Taylor Rubright

“Walk on Water,” Mumble Rap, & That Time I Went to a GZA Show

Aside from a handful of Labor Day weekends spent at Seattle’s yearly Bumbershoot music festival, the first rap concert I ever went to was GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan at a venue called Neumos on Capitol Hill. I was going with my friend Cole, and as 17-year-olds from different neighborhoods, neither of us were very familiar with our surroundings and neither of us owned a car. But we weren’t just going to let The Genius slip through our fingers, so we did what any rational person in 2008 would do: hop on a bus downtown and use our printed directions from MapQuest to find the venue on foot.

Being the naive teens we were and having never been to a non-festival rap show, we had no idea what “doors open at 7:00 PM” truly meant. By 6:45 PM, we had grabbed our tickets from will call, gotten patted down by security, and found our places in the crowd. We stood around waiting for the opener (a local act named Scribes, who I knew previously from having handed me numerous demos burned onto Memorex CDs at Bumbershoot, Folklife, and other Seattle music festivals) with the handful of people who got there as early as we did, many of whom had already crowded around the front of the stage hoping to reserve a front-row view.

On my way to the bathroom at one point, I noted a piece of paper that stated Scribes was not set to go on until 9:00, and GZA until 10. I disappointingly relayed this info to Cole, and we continued to wait and talk while the DJ spun about what you would expect from a GZA show: mostly 90s New York classics like Black Star, Biggie, Pharoahe Monch, Mobb Deep, and, of course, Wu-Tang Clan. Most people were standing around, bobbing their heads and rapping along, but there was one man who seemed to be really feeling the set. He danced nearly the entire time the DJ was spinning and was pouring with sweat an hour before even the opener was set to go on (later in my life I realized this man was probably on Molly, AKA The Artist Formerly Known as Ecstasy. GZA also seems like a strange choice of concert to roll at.).

Around 8:30 PM, the venue was starting to noticeably fill up with people–and blunt smoke. The DJ was still playing, and “Kick in the Door” faded out as the beat to the newly released “A Milli” dropped. For a quarter of a second, the room froze, and then boos from all angles of the venue quickly overtook the song. Clearly flustered, the DJ dropped the levels and stammered into the mic, “This is the KRS-One remix! You don’t think I’d play Lil Wayne for y’all would I?”

While I was, at this point in my life, more of a fan of 90s rap acts like members of the Native Tongues Posse and the Rawkus Records crew, I still liked a lot of the newer guys, most specifically Kanye West, The Cool Kids, and Weezy himself. Hyphy and other Bay Area rap artists like Mac Dre, E-40, and Andre Nickatina were also immensely popular at my high school, so I had also been introduced to that side of the hip-hop spectrum (looking back, I think I actually had a reasonably diverse taste in rap for a 17-year-old). I’d obviously heard people shit on some of the newer, non-traditionalist rappers before, but this was the first time in my life I had really encountered “real hip-hop” fans in the wild. Before that night, the notion that something is or isn’t “real rap” was foreign to me.

Fast forward to today: anyone who’s paying attention to hip-hop knows that Eminem recently released a collaboration with Beyoncé entitled “Walk on Water,” thought to the be the first single from his forthcoming album, Revival. It’s a sparse, somber, and stripped-down ballad about crippling self-doubt and self-mythologizing in hip-hop, conveying that Eminem feels discouraged about his creative process and that nothing he writes is good enough for his fans anymore. The song is actually fairly moving from a lyrical standpoint, but as a piece of music, it sounds more similar to a Macklemore-esque spoken word piece than the scathing, rapid-fire, celebrity-bashing single we’re normally used to from Eminem. In a lot of ways, it’s a sign of maturity, with Mathers choosing to vent his creative frustrations as a product of a different era of hip-hop rather than dissing the gaggle of new school rappers currently occupying the airwaves.

However, in the inaugural episode of Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast, Broken Record, Rubin states that Eminem is “frustrated” with “mumble rap.” And, well, of course he is: it’s only natural that an artist known for his lyrics would feel out-of-place in an era where style, vibe, and flow are king. Though 2017 isn’t without its dozens of capable lyricists, in some of today’s music, the emphasis seems to be placed less on what you say and more on how you say it. Even so, publications and fans alike have been quick to run with this notion that Eminem being frustrated creatively with this new era of rap is the same thing as hating it, with many traditionalists using it as some sort of validation of their rejection of a post-808s & Heartbreak world of rap music. But even listening to a secondhand account from Rubin, it seems clear that Eminem isn’t frustrated because these artists are successful, he’s frustrated because the way he raps isn’t necessarily en-vogue anymore.

The notion that only a certain style of rap is “real hip-hop” has been around since the conception of the genre itself—for many of its earliest pioneers, even recording raps in the first place was sacrilege, as it was meant to be performed in real time with a DJ. Going back to “A Milli,” though Lil Wayne is generally touted as one of the greatest of all time today, in the mid-2000s, he was not only an extremely divisive rapper, but an extremely divisive rapper who was also completely unavoidable. It’s no exaggeration that a new Weezy song dropped or leaked on an almost daily basis—from 2007-2009, he appeared on over 100 songs each year. While Wayne was massively popular, there was still a large portion of rap fans completely discrediting his merits as an artist. They threw everything at the wall, from Wayne’s supposed “poor lyricism” (meaning his more abstract lyrical style didn’t fit in the traditionalist box they’d cornered themselves into) to his southern dialect, hoping some sort of critique would stick and knock him down a peg or two. Southern rappers have always caught the brunt of such “real rap” criticism: even Outkast, one of the most universally acclaimed musical acts (let alone rappers) of all time, was once booed at the Source Awards. Nowadays, though southern trap music has made its way into pop as by far the most popular contemporary subgenre, it’s still referred to by many as “mumble rap.”

Using the term “mumble rap” is akin to calling electronic music “bleep bloop robot music.” It reduces a diverse group of artists into one negative generalization, and it shows a distinct lack of understanding of the genre. It’s a disparaging notion that, quite frankly, was probably somewhat rooted in racism in its initial use (even if most people who use it mean nothing by it at this point due to its more widespread use), as it’s a term that tends to be used to refer to southern black artists with thicker accents who use copious amounts of regional slang. There’s no denying that it sometimes takes a few listens to be able to fully understand the lyrics of certain rappers if you’re a new listener (Young Thug, Future, and Kodak Black, for instance). But more often than not, good Capital-A Art is art that rewards the audience upon subsequent listens: each one begs you to uncover a new layer, a background vocal you didn’t notice before, a hidden meaning in seemingly innocuous lyrics. The first time I hear a Young Thug song, I’m usually too enamored with the melody and the elasticity of his voice to take in most of the lyrics, and only upon further listening do I begin unpack his more freeform lyrical style.

