Last year was loaded with epochal, state-of-the-nation hip-hop albums. Natch, this year is off to a somewhat less ambitious start. I won’t say slower necessarily, although I do realize that now that the novelty has worn off, both the new Kanye and Kendrick feel like leftovertures. Really good, entertaining leftovertures, but leftovertures nonetheless; they’re attempts to hoover up all the debris in the blast radius of their last two albums. Throw in just-okay new projects by Future and Young Thug that break no new ground, and you might conclude that hip-hop is spinning its wheels after a ridiculous 2015.
But there’s some swell records out that you might not know about, and I’m gonna be a buddyroo and tell you about them right now. Grades are very very certainly preliminary and based on a scale where A+ equals “Children’s Story” and F- equals Madonna’s verse on “Vogue” (or Kanye’s verse on “Jukebox Joints,” jeez, Kanye.) This is the music that’s currently inspiring me to make some music of my own. Not hip-hop, mind you, because that would be absurd, but music that shares with hip-hop an interest in the intersection of character, urban setting, and topicality. Also, ass jokes.
Too High To Riot is Bas‘s second album for J. Cole’s Dreamville imprint, and if you liked 2014 Forest Hills Drive, you’ll probably want to get with this, too. Cole he is not — for one thing, he pushes a much more conventional life story, and for another, he’s not that good. But he raps nicely in the introspective style favored by wake-of-Drake emcees who want to make their seriousness manifest, and the production, which is mostly handled by Ron Gilmore, provides moody uniformity. I don’t mind too much when he gets personal-political, as he does on “Black Owned Business” and the title track, and when he kicks himself for his inattentiveness to his sick relatives, I believe him at least as much as I believed Soupy from the Wonder Years. He could be nicer to the women around him; him and every other emcee in America. Anyway, this ought to hold the average J. Cole fan over until the next J. Cole album, and might also appeal to those uncommitted voters who find Cole too corny. Then again, when the boss drops by to do a verse on “Night Job,” predictably, it makes Bas look like a junior partner. That verse contains what might be the most J. Coliest stanza ever: “can’t fuck with Cole either/don’t ask for a feature/we bring a whole liter of ether to eat ya/if these bullets was heat seeking, they wouldn’t even reach ya.” All the way from Fayetteville, you can hear him patting himself on the back. B+.
A project I keep expecting to hear more crossover praise for is Northern Lights by Allan Kingdom, the St. Paul rapper who played the mystery man on “All Day.” A feature on a Kanye track doesn’t get a kid quite as far as it once did. The post-808s production on this mixtape, which is streaming free at Kingdom’s website, is outrageously good: simultaneously glossy and creepy and enveloping, redolent of cold streetcorners, flickering like a neon sign advertising off-brand beer in the window of a scary-looking bar. Kingdom has a good ear for an autotuned tune that, again, is reminiscent of Drake’s, but he’s got his own melodic vocabulary, suite of synthesizer sounds, and home-studio tricks. The obvious reference point here is Kid Cudi –early Cudi, that is — and there are at least ten times on this tape when I expect him to break into “Day ‘N’ Nite.” So, yes, this is stoner rap, and I don’t blame you if you’ve had enough of that, but as much of the music here was handled by Plain Pat himself, you know you’re getting the highest quality strain. I can really see why this appealed to Kanye: it’s one of the few albums I’ve heard that manages to expand on the palette established by 808s without tipping into bombast or sentimentality. With production this good, Allan Kingdom could have rapped any old bullshit and gotten away with it (see Future) and he does indeed coast through some of this. Elsewhere he shows enough promise that I never find myself tuning out, or so engrossed by the sound that I space on his annoying complaints about various broads. A for the production, B- for the lyrics.
“How Does It Feel” (to be rich) was a decent-sized Internet smash for Kamaiyah last autumn. I thought it was surprisingly lucid for an Internet smash — usually those things are all I like to cha cha and other such nonsense. A Good Night In The Ghetto, which is streaming for free on Kamaiyah’s Soundcloud page, is more where that came from: sympathetic realism from a likable young Oakland woman with faith in her friends and a taste for laid-back West Side funk. That said, the reflections of a female hedonist high on drugs and her own sexual power aren’t all that much more illuminating than what you’d get out of a male rapper in a similar position, and the end rhymes aren’t too scintillating, either. As catchy as the music is, there’s something thin about the production. But Good Night reminds me a lot of YG’s My Krazy Life, and not just because YG makes a guest appearance — it’s a slice-of-life album narrated by a young hellraiser who just wants to party/don’t want to hurt nobody, but you get the distinct impression that somebody’s going down nonetheless. I sorta dismissed Krazy Life as derivative when I first got it, but it grew on me ferociously when the coherence of the character and the simplicity of the beats turned out to be a strength. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happened here. B/B+, for now, but that assessment could be revised in a hurry.
Finally, after a few years in the wilderness, Elzhi has returned with a new album, which ought to prompt rejoicing in some quarters, especially those who supported the crowdfunding effort that made Lead Poison possible. Kickstarter fulfillment can be a bear — just ask Eisley, or the guys (allegedly) making Unsung Story. At one point I think some of Elzhi’s backers were considering forming a posse or hiring a private eye. Patience has been rewarded, though, because even by the high standards of the Detroit underground this is one hell of an album. Substantive, thematically detailed verses with genuine emotional and narrative trajectories, including several about Elzhi’s bouts of depression (that’s what delayed the album, he explains) and a total winner about the not-inconsequential cost of a trivial pot bust. He continues to be one of the world’s most acrobatic rappers — “The Healing Process,” a levitation, is the most impressive workout, but there are many others — but he’s such a magnetic storyteller that his skills aren’t even the main attraction here. This isn’t a “fun” album, per se; consider that the title is a not-so-subtle reference to the junk the kids in nearby Flint have been drinking. But I’ll be damned if Elzhi doesn’t make his internal struggle compelling listening. I can even forgive the Anne Rice bullshit of “She Sucks,” which comes out of nowhere and is probably Elzhi’s idea of comic relief. So give him give him some of that vampire money. It’s early yet, but I’m betting this one is at least an A-, so welcome back, old friend, all is forgiven.
So that’s a pretty good start to the year! I’m not holding my breath until Views From The 6 arrives, if it doesarrive on the 29th, which, given the exercise in extended cruelty that this rollout has been, is no guaranteed thing. Plus I haven’t come close to wearing out the great rap albums of late 2014 into 2015. I continue to find Surf the cream of that bumper crop, but I’ll admit the one I listen to the most recently lately is Pusha T’s Darkest Before Dawn, which I’ve come to understand as a tight concept set about setting hype and bullshit aside and concentrating on what really matters. Not a new subject for hip-hop artists, but with his ruthless writerly precision and distinctive neutral evil outlook on life, it’s one that Pusha is well qualified to speak upon. Also, at thirty minutes, it perfectly suits my ride from home to the NJCU swimming pool. (The Allan Kingdom is another great cycling-after-dark album; try it on Communipaw or Bramhall sometime.) Anyway, if you’ve got anything to add to my playlist, please send me a recommendation and I’ll check it out. You know I don’t listen to nothing but hip-hop, unless I’m listening to something else.