style, brings out their visceral imagery with their flows and lyrics.
IT G MA (REMIX) – Keith Ape Ft. Waka Flocka Flame, Dumbfoundead, Father, & ASAP FERG
This unconventional trip of a track boosts the testosterone to the nines as the music’s bass and synths bellow through your eardrums. “It G Ma,” captures the essence of the original by building up the quintessential flex from Keith Ape and the featured artist. Each individual artist brings provocatively unique flair to the track that dilutes and warps the mind to an unworldly sonic plain.
LATINO PT. 2 – Joell Ortiz Ft. Emilio Rojas, Chris Rivers, & Bodega Bamz
“Latino Pt. 2” features a new generation of Latino rappers, including Big Pun’s son Chris Rivers. Over a samba-salsa-like hip-hop production, the artists reflect on what it means to be Latino in this world. From the social manipulation and fiscal struggles, they demonstrate a consistent anger to fight the perceived Latino/Hispanics stereotypes. As they start the comparison to their life and the world around them (impoverished neighborhoods), they lay out all the grievances with dynamic flows and rhythmic deliveries.
EASTERN CONFERENCE ALL STARS – SKYZOO FT. BENNY THE BUTCHER, WESTSIDE GUNN, CONWAY THE MACHINE, & eLZhi
Pete Rock produces a nuanced piano-centric track that flourishes with the underground flair of Skyzoo and the featured artists. They bring forth lyricism focusing on building up their stature and talent by weaving together the many metaphors with the rhyme schemes. Though the title may come off as too subjective, depending on how you perceive the “members,” on the popular status, but within the hip-hop community they are in the upper echelon.
FANTASTIC FOUR PT. 2 – DJ CLUE FT. THE LOX, CAM’RON, NATURE, & FABOLOUS
You can’t walk through the tri-state metro area without knowing the powerhouse in-studio DJs for the Hip-Hop radio stations, and the secondary – wider ranged channel – Power 105 has the answer to match wits with Hot97. DJ Clue is one of those DJs and his prominence in the area is bigger than his albums, which delivered a range of phenomenal bangers. One of them, “Fantastic Four Pt. 2,” brings out the best of New York Hip-Hop and DJs, with Clue immaculate production and hype-man adlibs makes it a quintessential part of the culture in the 90s/00s. It features two members of The Lox (Sheek Louch & Styles P), Nature, Cam’ron, and an up-and-coming Fabolous giving us unique flexes all exhuming the attitude brought about from “So Fresh, So Clean,” by Outkast.
BLACKOUT – DMX FT. THE LOX & JAY-Z
The 90s in New York was a beast we have yet to experience again, but within the culture many artists rose to prominence with these dark and aggressive overtones that have us hearing a stance on their artistry. “Blackout” brings out that energy and more as The Lox, DMX, and Jay-Z comes full force with that demeanor and more on this symphonic and gritty percussion and strings.
1 TRAIN – ASAP ROCKY, JOEY BADASS, KENDRICK LAMAR, YELAWOLF, DANNY BROWN, ACTION BRONSON, & BIG K.R.I.T.
It was one of the most anticipated tracks on ASAP Rocky’s debut, Long.Live.ASAP. And this illustrious posse cut, that compiled some of the best up-and-coming rappers through the United States, delivered on the hype from the paper. The production evokes sounds of the ominous New York streets, using ghostly strings and snares to give their verses an oomph, as they deliver a fragrance filled to the nines with confidence and contrasting emotions carrying over from the past and present, most of which are incurred from doubt. This posse cut could also be known as leaders of the new school, when they were new in the early 2010s.
PINATA – FREDDIE GIBBS, G-WIZ, DOMO GENESIS, MEECHY DARKO, CASEY VEGGIES, SULAIMAN & MAC MILLER
Piñata is a prototypical posse cut with themes pertaining to flexing as hard as you can; even though other tracks have different concepts, the notion of bringing your all isn’t gone. Madlib’s production has this ominous – atmospheric string overlay on the track to bring out each rapper’s unique flow. Freddie Gibbs gathers a great collection of artists for this, with highlights from everyone and especially Mac Miller whose flow is as uncanny as we’ve heard from at the point. His goofy-straight demeanor takes a backseat for this drug infused verse where he matches wits with the rest of the rappers, as he was the weakest lyricist of the lot. But everyone delivers with finesse and the track opens doors for some to discover many great rappers on both coasts, the west coast and east.
DUSTED N’ DISGUSTED – E-40 FT. SPICE-1, MAC MALL, & 2PAC
E-40, his Bay Area brethren, and 2Pac come forth to deliver this unique track that oozes Bay Area G-Funk. Though not much different from more prominent artists in the area, the bubbly funk textures makes E-40, and Spice 1’s speak-rapping as uniquely profound as Rex Harrison’s perpetually eloquent speak-singing. 2Pac’s verse transitions smoothly with the G-Funk flair on the percussion and everyone’s verse oozing perfectly balanced and infectious rhythmic structures.