Are there a gaggle of Atlanta rappers who all sound the same? Of course there are, but for every innovator in music there are always going to be hundreds of cheap imitators and average wave-riders waiting to hop on coattails. Music is and always will be malleable, and we should strive to embrace innovation even if it sometimes results in failed experiments. People need to take note of rappers like Juicy J, who seems intent on evolving with the genre and letting it flourish, rather than anchoring it in the past and consequently splintering its sphere of influence.  

Maybe Eminem does think Playboi Carti sucks, and that’s fine, but I’m sure a considerable number of younger hip-hop fans feel the same way about the revered old head from 8 Mile. Everyone has their preferences and you don’t have to like everything—luckily, there’s always going to be a Conway and a Westside Gunn for every Young Thug and Future, even if they don’t currently have as much mainstream appeal. There’s great music to enjoy on both ends of the spectrum, and we should be celebrating the fact that hip-hop has become this diverse rather than trying to stifle creativity because not everyone wants to sound like Eminem anymore.

YGTUT Talks Preacher’s Son, Musical Beginnings with Isaiah Rashad, & More

Editor’s note: this interview was originally conducted in February 2015 and is being reposted in honor of the release of YGTUT’s collaborative EP with producer Ducko McFli, Supa EP.

Meet TUT. Birth name Kevin Adams Jr., TUT is a 22-year old rapper hailing from Chattanooga, Tennessee, who recently released his first full-length project, Preacher’s Son. As you can probably guess by both his name and the title of his album, TUT is the son of Kevin Adams Sr., a prominent preacher in Chattanooga—but as TUT himself (or anyone who has listened to the album) would tell you, he’s far from perfect.

As somewhat of a coming-of-age story, Preacher’s Son chronicles TUT’s struggle between fitting the mold of what society deems the son of a preacher should be like, and simply being himself—though there’s much more to the album than can be explained in a few sentences. As one of the best projects to come out in 2015 thus far, Preacher’s Son is only the beginning for TUT: he most recently performed at SXSW and expects to release another full-length project by the end of this year. Touting an undeniably high work ethic, TUT is determined to make everyone know his name as the self-proclaimed “youngest king in the game.”

Two of our writers, Taylor Rubright and Ronnie Ramirez, shared the same appreciation for Preacher’s Son, and had the opportunity to have a conversation with TUT to discuss the album, as well as his his beginnings, inspirations, and future ambitions. As someone who wants to spread positivity, TUT radiated humbleness and passion in speaking on both his music and his life. TUT—”The Understood Truth”—is an undoubtedly bright spot in the current hip-hop landscape, and as his art grows, his name will surely follow.

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I Don’t Like Macklemore but Here’s a List of People Who Might & Also I Rated Gemini Out of Ten

A few weeks ago, Macklemore released Gemini, his first independent studio album since 2005’s The Language of My World. As a native Seattleite, I’ve talked and written about Macklemore extensively everywhere from college classes to my terrible, now-defunct independent blog. At this point, I feel as if writing any more about him is somewhat of a fruitless exercise. You know how I feel. I know how I feel. Fans of Macklemore will always want more Mackle-ing.

Yet, for some reason, I always find myself taking time out of my busy schedule of listening to Lorde and NBA YoungBoy to let The Mack’s smooth beats Mackle all up into my ear canals through the $7 Panasonic earbuds I take terrible care of, accidentally destroy, and subsequently repurchase from Amazon on a monthly basis. Macklemore isn’t for me, and he never will be for me, but he is for some folks. Some folks that aren’t so good, but also some other folks that I think are pretty swell. Anyway, instead of writing a review (writing is hard and no one reads the actual text anyway), I decided to just give readers what they really want (a rating) and devise a list of people who might enjoy Gemini so you may easier decide whether or not to purchase it from The Wal-Mart.

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Go ‘head Switch the Style Up: Graduation Turns 10

Back before the social media era, Kanye West and 50 Cent pulled off a viral album rollout that tangibly shifted the hip-hop landscape. 50 wagered that if West’s Graduation outsold his Curtis on their shared debut week, he would retire from rapping. The competition made sense: both Kanye and 50’s sophomore efforts were well-received and took a more maximalist approach at what respectively made their first albums go down as classics. People were curious to hear what each rapper’s third commercial effort would sound like. Though at the end of the day it was a mere marketing ploy by two artists represented by the same label, the cultural implications of this face-off have since been proven. People didn’t want “gangsta rap” anymore, they wanted whatever new sound Kanye West was ready to dish out. Though 50 didn’t formally retire from rap, the sales and reception of Graduation as compared to Curtis essentially dethroned him as one of rap’s kings while turning West into a pop star.

If you’re the sort of listener to dismiss Kanye’s more recent efforts, Graduation may actually be the amalgamation of all that you love about the passionate and hyper-focused artist that is Kanye West. However, despite it containing a handful of his biggest and best songs, many have argued it to be one of the lesser albums in his catalogue. Some of this can probably be attributed to a “middle child” syndrome of sorts: it’s not the classic debut (The College Dropout) or the triumphant comeback album (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), nor is it the influential genre-bender (808s & Heartbreak) or the experimental critical darling (Yeezus).

The fact that a record with songs like “Stronger” and “Flashing Lights” is considered to be the worst album in his catalogue is a testament to the strength of his discography in and of itself (side note: I would hazard a guess that the average person can’t name a song from Curtis). Boasting a mix of soul samples and electropop, Gradation is a collection of futuristic stadium-ready anthems. Though Late Registration‘s orchestral live instrumentation was a natural step forward from The College Dropout‘s dusty chipmunk soul, Kanye’s work with the likes of Daft Punk and T-Pain was the first indication of more experimental turns to come. Even though West had the names of his education-themed albums picked out back during The College Dropout days, it’s hard to imagine an album such as this one existing under any other moniker.

Graduation exists as a transitionary period not only musically, but in terms of Kanye’s celebrity and personal life. It arrived two months before Donda West’s tragic death and a little over six before his breakup with then-fiancé Alexis Phifer. Within a year of “Stronger” propelling West beyond “famous rapper” to “legitimate superstar” (“Gold Digger” might have been a smash hit, but it didn’t inspire a generation of high schoolers to start wearing shutter shades), his larger-than-life persona had begun to crumble.

People often characterize 808s & Heartbreak as Kanye’s most influential contribution to hip-hop, and though you would be hard-pressed to argue otherwise, 808s would not exist without Graduation. While 808s & Heartbreak is Kanye’s most important album for rap, Graduation is Kanye’s most important album for Kanye. It marked a turn toward electronic music that would become widespread in both his music and hip-hop in general over the next decade. Before the personal turmoil that sparked his later experimentation, Kanye had already made it clear that he wasn’t an artist that would stay in his lane, and Graduation taught him that he could be both the hit-maker and the aggressive innovator. It showed him that he could follow up an album that featured “Clique” and “Mercy” with one that boasted “Blood on the Leaves” and “New Slaves.”

