Louisiana rapper Kevin Gates has always been about the mixtapes, releasing one almost every year since 2007. He’s changing the formula with his first studio album release, Stranger Than Fiction. The album is a fast listen despite most of the fourteen songs being around three minutes. The speed can be attributed Gates’ driving delivery of words and energetic beats of the music. The instrumentals are the best of trap and work well to compliment the gritty subjects and harsh delivery of Gates. This music built and branded to be blasted out the car while riding around to great success.
Unlike most trap rappers, the hooks actually work with the rest of the track instead of serving as nothing more than time padders. They are catchy for the most part and maintain the flow set up by Gates in his verses. The one aspect of his music that doesn’t fit in my mind is all of the singing he does. Although it does help set the mood of the songs, it would be more effective to bring in another artist with better vocals. Gates already offers entertaining product and the extra help could push an album from good to great.
Another respectable feature of Stranger Than Fiction is the wide range of subject matters he is able to string together. ‘4:30 am’ is a real song about the late-night violence and betrayal that occurred in his life and on the streets in general. ‘MYB’ features KG rhyming with the raspiest voice heard on the mic since Ja Rule. ‘Die Bout It’ has a borderline hilarious monologue at the end of the song about being a true thug while ‘Careful’ features alter ego Red Neck Rick spiting laugh-out-loud lyrics. ‘Smiling Faces’ is all about the falseness and danger that can lie behind a fake smiling friend. The mix of tones from tragedy to comedy not only proves Gate’s creativity but also maturity. He knows how to strike a musical balance.
Kevin Gates is young but prolific and Stranger Than Fiction is not only more of what you expect but good step forward for his career. If you’re looking for hype music to bump this summer, then look no further than this album.
Hailing from Sweden, rapper Prop Dylan and producer Logophobia link up once more to offer the world The Morning After EP. Clocking in less than thirty minutes with only seven full songs (when excluding the intro), this project is a short but sweet listen. Those familiar with the work of Prop Dylan know to expect rapid rhymes about the very real ups and downs on life. On this EP, he comes with aggressive delivery and a flow that rides the timing and energy of instrumentals in use. Logophobia, the second half of the partnership, backs up the emcee with solid, soulful beat work. Samples are used well to create rich instrumentation for all songs featured. It would be fair to consider Logophobia Sweden’s version of 9th wonder.
Projects that have such a limited number of songs run the risk of failure if every track is not on point. Fortunately, The Morning After has plenty of quality material to pick from. ‘Murphy’s Law’ is a fun song about the terrible day where everything goes wrong at once. ‘Find out’ about looking for truth in all aspects of life from religion to politics. ‘Book of Rhymes’ is a heartfelt remembering of Dylan’s inspiration and love of hip hop backed by powerful sampled horns.
One odd factor of this EP is the fact that all of the features are crammed onto one song in the middle of EP. The imbalanced set up of ‘Bring You Down’ would be forgivable if the talent showcased wasn’t so unimpressive. The truth is that there is no real need for any of the other artists on the song considering the rapping talents of Prop Dylan alone. In my opinion, this is a blemish on an otherwise outstanding project.
Foreign artists usually don’t get much spotlight in the America rap game but Prop Dylan is for sure someone to pay attention to. As shown by The Morning After, he has a mind for quality over quantity and works to bring truth to every song he’s on. Supported by a producer with skill and vision like Logophobia, this is an EP that everyone should lend an ear to.
There is hardly an artist active in the popular music industry that has a career that can match the fame and success of Jay-Z’s. Not to say that there aren’t more talented musicians or more successful business people but Jay’s rag to riches story is one of the most well known tales to date. Throughout his discography, Jay has made two things perfectly clear: he is always striving for the next level and that he is his own biggest fan. Keeping this in mind, the circumstances surrounding the release of Magna Carta Holy Grail should come as a surprise to no one. In what many are calling an unprecedented venture, this new album was given free to the first 1,000,000 owners of the Magna Carta app on the newest Samsung Galaxy phones. This landmark deal secured platinum status from the RIAA but also jeers from those who accuse Hova of becoming more and more of a sell-out.
