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Full Clip, Reloaded: August's Hip Hop Albums Reviewed by Gary Suarez
Gary Suarez , August 4th, 2014 09:57

Back! The one you've been waiting for! Hardcore! Reviews galore! Gary Suarez is back in full effect with this month's hip hop write ups

From Troy Ave's regressive rap jingoism to 1Xtra's acute aloofness, hip hop's existential crisis may have achieved peak clusterfuck this summer. More than any Hollywood blockbuster, it's been truly riveting to watch concurrent attempts to "take back" rap music from those who barely register that they've stolen anything in the first place, pleading earnestly with loss prevention officers that it's all been a big misunderstanding.

Among those who conveniently forget that hip hop and all its cultural accoutrements have been exported beyond the confines of their neighborhoods and into the rest of the world for decades, a staunch conservatism comes couched in crusading purism, a feckless moral rage against perceived rap interlopers. Saul Williams, star of the now shuttered Tupac Shakur musical on Broadway, somehow blames Iggy Azalea for his play's failure, if you can believe it. In his attempts to reclaim New York City, rapper Troy Ave slips thinly veiled homophobic barbs that exclude those he deems "weirdos", a category that presumably includes the likes of his neighbors A$AP Rocky and Le1f. The same folks bemoaning a lack of lyricism in mainstream hip hop strangely haven't bought any of Common's last three albums.

In a time when even Kanye West concedes - in the pages of white guy old media haven GQ, no less - that the biggest rapper in the world is a biracial Canuck, these arguments prove especially tiresome, as even the purportedly progressive ideas are both retrograde and impractical. The genie can't be put back in the damn bottle. Rap isn't going to return to what it looked or sounded like twenty years ago. You can't travel back in time and tell Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to put a sock in it.

For decades we demanded, perhaps unwittingly, to be marketed to as individuals. The internet afforded us the tremendous opportunity to discover niches within niches, to delve in and nestle and self-identify. As such, kids in Seoul and Stockholm have iTunes libraries matching those of kids in Chicago and Staten Island. In terms of the promotion and dissemination of ideas, social media as a medium takes an amoral stance on issues of appropriation. Brooklynite Bobby Shmurda and his proprietary Shmoney Dance blew up because of a six-second Vine viewed and shared worldwide, not just within his boro. Try as one might to turn the tide via shrill tweets and thinkpiece screeds, culture belongs to nobody now.

We regret to inform you that Iggy Azalea and Yung Lean aren't actually white devils. Though Katy Perry's detractors strongly feel otherwise, pop stars aren't malicious culture raiders any more than rappers are indigenous peoples isolated in remote parts of the Amazon or the Orient. We all live and breathe and promote in the same incestuous world, for better or for worse. Fruitless, perturbing narratives about gender, race, location, and socioeconomics as they pertain to authenticity in hip hop not only willfully ignore reality but demonize it for outrage kicks, favs, and clicks. (Incidentally, music critics are the worst offenders.)

Globalization has thrown a wrench into hip hop's well-oiled gears, with forces of homogeneity and diversity threatening a possible work stoppage. Gracias, a Finnish rapper with a Congolese heritage, stands in the unclear middle, beset on all sides by myriad dualities. Yet perhaps he's the best position possible to succeed. For all those differences -regional, ethnic, cultural - so much of Elengi touts the commonalities, the shared experiences of minorities and immigrants in Western societies. His flow isn't particularly foreign, and only academic linguists and haters will get hung up on it as he raps about snapbacks, sneakers, and Ma Dukes. Like fellow Scandinavian Yung Lean, he happily references old video games ('Lost N Found').

Though not egregiously leftfield, Elengi's production straddles both Euro electronica and African traditions ('Levels', 'Muhiva'). None of it sonically matches what current radio dominators DJ Mustard and his soundalikes have going right now, which is why the record appeals as much as it does. 'Slow It Down' shimmers with bright R&B vocal cut-ups and deeper shades of neo-soul, while 'Gloomade' lets its beats skitter and drag without a care. Complex and palatable is a rare combination to master, though Gracias appears to have succeeded. One might argue that has something to do with not permitting his influences to become dogmas.