NOTORIOUS THUGS – THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G. FT. BONE THUGS N HARMONY
The story behind the conception of the song always intrigues me a little more than the song itself. However, after watching the recent documentary on Netflix, I’ve been more intrigued about that demo where he rapped over “Toto” by Africa. But I digress. “Notorious Thugs,” came about from BIG’s awe and fascination with the speed and rhythm of featured artist Bone Thugs N Harmony, amongst others. And his attempt to match wits with them left them in initial distraught at the studio, specifically Bizzy Bone who opens his verse by referencing what he was doing as he was trying to rewrite the verse. BIG has been a part of many posse cuts, like the infamous “Flava In Your Ear,” and “All About The Benjamins,” but this lead effort trumps those in production and delivery.
Eminem is not one to mince words with a posse on his tracks, and most times his posse cuts have hit the fan with a bunch shit. But there are the very rare ones that have Eminem bringing a solid squad on a track that has nothing to do with any meandering subtexts, like relationships. But Eminem has always shown tenacity for greatness when he isn’t curating. Though, a part of me believes that he didn’t fully curate it, “Bitch Please 2,” does what others don’t demonstrate – togetherness. The three rappers show that they have his back, by spitting verbiage that indicates one shouldn’t fuck with them.
POPPIN TAGS – JAY-Z FT. BIG BOI, TWISTA, & KILLER MIKE
What makes this pop out over some of the other Jay-Z lead posse cuts?
The production has a smooth blend of jazz flute, speedy hi-hats, and spaced snares that beautifully boasts each rappers’ respective flows. It is a solid representation on how to make a proper money-centric braggadocio hip-hop; from the way each rapper delivers their lines to the cadence in their verses, it makes it a whirly-fun experience to listen to.
JOHN BLAZE – FAT JOE FT. NAS, BIG PUN, JADAKISS, RAEKWON
“John Blaze” is the essence of 90s New York when it comes to posse cuts. Using unique production styles equivalent to the sonic percussion reminiscent of the DJ scratches from summer block parties and distorted-stagnant horns bring it to life, as Fat Joe and featured rappers flex their hustle to the nines, with masterful flows and lyricism.
SWAGGA LIKE US – T.I. & JAY-Z FT. KANYE WEST & LIL WAYNE
Nothing has matched the swagoo of these four rappers giving us a perplexing idea of what swag is and exponentially raising the bar, like Kanye raps “swag on 100, 1000, trillion.” It could be why I haven’t mastered dances like the dougie or cat daddy, and I constantly live in anguish about how much cooler I’d be if I did, but I digress. The production high octane is boosted by the audaciously vibrant sample from MIA’s “Paper Plane.” And this track has an extra padded boost from the live performance they did at the Grammys. Unfortunately that video is hard to find.
NOT TONIGHT (LADIES NIGHT REMIX) – LIL KIM FT. MISSY ELLIOT, DA BRAT, LEFT EYE, & ANGIE MARTINEZ
There aren’t many times a posse cut is dominated by a plethora of female rappers, but when you come across one there is rarely a disappointment to be had. “Not Tonight (Ladies Night Remix)” takes it up a notch by giving fuck-boys the finger and flexing their collective empowerment over a male dominated genre. Everyone delivers at top notch levels. It’s also one of the few appearances of New York radio legend and Radio Hall of Famer, Angie Martinez on a power-track that went further than her albums, in terms of popularity. So if you were ever curious, but not as ambitious this is the go to for a verse from Angie Martinez.
“Not Tonight (Ladies Night Remix)” is one of the more successful – single posse cuts, hitting number 6 in the Hot 100 Charts, and the lush and accessible production helped. It takes cues from that New York – boom bap percussion, with an overlay of a smooth soul-like chorus and space-laser sounding electronic sounds as the icing on the cake.
Despite age, many music sensitivities in hip-hop have been steered toward the kind of rap that dominated the Golden Age (80s-90s) and the start of its meteoric rise in pop. Because of this, the amounts of legendary artists that have breached the nostalgia realm and legend status have been the safer – more accessible sound in a bigger conceit of music. And as the years progressed, a myriad of these older rappers have come together and created new groups to deliver various projects. And next up at bat is rapper Talib Kweli and rapper/producer Diamond D with their debut self-titled album as the duo Gotham. Their self-titled debut takes its name from Batman, but it delivers on deeper layers than what is immediately thought of when it comes to the fictional city, which parallels with the linings of New York City’s over societal shifts from block to block in these suburbs.