Examining the music of the album aside from all of the business and politics reveals a project of good quality but not nearly an example of the best Jay Z has to offer. Magna Carta has a much darker and more serious tone than more recent releases. While Blueprint 3 and Watch the Throne were more of a celebration of success and wealth, this newest release is more focused on the cost of having such success and the insecurities that linger when responsibilities begin to mount.
In fact the best songs on the album feature deeper lyrics from Jay-Z that give insight into his mindset as his life moves along. ‘Jay-Z Blue’ is the clearest example of this as Jay raps about the fear he feels towards being a good father and husband. ‘Heaven’ is a gut honest song on Hov’s beliefs on spirituality and the place religion has in his life and society. ‘Oceans’ is by far my favorite song on the album for the deep hook sung by Frank Ocean, solid lines from Jay and amazing beat that is nothing short of epic.
On the topic of beats, be assured that there are many hands involved with the top-notch production of the album with all efforts spearheaded by Timbaland and J-Roc. Beats are built off samples from a number of sources ranging from music to movies. The instrumentals are varied, moving and do a great job of setting the mood for the songs they support.
While Magna Carta does have a lot to offer listeners, it will undoubtedly disappoint many who are long time fans of Jay. The key problem unfortunately lies with Jay-Z himself. This is Hov at his least lyrical with some songs coming off as lazily written with the worst being ‘FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt’, a totally pointless track with Rick Ross. It is a shame that this is the case considering the quality of features he has with him on songs such as Justin Timberlake, Frank Ocean and Beyonce.
Magna Carta…Holy Grail is a portrait of Jay-Z at new point in his life. As he states in his songs, he never lets the opinions of others affect his drive to make new music, new deals and new avenues for success. Whether you are impressed with the quality of the songs he offers is up to you but know that Jay has remained the same driven man behind the sound.
Although he has been on the music scene since the mid –nineties, Statik Selektah’s Extended Play is only his fifth official studio release. It comes at an interesting time in hop-hop where the music is divided fiercely between the radio hit makers and the underground kings gaining listeners by the day. No matter what side you personally support, these different worlds collide beautifully on an album. Here we see a fusion of old school greats, main stream stars and up and coming heroes. The result is a genuine sound from all MCs involved backed by such a skilled producer. The scratch work is solid, the samples are creatively employed and the drums used add a hard edge to most of the beats. It is truly refreshing to see a true DJ like Statik behind the beats of songs.
Any project backed by a man known for king quality like Statik Selektah is bound to have hits. ‘21 & over’ features the lyrical best from both Sean Price and Mac Millar. Funeral Season implements a grimy Jadakiss sample while Styles P, Bun B and Hit Boy rap about violence in the streets. ‘Bring Em Up Dead’ has Joell Ortiz does his usual work on the song supported by the powerful horns and driving drum kit of the instrumental. ‘Live from the Era’ has a beat that impresses more than rhymes thanks to help from the Alchemist. ‘Game Break’ involves excellent rhymes about being a better person through music from all rappers involved with a great vocal sample from Biggie. The album closes out strong with ‘Home’, a song with Talib Kweli expertly rhyming about the importance of family and a positive home setting.
There are a fair number of forgettable songs such as ‘East Coast’, ‘Make Believe’ and ‘Big City of Dreams’. On most other albums, songs like these would have been passable but being put up against the other stellar tracks of Extended Play renders them irrelevant. This is this biggest weakness of the album as it suffers from prioritizing quantity over quality. Cutting out the less memorable songs from the track list could have elevated Extended Play to a different level.
Statik Selektah’s Extended Play is not only a great DJ album but also a catalogue and survey of the face of hip hop today. Whether you like what you see depends on personal preference but the range of talent and instrumental gems Selektah has assembled for this project will fail to impress no one.
The Wack Album marks the third official release from the comedy rap trio, The Lonely Island. Andy Sandberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone unite once more to bring music that not only packs laughs but also serves as an interesting critique of American culture. Like their previous releases (Incredibad and Turtleneck & Chain), many of the songs of this album were released as music videos online. There is a good chance that you have at least some of them on the front page of Youtube. If you took the time to check any of them out then you definitely caught the vibe of the overall album: ridiculous songs delivered with a straight face.
