Every month, we round up the best releases in rap music. This month's edition covers 21 Savage, Jay-Z, and more.
The financial advice that Jay-Z doles out periodically over the course of 4:44 has been hashed to vapors by critics and observers. There are those who find it calloused and out of touch; there are those who consider it an important building block of any black nationalist movement. When he kicks his younger self, on “The Story of O.J.,” for buying coupes instead of buildings in since-gentrified neighborhoods, it becomes a sort of Rorschach test: is Jay being predatory? Radical? Or is here merely asking to be dealt in alongside those with lighter skin?
Released at the tail end of June, 4:44 puts a welcome stop to the aesthetic ADD of 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail and especially 2009’s The Blueprint 3. No ID’s beats range from comfortable to very good, spinning a handful of monstrously expensive samples into something warm and manageable. Rather than expand on Beyonce’s Lemonade with salacious details or—one shudders to think— respond to it with rebuttals, Jay vents his frustrations with himself and his shortcomings, the way one might to a therapist, or maybe to a very close friend. The result is a batch of songs that at times feel overcooked, but are brimming with wit, with perspective, and with humility, all of which are driven home by a remarkably (though perhaps unsurprisingly) agile set of flows for someone born in the ‘60s.
I wrote over at Complex about how Issa Album is yet another leap forward from the rapidly improving, endlessly captivating 21 Savage, and about how that rapid improvement is often overshadowed by a gross voyeurism. The truth is that much of his commercial appeal and critical reputation have been tied to the vicious postures that his music actually deconstructs. It’s a unique conundrum for an artist, especially one who works better in short, fragmented phrases than in discursive meta-commentary. 21 succeeds mostly by ignoring the din, by quietly rounding out his on-wax persona to include more motivations, more psychic baggage, more anxiety.
The move from Metro Boomin to a rotation of expensive producers serves him well; Savage Mode’s extraordinary ambience is replaced here by lean, pointed, mostly excellent numbers that center 21’s voice and writing in new ways. There are stabs at radio (“FaceTime”) but for the most part, the Atlantan seems unconcerned with rap’s landscape, preferring as he has since the end of his mixtape run to burrow deeper into himself whenever possible.
The headlines are about Tyler, the Creator’s presumed sexuality, and how that presumed sexuality colors and qualifies his history of provocative (and, at times, crass) lines about sex and gender. Really, there’s nothing remotely surprising about Tyler, an artist who has trafficked alternately—or, when it suits him, concurrently—in confession and confrontation. The two-pronged hints here (a musing about hiding places and “phases,” and a growled “I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004”) hit from either angle, the quiet kid and the jester. And that’s fitting, since Scum Fuck Flower Boy is Tyler’s best record to date precisely because it synthesize each musical and personal fragment into a Technicolor whole.
“I Ain’t Got Time!” sounds like Scrooge McDuck covering “Money, Cash, Hoes.” It’s hard to shake the impression that Frank Ocean was grafted onto Odd Future as a smart bit of marketing, but that feeling does nothing to mar the chemistry he and Tyler share; “911/Mr. Lonely” more or less fulfills the promise of those earliest MySpace dumps, a pair of hyper-talented kids who have grown up, but like, not too much. The influence those Neptunes records had on Tyler’s production has not been exaggerated, but here he explores their weirdest, most chaotic endpoints: “Who Dat Boy?” is like a gloomy interlude blown up to stadium proportions.
I don’t want to use this space to write about Drake, but fuck it: my God has it been exhausting watching people who have never spent time with a Meek Mill record clown him for, like, not having seven infinity pools. He botched the beef, absolutely. He should have dropped the reference tracks out of the clear blue sky and then went for the throat. But the kowtowing to Drake’s commercial lot in life—and the laughable insistence that this has nothing to do with class—speaks to what’s lost in the proverbial Conversation surrounding popular rap music. It’s (I know this is a loaded word) shallow, and it obscures the simple fact that Meek Mill is a consistently good, often spectacular rapper. Wins & Losses is probably ten minutes longer than it should be (“Glow Up” and the second Rick Ross song could be cut without incident) but it’s a vibrant, deeply felt record that argues for Meek as one of his generation’s most reliable mainstream talents.
At points earlier in his career, Meek seemed like a raw talent, an athletic prospect who moved North-South better than he did East-West. But he fleshed out his writing with turns like “Tony Story,” and over time has learned to throttle up to and then down from the Dreams and Nightmares intro’s furious fever pitch. Wins & Losses deploys Meek’s various skills with careful plotting and a tremendous sense for pace. The passage that starts just before the two-minute mark in “Heavy Heart” builds and breaks tension better than nearly anything else in his catalog; the Young Thug-featuring “We Ball,” with its elegy for Lil Snupe, is stomach-turning in its intensity and in its nakedness. The record is gorgeously produced, lush but never superfluous; there’s a sample from the artist formerly known as Spooky Black and understated guest appearances by Future, Yo Gotti, Ty Dolla $ign, and a Blues Clues-remembering Quavo, among others. It’s the kind of record you get lost in.
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.