Tyler, the Creator
Let’s first address what Call Me If You Get Lost isn’t. It isn’t a mixtape — though the instant shouting from DJ Drama throughout might have you thinking otherwise — or even much of a concept album: while there’s certainly a strong concept unifying the project’s broader artistic vision, calling the collection of songs here an “album” feels misleading. It’s too cursory, too jittery, too stitched-together to fit neatly into that comfortable prestige label bestowed upon assemblages of recorded music — which, fittingly enough, is the same conundrum that concerns Tyler, the Creator at this point in his career, now six records deep and feeling increasingly restricted by the limitations the general listening public wants to impose on him. He’s garnered acclaim, but has been accused of selling out; he starts singing on records and then gets mad at the Grammys for placing him in the Best Rap Album category.
So this rise in cultural stature hasn’t been entirely without Tyler’s own personal motivations involved — coinciding with his own artistic maturation expressed to varying degrees of success across 2017’s Flower Boy and 2019’s IGOR — but it has certainly put him in something of an uncertain standing within the broader spectrum of hip-hop. So perhaps a mixtape-esque venture is the best call at this juncture for something akin to a musical reset, a return to one’s roots in a low-stakes effort that can reap plenty of reward. And indeed, it has so far (Pusha-T bestowed Tyler with the coveted AOTY award on “Tell the Vision”), but by way of continuing the same esteem-chasing methods Tyler’s previous outings engaged with, making the affair something of a null and void experience. It so desperately wants to act like a proud sign of creative freedom when it’s more a signpost of what’s come before and what to expect in the future, or a holding pattern before the next big genre switch-up.
To put it bluntly, let’s now get out of the way of what Call Me If You Get Lost is: super try-hard when it tries to come off as nonchalant. It’s the type of collection that thinks casually putting a snapping Lil Wayne verse on top of a jazzy, elegant flute solo — an arty pastiche masquerading as some random deep dive, with a feature that embodies this type of ethos — is something that would realistically be on a Gangsta Grillz mixtape. The other guests here feel equally as misappropriated, like Detroit’s own gremlin 42 Dugg hoping on the silly, WWE-intro “LEMONHEAD” for some gritty veracity or Youngboy singing over an H-Town sample, both serving stark reminders of just how insular Tyler’s sound and style have become when he tries meshing them with anyone else. He’s become so idiosyncratic that it’s now practically impossible to get excited by “JUGGERNAUT,” which has this annoying bait-and-switch opening and grating chorus that prevents Lil Uzi Vert or Pharell Williams from ever making the track truly spark.
Tyler’s production continues the lo-fi streak started with IGOR, and his deep love and passion for compressed synthesizers persist, though this is hardly much of a sonic evolution on a project that screams “arrested development” at every turn; if anything, he heavily regresses when forced to confront anything within reality. Once out of his comfort zone and carefully constructed Wes Anderson-wannabe world, he stumbles: On “RUNITUP,” his imparting message of “be yourself” feels painfully simplistic, which is at least more tolerable than the naive calls for unity exhibited in “MANIFESTO” or the casual misogyny that plagues the back-end of the record (guess some people never do change). Again, it’s Tyler stretching himself too thin while trying to appear off the cuff; he’s attempting to accommodate every facet of his ever-growing fanbase and reputation in one fell swoop, and instead, awkwardly flounders over atonal beats. Call it conceitedness, or call it eccentricism; either way, Call Me If You Get Lost is hardly the type of album to inspire much confidence or even much enthusiasm in a career that seems ready to collapse under the weight of its own haughtiness.
If you know Amythyst Kiah, it’s probably through her involvement with Our Native Daughters, the Rhiannon Giddens-led all-star troupe that reasserted the centrality of Black women to the history of banjo music. You’ll know her even better after you listen to Wary + Strange, her exactingly autobiographical singer-songwriter breakthrough, which gracefully sidesteps whatever cliches such terminology might entail. The album bears vivid witness to how folk forms and American roots traditions can be a canvas for personal expression, rather than a purist’s straightjacket. Though Kiah writes in familiar idioms (“woke up this mo’nin’ feelin’ bad,” she moans at the outset of “Hangover Blues,” even the title nodding to well-trod ground), she renders her country-blues numbers in the brilliant colors of a blockbuster pop album: Aided by producer Tony Berg, who also produced Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, Kiah fleshes out her acoustic pickin’ and strummin’ with thumping beats and wheezing keyboard effects; bass harmonicas, flutes, and slide guitars. To call the album “polished” isn’t quite right; there’s too much fire in her voice and grit in her string-band virtuosity for that. Instead, the production effects kiss every song with a tinge of surrealism. Wary + Strange feels like nothing so much as a dream recollection of American roots music, the shapes basically correct but the details fuzzy in unexpected ways.
