J. Cole is, somewhat inexplicably, really popular amongst hip-hop fans — and just about nobody else. He garners little critical praise from most music publications, and generates scant attention on a grander cultural scale, but if you ask any one of his die-hard stans where his artistic status lands at this given moment in time, they would immediately try to sell you on the narrative that Jermaine Lamarr Cole is every bit the trend-setter that Kendrick Lamar or Drake are. (A long-rumored collaborative album between Cole and Lamar, one that will probably never materialize, has helped to continue these ridiculous comparisons.) What they would argue is that Cole is the real deal, that he doesn’t chase trends or use gimmicks to sell his music, that his relatively bare-bones and unflashy approach to his craft validates his placement within the pantheon. Thing is, Cole is not much more than a bunch of musical stunts stitched together under the guise of authenticity: There’s the non-stop gloating about having no features, his fervent compulsion towards letting every listener know how much “work” he puts in, the elitist talking-down to Gen-Z — presumably because they don’t give him the respect he believes he deserves. He presents himself as a legend in the making, a truth-teller who’s enlightened beyond his years; the actual music he makes tells a plainer story.
At this point in Cole’s storied career, you either accept his version of history or have found new objects of scorn; he’s been sticking with the same tired formula for four album cycles now, and shows little sign of breaking out of the tight confines he’s trapped himself in. You call that complacency, Cole calls it mastering his abilities; again, you either see this shtick as endearing or something of a ruse. His latest album, The Off-Season, does little to change any of these perceptions — except this time, Cole positions himself as better than everyone else because, as he often reminds you, he’s putting in the time while most other rappers his age are becoming comfortable, an irony he seems to have completely missed. He sounds eager to please, instead of simply conceited, which makes this a bit more bearable than his last project, but this is ultimately just another exercise in the lame self-mythologizing he loves to engage in. He’s even hinted that this might be the second to last album he’s ever going to record, all with the same type of pompous aggrandizement displayed by any other rapper before him who’s tried to retire early. The album practically requires that you go in with a healthy amount of context up to this point, since Cole seems virtually incapable of releasing any music outside of a carefully constructed world of self-referential callbacks — a feedback loop certifying its own greatness.
But what about Cole is actually great? He’s not a talented lyricist, evinced time and time again by the many, many corny punchlines he seems incapable of foregoing (he’s got one here about putting an M on your head like Luigi’s brother) or by his penchant for mocking others’ perceived wealth while also wanting to come off as a regular dude (as he disingenuously puts it, he’d be willing to dignify other MCs if they kept it honest about their broke bank statements as “that’s a perspective I respect because it’s real”). In terms of his overall game plan, he’s an insular talent — he seems far more concerned with cementing his legacy than with just about anything else productive — which is fully revealed on “Let Go My Hand,” where a song dedicated to his adolescent son maturing turns into tell-all involving a physical altercation he got in with Diddy, like he’s closing out a chapter of history that nobody but himself seems concerned about. He’s not even particularly wise, and often comes off as relatively conservative on most social issues — all of his enemies are addressed with feminine language i.e., alleging they’re on their period; he’s says he’s gonna teach his son how to fight so he doesn’t grow up to be a “bitch”; he sides with Hopsin by portraying single mothers fighting for child custody as conniving skanks who want to break up families — which, for a rapper who’s appeal lives and dies by his supposed acumen, is telling enough of his limited capacities. But The Off-Season isn’t here to win over any non-believers or do anything truly exciting; Cole has proven before that he feels entitled to whatever acclaim he may receive, and here, once again, is willing to reap whatever meager rewards he’s supposedly sowed.
Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, & Jon Randall
Toward the end of The Marfa Tapes, you’ll hear Miranda Lambert sing “Tin Man,” a signature song from her 2016 masterpiece The Weight of These Wings. She’s probably performed it at every show she’s played in the last five years, and this rendition exhibits a relaxed, comfortable familiarity. When it’s over, she immediately tries to downplay the majesty of the moment, complaining about a buzzing guitar string. But Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, who penned the song with her and accompany on acoustic guitars, won’t tolerate any self-effacing bullshit: “That was your brain buzzing,” one of them counters.
