Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums of 2014: #1 – Freddie Gibbs

Standard

We’re finally here! Look back at the nine previous albums now!

In Sprite’s new hip hop focused ad campaign, our resident rap ruler Drake says something a bit disorienting: “Just rapping is not really that impressive anymore. There just has to be more. You have to be a multi-layered artist.” The age of the rap-singer is upon us. As rap has gotten intertwined with pop, it’s as if the only way to get noticed is to immerse yourself to radio or stand out completely. So far 2015 has been the year of the rapper who doesn’t want to rap; they want to be a rockstar, or a jazz icon, or a fashionista, or a conductor. The most popular rapper on the planet doesn’t even write his own raps! Maybe Drake’s right and rapping isn’t impressive anymore. That’s the only explanation for the unfair, lukewarm reception that has greeted Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s masterpiece Pinata. There’s nothing fancy, or even innovative, about this record. There’s just the best beats of the year from one of the greatest producers of all time and the best rhymes of the year from someone on the short list for best MC breathing. If that’s not impressive I don’t know what is.

This isn’t an obvious match. Freddie Gibbs, an L.A. transplant from Gary, Indiana, a rap cyborg who was kicked off Interscope for not toning down his technically driven murder music, teaming up with the Beat Konducta himself, the patron saint of the L.A. underground. Pinata (originally the much better named “Cocaine Pinata”) is not a beautiful act of chemistry. This is rap as athletic activity, with Madlib lobbing out absurdly difficult beats for Gibbs to knock out of the park. But what could have been a genre exercise turned into a masterpiece and a career benchmark for both parties. Freddie Gibbs got a chance to flex over the best production he’s ever had, forcing him to be more creative with his songwriting. Madlib, after years of churning out instrumental projects, came out of the wilderness to find one of the best rappers he’s had a chance to collaborate with. They both provided what the other needed.

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib are both incredible at what they do. The sheer technical prowess is so evident on the record — the way Madlib cuts his samples into jagged soundscapes, and the way Gibbs finds a way to flow over them — that Pinata could be the best album of the year on that merit alone. What exceeds expectations is how they find greatness in simplicity. All the song titles are one word and yet perfectly named, summarizing the efficient style of the album. For all the (unwarranted) critiques that Freddie Gibbs can be boring because of the homogeneity of his lyrics, Pinata finds him as a master songwriter. He tells stories with the best of them, whether about lost love on “Deeper” or adolescent memories on “Knick.” There’s the gleeful hedonism on “High” and the paranoid noir of “Bomb.” He drops off the best diss track of the decade with “Real,” a scathing, explicit attack on former mentor and rap icon Young Jeezy. There’s the delirious, playful “Robes” immediately followed by the poignant, world wearied hush of “Broken.” Pinata is a study of contrasts, with Gibbs spanning a field of ideas and emotions without it ever feeling too disparate. He has Madlib to thank for that, who plays John Williams to his Steven Spielberg. Much respect to DJ Mustard, Flying Lotus, El-P and the rest of the great producers this year, but Madlib takes home the crown for best production front to back on an album this year. These are beats you can drown in, blunted jazz so luxurious that you’ll want to wear it.

Like most great art, what started out as a creative exercise has become so much more. Twenty, maybe even ten years ago, this album would have been deemed iconic, and it’s a shame it hasn’t received that attention. It sounds like it comes from another funkier age. There are a lot of talented guest rappers on the album, but the only ones that manage to hold their own with Gibbs are the two hall of fame hip hop legends, Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan and Southern rap godfather Scarface, who sound as good as they ever have over Madlib’s sculpted loops.

Rap is changing at such a fast pace it’s hard to keep up with it. Drake’s right. You can’t just rap anymore to break out from the crowd, but when you rap this well, over beats this great, perhaps anonymity is what you need. To hear a genre done well at such an elemental level, there isn’t a greater thrill as a music fan. Call me impressed.

Read the original review here

Advertisements

Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums of 2014: #2 – YG

Standard

I swear this will be done before 2015 ends.

Catch up on the list here.

