MusicWeekend

The Marvelous Variety of Straightforward Rap

Fans and critics will tell you that 2019 was a lousy year for consensus in rap.

Fans and critics will tell you that 2019 was a lousy year for consensus in rap. This usually means that big statement albums were few and modest examples of pop functionalism were many. The four albums reviewed below illustrate the genre’s diversity heading into a new decade. There’s not a mumbler or an Auto-Tuned crooner among them yet, marvelously, these practitioners of straightforward, unadorned rapping sound nothing like each other.

DaBaby: Kirk (Interscope/Billion Dollar Baby)

On his second 2019 album, DaBaby flaunts his talent for energetic precision. The past year’s biggest new rap star has invented a new minimalist style limited to fast, simple beats and giddy nonstop rapping. His specialty is speed. He favors bouncy, skeletal keyboard loops that propel instead of just cruising. As a rapper, he jabbers, scampering through dense clusters of rhymes in a deep, vibrant, honey-coated snicker, with a touch of amused smugness in his voice that’s undercut by sheer energy. Along with colleague Megan Thee Stallion, he’s been hailed as a leader in the popular resurgence of hardcore rap — a term that, in this context, indicates technical ability, as well as harsh and imposing demonstrations of discipline and skill.

Yet the mood isn’t as solemn as hardcore generally tends to be; DaBaby’s aggression is lighthearted, a form of exuberant horseplay. He represents a meeting of several hip-hop generations, in which the straightforward, unadorned rapping beloved by aesthetic conservatives meets the goofy, hedonistic humor of contemporary pop-rap (minus the melodic, electronic vocal manipulations endemic to the latter).

Compared to his previous album — the frantic, laser-focused Baby on Baby — Kirk is more relaxed and evenly sequenced, broadening DaBaby’s constricted, somewhat insular style with guest features and genre pieces: the blocky retro piano on “Gospel” (for once, the ideal setting for a Chance the Rapper guest verse) and the spooky, horror-movie strings on “There He Go” equally slow his pace and add a gravitas, although he treats both as experimental diversions. The straightforward bangers — for instance, the marching flute on “Bop” or the shimmering synthesizer nets on “Pop Star” — are exercises in simple, direct, practiced confidence. His voice glows with the delight of projecting delight.

Simultaneously generic and instantly recognizable, he strips rap down to its bare sonic bones so the glee can shine through. Bang — pop!

Denzel Curry: Zuu (Loma Vista)

Where his former group, Raider Klan, specialized in hypnotic, experimental murk, Denzel Curry’s solo albums present a blunt, controlled rap classicism — punchy and direct, tinged with a metallic industrial sheen. A tribute to the musical history of his hometown, the Miami rapper’s fourth album is his sharpest, leanest, and loudest.

For the first six or so songs, Curry and production duo FnZ extract juicy, serrated hooks from raw noise; sampled shrieks and sirens jostled into melodic coherence are driven by the heavy propulsion of classic Miami bass. “Ricky” bounces choppily over a furious percussive synthesizer that ping-pongs quickly back and forth, capped by a deep, menacing, sonorous chopped-and-screwed chorus. On “Birdz,” a shrill, hissing, inexplicably catchy looped siren keeps changing key and jolting you out of the groove, as if leaving the beat alone would fail to achieve the desired level of abrasion.

While still capturing Curry’s brusque impatience, the album’s second half is more diffuse, with little skits and lighter pop beats. His voice scratches, and he loves to cut off lines and syllables abruptly, but he’s versatile and sometimes sings a chorus more sweetly than the beat suggests (“Wish”). His flow moves with sleek liquidity, swerving seamlessly between rapped and sung modes.

The album is dedicated to everything he loves about Miami: his neighborhood, his family, breezes and palm trees, and the pervasive music. (Allusions to Miami rappers pop up everywhere, both musically and lyrically: Trina, Trick Daddy, Plies, etc.). As with much music aiming to capture a sense of place, the album’s dense, overwhelming, aural electricity simulates getting caught up in the excitement of an urban wonderland. The mood is defiant, as if he has something to prove — that his city is vibrant, and that he belongs. Keen and aggressive, this album crunches the ear; a city as hectic as these songs would be an exciting one.