Moments like this encapsulate everything that makes The Marfa Tapes so special: for Lambert it may qualify as a minor album by a major artist, but its modesty is the whole key to its charm. Locked out of the studio and unable to tour, the three artists spent one warm quarantine evening camping out in the little Texas town that gives the album its name, recording 15 songs in single takes. Splitting the difference between a demo reel and an audience-less concert recording, The Marfa Tapes is a study in the warmth and camaraderie shared between three friends, and in the simple pleasure of playing music for its own sake — not to preserve a “definitive” take, but to surrender to the joy and spontaneity of the moment. Accordingly, you’ll hear the wind howling across the microphone, the occasional clunk of a guitar stand, even the sound of a helicopter passing overhead. You’ll hear all three performers offer friendly encouragements to one another; Lambert laughs more than once, and declares several of these songs to be “fun.” In “Geraldine,” she makes what seems like an impromptu decision to imitate the stutter and skip of a banged-up vinyl record (“G-g-geraldine!”), prompting a notable uptick in the song’s bristling energy. And in Wildcard highlight “Tequila Does,” one of just two familiar compositions here, she briefly forgets the lyrics, prompting more giggles and guffaws.
The new co-writes are all deeply pleasurable, though to be fair, it’s hard to imagine any of them becoming standards on the level of “Tin Man.” Many of the standouts are lovelorn ballads: “In His Arms” dreams of the one who got away, while “Waxahachie” traces a post-breakup trail of tears. But the more playful numbers can be equally rewarding: “Two-Step Down to Texas” suggests that Ingram and Randall share Lambert’s affinity for “old sh!t,” while “We’ll Always Have the Blues” is a breezy shuffle, complete with some rough whistling. Country pros that they are, all three songwriters have a knack for melancholy, chronicling heartache with precision, detail, and economy. (Representative line: “I don’t wear my ring no more/ kids and time will learn to love us both.”) But even the saddest songs are played with a palpable sense of joy — the kind that emanates from friendship, from shared moments, and from the sheer pleasure of sending songs up into the sky and out into the night.
CHAI is a band guided by an explicit mission statement. Announced immediately on their website and surfacing in much of their publicity, the Japanese J-pop-punk-house-rap rock band are celebrants of kawaii as it’s understood contemporarily, refracting the femme, cute aesthetic through their eclectic genre interests. It informs their stylings and performances too, which CHAI gives a level of consideration usually forgone by most but those in the upper echelons of pop stardom, their shows featuring light choreography and the band members in matching uniform. Indeed, performance and brand are important to the CHAI experience, but not to the actual music’s detriment. If anything, it provides a context that unites the disparate, global influences vying for attention on each of their projects, brought under an umbrella of exuberant femininity.
Building off strong momentum on the Spotify charts at home in Japan and in the UK, CHAI has achieved a fairly smooth crossover into the U.S. music industry, ushered in by the scandalized, now-defunct Burger Records who handled distribution of the group’s most recent EP and first two albums. Luckily, that company’s legal and reputational fallout didn’t seem to touch CHAI, who have moved over to the ever dependable Sub Pop for their third album, WINK. More or less picking up where 2019’s Punk left off, the album keeps to a similar template but continues to diversify and play with an often surprising selection of sonic combinations. The basis for much of this exploration starts with the group’s core dynamic, bringing together punk instrumentation with girl group-type harmonizing to form a bedrock on top of which further ideas are perched.
WINK continues to make use of the dance and electronic influences that emerged on the band’s first album, Pink, while also creating room for hip hop and chip tune production (the latter courtesy of YMCK who feature on “PING PONG!”). “END” serves as the most striking example of the former, a generalized diss track aimed at music industry misogynists and their enablers, with CHAI’s primary vocalist MANA (all the members use stage names) convincingly rapping in Japanese and English over a beat recalling Beastie Boys’ “Ch-Check It Out”. Elsewhere, Chicago artist Ric Wilson, known for his own genre collages, features on woozy electronic R&B track “Maybe Chocolate Chips,” providing a verse that summarizes the song’s body-positive ethos (the lyrics suggest some sort of reckoning between the song’s writer and her moles). Which is, in a sense, CHAI’s ethos in full, and by extension, WINK’s, a belief in the power of self love and fulfillment (opening track “Donuts Mind If I Do”’s romantic melody composed in homage to the title dessert), while championing dance music as the ultimate equalizer. It’s a position elegantly and charmingly implied in the lyrics of “IN PINK,” shouted by the group over Mndsgn’s slinky house beat: “I know you never pick up the pink / But I know you like this beat so much.” The music of CHAI finds aesthetic pleasure in genres and sentiment often sexistly diminished and ignored by the industry, which gives their project an extra edge. With WINK, they continue to posit that “cuteness” can be more than a dismissive descriptor, but in fact an entire mode in which to operate and reevaluate genre.
