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Full Clip: Hip Hop Albums/Mixtapes Reviewed By Gary Suarez
Gary Suarez , July 1st, 2016 06:33

On the auspicious occasion of a hip hop classic’s big boy birthday, our American rap know-it-all, Gary Suarez crunches the numbers before delving into the month’s releases of note

This past weekend marked the twentieth anniversary of Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. Considered a landmark rap record in just about any serious public discussion of the genre’s consensus classics, it went gold in the U.S. within months of its 1996 release and took another five years to go platinum, the longest it has taken any of his RIAA-certified albums to reach that milestone.

One might chalk it up to the album being his debut, preceding the mega-singles that would follow. Others could cite the decision to make Reasonable Doubt a retroactive Tidal exclusive, removing it from popular streaming platforms like Spotify and thereby limiting its anniversary boost. Yet despite all of the effusive praise it continues to receive, especially now that legal streaming counts towards record sales, Reasonable Doubt hasn’t reached double-platinum stateside. Neither has Illmatic, the constantly exalted first album from Jigga’s former rival Nas, which took more than seven years to go platinum.

Other oft declared classic debuts are in the same boat: Big Pun’s Capital Punishment, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising, Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, and Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, to name a few. In the twenty five years since first dropping, 2Pacalypse Now never made it past gold, nor has Raekwon’s 1995 solo set Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.

To be sure, sales alone aren’t the sole indicators of an album’s importance. Numbers alone would artificially put Vanilla Ice’s septuple-platinum To The Extreme above Ma$e’s quadruple-platinum Harlem World and Kanye’s triple-platinum The College Dropout. But the way we talk about rap albums cannot discount the economic realities, especially when the debates often turn dogmatic on a dime. Some folks actually take umbrage at any sort of quantitative examination of the form, an especially ridiculous reaction given the genre’s perpetual unabashed obsessions with money and material success.

Intellectually, we want so desperately to convey that we value Reasonable Doubt, that it means something to rap and its listenership. But the numbers don’t lie: more of us own a copy of Kingdom Come, which incidentally turns ten this fall. Considered the worst Jay-Z album by Jay-Z himself, it assuredly won’t garner the same volume of thinkpieces and wistfully nostalgic takes come November that Reasonable Doubt did this week. Released to an eager audience after a short-lived retirement, Kingdom Come directly touched more lives than his debut, played through more pairs of headphones and speakers. Debuting atop the Billboard 200, it logged more sales in its first week than any Jay-Z album prior to it.

So while anniversaries are a nice time to say nice things and raise our glasses, let’s not kid ourselves. We’ve never fucked with Reasonable Doubt the way we claim to or to the extent we pretend to, and we should really stop insinuating otherwise after all these years. The Blueprint has the singles, the credibility, and the numbers. Nobody’s but the dustiest DJ is playing ‘Dead Presidents’ at the function over ‘Big Pimpin’, ‘Hard Knock Life’, or ‘Izzo’. To perpetuate this mythmaking by rap conservatives in favor Reasonable Doubt does a disservice to reality, especially when it’s done to dismiss new artists in the rap game that don’t sound the same as their hero.

Bodega Bamz - All Eyez Off Me

When talking about Harlem and rap music, do so solely in the past tense at your peril. Apart from that thing of beauty A$AP Ferg dropped back in April, Tanboys leader Bodega Bamz reps the neighborhood damn well with this impressive project, which follows last year’s Sidewalk Exec LP and the crew-centered Menace Tan Society tape. Its title an overt and obvious 2Pac nod, the Spanish Harlemite’s latest brings a gratifying mix of left-of-centre production and straight-up NYC spitter authenticity. Bamz’s streetwise storytelling hasn’t softened since his last go-round, delivering chills on the A$AP P production ‘Peephole’ and thrills on ‘Love Bitches’. Things get very wavy on the thug ballad ‘Actual Love’ while the vicious ‘Kill Yo Self’ catches the current curious wave of Kurt Cobain referencing rap. With so many rappers engaging in El Chapo and Escobar type druglord hero worship and equivalency, it’s really quite refreshing when an actual Latino touches the topic (‘Scarface’).