If you were to ask the world who ran the L.A. rap game, they would all say Kendrick Lamar. As the protege of Dr. Dre, the bearer of the torch passed down from Snoop and Game, the good kid from the mad city who remembered the lessons from MC Eiht, Kendrick deserves the key to the city. But K.Dot is too universal now, he’s hanging out with Taylor Swift and Imagine Dragons and Ellen Degeneres. He doesn’t inspire the same hometown rapture that Chance The Rapper does for Chicago or Drake does for Toronto. Kendrick knows this because his sister told him: YG is the prince of the city. Take a drive down the 110 and it’s obvious that the Young Gangsta is L.A.’s favorite. After years of building up grassroots support, YG’s debut album for Def Jam, My Krazy Life, is a classic Angeleno album and the best major label effort since Kendrick’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City.

 YG once said that “it’s easy to make a classic album” and judging from My Krazy Life he must have the secret. Rappers have been trying to figure out how to make great albums on major labels for the last fifteen years, yet YG makes it look so effortless that you have to wonder why everyone else has been failing. His debut hits all of the major label cliches but they’re not just boxes he’s checking off, they’re integral parts of a cohesive body of work. My Krazy Life has the strongest identity of any album in 2014. He’s done what no other rapper since Kendrick has been able to do; take a personal story with real stakes and transpose that over the canvas of a major label album. Guest stars show up in the perfect spots, sex jams are given context, and a narrative is built through the tape. Starting with the opening lines of YG’s mom warning him to not end up in jail like his dad, he takes us through a gangbanging odyssey, soundtracking the parties, petty crime, heartbreak, and the inevitable consequences.

My Krazy Life avoids cliche thanks to YG’s strong writing. He might be the most underrated MC in the game right now. He’s an incredibly descriptive rapper, charging his verses with an immediacy that doesn’t exist with his ratchet peers. “Meet The Flockers” puts the listener right in the middle of a home invasion. “I Just Wanna Party” and “Who Do You Love” toe the line of dangerous exuberance; party tracks with an undercurrent of menace. There are a lot of fantastic rappers on this record. Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, Schoolboy Q, Ty Dolla $ign, Young Jeezy; not a single one upstage YG. He not only holds his own, he is the star of each song.

YG isn’t the only star though. This record owes just as much to DJ Mustard, who provides the same consistency musically as YG does lyrically. Mustard was one of the all stars of 2014 as his sound shaped not only the music of L.A. but all of mainstream hip hop as well. With all of his hits on the radio, My Krazy Life was an opportunity to flex his muscle and show his sound is capable of holding up a classic. And the tape is loaded with gems. There’s the aggressiveness of “BPT,” the R&B throwback of “Do It To Ya,” and the eastern flavored euphoria of “Left, Right.” There are sonic easter eggs hidden throughout the album, making you think you’re listening to a classic West Coast album without actually making an inferior copy of one. That’s why My Krazy Life is so spectacular: it was able to update a classic formula that people had left for dead. If you grew up in California, it’s impossible not to like this album.

My Krazy Life, above all else, is a showcase of the best producer/MC partnership in the game. YG and DJ Mustard know each other. DJ Mustard provides the canvas to make a hit, and YG’s elastic flows find all the nuances in his beats to make them stand apart. Like the other partnerships on this list, they bring the best out in each other. There were rumors that they were in a fight and now YG’s new single isn’t produced by Mustard, and Mustard’s new mixtape doesn’t have YG on it. If they have to go their separate ways, they will both be fine. But at least for one album they were able to make a West Coast masterpiece.

Read the original review here.

There Ain’t No Award For That: The 2014 All-Star Team

Standard

 Kentucky Basketball

Steph Curry with the shot…

Welcome to the 2014 Hungry Hippopotamus end of year extravaganza! Because the only proper way to welcome the new year is to take stock of the 12 months that just passed, the next few articles on this site are going to rank the best hip hop of the year. Unfortunately this year was terrible, though not necessarily in the musical sense. Even without the usual superstars dropping hugely anticipated albums, new artists crept out the woodwork and filled the void and gave the country a fresh look at the new generation of rap. 2014 was marked by tragedy, personal and political, and the music that I found most helpful were the ones that either took me away or placed me right in the thick of it. Two years after Killer Mike made political rap cool again, America placed itself in a situation where hip hop couldn’t help but be political, whether it wanted to or not. Even the most hedonistic party tracks couldn’t help but carry the weight of countless black lives that were taken too soon.

