“It has been quite a journey / From my driveway to my front door / It has been quite a journey.” Lil Wayne floats this observation shortly past the halfway point of his 13th album, and a litany of connotations can be elucidated. There’s a literal interpretation: Funeral is a rather long project, and by the time we get to its 17th track out of 24 total, it has indeed been something of a journey. Sure, okay. On a metaphorical level, it’s a typical Weezy stunt about the vast opulence of his mansion, so nothing really new in that reading either. Alright, whatever. But if we were to take this statement and apply it to a specific historical context — that being Wayne’s career as a whole — then there is a reckoning that seems obvious: Wayne’s bildungsroman, tracing his involvement as the youngest member of the Hot Boys to becoming the self-proclaimed “greatest rapper alive” to his recent lost decade, is itself something of a sustained journey.
Somehow the rapper is only 37, and he’s still going — a rarity in hip-hop, especially in an industry that’s predicated on completely exploiting young artists’ value in the span of a few months. He’s been doing this his whole life, to the point that rapping is his life in a way it can’t be for others; he’s driven to be the best not for superfluous reasons, but because he sincerely believes that’s what he was born to do. He’s been through heaven and hell, has probably expected everyone to have written him off some time ago, and is attempting to rise to the occasion once again to prove everyone wrong — and with a title like Funeral, one could presume something of a defeatist ethos. Those fears, however warranted, have thankfully been laid to rest as the almost 90 minutes worth of material here serves as a reaffirmation of his overall excellence, and anyone who’s not already on board has mercifully been left behind — as guest Big Sean puts it best, “if you in my way, then I gotta go through you.” Better put, Wayne should have titled this one I Am Not A Human Being; here, he’s immortal, back from the dead, and any burial is reserved for the remaining skeptics.
In fact, a yet more appropriate title (if he hadn’t already used this one as well) would have been Rebirth, as Wayne continues to find new and exciting ways to reinvent and re-discover his ability as an MC. Like The Carter series before it, Funeral engages with the album format less as a prestigious final product and more as an empty canvas, an approach recalled from a bygone past of centerless mixtape-oriented releases that now somehow works best in our playlist-friendly streaming era. So consider this a fresh slate, a chance to once again start new, and the joys of listening to Wayne rap will never be clearer: his penchant for crafting dizzying, densely constructed punchline wordplay is represented here with such harmonious ease that it’s easy to write off the tone as insouciant. On “Bing James,” Weezy elongates and over-emphasizes his ending syllables, so that they start to sound like throat chants, and his slurred, slick cadence on “Know You Know” imbues each sound with the sense that there’s just too much joyous conviviality between him, Jay Rock, and 2 Chainz for any actual technique to come into play. And yes, as is the case with every Wayne project, there are some rather goofy moments that don’t amount to much other than filling time between the more awe-inspiring segments (“I Don’t Sleep,” “Sights and Silencers,” and “Trust Nobody”). But, as usual, even in these moments when it seems that Wayne’s not really even trying, he never sounds like he shouldn’t be saying the exact word he’s saying — even though he often sounds like he’s just making it up as he goes. Like any great artist, he makes the hard part seem easy.
But when he’s simply spazzing for the sake of it — again, proving everyone wrong — the results are still sumptuous. There’s the opening one-two punch of “Mahogany” and the industrial “Mama Mia” — one where he subtly shades his former prodigy Drake (“Got real bitches with fake asses / With real views and fake eyes”) and jests Akon regarding his darkened skin tone. Both are mini-spectacles of paronomasia, tracks that stagger with with the sheer number of woozily high-concept double-to-triple entendres as gifts to the listener (a favorite: “I’m out of my Gucci, you not on my Gucci, that’s not an exclusive / Designers, excuse me, massagers masseuse me / Oops, I mean masseuses massage me, I’m gruesome, I’m grimey”). There’s a laser-focused immediacy and precision here; he doesn’t just sound like he’s on point, but he brings a presence that suggests he’s the very reason the point ever existed. “Ball Hard” plays the typical Dada-ist word association games Tuneche’s famous for, somehow getting from Black Chyna to Kobe “Black Mamba” Bryant to Lady Gaga to Rihanna, and ending with a touching shout-out to Sinéad O’Connor on the chorus. “I Do It” starts with a scintillating Lil Baby verse — one practically dripping with pure swagger — and a surprisingly well-worked Big Sean hook (one that gets that he’s only ever sounded cool when stretching vowels from short, simple phrases), all before Wayne takes center stage: he proceeds to switch his flow up three different times in the span of a few minutes, compares the trio to the Three Stooges, and vaunts that “I got money from 2002, that I ain’t seen since 2002.” That line was a little bit of a joke; Wayne makes a lot of them here. To be fair, he probably has seen that residual.
