First of the Month is a monthly column that highlights outstanding rap music from the past thirty days.
This month was a case study in how one album can suck all the air out of the room. Despite the wealth of choices a click away, it was difficult to escape Kanye West’s orbit; while this would probably be true no matter when he decided to drop his record, he no doubted benefitted from the vacuum that we’re used to seeing in February. Beyond West, the most celebrated hip-hop moment from last month will probably be Kendrick Lamar’s performance at the Grammy Awards, where he marched to the microphone in shackles.
Most of our biggest stars are waiting in the wings until the season is right—see Graham, Aubrey. But what February did offer us was a window into some of the genre’s most consistent B-listers, artists who sometimes find themselves overlooked simply because we’ve come to expect greatness (or at least goodness) on too consistent a basis. In any event, these are five noteworthy records in what is already shaping up to be a compelling, diverse year for rap music.
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo (G.O.O.D./Def Jam)
The Life of Pablo is inescapable, so we might as well talk about it. While the album—or at least the current iteration of it—has been picked apart ad nauseum (including here on this blog), stripped for discussions on celebrity, sex, and prescription drug culture, some of its most interesting technical aspects have been glossed over. For his seventh solo effort, Kanye delivered one of his most carefully paced works to date. Where his 2010 opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, used bloated run times to flesh out songs and chase ideas three steps too far, Pablo tightens its belt wherever possible.
Even with its four bonus songs (which brings the tracklist to 18, compared to Yeezus’s 10 or Dark Fantasy’s 13), Pablo clocks in under an hour. And that hour is distributed smartly, rattling off five songs in 13 minutes after stellar opener “Ultralight Beam.” Though Pablo is scattered and underwritten, it moves at such a relentless clip that you’d be hard-pressed to find a natural exit point. Sequencing issues aside—“Waves” is almost certainly misplaced—the record is tight and economical in a way that maximizes its impact and enjoyability, and should make it his first effective summer soundtrack since Graduation.
What’s more: the abbreviated running times in the front half of the record leave ears fresh and patience untested for the detours at the end. “30 Hours” is a half-finished sketch where West quotes (and gives publishing points to) Nelly, reminisces on an open relationship that he regrets diving into, and takes a phone call while in the booth. And while the first half of the Madlib-produced “No More Parties in L.A.” has disappointing vocal takes (including from Kendrick), the last three minutes of the song are without question the best bit of rapping and writing from Kanye on all of Pablo. He strips celebrity of all its mystery and intrigue, worrying about his texting-while-driving habits and even giving a little shine to his therapist’s kids.
French Montana, Wave Gods (self-released)
All that said, Pablo may be the second-best record from this month with a behind-bars appearance from Max B. The incarcerated Harlem rapper, famous for his late-2000s mixtape run, is listed as the host of French Montana’s excellentWave Gods, a mixtape that finds him writing and rapping at his most impressive levels to date. On the intro, he flips lines from The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Somebody’s Gotta Die” to pose an important question about the state of the industry: “Sittin’ in the crib dreaming about G5s and Benzes/ And why street rap ain’t selling like Kendrick.” French was probably not destined to be an A-lister in any era, but he’s finally ready to push the genre from its commercial fringes. Download it here.
Future, EVOL (Epic)
The first thing to note about Future’s EVOL is that, despite its lack of fanfare, it’s officially tagged as the Atlanta star’s fourth studio album; the second thing you need to know is that it is not, in any important way, a departure from his torrid run of the last 16 months. Though he’s struck upon a working formula, Future is fast approaching a point of diminishing returns from Southside and Xanax. What made Pluto and Beast Mode so enthralling was a sense of wild unpredictability, where no idea was too weird to follow the last one—on EVOL, the proceedings are too uniform, too easy to map out from the first track. “In Her Mouth,” “Xanny Family,” “Lil Haiti Baby,” and “Lie to Me” survive as standouts.
Ras G & The Koreatown Oddity, 5 Chuckles (Leaving)
MF DOOM’s influence over modern hip-hop plays out mostly in tight internal rhymes, bizarre non-sequiturs, and sarcastic monotones. But Ras G and The Koreatown Oddity’s 5 Chuckles project has always worked by carrying “America’s Most Blunted” to its natural conclusion, one part paranoia, three parts frenetic genius. Their latest record, the brief, blunted 5 Chuckles, is their strongest to date. The signature cut is without a doubt “Diz nee land,” where Open Mike Eagle joins to spin tales about misadventures in Anaheim’s most commercially viable purgatory. Stream/purchase the album here.
Peewee Longway, Mr. Blue Benjamin (MPA Bandcamp Music)
Peewee Longway’s commercial debut is the indulgent counterpoint to The Life of Pablo and 5 Chuckles in the Wrld, finally tapping out after 20 songs and nearly 75 minutes. But there’s more than enough gems hidden in the folds: “Nothing Else to Talk About,” “I Can’t Vouch,” the Gucci Mane-featuring “Gold Mouth,” and a handful of other songs reestablish Longway as perhaps Atlanta’s most necessary bit player. The album also features appearances from Young Dolph, Wiz Khalifa, and Juicy J, and production from the moment’s street rap A-list.
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