The big question in hip-hop this season: which megaartiste made the superior album, Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar? My noncommittal answer is that I prefer Lamar’s album but also feel like I’ve exhausted it for the time being, while I could imagine West’s longer but also messier offering getting better and better indefinitely. It’s already grown on me more in a month than Yeezus has over the past three years, and I think Yeezus is fabulous. But Lamar is clearly at an insane career high right now, and for all we know he’s just getting started. Levitate levitate levitate levitate.
Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope, 2016)
Recently crowned king of rap though Lamar may be, this album in itself isn’t that big a deal — it’s just an outtakes collection, eight songs rejected from last year’s To Pimp a Butterfly through no fault of their own — it’s just that Butterfly was complete as is. The big deal is how intense, committed, and engaging even his outtakes are, and how well they cohere into a separate musical entity.
More than deliberately unfinished (which on the slow, mostly a cappella interlude “untitled 04/08.14.2014” and the long, multipartite, disorganized song pastiche “untitled 07/2014-2016” it certainly is), the album is deliberately small. Where on the epic Butterfly everything unfolded over a sprawling scale that allowed for shifts in voice, elaborations on tropes, and all sorts of developments plotwise, here songs of similar mood and instrumental texture combine to produce a tight miniature that shares fluttering horns, liquid bass, and contemporary political themes with its predecessor while lacking the extended, novelistic narrative framework. The hooks emerge more quickly, especially the sour, slithering drums on “untitled 05/09.21.2014” and the spacey keyboard slide on “untitled 08/09.26.2014.” Lamar chatters and exclaims and runs laps all over the record, reaching new levels of eerie pseudomelodic vocal overactivity on “untitled 02/06.23.2014” and the first third of “untitled 07/2014-2016.” The mood is darker and tenser than on Butterfly, which included more peaceful, airy, relaxed moments than you’d expect given the outspoken political content. Yet at the same time the effect is positive; hearing Lamar rhyme over a dreamy, gossamer jazz band — at once a crazy musical innovation and a prescient racial metaphor — proves refreshing, affirming, a long drink of cold water. This band once again qualifies as Lamar’s shrewdest political statement, evoking familiar-sounding psychedelic jazz even as it zaps you with the shock of the new. The louder, tougher drumming doesn’t hurt either.
Simultaneously distinct from Butterfly and a natural outgrowth, this is a brilliant way to follow an untoppable album, and it makes me wonder about directions he might pursue in the future. Decades ago, Lamar’s clear spiritual guide Sun Ra would release several albums a year, most of them about this length. Without resorting to the mixtape route, this is unlikely to happen today — labels just don’t work that way anymore. But should Lamar happen to share my pipe dream, it would allow him a way to avoid the trappings of the Statement Album while making each album work as a statement, and I’d love to see him try.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: This Unruly Mess I’ve Made (Macklemore LLC, 2016)
Recalling quite a few decent, charming songs on Macklemore’s last album, I tried to keep an open mind. I thought maybe getting publicly crucified as an example of white people exploiting black music for their own self-serving ends would inspire rather than discourage this white rapper, who genuinely loves hip-hop, to, you know, improve his rap skills. Instead, the self-consciously grandiose title describes its corresponding album all too well.
Putting aside jokes about his hair, the big problem with Macklemore isn’t that he actually disrespects black culture, or that he only cares about hip-hop as a way to make money, or that he stole a Grammy from the deserving Kendrick Lamar. The big problem with Macklemore is how unproblematic he tries to be. As a corny, cheerful, well-meaning guy who worked hard for a long time and earned his success, he must have been shocked when cultural pundits started making the aforementioned accusations, and he’s since developed a case of white guilt so crippling it’s come to define his music. This inflated follow-up album, four labored years in the making, doubles down on the anthemic choruses, flashy string swells, heartsick soul singers tearing up at the mic, and general pomposity — a white, conservative artistic mode if ever one existed — all backing lyrics calculated to convince African-Americans he’s not like all those other bad white people, he’s different, he knows the culture, he’s familiar with Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin, he’s a friend. The first song frets over his Grammy while casting aspersions on an entertainment industry, which he has conveniently defined to exclude himself. The last song is a long, operatic power ballad about the true state of race in America in which he admits Black Lives Matter protesters make him uncomfortable before dissing Iggy Azalea, another white rapper to whom he genuinely considers himself morally superior. In between, he continually criticizes the white savior complex, as if to distract from the fact that he has one.
