Quick: Who’s the biggest pop star in the world? Taylor Swift? Drake? Beyoncé? Justin Bieber? Rihanna? Ed Sheeran? These are all viable candidates, but if your list only reaches to the end of the English language, it’s far too limited. More »
With a cascade of releases spewing from the likes of DatPiff, LiveMixtapes, Bandcamp, and SoundCloud, it can be difficult to keep up with the overbearing yet increasingly vital mixtape game. In this column, we aim to immerse ourselves in this hyper-prolific world and share our favorite releases each month. The focus will primarily be on rap mixtapes — loosely defined here as free (or sometimes free-to-stream) digital releases — but we’ll keep things loose enough to branch out if/when we feel it necessary. (Check out last month’s installment here.)
May was monumental, but then monumental is business as usual. Following a decades-long campaign of not-so-subtle subliminals, the president of one of hip-hop’s biggest labels unloaded a flurry of punches at commercial rap’s biggest faces in an earth-scorching critique of the industry’s increasingly assembly-line-like mode of creation. The prime target (whose name, fittingly, appears no less than a half-dozen times in this column, despite not yet being attached to a mixtape this year, let alone this month) responded mere hours later with a relentless, line-audit-like rebuttal so prompt and pointed it conceivably could’ve been white-boarded by a pro-battle-rapper roundtable. Then this happened. Meanwhile, miles downstream, a family-operated brick and mortar offers glimpses at another, perhaps more streamlined, business model, a place for rap to happen. And here, in our column, a place where mixtapes get favorited, the ever-prominent release format proves itself once again both of and against protocol; a means for breaking in, out, down, up, and so on.
BlocBoy JB – Simi
A Drake come-up can be a gift or a curse. And a dance craze accompanying a breakout hit runs the risk of rendering it — and the artist(s) — a kitschy one-hit-wonder. Memphis’s BlocBoy JB, thanks to “Look Alive” (feat. Drake), is faced with both. However, judging from Simi, his seventh mixtape in two years, I think the hype will work in BlocBoy JB’s favor. Several tracks see him holding his own alongside already well-established rappers (Lil Pump, YG, and of course Drake are all featured), and, more importantly, he can do just fine flying solo, as evidenced by my personal favorite tracks, “Wait” and “Shoot.” He’s got the trademark Memphis drawl, and he fills the simple yet endlessly catchy instrumentals with earworm ad-libs (“On my mommaaaa,” et al.) in all the right places. And although his style remains uniform through most of the tracks, the result is more artistically cohesive/satisfying than boring. So, sure, you’ve heard of BlocBoy JB. I’m just here to make sure you don’t gloss over him as just another Drizzy cosign. He offers much more.
Lorde Fredd33 – NORF: The Legend of HBR
Here’s something that I’ve never said about a rap album: at times, NORF sounds like it could anticipate where Kendrick Lamar is going next. This requires displaying a great deal of influence, of course, but it’s proof positive that Lorde Fredd33 has found himself an original combination of predecessors, contemporaries, and personal style. There are bits of milo (with whom Fredd33 has previously collaborated), post-Chance Chicago, and even a touch of Redman, belying the tape’s origins in Milwaukee and typifying the statelessness of the modern rap up-and-comer. The obvious stylistic touchpoints were par for the course; Fredd33’s ability to weave them into something altogether new was not.
BLACK KRAY – DEPRESSED SHOOTER
It’s difficult to maintain underground credibility, especially when your creative output shapes the future of the mainstream. Somehow, Black Kray has managed to do so since the turn of the decade, birthing a massive back catalogue of aesthetic trends years before their time without much recognition from his many subsequent appropriators. Think your favorite rapper’s Hello Kitty-themed, copyright-infringing artwork is cool? Kray’s been jacking Sanrio iconography since 2012. Fan of $uicideBoy$ or Lil Tracy? Black Kray’s repped goth culture and guitar-sampling production for much longer than Gothboiclique has been around. Even Drake has hopped on Kray’s wave from time to time, co-opting his penchant for VHS-edited videos and the Working On Dying production team. After eight years of genre-hopping and innovation, the Depressed Shooter EP feels like a return to Kray’s original material: sluggish and distorted beats, vaporous soundscapes and mumbly free-verse bars. Black Kray’s solidified his place in post-internet lore; now’s his chance to bask in the sounds he originated, adding polish that can only come from experience.
Bladee – Red Light
Now that the confluence of emo and rap is no longer only the province of the digital avant-garde, one could guess that Sweden’s Sad Boy/Drain Gang collectives, who’ve done so much to promote the influence of club-style production in mainstream hip-hop, might push their paradigm even further afield. But in the case of Bladee’s Red Light, as with much of Yung Lean’s recent output, we instead witness a refinement of the same perfect anhedonia already in circulation among these artists. While sticking to the same Xan-elevated twinkle that permeates so much Drain/Bala Club material (with the latter’s Uli K taking a guest spot here), on tracks like “Obedience” and opener “1D,” Red Light takes up the truncated, high-BPM stutter step that’s taken over hip-hop in the past year.
