Welcome to FACT’s Rap Round-up.
What a couple of weeks – we’ve had so many releases of note drop recently that the round-up feels almost too small. The most high-profile release is undoubtedly Schoolboy Q’s excellent Blank Face, a knotty, paranoid follow-up to the uneven Oxymoron. Elsewhere, Boston rapper Cousin Stizz continues his hot streak with the measured, paranoid MONDA, and R&B megastar Jeremih drops the follow-up to Late Nights, taking the party to Europe just in time for Brexit.
Atlanta-via-Jamaica rapper Zuse drops his best record in years with Bullet 2: Banana Clip, cold-blooded ATL staple 21 Savage collaborates with Future producer (and Future himself) on Savage Mode, Chicago’s Dreezy reaches for the stars wit her major label debut No Hard Feelings and ‘Awwsome’ rapper Shy Glizzy drops Young Jefe 2.
Click on the album or mixtape title for a preview or stream.
Who Is The Best Member Of Black Hippy remains one of the most fun questions for the well-versed rap fan to entertain. Kendrick Lamar has been the obvious answer since he took rap’s elite (minus Nicki Minaj, smh) to task on his ‘Control’ verse. That, frankly, is ancient news in a post-To Pimp A Butterfly world, where K.Dot collabs with Taylor Swift and turns the Grammys from a place where he’s been embarrassed to a place where he can give one of the most outstanding performances in the award show’s history. And yet, Black Hippy endures.
We hear that clearly on Schoolboy Q’s fourth full-length, Blank Face. Here, Q is nestled into the comfort of one tone, as opposed to the scattered sound of his major label debut Oxymoron. While there’s no ‘Man of the Year’ here, Blank Face thrives because it builds on the fury his collective has been brewing since its inception. Again, we talk so much about the politics of Kendrick’s output, but rarely is it mentioned that Q and the crew’s other two members, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock, are equally as perplexed and angered by our divisive day-to-day.
Black Hippy, like Vince Staples and Earl Sweatshirt, continue to reinvent our ideas what “conscious rap” sounds like. It can’t always be tethered to ferocity, like Public Enemy or Killer Mike; it won’t always be part of the neo-soul du jour like Common or Mos Def. Its depression is palpable because sometimes the only way you can keep yourself sane is through your own gruff sadness. Blank Face, even when it’s jubilant, does that with aplomb.
As The Ringer’s Chris Ryan said, in so many words, right after its release: it sounds like coming home from work, getting high and watching Belly for the hundredth time. Schoolboy Q isn’t here to turn up, all he wants to do is tune out; the world just won’t let him, and that anguish is precisely impressed upon the entire album. CL
Young Boston rapper Cousin Stizz put his city back on the map with last year’s deservedly-acclaimed Suffolk County. Boston’s had an awkward relationship with rap in the past – it’s always been there (rest in power, Guru), but has too often relied on mimicry and past successes in lieu of creating something new and urgent. Suffolk County was different: not only did it boast a charismatic rapper who was proud to rep his city (rather than ditch it for nearby NYC) but it sounded fresh and relevant. Stizz isn’t on his own either, he’s leading an exciting new wave of local talent that includes Prefuse 73-collaborator Michael Christmas and irreverent prankster OG Swaggerdick.
MONDA furthers Stizz’s ascent, and proves that his debut wasn’t just a fluke. He’s a perfectionist, and it shows: MONDA isn’t simply a collection of trunk-rattling Future facsimiles (we see you, Desiigner), it’s a record that pulls influences from contemporary strains of rap, but never betrays its East Coast roots. Far more than its predecessor, the tape is reliant on dusty samples and the kind of beats that assisted Jay Z’s rise to the top of the pile. From opener ‘Wanted to Live”s melancholy soul to ‘Gain Green”s slow-mo horns, MONDA feels respectful of its heritage as it pushes forward into the unknown.
Despite being released in the middle of another hot Boston summer, MONDA is gloomier and more paranoid than the relatively airy Suffolk County. That’s not a negative – life has changed for Stizz, and his outlook has changed with it. While its predecessor dwelled on Stizz’s Dorchester youth, the rapper is now stuck somewhere between two worlds, and he’s uniquely blessed with the ability to mark those experiences with insight. On ‘Reup and Bake’ he laments, “It’s funny how the more you turn up / more they turn you down”; on ‘Ask That’ he comments on the scene’s perpetual thirst saying, “Niggas get on records thinking that they stock is NASDAQ”; and on ‘You Won’t Understand’ he maps out a life that doesn’t easily translate to the rest of the world.