The year has made these best of lists seem irrelevant. Who cares who made the best album or song when all of this is happening? I still made them (call it a compulsion) and they’ll be up soon. But more than recent years, 2014 seemed dominated by people who couldn’t be measured by the normal metrics of success. So I’m proud to present the Hungry Hippopotamus 2014 All Star Team. These five artists were huge this year without their accomplishments being easily measured by one album or one song. They were everywhere and somehow represented something more than just themselves. And they’re all dope.

Young Thug

 

2014 was the year rap got weird. Weirdos have always been cult heroes in hip hop and the internet only helped propel them further into public consciousness. But 2014 broke them wide open and nobody symbolized that like Thugga Thugga. An absolute enigma, Thug made all of hip hop his playground this year, becoming an inescapable presence on the radio while rewriting the rules of the genre. He doesn’t make sense. He defies gender norms, stylistic conventions, even verbal clarity. He is the most singular artist in rap today yet he works better in groups. Stuck in label drama for pretty much the entire year, Young Thug didn’t release an album. Instead we got two mixtapes: one with friend Bloody Jay, and one with burgeoning star Rich Homie Quan for Young Money head boss Birdman’s Rich Gang. We got a slew of unofficial mixtapes released by former label head Gucci Mane. And we got dozens and dozens of loosies, features, and leaks, each one a shimmering jewel. There’s no way to describe how Thug raps, you just have to experience it. It’s at once visceral and spiritual, immediate and ephemeral. He can unhinge himself and rap with such aggression and then in the very next line croon beautifully. He’s quite simply a prodigy. With no formal training and no interest in hip hop tradition or history, he has an innate sense of melody and songwriting. His hooks are heavenly, his rhymes are sharp, and his flows are not mere flows but rivers that course through the beat, which are all mesmerizing. It doesn’t matter what type of song it is, Thug simply transports it to another realm. He tore up Chicago drill, west coast slaps, Toronto mood music, and everything in between. He reached the rarified air that Wayne, Future, Drake, and 2 Chainz all reached at some point in the last few years: he was so good he gave away hits. Teaming up with producer London On Da Track, he gave smashes to T.I. (“About The Money”), Tyga (“Hookah”) and his boss Birdman (“Lifestyle,” which also turned into his breakout song). Beyond his incredible musical accomplishments this year, Thug symbolized the growing counter culture in hip hop and became the poster child for “this isn’t music” complaints by conservatives and white people. The top comment on YouTube for one of his biggest songs “if only the dumbfucks in this video got shot instead of Mike Brown.” Young Thug didn’t have to make political music; his entire existence is revolutionary.

Drake

Young Thug may be the MVP of 2014, but there is no denying who wears the crown. Successfully climbing onto the throne the year before, Drizzy spent this year securing his place and raising the bar. He put on a masterclass for how a superstar should act in the new millennium, dominating the conversation (and the competition) for the entire year with no album cycle. And it was all on his terms; songs given away for free on Soundcloud, artists discovered and signed on his OVO label, remixes tossed off to the masses. And no offense to Beyoncé but Drake was the one who could stop the world whenever he wanted to. What makes Drake so special isn’t just that he’s at the top of the game, it’s that he’s still getting better. The joke went that the OVO Soundcloud was one of the best albums of the year, but overlooked was that it’s some of the best work Drake has ever done. His verses were hit making. Lil Wayne had a #1 in “Believe Me” but it might as well have been Drake’s given his leadoff verse and chorus.  ILoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday” was bubbling on the internet before Drake hopped on it, delivered a classic sing-rap song that stretched his own style, and made it a top 10 hit and Makonnen a star. Nicki Minaj’s “Only” could have been a tasteless grab but Drake dropped one of his most playful, limber verses in memory. That’s what struck me about Drizzy this year. My biggest complaint about Nothing Was The Same was the static nature of his rapping. But every song this year displayed a creativity and verbal agility that he’s never had before. Nowhere was this more evident than on his own solo work. He stunted on “We Made It (Remix),” celebrated on “Trophies,” brushed away enemies on “Draft Day” and wrecked the entire planet on the absolutely fire “0-100/The Catch Up.” The whole world is waiting for his fourth album Views From The 6 but I think Drake’s secret is that he’s at his best in between albums. It’s gonna be hard for any album to live up to this year.

