In an effort to reboot our music coverage, In Review Online is launching monthly features devoted to reviewing new album releases. The first of these features to debut is What Would Meek Do? — in which Paul Attard and Joe Biglin run down some of the latest rap releases. The first issue of What Would Meek Do? features their takes on some blockbusters (Travis Scott’s Astroworld, Drake’s Scorpion, The Carters’ Everything Is Love), up-and-coming artists (the 88rising label compilation Head in the Clouds, Denzel Curry’s TA13OO), and rappers who should “take a vacation” (Chief Keef’s Mansion Musick).
It’s difficult to imagine a world in which Scorpion’s release wasn’t interrupted through Pusha-T’s accusation that Drake is an absentee father. With the looming questions of fatherhood hanging over his project, the rapper responded in a way he thought most appropriate: by dropping a Degrassi-themed music video and ignoring the subject completely for the time being. The child in question is mentioned only a few times on Scorpion, and in ways that tend to blame others for Drake’s failures as a parent. The first mention comes on the Mariah Carey-sampling “Emotional,” when Drake disapprovingly swipes at Instagram culture, and the abundance of thots that Adidon (the reported name of his kid) must be protected from. The last mention of Adidon is on Scorpion‘s closer, “March 14,” a track on which Drake uses his parents’ divorce as grounds for the way he himself has abandoned his child, and frames his life as something out of a Greek tragedy, as if he’s been destined by fate to be a shitty dad. These examples represent the main problem on Scorpion: It’s become painfully clear that Drake hasn’t matured since his days of claiming that he’s a “nice guy” all over Take Care or pettily attacking his musical contemporaries on Views. He’s essentially given no arc or overall narrative to his work, and Scorpion as well feels less like a cohesive album and more a large collection of tracks made for optimal Spotify streams. As a ‘playlist’ (a term that Drake’s favored for his projects in the past), this is often serviceable background music, with the soul-groove bounce of “After Dark” or the light-Southern funk of the Future-assisted “Blue Tint” becoming indelible earworms. But the songwriting never moves beyond that of an artist whose reign at the top has only caused him to dig deeper, and more cynically, into his narcissistic worldview. Paul Attard
The old adage “born in the wrong generation” is rightfully a meme, and a trash one at that, but it may well apply to Denzel Curry, a rapper who finds himself split between identities on his third studio album. This confusion plays into the theme of TA13OO (read as “taboo”), an album that reaches high-cornball status with its ‘conscious’ rap ambitions while also feeling raw and emotionally grounded. The title track demonstrates this tension, with the repeated mantra “welcome to the darkest side of taboo” implicitly preparing listeners for a real concept album and the similarly simplistic “make a bad choice on your path / and you lose” veritably slapping a bow on the sentiment. A deluge of truly off-putting bars follow, wherein Curry personifies “Taboo,” a girl molested at the age of five, and delightfully offers the suggestion that “killing that pussy might kill the hate in you.” That line invokes the formally emotive but lyrically banal trappings of nihilistic SoundCloud rap, a genre Curry increasingly indulges as the “three acts” of his album (“Light,” “Grey,” and “Dark”) progress. But it’s an idea that remains mostly theoretical (similar to the lukewarm narrative architecture of Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon series), as tracks as early as Act One’s “Sumo” feel more trappy than Act Two’s finale, “Clout Cobain,” a full conscious anthem. And Curry’s continued use of his contemporaries’ sounds begins to resemble appropriation when he drops some gnarly insults (e.g. “Sounds like ‘durr durr durr’” on “Percz”). Fellow new age, ‘lyrical’ rapper JID’s nasally, staccato delivery is credibly comparable to Kendrick Lamar’s, and follows Curry’s lead on “Sirenz,” a track that evokes the pragmatic storytelling of Section.80. Curry remains eminently palatable, so even when he drops the lazy bars “Talking bout ‘let’s make a fort’ / Talking bout ‘let’s make it great’” in reference to Trump, the attention he pays to the emotionality behind his lyrics allows the line to feel more soul-bearing than maudlin. Curry’s art is internally conflicted, and he’s most compelling when he spastically dramatizes those contradictions and hypocrisies. Joe Biglin
