Rich Gang – Rich Gang album review

If the hedonistic, hood-rich lifestyle needs a soundtrack, Rich Gang, both a compilation and showcase of the Young Money/Cash Money label’s talents, is that disc.

The recurring production motifs of whizzing synths, trap drums and thunderous bass provides the ideal backdrop for images of glistening jewels, designer duds, flashy rides that cost more than most American’s yearly salaries, pool parties with racially ambiguous hotties with video vixen curves and gold-plated grills. In other words, if all the clichés of the typical rap video were to become image-less, Rich Gang would be the remaining sound bed.

Spearheaded by Cash Money co-founder Bryan “Birdman” Thomas, Rich Gang, attempts to highlight the label’s current stable while celebrating its astonishing success—mostly built from the massive crossover success of stars like Lil’ Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj —and remembering its humble beginnings.

“Project life to the high life…pain came from this gang,” Birdman reminisces on the opening track, “R.G.” while slightly ominous keys flutter underneath.  Capped off by a characteristically frantic rap from the recently freed Mystikal (yes, the former No Limit soldier is now a Cash Money Millionaire), the number, along with the mellow and similarly reflective “Dreams Come True”—the album’s best track, it marks the brief glimmers of substance on an otherwise mindlessly flashy album.

Birdman’s intro gives a hint that though Rich Gang is being sold as a release by a collective of stars, it’s essentially a solo album by the label’s CEO. Birdman’s voice is the dominant one heard on the album. Minaj and Drake, two of the label’s marquee names, surprisingly appear only sparingly. The American Idol judge and recent Elle cover woman appears just once to harmonize about “her million dollar pussy” on the generic swag-sex radio number “Tapout”—which features, what else, but an auto tuned hook from Future—while October’s Very Own doesn’t show up at all. Lil’ Wayne, on the other hand, one of the label’s founding stars, appears far more; tossing out lackluster rhymes that sound more obligatory than inspired on the four tracks he appears on (six, on the deluxe edition).

Cash Money signees, either up-or-comers (Detail, Mack Maine, Cory Gunz, Gudda Gudda)  or former stars in search of a rejuvenation (Mystikal, Limp Bizikit, Jae Millz, Bow Wow) round out the rest of the collective while the biggest names in urban radio (Future, Rick Ross, R. Kelly, Kendrick Lamar, Busta Rhymes, French Montana, Ace Hood, Flo-Rida, Meek Mill) come through to ensure the album’s place on the airwaves.

Yet, despite all of the undeniable star power, none of the guests truly deliver on Rich Gang. Kelly departs from the vintage kick he’s been on for the last few years to deliver some back-to-the-basics nasty verses on “We Been On” but it fails to register. “50 Plates”, featuring the Maybach don himself, is similarly anticlimactic despite its merger-of-two-titans promise.

Various attempts at pop-rap tropes, be it swag-and-riches celebrations (most of the album), crossover pop attempts (the hokey “Sunshine”) or  strip club anthems (“Panties to the Side”) all feel calculated and hollow despite being the label’s attempt to show off its diversity.

Whether it’s true aim was to be Birdman’s new solo album, a celebration of the label’s reign at the top after starting from the bottom or a merely display of the label’s talents and range, Rich Gang ultimately sounds like nothing else but a tax write-off.

Rich Gang - Rich Gang album review

Ace Hood – Trials and Tribulations album review

“Bugatti,” the smash first single from Ace Hood’s Cash Money debut and fourth studio set Trials and Tribulations is the epitome of swaggering hip-hop materialism.

Producer Mike Will’s wheezing synths and skittering trap drums blare underneath guest Future’s mindless auto-tuned boast of a hook, “I woke up in a new Bugatti”. Rhymes that gleefully celebrate “chains spent with [your] salary spent”, “fuckin’ bitches of different races”, “fresh gear” and “money, paper, moola” further boost the song’s hood-rich decadence.

Thus, it comes as a surprise that the glistening and now-commonplace consumerism of “Bugatti” isn’t quite characteristic of the majority of Trials and Tribulations.

In fact, despite his pursuit of financial riches, Ace Hood—born Antoine McColister—on the 17-track set, actually reveals himself to be an everyman. Call him the Leopold Bloom of the modern trap-happy Southern hip hop mainstream.

Determination and persistence not only colors Ace’s strident Florida’s twang, it also colors the theme of most of the tracks throughout, making the album’s title quite fitting.

The title track speaks candidly of “all the pain he been through …and “tears that he cried”—even after his late 2000s ascendance under the wing of DJ Khaled—in a manner that elicits both empathy and a sense of relation in the listener.  It’s a far cry from the 1 percenter glorification of “Bugatti”.