If MONDA tells us anything, it’s that Cousin Stizz is here to stay. It’s a deeper, more difficult album than Suffolk County and requires more time to absorb, but one that feels more rewarding and even more measured. We can only guess where he’ll go from here – wherever it is, we’re right there with him. JT
21 Savage & Metro Boomin
When most rappers say something like “I’m a fuckin’ bad guy,” it’s just bluster; when 21 Savage says it, he means it. True to his word, the Atlanta upstart is a bad motherfucker on Savage Mode, his all-killer-no-filler collaboration with Metro Boomin that secures him as the nastiest, hardiest, most cold-blooded rapper alive.
Savage Mode is syrupy, sinister and hypnotic, as 21 chants incantations that could summon demons – with a nonchalance that makes his lack of remorse even more brutal – over Metro’s ominous horror movie scores. The latter aren’t without subtlety, either: the piano on ‘No Advance’, the 8-bit synths and faraway strings on ‘X Bitch’ and the music box melody on ‘Bad Guy’ are touches that remind us why Metro is the best producer in rap right now.
21 Savage says he “grew up in the streets without no heart,” and his Gucci-meets-Future lyrics flow from that sentiment. He recounts his life, from juvenile delinquent to XXL freshman, telling tales of sex, drugs and violence that never devolve into the silliness of horrorcore. With that said, Savage’s dark-as-hell sense of humor might be the best part of Savage Mode. Who else is making Cat in the Hat and Stuart Little references while pistol whipping and taunting his enemies? (“Come on man, Savage you know I always play your mixtape,” begs his victim on ‘No Heart’, to which he replies “Yeah nigga, fuck all that, ask your bitch how my dick tastes.”)
The lone guest on Savage Mode is Future, who appears on ‘X Bitch’. Thematically, it’s the perfect song for Future to hop on (hi Ciara!), but it’s also telling about where both rappers fit into the conversation: 21 Savage is ascendant while Future is figuring out his next act, which will either have to be lighter, or much, much darker. Because as much of a monster as he’s been, has Future ever rapped anything as savage as “Hit her with no condom, had to make her eat a plan B”? Say hello to the newest bad guy: 21 Savage. CK
Zuse’s urgent, agressive debut mixtape Bullet was one of 2014’s best full-lengths, highlighting the rapper’s innovative fusion of Atlanta rap and Jamaican chat. Since then, his progress has been uneven at best – the follow-up tapes weren’t without highlights, and there are loosies (like Young Thug collaboration ‘Treasure’) that stand tall alongside Bullet bangers ‘Red’ or ‘Frank White’, but there hasn’t been a mixtape to mirror his debut’s raw power. Until now.
Bullet 2: Banana Clip is a rare sequel that actually lives up to the promise of its predecessor. Opening track ‘Set It Off’ instantly reminds of the rapper’s best moments, blending Zuse’s simmering aggression with memorable hooks (“I don’t give a fuck about the law”) and a chiming, epic backdrop that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Kevin Gates tape. Talking of Gates, the Baton Rouge superstar makes an appearance on album highlight ‘All I Ever Wanted’, giving levity and weight to Zuse’s unmistakable croons.
It’s when Zuse goes out of his comfort zone that Banana Clip really shines, however. ‘Bounce Along’ is an attempt at pop – it’s not a million miles away from the Caribbean-tinged moments on Drake’s VIEWS – and at the very least brings a moment of lightness to a tape that, at times, can be almost suffocatingly dark. Elsewhere, Zuse brings Chicago drill originator King Louie along for the ride on ‘ER’, the album’s clear standout. Louie and Zuse both turn in vintage performances, Zuse excelling on the hook while Louie reminds why we were all so eager for Dope & Shrimp back in 2011 and so disappointed when it failed to materialize. JT
Late Nights: Europe
Let’s get these two things out of the way first: 1. Yes, we know Late Nights: Europe is not a rap tape, necessarily, because it was released by an R&B artist; 2. Sort your fucking ID3 tags before uploading to Audiomack, for the love of god.
