Welcome to FACT’s Rap Round-up.
It’s another all-killer-no-filler week here. Not only are have we just been blessed with Young Thug’s incredible No, My Name is JEFFERY, but we’ve got a stream of essential records from some of the genre’s most intriguing figures. The summer slump is truly over.
Brownsville’s Ka offers up another dense opus with Honor Killed The Samurai, Mike Will proteges Rae Sremmurd drop their sophomore effort SremmLife 2, Chicago’s Tink continues a winning streak with Winter’s Diary 4 and Toronto’s other rapper-ternt-sanga Tory Lanez gets cinematic on I Told You.
Click on the album or mixtape title for a preview or stream.
No, My Name Is JEFFERY
Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny that Young Thug has left an indelible mark on the rap landscape. There are those that will shake their heads and assure you that his rubber-voiced, drunken master delivery has corroded the craft; others will lead you to believe that his unfazed fashion sense is “feminizing” not only rap, but the wider American culture at large. Thankfully, although these voices often shout loudest, they’re a minority. Young Thug’s dominating influence has been encouraging to witness as he’s evolved from a position as 1017’s resident weirdo to being one of rap’s most recognizable figures. His ascent can’t be attributed to the fact that he’s been spotted wearing a dress, it’s because he’s unafraid of going completely against the grain and taking risks few others would dare approach.
His fashion sense is in full view on No, My Name Is JEFFERY, an album that feels like a bookend for Thug. Posing in a high-fashion outfit that looks something like Little Bo Peep defending a shogunate in feudal Japan, he cuts an imposing shape on the record’s distinctive cover. The album was teased with the news that Thug was to change his name to No, My Name Is JEFFERY – he hasn’t, yet at least, but this still feels like an event. This isn’t the same Thug we heard on Barter 6 or even Slime Season, here he’s slicker, more polished and more confident than ever in his unmistakable style.
In many ways, No, My Name Is JEFFERY is his first proper pop album – hell, even ex-Fugee Wyclef Jean makes an appearance on the appropriately-titled ‘Pop Man’ (or ‘Kanye West’ if you’re on Thug’s YouTube stream). It’s full of memorable hooks, sickly harmonies, jangling synths and bright, upfront production that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Billboard hit, but Thug never loses sight of his ATL roots. He’s brought local legends Gucci Mane, Young Scooter and Migos’ Quavo and Offset along for the ride and even through the sparkling, high-budget sheen, any one of these tracks would work as well in the club as they would blasting over a shopping mall tannoy.
The fact that Thug can flirt with the mainstream and still manage to throw something together that’s as enjoyable and uncompromising as No, My Name Is JEFFERY is as rare as it is admirable. The titles echo his playful sense of cultural juggling – the opening track is called ‘Wyclef Jean’, there’s a track called ‘Harambe’ and another is called ‘RiRi’; elsewhere he offers nods to rap greats ‘Webbie’, Gucci Mane (‘Guwop’) and ‘Swizz Beatz’ and boxer ‘Floyd Mayweather’.
Thug gets it more than most artists – he understands how we communicate through memes, snapshots, one-liners and emojis and has been able to fold that into his work without forcing anything unnatural. Whether this album proves to be the beginning of another chapter in his story remains to be seen, but Thug, or Jeffery, has a long career ahead of him and his star looks set to rise even further. JT
If one good thing came out of Ka’s New York Post controversy last weekend – where the nauseating right-wing rag falsely accused the Brownsville rapper, a FDNY captain by day, of being “anti-cop” – it’s that he was finally on the cover of a widely read publication. It was for the wrong reasons, of course, but Ka’s been operating under the radar for far too long and there was something encouraging in seeing the music community band together in solidarity to support his cause.
Weirdly, the New York Post has inadvertently helped Ka promote his latest full-length, Honor Killed The Samurai, which follows 2013’s excellent A Knight’s Gambit and last year’s astonishing collaboration with producer Preservation, Days With Dr. Yen Lo. The album distills a sound that Ka’s been perfecting for some time; like a samurai training relentlessly to perfect his craft, Ka has his skills both on the mic and behind the desk honed to a degree that’s rarer than we’d feel comfortable admitting.
It feels dismissive to simply label his rapping as poetry, conjuring up memories of Rawkus-era Lyricist Lounge cast-offs. Ka crafts dense and disarmingly economical narratives that duck and weave around his eerie backdrops, waiting for the right time to land a death blow. Each word is there for a reason – it’s poetry, sure, but not self-defeating in its knowing use of hackneyed slam themes and cadences. Rather Ka pays tribute, as always, to rap’s spider-web of rich history, pulling the best from the genre’s masters while adding his own distinct spin.
The samurai trope is well-worn at this point and shouldn’t be unfamiliar to most rap listeners, but Ka doesn’t aim for sword swipes and occidental heroism. Instead he tells his tales from the perspective of the grizzled veteran, his voice betraying battle scars and offering cautionary advice to the next generation of lyrical duelists. As he’s watched his borough crumble and shift irreparably, Ka has become its best documentarian, sharing his wealth of knowledge with anyone dedicated enough to listen hard enough to disassemble his complex mesh of metaphors. We’re lucky to have him. JT
I Told You
The hood film-as-concept album is a tried-and-true hip-hop staple, and Tory Lanez was wise to make his debut album one, especially since he actually started at the bottom, unlike that other Toronto rapper with whom he’ll always be compared. The beats of I Told You would make Joseph Campbell proud, as the rapper-singer formerly known as Daystar Peterson (a solid rap name in its own right) moves from homeless to hustler to hitmaker, loving women and losing friends along the way.
