Welcome to FACT’s Rap Round-up.
Some heavy hitters this week with Kevin Gates’ eagerly-awaited major-label debut album Islah and Meek Mill’s charged 4/4 Pt.2. If that’s all too high profile for you, FACT rapper to watch Nef the Pharaoh rebooty hyphy with the excellent Neffy Got Wings and Chicago’s Sicko Mobb return with the third Super Saiyan mixtape.
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.
Nef the Pharaoh
Neffy Got Wings
Nef the Pharaoh builds on the popularity of 2015 smash ‘Big Tymin’ with Neffy Got Wings, a 10-track project that explores the 21-year-old’s take on new school hyphy. Wings is produced entirely by ex-Taylor Gang affiliate Cardo who, after some early decade success, has finally found his voice: the album is built on trunk-rattling basslines, funky worms and the atmospherics — if not the drugginess — of cloud rap.
Nef’s charisma keeps Neffy Got Wings entertaining, from rap-alongs like ‘Big Chang Chang’ and ‘Michael Jackson’ to R&Bified sex jams like ‘Hit Again’ and ‘Action’ (with Ty Dolla and Eric Bellinger brought in as ringers). Mostly, the tape offers the most enticing example of new school Bay Area rap. On ‘Wake Up’ (over a beat heavy with Awful nihilism), Nef makes his case: “Still hyphy, still retarded, still dumb / sideshows, the whole world get it from us… they stealing from the Bay, it’s time to wake they ass up.”
The anticipation around Islah, Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates’ major-label debut, has been feverish, and with good reason. His run of mixtapes, peaking with 2013’s The Luca Brasi Story and Stranger Than Fiction, secured him both critical acclaim and a wave of imitators – and the promise of a polished full-length supported by Atlantic felt like the perfect way to turn that groundswell into more serious attention. Sadly, Islah isn’t that record. It’s good, certainly, but after a 2015 dominated by Fetty Wap, who took jagged, sing-song rap to the top of the Billboard charts, it feels as if Gates was been beaten to the finish line.
Islah is slick and enjoyable, tapping into the pop mode we heard on should-have-been-hits ‘Satellites’ and ‘Roaming Around’ but jettisoning the raw, creative tics that made Gates’ previous tapes so essential. By Any Means is probably the closest, stylistically, to Islah but the syrupy excesses of the soft-rock ‘Movie’ and ‘Get Up On My Level’ were balanced with the grit of ‘Arm and Hammer’ and ‘Don’t Know’. Islah capitalizes on the tender moments – ‘2 Phones’, ‘Time For That’ and opener ‘Not the Only One’ all exhibit the absorbing melancholy we fell in love with – but without balance it’s less memorable: it just doesn’t stick.
Kevin Gates is one of the US’s most singular rap talents, and we expected more. In an era where the line between the mixtape or street album and major-label album are increasingly blurry, Islah frankly feels anachronistic.
Jacquees emerged seemingly out of nowhere last spring, looking like Lil Wayne and sounding enough like Jeremih to cause Twitter confusion. Mood is his first mixtape since the breakthrough, and it offers a clearer picture of his artistry.
The 21-year-old Decatur talent is the latest in a long line of loverboy R&B crooners, reminiscent at times of heavy-hitters like R. Kelly, Usher and Chris Brown, and while his most successful single, ‘Like Baby’, mixes rapping in with his singing, he’s best doing the latter. He acknowledges as much on the self-aware ‘R&B Nigga’: “She said, “I like it when you spit 16s / But tonight could you sing it to me?””
Jacquees works on a variety of song styles, from the bouncy, Dej Loaf-featuring ‘Set It Off’, to the soulful, Birdman-assisted crew anthem ‘On It’; from the throwback ‘Know You’ to the Usherish ‘Ex Games’. Songs based on familiar samples are back in vogue (did they ever leave?), and ‘Come Thru’ (based on Cameo’s ‘Candy’) works better than the xx-sampling ‘Ready’ — probably because Jacquees sounds like himself on the former and a Young Thug-Future copycat on the latter.
4/4 Pt. 2
Meek Mill continues to tease his upcoming Dreamchasers 4 with a sequel to January’s 4/4 EP. But unlike its predecessor — and, well, much of Meek’s recent catalogue, barring Dreams Worth More Than Money opener ‘Lord Knows’ — 2 is brimming with the voracity real Meek heads know the rapper is primed to deliver. (If he’s “just yelling” to you, you might not be listening.) And while the rhapsodic trap of ‘Ricky’ and Future’s riff on DMX with ‘Slippin’’ both begin to regrow where Meek cut off his own legs at the start of his beef with Drake, it is closer ‘War Pain’ that sees the Philly rapper fully formed again.
Released fifteen minutes after Drake debuted Views From the 6 lead single ‘Summer Sixteen’, ‘War Pain’ popped up as a retort. It was not another case of bad timing on Meek’s end — his verses dismantle so many barbs Drake shoots on ‘Sixteen’, there is no way someone didn’t snitch on him before its Beats 1 premiere. (Was it you, Kevin Hart?)
When Meek raps, “Me and Nicki watchin’ the Sixers,” he’s only adding insult to injury: At the time of its release, he and Minaj were sitting courtside at Wells Fargo Arena, where the Philadelphia 76ers were giving the championship Golden State Warriors a run for their money. The track is eerie in its precision, more incendiary than that tidbit about Drake getting peed on at the Takers premiere, and proof that beef doesn’t end on anyone’s time schedule but its arbiters’.
Super Saiyan Vol 3
You’ve got to respect Sicko Mobb for sticking to their guns. For a moment it felt as if Chicago’s bop sound was about to go global, but when interest lapsed, Trav and Ceno didn’t simply transition into post-Fetty Wap trap pop. Super Saiyan Vol 3 is a reminder of the duo’s steely resolve – they’re still out here ploughing their lonely furrow, and do so with such passion it’s hard not to want them to succeed. They’ve still got hits too, ‘Spazz On Ya’ almost reaches the heights of early breakouts ‘Remember Me’ and ‘Lamborghini Girl’ and Jeremih-featuring lead-single ‘Expensive Taste’ has to be applauded simply because it’s Jeremih crooning on a bop track.
If you’re looking for a bold new direction from Sicko Mobb, you’re going to be disappointed, but if you’re after another ADD collection of fizzing synth melodies, rolling 808 kicks and molly-buzzed vocals, they have you covered yet again. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time you take a drive.
Like Tory Lanez, Jazz Cartier is a Toronto-based rapper working hard to make it out of the shadow of that other Toronto rapper. He shrugs off comparisons to Drake early on ‘Hotel Paranoia’, and he has a point: like contemporary Travis Scott, Kid Cudi’s late aughts material seems to be a bigger influence than Mr. Graham’s.
Hotel Paranoia is a pristine and pro-grade concept record, with a hint of Yeezus (‘100 Roses’) and even a touch of four-on-the-floor (‘Illuminati Love Song’). Songs like ‘Red Alert’ and ‘Better When You Lie’ sound like singles, moreso than heavyhanded moments like the political ‘Black and Misguided’.
Cartier can’t escape the influence of Drake — he goes for syrupy R&B-rap on ‘Tell Me’, featuring Drake-samplee River Tiber – but he seems like he’s finding his personal voice on Hotel Paranoia. Whether or not that voice has something interesting to say is yet to be seen.