There’s plenty of quality music among the hilarity with a variety of styles and genres. ‘Hugs’ features solid vocals from Pharrell in a song about hugging every woman in the world with no promise of rings. ‘3-Way’ is another entertaining Sandberg/Justin Timberlake team up, this time adding Lady Gaga to the mix. ‘The Compliments’ copies the concept of shout-outs seen in hip-hop songs today and pushes it to intentionally uncomfortable degrees. The album closes on a great note with the story presented with ‘Perfect Sunday’. These songs are some of my personal favorite but each listener will justifiably walk away with their own opinions on what made them laugh the most.
Songs like ‘Go Kindergarten’, ‘Diaper Money’ and ‘Spring Break Anthem’ have a little more message behind the madness as each takes a shot at the stereotypes often presented in music today. ‘Kindergarten’ unashamedly mocks the mindless club music that currently clogs airwaves. ‘Diaper Money’ and ‘Anthem’ both undermine the machismo of male culture in funny and imaginative ways.
Despite all the parodying and fun, The Lonely Island still takes the time to put out quality music with a genuine respect for hip-hop as an art form. ‘Spell It Out’, ‘I Don’t Give a Honk’ and ‘Meet the Crew’ are backed with instrumentals that sound fit for the old school greats like A Tribe Called Quest or The Beastie Boys. This along with the all-star cast of featured artists makes Wack Album a work to be respected (seriously, the catalogue of talent seen here is more than impressive).
There are only a few disappointments with The Wack Album. ‘I’m a Hustler’ and ‘I Run NY’ are two of the weaker songs found here. The lack of other interludes besides the hilarious ‘Dramatic Intro’ and ‘Where Brooklyn At?’ is a disappointment as they could have added a sense of continuity to the project.
At the end of the day, you absolutely get what you pay for from The Lonely Island. Fans of good comedy from artists who clearly love what they do will enjoy this album. And if you’re looking for music with a little more wit than seen in hip-hop today, The Wack Album is definitely for you.
Just as his name suggests, Action Bronson’s persona is more than a straight hip-hop artist. He is a movie character conveyed through rhyming. The act lends itself to Bronson’s heavy use of storytelling in his music and narrative style to his less structured songs. He tows the line between a successful flashy gangster and low-class street urchin. The rich/poor dynamics of style add to the creativity of his raps and make for an entertaining listening experience. SAAAB Stories is no exception to the rule as Bronson gives another glimpse into a day in the life. With only seven songs clocking in under a half an hour, SAAAB is a concentrated dose of Action. His past releases have never been very long but the brevity of the EP is almost criminal considering the quality of sound.
He hits us with various subjects in a short time and creates some real gems. ‘No Time’ is a feel good song about living the high life in the here in now. ‘Strictly 4 My Jeeps’ hits hard and fast with Bronson rhyming along with the quick-paced instrumental. The biggest surprise comes from ‘Alligator’ which starts off as a typical trap song but flips into an account of a neighborhood good-girl-gone-bad. Bronson’s ability to move seamlessly through these different themes all while maintaining his signature flow and sound is noteworthy and much appreciated in a genre of music dominated by one-dimensional artists.
Besides his unique style and sound, Action Bronson is also known to collaborate with quality producers (see Blue Chips with Party Supplies and Rare Chandeliers with Alchemist). This project is handled by Harry Fraud, a young producer who is continually impressing listeners with his creative samples and smooth beats. He brings some of his best to the table with all seven songs of this EP sounding good. The instrumentation for ‘The Rockers’ in my opinion stands above the rest although anyone can make a solid argument for the other six. Another notable beat is found on ‘Strictly 4 My Jeeps’. The fast driving boom-bap of the drums lends itself well to the aggressive rhymes of Bronson mentioned above.
Even with such a small amount of music, Bronson manages to fit in some quality features. Big Body Bes does his usual hype work on the first track, ’72 Virgins’. Wiz Khalifa lays down some nice bars in ‘The Rockers’ while Prodigy and Raekwon add clout and bravado to ‘Seven Series Stories’. It should be said that all of these features complement Action Bronson’s efforts rather than overshadow them (which often the case for projects from less talented artists).