Vince Staples

 The clear underdog of this team, Vince Staples had a quiet year in comparison to the rest of the artists on this squad. But the former Odd Future affiliate from Long Beach grew into his own in 2014, fulfilling his potential and becoming a leading figure in L.A.’s gangsta rap renaissance. Just like Young Thug and Drake, he didn’t release a project encapsulating his accomplishments this year. But the work he did should have the entire game buzzing about what’s in store now. Vince showed the promise of signing with Def Jam when he dropped his mixtape Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 at the beginning of the year. Produced mainly by No I.D., the tape was a move away from the stark simple beats he and peer Earl Sweatshirt cut their teeth on. It was a maturity in both sound and conscious and showed Vince grappling with personal issues like family, relationships, and the ever haunting spectre of gang violence in Los Angeles. His confidence and candid demeanor was influential to the people around him too. Paired with the young gangsta, OG rapper turned Gap model Common was able to release one of his best albums since the 90’s, featuring some standout verses from Vince himself. But that was table dressing for Vince’s Def Jam debut. Just an EP clocking in at 7 songs, Hell Can Wait was stuffed with political fire, social critique, and west coast gangsta aggression. Coming right after the Ferguson tragedy, songs like “Hands Up” represented a new political consciousness for the millennial generation. Nothing less than a 2014 remake of “Fuck Tha Police,” “Hands Up” was the most incisive flaying of police abuse we had this year. Surrounded with songs that captured the hardships of growing up within city war zones, Vince Staples proved that he wasn’t only one of the best young rappers around, he might be the most important. For linking the struggles of classic gangsta rappers with our socio-political situation now, and giving the modern gangsta renaissance a pointed backbone while his peers seemed to revel in the aesthetic qualities, Vince deserves a place on this squad.

DJ Mustard

Dijon MacFarlane might be the biggest thing to happen to Los Angeles since Dr. Dre started producing. I have written about DJ Mustard several times but it bears repeating just how much he dominated the game in 2014. If you lived in L.A., you probably heard “MUSTAHD ON DA BEAT HO” at least a couple hundred times. During the peak of summer, I would play a game where I turned on the radio and counted how many DJ Mustard produced songs would play in a row. It was never less than 3. This was the year that Mustard’s L.A. slap went national, infecting anybody in hearing range. He gave hits to local rappers in his Pushaz Ink crew and he gave them to voyeuristic aging stars looking for some relevancy. This decade has seen it’s share of superproducers controlling the sonic conversation. Lex Luger and Clams Casino had everyone imitating them. Mike Will Made It just won Spin’s artist of the year in 2013 by jumping from weirdo ATL rap to pop smashes with Rihanna and Miley Cyrus. But DJ Mustard didn’t just make hits; he controlled the whole fabric of the radio. Everyone needed a piece of him this year. Even some of the biggest songs of the year were copying him (Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” Chris Brown’s “Loyal”). Plus his sound was so specific to Los Angeles that it put the city on the head of the Hip Hop totem pole. Despite the simplicity of the sound, Mustard displayed a wide range. As well as tossing off hit after hit, he showed he could craft a cohesive vision with his team up with YG, My Krazy Life. As 2015 rolled around it was clear that people might be getting a little tired of the sound, but I don’t expect DJ Mustard to slow down. He’s better than people think.

