Ain’t Nuthin But A Gangsta Party: YG and DJ Mustard’s Krazy Life

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We’re in the middle of a gangsta rap renaissance (gansterenaissance? gangstanaissance?) To be fair, it never really went away. But after 2Pac died and Death Row fell from grace, Los Angeles hip hop has been plagued by ghosts and zombies. As Atlanta’s Trap music morphed into an extraterrestrial warble and Chicago’s Drill music siezed the title of scariest music in America, L.A struggled to find a sound for the city. But life has been found in an old genre, and young MC’s are giving gangsta rap a new form. Already this year, Schoolboy Q crip walked a mile on Hoover Street and Freddie Gibbs thugged his way to the American Dream. But as great as those records were, they lack a crucial aspect of classic gangsta rap’s success; you can’t dance to them. Luckily, ratchet connoisseur YG and hitmaking “it” producer DJ Mustard have crafted a gangsta rap opus that has made L.A. the center of rap influence and commercial dominance for the first time since the mid 90’s. My Krazy Life, YG’s debut album for Def Jam, is the strongest representation of the city of angels since a certain good kid found himself lost in a mad city.

DJ Mustard, the mastermind behind the ratchet minimalism that has been popular for the last few years, has achieved near ubiquity over the last few months. Built off of L.A.’s jerk music, his sound pays influence to Atlanta’s snap music and the Bay Area’s hyphy scene as well as classic G-Funk to create the first unifying sound for L.A. since the early 90’s. After scoring a couple national hits and securing his place as L.A.’s top producer with his smash mixtape Ketchup, Mustard has become the “IT” producer of 2014, with several songs rotating through the radio and garnering enough attention for even Kanye West to come down from his mountain to collaborate. But the simplistic nature of his production always leaves one wondering how long he can ride his ratchet formula. My Krazy Life leaves no doubt about DJ Mustard’s capabilities as a producer and is the fullest realization of his aesthetic to date. His goal for the album was to make every song a single and he didn’t fail. Every track bangs but also shows the diversity in his sound. “Left, Right” finds eastern woodwinds over thundering bass claps, “Do It To Ya” emphasizes a warm piano riff, and “Who Do You Love?” crawls at an ominous pace. Some of the best beats don’t even come from DJ Mustard but play perfectly into the sound of the album. Newbie Mikely Adams and ATLien Metro Boomin’ both come through with throwback sounds to classic West Coast rap. The production on this tape is a revelation; it bumps front to back for the kids while containing musical easter eggs for their parents. I can’t wait until my kid is playing it at his Bar Mitzvah.

For all of DJ Mustard’s great production, there was one thing that was holding him back from being the next Dr. Dre. He didn’t have a Snoop Dogg. Ketchup had a very serviceable group of MC’s but none of them had any breakout star quality like Snoop had. YG had been languishing in label purgatory since his one hit wonder “Toot It And Boot It” and had been releasing street mixtapes with DJ Mustard. Riding Mustard’s recent success, he signed to Young Jeezy’s CTE label and released the smash lead single “My Nigga.” Buoyed by the song’s success, My Krazy Life is finally out and it turns out that a real talent had been lying dormant. Years of practice have led to a natural chemistry between DJ Mustard and YG and he sounds great over the minimalist bouncy beats. He knows exactly how to use his voice for each occasion, when to pile it on and when to lay off. He can slide into rhythmic hooks or he can fracture his flow, constantly probing the beat for different pockets. There are a lot great rappers on this album. Drake, Young Jeezy, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar, none of them really outshine the main star here. That would have been unthinkable just days before the album dropped.

There’s a real conceptual heft to My Krazy Life. The album opens with YG’s mom yelling at him that he’s going to end up in prison like his father. His story unfolds; he’s a member of the Bloods, he loves his friends and would do anything for his family, cheats on his girlfriend and is hurt when she does the same. He gets by through small home robberies and is betrayed by one of his homies, who takes all the profits and leaves him to take the fall. The album ends with YG apologizing to his mom for everything he’s put her through. The story is nowhere near as complex as its clear role model Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, but it’s also much easier to follow. It showcases YG as a resonant character, and lets him thrive on the detail oriented rapping that carries this album as much as DJ Mustard’s beats. On “Meet The Flockers,” YG breaks down the art of robbery. “First, you find a house and scope it out, find a Chinese neighborhood ‘cuz they don’t believe in bank accounts.” “Really Be (Smoking & Drinking)” could very easily slide into cliche but is awoken by YG’s vivid writing (and a K. Dot verse). “I woke up this morning, I had a boner, I went to bed with no bitch, nigga I was a loner.” My Krazy Life is filled with these types of details. It’s a breezy album that still rewards repeat listens.

Gangsta rap is back in a major way. Maybe the country got sick of major rap stars only talking about how wealthy they are. Or maybe it’s just a natural reaction to internet bred middle class rappers. With all the great projects out, YG and DJ Mustard stand as the faces of new L.A. gangsta rap. They blended nostalgia and innovation and created their own style. They created an capital A Album that has great singles. They have the hits that Freddie Gibbs doesn’t want to make, and they put together a cohesive project that eluded Schoolboy Q. This is the sound of a young rapper realizing his full potential. All we have to do now is bick back and be bool.

