Talent has never been important for a lasting rap career. The key is even less tangible, but far more valued: Persona, either on or off the record or preferable both. Unfortunately Que struggling to prove he has either.
Titled Who is Que?—a SEO for-pay rap release, genius—the brief EP doesn’t give much time to answer that question. “OG Bobby Johnson” was the single that justified why what was originally announced as a mixtape turned into an EP, but it wasn’t his first “hit.” Last year with the still just buzzing Migos, Que got a hit with “Young Nigga,” a song of that repeated the title phrase to a point of extreme meaning. There was a kind of an inclusion that appear in the track, as if it was really only meant to be for his #newatlanta rapper and producer friends. The song was a basement recording studio anthem that made far too much sense in clubs and cars.
The same crew love aspect applied to “OG Bobby Johnson,” which is named after the song’s lone producer, Bobby Johnson. Unlike the looseness of “Young Nigga,” “OG Bobby Johnson” shows Que as a rapper whose commitment to rap might be a little too much. Where some songs falter after a verse or have a bum line, Que doesn’t allow for that to happen, so the technetronic beat is given equally robotic verses that lock into place. Perfect singular song, but is a hard style to keep interest and successfully repeat. But Que still tries. “From the Jump” and “Time” are stilted triplet rhyming patterns that can be grating with the three members of Migos and certainly so for solo artist. Que and Migos on “Young Nigga” did have something really spark, which Migos picked up and made flourish, but Who is Que? cannot make that connection.
The obvious term is “Ratchet & B.” That’s what Jeff Weiss coined talking about TeeFlii early last year, when his mix of YG raunch and The-Dream’s slyness sounded a bit more unique if not wholly original. A year later: TeeFlii is on a major label, Ty$ got his own Top 40 hit and the minimalist Cali sound that seemed so limited before has found its way across the country. History is usually not too kind to forced genre names—reveals “Witch House” tattoo—but “Ratchet & B” feel right for these strip club, sex obsessed tunes that beg for summer sun after this polar-vortexed winter.
“2 AM (Young California Remix)” – Adrian Marcel (feat. Problem & Sage the Gemini): Problem and Sage the Gemini are two guys whose careers could easily subsist on R&B singles and being those “California Ratchet Guys.” Not that they haven’t created excellent music on their own, but their respective personas only need 16 bars to shine. This “2 AM” remix from the young singer Adrian Marcel proves this fact, because while I’ve been told that Marcel is one to lookout for, the late-night minimalism here fits effortless rapping far too well. And, I’ll admit this might just be myself, but there is a very “Chill Out” vibe to “2 AM” that almost hints at Owl City, which a place I never thought I’d desire R&B to approach.
“2 On” – Tinashe (feat. Schoolboy Q): To keep chucking up 2s, here is Tinashe’s “2 On” with a sadly leaned out Schoolboy Q. But no amount of mediocre rapping can hold back this immaculate single. DJ Mustard’s production and Tinashe’s suave recall less Cassie’s “Me & U,” but one of Diddy’s late 2000s singles which had a sonic tinge of one too many shots of Ciroc. But, Tinashe isn’t dealing with love lost, she’s faded with her clique on a mission and DJ Mustard and Schoolboy Q are just buzzed along for the ride.
“24 Hours” – TeeFlii (feat. 2 Chainz): The good and bad column for TeeFlii is pretty even. On the Pro-side is that hooks practically form from him just saying any phrase; on the Negative-side is that he leans on repeating certain words (“Annie”) to a point of obnoxious meaninglessness. “24 Hours” leans on his strength, where nearly every line could be its own hook and it doesn’t hurt DJ Mustard’s beat is only a side-step away from his biggest 2014 hit “Show Me.” And just in case future radio listeners want to be even more confused by this potential hit, 2 Chainz verse regurgitates a number of lines from previous songs. Ratchets don’t need originality.
“Do It To Ya” – YG (feat. TeeFlii): The way that 2010s rap has started to cannibalize its own history could be a cause for concern for the genre that traditionally treats history as an unwanted used napkin but that isn’t the case here. DJ Mustard swiping The Dogg Pound’s “Let’s Play House,” reduces down the song to just a few piano chord and snaps to distinguish it from the suave of the original. And while TeeFlii might have the unfortunate task of repeating “do it to ya,” YG even on his major label debut remains a going down first kind of nigga. *praying hands emoji*
“Drop It” – Trevor Jackson (feat. B.o.B.): This is probably the least “R&B” song on this list and honestly fits closer to the more party oriented Ratchet songs I discussed a couple months ago. “Drop It” doesn’t have the personality of “Paranoid,” the fucking perfect sample of “Show Me,” or even the star-studdedness—Chris Brown and Lil Wayne—of “Loyal,” B.o.B. doesn’t count. But, Trevor Jackson, again could there be a less star-ready name, has an effective song though not thrilling song that unfortunately cannot keep up with its sonic brethren on the radio right now.