Late Nights: Europe is a spotty collection, despite the tracks dumping into four separate albums in your iTunes, which is extremely unusual for Jeremih on a (technically) solo mission. For someone who had struggles with Def Jam to get his proper full-length released in a timely fashion, the Chicago firebrand has been considerably prolific: He dropped No More with Shlohmo, N.O.M.A. and a million guest appearances before Late Nights proper landed last fall. All of these releases have been pristine mood pieces, for better or worse, and that full-length was smoky, stumbling-home-from-the-bar-and-what’s-your-name-again burners — late nights, indeed. Its cohesive sumptuousness is missing from Europe.
But maybe that’s the point. The tape globe-trots and so do its tracks (although, come on, Dubai and Lebanon are not in Europe). In that respect, the project is successful because it is journeys, but isn’t quite as sexy as its predecessors’ tracks like ‘Drank’, ‘Feel Like Phil’ or ‘Woosah’.
There is also the matter of ‘Paris (Who Taught You)’, a track with Ty Dolla $ign. It is, far and away, the best on Europe, primarily for it slinky production. Ty is a wizard at bringing out his collaborators’ most debased inclinations, but the whole Who Taught You How To… trope in rap and R&B needs to just perish. I’ll let you in on a little secret — tips have been passed down from generations of older sisters to, now, group texts and beyond. We teach each other our secrets — it’s rarely the men, not even Yeezy. CL
No Hard Feelings
With No Hard Feelings, Chicago’s Dreezy becomes the first female member of Chicago’s vibrant rap scene to release a proper debut album, beating Katie Got Bandz, Sasha Go Hard, Chella H, Lucci Vee and (perhaps most notably) Tink. Even in 2016, being able to make that kind of artistic statement with major label muscle (whatever that means these days) is an accomplishment, but it doesn’t come without its drawbacks.
First, the positives: Dreezy remains a potent dual threat who can reel off bars as easily as she can sing a hook, and she’s as confident as ever, fighting to be heard and demanding more from lovers, friends and contemporaries. She’s shown an ear for pop since Schizo, and Feelings features not just the Jeremih-featuring hit ‘Body’ (a song that deftly recontextualizes “catching a body” into a finding love in this club) but the touching ‘Wasted’, as well. The latter is about a guy who only wants her love when he’s drunk, but rather than flat-out dismissing him, Dreezy shows compassion by mourning not only their relationship but his alcoholism, too.
Dreezy’s versatility isn’t limited to her mic skills: Feelings is all over the map stylistically, with mixed results. She talks her shit on ‘See What You On’, produced by the resurgent Cardo; teams with T-Pain for the quietly storming ‘Close To You’; and gets her Drake on on songs like ‘Ready’ and ‘Bad Bitch’. But too many of the detours seem superfluous: ‘We Gon Ride’ and ‘Spazz’ are effective enough, but why bother with 808 Mafia trap? On ‘Worth It’ and ‘Afford My Love’, her lyrics are obscured by neo-soul and a throwback beat that finds Wale giving voice to the clueless, respectively.
There’s a lot to like about No Hard Feelings (including a series of skits that punctuate the album with a narrative that balances romance, comedy and tragedy) but at times, Dreezy’s talents, voice and message are masked by major label blandness – a problem that befalls her male counterparts, as well. Being the first out of the gate is a victory for Dreezy, but perhaps a lesson for her peers. CK
Young Jefe 2
Since breaking through with 2014’s ‘Awwsome’, Shy Glizzy has mostly lived up to the title of his collaborative tape with Zaytoven: For Trappers Only. But on Young Jefe 2 – the sequel to the tape that featured ‘Awwsome’ – Glizzy is lowkey and mournful, full of regret and resignation over soulful throwbacks that let his lyrics breath.
It’s the closest Glizzy has come to returning to the storytelling that animated Fuck Rap, Law 2 and songs like ‘Funeral’. His nasal voice quivers when he gets emotional, which is often: as he raps on ‘Waiting On My Time,’ “They say why you never smile, cause a lot be on my mind.”
Compared to his last few efforts, Young Jefe 2 is downcast and dour – which suits him. Even on the silky smooth ‘Ride 4 U’ or the haunting crew anthem ‘Rounds’, there’s a hint of pain in Glizzy’s (surprisingly pleasant) singing. Fittingly, the latter samples Lisa Fischer’s ‘How Can I Ease The Pain’ – a question Glizzy must stay up late trying to answer. CK