Candy Rappers and Cocaine Pinatas

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Freddie Gibbs is always fighting an uphill battle. The Gary, Indiana native was stuck in the label purgatory of Interscope for years until he got dropped five years ago. When he compiled the discarded sessions into two fantastic mixtapes, it was clear why. Hardcore gangsta rap wasn’t popular last decade, and there was no market for intense technical rapping over trunk rattling murder music. But boy could he rap, and the ensuing buzz from the mixtapes landed him on the covers of XXL and LA Weekly and grabbed him a new deal. But right when he was on the precipice of stardom, nothing happened. Back at square one, Gibbs found a kindred soul in Atlanta trap star Young Jeezy, who’s drug dealing stomp had also been phased out by the major labels, and signed to his CTE Imprint. With a higher profile and some inspiration from his new home in Los Angeles, Freddie released his best work to dateBaby Face Killa. Fusing his midwestern style with west coast flows, BFK found an uncompromising commercial pocket for Gibbs’s music and contained the most radio ready songs of his career. But Jeezy didn’t promote it well, Gibbs felt that he was being mistreated, and the two had an acrimonious falling out last year. After his last album fell short of expectations, it looked like Freddie Gibbs might become another absurd talent that gets lost in the cracks. But his new album Pinata, a collaboration with legendary Stones Throw underground L.A. producer Madlib, has silenced any debate on Gibbs’ talent and stature. In a year where Los Angeles has repositioned itself at the top of the hip hop totem pole, Gibbs has put together an album that stands apart from the pack and crafted one of the seminal projects of the young decade.

The knock on Freddie Gibbs is usually that he’s just technique with no personality, that it can get tedious listening to him bludgeon beats over and over. But that severely underrates how good Freddie is at rapping. There are probably only two or three people breathing who can compete in the same skill level as Gibbs (and yes one of them is Kendrick) and Pinata is a tour de force of MCing. Madlib’s beats are not easy to rap over; the beat will change on a whim if there is even a beat at all. Freddie had to be on point the entire time or else the project just wouldn’t work and he succeeds admirably. The unconventional production forces him to be creative with his flows. He can ride the tempo on “Shitsville” like a mechanical bull and he can loosen his grip on “Broken,” letting the ends of his words trail off. Most of the time he makes it look so easy you don’t even notice the complexity, falling into nonexistent rhythms on “Harold’s.” Check out first single “Thuggin,” where after a movie snippet opens the track, Gibb’s cuts through some swirling guitar licks as the beat slowly starts to form. Then his flow and the beat speed up at the same time and the song is off and running before you even realize it begun. This kind of stuff is hard to do. There are some A-list guest stars on this record; Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, Wu-Tang legend Raekwon, and despite their great verses they all get washed by Freddie. In fact the last track on the album, the posse cut “Pinata,” seems solely to exist to point out how much better Freddie is than every other rapper on it. The only person who is on the same plane is Houston rap god Scarface, who delivers an absolutely devastating 16 bars of pure pathos on “Broken.”

Credit needs to be given here to Madlib as well. These beats are difficult to rap over, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad. This is the leading contender for best produced album of the year. After his massive undertaking with the Madlib Medicine Show (where he released 12 albums in 2010!), the unseen producer has been off the radar for a while and Pinata has him roaring back with vengeance. He’s sculpted the album with a conceptual edge; songs are bookended by instrumental intros and outros, skits are given perfect mood music, movie samples act as perfect segues. The beats cover a staggering breadth of territory. There’s slashing funk on “Scarface” and soaring soul on “Shame.” “Uno” and “Bomb” open with carnivalesque opulence before retreating into beautifully stark menace. It would take a similar mystic to understand how Madlib chops up all his records, but he has a touch with the lost art of sampling that few of his peers can emulate. I’m still wrapping my mind around his vocal samples; he can place them front and center and create hooks on “High” or “Robes,” or he keeps them submerged, breaching the surface of the track ever so slightly on “Harold’s” and “Knicks.” In his incredible production discography, Madlib’s work here still shines as a highlight.    

Even if it were just great rapping over these marvelous beats, Pinata would be an exceptional record. Maybe it’s the challenging production or maybe it’s the life experience, but Gibb’s is a much more confident rapper on this record. His “last real gangsta alive” persona has never sounded this engaging, and this album is filled with weary reflection, strong subtle storytelling, and revitalized gangsta rap tropes. Without ever pandering and evangelizing, Pinata portrays both sides of the coin, often within the same song. Freddie boasts about his sexual escapades on “Shame” but also details his heartbreak on “Deeper.” “Shitsville” simultaneously boasts about how gangsta he is while deconstructing the gangsta myth in the process. Drug dealing isn’t glamorized as much as it’s preserved. Moral turmoil resides in the asides, not on the soapbox. Gibbs is able to flip a clever conceit on two tracks back to back. “Lakers” is the best song about L.A. made in a minute, because Gibbs’ understands the allure of the city and its place in hip hop and American history. He gets the dichotomy of the city, the spotlight and the shadows, the gritty and the glamour. For him, L.A represents a certain type of redemption from where he grew up. He raps about “repairing that broken dream, that’s what L.A. about,” and the new meaning that’s been brought to the Dodgers hat since Magic bought the team. On the flip side is “Knicks,” a stoic ode to the consistent onslaught of violence in his life and the enduring ineptitude of New York basketball as he documents how little has changed in his life. “Pippen on the assist, I’m watching Jordan drop a double nickel on the Knicks. That was ’95, couple of us ain’t live til ’96, gangbanging, ‘caine slanging had us caught up in a twist” he starts the song. And then life repeats itself in the next verse. “Chilling with a bitch, watching LeBron put up 56 on the Knicks in 2005, police killed my nigga in 2006, only thing he losing is his pension ain’t that bout a bitch.” This type of storytelling goes far beyond just structural technique.