For better or worse, Astroworld is maybe the closest that Travis Scott will ever get to making his own version of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. As with the recording sessions behind his mentor’s magnum opus, Scott flew an insane amount of talent to Hawaii to craft a defining statement of his artistry against a growing wave of critical skepticism. All the elements are here for a rager of a project — with production ranging from neo-psychedelic rock group Tame Impala to singer-songwriter/serial douchebag John Mayer, and superstar guests Drake, the Weeknd, and Migos — but one problem stands in the way: La Flare himself. It’s a problem that has plagued Scott’s previous releases — he’s consistently the least compelling component of his music, often sounding blasé as he lifelessly moans on about the wild lifestyle he leads. His verses are just too vacuous, carrying no introspection, emotional gravity, or any reason to care about the Houston-native’s endless antics and debauchery. Dour bars like “Yeah, crib built like a prison where that bitch is gated (yeah) / Yeah, spendin’ all my time up there gettin’ faded” crop up throughout, and the insistence of non-stop braggadocio becomes tedious and tiring on a record that telegraphs aspirations of pure kinetic energy. “No Bystanders” encapsulates this problem perfectly: Lil Uzi Vert clone Juice Wrld sets the stage with a wild, Auto-Tuned intro, with G.O.O.D. Music-signee Sheck Wes shouting “Fuck the club up!” like he’s an honorary member of Three 6 Mafia. Everything’s set into motion, only for La Flare to exert himself with zero charisma and little humor. This ultimately makes Astroworld a prestige product in size only, a spectacle aiming for stadium status but without the personality to consummate those ambitions. Paul Attard
88rising is a media conglomerate that’s been methodically sowing seeds of future brand-dominance, with bombastic SoundCloud rapper collaborations (Ski Mask the Slump God), meme-to-musician re-inventions (Rich Chigga and Pink Guy becoming Rich Brian and Joji), and now a debut compilation album of transparent intent: Head in the Clouds is a breezy playlist of summer songs meant to highlight all its artists’ various strengths. The result, however, conjures images of an algae bloom: a perplexing, unwieldy set of emotionally mismatched songs that occasionally hit, but more often swing and miss, and then keep swinging — because why not? Relevance in the rap game is supposedly fleeting, so striking while the iron is hot on these viral-artists makes sense. And the best tracks here do capitalize on the magic that made Higher Brothers’ 2017 single “Made in China” an evergreen hit: get relative unknowns with an insane amount of talent in a room with another artist who can nearly out-weird them (on “Made in China,” that was Famous Dex). But while the formula works early on in Head in the Clouds, with an 03 Greedo feature — practically dripping swag — matched by Higher Brothers’ MaSiWei’s luxurious flow and DZ’s impassioned shouting (“Swimming Pools”), it’s an formula that quickly gets tired, with the label arranging for collabs/remixes from BlocBoy JB, Goldlink, Phum Viphurit, and (in Rich Brian’s case) Playboy Carti. The apotheosis of this capitalist laziness can be summarized by a quick listen to “Japan 88,” a remix of the Famous Dex song, featuring the largely unknown Verbal and the only appearance of 88rising’s Keith Ape, who cannot hope to match the zany repetitive fireworks of the remixed hook. On the other hand, “Midsummer Madness” might be the real “song of the summer” that every track here is clearly intended to be — with its large cast of 88’s own situated against, and complimenting, each other, it’s an anomaly on an album where most of these performers tend to have zero chemistry. While there’s a promising verse here and there from Rich Brian (who develops a Mac Miller-like sing-song flow on “History”) and some lighthearted winking with the mere presence of a BlocBoy-Joji duet (“Peach Jam”), the rest is a sonically clashing hodgepodge. R&B singer Niki’s anthemic “Warpaint” illustrates this, being a clear B-side from her recent EP, with anachronistic production so meticulous and sterile that Katy Perry might be jealous. Joe Biglin