Fans of Action Bronson will love SAAAB Stories as it serves as a quick fix for well-crafted music until another official release comes. For those new to Bronson, this EP is a great sampler for what the man has to offer. With great rhyming over great beats, the only notable flaw is that Stories ends before listeners are ready for the ride to be over.
IV Play is the appropriately named fourth studio album by The-Dream, one of hip-hop’s more prevalent and established singers. Staying true to form, Dream is responsible for the production most of the tracks. He stamps each song with various techno effects and manipulates the layers of instrumentals in a way that gives the album a futuristic feel from beginning to end. This, in conjunction with The-Dream’s vocal effects, sets IV Play apart from other R & B albums.
Dream starts the album gunning at full speed with big features on the songs. Names like Jay-Z, Kelly Roland and Fabulous attract attention and add star power to The-Dream’s efforts. Exceptions of the best include the solid bars from Pusha T on ‘P*ssy’ and a seductive Beyonce on ‘Turnt’. The best part about these features is the fact that none of them overshadow Dream’s vocals. They help rather than mask talent. Most of the guests appear in the first of the half of the album and gives IV Play an unbalanced look from the surface.
Despite this, it is hard to ignore the solo work by the The-Dream as he sings about all aspects of love. ‘Loving You/Crazy’ has fast paced rhythm that is reminiscent of Usher’s best dance hits. ‘New Orleans’ features The-Dream at his most lyrically creative. He reassures the ladies about his non-superficial love in ‘Self -Conscious’. He isn’t afraid to be honest about his more carnal intentions. ‘IV Play’ is a song about The-Dream’s desire to skip the fooling around and go straight to sex. ‘P*ssy’, mentioned above, is as up front about sex as the title suggests.
These songs are merely examples of the variety of subject matters and tone that IV Play has to offer. Personal favorites of mine are ‘Where Have You Been’ (a heartfelt lament to an absent lover) and ‘Too Early’ (a song that channels old school Rhythm and Blues with an emphasis on Blues). There is something for most listeners here and that is what makes this album impressive. The-Dream manages to hit a number of themes all while staying true to his style. A good number of these songs could be hits on the radio and in the club which is a testament to Dream’s production skills.
The album can come across as unbalanced and all over the place at first listen. But if you are fan of The-Dream or progressive R&B in general, IV Play is absolutely for you.
In a world that is often cruel and unfair, the Ugly Heroes (made up of producer Apollo Brown and rappers Red Pill and Verbal Kent) aim to be modern day champions. The self – titled album Ugly Heroes is a concise one, consisting of 15 tracks. The theme and message are clear as Verbal Kent and Red Pill waste no time laying down their lives and perspectives on each of Apollo Brown’s masterful instrumental. As expected by the fans who know him, Apollo comes with top of the line beats that are forged from excellent sample work. Songs like ‘Take It or Leave It” and “This is Life” are the best examples of Brown’s music both standing out on its own and setting the mood for the gritty rhymes of Kent and Pill.
The two have quite a lot to say. Instead of fancy lyricism or gimmicky delivery, Kent and Pill opt for straight bars to comment on the realities of the world. ‘Desperate’ is a song about the harsh life at the bottom of the social ladder. ‘Graves’ features the two rappers reporting on the lifelong struggle to earn enough to survive. ‘Impaired Judgment’ offers a relatable tale about the two dealing with their inner doubts and issues. ‘God’s Day Off’ features the two MCs at their best lyrically as they both spit about maintaining their efforts towards success despite their human flaws. The album closes with ‘Push’, an inspirational track with line about perseverance and fighting for your dreams despite the circumstances.
This is music with a meaning that most will have no trouble relating to and sympathizing with. It is clear from the concentrated number of the songs, the high quality instrumentation and bleak rhymes that the Ugly Heroes wanted to make an impact on whoever takes the time to listen. This album succeeds on all fronts with only minor gripes. The simplicity of the song structure is disappointing with music coming from such a creative team. Either Verbal Kent or Red Pill will start off with hook following then the next rapper after that. Like I said, it is a small issue that does little to diminish the impact of this powerful project.
Ugly Heroes makes the audience take a hard look at a harsh reality and provides examples to follow in the day to day struggle to make something from nothing. This album is for listeners looking for pure and honest hip hop that pulls no punches.