Welcome to FACT’s Rap Round-up.
It’s been another sickening week for America as the needless execution of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling by police officers continues a narrative that’s too familiar for us to assume it’s anything other than systemic. As artists throughout the country and further afield show their frustration and pledge their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s important to remember that shining a light on the imbalance in US society is not calling for violence, it’s calling for an end to it.
Click on the album or mixtape title for a preview or stream.
The Persona Tape
Last year, too many people (including us, at first) slept on Maxo Kream’s Maxo 187 mixtape. We won’t be making the same mistake with The Persona Tape, his latest dispatch from the dark corners and unlit alleys of Houston’s drug-rap scene.
An even tighter record than the taut Maxo 187, The Persona Tape is an all-killer, no-filler effort that evokes memories of Texas rap past without being nostalgic, full of trunk-shaking bass and sinister synths that never get repetitive. There are throwback, 808-fueled bangers (‘Karo’), ride-across-I-10-wood-grippers (‘Comin Dine’) and even a grime-rap hybrid (‘Big Worm’ reworks Wiley’s ‘Morgue’ beat for one of the tape’s most memorable tracks).
Most importantly, it’s a reminder that rap can be lyrical without being “conscious”: Maxo unveils tales of drug deal and bodies dropped with lived-in, haunting detail. And for every bloodthirsty boast (on ‘Hit Mane’, he compares himself to Al Qaeda and a “one-man ISIS”), there’s a paranoid, anxious confession, like the self-medicating “chewing xans like candy” he does on ‘G3’ or the chilling “No dope? Then we sell our women” admission on ‘Shop’.
From now on, there will be no more sleeping on Maxo Kream – especially after the nightmares of The Persona Tape.
In The Meantime 2
Back in 2011 Memphis rapper Don Trip hit a couple of important milestones: he released the stunning Step Brothers mixtape with Nashville’s Starlito and was snapped up by major label Interscope. A year later he was on the cover of XXL as one of 2012’s Freshmen, but faded from view almost as quickly he had appeared. The Interscope deal dried up and Trip was back to doing things on his own – which, honestly, has resulted in the best music of his career.
Last year’s criminally underrated Godspeed could have benefited from the major label promotional push but certainly didn’t need busybody A&Rs to muddy its message. It was charged and fully-formed, bristling with melancholy and subtle reflection gleaned from brushes with almost-fame. In The Meantime appeared almost simultaneously, offering a similarly urgent but more upbeat sound and retaining the superhuman level of quality.
A year later and we’re treated to that EP’s sequel, the short, sharp In The Meantime 2, which precedes full-length The Head That Wears The Crown. Like its predecessor, the tape kicks off with its most upfront cut, but this time around Trip simply uses that as a jump-off point. ‘Burn’ might be the kind of high-energy rattle you’d expect from Memphis, but ‘Cleo Never Dies’ begins almost a cappella, with Trip sounding more strained than ever as he emotes, “I’ll never be in need of more friends / I got four babies, can’t afford to feed grown men.”
It’s not all dour and confessional – ‘Yo Money’ is rambunctious and anthemic, for example – but even when Trip is at his most crowd-pleasing there’s a hint of regret in his voice that feels like sincerity. The record peaks on ‘Therapy’, an electric guitar-led slice of country rap that’s not a million miles away from last year’s ‘Medicine’. “We don’t know college, but we know prison,” Trip opines, while Singa croons “We’ve come too far to let it all go away” on the chorus. Trip might not be approaching politics overtly, but his nuance speaks volumes.
Future & DJ Esco
As unimpeachable as Future’s run from Monster to DS2 was (we’ll even extend that to WATTBA if you’re feeling particularly charitable towards Drake), a regression to the mean was inevitable. Purple Reign or EVOL were largely forgettable, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that Project E.T. is too.
On this nearly hour-long slog, Future sounds exhausted, most beats sound like ATL Rap presets, and the whole thing is bogged down with guest stars that are more engaged than the main attraction. He isn’t even on three of the tracks, which should be proof that this exists to feed the streets and isn’t a “proper” edition to his discography. In that way, it’s more like Esco-helmed projects No Sleep and Black Woodstock than 56 Nights.
