In 2017 rap is less a genre than a concatenation of subgenres, each with a different set of conventions and rules. There is no central sound (although Kendrick Lamar’s “Loyalty,” an exercise in self-conscious conventionality, may come close); just listen to the radio and discover as wide a range of modes as you’d like. Each of the four albums reviewed below inhabits its own idiosyncratic sonic universe. And three of them respond more intelligently to the political situation than Arcade Fire.
Tyler, the Creator: Flower Boy (Columbia)
What a heartening development for a formerly horrorcore rapper: coming out (ambiguously) as gay, implicitly denouncing his vulgar, often bigoted previous work, and recording a sweet ode to vulnerability and unrequited love. While indeed a simplistic, one-dimensional corrective move, the album charms for its lovely, warm tranquility.
One could write essays, dissertations, books on the hormonal confusion, internalized self-hate, obsession with masculine codes, and unbearable adolescent agony inherent in Tyler’s career arc, all resolved and clarified in light of recent admissions about his sexuality. The album’s coolest breakthrough, though, is musical. Once he growled over crude, ugly synthbeats whose simplicity implied both authenticity and lethargy. Now behold waves of pealing keyboard ripples, noodling trebly guitar, sweeping electronic strings, organic grooves inhabiting a soft-rock variant on neosoul, and a panoply of chirpy female R&B voices, most prominently Estelle and Kali Uchis, whispering sweet nothings and providing vocal cushioning. Like the Internet’s Ego Death, this music glows with soothingly balmy heat, almost pastoral in its evocation of an endless, directionless summer. The album’s power as a gesture depends on an audience’s knowledge of Tyler’s past music and willingness to undergo a transformation of self; he cares more about sweetness as a corrective token than sweetness as an aesthetic attribute. “Garden Shed,” whose synthesizer rays and piercing lead guitar pass like a shimmery breeze, and “See You Again,” whose dizzy, bittersweet harmonies comfort with the slightest hint of disquiet, would delight in any case.
The album is too transparent a swerve, too concerned with renunciation, but its hazy, wistful warmth blossoms like his other albums don’t. Once he outgrows the need to atone for “Bitch Suck Dick” and the like, I anticipate more nuanced proof of maturity.
Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory (ARTium/Blacksmith/Def Jam)
Vince Staples is on an absurd productivity streak: since 2014 he’s released one stark, compelling, musically distinct project each year. If he keeps going at this rate, he’ll have quite the catalog, distinguished by jittery sonics, a sharp eye for parsing situations and attitudes, and equal commitment to EPs and longforms. His second full-length album, which arranges crisp rhymes across tart beats in a display of cold precision, matches the minimalist crunch of last year’s Prima Donna EP as well as his acclaimed debut, Summertime ‘06. Politically aware and outspoken, he’s nonetheless all about form.
Staples specializes in a sort of updated old-school aesthetic whereby classicist virtues like verbal clarity, metrical dexterity, and musical austerity are inflected through the modernism of contemporary lyrical concerns and voguish electronic production. He raps keenly and discerningly about how myths inflect life: success fantasies of celebrity and gangsta varieties both; the political consequences of cultural narrative; and, as he puts it, “how rappers are perceived and perceive themselves.” He always makes sure to enunciate each syllable in a word and each word in a line, the quaver in his voice revealing an insecure, depressive tendency just barely concealed; often he conveys the ambivalence of an alienated insider, someone who goes along with various conventional practices in the rap world while suppressing the urge to recoil. The sleeker, glitzier, moister electrobleeps that mark this album, courtesy of such star electronica producers as Sophie and Flume, hardly make it a dance album or a hip-hop tribute to Detroit techno. This music is barely less abrasive than the darker, creepier, less melodic Summertime ‘06, and the album’s sharp lines and ominous, suggestively empty spaces fit his established template. Rather, the squelchy bass, pitched metal percussion, spirals of synthesizer glitter, and assorted bubble effects assemble a cold technological surface in whose reflection he sees his own coldness. Staples’s clipped sneer of a delivery, which cuts up syllables like meat cubes, and the percussive bounce of the music, reducing each beat to a succession of discrete individual notes, are paired appropriately. The exactitude must please him.