That sheen of dream-logic is the perfect accompaniment for Kiah’s songs, which conjure the sense of displacement that comes from being a Black, queer woman in Appalachia. (Kiah hails from East Tennessee, not too far from Dolly country.) Though the album contains a new version of “Black Myself,” her Grammy-nominated Our Native Daughters anthem — here sounding crisper, more swaggering than the original recording— Kiah mostly favors smaller, more intimate sketches. “Wild Turkey” is a staggering reminiscence of her mother’s death by drowning, but also a painstaking account of the breathing process; the widescreen production acts as a magnifying glass over Kiah’s detailed writing. And “Firewater” is a bleak admission of self-destruction that emanates compassion, not pity. Though much of the album dwells in darkness, it’s more like a journey of self-discovery than a descent into despair; why else would Kiah open and close the album with two versions of “Soapbox,” a rejection of pat moralism and unsolicited advice? The bruised truth-telling of Wary + Strange offers ample evidence of a firecracker singer and songwriter who knows she’s a work in progress, and relishes finding her own way.
The Mountain Goats
The Mountain Goats, the ever-prolific quartet led by multi-hyphenate John Darnielle, returns with another album hot on the tail of an active release cycle. Recorded near the beginning of the pandemic, Dark In Here tells the stories of characters facing imminent danger and distress, a common enough theme for the fictional individuals Darnielle writes on the group’s records.
More precisely, there are two prominent recurring thoughts on this record. The first is a concerted push for preparedness in the face of imminent dangers. Tracks like “The Destruction of the Kola Superdeep Borehole Tower” pair this impending struggle with religious and mythic imagery, something that former Catholic Darnielle is no stranger to using in his work. The song works as a step-by-step guide for finding your own resolve in the midst of fear, the title a reference to an abandoned mineshaft where workers claimed to hear screams from hell down below as they worked; preparation for confrontations with darkness. Similarly, “The New Hydra Collection” boasts a narrative about scientists anticipating and planning for a creature that will soon attack, hoping for some meantime defense. But as they prepare, they realize there’s almost a hope for cataclysm, and so their work is not in vain. This leads into the album’s second recurring theme, which sketches stories of danger arriving, likely the result of the characters’ faults. “Let Me Bathe in Demonic Light” delves specifically into the intersection of these two motifs, the lyrics detailing a character whose end of story is near, by their own hand, their striving for preparedness becoming their ultimate downfall. Continuing in this vein, “Before I Got There” is another track rife with religious imagery, but here the song’s narrator is beset by an inverse of this problem, where an end has already occurred — specifically, the destruction of a holy place — due to a lack of readiness. There’s guilt present, but also resolve.
In keeping to his storytelling instincts, Darnielle writes songs in conversation with each other; and despite some differences in detail across these tracks, every character on Dark In Here has one thing in common: a commitment to the work at hand and a willingness to go down with the proverbial ship. The songs testify to a certain human instinct toward resilience, whether in the face of everyday struggles or a world-altering pandemic; or, more eerily, the place where the two overlap. Darnielle has never been shy about facing his demons in song, with much of his work dealing with alcoholism, bad behavior, and the collateral damage his actions have wrought on those around him. While his early work tends to address this with lo-fi sounds and light guitar strums, the presence of the full band on this (and, indeed, many of The Mountain Goats’ recent records) lends more gravity to his musings, the impression that of his career-long probings coalescing into crescendo. And so, while the tinny, sparse production of the group’s earlier output may have been the sound that got made them a name, this broader palette, dense with the sonic affect of someone who has survived tribulation, opens a new door for The Mountain Goats, with any number of meaningful possibilities behind it.