Rapsody: Eve (Jamla/Roc Nation)

Having spent years refining her eclectic, vaguely retro, alternative rap style, Rapsody has arrived at a clear, airy, neo-soul-inflected groove, so light she could coast on vibes alone. The North Carolina rapper’s third album captures this groove and keeps it chattering for longer than it can sustain.

Like Jamila Woods’s Legacy! Legacy!, Eve honors the artist’s influences and heroines, as each song is named after a different Black cultural figure (i.e., “Michelle,” “Whoopi,” “Serena”). The idea with both albums is to converse with the elders, to exhume ghosts (even the ones who are still alive). By invoking celebrities who mean lots of things to lots of people and examining them from specific, involuted angles, Rapsody and Woods render the political personal. Compared to Woods, who uses the names of her heroes mainly as starting points, Rapsody’s invocations are more literal: “Nina” overtly samples Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” while “Aaliyah” abounds with references to various Aaliyah songs.

The beats glide with a jazzy delicacy that is usually restrained, but intermittently spills over with hooks — when a bassline blends with a piano chord, or a flute’s sharpness cuts through the shimmer, a certain buoyant energy takes over. Gaggles of background voices often congregate behind Rapsody’s throaty, enthusiastic drawl to taunt her and cheer her on, and she raps with most gusto when talking directly to other voices. (On “Maya,” for example, the sampled Erykah Badu declares, “I can’t,” and Rapsody interjects, “You can’t what?” before the chorus proper: “I can’t be no bird in a cage.”)

The slower, more solemn beats and spoken sections nudge her toward a histrionic, easily caricatured slam poetry-style delivery, shared by guest poet Reyna Biddy on “Reyna’s Interlude.” The overall effect is to dilute a burbling jazz-rap sequence with too many placid pauses intended as spiritual balm.

To accuse Rapsody of valuing social commentary above music would be unfair when her lyrics and cadence are products of the same joyful sensibility. But the album feels padded both musically and conceptually, as if the need to get each character unambiguously right means she must repeatedly stop to explain what she’s doing. Influence casts a long shadow.

Blueface: Dirt Bag (Cash Money West)

From his stuttering, erratic flow to his fondness for absurd metaphors, Blueface is a natural comedian, both sonically and lyrically. This mixtape sums up the Los Angeles rapper nicely while stretching his aesthetic somewhat thin.

Blueface has been the subject of some controversy among rap fans regarding his penchant for rapping offbeat: not just a few milliseconds off the exact rhythmic mark, but often faster than his circular, plinky piano loops to a substantial degree, like he’s itching to outrun the beat entirely, except it keeps catching up with him. The clean lines of the keyboard and drum machine threaten to box him in, but he ducks and lunges past them; he can’t be contained.

Blurting out lyrics with skittish, unpredictable energy and impatient charm, he recalls a less cartoonish E-40, another California rapper whose babbling plays rhythmic jokes on you, especially when he coins his own poetic idioms (“Two dicks in my pants!” he announces without explanation; you can either assume he means guns or take him literally). He sounds weirdest and most coltish on the simplest of his piano beats, as his cadence requires a certain level of minimalist abstraction; he needs space to jump around.

As if responding to criticism, trying to prove he’s not a gimmick rapper (an honorable thing to be), this mixtape expands his style in several uneven directions. On the one hand, there are harsher, noisier attempts to project gangsta menace, as on “Dirt Bag,” whose percussion track clicks and booms in convoluted, delayed patterns that seem to intimidate him somewhat; on the other, behold more conventional exercises in melodic pop-rap like “Gang,” in which Auto-Tune sands the edges off Blueface’s voice. Elsewhere, he fashions an intricate, stuttered poetry out of continually interrupting himself: on “Disrespectful,” when he snickers “I just came for that bop bop bop,” he turns what might have been a pop hook into a vocal shudder. He’s playing around with his multifaceted flow, and he’ll get sillier yet. He’s an erratic spirit of chaos.

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