If these past few months are any indication, 2017 is shaping up to be a terrific year for hip-hop — better than 2016, I hope. Last year’s one unabashed triumph, A Tribe Called Quest’s monumental comeback We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, was so bright and clear-eyed, so joyous and inspirational, and such a spacey, bubbly slice of ear candy that it towered above everything else, making even decent exercises in hedonism by Travis Scott and Danny Brown sound rather limited. The following reviews represent my attempt to filter four impressive months of music into an illustrative sample.
Future: Hndrxx (A1/Freebandz/Epic)
Releasing two chart-topping albums in a week looks like creative exuberance and sounds like jaded exhaustion. Already a paragon of romantic murk, the Atlanta trap king slows down the tempos, sludgifies the textures, and further dilutes the crispness that lends his roboshtick appeal.
Starting around late 2014, Future began a now-infamous megaproductive streak, belching out albums, mixtapes, collaborations, what have you, at an absurd rate that belies the lifestyle portrayed on record, for if he spends all that time in the studio, when would he ever find time to pop pills in the strip club while shuddering over the world’s existential horror? His prolificacy impressed me in 2015 when it produced the crown jewel DS2, whose sharp, wintry chill matched his mechanized drone in demonstrating how pro forma wheel-spinning can reveal personal pain by implied omission. Now his beats gunk along at a zonked, atmospheric crawl. Beguiled by the affective fallacy, he’s made several miscalculations in crafting his meticulously arranged musical vapor cloud; inducing hypnosis in a listener requires higher levels of energy and sonic thickness, because inducing anything in a listener requires aesthetic intensity of any sort. Instead, behold crunchy drums at half speed, ostinato synthesizer gradually dissipating, and a performer whose mumbled raps exhibit the stupor he wishes listeners would emulate. I distinguish Hndrxx from the self-titled Future, released a week earlier, by the fact that the terrific single and slinky electroflute banger “Mask Off” is on the latter, while the cheerfully bouncy “Incredible” and “Testify” are on the former. Otherwise, he’s settled into a suffocatingly lethargic quietude. Given such a mood, his trademark melancholy curdles into unsavory fantasy.
He needs to adjust his formula; he’s depleted the current one. A return to the pop-rap of his first two albums, before he went mopey, would be welcome. At present his career typifies how the incessant demand for new material compromises quality control.
Migos: Culture (Quality Control/300/Atlantic)
A trio, refreshing in an era of ill-defined solo brands and auteurist overreach, Migos have always scored great singles, but only on their second album do they string together thirteen sizzling bangers from start to finish. Unfashionably consistent, the songs indeed all sound the same, but since they’re all fabulous this is hardly a deficiency.
Much contemporary rap on the charts inhabits a silly, childlike aesthetic, or at least a preverbal one, foregrounding backup vocals and ad-libs that tend toward absurd inarticulate noises, skrts and skeets and blats and blams everywhere. As natural-born class clowns, Migos’s Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff adhere to this convention while also rapping more quickly, clearly, and amusingly than the norm. This album has its own comic momentum, inhabiting a tone best described as mock-exasperated — Offset yelps “cookin up dope in the crockpot” as if alarmed that anyone would try such a thing — while the three snorting, giggling goofballs in the spotlight bounce off each other like too many pinballs rattling around in the machine. The beats — tightly wound music boxes of such clicking, interlocking elements as organ sweat, spiraling piano lines, swaying percussion, and precisely timed shrieks and squeals — feel dirty, intricate, delectable, full of weird stuff to listen to; they’re about layers rather than surface. Framed by said music, the various noises the rappers make with their mouths mesh seamlessly with the piano ticktock, signifying primarily as central sonic ingredients. Like Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles,” “Bad and Boujee” is a terrific album track that befuddles as a chart-topping single — slow beat, no main hummable hook, a chorus that’s basically another extended verse in the chorus’s place. In sequence between the equally sublime “Call Casting” and “Get Right Witcha,” it’s a huge, wacky, wobbly, ominous monster.
