The three fabulous albums reviewed below reflect my deeply held belief that the future of rap lies in silliness, absurdism, functionalism, joy, and a delight in form and sound. The one dull album reviewed below confirms my fear that ponderous would-be therapeutic expressionism will also be with us for a long time.
Cupcakke: Ephorize (Cupcakke)
Chicago rapper Cupcakke has been releasing hooky, carnal, furious albums for several years now, continually refining her joyfully scabrous shtick. Her third commercial release is the best by a significant margin, stringing together 15 energetic, bass-heavy tracks into a vivid sequence that hangs together with total consistency and confidence.
The critical conversation surrounding Cupcakke oscillates between two positions. One position is astonishment at the creativity of the bizarre, graphic sex scenes she describes with so much relish. The other claims that she’s not really a “sex rapper,” that she has many more feathers in her cap, and that to categorize her in this way is to diminish her — as if being a sex rapper were somehow a limited, one-dimensional role.
Ephorize demonstrates her versatility as last year’s splendid Queen Elizabitch did not. “Total” and “Single While Taken” are strikingly wistful songs about commitment anxiety and the decline of a relationship, respectively. Throughout the album, the sex scenes remain paramount; lyrics that deserve quotation include, “Tap the head of the dick, duck duck duck goose/get the dick up and running when he fuck this cooch/covered in all my come the dick be looking like a goose” and “Daddy I’m so numb/hurry up and come/put a straw to that dick taste better than rum.”
Given the extreme and almost comedic level of visceral detail, and the overarching spirit of defiance and celebration, these songs don’t necessarily code as stimulating or even erotic; the in-your-face lewdness is, rather, a form of bragging. Behold, an old-fashioned kind of rap album, the swaggering kind where the rapper boasts, flexes her muscles, and goes to great lengths to impress.
Cupcakke’s blunt, booming delivery suits the mood, as do the beats, whose colorful array of rattles and pitched percussion effects inhabit an appropriately jumpy, sugar-saturated aesthetic. When she compares herself to the cereal Cinnamon Toast Crunch over the buzzy electronic dizziness of a beat that spins and thunders, she’s performing an ode to sensory overload. Her aggression as a performer reflects the daft tenacity of someone who wants the most out of life: the biggest and most danceable beats, the bounciest and liveliest raps, the most intense modes of physical pleasure. This album’s forceful assurance does this principle justice.
Ski Mask the Slump God: Beware the Book of Eli (Victor/Republic)
For those of us who care about novelty singles, Ski Mask the Slump God was 2017’s most exciting rapper, cackling his way through desolate aural landscapes like “Catch Me Outside” and the magnificent Keith Ape collaboration “Achoo” with merry resignation and gallows humor. His official debut, released quietly after a kerfuffle with his management, distills his curious sensibility into a legible, congenial shape.
“Excuse me, my voice is a little raspy,” apologizes Ski Mask at the beginning of “Child’s Play,” and, indeed, of all the surreal noises burling throughout this album, the very strangest are those coming out of his mouth. He blubbers syllables both bluntly and quickly, accentuating the gargly roughness of his lower end whenever he sighs, or tries to cram as many plosives as possible into a single line, or pronounces a vowel for longer than usual. He likes to gulp down final syllables, but he does so conspicuously, even loudly, so that the audible glug becomes its own syllable. Gruff, guttural, percussive, his voice seems covered in a light coating of dust and soot.
Similarly, the beats drag modern trap’s characteristic hypnotic keyboard hooks and skittering metallic drums through a layer of grime, dotting the formerly smooth surface with aural shadows, cobwebs, and the scent of mothballs, as sharp drum splats lurk in dark corners. This is the rare case in which a rapper successfully translates the messy SoundCloud rap aesthetic into an album without sacrificing the mess — the distortion, the static, the lo-fi murk, the random noises surfacing and subsiding, the preoccupation with death and horror tropes (for instance, “Lost Souls” and “Suicide Season”), and the defiant incoherence.
It’s fragile music, threatening to fall apart or fade out at any moment, yet Ski Mask’s jollity always persists. He’s cheerful in the face of the void, happy to swoop down upon the beat and chortle a few free-associative verses while ducking sonic detritus like the simulated electric violin on “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” or the echoey cymbal effects on “Bukkake,” disappearing before it all blows up in his face. He’s enthralled by a spirit of homemade play.
