August 2018 Album Round Up!

Hey guys! Psyched to make my return to Monthly Round Ups during an action-packed month! Apologies for my little hiatus – work these past several months has been an absolute bitch and it’s been straight up unrealistic to try and squeeze in several listens to 20-25 albums every four or five weeks. It just wasn’t gonna happen. But I’m proud to say that I’m back and here to stay! Kinda like when Jay-Z came out of retirement after not even a year and released a shitty ass record that no one liked but eventually went on to do things like marry Beyonce and make an album with Kanye and start his own streaming service so it was all good. Ok, maybe not quite like that. But still. God, there’s so much to break down from August 2018! I hope you’ve been keeping up via my email list and YouTube channel while I’ve been away!

Mac Miller – Swimming

Five albums and at least twenty (!) projects into his career, one fact remains: Mac Miller is a hell of a beat picker. On Swimming, he lines up an endlessly listenable and surprisingly unique platter of instrumentals, from the funky “What’s the Use?” to the jazz-tinged “Jet Fuel” to one of the sexiest beat switches I’ve ever heard in the trap-laced “Self Care”. Everybody from J. Cole to Flying Lotus to Kanye collaborator Jon Brion to fellow Pittsburgh natives ID Labs to “God’s Plan” producer Cardo contribute to this album’s impressive sound. However, another fact remains: Mac Miller doesn’t really have a whole lot to say. Even after a public split with Ariana Grande earlier this year, Miller’s lyrics on Swimming – rather than directly addressing his feelings – often find him simply crawling between various esoteric trains of thought that leave the production to carry him. I find myself wincing in the first verse of “Wings” when he clumsily points out “that’s a motif!”, and I really struggle through the bleary-eyed pseudo-raps of “Dunno”, the meandering mopefest of “Small Worlds”, and several other underwhelming lyrical moments. So while I dig this album sonically, I don’t find myself connecting with Mac’s words like I did on the lovey dovey Divine Feminine or the triumphant “I’m off drugs!” comeback that was GO:OD AM. I salute Mac for continuing to be carve out his own sound within hip-hop, but I probably won’t be returning to this all that much. NOT RECOMMENDED

Sinsaenum – Repulsion for Humanity

Back in 2016, when ex-Slipknot skinsman Joey Jordison and Dragonforce bassist Frederic Leclercq teased their new supergroup Sinsaenum as an epic collision between Black Metal and Death Metal, I was ecstatic at the thought. At the time, Behemoth’s The Satanist was the last truly great Blackened Death Metal LP I had heard, and I was aching for something new. Well, you can imagine my disappointment when Sinsaenum’s debut Echoes of the Tortured was pretty much just Morbid Angel worship with creepy keyboard interludes. But then, last year’s Ashes EP renewed my hope with a short set of killer tracks that gave me exactly what I wanted – some eerie-yet-brutal, Black Metal-infused Death Metal! So, anticipation was high for Repulsion for Humanity, the band’s sophomore outing and follow-up to Ashes.

Well, they kinda let me down again. Don’t get me wrong, Repulsion for Humanity is very well-executed, but on this record Sinsaenum spend far too much time on compositional Death Metal clichés, aimless guitar solos, and tired lyrical subject matter, rather than turning their attention towards atmosphere and genre-fusing like they did on Ashes. At the end of the day, I found more positives than negatives, but given the raw talent that this band posses, I still wish Sinsaenum would have given us more than a slightly-above-average, dime-a-dozen Death Metal record. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

 Travis Scott – Astroworld

Trap powerhouse Travis Scott came in hot with album number three, armed with quite possibly the craziest guest list of any Hip-Hop release this year (Drake, Frank Ocean, James Blake, The Weeknd, Kid Cudi, Swae Lee, 21 Savage, Quavo, Juice Wrld, and Nav all appear). Not to mention, it’s a who’s who of Hip-Hop production as well, with people like Mike Dean, Hit-Boy, Cardo, Murda Beatz, Boi-1da, Thundercat, and even Tame Impala involved. If anybody has done a better job setting themselves up for an “instant classic”, I’d like to hear you argue against Travis Scott. And of course, many critics quickly obliged and gave it that label.