At 36 minutes, the album is a paragon of concision; he’s packed enough fury and invention to sustain a grandiose statement into a pathologically tight, controlled, restrained structure. He takes the mic, delivers a cunning, confounding performance, and disappears while your head’s still spinning. He’ll be back again next year.
Playboi Carti: Playboi Carti (AWGE/Interscope)
Modern rap just keeps on getting less lucid, doesn’t it? That’s no insult: a collective dive into the dirty backwaters of the unconscious is something to celebrate. This Atlanta rapper’s debut mixtape is so zonked out it may yet pioneer new meditative techniques in listening to rap, inhabiting a passive hedonism that’s riveting once it seeps into your bones.
Even as so-called mumble rappers go, Carti is almost totally incomprehensible. Young Thug at least makes loud noises with his mouth, but Carti swallows syllables as often as not, frequently dropping out entirely to give his background ad-libs — yeah! uh! whoo! — full prominence. The beats, which stack comical piano and plaintive electronic flute atop skittery drum machine loops, are quite hooky in a repetitive way, yet they don’t actively tickle the hook receptors or the aggression cortex like trap-rap is supposed to. Rather, listening to these polished mechanical constructions swivel round and round on their axes, until the details become a gorgeous blur, hypnotizes. Despite lively tempos and propulsive percussion, this music sputters by in an impressionistic wash of sound, as if each note has become slightly pixelated and the beats can only move incrementally. While playfully silly in the manner of so much excellent recent trap, Carti’s drawl indicates a performer as dazed by his aural environment as the listener. The record typifies a musical mode that rap — a verbal genre in theory — paradoxically does like no other: a pure, luxurious, overwhelmingly sensuous physical experience, unencumbered by words or worries or context to disrupt the mindless bodily stimulation. That is to say, a beautiful, scary, fanatically intense and somehow cleansing portrait of Id itself.
Be careful where and when you play the album–it may suck you into a rabbit hole. That such incoherent goofiness has become rap’s dominant ethos in the past few years is a joy.
Logic: Everybody (Visionary Music Group/Def Jam)
Lookee! A rapper has finally recorded a hip-hop sequel to Howard Jones’s landmark Human’s Lib. Complete with idealistic rhetoric, eager platitudes to resolve any political conflict, a grin on his face and hope in his heart, and mindboggling metaphysical ambition, the Maryland rapper has cemented his reputation as hip-hop’s leading self-help guru.
Besides his hit single named after the phone number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (“1-800-273-8255”), and if it saves lives who am I to quibble, Logic is famous for two things: his quick, fluent, rhythmic flow, switching from one meter to another while crisscrossing rhymes across bars with athletic speed, and his eagerness to tackle political content while accidentally making various insensitive comments. Fittingly, this album’s energetic, melodic, electronically orchestrated beats, overlaid with Logic’s agile, shifty rapping, mildly please the ear when played in the background, while as for the overarching concept, well, here goes: Logic raps a variety of preachy lectures on the most pressing issues of our time, with topics including mental illness, religious salvation, how tragic race relations are in America (on many sides, even!) and how we should all just get along, and the magical, ineffable, infinitely complex nature of the universe. Often he accentuates songs with a long, spoken outro while keeping the beat running, as on “Take it Back,” in which he explains how being biracial taught him that humans are all connected, or “Anziety,” in which he feigns an epiphany about his own mental health. He also interrupts the music with long, unaccompanied skits between an everyman, played by radio personality Big Von, and God, played by — I swear! — Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist. The everyman, named Atom, dies, goes to purgatory, and meets God, who explains that he won’t get to enter the afterlife until he gets reincarnated as every human being who ever lived throughout history. This is supposed to illustrate that all people are the same, and that all acts of kindness or hate help or hurt all people equally. At the end, God gives humanity the advice to “live your life to the fullest, according to your happiness and the betterment of all”. Then, another skit reveals that the entire album has been merely background music to entertain space travelers exploring the galaxy.
Having typed out the above paragraph, I can’t bring myself to comment on the album further. Description is criticism.