Freddie Gibbs – $oul $old $eparately: Review

It’s been three years since we’ve gotten a Freddie Gibbs solo album–I’m not talking about collaborations with one producer as they are on a tier all their own, but ones with many producers–despite the inconsistencies in quality, track-to-track, it’s regularly a must-listen when he drops. I say that primarily due to his ear for production since that’s one constant that keeps one gravitating back. That’s not the case with $oul $old $eparately, another conceptual album that tries too hard to present sonic layers that aren’t present; however, they aren’t an ear-sore but relatively more confusing. Most of that comes from forcing a narrative about Gibbs’ lackadaisical living in-between albums, leaving many around him annoyed and confused, like how fans feel about some of his beefs. $oul $old $eparately is different than his last non-collaborative with one producer, album, particularly in sound, as it shifts from his 2019 self-titled album’s more 80s Soul–R&B at the height of the Perm haircut’s popularity. It is more grounded in Hip-Hop, showing its hand and delivering some less than surprisingly inconsistency through the synergy with the beats and features where you’re coasting positively, for the most part.

$oul $old $eparately has a concept, and it’s simple: Freddie Gibbs is taking his sweet time, living luxuriously and carefree instead of releasing an album. We hear his hotel room’s phone voicemails with some slight annoyance from people in his orbit and some vocals from his Vegas hotel’s intercom. And we hear his manager and Jeff Ross, for example, and though he’s tackled various landscapes, many don’t fit within the bigger picture. I could understand Joe Rogan, but when one hears Jeff Ross, one can get confused. They tend to dilute the effectiveness of the tracks, especially as they round themselves with some forgettable beats. If you disregard some of the dialogue and vocal transitions, you’ll end up listening to the crisp lyricism and flows that have kept Gibbs fresh. Without balance in production, it loses its vanity. But as you listen to the album, you start to ponder things, one of which Jeff Ross brings up–what’s with the rabbits? Freddie Gibbs is about symbolism within gritty street rap bars, and it hits on a consistent level.

Freddies Gibbs raps about drug dealing, luxury, and violent notations among this plethora of topic subsidies that could relate to the three. It’s in line with the connotation deriving from the album title. Gibbs comes across as this soulless person who is zoned out and inviting random heads to a Vegas party involving many drugs as he lives his best life and warns people he doesn’t fuck with. Unfortunately, that soullessness transfers over many beats, with rare outliers popping out. “Feel No Pain,” “PYS,” and “Zipper Bagz” are some that instantly come to mind. The respective producers try something refreshingly new with the percussion, playing with the drum patterns on all fronts. “Feel No Pain” is audaciously grand, giving us nuances of the boom-bap style with live drums, while “PYS” contains that southern, slowed-down drum pattern influence boasting the grit of Gibbs and featured artist DJ Paul. Throughout the album, there isn’t a lack of quality with the lyricism. These tracks, along with others like “Blackest In The Room,” “Space Rabbit,” and “Gold Rings,” grasp you hard and keep you centered in the direction on hand, even when the features are lackluster.

Like most Freddie Gibbs albums, $oul $old $eparately contains a platoon of features that usually match the quality of Freddie’s verses. Some may come and deliver with typical frequencies, like Rick Ross, Pusha T (still producing a great verse), and Offset, but others elevate their respective tracks further. Some two notable ones, “Feel No Pain” and “PYS,” see Anderson .Paak, Raekwon, and DJ Paul add depth by providing the sauce on the platter through unique inflections that translate over the nuanced beats. Melodic features like Kelly Price and Musiq Soulchild balance Gibbs’ grit and present forth equilibrium that is mainly nonpresent. In retrospect, they boast the quality of Gibbs’ solo tracks as there is little reliance on features that sometimes don’t deliver, like Offset or Moneybagg Yo. And, since they don’t get strong beats to flow over, it causes them to feel more like an afterthought. They look like something spectacular could be conducted on paper, but the semi-half-assery doesn’t allow you to ingest what it’s saying at times.