However, I find it surprising that any album containing a Drake verse about taking prescription drugs to fall asleep on a plane can be considered an “instant classic”. Not only do I find Drizzy’s aforementioned “Sicko Mode” verse boring, but a significant chunk of the LP as a whole, with mid-album cuts like “5% Tint”, “Astrothunder”, and “Can’t Say” lulling me to sleep. Surrounded by so many industry heavy-hitters, it’s strange but unsurprising that Scott and his familiar auto-tuned brags are the most non-essential part of this album. The beats are off the chain (see the tuneful Tame Impala and Weeknd collaboration “Skeletons” or the sensory overload of “Carousel”), and more than enough to keep me around most of the time, but Scott himself is just not that interesting to me. So, “instant classic”? Eh, don’t believe the hype. NOT RECOMMENDED

Snak the Ripper – Off the Rails

I got turned on to this amazing record by an Instagram post from Rittz (one of my favorite rappers for several years now), from whom Snak the Ripper had snagged a guest verse for the single “All Out”.

And yet again, Rittz has done great things for my life. I can’t believe how good this record is! Skill-wise, Snak is your archetypal rappity-rapper, packing dense rhyme patterns into complex, high-velocity flows, but his abundance of thoughtful content and his selection of low key, contemplative beats (see “I Ain’t Dead”, “I’m Good, or “Hourglass”) that give him room to let loose lyrically are what ultimately make him stand out. There’s not a single track I don’t like on here, but I’d especially recommend “Baby Boy”, where Snak has some touching words for his newborn son, “Driftin”, which has a super dope video with some tour footage mixed in, and “Knuckle Sandwich”, which brings on R.A. The Rugged Man for a murderous guest appearance.

Seriously, I can’t say ENOUGH good things about this LP! Should definitely end up in the year-end Hip-Hop conversation in a few months! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Jason Mraz – Know

Back in college, if you saw a corny dude wearing a fedora and strumming his Ukulele in the middle of campus, you’d make fun of him. The kid’s clearly just trying to get laid in the saddest, most transparent way possible.

Well, Jason Mraz’s albums are the sonic equivalent of that. I don’t know the guy personally, so if he really is this sunny and optimistic all the time, God bless him. Lord knows we have enough cynicism in the world at the moment. But this cutesy RomCom music is tough for me stomach. When I hear lines like “we could be bigger than cheese and macaroni” (on a song that is titled “UNLONELY”, mind you) I feel like punching him. A decade after Mraz’s most ubiquitous hits – “Lucky” and “I’m Yours” – he’s still using the same old chord progressions, the same child-like turns of phrases, and making the same manufactured Summer picnic music. NOT RECOMMENDED

 Death Cab for Cutie – Thank You For Today

I had no idea how much I missed Death Cab’s warm, comforting sound until I heard this LP. Regrettably, I skipped over 2015’s Kintsugi, so it had been around seven years. But I quickly got reacquainted thanks to misty-eyed highlights like “Autumn Love” and “Summer Years”, as well as the hooky “Northern Lights” and the contemplative intro track “I Dreamt We Spoke Again”, which almost felt Kid A-esque to me. While it fizzles out a tad with the last few tracks (I’m not crazy about the somber “You Moved Away” or the generic “Near/Far”), Thank You For Today is a wonderful way to send Summmer 2018 off, and it’s inspiring to dig back into the Death Cab catalogue a bit! RECOMMENDED

Ariana Grande – Sweetener

I realize that 2016’s Dangerous Woman might’ve been the most overplayed Pop album of that God forsaken year, but I still thought it was excellent. Even the deep cuts. I still jam it all the time. And it makes me sad that I couldn’t feel the same way about its follow-up, Sweetener. I’m very lukewarm on this one, mostly because of the beat selection. Personally, I would much rather hear Ariana’s gorgeous voice over stuff like the bluesy “Dangerous Woman” or the boy band nostalgia-invoking “Sometimes” from her last record than, say, the obnoxious Pharrell-ism “The Light is Coming” or the generic trap of “God is a Woman”. It just doesn’t excite me. Sweetener already feels a bit tired by the time the stand out single “No Tears Left to Cry” arrives ten tracks in. But I remain a fan and look forward to Ariana’s next project. NOT RECOMMENDED