He won’t score a big single from this album — these songs are too lopsided, too fractured. The album barely clicks — but it does, and the quavery chaos throughout is riveting. It’s the sound of rap starting to splinter, a brave and humorous attempt to engage with formal decay.
Playboi Carti: Die Lit (Awge/Interscope)
Although purists deride the rise of “mumble rap,” the flipside of inarticulate performers is gorgeous music; it turns out that trap conventions, when softened into a blurry haze, ache and soar, animated by wicked hedonism and lyrical rapture. Possibly the quietest rapper ever to have fascinated the hip-hop world, Playboi Carti exemplifies this tendency.
Carti’s self-titled debut was one of last year’s most marvelous surprises: a relaxed, amused collection of keyboard spirals, synth flutes, and enthusiastic ad-libs, smoothed over with echoey polish and a soft glow, so that distinctions between songs collapsed into an immersive wash of sound. Hypnotic as it is, there’s a wispiness to the music. The crisp attenuation of the melodic elements undercuts the atmospheric qualities, repeatedly jolting Carti awake while achieving a cognitive dissonance that renders the album both addictive and inscrutable.
Following the same model, the sequel is larger and more expansive, as Carti and master producer Pi’erre Bourne achieve a thick sonic density, with the slithery synthesizer of “Right Now” and “Long Time” providing the album’s signature. These keyboard hooks are giant indeed, minimalist melodic loops spinning around the clickity track, while Carti’s voice and the thumping bass are swallowed up by the cavernous sweep of the music. The burbly singsong sway of “Foreign,” the synthesized strings bouncing up and down throughout “Shoota,” the high-pitched squeals embedded into the woozy, breathy electronic rush of “Fell in Luv” — all suggest a sort of warped rap shoegaze, as the aqueous synthesizer gurgle simulates waves of electric feedback.
No conventionally verbal rapper could stay afloat in such a whirlpool, and Carti wisely doesn’t try; although winning catchphrases emerge (as in “I’m on them beans for real,” repeated cryptically throughout “Lean 4 Real”), his little moans and murmurs represent the savviest way of riding the beat. He sighs, chirps, and giggles with gracious understatement, happy to disappear into the environment.
Louder and catchier than the debut, this is ultimately a more conventional album, its upbeat hookiness coming closer to recognizable rap norms of aggression and glee. These are minute distinctions, though. Overwhelmingly spacious and blissful, it’s a musical riptide that submerges and carries you away.
Kanye West: Ye (Good/Def Jam)
Having spent the past two years embarrassing himself in the media, the former best rapper alive furthers his craving for public flagellation on a short, hasty, careless album. Jumping from sound to sound with itchy frustration, its scattered range reflects not an abundance of ideas but a dearth.
Calling Ye his worst album grants it a level of importance it doesn’t deserve. It’s an utter throwaway, tossed off because he felt like it, and the howls of disappointment it has been greeted with suggest only that critics were more invested in the album than West. Of its 7 songs, amounting to 23 minutes, only “Ghost Town” sounds like it was ready to be officially released, slowly building up to a moment of tormented rock catharsis bellowed by label protege 070 Shake, over a roiling organ and buzzy guitar crackle.
Otherwise, these songs are perfunctory sketches, studio scraps cobbled together because West decided it was time for an album. Often he’ll switch up a beat in the middle, change the tempo, stick a bunch of incongruous sound effects where they don’t belong. The electronic distortion on “Yikes” and chaotic explosion of samples disrupting the piano chords on “No Mistakes” recall the abrasion of Yeezus (2013), minus that album’s coherence and audacity. Where Yeezus was relentlessly ugly, determined to shove its unremitting whomp in your face, these songs trickle from one vaguely harsh noise to another without focus.
A self-styled auteur whose most natural medium is the Statement Album, West doesn’t know how to make a throwaway — seven upbeat pop-rap songs in the vein of, say, Graduation (2007) might have captivated. But the casualness of the form is at odds with the solemnity of West’s confessional mode, which demands obsessive attention to craft, and “Violent Crimes” and “I Thought About Killing You” are the clunkiest examples to date of the pomposity that inevitably arises whenever he tries to plumb the darkness in his soul.
West hasn’t betrayed his fans — this album is too slight to count as a betrayal. The only revelation Ye offers is that a studio perfectionist’s unfinished demo tapes are lame. Surprise!