“Na Na” – Trey Songz: There are a number of sonic tics that give away a DJ Mustard song. The “Ha” chants, the drums, the way that the subject matter seems to be invoking a strip club no matter the artist. Not that Trey Songz hasn’t relished a kind of Post-R. Kelly kind of sleaze (see: every time attempts to rap), it’s just that with a Mustard beat everything gets an intentional, or maybe not, layer of grime. The song isn’t a great Mustard or Songz single, but it’s an interesting show of form in just how malleable a singer and a producer can be for a specific sonic moment.
“Or Nah” – Ty$ (feat. Wiz Khalifa & DJ Mustard): Ty$ already has a one Top 40 single with the insta-classic “Paranoid.” “Or Nah” doesn’t have the immediate narrative conceit that makes “Paranoid” so repeatable even after one knows “that having two bitches in the club” cannot be a good idea. Instead the song leans on the other strength of Ty$ as a songwriter is that he understands how is voice can linger to string out a song’s hook. The song takes on a smoked-out conversation where our narrator is either talking to a woman, or maybe just himself, once he asks a question like “you gonna make these eggs cheesy or nah?”
“Slide Through” – Rayven Justice: First off shout to site owner and untouchable random regional hit finder, David Drake with mentioning this over at Complex last week. Somewhere between an YG mixtape deep cut and John Hart’s “Who Booty,” this song again shows the kind of amped up bro-ness of these “Ratchet & B” songs. A hook that interpolates C-Murder’s “My Niggas,” which has become an almost foundational text for this current rap generation, and a silk smooth beat makes this worth every listen after the first two dozen.
“$nitches” – Lupe Fiasco (feat. Ty$): Lupe Fiasco at one point rapped on a major label rap album from the perspective of a hamburger. Though Fiasco has been a strong rapper for over a decade and his sneaky ear for pop hooks, which he and others would likely deny, has been lose recently with him too caught up in his own #twitterdeep thoughts. “$nitches” isn’t a Rashomon like tale of black love instead it’s a 5pm three drinks deep convo amongst the bros talking shit and scheming about the opposite sex. Uplifting or conscious-minded this isn’t. Enjoy the Cali weed, a cold Lime-a-rita while relaxing with those closest to ya.
A few months ago visiting a friend at school, and we went out to a bar where Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” was played over and over and over again. I’ve already written about the song before, but each time I hear it fills it with a fresh context. Since coming back home for spring break I’ve heard “Dark Horse” multiple times on the radio, the first time on a late night mix, where I assumed it would just be the Juicy J verse, but nope the entire song played. Then on an afternoon countdown segment where it appearing right after Rich Homie Quan’s “Walk Through” and K. Camp’s “Cut Her Off,” which made my mind melt just a bit.
Despite the Clear Channelification of terrestrial radio, there is still a unique character that can shine through certain stations. Charlotte’s Power 98 (WPEG) has a strong lean towards R&B, which I’ve heard more Marcus Houston than probably any one person would like to have heard, but it also means that in 2014 there is a number of Ratchet&B singles on the station’s playlist. But, where does Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” fit into that station? It doesn’t.
The song with Juicy J and produced by Max Martin, Dr. Luke and Cirkut was an attempt at “Trap (electronic genre),” which somehow claims roots in “Trap (rap genre).” But that variation of Rap at best right now is floundering as California is stealing the shine away from Atlanta; so while people were quick to yell “Versace Versace Verse,” DJ Mustard and Ty$ are the ones with the Billboard Pop hits to back up their urban radio spins. Yet “Dark Horse” has found a way onto at least this rap station’s playlist. This could be the post-“Royals” effect starting to show, as that young New Zealand singer got a hit that read as “rap” even though sonically it sounded like nothing else on rap radio, see also how “Team” has receive no rap/R&B station airplay. “Royals” wasn’t the only hit, as “23” by Mike Will Made and Miley Cyrus was another white girl rap track that rap stations fully embraced.
