Rajin Rambles: 2018 in Review, and Beyond

by Rajin

rajin2019

So I’ve kinda been AWOL for most of this year. I’ve been struggling with some pretty bad writer’s block for one reason or another. I just wanted to use this piece as an opportunity to shake the rust off and give my opinions on hip hop in 2018 that I — as someone who was raised a soft suburbanite — can’t and don’t expect any readers to take seriously.

I mentioned in last year’s recap that I felt hip hop was in a state of limbo, and that rap music didn’t seem to know where it wanted to go. In some ways I think that still holds true. It seems like commercial rap is clinging on for dear life to the trends that’ve had the genre in a stranglehold over the last two or three years. Rappers both new and established seem petrified at the idea of leaving the comfort zone that has established itself, because nobody knows where to go next. Melodic trap lives on for better or for worse…and from what I can tell, it’s actually gained some footing back in the game. Last year I got the sense that there was a bit of exhaustion in regards to that sort of music that I no longer seem to find. People seem like they’re totally satisfied with the prevailing trends remaining firmly in place, which I can’t knock since everybody has their own tastes; however, I’m a little disheartened by the stagnation. I also can’t pretend like I’m not sick and tired of the representative sound of hip hop being so sanitary and watered-down when the music was built off a spirit of defiance and grit.

This is all anecdotal though. I can’t say for sure whether my observations are actually accurate; all I can say is I’ve been hearing a lot of Travis Scott and Drake, and it’s made me want to “accidentally” crush my own windpipe.

Fortunately for those who have tastes that aren’t exactly satisfied by that sort of music, an almost comical amount of projects were dropped by underground rappers this year. It reached the point where, unless you are in certain settings, there was really no reason for you to pay attention to anything going on that you didn’t like. In the maybe three pieces I’ve written in the last year and a half, I’ve spoken a countless amount of times about the new-age boom bap movement that has taken root in the underground. For some reason, this time last year I figured that this movement’s growth would merely be incremental. Couldn’t tell you why, and at this point I feel pretty fucking stupid for ever holding that belief. The flood gates have been opened and they’re not shutting any time soon. Last year this particular scene was still budding, but this year it’s clear to anybody with the ability to use a computer that the underground is alive. It’s stronger than it’s been in 15 years, maybe somebody should let DJ Booth know.

In the last 12 months, I’ve become familiar with a lot of newer artists. Daniel Son, ANKHLEJOHN, CRIMEAPPLE, Asun Eastwood, and Eto have caught my ears the most. That’s not to take anything away from anyone else, but a huge chunk of my favorite albums this year were released by these guys. Since mid-2017 and even earlier, they’ve released a metric fuckton of incredible projects with shocking consistency. Artists have seemingly upped their output this year…which is also something I’d like to talk about. They’ve been releasing project after project, with many ending 2018 with upwards of four or five; in the past, I likely would not have been thrilled about it. I would have said something about oversaturation serving to dilute the artist’s overall impact for me. I’m not sure that’s how I feel anymore though, at least not with certain artists. More attention is being paid to structuring a body of work. I partially credit the return of vinyl and cassette for that. If people are making albums that they want to release on an analog format, they put a greater effort into trimming the fat and eliminating filler. You can’t just skip a track, so every song needs to serve a purpose. Generally, this results in projects being compact and packing a punch. In comparison to when artists were dropping three 70-minute long mixtapes a year in addition to an album, projects don’t end up sounding as rushed or bloated. That is mainly where my ambivalence toward this practice stemmed from. Having several shorter projects in a year is a great way to accomplish the same thing without sacrificing quality control, and frankly I would quite like it if more of my favorites started releasing more regularly.

I’ve also noticed that producers have been branching out a bit more from the minimal style that Roc Marciano, The Alchemist, and Daringer used to pioneer the sound of this movement. I’m pretty glad about that, because for a little bit I was afraid that people would overdo the minimalism and make it feel stale. I’m once again relieved that I was wrong. I have to give a huge shout-out to Futurewave, who is pretty handily my favorite producer out right now. His work on Pressure Cooker and Physics of Filth is just utterly astounding. It’s everything I love about hip hop. I also want to mention Big Ghost Ltd.; while I’ve enjoyed his work for a while now, his beats on Aguardiente and especially Van Ghost show that he’s continuing with the steady incline he’s been on essentially since coming out as a producer.

This year hasn’t only been about new artists though. I’m very happy with a lot of vets. Roc Marciano obviously comes to mind — he released three albums that I really like, with Behold A Dark Horse putting up serious competing for the position of my favorite album in his discography thus far. One of those albums, Kaos, was produced by the legendary DJ Muggs, who’s had a remarkably strong year himself. He’s actually been on a hot streak since his album with Meyhem Lauren last year, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be ending anytime soon; in addition to Kaos, in 2018 alone he released a strong Soul Assassins album, an EP with Meyhem, reunited with Cypress Hill for their best album in two decades, and is set to release albums with Eto, CRIMEAPPLE, and Mach-Hommy next year. Black Thought finally released some solo projects and while they were a little lacking in substance, he made it perfectly clear that he is the most dangerous emcee on the face of the planet. Shad and Blueprint released utterly gorgeous records. People may clown me for this next statement, but they can fuck themselves. I think Eminem brought it with Kamikaze. I consider that to be his best and most genuine album since 2002, which absolutely shocked me because Revival was the epitome of a career-ending album. Royce 5’9” also released his best and most personal album to date this year, alongside a strong PRhyme outing with DJ Premier.