But maybe it’s not just Future who’s tired: maybe it’s the entire woozy Atlanta rap sound he helped pioneer. Two days after Project E.T. dropped, Desiigner unveiled New English, sounding more like a Future clone than he did on ‘Panda’. (He also picks the carcass of Chicago drill, FWIW.) New English feels like a rush-job designed to squeeze out some Tidal subscriptions while ‘Panda’ is still a top 10 hit. It’s full of half-baked ideas, half-songs and none of the personality that Desiigner hinted at on his much-discussed 30-second XXL freestyle.
It’s almost a shame that Desiigner didn’t out-Future Future on New English; maybe that would have provided Future with the motivation to flip the script. Instead, another swagger jacker with a Kanye co-sign bites the dust (for now) while Future remains king of a crumbling kingdom. After the run he had, it’d be unfair to write off Future – especially after a throwaway tape like Project E.T. – but only time will tell if he can be a monster once more.
Rich Before Rap 2
ZMoney’s is a grim but familiar tale: rapper begins to achieve international success but is hobbled by incarceration. In Z’s case it stung particularly painfully. The reason he ended up behind bars back in 2014 was for breaking his parole by attending that year’s South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. By taking a risky swing in promoting his music to the industry, he ended up striking himself out.
Unsurprisingly, the Chicago rapper’s career wasn’t helped by the time away from his crew of producers and rappers. There’s a reason why rap release slates are so busy – a few months away is a lifetime; a year, and people have just forgotten. In that respect, it’s refreshing to hear ZMoney muster up sparks on the sequel to 2013’s brilliant Rich B4 Rap. Admittedly there’s no ‘Regular’ and no ‘Ferragamo’, but Z’s still got charisma that his peers can’t even approach.
On ‘Walkin Bale’ he wakes up a fairly predictable beat with memorable slurs and the kind of hooks that made his previous run so successful. Similarly, ‘Pass By’ finds ZMoney lacing a trunk-rattler of a beat with a breathless, rubbery flow. Sadly the tape as a whole is blighted by inconsistencies – the selection is patchy and the quality variable throughout. Still, it’s good to have him back.
The interest in Chicago’s tough-as-nails drill sound has cooled in the last couple of years. Chief Keef has dipped further into psychedelia, Lil Durk’s been a Def Jam test case and King Louie’s all but disappeared. But the sound remains scattered throughout the rap landscape in watered-down form (check Desiigner’s New English for evidence).
One survivor is Chief Keef’s cousin Fredo Santana, who’s been prolific if not exactly reliable in the last few years. His tapes have been tough but unremarkable for the most part, full of good ideas but lacking the sneer of Louie or the plain weirdness of Keef. The lack of competition right now though makes Fredo Mafia shine – it’s Santana’s tightest selection to date, and boasts smart collaborations (with Maxo Kream, Z-Ro and Keef just for starters) and a solid set of beats.
Santana himself still isn’t the most memorable rapper, but he does a good job of stating his case here, making light work of the AutoTuned ‘Cappin’ and not getting completely bodied by Kream on ‘Chopper’. The biggest surprise though is the downbeat ‘2 Cups’, which filters Santana’s narcotic flow through an epic haze of neo-classical drones and molasses-slow 808 kicks.
When Fat Trel released the poignant ‘Niggaz Dying’ as part of SDMG in 2013, it seemed like a breakthrough was imminent: the boisterous talent showed new depth and separated himself from the pack of street-born rappers. A few months later, he signed to MMG and the rest of the story has been… underwhelming.
Ever since Rick Ross’s brief time at the top of rap, MMG has chugged along with albums by Ross, Meek Mill and Wale, seemingly pushing units by name recognition alone. They bungled Gunplay’s debut album (which, admittedly, was going to be a tough project to hold together) and they’ve kept Trel comfortable enough that he can release a mixtape or two every year and barely stay in the conversation.
Unfortunately, SDMG 2 doesn’t recapture the energy of the first volume. It’s a fine collection of trap tracks, with Trel in a particularly dour, moody mood, seemingly resigned to grim street-life realities. But despite what he says on ‘Murda N Money’, this is not music that will “turn a go-go to a mosh pit”. Everything moves at a syrupy pace, as if overwhelmed by the humidity of the DC summer, and hooks and bounce-ready beats are at a premium. Trel is still just 26, so hopefully his time on MMG won’t extinguish the fire we saw just a few years ago.