A song produced by one of the biggest white American pop stars, produced by some of the biggest pop producers in the world and featuring a rapper who’s had at least three career revivals is suddenly “rap.” And Kanye didn’t put out any singles for Yeezus on the radio for what reason.
Rap music for a lot of listeners is fantasy music. The fantasy of being rich enough to have multiple solid gold chains, Versace shades, a Maserati and all that coming from drugs sold on a street corner. One can give it the description of “aspirational,” but being realistic Migos don’t live everyday like their “Versace” video. Yet I come back to that word listening to the young D.C. rapper, Sly Glizzy’s Young Jefe mixtape, which tape is almost too damn positive. Not that he is making “Based” music, but the tape enjoys and rolls around in the cocaine highs once the drug production has gun and the gun shots start ringing.
Glizzy glorifies these gnarly elements of his music, which makes every mention of someone’s passing even more surreal. But that surreality is heightened when he abstracts his music out a bit on “Awesome” that no matter one’s station in life makes it seem that anything can/is possible. Shy Glizzy on Young Jefe stepped more towards the auto-tuned slur of fellow D.C. rapper Fat Trel or the Chicagoan Lil Durk. His lyrical ability stays intact, and the ability for his songs to pull out memorable chorus like “Or Nah” or “I’ma Star” is more immediate.
Rappers have a tendency to say they’re making music for the “streets,” “block,” “hood” or whatever term that indicates they’re trying to have music for “the people.” Glizzy doesn’t make such a declaration because a song’s hook going “Yesterday I was standing on the block and a couple niggas got shot” makes such a boast redundant. He leans heavily on this particular aggressive stance, even though that quality of his music isn’t what makes it captivating. The fully self-actualization of Glizzy’s persona is what allows him to carry songs that speak to his street success, even if the factuality doesn’t matter much to the listener. Not that Glizzy isn’t allowed to make-up these tales whole cloth or that he cannot rap about these topics if they are in fact his life, but his talent isn’t that limited.
Maybe this is a dumb existential crisis discuss with Young Jefe—there is a song about feeling like a “Snow Angel” *praying hands emoji*—but as I keep noticing that these rappers aren’t my elders, and I’m in fact their senior; and I ponder what’s going happen to their careers and where will their music go next once the bodies are on the floor and all of the drugs are sold. For rappers that maintain relevancy into rap middle age (28-38) the next step is to either keep repeating the same tropes or maybe revealing in the consequences of these actions, which is fine (See: 2 Chainz and Scarface) but that just seems a bit fatalistic to be the only musical path. Young Jefe is a strong tape, but there is an unease as my phone is full of assertive tapes from black boys ability to stand above fictional, or not, bodies of other black boys.
The conversation around Chief Keef’s music in light of the controversy over Spin’s review of Finally Richquickly dissipated. The critic in me kind of wondered if there should’ve been a little bit more considered in how many rappers go from no-name to local-fame to internet-meme-fame and just kind of peter out when another younger face pops up, remember when people cared about Huntsville. Especially when there is a certain amount of value given to these rappers that speak on street issues, but are quickly replaced by another who’ll provide an album carbon copy view of the world. That’s the same of any genre or professional field, new waves come and the old one must eventually crash and disperse, but eh. Young Jefe makes me want to say I owe Sly Glizzy more than to just forget him once a younger rapper with a more disjointed styles comes around, but maybe that’s just my own fantasy.
Who cares? Who cares who’s biting Migos’ flow? Who cares if Quavo is the most important rapper of 2014? Who cares what rapper to popularize the triplet rapping pattern? Who care what no-name rapper in the 80s did it first? Who cares?
People seem to care, and most importantly for Migos’ most recent mixtape No Label II, Offset, Quavo and Takeoff care a lot. Otherwise they wouldn’t keep reminding the listener that their style is being copied and you best watch out from those niggas who might take your style. Those niggas! But of course, no names are mentioned in this tape full of stunted self-actualization and shots-but-no-shots.
And that time devoted to “flow stealers” isn’t given to the listeners of No Label II, which isn’t an hour or even an hour and a half long, it’s an unreasonable 96 minutes. No Label II asks one to turn over the vinyl about four times before you even hitting the final side. The length of a mixtape shouldn’t be a deterrent for a listener (see: Isaiah Rashad’s Cilvia Demo EP that is over 45 minutes), but, Migos are not a rap group with enough personas to dodge such a question, because even at half its length very few of these songs are worth the initial slog.