Freddie Gibbs may not have made a leap here, but he’s certainly made his best album. He’s been a top five rapper for the last six years now, but with Madlib’s impressive production serving as his canvas, his grown man raps are given new perspective. The best comparison is Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music where a similar out of nowhere production choice and streamlined guest list allowed the rapper to create his biggest album. Pinata is incredible. Every song is a gem, every beat is fire. 2014 has already been an outstanding year for hip hop and a large part of it is Los Angeles having a moment. The city has cast off its ghosts and harnessed them into commercial and critical weapons, whether it’s TDE’s coded language or DJ Mustard’s streamlined bounce. But Freddie Gibbs has gone left of center by pairing with Madlib and explored an underappreciated sect of L.A. rap that is no less central to the city’s legacy. And he made a masterpiece in the process. I can’t imagine much else topping this album for best of the year.

Oxymoronic Expectations

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I’ve made no secret of my TDE fandom. I write about them more than any other group and constantly profess my admiration for the quality and impact of their work. In the last five years, Top Dawg Entertainment has gone from being a regional curiosity to an independent critical darling to a full fledged major player in the rap game. They have played everything to perfection, building off of each success and positioning themselves for the inevitable industry takeover. After using Kendrick’s coronation to expand their empire, 2014 finds them in full on attack mode. Thus Oxymoron, Schoolboy Q’s first major label album, represents the most important moment for the young label. It’s a chance to prove that Kendrick’s commercial success was more than just a fluke, that the label is more than just a one trick pony. And if you don’t know, now you know: TDE runs deep. Oxymoron debuted as the label’s first album to hit number one on the charts. But even with it’s commercial impact secure, is Oxymoron up to the task of stepping out of the gigantic shadow of Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City? Will Q be able to make the same cultural waves that K. Dot did?

It’s important to note that Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar are wildly different artists. What makes Black Hippy such a great group is that all of the MC’s are very distinct, but Q and K. Dot are on the opposite poles. Kendrick is fluid like water, his flow filling every crack in the beat. Every verse, every bridge, ever hook is methodical and perfectly placed. He’s a technician first and foremost. But Quincy is fire. He raps with a chaotic, scorched earth flow, decimating the beat and reshaping it into his image. There’s an improvisational quality to his rhymes, bars that seem to come from him from the ether straight onto the track. Q is one of the best rappers right now, but he specializes in flow and energy rather than the lyricism that Kendrick has helped make popular last year. He’s the Charlie Parker to Kendrick’s Miles Davis, his verses are furious drug induced supernova’s over Kendrick’s perfectly calm and collected rapping clinics. But it was Kendrick’s level headed brilliance that was needed for the unbelievable critical and commercials success of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. A concept album tailored for critical adoration and grammy nominations, Kendrick warped major label demands into his vision, not the other way around. Each single felt like part of the album without losing any radio play, with Drake a supporting character, Lady Gaga a disembodied robot voice, and Mary J. Blige a bonus feature. With every single young talented rapper of the last decade instantly promoted as a “savior” or the genre and faced with the task of creating the perfect major label album, it is hard to underestimate how impressive it is that Kendrick actually did it.

The biggest fault of Oxymoron is that Schoolboy Q tried to create a Kendrick record. It aims for the major label grandeur without hitting the sublime cinematic vision of his cohort’s debut. There’s no concept tying it all together. The sequencing is shoddy and the singles have no relationship to some of the album cuts. But Q’s best qualities aren’t well suited for the formal structure of that kind of album. Habits & Contradictions thrived because of it’s madcap pace, with Quincy ricocheting from hook to bridge to verse to ad-lib with no warning, creating a musical tapestry that rivals anything Kendrick has done. Some of that improvisation is lost in the major label transition. This is partially due to the tone, Oxymoron is much slower and darker than it’s predecessor, but it’s also due to the more standard arrangement of the songs. This doesn’t mean that Oxymoron is bad though; it’s a fantastic album that’s loaded front to back. It’s not the “GKMC 2: From Tha Streetz” that a lot of critics were hoping for and it’s clear that Schoolboy Q had no interest in creating something like that to begin with (more than likely that’ll be Jay Rock’s next project and it will blow our minds). Instead, Oxymoron is a snarling slice of glimmering darkness, a disconcerting trip into Q’s gangsta past.

The obvious highlights of the album are where Q succeeds in reaching his ambitious peaks. “Hoover Street” and “Prescription/Oxymoron” are both epic songs; two part suites that refract the tape’s main themes. “Hoover Street” starts with Q lobbing off nightmares over Thundercat’s bass licks before the beat changes and he details his introduction into the Crips. With frightening clarity, Schoolboy brings to life the roaches in his cereal, his backwards hoodie with the eyes cut out, his uncle trading him whiskey for clean piss, and his grandma spoiling him with video games and new clothes. But when he recounts his first meeting with the Crips, the story takes on an incredible meta-quality. “Rat-Tone my nigga’s brother showed me my first K, I was amazed, me and Floyd was in the back, he called us over like ‘hey, YAWK YAWK YAWK YAWK!’ We was like ‘Damn nigga…’ the way he said cuz turned us to a fan nigga.” That story is interchangeable with the way many of Q’s fan’s heard of his music, how the ad libs and the slang are appealing. In illuminating his own past, he sheds light on rap’s transcendent connection to drug and street life. It’s a brilliant piece of story telling from a rapper who doesn’t usually dabble in that area. “Prescription/Oxymoron” showcases the same skill set, this time focuses on his own addiction to both selling and consuming Oxycontin pills. These are the artistic, ambitious, focused songs that everyone wanted out of Oxymoron and they are just as good and maybe better than anything that Kendrick or any other peer has done.

