1st of the Month is our monthly column that reviews the best albums, mixtapes, and things in the genre of rap.
Vince Staples’ debut album, Summertime ‘06, has come to be characterized by the mean, minimalist “Norf Norf,” which is a furious and, in its third verse, absolutely virtuosic rap performance. But over the course of one hour and two discs, Vince and a trio of producers (No I.D., DJ Dahi, and Clams Casino) worked together to build a world that could be at turns cold and industrial or small and delightfully off-kilter, a strategy that yielded sparsely written songs like “Birds & Bees” and “Hang N’ Bang.” On his follow-up, Big Fish Theory, he pushes that latter approach to its extreme—lean verses, carefully chosen images, economy of language, economy of thought.
But first, the production: Big Fish Theory is a dance record. It pulls from London and Detroit and more generally the house records that your hipper friends were tracking down in 2008. It gives the album a steely, post-apocalyptic feel (for steely, post-apocalyptic times). Songs like “Party People” and “Bag Bak” flesh out Vince’s staunchly pro-Black sociopolitical arguments, and single “Big Fish,” which features a supremely Ciroc-soaked hook from Juicy J, is gaining steam as a hit in Southern California, which could finally make Vince Staples the rapper as famous as Vince Staples the personality.
Beautiful Thugger Girls (the quasi-nonsensical title that was left after 300’s legal department pointed out CoverGirl might sue over Easy Breezy Beautiful Thugger Girls) is the best Young Thug record since Barter 6, a master class in isolating one emotion at a time and blowing it up to widescreen dimensions. See: “Me Or Us,” which is gentle enough to soundtrack a Pixar musical, or “She Wanna Party,” which feels like walking out of work and into the “Like Glue” video. The joyous A-side and the quieter back half make for a tension that highlights Thug’s range in a way we’ve yet to see over the course of one LP.
What drew some listeners to Thug in 2013 and ‘14 was his radical ability to cram three, four approaches into a single verse. Beautiful Thugger Girls lacks that sort of creative A.D.D., but the increased focus for each song’s duration serves Thug well, forcing him to bury into each style’s nooks and crannies, mining for pathos. The record was released with no single and virtually zero promotion—this writer alone fielded frantic texts from self-identified Thug fans who had no idea a new project was on the docket. But any number of these songs could catch on over the summer, following “Lifestyle” and “Pick Up the Phone” from the past two years, respectively.
Pretty Girls Like Trap Music arrives a few years after 2 Chainz’s cartoonish and chaotic commercial peak. That mid-career second-wind that saw him overwhelm Billboard with a series of guest verses that hinted at—but ultimately lacked the depth of—his potential as an solo artist. The new album, officially his third for Def Jam, is anchored by singles that have been racking up plays and praise for months now: the Drake duet “Big Amount” and, to a far greater degree, the Quavo- and Gucci Mane-assisted “Good Drank.” But it’s the new material that argues for the artist formerly known as Tity Boi as one of our greatest rap talents.
Songs like “Poor Fool” (which features an excellent cameo from Swae Lee, who plays the role of 2 Chainz’s mom) draw on the rapper’s childhood, and on his gnawing feel of failure, of reliving the traumatic parts of his past. That’s the piece that people forget: 2 Chainz very nearly had a semi-pro rap career that burned out quietly. He’s seen the other side. None of this—not the plaques, not the audiences with Farrakhan, not the marble kitchen counters—is guaranteed, and that knowledge haunts the record.
Thot Breaker has been promised for what feels like a decade. It’s daring and romantic and crude and crass, everything longtime Keef fans have been hoping for from the rapper, whose cult has grown to the point where it now dwarfs in size the fan base Interscope was able to hand him in the wake of “Don’t Like.” Single “Can You Be My Friend” will go down as one of 2017’s most impressive rap songs, a knowing, skittering ode to sex and Randy Moss. “My Baby” blows a weed habit up to Gothic proportions; Thot Breaker is the culmination of a period that saw him employ the various styles he’s been tinkering with for a half-decade in new, increasingly sly ways.
Boomiverse feels like Big Boi’s most minor record, which is not a condemnation. Where Speakerboxxx and Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty were engrossing in ways that were rewarding and endlessly fascinating, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors buckled under the weight of its aesthetic concessions—to Phantogram, to whatever B.o.B. convinced people was popping. That was five years ago. Boomiverse is the West Savannah-born legend slipping easily into his role as Atlanta elder statesman, no frills, no Phantogram. After years of label hang ups and rumored bad blood, it’s gratifying to hear Killer Mike in the Ghost-on-Cuban Linx role.
Brockhampton is a collection of rappers, singers, and producers who met online, mostly hail from Texas, and have moved to Los Angeles to take over the world. Their breakout star is Kevin Abstract, the rapper whose American Boyfriend struck a chord with teens and anyone who remembers Kid Cudi songs setting off house parties. The group is internet savvy, but almost to a man, they write about trying to center themselves in a fractured, information-drenched world: see secret MVP Dom McLennon’s verse on “Swim,” where he says he’s “Chasing sanity while niggas chasing clout.”