Flying Lotus

If DJ Mustard was the nerve center for L.A.’s hip hop scene, then Flying Lotus was it’s spiritual guide. Contrary to my rules, Steven Ellison had an album that summed up his year. You’re Dead! was one of the most exciting, transcendent, and powerful works that dropped this year. Confronting death in an extremely personal way, at the same time the rest of the country was confronting national tragedy, You’re Dead! symbolized 2014 in a way no rapper could.. But there will be more on that later. Flying Lotus is on this list because of what You’re Dead! meant for his career. After spending years as being one of the most exciting experimental producers in L.A., combining jazz, electronica, and hip hop in a way only someone from here could, Flying Lotus cemented his status as one of the premier figures in L.A. hip hop. Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, and Herbie Hancock (!!) all show up on this record. Whereas before FlyLo was an outsider, now he’s a coveted artist, working with both the underground and the mainstream, bridging gaps and showing the fulfillment of the potential of L.A.’s beat scene from years ago. That doesn’t even mention his own label, Brainfeeder, which has dropped some of the best electronic music this year. Since right hand man Thundercat has become hip hop’s secret weapon, playing bass for rappers like Wiz Khalifa and Childish Gambino and becoming part of Kendrick’s coveted jam band, Brainfeeder has launched an all out assault on the outside world. Electronic artists Teebs, MatthewDavid, and Mono/Poly all dropped engaging records while hip hop acts Azizi Gibson and The Underachievers proved that they could get just as weird with rap. But the crown jewel of Flying Lotus’s kingdom might be Taylor McFerrin, who’s Early Riser was a beautiful meditation on jazz and hip hop and easily one of the most unappreciated albums of the year. Flying Lotus was a star already and You’re Dead! helped cement that. But he makes the list for rising in stature in the game and becoming a flagship label head and tastemaker for the strange wondrous sounds of Los Angeles.

And that’s the squad! Alternate spots go to Nicki Minaj and Killer Mike. They both had major works that cemented their years which kept them off the list, but the music they made and statements they made through their music changed public discourse and their own standing in the community. Check back here for more 2014 wrap up!

From The Bay To The Murder Mitten: E-40’s Twilight Renaissance

Standard

Big Sean released a video to his new hit song “I Don’t Fuck With You” this week. The video is just as obnoxiously charming as the song itself, in which Big Sean states how over his ex girlfriend he is by saying all the trillion things he’d rather do than to fuck with her (one of which I presume is make a song about those feelings). It’s one of the best songs of the year and easily the peak of Big Sean’s career.

There’s a lot of reasons this song works. There’s the chorus, so exaggerated it falls more goofy than spiteful, fun to chant along to no matter the situation. There’s that marvelous beat, co-produced by Kanye West and DJ Mustard with finishing touches by DJ Dahi, which is the best dream team I can think of. There’s the “And I’m rolling weed that’s fucking up the ozone” line which is one of the best obvious-great rap punchlines in recent memory. But most importantly, there’s E-40, who for a full verse steps on the pedestal that is this angelic ratchet beat and opens the doors to heaven for everyone and anyone listening. He’s driving in a rental with a blunt in his dental. He praises Pimp C, keeps his girl outside forever like the statue of liberty, and essentially translates the raw power of the song’s concept into the universal middle finger that it can be.

“I Don’t Fuck With You” is a top 10 hit (currently #7) on Billboard’s R&B/Hip Hop chart. At age 47, 24 years into his career, it is E-40’s third biggest national hit of his career. The other two also belong to him ephemerally: “Snap Yo Fingers,” a chart topper by then unstoppable force Lil Jon, and “U And Dat” which is E-40’s song but might as well be T-Pain’s. Which is a long way of saying that E-40, the greatest rapper in the history of the game (yes I’m calling it), is very much still under-appreciated, a cult treasure as opposed to a national one. But that doesn’t bother E-40. At a certain point, every rapper has to transition into elder statesmen of the genre, and no one has come close to doing it as effortlessly and efficiently as 40 water. At the turn of the decade, the ambassador of the Bay Area decided that he was done playing by the major label’s rules and went fully independent. Since then, he has been recording and releasing music at a staggering pace; since 2010 he has released twelve (twelve!!!) albums. And there are no plans to slow down.

