No matter how a music journalist does his or her work in 2014, the folding of Vibe’s and XXL’s print editions earlier this month shouldn’t represent a shriveling of reader interest so much as a shift in the way readers explore music media. Especially with regular and semi-regular publications — as opposed to online dailies — careful planning and editing are at a premium, and ultimately, The Plug is supposed to mirror that process, following the aforementioned mags in our own digital way.
Ideally, The Plug will be a source for extensive hip-hop coverage that’s engaged and well-researched, among other reader-respecting qualities. There’s no reason to feel like you have to read it all in one sitting; however, let it be known that a great many hours went into each aspect of this edition (not to mention the first two), and that has us confident that your time won’t be wasted.
In this volume, we review 17 new hip-hop releases, pick apart the majority of Cam’ron’s studio work, and talk to the instructor behind Georgia Regents University’s new course on Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city.
Trappers and Philosophers: Put it in a Song
By Michael Madden
Four weeks in, Georgia Regents University English professor Adam Diehl estimates that he’s mentioned Compton’s Kendrick Lamar, by name, in 90 percent of the “Good Kid, Mad Cities” class sessions he’s taught this fall. Yes, the course focuses on the incredibly dense and structurally ambitious Kendrick album that came out in October 2012, good kid, m.A.A.d city. Yes, this is already happening.
By now, Kendrick, 27, is Scorsese in ’76, Tiger in ’00, LeBron in ’07: a young gun already so accomplished that his mark on his field can’t be erased. GKMC is one of the main reasons for this. In reviews upon its release, a number of music journos were compelled to make literary connections — James Joyce’s gargantuan Ulysses was a common comparison. Whether or not that was stretching it, GKMC is an artistic work that no one in hip-hop has matched since, one that’s equal parts immediate and cerebral. This shit is vital.
Diehl, 31, has “always been one to refer to hip-hop in class,” and he ultimately believes GKMC can help his students write better. With a voice a little like that of 30 Rock actor Jack McBrayer, Diehl tells me over the phone that he didn’t think particularly highly of Kendrick at first. “I had been hearing the buzz about Kendrick for months [during the run-up to GKMC],” he says. “I thought the songs were interesting on the radio, but I couldn’t really get my head around [the hype]. The more times I heard ‘Poetic Justice’, the less sense it made, and then same thing for ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’.”
Eventually, the album (to borrow a phrase used by MC Eiht on 1993’s “Streiht Up Menace” and again on Kendrick’s “m.A.A.d city”) woke his punk ass up. “I finally listened to the whole album through YouTube and decided, ‘This sounds pretty intricate. I think I should buy it and give it a chance.’ I made a copy for my wife, and we both listened to it all fall last year, almost every day.” Diehl says he knew within a week of first hearing the entire album that he wanted to teach at least one of its songs — he started with “Swimming Pools (Drank)”. Within a month, he knew he wanted to teach the whole thing.
“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”, the 12-minute two-parter that touches on family, violence, prostitution, and religion, is Diehl’s favorite GKMC song to dissect. “There’s no way you could deny ‘Sing About Me’,” he says. “It’s just overwhelming. I’ve heard persona raps like ‘Stan’ by Eminem, but for Kendrick, it’s even more immersed in his album, because here’s Keisha’s sister [asking], ‘Why did you make a song about my sister?’ If you listen to the album, you get maybe 75 percent of that song, but you really need [2011’s “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)”] to be able to understand the middle third.”
Deft analysis like that is why Diehl had no problem convincing his superiors at GRU to let him teach the album. But it’s not like his students get to listen to it over and over again in class all semester.
Kendrick subtitled the album A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar, so Diehl would be remiss not to include at least one film in the syllabus. Sure enough, he chose John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, and, he says, “is good kid, m.A.A.d city, just not with quite as many episodes.” Diehl has also implemented works by James Joyce (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), James Baldwin (including the short stories “Going to Meet the Man” and “The Rockpile”), and Gwendolyn Brooks (poems including “The Mother” and “Kitchenette Building”). “All those writers,” he says, “are telling stories about escaping from the madness of the city but still being able to tell the stories of the city. I think that’s what Kendrick is doing as well.”
