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 fifth issue of What Would Meek Do? features takes on the recently-incarcerated 6ix9ine’s “debut”; rapper-producer Anderson .Paak’s third album; Long Beach native Vince Staples’s third “album” (it’s just over 22 minutes); XXL Freshman-selected J.I.D.’s second album, called DiCaprio 2 (his first album was not called “DiCaprio”); producer Metro Boomin’s debut album as a solo artist, which features at least one other artist on every track; and the second album from Leikeli47, who still apparently has never been seen without a mask. Ah, rap music.
Touted as controversial New York rapper/walking meme 6ix9ine‘s debut album, Dummy Boy is also his second project this year — after hastily-slapped-together mixtape Day 69, a cash-grab milking the overnight success of abrasive breakthrough hit “Gummo” which happened to make it painfully clear just how stale a whole ‘tape of Tekashi screaming “Treyway” could get. With DUMMY BOY, 6ix9ine has seemingly taken a bit of a advice from now-frequent collaborator Kanye West: “Soon as they like you make ’em unlike you.” Or, more specifically, in Tekashi’s case: When you have a well-tested formula, throw it out the window in favor of something else that’s just as wild. Thus, Dummy Boy — an album that consistently subverts what people have come to expect from the loudmouth internet personality, from Spanish-language reggaeton (“Bebe”) to the oddly melodic sex-banger (“Fefe”). On the latter hit, a more-than-game Nicki Minaj proves willing to be just as nasty as her host: “He-he, tryna 69 like Tekashi, call him papi.” The crown jewel of this freak show, though, is “Mama,” which has a straightforward structure (hook, three verses, hook again) and the aforementioned West in a race with Minaj to see who can be more outrageous. 6ix9ine kicks his girl out so his mom doesn’t see her, Ye pokes fun at Instagram influencers, and Nicki barely wins-out, claiming “Ka-Ka-Kanye dressed me up like a doll/Then I hit 6ix9ine, tell him give me the ball.” With plenty of other traditional-sounding 6ix9ine cuts in the mix (“Stoopid” and “Tati” drip with intensely-yelled boasts about murdering rivals, which may well be true at this point), Dummy Boy amounts to a ferociously insane ride — and a fitting coronation for its colorful (probably criminal) MC. Paul Attard
On the surface, Anderson .Paak’s Oxnard is a little obnoxious. There’s the obvious aping of Kendrick Lamar’s voice (and sound) and the the jazz/R&B instrumentals that almost beg you to take the album seriously; there’s a jam-packed list of features (Dr. Dre, Lamar, J. Cole, Q Tip, Snoop Dogg) which seem to insist that .Paak should be awarded woke points; there’s an extended skit during which the MC gets fellated (tacked on to “Headlow”); there’s even a little condescending gem of a line inserted at the center of “Who R U?”: “Look at you n**gas / Wonder why I fuckin’ hate rap.” But despite all of this, I implore you, don’t give up on Oxnard: .Paak’s charms tend to reveal themselves slowly, as on “6 Summers,” a song which begins with phony-sounding spoken-word (“Trump’s gotta Love child! / And I hope that bitch is buckwild”), but transforms into a soft-rock interlude with a gently-delivered refrain (“Ain’t shit gone change for at least 6 summers”). Finally, the track morphs into a rant, with .Paak assailing, “Dear Mr. President / It’s evident that you don’t give a damn.” “Brother’s Keeper,” another song which transforms twice, escalates .Paak’s rockstar ambitions, and finds the MC going toe-to-toe with a mic-dropping Pusha-T in a year that’s been filled with incredible guest spots from King Push. While certain moments on Oxnard abuse the George Clinton-y vibe also copped by the likes of Childish Gambino — and some songs here do turn into hollow exercises in texture (“Smile/Pretty”) — .Paak’s ability to tease-out an off-kilter synergy with his more exciting guests (“Mansa Musa” with Dre and Cocoa Sarai, “Tints” with Lamar, “Cheers” with Q Tip) overshadows his indulgence of… others (a misguided storytelling verse about a long-lost love by J. Cole on “Trippy,” a stereotypical Snoop feature on “Anywhere” that begins with the ad lib “blunts”). In fact, it’s Anderson’s originally grating sense of humor which steeps some songs here in a classic West Coast braggadocio; like “Sweet Chick,” which gives a Lou Bega-esque rundown of different women .Paak’s slept with and then devolves into a skit in which one of those lovers finds-out about all those infidelities and shoots him up. It’s not a ‘grand statement,’ like the albums it references. But considering .Paak’s at his best leaning into a well-realized levity, the relatively lower stakes are to Oxnard‘s benefit. Joe Biglin