Even with the slew of music already up for grabs, a new quadruple album Sharp On All 4 Corners is coming out by the end of the year. The first two discs come out in December, the next two early 2015. All of his recent material has followed the same stylistic template so there’s no reason to expect much difference. New single “Choices (Yup)” is a more radio-ready version of the songs that have gone on his Revenue Retrievin’ and The Block Brochure album series. West coast minimalist bangers peppered with game from the man himself. “Choices (Yup)” sounds great and fits right in with what’s being played on the radio right now. After toiling away in cult obscurity almost his entire career, 40 finds himself in a great position. The DJ Mustard ruled ratchet radio landscape has its stylistic origins in E-40’s Bay Area slaps, and he sounds phenomenal over them (as “IDFWU” proves). His preferred production is matching up with the mainstream’s for the first time, and all of California’s heavy hitters recognize him as one of the greats. If there was ever a time to pull a Juicy J and find a commercial peak in the twilight of his career, it’s now.

The only question is can there be too much of a good thing? E-40’s business model has actually been astoundingly successful. Without the expensive process of recording an album on a major label, putting out all this product for modest returns ends up being profitable. For example, his 2012 triple album The Block Brochure: Welcome To The Soil (which landed on my best albums of the year list) didn’t do well commercially on its own. But all four copies, the individual volumes and the compilation itself, all charted on Billboards top 100. Add it all up and you’ve got a lot of album sales in an era where that doesn’t happen that often. But there might be some fatigue. His triple album sequel to that project (parts 4,5, and 6) has the lowest sales of any of the 12 projects in this new independent period. And they’re probably the least essential as well.

It’s a rare double album that wouldn’t be better as a single album. Since he’s not wavering from the same types of sounds, he could trim down all of these triple albums into one unstoppable force. 15 incredible tracks back to back to back. It would be a dream for E-40 to make one album, not too big in scope, with only legendary guests and producers. Or he could go in the opposite direction! If he’s going to make a quadruple album, go all in and really have a diverse collection of sounds and tastes. E-40 still has the slickest flow in the game and he sounds great over everything. He teams up with L.A. legend Kurupt to just destroy the Salva produced metallic monster that is “Motel” (he says his diamonds are colorful like Starburst!). Maybe Sharp On All 4 Corners will be a summation of the crazy disparate ideas that make up modern California rap and be a benchmark for the period. Either way, any new 40 is great 40. Just remember: he’s not rapping too fast, you’re just listening too slow.

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

Standard

File:YG MYKRAZYLIFE.jpg

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.

The Tightrope of Pop-Rap: Nicki Minaj’s Next Move

Standard

Last summer when Kendrick dropped the lyrical bombshell that was his “Control” verse, he specifically called out a whole gang of rappers who could be considered in the same weight class as him. Young rappers who were either inked to major label deals (Meek Mill, J. Cole, Wale, Big Sean) or moved enough units independently to make noise at the same level (Tyler, Mac Miller). Some pundits were upset over the list, based on who was unfairly included or who was left off. But after all the dust settled, and “Control” turned into a stepping stone into a bigger rivalry between Kendrick and Drake, it was clear that one very important person was left of the list. Nicki Minaj is arguably the most popular rapper on the planet, let alone the young crowd that Kendrick called out. Her crossover appeal rivals the Kanye’s, Jay-Z’s, and Drake’s of the world and she’s perhaps most responsible for the pop-rap monogenre that’s dominating the radio. So she took some umbrage at being left off Kendrick’s list. And now she’s released a stretch of rappity rap singles that are apparently leading up to her newest album.