One Foot in Front of the Other is the first mixtape from Griff, a singer-songwriter-producer who won this year’s Brit Award for Rising Star. It’s a low-key mixtape, both because it runs only seven tracks and because the production eschews big pop choruses for a constant, bouncing pulse. Even the lead single, “Black Hole,” doesn’t so much explode into its hook as it slides smoothly in with a wink (it’s not the best song on the record, but it has by far the best hook). Sometimes this production, minimalist and percussive, works to Griff’s advantage, and sometimes it holds her back: for example, the beat of “Black Hole” is a little too perfectly serviceable to impress. “One Foot in Front of the Other” and “Earl Grey Tea” (the muddled requisite ballad) also feel like they’re missing an extra instrumental layer—and/or an extra dash of narrative urgency—that they would need to fully complement the writing and performance. Subtlety in pop can be even more exciting than maximalism, but pulling it off is much harder. There are no bad songs on One Foot, but because it relies on a handful of traditional pop sounds and uses them so sparingly, the music sometimes ends up sounding forgettable.
Griff’s voice is consistently the best part of every track. She sings in the same desperately expressive mold as many indie pop girls before her (try Fletcher’s 2020 EP The Sex Tapes for something similar), and One Foot’s best songs come when the production catches up to her writing style. Standout track “Shade of Yellow” swoons about finding comfort in the small details of everyday life: “There’s a light in your room / And the lamp is a shade of yellow / And it makes me feel safe and sound / And I swear that’s rare these days.” The warm mid-tempo pulse of the production perfectly matches the lyrical themes of comfort and privacy, and the melody of “Yellow” is agile enough that the instrumental takes a backseat, supporting Griff’s captivating vocals. “Heart of Gold,” another highlight, draws out all the mixtape’s best aspects of its percussive focus using a rapid-fire chorus melody. Like the music, Griff’s writing yields mixed results: some of it’s smartly composed and some only serviceable, but the standouts make a strong argument in favor of her ear for vocal delivery.
“Walk” is the project’s best pop song, with the same secure yet thrilling feel as the poppiest of Haim singles (overlay it onto the video for “Want You Back” and you might have something). It’s also the track that best navigates the minimalism of One Foot’s production and turns it into something exciting and dynamic, playing the vocals and instrumental off each other while finding moments for both to shine. The most important takeaway from the mixtape as a whole, though, is that Griff has writing credits on all seven tracks, production credits on six, and sole credits for both on four (“One Foot,” “Shade of Yellow,” “Heart of Gold,” and “Earl Grey Tea”). Pop music is sorely in need of more female producers, and it’s great to see a young female artist take charge of her sound this way from the start of her career. As a standalone pop release, One Foot in Front of the Other has some hits and some misses, but as a career-establishing project, it shows a lot of promise.
Ski Mask the Slump God
Sin City The Mixtape picks up right where Ski Mask the Slump God left off in 2018, a momentous year for the Fort Lauderdale rapper that saw him debuting his first album (Stokeley) and Beware the Book of Eli; probably his finest mixtape to date and one of that year’s most essential projects. This impressive streak seemed primed to continue with a proposed (and at least partially recorded) album-length Juice Wrld collaboration entitled Evil Twins, but the project and Ski Mask’s general release plans were put on hold following the shocking, tragic loss of Juice in the closing days of 2019. With the untimely passing of friend and fellow Members Only affiliate XXXTentacion also in the not so distant past, Ski Mask took a necessary hiatus from putting out music, dropping a couple singles and features, but otherwise maintaining a relatively low profile. Though a significant pivot away from the quick pace at which he (and the rest of the modern rap industry) delivers new music, his time away has been brief in the grand scheme of things, with Sin City The Mixtape a testament to the artist’s continued skill and ingenuity, and a glimpse at ideas still taking shape.
