The Rap Round-up is back! Each month, columnists Alphonse Pierre and Lorena Cupcake compile a list of the most noteworthy rap releases. Up this month: Cardi B, J. Cole, Princess Nokia and more.
Does spring even exist anymore? In the rap world, summer started early this year. The summer months are usually reserved for the rap behemoths, but things have already been set in motion. Cardi B coupled the release of her highly-anticipated debut Invasion Of Privacy with an iconic baby bump-revealing rollout and J. Cole strolled into the picture to remind the world that he is still as relevant as ever, whether they like it or not.
Ambition was in the water this month, too. Exciting projects like Saba’s conceptual Care For Me and Maxo’s Smile EP remind us of the beauty of storytelling; Princess Nokia threw on her old fishnets and a Slipknot t-shirt and showed us that in all of her genre malleability she’s also primed to be the next Joel Madden. Lucki spoke to the horrors of Xanax in a way that came across much more sincere than Lil Xan’s D.A.R.E.-addled debut. And it’s truly not summer without hearing Young Thug jump from flow to flow. Anybody up now?
Invasion Of Privacy is Cardi B’s coronation as a rap superstar. What could have been an insincere album orchestrated by her record label is instead loose and true to Cardi’s inimitable personality. The features on the project are unsurprising: she is visited by Migos on ‘Drip’, a pair of fellow hugely successful women (SZA lends vocals to closer ‘I Do’ and Kehlani yearns hard on ‘Ring’) and Latin stars J Balvin and Bad Bunny join her on the trap-boogaloo track ‘I Like It’. But, most importantly, Cardi’s Bronx charm is present among it all. AP
There are few artists who inspire as much nauseating fan bombast as J. Cole does and, with KOD, he seemed to determine to help it reach new heights. While the album boasts some of the North Carolina-bred rapper’s strongest musical work to date, he layers it with unnecessary commentary on the movement of so-called “mumble-rap” artists who operate entirely out of Cole’s orbit. Instead, he thrives when he’s not cross-examining the post-Chief Keef generation, like on the catchy ‘ATM’.
The album is, of course, featureless (he must love being a meme) and Cole handles most of the production himself, which leads to KOD occasionally sounding dry. Cole didn’t create the anti-Xan doctrine he set out to, but under the concept is an impressive album that proves why he will always deserve a place in the conversation. AP
Diego Leonos was propelled into the public eye by his song ‘Betrayed’, a morose emo-rap streaming hit warning against Faustian bargains with benzodiazepines. Total Xanarchy is an attempt to give his teenage fans more of the same. Playful beats that bound ahead with the energy of a Labrador retriever puppy are paired with a slurred delivery based more on rhythm than diction or content; when viewed on sites like Genius, the lyrics are dizzying columns of the words “yeah, yeah” and “ayy, ayy” stacked on top of each other.
Anti-drug rap is currently having a moment. Only time will tell if Lil Xan, who has announced plans to begin going by simply Diego, will manage to move forward past the shadow of his former self. LC
Chicago rapper Lucki, despite being only 21-years old, is considerably more seasoned than his peers. His 2013 mixtape Alternative Trap is a highly influential piece of work for the SoundCloud generation but because of mental ups and downs Lucki was unable to capitalize on it.
Now, five years later. Lucki has persevered and it has led to a newfound focus allowing him to create a project that is patient and detailed. Lucki’s sedated flow and intimate raps drag you in on Marcus Basquiat-produced efforts like ‘Root Of All’ and ‘Facts Only’ where the connection with the listener is immediate. You can’t help exit the brief project fascinated by Lucki. AP
West Coast storyteller Maxo links up with producer LastNameDavid for this reflective EP. The project finds its strength in imagery as every Maxo line is crafted to make you feel like you’re witnessing his journey first hand. We sometimes forget what it’s like to relate and connect to a rapper given that so many of the genre’s budding stars border on being cartoon characters. Maxo’s candor is only elevated by the tranquil knocking of LastNameDavid’s rough drums. In the end it’s a reminder of just how artful rap can be. AP
Princess Nokia’s inner-goth was apparent long before she dressed herself in the late ’90s Hot-Topic apparel she dons on the cover of A Girl Cried Red. But even without the sartorial hints indicating the tone of the project, the lyrics inside are easy to imagine scrawled in a broody teenager’s notebook, blood-dripping daggers and ornate eyes leaking tears dancing in the margins. The Bronx-born bruja’s Auto-Tuned voice keens themes of abandonment, loss and suffering over beats that heavily incorporate guitar, building a hybrid emo/hip-hop sound that should appeal to fans of the late Lil Peep. LC
Since his self-produced mixtape days, Saba’s been striving to illuminate everyday life on Chicago’s West Side with vulnerable lyricism, jazz-influenced composition and a strong sense of social awareness. He’s followed up last year’s optimistic Bucket List Project with a new album featuring support from Chance the Rapper, KAINA and theMIND. CARE FOR ME delves deeply into the loss of his cousin and fellow Pivot Gang member John Walt; with the brilliant and heart-breaking song ‘PROM / KING’, Saba breaks through the isolation of grief to tell the story of their journey, from shared childhood memories through the final tragic moments of Walt’s life. LC
Despite worrying incidents in his personal life, Thugger remains secure in the echelons of hip-hop royalty. On his latest effort, he’s joined by three more members of the ruling class for a trifecta of powerful new songs, the titles of which, when joined together, pose a question.
Nicki Minaj asserts her matriarchal dominance on ‘Anybody’, delivering orders like, “Bitch, go clean my crown”; Lil Uzi Vert shines on ‘Up’, a Southside-produced homage to the stimulant properties of drugs. On the final track, ‘Now’, he’s joined by 21 Savage, whose typical detached but assured delivery serves as the perfect foil for Thug’s erratic vocal flexibility. LC
Alphonse Pierre is a freelance music writer based in New York. Find him on Twitter.
Lorena Cupcake writes about every facet of culture. Find their insightful coverage on music, food and more at lorenacupcake.com.