There are few constants in this precarious universe that we inhabit: the sky is blue, the grass is green, and as long as Jordan Michael Houston is still breathing, he’s going to be doing the thing he’s been doing since the early ’90s, which is turning the fuck up. The seasons change, Juicy J doesn’t. Or, as he once observed, “You say no to drugs, Juicy J can’t.” In a sense, his recent output is timeless in its inability to ever progress beyond a basic set of core tenets: loud bass, sinister piano lines, exuberant delivery, and shouting “shutdafukup” a whole lotta times. Which, by all accounts, should be the biggest detriment to any rapper over the age of 40; but with Juicy, if anything, he’s able to transcend such mortal understandings of artistry. Sure, he has exactly one flow, but he is the goddamn master of that one flow. He doesn’t chase trends, trends eventually chase him. That he’s been able to sustain a dual career as both a legendary hype man and a go-to producer for newer talent is further proof for such illustrious claims. He’s been consistent enough with his profligate image and output for long enough to have outlived the likes of bling rap, ringtone rap, and now Soundcloud rap — all of which, in some form or another, has bitten from the Three 6 Mafia sound or ethos. Much like an obstetrician who does late-term abortions as a side hustle, Juicy assisted with their gestation and let them die in his presence.
In that regard, The Hustle Continues is predicated on listeners fully understanding Juicy’s legacy up to this point. Opener “Best Group” even does a quick run-through of his greatest achievements (including being the “first n***a with a song with Katy Perry,” though Snoop Dogg has him beat by about three years) before getting into the first proper single, “Gah Damn High.” The enjoyable enough track, which has a music video where a quarantine-era strip club becomes a multi-million dollar idea (a logic only feasible in Juicy J music video), breaks tempo and switches beat mid-way through, which serves as a segue for a pointless Wiz Khalifa feature where he sounds like a bored Swae Lee with equally questionable lyrics (“If that’s your girlfriend, why she at my house?/If that’s your girl, then why my dick in her mouth?”). This moment, as seemingly inconsequential as it is on an album best defined by its inconsequential nature, is indicative of the project’s biggest recurring defect: every guest here is either clearly phoning it in, or they just simply can’t keep up with a dude twice their age. They may all be children of Juicy, but they certainly aren’t on his level of engagement. On a track meant to honor his fallen mentor Yams, A$AP Rocky instead sounds like he’s eulogizing his younger brother’s dead dog; conversely, Jay Rock brings the moxy needed on “Memphis to LA,” but is completely out of his element production-wise. The worst offender here strikes twice in the form of the biracial boy wonder Logic, who could keep up with some high energy (rapping really fast is this dude’s prime specialty), but is decidedly more interested in spitting a buncha corny nonsense about his supposed cultural ascension.
When it’s just Juicy on the mic (which is only five tracks out of 16) he’s a reliably buoyant entity; when not bogged down by undeserving mouths to feed, he serves as a counterpoint to a generation of rappers who can only get wild for short durations. Suffice it to say, he’s been doing this long enough to know how to whip these bangers out, and while he should be a little more conservative in his choices of collaborators, these are also what separate him from his peers. Would Nas or Jay-Z be willing to work with the likes of Young Dolph? Probably not — which also goes to show how much more tapped into the current cultural moment Juicy is compared to those two. He doesn’t need to work with these people, but chooses to anyway; the chances he’s going to outlive most of them in terms of relevancy is already predetermined. So while The Hustle Continues is, on the whole, only marginally better than the disappointing Rubba Band Business, it further cements the fruits of one man’s labor in comparison to other diminishing returns. One could call it a low bar to strive for, an argument to which the only appropriate response would be to kindly “shutdafukup” forever.
Future & Lil Uzi Vert
At first glance, the collaboration between Future and Lil Uzi Vert that birthed the Pluto x Baby Pluto mixtape makes a lot of logical sense — and seems like it should be a mutually beneficial endeavor. Both of the principle rappers’ styles place as much importance on melody as they do dexterous cadences, and both favor glossy trap beats as the production of voice over which to exorcise stories of heartbreak and tribulation. Both even express the emotions of their music, more often than not, through an Auto-Tune’d croon perfectly in sync with their prickly, triple-time rhyme schemes. In the early going of Pluto x Baby Pluto, Future and Uzi match-up well, running through creative boasts about their iced-out accessories or their scores with women, with Future sounding more enthusiastic than he has on other recent projects: When he sings “I got designer all over” on the chorus of “That’s It,” his voice wails with glee like he’s rubbing that gear all over his face. There are even a few tracks, like “Marni on Me,” where the two rappers execute verses that respond to each other almost bar for bar. But as the beats turn more neon and chromatic, it’s hard to deny that Uzi steals the show; he can adapt to a Wheezy or a Zaytoven production without breaking a sweat, and even unlock a whole new persona when he’s paired with Brandon Finessin (one of the architects of his latest solo album, Eternal Atake). In contrast, while the shiny, neo-swag-rap feel of “She Never Been to Pluto” and “Bankroll” should have inspired Future to capitalize on his own strengths, his voice is more often overpowered by Uzi’s. Thus a collaboration with the great promise of chemistry instead plays as a meeting between one rapper on his way to the top and another all but accepting his role as a hanger-on.