Diamond D and Talib Kweli have had the kind of career on the same level of consistency of quality with many heavy hitters, but along with many from the older generation, like the recently deceased Black Rock, they didn’t fully crossover (for the better). However that isn’t due to lack of trying. This comes from maintaining a solid level of authenticity to their sound. Diamond D and Talib had phenomenal debuts, individually, but together they bring the heat with this lush debut that feels like a timepiece for an older generation, adapted to a modern era. Diamond D’s bombastic boom-bap production style lays out effervescent sequences that allow for their flows and words speaking a higher truth. It’s what makes Gotham this eloquent array of effervescent New York hip-hop that the world grew up with, but still keeping some modern sonic textures akin to what it has become now.
Taking varying degrees of direction in inflecting its themes of blackness and the duality within the racial divide we see in society. The album Gotham doesn’t hide what it is trying to be from what the duo raps about like on “Chillin’ While Black,” which takes a direct approach that reflects this notion of dual similarities between the fictional city and how the black community is treated. They drop different things they try to do, like heading to the bodega for a can of Arizona Green Tea, but there is ever-growing fear that they are seen as this non-existent alien that doesn’t deserve basic moral human rights. It is building upon the ongoing argument – seen from various videos where one can’t listen properly to an officer’s direction because of improper training. While the album centers itself on having visualizations on the lives around them, it builds upon the backstory with unique variations of allusions of content their prime audience is more akin to understanding. But it balances it out by not giving them too much to think about in the grander scheme, and staying as poignant as it can.
Talib Kweli and Diamond D go toe to toe and there are minimal times where one outperforms the others through the delivery of the metaphors and structure. However, through the thick of it, they don’t disappoint. They have a lot working for them, from the dirty smooth flows and rhythm. It’s what keeps the momentum, along with the production, in consistent motion from start to finish of the album, fortunately without forgettable moments.
Diamond D’s production continues on the same tier of consistency of his last project, The Diam Tape 2. The lush jazz-boom bap structure begins to take a new life by having the percussion evoke this gritty street feel on the overall consistency. It shines as the third co-lead in this project, even as much as maintaining it’s structure in the mind of the more lackluster tracks, like “In Due Time,” and “The Fold,” the former of which suffers from it tonal preachiness in the delivery of the chorus, as well as decent verses from the two legends. However, the duo gets some help on a few tracks to help land the deeper meaning within the songs.
A lot of the features evoke these bigger than life sequences where these artists switch from the style, we are more adjunct to seeing, into something more tamed and nostalgic of the roots they came from. Though it isn’t hard to get that sense, when you have Busta Rhymes, Skyzoo, and John Forté rounding out some of the other features on the album. Talib Kweli and Diamond D are like some of these features where they never confine themselves to a trend and let their music speak for their artistry. They reaffirm this on the track “The Quiet One,” with Busta Rhymes. Diamond D, Talib, and Busta, take us through a journey of their music and the systemic problems within society and the music industry. Diamond D, particularly, speaks more into existence from his eclectic array of production for other artists like Mos Def, The Fugees, and The Pharcyde.
Within the confines of Gotham, there is a lot to break apart. But it isn’t this hugely profound experience and more of an off road gritty journey through New York City. Though the messaging and stories are spread within the confines of their roots, it still keeps a broad spectrum for connectivity for all listeners.
In this new age of hip-hop music the moniker or rap name have become too jarring or trendy with the man “Lil (Insert Second Name Here,” being one of the more prominent ones. Some of these artists, however, have been able to breach past the confines of judges who look beyond a title. One of these artists, Lil Tjay, has been creating some traction in the world of melodic rap/hip-hop; this is particularly due to his approach in fleshing out sequences in his story for better comprehension, opposed to some who get by on atmosphere and impactful short phrases. His new album Destined 2 Win continues the skyward up-tick he’s shown in the past, with more harrowing and dark sonic overtones that dives into the undertow of the endurance he had in life.
Lil Tjay is like many melodic hip hop artists that get lost in trying to keep their sound within the confines of a genre for categorization and business purposes. This brings out a lot of repetitive drum machines and live percussion patterns, but his sound builds upon them with these engrossing bleak overtures from more harmonization-like instruments, like piano and strings. The production keeps the music afloat by barely feeling loose from the central sonic theme, which here is an effervescent array of dark-moody overtones.
Lil Tjay fleshes out his ideas and creates beautiful scenes that contrast idealistic views of the abuse of happiness one instinctively thinks will be limitless with fame and success. And despite artists reiterating doubts, Lil Tjay takes those doubts and turns them into definitives, all the while forgetting the doubts the nature around him can create – aka The Bronx. He finds a way to portray the life around him by using his vocal performances to embody what it is like first hand. “Part of the Plan,” and “Gang Gang,” specifically bring out his best with his rapid melodic flow keeping in constant momentum with the instrumentation, as well as “Gang Gang,” except with more emotional pizzazz.
