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Full Clip: May’s Hip Hop Albums Reviewed By Gary Suarez
Gary Suarez , May 31st, 2016 08:26

With summer rapidly approaching, now’s the time to start building a durable rap soundtrack to the sunny days and desperate nights, says Gary Suarez

Though New York remains a centre of power and influence in hip hop, the city’s diminished role in rap in recent years is the subject of much discussion and debate. As other North American locales from Atlanta to Toronto thrive, the five boroughs struggle to be heard in the national and global conversations about rap. Decades of arrogance and vocal pockets of ageing-out conservativism hasn’t made it a safe space for natives to shine elsewhere. Nor is it helped by senseless local tragedies like the still-unsolved murder of once-promising Coke Boys artist Chinx Drugz just off Queens Boulevard.

Still, those arguing for the Big Apple’s irrelevance probably haven't peeped the singles charts lately, with the Billboard Hot 100 currently featuring the likes of ASAP Ferg and Desiigner. With a simple hook by French Montana, Terror Squad vets Fat Joe and Remy Ma pulled off the surprise hit of the year thus far with 'All The Way Up'. Jay-Z’s toe-dipping cameos on that cut as well as Drake’s ‘Pop Style’ alludes to things to come for the Brooklyn boy.

While Meyhem Lauren isn’t likely to top the charts, but he’s positioned to do some good for the city’s credibility. An affiliate and neighbour of the increasingly controversial Action Bronson, the Queens spitter is no newbie, with a number of releases under his belt including his Mandatory Brunch Meetings tape and 2014’s Silk Pyramids album with producer Buckwild. While he'll always exist to some extent in the ample shadow of his more famous cohort, Lauren’s newest project Piatto D'Oro elevates Lauren from a Theodore Unit level aspirant and sets him on a righteous Cappadonna path.

With producers like The Alchemist and DJ Muggs at the helm, the superb Piatto D'Oro is the first of Lauren’s projects to effectively capitalize on his elevated profile. True to his Fuck That’s Delicious appearances on Viceland, he freely namedrops culinary references and neighbourhood dining destinations including a knowing nod to Ozone Park’s Italian institution Don Peppe’s on ‘Money In My Pocket’. Unlike Bronsolino, it’s less of a punny preoccupation with food in his case than an accurate reflection of his lived experiences (‘Garlic & Oil’). Lauren’s sense of humour comes through on ‘The Whole Crew’, a raunch rap throwback that would’ve sounded at home on a Terror Squad album. But his versatility keeps things fresh in more than one sense of the word.

Belly - Another Day In Paradise

Ahmad Balshe already had numerous writing credits on some of The Weeknd’s most ubiquitous pop hits. More recently, the seasoned Canadian rapper known as Belly caught a break of his own with ‘Might Not’, a curiously strong single featuring a prominent collaboration with his chart dominating pal. For his first new project since signing with Roc Nation, he picks up a number of other guests to aid in his quest for another hit. Partying at all hours with the likes of Lil Wayne and Waka Flocka Flame, Belly is easy to rally around, delivering a slick mix of prescription drug indulgences, masculine sexuality, and over-the-top luxury familiar to Weeknd fans. The O.G. of the narcotized turn-up, Juicy J makes a characteristic showing on the punny ‘Zanzibar’. The synergistic Kehlani-infused ‘You’ negates Starrah’s truly unnecessary Lauryn Hill interpolation on the hook for ‘It’s All Love’. On his own, Belly’s easygoing low register flow and occasionally quite clever wordplay makes his hedonistic pride and hustler asides palatable and almost plausible (‘Amsterdam’, ‘Barely Sober’).

Bobby Brackins - To Live For

It reads not unlike a tryhard movie poster: FROM A PERSON WHO BROUGHT YOU CHRIS BROWN'S 'LOYAL'. Then the beat on 'Faithful' kicks in and the DJ Mustard gas seeps in. This is the work of Bobby Brackins, an artist who so far has found most of his success writing for others, namely Tinashe and the aforementioned Breezy. Fittingly, his To Live For features radio-ready hip hop as at home in a tween's torrents as it would be in the finest of gentleman's clubs (‘Hot Box’, ‘Joy Ride’). Hardly as endearing as Kevin Gates' croaky croon or Young Thug's glutinous yawp, Brackins' perpetual rasp recalls a less tuneful Dej Loaf. He's repeatedly dwarfed on these pop-adjacent jams by guest vocalists like Jeremih and Ty Dolla Sign. Yet overall, the project accomplishes what it came to do, strategically planting melodies for later unprompted recall. A handful of the songs, including the summery ‘My Jam', are well over a year old... and sound that way.

Chance The Rapper - Coloring Book

No doubt about it: Chancelor Bennett has the joy game on lock. No other hip hop artist this year has even come close to the ebullience and mirth emitting from Coloring Book, the incessantly buzzed-about Chicagoan’s third mixtape. For all of Kanye’s talk about The Life Of Pablo as a gospel record, his beautiful dark twisted worldview tainted that outing in a way wholly unlike Chance’s exuberant opener ‘All We Got’. Quickly following that with the praiseworthy ‘No Problem’ almost seems cruel to Ye, a case of the mentee surpassing the mentor. Unfortunately, that delectable appetizer platter raises expectations too high for the often lukewarm courses to follow. While Chance has come a long way from the dubious hype of 2013’s Acid Rap, he’s still not at a creative level that matches his media narrative. The uneven listen suffers from seemingly incomplete cuts like ‘Same Drugs’ and the redundant ‘Mixtape’. But man oh man does he have a dancefloor burner in ‘All Night’!

