The Plug, Vol. 4: Childish Gambino Studied, T.I. Dissected, and Big Bank Hank Remembered

Plus: Dozens of hip-hop mixtapes reviewed!

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The Plug is Consequence of Sound‘s hip-hop zine.

Welcome to Atlanta.

OutKast’s emergence — and eventual Dixie-rap dominance — has been a gift and a curse for the Georgia capital. Not even the formidable Killer Mike has matched the cultural impact of the duo’s relentless creativity and mesmerizing microphone exchanges in the past two decades. That’s not to say the city is short on stars these days. Producers like Mike WiLL Made-It, the space-trap visionary who released his Ransom mixtape on Monday, are crucial whether or not they get their proper due, but ultimately it’s the frontmen who seal the hits, with today’s biggest being (in rough order of most O.G. to least) T.I., Jeezy, Gucci, Waka, 2 Chainz, B.o.B., Future, Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, and Migos. Moreover, certain artists — from all three members of TLC to Ludacris, Gucci, and Waka — have relocated to Atlanta from another region. There’s an argument to be made that something is literally in the water, bringing all these unshakeable hooks and eccentricities to hip-hop.

For this edition of The Plug — the Atlanta issue, loosely — contributor Killian Young examines Childish Gambino’s ascendant hip-hop career and the emphasis he’s put on his native ATL/Stone Mountain, especially with his recent mixtape, STN MTN. We dissect each solo album in T.I.’s catalog, trying to get to the heart of the consensus (and self-proclaimed) king of the South. In the reviews section, we tackle new hip-hop releases of all regional backgrounds, but with an emphasis on Atlanta projects: T.I.’s Paperwork, Rich Gang’s Tha Tour Part 1, Future’s Monster, Migos’ Rich Nigga Timeline, and Rome Fortune’s Small VVorld. Lastly, in a return to hip-hop’s New York beginnings, staff writer Nina Corcoran explores the life of the late Sugarhill Gang member Big Bank Hank, who died November 11, 35 years after playing a direct role in hip-hop’s original form — not an opinion.

Until next time:

Ho ho ho, merry motherfuckin’ Christmas.

–Michael Madden
Associate Editor

What’s in a City? Childish Gambino Goes Home

By Killian Young

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It was all a dream – for Childish Gambino, that is. The rapper opens his new mixtape and EP, STN MTN / Kauai, with a fantasy. On “Dream / Southern Hospitality / Partna Dem”, he declares, “I had a dream I ran Atlanta,” and STN MTN closes as Gambino flatly says, “And then I woke up.” STN MTN, with its heavy Dirty South/crunk/trap influences, allows Gambino to imagine making a record that would be at home with early ’00s hip-hop and pay homage to his sort-of hometown of Atlanta. Gambino really gets up, as his true self, in Hawaii on the poppy Kauai.

Gambino’s debut studio album, 2011’s Camp, aligns itself more closely with his time in New York City when he studied at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts — the South and Stone Mountain are only referenced twice (on “Bonfire” and “That Power”, respectively). But on Gambino’s next release, the R O Y A L T Y mixtape, we get a significant dose of ATL pride.

What’s the reason for this uptake in allegiance? I spoke with Andrew Hoberek, a professor at the University of Missouri who teaches a course that critically analyzes Jay Z and Kanye West, about the changing role of hometowns in hip-hop. Childish Gambino is one of the most successful artists to navigate multiple cities: L.A./Hollywood in his acting career; New York City during his undergraduate years at NYU; and Atlanta/Stone Mountain during his youth.

With the rise of the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop rivalry of the early ’90s, “place was very central,” Hoberek says. The city you grew up in dictated who you collaborated with, and authenticity was scrutinized. Over time, major rappers emerged from markets other than New York or L.A., like OutKast in Atlanta, Eminem in Detroit, and Nelly in St. Louis.

Childish Gambino Stn Mtn

 

Kanye West is really the lynchpin for a shift in how the rap game operates. “As part of Kanye’s breakthrough, he really makes authenticity less important than it used to be,” Hoberek says. “Rap has always been tied into a notion of authenticity, but really in some ways that can be a limiting effect on artists’ range. Kanye, by rejecting a gangster persona, adopting the middle-class persona early on, makes authenticity of a certain kind less central to rap.” As both Kanye West and Jay Z have reached international superstar status, their lyrics don’t concern their respective neighborhoods anymore.

But questions of authenticity still find relevance in rap. Specifically, Hoberek cites artists like Drake (who aligns himself with Toronto and Miami and tries to distance himself from his acting career on Degrassi), Iggy Azalea (born in Sydney, with ties to several cities in the American South), and Rick Ross (whose gangster identity represents a persona rather than lived experiences). With Atlanta becoming a reality TV hub (The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta), the city doesn’t represent the same place that gave rise to OutKast. Instead, Hoberek says, “In some ways, it’s freeing to think about Atlanta not as a place of authenticity, but as a cultural metropolis — the same way you’d think about Miami or Hollywood. But with that comes an interest in the history of Atlanta and then going back to that history of crunk and Dirty South.”

Where does that leave STN MTN in Hoberek’s opinion? “It’s a retrospective, looking back to a cultural heritage,” he says, “rather than coming up immersed in that cultural heritage the way you’d think of OutKast.”

In other words, Gambino transcends city and regional associations because of his varied experiences as a kid, as a student, and as an actor. Hoberek points to Gambino’s diverse slate of featured artists on his second studio album, Because the Internet. The album had guest spots from Chance the Rapper (of Chicago), Azealia Banks (Harlem), and Jhené Aiko (Los Angeles), indicative of blurred boundaries between cities and regions. With the rise of collaborative technologies and the ability to produce tracks from remote locations, place even further loses importance.

Kanye mayor

At a glance, it might seem that STN MTN and Gambino’s past references to Atlanta may have been attempts to distance himself from his acting career as Donald Glover and to boost his credibility as a rapper. Then again, FX just ordered the pilot of a new show starring Glover. As Deadline originally reported: “Tentatively entitled Atlanta, the comedy is set against the backdrop of the Atlanta music scene.” Glover seems aware of Atlanta as a reality-TV, global city, and STN MTN plays with the traditional tropes of Southern rap.

For instance, Gambino subverts bragging about wealth on “No Small Talk” when he raps, “Two gold chains and I still don’t ever wear ‘em/ Why would I wear ‘em?” while also possibly taking a shot at 2 Chainz, another Atlanta native whose city identity Hoberek describes as not “front and central.” Over the flip phone sound effects of Atlanta rapper Maceo’s regional hit “Nextel Chirp” on “Move That Dope / Nextel Chirp / Let Your Hair Blow”, Gambino declares, “Rap game, I’m Steve Urkel”. STN MTN features or otherwise highlights a bunch of Atlanta artists: K Camp is on “Money Baby”, Gambino covers Usher on “U Don’t Have to Call”, and Mike Will and Lil Jon beats are used on “Move That Dope / Nextel Chirp / Let Your Hair Blow”. A sped-up version of the horns from OutKast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” plays during the super-unsubtle line on “Dream / Southern Hospitality / Partna Dem”: “See them titties, wanna motorboat it/ I’m Dopaliscious like Spottie Ottie.”

It’s an all-star cavalcade of Atlanta’s past as the epicenter of Southern hip-hop and present as a global city. But STN MTN is much more clever than it seems at face value because it tackles the often-insipid themes of early ’00s Southern hip-hop with Gambino’s frequently funny spin as an outsider who is not bound to conventions of authenticity.

Dissected: T.I.