Despite the complexity of Kendrick’s lyrics, the most literary part of the album might be the skits. “The skits with his mom and dad on voicemail,” Diehl says, “seem so real because [Kendrick] allowed them to be themselves, and they still have a lot of concern for their son. You get to the end of ‘Real’ and his dad is saying, ‘Anyone can carry a gun, but being real is God. Being real is carrying responsibility for yourself.’ [The album is] a starting point for a long discussion about the inner city, and about violence and especially gang violence, and young black males and why they’re plighted different from their white, Asian, and Hispanic brethren.
“The running theme about trying to rise above the status quo in Compton [is] what I’ve envisioned the whole class to be about. What everyone in society needs to see is [that] these are real people. They’re in a war zone. It may not look like Baghdad or Kabul, but there are police helicopters flying over these neighborhoods every day. There are SWAT teams breaking down doors every day. That’s a life that most people, including me, are not accustomed to at all. But it’s still America and [these people] are citizens.”
Frankly, Compton is way too notorious for a place with a population under 100,000, and you can start to grasp the impact of the bloodshed if you explore a tool on The Los Angeles Times‘ website called The Homicide Report. You can do this with any area of Los Angeles County, but with Compton, there comes a heightened sense of stagnation: These things aren’t getting resolved.
Out of the non-GKMC works studied in Diehl’s course, Boyz n the Hood most resembles GKMC. Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and his girlfriend Brandi (Nia Long) are united in being sick and tired of everything that plagues their South Los Angeles, but whereas she seems to accept it for what it is, he’s vengeful. Ricky (Morris Chestnut) has an outlet in football, and his running speed comes to be a metaphor for the stranglehold of the violence. Doughboy (Ice Cube) is Ricky’s pessimistic older brother, losing faith in God and generally shaking his fist at the world between sips of his 40.
The film is now a classic, and because of it, many GKMC listeners had a vivid idea of what Compton is like going into the album. It also makes Kendrick’s situation more vivid. In calling himself a good kid — in those words — Kendrick elevated himself above the stereotype of the young, black, male Comptonite. Two questions follow: How has he accomplished this? And can he keep it up?
“i”, the polarizing, Isley Brothers-sampling Kendrick single that may or not be on his upcoming album, has been described as his “Happy”. Personally, I like the song, although I usually prefer his grittier work. My favorite Kendrick song is the Jay Rock- and Anna Wise-featuring “Money Trees”, which, like “Backseat Freestyle” off GKMC, only reveals itself to be as smart as it is in the context of the album. On its own, it can sound like arrogant robbery-rap, plain and simple: “Me and my niggas tryna get it, ya bish/ Hit the house lick, tell me is you wit it, ya bish?/ Home invasion was persuasive/ From nine to five I know it’s vacant, ya bish.”
Ultimately, a sense of purpose unites “i”, “Money Trees”, and the rest of Kendrick’s material to date, whether it’s with a story of young love, an anecdote of gang violence, or a humorous skit. With “i”, Kendrick is seconding a Hunter S. Thompson quote, though with a more personal bent: “Good news is rare these days, and every glittering ounce of it should be cherished and hoarded and worshipped and fondled like a priceless diamond.” Whether bringing good news or bad, Kendrick is just tryna get it.