Drake - Views

In many ways a regression from last year’s triumphant If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, a deluge of Drizzy’s trademark snivelling and insufferability awaits the listener. A maddeningly embittered success story, Drake can’t seem to get over the perceived slights and indignities he’s apparently had to suffer (‘Keep The Family Close’, ‘Feel No Ways’). In the past, these sorts of lyrical jabs at exes and snakes has helped make the former child star relatable to an audience aspiring to be as entitled as him. What makes this grumbling ego trip all the more frustrating are Views’ stellar duo of Caribbean heaters ‘Controlla’ and ‘One Dance’. While nowhere near the force of nature that ‘Work’ was, the Rihanna collab ‘Too Good’ simmers with tropical percussion and gauzy emotive filters. Given the cynical move to tack ‘Hotline Bling’ on as a bonus track, one would expect the R&B-leaning numbers purloined from OVO Sound signees dvsn and Partynextdoor to be a lot better.

Kevin Gates - Murder For Hire 2

By all rights, Murder For Hire 2 should be a victory lap for Gates after a hard-won career climb. Feeling cocky off the continued success of his Islah album and its heavy singles, the Baton Rouge rap underdog quickly shuts down any need for a DJ to open his latest tape. Hopefully DJ Holiday - who hosted the prior instalment - doesn’t take it personally, especially since the opening freestyle over O.T. Genasis’ ‘Cut It’ isn’t one of Gates’ best. Nor is ‘The Prayer’, a half-rapped / half-muttered devotional that might send a few Islamophobes into a tizzy. People expect mellifluous thug bangers from Gates, and if they skip those first two tracks the man delivers the goods on success narrative ‘Believe In Me’ and then again on ‘Great Example’. With a nod to Three 6 Mafia, he changes up his familiar choppy flow for a near breathless turn on ‘Showin Up’. The sole credited feature, Gates’ Bread Winners’ Association cohort OG Boobie Black puts in work on ‘Click House’.

Hannibal King - Don’t Die

All the pining for the old days and ways of New York rap seems so silly when there are young talents like Hannibal King forging ahead. Having self-produced all but four of his tight tape’s dozen tracks, the Queens representative come through and comes correct with the reality on the ground rather than romanticizing any crime lord stereotypes. While still nowhere near popping Belaire Luxe magnums with DJ Khaled, King’s clearly enjoying his position in life, marvelling at his transition from public school lunches to Sunday brunches. His endearing lisp cushions even his lesser puns, namely those of the hackneyed Chinese take away menu variety ('Man’s World'). That minor quirk makes for an enhanced vocal delivery on emotional cuts like ‘Wedding Cake’ and 'Rock Bottom', the latter of which presents King as though on the verge of tears. There’s also a sprinkling boom bap patronage for old school heads to love on ’Pull Up’ and the dope Thelonious Martin produced single ‘88’.

Post Malone - August 26th

After two ethereal trap ballads and a curiously Bieber-esque pop rock single, the unfathomable rap star finally presents a mixtape for critics to tear apart. For the most part, Post Malone makes that task rather easy with these ten unambitious tracks. From the Iverson Lite vibes of 'Never Understand' to the toothless blues of 'Oh God', August 26th feels more like the low-level threat of an appointment for the dentist than a presumed album release date. While I'd rather not dwell on just how much he's made off his one ubiquitous single, the rich guy bravado on 'Money Made Me Do It' feels at least premature if not ill-advised. The irony of his preoccupation with women who want to get into his pocket is that all he seems to want is to get into their pants ('40 Funk'). Guest vocalist Jeremih continues his streak of R Kelly R&B creepiness on the aptly-named 'Fuck' but still can't match the outright ickiness of Malone's extensive Fleetwood Mac interpolation on the noxious 'Hollywood Dreams'.

Rockie Fresh - The Night I Went To...

It must be strange being signed to Maybach Music in 2016, especially for an artist like Rockie Fresh still longing for that album release go-ahead. In the three years since the cloud rap malegazing Electric Highway made him one of the most promising acts on the label, the Chicago native has languished while more senior Rick Ross associates got their shot. His purgatorial hunger helps explain the crassly commercial turn represented on The Night I Went To…, a collection frequently lunging eagerly at an R&B crossover. The BJ The Chicago Kid collab ‘Stars And Stripes’ does a better job at it than the middling Chris Brown team-up ‘Call Me When It’s Over’. Obviously he can play this game, but Rockie’s just altogether better as a straight-ahead rapper, as cuts like ‘Your Life (Remix)’ and ‘Down To Roll’ so clearly demonstrate. On ‘Thought About It’ he does decent double duty with the lackadaisical hook, yet the supremely lyrical closer ‘December Rain’ undoes that damage.

BONUS: One Hitters:

J Dilla - The Diary This long-awaited vocal record from the revered producer fills a historic gap in Dilla’s discography while posthumously shining an inadvertent light on his generally average microphone skills.

FKi 1st - 1st Time For Everything, Pt. 1 Despite some noteworthy guest vocalists such as iloveMakonnen and the departed Bankroll Fresh, this EP makes for a largely forgettable showcase that doesn’t warrant the next scheduled instalment.

Havoc & The Alchemist - The Silent Partner In a Shyamalan-type twist on Prodigy’s script, Mobb Deep’s main beatsmith rocks the mic over snug productions by his Queensbridge partner’s erstwhile collaborator. (If that sentence confused you, go back and read it again.)