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Full Clip: November’s Hip Hop Albums Reviewed By Gary Suarez
Gary Suarez , November 25th, 2015 07:58

While conventional rap beefs often spoil well before their official sell-by date, these reviews of the latest hip-hop albums are as fresh as they come

The expansion of New York hip hop beyond street rap tropes has yielded dozens of promising homegrown talents in recent years. From the psychotropic stylings of Flatbush Zombies to the brash sex-positive lyricism of Junglepussy, the landscape of the city’s rap scene has rarely felt this exhilarating as a local listener and concertgoer. One live set at a Brooklyn fete by Cakes Da Killa or Ratking embarrasses just about every touring young buck with a ballcap and a hypeman coming through SOBs on a weeknight riding the stank fumes of a barely bubbling single.

Yet still, categorically fixated listeners and - gulp! - well-intentioned critics love to shove artists like these in with that nebulous dubious subcategory known as alt-rap, as if they somehow do not represent or otherwise belong to this city or even this music. Such a thoroughly callous filing job may help prepare a first-time listener for what they’re about to experience, but beyond that there’s scarcely little reason to constantly flag these burgeoning creatives in ways we otherwise wouldn’t with more familiar emcee forms like Bobby Shmurda, Troy Ave or Young Lito.

As rockists know all too well, “alt” as a tag has long proven insufficient to describe their precious genre. However, is usage in the discussion of modern rap music goes beyond that demonstrably limiting the audience for artists like the aforementioned. An alternative rock band in the 1990s had the commercial potential for massive success with an enormous young demographic, in part because they were classified as alternative. Yet when the industry affixes the alt-rap sticker to someone like New York’s ubiquitous Le1f, he stands to lose a great deal more than he benefits.

It’s ludicrous to continue in this fashion by 2015 standards, especially when there’s clearly a voracious appetite for difference. One listen to urban American radio right now shows that, at least production-wise, major label hip hop sounds downright radical, from the sampled digi-dub of Drake’s 'Hotline Bling' to the post-acidic squiggles of Ty Dolla Sign’s ‘Blase’. In a year where two of the most talked about rap artists are genuine outliers Future and Young Thug, the other-ing of someone like Le1f is an ugly look - and you do not want to look ugly around Le1f.

A major part of what makes Riot Boi such a riveting and essential listen is how analogous it sounds alongside the digital radio killers of contemporary hip hop without ever feeling like a mainstream cop out. Although Travis Scott’s Rodeo remains the clearest direct descendent of Yeezus, Le1f’s latest better reflects that ground-breaking album’s cultural impact. His choice of producers overlaps in places with Mr. West’s, making for a compelling Venn Diagram of underground and arena ready electronic talents. On the victorious manifesto ‘Grace Alek Naomi’, Kanye alumnus Evian Christ teams up with Le1f’s longtime producer Boody for a futuristic dancehall bout replete with tossed out Carribbean accent for dramatic effect. For the Lunice-produced album highlight ‘Umami Mami’, the rapper effortlessly borrows the Migos flow for a glowing tribute to modern renaissance woman Juliana Huxtable.

Throughout Riot Boi, Le1f’s enunciatory flow cuts like a proverbial hot knife through butter, searing all who happen across his warpath. Whether he’s making a poignant political statement or getting his pre-show smoke on, his presence on the track tellingly trumps all else. The disruptive vocal blast that shatters the initial calm on ‘Rage’ reveals his turn-up as a cathartic release, while on the crushing ballad ‘Taxi’ he devastatingly exposes the institutionalized racism of a seemingly progressive community. Like Kanye, Le1f can connect seemingly disparate lyrical elements and themes to form a holistic picture of his mindset and identity, revealing himself as far more superlative than alternative.

J Dilla - Dillatronic

Seventy minutes of rare and unreleased Dilla instrumentals without titles or context is probably someone’s idea of a good time. Completists and collectors continue to accept the Detroit native’s posthumous projects with open arms and open wallets. Of course, much of Dilla’s fanbase comes on account of the incredible work released around his untimely death. Ostensibly comprised of electronically inclined productions, the precariously-named Dillatronic comes a few months shy of Donuts’ tenth anniversary. Unlike that meticulously designed beat record crafted under seemingly impossible conditions, this one simply exists. Likely designed with rappers in mind, many tracks beg for verses, while others barely qualify as loops. As the tracks tick abruptly upwards in numerical order, the compilation flashes his brilliance intermittently, hardly as often as Dilla’s legend should allow. Full of skronky synths and crisp boom bap, ‘Dillatronic 07’ is the first in the set to truly sync with the title, followed later by the talkbox electro funk of ‘Dillatronic 13‘ and the Roland box pings of ‘Dillatronic 30’.