While Wayne indulges heavily in this lyrical play throughout, he never compromises his music’s listenability. That he manages to hop on such a wide array of diverse sounds is admirably forward-thinking, a proficient old-head willing to learn and improve his techniques from the guidance of youngsters. The emo-laments of “Bastard (Satan’s Kid)” and “Get Outta My Head” feel indebted to the scuzzy lo-fi ethos of Florida-based SoundCloud rap, with figure-head/semi-icon XXXTentacion showing up to make the missing link more obvious. Murda Beatz — the white kid who’s best known for helping the Migos become famous — gets a cool moment on “Line Em Up,” setting it up with a vociferous Omnisphere horn effect that works in tandem with a stammering Sindhi vocal sample, which serves as budding fanfare. And on the punky, manic, coke-fueled “Dreams,” he indulges in some belted utterances that themselves work out to be jokes (“I live the American dream, huh / Foreign everything, huh”) while also noting the abundance of “fucking Weezys” his influence has produced and cultivated. None are featured here (unless you count Lil Twist) and none could likely keep up with the breakneck pace at which Wayne operates, as he merrily barrels along in a space devoid of artistic interference. As he beautifully puts it on “Wayne’s World” — a song where there’s a “Wayne’s World!” ad-lib and Wayne responds with “party time, excellent,” just so you know that he’s definitely not above doing this sort of thing — we are just guests in the universe of one Dwayne Michael Carter. In turn, we should be appreciative that he’s allowed us to exist as visitors in a realm rife with so much untouched creativity, one with so much promise for the future as he boldly enters into the third decade of his profession with the same vigor he’s had since his first. It really has been quite the journey. Paul Attard
What is there to say about DaBaby that hasn’t been articulated since he took the world by storm in 2019? He is a rapper of pure conviction, and it’s through this lens that his talent, swagger, humor are all honed. Give a fuck about chasing any one genre; DaBaby pulls genres out of their orbits to become part of his own signature “DaBaby” genre, which was codified through every track on Baby on Baby but vindicated with the success of “Suge” on the charts. “Bitch it ain’t no stoppin’ a n***a like me,” he repeatedly blurts and decrescendos across Blame it on Baby; the man has control of his sound and image, which he made pointedly clear in his legendary XXL verse last year. Even a track like “Pick Up,” which is run-of-the-mill by Baby’s standards, and boasts a run-of-the-mill Quavo feature, doesn’t much deter the rapper. Like the bass thumps, he emphasizes certain words alongside a rocksteady flow, but there’s also an exhilaration to be found in its randomness — accenting moments in tandems, like a call-and-response, or the opposite. And his flow is downright robotic in precision, so that even his imaginative lexicon of non-words feel validated through conviction alone.
