There’s an alternate timeline where Culture III never came to be, where, following the January 2018 release of Culture II, the trap trio went on to successful solo careers, Quavo Hunhco, The Last Rocket, and Father of 4 establishing each respective artist as an individually formidable creative force. Yet, not one of them resonated with audiences beyond an initial curiosity factor (Quavo Huncho’s truly out-there album art and Madonna feature likely the source of most of that intrigue), and to make matters worse, each Migo would go on to find themselves embroiled in increasingly dire PR nightmares: first Offset and Cardi B’s near divorce, the result of his infidelities and a dubious public campaign to win her back, and then a 2020 civil suit against Takeoff, naming him as a perpetrator of sexual battery and a litany of associated crimes. Most recently, Quavo’s high profile relationship with Saweetie came to an ugly conclusion which he commemorated with a series of nasty, slanderous social media posts (these were quickly undercut by leaked elevator camera footage showing him getting physically aggressive with her). There being safety in numbers, the three scandalized Migos reconvened to brew up Culture III, their fourth studio album and latest entry in the Culture series; responsible for making the group Top 40 mainstays.
In returning to their iconic group dynamic, the three Migos have seemingly managed to shake off the creeping bad press, fans and media folks alike thirsty for an event album of Culture III’s proportions. And sure enough, this is a big album, clocking in at 75 minutes, which makes it longer than the first Culture (58 minutes), though shorter than the massive Culture II (106 minutes), the one thing linking these three projects together really just being the epic amount of time they’re allowed to run on. These albums weren’t necessarily “good” in the traditional sense, though this was because they weren’t albums in the traditional sense, more like loosely sequenced collections of singles aimed at gaming streaming numbers. But despite the cynical origins of their design, the resulting products were pretty sick, pure trap maximalism built for stadiums by the genre’s hottest producers, albums composed of nothing but the most hyped hits. Culture III keeps to this format, but momentum has clearly been lost, which is trouble for an album this hefty, stretches of it losing focus and definition when experienced as a whole. These three still have an impressively honed chemistry and satisfyingly synchronized flows, but there’s a clear disinterest in taking their style into new territory, barring a couple songs that make room for slightly more mature, reflective lyrical content. “Time for Me” and Bieber-featuring “What You See” offer specific autobiographical detail generally forgone or disguised in Migos’ songwriting, with the former song musing on the groups’ journey now a decade on, and the latter giving the guys space to get romantic, with Offset directly addressing critics of his marriage (“Do not judge a thug, do not judge the way I love, I know I fucked it up.”)
While such moments of faux-vulnerability don’t really impress, “Antisocial” (with its posthumous Juice Wrld hook) suggests that the Migos aren’t incapable of being reflective, matching the late singer/rapper’s wistful tone in homage to him and various artists from the scene, gone before their time. It’s a nice track boosted by a strong feature, which is actually the strongest compliment you’d likely give any of these songs, which for the most part, live and die by the quality of their guest artist (Drake’s meandering 2.5-minute verse on “Having Our Way” probably the low point, though amusingly, he seems to assert an official Migos Hierarchy, referencing Takeoff as “the third Migo”). The tracks that find the Migos guestless stand out less (“Birthday” has a fun fake D.J. Mustard beat, not bad), though their writing can still be funny and twisty; Quavo still with a knack for drumming up strange, convoluted bars in service of wacky rhyme schemes (“I’m likin’ her natural ass, no fraud / if she got a fake ass, of course / girl, ain’t nothin’ wrong with enhancin’, it’s yours”). But alas, such bright moments on Culture III are sporadic and spread thin across these four- to five-minute tracks, not really offering any indication of where the Migos could go next, nor the sense that they’re really looking beyond the immediate.