DJ Khaled - I Changed A Lot

The maestro of hip-hop hodgepodge has made a strange and presumably quite profitable career for himself applying mixtape logic to album quality releases. The rather tired joke - of which there are numerous when speaking of Khaled - goes that nobody really knows what function he performs on these projects beyond megalomaniacaly hosting. Regardless, he’s the most prominent rap conservative of his generation, stuffing I Changed A Lot with a cast of well-known dudes with radio cred. Tellingly, the least known rapper on this all-male revue is Vado, a signee to Khaled’s own We The Best imprint. Even still, he shares his time on ‘Every Time We Come Around’ with French Montana and Jadakiss. Ever the opportunist, Khaled frontloads two Future cuts to open the record, followed immediately by a Fetty Wap track. The latter of these, the ‘Gold Slugs’ teams the New Jersey hitmaker with August Alsina and Khaled’s go-to Chris Brown. Still wondering how I Changed A Lot sounds? You played yourself.

Nobody - Prodigal Son

A resident DJ at Los Angeles’ vital Low End Theory events, Elvin Estela follows his 2013 Alpha Pup releases as Nobody with a brief new album that sounds like nothing else out there. Even as his city celebrates a tremendous year of hip hop releases, his Prodigal Son sidesteps the stereotypically murky blissed out sounds of the beat scene for these brisk, lucid tracks. Bolstered by a gratifying synth solo courtesy of Mars Volta offshoot Eureka The Butcher, ‘Double Vision’ appropriates smooth jazz elements with affection. A representative of the L.A. battle crew Swim Team, rapper Sahtyre deftly rides the swollen funk grooves of ‘A.N.G.H.A.M.’, adding a certain breathy tension to the proceedings. A few Hellfyre Club denizens show up too, namely a pitched down Nocando on ‘Memory Lane (Reprise)’ and the typically pensive Open Mike Eagle delivers more of that inner monologue on the warm ‘Feel At Home’. A cassette-only bonus cut, ‘The B.G.’s’ sparkles and fades with a cinematic closing credits flair.

Ray West & Kool Keith - A Couple Of Slices

Changing tastes and marketing dynamics too often keep great old emcees down, leaving them marginalized, devalued, or simply left out. Thankfully, Kool Keith has never let himself or his work be defined by anything of this planet. Nearly two decades after dropping Dr. Octagonecologyst, he continues to make deliberately strange records for a devoted, knowledgeable audience of severed heads. Left turns, blunt flirtations, and wildly disparate references define his discography, and the Ray West produced A Couple Of Slices is no exception. Despite the outer space pizzeria indicated by the album’s artwork, rest assured there’s still plenty of pervy human mojo left in Keith (‘AKA John Shaft’, ‘You I Want’). On ‘Pointy Shoes’, he speaks fondly of R&B divas wearing “Pampers over panties”, ever open-minded to a vast array of fetishes. While none of this is as innovatively explicit as Sex Style, Keith credibly commits to the bit. Guests like Dyin Breed and Cormega help him break from the carnal fixations (‘MC Try Outs’, ‘Running The Field’).

BONUS: One Hitters:

Carnage - Papi Gordo Despite being one of the most interesting trap EDM producers around, Carnage fundamentally fails the album test with this shiny yet mediocre set of tropes, tripe, and gabber-adjacent throwaways.

PnB Rock - RNB3: Rockadelphia Freshly inked with Atlantic, this faux Fetty outta Philly takes fairly obvious cues from rap radio killers, making for a diverting though wholly generic major label outing.

Two Fresh - Torch This twin brother production team outdoes many of their trap-centric Mad Decent peers with this slick, clever EP pushing ultramodern forms of hip hop and R&B.

TYP-ILL - Veterans Day Produced well by the ever talented Statik Selektah, this combat ready Long Island, NY lyricist stuffs his thought-provoking tour of duty realness in with more typical - and less interesting - rapper ego tripping.

Young M.A. - Sleepwalkin Mixing it up with ominous brooders and party poppers, this Brooklyn badass brings some needed lyrical heat and a half-empty bottle of Henny to brave the city’s autumn chill.