Alice in Chains – Rainer Fog

Rainer Fog is now Alice in Chains’ third album during the William Duvall era of the band. It’s crazy to think about how a decade ago, replacing AIC’s late great frontman Layne Staley seemed preposterous, but this current incarnation really grew into it quickly. With Rainer Fog, the sixth LP overall from the Grunge legends, Alice continue to do justice to their legacy by making lively Hard Rock songs that feel modern and exciting – see the driving title cut or the dissonant stomp of opener “The One You Know” for further proof. It might not be a perfect record – I have trouble vibing with the bloated Sabbathian cut “Drone”, for instance – but neither was Facelift if we’re keeping it all the way real. Seriously, it wasn’t! So I don’t care how much you love their early ‘90s material – the point is, for Alice in Chains to continue to make quality music like this over thirty years into their career, it makes them….one of VERY few grunge bands to do so. RECOMMENDED

A FEW MORE:

LIKE:

Alkaline Trio – Is This Thing Cursed?

Blue October – I Hope You’re Happy

Bun B – Return of the Trill

Eminem – Kamikaze

Nothing – Dance on the Blacktop

Trippie Redd – Life’s a Trip

DON’T LIKE:

The Amity Affliction – Misery

Black Tusk – T.C.B.T.

Excision – Apex

Matoma – One in a Million

Plain White T’s – Parallel Universe

YG – Stay Dangerous

 

 

 

 

 

Top 10 Mid-Year Hip-Hop Albums of 2018

Whether you’re white, black, brown, yellow, orange (we’ve gotta include that now in the Trump era), gay, straight, bisexual, male, female, shemale, pre-op, post-op, mid-op, or any of the other 70 genders, there’s one certainty of life that none of us will escape:

Disappointment.

And like anyone else with hopes and dreams, I’ve spent a good chunk of my life disappointed. I’ve been disappointed by myself, disappointed by my friends, disappointed by my family, disappointed by my co-workers, and, of course, disappointed by musicians.

And that “musicians” part? Well, rappers have taken care of most of that so far this year.

There was Migos’ underwhelming Culture II, J. Cole’s lifeless and excessively insular KOD, there was a double Drake LP that tortured listeners by offering a promise of “Drake when he raps good” in the first 15 percent of its 90-minute runtime but quickly settled back into mediocrity, and then, perhaps most heartbreaking, there was the directionless Nas album, in which one of the greatest MCs in the history of the genre got outshined by a few Kanye beats.

But by NO MEANS is that to say I’m feeling uninspired by the genre. 2018 has also given us tons of exciting Hip-Hop to feast our ears on. Much of it made this list, while some of it– A$AP Rocky, Smoke DZA, Kids See Ghost, etc. – barely missed a spot but certainly made its presence felt.

And while this year’s XXL freshman cover made me feel incredibly old and out of touch, I’m psyched to see Hip-Hop continue to inject fresh blood and build on itself stylistically. Only a true cynic would disagree with me when I say that some of the best Rap music of all time has yet to be made.

In that same spirit, here are 10 of my favorite Hip-Hop releases of 2018 thus far! All of these artists made substantial contributions to this evolving art form that we love so much, and I want to thank them for bringing so much happiness to me and other Hip-Hop heads alike in the past few months. Keep in mind, the release date cut-off for this list is the end of June, so anything that dropped in July is not eligible. And without further ado:

10. Dave East – P2

 One of several potential heirs to the NY Hip-Hop throne, Dave East makes a strong case for himself with P2, his most satisfying project yet. It only takes one listen to tracks like “Talk to Big”, “Corey”, and “I Found Keisha” to see that he’s elevated his storytelling game, and his beat selection – in particular, jazz-tinged cuts like “What Made Me” and “Powder” – continues to paint a picture of an MC obsessed with the genre’s Golden Age, and intent on reviving it in his own distinct way

9. Flatbush Zombies – Vacation in Hell

 Let’s face it, a sophomore slump was never really in the cards for one of the East Coast’s most exciting Hip-Hop groups.