There’s a strong case to be made that Ice Daddy, Gucci Mane’s 17th studio album, is the Atlanta rapper’s finest and most consistent work to date. To provide some basic defense for the validity of such a claim, for starters, there really wouldn’t be much other competition in that specific category: while there have certainly been occasional flashes of brilliance throughout the many years Gucci has been building his empire — dropping the oddball song here and there about having sex in crazy places and whatnot — he’s never really been much in the way of an album artist, even whilst dropping 74 mixtapes over his illustrious career. When he was in prison, the excessive amount of music he released saturated his presence so much that he became a cultural punchline. When he was released from prison in 2016 and left a new man, his music suffered from being unfocused and overstuffed, eager to please a new audience expecting a cleaner act.
But something changed in Guwop recently, where he isn’t as interested in working with pop stars anymore, or being as friendly either. Maybe it’s a result of the younger rambunctious talent from his newly re-imaged 1017 Records rubbing off on him — he likens his label to the U.S. military with the line “I don’t sign artists no more, I recruit soldiers” — but either way, this is the new Gucci: machine-like in his efficiency and deadly in his precision. His delivery has gone from unintelligible to relentless, like how he mercilessly rides the beat on “Shit Crazy,” spitting these heavily-punctuated threats that continue to trail off into one another. His image may be cleaner, but don’t let that fool you here; he may now be over 40, but he’s not a dude to fuck with.
If anything, Gucci seems almost ageless as he seamlessly situates himself amongst younger talent, with Lil Baby borrowing Guwop’s signature cadence and flow from the 2000s over “Trap Shit” and Lil Uzi Vert delivering one of his brattiest (even if it’s not one of his best) features on “Got It.” But as the title of the project suggests, this is a family affair: one about fathers and sons, ones who have musically raised a generation and are still alive to reap the rewards. Gucci is this father of sorts, and alongside T.I. and Jeezy, helped to shape the sound of trap music and future generations of aspiring dope boys. The two aforementioned artists are children in this respect, and the entire project has an air of understanding and appreciation for this madman as something of a coveted elder statesman of sorts now, if only by virtue of his sheer longevity. Gucci’s taking stock of his surroundings, but he certainly isn’t getting sentimental; he’s the type of guardian who’s willing to slap his offspring if they act out of line. Those who can rise to the occasion, however, are treated justly.
The most touching moments to this end are found in the current heir of the Bricksquad throne, the foremost pupil under Mr. Zone 6’s tutelage: Pooh Shiesty, featured on the borderline-experimental “Like 34 & 8” (there’s a piano melody that occasionally crashes through for no discernable reason) and oscillating “Posse On Bouldercrest,” shines in passing-the-torch moments that are genuinely touching in their purity of spirit. Both tracks are produced by Mike Will Made It, whose contributions here (along with the likes of Zaytoven and 30 Roc) are inspired in small, but noticeable ways. There are the higher 808 kicks that creep along in “Trap Shit” to liven the mood, or the seemingly endless cocked shotguns that turn “Gucci Coming 4 You” into a living nightmare, or the luxurious horn section that opens “Bust Down” like its star was the biggest act in the world — these are choices which bring the best out in Gucci, made by long-standing beatmakers who regularly bring the best out in him. With this in mind, it might be best to consider Ice Daddy as a successful mixture of traditional practices and new modes of expression. It’s not reinventing the wheel, or even striving to be more than its finite ambitions — yet, if taken with full understanding of those shortcomings, one is left with a sturdy, quality release and one of Gucci’s grandest achievements thus far.
When God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out of It won Canada’s Polaris Prize in 2020, it caught much of the critical establishment off guard. Yet another example of the increasing gulf between mainstream music press and younger, culturally relevant audiences, most of these publications failed to cover the album or foresee its win over the works of more established artists like Caribou and U.S. Girls. But while critics scrambled to catch up, Backxwash, the Zambian-Canadian rapper behind God Has Nothing to Do With It, was already prepping her follow-up studio album, the newly released I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and My Dresses.