The closest work from this year that one can compare Vince Staples’s FM! to, stylistically, is Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You: Both are colorful, irreverent portraits of the black experience centered in West Coast cities (FM! in and around Long Beach, Riley’s film in Oakland) that have deeper political messages lying underneath the vibrancy and quirk. But both works suffer from the same fatal flaw: Their theoretical approaches hit dead-ends quickly, as their auteurs run out of new things to say and gradually concern themselves mainly with maintaining an ascetic appearance. While FM! does have some inspired comedic moments — including lovable cornball Tyga popping up to clown on himself — they tend to stand-out for their signification more than the actual music does. The production on Staples’s album is largely unmemorable, and oft-times mixed so poorly that you can’t even really hear the rapping; the project lacks the distinct flavor of Big Fish Theory’s Detroit-inspired techno, or of Summertime 06’s haunted 808’s, instead favoring heavy-bass bangers that sound good on a first listen, but fade quickly. Worse, Vince is barely trying here, introducing a topic (“Everybody say it’s lonely at the top / I want my homies at the top”), failing to complicate it (“My little homie, he got shot / And now I’m moving by my lonely with the .40 and the mop”), and then moving to some lame witticism when he has nothing else to add (“You know you feel it (you know you feel it) / Record deal, but I did it independent”). Brevity is FM!‘s saving grace; it’s practically over before you notice how unimpressive it is. Paul Attard
Ski Mask the Slump God is one of the most naturally talented rappers in the Soundcloud scene. His Busta Rhymes-inspired flow seems to trip over itself, spilling over with abstracted lyricism about sex, drugs, and children’s television shows. Stokeley, the second album he’s dropped this year, has, however, come at an admittedly strange time in his career. If his ascent to relative fame indebted to Cole Bennett’s videos or his XXL Freshmen tap wasn’t enough, set those against the sudden death of former writing partner XXXTentacion. Those feelings, clashing with his usual lighthearted stoner aesthetic, seem to inform the stylistic mishmash of Stokeley. First cut “So High” sounds like Ski Mask finally threw his lot into the Who’s the Next Kid Cudi Debate, with his moaning vocal sprawled out over a twangy guitar arpeggio and filtered through spacey reverb. Reconcile that, though, with what directly follows: “Nuketown,” a banger that finds Ski — and Juice WRLD, of all rappers — screaming, unhinged, on the chorus, practically tearing into verses, as his typically silly ad lib (“water!”) feels out of place after all the aggression. “Foot Fungus” features Ski swaggering over a minimalist beat, and copping Valee’s flow for a second, just to flex; “Unbothered” finds Ski making a collage out of verses and ad libs over a silly beat; and on “Faucet Failure,” Ski morphs his vocal inflection in different ways with every bar. The weak points here do have a tendency to stick-out just because of the variety; “Save Me Part 2” the definite lowest point, finds Ski unsuccessfully trying to rescue a Halsey-sounding radio duet from utter banality. Ski also attempts singing again on the sensitive “U and I,” a seeming ode to X (“No choosin’ sides / It’s ride or die”) that’s carried off with a simplicity, and a sincerity, that heightens the sentiment. Yet no other song feels as distinctly Slump God as “Get Geeked,” which also provides a good summation of the album as a whole: “Get geeked / Get geeked / Get geeked” just repeats and repeats until Ski stumbles, as if coping with some profound absurdity he can no longer communicate; he then takes the flub and transforms it into the next verse, as if nothing happened. Joe Biglin
For those of you who haven’t followed XXL’s recent Freshmen of the Year lists, J.I.D is something of an anomaly. Where most rappers selected by XXL lately have been young Soundcloud rappers who mostly carry on a mumble-rap tradition, J.I.D is a 28-year-old, signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville label, who’s already dropped a debut studio album. Much like his mentor (who joins him on the frenzied “Off Deez”), J.I.D wants to be a lyrical rapper; his technical skill is reminiscent of Cole, his flow of Eminem, his nasally tenor and conscious lyrics of Kendrick. And at this moment in his career, with so many eyes on him, first impressions are critical. Safe to say, then, that J.I.D impresses plenty at the beginning of DiCaprio 2: The first seven tracks here are all back-to-back bangers animated by J.I.D’s trademark, free-associative flow (“151 Rum” and “Off Deez” especially). Three features in the middle of the