Welcome to FACT’s Rap Round-up.
It’s 2016 now, but the rap industry didn’t exactly grind to a close for holiday season. We’ve collected some of the best rap records of the last few weeks, including efforts from Kodak Black, Lil B, Lil Durk, Tory Lanez and more.
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 feature the albums (free and otherwise) that need to be a part of the rap conversation but might not be covered otherwise.
South Florida native Kodak Black has a knack for holiday mixtapes: he first caught our ear with Heart of the Projects, released on New Year’s Eve 2014, a tape he followed up with Institution on Christmas Day 2015. The mixtape capped a year that saw the 18-year-old continue to deal with legal issues but also receive a co-sign by Drake (which of these will be more problematic for his career is yet to be seen).
Kodak is front-and-center on Institution, a nearly 80-minute, featureless tape that finds him sharpening his distinct voice on a range of sing-song trap rap. While he is at times reminiscent of contemporary Shy Glizzy (‘Thankful’, ‘Rock Bottom’), it’s Lil Boosie that looms largest as an influence. Over the faraway guitar of ‘In Too Deep’, Kodak sounds like a Baby Boosie with lines like, “I can pass the weed but I ain’t pass the FCAT” and “sneak a pen in my cell to write a rap”. Boosie might be 15 years his senior, but he already has that painful quiver in his voice on standouts like ‘Heart’, ‘Real Nigga Files’ and ‘If You Ain’t Ridin’.
There’s also a bit of Louisiana-styled buoyancy on Institution (‘Boss My Life Up’, ‘Shake Back’, ‘Wake N Bake’) and, surprisingly, a couple love songs (‘I.M.Y.’, ‘This Life’). Of the latter group, the title track is the strongest, flipping Tink’s ‘Treat Me Like Somebody’ into a meditation on a relationship from behind bars. “I won’t change on you / Even if I get a record deal,” Kodak coos, and — with a deal with Atlantic rumored to be on the books — we’ll see if he can keep his word in 2016.
300 Days 300 Nights
After Durk’s patchy, disappointing Def Jam debut Remember My Name, you’d be forgiven for ignoring this low-key mixtape that closed out his 2015 run. Thankfully, it manages to remind us how refreshing Durk was when ‘Dis Ain’t What U Want’ dropped in 2013, recapturing the urgency and quality that set him apart from Windy City his peers.
Mostly produced by Chicago-based drill lifer C-Sick, 300 Days 300 Nights succeeds by keeping things simple – Durk is going back to doing what he does best, with absolutely no frills. Post-‘Dis Ain’t What U Want’ pained, AutoTuned hooks (which could easily be mistaken in 2016 for Future nods) are the order of the day – ‘Waffle House’, ‘My Beyonce’ and ‘Every Night’ being clear stand-outs – but Durk is still capable of slithering, minimal menace, as evidenced on the Inomek-produced ‘Make it Back’.
Durk’s ability to relay street truths with economy and levity is his best weapon. On ‘Jump Off’ he laments: “Me, I was sleeping on my homie couch / Had to wake up with this crack in my mouth / Heard his momma’s telling me to get out”, lending an honesty that’s all too infrequent. He even manages some self-reflection on ‘Spent Me’, where he teams up with the beleagured Meek Mill to call out haters who’d counted him out. Positioning himself as drill’s 2Pac (“I feel like I started this shit”), he sounds war-wounded but resolute.
Certainly, something’s been stirred. Forget Remember My Name, 300 Days 300 Nights is the album that should have been.
Not to be outdone, Tory Lanez dropped two mixtapes over Christmas: the third volume of his R&B-focused Chixtape series and the rap-heavy The New Toronto. The Toronto talent has been trying to move forward as a rapper and as a singer but not as a hyphenate (at least on the same songs), and this dual release is his latest effort to keep those identities separate.
