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Full Clip: The Best Hip Hop From March & April Reviewed
Tara Joshi , April 30th, 2018 07:45

If you’re not writing your own bars, does that make you a fake? Tara Joshi considers ghostwriting in hip hop, along with reviews of the latest rap releases (including, alas, Kanye West)

Ms Banks

The last couple weeks in hip hop have been a lot, for reasons bad (Kanye, Nas) and great (Meek Mill released, Kendrick gets a Pulitzer), but I wanted to go back a bit. Just before Cardi B’s outstanding debut album landed, there was talk of her using a ghostwriter – a classic reveal intended to dethrone, à la Meek calling out Drake.

But it didn’t work with Drake, and it won’t work with Cardi. In a press conference, Cardi brushed the question off: “Ghostwriter, co-writer, I don’t give a shit! Ask your favorite rapper about their ghostwriter!”

And she’s got a point. While Kendrick called out ghostwriting a few years back (in ‘King Kunta’ - “A rapper with a ghostwriter? What the fuck happened?”), the concept is as old as the genre itself. It’s no secret, for example, that Dre and Diddy had bars written for them (though the former generally gets a free pass for his production, and the latter perhaps for general clout), or that Ice Cube wrote for Eazy E – but it’s still an uneasy thing to acknowledge, because rap at its best is poetry steeped in ‘authentic’ experience. If you’re not writing your own bars, are you lacking in legitimacy? Is your lyricism not sincerely representative of you? Is it fair to compare someone with a team of writers to an artist who is writing it all themselves?

Perhaps not, and there’s certainly something to be said for the taboo nature of ghostwriting leading to a sense of dishonesty among those quietly doing it. But in the present day, hip hop has expanded to be inclusive of so much, with so many facets and sub-genres. We can see the import of its influence across more and more scenes, be it U2 calling in Kendrick on their last album, or Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande imitating choppy rap cadences in their shiny latest tracks.

Co-writing is commonplace and unquestioned in pop, R&B, even rock – but in hip hop it remains a secret, potentially shameful practice. Looking at Drake and Cardi, perhaps at this point we shouldn’t be so surprised and uneasy about the fact that the biggest genre in the world has long been employing these tactics, and instead celebrate the results of collaborative writing efforts. Co-writers, ghostwriters, whoever – Cardi’s debut was ultimately authentically, unapologetically her.

Albums:

Cardi B - Invasion Of Privacy(Atlantic)

Shamelessly sexual, caustically comic and with breathtaking flow, Cardi B stands proud as one of trap’s finest. My favourite hip hop release of the year so far, read my full review here.

Jean Grae, Quelle Chris - Everything’s Fine (Mello Music Group)

From New York and Detroit respectively, Jean Grae and Quelle Chris have spent the past few years on hip hop’s obscure sidelines with their surreal and satirical, non-conformist brands of art-rap. But this collaborative project thankfully has seen an end to their being slept on. Their wry delivery and biting social commentary easily matches the host of comedians who guest on the release (Hannibal Buress and Nick Offerman, for starters), be it parodying rap culture on ‘My Contribution to This Scam’ or cutting through bullshit on ‘Gold Purple Orange’ (“Everything in the news gotta be real, right?”). It’s a deeply interesting album in terms of off-kilter, distorted production from Quelle Chris himself, the mish-mash of Grae’s more abrasive flow with Chris’ slower delivery, but also in regards to the concepts it’s dealing with. Everything isn’t fine at all – but there’s comfort in conceding that it’s probably as fine as it’s ever been.

lojii - lofeye (Youngbloods)

In his own words, Philadelphia rapper lojii’s new album is about “working with limited resources and making the highest quality life out of what the fuck you got. It’s when you’re ‘lo-fi’ by circumstance (not just for aesthetic) but your aim is always higher.” His collaborative album due rent with Swarvy last year was emotive and nuanced with jazzy production, and while this is just as loaded when it comes to storytelling - picking up where due rent left off with a young black man trying to make his way in the States - the soul-jazz-inflected production is darker, sparser, smokier, sometimes even industrial. Rough and visceral around the edges, lojii’s delivery is beguilingly, wispily fluid as he cuts down the fashion industry on ‘lo in the jungle’ (“racist white designers with no melanin in they advertisements”). Though it retains a certain vapoury sound throughout - even on crescendoing tracks like the bubbling, Vida Jafari featuring ‘six9’ - this is a record of substance.