The album runs real dark. This is LA Gangsta rap reincarnated, filled with pimps and hos, addicts and dealers, gunshots and gangbangers. It’s almost jarring to hear an actual gangsta rap album in 2014 considering how it has been commercial cyanide for nearly a decade. But just because there’s no radical reinvention here does not mean it isn’t successful. TDE created a new language using the vernacular of their youth (doo doo! yawk yawk! bluh bluh!) and where Kendrick used it as a thematic diving board for GKMC, Schoolboy Q uses it aesthetically. Gun shots that have become inside jokes are restored with their original menace, so completely that it almost loses the fun. But Quincy pulls it off, snarling throughout the album, slowing down his hedonistic flow while sharpening his bars. He reminds you he’s eating now because he used to be starving. He reminds you that being groovy means being a crip from Hoover and black hippy takes on a whole new meaning.

This album has some extraordinary rapping that takes a while to sink in because Q’s delivery is the first thing that pops out on you. Musical chaos abounds here, buzzing walls of sounds that Q carves into song. There’s a gritty beauty in the songwriting, jagged hooks that manage to stick with you. It’s reminiscent of a rap game Velvet Underground, creating a magnetic pull through some off putting sounds. Check out “Los Awesome,” a march of buzzing synths that Q not only manages to rap over, but actually creates a party track. Or “His And Her Friend,” all layered voices over clicks and whirrs before SZA adds in some jazzy singing. The production is pretty astonishing all over the album. Producing duo Nez & Rio showcase their chemistry with Schoolboy Q, creating menacing beds for Q to fall into on “Gangsta,” “Fuck LA,” and “Californication.” The star producers manage to fit the style as well. Tyler, The Creator laces “The Purge” with something absolutely sinister, with just a slow synth whine accompanying Q and Death Row legend Kurupt as they go so hard they might hurt themselves. Mike Will Made It forgoes the usual bombast of his radio jams as Q sounds downright evil on “What They Want.” The real highlight however is Alchemist. The L.A. producer is in the midst of one of the greatest runs in history, fusing Venice Beach psychedelia with New York boom bap and displaying almost perfect taste in collaborators. “Break The Bank” is a momentous achievement with Quincy summarizing all of Oxymoron into three breathtaking verses, switching up his flow every other bar. It’s the best song on the album and will probably be the best of the year.

This is all to say that Oxymoron is a dense piece of work, a kinetic, confrontational album that takes time to unravel. The hooks take time to connect and Schoolboy Q remains on the All-Rap first team this year, hiding incredible detail and clever wordplay in the cracks. The sound is much different than the warm, jazzy soundtracks that TDE is known for, but the original architects are all over the album. The Digi-Phonics have all done some great work in the past, but it’s Sounwave who has distinguished himself as the one to watch. Not only was he behind the most ambitious songs of the set, “Hoover Street” and “Prescription/Oxymoron,” but his touches are all over the album, adding dramatic string arrangements to “Gangsta” and “Blind Threats.” But these are all subtleties and not the first thing that springs out at you. What does is the dissonance between the dark themes and the light radio singles and the lack of focus on the journey. Quincy has spoke on the major label insistence on some radio singles while he wanted to make a purely gangsta album. He wrote “Collard Greens” and “Man Of The Year” at the same time, and you can tell it wasn’t in the spirit of the rest of the album. But they’re not necessarily bad in of themselves, in fact they’re quite good songs. It’s fun to watch Q just do his thing over a good beat, and his effortlessness is much more suited to the radio than Kendrick is. And even among the awkward sequencing, there are great moments that show that Q can find the radio without any other meddling. “Man Of The Year” is a dark party track, with DJ Dahi’s beat building to an EDM drop that never comes. And “Studio” is a fantastic ladies jam, with Q singing and singing well, creating a song that Kendrick could never make.

Is this album better than Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City? I suppose not. GKMC was hailed as a classic instantly, and even though it wasn’t a number one album it still sold more than Oxymoron in it’s first week. Oxymoron matches the amount of raw talent but doesn’t have the ambition or construction that a classic needs. But it’s unfair to judge it strictly in the shadow of the most influential album of the young decade. Schoolboy Q has created a deep, impressive major label album that showcases his uniqueness as a solo artist, and allows the larger themes inflect his album rather than be the showcase. Oxymoron takes time to grow, and it has become my favorite album of the year and that was after listening to it for a while. Hopefully by the end of the year, music critics will realize Oxymoron for the great work it is. But it doesn’t matter, Top Dawg Entertainment has never played by the rules. They’ll keep winning. Q will keep knocking down the doors.

Reruns At The Drive In: Curren$y’s gritty reboot

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How does one measure consistency when it comes to greatness? It’s a question that comes into play in sports, music, even politics. Do you judge someone’s body of work by the highest peak they reach or the sum of their career? Curren$y has put together one of the greatest discographies of the new decade. The New Orleans native shadowed under the great Southern rap empires of No Limit and Cash Money and has combined their work ethic with 21st century internet distribution to create one of the strongest independent grinds in hip hop today. Through the dozens of projects that Curren$y has released in the past years, there hasn’t been a single bad one. He’s combined quality with quantity. But there also hasn’t been a truly great record, one that fans can point out to non Jet Lifers as the definitive Spitta Andretti project. And his new mixtape The Drive In Theater, while another fine entry in his career, isn’t going to win anyone over.