The beats get handled by many producers. But as the expression goes: there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Oddly with that many cooks, the production isn’t all that interesting and never truly bloated. They are never immersive as you are just listening to Freddie Gibbs rap without sonic fluidity. It’s an intriguing experience that gets less enjoyable the more you lament the effectiveness of its concept and themes. There are lyrical and technical consistencies from Gibbs, but the beats flummox you as the quality shift is more apparent. The tracks that fail to make an impact aren’t that lavish and maintain a mundane percussion-driven core without trying to elevate the exterior sounds, which makes you feel that Gibbs works better with a producer who can deliver proper, linear direction for him.

There is enough to reflect and return to, but $oul $old $eparately isn’t the standout his 2019 release, Freddie, was. $oul $old $eparately aims to be something of grandeur, but that gets instantly forgotten because of its lackluster delivery on the exteriors. You’re left feeling that if he toned it down and let it stay focused on being a little more apropos, it would be a much stronger album. You’re given something great beneath the surface, but it requires a good amount of your attention before finding what tracks you truly like, unlike those collaborative efforts, which have clearer directions.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

Sampa The Great – As Above, So Below: Review

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

JID – The Forever Story: Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Meechy Darko – Gothic Luxury: Review

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

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

“Democrat, Republican, they all evil to me

But remember that the Democrats started the KKK

I turn on CNN, they tell me be MLK

Instead of Malcolm X but they both died the same way

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

Operation Black Messiah, it’s the FBI paid

Epstein Island, Q-Anon, and then Pizzagate

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

But in ’66, they hated the Black Panther movement

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

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

– Kill Us All, Meechy Darko

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

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

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

Rating: 7 out of 10.

DJ Khaled – God Did: Review

Mid-way through the 2010s, DJ Khaled saw a significant pivot in quality, where an onslaught of mediocre singles and albums rolled out, leaving us with little to return. He wants to be like other heavyweights in the game, like DJ Drama, DJ Kay Slay, and DJ Don Cannon–to name a few–but he hasn’t found his voice after all these years. Instead of being respectable 100% of the time, Khaled is choosing to be more of a meme, rather, an apparition that haunts you whenever you question his presence, like this year’s Academy Awards. However, he’s still capable of orchestrating and producing quality tracks where the delivery is enough to reflect competency; though it wasn’t pertinent on his last album, his follow-up, God Did, mirrors the quality of Major Key, though that isn’t high praise. God Did bears intriguing features and directions for Khaled, which don’t always work, but it’s fresh to hear a concise approach as opposed to Khaled Khaled.

Given the context of how DJ Khaled constructs his albums–creating distinct hitmakers, at times wavering toward a concept–there is merely so much you can take away outside of hip-hop or reggae/dancehall club hits. You add them to rotation, and like the previously mentioned DJs, that DJ KHALED yell at the beginning is a signifier of bangers. But as he’s grown, he’s learned to over-sizzle his presence and bore us with basic motivational drab that you want to skip to the first featured artist’s vocals. It happens immediately after a quick and forgettable Drake intro with the title track and a bit more frequently than expected down the line. It delivers one of Khaled’s better tracks in some time, with a lot of credit going to detail to make an 8-minute epic feel epic. With Rick Ross and Lil Wayne offering crisp 16s before Jay-Z comes and raps for 4 minutes straight. Khaled sets up a kind of thematic motif that represents humbleness and grace as you rack up success, but it’s sonically displaced as Khaled fizzles the gospel approach to hip-hop that many enjoyed from Ye.