This tape lacks a “Versace,” “FEMA,” “Chinatown,” or damn near any song from last year’s Young Rich Niggas, which held-up over repeated listens but not this time. The tape’s strongest song is “Fight Night,” which owes a lot of its charm from the reversed-out G-Funk beat from Stack Boy Twan, which feels like the only beat to understand the staccacuo rhythm that makes Migos so dynamic. Everything else is trap beat after trap beat, repeated word chorus after repeated word chorus, the exhaustion on the tape’s back end makes it easy to forget there is a fucking MGK feature on here.
On Young Rich Niggas during one of the early track DJ Ray G mentions “Niggas in school making more money than their teachers,” which sounded a bit off. Then on this tape’s opener DJ Ray G says “We the first niggas to come out of A on that real street shit,” my response this time was to laugh. Youthful brash is one of the currencies of rap music that I appreciate the most (see: Shy Glizzy’s Young Jefe), but personal myth-building at some point needs some kind of grounding. No Label II doesn’t ever try and touch the ground; it’s just Migos riding high on their own self-perpetuating hype.
Chicago’s rap scene doesn’t have a dearth of voices. The black kid dealing with life on the street and trying to find themselves in the world before they can legally sip a beer isn’t underrepresented within this musical community. In a way this is a great thing to champion because hearing a black youth community, especially one that has its own fair share of female voices, given a chance to talk their own shit isn’t a novelty, it’s vital. But what seems so necessary one year can becomes uninteresting once the same kids, fail to know what to say once the spotlight remains on their eyes. Welcome to Fazoland from Lil Herb unfortunately wilts under this type of harsh scrutiny put on it.
The typical Drill tropes of guns, gang loyalty and expensive clothes aren’t uninteresting, see: Z Money, Sicko Mob and well entirety of Chief Keef’s discography. Lil Herb has seen praise for his rap ability despite his lack of dynamism from those other acts. And it certainly isn’t his rap ability that’s holding him back, because Chance the Rapper, a talented lyrist, portrayed a Chicago that hears Chief Keef on the radio and sees kids bopping on the same street. Herb’s lyricism though rings hollow, and he doesn’t has his partner Lil Bibby’s bellowing voice to help his Drill shit-talk more magnetic, if not at least more tolerable. So, when local stars like Lil Durk, King L and Lil Reese appear on the tape, their personas and style immediately trump Herb’s wordy gunplay.
Though Herb finds introspection on a track like “Mamma Im Sorry,” it doesn’t counter or even complicate the roteness that bogs down Fazoland. There are a few glimpses into Herb whether as a rapper or person; instead most of the tape is empty posturing that his Chicago bros have already done better. Even Lil Reese, whose rapping ability is well worth questioning, just saying “you a would’ve / could’ve / should’ve nigga” on “On My Soul” offers an aggravated taunt that trumps the rest of the song even when Herb is given more bars to perform. Lil Herb has a lot of words to say about his hometown of Chicago, but together they amount to so little.
Even though Still No Fucks Given is an hour long, K. Michelle sums up the appeal of her entire tape in the introductory bellowing of “Still No Fuuuuuuuucks Given.” There is exhaustion in her voice as she makes this opening declaration, as if she’s coming from an already defensive position for her declaration. But that is the unfortunate place of the reality and now unquestioned R&B star, who has plenty to say with her Valentine’s Day tape in-case people don’t want to get caught up in marked-up dinner prices and corner flower salesmen.
Songs titles like “Baby Momma,” “She Can Have You” and “Devil in You” shows K.Michelle’s disinterest in commercial holiday spirits. But she doesn’t sing from a place of pure vulnerability, as she has found a ground to stand-up for herself and sing-out against those that have wronged her in the past. It’s R&B as a weapon, not a soother for rough times, a soundtrack to late-evening romance. Call up your closest friends, pour up some drinks on the rocks and turn on her remake of “I Love This Shit,” which rings out announcing her affirmation of self-love.
During elementary school summer I went to a “camp” held at my church, which was less so a “camp,” rather just Black summer school. We’d learn about basic grammar rules and do arithmetic in addition to gym classes and pool trips. A lot about this program stuck with me in spite of my youth, and particularly were the history classes, as they weren’t like any school history classes that I had previously taken. Instead of “American History” it was Black History, where in it we learned about African countries, the Civil Rights movement and many different important Black figures whose knowledge I’ve taken for granted too many years of my life, till I recently noticed it leaving me. But what hasn’t left me was the music of Scott Joplin, the words of “Life Every Voice and Sing (The Negro National Anthem),” and those two Civil Rights leaders everyone needs to learn about at some point.