Reviews: 17 Releases From August and September
Brian Fresco and Tree – SoulMoney EP
Brian Fresco and Tree, both of Chicago, sound like realists, guys who seem content to crank out songs whether or not any of them stick commercially. Fresco takes the majority of the rapping on the SoulMoney EP, which takes its name from his Save Money camp and Tree’s self-explanatory “soultrap” production sound. Tree, meanwhile, takes the mic here and there, notably on standouts “Rose” and “My Niggas”, but he mainly handles the production, chirp-ifying a vocal sample on that intro and wrangling up funky peals of guitar on “Take a Breath”. Fresco test-drives some Auto-Tune for the Lil Durk-esque “On My Soul”, but usually, he gets by on being himself, making tongue-in-cheek murder-rap threats and twisting syllables every which way. –Michael Madden
DJ Mustard – 10 Summers
DJ Mustard has basically defined the sound of LA’s pop-rap scene, his signature sound a hybrid of bass-heavy music suitable for both giggin’ and jerkin’; it could be considered hyphy if it weren’t so SoCal. 10 Summers is billed as his debut album, but that distinction might as well go to YG’s My Krazy Life — one of the best albums of the year and one primarily produced by Mustard. More than any other rapper here, YG is comfortable over this style of production, and his chemistry with Mustard shows, but the beats are straightforward enough that other rappers can find their lane, too. Mustard allocates time to other local talent like Nipsey Hussle, Dom Kennedy, Jay 305, and Ty Dolla $ign, alongside national acts like 2 Chainz, Rick Ross, and Wiz Khalifa. In the end, Mustard is at the mercy of these artists, the ones who turn his beats into full-fledged songs. Given that he’s one of the best and most well-received producers in hip-hop right now, though, none of the rappers phone it in with their verses; they value his status as a hitmaker. DJ Mustard is great, and he’ll be remembered for defining the sound of an era, but this project could’ve been improved if he let his own production skills stand on their own and get experimental rather than aiming for a string of pop-rap hits that don’t fully fit that bill. –Will Hagle
G-Unit – The Beauty of Independence EP
It’s been six years since the G-Unit camp, headed by 50 Cent, released their sophomore album, Terminate on Sight, but it feels like even longer on account of the ugly breakup that followed. The Beauty of Independence is the group’s first release as a group since disbanding (and since adding Young Money throwaway Kidd Kidd to the mix), and it’s a solid reintroduction to the distinctive voices offered, but it’s weird to hear Young Buck rap something like, “I really don’t do no conversatin’, no call waitin’/ I know y’all hating, I’m cool with it” on a song called “I Don’t Fuck With You”, given his history with phone calls and 50 Cent. Lloyd Banks’ entire verse on “Changes” feels like a piercing side eye to the G-Unit general. That’s a microcosm of the entire EP: lots of legitimate rapping with odd context and even odder subliminal subtext. –Sheldon Pearce
Homeboy Sandman – Hallways
Queens MC Homeboy Sandman fell one semester shy of completing two different graduate degrees, and more recently, he’s written about music and other culture for The Huffington Post and Gawker. But he’s not particularly academic in his brand of indie rap. Though little to nothing about it suggests “2014,” Hallways, his second full-length for Stones Throw, sounds as fresh as anything he’s done, and it’s as witty too: “The streets aren’t paved with gold/ At least they paved though, ya know?” Sand asks on the sardonic “America, the Beautiful”. Even though he works with several producers here (as opposed to his one-producer releases), the album is cohesive enough, with primary colors brightening knockers like Jonwayne’s “America, the Beautiful” and calmer tracks like “Unraveling”, which is backed by Dutch composer and lute player Jozef Van Wissem (!). –Michael Madden
Jeezy – Seen It All: The Autobiography