Play this hyperactive compendium of aural jokes in the car, or at parties, or anytime you need a shot of raw id. This is a mischievous ten-year-old’s idea of the perfect rap album. I can’t imagine a higher compliment.
Kodak Black: Painting Pictures (Pink House)
Florida prodigy Kodak Black has popped up as a guest on quite a few winning radio singles in the past year, including Rae Sremmurd’s “Real Chill” and French Montana’s gloriously metatextual “Lockjaw,” but the confidence of his major-label debut still astonishes. Despite the unfortunate shadow of a recent stint in jail I won’t mention again, he turns in a capricious, fluctuating collection of bangers and singsong exercises that demonstrate his versatility as a performer and charm as a pronouncer of syllables.
While “Tunnel Vision” is currently hovering around the Billboard Top 40, I don’t expect the album proper to sell much, though I dare hip-hop fans to prove me wrong. Given present moody, atmospheric fashions, his cheer is just too jaunty, his sonic palette too cracklingly electric rather than smoothly electronic (though he does have a thing for liquid synth squelch), his hooks too concrete for a trap-associated rapper. Potentially kryptonite for those who expect rappers to boom and declaim, Black startles with the gruff, gravelly, dribbly drawl he raps in. Like Anderson Paak’s, this is a voice whose edges seem rubbed off by scratchy sandpaper, allowing otherwise swallowed moans and grunts to trickle out the edges and run down his chin. He’s sharp and alert adapting to different speeds and melody quotients; what he’s less capable of modulating is vocal grain. Black dramatizes the struggle to enunciate, a struggle he wins at the price of abrading the inner workings of his voicebox. That his beats tend to be concomitantly sturdier and more tangible than the trap label has come to denote is appropriate to the vocal strategy. The production’s a little scattershot, but note how the glittering synth groove on “Twenty 8” segues effortlessly into the stylistically unrelated dissonant piano loop on “Patty Cake,” and be grateful he has the nerve to test his voice against disparate settings. He snarls the aggressive songs and soars on the sweet tuneful ones. New rhythmic patterns reveal new pockets in his throat.
A crunchier set of hooks might flatter him as a performer, but that might also obscure the charm of a record that works as a wildly unpredictable vocal showcase. I hope he stays away from cigarettes and Auto-Tune — his voice’s natural physical attributes aren’t to be tampered with. I could listen to him rap for hours about nothing.
Cupcakke: Queen Elizabitch (self-released)
Chicago rapper Cupcakke pursues the vulgar so obsessively that she’s come to redefine it: last year’s astounding “Vagina” illustrates how extreme literalism can simultaneouslyshock and demystify. Her latest mixtape, without ever peaking that high, typifies her obscene shtick.
Artists who court shock value risk rapid irrelevance; a newly expanded window of discourse can vaporize aesthetic quality through no fault of the artist. It just so happens that Cupcakke is covering unexplored territory, and until she or another similar rapper normalizes the style, these witty but also straightforward descriptions of sex will continue to delight. While she brags plenty and engages in requisite wordplay, her best moments seem less like pornography than an instruction manual; she insists on pushing raw physical facts in your face. Upbeat, rubbery, scintillating blocks of synthesizer chintz shimmer and surge as the brashly angry tone of her rapping signals release from repression and lends her music its force. If this particular mixtape feels somewhat tentative, blame halfhearted efforts to widen her range and prove that she’s more than a novelty artist. The solemn opener “Scraps,” in which she lists a bunch of politically and socially relevant topics while reflecting on her own upbringing, is a good idea in theory and a dull genre exercise on record, and ditto for the spoken-word closer “Reality, Pt. 4.” These songs make hesitant, preparatory gestures, hopefully presaging more ambitious attempts at integrating explicitly political themes. “Cum shot cum shot / in my crotch my crotch” is plenty political in a world where desire is treated as something to regulate.
She’s a visionary, and she’ll improve. Enjoy her magisterial delivery and plethora of fabulous one-liners in the meantime. If anything, she’d benefit from lavishing greater attention upon gimmick and novelty.