After, it’s one stumble before it begins to sway between various ideas that never go anywhere, like that spiritual-esque motif that shines on their approach when flexing–which becomes forgotten, at times hypocritically expressing what is considered sinful, like pride–or ineffective deliveries. With “It Ain’t Safe,” featuring Nardo Wick & Kodak Black–though the latter speaks for itself–Nardo Wick doesn’t mince words–in his first verse, he spits: “​​She see the way I pull a bitch/You see the way these diamonds hit/Nigga try to touch my chain, you gon’ see the way this 40 kick.” There are hints of pride and violent threats, but I digress as the song is effective on its own, but when you think about the direction Khaled is seemingly aiming for, it misses. It does so on the remix to “Use This Gospel,” a Ye track from Jesus Is King, remixed/produced by Dr. Dre, Timbaland, Federico Vindver & Angel López, and featuring Eminem. If you ever had doubts about Eminem on a gospel track with no cursing, expect the best he can without synergy since Eminem’s style doesn’t adequately parallel a style sketched by the original.

Other stagnant aspects deter from what one expects after listening to the first three tracks. Though that isn’t to say the–immediate–subsequent tracks falter. “Big Time” and “Keep Going” shine by encapsulating the featured artists’ strengths and allowing them to direct their perspective identity with the beat. It’s a consistent positive within Khaled’s talents; he can build something great in his mind, despite the execution never landing, like on “Let’s Pray” or “Beautiful,” where individual artist delivery can’t buoy the song from being more rudimentary comparatively. It doesn’t benefit from relegating SZA to a chorus role when Future is retreading verses from his last album, albeit a breezy flow. Likewise, other missteps become more apparent, like some sample use like on “Staying Alive.” It’s an egregiously dull and derivative use of a Bee Gee’s song–the base production is simple, outright basic, and unappealing. Adding the interpolations of the chorus with some overly monotonous Drake vocals makes it one of the more annoying stop-gaps that can halt any listen. It’s an absent idea that sees him wanting to find a trend between disco nostalgia and hip-hop but misses the mark. 

Lacking subtlety, its use of samples gets used to boast the effectiveness of Khaled’s sonic direction, offering a rich layer that’s either emotional or outright fun, like on “Party” with Offset & Takeoff. “Party” samples the Eddie Murphy hit, “Party All The Time,” and as I heard the filtered synth sample and the slightly distant reverb in the chorus from the song made me laugh at first. But as I kept returning, it dawned on me how effective its use is as they make it their own without an abundance of Khaled. Similarly, “Way Past Luck” beautifully incorporates samples of the production from “All This” by Barbara Jean English. Confident pivots leave tracks independent from the mold, capable of holding weight amongst as it stands on a corner delivering concrete fluidity. It’s especially the case with the three songs that immediately follow “Way Past Luck,” considering his inclusion of Juice Wrld was both enjoyable and respectable, as it builds hype toward a thrilling Jadakiss interlude. It may be stagnant, but DJ Khaled still somewhat delivers on the orchestration side.

God Did is a better album than DJ Khaled’s last outing, but the standards he has set for himself get properly reflected here, even if he could go higher. Though, like most Khaled albums, there are bangers to return to, despite wrought inconsistencies. I had a somewhat fascinating and fun time going through the album, which I expect from most, even if it doesn’t tread toward the quality of projects like Suffering From Success.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10.

Traumazine – Megan Thee Stallion: Review

Taking a shift from the excess and glamour of southern bass-heavy Hip-Hop of the Texas region, aka chopped & screwed and trap, Megan Thee Stallion delivers as expected on a lyrical and technical level. Unfortunately, the production doesn’t match the levels of Megan’s talent, as we get a darker approach to the sounds, like more piano. That isn’t to say it has a steady consistency of mediocrity since beneath the levels of percussion, the interest in details wanes poorly. It can be slightly excusable or somewhat overlooked, like with boom-bap percussion beats where their role is to coast and let the lyrical poignancy enthrall you to the depths of emotional understanding. Or it isn’t, because with certain styles like trap, where the redundancies in elements of the percussion make the sound come off dull. Unlike these two examples, Megan Thee Stallion is trying something different on Traumazine; she’s focusing on trauma from a shooting involving Tory Lanez, taking us through these complex emotions that reflect events. She does so fiercely, keeping us focused on her craft, despite the production being lesser.