Seen It All: The Autobiography binds some of the strongest production Jeezy has ever rapped over, including the electric guitar and piano on opener “1/4 Block”, the eerie synth riffs on “Holy Ghost”, and the celestial soul of “Beautiful” (which features Game and Rick Ross, formerly one of Jeezy’s nemeses). However, that only begins to explain what makes the Atlanta veteran’s fifth album his best to date. Now 36 (which at least partly explains why he officially scratched the “Young” in “Young Jeezy” last year), he sounds more assured of his leading position in street rap than ever. After all, he was the “first to tell you motherfuckers “Trap or Die” (in reference to his 2005 mixtape). The immaculate title track, where Jeezy defines his dedication by rhyming “Benzo” with “ten toes,” is justified as a Jay Z collabo about the transition from dealing to dazzling. Jeezy’s getting serious mileage from that combination, writing about his ascent with the hunger of his “Let’s Get It/Sky’s the Limit” self. –Michael Madden
Jet Life – Audio D
Curren$y and the rest of Jet Life have reveled in lush production, canvases on which they can splash stoner mantras and smooth hooks. Audio D, the clique’s latest mixtape, continues that tradition, but only to a degree — these beats feel trimmer than most of their work, with the guitar, strings, and horns calling less attention to themselves. Though a couple of these songs approach the six-minute mark (including the Curren$y highlight “A Lil Sumthin (Come Up Big on Em)”), most fall short of three minutes. Appropriately, these rappers are quick to pump out quotable lines, with Curren$y capturing the gold as usual: “Old rap money still comin’/ Old rap mogul tried to steal somethin’ from me/ I thought that was funny.” The Westbrook to his Durant is Young Roddy, who brings high energy to “Playa Stats” and “Trying”, while Le$ shines on “Jackin 4 Beats”. –Michael Madden
Lecrae – Anomaly
Lecrae is the Christian rapper at the moment, and yet he rarely makes his faith obvious on Anomaly. Is the album, his seventh to date and first Billboard 200 No. 1, compromised because he’s downplaying his claim to fame? Maybe. Apart from that, it’s a legitimately solid album with ambitious production and bold hooks. “Nuthin” is the best example of Lecrae’s ability to put together a track that’s both religious (in its message that some kind of change needs to happen) and secular (the beat is basically a DJ Mustard imitation). The “Audemars” hook on “Timepiece” is enough to seal the song as the album’s catchiest, and the rest of the track is evidence of Lecrae’s ability to imbue his music with perfectly human worries and hopes. –Michael Madden
Lil Bibby – Free Crack 2
Lyricism and Chicago drill nihilism are two sides of a coin, and Lil Bibby has his foot within both descriptors. That’s not to say he’s performing a perpetual balancing act. What he lacks in poetics he more than makes up for with bluntness and a gravelly, beyond-his-years voice that calls concrete realities into existence. That helps make his Free Crack 2 collaboration with Kevin Gates, “We Are Strong”, a visceral highlight: “I can tell these young boys ain’t got no heart in ’em/ Niggas funny, you don’t even like to talk with ’em,” and that’s what grounds the mixtape through the whizzing trap production and soulful turns (“What You Live For”). The mixtape’s main goal is uncovering the dangers of Chicago’s jungle — exposition over humanism — whether it’s via sticky hooks (“I Be On It”) or brutal details (“My big brother prolly be somewhere up in the feds/ My lil brother prolly be somewhere in jail or dead”). This sometimes backfires, as the project is mostly guided by a money-driven worldview. Regardless, you will be thrilled. –Brian Josephs
Lil Kim – Hard Core
Maybe it’s the title’s homage to her 1996 debut or maybe it’s the countless, tiresome allusions to Biggie Smalls, but it feels painfully obvious that Lil Kim has a longing for her glory days, and it’s even more evident that she wants us to remember them, too. Kim feels the constant need to remind us she’s still here, perhaps to soothe her own bruised ego, and she does so primarily by targeting those created in her image, specifically You Know Who. Hard Core isn’t so much a return to form as it is a 30-minute pat on the back. To that end, one might argue that most rap mixtapes are, too, but when listening to “Kimmie Blanco”, “Trendsetter”, or “Whenever You See”, it’s hard not to feel like it isn’t all just one big attention grab. The rapping is spotty throughout over a strange assortment of beats, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to justify keeping up with this living legend. The further removed she gets from the time she had “it,” the more desperately she pines to get it back. –Sheldon Pearce