On album number two, Meechy Darko, Zombie Juice, and Erick Arc Elliot continue to make hard-hitting, colorful, old-school inflected Hip-Hop that provides the kind of listening experience that can only come from a rap GROUP. There’s a reason that listening to N.W.A. and Wu Tang is such a radically different experience from, say, Nas or Biggie.

Of particular note is the clever “Headstone”, in which the three MCs weave together the titles of numerous Hip-Hop classics into their bars. And features from the likes of Denzel Curry, Joey Bada$$, Bun B, and yes, Portugal. The Man (on the surprisingly melodic “Crown”) aren’t wasted either.

Oh, and I didn’t even notice the titties on the album cover until, like, WEEKS after I heard it. So I can’t like it just ‘cause of that.

 8. Phryme – Phryme 2

 On “Made Man”, Royce da 5’9 spits, “I show up, kill it, then disappear like Andre Benjamin”. But the guy has done anything but disappear. In fact, he’s already pumped out out multiple projects before the halfway point of 2018 (SPOILER ALERT: that other one may or may not get discussed in a bit).

On Pryhme 2, there won’t be much for listeners looking to get to know Royce the PERSON, but they sure as hell get to know Royce the MC, as he churns out by the hundreds the type of bars that would make 90 percent of rappers give up the moment they heard them.

And DJ Premier (with sampling help from AntMan Wonder) is the perfect backbone, and the loops on cuts like “Respect My Gun” and “Flirt” add a slight dose of musicality to Mr. 5’9’s unshakeable confidence on the mic.

7. Post Malone – Beerbongs & Bentleys

 Six months ago, if I had to name the artists least likely to appear on this list, Post Malone’s name would’ve been brought up in the first five seconds.

It’s not that I don’t like Post – I definitely heard potential on several mopey yet tuneful moments on 2016’s Stoney – it’s just that I never expected him to be able to manifest his Sad White Boy-isms into an album full of earworms like Beerbongs & Bentleys. Yet, I found the choruses to songs like “Rich and Sad”, “Better Now”, “Spoil My Night”, “Same Bitches” and “Candy Paint” to be among the catchiest of the year. The guy really has learned to construct a hook.

He still needs to stay far away from the acoustic guitar though. Please see this LP’s lone lowlight, “Stay”, for evidence.

 6. Cupcakke – Ephorize

A tour de force of witty sex-positive feminism, Cupcakke spends Ephorize comparing her genitals to the following: a Dorito, the statue of liberty, a goose, a garage, and… well, the penises in her life don’t fair much better.

While it’s mostly the lewd, graphic, in-your-face sex anthems like “Duck Duck Goose” and “Post Pic” that initially grabbed me and cracked me the fuck up, Cupcakke also shows that there’s much more depth to her on introspective moments like “Self Interview”. Ephorize proves that this foul-mouthed fem-C is here to stay, and given enough time, might even surpass her more traditional, by-the-book contemporaries.

5. Jay Rock – Redemption

 After three years and a near-fatal motorcycle accident, Top Dawg Entertainment O.G. Jay Rock came back with the simple but satisfying Redemption – an album that makes no attempt at being anything other than a collection of great songs.

You see, people have come to expect such artistic depth from the TDE camp that they’ve forgotten the value of a concise batch of unrelated thoughts. Many of the reasons people are hating on Redemption are the same reasons I love it – it’s refreshingly straightforward. I can just soak in highlights like the title cut, with its reflections on mortality, “Wow Freestyle”, with its Eastern-tinged production and Kendrick Lamar assist, “The Bloodiest” with its Fuck You energy, and “OSOM” with a J. Cole feature that’s better than anything Cole did on KOD. And you don’t always need some interwoven narrative or concept to make it all worthwhile.

To be fair, Redemption is a project that feels so current and so “of its time” sonically, that it remains to be seen how it’s going to age. But right now, it’s been a soundtrack to my life this summer. Jay Rock’s brand of Gangsta Rap is one that’ll never truly go out of style.