Maybe Chief Keef should take a rest. This is something he openly admits on “Sky Say”: “I should take a vacation / I should take a stuntin’ break.” The drill-rap pioneer has had an almost unprecedented past few years, releasing four mixtapes in 2017 and a slew of B-sides. The quality of these projects has varied from inspired (Thot Breaker’s raw vulnerability and surprising cohesion) to phoned-in (One Two Zero Seven and Dedication’s wheel-spinning). Mansion Musick falls somewhere in between, with flashes of the wild experimentation that Sosa’s toyed with in the past alongside generic trap-bangers. Opener “Belieber” and closer “Letter” are jarring piano ballads played unironically, with Keef Auto-crooning about the countless lovers he hopes still remember him. This type of sentimentality feels at odds with tracks like “Get This Money,” which are bass-heavy and delivered in a half-mutter — with lines about stuffed mattresses and bad bitches — which make their contrasting poignant lyrical reflections and sonic change-ups welcome inclusions. The most moving moment on Mansion Musick comes from the standout feature on the project: rising Atlanta star Playboi Carti, whose mumble-stylings have been clearly influenced by Keef. On “Uh Uh,” the father and son meet for the very first time, and share great chemistry. Unfortunately, it’s after this high point that things start to devolve rather quickly, with the stretch from “Hand Made” to “Part Ways” sounding like cluttered leftovers from this year’s Ottospy EP. It’s frustrating to see an artist like Keef vacillate in quality this much; perhaps a Sosa sabbatical is in order, because these inconsistent releases have been piling up with way too much frequency of late. Paul Attard
“Yeah, you fucked up the first stone, we had to get remarried.” “Yo, chill man!” “We keeping’ it real with these people, right?” goes the back-and-forth between Beyoncé and JAY-Z on the ninth and final track of The Carters’ debut album, Everything Is Love. The power-couple then proceed to fill the rest of the song with empty brags (“Hova, Beysus, watch the throne”) and R&B clichés (“we went through hell with heaven on our side… but nightmares only last one night”). It’s a little insulting to follow-up a heart-wrenching, genre-shifting opus like Lemonade with such platitudes, but the world-renowned duo decides to merely do upkeep on their image rather than take any risks. It’s a continuation to Lemonade and 4:44 in the headliners only, not sound or narrative. If you are a subject of Queen Bey, or grew up with Jigga, everything here will be fully digestible — even good at times. The production is expensive, as expected; Bey’s vocal chops are as astounding as ever, and Jay’s raps post-4:44 aren’t lacking. “Apeshit” is well representative of the album’s first half, as Bey and Jay hype themselves using pop-trap banalities (“Fast like my Lambo”…seriously?). But these lyrics are some of the worst of their respective careers — and they thematically can contradict each other, as when Jay boasts about turning down the Super Bowl but then whines about being denied eight Grammys. The most painful contradiction comes from the use and influence of the Migos on “Apeshit.” How can you masquerade as cultural trend-setters when you flagrantly hijack the most mainstreamed sound in rap music of the moment; when you copy the culture? Luckily, three tracks at the back-end of Everything Is Love (“Friends,” “Heard About Us,” and “Black Effect”) save things from mediocrity by toning down the bass and upping the atmosphere (more akin to Bey’s self-titled 2013 masterpiece). Here, the voices of these two icons finally compliment each other, with Jay’s “I’m good on any MLK boulevard” line grooving over a pitched-up soul sample while Bey’s ethereal refrain (“higher, higher”), fleetingly, elevates the project to the emotional, cultural-defining statement it’s intended to be. Joe Biglin