In an effort to reboot our music coverage, In Review Online has launched monthly features devoted to reviewing new album releases. One such feature is What Would Meek Do? — in which SoundCloud junkies Paul Attard and Joe Biglin run down some of the latest rap releases. The third issue of What Would Meek Do? features takes on the return of rap legend Lil Wayne, the first full-length project from promising Harlemite and GOOD Music signee Sheck Wes, rap collective Brockhampton’s major label debut, another release from prolific Chicago fixture Chief Keef, New Orleans duo Suicideboys’ “disturbing” depiction of their native New Orleans, and a “disposable” effort from the whiny Diemon Crew member Russ.
An artist’s legacy in hip-hop is a fickle thing, constantly changing depending on the public’s perceived notion of who’s a “legend” or who’s “washed.” For Lil Wayne — the Cash Money posterboy who’s spent the majority of the past several years in an ongoing legal battle to release his latest album, Tha Carter V — the perception forming was that of a legacy act, an MC past his prime, regulated to dropping mediocre mixtapes and making tawdry guest appearances on other’s songs (saying he would “beat that pussy up like Emmett Till” on Future’s “Karate Chop”). Wayne was stuck in rap purgatory for nearly six years, a situation that’s acknowledged in the intro for Tha Carter V, as Wayne’s mom shares a tearful show of support: “They can’t wait for your album to come out.” On the following track, the rapper responds to the emotional intensity of the woman who raised him through the voice of recently deceased rapper XXXTentacion, who wails out with tortured anguish, “Don’t cryyyyyyy.” If all this makes for a bleak start for The Carter V, it’s also one that feels appropriate for the album overall: Wayne later addresses his fall from grace (“Just another n***a that done lost his head/No, a fucking king that forgot his crown”) in a way that feels refreshingly honest, especially considering the empty brags in some of his other recent work (that remix of Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” that featured the line “made her eat so much pussy, need a lunch break”). The Weezy of Tha Carter V is in just about top form, delivering some of the most exhilarating raps of his career: from tongue-twisting alliteration of “Let It Fly” (“Tunechi-Tune a lunatic, my goonie-goons the gooniest”) or the slick cadence of his voice over the loping beat of “Dedicate,” which exudes a punchy, free-flowing swagger. The pinnacle of Wayne’s dizzyingly-paced wordplay is found in the almost avant garde “Mona Lisa,” as Wayne and Kendrick Lamar meticulously craft a narrative of deception and betrayal, with Wayne as the aggressor (“take everything that you have ’til you don’t even have an opinion”) and Kung-fu Kenny as the casualty of a love-triangle. Somehow hilarious, moving, and hair-raising all at the same time, “Mona Lisa” is every bit what we should except when the self-appointed Greatest Rapper Alive finally meets a worthy opponent; it’s a real Clash of the Rap Titans, as both artists rap their asses off in breathless, two-and-a-half-minute intervals. And by this point we’re not even halfway through the album — which continues to take wild genre turns in the back half, trying out a rockstar lament (the tragically resilient “Mess”) and a summer jam circa the mid-Aughts (the Mack Maine- and Ashanti-assisted “Start This Shit Off Right”). The final track of this near-90-minute behemoth, “Let It All Work Out,” features a sped-up Sampha-sample and confronts one of Dwayne Carter’s darkest memories: his attempted suicide, at age 12. The track feels like a momentous catharsis for the New Orleans rapper, a final emancipation from troubles of the past. It’s also the most brutally honest moment on Tha Carter V; no swaggering, no bragging, and no bullshit can be detected here, as the vivid image of Wayne’s lifeless body being saved by an almighty force looms large, closing the album out on a redemptive note. Mrs. Carter speaks one more time (“Love you, Dwayne“), and Wayne himself delivers an triumphant adlib (“I’m out this bitch“) — and just like that, for the embattled Wayne and his long-delayed The Carter V, it all worked out. Paul Attard