Unfortunately the emotional beats don’t always land because the wrought simpleness in the tracks that deal with themes of love. He has his analogical way of breaking the story down into these lush scenes, but sometimes the tracks feel like numbing sounds that are just there. “Calling My Phone,” featuring 6lack, for example; it passes by quickly in the beginning, never delivering beyond the simple concepts that contrast his homie to his girl to lesser quality. 6lack, however, makes due with what he is given and gives us a soft-soulful verse and underlying harmonies. It could be due to the try-hard commercial appeal he wants to have in trying to bring people to listen and see past it, but like the aforementioned track it never fully works.
There are songs like “Hood Rich,” “Nuf Said,” and “Headshot,” that do break past basic molds, lyrically, but the production has this outrageous production that builds upon itself to deliver with grandeur and elegance. “Headshot” features Polo G and Fivio Foreign in this luscious drill production that builds upon the dark-gritty New York string and piano notes more prevalent to the moody-renaissance of the underground rap scene. Unfortunately these sounds don’t always stay as consistent, as much as Lil Tjay tries to impose his unique lyrical complexions on the surface.
The repetitiveness is a bit more apparent, like with most of the artists, but the energy and willful prowess they bring to the microphone allows us to implore the kind of dynamic vocal structure he is sure to come up with. Lil Tjay has had his feet in the sand and the sand keeps him sinking as he makes his way in trying to distinguish himself from the many New York Drill rappers currently making waves/noise. Destined 2 Win, in a way, succeeds in its namesake by giving the listeners something to look forward to as Lil Tjay continues to grow as an artist.
Kota has always been a rapper with a unique mystique behind his rhythmic pattern, flowing multi-syllabic lines with ease, like on “The Cold,” off his new album with producer Statik Selektah, To Kill A Sunrise. His flows have these intricate pauses that enforces the period and comma with what he wants to get across. That has been an M.O. of his through his career with albums, mixtapes, and loosies of two minute or less songs of verses that never made a cut. And while last year’s Everything is the better project by Kota recently, the amount of effort put in by both artist/producer is on wave all its own.
Statik Selektah opens To Kill A Sunrise with these melodic undertones on the percussion centric production on the track “Wolves,” as Kota the Friend demonstrates a mental flex, that resonates with the strengths to match wits with his toughest critics. It shows his endurance mentally as his critics take him down. Something that becomes a common approach throughout the album. And the smooth DJ scratches during the last third of the track leaves an imprint for a modern nostalgia many “old heads” of hip-hop still yearn for. It’s these DJ scratches and at-times subtle saxophones and trumpets weave the story with Kota the Friend. He lets the instrumental act as the holster, while his flow is the pistol and the wisdom in his words as the bullets.
The first half of To Kill A Sunrise has loose interpretations of themes based around stories and faux-pa knowledge of his standing as a musician, like doubt of success from the critics. He expresses the doubt he gets along the way, but it’s all love for him. The kind of rapper Kota is, isn’t the one to hit mainstream radio waves in the same way artists like Pop Smoke and DaBaby do. But he ignores it to paint pictures the only way he knows how to.
On the other half, the music/content evolves into demonstrations where Kota mirrors his success and stature to that of the past with his ever growing presence today. Through his chill approach the words emphasize with the flow of the beat, showing a lyricist hungry to be one of the best of his class. He is at his peak where everything begins to meld in transition where it feels like a constant flow without those second pauses the music player gives you in between tracks.
Statik Selektah’s production is a continuation of his consistently great repertoire that maintains great equilibrium with the rappers he works with. With releases of many albums, his connections hold no bounds and seeing who he wants to work with only boosts the quality we receive. The jazz-boom bap production that flows with the grooves of the horn sections is a perfect background body to attach to Kota’s brains, even with typical young rapper mistakes like the weak choruses. And that’s the only true deterrent, wherein Kota does his best to fit with the pattern and most times the delivery is choppy. It makes you forget the man is really on here spitting wicked great rhymes.
Working with Statik Selektah has allowed him to evolve his sound beyond the “chill” demeanor of his sonic textures. And though it shows evidently, the production has given him a new platform, which mixes the old soul within with instrumentals more akin to his strengths like the jazz orchestrations.
To Kill A Sunrise delivers on what Kota fans should expect from the rapper and most times a bit more with his own individual growth. He might not amass equivalent popularity as the New York drill scene has amassed through recent years, but has the capability to stand on his own to mirror the success of similar rappers like the Flatbush Zombies. However his ceiling is higher and will continue to be a growing force in New York Hip-Hop.