Ace’s worry of becoming “Another Statistic”—in a state (and nation) that was home to Trayvon Martin and thousands-if not millions-of underemployed and undereducated black males—on the track of the same name is similarly compelling.

Heartfelt real-life concerns and musings about the women in his life who molded and supported him throughout (his companion and child to his mother on the plush and possible future single “Rider” and “Mama”, respectively), the ups and mostly downs of fame (“Before the Rollie” and “The Come Up”, featuring the cornbread, fish and collard greens-soaked vocals of Anthony Hamilton), faith (the thunderous “My Bible”) and of course, “Hope” provide for an appealingly well-rounded listen, thematically.

Musically, it’s a different story. The same trap sound—all thumping bass, slowly skipping 808s and synthetic horns—that dominate urban radio at the moment provide the backdrops.  While it’s obvious that the sound is clearly Ace’s bread and butter, it becomes redundant throughout Trials’ hour-long duration. So much so that the thunderous drums, maniacal piano loop and sampled female church wails of the aforementioned “My Bible” come as a relief, of sorts.

Like most other major label hip hop releases, Trails is overstuffed with strategic big-name camoes—including the now-predictable roll call of new label honcos Birdman and  Lil Wayne; Meek Mill, Rick Ross, Future, Chris Brown, Wiz Khalifa, 2 Chainz—distract from Ace’s hard-won storytelling.

Despite the now-commonplace elements—same-y radio-friendly production and a surplus of guest celebrity voices—Trials and Tribulations turns out to be a step in the right direction for a still-young buck who is not quite a rookie anymore.

Ciara – Ciara album review

It’s been a long and winding road for Ciara Harris since her 2004 introduction via the sensuous, Lil Jon-produced thump that was “Goodies.”

Initially an artist that appeared to be an obvious one hit wonder, the ATL-ien flipped the script and churned out hit after hit for the next three years before the gravy train stopped.

Seven years after her last hit album–2006’s The Evolution–with two failed albums (and celebrity romances), several stalled first singles and a greatly diminished public profile, Ciara looked like she’d finally reached the “here today, gone tomorrow” wall that she seemed so destined to hit immediately after “Goodies”’ runaway success.

That was until “Body Party.”

The track’s sensual, almost narcotic haze—built upon a classic, memory triggering sample of fellow Atlanta natives (and actual one hit wonders) Ghost Town DJ’s “My Boo—isn’t just one of the best singles of the year, it’s also one of the best songs that Ciara’s ever done.

“Body Party’”s status—her first R&B top ten hit in three years and a certified summer smash—aims as being thr opening salvo in the singer’s commercial resurgence (since an artist like Ciara is rooted firmly in the charts).

So why is Ciara—her fifth release—so forgettable?

“Party” easily proves to be the brief, ten-track set’s lone high point. Producer Mike Will—the man behind “Party”’s slow-grind magic—proves that magic doesn’t always strike twice on “Where You Go”, a duet with Ciara’s current beau Future (who shares executive producer status on the disc with the singer and reunited mentor L.A. Reid). While Future’s auto-tuned “oohs” on “Party” further accentuate the song’s unhurried sensual crawl, his croon on “Go” clashes significantly with his duet partner’s featherweight falsetto.  Far blander than Future’s collaboration with Ciara’s rival and fellow vocally limited pop&B chanteuse Rihanna’s “Loveeeeee Song”, the pop-aiming ballad is an easy miss.

Ciara’s voice, a malleable, almost non-existent coo, is in the same vein as Janet Jackson and Aaliyah—the two starlets whose footsteps she clearly follows. Like Jackson and Aaliyah, her almost weightless vocal presence makes her a producer’s wet dream. Her voice is merely just another sound that smoothly blends into a track’s soundscape. Yet, while Jackson and Aaliyah both prospered musically, thanks to chemistry with one production unit—Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Timbaland, respectively–Ciara and Ciara—which nearly features a different producer on each track–has not.

Along with the generally tossed-off nature of most of the songs, Ciara’s main flaw is its lack of direction. It’s obvious that both Ciara and her handlers are throwing many potential stabs at the charts and seeing what sticks. While that’s not a bad aim from a business standpoint, it doesn’t do much for believability. Whether she’s the “too fly for this” ex (on “I’m Out”, one of two duets with Nicki Minaj), the too-hot-to-resist vixen that’s playing hard to get (“Keep on Lookin’”), or sexually assertive cunnilingus advocate (“Read My Lips”, which sounds eerily similar to Taylor Swift’s “You Belong To Me”), she sounds like she’s singing from a teleprompter. This lack of identity becomes even more evident when she tries to convey aggression (see “Super Turnt Up”, which features a rather unconvincing rap from the lady herself).  The album’s attempts at catering to Top 40 trends—most evident during the disc’s second half, most explicitly on the Euro pop bounce closer “Overdose”-seemed similarly forced.