Mick Jenkins – The Water[s]
As the story goes, Chicago’s Mick Jenkins started rapping because a competition at the small Alabama college he was attending offered the winner Beats headphones. He didn’t win (he got second place), but it ignited a flame that extended from his love of writing poetry. His second mixtape, The Water[s], is full of thematic nuggets, mainly the healing functions of water. It’s a deft, highly intricate tape complete with evocative songs that go from danceable (“THC”) to highlighting his rapid-fire flow (the cloud-rap of “The Waters”) to Section.80-style introspection (“Jazz”) to boasting his slurred, flamboyant cadence (“Canada Dry”). He’s remarkably versatile, seamlessly bouncing from aggressive, baritone raps to sung vocal hooks. In interviews and directly on “Martyrs”, Jenkins has positioned himself directly opposite artists like Chief Keef and other members of Chicago’s drill scene. Sure enough, his ambition is comparable to Chance the Rapper’s, but with more self-seriousness and urgency. –Josh Terry
Statik Selektah – What Goes Around
Massachusetts’ Statik Selektah is one of the more talented producers working today, using unique samples and crafting memorable beats for a number of different artists. This guy must have the biggest Rolodex in the rap game, bringing out an insane posse of features for his newest record, What Goes Around, including Snoop Dogg, Black Thought, Ab-Soul, and Freddie Gibbs. It’s a concept mixtape if ever such a thing existed, created almost entirely from jazz samples and inspired by an interaction Statik had with Kanye West during the MBDTF recording sessions, in which Kanye remarked that “jazz is dead.” I’d argue that jazz is finding a strong niche in hip-hop right now and is healthier than ever thanks to people like BadBadNotGood, Flying Lotus, and Statik Selektah, with this album standing out as proof that jazz is as viable in hip-hop as ever before. –Pat Levy
Swet Shop Boys – Swet Shop EP
Swet Shop Boys is the culmination of years of different cultures coming together, not just rappers from the UK and US but of Indian and Pakistani descent working together and putting out one of the better EPs of the year. Heems (formerly of Das Racist) and British actor/rapper Riz Ahmed (aka Riz MC) culled a wealth of influences for the four-song effort, citing several different native languages, poetry, and rap as important to the genesis of the project. “Benny Lava” (produced by Ryan Hemsworth) and“Urvasi” (produced by Lushlife) are both standout tracks that touch on Indian cuisine, the perception of men of color with white women, and what it’s like to be a minority in a big city like NYC or London. It’s a serious EP with a splash of Heems’ trademark wit: “Syphilis experiments, death to the Tuskegee man/ Somewhere in New York they say death to the squeegee man.” For those with a narrow scope when it comes to hip-hop, do yourself a favor and let the Swet Shop Boys educate you. –Pat Levy
Travi$ Scott — Days Before Rodeo
On “Days Before Rodeo: The Prayer”, Travi$ Scott raps, “After three number one albums would’ve thought I’d feel amazin’.” Even though he produced tracks on Kanye West’s Yeezus, Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, and Wale’s The Gifted last year, the 22-year-old Houston native is still antsy for more chances to prove himself. His sophomore mixtape, Days Before Rodeo, picks up where his promising Owl Pharaoh project left off. Where his debut showed his darkly shaded production, Scott takes a backseat as a producer, letting other beatmakers (including Lex Luger and Metro Boomin) handle the majority of the tracks. As a result, Days Before Rodeo feels more of the moment, with trendy guest spots from Young Thug (“Skyfall” and “Mamacita”) and Migos (“Sloppy Toppy”) occasionally overshadowing the young MC. Still, $cott shines with zealous and commanding wordplay on tracks like “Days Before Rodeo: The Prayer” and “Zombies”. While he still has a ways to go to fulfill his potential as a Kanye protege, Days Before Rodeo is a promising gap-filler before his debut album, Rodeo. –Josh Terry
Twista – Dark Horse
