Full Clip: June's Hip Hop Albums Reviewed
, June 27th, 2013 01:37
Gary Suarez, fires up Full Clip, a sister column of hip hop album reviews to compliment his monthly Tape Adapter feature
Major labels must’ve spent the first half of 2013 wide-eyed and gurgling blood while clutching their slit throats. Suicidal ideation might explain the dismal stinking parade of dumps, flops, failures and throwaways that littered the virtual shelves in the name of hip hop. Cult successes from Kid Cudi and Tyler The Creator aside, nobody left in this business can hold their head high with the dreadful first week numbers yielded by the likes of LL Cool J, French Montana, and Tyga. Still, nobody expected any of these to do the sort of numbers of, say, a new Kanye West album.
With the Summer in full swing and release dates cropping up for new releases from artists like 2 Chainz and Drake, now seems like a good time to roll out Full Clip, a new monthly column highlighting and reviewing recent hip-hop album releases. Not unlike the Tape Adapter mixtape column, each installment selects a handful of these recent and imminent records for neat summary judgements. This month, I’m looking at the latest from J. Cole and Wale, as well as new ones from indie artists Fat Tony, Mac Miller, and Quasimoto.
J. Cole - Born Sinner
The word “deathwish” gets thrown around a lot these days, and on the one hand J. Cole choosing to hold fast to his release date amid rampant piracy, dwindling disposable incomes, and the most highly anticipated rap release of 2013 pretty much amounts to career suicide by cop. Yet Born Sinner, the follow up to 2011’s Gold-certified Cole World, is far more grounded than Yeezus, suggesting it might benefit both from initial upsells as well as subsequent radio singles.
From the jump off, though, Cole doesn't give one much reason to root for him, bizarrely plunging into convoluted homophobic logic less than two minutes into 'Villuminati', a cold vegetable soup of Biggie samples and racks on racks on racks of references to superior rappers. This cobbling together of influences and influencers suits Born Sinner, an album so familiar that you can't help but wonder if you've heard it before.
Primarily, Cole’s second album concerns itself with both the obvious and the unexpected pitfalls of fame ('Chaining Day', 'Let Nas Down'). Whether he’s cruising through the old neighborhood ('Land Of The Snakes') or imparting newfound wisdom ('Mo Money'), he appears eager to remain relatable and, at times, even humble. One particularly resonating example comes when Cole cites a conversation with Beyonce, in which she considers purchasing a Bugatti costlier than his entire net worth. Though no longer at the bottom, the astute young rapper knows his station in the game.
Though nowhere as infectious as his biggest hit 'Work Out', Born Sinner’s two pre-release singles do not disappoint. Dropkick crooner Miguel joins Cole on 'Power Trip', a conspicuous cut of romantic longing with plenty of pay off. A throwback in more ways than one, 'Crooked Smile' is far grander, reminiscent of classic summer jams and bolstered considerably by participation from the surviving members of R&B girl group TLC.
Fat Tony - Smart Ass Black Boy
Arguably best known for his appearance on A$AP Rocky’s clouded Live.Love.A$AP tape, Fat Tony represents Houston while shouting out Brooklyn. And why not? Lord Flacko doesn’t see a problem with borrowing from Texas hip-hop aesthetics and, interestingly enough, this self-proclaimed “smart ass black boy” pays better tribute ('BKNY') to the borough than many of its lifelong rap residents. Fat Tony keeps things grounded lyrically, sticking to relatable topics like women ('Never Let You Go') and partying ('Hood Party'), though he’s serious enough that a cut like 'Father’s Day' suggests there’s some real depth bubbling under this often rather light-hearted release. Imaginative and bold, 'The More Things Change' finds him asking some big existential questions amidst creative storytelling of racial injustice past and present. Production collaborator Tom Cruz splices dancehall DNA into the mix often enough ('Frenzy', 'Sleepover') that it’s amazing Fat Tony doesn’t bust out some Jamaican patois himself.
Mac Miller - Watching Movies With The Sound Off
With production credits from progressive heads Clams Casino, Earl Sweatshirt, and Flying Lotus, Watching Movies With The Sound Off seeks to raise the profile of this Pittsburgh rapper by more than a few steps. Unfortunately, Mac Miller has little to offer here beyond his choice of beats, a product of his Los Angeles move. Yet another blunted sadsack off the assembly line running since the 90s, he grinds as hard as my teeth do in my sleep -- lightly and in fairly irritating fashion. In Miller’s narrow view, fantasizing about suicide ('Red Dot Music') qualifies as maturation, but contextually his post-frat lyrics have as much actual depth as a middle school honor student poetry competition. Mostly, he’s content in his stunted rut, spouting vulgarities about women ('Bird Call') and reddening his eyes. Such overgrown delinquency better suits guests like Action Bronson and Schoolboy Q, both of whom essentially mop the floor with Miller on their respective verses.
Quasimoto - Yessir Whatever
At last, Madlib’s incorrigible imp returns with this considerably leaner follow-up to 2005’s The Further Adventures Of Lord Quas. Completists undoubtedly own some of these ten tracks already, but Yessir Whatever feels less like an odds-and-sods compilation than a cohesive document of marginally above-average material from a rapper/producer who has delivered far superior work in the past. Madlib’s interplay with his pitched-up alter ego remains enjoyable ('Brothers Can’t See Me', 'The Front') and, as usual, he’s got some of the most unique beats around. Crafty boom bap business like 'Am I Confused?' and 'Broad Factor' would be better served by an emcee more vested in the proceedings, as would the riveting threadbare soul of highlight 'LAX To JFK'. After so many years of waiting, the end result feels wispy and insubstantial, a nonetheless welcome stopgap release from a living breathing virtuoso.
Wale - The Gifted
Rap doesn’t adhere to a baseball’s three-strikes-and-you’re-out-rule, but if it did, Wale would still be at the plate even after this foul ball of a record. His best album yet, The Gifted still leaves the same sort of wholly underwhelming impression that Attention Deficit and his Maybach Music Group branded Ambition did. All too aware of how he’s perceived, Wale ponders his dilemma and ultimately giving no fizzucks on 'Love/Hate Thing'. Still not a dynamic MC, Wale relies heavily on producers and guests, which works well (Cee-Lo’s blessed croon on 'Gullible', Juicy J’s reliable assist on 'Clappers') only slightly less often than it doesn’t (Jerry Seinfeld’s outro skit, Rick Ross’ phoned-in 'Tired Of Dreaming' verse). 'Bad', a quirky, flukish hit single, prominently features squeaking bed springs and Tiara Thomas’ casual coo, while 'Vanity' bottoms out with a cringeworthy trap-lite interpolation of Tears For Fears’ repeatedly bastardized 'Mad World'. This dichotomy makes for a listening experience similar to car sickness.