Big Freedia - Just Be Free

The undisputed Queen Of Bounce proves her regal moniker well-deserved on this long-awaited and electrifying debut album. Freedia's block-rocking loops and relentless vocal repeats come closest than any other contemporary artist to bringing back rap's undeniable yet overlooked dance music roots. She's blessed clubland with a plethora of immense anthems ('N.O. Bounce' 'Turn Da Beat Up') that singlehandedly could spark an unintentional big beat revival. Breakdance crews back in the day would've frothed at the mouth for 'Lift Dat Leg Up', with solid electro breaks yielding to some elusive warmer tones. Freedia's superdiva confidence has her scoffing at hatin'-ass baby mamas ('Ol Lady') and deifying derrieres ('Mo Azz'). Like a strip club hostess turned dungeon master, her intentionally uncomplicated lyrics turn emcee aphorisms into authoritative commands, ones that best be followed to the letter. Juke aficionados should already be hip to this, but those who aren't better catch the hell up with Her Majesty.

Common - Nobody's Smiling

Given the stern face(s) staring back at you on the cover art, this clearly isn't going to be a party record. Common's chameleonic career suffered a blow two albums back with Universal Mind Control. A course correction was subsequently made with The Dreamer, The Believer, with old pal No I.D. on the beats. A safe bet, the two regroup here but the tone is decidedly darker and doleful. It suits the gravity of the material, a spotlight on Chiraq from Chicago's Most Conscious. A poet amid the proles, he spits verses about his hometown that vacillate between elegy and reverie ('Speak My Piece') over productions that make liberal use of everything from Curtis Mayfield to local traffic reports. As much about the past as the present, Common doles out reminiscences and apologies to his producer as well as the departed Dilla on 'Rewind That.' Jhene Aiko guests with an error message ('Blak Majik').

Lizzo - Lizzobangers

Sight unseen, one could be forgiven for hearing opening track 'Lizzie Borden' and mistaking the work of this Houston emcee for that of Missy Elliott. Their shared cadence, which makes judicious use of dramatic pauses after staccato bars, counts as a comma rather than a period, as Lizzo has much more to offer than simply subbing in. Reworked from a prior release, Lizzobangers boasts Southern fried charm and plenty of hearty hefty helpings of uptempo vibes. A veteran of girl groups and prog ensembles, Lizzo exudes a professional air uncommon on most hip hop albums, committed to her recurring theme of being a self-proclaimed big girl in a small world ('T-Baby', 'Werk Pt II'). There's no gimmick here, just solid rhymes over peppy beats like its going out of style. Truth be told, what Lizzo does feels special and even a bit rare given the trap-centrism sucking in so much of air in contemporary rap.

Open Mike Eagle - Dark Comedy

Los Angeles is a place where humor both lives and dies, often within minutes of one another. Watch any laugh-tracked American sitcom and try to suggest otherwise. Chicago transplant and L.A. resident Open Mike Eagle appears to get the cruel joke, and hopes to land a few yuks before everything fades to black. In keeping with the title, his tracks namecheck comedians ('Jon Lovitz') and the lyrics draw clever parallels between stand-up tropes and life itself ('Qualifiers'). Irreverent comic Hannibal Buress shows up for 'Doug Stamper (Advice Raps)' with a deadpan freestyle covering free porn sites, automobile purchases and pyromania. No parody, the album is the genuine article, a pensive rap album from a nerdly worldview that includes Adventure Time and sci fi prequel fanfic. On 'Sadface Penance Raps', Eagle goes from soft to loud recklessly, though elsewhere he's content to deliver a lower register flow.

BONUS: One Hitters

Alias - Pitch Black Prism

The Anticon Don returns with a virtuous yet vague set of software-centric instrumentals (plus one reunion with spitter Doseone) more braindance than b-boy.

Blu Good To Be Home

Unlike the Brainfeeder bolstered York, Bombay's production is war on the ears, frequently detracting from and drowning out Blu's informed street level storytelling.

Diplo - Random White Dude Be Everywhere

The subcultural shapeshifter compiles a dozen bro-friendly trap EDM anthems for simpletons and plebes still geeking off that molly.

Meyhem Lauren - Silk Pyramids

Action Bronson will have his Theodore Unit yet, oh yes.


Drake's first OVO signee slathers himself in studio vaseline to stay slippery enough to slide effortlessly between hip hop and R&B on this sophomore jawn.

Ratking - So It Goes

If you come to this NYC team with tight-assed conservative notions about what hip hop is all about, you might as well not have come at all. Like Odd Future if they were actually odd...

Riff RaFF - Neon Icon

With all composed poise of an Insane Clown Posse concert, the first ever sentient kilo of cocaine cropdusts his way into our hearts, minds, and bloodstreams.