Twista raps fast, but few acknowledge the rapper’s skill aside from his technical quickness. On Dark Horse, he acknowledges his lifetime of underappreciation yet still strives for prominence, alluding to the album’s title by comparing himself to a Ray Allen or a Mike Miller. In the first song, he admits he’s bitter when he’s not mentioned alongside the greats. But if the masses are ignoring Twista, that’s not stopping him from trying to garner their attention. Now 40, his typical breathlessness has an urgent energy to it, like he’s trying to prove his talent and prominence despite being well past his prime. Songs like “Devil’s Angel” play like they were unearthed from Twista’s hardcore underground past, while others like “Getting Paper” recall his more R&B and pop-oriented days. “Crisis”, featuring Tech N9ne, is a fast-rappin’-ass-rappers-rappin’-fast track like Tech’s “Worldwide Choppers”. Wiz Khalifa appears on the weed anthem “Burnin” because of course he does, and Twista almost sounds hypocritical rapping at 150 words per second about smoking and riding slow. The catchiest track here is closer “Throwin’ My Money”, which benefits from an R. Kelly hook the way any song could. Twista is smart to acknowledge his outsider status on the album, from its title to the words that fly by in his verses. It makes you think about how good he’s always been, Dark Horse being no exception. –Will Hagle
Ty Dolla $ign – $ign Language
On his Beach House series of mixtapes, L.A. singer/rapper Ty Dolla $ign wove in and out of sexily sung hooks, lush and syrupy production (usually from Ty himself, his D.R.U.G.S crew, and DJ Mustard), and becoming progressively more addictive. His latest, $ign Language, might be his best, thriving on the same hedonism and hyper-sexual bedroom jams that are Dolla $ign’s bread and butter. “Stretch/She Better” channels R. Kelly at his most aggressively seductive, while “Lord Knows” features decent verses from Rick Ross and Dom Kennedy. On “Issue”, on the other hand, producer FKi recycles the same Les Sins-sampling beat he used on Rome Fortune’s “Grind” to less stellar results. A high point comes toward the end, where Dolla $ign’s incarcerated-for-life younger brother TC sings a lovely hook on “Big TC in Too Deep”. Recorded in prison, the tinny quality of the record adds to its gravitas, adding anticipation for Dolla $ign’s debut, Free TC. With his trademark abundance of ear-candy hooks, sexualized vigor, and adventurous production, Dolla $ign remains one of the most exciting singer/rapper combos. –Josh Terry
Wara from the NBHD – Kidnapped
Finally, a project that really feels like an extension of the artist who made it. Kidnapped, the newest mixtape from Wara from the NBHD is brilliant, produced and written entirely by the Atlanta-via-Brooklyn rapper. The beats are either brooding or bouncing, often built around a piano chord or a simple drum beat. They truly sound unlike most other beats that up-and-comers are willing to try out, with key changes and hooks that don’t even come in until the verses are over, an unorthodox tactic for sure. The subject matter is all over the place, but being real is a dominant theme, like on “Slangin”, where Wara’s brother educates him on the dangers of getting involved in dealing drugs. “Trying to be like me, well that ain’t gonna get you far/ It’s better things to do, plus you got handles, play basketball.” I’m interested to see where Wara goes after this tape, because he’s clearly proved that he has a knack for both the production and lyrical side of the art form. The kid from the NBHD (neighborhood) is moving on up. –Pat Levy
Young Thug – 1017 Thug 3 (The Finale)
1017 Thug 3, the final remnants of Young Thug‘s stint with Gucci Mane’s 1017 Brick Squad imprint, is the equivalent of trying to get the very last use out of a tube of toothpaste. This is very clearly a last-ditch effort to make good on what remaining Thug files are left on the Brick Squad hard drive. It’s a shoddy attempt to piece together a record without its architect, whose stock continues to skyrocket regardless. Thug contracts the Mustard virus going around rap right now for “LA Swag” and steps into his stride for “Fuck Ya Girl”, but there simply isn’t enough to save this release from the truth hanging over its head: These leftover tracks probably weren’t ever meant to see the light of day. –Sheldon Pearce