Twelve years have passed since Beam Me Up Scotty was originally released, a stretch of time that has seen Nicki Minaj transform herself into one of the great contemporary pop stars with a sustained popularity fueled by the deeply loyal Barbz and a bold, forward-thinking discography that rewards replay and reassessment (TikTok has proven to be a very Nicki-friendly platform). Over a decade in the industry and the Queens rapper hasn’t really seen her popularity wane: her stanbase is as fervent and engaged as those of younger artists, and the critical establishment is more willing to engage with her work in full (thanks in part to the rise of poptimism, though helped by deserving projects, like masterpiece Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded). But while cultural appreciation for her music and artistic legacy seem to ride comfortably, appropriately high these days, it’s hard to feel terribly celebratory: the last few years have seen Nicki testing her PR team’s ingenuity and the depths of her audience’s goodwill. The lead-up to the release of her 2018 album Queen was marred by a press cycle that saw Minaj fighting Cardi B at New York Fashion Week, lavishing praise upon Tekashi 6ix9ine, and taking part in an Elle profile where she offered patronizing concern for strippers and influencers who dabbled in sex work, saying “…it makes me sad that maybe I’ve contributed to that in some way.” These instances were disappointing in the way that they seemed to contradict and undermine the messages of sexual autonomy and feminist self-determination espoused in Nicki’s music and videos, though none were as troubling as her 2019 marriage to convicted sex offender Kenneth Petty, who has allegedly made use of her wealth and influence to further harass and silence the victim of his assault.
This is the context into which Nicki Minaj brings us a reissue of her third and (as of this writing) final mixtape, debuting on streaming services with slightly touched-up album art and lightly modified track list. Beam Me Up Scotty is a pivotal release in the Minaj canon, the project on which her style first began to be properly codified, and established the Harajuku Barbie persona that would (more or less) become her default mode stepping into the spotlight alongside since retired character Nicki Lewinsky, The Mistress. This streaming re-release loses five of the original tracks to sample clearance issues (including the Busta Rhymes featuring “Mind on My Money,” sadly), but finds worthy replacements in contemporaneous singles “Chiraq” (featuring Lil Herb era G Herbo, now credited as such) and her remix of PTAF’s “Boss Ass Bitch,” both tracks hot as ever. There are also three wholly new tracks at the front of this version that includes a nostalgic collaboration with Wayne and Drake (“Seeing Green”) celebrating their continued successes and interlinked mythos, and “Fractions,” a more traditional, Jay-Z sampling rap song formally aligned with the 2009 tracks that has Nicki riffing on recent events (Gamestop, Gorilla Glue, unfortunate Kamala shoutout) and hinting at a return. The third new track, a remix of ascendant dancehall artist Skillibeng’s “Crocodile Teeth,” also gestures towards the idea that an entirely new project looms in the near future, and certainly, this re-release is a savvy and welcome prelude to that inevitability. Of course, Beam Me Up Scotty’s reissuing is more than that, finally commemorating one of the great mixtapes of the late 2000s, an important time capsule of a very different music industry in the not-so-distant past (producer DJ Holiday’s radio-type ad-libs and the inclusion of three Gucci Mane features the sort of creative decisions Nicki sadly no longer indulges). Alas, it’s hard to be terribly excited about the future of Nicki Minaj at the moment, and with recent troubles in mind, it’s hard not to see this reissue as brand management. Still, what’s presented on this iteration of Beam Me Up Scotty holds up as career-best work, irresistible in its arrogant verve and camp sexuality. Something of a nostalgic misdirect, yes, but divorced from questions of motivation, it’s long overdue canonization.
Following in the country’s decades-long tradition and its contemporary nationalistic shift, something oft, probably incorrectly, labeled post-punk is clearly having a moment in England. Squid, who came up in the same scene as darlings Black Midi and Black Country, New Road — a scene that begs for a new name as “punk” is largely at odds with the centrality of their collective sound — most embodies the post-punk tradition with their angular, spoken vocals, aggressive but funky guitaring, and blistering drumming. Following up two EPs with their debut album, Bright Green Field, Squid has already worked out a signature sound, probably most identifiable on lead single “Narrator,” an eight-and-a-half minute postmodern, anxious romp inspired by Bi Gan’s masterful film Long Day’s Journey into the Night. In the track, two narrators compete, although artist and labelmate Martha Skye Murphy is relegated to a character pleading, screaming for the chance to tell her story while Squid drummer/singer Ollie Judge brags about his omniscience and voice. Musically, it’s a groovy, energetic, and campy dance-punk track that devolves into atonal madness, Martha’s vocals replaced with frightened shrieks and, finally, resigned pleading. It’s abstract yet totally palpable, as the best Squid songs are, and makes for one of the best tracks of 2021 so far. A lot of these same elements are used in album closer, “Pamphlets,” where Judge repetitively boasts a timely refrain of “I don’t go outside!” But despite the song’s technical prowess and some well-placed cowbell, one struggles to find a reason for its inclusion when everything here, plus even more unhinged mania, is unspooled in the aforementioned single.