That Lil Wayne’s verse on “Barry Bonds” contains the bars “I’m all about my Franklins, Lincolns and Reagans/Whenever they make them, I shall hayve them/Oops I mean have them” and is still considered some of his laziest work during his prolific mid-2000s run encapsulates Graduation as a whole. The album that saw “Gold Digger” transition to “Stronger” and where Kanye out-rapped Lil Wayne at the height of his career is somehow the redheaded stepchild of his discography.

People tend to characterize Graduation as “happy,” and while that isn’t necessarily wrong, it also paints a singular picture of an album that’s much more complex than that. Graduation isn’t the album you put on after a breakup, but it’s the one you listen to a few weeks later once the healing process begins. It’s a testament to the good and the bad, reminding you that the heights you previously sought to achieve are still within your grasp.

New Artist Spotlight: c.robin Talks SoundCloud & Chaldean Heritage

Up until about a year ago, “SoundCloud rapper” was almost solely used as a disparaging term to discredit up-and-coming rappers. It wasn’t until artists like Lil Peep, Xxxtentacion, and Lil Pump began to blow up off of the service that people started to see it as a viable platform for talented artists to find their niche. Despite the wide variety of sounds and genres that exist on SoundCloud, there’s still a certain type of music associated with the scene and it can be tough to shed the preconceived notions of what a “SoundCloud rapper” sounds like no matter how strikingly different your music might be. 18-year-old Detroit-Metro artist c.robin says the only similarity between his music and an archetypal “SoundCloud rapper” is the use of autotune: “But even with that, I plan to go onto releasing complete albums without autotune as I mature as an artist,” he says.

Robin recently released his second self-produced mixtape Order 66 on the service (as well as a shortened EP version on Apple Music due to sample-clearance issues), a follow-up to 2016’s Goofy Tunes. Listening to the project, you can tell Robin is someone who draws from an amalgam of artists, both contemporary and classic. He mentions Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Pharrell, Rick James, Jai Paul, Frank Ocean, and Kanye West by name when talking about favorites and influences, and it shows: album standout “Star” samples Gil Scott Heron & Brian Jackson’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” and sounds almost like Ocean and West met over a Madlib beat. Likewise, “Hope They Don’t See the Smoke” has an almost Yeezus-esque breakdown. It all feels familiar yet forward-thinking. Robin credits his eclectic influences to his parents for raising him on Michael Jackson and his two older sisters for putting him on to “everything else.” 

“In elementary school I developed a hardcore fandom for Michael Jackson,” Robin said. “I’d watch his live performances and memorize the choreography then perform them to my mom.” 

Robin’s parents emigrated from Iraq in 1982, “the year Thriller came out,” he said. His family is Chaldean, an ethnicity with a population of about two million worldwide who are direct descendants of the people of Mesopotamia. Robin has a lighter skin tone and looks somewhat racially ambiguous, a fact that has made him feel like the odd one out at times, saying he’s “too white for middle easterners and too middle eastern for white people.” 

“White high school baseball players used to make fun of me for chewing sunflower seeds in class cuz I never played baseball and to them that’s a baseball thing,” he said. “They didn’t understand that I was not raised in the same culture as them. Sunflower seeds are a Chaldean household necessity at all times…I don’t play no fucking baseball!”

Prior to rapping, Robin began pursuing music as a producer, where he would listen to 9th Wonder and Kanye West instrumentals on YouTube for hours for inspiration.

“For years I was posting soul-sampled beats on YouTube,” he said. “I started recording my vocals on top of tracks because I wanted to create an album like The Wonder Years by 9th Wonder where it’s my production for the entire project but various artists rapping and singing on each track. I got a microphone so I could record reference takes to send to the artists I was planning to feature.”

In this way, Robin began rapping almost by accident, saying he originally created songs like “Dirty Lemonade” as a joke to listen to when hanging out and smoking with friends. It wasn’t until he began receiving positive reception on rap forums that he started to take music more seriously, though his racial identity also came into play with regard to how people received his music. “When I first started posting songs on the internet I saw a lot of people getting turned off cuz I was a ‘white rapper,'” he said. “I’m sure lots of these kids would feel awkward meeting me and realizing how much ‘whiter’ their personality is than me…I’m a first generation american.”

White rappers and SoundCloud success stories are far from anomalies in 2017, but preconceived notions about what a “white SoundCloud rapper” sounds like affects people’s perceptions of any music on the service, not just Robin’s. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t actually white: unfortunately, to an outsider, what you look like can matter more than what you actually are. Thankfully, in the case of c.robin, all it takes is one listen of the music itself to dispel notions like these, because Order 66 takes leaps and bounds away from the archetypal “SoundCloud Rap” album he crafted with Goofy Tunes. And despite Order 66 racking up over 100 thousand total plays on the service in just a few short weeks, Robin has his own qualms with the scene in general:

“I just think everyone’s become too comfortable creating the same song. Everyone is stuck trying to make the next catchy auotune banger that goes on Kylie Jenner’s Snapchat story. No one is focusing on chord progressions, no one is focusing on developing their natural vocal abilities, no one is focusing on maturing as a songwriter. For a while after Goofy Tunes, I was stuck trying to do the same thing as everyone else. I think it’s a problem that’s holding back a lot of talent in young artists. Everyone is trying to appeal to everyone, they’re forgetting to put any personality in the music. Personality is good, making music that isn’t going to be liked by everyone is good. Goofy Tunes was like me serving the people, Order 66 is like—okay I served you all, now you actually have to listen to what I like. It took me eight months to release the first single from Order 66 after Goofy Tunes, I spent a lot of time maturing as an artist in that time.”

When asked about the title Order 66, Robin confirmed that it was reference to Star Wars but wants to “keep the reasoning for that title a secret…for now.” In the meantime, you can stream Order 66 on SoundCloud or Apple Music below:

The 17 Best Rap Albums of 2017 (So Far)

Contributions by Taylor RubrightPatrick Pardo, and Hasman Singh.

In the world of music journalism, to have integrity is to practice transparency and maintain an open mind. That doesn’t mean you have to like every new trend, sound, or artist, but it does mean that a level of respect and understanding needs to be established before passing any worthwhile critique. Rap doesn’t have to sound like anything in particular anymore—Post Malone isn’t Nas and Death Grips is nothing like Outkast—and we should be celebrating such a colorful spectrum of creativity. At the end of the day, what we all value is good music.