He’s been hyping up a Bad Meets Evil reunion album at shows overseas lately, so I’m really hoping that’s something we see next year. Unrelated, but I’m looking forward to the next Run The Jewels album, too.

Of course, there are a number of vets who once again didn’t release the albums they’ve been promising for years now. At this point, I should know better than to expect Redman, Ghostface, and Busta Rhymes to drop those records…but I’m a moron. Overall though, despite a few of my earlier complaints I found 2018 to be the strongest year hip hop has had since I’ve been a fan. There truly is room for everything in this day and age, a while that lends itself to music and artists I’m really not a fan of, it’s also led to some incredible material and future legends. I hope to be more active next year than I was this year to offer my unsolicited opinions and takes…just like all of the hip-hop writers for whom I hold a seething hatred, because the way things are going I only see good things in store for 2019.

Dustin’s 2018 Most Recommended Album List

by Dustin

2018 album list

Being a fan of hip-hop in general, I find year end list season to be a particularly special level of hell. While most publications crank out relatively harmless and generic top tens with whatever charted best in the past twelve months, there’s always a few outlets that decide to get holier-than-thou about their opinions through numeric rankings. Case in point, my favorite aggressive group of travelling trend chasers, DJ Booth talking down to people for enjoying an Eminem album.

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Now, it obviously doesn’t matter if Kamikaze gets left off a top releases list, but it’s all in the presentation, right? If we’re going to play the taste-shaming game, I will take the opportunity to point out the fact that they’re up their own ass about a list that includes Drake’s Scorpion and Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy; however, just like them, that would be nothing more than dumping on others for enjoying things I don’t like. I suppose I just wanted to take a quick second to dig at DJ Booth for thinking their opinions hold any weight, when they’ve already proven to be more out of touch with rap than the artists they dub irrelevant. Maybe next year, you can put people onto some new things without desperately trying to stir up controversy-based discussion on Twitter. Given the level of quality control, I doubt it’ll happen, but I’m a dreamer.

At any rate I’m not going to rank my top albums this year, take this as more a list of recommendations that I see as an essential snapshot of hip-hop. Thirteen favorites which I feel strongly enough about to say, “you should give this a try.” No rankings, as I stand behind each and every one of these records as worth your time to a degree that I don’t need to quantify. 2018 was amazing, but this is my personal cream of the crop.

Blueprint – Two Headed Monster: I can never help but feel like Blueprint is one of the most chronically underrated artists in hip-hop. He’s been around forever, standing alongside artists in the Definitive Jux and Rhymesayers camps since their haydays. To make things better he seems to only improve with age, and is perhaps one of the most thoughtful craftsmen in the genre. Two Headed Monster carried the spirit of acts such as A Tribe Called Quest in the most respectful way I’ve ever heard. It clearly pulled from that era, but it was handled with such care that it ended up like a heartfelt tribute to rap music. Front to back nothing stands out or steals the spotlight, yet still it was impossible to walk away from without feeling insanely happy. An album for the head-at-heart that avoided being condescending.

LARS – Last American Rockstars: The first wish fulfillment I received this year was seeing The Davidians finally materialize. See, back in the mid-2000s King Gordy and Bizarre formed a group under that name. Being heavily into Detroit rap at the time and a big King Gordy fan, I spent forever waiting for a release. After a bit of time, I started to assume the project had met the same fate as Detox and Jon Connor’s Aftermath debut. I was however, wrong (which will become a bit of a trend on this list) and the pair’s LARS rebrand started work under Majik Ninja Entertainment. The album ended up being an absolute bombastic joy. I can only really summarize it as having been a rollercoaster of debauchery that I never wanted to get off. If you want to read a little more about it, I wrote a review of this one. It was certainly a unique beast.

Eminem – Kamikaze: I’m sure there is going to be a faction of readers who will absolutely loathe the fact that I have placed this album on my 2018 most-recommended list, and that’s okay. Fortunately for me, this is my list and not yours. To me, Kamikaze was the first Eminem album to feel like an actual Eminem album since Encore (which was pretty weak). He sounded larger than life, angry, and immature in the way that made his music so engaging over a decade ago. While I’ve seen it be panned for lacking “emotionally mature” content, I felt as though the route of violent braggadocio taken worked out for the best. If I’m being honest, Eminem’s dramatic gut spilling of personal issues had long been majorly played out for me. I was refreshed simply to hear him rapping with a big personality on top of enjoyable production. I found the critical reception of Kamikaze to be an unfortunate byproduct of the perception that Eminem is “lame” to praise or enjoy, at least in comparison to my experience. I had all but given up on him after the dumpster-fire that was Revival, but this was actually quite a pleasant effort.