The complementary nature of his instrumentals shines with the follow-up “Talk About It,” Baby’s eighth-note flow marching through a woozy, descending electronic melody. Baby isn’t reinventing the wheel here: “Jump,” performed with NBA Youngboy, is reminiscent of a Lil Pump-Smokepurpp collab; a Megan Thee Stallion-assisted sex-banger (“Nasty”) pops up; and, of course, there’s the Roddy Ricch ballad “Rockstar” that’s been dominating the charts. All Baby is doing is proving his previous statements true — he’s “the Tupac of the new shit,” ready to convince anyone and everyone of his self-evident GOAT-status. The title track here does the most to further this cause — that is, the DaBaby experiment — by proving Baby’s determined flow, unchanging, can constantly work with any instrumental, changing context instantly but never losing intent. Joe Biglin
It must be hard being Marshall Bruce Mathers III, or so he’d like you to believe. According to him, and everyone who has defended him for the past decade, he’s a rapper who actually cares about things like rhythm schemes and the proper use of syllables in a given bar; he’s been regularly breaking records for “fastest rap verse” over the past few years (one can assume because nobody else working cares about this sort of thing, and rightfully so). And because of his insistence that rap shouldn’t evolve as an art form and should cater to a slim number of real fans, he’s been labeled a “hip-hop purist” who the younger generation just can’t seem to understand. But the success of lyrical rap acts such as Lil Wayne, YBN Cordae, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and the like sort of prove that this is a bullshit talking point, one that fails to account for the real issue at hand: Eminem has been making mediocre music for a while now, and his recent grievance that he doesn’t get the respect he deserves is both A) objectively and abjectly false and B) a distraction (or perhaps deflection) from the rapper’s late-career deficiencies. Yes, the man can say a lot of nonsense words really fast in a certain order and in a manner one could conceivably regard as impressive — but it has gotten to the point that the technical aspects of his craft have completely overtaken listenability. Take, for instance this string of nonsense sentences: “How can I have all these fans and perspire? / Like a liar’s pants, I’m on fire / And I got no plans to retire and I’m still the man you admire / These chicks are spazzin’ out, I only get more handsome and flier / I got ’em passin’ out like what you do when you hand someone flyers.” Again, things rhyme and are syntactically located in the right place, but there’s no meaning, merit, or worth to robotically going through a thesaurus to prove you’re the last great white hope for a genre that has clearly moved on from childish word games such as these.
So while this mode of strictly BARS Em has been around ever since he sobered up at the end of the 2000s, this vigorous attempt at championing artistic regression only really manifested with Kamikaze, where he dunked on his critics and adversaries with the type of finesse one could expect from a schoolyard bully. Music to Be Murdered By — an odd title, since it seems to suggest the sonic stylings presented will be so bad they could kill — serves as another reminder that all these young haters can barely string a bar together to save their life, that the best hip-hop was produced roughly 25 years ago, and that if you hate Em, it’s because he’s still too edgy for you. He re-hashes this ethos like a running checklist of thematic “to-dos” on “Unaccommodating,” notably making fun of the mentally ill (“I’m Kanye crazy,” Em insists as if that’s even remotely humorous) and invoking imagery of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing in the manner you would expect from a 47-year-old man who wants to be seen as “controversial.” On “Marsh” he ad-libs a bunch of auto-tuned high-pitch cries to imitate the new kids while stating that “y’all can just suck a penis / I’ll do the opposite / Eat you pussies like cunnilingus,” the kind of rap threat that should help to remind you who you should be rooting for in this situation. Even “serious” tracks like “Darkness,” with its solemn piano bass-line and political subject matter, fall flat in much the same way that most of the material on his 2017 disaster Revival did: you can’t just aim for importance and expect greatness to follow. Throw in a played-out, contrived song about killing a step-dad (set to the most angsty guitar riffs you can imagine), a few unexpected features from artists who weren’t born four decades ago (Juice WRLD on “Godzilla” is a nice change of pace, though relegating his contributions to the track’s chorus feels like yet another attempt from Shady to not allow for even one second of melodic rap to appear on his album; Don Toliver popping up later is a different story entirely), and a few posse cuts with some boom-bappy Q-Tip production — one kind of wonders why Em doesn’t just drop the current act make a whole project built around this — and what you’ve got is over an hour’s worth of recycled ideas and material that unmistakably feels like it could indeed murder you, death by sheer boredom. Woe for Marshall, indeed. Paul Attard
Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist
Alfredo, the latest collaboration between rapper Freddie Gibbs and legendary producer The Alchemist, is an absolutely ferocious album. Although the duo don’t have an extensive history of working together, there’s a cohesion of sound and vision here, the two artists’ styles both vibing and clashing in a fashion that makes for a wholly complex rap album. Across Alfredo’s runtime, Gibbs puts on display the steady, technically-impressive flow that has made him a foundational MC of the present. Even given the spattering of enviable features that decorate the album, including Rick Ross, Benny the Butcher, Tyler, the Creator, and Conway the Machine, it’s Gibbs’ voice that retains star billing here. Freddie unfurls his tales of success and strife eloquently, and while the strength of his vision and voice are largely enough, it’s telling that he makes time to play nice with his fellow rappers, the best examples found in tracks like “Scottie Beams” (with Ross) and “Something to Rap About” (with Tyler).
