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Full Clip: July’s Hip Hop Albums Reviewed By Gary Suarez
John Doran , July 28th, 2016 09:42

Gucci Man, Schoolboy Q, Metro Boomin and more all have guest verses in Gary Suarez's latest rap mixtape and album round up

If the first sentence references Pokemon Go, then perhaps they’ll read the second sentence. It’s cynical, sure, and maybe even a tad insulting to the proud readership of a publication as esteemed and intellectually fixated as this one. But by now, we’ve reached the third sentence and haven’t looked away, no doubt searching for a distraction.

And who can blame anyone for wanting to take their mind off the virtually ceaseless stream of violence going on out there, in Ankara and Baton Rouge, Dallas and Nice, St. Paul and Baghdad, Munich and Nampala? It’s no coincidence that Pokemon Go took off like it did when it did, a slap bang bit of nostalgia marketing that gave people something new to do with their ever-present phones instead of grieving or fretting or ranting. Capturing adorable cartoon characters in an augmented reality sure beats reflecting on the rising death tolls in cities near and far. How many Pokestops are near active crime scenes? How many rare and colourful beasts are in underserved school districts or war zones? It’s a lot easier to explore one’s environs when the world is artificially coated in candy as opposed to filth or blood.

Our listening choices nowadays veer towards the magical too. Big dumb pop stars with their big dumb pop tunes and big dumb lifestyles jam the frequencies, their inconvenient 'thoughts and prayers' posts sandwiched between endearing trivialities and delicious scandals that somehow seem both relatable and unreal at the same damn time. Hardly immune to the phenomenon, hip hop in these months of gore has favoured hyperactive trap imps like Lil Yachty and Famous Dex. That natural inclination, the need for escapism, draws listeners towards these chirpy, self-medicating pleasure seekers. They serve as generational mirrors of the funhouse variety, providing evidenciary validation for a youthfully informal, nearly banal narcissism.

Purely in terms of execution, 21 Savage rolls through like grim fog, the deathly serious alternative to these upbeat overgrown boys. No ascetic by any stretch, the heavily tattooed Atlanta rapper launches his latest tape of trapaholic dystopian with Ballardian coital boasts (‘No Advance‘). Defined by tracks like the unflinching ‘Bad Guy’, the Metro Boomin produced Savage Mode matches 21’s deceptively casual flow with the same sort of tempo-scraping programmed percussion that made Young Metro one of Future’s most consistent collaborators in his phoenix-level rise from the ashes of Honest. The end result is a Sin City soundscape, greys flecked with red, Robert Rodriguez meets Stringer Bell.

The distance between 21 and, say, Rae Sremmurd is an aesthetic one, not easily quantified. His voice reaching a strange croak, ‘Mad High’ resembles Purple Reign both in tone and topic. (When Hendrix himself comes forward on ‘X’, he exercises appropriate vocal restraint.) Amid the waves of Georgia clones, his tight and surreptitiously iridescent Savage Mode sets a new standard for trap in 2016, one skrrt-skrrting commercial acceptance on a knife’s edge.

Ace Hood - Starvation 5

As DJ Khaled and this summer’s hit boy Kent Jones charge to the fore of We The Best Music, one of its previous notables can’t help but wonder what happened to his career in the three-and-a-half years since ‘Bugatti’ blew up. Ace Hood asks these questions early on this tape, addressing the subject of his difficulties in the business on the poignantly titled ‘Message To The Label’ and the cynical melancholy of ‘True 2 Self’. But the latest instalment in his Starvation series isn’t entirely stuffed with self-reflection and self-importance. On ‘Wishful Thinking’, he invokes the name of Eric Garner before dreaming of doing a song with Beyoncé, a quizzical juxtaposition if not a tasteless one. He reunites with Rick Ross on the wobbly ‘Go Mode’ and gets Fabolous for a verse on ‘She Loves’. But mostly, Ace Hood goes it alone, because somewhere along the line he managed to affirm his own stardom before he’d finished trying to convince everyone else.

Dreezy - No Hard Feelings

Riding the wave of an urban pop hit, the Chicagoan washes ashore with a dichotomous debut. Though she's apparently most bankable as an indistinct yet effective singer, Dreezy is by far more talented as a rapper. Her effortless post-drill bars on 'Spazz' lay waste to convenient yet thirsty dudes in her way, not to mention the track’s own creeping 808 Mafia production. On 'Bad Bitch', her slightly hoarse and half-bored delivery makes her dismissal of the competition all the more cruel and cutting. But Dreezy knows the charts are her way into the big time and, as such, she spends a lot of No Hard Feelings on the R&B tip. Those who latched onto the heated romance of the Jeremih-steeped 'Body' have its embittered successor here in the engaging modern barfly drama of 'Wasted'. Sometimes though, when she melds both styles together, practical magic happens ('Ready', Worth It').

Gucci Mane - Everybody Looking

Compared to the globby glut of uneven Guwop material that so often flash-flooded the market during his incarceration, the steady trickle of fresh tracks dropped since his release have felt like cool splashes of rainwater on a summer afternoon. Cuts like ‘First Day Out Tha Feds’ and ‘All My Children’, both featured here, showcased a fitter, happier person, one no longer drowning in an oversized double cup of narcotic syrup and sugar shocked soda. The Gucci of Everybody Looking seems so transformed that the Internet’s laziest idiots have spread a rumour that he’s been replaced by some sort of Manchurian dupe, overlooking the unmistakable flows of ‘Waybach’ and ‘Robbed’. A hallmark of the trap godfather's return has been the clamour of rappers eager to get some of that sober shine, exemplified here by a number of high profile guest features. 'Back On Road' features classic Gucci flows augmented by a Views-emboldened Drake hook front-and-centre while 'Pussy Print' finds Kanye regrettably phoning it in over the subdued Mike-Will-Made-It beat.