Like her previous album, I Lie Here Buried confidently steers into the once-maligned rap rock genre, fusing black metal iconography and instrumentation with an eclectic approach to hip hop production that draws on horrorcore and contemporary trap alike. The resulting aesthetic template is an impressive one, something in between Rage Against the Machine and the Members Only collective, threaded together by strong pop melodies and punctuated with a snappy flow on the verge of erupting into full-on screams. What is most immediately felt in Backxwash’s music is fury, and the pain from which it springs, and indeed, I Lie Here Buried announces this as central to its thesis with intro track “PURPOSE OF PAIN,” a looped, manipulated sample describing the physiological necessity for pain. This track also characterizes Backxwash’s own authorial position on this album, her perspective shifting toward reflection and away from the violent immediacy of God Has Nothing to Do with This. This is still an album primarily contending with traumas and spiritual tumult, but one that finds the artist assessing them with new context and clarity. This comes through most clearly in Backxwash’s curt lyricism, favoring a directness in her descriptions befitting the candidness with which she relates personal narrative.
The songs that proceed “PURPOSE OF PAIN” form a story of self-destruction emerging into a cautious reconciliation. Two addiction narratives at either end of the album (“WAIL OF THE BANSHEE” and “NINE HELLS”) find pleasure rendered into numbness, an idea echoed in the Sad13-featuring “SONG OF SINNERS,” which reckons with corrupted faith; so many solutions to pain only proving to be exacerbants. Backxwash’s history and corresponding worldview are shaded in further on the title track (featuring screamo vocals from Black Dresses’ Ada Rook, who also engineered the album) and “TERROR PACKETS,” these songs articulating feelings of alienation and rejection explicitly tied to how she has been received as a Black, immigrant trans woman. I Lie Here Buried refuses the listener easy catharsis or assurance that Backxwash is content with her demons, but it hardly reflects a disempowered artist, instead, platforming a commanding voice learning to navigate the pain.
Formerly of Vampire Weekend fame, Rostam returns with his sophomore solo record after a massive and successful two years producing and contributing to albums for other artists. Present on Changephobia are the elements that have distinguished his work over the years and made his influence notable, but nearly four years on from his debut, limited growth is demonstrated on his latest. Rostam has always been one to bend genres, dating back to his early Vampire Weekend days where he slid afro-pop sounds into the pro forma indie rock music that was dominating college radio stations at the time. This penchant for noodling is still foregrounded on Changephobia, here opting to blend jazz elements into modern bedroom pop production.
To that end, there’s a lot of saxophone on this record courtesy of Henry Solomon, who also played sax for the Haim single “Summer Girl” (another song that Rostam produced), and in an effort to break free from the comfortable chord progressions and melodies that his earlier records so heavily rely upon, Rostam clearly sources inspiration from his many past collaborators in order to flesh out his vision. And in some ways, this works. On “Next Thing”, one of the record’s standout tracks, there’s a palpable unsteadiness on display, with multiple beat changes and interpolations that sound like they’re warping right in front of you. It’s an intentional gambit, as the song was recorded without the standard production technique of click tracks, and it brings an improvisational feeling to the track, drawing on the jazz traditions of the musicians he has brought on board.
But in other ways, this collaborative mode doesn’t pan out as well. Changephobia is still afflicted by Rostam’s wholesale commitment to track cohesion, an admirable philosophy in a landscape littered with singles albums, but the result here, once again, is that so much here sounds too alike, tracks failing to differentiate themselves from each other. That’s not to say any are notably bad, but just that none of Rostam’s sonic shifts here tackle this most familiar pitfall of his (it’s enough to suggest some unintended irony in the album’s title). Also remaining the same is that the artist is at his best when he hits a groove, which he does so on tracks like “4Runner,” where the muted guitar and loosely produced drums provide something to attach to as listeners ride the track’s sonic waves. Similarly, “Kinney” keeps to the motif of flowing different musical styles into each other, with an incredibly quick drum beat following below Rostam’s soft, auto-tuned vocal. It’s just a shame that the textures so present and successful on these tracks are so lacking elsewhere on the record.