Some might think that this is a silly thing to argue about Curren$y’s music. From the get go he’s been a weed rapper who rarely spits about anything outside his zoned out sphere of influence. Rhymes about women and weed, planes and cars. JETS: Just Enjoy This Shit. But while that is true, it discounts the stylistic variety of his work. His flow may be what put him on the radar, but it’s his taste that has kept him interesting for so long. Very few have the ability to put together a cohesive record like Spitta. When he explores a new sound, he makes a whole project instead of just one song. Just last year, he made the dirty south thump of New Jet City (one of the best albums of the year) and rapped with Wiz Khalifa over African Jazz on the Live In Concert EP. The Drive In Theater has a beautiful cohesiveness to it as well. From the jazzy production to the movie skits to the album concept, this is a retro tinged affair. Thelonious Martin produced the bulk of the album and he said that 90’s legend Pete Rock was the main inspiration behind his work here. Thelonious is a frequent Curren$y collaborator and has scored a lot of retro sounding songs for several other rappers as well, and his work here isn’t bad. It’s just very familiar. The jazzy horn loops and open space on display here is Curren$y’s bread and butter, the type of beats that he rapped over on his breakthrough Pilot Talk albums four years ago. But when you release music as much as Curren$y does, you can’t afford to retread old terrain.

I feel like I’m coming off too harsh here because I like The Drive In Theater. It has earned a place in my car rotation and won’t be leaving anytime soon. Spitta has gotten better at rapping with every project and this tape is no exception. He’s never sounded sharper than he does here and lets you know it from the intro: “come at me and be upstaged, I’ve heard better raps read off page from my cousin, he in the fourth grade, so I don’t know how some of these suckers be getting paid.” He spits scenes with such clarity that it makes you wonder what the effects of marijuana on memory really are.  He has his enemies facetime with the fishes on “Godfather 4,” reminisces on trading jokes with millionaires during a wine tasting on “Vintage Vineyard,” and heats up some leftover hibachi steak and fried rice to go with his wake and bake session on “Hi Top Whites.” And like all Curren$y tapes, this one has it’s share of great guest verses. Action Bronson raps more classic Bronson raps on “Godfather 4” and Freddie Gibbs proves once again that he’s untouchable on the mic on “Grew Up In This.” Curren$y continues to prove that he’s the rap game Marc Gasol, an underrated cornerstone who makes everyone around him better. He’s made a cottage industry out of making older rap stars sound brand new and the project here is B-Real of Cypress Hill. “E.T.” showcases the incredible chemistry of the two MC’s, with B-Real’s agitated squeaking a perfect complement to Spitta’s laid back drawl. But Curren$y is more than a team player now, outshining his guests on several of the tracks.

My dissatisfaction with The Drive In Theater has less to do with what it is than what it isn’t. Before it felt that every Curren$y project was building to the next on but there’s no signs of progress here. Where are the hooks of New Jet City, the gloss of The Stoned Immaculate, the psychedelic dissonance of Covert Coup? As well as having a song named Godfather 4, the tape has excerpts from The Godfather movies at the end of tracks. While The Drive In Theater doesn’t come close to approaching the heights of Coppola’s masterpieces, there’s a thematic connection between Curren$y’s growth and Michael Corleone’s transformation. Both men tried to play the game the industry approved way but failed. Curren$y’s string of free releases were all leading to his studio debut of The Stoned Immaculate in 2012, but it bricked on the charts. Even a lead single featuring 2 Chainz didn’t help. Since then, Curren$y has been more reserved (by his standards) in his musical offerings, instead focusing on putting his label Jet Life on the map in unconventional ways. The Drive In Theater was released as a free mixtape but it was also packaged into a torrent bundle thanks to a specific deal between Jet Life and BitTorrent. Fans could download (for free) the album in both Mp3 quality and higher quality, get high resolution liner notes, and even get a video of Curren$y cruising around and pictures of his handwritten lyrics. This is a great idea in theory but it’s not so effective. The things he’s offering are fun fan items, but they don’t translate digitally. And with every new Jet Life release, it goes to show that label members Young Roddy, Trademark Da Skydiver, and Cornerboy P just aren’t compelling solo artists.

The frustration of all this is on the tape. Where before Spitta would revel in all of his cash, now he has a money migraine. When he chants “I could take 10 G’s and make 20 more 10 G’s with that” on “10 G’s,” it’s more of a fierce challenge than a humble brag. The larger in life drug kingpin persona has been exchanged with a calmer, ruthless figure that’s practically tragic. Less Scarface and more Michael Corleone. On “Hi Top Whites” he pines “I wish I could have stayed more but that ain’t what a nigga get paid for, that’s how it is, wish that I could say more.” The Drive In Theater is a good tape, but it points to a future where Jet Life may be running out of fuel. And while there’s no moral problem in failing to be legitimate like there is for the young Godfather, it would be a shame if Curren$y changed from expanding his empire to merely sustaining it.

 

Nail Me To The Cross And I’m Just Hangin’: Isaiah Rashad’s TDE Debut

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Can we fall in love while Southernplayalistic banging through the night? It’s the question posed on “West Savannah,” a song located right in the middle of Isaiah Rashad’s debut album Cilvia Demo. Rashad isn’t afraid to wear his southern influences on his sleeve, from the aforementioned Outkast reference to shout outs to Scarface, Master P, Juvenile and many more. It’s the type of hero worship that could undermine any record, but Isaiah snaps it into focus when he answers his own question: “At least we fell in love with something greater than debating suicide.”

