Every month, Paul Thompson rounds up the best releases in rap music that you need to hear. We call it First of the Month.
There was a time when people in Detroit thought the Red Wings couldn’t win with Steve Yzerman. He was the most prolific scorer in the NHL (Gretzky and Lemieux excepted) but the idea that he wasn’t a winner had poisoned the water and, in ‘95, when Yzerman was about to turn 30, they tried to trade him to Ottawa for a young, Russian center named Alexei Yashin. The deal fell through. Then Yashin sat out the start of the next season in order to have his contract torn up, so that he could be given a new one that would make him the highest player on his own team. Detroit won Cups in ‘97 and ‘98; in ‘99, Yashin sat out the entire season as part of another contract dispute.
(There was also the bizarre ordeal in which Yashin pledged $1 million to the Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, which was very nice, but then quickly informed the Centre that $425,000 of the donation had to be paid to his own parents in “consulting fees.” The Centre backed out of the deal, which certainly didn’t make Yashin look like a Team Guy.)
By then Yzerman was a great leader and a real Team Guy, a winner. He won another Cup in ‘02. He retired a few years later, hailed as one of the greatest captains in North American team sports, the kind of guy you want on your side in the playoffs (or “going into battle” because all sports is war to the people who write about sports).
I say all that to say that these grand narratives, the ways we frame and filter the world to better understand it, are mostly made up by the kinds of people who compare football games to D-day and Steve Yzerman to Alexei Yashin. With the kind of half-decade P.O.S has had—major health crisis, life-saving surgery and all—he might be forgiven for retreating into a neat comeback story, a tidy 45 minutes of hero overcomes odds, smiles for press shots. He doesn’t. Instead Chill, dummy, his incredibly titled fifth album, is 45 dense, distorted minutes that shirk easy answers.
“sleepdrone/superposition,” the nine-minute haze that the Minneapolis native released early last year, is the song that deals with his kidney failure most directly. The decision to make it the closing cut here—as opposed to the opener—is bold, and pays off by allowing Chill, dummy to create a sonic world of its own, separate from a single so expansive.
To that end, many of the best moments behind the boards come from Cory Grindberg, whose “Pieces / Ruins” is one of the album’s standout songs, complete with turns by the avant legend Busdriver and Dwynell Roland, a young upstart from the Twin Cities. (While most would point to Driver’s mid-aughts output, and especially RoadKillOvercoat, as his creative peak, his last two records, Thumbs and especially 2014’s Perfect Hair, could compete for that title.)
“Faded” sounds like a mostly-sober drive home between 3 and 5 a.m.; “Get Ate” makes meditation and mindfulness feel like the constant uphill battles that they are. Throughout Chill, dummy, P.O.S is superbly technical, the way veteran artists are: there are fewer syllables shoehorned in than on, say, Ipecac Neat or even Audition, but the breathing room allows him to hit patterns that are every bit as precise, and would trip up even well above-average rappers on their best days. (See: the last verse on “Infinite Scroll.”)
Speaking of easy narratives: an uncomfortable bulk of the culture writing you read for the next four years is going to position art in relation to Donald Trump. Chill, dummy has plenty of rage, which is where so many of us are right now. But the truth is that P.O.S has spent most of this century trying to untangle the various threads of trauma that shaped him, physically and psychologically, and that pinning any of his astounding emotional intelligence on one fat man in a bad suit is ridiculous. It’s like he rapped on Never Better, right after Obama was inaugurated: “You really think a president can represent you?”
I’ve written extensively about Culture elsewhere, but it’s worth noting again that the album’s title is accurate, not aspirational. For the past four years, any time you step outside (particularly after dark) you’re liable to hear a Migos song, maybe even one that the radio missed. Even as they’ve flitted in and out of vogue with critics and public relations types, the Atlanta trio have retained one of the genre’s most dedicated followings, and will probably go down as one of this era’s most important acts. Culture in particular is stunning for its focus, an album about the capitalist forces that corrode American cities and the capitalist instincts that allow one (or three) to survive them.
The Babyface Don actually came out in December, but was lost in the shuffle of year-end lists and the general digital din. It’s a record that’s at turns foreign and familiar, bizarre and yet steeped in formality. The latter qualities (the bizarreness and the formality) sometimes go hand-in-hand: the intro is a grandiose re-introduction of sorts, where the Maryland rapper sheds an old stage name and then adopts a litany of half-serious monikers. It’s a clever conceit in that it takes a total unknown (many of the songs here have play counts in the three-digit range) and gives you the feeling you’re discovering him in medias res. He swipes beats from Action Bronson and obscure Atmosphere b-sides; he gives songs titles like “Nutella Raps” and “Palm Trees From Jerusalem.” (On the latter, he brags that he has women “leaking”—like Young Thug songs.) You get the feeling that McFly hasn’t yet landed on the register where his voice will settle, but his vocals already have character, and he can sell his jokes well without descending into camp (or Camp).
White Friday opens with Yo Gotti saying “It’s amazing what 365 days can do for you,” which is true, but which is really only a tiny fragment of the whole story. Yes, the last year saw the Memphis native shoot to the top of the rap charts (“Down in the DM”) and land a management deal with Roc Nation. But Gotti had been steadily improving for the entire Obama administration. This should be a stopgap record, but transcends that category with addictively, sometimes insanely off-kilter production and with his perplexingly still-improving voice. At this rate, Gotti will be the world’s best rapper in 2019.
Paul Thompson is a writer whose work has appeared in Vulture, Pitchfork, Playboy, and many other publications. He's the author of I FEEL LIKE DYING and the forthcoming WESTERN DEATH FACE. He lives in Los Angeles.