Hermit & The Recluse – Orpheus vs. Sirens: Ka has been a favourite of mine since his 2013 release The Night’s Gambit. I was quickly tantalized by his scripturesque lyrical style, and how it was built upon with distinctive and often drumless production. When he unveiled “Hermit & The Recluse” as a project with producer Animoss, it seemed like a match made in heaven. If you’re familiar with Ka at all, Orpheus vs. Sirens really wasn’t far removed from what you would expect. It fell a little short of Honor Killed the Samurai (and perhaps even Days with Dr. Yen Lo) for me, but it was for all intents and purposes a splendid piece of art. I’m sure this sounds as if I’m dismissing it as “more of the same,” but when you have the track record of consistency Ka has, that’s far from a negative.

Royce da 5’9” – Book of Ryan: Rajin and I both avoided writing a review for Book of Ryan, even though we loved it; given the highly personal nature of the subject matter, it didn’t feel right to dissect. I stand by that decision. Book of Ryan was more of an audio confessional with Royce da 5’9” opening up about the darkest and most private aspects of life. I could see this being an album that not everybody will enjoy, as it lacked any sort of pace or energy. This wasn’t an issue for me though, and those who enjoy melancholic introspection will likely really vibe with the atmosphere and vulnerability.

Knowledge the Pirate – Flintlock: Knowledge the Pirate — a long standing associate of Roc Marciano — created what was probably the most old-school east coast flavoured rap record this year. Flintlock was no-frills, no excessive flair, and perhaps slightly one dimensional; however, none of this held it back from being downright fantastic. From front to back his debut release gripped the part of me that grew up on grimey 90s music. If that sentence could also describe your lineage in hip-hop fandom, you should definitely pick up this one up as soon as possible.

Roc Marciano – Behold a Dark Horse: Admittedly, I was not huge on Rosebudd’s Revenge 2: The Bitter Dose when it released. I felt it to be a little too minimalistic, and a sequel that didn’t live up to my enjoyment of the original (though Rajin disagrees with me entirely on that). With that in mind, I was genuinely a little conflicted when Roc Marciano announced Behold a Dark Horse as his second major drop set for 2018. I was, unsurprisingly, very incorrect in my hesitance once again. Behold a Dark Horse ended up a fantastic display of off-kilter bold production, and Roc Marci at his weirdest and most energetic. In the future, this album will likely remain near the top of his discography for me. It had every single trait that I felt the second Rosebudd’s Revenge lacked, and was ultimately and extremely satisfying listen.

Black Milk – FEVER: I view Black Milk as a gigantic talent, and one of a small handful of artists I am comfortable pre-ordering new music from. I had truly unfairly high expectations for the follow up to If There’s a Hell Below, yet somehow he surpassed my hopes. FEVER was a luscious and beautifully smooth progression of the jazzy sound Black Milk toyed with on the Nat Turner collaborative LP The Rebellion Sessions. I feel as if this album never really received the attention it should have, likely due to coming out at the very beginning of a well saturated calendar year. If you did happen to miss FEVER, give it a chance. I think it has the potential to appeal to a wide variety of fandoms, while being challenging enough to please even the snobbiest of alternative music nerds.

ANKHLEJOHN & Big Ghost Ltd. – Van Ghost: On the lead up to June 18th, Van Ghost was probably my most anticipated drop of 2018. Ankhlejohn was on a furious hot-streak of quality tapes, and Big Ghost was showing to be a rising star in the modern boom-bap circle. Having them come together felt no less than a recipe for success, and it was. The Van Gogh-inspired Van Ghost was dark and gnarly, but with a distinct undertone of delicacy. It was anghellic in ways, but not afraid to kick the listeners ass when confronted with unpleasant reality. I really cannot recommend this enough, nor can I properly word just how wild it was stylistically. I can, however, promise that Van Ghost will not let you down.

Denzel Curry – TA13OO: Denzel Curry is one of those rappers who’s seemed on the cusp of dropping a individual masterpiece since his career launched. 2016’s Imperial came close, but this was the year it fully came to fruition. TA13OO saw Denzel finally apply his wonderful toolkit and raw skill to a well thought out concept, and it was gorgeous. I might even go as far as saying that TA13OO will be looked back on as the definitive record of its scene. I did review it, but it’s an album that you need to hear for yourself to appreciate properly. Whether you’re a fan of the old-school or the new generation, it would be a disservice to your ears to not give it a fair shake. It was phenomenal.

Daniel Son x Asun Eastwood x Futurewave – Physics of Filth: A little earlier this year I discovered Asun Eastwood’s project Hollywood Briggs from 2017, and gave it a spin with Rajin. We were mutually impressed, to the point that I ended up ordering the CD version of the release; however, the tracks featuring Daniel Son really stood out. His presence pushed Asun to elevate himself to unbelievable heights, leading to spectacular toe-to-toe rapping. Immediately we began to talk about how hyped we would be for them to form a duo. As it turns out, we would get our wish and then some. The duo formed a trio with super-producer Futurewave (more on him in the next blurb), and released one of the nastiest barrages of hip-hop I’ve listened to recently. For anybody hungry for more grit in the modern rap scene, this album is for you.