That being said, 2017 has been a gripping year for rap so far. Kendrick Lamar solidified his status as one of the most important voices in the genre, Jay-Z bared his soul on his best solo effort in nearly a decade, and the Migos made it abundantly clear that they want their dues. There has been an eclectic blend of new faces, contemporary heavy hitters, and longtime vets pushing a plethora of sounds new and old. Nearly every week a new project dropped that made us reorder and reevaluate our list completely. Like track lists made for the streaming era, there comes a point when a list becomes bloated to the point of detriment. We soon realized that if our aim is to present you with an honest list that best summarizes the year thus far, we could only include releases with a certain level of notoriety and caliber. Below you’ll find some of the most innovative and visceral rap albums of 2017 and our thoughts on these fantastic projects—but it’s worth keeping in mind that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

17. 21 Savage – Issa Album

Last year’s Savage Mode combined some of Metro Boomin’s spookiest instrumentals to date with 21’s deadpan, cold-blooded flow to create a piercing horror movie aesthetic. 21 was in his pocket the entire time, but the resulting tunnel vision had a certain subset of rap fans wanting for more. Issa Album is hardly “happy,” but it does see 21 approach a lot of the same grim content in new ways, sounding more hopeful in his celebration and more lucid in his retrospection. “Nothing New” is a poignant protest track, self-produced standout “Bank Account” is the summer’s newest earworm, and “Famous” is a cinematic intro that sees him torn between pre and post-fame life. Even if it could have benefitted from being trimmed by a few tracks (keep the Lil Yachty karaoke for a random SoundCloud drop), Issa Album is a well-crafted, often endearing album that shows untapped potential from a talented artist who only first picked up a mic in 2015.

16. Freddie Gibbs – You Only Live 2wice

2017 has been a year of reinvigoration for a lot of artists, but of all the artists on this list, Gibbs invokes this sense of redemption most literally. The obvious points of reference are the album name and cover art, which paint Gibbs as a resurrected, Christ-like figure, but the songs themselves live up to this fantastical narrative in a disarmingly poignant manner. Though perhaps a minor blip in the scope of his discography, it’s an important and powerful reset following the acquittal of his sexual assault case last September. Suffering from a broken spirit, this is Gibbs putting the pieces back together in real time, and acts as a necessary transition to tide fans over until the main course later this year, the highly anticipated Piñata follow-up, Bandana.

15. Rich Homie Quan – Back to the Basics


Three years ago, under Birdman’s wing and the Rich Gang stamp, Rich Homie Quan was on his way to becoming a bonafide star. Yet, here we are three years after “Lifestyle” shook the world and Quan’s major label debut is nowhere to be found. In fact, despite his relatively steady mixtape output, there wasn’t even an agreed upon “Quintessential Quan Project” before Back to the Basics. Anyone who’s truly paying attention knows how impressive his performance on Tha Tour was and how big of a moment “Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh)” was, but personal issues soon sidetracked any momentum he had gained as a solo artist. Luckily, Back to the Basics is not only Quan’s best solo work to date, but works as an easy starting point to dive into his discography. At just under 35 minutes, its name rings true to its form. It’s concise, focused, and refreshingly honest, avoiding the mixtape trope of being bogged down by the intimidating 20+ song track lists of past projects. Quan is one of rap’s most impassioned writers, and he’s a master at tweaking his cadence to match the exact tone of his lyrics. He has a knack for directing your empathy even if you can’t fully relate to his circumstance. If Back to the Basics is any indication, Quan’s well-deserved career mulligan should see much success.

14. G Perico – All Blue

Though the oft-imitated south may have usurped the crown that was so often volleyed back and forth between east and west coast rap, grassroots movements foraged by artists like G Perico still exist on both sides of the continent. All Blue follows last year’s Shit Don’t Stop, furthering the neo G-funk sound and proving there’s still room for regional rap in the internet age. Perico shares more than a Jheri Curl and gang affiliation with Eazy-E—he’s perhaps the closest vocal analogue we have right now. Using his distinctive voice with increasing precision, the 28-year old often straddles the line between removed OG and someone who’s still in the dead center of the action. His harrowing narratives are not a condemnation, but rather more of an objective report, detailing accounts of street life with no judgement involved. Beyond a brief mainstream G-Funk renaissance thanks to DJ Mustard and YG, Perico’s bounce isn’t something you’re going to hear much outside of LA. He may not be quite as innovative as fellow Californians Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples, but he makes up for it with hyper-regionality and attention to detail.  

13. Don Trip & Starlito – Step Brothers THREE

It’s rare that a “threequel” lives up to its predecessors. That there’s an argument to be made for each Step Brothers project being the best is a testament to Don Trip and Starlito’s success as rappers in and of itself, even if they don’t have the RCAA receipts to back it up. Rich Gang aside, no rap duo in recent memory has chemistry to match that of the two Tennesseans. Trip and ‘Lito fluidly switch from chilling accounts of systemic racism to energetic punchline tracks where they tell detractors “shutdafuckup like Juicy J.” Step Brothers THREE‘s phenomenal production might give it the edge over its predecessors, but regardless of which tape is your favorite, it’s clear that quality control isn’t an issue for this duo.

12. Migos – C U L T U R E

When was the last time a genuine rap group reached genuine stardom? Dipset? G-Unit? Before you make a case for Odd Future and A$AP Mob, remember that these acts are more “collectives” than traditional rap groups. What Migos have accomplished this past year is no small feat, and despite Quavo aggressively flirting with solo fame, longtime fans know just how symbiotic their relationship is (and will likely continue to be). Quavo stole 2016 off of guest verses alone (taking the place of Future and 2 Chainz before him as rap’s go-to for feature spots), but it was almost as if Offset and Takeoff saw Quavo’s success as a solo artist, realized they didn’t want to be left behind, and made a statement with the criminally underrated 3 Way EP. Migos’ music relies on a collective consciousness, and it’s clear how much they value this ability to play off each others’ strengths and weaknesses. Throughout CULTURE, there’s a delicate balance of Quavo harmonizing, Takeoff rattling off rapid-fire rhymes, and Offset switching between a number of smooth, syrupy flows. It’s palpable, electric synergy that’s hard to deny. While “Bad & Boujee” was what propelled Migos to stardom, “T-Shirt” is another crowning achievement for the group because of how well each member plays off the other two, even when the typical formula is tinkered with. 2016 saw 21 Savage take trap to depths that would make Future squirm and Yachty to its most bubblegum, and CULTURE settles one of the last unincorporated territories as the genre’s first truly great group album.

11. Chief Keef – Thot Breaker / Two Zero One Seven

Chief Keef’s canonized discography is hard to pin down. Streaming services like Spotify are plagued with unofficial compilation albums and different projects are listed as being his “studio albums” depending on where you look. Keef “retired” from making music for the better part of 18 months, and it seems this allowed him to hit the metaphorical reset button, grinding that discography confusion to a halt. In a similar fashion to Future’s “double album,” Chief Keef released two projects this year that chronicle two sides of the same artist. Two Zero One Seven demonstrates a continued prowess as a producer as well as further experimentation with flow and melody. Thot Breaker, however, is perhaps Keef’s best and most mature album thus far. Despite its unfortunate name, it presents a vulnerable, soul-searching Keef—a side of him we’ve only gotten glimpses of in the past. A far cry from 20-plus song mixtape offerings, it’s an exercise in emotion, precision, and album-craft from an artist who has previously dropped albums with track lists left unsequenced in alphabetical order. More than anything, these two tapes serve to prove that Keef is best left to his own devices as one of the most versatile and influential rappers of the past decade.