Until now, Lanez’s versatility has been a blessing and a curse: across numerous mixtapes, it wasn’t clear if he wanted to be rapping-ass-rapper or an R&B singer (he went as far as releasing a mixtape dedicated to each on the same day). On I Told You, he finally pulls off the Drake two-step, bounding between triumphant, ferocious street rapper (there’s a bit of Meek’s Dreams and Nightmares intro on ‘I Told You / Another One’) and a falsetto-armed soothsayer (‘Guns and Roses’, ‘Cold Hard Love’, etc), seamlessly moving between both when needed. He’s aided by a talented group of producers, including frequent collaborator Play Picasso and hitmakers Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat, that lay down woozy beats that serve a variety of moods.
While he also shares Drake’s taste for sometimes overlong songs and indulgent, in-the-weeds storytelling, I Told You takes full advantage of the concept album format, bracketing each song with skits that reveals the narrative and puts each song in context. Which isn’t to say that the narrative is perfect: there are agency issues on the truth-telling of the painfully honest ‘Question Is’, and as with plenty of third acts, the story seems to run out of steam. By the end, after his call with Interscope (did we really need this?), Brownstone-sampling smash ‘Say It’ and dancehall salvo ‘Luv’, Lanez is finally able to say “I told you so” to his haters and detractors. But where are the repercussions or sense of loss from losing his true love and leaving behind friends? A happy ending is fine, just give us a reason to care. CK
Winter’s Diary 4
The two years that Tink has spent under the tutelage of Timbaland have been frustrating, to say the least. After 2014’s Winter’s Diary 2, it seemed that all the Chicago wunderkind needed was a budget for production and promotion; instead, she’s been saddled with slut-shaming singles and Charlamagne features. Despite that, Winter’s Diary 3 and the just-released Winter’s Diary 4 remind us that even late-career Timbaland can’t steal Tink’s shine.
Using an imaginary therapy session as a framing device, Winter’s Diary 4 does everything that the series does right: Tink shows equal talent as a rapper and singer, using her songwriting to mend bent and broken relationships. This time around, there’s also the pressure of her growing fame, but trifling men (boys?) still cause most of her problems. “You hate it when I cried but you never asked me why,” she sings on ‘Show It’, “Why does everything revolve around you?” Detail is king, whether its the CVS 9-to-5 and blue Toyota she conjures on ‘All Falls Down’ or the sexplicit checklist on ‘Surprizes’.
As always, Tink can go bar for bar with the best of them (‘Stay On It’, ‘Pulling Up’), but is at her best when moving effortlessly between luscious R&B singing and rat-a-tat flows. The latter category finds her tackling club ready jams (‘Aquafina’, ‘Modern Wave’), de rigueur dancehall grooves (‘Your Side’) and triumphant anthems (‘Real Upgrade’). Production is handled ably by lesser-known regulars (DJ Wes, KC Beatz, et al), but Timbaland offers a pair of vintage beats (‘Show It’, ‘What Is Real’) and Jahlil Beats gives Tink her own ‘Hot Nigga’ on the Jodan Game 6-sampling ‘MVP’.
Tink closes Winter’s Diary 4 with ‘Blood Sweat & Tears’, evaluating her come-up and where she goes from here. Amid lyrics about haters and players, there seems to be a few sly nods to the disappointments of the Tink-Timbaland team-up. “I give and they take, try turning me into something I’m ain’t / Sorry but I went away to get right, because I gotta make up for two years of my life,” she raps. “You were the one with the plan, told me to put everything in your hands / well that was a lesson in hell, you wanna get up and go get it yourself.” Whether those lyrics are about Timbaland or a bad boyfriend, the message is clear: Tink only needs herself to succeed. CK
Rae Sremmurd’s SremmLife was an explosion of youth exuberance with the overwhelming power and order of a controlled demolition, its hooks-on-hooks-hooks zeitgeist anthems built over sinister Eardrummer eruptions. Somehow, the Brown brothers managed to follow up breakthrough singles ‘No Flex Zone’ and ‘No Type’ with stunners like ‘Throw Some More’, ‘Lit Like Bic’, the accidentally prescient ‘Up Like Trump’ and the pristine ‘This Could Be Us’ while staying nearly flawless for 45 minutes.
SremmLife 2 opens with a different explosion – distorted air raid sirens and chainsaws – that sets a destructive, no-fucks-given tone for the duo’s sophomore effort. Throughout the album, it certainly seems like 18 months of partying on top of the world has left the pair paranoid and pissed off. Despite all the weed and xanax, there’s nothing chill about ‘Real Chill’, and, despite ‘Start the Party’, the only party these two are starting is the 2016 version of the heist scene in Boogie Nights. And as far as relationships go, the best they can muster is nonchalance on the spaced-out ‘Take It Or Leave It’.
What SremmLife 2 forgoes in fun and singles, it makes up for in production and songwriting experimentation. The duo do drug daze on ‘By Chance’ and Weeknd haze on ‘Look Alive’; they invert ‘This Could Be Us’ on ‘Now That I Know’ and head to space on the reductive ‘Do Yoga’; they head to a sinister stripclub with Juicy J on ‘Shake It Fast’. Throughout, Mike Will and his Eardrummer crew find new dimensions in the synths-and-bass template he created, adding synth pop accents to standouts ‘Black Beatles’ and ‘Just Like Us’ (and merging with DJ Mustard for the Lil Jon-assisted ‘Set The Roof’). And hasn’t that always been the point of Rae Sremmurd: to see how far Mike Will can push the boundaries of pop-rap, with his very own boy band? Now, if he can just help them to avoid the pitfalls of the SremmLife. CK