Daniel Son & Futurewave – Pressure Cooker: The second consecutive entry on this list for both Daniel Son and Futurewave, and an absolute monster of a record. Rajin reviewed this one already, and he said a lot more than I’m going to be able to in this format so I recommend giving that a read. What I will say though is that Pressure Cooker is the result of an emcee firing at all cylinders alongside a highly skilled producer with a clear vision of soundscape. Much like the works of duos such as Eric B. and Rakim or earlier Atmosphere the chemistry on display was almost unfair, resulting in a nearly flawless end product. If you dig the Roc Marciano lane, but want something with more snarl, Pressure Cooker is likely the perfect choice. Don’t get it mistaken though, Daniel is far from being another Roc clone. He is a breed of his own, and Futurewave has the chops to match.

Shad – A Short Story About a War: The only way I know how to properly express my adoration of A Short Story About a War, is to say that attempting to review it in the light it deserves sent me into an awful writers block spiral for several weeks. I could not find the words to capture just how incredible it was, and felt as if anything I could write would still misrepresent it to the reader. This album is not only musically enjoyable, but the heavy themes and ideas it carried were presented with a perfect balance of delicate tact and reality grounding shock. Seriously, if you’re a music writer who maintains the opinion that hip-hop lacks “content” currently, get your head out of your backside and look a little harder. In my opinion, one of the best social-political rooted albums of all time dropped this year, and you have missed out by not doing your due diligence. It nearly killed this website by being too good, and that’s coming from an immensely stubborn human. I wish I was kidding.

To conclude my 2018 list of recommended hip-hop records, I’d like to thank a few people. First and foremost, thank you to Rajin and Emily for their contributions to Extraordinary Nobodies. We all had a rough stretch in terms of activity, but I am extremely proud of what we did accomplish. Additionally, I’d like to shout out my friend Isaac for regularly offering me feedback on articles. Thank you to Michael (of FilthyBroke Recordings), Ramon (also known as MCrv), and Ben for listening to me vent multiple times about difficulties balancing life and writing. To all the artists who we featured in some form or another, thank you for doing what you do and giving us a reason to write. Finally, a massive thank you to everyone who has supported Extraordinary Nobodies in 2018 and years prior. We’re an artists-first site, and knowing people appreciate that is beyond special. Let’s hope for another strong year of hip-hop in 2019. We can’t wait.

Album Review: City Morgue – CITY MORGUE VOL 1: HELL OR HIGH WATER

by Dustin

citymorgue

7.5/10

Though time has seen the gradual erosion of definitive regional sounds within the landscape hip-hop, New York has always seemed to exist on the cutting edge. The state has produced some of the sharpest and most unique artists, each carrying the drive to lay claim to their slice of the east’s illustrious history. The results of this progressive spirit have been, at times, shockingly unpredictable. Case in point: City Morgue. Formed by ZillaKami and SosMula, the enigmatic duo wasted little time in working to establish themselves. Armed with the production talents of THRAXX, they began working on music a mere three days after SosMula’s release from prison. Ultimately City Morgue landed on a hyper-aggressive punk and metal inspired sound and dropped a couple of singles notable for their extremely explicit lyrics and controversial videos. This, along with ZillaKami’s impressive feature on Denzel Curry’s TA13OO album, garnered a good deal of attention for the group. A full-length project to capitalize seemed inevitable, and it came in the form of CITY MORGUE VOL. 1: HELL OR HIGH WATER on October 12th.

Absolute facemelter.

While it became apparent from the early stages of City Morgue that the bulk of both ZillaKami and SosMula’s appeal would be in their energy, they did make this project lyrically interesting. As expected, their writing throughout was graphic and often painted a picture of an extremely gruesome lifestyle. Whether it was drugs, murder, gunplay, or physical violence, there were no punches pulled; moreover, in spite of the fact that HELL OR HIGH WATER never went full blown horrorcore, it did blur the line between reality and fiction just enough to make it pleasantly uncomfortable. Both artists had such a degree of conviction behind their vocals that it made even the most outlandish lines seem believable. It truly felt like a rap snuff film at times. On top of that, they played off of each other’s styles incredibly well for such a young group. ZillaKami’s rock inspired semi-melodic scream rap was balanced out perfectly by SosMula’s much more traditional hip-hop grounding. At surface level, it would have been easy to declare Zilla the standout on most tracks due to his impressive hooks and loud delivery, but the release would not have worked nearly as well without his counterpart. Additionally, they created a dynamic in which both had ample opportunity to shine. Occasionally one member would contribute to a song in a much smaller role, such as providing a refrain, to allow the other a solo moment under the spotlight. Good chemistry is an important intangible for any group or collective, and City Morgue proved rather quickly that they have it. It elevated the entire listen, turning what could have been a bland assortment of bangers into a wildly fun slugfest of dissipated living.