2014 is set to be the year of Top Dawg Entertainment. After spending last year basking in the glow of Kendrick’s critical and commercial success and inserting the good kid into the mainstream, the Los Angeles label is primed to bring the rest of the crew there too. Schoolboy Q is dropping his long awaited Oxymoron later this month, Ab-Soul has been rumored to be working on his (possibly titled) “Black Lip Pastor” and of course there’s Kendrick, who shakes the earth with every new verse.  Bur first off there’s Isaiah Rashad, the newest member of TDE. Perhaps that pressure is why his project is titled as a demo, to let everyone know he’s not at the same level as Black Hippy. He’s just marveling at the momentous year this will be for the label. But Cilvia Demo more than proves that he’s ready to play with these guys; it’s another engaging chapter in the book of music history that TDE is rapidly rewriting.

This has been a hard record to write about because it defies conventions. It’s an ambitious coming of age album yet incredibly insular. Simultaneously universal and singular. Isaiah delves deep into cliches, shouting out old legends and claiming the game needs saving, but manages to revive some life to them. Cilvia Demo touches on some deep complex issues; how the plight of young black men is tied to the perception of hip hop, specifically the southern hip hop that he fell in love with and is now being paraded around for laughs, and the drug addiction that seems to be only solution for the depression that ensues. Isaiah manage to glide over these major issues, turning them into allusions rather than news headlines, and uses them to strengthen his story: How can I be a great father when I never had an example?

The shadow of Isaiah’s father is the only thing that’s blunt about the record. He’s brought up on the album opener “Hereditary,” where after telling his girl she’s wasting her time on him he drops “my daddy taught me how to drink my pain away, my daddy taught me how to use somebody. My daddy taught me how to smoke my load and go, my daddy taught me you don’t need nobody.” He goes on to explain in “Banana.” “My daddy left me with no details, came back with a bitch and a stepson, I guess he forgot that he left something.” But Isaiah doesn’t dwell on these events, rather he weaves them into his blue collar story. Much of this tape is reality rap at its finest as he raps about how music will be his way out of flipping burgers and selling retail and how he’s “done grown up for his child sake.” That’s really the crux of the album, the transition between growing up and being grown.  He’s trying to bed this girl but is distracted when he sees her kid looking at him the same way he used to when his dad came back home.  He lashes out at his baby momma on “Tranquility” and then is immediately worried about what his son will think.

This leads back to Cilvia Demo‘s preoccupation with southern icons. “R.I.P. Kevin Miller,” titled after Master P’s late brother, is half sermon half lament.  It’s a motivational speech about priorities and how the rappers of his youth are being misinterpreted.  He chants “I need diamond teeth living like it’s 1998, back when Percy was the king, back when Juvie was the great, bitch this doobie is the bait, Patton taught me how to pimp, like one day you’re here then gone, that’s why Chad was downing shrimp.”  He connects the balling of his idols to the work ethic that got them there, screaming at his peers to wake up and find some ambition. This type of rapping is usually uninteresting, a holier-than-thou “let’s go back to the good old days” moralizing, but Isaiah pulls it off because of the intensely personal touch he brings to his memories, whether it’s Outkast’s debut keeping him from committing suicide or transforming the rapper Scarface into a symbol of confidence and a wizened voice of responsibility on “Brad Jordan,” similar to what Outkast did with “Rosa Parks” way back when. It all comes together on “Heavenly Father,” a spiritual plea for some kind of guidance.  On the first verse Isaiah sings “Now everybody telling me a lie, Lordie give me something for my soul” before spitting “The story stole, they tell it till it’s wrong, they glorify the horror and the wealth.”  On the second verse he brings it back home in horrifying detail: “And they don’t know my issues as a child, because I was busy cutting on myself. And hanging on the playground wasn’t wrong until you got a rope up on your neck.” The song ends with Isaiah rapping at everyone else “These niggas really think I give a fuck about the shit they give a fuck about” before ending somberly “And I’m so misrepresented by these niggas who claim trill and their souls were never in it.”  Suddenly the trends that have been so popular the last few years get viciously rendered distasteful.

This is all heavy content and you can’t rap about this kind of stuff if you can’t back it up or make it listenable. Luckily, Isaiah is signed to the label where “your favorite rappers get replaced” and the tape bangs from front to back.  Isaiah is a very talented MC.  He can rap his ass off, like on “Soliloquy” where he just blacks out on the track for almost two minutes over dissonant jazz breaks. He can condense incredibly complex issues into a single couplet, like on “Ronnie Drake” where he says “Don’t call me a nigga, unless you call me my nigga” and “gotta look real and tough, gotta keep your hands in the cart, know they stealing stuff.” His southern voice has incredible versatility, as he can drop into a raspy croon on “Hereditary” and “West Savannah” as easily as a chest beating chant on “R.I.P. Kevin Miller” and “Modest.” TDE production crew Digi-Phonics don’t have any input in the record (except for the lovely “Menthol,” produced by Kendrick favorite Sounwave), and yet Cilvia Demo has the same loping jazz loops, the same warm airy feeling as the older 2011 TDE releases like Kendrick’s Section.80, Schoolboy’s Setbacks, and Ab-Soul’s Longterm Mentality.  The lightness of the production counterbalances the weight of Isaiah’s thoughts.  It’s why the record is sometimes hard to engage; it’s as if the whole album is an aside.  It’s something you can zone out to and have it wash over you or engage it with all of its layers.

Cilvia Demo shares a lot of common themes with Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and the rest of TDE. It deals with the golden age of hip hop not through appropriation but through inspiration, a way of writing the next chapter. It has that warm feeling of rapping about past heroes while knowing you’re becoming one yourself. Isaiah actually managed to pull it off. The new member of Top Dawg Entertainment was able to create an album that does for the south what Kendrick and the others did for the west. Black Hippy doesn’t show up on this record, just Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock on the very last song, a victory lap instead of a consolation prize. With his debut out of the way, Isaiah Rashad is going to have to create his own major label masterpiece like the rest of the crew but you get the sense that he’s not worried about that kind of pressure. As he says on the tape, “I’m blessed now, I’m only stressing bout the stress now.” Maybe some kid in Tennessee will find Cilvia Demo and fall in love with it and bump it through the night.