You know what? Maybe Chief Keef shouldn’t take that “stuntin’ break” after all — or, to put it more appropriately, in light of how great The Cozart is, maybe he should just stick to re-working stockpiled old material for the moment. Teased since 2015, the latest release from the drill pioneer is a smorgasbord of different genres and vocal experiments that’s as unconventional as any project that Sosa has released in recent years. It’s Keef’s Kunstkabinett; it attempts to fuse country-esque serenading with orchestral flourishes (“Chiraq”) and audaciously dabbles in EDM-augmented sonics (“Soldier”). The latter choice of production has been heavily criticized as a too-radical departure from the traditional trap sound that Keef has employed — and also because of the way the EDM sound found its way into these songs. Essentially, some of the tracks here were changed at the last second (and behind King Glo’s back) by billionaire Alki David — the head of FilmOn, the label Keef is currently signed to — in an effort to make a more ‘commercial’ release. In any case, as a result, “Soldier,” “Shorty,” “Viral,” and several stray remixes towards the end of The Cozart rank as some of the most bizarre moments to ever appear on a Keef project. But we’re still talking about the man who announced, earlier this summer, that he was touring via hologram — and the same artist who once prominently featured Kanye West auto-humming for nearly four minutes (on the beautiful 2014 track “Nobody”). The point being, unorthodoxy is kind of Keef’s trademark, and the conflicted intentionality behind these recordings seems to have only contributed to a greater final result — a release with two competing visions allowed to collide with each other, to thrilling effect. Add to all that complexity on the production side some of Keef’s most full-on absurdist lyricism, including stray shards of Lacanian thought (“I look in the mirror, I see fucking me”) and hilariously-phrased admissions of his own failings (“All I know is fucking poo”). None of this is to say that all signs of the original Sosa are gone, either: “Barry Bonds” features conventionally slow-paced, yet hard-hitting, 808 drum-bleats and Keef’s more familiarly affected vocal delivery. So for the myrmidons who still believe in the gospel of Chief Keef, this is really everything one could love about the oddball artist, distilled down to a surprisingly brisk 50 minutes — with the added benefit of assuring that Chicago’s own has the capacity to surprise us. Paul Attard
“17 years old/I’m in this country alone/No I.D. or passport/I’m the only livin’ John Doe” moans Sheck Wes on “Jiggy on the Shits,” a song that specifically describes being sent to Senegal — but that could be applied to the 20-year-old rapper’s experiences in Harlem, or Milwaukee. Sheck expresses similar feelings of alienation on “Live Sheck Wes,” shouting “It get tragic where I live/Everything is negative/Hold the roaches in the crib/Elevator full of piss.” The lyrics on Mudboy have an abstracted quality about them — similar to Danny Brown on XXX, Sheck highlights specific words or phrases through variegated tonalities, mixing in pathos-filled autobiographical sentiments (“I done hustled stolen DVDs to sell that bad ass bud”) with emotionally-expressed hip-hop jargon (“Put it on my ni**as, I can’t stop goin’ hard”). The “can’t stop goin’ hard” line, off the fierce “Gmail,” is delivered emphatically, every word shaking with Sheck’s emotional intent, climaxing with his blurry pronunciation of the ‘n-word’ — which adds a punk-like fervor to the verse. A closer look at lines that first scan as braggadocio, like Sheck talking about money, referring to “dead presidents” as “dead ni**as, all up in my sock,” takes on a deeper meaning in the full context of the couplet, with the rejoinder, “dead ni**as, all up on my car” now making the lyric sound more like a description of an environment. While these songs lack traditional ideas of structure — often times missing choruses and checking out after one verse — and while they abuse the same dark, brooding, and bassy production sound, each distinguishes itself through Sheck’s vocal presence. Between the bizarre multi-tracking strategy of “Danimals,” on which Sheck provides a melody, countermelody, and ad libs all at once, to the Kid Cudi-style crooning of “Never Lost,” to the sheer joy in repeating his name, over and over, that Sheck experiences on “Ventements Socks,” there are impactful sonic ideas on every track here. Even Mudboy‘s singles — the Dada-esque “Chippi Chippi” and the more manic “Live Sheck Wes” — find their appropriate place on this album. But it’s the hit that started Sheck’s