The aforementioned THRAXX provided the bulk of HELL OR HIGH WATER’s production, with Ronny J tagging along for spot duty. The instrumentals could have easily been described using only the words loud and angry, sounding more like something out of Florida’s underground scene than New York. Featuring distorted guitars atop of heavily bassy trap, there was a certain industrial flavor to this album which fit the prevailing themes quite well. Matching ZillaKami and SosMula’s relentless rage fueled vigor was no issue; however, where the production did lack was in its range. There were definitely standout tracks instrumentally — “Gravehop187,” “So What,” and “SHINNERS13” in particular were monstrously hard hitting — but a lot of the deeper cuts sounded very similar despite being consistently solid. This didn’t hurt the listening experience per se, but some variation may have allowed for the more notably truculent songs to be more impactful. That being said, a debut project having had no blatantly bad beats was rather special in itself regardless of any nitpicking.

Laying the foundation for a new wave in a genre as fluid as hip-hop is never an easy task, but City Morgue did admirably with their freshman effort. Openly admitting in their “The Way Out” documentary with Mass Appeal that their sound is “a work in progress,” the potential for growth within the group was palpable. What was really astonishing though, was their ability to a bring an accessible familiarity while still being a breath of fresh air. For example, some of the SosMula focused moments on this album harkened back to early Three 6 Mafia, yet they were different enough that it felt entirely new. The lack of variety was noticeable and problematic to a degree, but it didn’t totally take away from what was accomplished here as far as instituting a groundwork. They’re self-aware artists, and it’s evident in the way they speak that they know this was the starting point and not the finish line. City Morgue’s genuine ambitious nature and confidence may just make them a force to be reckoned eventually. They may not be there quite yet, but HELL OR HIGH WATER was very much a best foot being put forward.

Think Piece: The Problematic Nature of Modern Music Reviews

by Dustin

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I haven’t written a think piece in a long time, but as Rajin and myself have continued to develop Extraordinary Nobodies — both in terms of the content we wish to produce and our individual skills as writers — there is something that’s sort of been nagging at me to discuss. While it’s a topic that is hard to write about without sounding holier-than-thou, I do feel a certain degree of disappointment in the lack of respect shown by many media figures toward the pieces of music they choose to review. I don’t mean this purely in the sense of slamming artists’ work for being unenjoyable either. I see it as more of a multifaceted problem, with symptoms spawning from the disease of clickbait driven publication motives. The focus has shifted from writing well fleshed out musical discussions to serving up Hot-N-Ready style one listen think pieces masquerading themselves as album reviews. It’s insulting. Not only to the artist, but to the art itself, the reader, and ultimately to the craft of critical assessment.

Eight years ago, the now deceased Scott Miller wrote a book in which he pondered some of the issues he saw with music critics. In a particular section, he stated that he believes a good critic should be able laud an artist for their musical work while separately acknowledging moral objections without confusing the two; moreover, he seemed to express that he felt as if this was something many struggled to achieve. Moving into the present, I would argue that this has become an increasingly troublesome trait of music media, particularly in the realm of hip-hop. Kanye West is, unfortunately, a prime example of this in action. I’ll preface this by saying, I am absolutely not defending Kanye as a human being. He has done and said things that I find deplorable. They do not line up with where I stand as a person; however, I find it equally disgusting that those who have chosen to analyze his work opt to spend more time focused on his antics rather than the music. Not only does it indignify the reader by tricking them, but it draws attention to questionable behavior without offering any degree of meaningful insight as to why it should be looked down upon. There is a ton of room to have constructive conversation about why the things (and I’m using him again purely due to it being relatively recent) Kanye West does are harmful. With that in mind, it’s not going to be accomplished within a review that is effectively saying “this album is bad because Kanye is bad.” Either focus on the music, or focus on the moral issues of the individual and present it appropriately.

That’s not to say that I subscribe to the idea that the social context of a release should be ignored entirely. Some of the greatest hip-hop critics of all time focused heavily on race, gender, political unrest, and other nuanced socioeconomic troubles. What set them apart is that they looked at the music in relation to these things, rather than rating the value of an album based purely on an artist’s personal beliefs.

A lot of this circles back around to sloppy writing in general, though. With the way we consume media through the internet, there is an expectation for everything to be instantaneous, easily digestible, and attention grabbing. It sucks. It feels as if it has become commonplace to read reviews which miss even the most obvious of concepts, never mind anything below surface level. There’s no care or respect given to the art, and it’s all in the name of having the article out before other publications. I get it. Most rely almost entirely on advertiser revenue to stay afloat, and higher traffic means higher profit. Sadly, this has lead to the gradual degradation of a craft that once held in much higher regard than it is now. There was a time when writers such as Greg Tate made a conscious effort to ensure that their pieces held up to music they were discussing. They drew inspiration not only from journalists, but from poets and other talented penmen. Words were deliberate and laboured over, not simply churned out on a whim to meet a deadline and quota. While this may sound like romanticising the past (and to a degree it is), I simply long for a place in media where articles can be valued based on their content and not on their swiftness to reach publishment.

There isn’t an easy solution to these issues that I can offer up, but I think being aware of the media we’re consuming is the first step toward improvement. While the current climate is likely always going to value rapid and disposable writing, as a reader you have the ability to make your voice heard. Offering feedback can go a long way. A huge part of my growth has been tied to people making suggestions and offering constructive criticism on my work. It drives me. It drives us. Showing that support to the authors who are giving you the type of material you want to read is what keeps them going. In the same vein, if we start ignoring outlets notorious for releasing low-effort high-volume commentary it will effectively cut off their blood supply. Will it be enough to permanently fix to realm of music critiquing? Probably not, but it’s a starting point toward affording artists the type of consideration their endeavors deserve.