Nicki played nice about being left off the list (Kendrick was probably “one of those respectful gentlemen that probably felt like ‘I don’t want to say a female’s name'”), but the real reason she wasn’t mentioned is more likely due to her tenuous relationship with the genre. Her two albums, 2010’s Pink Friday and 2012’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded are huge platinum successes but mainly pop albums. Mega hits “Superbass” and “Starships” have more in common with Britney than the Bronx. On the other side she’s released a string of incredible rap verses, featured on hip hop, R&B, and pop records alike, that have made her one of the most talented and unpredictable rappers in the game. Since her star making moment on Kanye West’s “Monster” four years ago, Nicki has consistently stolen the show on every song she’s been invited on. She’s the rap game Charizard, an all powerful beast who only tries when there’s a worthy opponent.

After a year of hosting American Idol and becoming an entertainment mogul, it looks like Nicki is actually granting everyone’s (and by everyone I mean a tiny quadrant of the internet) wish and releasing an actual rap album. Usually backed by neon pop production or blitzing EDM, her new songs place her in sparse snapping West Coast production. On her remix to P.T.A.F.’s “Boss Ass Bitch,” she inverses the usual tough guy player talk in classic Nicki fashion, laying down all the rules for how to be a boss ass bitch and creating a new holiday specifically for her vagina before saying she’s just tossing off a random freestyle before the style gets old. Even better is the official remix to YG’s Dj Mustard produced hit “My Niggas,” where Nicki demolishes Lil Wayne and Meek Mill and says things like “like an injured Chris Paul you ain’t got no point.”

Her latest remix, this time to Young Thug’s viral hit “Danny Glover,” continues the same shit talking rap rapping vein as the previous two. It’s a good enough song with some good lines, but it’s something that Nicki has never been for the past four years: boring. She seems tame compared to Young Thug and in emulating his autotuned delivery she loses the manic energy that’s defined her. She does the Drake thing where she mimics Migos‘ now-patented flow and it’s cute for a minute and then it gets boring fast. The rap world is now filled with a weirdness that owes a debt to Nicki, but here she misses the connection by staying on her “lyrical” tip. This may be a complete overreaction (after all these are only remixes), but I don’t want to hear the rap classic Nicki has if it’s just going to be her rapping. Because the same qualities that made her a pop star are what made her a rap star as well. The schizophrenic personality, the abrupt voice changes, the barbie swagger, it all makes her a compelling personality to hear on record. The shit-talking battle rap Nicki is a great part of her persona, but it isn’t the only part. The line between pop success and rap credibility is a thin tightrope to walk on. Jay-Z learned how to balance on it perfectly. Drake did gymnastics and made sweet love to it. Kendrick is moving slowly, making sure every next step is on proper footing. Guys like Lupe Fiasco and B.o.B. treated it like Tarzan to swing into the pop world and are now drowning in the waters. And even though Nicki has been called out on her poppy characteristics, she’s always seemed to float above it. Her last album was primarily a pop record, but the first six songs were some of the most inventive rap records that came out on a major label that year.  So here’s hoping that she can continue to stay above the line and eventually make the great album we all know she can produce, and not be swayed by either side of the rope.

The Ratchet Kingdom Of California

Standard

Summer is an exciting time for hip hop.  Just like the movies, summer is the time for blockbusters and commercial juggernauts to arise from their slumber.  Hip hop was born on a hot summer days in block parties, and the best summer jams are those that channel that spirit.  It’s meant to be played outside, at BBQs, blasting out of cars, canvassing whole areas in its ubiquity.  But a beautiful part of the genre is how intensely its tied to the seasons.  Music from the summer sounds distinctly different from the more introspective, somber winter albums.  My favorite example about the difference between the two is a RZA tidbit.  During the great Wu-Tang run in the mid 90’s, RZA said that he produced Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx with the summer in mind and GZA’s Liquid Swordz for winter.  Even the album hint hints at the seasonal vibe.  For a more modern example, think of the difference between the two mega albums of 2011: Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch The Throne and Drake’s Take Care.  One was world conquering, the other timid and insular.