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Thirteen years and nine solo albums in, T.I. is still atop the throne as the king of the South, as he’s been proclaiming since the intro of his debut album. Honestly, is it even close? The biggest Southern rappers to emerge since 2001’s I’m Serious, like Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Gucci Mane, Big K.R.I.T., Future, and Young Thug, who’s right when he says he has the streets in a headlock, have yet to achieve the towering size and consistency of his catalog. A word of advice to any and all challengers: You better use your Nikes, bruh.

Just 21 when I’m Serious came out, T.I. arrived more promisingly than any of the other members in Atlanta’s P$C (Pimp Squad Click). He’s no longer as country-sounding as he was on his first two albums (“Who I’m ihhhh?”), presumably because someone told him he should take advantage of his pop instincts. That’s OK, because it didn’t result in a loss of his technical expertise or sense of humor; it resulted in songs like “What You Know”, “Whatever You Like”, and, most recently, “No Mediocre” with protégé Iggy Azalea.

Since 2012 alone, T.I. has released the solo albums Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head and Paperwork, the solo mixtape Fuck Da City Up, and the Grand Hustle mixtapes G.D.O.D. (Get Dough or Die) and G.D.O.D. II, not to mention the features with which he’s continued to crown himself (Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, in particular).

Over the years, Clifford Joseph “Tip” Harris, Jr. has undertaken endeavors apart from music, including acting (playing the lead role of Rashad in ATL and Frank Lucas’ Yankee-prospect nephew Stevie in American Gangster), reality TV (VH1’s T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle), and even a romance novel (Power & Beauty: A Love Story of Life on the Streets, co-written with David Ritz). There’s also his Grand Hustle label, whose roster includes or has included Iggy Azalea, B.o.B., Trae tha Truth, Travi$ Scott, Young Dro, and the late Doe B.

For another round of Dissected, we took it upon ourselves to break down every T.I. album to date — with the exception of Paperwork, which is reviewed in full on the next page.

–Michael Madden

I’m Serious (2001)

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Whatcha Saying Tip (Themes): T.I.’s debut is aptly titled I’m Serious, and the major theme is that he’s rapping about what he’s lived. T.I. is a trapper turned rapper, and he peddled that notion throughout the album. He wanted his first impression to read honestly, and it does. Though he had yet to really find his sound or his voice, he knew exactly what he wanted to say. It’s an appropriate introduction.

Let Me Tell You Something (Standout Bars): “Before me, it was pull-out couches and Bilitant bags/ I tell you what if that ain’t good enough get back on the bus/ Give up the princess cuts and the Prada and stuff/ I take you out to eat and you order the bottle of what?/ Ungrateful, wonderin’ why I’m not faithful/ Ballin’s all good but this shit is just wasteful” (“I Can’t Be Your Man”)

Swagga Like Us (Guests): Maybe the weirdest thing about I’m Serious is the Neptunes-produced title track, which features a rather out of place Beenie Man hook. His patois melody matches the tune of the production, and it should work in theory, but it’s a goofy pairing on wax.

No More Talk (Beats): Though I’m Serious was DJ Toomp’s big breakout moment as well as T.I.’s; a lot of the debut’s best beats were produced by Brian Kidd (especially “You Ain’t Hard” and “Hands Up”). A quick Google search shows that Kidd has also produced music for Pitbull, J. Cole, and Enrique Iglesias. This was a career highlight.

King? (Verdict): I’m Serious is a Southern album that sounds like many of the Southern albums that preceded it in the late-’90s, and it mimics them in earnest, perhaps unintentionally. On his debut, T.I. failed to differentiate himself from the pack, but he did establish longstanding relationships — with DJ Toomp, The Neptunes, and Jazzy Pha — that would help shape the rest of his game-changing career.

Countdown (Top Songs): 3. “You Ain’t Hard” (feat. Mac Boney) 2. “I Can’t Be Your Man” 1. “Hands Up”

–Sheldon Pearce

Trap Muzik (2003)

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Whatcha Saying Tip: This is the album with “Rubber Band Man”, so you know that, aside from the endless trapping, T.I. wants you to know about his splurges. I’m talking drop-top Chevys, five-karat pinky rings, etc. On the other hand, “I Still Luv You” and “Better Than Me” are more humble, as T.I raps on the latter song, “Shawty, them streets ain’t the place to be/ I’m telling you ’cause it’s too late for me.”

Let Me Tell You Something: “Long as somebody up in heaven who keep blessing a G/ T.I.P.’ll still be blessing CDs” (“I Can’t Quit”); “By no means am I any more conceited than this game needed” (“No More Talk”); “I told my class, ‘Kiss my ass, I make a living every day’” (“24’s”)

Swagga Like Us: P$C’s Mac Boney is on the album’s opener, “Trap Muzik”, aptly talking up his peddling prowess: “Triple beam ain’t seen what I do to a ounce of blow.” “Bezzle” is the Southern cosign track: It features both 8Ball and MJG (already enough old-school Southern rap cred, as the duo were more than a decade into the game by ’03) as well as a reminiscent Bun B. Presumably, Bun’s UGK partner, Pimp C, would have graced the track as well if he hadn’t been in prison for an aggravated assault charge.

No More Talk: Production-wise, Trap Muzik is a leap beyond I’m Serious — fuller, more melodic, and more varied. DJ Toomp’s “Be Easy” is a wallop of piano (played by T.I. himself, who boasts, “Y’all ain’t never seen a dope boy play the piano and rap at the same time”) and honking brass. Released the year before The College Dropout, you can instantly tell that “Doin’ My Job”’s beat is Kanye West’s, a swirling, sparkling track featuring samples of Bloodstone’s “I’m Just Doing My Job”.

King? Trap Muzik stands as T.I.’s first front-to-back great album, launching him into the conversation of the South’s next great hope. “24’s” and “Rubber Band Man” thrive on his ability to invigorate Southern rap tropes, as the songs are named after oversized rims and stacks of cash, respectively, but are so catchy that you don’t notice.

Countdown: 3. “Be Easy” 2. “Rubber Band Man” 1. “24’s”

–Michael Madden

Urban Legend (2004)

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Whatcha Saying Tip: T.I. had been building his king of the South mythology since the start of his career (and most explicitly on Trap Muzik with “King of Da South”), but Urban Legend gave the comments merit more than anything he’d done before. Before giving Trap Muzik a proper encore, it was hard to take the idea seriously, especially while Houston’s Scarface still drew breath.

Let Me Tell You Something: “I don’t need no security, reaching for my jewelry/ Get you niggas popped quick, filled full of hot shit/ Fresh out the box Tip hopped in a drop six/ Made a quarter mil’ in the pen givin’ stock tips/ Haters wanna stop Tip, mad ’cause they not Tip/ Ball every summer so your baby mama jock Tip/ You don’t no drama pimp, I promise I do not slip/ Chrome 4-5th, hid well if the cops trip” (“ASAP”)

Swagga Like Us: In 2004, Lil Wayne was just starting to round into form as one of hip-hop’s biggest assets. On the heels of Tha Carter, released earlier that year, T.I. enlisted his help for “Stand Up”, which also features a forgettable Trick Daddy verse. Wayne steals the show without breaking a sweat: “Nasty, Hollygrove classic/ Parley wit’ a nigga probably robbed the same bastard/ Ask him/ We don’t give a fuck about a casket.” He raps casually, as if it’s effortless, and it’s an excellent complement to T.I.’s verse.

