Lil Uzi Vert
Eternal Atake (Deluxe), aka Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World 2 and Eternal Atake, is a project that lives up to its loopy approach to titling, an act of anti-branding worthy of Lil Uzi Vert’s obstinate emo persona. This project began its life as Eternal Atake, an 18-track, hour-long album that is expansive and cerebral in its own right, though one that seemed to leave fans and critics dissatisfied with its sedated spacey vibes and lack of high profile features. As initially conceived, Eternal Atake was what the audience should have wanted from Uzi: a streaming-era album that is still a complete record built around a consistent aesthetic and even a loose narrative. Taking inspiration from the aesthetics and notoriety of suicide cult Heaven’s Gate and their melding of science fiction and American Judeo-Christian ideology, these tracks find Uzi exploring a galaxy cobbled together from memory scraps of video games and anime — it’s postmodern assemblage akin to hodgepodge belief system of HG or the Scott Pilgrim comics that provide inspiration for the project’s other half.
But a mere week after releasing Eternal Atake to a muted response, Lil Uzi answered the haters with Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World 2, an entire album unto itself that also functions as the first half of the Eternal Atake (Deluxe) project. This portion of the project is more in line with what one would expect from a contemporary event rap release — a string of readymade hits featuring the expected crew of Lil Uzi endorsers (you’ve got a couple Thug appearances, Future and Nudy stop by, a quartet of Pi’erre Bourne beats, etc.) These 14 tracks offer up a less cohesive vision than the 18 that follow (owing to the amount of influence Uzi’s go-to production crew Working on Dying exerted over half of those tracks), with myriad voices vying for attention on the mic and on the beats. But Lil Uzi is never usurped as the project’s defining voice here. Instead, Lil Uzi Vert vs the World 2 reads as a celebratory prologue, an assortment of carefully curated hits, each hotter than the last (and given a general continuity by additional, strategically-placed Working on Dying tracks) that serve as necessary fuel for streaming numbers perhaps, but also as the anticipated coronation of Lil Uzi, just one that he makes happen on his own terms.
The rapper has described his intent for these two albums to reflect first a lift off, an escape from terrestrial life, and then his ongoing journey through the stars. It’s an elegant functional metaphor for an artist who has long been positioned for superstardom, but one resists committing to it. And indeed, on the Eternal Atake songs we see a more pensive, regretful version of Lil Uzi Vert, no less boastful or thirsty than we’d expect, but aware of the ways that clout and fame poison. Songs like the Space Cadet 3D Pinball-sampling “POP” and goofy sex bop “Homecoming” (built around an amusingly corny “Baby Got Back” sample) start this section off in a place of angsty arrogance, but Uzi softens as the album progresses (this section is itself divided into further sections meant to reflect various Lil Uzi personae). The album’s concluding tracks find Uzi contending with alienation: whereas he has always self-styled as an extraterrestrial, fame has forced him into a rarified space, more toxifying than liberating. “Sorry” and the Syd-featuring “Urgency” deal with Uzi’s romantic failings (the former song specifically concerning a fling with a fan) and set the tone for the album’s conclusion, “P2”, an update of Uzi’s most visible text, the massive single “XO Tour Llif3”. Whereas that song famously had Uzi declaring all his friends dead while daring the world to pick at him further, “P2” reframes Uzi as the problem, now in a position to mess with the heads of those around him. In this way, Lil Uzi brings his project full circle, crafting a testament to the transcendent qualities of world- and persona-building that also highlights the way they can be commodified and turned against you. M.G. Mailloux
For most of the past decade, Jay Electronica has been more myth than man. After dropping a mixtape in 2007, the MC appeared only in rumors, features, and singles, none of which suggested the character of his eventual label debut. In many ways, A Written Testimony is the tale of two Jays, with Hov himself both presiding over and playing hype man for Jay Electronica’s (re)emergence. But perhaps most surprising is Z’s willingness to provide auxiliary support here. Watch the Throne succeeded on its spectacle, an ego collision that wrung creation from gladiatorial battle. A Written Testimony is diametric to the Ye-Jay collab: it’s anointment, and Jay-Z demonstrates a new evolutionary facet in his career renaissance by operating chameleonically, spitting tête-à-tête across verses and sharing space in a way never felt on WTT. He’s ever-present on the album, but always contorting his style and function to fit his protege’s clear vision, a fitting act of blessing-giving for an album built on spiritual expression.