When Rostam left Vampire Weekend, he was setting out to build a unique sound in a direction the band was unlikely to follow. If you listened to 2019’s Father of the Bride, the philosophic differences are easily gleaned, as Vampire Weekend moved to loose guitar jams tilting toward the sounds of the Grateful Dead while Rostam, as a rule, leans heavily into pop production techniques with the distinct sheen of studio creation. On Changephobia, the result of Rostam’s continuation on this path produces mixed results, but it at least remains unique enough so as to never be particularly unpleasant. That’s a pretty uninspired hurdle to clear, however, and if the musician intends to make a great record, it’s going to take more than some jazz influence and incremental progress to fill in his sound’s lack.
In certain corners of the music-listening internet, the release of the first new Sweet Trip album in over a decade is an event on the scale of a hypothetical Portishead reunion, or any of the actual returns in the last decade from message board favorites like The Avalanches, Duster, or Hum. At different points existing as a trio and quartet, and now a duo, the group released three albums over a 12-year span that received niche acclaim for their audacious collages of various sub-genres within electronic and indie rock, with Sweet Trip’s warmest moments resembling the tasteful repose of Stereolab, and their chilliest in line with the techno-futurisms of late ‘90s IDM. The group has been mostly quiet since their last LP, 2009’s You Will Never Know Why, and the following decade was certainly kind to these aforementioned contemporaries, all of whom toured and released long-awaited new material that appeared in step with an updated indie music climate. A Tiny House, in Secret Speeches, Polar Equals, the new Sweet Trip album, arrives nominally on-trend with these other returns, though — in keeping with the singularity of the band’s artistic project — still existing outside modes and scenes, its main points of comparison the stylistically expansive (if quantitatively limited) Sweet Trip discography itself.
Fortunately, the group’s oeuvre encompasses at least half a dozen different genres and sub-genres, so this is by no means a scant sonic palette. Where previous Sweet Trip albums occupied a more distinct aesthetic perch — like the glacial terrains of Halica: Bliss Out v.11 or the dark-night-of-the-soul dream pop of You Will Never Know Why — Tiny House instead provides a more holistic blend of blends, synthesizing the sounds of the group’s earlier releases into their most direct, linear batch of songs to date. Album opener and title track “Tiny House” begins with an ecstatic, characteristic glitch breakdown that leads into a restrained synth-driven groove, escalating and de-escalating in intensity over enough movements to fairly qualify the song as prog. Many of the tracks in the album’s first half follow similar paths, beginning as ballads and eventually building to power ballad status, with warm synths leading the way and the more eccentric tonalities tucked into the background right until they can no longer be contained. “Eave Foolery Mill Five” and “Snow Purple Treasures” are quality examples of this form, as is “Chapters,” on which clean, insistent guitars are upended by cascading digital percussion that overwhelms the song and carries it into a desolate, affecting strummed outro.
Tiny House’s back half is more varied in shape, offering a mix of song-length exercises (the bright, buzzing instrumentals “Randlift” and “Zafire Melts the Heart in Modulation”) and some of the album’s more direct cuts, like its lone single “Walkers Beware! We Drive into the Sun.” If there’s perhaps a sense that the group’s creative summit is less consistently reached in these shorter excursions, and more broadly in the context of this more streamlined revival, it remains a unique pleasure to hear new music from Sweet Trip at all. Certainly, it’s hard to begrudge the band a more approachable release in this moment when their return seemed so improbable, with the album itself serving as something of a monument to two friends resuming communication after losing touch for some years. The back-to-back pyrotechnics that arrive on Tiny House’s last two songs, “Polar Equals” and “At Last a Truth That is Real,” return the group to the broader canvas on which their talents are most awe-inspiring, delivering fuzzed-out guitars and emotional bombast worthy of M83. Though moments like these appear less frequently on Tiny House than albums past, their scale and scope remain uniquely Sweet Trip, in presence as in absence an island unto themselves.