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Guardian of the Rap is our new monthly rap column where our staff writer covers all the rap that’s fit to print. This month’s edition covers Nicki Minaj's new album, and the best of the underground rap released this month.
So are we at the point of Q3 where everyone either says they have the best album of the year or they’re finna drop the best album of the year? And am I still too deep in my underground rap YouTube hole to believe anybody anymore? Either way it go, Guardian of the Rap returns and I am not speaking on the Marshall Mathers album even though it technically came out in August. Not to bury the lede, but I don’t fuckin’ get what most of y’all gain from fightin’ about that rich, talented white man on that there bird app. Matter of fact, I didn’t know what to start this month with, so here’s what we can argue about:
I’m a Sucka Free, Playtime is Over Onika fan: young enough to have missed her predecessors in rap, but old enough to remember crawling through Datpiff back when Wayne was calling her The Mistress to his President (of Young Money, of course.) I loved her then for the same reasons I love her now: she can black the fuck out, she’s playfully corny, she’s hella New York, hella thorough. Thankfully, I approached Queen post-media shitstorm — perhaps to my disadvantage now that I think about it — and found what got lost in the Tubman memes: a good Nicki Minaj album! TO FREEDOM! Nicki’s got her most focused bars in years, the corniness offsets itself with several bright moments appearing from all directions, and the 19 songs don’t manage to feel too overlong somehow.
At her best, she’s incisive, funny, unforgiving: see “LLC” into “Good Form” for an example of peak execution and structure. I was later on the “Barbie Dreams” train than most, but it definitely grew on me as a standout. “Chun-Swae” was aiiiiight, but “Coco Chanel” with Miss Foxy Brown tho? RINGS THE FUCK OFF, will most certainly ring off in the NYC nightclub jumpoffs all Autumn and allat. Now, notice how I haven’t really mentioned the pop crossover joints which have been a mainstay of her work once she finally hit mainstream. That’s not only indicative of my Onika bias, but there’s also not much to write home about with any of them joints. “Thought I Knew You” was underseasoned, especially them Abel vocals, and “Bed” was just… there. Even the “Sir” joint with Future just didn’t hit the way it coulda if they both let the scumbags JUMP out.
Considering the Nicki mainstream oeuvre, I’ll likely find myself returning to Queen the most off the strength of how measured and composed she comes across this time around. There wasn’t much of an overarching direction, save for the pursuit and reconfirmation of Nicki’s excellence, but I’m never left too adrift or disappointed somehow. It ain’t the classic — everybody’s lying about the classics they dropped this year, damn near — but it’s good. I won’t speak too much to the antics or the rainbow-colored clout chasing, but I will point you to Myles E. Johnson on the topic. And I wish niggas would leave the rich mixed-Black Jenner-Webster infant out of grown folks’ streaming wars cuz some of y’all niggas do the most for a meme and that’s a column in itself. It ain’t this column tho. (And I don’t say “mixed-Black” to invalidate the Black; I say it because it’s necessary context. But I said what I said.)
(DISCLAIMER: THESE ARE THE HOMIES!)
I consider myself the secret April + VISTA A&R by the way I sneak their jams into every kickback, bonfire and aux set. I’ve also known VISTA since high school, meeting April George later on as the duo came to be. (In case you missed it, April’s been featured on several GoldLink records.) And let me tell you: this Stresswave shit will make you a believer. Don’t call it R&B cuz it’s too easy — and likely racist, read this on why — and smoothness aside, these 18 minutes are far from easy. They deal with the mid-20s malaise of the millennial hustle directly from their vantage, crafting a lush, gentle soundbed from a not-so-distant future. Down to the song titles, the duo interrogate ideas of labor, perseverance and survival with a directness that mirrors the journey they’ve been on thus far. One manager, no labels, no budget or backing outside their day jobs, they’ve spent the past three years fighting their way into an industry machine that only poses more difficulties the closer you get to the center. But You Are Here is the diamond from the pressure: another brief, beautiful entry in their catalog that poses a bid for why this pressure should’ve paid off long ago.