Jay Electronica’s concerns on A Written Testimony can be largely synthesized into various dualities — life and death, regret and celebration, peace and pain — and he captures these ruminations in both cosmic and grounded fashion. On “A.P.I.D.T.A,” a melancholy ode on loss that finds consolation in earthly impermanence, he reasons, “The clothes we wear to bed at night to sleep is just pajamas / The flesh we roam this earth in is a blessing not a promise.” On “Fruits of the Spirit” his interest is more immediate: “Like Vince Staples said, we just wadin’ in the water / My people out in Flint still bathin’ in the slaughter / ICE out here rippin’ families apart at the border.” There’s a fiercely intelligent contemplativeness to Jay’s mystic-minded writing, an understanding of the infinity of seeking, that keeps his more piffling observations from devolving into cheap banality. On “Ezekiel’s Wheel,” the rapper even manages to not just shout out Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, which may be the definitive cornball novel, but to turn that work’s climactic, puerile metaphor into an affecting commentary on his much-speculated time out of the spotlight: “Sometimes I was held down by the gravity of my pen / Sometimes I was held down by the gravity of my sin / Sometimes, like Santiago, at crucial points of my novel / My only logical option was to transform into the wind.” All of this thematic clarity is buttressed by the rapper’s smooth, drawled flow — few others could successfully open a song by rhyming “tale of” with “squalor” — and hip hop’s best production of the year, at times industrial, at times symphonic, littered with TV and radio samples, eccentric synth work, and layered with mechanical precision. In other words, a sort of faithful chaos. A Written Testimony is exactly that — Jay’s accounting for and of his life, who he is, where he’s been, the parts he’s made of. Luke Gorham
City Girls are a hyper-feminine performance, and a bit of a duality — written and produced with a number of male collaborators while also helmed by Jatavia “JT” Jackson (who recently finished a 15-month sentence for fraud to which she freely admitted guilt). This setback complicated what appeared to be a potentially meteoric rise in 2018: For one long, grueling year, Caresha Brownlee AKA Yung Miami was forced to solely maintain the momentum from their two mixtapes and that delightful cameo on “In My Feelings”; she inadvertently (and without much say in the matter) became the face of the group. Which worked because she “gets‘ social media, being both a model and preternatural intuitor of viral content. “Nasty but classy / Birken bag me / spent a couple thousand on my titties and my asscheeks,” summarily codifies the Girls’ ethos (“Jobs”); or take the leering one-liner, “Broke ni**as don’t deserve no pussy,” whose perverted sing-song do-si-dos around a quintessentially meme-y New Orleans Bounce xylophone, creating something of a perfect storm of tonality that’s ripe for TikTokers to riff off. On the lyrical side, that hook gets ruined by the end of the couplet, “playing with you ni**as be like playin with my pussy,” which is far more clever in theory than execution. Add to this: “baddest bitch, modern-day Trina,” and sometimes one really feels the gap between Miami’s brags and ability. (Despite her close ties to the legendary Florida MC, a “godmother” to her, a new Trina she is not.)
In fact, the next track, “Pussy Talk,” a delirious invention in the vein of “Twerk” or “Act Up,” features a fire Doja Cat verse where she cleverly builds a taunt with the punchline, “No game, so the money made me play with my clit,” which makes Miami’s effort on the previous track more embarrassing. Thankfully, JT ain’t slackin’: on the same track, she describes her pussy in increasing hyperbole, that it’s “from the projects,” it “speaks ebonics,” and will, in essence, turn a man “gang-gang, he gon’ go to war.” Her art is filtered through the creative blend of Miami bass, snap, bounce, and trap, particularly in the way she continues to resurrect 80s rap for the modern audience — the most genius in this regard is “This Old Man,” built off a nursery rhyme like Run-DMC’s “Peter Piper.” The group vocals at the end recall Salt-N-Pepa, nothing new for the Girls, but providing much-needed levity to the trap sound. They don’t escape cliches: the street rap croon with Lil Durk falls flat upon the first line: “I’m from Opa-Locka, home of the choppas,” (really?), yet the same strategy works with label mate Lil Baby’s “Flewed Out,” perhaps a testament to the fact the trio are proving to be QC’s only reliable artists these days. Frankly, City on Lock is the warm-up round. Rumor has it JT and Miami weren’t even recording in the same locale, which, if solved, might seriously aid the Girls. Their chemistry is potentially explosive. Joe Biglin
Run the Jewels
Rap duo Run the Jewels, consisting of MC Killer Mike and rapper/producer El-P, have by this point established themselves as one of the most culturally confrontational outfits in the game today. Regularly focusing on topics such as police brutality and governmental oppression, there is an almost thesis-like intentionality to their cuts, an objective to achieve. Their newest release, RTJ4, does not stray from this mode, but relative to previous albums, it does take somewhat longer for their messaging to clarify. The record’s first couple tracks deliver the familiar chest-pounding bravado that will be familiar to RTJ’s fanbase , but lacks the expected socio-political substance. It’s not until standout track “walking in the snow”that RTJ4 hits a high note; everything before feels surprisingly depthless given the duo’s usually pointed verses.
