Reviews

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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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.

Review: TUT – Preacher’s Son

As the boom from new-age Atlanta hip-hop radiates throughout the country, an entirely different breed of southern rap is quietly evolving elsewhere. Chattanooga, Tennessee, just 120 miles to the north of Atlanta, is home to TUT, a wildly talented up-and-coming rapper who runs in the same crew (“The House”) as Top Dog Entertainment’s very own Isaiah Rashad. While artists like A$AP Rocky work to dissolve the concept of rap-regionalism in the internet age, Chattanooga hip-hop serves as a reminder that pinpointed, grassroots movements are still prominent.

It could be argued that artists like Tut and Rashad are to 90’s southern rap what Joey Bada$$ is to 90’s New York rap: their sound feels familiar enough to resonate with 90’s diehards, but differs enough that it deserves to be in its own category. While one would be hard-pressed to call Preacher’s Son “90’s revival,” it is certainly reminiscent of a time when, if someone asked you if you’ve “seen their friend Molly” at a hip-hop show, you could reasonably assume that this “Molly” was a real human being, and that said friend “Molly” was actually missing.

Preacher’s Son strays entirely away from contemporary southern trends, aiming for a more nostalgic, bluesy, and soulful sound (touches of gospel are evident as well, which should be no surprise, considering the title). It’s southern, but not country; slow, but not screwed (other than some well-placed deepened vocals at the end of “Highs & Lows”). While Preacher’s Son is slightly more “Outkast” than it is “UGK,” songs like “Corner Stories 2” are so evocative of the latter that you can’t help but be half-surprised when Bun B’s verse never comes (especially considering how littered the tape is with references to sipping lean and other southern tropes).

“Two, three niggas gettin’ high in a cadillac/Ride ’till I Die playin’ softly in the back”

Though Preacher’s Son exists in the same soundscape as Cilvia Demo, calling it a knockoff would be both woefully inaccurate and a poor reading of both albums. While the drive behind Cilvia stems from present anger and Rashad’s lack of direction, Preacher’s Son is more of a recollection of the past, keeping score objectively and without judgement as Tut toes the line between following in the footsteps of his uncle (a drug dealer) and father (a preacher). The last track on the album (“Sunday Service”) fades out with a series of chords that are eerily similar to those that open the album, hinting that history might be set to repeat itself. Regardless of Tut’s future actions, one thing is for certain: as with most supposed opposites in life, the difference between a preacher and a drug dealer might not be so black and white.

You can stream or purchase Preacher’s Son here.

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