album, though, start to see the waning of the MC’s personality, ceding agency to the soulful stylings of Ella Mai (“Tiied”) and the East Coast boom-bap of Joey Bada$$ and Method Man (“Hot Box”). Each track here is never less than serviceable, but this middle section doesn’t have the X-factor that makes, say, J.I.D.’s collab with A$AP Ferg (“Westbrook”) pop. The whiplash between J.I.D’s menacingly subdued, tip-toe flow and Ferg’s bombastic “We done came up!” hook, however, gets completely re-contextualized by the album’s best and most heartbreaking track, “Just Da Other Day.” Here, J.I.D rides in a lane all his own, with a descending sing-song hook that dances over melodramatic, melancholy piano chords. An ultra-deep, booming bass kicks in under the verses, which J.I.D seems to wring out of his soul, his raspy voice trailing off multiple times as he tells a story about coming up broke through abstract details (“Tryna find a place to live, shit I’m is right now / In doubt of my next move, get a pill, bite down). It’s a chilling track, and one that shows J.I.D easily trumps his mentor’s sentimentality with sheer, harrowing emotion. Joe Biglin
The “If young Metro don’t trust you I’m gon’ shoot you” tag has been a source for hip hop-related memes at least since it popped up at the beginning of Kanye West’s “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1,” in 2016. Since then, trap producer Metro Boomin’s clout (and his ad lib’s) have only grown in prominence, thanks in part to high-profile collaborative projects with the likes of Big Sean and NAV. With his solo album debut, Not All Heroes Wear Capes, the St. Louis native attempts to launch himself into the big leagues of producer superstardom alongside names like Mike Will Made It and DJ Mustard — albeit with mixed results. Often the album feels weighed down by current trends, like the unfortunate trip through watered-down dancehall on “Only You” (with an auto-crooned WizKid sounding nails-on-a-chalkboard-y) and the spacey, minimalist beats of “Dreamcaster” and “Only 1 (Interlude).” The greatest successes here come with longtime collaborator 21 Savage: On “Don’t Come Out The House,” Metro finds a way to channel the Slaughter King’s villainous delivery into a barely audible murmur, turning the drum kick so low that it feels almost like 21 ASMR. Then, a crashing organ cuts the silence, and Savage returns, noting the oddity of what just occurred (“y’all must thought that I was gon’ whisper the whole time”) before going back to his murderous brags. On “10 Freaky Girls,” Metro contrasts a soulful Patti LeBelle sample with a blaring, triumphant horn section, 21 adapting effortlessly to the multiple beat switch-ups and spitting with grace (“I happened to see a n**ga I robbed back in the day / You know what? / He was happy to see me”) and deadpan remembrance (“All these chains, rest in peace to Harriet Tubman”). The most heartrending use of the Atlanta MC comes on the penultimate track, which also features Travis Scott and Kodak Black: The three rappers pour out their feelings and reveal their addictions, all claiming they can’t keep with their drug-fueled lifestyles “no more.” Each sound more intoxicated with their vices than the last. Paul Attard
In the uncommonly crowded year of the female MC — with two projects by Cupcakke and other high-profile ones from Rico Nasty, Cardi B, Tierra Whack, and, obviously, Nicki Minaj — it would be easy for fools with a limited bandwidth to ignore Leikeli47’s excellent second album, Acrylic. Hiding at all times under a mask, the cryptic Brooklyn-based rapper also doesn’t engage with the same immediacy as, say, Minaj or Cardi — but she more than makes up for that with a sauntering cadence that entraps listeners with the surface-level simplicity of her wordplay, and that gradually reveals greater implications of modern-day black womanhood. On the title track of Acrylic, Leikeli’s voice practically bounces along with the beat, in nursery-rhythm fashion, asking at first “Officer, officer, what have we done? / I got my card, put down your gun,” before pointing out, “It’s no coincidence how you come show— / Up in my hood / Up to no good,” changing the pitch of her voice with each line, to amp-up the implications of facetiousness. Things get more serious on “Droppin’,” as a soft piano plays over half-whispered bars (“I’m the baby from the dumpster, Brenda was my mama / Free lunch in the summers, now I’m stacking commas”) and Liekieli name-drops family members that were instrumental to her come-up. Album closer “In My Eyes” even takes a turn into neo-gospel, but never loses sight of who’s in charge: “In my eyes, I am God / ‘Cause he lives in my heart.” On Acrylic, these sentiments of strength, and of perseverance, feel richly deserved. Paul Attard