In keeping with his previous mixtapes, Sin City runs a pretty lean span of time – 17 and a ½ minutes to be precise – positioning it as Ski Mask’s fleetest project to date. Some were inevitably (though somewhat selfishly) disappointed with the brevity of this “comeback” tape, but this is, after all, the output of an artist who can work a limited canvas spectacularly (Beware the Book of Eli’s 21 minutes should have been proof enough), each song on Sin City its own stand-out, reasserting Ski Mask’s particular tics and talents. The tape’s title makes its overt nod to Frank Miller’s comic series of the same name, but in true Slump God fashion, that property’s gritty, outsized noir aesthetic only really accounts for a portion of the vision on display, a vision also encompassing glitching, industrial production nodding towards the iconic The Matrix soundtrack, and the usual video game/anime touchstones (promo images have Ski Mask sporting the Millennium Puzzle from Yu-GI-Oh!). The tone of Sin City is dark and gonzo, but controlled thanks to a superlative production team with longstanding Slump God associations. Most notably so, its in-demand producer Ronny J, whose collaborations with Ski Mask go back to debut mixtape Drown In Designer. His contributions to this tape give shape to its first half, providing the screeching, abrupt “Intro”, third track “ADMIT IT” and pseudo-thesis statement “The Matrix”, a vile deluge of violent threats, references to children television (Danny Phantom, Ben 10) and winking horniness (“Animatedly fucked the world, but no Hentai”). One of Ski Mask’s great skill as a rapper is his ability to skip between such material with a nimbleness that allows him to sound credibly enraged (making frequent use of shouty, hardcore vocals) and charmingly goofy at once. He dashes off punchlines, boasts, and antagonisms at an impressive clip that renders the vilest sentiment amusing as it is often couched among sillier fare, not necessarily noticed till closer hearing (Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliot are often cited as influences, and are well-represented in his showy, quick-fire delivery). Sin City The Mixtape offers up plenty of moments for Ski Mask to flex this gift, while also wisely imagining new contexts for it, particularly, in homage to the late XXXTentacion, with “Lost in Time” and “Mental Magneto”. Both songs utilize an emo guitar-driven John Cunningham production as X often would, though purposefully clashing with a reworked version of Ski Mask’s flow here. “Lost in Time” comes close to being a rare, purely earnest track from the artist, speaking to feelings of loss and cynicism, while “Mental Magneto” keeps more towards his usual Nirvana-esque guitar leanings, producing a gritty, melancholic synthesis. Whether this is suggestive of where Ski Mask the Slump God plans on taking his music down the road can’t be said for certain (though Cunningham did tease more collaboration between the two on Twitter), but it provides a certain sense that his music is only getting deeper and more expansive.
One could get lost attempting to trace out the various avenues and divergences running through Dean Blunt’s career, the singer/songwriter/producer putting out 20 some odd releases over the course of the last ten years as a solo musician (under his own name and the Babyfather moniker) and as a member of Hype Williams, the secretive electronic collective that recently made a quiet come back without his involvement (though the lineup remains anonymous, so who knows). The breadth of Blunt’s catalog is matched by the range of his aesthetic, no particular genre label appropriate for the music he produces, actively avoiding easy definition by refusing to linger on one sound for too long. Yet, as slippery a cultural figure as Blunt has been over the years, the last few have seen him gravitate toward consistency, moving away from his more antagonistic proclivities and dabbling with more explicit pop production (his significant production and vocal contributions to A$AP Rocky’s Testing the most extreme instance of this).
And so, it makes some sense that Blunt would choose this moment to pump the brakes, reorienting his recent trajectory back toward its point of origin with a sequel to his 2014 breakthrough album Black Metal. This follow up, simply titled Black Metal 2, picks up where that last one left off as if no time has passed, 2019’s guest-heavy ZUSHI a faint memory. Trading in the first Black Metal’s epic, hour-long runtime for a breezy, EP-adjacent 23 minutes, Black Metal 2 still manages to achieve a grandiosity similar to its predecessor, Blunt’s dark, sweeping, folksy compositions so individually evocative that the record is still enticing enough as a whole. Longtime collaborator and folk artist Joanne Robertson reteams with Blunt, having worked with him on the first Black Metal, this time credited as a featured artist on half the songs. Her vocals provide a big, mournful backdrop for Blunt to play in front of, his raspy, flat delivery shifting in and out of rap syncopation and cowboy balladry in a way that allows him to evade definition while still placing him within a lineage of those who have done the same. Black Metal 2 is a mischievous pop composite in this way, one that, like its predecessor, redraws cultural connections and signifiers as it rolls on. Though really, Black Metal 2 plays more like an addendum to the first album than its own standalone piece, a seamless continuation with the same vocabulary, but a little less spark. It’s promising to hear Blunt back in this mode, but it’s hard to tell how far he cares to pursue it.