As young upstarts on the American noise scene of the early aughts, Magik Markers first made a name for themselves thanks to their raucous live shows and the dozens of self-released CD-R’s and cassettes they churned out each year. But as time went on, the trio’s output slowed, and their sound began to mellow as well. Abrasive free improvisation gradually gave way to more structure and more melody, following a general trajectory not unlike that of one of their obvious influences, Sonic Youth. (No surprise that the two bands went on tour together in 2004, nor that some of Magik Marker’s earlier records found a home on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label.) And much like SY, they managed to make that turn without sacrificing the spirit that made them special in the first place.
“Surf’s Up,” the laidback jam that opens Magik Markers’ first full-length record in seven years, is a perfect example of their restraint; John Shaw’s languid bassline grooves against atonal piano improvisations, veering boldly into dissonance while never rising to the sort of cacophonous levels that typify their earlier work. Even “You Can Find Me,” the closest thing to a straightforward pop song the band has ever written, retains a sharp edge, the brittle production and Elisa Ambrogio’s imprecise guitar work augmenting an otherwise sweet melody. 2020 finds the Markers more stylistically varied than ever before, from the gorgeous balladry of “Born Dead,” to “That Dream (Shitty Beach),” a rollicking cut that sounds like a Black Sabbath outtake recorded on a 4-track, but they can’t seem to help but sound like themselves. Their most striking moment is the collage-like piece “Hymn For 2020,” which layers ghostly wails from Ambrogio over a deep drone that recalls some of the more eerie Twin Peaks cues — an ode, perhaps, to the enormity of loss that has defined the last year. Magik Markers were singular figures in the indie rock landscape of the early 2000s, and 2020 demonstrates that they’re still able to excite nearly two decades into their career.
Maddie & Tae
With “Die from a Broken Heart,” the second single from The Way It Feels, Maddie & Tae set a dubious record at country radio: Having the longest gap between a first chart-topping single and a second one, thanks to the lengthy span since their “Girl in a Country Song” hit No. 1. It’s not that the duo hasn’t released quality material since then — “Shut Up & Fish” should have been another No. 1, but it petered out in the mid-30s because country radio remains the very worst — but, like most women in the genre, M&T have struggled to gain consistent traction with the fickle tastes and entrenched biases of radio programmers. The Way It Feels looks to reverse that trend — even beyond “Die from a Broken Heart.” The album’s production is straight-down-the-middle, contemporary pop-country; the songs here sound like radio hits. If that means that M&T don’t have a distinctive aesthetic of their own, what does distinguish them are their terrific vocal harmony arrangements and the quality of their songwriting. “One Heart to Another” is one of the loveliest country songs released in 2020; “Friends Don’t” exposes the lie beneath the concept of the “friend zone”; and “I Don’t Need to Know” hinges on some surprising reflections: “The only thing worse than my imagination / Is all these third party observations.” Most every song includes at least one line that commands attention, which offsets some of the monotony of the production. At 15 tracks, there’s some obvious deadweight (“Old Dog, New Tricks” and “Write a Book” could both be cut without losing anything of value), but The Way It Feels positions Maddie & Tae very well to regain their status as one of country’s premier duos.
Kali Uchis’s debut Isolation was described as a group effort, with major contributions from Tyler, the Creator, Gorillaz, and others. Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios) ∞ is best described as a solo effort, with fewer features that are also used much more sparingly on the tracks they’re present on. She also chooses to sing primarily in Spanish on this record, a deeply personal choice for the Colombian-American artist. Uchis’ assured, classical voice is on full display, swinging sultrily over smooth Latin soul beats in a way that sounds completely natural for her. An immediately standout track is “telepatia,” a cut featuring an infectious bass line that grooves under the singer’s voice, like a wave drifting from line to line. Other notable highlights include “aquí yo mando!” and “la luz(Fin),” both of which utilize their sampled artists (Rico Nasty on the former, Jhay Cortez on the latter) as a light accent rather than adding to any busyness (as was often the case on Isolation). It’s an important distinction, as Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios) ∞ sounds measurably more mature than the still-excellent Isolation. The album bridges the gap between the gone-away days of ‘90s and 2000s Latin soul and more contemporaneous iterations of reggaeton, which has largely dominated the Latin music scene over the past decade; it’s a sound that’s at once respectful of the past and already firmly rooted in the future. Not only is this blend brilliant from a business standpoint, but the fusion of sound is simply spectacular as well. Uchis makes music that appeals to fans from a broad swath of genres, succeeding in a way that some reggaeton artists have not yet managed. Her innovative work is pure fun to vibe to and a worthy addition to her still-growing catalog, but it’s more than that — Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios) ∞ feels predictive of an entire genre’s future.