Album Review: Denzel Curry – TA13OO

by Dustin

taboo

9.25/10

He may not yet be a household name, but it is undeniable that Denzel Curry has been a leader of the new school for quite a while. Alongside the Raider Klan, he helped forge a new lane for rappers in Florida that had not existed previously. He shares many attributes with his contemporaries out of the state, but Denzel’s attention to detail in the art of song crafting had set him apart ever since his first mixtape dropped in 2011. His 2013 debut studio album, Nostalgic 64, proved he was a potential force to be reckoned with in hip-hop. Three years later those raw mic and penmanship skills were refined further on Imperial; however, despite carrying the poise of an artist several years older than he is, it felt as if Zel had more to give. Another gear he hadn’t quite discovered. One that would theoretically take his material from great to phenomenal. Lofty lingering expectations developed, and as soon as TA13OO was announced his fans began clamoring to see if he would rise to the occasion.

He did.

Denzel Curry has never been one to fail at being engaging behind the mic. He has brought a near uncontrollable energy to everything he’s touched throughout his remarkably consistent career. That remained unchanged on TA13OO, yet something felt distinctly different. Vulnerability. As the album progressed it became clear that Denzel had no intent in maintaining hip-hop’s hyper-masculine status quo of emotional detachment. Sensitive topics such as sexual assault, political unrest, jealousy, suicide, depression, and violent urges were all approached head on; moreover, with its creative three part structure — comprised of Light, Grey, and Dark sections — he was able to gradually ease the listener into accepting socially unaccepted subject matter. The album opened by presenting heavier content with a much lighter tone, almost as if he was hiding it behind false happiness. As the transition from the beginning into Grey and finally Dark happened, that facade was peeled away. It became increasingly honest, pained, open, and personal. Denzel executed this really well both in his writing and his delivery, making it extremely easy to feel the type of sentiments he was expressing at a personal level. Whether or not the situations he rapped about were relatable didn’t matter because it was all presented with such clear poignance. Denzel truly elevated himself, combining what made him stand out as special from the beginning with a newfound conceptual focus and further improved vocal versatility.

It felt as though he fully came into his own, which was mesmerizing as an already talented emcee.

Though Denzel was the star of the show, he carried an impressive supporting cast of very concise and purposeful production choices. J Gramm, FNZ, Mickey de Grand IV and a handful of others supplied a plethora of extremely bassy, unique sounding instrumentals. Despite the wide range in sounds, they all had just enough in common to complete TA13OO as a cohesive piece of work. Curry utilized this variability, arranging them in such a way to aid in the sonic development of the album. The lush and bouncy beginning faded to a cloudy melancholic middle, and eventually a hateful aggressive finish. While songs like “Black Balloons” and “Vengeance” could not be further removed from each other, carefully planned sequencing allowed for them to live on the same tracklist harmoniously. It mirrored his performance, boosting the listening experience to soaring heights.

The guest artists on this release did a splendid job of contributing to the overall themes and concept, while not having felt out of place in the slightest. JPEGMAFIA came through with an absolutely monstrous verse on “Vengeance,” and was perhaps the biggest standout feature. That’s not to diminish the contributions of Goldlink, JID, or ZillaKami though, as they each brought 100% effort and a needed splash of variety to their portions of the album. Nyyjerya and Billie Eilish were utilized well on a pair of hooks, and provided a bit of a break from Denzel’s aggression so the music had room to breathe. All in all, his highly selective deployment of other talents was nearly flawless, fleshing out TA13OO into a monster worthy of very few demerits.

There are times when it is obvious that an artist had a lot to say. It often results in extremely inspired music, with an immeasurable sense of belonging behind each songs existence. This album was a prime example of that sort of feeling. On a first listen certain tracks may have felt out of place with the ideas Denzel was trying to illustrate, only for them to reveal that they were exactly where they needed to be with subsequent plays. He assembled things in such a way that the presentation genuinely mattered just as much as the keynote talking points he chose to explore. He took the listener out of a place of projected stability and comfort into something more firmly grounded in real life. As many know, or will come to find out in the future, reality comes with many roadblocks that are difficult. Difficult to experience, difficult to process, and ultimately difficult to discuss without shame or embarrassment. Denzel Curry did put out a fantastic album with TA13OO, but more importantly he showed courage in the face of things that cause many to live in fear. He set an admirable example for a genre that has often struggled with remaining guarded. An example that is well worth lending an extremely attentive listen as a lesson in normalizing openness with hurt that is too frequently rendered as social taboo.

