Welcome to FACT’s Rap Round-up.
Originally conceived to shine a light on the wealth of free music that crops up daily on SoundCloud, Datpiff, Livemixtapes and beyond, FACT’s Mixtape Round-up has seen its share of tweaks and changes over the last few years.
The Rap Round-up drops every other Thursday (the week’s best free mixes will be posted every Friday). Along with mixtapes, we’ll be featuring the albums (free and otherwise) that need to be a part of the rap conversation but might not be covered otherwise.
This week sees the return of big hitters Lil Wayne and Meek Mill, two very different Awful offerings, one for fans of 90s New York rap and one for the R&B lovemakers.
It’s hard to pin Ethereal down. He’s the mastermind behind Alexandria’s Aaliyah-worshipping album and EP, the jungle and videogame fanatic who put together Heat Death 2 and the molasses-mouthed rapper responsible for tapes like Catalyst and the more recent I Think I’m On Fire. This modus operandi sits at the center of Awful Records, and Ethereal represents the experimental, punk mindset that has brought the Atlanta collective acclaim and notoriety in the last couple of years.
His latest tape, Final Fantasy, bizarrely isn’t the hi-octane RPG-influenced collection you might expect. Instead it’s a syrupy collection of low-key Timbaland-esque cuts, with Ethereal smoothly rhyming over glassy beats that could have been culled from Alexandria’s self-titled debut.
Indeed, Alexandria herself even appears on the album, as do Ethereal’s Awful teammates Slug Christ, Archibald SLIM, Lord Narf, Stalin Majesty and Playboi Carti. While the cast may be familiar, a simple followup to the retro, sample-heavy I Think I’m On Fire this ain’t. Ethereal internalizes here, crafting deep, alien soundscapes punctured by occasional hooks and verses. He’s continuing the dream of the ‘90s, when Missy and Hype Williams offered a dystopian, sci-fi speckled Afro-future; that dream is as essential now as it ever was.
We’ve been sold on Cali crooner TeeFlii since 2013’s excellent AnNieRuO’TAY 2, but his output since then has been worryingly uneven. February saw the release of the singer, producer and songwriter’s debut album proper, Starr, but the record failed to live up to the promise of both his mixtapes and collaborations; despite featuring bonafide club hit ’24 Hours’, it was flimsy and forgettable. Thankfully, AnNieRuO’TAY 4 recaptures the endearing after-dark sleaze of TeeFlii’s earlier offerings, emphasizing his innovative production and skillful songwriting.
‘Been A Min’ is an early highlight, taking the overwhelming influence of TeeFlii’s mentor DJ Mustard and tailoring the sound to fit, with slippery ratchet synth stabs underpinning the unshakable hooks. The tape’s strong beginning is a good indicator of the quality – elsewhere, ‘Undressing You’ shows TeeFlii’s darker edge, and the record’s finest track ‘Club’ looks back to hyphy, giving a feature spot to diesel-lunged scene legend Keak Da Sneak. This alone would be enough to give the tape a glowing recommendation, but it’s more than that – TeeFlii’s been on the brink of greatness for a couple years, but it seems as if he’s best when he’s untethered by label involvement. Bring on AnNieRuO’TAY 5.
Free Weezy Album
Lil Wayne is still in label purgatory, but that didn’t stop him from releasing his latest album-mixtape. January’s Sorry 4 The Wait 2 was further proof that yes, Weezy can still rap, even if his beat selection and non-existent hook-writing remain problems. FWA is an improvement in that regard; it’s more mixtape than album, but definitely a step in the right direction.
The album’s biggest strength is that it provides a better sense of where Wayne is these days, mentally. He seems less drug-addled and more focused than he has in some time, and his shots at Birdman and Cash Money are more telling confessions than sharpened barbs. “This that shit they didn’t want me on,” he says on opener ‘Glory’, “this that shit they didn’t want.” Elsewhere, he sounds like a scorned child passed over by his father (“I sold my soul to the devil, he bought it then exchanged it”), an employee pissed with his treatment (“Overpaid, fuck a budget, I’m overdue, I ain’t budgin'”) or both: on stellar closer ‘Pick Up Your Heart’, he sounds heartbroken in more ways than one.