No More Talk: It’s impossible to discuss T.I.’s production without DJ Toomp, and “U Don’t Know Me” was a sound-defining moment in both artists’ careers. It’s preceded by another great, albeit out-of-character, Toomp beat, “Motivation”, which is driven by a flickering flute riff. One of the lesser appreciated beats on Urban Legend was “Why U Mad at Me”, a subdued record produced by Khao, who would play a much greater role on T.I.’s next album, the breakout King.

King? Urban Legend was a solid follow-up to the groundbreaking Trap Muzik, and it solidified T.I. as a major player in Southern rap. Though it had its faults — the Scott Storch-produced, Lil Kim-featuring “Get Ya Shit Together” is very awkward, and the super-pitchy Pharrell hook on “Freak Though” isn’t even the worst thing about it — he continued to establish his brand.

Countdown: 3. “Bring Em Out” 2. “What They Do” (feat. B.G.) 1. “U Don’t Know Me”

–Sheldon Pearce

King (2006)

king The Plug, Vol. 4: Childish Gambino Studied, T.I. Dissected, and Big Bank Hank Remembered

Whatcha Saying Tip: King is the document of an artist reaching a peak of commercial success on his own terms. ATL was in theaters. Grand Hustle’s trunk-rattling Southern sound dominated popular music. The themes of the album don’t extend far beyond anything T.I. had talked about on earlier albums, but there’s no problem with that when you’re on top and unstoppable.

Let Me Tell You Something: “Can’t complain, I’m highly favored, my flavor’s God-given/ So used to hate appreciation is an odd feeling/ Still I stay focused on the millions, trying to dodge prison/ Praying as if for forgiveness, hoping God listens/ As far as dissing me, pimpin’, go ahead and have a ball/ Meanwhile I’m getting bread, determined to have it all/ I’m taking money, sonny, if ain’t none of that involved why is we conversing? This vehicle ain’t reversing” (“Hello”)

Swagga Like Us: King features verses from Young Jeezy, Young Buck, and Young Dro, all in some version of their prime. In 2006, Dro was riding high on the success of “Shoulder Lean”; Grand Hustle had officially made it. It doesn’t get much better than T.I. educating everyone about UGK on “Front Back”, though.

No More Talk: The “What You Know” beat will forever be DJ Toomp’s second greatest contribution to the world, behind the beat for “U Don’t Know Me”. Mannie Fresh has given us much better before, but the “Top Back” beat is up there. On the whole, King is filled with glorious, maxed-out production over which T.I. still sounds hungry to be the best.

King? Supported by a few huge hit singles, King was the full realization of T.I.’s potential at exactly the right time. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that some of the albums released on either side of King are better, but this was certainly a peak in T.I.’s early career before things began to change for the artist.

Countdown: 3. “Undertaker” 2. “Front Back” 1. “What You Know”

–Will Hagle

T.I. vs. T.I.P. (2007)

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Whatcha Saying Tip: Following the murder of friend Philant Johnson, the concept behind the three-act T.I. vs. T.I.P. (also the name of Trap Muzik‘s twelfth track) is the tension between the straitlaced T.I. and his criminal-minded alter ego, T.I.P.

Let Me Tell You Something: “I said I was king and them lames started laughin’/ Them same suckers now want the king on a track with ’em” (“Big Shit Poppin’ (Do It)”); “They sweatin’ when they see me, I’m apparently hot/ Had the album of the year, nigga, Grammy or not” (“You Know What It Is”); “Frank Lucas ain’t the only one who made a million a day/ Boy this a American Gangster right here in your face” (“You Know What It Is”)

Swagga Like Us: Jay-Z appears on “Watch What You Say to Me” with a memorable line or two (“Soon as you see ’em, they freeze up like in museums”). Eminem sounds bored, or maybe distracted, on “Touchdown”’s chorus, though his lines about vehicular recklessness are hilarious if you let them be. Nelly is in the mood on “Show It to Me”.

No More Talk: The production on T.I. vs. T.I.P. is the most menacing T.I. had rapped over, resulting in his hardest-hitting album. “My Love” producer Danja’s “Hurt”, featuring Alfamega and Busta Rhymes, surges with pounding drums and draping horns. Later, Danja’s high-energy “Tell ‘Em I Said That” features whirling vocal samples and more booming percussion.

King? Even during chaotic moments like “I’m Talkin’ to You”, King was much more accessible to the average pop fan, so maybe the denser T.I. vs. T.I.P. let them down. It’s stuffed with hooks, but the hooks are more forceful (read: repetitive and grunted) than melodic. The verses are enough to keep early fans interested, if not for the entirety of the 72 minutes.

Countdown: 3. “Big Shit Poppin’ (Do It)” 2. “Tell ‘Em I Said That” 1. “You Know What It Is”

–Michael Madden

Paper Trail (2008)

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Whatcha Saying Tip: The major overarching theme of Paper Trail is redemption and rebirth in the aftermath of T.I.’s 2007 gun charge. It attempts to explain away the charge and put it in the context of his life (“Ready for Whatever”) and puts forth a survivalist mentality (“No Matter What”). It’s a comeback story with big guests highlighted by hip-pop hits.

Let Me Tell You Something: “If your life was in jeopardy, e’ryday is you tellin’ me/ You wouldn’t need weaponry just because of your felony/ Consider this at least, I got e’rybody sweatin’ me/ On the streets is people who won’t rest unless I rest in peace/ Killed my folk a year ago, still in my sleep they threaten me/ Paranoia stressin’ me, ain’t nobody protectin’ me/ I’m dealin’ with the pressure from my partner dyin’ next to me/ Think ‘cause no one’s arrested, they comin’ for me eventually” (“Ready for Whatever”)

Swagga Like Us: It’s tempting to put “Swagga Like Us” here just on the strength of its star-studded billing — Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne were three of the biggest rap stars at the time, and they are all still top-tier faces of the genre today. Now that the initial mystique has worn off, however, it’s safe to say that the song hasn’t aged well (and that Jay’s verse is one of the worst of his career). The real, under-heralded winner on Paper Trail was Rihanna, who quite amazingly turned O-Zone’s “Dragostea Din Tei” into an international hit.

No More Talk: “Swing Ya Rag”, like many Swizz Beatz beats, is undone by the terrible hook that accompanies it, but its hard-hitting kick drum and the trumpets that sound over top of it are still undeniable. It’s a certified banger in the truest sense. Drumma Boy produced the album’s best record, the trap staple “What Up, What’s Haapnin”, which is also a Shawty Lo diss track.

King? Paper Trail was the first written album from T.I. since I’m Serious, and given the subtext, it seems somewhat fitting. When considering the events surrounding the album, the project does a pretty serviceable job placing T.I.’s circumstances in perspective with his public profile. That said, some of the songs are just flat-out boring, “On Top of the World” and “Slide Show” in particular.

Countdown: 3. “Live Your Life” (feat. Rihanna) 2. “Ready for Whatever” 1. “What Up, What’s Haapnin’”

–Sheldon Pearce

No Mercy (2010)

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Whatcha Saying Tip: T.I.’s a little older, in and out of prison, no longer the reigning king. Internal struggles about public problems are laid out for everyone to hear whether they want to or not. But on “Get Back Up”, he promises his fans that he’ll never go back to the pen.

Let Me Tell You Something: “Put me anywhere in any jail and I shall prevail/ If another man survived I shall as well/ Now, fuck rap, got swag for sale” (“Salute”)

Swagga Like Us: Kanye West and Kid Cudi kick off the album on “Welcome to the World”, then Mitchelle’le gets on a song that also features Scarface. Eminem gets two verses and a hook in the year Recovery was released. Two future judges of The Voice also appear.