Kemba - Negus

The gaseous lip service paid to race by critics when writing about Kendrick Lamar escapes into the atmosphere. So few music writers seem particularly interested in hearing from or amplifying other black voices on these matters in their works, to no small extent because of a fundamental dearth of empathy on the issues and realities faced. Surely if these carpal tunnel liberals had conviction they’d be seeking out records like Negus, the commanding new full-length from the Bronx artist fka YC The Cynic. A phenomenal emcee, the rechristened Kemba channels empowering messages of black nationalism and a soul-shaking militant dread into cuts like the trembling ‘Greed’. Far from the stunts of YG’s ‘FDT’, this is the alarm call that precedes Trump’s America. Now more than ever we need this self-described mix of Huey P. and Master P. Musing macabre, his ‘New Black Theory’ loops a succinct 2Pac bar to augment his arguments, while ‘Hallelujah’ borrows from an 80s synthpop single. Institutionalised violence grips Kemba and his community like a vice, leading to the lamentations of ‘Stand’.

Lil Debbie - Debbie

It's been a long time coming for the former Kreayshawn cohort turned High Times hardliner. An unintended half-sibling to Riff Raff's recently released Peach Panther, Debbie finds the Bay's boisterous one as territorial about her comfort zone as ever ('Okay'). A hyper defensiveness has defined so much of her discography that the latest examples like 'F That' and 'Queen' feel terribly redundant. Yes, Debbie's bars by-and-large are still topically superficial, but then again the same can be said for most of the rap singles skulking around the Billboard Hot 100. 'Tell Me' comes closest to cramming Debbie into a chart pop formula, demanding some reciprocity for relationship loyalty. While gratifyingly mellow moments like 'Feel Good' and the loopy highlight 'Whoop' keep this from being a one-note affair, this overdue album should have built more on the smoking grassroots of her prior EPs and mixtapes.

Schoolboy Q - Blank Face

Rap fans of all stripes are looking for statement records right now, something to help get through the American horror story of politics, poverty, and policing. Already well regarded, Schoolboy Q should be well-equipped to make such music, like that of his TDE compatriot Kendrick. Unfortunately, his follow-up to 2014’s Oxymoron too often suffers from the same tedious tendencies as his major label debut. Regardless of the Bloods versus Crips context, the easily misinterpreted All Lives Matter quip on 'Black THougHts' won't go over well, even as several other provocatively potent verses hammer home the harsh realities of living while black in America, beset upon by the omnipresence of gangs. Guests help make up for Q’s errors, E-40's helicoptered verse conducting Metro Boomin’s beat heat on 'Dope Dealer' and Anderson Paak’s gangsta leaning into Curtis Mayfield mode for the title track. The listening chores of 'THat Part' contrast with the eerie yet wavy 'Groovy Tony'. California dreamin’ and schemin’, while 'Str8 Ballin' attempts to carve out Q's own niche of West Coast woes.

Shy Glizzy - Young Jefe 2

One of the best songs of the 2010s, Shy Glizzy's 'Funeral' transformed a morbid thought into a triumphant, occasionally witty fantasy. His nasal voice made every line hit, each pause for breath an eternity. Remarkably, he taps into that same juice on the altogether solid Young Jefe 2’s resplendent standout 'Waiting On My Time', with the rapper pondering his lot over an exceptional Trauma Tone beat. From Childish Major’s filtered trap on ‘How It Go’ to Zaytoven’s childlike chimes on ‘Bankroll’, the glossy production suits the 300 Entertainment-affiliated rapper’s adenoidal croon, with which he tells street stories both credibly and with a certain charm. Glizzy gets graceful on the ‘Ride 4 U’ hook like a rejuvenated Akon, revealing the ease with which he could transition to radio killer should he desire to do so. But he’s also perfectly at ease over a purple hued A$AP warble (‘‘Rounds’).

Vritra - Yellowing

Perhaps best known for his work with The Internet’s Matt Martians in The Jet Age of Tomorrow, on his own Pyramid Vritra always stood out as a touch too avant garde for the Odd Future demo. Following a couple of releases for Stones Throw, he’s more or less on his own for Yellowing, albeit with the benefit of distribution via Daddy Kev and DJ Nobody’s The Order Label. Opening with a sweeping rap triptych in ‘Fleeting Youth, Soundwave and Television’, the compellingly cool album makes clear that the predictable world of commercial hip hop is nowhere he wishes to be. From the moaning millennial soul of ‘Twlv Wks’ to the lowrider chrome shimmer of ‘Gypsy’, he’s a young artisan exploring new forms and techniques visible in rap’s periphery. ‘Gumbi’ plays like damaged dance, a stream-of-conscious spitter bobbing and weaving through Rephlex style brainiac grooves and the occasional bout of audio degradation. Saxophonist Jeff Dazey drops in on ‘Plastic’ to add to the spaced out jazz and hectic breaks, while on ‘Psa’, Vritra deftly dabbles in minimalism and revels in the unexpected.