But once RTJ4 gets going, it downright refuses to stop. Each track on the album’s second half dares to be more impressive than the last. Embracing the gravity of our America’s current climate of police brutality and civil unrest, Killer Mike uses the gasping line “I can’t breathe” during “walking in the snow,” an inciting moment that signals orchestrated mayhem of RTJ4’s back half. The duo pulls no punches on tracks like “JU$T” — “Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo dollar” — a track which features veteran RTJ collaborator Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. And they round things out with an almost magnum opus-level outro, “a few words for the firing squad (radiation),” ending the album on a more intimate, reflective note: “It’d be a lie if I told that I ever disdained the fortune and the fame / but the presence of the pleasure never abstained me from any of the pain.” Both tracks showcase RTJ’s intellectual prowess and lyrical excellence, a complexity of thought that matches the flexible, assertive production supporting their voices. While RTJ4 doesn’t earn the title of best record in Run the Jewels’ discography, the impassioned spitting of Yankee and the Brave still packs the wallop that brings fans clambering back. Elliot Rieth
Checking back in on Future, as we do every 12 months or so now, and he seems to be doing great. Not unlike last year’s The Wizrd, this latest release finds Future luxuriating in his success, flaunting his rock star status. Future spent his time in between these releases flirting with the idea of revisiting a couple of his most iconic collaborative projects, but High Off Life makes it clear that Nayvadius Williams is still confidently operating in his own lane. His latest is a confident flex from an artist who has moved on from the conflicts that drove his early career, and is now taking the time to survey his strengths and successes. As such, Future’s 8th studio album looks to restage what has worked before (this album sees DJ Esco being brought back into the fold as exec producer) while inevitably having to lower the stakes. That said, at 70 minutes, the stakes don’t necessarily feel diminished, and while there are still thrills to be had listening to Future outline his debaucherous lifestyle, the introspective bent has been subsumed by passive celebration. As the title sort of jokingly implies, Future finds validation in the excess and comfort of his lifestyle, his tumultuous relationship with codeine no longer such an immediate concern.
But the project isn’t without merit: the lower stakes keep it from competing with the peaks of Future’s output, but also give the rapper and his collaborators space to do the best version of what they do. Album openers “Trapped in the Sun”, “HiTek Tek,” and “Ridin Strikers” remind us that Future is a spirited lyricist in his own right, having a real knack for coming up with vaguely ominous nonsensical phrases to build hooks from. The inevitable parade of guests and vocal assists pans out with some inspired work from Lil Uzi echoing their inspired pairing on Eternal Atake (Deluxe), and a prime appearance from the ascendant YoungBoy NBA. Young Thug even shows up on a song about doing the Harlem Shake entitled “Harlem Shake”! It’s these moments of inspired audacity that always make it worth returning to Future’s world, but one must wonder when he’ll opt to push forward once more. M.G. Mailloux
YoungBoy Never Broke Again
YoungBoy Never Broke Again needs you to understand just one thing: that he is a deeply misunderstood character. The blogs, the media, and the industry at large just want to see this man fail; that’s clearly the only reason why he’s not obtained superstar status when he’s regularly pulling millions of views from YouTube and receiving the illustrious Birdman co-sign. Suffice it to say, YoungBoy’s life — more specifically, how one is encouraged to perceive his life based on headlines — revolves around a lot of drama; he’s a rather flagrant figure, one who says little (when he’s not screaming threats at his enemies via his Instagram Live sessions) and chooses to express his anger, sorrows, and joy through aggrieved, nasally howls that make up the majority of his discography. Outside of the pained attempts to come off as sympathetic, he has a strong ear for melody that’s separated him from his peers; he can switch in and out of vocal deliveries with little difficulty, utilizing a barked snarl for the strictly “rapping” portions of his music before going into a full-on croon.
38 Baby 2 serves as another reminder that NBA YoungBoy is not an artist to outright ignore, as his gifts for producing sticky harmonies (“Nawfside” and “Al Nash”) and menacing deadpan inflections (“Don’t give a fuck ’bout where you from, you tote that flag, you a slime” he passionately declares on “I-10 Baby”) continues to impress; he hasn’t become Fortnight-ers favorite musician by pure luck. His songwriting still leaves much to be desired, as the few moments of outright pathos fall decidedly flat: a guest verse from his own mother about how he’s the wind beneath her wings feels clumsily assembled (they already got his father for the emotional voicemail intro that kicks off the project), and tracks like “I Choose You” reek of disingenuous, sad-boy venting with lines like “I’ve been payin’ all these hoes for them to not post me on IG.” YoungBoy’s appeal, particularly for his younger fans, is fueled by this brand of Juice Wrld-styled misogyny, and 2Pac-esque claims that the world is against him, which rings as somewhat false considering his aforementioned insane streaming numbers. When DaBaby, arguably the biggest rapper in the world right now — and another larger than life figure with plenty of legal/media issues of his own — shows up for a phoned-in feature, it feels less like YoungBoy has “made it” and more that others see his viral clout and are looking to cash-in. For now, that’s about the best someone in NBA’s current position can possibly hope for. Paul Attard