4. Kanye West – Ye

 As I explained in this video, I resisted and resisted and resisted including this album on my mid-year lists. It’s basically 20 minutes of emotional chaos, and depending on what you’ve read about Yeezus, it’s the worst critical reception a Kanye album has ever gotten. The Guardian called it “the worst record in Kanye’s previously unimpeachable catalogue.”

But then I quickly realized that this was ALL I listened to for the month of June. And for good reason. Ye is the most vulnerable Kanye has been since the landmark auto-tuned crooning of 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak. He bares his soul on this LP, and since he’s such an unstable, restless personality, that means that he gives the listener more emotionally-charged content in 20 minutes than most artists can provide in an hour. There’s the dark and twisted opener “I Thought About Killing You”, we get a more hype/agro Kanye on “Yikes”, we get tear-inducing paternal sentiments on the closer “Violent Crimes”…this album gives you so much in such a short time span.

Not to mention the more practical appeal of a short project like Ye in a world of increasingly short attention spans – I’ve ended up returning to it more often because I know it’s only 20 minutes and I’m gonna walk away full satiated.

3. The Carters (Jay-Z & Beyonce) – Everything Is Love

 When music’s biggest power couple dropped this record out of nowhere a day after my birthday, I was expecting to hate it. What are the hell are these two gonna rap about, how successful they are and how much they wanna fuck each other?

Well, not entirely. I’ve talked about the whole “Adult Contemporary Hip-Hop” trend – how older MCs like Jay, Nas, and Eminem are beginning to rap about more mature, adult-like topics like family, fatherhood, and a need to distance themselves from their younger selves. Well, Everything is Love takes that concept a step further. By rapping as husband and wife about their marriage, their children, their business dealings, their elder statesmanship of the music industry and more, Jay and B have opened up a whole new world of content.

It’s real inspiring to hear such a unique album come from two industry vets like The Carters. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Hip-Hop song like “LoveHappy”, where the two discuss their relationship and Beyonce concludes that “we’re flawed but still perfect for each other”. And to hear them flexing side-by-side on bangers like “Apeshit” and “713” (the latter of which interlopes Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E., which Jay ghostwrote) is something to behold.

In a way, this is one of the realest Hip-Hop album’s ever written. It’s not about two stars making a collaborative album for the sake of exponential hype – i.e. Drake and Future, – it’s about a husband and wife using music as an outlet to work through their marriage.

2. Pusha T – Daytona

 C’mon, this is the easiest pick to explain. If you don’t understand why Daytona made it here, you’re probably not a Hip-Hop fan, in which case I apologize for wasting your time with the previous hundreds and hundreds of words.

The first release of Kanye’s “Wyoming Sessions” was also quite possibly the best received – I mean, after all, who could argue with a short and sweet seven tracks that found Pusha and Kanye in top form as a rapper/producer combo?

Daytona reminded me of the way Hip-Hop records USED to be made. Seriously, think about Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full – excluding instrumentals, it’s effectively seven songs, one producer, and one rapper. And it’s one of greatest rap albums ever. Daytona brings that same sort of energy. Plus, Pusha’s ensuing beef with Drake only poured fuel on an already scorching fire.

1. Royce da 5’9 – Book of Ryan

 Two years ago, I praised Royce da 5’9’s Layers for its intimate storytelling and how much it revealed about Ryan Daniel Montgomery the person.

If only I knew that Layers was just the tip of the fucking iceberg. Holy shit.

While it manages to dish out obligatory bar fests like the Eminem collaboration “Caterpillar”, and the fiery posse cut “Summer On Lock”, Book of Ryan at times feels like a full-blown concept album about Royce’s life, with a particular focus on his childhood. On the stunning “Power”, for instance, Royce paints a picture of the broken home he grew up in with a novelist’s eye for detail. And tracks like “Cocaine” and “Boblo Boat” give further insight into the experiences that shaped him, good and bad.

Royce even uses the skits to his advantage – a rare feat for a Hip-Hop album – with “Who Are You” and “Protecting Ryan” providing further windows into the stories being told across the album.

It’s amazing that over 20 years into his career, Royce is still scaling towards his artistic peak, making noticeable strides with every release. And judging by the music on Book of Ryan, it doesn’t seem like he’s got much longer to climb.