As a recent Young Nudy convert, I’ve spent the back end of the summer infatuated by his playful agility, his nimble ways of bending words and cadences into a torrential downpour of Zone 6 shit. Speaking of which, “Zone 6” is off top the hit on Slimeball 3: It’s one of the cheeriest Nudy songs I’ve ever heard, and the allure is palpable. He radiates confidence as he mutters the unspeakable in a haze of relentless animation. How does S3 hold up against Nudy’s more critically lauded tapes? Not as high, a little far from the mark. He expressed only aiming to please his core with this one, which it will, but there are far fewer standout moments. The middle section of “Friday” to “Zone 6” to “Do That” is the clear highlight, with the equally animated “Sherbert” poppin’ up toward the finale. There’s nothing particularly bad or off with the formula, but listening to Nudy is an exercise in technique in itself: His subjects are narrow, he can repeat himself and it can be a bit numbing with how unforgiving the content is. Still, it’s something to witness when Nudy zones in and lets himself run free.
You know why I fuckin’ love YG? In so many words, he’s the embodiment of gangsta rap when utilized to the medium’s full potential: He’s unapologetic about his experiences, he’s raw with his truth and he holds the weight of his position with a responsibility to speak on bigger issues than himself. He walks every line in the same pair of Dickies; he’s the perfect gangsta rapper for the 45 moment, and gave us an anthem to eternally reflect that. So after two fantastic studio albums, we get to STAY DANGEROUS: another exercise in forward-leaning post-G-funk rap with a little more gristle on the bone than previous efforts. Somewhere along the line, despite how fun and vocally inventive YG remains, the ratio fell a little outta sync. This album focuses far more on the victory lap of turn-up shit and leaves the more overtly political strides by the wayside; not that we expect him to repeat himself or reinvent the wheel, but when a record like “BOMPTOWN’S FINEST” caps the album off with a beautifully reflective guitar-laden send off that lets YG let his guard down, it makes you wonder where that energy was in the rest of the album. I also wonder why this dropped in August when it woulda hit in June and banged all summer. Either way, if you like YG400, you’ll find plenty to like in this installment even if there’s no clear home run this time around.
If you wanted a snapshot of what the 2018 underground hip-hop renaissance sounds like, DJ Muggs fucked around and gave you 26 minutes of it. He calls on the veterans in Raekwon, Kool G Rap and MF DOOM, as well as a fine selection of the MCs that’ve tore shit up for the inner backpacker that lives by my arteries: Mach-Hommy (my favorite rapper in years, IT’S THE DUMP GAWD, NIGGA!), Eto, Hus KingPin, Freddie Gibbs and Meyhem Lauren. Muggs coated the whole album in grayscale, taking us through the dingiest loops and grungiest samples to let everyone bring their best to the table; it’s no frills rap shit, a true primer for anyone who says they don’t make MCs the way they did back when. It’s not a throwback, it’s very 2018, whether time is a flat circle or not. Gift this to the Wu-Wear(er) at your family reunion, the Uber driver who’ll argue with you about dyed hair and Auto-Tune and the weirdo on your dorm floor who woulda been me, like, seven years ago.
Much like the deep-cut underground shit I’ve discussed in this column, Ka is an acquired taste that goes down bitter like the sagest advice. Honesty like this doesn’t concern itself with being sweet on the tongue; pain like this resurfaces from wounds several years past, pieces of trauma still working to seal themselves. This time, with Animoss behind the boards, the Hermit and the Recluse project calls on Greek mythology to forge a new chapter in a prestigious catalog of rap music that’s flown under the radar of the masses, yet garnered an unprecedented critical response. The drums rarely appear, the samples wind and whir like weathered machinery and Ka’s as grisly and reflective as ever. This time, there’s a brighter optimism lingering in the grayest hues, like Ka’s slowly achieving some peace with the selves he was before and the world he left behind in pursuit of something honorable. This is an album that’ll leave you quizzical, sifting through references and memories, but the payoff will be another experience in what happens when hip-hop grants its elders the opportunity to speak their game for whomever will hear.
To speak on the work of Armand Hammer is to require a certain range even I feel ill-equipped to handle. The first time I heard billy woods and Elucid — their separate works, then together in this project — I didn’t recoil, but my neurons fired off in unfamiliar directions. The shit felt mathematical, like I hadn’t lived long enough to decode the inner workings or even know what I was looking at. When I returned around the release of ROME, and now on Paraffin, I’m convinced one simply cannot rap with such expertise without dedicating one’s life to the craft as one would life itself. It’s a hypertextual collage of experiences, images, references and it’s some of the Blackest shit you’ll ever hear. (Peace to my big homie Skech185 for the album’s only feature on “If He Holla,” a true sorcerer himself.) It’ll take months to digest all the gems left here, so I won’t attempt to any further, but I’ll leave with this note: If you want one of this year’s best rap albums bar none, and you’re willing to surrender yourself to sound and the power of these words, then proceed.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.
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