Caught between the pursuit of commercial resurgence and the expression of her own burgeoning womanhood, Ciara’s goal of achieving both ultimately seems perilous at best.

AraabMUZIK – The Remixes Vol. 1 album review

The Remixes, Vol. 1 reveals that Araabmuzik is on a mission.

The 24-year-old wants to bridge the gap between the trap and the stadium.

The Providence, RI-bred producer best known for his trademark MPC techniques—which include producing rapid rhythms, electronic sounds and well-crafted melodies all at once–and production the Dipset crew (as well as 50 Cent, Fabolous and Busta Rhymes) diversifies his palate on The Remixes by trying his hand at recreating many EDM anthems.

Dub step bass drops and synth squiggles of get reframed from an electronic jog into a slowed-down recline on the opening remix of Mt. Eden & Freshlyground’s “Sierra Leone.”  The revision of Brass Knuckles’ “Bad Habits” similarly pitches down the original’s dubstep bounce into a slow-burning gangsta rollick. The original’s poppy female vocals are removed for the exception of a looped “you….”’s, “Sometimes it’s good to be”’s and “I do it all for you.” ‘s. The changes displayed on these opening tracks completely change the energy of both tracks without completely dismantling their original intent.

The rest of The Remixes, Vol. 1 follows in the vein of the aforementioned opening tracks with Araab adding brooding and cinematically tense atmosphere, hip hop drums and impressive MPC twiddling to an array of EDM head bangers—most impressively on the remixes of Benny Benassi & Gary Go’s “Cinema” and The Bloody Beetroots’ “Chronicles of a Fallen Love” (where a nice melodic edge is added to the original’s almost monotonic electronic grind). A nice and surprising deviation from the set’s focus on EDM reimagining is Aaarb’s rework of Taana Gardner’s oft-sampled club classic “Heartbeat”. The 1981 original’s slow-disco funk is remixed into an almost narcotic groove with Gardner’s now-famous vocals intact.

While The Remixes Vol. 1 probably won’t hold much appeal outside of a club or festival setting or a beat head’s Beats by Dre’s, it does its job with fusing a hard street stare with EDM fist pumping.

Freddie Gibbs – ESGN – Evil Seed Grow Naturally album review

In a modern day hip hop climate where a singing, former child star is one of the game’s premier pop stars, one of its enduring icons holds a higher priority to announcing his ties with corporate America than creating music and it’s most famous provocateur flaunts his permanent ties to a tabloid Hollywood family and European fashion houses,  hip hop’s grit has long been scrubbed into a shiny, platinum sheen.

So, since hip hop’s collective 9mm now officially goes “pop”, where does that leave someone who does that leave those who want their rap served with that gangsta touch?

Enter Freddie Gibbs.

A native of Gary, IN (a city famous for being both the home of Jackson family and one of the most deadly cities in the nation) with a rollicking, blunted rasp of a voice and often tongue-tied or sing-song-y flow and a remorseless nihilistic viewpoint, Gibbs—a major label refugee after brief stints on both Interscope and Young Jeezy’s Corporate Thugs Entertainment imprint—is an iconoclast in today’s rap game. He’s a grimy street traditionalist in an industry that currently rewards those who move as far away from the street aesthetic as far as they can.

The 75-minute ESGN, Gibbs’ fourteenth release but first officially retail long-player, provides a cohesive picture of Gibbs’ musical pallete.

The production—mostly handled by Gibbs’ group of in-house producers– on ESGN is fairly varied. Cold, synthetic trap beats and warm, soulful grooves both colors Gibbs’ gangsta tales. While the steely synths and skittering 808s that dominate the album’s first half make for a perfect match for the gray subject matter,  it’s trumped by the more melodic, smooth soul-orientated vibe that dominates its final third (executed best on “Dope in My Styrofoam”—with its lush sample of Tyrone Davis’ oft-sampled “In The Mood” and single-worthy “9mm”).

While Gibbs is unapologetically thuggish and headstrong in his mission to modernize the classic gangsta sound, he’s not exactly one-dimensional. The sense of reflection and near-regret displayed on the atmospheric “I Seen a Man Die” and devotion to carrying the torch for his troubled hometown provides a necessary balance to the defiantly nihilism that frames most of the album.

Although at 19 tracks and 75 minutes, it runs a tad longer than it has to, ESGN, to paraphrase George Clinton, is a gangsta ham hock in mainstream hip hop’s glittery (and increasingly) soggy corn flakes.