Dropping Acid and Saving Money: Chicago’s Musical Collective

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The midwest never gets that much love in Hip Hop.  The genre for the largest part has been bi-coastal with the South fighting for respect for a decade before finally getting the respect it deserves.  The midwest, while never being disrespected, has never been seen as a musical hub for the genre.  But as the internet continues to destroy regional sounds by creating a global culture (for better or worse), the Windy City is home to one the most important local music scenes of the last decade.  Chicago’s Drill scene took Hip Hop by storm over the last two years, inspiring countless mimics and generating even more think pieces.  Drill’s reinvention of Atlanta Trap music created the perfect canvas to express Chicago’s turbulent gang violence situation.  It’s swirling menace rather than plodding anger, smoldering resentment over righteous fury.  Early stars like Chief Keef and Lil Durk rode drill’s hypnotic mumblings to the radio and scared the country with their dead eyed apathy.  Yet as impressive and important Drill music is, another Chicago group has latched on to the newfound focus on their city and risen to prominence.  Channeling the city’s musical past over its violent present, Save Money has been the breakthrough rap group of the year.

The first star of the group is Chance The Rapper, who’s Acid Rap tape is still in the running for the best album of the year.  Acid Rap is about as Chi Town as it gets.  It is stuffed to the brim with Chicago slang and highlighted with gospel and soul flourishes as Chance openly guns for Kanye West’s spot as the Windy City’s favorite son.  Now Chance is making moves, collaborating with James Blake and Lil Wayne, and opening for superstars like Eminem and Kendrick Lamar.  But while Chance is getting the most attention, Save Money is far from a one man show.  Acid Rap is certainly a tour de force for the young rapper, but it’s also a showcase for the crew’s sound.  Nate Fox and Peter Cottontale, the crews producers, do an outstanding job of mixing in live instrumentation with traditional Hip Hop beats.  The beats bounce all over the place to match Chance’s spastic flow, and the horn stabs mimic his own yelps.  It’s not genre bending so much as it’s genre expanding.  Chance and Save Money are operating in a post-Kendrick world, pushing the musical structures of how a Hip Hop song is made.  Save Money has a plethora of talented musicians revamping old genres for the new generation.

The project that probably best sums up Save Money’s ethos is jazz/rock/rap fusion band Kids These Days.  Their solitary album Traphouse Rock came out last year to little acclaim.  It’s an interesting, fun album, one that aims for exploration rather than greatness.  The girth of sounds, the abrupt tonal changes, all sound like a bunch of kids experimenting out of the box.  Now broken up, traces of the band’s trailblazing attitude are sprinkled throughout the group, either through former members or their inspiration.  The trumpet player from the group, Nico Segal, turned into a solo artist named Donnie Trumpet and his Donnie Trumpet EP is as good a piece of jazz rap you can find in the 21st century.  The production focuses just as much on his trumpet as it does on guest rappers and vocalists.  Sometimes the crew doesn’t even dabble in rap.  Soul singer Lili K, who can be heard cavorting around on Acid Rap, recently released an EP of old jazz standards.  This is the strength of Save Money.  Where other crews talk about how progressive or different they are, this one actually is established in other genres.

Next up for Save Money is Vic Mensa, the hyper lyrical Kids These Days rapper/singer who had a blistering verse on Chance’s “Cocoa Butter Kisses.”  His debut mixtape Innanetape dropped last month.  Point out the obvious early, he’s not Chance The Rapper.  He doesn’t have the effortless charm, the funny voice, or the jaw dropping bars.  In fact, the best part of the tape might be when Chance shows up on “Tweakin” with a white owl wrapped as tight as an egg roll.  But Innanetape doesn’t try to sound like Acid Rap.  Handled by the same team of producers, Innanetape eschews the buoyancy that powered Chance for a more rhythmic urgency.  Drums slap hard here, which makes sense considering that Vic drums himself.  It’s a statement that Vic is his own persona and isn’t content to stand in Chance’s shadow.  Vic’s a talented rapper but often gets caught up in his own lyricism, jamming his lines with so many syllables that it feels disjointed and crammed.  But when the mood gets a bit somber, like on “Time Is Money” or “Holy Holy,” Vic tightens his elastic flow until it cracks like a whip and leads to some great work.  Elsewhere, he runs wild and turns rap songs into alt-rock songs a la Kids These Days.  This tape is restless, with Vic never settling into a groove.  Moments are fleeting, good and bad, and capture a certain type of youthful essence just like Chance did with Acid Rap.  And when Vic hits something right, it’s downright brilliant.  “Hollywood LA,” an ode to fame and the city where the streets are paved with gold, is the best song on the tape and has the greatest rapper aspiration I’ve heard yet:  “I was 16 with a mixtape, now I’m 19 with a mixtape trying to be 21 with a million dollars.”  Innanetape maybe be uneven, but it is a profoundly interesting record.  It establishes both Vic and the rest of the Save Money crew as rising stars.  Vic may be the Klay Thompson to Chance’s Steph Curry, but the combination should take them straight to the finals.  Save moolah baby.