Like the volumes before it, Chixtape 3 relies equally on Lanez’s delicate, vulnerable singing voice and a heavy dose of R&B nostalgia; standouts ‘N.A.M.E.’ and ‘S*M*N’ flip Alica Keys’ ‘You Don’t Know My Name’ and Destiny’s Child’s ‘Say My Name’, respectively. It’s the formula that has found him the most success: the Brownstone-sampling ‘Say It’ put him on the map in 2015 (Lanez acknowledges this with the ouroboric ‘Save It’, which samples Ed Sheeran’s cover of the song). But perhaps Lanez recognizes the limits of the gimmick: eventually he will run out of 90s and 00s R&B to sample.
On The New Toronto, Lanez is a one-man WATTBA as he mostly vacillates between sounding like Drake and Future (‘Makaveli’ is straight Future, from the wailing chorus to the flow of the verse). ‘One Day’ adds a touch of Fetty Wap to the formula, and ‘Lord Knows Pt. 2’ is an all-Lanez version of the Meek Mill track on which he featured. Still, his R&B material is stronger and more personal than his rap tracks. He’s either going to have to pick one, or — like Drake et al before him — just do both, as he does on New Toronto highlight ‘Traphouse’ (ironically, the least trappy of his tracks).
Martin Luther Key
Atlanta rapper Key’s rugged brand of melancholy, atmospheric minimalism has been worth paying attention for a while now, and latest full-length tape Martin Luther Key is no exception. As usual, Key’s hoarse, unique vocals put this over the edge – he sits somewhere in between Future and Father – and twinned with the suite of off-kilter beats, they make the tape a must-hear.
Head to ‘Ghost’ for a taste – Key and Playboi Carti trade rhymes over a wobbly backdrop that sounds like it could have been snatched from one of Super Mario World’s Boo Houses. Confronted with a barrage of identikit Atlanta rap tapes each week, Key! is always a breath of fresh air – let’s hope he manages to continue this streak in 2016.
Fat Trel closed out a steady 2015 with the solid Muva Russia, an improvement on the MMG-overloaded Georgetown. The DC rapper continues to churn out standard issue material with ease (‘Nervous’, ‘Dead Man’, ‘Trap House’ et al) but when he flashes his charisma, his tracks are elevated above Real Trap Shit.
“I’m a fat, rich, ugly motherfucker, ain’t shit you can do about that, baby,” he teases on ‘GMFH’ (aka ‘Get Money, Fuck Hoes’), his version of a ‘Girls Girls Girls’ list. As always — on ‘GMFH’ and elsewhere — he lives up to the name of his Slutty Boyz crew with sex-obsessed tales that are often sex-positive (“That red light / I lay the towel for you” he promises on the laidback ‘I Want It All’).
There are moments where Trel’s tales of dealing drugs and killing thugs, of soul-searching and suicide-contemplating, approach career highlight ‘Niggaz Dying’, but chintzy production holds back otherwise powerful songs like ‘Bible’ and ‘Yung Nigga Died’ (come on guys, you have to do better than producer names like Exclusive DJ Beats and Soul Beats). Let’s see if MMG will open the purse strings without getting in Trel’s way this year.
Thugged Out Pissed Off
Trust Lil B to close out 2015 with a 63-track, four-hour, No Limit-influenced mixtape. The cloud rap pioneer had a relatively quiet year (musically, at least), so it feels like a fuck you to anyone who felt he’d become more meme than rapper in recent months.
It’s to be expected, however, that the tape isn’t something you’re going to be hitting for repeat plays. There are of course standouts – the amusing redux of O.T. Genasis’s ‘CoCo’ (“I’m in love with the Based God”) is particularly memorable – and honestly, it’s a solid tape from beginning to end, but how often are you gonna press play on a record this long? Surely, at this point in his career, a more extreme move for Lil B would be to put out a well engineered 12-track album that can properly cement his legacy. Sadly, this is probably as close as we’ll get for the foreseeable future.