No More Talk: Kanye West and Lil C supply production along with more regular T.I. collaborators, including the always-great Neptunes. The beats are slightly more subdued than usual, perhaps to match T.I.’s changed bravado.

King? “That’s All She Wrote” and “Castle Walls” were popular songs, but T.I.’s heart didn’t seem behind them. That’s how many of the songs on No Mercy feel: not bad but not quite right. The album was different than what we’d grown to expect from T.I., the product of an artist faced with change in both life and career, working it out on record.

Countdown: 3. “Amazing” 2. “Salute” 1. “How Life Changed”

–Will Hagle

Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head (2012)

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Whatcha Saying Tip: T.I. sheds the apprehension of No Mercy in an attempt to return to truer form. The rubber band man becomes the trouble man, some type of semi-autobiographical character that gives T.I. more creative freedom than his last album.

Let Me Tell You Something: “Never mind what the blogs say/ This what my mind and heart say” (“Sorry”); “Out of gladiator college, I made it summa cum laude/ Where you clowns couldn’t have got a cap and gown if you bought it” (“Sorry”)

Swagga Like Us: The best stretch of Trouble Man: the song with Lil Wayne, then the song with Andre 3000, followed by the song with R. Kelly. With features like that, how could it not be? The song with A$AP Rocky is also technically part of that stretch of songs with features, but maybe isn’t so deserving. There is a song with P!nk, which I guess needs to be mentioned here. One future ex-judge of The Voice also appears.

No More Talk: T.I. worked mostly with close and familiar faces to find more reliable beats. No I.D. also managed to make a hazy space for A$AP Rocky, and Jazze Pha made another beat for Three Stacks to demolish.

King? Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head was strong because T.I. was back, and he sounded like it, too. Except you can never really get back to exactly how things were before, and this album is no exception.

Countdown: 3. “Can You Learn” (feat. R. Kelly) 2. “Sorry” (feat. Andre 3000) 1. “Ball” (feat. Lil Wayne)

–Will Hagle

Reviews

J. Cole – 2014 Forest Hills Drive

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Grade: B

Mainstream hip-hop could use more albums as focused as 2014 Forest Hills Drive, J. Cole’s third overall: no preceding singles, no features, just a lion-hearted rapper and producer executing his vision. Right now, Cole is somewhere between Drake on “Too Much” and Kendrick Lamar on “i” — a songwriter mining empathy and using sheer realness to earn trust from his fans. Forest Hills features personal moments like the lost-virginity story song “Wet Dreamz”.

Cole absolutely crushed pre-release sales projections as the album sold 361,000 first-week copies. Still, reviews have been mixed. With Cole, expectations tend to run very high — after all, he actually did let Nas down when he recorded “Work Out”, an admittedly commercial track from a communications major. But there’s no way around it: Cole means every word he says on Forest Hills, and coming from an artist who’s built a massive fan base on being as purposeful as any rapper in the game, that should be taken seriously.

The album is mellow but not exactly serene, melodic (Cole sings a lot here) but not soft, and its cohesiveness is why virtually every song is a highlight. “Love Yourz” is bravely sincere, as Cole raps, “It’s beauty in the struggle, ugliness in the success/ Hear my words and listen to my signal of distress.” While songs like “A Tale of 2 Citiez” and “Fire Squad” are ominous in tone, the album is generally more conversational. “Be Free”, the Ferguson protest song that Cole stunningly took to Letterman earlier this month along with a new verse, is absent, but that doesn’t mean the album lacks urgency — far from it. —Michael Madden

Eminem and Various Artists – Shady XV

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Grade: B- (Disc X) / B (Disc V)

Eminem’s haters — many of them fans-turned-haters — have been more vocal than ever lately, disgusted by his misogynistic disses against Lana Del Rey and Iggy Azalea, among other things. On the other hand, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 sold more copies than any 2013 album besides Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience; he’s relevant whether you like it or not. The first disc of Shady XV, Disc X, isn’t exactly a new Eminem album; he’s on almost every song, generally rapping fast and angrily, but he’s also joined by Slaughterhouse, Yelawolf, D12, Skylar Grey, and, on “Detroit vs. Everybody”, Motown representatives including Big Sean, Danny Brown, and DeJ Loaf. Single “Guts Over Fear”, featuring Sia on the booming chorus, is an encapsulation of Em’s mindset these days, as he worrries that he’s writing the same song over and over again (which, of course, a lot of people would agree with right about now). Surrounded by these other artists, though, the 42-year-old sounds well-connected and occasionally essential; Yelawolf’s blinding chorus on “Psychopath Killer” is nonexistent without Em’s precedent. The second disc is a compilation of Shady Records’ work over the past 15 years, including D12’s absurd earworm “My Band” and Yelawolf’s pulpy hick-hop narrative “Pop the Trunk”, plus legitimate hits from 50 Cent and an alternate version of “Lose Yourself”. Altogether, this set’s tracklist highlights Em’s ear for gritty, technically ambitious rappers and the empire he’s built with their help. –Michael Madden

T.I. – Paperwork

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Grade: B+

Based on its list of guest stars alone, Paperwork has all the right ingredients to be one of the year’s biggest rap successes. There’s a featured artist on almost every track, from Usher to Young Thug to unlikely protégé Iggy Azalea. Chris Brown appears on the sex song (of course), Jeezy appears on the song called “G’ Shit” (of course), and even Nipsey Hussle sneaks his way on. It’s a matter of timing, too: “About the Money” reached the radio just as DJs started getting sick of hearing “Lifestyle”.

Of all the album’s guest artists, Pharrell’s presence is felt most. He’s on three tracks but also executive produced the album, an obvious influence behind its glossy sound. With G I R L, Pharrell managed to distance himself from his past without the musical sensibilities that made his earliest fans respect him. On Paperwork, he helps T.I. accomplish a similar feat. Pharrell and T.I. in 2014 are different than what that pairing would’ve sounded like a decade ago, but both artists have grown and evolved naturally. They’re pop artists now, but it’s good to hear them like this, and it seems like they’re enjoying it.

It’s been more than a decade since Trap Muzik, and T.I.’s no longer wild as the Taliban. On “New National Anthem”, he blames the institutions for gun violence among America’s youth rather than just bragging about what he’s holding in each hand. Trae tha Truth assists in what comes closest to a street anthem with “On Doe, On Phil” (a tribute to the late Doe B and Philant Johnson), but aside from that, it’s hard to be hard when you have a song featuring The-Dream called “Let Your Heart Go (Break My Soul)”.

Each Paperwork feature can feel like a calculated attempt to reach a specific segment of T.I.’s audience. It’s the same tactic used in the film industry: Bad movies like Tower Heist will sell tickets on the strength of cast alone. The difference is that T.I. himself is still great, still the king. He’s far removed from the inventive scene taking place with younger artists from his hometown, but he’s comfortable like that. There must be a reason he’s still around and a reason so many artists want to be around him. –Will Hagle

Rich Gang – Tha Tour Part 1

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Grade: B

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At this point, Rich Gang’s “Lifestyle” must have come across your car radio, your Pandora stream, or whatever listening device or streaming website is en vogue at the moment. You’ve probably shouted along to the chorus without really understanding half the words you were saying. If you’re looking for more, Tha Tour Part 1 offers 20 other songs of slightly nonsensical greatness, with strong production courtesy of guys like London on Da Track. No one sounds like Rich Homie Quan, no one sounds like Young Thug, and along with Birdman they’ve created a monster that is greater than the sum of its parts.