Cokeboy Zack - Here’s Half

The way the narrative goes, Chinx had next. In the wake of the Queens rapper's murder, squad leaders French Montana and Max B tried to make art out of their mourning on the emotional Wave Gods. Following multiple features on prior Coke Boys projects, Montana's brother Zack takes a significant step towards establishing his own place in the crew’s lineage. Whether or not he can fill Chinx’s shoes is irrelevant to all but the most myopically nitpicking rap listener. Despite the legacy burden placed on Here’s Half, Zack soldiers through with multiple accessible Autotune bangers that does his set proud (‘Click Heavy’, ‘Sunny Side Up’). As expected from a Coke Boys project, tales of big time hustling and late night indulgences are on the agenda. Even if the designated single ‘Quiet On The Set’ isn’t quite the hit he’s hoping for, his approach and execution indicates that a chart placement for a future cut lies not far down the road from here.

DJ Esco - Project E.T.

Apart from a handful of Esco-produced cuts, this is essentially a Future mixtape - and the less said about the tracks he’s not on, the better. Thus, it seems fair to judge this one against the other two released so far in 2016, next to which Project E.T. almost universally falters. Even looking past its inexplicably appended eye-rolling Italian stereotype skit, ‘Benjamins Burn’ isn’t Future at his best. Nor are other solo numbers ‘Check On Me’, ‘Right Now’ or ‘Thot Hoe’. The number of collaborations here mark a noteworthy divergence from the overwhelmingly solo Evol and Purple Reign. Taking cues from his downward facing What A Time To Be Alive cohort, Drake sounds downright bored on ‘100it Racks’, and the typically animated 2 Chainz comes off strangely subdued. Credit is due to hungry upstart Lil Uzi Vert for putting in work on ‘Too Much Sauce’, and to Young Thug for somehow motivating Future on ‘Who’.

Desiigner- New English

By the time you read these lines, there may be no legitimate way in which to hear the ‘Panda’ spitter’s first project since signing with G.O.O.D. Music. It arrived first as a Tidal exclusive, then vanished like a scammer in the night. The version of New English I managed to get ahold of sounded cobbled together, less the polished product of a major label signee than a hastily assembled sampler. Despite having one of the biggest songs in the world, Desiigner squanders the opportunity to claim 2016 like Fetty Wap did 2015. As expected, the tape reinforces the obvious position that the Brooklyn rapper sounds something like Future, at most a venal sin in hip hop. (‘Caliber’, ‘Talk Regardless’). On ‘Roll Wit Me’, he pulls off the impression well enough to be mistaken for a Nayvadius deep cut, while ‘Overnight’ abuts Travis Scott terrain. Pusha T’s imposing presence on the sparse ‘Jet’ more or less relegates Desiigner to the background, where he perhaps ultimately belongs.

Jon Phonics - Letters To Home

Running the respected Astral Black imprint made this Glasgow-based producer a bit of a tastemaker in recent years. A long overdue full-length follow-up to 2010’s Half Past Calm 2, the largely instrumental Letters To Home whips up an assortment of tracks that often playfully glide past the conventional boundaries of hip hop into the global electronic sphere. From the throwback Timbaland vibes of ‘Nagasaki VIP’ to the dubwise design of ‘Seeta’, Phonics culls from his experience and lets his influences loose. His sonic palate makes for an arsenal, a sneak attack of soul or funk (‘Sunshine Emoji’). The dancefloor-mindful ditty ‘Cleaver Hands’ evolves in and out of a snappy 4/4 groove, though not via the tropical house tropes currently smashing the pop-rap charts. As for the few collaborations, Dirty Dike’s workmanlike verse on ‘Live From The Hypocrite Fest’ won’t change anyone’s mind about UK rappers in either direction, and Dressin Red’s subpar R&B vocal undermines his known talent behind the boards.

Riff Raff - Peach Panther

If we'd never seen his goofy face, never watched his physical transformation from Jamie Kennedy character to Chest Day mascot, it might be possible for rap listeners to give Riff Raff a fair shake. It's his own damn fault that he's become this cocaine & codeine cartoon so easily mocked or largely appreciated with bemusement and ironic detachment. Yet while Peach Panther does little to humanise or legitimise this living exaggeration, its entertainment value is disproportionately high given the circumstances. More than mere comic relief to our interminable rap authenticity debates, tracks like 'Only In America' and the infectious lead single 'Carlos Slim' mirror the same absurdity of today's narcotised trap styles. He out-croons absentee Post Malone on ‘Syrup Sippin’ Assassin’ and proves the better lyricist against the very present G-Eazy on ‘Mercedez’. When Riff's vision board role model Gucci Mane himself comes through on 'I Drive By', you’d swear the earth moved a little.