10. Kodak Black – Painting Pictures

What immediately stands out about Painting Pictures is how full everything feels. For an album that boasts 24 different producers over 18 tracks, it’s extremely cohesive and sonically consistent. Though it would have benefited from a track list as concise as last year’s excellent Lil Big Pac, it errs on the side of 2015’s bulkier offering, Institution. However, unlike his previous work, Kodak’s world now feels fully fleshed out. Underneath the slurred bravado, the rapping is as evocative as ever, the hooks are more tangible, and the lush production provides a more vivid canvas for Kodak to “illuskrate.” Kodak has one of the more unique deliveries in contemporary rap, and Painting Pictures is a testament to how he can manipulate that talent to his advantage. “Up in Here’ is a nervous breakdown disguised as aloof machismo, ”Patty Cake” is pure joy distilled into three minutes and 18 seconds, while “Conscious” sees him going toe-to-toe with both the FUTURE and HNDRXX versions of Future as they sing the blues.

9. Playboi Carti – Playboi Carti

There’s something endearing about Playboi Carti—which is probably why rap nerds latched onto him almost two years before he even dropped his debut mixtape. With A$AP Rocky as his mentor and Curren$y as one of his self-proclaimed inspirations, Carti is a playful reinvention of the cloud rap aesthetic that shaped much of his formative years. Though his signing with A$AP Mob late last year seemed like somewhat of a strange move (seeing as Carti hails from Atlanta), it makes perfect sense in retrospect. His earlier work tended to be more traditionally structured, but on Playboi Carti it’s often hard to tell where the chorus ends and verses begin (or if there are verses at all), but the more repetitive, ad-lib-heavy, free-form structure allows Carti to float in, out, on top of, and behind the production at his leisure. It’s 47 minutes of “lean on the rocks” poured and sipped slowly—for Carti, it’s a means of pleasure, not escapism. Playboi Carti isn’t going to leave you with anything profound or completely flip the hip-hop soundscape on its ass, but it’s a relentlessly fun project that will be booming out of portable bluetooth speakers at cramped campsites packed full of twenty-somethings throughout festival season and beyond.

8. Drake – More Life

It’s easy to look at More Life’s success and simply call it a result of its presentation. By now, you’ve probably read at least 40 (no Shebib) think pieces on the expectations Drake set by calling it a “playlist” in the age of streaming. Of course, this fact is important in regard to how it was received by both critics and the public, especially considering that Drake has shoehorned his last three bodies of work into three different categories: If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late is a “mixtape;” Views is an “album;” More Life is a “playlist.” Still, it would be doing More Life a disservice to chalk its success up to format alone. The important lesson here is that not every body of work needs to be “an album’s album” by “an artist’s artist” to succeed, because More Life is a great (sometimes brilliant) body of work even if it supposedly isn’t an “album.” More Life’s format allows it to play to any given mood: it’s just as easy to start at “Portland” or “Lose You” as it is “Free Smoke” or “Passion Fruit.” It gives him the freedom to jump from Atlanta to Toronto to the Caribbean in a matter of a few songs, going head-to-head with the regions’ best influencers while adding his own spin on each individual sound. Not everyone should have to be a Kanye West or a Radiohead to be a considered A Great Artist. Perhaps it’s time for Drake’s fans to come to terms with the fact that maybe he’s better at making individual songs than he is at making traditional, full-on “albums,” and for his critics to admit that maybe it’s OK that Drake (or anyone else, really) is a singles artist. The digital age suits Drake, and More Life is proof of talent just as much as it is proof of concept.

7. BROCKHAMPTON – Saturation

Saturation calls forth Odd Future comparisons in a number of ways. Most obviously, BROCKHAMPTON shares a lot of superficial similarities to the California collective—they’re a group of talented, internet-savvy kids (they actually met on internet forum KanyeToThe) whose music has a wide range of sounds. Their de-facto leader, Kevin Abstract, identifies as gay, and from the rap name to the music itself, he appears to idolize Frank Ocean on multiple levels. Beyond his sheer talent as a singer, rapper, and songwriter, Ocean was the first modern, truly mainstream hip-hop/R&B artists to come out as LGBT, paving the way for budding stars like Abstract to confidently pursue music in a culture that has long been dictated by toxic hyper-masculinity. But beyond the simplicities of the Abstract-Ocean analogue, Saturation is one of the first rap albums that feels post-Blonde. Using songs like “Nikes,” “Ivy,” and “Seigfried” as blueprints, they crafted something that truly sounds like their own. It’s an album that exudes nostalgia while still feeling fresh and youthful. Beyond that, “I just gave my nigga head” is the best rap flex this year (though Nas boasting about eating Chili Cheese Fritos in a helicopter is a close second).

6. 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music

2 Chainz is turning 40 this year. Though it was ironically on his worst album when Jay-Z said “30’s the new 20,” the sentiment stands all the same. Hip-hop has always been thought of as a young person’s genre (probably because it’s, well, a young genre). So-called “Golden Age” rappers are just hitting middle age, and it’s becoming more and more clear that age isn’t an issue for rappers of a certain caliber. While it may feel like 2 Chainz is part of a younger generation of rappers, he’s actually closer in age to N.W.A. than he is the Migos. But like some sort of Benjamin Button in Polaroid form, rather than fading, 2 Chainz’s imagery only gets more colorful and more vivid with age. On most tracks, an almost Ghostface-esque level of hyper-specificity and natural wit supports what may be the most effortless rapping this side of Lil Wayne’s historic mixtape run. It’s a laser-focus and consistency we’ve never seen from 2 Chainz before, and unlike Jay stating “30’s the new 20” with regard to his performance on Kingdom Come, when 2 Chainz raps “my verses are better and my subject is realer,” he has the receipts to back it up.

5. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

There is a scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon jokingly describes his experiences in fantasy-themed clubs: “You get in there and the music, like, owns you. It’s like that house music.” Vince Staples’ choice of production for Big Fish Theory delivers that same visceral feeling. When “BagBak” dropped as the first single it was met with mixed reception due to the strikingly dissimilar beat, a far cry from the singles on Vince’s 2015 critical darling, Summertime ’06. In context of the album, it’s actually one of the more tame outings on Big Fish Theory. “Crabs in the Bucket,” the intro track featuring Justin Vernon and Kilo Kish, sets the tone from the jump. It emulates the claustrophobic nature of the social media era and plays like Vince is trapped in a fishbowl, forced to view the uncertain nature of the world through the glass. Big Fish Theory is a veracious representation of Vince’s real life attitude towards music. Staples will continue to make music for himself, further exploring the disparate yet intertwined influences that have molded his tastes since childhood. It’s honesty and self expression at its purest, and for that we thank him.

