Every month, we round up the best releases in rap music. This month's editions breaks down 11(!) albums.
Three of the four SOB x RBE members have the sort of show-stopping talent that could carry a group; the fourth member, Lul G, has improved rapidly since the group was formed in 2015. From Vallejo, the quartet renews early-'90s Bay production with pace and force and grit and venom, making Gangin the most compulsively listenable rap record of the year so far. It’s also an argument for the rap group as an ideal, with the four shifting roles and combinations so fluidly that the lineup tweaks simply seem a natural part of the LP’s pacing. An absolutely star-making turn.
From deep in South Central, Nipsey Hussle has spent more than a decade chipping away at rap––that is, commercially and creatively, with a variety of schemes and an ever-clearer creative vision. Though it would be laughable to bend to the PR and call it his debut album, Victory Lap does feel like a new beginning, a formal announcement of Neighborhood Nip as a national force. The lead singles (“Rap Niggas” and the YG-assisted “Last Time That I Checc’d”) do lots of the heavy lifting, but there’s also a chopped-and-screwed “Hard Knock Life” redux and an exuberant Puff cameo waiting around the bend.
For all the fascination with the astronomical prices Mach-Hommy affixes to his releases, there should be more focus on how simply prolific he is. His latest offering, Bulletproof Luh, is about the women in his life, but rather than Valentine’s Day fodder, they serve as canvases, including for some of his more linear storytelling to date. It’s interesting to hear some of the cuts here and cross-reference them with the references, on Haitian Body Odor, to the former Haitian first lady Michele Bennett.
Where Elucid’s solo music bends toward the dissonant and experimental, his collaborative work, with billy woods as Armand Hammer, lures him into better-lit arenas. Last year’s LP from the duo, ROME, smartly and loudly examined power in all its digital and corporeal forms. Shit Don’t Rhyme No More, a new solo dispatch that came with little fanfare, picks up where last year’s Valley of Grace left off––but yanks the proceedings stateside and hears him at his most pointed, rapping from the inside of a burning building.
No argument, no matter how carefully constructed, serves Elzhi better than the simple fact he remade Illmatic and wasn’t run out of the genre with torches and pitchforks. His new full-length record, with the Durham, North Carolina producer Khrysis, doesn’t recapture the heights of his overlapping aughts masterworks Europass and The Preface, but is a lean, thoroughly competent record full of careful turns of phrase and concepts that are carried to and past their natural ends. While the Detroit-bred Elzhi is now an elder statesman of sorts, he’s lost virtually nothing on his first step, turning out verse after knotty verse in style that might have fallen out of underground vogue for the moment, but will always be there for the resurrecting.
Staying in Detroit, Black Milk––who produced almost all of The Preface––continues his evolution from beats to rhymes to bandleader. FEVER is warm and methodical, full of smart drum breaks and lush instrumentation. The rhymes dip frequently into contemporary politics, and while he’s never been Elzhi, Black Milk’s looser on the microphone than he was when he broke through in the W. Bush years, his cadences mirroring the more improvisational feel of the music.
It’s fitting that the lowest-stakes Kendrick Lamar project of the past half-decade is the soundtrack to a superhero movie that’s been asked to shoulder the weight of black representation in American pop culture.
Goonew is from Forest Creek, Maryland––an important distinction if you’re interested in untangling the web of rap scenes that stretch from the heart of DC up toward Baltimore and down into Virginia. On GoonWick, he raps like he’s constantly about to fall off the beat, but never does, but what sets him apart from his similarly careening peers is the actual tone and quality of his vocals: he seems so in control of the diction on each word and phrase that you barely notice the cadence as it unspools. He’s also rapping, at points, in a near-whisper, which has a terrifically engrossing effect. And, you know, the album cover has The Grinch with face tattoos.
When they began to bubble up on blogs, EARTHGANG was often pitched––to non-Atlantans, non-Southerners––as an act from Atlanta that ran counter to the Atlanta that had commercial rap in a stranglehold. That was a serious disservice to the duo, which produces (at a remarkable rate, it should be said) music that weaves some contemporary textures into looser, countrier Dungeon Family fabric.
Thug Motivation 101 flips aside, Pretty Girls Like Trap Music was not the embodiment of that titular genre––it was something softer, silkier, skewing closer to middle age. On The Play Don’t Care Who Makes It, a four-song EP comprised of what could be castoffs from 2 Chainz’s upcoming Rap Or Go to the League, the Atlantan moves fully into the mode of thoughtful veteran, especially on the standout “LAMBORGHINI TRUCK,” which is essentially a series of reminiscences about rappers from his hometown that still have him just a little starstruck.
PNTHN (pronounced “pantheon”) is a ten-piece group of seven vocalists and three producers who came together in San Marcos, Texas. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s virtually the same arc that Brockhampton traced to quasi-stardom over the last year. But Potluck is a bit grimmer than any of the Saturation installments. See especially “mewtwo,” an irresistible mutation of high school cool.
Paul Thompson is a Canadian writer and critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in GQ, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine and Playboy, among other outlets.