A few years ago DJ Greg Street release a mixtape of sequenced Martin Luther King speeches, but oddly, and maybe not-wisely, underneath the speeches were G-Funk instrumentals, which resulted in hearing Martin Luther King talk about Bull Connor releasing dogs and fire hoses on Civil Rights protestors. The listening experience is a little stomach turning in terms of messing with such a historical document, but the narrative power of King is not lost. A similar effect is heard in a recent tape that collects different speeches from Malcolm X and laces middling Trap beats under his charged and concerned thoughts, especially as he talks about his separation from the Nation of Islam. Both collections are strange artifacts that oddly feel appropriate. Not that these great orators need rap production to keep one’s attention, far from it. But going back to those summer days the motivation of these projects seems so simple: Making sure our people hear the Word, whatever the medium of the day requires.
A singular voice can carry a rapper a long way. Pimp C’s snarl, Lil Wayne’s alien crooks and right now attention should be on Casino’s rocket launcher vocal booms. Best known for being the brother of Future, Casino’s Frank Matthewstape shows style triumphing over the intellectual piddle known as substance. Where the dearth of compelling lyrical content that exists in trap rap can be mind-numbingly repetitive after a while, once a rapper figures out a way to unique to approaching the genre treadmill they can almost say anything in the mic and hold a listener’s attention.
Casino’s voice does more than simply project out; at his most amped (“Right Now”) one can hear the depth of his vocal chords vibration. Though he might be shouting, he isn’t barking into the mic like a DMX or even a Waka Flocka Flame, his aggroed approach out doesn’t sound quite so put on. On “Pocket Watching” where Future deliveries one of his most unhinged out performances since last year’s “Sh!t,” Casino breaks up syllables of words to get them fit in a particular staccato rhyming scheme that even makes a chant of “Turn Up” sound ready to break a pair of headphones’ internal wiring.
Though Waka Flocka Flame hasn’t stopped releasing mixtapes since his last lukewarmly received album, Triple F for Life, Frank Matthews is the best continuation of that Lex Luger and Waka Flocka sound since Flockaveli. But the more time spent with Frank Matthews makes it so apparent just how strong a pairing of Waka and Lex were back in 09/10. Casino gets fine beats from 808 Mafia and other post-Luger and Southside on the Track producers, yet Casino still hasn’t found a producer, who’d push that next step creatively.
The opening of the tape until “Killin Shit,” produced by Malik on the Beat, gives an impression of it being just bo-swinging anthems but then Young Thug’s squawks appear on “Communication” to interrupt that run. Thugger Thugger puts in a good hook and verse, and the rest of the tape has some other high energy moment (“Hell You Talking Bout”), but one cannot help but wonder if Casino only got to work with a beat maker that’d keep him at the tape’s opening intensity. Though that Neo-Crunk style has progressed since the top of the decade—Thanks Mike Will!—Casino sounds like he was put in the spotlight a year too late to continue the form Waka Flocka was perfecting.
North Carolina was in the 60s this weekend and to my joy I worked inside my school’s library during this unseasonably warm February weekend. But to make up for the lack of sun rays and afternoon OG bud lights—no lime-a-ritas over here—I kept listening to DJ Moondawg’s We Invented the Bop mixtape. For impressive Youtube diving ability check out Meaghan Garvey’s review of the tape on Pitchfork and for further reportage on the scene read this Chicago Reader piece by Leor Galil. Personally I just wanted to give a little listening advice for anyone whose already been enjoying the tape.
Throw the tape on “shuffle.” The mixtape opener of “Fiesta” by Sicko Mobb should remain the opening track, because, even though it might be old, looping about four different impossibly catchy melodies mixed with some auto-tuned singing is pretty much how all mixes should begin and especially for a style of music called “Bop.” The actual sequencing of the mixtape is fairly strong, but unsurprisingly familiarity forms on the 25th and 26th go through of the same set-list. And considering most of these tracks are either instruction dance songs or explicit party starting anthems keeping the order loose prevents that particular déjà-vu feeling; will the next song be the synchronized “Dlow Shuffle” or the overly joyful “Killin It” or chantable “One Night?”
Anyway the weather this week at least in North Carolina is mostly in the mid-50s, so maybe not exactly premature-spring party weather. But considering these songs come from the comparatively frozen-over tundra of Chicago. That shouldn’t be an excuse not to Bop to the Right, Bop to the Right, Bop to the Left, Bop to the Left, Kemo Step, Kemo Step and Kemo Step.