4. Future – FUTURE / HNDRXX

Though released one week apart as two separate bodies of work, FUTURE and HNDRXX are, for all intents and purposes, each one disc of a double album that serves to show two sides of the same artist (think Nelly’s Sweat and Suit): Future is the super trapper, Hendrix is the lovesick rock star. While the former is consistent in its own right, the latter is a moving rumination of love and heartbreak. You can choose to view a song like “My Collection” solely as possessive and scummy—which it without a doubt is in a lot respects—but taken beyond face-value, it’s an admission of insecurities and double standards. By the album’s climax, “Sorry,” this raw anger has dissipated into guilt, apologies, and acceptance of past mistakes. The potential for Future as a pop star has always been there, and fans have been clamoring for more pop/R&B from the Atlantan trendsetter since he began toying with the sound on 2014’s underrated Honest. Unfortunately, the smash-hit from these sets of songs comes in the form of “Mask Off’,” yet another one of Future’s ritualistic odes to designer drugs. As infectious as “Mask Off” is, it’s the exact type of Future song the world doesn’t particularly need any more of. It’s the par-for-the-course, vault-clearing Future we’ve seen since What a Time to Be Alive, not the soul-bearing virtuoso that exists on HNDRXX. Hopefully this commercial success doesn’t deter any of Future’s more experimental ventures down the line—rather, it would be fantastic to see him pivot off the critical acclaim this dual release received and continue to play with album structure and lyrical content in new and innovative ways.

3. Jay-Z – 4:44

It’s hard to listen to 4:44 and ignore the responses to Beyonce’s Lemonade. However, this isn’t solely a reactionary companion piece. At its core, 4:44 is the perfect culmination of Jay’s career up to this point, the type of critic-proof showcase of talent and character that’s eluded him for the better part of a decade. Excluding Watch The Throne, we all know how much scrutiny Jay-Z faces for “dumbing down his lyrics to double his dollars.” Even when his ultimate goal is to empower, he’s ridiculed (see: TIDAL). Choosing to partner with No I.D. for 13 tracks, 4:44 feels like the first time in six years where Jay-Z actually has a platform to air his grievances. The production is timeless, borrowing from contemporary sounds like Magna Carta… Holy Grail did, but without losing the soulful, sample-driven essence of his best work. 4:44 plays like a memoir or open letter in that it gives Jay the chance to address and absolve his sins, providing much-needed catharsis to both the rapper and the listener. It also makes it quite clear that a late-period Jay-Z album doesn’t need to be wildly innovative to be poignant. From the tremble of his delivery to the on-the-nose samples, Jay finally sounds like he needed to make an album—and that’s more than enough to have at the edge of our seats.

2. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

DAMN. is the album we always knew Kendrick had in him. At a glance, To Pimp A Butterfly may have seemed like “the one” to top good kid, m.A.A.d city, but it quickly became evident that this wasn’t the case. To Pimp A Butterfly is an ambitious, sprawling record, but also somewhat of a tough one to listen to on a routine basis. Despite its status as a critical darling, it also alienated a sizable portion of his fanbase who missed the listen-anytime-anywhere ease of good kid or the more freeform nature of section.80. DAMN. showcases a new level of storytelling for the Compton rapper, one that strips away any of the training wheels found on his previous efforts. Nothing is spoon-fed and everything is up for interpretation, but unlike Butterfly, DAMN.’s structure doesn’t begin to fall apart as you begin to unravel and unpack it—it only becomes more rewarding and more soul-cleansing upon repeat listens. To find your place in the macro, you need to start with the micro, and that’s exactly what DAMN. is for Kendrick—it’s a compelling close-examination of his psyche on numerous levels.

1. Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls

Once guarded and withdrawn, Young Thug continues to transform into a full-blown pop star right before our very eyes. Beautiful Thuggers Girls reveals new facets of his once-enigmatic nature, peeling back the layers of his oft-misunderstood bravado. Love is at the center of this sweeping ode to his (then) fiancee, Jerrika Karlae, but it’s not the fairytale romances we’ve been programmed to strive for. It’s as carnal as it is fragile, seeped in seemingly unhinged promiscuity yet ultimately anchored by his unwavering loyalty to his friends and family. BTG seems to be split into two distinct halves: a flirty, playful side A and a ruminative, down-tempo side B. But this surface-level reading betrays just how intertwined love and lust are for this artist. As he recently posted (then deleted) on Instagram amidst a publicized fight with Rika, his love is often “bipolar,” and this sentiment can be extended to his music. At times, he sounds like Jay-Z, a high school dropout thankful for his riches, proud of his accomplishments, and hopeful that his children maintain their innocence. In other instances, he sounds like Prince, passionately emoting his way through layered, sensual, ballads. Part of BTG even sounds like it’s building on the pop-country stylings of artists like Post Malone, but with grit, heart and pride, Thug manages to turn saccharine soundscapes into poignant anthems. Although it may not be his long-awaited “debut album” (whatever that means in 2017), Thugger’s latest offering is an essential addition to his already impressive catalogue.

Review: Xxxtentacion – Revenge

For those not willing to scrounge SoundCloud and blog posts for haphazardly-released singles and snippets (AKA, the vast majority of people who listen to music), Revenge is probably their first taste of Xxxtentacion and his polarizing universe. Xxx embodies a type of angst that might be appealing to younger listeners—perhaps a version of this generation’s Odd Future or Eminem—but without the wit or pathos that made those two acts so much more endearing and appealing to fans. It’s hard to enjoy music when its main motif seems to be “abusing women,” especially if the artist was previously in jail for allegedly assaulting his pregnant girlfriend. Though it’s easy to appreciate Xxx’s willingness to think outside the box musically and foray into different genres, it cannot mask his shallow content.

Of course, Xxx is far from the only rapper to be criticized for misogynist lyrics, but a larger problem lies in the fact that there seems to be no meaning beyond the lyrics taken at face value. There’s no lesson to be learned, no indication that it’s self-aware or tongue-in-cheek. When Future opens his album with “Even if I hit you once you part of my collection,” it works because you’re supposed to be disgusted with him. You listen as he grapples with his demons throughout HNDRXX and ends up begging forgiveness its excellent closer, “Sorry.” There’s no “Sorry” on Revenge, no turning point. There seems only to be hatred for hatred’s sake. It’s a shame the lyrics are caustic to the point of hindrance, as the songs themselves could be creative, fascinating, even great if more was put into the writing, but Revenge mostly sounds like if Lil Uzi Vert had a younger brother who tried to make a Death Grips album after hearing Nirvana for the first time.

Breakout single “Look At Me!” is the most sonically dissimilar track on the album, likely tacked on as an intro for name recognition and to boost units “sold” via streaming. Its haunting beat (sampling dubstep artist Mala’s “Changes“) invokes the atmosphere of a Legend of Zelda dungeon, though its content, flow, and overall style is simply a more abrasive take on contemporary rap. It’s not until the B-Side of the album that Xxx begins to call back to this distorted, more lo-fi sound he toyed with on “Look At Me!” as songs like “I Don’t Wanna Do This Anymore,” “Looking For A Star,” and “Valentine” take on contemporary R&B, the current Caribbean/dancehall trend seen on albums like More Life, and indie rock, respectively. “King” acts as a bridge, starting off softer like the previous three tracks, and then building into something more akin to metal. “YuNg BrAtZ” and “RIP Roach” fully commit to this blown-out sound, calling back more to roots of punk rock and grunge rather than Lil’s Uzi and Yachty.