You won’t find classically good rapping on Tha Tour Part 1, but you shouldn’t be looking for that in Atlanta in 2014 anyway. The city is a hotbed of inventiveness, of advancing the genre with little concern for convention. Even with verses that seem more sporadically tossed together than carefully constructed, this mixtape is more of a defining statement from that scene than anything Migos, Future, or anyone else has to offer.

Although his rapping hasn’t necessarily improved with age, Birdman’s ear for talent remains ever so sharp, his instinct for fostering group chemistry far from faded. Young Thug may be a Weezy disciple, but he’s reveling in the syrupy Auto-Tuned weirdness Wayne only touched at the peak of his mixtape career. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to assume Rich Homie Quan would fall off after “Type of Way” and “Walk Thru”, but Young Money has a vision, and Birdman rarely fails at following through. Tha Tour Part 1 is a showcase of all that they are capable of achieving, which has already helped in changing the course of modern rap for the better — and the stranger. –Will Hagle

Azealia Banks – Broke with Expensive Taste

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Grade: B

Broke with Expensive Taste, which Azealia Banks released unexpectedly in November after problems with Interscope, could be better. But despite all the issues that preceded its release, it sounds labor-intensive in a good way. The beats are eclectic and dense, the song structures are sprawling, and Banks’ rapping and singing come from all different angles (and are occasionally in Spanish).

The momentum-building, undeniably catchy hip-house single “212”, first released in 2011, is here, and its sweep holds up even though Banks has grown three years as an artist since it came out (at least in theory). “Gimme a Chance” is one of the album’s most kinetic songs, with invigorating horns and slashing electric guitar riffs. “Heavy Metal and Reflective” is relatively light on the ears, but it still has attitude (“I be ‘P.Y.T.’, you ‘Billie Jean’, you been the ex- bitch”). “Ice Princess”, produced by AraabMuzik, features some of Banks’ most tenacious and vivid rapping yet: “Winter wonderland body so frosty in that Bugatti.”

Later on, the synthy “Miss Camaraderie”, which Banks has called her best song to date, is an example of her lighter, more melodic side. But usually when the album drops off in energy, it’s all too noticeable. Sometimes, the EDM explosions are affectless, like on “Yung Rapunxel”, which still features that heinous shouting nobody asked for. Elsewhere, “Nude Beach a Go-Go”, a cover of Ariel Pink’s surf pop song of the same name, seems as out of place as Danny Brown’s “Wonderbread” did on Old. These are the points where the album seems indecisive, but overall, Broke with Expensive Taste is an assertive statement from an artist worth getting excited about. –Michael Madden

Mike WiLL Made-It – Ransom

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Grade: B

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More so than last year’s #MikeWiLLBeenTriLL, Mike WiLL Made-It’s Ransom is a deliberate retreat from the pop world he’s repeatedly threatened to take over, a street mixtape featuring seemingly every rapper who matters: superstars like Wayne and Nicki, among others; longtime Atlanta clients Gucci Mane and Future, among others; plus upstarts like Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy (who form Rae Sremmurd) and iLoveMakonnen, among others. There are commonalities between many of the beats — the low-end tremble, the serrated synth riffs, the spaciousness — but it’s still well-mixed and -sequenced like an album. Like DJ Mustard’s 10 SummersRansom is full of songs you can easily see blowing up: Swae Lee and Future’s “Tuesday”-recalling “Drinks on Us” is barely less catchy than Rae Sremmurd’s current smashes, while Riff Raff and Slim Jimmy’s steely “Choppin’ Blades” is one of the most straightforward tracks Riff has recorded (though it’s still pretty eccentric). “Buy the World” is also here, as is Nicki’s weary-eyed Pinkprint ballad “I Lied”, which Mike swears is destined to net a Grammy. Meanwhile, Ransom is a 21-track monster that’s professional enough to make you wonder why the Grammys doesn’t have a Mixtape of the Year category yet. –Michael Madden

Future – Monster

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Grade: B

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Future has hit a rough patch when it comes to PR. He’s broken up with Ciara amidst infidelity allegations, even though they have a kid named after him. Then he joins Wiz Khalifa — who’s going through similar circumstances with Amber Rose — for a song called “Pussy Overrated”. For the title cut, he chants, “I’m a monster on these hoes.” Future is pretty flagrant with it.

While Monster is in no way subversive, it does succeed in placing Future at the center of its dark and glitchy atmosphere. Metro Boomin and Southside’s instrumental whirs around Future’s deadpan and dour-filled “wow” on “Monster”. When he’s not playing the acerbic Lothario, he’s mixing aloofness with carnival melody on “Fuck Up Some Commas” and “2Pac” (“Got a bandana ’round my head like I’m 2Pac,” he says, reciting the title as a come-hither whistle).

This mixtape is also a journey of sorts; he goes from “Monster”’s soul-dead monotony to going down new emotional straits in the closer, “Codeine Crazy”, Future’s purple-hued ode to escapism. “I’m taking everything that come with the millions/ I’m taking everything that come with my children,” he rattles before hitting the hook’s falsetto. See? But even though he doesn’t completely come off as sympathetic, Future is still as endearing as he was on his past two albums.

But, save for the bleaker atmospherics, you’re not getting much from the production side of Monster, and apart from the percussive nefariousness of “Wesley Presley”, you’re going to have a hard time putting a name to each of these beats. If anything, the staleness diverts more attention to Future’s versatility, which is fully intact here. –Brian Josephs

Game – Blood Moon: Year of the Wolf

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Grade: D

It’s difficult to remember the days when Game was one of the most brazen young talents in hip-hop, and that’s because the beef-happy reality TV star so infrequently stirs those memories. On Blood Moon: Year of the Wolf, the Compton rapper comes across as bitter and determined to reclaim his former glory through name-dropping and vicious vagaries. He comes out of the gate frothing on “Bigger Than Me”, tearing down his haters before collapsing into a corny impression of a chainsaw.

The message Game is trying to send is that he is just as dangerous as he was when he ripped through “300 Bars and Runnin’”, but on Blood Moon, he’s less convincing than ever. This is especially problematic when he’s spouting nonsense like “If gay is happy, I’m Tyler Perry in this mafucka” on “Married to the Game” or rhyming “boner” with “sauna” in a verse about sexual assault on “Bloody Moon”. There’s also a skit where a woman performs fellatio on a wolf, leading Game to exclaim, “I didn’t know wolves could cum, my nigga.” Inane moments like these undermine Game’s attempts at ruthlessness, and by this point it’s not even fun to watch him sabotage himself. Despite Blood Moon’s bloated-to-shit guestlist (which Game is sometimes able to hide in), his dorky referential style still lurks like a sentient soundboard, reminding us in the most nagging and feeble way possible that he used to be a prodigy. –Jerard Fagerberg

A$AP Ferg – Ferg Forever

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Grade: B

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A$AP Ferg owes a lot to his sense of humor. He’s thuggish when he wants to be, which is often, as he’s learned more from Memphis than A$AP Rocky has. But, tirelessly horny, he’ll also gleefully exclaim, “I want all the girls on my erection!” in the most gleeful way you can possibly say such a thing. Ferg Forever has that hilarious/hard dichotomy going for it, and it would still be worth the iTunes space even if it was Three 6 Mafia worship and nothing more. “Fergsomnia” is the highlight, with blaring horns that evoke nothing so much as “La Cucaracha”, not to mention a glorious Twista verse. “Doe-Active”, produced by Stelios Phili, is similarly bananas, a gear-grinding trap boom for the 22nd century. Ferg Forever has a very serious guest list as well, including M.I.A. (on the truly assaultive “Reloaded Let It Go 2”), Big Sean (the plinky “JA Rule”), and YG (the cinematic “This Side”), but none of the features can distract from the manic Ferg. He has too much star presence to be considered a Pippen any longer. –Michael Madden