Preceding “Pamphlets” is “Global Groove,” a track inspired by the 24-hour news cycle and which employs some swelling, ominous horns, lovely soloing guitar, and toned down vocals from Judge as he laments the TV Guide’s girthening, and again plays omniscient and godlike: “And those taxis do a dance as I watch from the sky,” he says, observing everyone in their daily grind. “Documentary Filmmaker,” another restrained track, again revisits this theme as the band takes the slighter different form of something akin to a chamber group — they’ve cited Steve Reich as an inspiration for this one. “A documentary filmmaker goes home at the end of the day / But I’ll sit and watch the seasons change,” Judge says, backed by staccato keys and horns trading off a melody that swells into a brief climax — “Cause it was warm in the summer, but snowy in February!,” delivered derangedly — before a controlled, beautiful decrescendo and fade out. Moments of inspiration like these — and elsewhere, like when “Boy Racer” ceases to be a punk song, melting and spreading out into frightening drone — demonstrate that Squid’s taste and talent reach far further than the proven kraut-ish, dancey punk tracks that Bright Green Field is only slightly too reliant on.
We’ve seen it time and time again now: up-and-coming rapper dies both suddenly and tragically, their label then quickly pumps out as much of their music as humanly possible in order to cash in. Within the past few years, this has happened to the likes of Lil Peep, Juice Wrld, Pop Smoke, and XXXTentacion: artists ready to break into the mainstream who were taken from this world before their aspirations could fully materialize. But what about the opposite situation, when said performer is past their prime and relevancy, but are able to generate enough support after their passing for their label to finally release new music to cash in on their death? In a genre defined as a young man’s sport, this seldom seems to be the case: most talent past the age of 45 is deemed unimportant.
This brings us to the curious case of Exodus. The first (and hopefully last) posthumous release from DMX, it’s an album stuck between two different modes of presentation: It was recorded as a come-back project — one built off of the success and positivity of his then recent VERZUS battle with Snoop Dogg — but because of unforeseen circumstances, is now being marketed and pushed as a “final” album. In either capacity, it’s serviceable, but when it tries to be both, it never really works and oftentimes conflicts with itself. If there was one lane this should have probably stuck with, it’s the latter, as never once here does Earl Simmons come off as hungry or as vicious as he once was. This could reasonably be chalked up to his age, but he gets presented here as someone who can still spit with the best of them. When paired with the Griselda boys on “Hood Blues,” it feels like they’re offering charity rather than organically collaborating with X; they each go before him, sparing only a measly 60 seconds for him at the end to essentially provide the track with more vocal textures than actual bars. On collaborations with Lil Wayne and Moneybagg Yo, there’s hardly any competition as to who dominates each track: the beats even sound like they were tailored and primed for the featured guest in mind before ending up here. Even when he’s shooting it with MCs from his generation, he barely registers as much of a presence: “Bath Salts” finds old enemies Jay-Z and Nas teaming up to brag about their personal wealth on their dead, near-penniless friend’s song, and “That’s My Dog” follows the exact same pattern as “Hood Blues,” sticking as many other voices before X’s as possible, before feeling contractually obligated to have him show up.
When considered as DMX’s final work before passing, Exodus holds up slightly better. There’s still all the bloat one might expect from an album of this intention and scope: two different, yet equally cumbersome ballads appear, including one with Bono that feels entirely gratuitous; a song dedicated to an estranged son features Usher begging him to call his father (which, considering how things are now, feels like it’s been placed here to make the kid feel really bad?); and there’s a closing prayer that’s disconnected from everything else that’s come before. But despite all of these misgivings, there’s at least some more poignancy to the album’s less belaboured moments. As it stands, Exodus is too indecisive about its intentions to ever elicit anything more than base pathos for its conception, which is a lose-lose for all living parties involved.