Perhaps the most (only?) successful aspect of Revenge is the presentation, as Xxxtentacion’s bouts of aggression are best experienced in short bursts. At just 18 minutes long, even the tracks themselves are short, with every song but one being under three minutes, and three of the songs even being closer to the 1:30 mark. It acts almost like one of those snippet sampler mixtapes rappers used to put out in the early 2000s, transposing a collection of songs from his SoundCloud onto a commercial offering and allowing for Xxx to explore different sounds without turning off the listener by committing for a full album (or even full song). In that way, it’s the perfect bite-sized introduction to an artist whose catalog is expansive, inaccessible, and generally hard to navigate — even if it does so to mixed results.

Review: Macklemore – This Unruly Mess I’ve Made

Other than literally bumping into Kendrick Lamar as he was being escorted out of the Key Arena on the Yeezus Tour’s opening night, Macklemore is probably the most famous person I’ve ever interacted with. Of course, when I met Macklemore, it was in 2006 after his first time playing Bumbershoot, where he performed songs off of The Language of My World at the festival’s smallest venue. Obviously, this was well-before “Thrift Shop,” but this was also before he got sober, and before even Ryan Lewis was in the picture. He was eager, humble, and seemed legitimately happy to sign some autographs for a couple annoying 15-year-olds who got a kick out of “The Penis Song.” All in all, he seemed legitimately happy just to be there in the first place.

It’s 2016, and Macklemore still seems happy just to be here, but not in the same way he did 11 years ago. While white rappers are far from an anomaly at this point, it’s clear Mack still feels—perhaps not fully guilty, but the same way you might feel if you got a promotion over your coworker who’s been at the company longer than you because your boss likes you. Except, instead of bringing it up to his coworker in private to curb any potential awkwardness, he decided to make sure that awkwardness got ramped up to 1000 by posting a screenshot of his apology on Instagram for the whole company to see. He still feels the need to validate his position as a white artist in a predominately-black genre whose debut album won a Grammy for Best Rap Album over a black artist’s album that is not only considered to be one of the best rap albums of the decade so far, but one of the greatest rap albums of all time. And honestly, who can blame him?

Deep down, Macklemore probably is sincere, but he’s so sincere and apologetic that it becomes melodramatic, and that melodrama sometimes becomes self-serving. He’s like the guy at a party who wants to make sure he knows what Latin American country a Latino person is from before talking to them so as to be culturally aware, when in actuality this person who happens to be Latino was born in Virginia and doesn’t want to talk about their cultural heritage and just be treated like a human being. On paper, he might have the right idea, but his execution ranges from to “well, he tried” to “absolutely abysmal.”

The Mack is at his best when he’s speaking on topics that are entirely personal to him (especially when coupled with Ryan Lewis’s phenomenal production). This is why songs like “Kevin” and “St. Ides” work, because, well, these are things that actually happened to him. He doesn’t need to vehemently validate these experiences to make sure we know that, while these aren’t things that directly affect him or his culture, he thinks they’re very important and he’s sorry if he’s stepping on anyone’s toes because oh god he’s just trying to help. Songs like “Light Tunnels,” or “White Privilege II” (and even 2012’s “Same Love”) certainly have to do with relevant social and political issues, but due to the way he poses them, they end up feeling more like songs about himself. It’s true “Light Tunnels” deals with how problematic of an institution the Grammys are, but in the end it really just serves as yet-another long-winded apology to Kendrick Lamar (who, at this point, has already lost Album of the Year to Taylor Swift’s 1989 at the 2016 Grammys).

And of course, a Macklemore album wouldn’t be complete without an unconscious attempt at neutering his own messages. He credits Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun to Langston Hughes (though to be fair, the play’s title was based on a line in Hughes’s poem “Harlem”), mixing up two black authors in what’s probably the biggest lyrical gaffe that could have been fact-checked by Wikipedia since Kanye West kept it 300 (like the Romans).

Likewise, interspersed between the more “serious” songs are “fun” songs like “Downtown” and “Dance Off,” the latter of which involves Macklemore rapping things like (“Your grandma, that’s a bad mama jama/She doing the banana, grabbing my trunk like a hammock”) while Idris Elba (yes, that Idris Elba) lays down a “Monster Mash”-esque hook that almost taints his portrayal of Stringer Bell forever. “Downtown” (feat. All the Ancient Rappers) would be a nice nod to rap’s pioneers if it wasn’t hinged on being “Thrift Shop Pt. II” (while we’re on the subject, this also seems like a missed opportunity to enlist Sir-Mix-A-Lot for what feels like somewhat of a spiritual successor to “My Posse’s On Broadway”). Paired with “Buckshot” (a KRS-One-assisted song about graffiti), “Downtown” and “Dance Off” feel like a way of letting us know that he knows and respects hip-hop’s roots. Once again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that on paper, but when the entire album is hinged on a nine-minute closing track called “White Privilege II,” it starts to feel more transparent and a little bit try-hard.

Macklemore wants to be White Guilt Slug and Politically Correct Lil Dicky at the same time, two things that one would be hard-pressed to believe could succeed musically on their own, let alone coexist on the same album. Though it’s true his heart is probably in the right place in terms of the former, it gets harder and harder to commend someone for trying when what they preach oftentimes ends up working against the very thing they’re fighting for. Though perhaps that’s where This Unruly Mess I’ve Made‘s title comes from in the first place.

Review: Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside doubles as both an apt description of its content and directions for the listener—this concise, introspective trip through Earl Sweatshirt‘s mind should be listened to in solitude with a nice pair of headphones. To hear the album any other way wouldn’t really be worth the experience, as I Don’t Like Shit becomes more rewarding the deeper you are able to thrust yourself into Earl’s state of mind.

Though I Don’t Like Shit is nearly as short as his debut, Earl has changed drastically since his self-titled album dropped in 2010. Containing more personal tracks like “Chum,” Doris marked the beginning of a transition away from Odd Future’s shock value lyrical style that originally birthed him. However, as Tyler, the Creator put it on the introduction to “Woah,” bits of “that old fucking 2010 shit,” still seeped through the cracks, making Doris more of a gestation period between Earl leaving the conformities of Odd Future and embracing a style that’s wholly his own. Tracks like “Woah” or “epaR” are non-existent on I Don’t Like Shit. As he recently said in an interview with NPR:

“I feel like this is my first album. This is the first thing that I’ve said that I fully stand behind, like the good and the bad of it. Because it’s just — I’ve never been this transparent with myself or with music. I’ve never been behind myself this much.”