Nines - Crop Circle (XL Recordings)

Last year’s debut studio album from north London road rapper Nines (aka Nina wid da Nina) saw him reach number 4 in the UK charts – accordingly, his second record contemplates his career success so far, while also continuing to interrogate himself (“Who am I? I got my surname from a slave owner”). An accomplished album that is impressively blunt and vulnerable, whether it’s talking the difficulty of removing himself from a life selling drugs, his desire for more money or his regrettable infidelity (“Pick up the phone, let me make up to you”). Nines’ flow is impossibly smooth and the production brings together all the spacious elements of London’s various rap sub-genres – echoey, low-key vibes courtesy of 5ive Beatz, Steel Banglez and more. It might not go as hard as some of his older releases, but there’s no mistaking that Crop Circle marks out Nines as one of the UK’s finest.

Ms Banks - The Coldest Winter Ever

With a co-sign from Nicki Minaj, rapper Ms Banks (so-called because her first name is Tyra) is a south Londoner whose star is rising. This tape collates sounds across the UK spectrum - be it afrobashment heat, dancehall loudness or straight-up hip hop that slaps. With exquisitely fast-paced flow, she flits between swaggy bravado (“Whole team slay when we come thru / Pop champagne when we come thru”), how messy love can be, dreaming of money - not so much to party, but out of necessity - and growing up on an estate (“Come from a slum, no I never been a bum”) . There’s a real power the way Banks delivers, and this is a refined tape of party tunes with an unguarded heart.

Tracks:

Nicki Minaj - ‘Chun-Li’ (Young Money)

The world has Cardi fever, and the press so often feels reticent to give more than one female MC time in the spotlight – so it kind of makes sense for Nicki to return and remind us that, like Streetfighter character Chun-Li, she’s been fighting in the game for a long time. “They need rappers like me!” she spits, channelling Tony Montana and addressing the way the internet tried to vilify her over the Remy Ma beef: “So they can get on their fucking keyboards / And make me the bad guy, Chun-Li.” It’s not as remarkable as you’d like the comeback to be (nor is the accompanying ‘Barbie Tingz’), but it has a skittering beat from Atlanta producer Chevi Music and enough bite to remind you just how ferocious Nicki can be.

Tyler, the Creator - ‘OKRA’ (Columbia)

The audacity of Tyler describing this as “a throwaway song” should perhaps be unsurprising at this point but he’s obviously messing with us. All cinematic, orchestral chaos, undercut with a warm electric buzz and Tyler’s unmatchable flow, ‘OKRA’ is glorious. Incidentally, it also boasts one of my favourite lines of the year so far – “Tell Tim Chalamet to come get at me” is extremely relatable.

Drake - ‘Nice For What’ (Young Money)

Sure, we were all dubious at the concept of Drake doing a “feminist anthem”, but the ‘Ex-Factor’ sample really works and it’s so refreshing to hear him not calling for women to be “good girls” but, instead, questioning – “You really piping up on these niggas / you gotta be nice for what to these niggas?”. Cynically this might just be a woke branding decision, but it’s a great tune – once again, Aubrey’s ubiquitous summer chart domination formula looks unlikely to be tampered with.

Kanye West ft TI - ‘Ye Vs The People (Getting Out The People)

I don’t normally use this space to talk about stuff I haven’t liked, but the return of Kanye is, of course, hugely noteworthy. All told, I would much rather listen to the “troll” track Kanye initially released than to this – “Poopy-di scoop / Scoop-diddy-whoop” is at least kind of Dada, right? West’s Trump-endorsing Twitter presence has been draining the past couple weeks, and the track unsurprisingly finds debate between Kanye and TI, talking about Obama, Trump, and how going against the grain is what ’Ye has always stood for. But endorsing MAGA is tacitly endorsing the oppression of all the minorities the Trump regime is screwing over, and it’s just a bad track anyway: cloying, grating, suffocatingly self-satisfied. Nah.

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