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Every month, we round up the essentials rap albums you need to hear, from majors to Soundcloud to Apple Music exclusives. This month's edition covers Danny Brown, Isaiah Rashad, Kool Keith, Mick Jenkins, and more.
Earlier this fall, I spent a day with Danny Brown in Los Angeles. He was already exhausted by the (relatively light) press run that had just started. He told me he was sick of rehashing the rote parts of his backstory--the Fool’s Gold deal, the near miss with G-Unit, the EDM songs that made him rich and wrecked his liver. So we talked about rap: which ad-libs he could crib from Stack Bundles, the stacks he dropped on Max B CDRs, the mechanics of Boosie songs, the way De La and Nas diverged in ‘96.
Brown’s understanding of the genre is encyclopedic and indiscriminate, spanning eras, regions, and styles. That much has been evident in his music since--at least --2010’s The Hybrid, which lacked in polish but was a dizzying clinic in the act of rapping, a collage of the genre’s most gripping writing styles and its most difficult vocal patterns. But he made his national reputation the following year, with XXX, a meditation on aging and death, and especially with its outlandish set pieces, which painted him as a self-destructive, sex-obsessed insomniac with a God complex. Finally, 2013’s Old shoehorned all that debauchery into a framework that dissected its fallout in real time.
His newest album, Atrocity Exhibition, pushes boundaries in different ways. At many points, the Detroit native is hitting 3-wood, reigning his writing in just enough to shift focus to the production, which is wildly experimental (and, to hear him tell it, just as expensive). Even when his flows are at their most technical, his lyrics are lean and impressionistic: see “Dance in the Water,” where he reverts to a series of end-of-the-set chants, or “Golddust,” where his voice is rendered instrumental. More often than not, the arrangements (the majority of which are handled by longtime collaborator Paul White) push their source material, be it dance or psych-rock, to the front, with superb results.
Of course, Danny’s sharp enough to cut through the din when necessary. He and Earl Sweatshirt bookend “Really Doe,” which also features Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul, with stunning verses; the lead single “When It Rain” is a furious study in navigating the drum programming. And it doesn’t hurt that Exhibition opens with “Downward Spiral,” one of Brown’s most confessional cuts to date, a stark callback to the trashed hotel rooms of Old’s front half.
Atrocity Exhibition is an album that nobody else could make. Brown’s work sometimes seems designed to court critical praise, but those concerns usually manifest themselves in sequencing decisions that benefit the LP regardless. This is one of hip-hop’s most inimitable talents operating at the peak of his abilities, with near-limitless creative control.
Isaiah Rashad was promising, but he was too reverent. The Chattanooga, Tennessee native struck oil with his 2014 debut, Cilvia Demo, and benefitted from the built-in fanbase that his TDE deal afforded him. But the tape invoked Southern legends like Outkast and Webbie, and offered little in the way of competing charisma. Fortunately his studio debut, The Sun’s Tirade, plays to his strengths, lulling listeners into a hazy, dog-day rhythm before snapping them upright with a string of bone-rattling hits. It’s controlled and consistent, the sort of record that distinguishes and delineates itself over time. And despite Rashad’s understated presence, it sets him apart as one of the genre’s most promising album-oriented artists.
“Don’t Matter,” an earnest dance song on the album’s B-side, is a climax and an outlier, its effect amplified by how languid Tirade’s front half is (the slow creep of “Silkk da Shocka” is positively hypnotic). “A lot,” part of the quick ramp up toward “Don’t Matter,” could have been the meanest song on Black Elvis; “Bday” is neck-deep in “Da Art of Storytelling” mythos and tightly-wound parables. Rashad is not a particularly expressive vocalist, but he’s a competent one, bending his flow around a variety of cadences.
The Sun’s Tirade is the best TDE release since good kid m.A.A.d. city; while it lacks a singular song in the vein of “Money Trees” or “m.A.A.d. city,” it has none of the back-end faltering that crept into Kendrick’s debut. Rashad operates strictly within himself--sometimes literally, wrestling with addiction and psychological trauma. Though not as flashy as his more famous contemporaries, Tirade suggests Rashad has gotten somewhere most veterans never do: he knows himself.
At a time when “the violence in Chicago” has become a spectre used to shift the blame for genocidal police work onto Black Americans themselves, the city’s vibrant hip-hop scene has been treated with roughly the same degree of nuance. Onlookers gawked at (and passed judgment on) drill at the beginning of this decade; in the years since, its proponents in the national music press have mostly moved on, despite the handful of brilliant offshoots the genre inspired. In any event, when The Water(s), the breakout tape from an Alabama transplant named Mick Jenkins, bubbled to the surface two years ago, many rushed to pit him as the starched, moralistic alternative to Keef and Bibby and Louie and Herb.
It was reductive, but it wasn’t wrong: Jenkins is a sober, authoritative writer, eager to wrestle with Big Questions. After a slightly experimental detour with an EP called Wave[s], he returns with The Healing Component, a quote-unquote studio album that finds him pensive, political, and back in his (slightly expanded) comfort zone. Not every promising rookie is destined to be a major star; one gets the impression, on The Healing Component, that outsider status suits Jenkins well. Songs like “Daniels Bloom” and “Plugged” play like organic, groove-centric alternatives to the Atlantan sounds that dominate today’s rap radio. Component feels minor compared to Water(s), but not for lack of craftsmanship; it merely acknowledges that before Jenkins can remake the world in his image, he needs to sort out matters of the heart.
Kool Keith’s legacy rests, imprecisely, on his reputation as a chameleon, a galactic interloper who slips in and out of various assumed identities. But as he proves on his latest album, Keith can conjure magic from an empty room. Feature Magnetic is less an expansive artistic statement than a series of practice drills, two-a-days with barely-there hooks and no-frills beats. Each song catches the Ultramagnetic legend with another collaborator--some (Slug, Ras Kass) sound rejuvenated, others (Mac Mall) hint at alternate paths Keith could have taken during the W. Bush years.
It’s an audacious structure for a rapper in his sixth decade: no misdirection, no moving the goalposts with a stylistic left turn, nowhere to hide. His writing is brimming with eye-popping imagery and staggering turns of phrase; a mention of his hometown unspools, in the space of six words, into a portrait of the X-men sipping tea politely while they ogle women on the street. Keith’s reality is different from ours, weirder but more welcoming.
The first time I played Legends Never Die, the second posthumous Chinx album in as many summers, I was in a car, driving through the San Fernando Valley. My phone was tucked into the center console, so I had no way of knowing who would pop up at the end of “All Good”: Stack Bundles, the punchline savant from Queens who was murdered as he walked into his apartment building in 2007. (The case is still cold; some sources, including those within the NYPD, have suggested a connection to Chinx’s murder in 2015.) It was heart-stopping. Because his work was never properly channeled into the album format while he was alive, the Chinx LPs are difficult to hear through any lens that doesn’t consider his death. But even without the artist here to direct the proceedings, his work is vibrant--clever and current, with a sense for timing that can’t be learned.