Pitbull – Globalization

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Grade: C
 
At least in 2014 — a full decade after his crunk debut, M.I.A.M.I. —  a Pitbull album is a Pitbull album. Globalization, his follow-up to 2012’s Global Warming, does have international sounds and energies, but it’s not exactly ambitious: Each song is built for partying. That means he makes easy decisions (like enlisting Juicy J for one track, “Drive You Crazy”) and corny ones (see the almost bluegrass “Day Drinking”). On one level, Pitbull is immune to criticism, which is what happens when an artist is this transparent — music doesn’t get more commercial than this. On another level, when each and every album has the same gravity, it’s more like he’s going through the motions. Mr. Worldwide is now worlds away from the 24-year-old who arrived with far more hunger 10 years ago. I’ll admit that Jason Derulo’s stuttering, digitally altered “Drive You Crazy” hook drives me crazy in a good way, but whenever one of these songs isn’t that catchy, it just sounds ordinary. –Michael Madden

Bobby Shmurda – Shmurda She Wrote EP

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Grade: C+

Brooklyn’s Bobby Shmurda, who was recently indicted on gun and drug charges in a major NYPD investigation, didn’t have to popularize the Shmoney dance to blow up everywhere, but it helped, even if it also hurt. With guys like Soulja Boy peaking as soon as they arrived on the national scene, some say Shmurda will be a one-hit bust. True, he’s in no way a virtuoso, at least not yet; however, he’s only 20, with a knack for the most savage side of rap. On the five-song Shmurda She Wrote EP, “Hot Nigga” is slotted between “Worldwide Nigga” and “Bobby Bitch”, and it no longer stands out as particularly menacing — that kind of steeliness is just the sound Shmurda likes. Both of those tracks get the job done, with “Worldwide” sounding expansively cinematic and “Bobby” standing out despite its generic trap-rap structure. It’s still hard to tell where Shmurda is headed as an artist, though, because Shmurda She Wrote will tell you virtually nothing about him that you can’t learn from “Hot Nigga” or follow-up single “Bobby Bitch”. –Michael Madden

Chief Keef – Back from the Dead 2

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Grade: B-

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One of the most interesting developments of 2014 has been Chief Keef’s slow segue into rap production. Sometimes it almost felt like a foregone conclusion given the makeup of his aesthetic, one that puts more weight on boisterous sonics than concepts. When the tracklist for Back from the Dead 2, the sequel to Keef’s 2012 breakout mixtape, was released, the sheer volume of self-produced tracks immediately broke the news. The tape, which has been met with more fanfare than his recent Gucci Mane collaboration Big Gucci Sosa and this week’s solo album Nobody, serves as an official introduction to this new side of the Chicago native — and what an interesting side it is. BFTD2 is highlighted by its wide-eyed approach to beatmaking, one that doesn’t subscribe to traditional constraints, instead opting for a more dissonant style that tinkers with components of drill but ignores rigid rap structuring. He hasn’t completely figured it out yet — when “Dear” rides into the Young Chop-produced “Stupid”, you hear the difference — but with songs like “Faneto”, “Where’s Waldo”, and the shifty “The Moral”, it’s clear he’s making strides. –Sheldon Pearce

DeJ Loaf – Sell Sole

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Grade: B

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DeJ Loaf runs street anthems through a Radio Disney filter, and it’s that fascinating juxtaposition that caused her to go viral with “Try Me”. She also raps like a rapper’s rapper whenever she’s interested. There’s something special about her crooning sweetly about catching bodies, especially when she’s bending syllables at her leisure, but her true skill lies in something less tangible: her charisma. Her breakout hit, the infectious, candy-coated battle cry “Try Me”, possesses heavy lyrics that’d make Kool G Rap blush, yet it still feels like something you can play on the radio. She’s already a star, more or less.

It comes as no surprise, then, that when she opens Sell Sole with straight raps she brings that same energy. The secret to her success isn’t her syrupy sweet street confections; it’s her presence. Whether she’s singing or rapping, she makes grand statements, and she puffs out her chest so far you have no choice but to believe them. “These niggas talkin’ like they killers, I just call ‘em pretenders/ I’m getting money with my niggas, I don’t want y’all around me,” she spits on “Bird Call”, as if she’s already got the juice. “Ain’t dropped a album in two years, these dummies thinkin’ I lost it/ They done buried me alive; I’m ‘bout to climb out this coffin,” she continues, and with killer cuts like the swaggering “We Be on It” and the shouty “Problem”, that statement is less prophesy and more breaking news. –Sheldon Pearce

Clockwork Indigo – Clockwork Indigo EP

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Grade: B+

Flatbush Zombies and The Underachievers, united here as Clockwork Indigo, are co-headlining a revival in the Brooklyn hip-hop scene, so melding the two crews onto a single entity only makes sense. What’s more, Clockwork Indigo shows that the five New Yorkers are bound by more than geography. Despite the fact that the five-song EP was concocted as a promo for their Electric Koolade Experience tour (see “Benefit Concert”), the Beast Coast cohort exhibits a seamless kinship born from a common emphasis on deeply technical acid rap. ”Butterfly Effect”, the seven-minute opener, is the EP’s statement track, with Issa Gold and AK organically trading verses alongside FBZ’s Meechy Darko and Zombie Juice over Erick the Architect’s atmospheric beat. The Underachievers’ steezy burnout sound carries the EP, though the ZOMBiES do not dull their teeth on any of their contributions. It’s not a marriage of convenience, though, and the dynamic enhances all involved, as shown on “XYNO”. Erick the Architect’s smooth touch creates ominous moods that both groups swarm over with a cypher-like quality. Clearly these dudes resonate at a stylistic level, and that makes Clockwork Indigo even better than the sum of its parts. –Jerard Fagerberg

Dillon Cooper – X:XX

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Grade: B+

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Having unironically said his dream collaboration would be with John Mayer, Dillon Cooper doesn’t care what you think about his tastes — he’s going to pursue every whim he can. After all, the Brooklyn rapper’s eccentric background (he studied guitar performance at Berklee) prepped him to make a few idiosyncratic choices. On his sophomore X:XX, named after his October 20 birthday, he wonderfully indulges himself with a bevy of well-studied old-school boom-bap, multiple references to Allen Iverson’s “practice” rant, and a handful of skits. Like Joey Bada$$, a fellow NYC young gun bringing back the “real hip-hop” sound of the ’90s, Cooper excels at choosing soulful beats for his still developing flow, but his enthusiastic personality sets him apart. There are only a handful of guest spots, most notably Denzel Curry and Azizi Gibson on “Eyes of the World”, but Cooper is more than capable of holding it down himself — see the last two tracks, “Shadows (92 Mix)” and “Salute”. –Josh Terry

Gangsta Boo and BeatKing – Underground Cassette Tape Music

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Grade: B

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Three 6 Mafia (now Da Mafia 6ix) first lady Gangsta Boo and Houston viral-phenomenon-exploiter BeatKing are the latest unexpected rap duo, an odd coupling for sure, one not necessarily forged out of necessity or even stylistic similarity. They’re both Southern, and that’s virtually where the parallels end. In fact, the two have never even met: They put this entire mixtape together over the internet. Yet when they join forces for Underground Cassette Tape Music, a 15-track horrorcore, chopped-and-screwed Southern throwback that takes you from Beale Street to VLive and back again, you would swear the two have been in a group for the last half decade. The Stunt N Dozier-produced tracks (“Come Off Dat”, “Ain’t Shit Changed”, and “Dollar Signs”) are all dark, polished gems, and the regional reps run amuck (8Ball, Paul Wall, and Riff Raff). The most exciting of them, Lil Flip, adds an extra layer of context for the revivalist “Like a Pimp 2015”. –Sheldon Pearce

