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Peace, God. Michael Penn II back with the first installment of Guardian of the Rap in 2019 a.k.a. The Year Climate Change Did the Dash. I spent my 25th birthday holed up with the Wingstop, on the verge of -40 degree weather, Chromecast down. Currently, it’s 37 degrees on the other side of the dial and walkin’ out with the coat open is an underrated delight. Perhaps the Midwest desensitized me more than I’ve assessed, and it’ll likely take the other end of my 20s to flesh that out. Either way, anticipate something else from GOTR this year: the January drop’s a lil light considering how the industry’s essentially asleep, but outside of the takeable major releases that hold my attention, I intend to shift my focus toward highlighting the shit that doesn’t have a budget. I’ll also have quicker, abbreviated takes on whatever noteworthy drops I didn’t have the time to ponder on; basically, rollover minutes because all our time’s limited, dig? It’d be way rawer to put folks on with this lil space I’ve carved in the internet. In time, you’ll see far more names you don’t know; I hope you trust me to dig and lift them up. Shit, I’m a rapper: Where’s our sanctuary?
As a 21 Truther, one that was utterly disappointed by how just aight Issa Album was, i am > i was only confirms the potential Savage has by taking every necessary step to avoid the post-breakout slump. (Speaking of which, did y’all notice the tracklist’s rearranged on streaming? And am I the only one — industry intervention aside — still confused about why “Bank Account” went so crazy as a single?) Like I was saying, this album’s the step 21 needed to save himself from falling into the singles-artist abyss: the worldview’s expanded, nothing feels redundant, and there are no blatant pivots to anything outside his purview. I’m not surprised by the accomplishments themselves, but by how gracefully 21 rises to their execution.
The plain-speaking still cuts through with more control over how dynamic his range can be, and his one-liners remain unparalleled for someone so consistently disrespectful. He’s the type of nigga that’ll shoot your goldfish, or lift himself about helping a woman sell bundles of weave. There’s also the surprises in how good Post Malone’s hook is on “all my friends,” or how Gambino appears on “monster” in a Zone 6 embrace, somewhat offsetting the Not That Kind of Black wave cast upon him since early on. (That’s an essay in itself.) Also, we get one of Cole’s best features in a while? And Metro Boomin doesn’t sound tired like his solo album just did? And we get a song called “asmr” in ANOTHER round of smart branding? I needed this surprise... I think we all did, sputtering underneath the seasonal burnout. i am > i was is an extended audible wink at the camera, like 21’s in on our expectations of savagery and knows exactly how to sidestep them. The growth is palpable, and refreshing, and in no need of a pivot into anything else for now.
I fought about this shit more than I thought I’d have to, but lemme say it since y’all won’t: This is More Life: Future Edition and y’all gotta come to terms with that. For every promo run praising Mr. Wilburn’s growth as a man clashing with his continued industrial dominance, we need whichever album he’s promoting to SYMBOLIZE. THAT. CHANGE. Where 21’s more nimble in maneuvering around his boxing, Future’s so enclosed in the casing that we’re starting to watch him suffocate. The Monster™ that rose from the ashes of his underrated pop crossover attempt — #JusticeForHonest — has not only lifted him to the legendary conversation, but rooted him in a toxicity that’s clearly catching up with whomever he’s aiming to become. He’s satisfied the masses for four years straight, we know when he’s on auto-pilot, and The WIZRD as a whole feels like the final negotiation of that struggle. It slaps almost throughout, but most records feel like hollow rehashes of every style he’s invented and perfected already.
Thankfully the production doesn’t falter, and Future’s clarity resurfaces to give us some of his most enthused performances in a minute. (For argument’s sake, BEASTMODE II is stellar in its own right, an underappreciated gem in his wave of releases.) The styles may be well-worn, but Future wears them like he fathered them, leaping between every mode without losing a step. We get the Reckless Hedonist, the Tortured Survivor, the Gucci Flip-Flop and more. And right when you feel like he’ll stumble into the darkness of his own legacy, he pirouettes around an 808 with a new cadence that reminds us of what got him here. But it’s impossible to shake the feeling that the grand change he’s advertised would’ve come long ago had he not felt indebted to satisfying our patriarchal bloodlust in the most innovative ways he could muster up. The WIZRD knows the franchise is over: time to kill the monster, but not before leaving a trail of blood. I pine for the reboot: the day he commits to the switch like no one’s watching, for DJ Esco and company to the wealth of material he’s amassed for the brilliant next step embedded somewhere within.
Listen, how much proof do you need that Chicago remains a fountain of untapped talent and some of the best rappers in the country? But not just in the “real hip-hop” way… these niggas rap, sing, talk shit AND let the hook ring off! No matter where a Chicago MC lands in the conversation… your pen gotta bleed to even be in the conversation. Benjamin Earl Turner — yes, the MC from “Part of Me” off the Noname album — is in no shortage of spillage. His FUCK EP checks all the boxes off a quintessentially-Chicago release: rugged, direct, goofy, pensive. His raspiness proves one of his greatest assets, curving and striking his intonations in a theatrical manner over post-boom bap, placing him somewhere between the homie that ribs you at every turn and the world-weary 20-something who needs just enough money to raise a kid if he fucks raw. (That’s awareness if I’ve ever seen it, considering how damn high them Chicago taxes be.) Whether he’s bullshittin’ or pulpittin’, Turner weaves some intriguing patches into 12 minutes that never offer a spare moment to turn away from. If he keeps this same energy, a breakout moment may be on the horizon.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.