rise to popularity, “Mo Bamba,” that shows the origin of all the various components the rapper has built-up, and expanded on, for Mudboy: the track’s tinkling, music-box instrumental — summoning a vaguely creepy childhood — plays contrapuntal to Sheck’s deep-gruff-man voice, and the production’s heavy blasts of bass. Sheck delivers seemingly silly lyrics ad infinitum, stretching expressions out and slowing things down, getting almost avant-garde — all told, “Ma Bamba” is both a defiantly strange and super-danceable banger. And that’s a good way to describe the rest of Mudboy, an album that bursts with enjoyable moments, but which also presents an emotionally intense journey through one Harlem-by-way-of-Senegal kid’s conflicted psyche; an album that wants both to “Sauce it up like Kyrie” and that’s openly willing to deal with all the “Shit [that] gotta happen…to learn these lessons”; an album that locates equal parts self-empowerment and malaise in its motto: “I’m a mudboy. I came from the mud, oozed out the concrete. I’m not a rose. I’m a mudboy, I came from nothing.” Joe Biglin
Brockhampton is a self-described “boyband” of Texan misfit-musicians — lead and founded by the openly gay Kevin Abstract — who made waves in the independent hip-hop scene last year for their Saturation album series. The trilogy found the right balance of hard-hitting rap, tender love ballads, and experimental R&B, while also presenting a perspective that’s welcoming to all demographics. It’s been hard not to root for the forward-thinking group, and their major label debut, Iridescence, features an even more excitingly unique blend of different genres, across a varied selection of bombastic instrumentals — and yet, something is strangely off here. There’s a shift in the balance of what’s been a pretty perfect formula up until this point, possibly traceable to losing member Ameer Vann — the group’s best lyricist, and Abstract’s former right-hand man. Nobody else in the group quite matches Vann’s deadpan wit, and many members come up with groan-worthy one-liners (“If Jesus was a pop star, would he break the bank?”) or bars about What Really Matters in this world (“Money walk and money talk, but money no make comfortable / Big-ass house and big-ass car don’t add up when you die alone”). The production as well has lost some of its nuance — and it feels like it should be emphasized just how loud of an album Iridescence can be at times. The heavily womping bass-line of “Where the Cash At” is one example; the low-end drowns-out Merlyn Wood’s animated intro, and proceeds to become monotonously irritating over even the track’s two-minute duration. Likewise, the song “Berlin” is so distorted-sounding that it comes off like an annoying-amateurish version of Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode.” The most interesting sonic ideas here show up on less conventional tracks, like “Honey,” which climaxes with wailing police sirens crashing into Abstract’s pitched-up vocals, creating a brief moment of mania. The same vocal effects are used on Iridescence’s closing track, “Fabric,” as a repeated mantra (“You don’t understand why I can’t get up and shout”) slowly builds in intensity, right before segueing into a lo-fi spoken-word denouement: “It’s the best years of our lives, motherfucker!” Brockhampton may be having the best years of their lives, but this certainly isn’t their best material. Paul Attard
“They love to hate, they love to hate / How ironic, I know / She loves my long hair and my tattoos / How iconic, I know / Women pounce often and my sound poppin’ / Y’all are clout hoppin’ while I’m house shoppin.’” So that’s a little excerpt from “Outlaw,” the second track on Diemen Crew rapper Russ’s second LP, Zoo — and if, like me, you find those rhymes weak and the content highly derivative, then there’s not much reason to listen further. Russ may be a platinum-certified rapper, producer, and sound engineer, but he is far from… an artist. Take the next track, “Kill Them All,” on which Russ takes it upon himself to assure fans — under his breath, at the end of the song — that he “be really tryna leave this shit.” He means to voice his distaste for certain elements of the game, but his targets are strawmen: “the media,” “the industry,” “the haters,” all “so obsessed” with him — and the other rappers he thinks are trash. But those “WWE-ass rappers” (or “Boondocks characters,” as he also refers to them) have a little something extra: talent. Why would Russ steal a melody for “Parkstone Drive” from Juice WRLD, one of the more unexceptional artists in the SoundCloud scene, unless he just doesn’t have better ideas? This is why the comparisons to Kanye West and J. Cole (and to be fair, it’s Russ himself who likens himself to those guys) just don’t hold up — even Cole, in all his canned braggadocio, can pull together a personally revealing bar about worrying over dick size (“Wet Dreamz”), whereas Russ’s idea of ‘personal’ is writing a song about how his dad lost the family business. But the real reason Russ deserves to be taken down a peg is because he’s jaded beyond belief. The opening track on Zoo (aptly titled “Flute Song,” because duh flute instrumental) commences with the brag, “I do whatever I want / Whenever I want / I love it” — and from this we can almost conclude that Russ isn’t really interested in growing much. Which is unfortunate, because there are the beginnings of some good ideas here: the beat of “Outlaw,” for instance, sounds like it was ripped from a Suspiria-esque horror film soundtrack, and has the makings of a menacing banger; instead Russ drops bars like, “People say I’m cocky / People say I’m arrogant / I think a lack of confidence is very un-American,” with no wink or semblance of self-awareness as to how cheesy he sounds. “Missing You Crazy,” a track with a hint of substance to it (or at least an emotion with some depth) turns ultimately into a watered-down love song — Russ again using his rapid rise to fame as an excuse for shitty things happening to him and for being a shitty person in a past relationship. After awhile, these excuses pile up, and combined with the apathetic production and lack of anything much else to latch onto, Zoo adds up to one of the most disposable releases of the year. Joe Biglin
The Suicideboys’ mythos — and the group’s amassed discography of 42 EPs/mixtapes all since 2013 — is daunting, to say the least. The duo of New Orleans cousins Ruby da Cherry and Scrim (formerly “$lick $loth”) have been teasing their first commercial release for more than a year, so casual fans (like this writer) have been stewing and wondering things like: What exactly will the focus of their music be? How will their style have refined itself? And what producers will they work with? The end result, I Want to Die in New Orleans, proves modestly worth the wait and all the anxious anticipation. For the first-time listener, album opener “King Tulip” gives a 101 course on how the boys craft a tune: first comes a heavily compressed, Vaporwave-inspired instrumental; then a trappy high-hat and booming bass; and finally, Ruby charges in with a swaggering melody, changing up his flow with triplet wordplay and pitch-shifting shouts. Once Ruby finishes, a stretch of unembellished instrumental stands-in lieu for the hook — until Scrim jumps in, taking a more subtle approach, leaning into the emotional expression and tone of his voice to tell a story that ends with: “4am, praying, ‘can I get some rest?’ / Dreams of suicide and a need for death.” Suicideboys’ style — which has been accused of relying too heavily on inspiration from Three-6 Mafia’s earlier horrorcore phase (and 1995’s Mystic Stylez does haunts this LP) — can come across as unrelenting. Scrim’s intro on “122 Days” (“Ask me if I’m happy / Stupid motherfuckin’ question”) neatly summarizes the typical lyricism of this group, which covers hyperbolic descriptions of drug use, brags about murdering enemies, and even suicidal threats, all of which eventually become repetitive and unintentionally mundane. But the care the duo put into their stylistic digressions, and the overall stream-of-consciousness flow of this project, elevates I Want to Die in New Orleans. Moments like the scream-chanting at the end of “Bring Out Your Dead,” the suicidal sing-song hooks on “Nicotine Patches” and “Long Gone,” the punk rock interlude of “I No Longer Fear the Razor Guiding My Heel (IV),” and the near-death, leaned-out flow on “Fuck the Industry” all summon a particular kind of pathos, while the ambitious “Carollton” — named after a street in New Orleans — finds Scrim and Ruby’s vocal shifts embodying a coterie of different characters from their hometown. Combine all this with the morbidly-utilized local news samples woven throughout the album and the net result is a captivating, if disturbing, depiction of a specific environment, and the types of personalities bread by it. Joe Biglin