 

A Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man: Danny Brown Grows Old

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More than anyone else, Danny Brown exemplifies the possibilities of the internet era.  He’s from the city of Dilla but prefers European EDM.  He almost signed to G-Unit but loves Aesop Rock.  He’s truly a hybrid, able to jump onto any type of track and battle any beat into submission.  He’s positioned himself as one of the best rappers of the new decade.  Breaking through on 2010’s The Hybrid, an album laden with Detroit tough talk and great rapping, he didn’t gain internet fame until he cut his hair, signed to hipster label Fools Gold, and released his free album XXX in 2011.  XXX is high-concept hip hop, a drug fueled journey through Danny’s hopes and fears, addictions and pleasures.  It’s one of the essential millennial hip hop albums, reflecting modern drug use in a way that no other rapper has.  It also provided him with an image break he needed.  Freed from stylistic expectations, Danny spent the last year bouncing around from feature to feature, leaving loosies on everything from California art rap to Chicago drill to, most notably, EDM.  As molly and rave culture has infiltrated the genre, Danny Brown has become an icon; the high pitched, gap toothed, cunnilingus giving raver.  Old, his new album, shows us the man, not the image, on one of the best projects of the year.

One of the most striking aspects of Old is it’s organization.  Danny Brown is great at creating albums as experiences.  XXX literally played out as a drug trip, with the first half illustrating the high and the second half the come down.  Old switches the script.  Trading in an overall arc for two distinct sides as if it was a cassette tape, Danny loads the first half with more serious downbeat songs and fills the second half with techno bangers.  Old is about growing old, about how Danny’s past has affected his present.  The first half is laser-precise memories, stories from his childhood told in haunting detail.  The second is his life as it is now, flashing lights and crazy nights, trying to escape from his past.  It’s his version of the American Self Made Rapper, coming up from nothing to dazzling riches, but it subverts the traditional tale and satirizes the Sparknotes Horatio Alger that’s being sold to the masses.  It’s a hefty, smart, versatile, and fun piece of work.

Let’s start with side A.  The opening track “Side A (Old)” immediately sets the picture.  It’s winter in Detroit.  Jackets are worn inside and the stove is kept on all day.  Ramen is on the menu but the junkies outside don’t have an appetite.  Danny’s selling crack to keep his landlord off his back.  Kids outside will kill for some Cartier glasses.  With a world this bleak, you can hear the eyeroll when Danny says in the chorus “they want that old Danny Brown back to bag up and sell a whole pound, might have to go and get my braids back.  Matter fact, bring them AK’s back.”  The rest of the side is a Grimm fairy tale, 8-Mile directed by Guillermo Del Toro.  Images are frozen in time.  Danny’s mom selling haircuts on the stoop.  Little kids running around gangbanging like gremlins.  “Wonderbread” is dark Dr. Suess, with little Danny Brown getting beat up on the way to the store.  The most descriptive is “Torture.”  Oh No creates an ominous chant fit for a gothic cathedral as Danny lists off his traumatizing experiences, like seeing a junkie burning off his lip off and a crackwhore who had peanut butter licked off her crotch.  But as great as Danny’s storytelling is, the soundscape deserves just as much credit.  Producer Paul White did a lot of the songs and he exhibits absurd chemistry with Danny here.  Not only are the beats great, they take Danny to unexplored places before.  He has a way with vocal samples, starting off “Lonely” and “Clean Up” with such insular atmosphere that Danny has to rap in his regular voice.  It’s startling for a rapper who’s built such a perception for himself.  But this side crushes all sorts of preconceptions that fans and artists might have for Danny Brown.

Side B (Dope Song) opens in a flourish, marking the halfway point before techno synths come marching in and Danny raps “31 years old so I done been through all that dizzert, came up off the porch straight serving off the cizzurb, long time ago, don’t do that shit no more, this the last time I’mma tell you. Wanna hear it, here it goes!”  Then the beat drops, Danny overlays his vocals with a high pitched kid voice, and proclaims that this is his last dope song.  It’s a shot of wasabi, a eye watering palette cleanser straight to the ears.  The second side is unlike anything you’ve ever heard in rap before.  Danny invites EMD producers Rustie and Darq E. Freaker for some absolutely absurd beats.  There’s no relief here, every song is operating in that dangerous area between euphoria and ODing.  There’s no place for a rapper to crawl in and hide.  Even before the drops, the baseline is bubbling and the synths are gurgling, blurring any kind of percussion.  Danny said that the focus of Old was the production, a “who else could rap over this” type of deal.  And he’s right because he kills every track, delivering banger after banger.  Ab-Soul and A$AP Rocky, two great rappers who normally demolish features, sound like they’re holding on for dear life when they appear.  But Danny hugs the whirlwind and somehow manages to make sense out of the beats.

Old is incredible.  There’s still so much left to say about this record.  Freddie Gibbs joins for a interpolation of Outkast’s “Return Of The G” and Schoolboy Q lights his verse on fire on “Dope Fiend Rental.”  As well as bringing aboard EDM producers, Danny got indie acts Purity Ring and Charli XCX to drop great choruses.  Ab-Soul says he’s smoking on super saiyan.  The best feature on the record might be from an unexpected British rapper Scrufizzer, who basically made everyone else look foolish with his quadruple time accent.  But Danny Brown is the star.  His voice is crazy, able to shift from manic pixie sprite to ghetto bruiser to so sad and light that it puts Drake to shame.  Every song has at least 3 lines that are quote worthy.  But the only way to really experience this is to listen yourself.  I’m going out to buy a copy right now.

 

http://www.complex.com/tv/shows/first-look/danny-brown-dope-song-official-music-video-premiere-complex-first-look#ooid=R1NWFrZjoyH7hlDOD0KoK0IArYldcb9-