Other than a single Left Brain-produced track (Earl impressively produced the rest of the album himself under production pseudonym RandomBlackDude), the rest of Odd Future is nowhere to be found. It makes sense that, in the process of carving his own niche, Earl would want to distance himself from his original crew. Earl was young when he blew up (even by Odd Future standards), and teenagers are impressionable. It’s very possible that in the process of seeking acceptance from his peers, he conformed to the style Odd Future was pushing, rather than moving forward with the type of music he wanted to make (which is somewhat ironic considering how anti-conformist and anti-authority Odd Future’s early music was). The only member of Earl’s crew left from the EARL days is Vince Staples, who, funnily enough, at one point was apparently not much liked by OF frontman Tyler, the Creator (Vince has since denied the beef). Instead, Earl sports a gaggle of new friends, including Wiki of alternative hip-hop group Ratking and A$AP Mob affiliate, Da$H, going so far as to allude to the crumbling relationships with his OF brethren:

“Name getting bigger than the difference between us
Niggas is fake, I limit the features I give ’em”

Thankfully, one thing that hasn’t changed on I Don’t Like Shit is Earl’s ability as a writer. Whether he’s rapping about murdering cops or missing his father, Earl has always been deft with a pen. Rather than venting his frustrations through violent, drug-fueled fantasies, he expresses himself through brutal honesty and tangible, personal narratives. Drug use is still frequently referenced, but this time around, it’s clear that these are true instances of self medication, rather than over-the-top, cartoonish falsehoods. His “bitch say the spliff take the soul from [him].” He “spent the day drinking and missing [his] grandmother” and is “scrambling for Xanax out the canister to pop.” He’s “surrounded with a gaggle of 100 fucking thousand kids” who he “can’t get mad at when they want a pound or pic.” For the first time in Earl’s career, his emotions feel frantic and immediate across the entire project. If you’re not paying attention, it’s hard to tell when one track ends and another starts—it’s short and cohesive to the point that he almost could have released it as a single, 30-minute MP3.

Though the Odd Future era may have come to a close, it’s hard to deny that their influence is still sprinkled throughout the project, especially regarding Earl’s production. The carnival-esque “Huey” is reminiscent of EARL‘s “Stapleton,” and the drums that occur right after the end of Earl’s verse scream Tyler, the Creator. Regardless of how he feels now, Earl’s work with OF was important for his growth as an artist. Still, at this point in his career, one can’t help but think he might be better off without them in the long run—it’s given him the space to develop his own sound. As fun as Odd Future may be at times, their absence isn’t for naught, as I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is Earl’s first project that feels truly his own. The departure may feel jarring to long-time fans, but if you’re still feeling lost, take some listening advice from Earl himself:

Review: Big Sean – Dark Sky Paradise

Beyond artists like Pusha T & Q-Tip, who had already established their careers prior to signing to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint, it’s sometimes hard to understand why West signs who he signs. For as focused as he is at fine-tuning each-and-every aspect of each-and-every album he has a hand in, you wouldn’t think seemingly one-trick ponies like Big Sean or Kid Cudi would be in his wheelhouse.

On a lot of levels, Big Sean seems like a rapper who would be more at home among some of the lesser-Young Money artists. While he has a knack for putting out catchy singles and is likely the most-featured guest artist this side of 2 Chainz, he’s never really been the type of rapper you would think could hold your attention for a full-length album. However, considering Big Sean first made contact with West in 2005 and was subsequently signed in 2007 after being brought along the road during the recording of Graduation (yes, you read correctly: Big Sean has been on G.O.O.D. since “Stronger” and before Kid Cudi), it’s clear West saw untapped potential in him.

Unlike Cudder, who established his signature sound and quickly stumbled into semi-obscurity through awful side-projects, Sean seems to be only recently figuring out how to best utilize his style in constructing an album. Though he’s been in the mainstream for nearly five years at this point, we have to remember that he’s still young: at 26-years old, Sean is around the same age that Jay Z, Eminem, and Yeezy himself were when they put out their debut albums (big ups to Nas for creating the quintessential rap album before he was old enough to vote, but not everyone crafts their Illmatic at age 17).

While the general subject matter is fairly similar to that of Big Sean’s previous two albums (lacking fame and attention from women; gaining aforementioned fame and attention from women), Dark Sky Paradise feels like his first legitimate attempt at constructing a singular piece of work, rather than just a collection of songs. Even the bonus tracks fit the overall mood and aesthetic of the album—“Platinum and Wood” ends with the same quote that the album begins with, (“Sean, it’s good to be home, isn’t it?”) implying they’re possibly intended to be a sort of epilogue. As questionable of a title as Dark Sky Paradise might be (let’s not forget that Kanye West’s magnum opus is called My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), the name really does ring true to the album’s atmosphere. For as much fun as Sean is having throughout, it’s evident that he’s been wrestling with a lot of stress. While his demons of fame might not be of the same caliber as Eminem or Kanye or even Drake, Dark Sky Paradise marks the first time in Big Sean’s discography where he’s successful in making you give a damn about what he has to say. Perhaps the most poignant description of Sean’s state of mind throughout the album comes early on in the record, in the opening lines of “Blessed”:

“Fuck a vacay I feel better at work”

Regardless of what you think of Big Sean’s music, he’s an undeniably hard worker, which is likely something that West respected about him in the first place. It’s easy to tell that Sean put a lot of thought into every facet of Dark Sky Paradise, including improving upon aspects that he usually isn’t reveled for, such as his technical ability. From the pyrotechnics of the second verse of “Paradise” to his best E-40 imitation on “I Don’t Fuck With You,” he demonstrates a previously-absent versatility in the flow department. Considering Sean’s track record of dropping verses that sound like they were recorded over the wrong instrumental, his success in this regard is a welcomed addition.

Dark Sky Paradise is feature-heavy, but it’s much more Sir Lucious Left Foot than it is Jesus Piece. That is, for the most part, the featured guests serve an actual purpose in accentuating the song and crafting the album’s overall sound, rather than just taking up space and putting the quality of the album on other people’s shoulders. Features seem to be picked carefully, likely in an effort to keep the album from becoming too bloated. Considering how bogged down with filler Hall of Fame was, it seems Sean went to great lengths in keeping the album as succinct as possible.

Unfortunately, a few misfires keep the record from reaching its full potential. The Chris Brown & Ty Dolla $ign-assisted “Play No Games” (why anyone continues to work with a human as deplorable as Chris Brown remains a mystery) serves as an extraneous epilogue to “I Don’t Fuck With You,” where Sean takes notes from Drake and raps about how he always responds to his girl’s texts. The juxtaposition with “I Don’t Fuck With You” might have worked if the song was any good, but as it stands, its only purpose is to interrupt the flow of the mostly great four track run that opens the album. In a similar fashion, “Win Some, Lose Some” unnecessarily shoves the album’s thesis in the listener’s face, which is especially insulting considering the album’s narrow subject matter.

Despite two mediocre songs crippling the flow of an otherwise enjoyable album, Dark Sky Paradise is Big Sean’s most competent and concise release to date. Though it may not be remembered as a classic, here’s to hoping it marks a turning point for the better in his career. If the amount of sheer joy and confidence that radiates throughout the album’s outro is any indication, there’s a good chance that Sean will continue to impress.

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