Album Review: Daniel Son & Futurewave – Pressure Cooker

by Rajin

pressurecooker

9.25/10

As I’ve mentioned countless times, there has been a thrilling new wave of boom bap coming out of the underground recently, spearheaded by Long Island’s Roc Marciano and Buffalo’s Westside Gunn and Conway. Through this movement the spirit of New York hip hop in the ‘90s lives on with a modern twist. Furthermore, incredible new artists have been popping up from unexpected locales, such as Rochester, D.C., and Richmond; shockingly, one of the most impressive cities has been Toronto, Ontario. While the region is generally known more for pop-rap and R&B artists like Drake and The Weeknd, there have been several rising stars who have contributed greatly to the “new golden era,” so to speak. One of the most promising has been Daniel Son. Over the course of the last couple of years, he has caught ears with standout guest verses, and a pair of wonderful projects atop instrumentation provided by the UK based Giallo Point. This time around, Daniel Son has teamed up with producer and fellow Toronto habitant, Futurewave.

The result of this pairing was, in a word, superb.

Pressure Cooker captures the same atmosphere that you’d hear on an early-mid ‘90s Wu-Tang or Mobb Deep project. Everything from the hungry, vividly streetwise verses to the strikingly cold production gives off that aura. This may be par for the course in this scene, but it’s executed entirely different here. Generally, the producers utilize dusty soul samples to create minimalist instrumentals. Drums aren’t emphasized as much; if they are present at all, they tend to come from the source sample itself. This style allows for the emcee to take center stage while the production serves as more of a backdrop than a musical driver. For this project, however, Futurewave drew from cleaner and lusher samples. This results in production that has a huge range, much wider than I feel most listeners would be accustomed to from artists in this lane. True to his name, Futurewave flipped samples that were quite glitchy for several songs, such as “Def Leppard” and “Icy Palms.” This lent itself to a harsh, frostbitten sound that you truly wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere. While the samples were relatively clean-sounding, there was still plenty of grime to be found amongst the skull-crushing drums. They created a beautiful contrast in the production that subtly reminded me of an album such as Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… In addition, I absolutely love how they are clearly sourced from separate records. Oftentimes, there would be no surface noise in the samples until the drums hit, which just added to the edge that they offered the beats. The production on this project is spectacularly immersive; truthfully, it would come off almost overpowering, were it not for the emcee rapping over it.

Daniel Son cut through the production like it was nothing, and it was thrilling to behold. As a performer he has always had an aggressive delivery. He sounds like he’s hassling you relentlessly from across the street; imposing, intimidating, and impossible to ignore. Ordinarily, his ability to make an impression is effortless. His presence can overtake anyone else on a track handily with how laid-back yet emphatic he is. For this project, he had to push himself a bit further, as the production here is very dynamic – it builds on itself constantly. Impressively, yet unsurprisingly, his vocal energy matched the beats any time they would hit a crescendo; there were moments where he stretched his delivery to the point that was very nearly yelling. Daniel altered his flow a bit throughout the album too, leaving space in between his bars to let them breathe. This allowed for the impact of what he was saying to reverberate against the music, which only served to highlight the brutality of his lyrics and add to his already flamboyant style as an emcee. The guest appearances did a good job at offering a bit of a contrast to the flair Daniel brought. Rappers such as Saipher Soze and CRIMEAPPLE in particular came with verses that were more blunt and straightforward, simultaneously demonstrating a level of chemistry with him that make for some interesting collaborations that I would personally like to see more of in the future. However, I have to say that Daniel Son consistently outdid the competition here. While his star power has always been evident, he stepped his game up to a level that I didn’t see coming for at least another couple of projects.

“Talk is cheap, but people fade away for less
Life lessons you only learn in the face of death
You can bring ‘em to the edge, but will they take the step?
(Take a deep breath) And let the steel bat break his legs”
-Daniel Son, on “Def Leppard”

This album is arguably the best album to be released thus far from perhaps the strongest underground scene since the early 2000s. Anybody who considers themselves a fan of hip hop is doing themselves a massive disservice if they haven’t listened to it. Pressure Cooker is comprised of everything that made hip hop great in the past, while embracing an effort to move forward. Music aside, the most exciting thing about this project is that it doesn’t even seem like Daniel Son has peaked yet. With how seasoned he sounds, it’s hard to remember that he’s still so early into his career. This guy is a threat, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for the future, because I absolutely love this project.

Album Review: Eminem – Kamikaze

by Dustin

kamikaze

8.25/10

Since his reemergence in hip-hop nine years ago, Eminem’s career arc has been rocky to say the least. Perhaps lost as an artist, he’s bounced between deliveries, subject matter, and producers while simultaneously finding very little to be a natural fit. His music during this period really struggled to discover its footing completely. Relapse was an interesting idea with smooth production, but faltered in its conceptual execution and consistency; Recovery was a matured and more cohesive effort hampered by a one dimensional sound; The Marshall Mathers LP 2 boasted unreal highs, but suffered as a full listen due to a few really poor artistic choices; and finally, Revival was a cumulative disaster of faults, mixed in with some of the worst studio technical work to appear on a mainstream album. His ability to write pure rap was still clearly alive, but whether or not he could assemble a solid full body of work became a massive question mark. With doubt swirling and the public eye shifting elsewhere, there was only one solution…

…drop a seethingly angry album out of nowhere. Kamikaze.