Swarvy - Elderberry

Summertime begs for beat tapes. Block parties, backyard barbecues, leisurely drives with the windows down - these are prime opportunities for losing oneself in the groove without fussing about with playlists or commercials. Talented Los Angeles-based beat scenester Swarvy recently dropped this tasty ten-tracker bursting with soul jazz flavor. In spite of its tart title the sounds here are mighty sweet. ‘Spam Grease’ swells with organ and swings with a bebop reminiscent rhythm, while the comparatively more subdued ‘Driftin’ slips in with a few chill bars from Uh Life. Cued up by a chopped not slopped vocal, ‘RC’ calls back to the days of disco funk with its mutant sampling methodology. The closing title track might be someone’s idea of remixed hold music, but to these ears it comes off impeccably smooth. If you’ve played your copy of Donuts to death, you best get wise to Swarvy before your favorite rapper does. We all remember what happened when Kendrick got wise to Knxwledge...

Ugly Heroes - Everything In Between

When it comes to boom bap, few modern day producers can match the potency of Apollo Brown’s productions. Even as old heads clutch their scratched plastic discs for dear life, the Detroit beatmaker stays dropping album after album of greatness for Mello Music Group under the radar of those bemoaning the likes of Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert. Yet even the best rap producer needs someone dynamic on the mic to take things to the next level. Fortunately, his Ugly Heroes project features two outstanding lyricists in Red Pill and Verbal Kent, and their latest group outing delivers from start to finish. On characteristically compelling cuts like ‘Place Called Home’ and the vibrant ‘Notions’ Brown melds bass drum bombast with a penchant for gospel and soul sampling, giving his rapping counterparts so much to work with. A Chicagoan through and through, Verbal reminisces his way through his ‘Daisies’ verse while Detroit’s Pill gets introspective in the third person on his.

Various Artists - RGF Island Vol. 1

Following his staggering 2015 rise, New Jersey’s pop-rap dynamo admirably gives his RGF Productions associates some time to shine on this Apple Music exclusive comp. As is often the case on these sorts of jumbled releases, the highlights on RGF Island Vol. 1 are few and far between. Guwii Kidz’s righteous ‘In The Kitchen’ has been a budding street single for a minute, but Fetty’s unusually hard verse on the remix further elevates the already hot cut. Mitch and 23 come back later for respective cuts later, though the former’s ‘Please Don’t Call Me’ satisfies more so. But I’ll take a weak kilo of drug dealer braggadocio like 4Ktay’s ‘Tuh’ and Oskama’s ‘Gotta Love It’ any day over the dismal R&B radio overreaches from a string of hopeless hopefuls including House Party, M-80, and Tapia. I’d almost welcome the presence of Fetty’s intermittently tolerable albatross Monty on Inas X’s insipid ‘Love Is’ if Monty wasn’t such a snooze here. Fetty rushes in to salvage B’iousha’s ‘InstaLove’, but it’s too late.

BONUS: One Hitters

Clipping. - Wriggle Like The Neptunes covering Yeezus, or vice-versa, Sub Pop’s aggro-rap outliers are what Death Grips only wish they were musically, fierce noisemakers who never sacrifice dopeness amid artistic adversariness.

Famous Dex - Heartbreak Kid His third tape this year, the pitch-imperfect Chicagoan’s latest rides the same upbeat wave of trap jubilation as Lil Yachty and Rich The Kid, both of whom appear here as guests.

Ingrid - Trill Feels After years of toiling behind the scenes, Beyonce’s signee comes front-and-centre, bringing studio polish and a Houston mentality to this regrettably middling pop EP.

Vic Mensa - There's Alot Going On Sociopolitically charged up, the Roc Nation artist and Kanye mentee demonstrates the sort of depth and range that may very well endear him to multiple generations of rap listeners in these troublingly divisive times.