First of the Month is a monthly column that rounds up the best releases in rap music, from major label albums to Datpiff classics. This month's edition covers Rae Sremmurd, Jeffrey (fka Young Thug), Noname, and more.
Prima Donna, the daring companion piece to last year’s Summertime ‘06, opens with Vince Staples singing “This Little Light of Mine” about eight feet away from the microphone. Then there’s a gunshot. Then Andre’s vocals from the ATLiens title track. Then the Long Beach native is contemplating suicide (he’ll do it again later on), planning trips to Ibiza, trying to stop the walls from caving in. “Life give you lemons, nigga, hang from a tree.”
The year after your Def Jam debut would seemingly be a time to kick back, take stock, and start plotting your next move. But for most of Prima Donna, Vince is wringing his hands, lashing out, suffocating. See the second threat of suicide on the title track, or watch him rush-order a straightjacket on “Loco.” Fame, it seems, only exacerbates the kind of psychic trauma he’s been wrestling since the first Shyne Coldchain; this time, he’s wrestling with it over wildly experimental beats from the likes of James Blake and DJ Dahi.
Put simply, Vince is one of this generation’s greatest writers. At one point on the EP he cites James Joyce, but he spends less time trying to innovate on a micro language level than he does in breaking apart and restructuring memory, like when he says he’s been “shooting since the Vans song” (that’s 2006). Prima Donna is a brisk listen if you stand a little ways away from the speakers--direct contact can make it feel too emotionally taxing. But if Vince is going through it, he’s going to pull us into the void, too.
Young Thug has spent the last 16 months in limbo, floating test balloons to radio and flooding DatPiff with a steady stream of consciousness. His third record of the year, the slight No, My Name is JEFFERY, is being pitched by 300 and Atlantic as the stepping stone to crossover stardom. Whether it works on that level remains to be seen (and looks unlikely, as there’s no “Lifestyle,” no “Best Friend,” no “Stoner”); what’s clear is that it’s an arresting work, a worthy successor to Barter 6 and the first Slime Season.
JEFFERY’s penultimate song--a Wyclef Jean collaboration that’s been called, at various times, “Wet Wet,” “Pop Man,” “Kanye West,” and “Elton John”--might be its most fascinating. For all the talk about the passage in the middle of Views that has “Controlla” and “One Dance,” Young Thug might be doing more than Drake to smuggle dancehall into the American mainstream. The format lets his writing move as freely as his vocals, a luxury that more rigid songs like “Future Swag” don’t afford him. Riddims notwithstanding, highlights include “Webbie” and “Swizz Beatz,” which serve as emotional counterpoints to one another, the unhinged joy and the creeping paranoia.
2 Chainz, Daniel Son; Necklace Don
Don’t look now, but 2 Chainz might be the rapper of the year. After the absolutely blistering Collegrove somehow flew under the radar, the former Tity Boi dropped a solo mixtape with little warning, a Drake verse, and no frills, and it’s one of the best rap records in recent memory. The way 2 Chainz is writing lately, trips to Waffle House are wrought with peril and mornings watching cartoons on stolen cable are reason enough for celebration. He puts rims on ambulances, puts codeine on salads, puts women in the zoo and tells them “pick a fur.” Daniel Son; Necklace Don is so relentlessly colorful that its Boost Mobile chirps and its too-cheap kilos hit equally hard; even Drake raps well. The moments of reflection that get tucked into the fold underscore that 2 Chainz built this fantasy life out of one that was all too real.
By this point, if you’re aware of Ka, you’re aware of the New York Post’s attempts to sabotage his career with the NYFD. Setting aside the insidious notion that protesting police violence means someone’s “anti-police,” the smear campaign is itself an argument for Ka’s music: our institutions are decaying, our infrastructure crumbling, our artists pushed out of the neighborhoods they’ve occupied for decades. Honor Killed the Samurai is the Brownsville rapper’s best album yet, a dive into his psyche and his past, all rendered in his skeletal style. Most of Ka’s writing filters surroundings and setbacks through a series of hard-learned moral codes; the crooked cops on the blocks of his youth swarm like vultures. He simply survives. Like he says on “Just,” “The law don’t forgive what the Lord might.”
Chance the Rapper’s gravity is such that anyone who comes into contact with him is pulled into his orbit; he’s so beloved that he even distracts from the thousandth diatribe about gun violence in Chicago. But after sneaking into a national audience’s mind with a show-stealing turn on Acid Rap, Noname has not only separated herself from her immediate circle--she’s distinguished herself as one of the genre’s most exciting talents. The production on Telefone (courtesy of Cam O’bi, Phoelix, and Saba) is uniformly excellent, and at its best, the record feels as if it’s being made right in front of you. “Sunny Duet,” which enlists theMIND, turns a collection of finely-chopped component parts into a vicious groove; it bleeds into “Diddy Bop,” a spiritual for streetlights flickering on at night.
When Rae Sremmurd no flex zoned into the national consciousness, they did so to mild amusement and a chorus of Kris Kross comparisons. Of course, the first SremmLife ended up being one of last year’s most deliriously fun records--but it was an earnest counterpoint to the rest of the rap that was en vogue, with safe-sex PSAs and songs named after hashtags. This time around, the Mississippi brothers strike closer to the vein that their peers have already tapped. The front half of SremmLife 2 is moody, pitch-perfect pop rap, like the last forty minutes of a house party, when the liquor is running out and your phone is dying but everything feels okay.
About halfway through the new Atmosphere album, there’s a song that sounds like an old blues standard but is actually about masturbating next to your sleeping wife so you don’t throw off her sleep schedule and fuck up the morning carpool. To be totally clear, that’s an endorsement: as the Minneapolis duo keeps trying to navigate the slide into middle age, they’re retaining some of the inscrutable weirdness that marked their earlier work. After a stumble of an opener (“Like a Fire”), Fishing Blues rights itself quickly and hits an impressive groove starting with the DOOM- and Kool Keith-featuring “When the Lights Go Out.” There are also worthwhile discussions of identity politics (“Perfect,” “Everything”) and beats that hearken back to the days when Ant had the latitude to sample freely.
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