Like a lot of crunk/trap/drill/whatever, Young Thug & Bloody Jay’s “No Fucks” sounds downright Wagnerian — big, orchestral, bombastic, you can just imagine a procession of military helicopters flying by. I can see the two of them now, playing Carnegie Hall to an audience of jaded opera fans grumbling about how the baritone couldn’t fill the space. Until this wonderful day comes, though, it’s been something of a comeback year for hip-hop, minus the crossover. There’ve been great rap records and terrible rap records, but at least there’ve been a bunch of rap records from which to choose.
Jason Derulo: Talk Dirty
(Warner Bros, 2014) [BUY]
Jason Derulo is famous for being bland, corporate, and addicted to Auto-Tune, a not entirely spurious reputation; his hit ballads use pitch-correcting equipment to enhance tunes so meager even the laziest singer could hit the notes unassisted. On this album, he’s suddenly become a compelling artist, a sweat-drenched love panther after the R. Kelly market. Slyly, stylishly, taking crucial cues from not just Kelly but Beyoncé, he unlocks the door to a nonstop procession of pornographic jams.
Although this album remains somewhat generic, it’s virtually impossible not to get seduced by its crass hook barrage — the tricks Derulo uses are so obvious, so predictable, and they work every time. Over strong, rhythmic electrobeats, he’ll chant some crafty verse about whatever sex move he’s going to pull next or the lipstick smeared all over his passport. Then he’ll softly growl the title of whatever song he’s singing, upon which the keyboards drop out and he hits you with a slinky, alluring, often Latinate horn riff. Okay, so not every song on the album follows that exact formula. Sometimes he deepens the mix with heavy basslines and glossy synthesizer shimmer. Sometimes he strips down to harsh percussion and scratchy vocal loops. Just to spice the orgy up a little, he even includes a few hit ballads, including a closer whose chorus goes “Will you marry me?”. When he tries to hit the high note, can’t quite do it, and smoothes over the melody with a little Auto-Tuned blip, you can picture the look of amused skepticism on his beloved’s face before she shrugs and says yes.
Encompassing the driving macho of modern hip-hop, the unabashed sweetness of bubbly teenpop, and even a little clubstep, Derulo’s many and mighty hooks resist easy classification. But they’re deployed so lavishly only the staunchest anticommercial ideologue could resist them.
(Owsla/Big Beat/Atlantic, 2014) [BUY]
Sonny Moore has been crafting his own intense kind of mini-album for four years now, and though I feel like an idiot trying to distinguish between pieces of product that all sound the same, this one just doesn’t tickle me the way 2011’s Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites and 2012’s Bangarang do. While his visionary dubstep brand remains superlative, it’s a tad milder than usual, attempting a lighter sound that doesn’t really suit him.
At his best, Moore’s music is as volatile and abrasive as Motorhead’s or Public Enemy’s. The huge slabs of electronic distortion he wrenches out of his laptop clash and bounce and explode off each other, bearing down on a fierce, pounding groove whose mind-numbing violence rocks harder than any competing dancefloor wizard out there. His strength is purity — not tonal purity, not with his screeching grenade noises cranked up at maximum volume, but a pure and rarefied musical rendition of aggression in the abstract. As long as he sticks to bombardment and suffocating compression, his beats will flatten you like a steamroller. Here he seeks a wider range, enlisting guest rappers, sensitive vocal samples, reggae babblers; one song has horns in it, and elsewhere he goes for a relaxing, trancelike vibe. He’s distilled his signature sound with gentler rhythms and softer textures, eschewing not just the razor-sharp edge of “Kill Everybody” and “Bangarang” but the friendly lyricism of “Summit” and “All I Ask of You.” Exception: “Try It Out,” which whizzes by with renewed vigor and momentum.
This is a decent, enjoyable dubstep album, but that’s all it is. With music this brash, marginal distinctions are everything.
Linkin Park: The Hunting Party
(Warner Bros, 2014) [BUY]
Having recently veered off into absurdly overblown prog-rock indulgence, everybody’s favorite metalheads-in-disguise return to their classic screamo style, shrieking furious proclamations about the universal teenage condition. It’s hardly their most portentous album; by their standards, it’s quite modest and eloquent. Should they choose to continue in this vein, they might achieve actual modest eloquence provided they completely redefine their sound.
Where the All-American Rejects, say, heighten their buddy-buddy jock/teenthrob personas with big, inflated, rock-heavy anthems, underneath the same kind of power balladry these guys cultivate searing antisocial revulsion. Pummeling the drums like a punching bag, stacking layer upon layer of thunderingly distorted guitar onto thrashingly mechanical tempos, their hammy arena moves dramatize a particularly aggrandizing form of alienated self-loathing. Psychotic white high school geekboys can slip into this music much the way they slip into first-person shooter video games or elaborate science fiction mythology; it evinces the same solemn grandiosity, blind release of anger, and belief in overblown concepts like Evil, Salvation, and One Man to Save Us All. Admittedly, this album isn’t as godawful as 2010’s A Thousand Suns or 2012’s Living Things, both of which coated their hardcore guitar flailing in canned electronic kitsch and faux-symphonic pomp. Instead, they double down on the headbanging, speeding everything up, blasting out their tacky riffs with twice as much force, further augmenting the exhausting dynamics that already make them so hard to listen to.
From their heroic stance to their joyless music, this band pursues their male target audience as blatantly as Justin Bieber pursues his female target audience. Even the vengeful relationship songs sound less like a grown man’s observations from experience and more like some misfit kid’s fantasy of yelling at his longterm crush.
Young Thug & Bloody Jay: Black Portland
(free download, 2014) [BUY]
Gucci Mane/Waka Flocka Flame follower Young Thug sounds like your average swagged-out thug-identified rapper at first, but boy does he sneak up on you: his raps sizzle and jump with a sheer joy in the rhythm of language his mentors have never comprehended. Here, he teams up with worthy partner Bloody Jay for a mixtape so vivid and compelling I can only hope the Bricksquad label chooses to officially release it.
Unlike Flocka or Gucci, Thug has no interest in macho chest-thumping. Rather than barking, he stutters, he snorts, he whispers, he giggles, he gasps for air, he swallows words, he repeats himself, he starts laughing in between sentences, he breaks out in sudden bursts of melody, he mutters things under his breath, a manner of rapping traditionally considered Lil Waynian, except Wayne’s verbal tics are seamlessly stylized where Thug’s approximate natural, conversational speech. Bloody Jay’s deep, slurred declamations add vocal contrast, often chanting the refrain. The beats exist in the moody, dark yet glittering crunk/trap/drill/whatever mode, all ominous metallic snare and swanky orchestral keyboard, only screwed and tinkered with so that electric violins keep morphing into electric pianos and flashy synth loops double as atmospheric glaze. Musically, it’s relatively experimental within a highly pro forma style. But every rumbling hook crackles to life, shot through with Thug and Jay’s goofy, delighted sense of play.
Meaningwise, this is no different from dozens of murkier gangsta chef-d’oeuvres. It’s just the strongest and solidest hip-hop album I’ve heard in a long time. Let’s hope “No Fucks” becomes a platinum single and earns them a million dollars with which to record another one.