First and foremost, the production value was an extreme step-up from from the absolute audio hell brought on by Rick Rubin during the past handful of years. Eminem’s performance was no longer burdened by disgustingly muddy mixing, and it saw a return to layered vocals to properly compensate for his relatively weak voice. Thanks to these small studio tweaks, he sounded clear and powerful behind the mic for the first time in ages. The beat choices also felt a lot more decisive and modern; moreover, even though the production credits (which included the likes of Mike Will Made It and Illadaproducer) may throw people off, the overall vibe felt more like an Eminem album than anything from the last ten years. The dark, simplistic, off-kilter nature of the instrumentation allowed for his rapping stay at the forefront of each song, which was refreshing. He’s an artist who has always gotten lost easily in oversaturated production, and clearly this was taken into consideration when structuring this album. The cohesion was also impressively tight, particularly given the awful whiplashing between incompatible styles on last year’s Revival. The only brief changeup was going into the mid-2000s Shady Records sounding throwback on “Stepping Stones;” however, this was purposeful and much less jarring than the hard right turns into Rick Rubin’s 80s rock “samples” that had become commonplace lately.

Eminem as an emcee was supremely engaging on Kamikaze, and it was a shocking treat. For the past half decade he had been in this weird place where he was writing really well, but the substance usually felt forced or non-existent. In addition to that, his delivery had become incredibly wonky, gutless, and rather hard to enjoy. With that in mind, it became obvious straight from the first few tracks that the flows, while still occasionally weird, had been dialed back to being more traditionally on beat. The gutlessness was also solved with the aforementioned return to vocal layering, which really helped his delivery to have some genuine impact. This really allowed for his penmanship to shine though, which was in tip-top condition for the vast majority of the album. His multisyllable rhyme patterns returned to feeling more conversational and less hamfisted, while his wordplay took on much more subtlety. For instance, there was one moment on “Fall” where he lead into a punchline about “Forever” (the posse cut alongside Drake, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne) by borrowing his own flow from 9 years ago. It rolled out so smoothly that it would have been easy to miss until the second or third listen. That sort of rewind factor was fantastic, and made it impossible to not desire subsequent listens. As far as subject matter goes, Kamikaze was significantly more vapid and self-indulgent than either The Marshall Mathers LP 2 or Revival, which was oddly a positive. It seems that in spite of the perception that songs like “Stan” have built about Eminem’s songwriting being grandiose, he’s actually most comfortable in the snide and angry mindset that he captured here. While it was initially a bit of a shock to hear him rapping about hating critics, hating other rappers, knocking people out, guns, and calling Trick Trick, it truly felt like he had allowed his real personality to come out again. Removing the rose-coloured glasses, the vast majority of his best work has always been self-obsessed fury and vitriol. Kamikaze really was no different than a record like the original Marshall Mathers LP in that regard, and it was a fun listen because of it.

The aforementioned “Stepping Stone,” however, was the one track on this album with a much more emotional foundation. Though they’ve not released a studio album since 2004, it marked the official end of D12. “Stepping Stone” went heavily into detail about how Proof’s untimely death tore the collective apart and rendered them dysfunctional even through multiple attempts to recapture the feeling and make a comeback. It was handled incredibly tastefully with Eminem shouldering a lot of the blame, but also being blunt about needing everyone to move past the group so that they can all remain friends. The production, as mentioned, was a throwback to the sound of the label during D12’s hayday. It was a nice touch, and a fittingly melancholy end to a group limping out of years of turmoil.

The features on this album definitely seemed to catch a lot of attention on drop day, and fortunately they did not disappoint. Joyner Lucas, Royce da 5’9”, and Jessie Reyez each brought a unique flavor to their tracks. Joyner’s opening verse to “Lucky You,” a bit of a before and after story about fame, matched Eminem’s level of energy perfectly and accomplished exactly what the song needed it to do. On the sillier end of the spectrum, Royce brought much appreciated comic relief to the opening of “Not Alike,” which of course came immediately after the emotional strain of “Stepping Stone.” Jessie Reyez appeared on both of the combination tracks “Nice Guy” and “Good Guy,” where she promptly asserted herself as one of the most fitting singers to perform alongside Eminem. Her humor matched his perfectly, and the chemistry was simply delightful. Overall, the features felt like genuine collaborations rather than random names making a cameo. It was a nice change of pace, and nobody came across as redundant.

There was an additional unlisted feature by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on “Fall.” It sounded nice, but there isn’t really much else to be said aside from the fact that he was angry it stayed on the album.

Kamikaze was unapologetically midwest, and for that reason it will likely always be a polarizing album. The speed rap, trap influence, shock value, and hyper-lyrical writing style are all staples of the region currently, and it’s not going to be every listener’s cup of tea. That being said, Eminem did these things extremely well. From start to finish, nothing felt out of place. Even the weaker tracks such as “Normal” were amusing and played a role in making the overall listen more complete. He overcame many of the musical issues he’s been grappling lately, and it reflected itself in a solid project. It wasn’t perfect, but he’s never been the perfect artist. What it was, though, was Eminem’s most natural sounding release in over 15 years after a litany of awkward and confusing detours. Fortunately he seemingly found his way back on track, as Kamikaze was an excellent listening experience.