Every now and then he’ll lighten up and have some fun, like on the song where he challenges you to a danceoff. Mostly this is the kind of stuffy bleeding-heart expressionism many of us go to hip-hop to avoid.
Azealia Banks: Slay-Z (self-released, 2016)
As much as I’d love to avoid praising an artist who makes public proclamations like “I think Trump is the only one who truly has the balls to bust up big business” and “Even if I am a homophobe, so what? I still make more money than you,” I just can’t help myself. Banks’s jittery electrohouse-rap would win my heart on formal grounds alone, not to mention quick, witty, gender-subverting raps totally free of such offensive content. This EP nails her core style while only intermittently tapping into the fiery energy that made 2014’s Broke With Expensive Taste so glorious.
At her best, Banks’s agile, stark, technotronic beats achieve a mode of rhythmic momentum that has no parallel anywhere in contemporary hip-hop. Forward rather than circular, the music is constantly on its feet, hopping from one pitched percussion device to another as Banks mimics the effect in a rapid-fire spew of guttural consonants. These eight streamlined dance tracks include more traditionally melodic elements, hookier keyboard lines and chintzier drums, more singing and less clattering on Banks’s part, while nevertheless sticking, mostly, to the basic formula. The sequence from “Skylar Diggins” to “Big Talk” to “Can’t Do It Like Me” ranks among her most thrilling moments ever, and it would all sound fabulous in a club, where kinetic motion subsumes smaller details. But there was a dissonance to Broke With Expensive Taste that I miss, a delight in the musicality she extracted from supposedly nonmelodic whistles and crunches and pseudoxylophones; the more conventional pleasures available here feel shallow in comparison. Of course, if “Skylar Diggins” seduces you sufficiently you might not notice.
Light, frivolous, less intense than her norm, the EP still delivers. Play it any time you need an extra shot of energy. Play it in the morning as a coffee substitute.
2 Chainz: Collegrove (Def Jam, 2016)
Oh goody, I thought — since 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne are both irrepressible goofballs who excel in context-free joke mode, a collaboration between the two should highlight their strengths and set them bouncing off each other in perfect stylized motion, no? Then after Wayne lost his co-billing due to a label dispute, both rappers decided they’d just let the other one do the heavy lifting, and the project went haywire.
Theoretically, you couldn’t get any more hedonistic than this. Wayne is hip-hop’s very own original drug-munching, expletive-cackling, thumb-sucking, language-fucking, free-associating genius idiot savant egomaniac, Chainz a suave, cheerful ladies’ man and/or sexist whose greatest charm is his own candid shamelessness complete with sheepish grin. Both split the difference between unhinged verbal invention and nondescript corporate product, depending on the degree of wit they bring to the studio on any given day; with Wayne especially the excitement lies in his puns, his double entendres, his tongue-twisters, the way he punctuates his lines with chuckles and comments on his own performance. The semantic content mainly consists of traditional hip-hop themes (guns, genitals, etc), but the music frequently rises above all that due to visionary wordplay or an exceptionally catchy beat. Here, the beats, courtesy of several renowned megaproducers, including Metro Boomin and Zaytoven, articulate a nice variant on the ubiquitous Atlanta synth-orchestral style; Wayne gurgles out a few amusing verses, but Chainz has sunk into a bland anonymity, often sacrificing his signature metric enjambment for the kind of blunt, straightforward punchline-rap Wayne’s lesser Young Money labelmates churn out all the time. The result is faceless and utterly pro forma.
“Bounce” and “Gotta Lotta” might satisfy if heard blasting from the radio; everything else gets the job done and nothing more. A mediocre rap album as opposed to a truly terrible one is a rap album where someone who delights in mocking the stupid shit rappers say, like me, can’t even find an outrageous gaffe worth quoting.