Logic – Under Pressure

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Grade: B

After a series of Frank Sinatra-inspired mixtapes, Logic’s debut album, Under Pressure, is where the Maryland rapper shows just how deep his artistry goes. Logic has basically everything a hip-hop fan can want: a sense of purpose, studious technicality (he shouts out OutKast on the opener), and a strong ear for beats (from the likes of DJ Dahi and 6ix as well as executive producer No I.D.). You may know him as the rapper whose older brother used to sell crack to his father, and in interviews, he routinely mentions being particularly proud of “Gang Related”, the two-perspective story song about the family effects of gang activity. Basically, he has a lot of drama to pull from, yet Under Pressure is hardly a sad-sack album. “Won’t speak on my bank account/ So many commas I’d have to pause/ And I can’t afford to just waste the bars,” he raps on “Till the End”. That just about sums it up: Logic will present listeners with the ups and downs of his life, but that doesn’t mean he can’t stunt, too. –Michael Madden

Theophilus London – Vibes

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Grade: B-

Brooklyn’s Theophilus London is hardly a rapper at all; his repertoire as a vocalist is too broad for him to stay in one place, with his singing voice bringing to mind Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke (and not just because he sounds vaguely British, although there is that). The highlight on Vibes, his second album, is the gliding, sunny “Can’t Stop”, which features Kanye in refreshingly good spirits. The rest is just as stylish but more dance-oriented. Kanye executive produced, and his ability to bring out the pop potential of different genres (all here: hip-hop, R&B, and electro) is integral to the album’s success. That’s not to say London needs Yeezy, as songs including the subdued “Do Girls” (as in “She told me that she only do girls”), the self-explanatory “Smoke Dancehall”, and the electropop “Need Somebody” (featuring Leon Ware, who’s also on opener “Water Me”) show that London has developed his songwriting ability since 2011’s Timez Are Weird These Days. Whereas that album was less subtle and less memorable, he’s now pumping out sharper vocal hooks and generally sounding smoother and more capable in his verses. –Michael Madden

Mike Mictlan – HELLA FRREAL

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Grade: B-

From his party fever on P.O.S.’ We Don’t Even Live Here to the lightning he bottled on the group’s 2011 No Kings, Doomtree powerpack Mike Mictlan brings bravado no other member of the wings and teeth has in their portfolio. That’s what made SNAXXX, his last solo album, so fun — it was ghoulishly ribald and absurd to the point of euphoria. Taking its name from the most debauched and anthemic track from SNAXXX, HELLA FRREAL is Mictlan’s most independent undertaking to date, forsaking any ups from his running crew, but that leaves the MPLS-via-L.A. MC in an uncomfortable vacuum. “SUPER’MERICA”, an ode to late-night gas station weirdness that sneers at uber-patriotism, is the type of slime-slicked firecracker Mictlan is notorious for, but instigators like “so so STRAYNGE” and “CLAPP’D” fail to live up to their all-caps billing. Ironically, HELLA FRREAL is strongest in its collaborations. Ceschi Ramos’ motor-mouthed verbosity on “SELL OUT” harmonizes with Mictlan’s attentive lyrical style, and Aby Wolf’s addition to “LESS’TALK” gives the tracklist softness Mictlan fails to blend in elsewhere (“THA BRINK”). But overall, HELLA FRREAL lacks the signature energy Mictlan has left in the past. –Jerard Fagerberg

Migos – Rich Nigga Timeline

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Grade: B-

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Finding themselves in Twitter beef after Twitter beef (most notably with Chief Keef and his Glo Gang associates, though the parties have recently reconciled), it seems any time Migos take to social media it impacts their collective life expectancy. This drama is well-documented across the Rich Nigga Timeline, Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset’s mixtape follow-up to No Label 2. From the attempted murder in Miami (“Can’t Believe It”) to home invasion (“Nawfside”) and dead brethren (“Rich Nigga Timeline”), the trio let us all know their lyrics arrive from a place of painful truth. The urgency is palpable; Migos are riding this high through all its intrinsic turmoil. But RNT isn’t a dis record, and that allows the family members to expand their focus. Quavo hits with those trending triplet drills while Offset delivers with a highly textured lyrical barrage. The trio have moved on quickly from “Versace” and the industry awaits for what Migos collab pops next. –Derek Staples

Mykki Blanco – Gay Dog Food

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Grade: B+

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“I’m a country grammar gal/ But my name ain’t Nelly,” raps New York/L.A. MC Mykki Blanco on “Baby’s Got Big Plans”. As a multidisciplinary performance artist who loves to toy with the ragged edges of gender and identity, Blanco’s way more interested in pieces that don’t fit together than smoothing her work into a complete whole. Her vibrant, messy mixtape Gay Dog Food features riot grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, The Julie Ruin), who lends vocals to the brash and buzzy stomper “A Moment with Kathleen”. Between that song and “Moshin in the Front”, which features Memphis internet rapper Cities Aviv, Gay Dog Food is the fiercest, punkest release Mykki has dropped yet — and it’s coming from an artist who’s been gnashing her teeth every step of the way. –Sasha Geffen

DJ Quik – The Midnight Life

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Grade: B-

DJ Quik’s savvy The Midnight Life opens with an aspiring artist asking the gangsta rap legend what the game needs. Quik responds in his typical, straightforward manner without a moment’s hesitation: “Hip-hop? Nigga I think hip-hop need a banjo in it.” Sure enough, his ninth studio album kicks off with a banjo immediately after the inquisitive rapper writes him off as crazy. That’s a pretty solid microcosm of Quik’s underrated late-career renaissance: He does something weird, and fans write it off as crazy or overlook it entirely.

The Midnight Life doesn’t completely disregard Quik’s gangsta rap past; instead, it channels its energy into something less deliberately brazen and more bracing. In the twilight of his career, the West Coast pioneer is still just looking to do something new, but there’s always an Easter egg for the old heads, too. Whether it’s the twinkling chime production on “Shine” and “Bacon’s Grove”, the wailing train horns of “Trapped on the Tracks”, or the R&B vibes of the pseudo-eulogy “Pet Semetary”, DJ Quik mends two generations by doing what others won’t. –Sheldon Pearce

Rome Fortune – Small VVorld

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Grade: B+

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Atlanta’s Rome Fortune has been operating at a very high level in a very low-key way, but he’s primed for one of the biggest breakouts in the rap world if he keeps improving with each mixtape. He dropped his Beautiful Pimp 2 in February, and he’s closing it out with the even stronger Small VVorld. Rome’s flow is a slow burn, fitting perfectly with the beats he uses, which usually lean toward the far-out end of the spectrum: “4 Seasons” sounds like it was recorded inside a bottle of Promethazine, a woozy track perfect for a 3:30 a.m. blunt. Really, all these songs are attuned to a “sitting sideways at a 24-hour waffle house” feeling, hazy and reaching some ethereal places. Recruiting some of the most exciting producers working today certainly doesn’t hurt, with Blood Diamonds, Suicideyear, and Bassnectar all contributing — even Four Tet stops by for a bonus track. Few rappers work with such prominent names and don’t have major recognition, so it’s not hard to see a future where Rome Fortune is considered among the best Atlanta exports in recent years. –Pat Levy