Musically, FWA is unremarkable. There are a lot of rock-and-soul-sampling throwbacks and weird contemporary samples on beats that sound stale; when he tries something new, like the trap-EDM-bounce of ‘I’m That Nigga’, it’s promising if not perfect. Guests range from the phoned-in (Wiz, Jeezy) to the head-scratching (deathcore vocalist-turned-blue-eyed soulman Jake Troth). The purse strings for on-point beats and stepped-up features still belongs to Birdman, so until Tha Carter V actually drops, this will have to do.
Meet the newest member of Awful Records, Tommy Genesis. World Vision is her debut album, and aside from a couple of Awful features, the first music we’ve heard from her. Like Minerva springing from Zeus’s head, Genesis is fully-formed as an artist, albeit with plenty of room to grow.
As a vocalist, she dabbles with different flows and streams of consciousness lyricism, often aiming for absurdity and discomfort alongside transgressive tales of sex and drugs (“when you leave me / I need to take my mind off your dick / get some yogurt-covered pretzels / and a pound of a clit” has all that and more). Along with her own productions, Genesis collaborators both within Awful (Father, KCSB) and outside of it (Ango & Druture, GODMODEGAME666), always favoring beats that borrow from global club music.
Highlights include the Father-produced Angelina Jolie role-play (‘Angelina’), the slow-burning tribute to “an ugly girl who gives good head” (‘Potato Head’), and lead single/mission statement ‘Execute’. “I’m just executing my vision,” she chants — we’ll be waiting to see more of it.
Finesse The World
Gravel-voiced New Jersey rapper RetcH swept up a crowd of fresh fans when he dropped the acclaimed Polo Sporting Goods tape at the tail end of 2013. With an Action Bronson co-sign and production from Jet Life affiliate (and FACT fave) Thelonius Martin, RetcH breathed new life into a tired sound, and Finesse the World might be even better. Darker and dirtier than its predecessor, Finesse the World still looks to the 90s for guidance, but not Gang Starr, Tribe and Biggie – rather we get treated to echoes of Big L, Wu Tang, The Gravediggaz and early Mobb Deep.
That means mud-caked beats and spine-chilling piano cuts form the backbone of each track, forming a dense bed of sound for RetcH to croak over. Thelonius Martin isn’t the only producer here, but he still handles the album’s finest cuts, ‘Bad Luck’ and ‘Dirty Ginger Ale’ both showing his progression as a producer as he moves away from the Madlib/Dilla worship into a sound that’s more (cough) psychedelic. Finesse the World isn’t a showcase for a handful of young beatmakers though – RetcH has been smart in sequencing a selection of beats that genuinely represent his message, and he ties everything together with a grim Jersey narrative, with bullets flying and blood pouring into the gutters.
Dreams Worth More Than Money
Meek Mill has always been a singles rapper: his street-borne intensity works better in 4-minute bursts than across 60-minute projects. Like Dreams And Nightmares before it, Dreams Worth More Than Money is an uneven collection of odds-and-ends where the strongest tracks juxtapose Meek against other rappers and singers.
Depending on how charitable you’re feeling, Meek is a chameleon or he lacks a personal style. The Future-featuring ‘Jump Out The Face’ sounds like a Future song; the same can be said with ‘R.I.C.O’ and ‘Been That’, which sound like songs by guests Drake and Rick Ross, respectively.
Unsurprisingly, the album’s best songs (‘All Eyes On You’, ‘Bad For You’) feature new girlfriend Nicki Minaj, who outpaces Meek in both star-quality and talent. Delete a handful of the songs (‘Classic’, ‘I Got The Juice’ etc), add in a couple of bonus tracks (‘My Niggas’, ‘Main’) and you have yourself 35-minutes of fun — if not a proper album.