  

The other exciting part about summer is the competitive edge.  Summer is where the major labels flex their muscle and the stars compare commercial value.  This year, J. Cole moved his release date to the same day as Kanye to see who can get more sales.  When Rick Ross took over the game, he used his MMG imprint to have a major release every month of summer so he would be on radio constantly.  Summer is where Jay-Z ascended to the throne, destroying Mobb Deep on the Summer Jam screen and threatening to do the same with Nas.  This summer looks like it’s going to be an exciting one and we’ve only just started.  But right now my favorite storyline is the revival of Cali and the ratchet sound.  The summer is California’s birthright, in L.A. it’s summer the whole year.  There’s no better place for sunny party music.  Enter DJ Mustard, twerking, and a reborn west coast.

You probably know L.A. producer DJ Mustard from mega hits “Rack City” and “I’m Different.”  His beats are marked by the infectious “mustard on da beat HO,” and he’s slowly becoming the sound of the summer.  His productions all have a type of restraint that infuses them with energy; he’s learned to do more with less.  They sometimes seem stupid simple, just a series of piano notes, but goddamn they’re catchy.  He’s a master at layering his beats without overshadowing the essential part.  You can’t not dance to it.  One would expect such similar sounds to have a short shelf life, but Mustard has proven to have remarkable staying power.  His beats are so spacious that rappers can weave in and out of the notes.  Creative rappers (see: 2 Chainz) can turn the beat inside out.  It can turn up or ride out.  Like Lex Luger and Clams Casino before him, Mustard has such a distinct style that it’s spawned many imitators but none that match him.  Young Jeezy reached out and scored his first relevant hit in ages (and made the west coast homage explicit when he put Kendrick on the remix).  But DJ Mustard’s beats sound most at home in California with west coast rappers acting totally ratchet and shooting shit.

 

DJ Mustard’s new mixtape Ketchup is proof of this new sounds durability and one of the best releases of the year.  It rounds out his sound, adding new areas of focus and showcasing a cadre of unknown L.A. talent.  But most importantly, it bangs.  It’s good for all occasions.  Driving to get some boba, put on Ketchup.  Seeing a girl, put on Ketchup.  Need to start a party, put on Ketchup.  Every song has the ability to be a hit single if it was cleaned up for the radio.  But it’s not, it’s ratchet and it’s beautiful.  It’s four on the floor music.  Your shoulders will move, your head will nod, and you will make bad decisions that are actually good decisions because you’re young and you get to do these things.

 

Ketchup has surprising range.   Mustard is able to find coherency out of a staple sound  and a revolving cast of artists who understand that sound and what it should be used for.  YG is the Snoop to Mustard’s Dre, and pops up all over the tape.  Other friends drop by.  Joe Moses, Ty Dolla $ign, Tee Flii, all have cameos, along with some heavy hitters E-40, Dom Kennedy, and Nipsey Hussle.  Being able to find continuity with this many names is no easy task, and Mustard excels at providing an album length statement rather than a hodgepodge of singles.  He flips the script at times.  Cocc Pistol Cree completely inverts the dick swinging fun that all the guys are having on her “Ladykilla,” and the beat of 2Pac’s “Ambitions Az A Ridah” is flipped on “Straight Ryder” for singer Candice to display some girl power.  In other places, Mustard’s spread provides just as good a foundation for R&B as it does for twerking anthems.

Ketchup is in the top 5 so far for this year.  DJ Mustard is leading the way for the MVP (Most Valuable Producer) award.  It stays in car rotation and on every song I marvel how he’s able to create such innate melody with minimal effort.  Take “Stupid Dumb.”  It might be my favorite beat on the tape, and two nobodies, Bounce and Dorrough, actually body the beat (In Colorado but I’m drinking Arizona…green tea…with A BAD BITCH)!  And it all starts with this little piano line that had me hooked from the first second.  It didn’t even need the snares to kick in.

This is the sound of the West Coast now.  Most of the radio is imitating what Mustard is doing and the best of them are putting their own spin on it, like the HBK Gang in the Bay Area or Problem down in L.A.  These sparse synths punctuated by claps is becoming the norm and I couldn’t be happier.  Originally I was gonna include a whole write up of the rest of the scene but that would take too long, so instead I’ll leave you with the top 5 records of the year in this style.  They’re all free, so links are given.  Do yourself a favor and start your summer off right with these.

Hippo out.