Slauson Malone – Auntie Hester’s Scream
A mix, seems and screams, weapon whispers. How to mix them? We have to be aware of the precariousness of empathy
I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing.
There are no real reasons why anyone would exit anywhere from Slauson [Malone] Avenue to Manchester Avenue, there are no jobs, there are no resources, schools are closing, unemployment continues to rise
and see the uncertain lines between witness and spectator.
I was doomed to be a witness and a participant… It [Auntie Hester’s Scream] was a most terrible spectacle. She had an inside and an outside now, and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.
How do we give expression to these outrages without seeming indifferent to violence?
This street is no longer a street. So was it the rep? Was it so our names could ring out on some fucking ghetto streetcorners, man? Naw, man. There’s games beyond the fucking game.
They shot him through the neck, not by error. I suggest you never listen to this again.
Lil Baby – Harder Than Ever
It’s lush, it’s melodic, it’s got an impressive list of features: it’s Atlantan Lil Baby’s debut, Harder Than Ever. He’s a recent acquisition of the legendary Quality Control label, which makes sense because if a rapper starts making waves in ATL, chances are they’ll eventually meet Coach K, who will probably put them on if they’re talented. As such, Lil Baby, was welcomed aboard with open arms. Harder Than Ever sees him progressing artistically, with a more discerning ear for beats and a more refined, deliberate flow that he switches up consistently, making the tape an excitingly varied listen. It certainly waxes melodic and emotive (read: autotune), but Lil Baby experiments with a variety of tempos and rhythms, and doesn’t hesitate to employ a more monotone, detached flow better suited for darker beats (“Boss Bitch,” “Transporter”). Not to mention, “Yes Indeed” features what is likely one of Drake’s strongest 2018 verses yet… if you’re into that. And if not, there’s a lot of other stuff to sink your teeth into on this thing.
City Girls – PERIOD
Signing to Quality Control makes City Girls’ rise pre-destined; that their music looks poised to stick around on its own merits is a welcome bonus. PERIOD feels like something of an inevitability, reviving the infectious Miamian energy of Trina’s heyday for a generation that wasn’t yet alive, let alone capable of circumventing parental advisories, for Da Baddest Bitch. In a rap mainstream heavy on Three 6 revivalism but still light on female stars, that’s more than novel enough.
Lil B – Platinum Flame
How much analysis can be performed on a single artist? At what point is our understanding of Schoenberg polluted by our own meta-modern judgments of him? Perhaps there is a line where we must accept what information has been given to us directly from the artist. Lol jk. Shuttup. It’s Lil B. We can talk about him forever. He’s the best, and he’s blessed us with nearly two more hours of based goodness. Platinum Flame is B’s first mixtape since Black Ken and the latest addition to the storied “Flame” series. Shit’s fire. Lil B made history again! He broke it, put it back together, and made it better. Thanks, B. <3 you, B.
SHITFACED – SHITFACED
SHITFACED’s self-titled debut could be considered hip-hop in the loosest sense of the word. The tape is propelled by standard trap 808s and rolling hi-hats, but it’s more notably girded with sputtering pop-punk power chords and an assortment of candied synth melodies borrowed from SOPHIE’s arsenal — a more literal interpretation of the “emo rap” genre tag claimed by Lil Uzi Vert and co. Longtime fans of SoundCloud’s bubblegum bass scene will recognize CRAPFACE’s role as the sole producer here, providing a balloon-like surface for vocalist I’M THIRSTY to bounce his slacker rock sing-song off of. House show anthem “Cheap Beer” is the five-track record’s sonic and lyrical high centerpiece, rolling the sounds of Cloud Nothings, GFOTY, and Playboi Carti all into one. “Can’t afford coke, you chug a Rockstar,” chuckles I’M THIRSTY, “Can’t afford soap, so you smell like farts.” Pure poetry.
Various Artists (Dezordr Records) – Dezordr Session 10
The last time I wrote about a Dezordr Records session, I was blabbing about expatriating or going off-grid should a certain fascist demagogue get elected president. Nineteen months later, only one of those things has happened. We’re still here, shit’s all fucked up, and yet there’s some small hope in the grid, in that Dezordr Session 10 can and does exist. And even if this is the last in the French label’s series of borderless compilations, we can take solace in that it’s not a victory lap but an altogether outlying sport, a rally cry of mad archers bullseying reason in an unreasonable time. As label founder Stekri writes, “Rien ne finit, tout commence, ici et maintenant, en prenant appui sur ce qui vient d’advenir.” Nothing ends, everything begins, here and now, building on what has just happened.
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