Gibbs’ gravelly voice and his penchant for lyrical provocation provide the perfect juxtaposition to The Alchemist’s production: the rapper modulates expertly, whether it’s on the record’s adrenaline-heavy boom beats — the best example of which is the bone-shaking “Frank Lucas” — or when spitting atop some smooth jazz samples. The Alchemist returns the favor, building a sense of levity into the music, a strategy that helps to lighten the bleak language and vocal heft of Gibbs’ verses; it’s a marriage of sensibilities that helps to smooth out the rough edges and punctuate the album’s narrative instincts. And while there are tracks on Alfredo that will surely be among the year’s best cuts, it’s almost more impressive how much weight even the lesser tracks bear: the jazzy, relatively low-key “Skinny Suge,” for instance, finds Gibbs waxing introspective about his own sense of survivor’s guilt. Other tracks revel in a sort-of confessional intimacy, with Gibbs reflecting on his past drug use and its gyring effect on those around him. None of this is to say that Alfredo is without flaw, but rather that those quibbles are minor in the face of such an impressive collaboration, one in which two distinct artistic identities work in such beautiful service to each other. Elliot Rieth
Four years ago, self-anointed King of the Teens Lil Yachty released the polarizing Lil Boat mixtape, and seemingly overnight (or, one could say, over “One Night”) became the poster boy for everything apparently wrong with the burgeoning trend of SoundCloud rap. The project was an amalgamation of child-like whimsy and world-conquering ambition, crafted with an outsider DIY-aesthetic and a disinterest in any traditional structure in terms of actual “rapping” in favor of a more emotion-heavy articulation of the genre’s most sincere elements. It was, and still is, a forward-thinking deconstruction of typical hip-hop machismo, one that fueled most of the previous era’s releases; it essentially re-wrote the rules for mumble rap, on top of being a masterpiece of pure capriciousness. But Miles McCollum released these summer songs when he was only 18-years-old; he’s obviously grown, and the pressures brought from the Ebro Darden’s of the world for Yachty to spit bars (because, naturally, that’s the logical endpoint one would take with a dude who once said he had pizza for every meal of the day) has gotten to him. He’s gone through a massive identity crisis since then, recycling old ideas on top of bloated production (Teenage Emotions), before deciding that he had — quite literally — Nuthin’ 2 Prove to anyone other than himself. Which is perhaps the best place for an artist such as Yachty to be in, staying and operating in his own niche lane and not listening to the naysayers of the world. But this is also a mode that leads to laziness. The type of music Lil Yachty is comfortable making now doesn’t even abide his previously established rules: it has become the kind of woefully generic posturing that was once the ire of his art.
If Lil Boat 2 signaled something of a noncommittal shrug, then Lil Boat 3 fully embraces the apathy. When taking in place alongside Tierra Whack, ASAP Rocky, and Tyler, the Creator on “T.D.,” Yachty sounds lost in a sea of personality; he’s out-weirded, out-performed, and out-rapped in a rather embarrassing fashion, the type of thing you get when aging acts hire zoomer Tik Tok stars to appear “hip.” “Pardon me,” croaks a bored Future about half-way through the album (on a wasted Mike-Will-Made-It beat), later whistling in auto-tune as Miles goes through a litany of designer whips he’s recently purchased. And in his attempts to recall the stylings of his younger years, Yachty makes evident how little he’s progressed in terms of harmonizations or even modulating his warbled elocution. “Love Jones” isn’t even two minutes long, but it still manages to run out of steam once you realize the beat just keeps looping the same five-second melody, and things aren’t aided by the monotone register of Boat’s tenor; “Oprah’s Bank Account,” maybe the most embarrassing fumble here, feels like a wannabe “Minnesota” with none of the irreverent flavor or budding chemistry between labelmates. On closer “Concrete Boys,” Yachty claims (with the kind of urgency you would expect from a comatose patient): “I done took so many L’s, I ain’t goin’ back,” when really he’s just added another to a growing list. Someone, please call the port authority — it seems as if the Lil Boat has finally capsized. Paul Attard