Vince Staples – Hell Can Wait EP

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Grade: A-

Long Beach’s Vince Staples is among the ranks of young and resilient West Coast MCs who give vivid and oftentimes grim accounts of street life. So far, the 21-year-old Def Jam acquisition has impressed with his Shyne Coldchain mixtapes and appearances on Earl Sweatshirt songs including “Hive” and “Centurion”. His Hell Can Wait EP serves as a debut of sorts and, more importantly, a portrait of a rising talent coming into his own. Here, Staples coldly explores the realities of crime, death, and violence. On opener “Fire”, he proclaims, “I’m probably finna go to hell anyway,” while “Hands Up” is an anti-police-brutality anthem that doesn’t have to be just about Ferguson. On “Blue Suede”, he does his best Public Enemy over Hagler Tyrant’s siren-like alien squeal of a beat, one of the year’s best instrumentals. Staples’ flow is unorthodox — it’s hard to argue that he spits — but his clearheaded lyrics and impeccable atmosphere-building render those complaints irrelevant. Hell Can Wait is a resounding success, and for an artist previously known more for his excellent features, it’s going to catapult him into universal recognition as a force of his own. –Josh Terry

More Releases of Note (October, November, and December)

— B.o.B.’s eight-song, as-racially-charged-as-it-sounds New Black mixtape.

— Boosie Badazz (aka Lil Boosie)’s gritty but meditative Life After Deathrow tape, his first since his release from prison in March.

— Da Mafia 6ix’s horrorcore bloodletting of a tape, Hear Sum Evil, which precedes March 3rd’s Watch What U Wish album.

— E-40’s Sharp on All 4 Corners: Corner 1 and Corner 2, the Bay Area legend’s danceable, sometimes menacing pair of new albums — and his first since appearing on Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck with You”.

— Kevin Gates’ Luca Brasi 2 tape, the even tougher follow-up to 2013’s alpha version.

— Montana of 300’s Cursed with a Blessing, the debut solo tape from Chicago’s toughest drill sergeant — his stunning “Chi-Raq” remix appears as a bonus track.

— OG Maco’s boisterous, 15-track self-titled “EP.”

— PRhyme (DJ Premier and Royce Da 5’9″)’s lyrical workout PRhyme.

Truly Blessed, the heavily Auto-Tuned debut album by Chief Keef hanger-on-turned-potent-hook-writer SD.

— Shy Glizzy’s melodic, ethereal Law 3: Now or Never tape.

 Cool Tape Vol. 2, Jaden Smith’s high-energy latest project.

— Your Old Droog’s classicist, richly textured self-titled album.

Video of the Month

October: A$AP Rocky – “Multiply”

In the same month Run the Jewels released their assault on any and all fuckboys, A$AP Rocky came back to take shots at all the hypebeasts of the world. “Multiply” made headlines for the shots fired at Hood by Air and Been Trill, two streetwear companies who are either very cool or very not cool right now (who knows), but aside from the fashion world feud, it’s the A$AP crew back in their element of low-budget-looking, fuzzed-out videos with intimidating bars to match the menacing tone of the visuals. Yung Gleesh’s interlude is a highlight for sure, introducing a number of dances that white people will struggle to learn for the next several months and perfect right as they become uncool. The overall lesson of “Multiply” is this: A$AP’s back, and you best not fuck with him if your attire isn’t 100. –Pat Levy

November: Run the Jewels – “Blockbuster Night Part 1”

Both separately and together as Run the Jewels, Killer Mike and El-P are well-spoken about the ills of our society — after all, Killer Mike left Brooke Baldwin no choice but to hug him during a recent appearance on CNN. They don’t fuck around when doing so, either; conversely, the video for the two-and-a-half-minute dash “Blockbuster Night Part 1” is pretty much all fucking around, as Mike and El portray EMTs and attempt to save an adorable kittycat in a tree but not an evidently rich, evidently undeserving prick (not to mention a cameo from Cole Alexander of Atlanta garage rockers The Black Lips). That’s the bigger picture; I can’t forget to mention small-but-significant things like El-P’s hand-ejaculation motion in time with the line “I’d fall back if the casting calls are ending in semen.” –Michael Madden

R.I.P. Big Bank Hank (1956-2014)

By Nina Corcoran

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For those who frown upon rap for its profanities and vulgarity, The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was a gem. Big Bank Hank — the Sugarhill Gang rapper and artist manager who died of cancer at 58 on November 11 — brought a lightness to rap that both toddlers and grandparents would find entertaining.

Born Henry Jackson, Big Bank Hank grew up in the Bronx, where he was surrounded by the burgeoning hip-hop scene. Shortly after getting a degree in oceanography from Bronx Community College, he spent his free time managing Grandmaster Caz and The Mighty Force MCs, in addition to being the doorman at a popular nightclub. When singer/producer Sylvia Robinson came in to order pizza at Crispy Crust in Englewood, NJ, where Hank was working, his talent stopped being a secret. Hank, who was rapping over some of Caz’s Cold Crush Brothers beats, was quickly asked to join her rap label, Sugar Hill Records, which she started in honor of her son’s fixation on the genre.

The Sugarhill Gang’s self-titled debut from 1980 had a mere six songs, but went on to become one of the most coveted rap records due to single “Rapper’s Delight”. Even though the song is lengthy (one version clocks in at over 14 minutes), “Rapper’s Delight” broke the top 40 on Billboard. It earned a spot as one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, soundtracked a memorable scene in The Wedding Singer, and has since spawned numerous parodies that introduced it to new generations. Nile Rodgers threatened to sue the group for nabbing the bass line from Chic’s “Good Times”, but he settled on a co-writer title instead, later stating he’s thankful to be a part of “a new art form” years later. (In truth, come 1979, rap music had been alive for half a decade in the live-performance party scene.)

While Hank sings arguably the catchiest line of the song, “Ho-tel, mo-tel, Holiday Inn,” alongside members Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien, that phrase was frequently passed around at parties, leaving Caz, who first came up with the lyric, feeling robbed. He lent Big Bank Hank his notebook when he was signed in the pizza parlor, hoping to get some credit in return. Despite the controversy surrounding the three snubbing rhymes, it earned its place in history. The phrase continues to turn up in transmutations by 50 Cent, Pitbull, and more.

Upon hearing about Hank’s death, Wonder Mike and Master Gee got together to express their sorrows. “So sad to hear about our brother’s passing,” they said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “The three of us created musical history together with the release of ‘Rapper’s Delight’. We will always remember traveling the world together and rocking the house. Rest in peace, Big Bank.”

The Sugarhill Gang formed as a result of Hank’s noisy audition on that dough-covered day. Master Gee and Wonder Mike heard Hank rapping in an Oldsmobile 98 outside the pizza parlor and wandered over, curious, only to be introduced to Sylvia Robinson. Later on a Friday night, they went to her house to start recording and churned out their future hit. History was made, just like that.

The Sugarhill Gang saw reputable success after the single, including hits “8th Wonder” and “Apache”, but ultimately the drum machines and shouted lyrics of the mid-’80s bumped their disco-tinged style out of focus. They never once fought against rap’s ever-changing nature to fit in. Thankfully, they didn’t have to. The Sugarhill Gang had already made a mark that won’t soon be forgotten.

The Sugarhill Gang disbanded in 1985, occasionally reuniting to perform various shows over the years. The last time Big Bank Hank showed up was for a children’s hip-hop album the trio did in 1999. Now, it may be best to remember him as Wonder Mike describes: “He would rap all the time. While he was making the pizzas, while he was slicing them, while he was serving them. He was boisterous — he filled the room.”

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