After some fiery, hard raps to get the flow moving on Traumazine, Megan Thee Stallion starts to pedal back, getting lost within a vast chasm of sounds. Megan is spelunking with poorly refurbished material, barely keeping her against the wall as she digs deep and delivers a flurry of emotional prowess. She’s shifting the construct, letting the sounds flow through atmospheric motifs in the sounds, which mirrors a darker side of Megan. Despite these notable upticks in idyllic shifts, it never held firmly together–some structural and melodic stumbles take you away from the mystique of Megan’s person. She has the ferocity, the heat that keeps us sizzling–hot girl summer after hot girl summer. But parallel to the mundane beats, some of Megan’s choruses, bridges, and so forth lack the appeal of the captivating simplicity and sternness of “Sugar Baby” and “Body” off her debut Good News. Traumazine isn’t constantly stumbling from this since we get some allure from choruses/hooks on her more grounded raps, like the effervescent flex “Budget” or “Ms. Nasty.”

Unfortunately, as Megan Thee Stallion switches up the tonal complexion, we are left with unappealing genre-bending that makes me question the producers as much as the songwriters. Though not in a pessimistic, judgmental kind of way. But there are various moments where this doesn’t cross the mind, as Megan consistently finds enough correlation between style and substance. With “Anxiety,” there is excellent cohesion between the piano and drum patterns, allowing the choral backgrounds to mesh as an instrument along with the rest. Other moments arise from the level of energy Megan’s features bring, whether it’s that crisp braggadocio from Latto or that hardcore understanding like “Scary”–eerily reminds of Bad Meets Evil’s “Scary Movies” from the Scary Movie 1 soundtrack. It’s similarly the case with other rap features that match the direction with engaging verses, like Pooh Sheisty. But Megan reminds us she isn’t just fucking with other young guns; she delivers a fantastic posse cut with Sauce Walka, Big Pokey, and Lil’ Keke. They are on an upper echelon in their realm, especially the latter two. 

However, “Her” was that first moment it started to shift for me with the inconsistencies. At first, intrigue arose from its sound, but it becomes a dud with a hook that’s slightly more attractive and colorful, albeit dwindling from an overly basic house beat. It doesn’t transfix you with new dimensions, keeping a steady pattern that rarely switches to make your ears perk up, and Megan’s verses are a slight afterthought. Similarly, on “Red Wine,” Megan’s semi-aggro-flow and intimate chorus aren’t crafted with a smooth contrast that its switches aren’t coming across naturally. Though it’s after where we hear a steady progression of inconsistencies, whether from yawn-inducing choruses or verses that retread past sentiments/bars we’ve gotten. On the fritz, the second half, Megan finds herself steering toward pop with these performances from Lucki Daye and Jhene Aiko that are audibly beautiful, despite being contextually dry.

As I’ve said prior, Traumazine doesn’t stunt Megan Thee Stallion’s lyrical integrity and prowess, continuously finding ways to deliver her points even when the tracks are not desirable. Notably, “Sweetest Pie” gives us proper Megan colloquialisms and other checkmarks in her style–albeit the captivating fun in her delivery–it isn’t the best fully formed. Though catchy because of Dua Lipa’s dance-pop/disco-influenced melodies, I don’t hear the best synergy between the two–it’s like Megan’s backing vocals for Jhene Aiko on their track together. Fortunately, as the first single, it stunted my expectations and added oomph to some of the aforementioned tracks that stood out and others like “Plan B” and “Not Nice.”

I wasn’t the biggest fan of Traumazine, despite mixing intrigue from a slight deterrence of her more lavished debut. There was enough for a return, but it doesn’t breach past the constraints heard and never something with sonic depth. Megan Thee Stallion isn’t here to show a decline in talent as that is as pertinent as ever, but a lot of the surrounding factors make tracks stumble, that you might not be able to return for Megan’s verses. Give it a spin, as it might be more your speed as this time, it wasn’t mine.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Danger Mouse & Black Thought: Cheat Codes – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Joey Bada$$ – 2000: Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

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.

Kota the Friend – MEMO: Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.