by Paul Thompson
The next time you read one of these columns, it’ll be July 1st, and summer will be in full swing. We’ll be inundated with blockbuster releases (and probably playing Still Krazy at deafening volumes). But for now, as labels ready their third-quarter slates, a handful of secondary projects from major artists and under-the-radar efforts from underground acts are able to snatch a bit of the spotlight. The month was a grab bag of sorts, with an excellent album from Masta Ace 26 years after his classic debut Take a Look Around, and a Kevin Gates EP a mere four months after his first LP hit retail shelves.
The highest profile rap record from the past 30 days was Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, released for free via Apple Music to massive fanfare. It’s not included here because, for me, it falls short of the records that are mentioned, and because so much has been written already. While it might not be the masterpiece some expected, it does boast one of the most impressive supporting casts in recent memory.
As a side note: if Boosie appears on eight or more monthly rap-ups this year we’re going to have to have a plaque made or something.
Masta Ace: The Falling Season
Masta Ace’s career should have ended a half-dozen times by now—and to hear him tell it, it almost did. I interviewed him earlier this year about his odyssey through the major label system and the ever-shifting indie landscape, from his time at Cold Chillin’ to his ill-fated deal with Atlantic, from his stint as a sought-after producer on the west coast to his comeback with the still-lauded Disposable Arts, and he cited a handful of moments when he figured his time was up. It defies the laws of physics that the Brooklyn native is still putting out rap records today, less than six months from his 50th birthday. So now Ace is going back to fill in the gaps in his origin story.
The Falling Season is about Ace’s time at Sheepshead Bay High School in the early- and mid-‘80s. As with Disposable Arts and its prequel, A Long Hot Summer, the record is stitched together with a series of skits, while the songs themselves riff on themes that the characters are facing. (This is one of Ace’s keys to cracking the concept album format: he’s able to build a world without ever clinging too closely to a restrictive script.) Always a clear, deliberate rapper, Ace’s writing style has proved durable even as his taste in production starts to skew early Clinton.
There are the hallmarks of growing up, like the Wordsworth-assisted “Say Goodbye,” an elegy for the innocent times before upperclassmen showed them the ropes. (The sleekest inside joke is the school’s football coach bemoaning the “kids these days” who are so disrespectful.) At times, Ace’s unadorned writing leaves him vulnerable to the sorts of cliches and platitudes that creep in when you reminisce about your childhood, but for the most part The Falling Season showcases his wit, his eye for observation, and his deep respect for the subjects of his people-watching. Nas made the first great rap album about middle age with Life Is Good, but Ace—and a peer of his from Vallejo—are setting the standard for aging gracefully in hip-hop.
Kevin Gates: Murder for Hire 2
That Islah, Kevin Gates’ major label debut album from this January, was an unqualified creative success might have seemed predictable to those who had been following his career to that point. What was more surprising was its performance at retail: Islah moved over 112,000 units in its first week, and has since been certified Gold. So Gates did what any shrewd rapper would do—stage a fake beef with his record label over release dates and drop what appears to be a guerilla EP of leftovers.
Murder for Hire 2 is not only a worthy successor to last year’s original, but serves as a welcome companion piece to Islah. A rocky start (an inferior retread of the O.T. Genasis hit “Cut It,” which is strange considering Gates already murdered the song’s remix) gives way to “Prayer,” one of his most mesmerizing cuts this year. The Baton Rouge native continues to distinguish himself as one of the genre’s most technically dazzling and disarmingly honest voices.
Boosie Badazz: Bleek Mode (Thug in Peace Lil Bleak)
Boosie’s fifth full-length release this year is named for his friend Darryl “Bleek” Milton, one of the men alleged to have been killed by Boosie’s former hitman, Marlo Mike. Where In My Feelings (Goin' Thru It) and Out My Feelings (In My Past) dealt with the emotional turmoil of the Louisiana legend’s cancer diagnosis and the perspective change that came with it, Thug Talk was the kind of hard-nosed, thematically tangled effort that made Boosie a cult hero in the first place. Bleek Mode continues in the latter vein. There are bleak missives like “Don’t Wanna Die Broke” and high-wire writing exercises like “Kill the Beef”; there are death row fever dreams (“Freedom”) and skeletal villain’s themes (“Bag After Bag”). It’s not hard to pick 2016’s MVP so far.
Havoc & Alchemist: The Silent Partner
While younger producers collect major label placements and rake in their first round of checks, Alchemist continues his mid-period creative tear by teaming with yet another revered rapper. Havoc is both sharper and more engaged than he has been in ages. There’s a cameo from Cormega and a Mobb Deep reunion, but the highlight is Method Man’s turn on “Buck 50’s and Bullet Wounds.”
Mistah F.A.B.: Son of a Pimp, Pt. 2
Mistah F.A.B has written the entirety of Too $hort’s new album, which should serve as notice that the sequel to 2005’s Son of a Pimp doesn’t exactly sound like the Thizz heyday. Pimp 2 dips into sleek R&B, soul, and—when Jadakiss shows up--menacing boom-bap. But F.A.B. himself is as magnetic as he was 11 years ago, and just as hungry to damage your sound system.