Is Nas in “rare form,” as he claims on King’s Disease II, or just a tad moldy? This question was already resoundingly answered on the previous installment — which was most definitely the latter — but either he still has gout, which, if so, should get that checked by a medical professional instead of releasing another mediocre album, or he still feels like he has something more substantive to contribute to the contemporary hip hop landscape. This is why, naturally, most of the lyrical content here deals with reminiscing about the past: like when he’s rapping like he’s a Scooby-Doo villain on “Death Row East,” lowering his voice while he contemplates just Who Killed Hip-Hop once again. There’s “Moments,” where the thick sentimentality mostly works, recalling the many firsts of life one can never recreate (learning to swim, losing your virginity, watching your children grow up, and, ugh, buying your first Nas album) — all up until he shouts out Sister Soulja and insists she’s gonna wanna meet him afterward, since “she[‘s] alive so she’ll hear this.” Right, totally; that’s exactly how that scenario is going to play out, Nas. On “YKTV,” he brags about how awkward a collaboration between Lil Uzi Vert and DJ Premiere would be, but naively tries to spin it back on him (“Imagine N-A-S on a Migo beat”) before being washed on his own track by two rappers half his age. “Store Run” has him scolding listeners that you should “mention me with Mick Jagger and Bono like you’re ‘posed to,” as opposed to anyone else who’s been remotely relevant in the past decade or so. When not acting like being an oldhead is some noble virtue, he continues to botch things: the most embarrassing moment comes when he claims that, because of the emergence of Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, Tiger Woods should be happy because “both his parents’ lives matter now.”
Still, this album does reflect one of the exceedingly “rare” instances where the sequel is better than the original, due in large part to how reliable a collaborator Hit-Boy has become for the Queensbridge legend. The production is forward-thinking, building off of and paying respect to golden-age boom-bap fundamentals, while also modernizing that archaic style for a younger generation; there’s a sense of urgency to the beats here that was lacking on the first King’s Disease, and a sense that Nas is willing to evolve his sound without compromising or coming off as desperately try-hard (besides, his lyrics themselves are already doing that heavy lifting). The guests, this time as well, fit far more naturally: Lauryn Hill is the clear stand-out, delivering an introspective and lowkey feature on the mental trappings of fame and the desire for creative autonomy. Even on a song like “EPMD 2,” where EPMD kind of phones it in and Eminem is unsurprisingly unlistenable for most of his airtime (he’s “eatin’ you B-I-T-C-H’s like tortilla chips,” super scary threat, Marshall!), it’s carried by an undeniable nostalgic swagger, with the four in total cornball mode and embracing every second of it. It’s the type of jovial camaraderie that feels like second fiddle to Nas bragging about his real estate dealings — he’s apparently teaching a masterclass simply titled “Escobar,” fully leaning into his brand ambassador status once again this year — and regurgitating past successes for the millionth time. Which makes King’s Disease II less a tired throwback or a lazy retread of past ideals, and more an out-of-date excursion in legacy maintenance by a man who should seriously start drinking some tart cherry juice. That, or simply cut out the red meat and tuna.
Writer: Paul Attard Section: What Would Meek Do?
Lorde’s star rocketed in the first half of the 2010s, and rightfully so. Her particular, infectious pop sound spoke to a new generation of fans who also happened to be in her age bracket. After a strong cycle of album sales and a poorly-sold arena tour for 2017’s Melodrama, she skewed reclusive, deleting much of her internet presence and retreating from her a fanbase to whom she was previously communicative. As she trickled back into the public eye in 2021, it was immediately clear that there was something new about her and her sound, and the culmination of these inklings is Solar Power, an introspective work that ultimately questions how long a star’s power can hold.
Melodrama cemented Lorde as the new young pop star for the internet age, with elegant, precise lyrics that matched and elevated the range of emotions found on an average teenage tumblr. Simply put, it was an astounding work from someone who not only had her finger so confidently on the pulse, but who was also in total control of the beat that moved it. That instinct for grace and insight is what makes Solar Power all the more surprising, then, as her latest album by and large manages to miss that mark. The tracks are notably stripped down and slowed, marked by the familiar and lazy production techniques that Jack Antonoff carries with him from record to record. Gone are explosive songs like “Perfect Places” and “Team,” usually opting for a kickdrum and forgettable guitar strum to carry her admittedly still stunning vocals. Her technical talent is still undeniably present, which makes the willful restraint of Solar Power all the more frustrating, flattening all that proved so singular in her previous work.
Despite this frank disappointment, a moderated Lorde album is, at its worst, still listenable. “Fallen Fruit” comes closest to reminding of the artist’s previous highs, though it strikes a more self-consciously serious tone than much of her earlier output, while the title track moves with the familiar slow build of hits like “Buzzcut Season.” But while such comparisons are easy to come to, they also speak to the crucial problem on Solar Power: in recalling these earlier cuts, emphasis is squarely placed on how diminished these sound-alikes are, none of them offering the same sonic and emotional crescendo or proving transformative of either her catalog or preferred genre. Lorde even admits to a disconnect with what’s popular in music, noting that she hasn’t spent her time getting involved in any current cultural movements. It shows. While it’s a worthy enough effort in a vacuum, the enduring, overwhelming impression is that Lorde’s connection to the world around her is what has always made her music feel so present and real, and in losing that thread, she here loses something essential. In the cracks of the album, there are moments where Lorde still shines brightly. It’s not enough to redeem Solar Power, but it is enough to reminding us of what has been, and what could still be in the future.
Writer: Andrew Bosma Section: Pop Rocks
Ohio rapper Trippie Redd has enjoyed a relatively decent career as a B-tier artist with A-tier abilities; in this current wave of faceless melodic trap rappers, he’s carved himself a comfortable lane with his gnarled, ugly wail of a voice that’s equally as cogent when he’s singing or rapping. His entire visual and sonic aesthetic is centered around this sense of morbidity — just look at any of the hideous covers for any of his past projects — even if the quality of his music has never consistently matched the amount of effort he’s put into the general vibe of his persona. Trip at Knight, the sequel to his debut Life’s a Trip, is the closest he’s come to producing this equivalent exchange; sure, there’s a lack of quality control over and an hyper-reliance on guest features, but this is easily the most clear-sighted project Trippie’s released in over three years.
The two lead-up singles, admittedly, inspired little confidence: “Miss the Rage” sounds like a Fisher Price version of any track off Whole Lotta Red (Playboi Carti’s appearance further confirms this), and “Holy Smokes” is a structural mess, one with a weak vocal performance on the choppy hook and a less-than-game Lil Uzi Vert filling time on the back end. Thankfully, those are the biggest blunders: the first four songs — including “Betrayed,” added after the fact, with Drake not-so-subliminally dissing Kanye West — are all commanding in their own right, setting the pace with energetic vocal deliveries and an embrace a hyper-pop sonic palette that’s downright infectious, if a tad one-dimensional. “Super Cell” is constructed around a basic premise: how many Dragon Ball Z references can one man cram into a less than three-minute song? Apparently, a lot, as Trippie is “invincible” like the Legendary Super Saiyan Broly, is eating well like that “fat n***a” Majin Buu, is going to “hit the fusion dance” like Trunks and Goten, and even finds time to rhyme “Piccolo” with “pick a loaf.” “Supernatural” opens with a traditional Trippie flow and delivery over glitchy production, all before a sudden beat switch-up that activates his attack mode (“Pussy boy got pushed out the whip / I watched ’em roll and tumble”) going from zero to 100 real quick, to say the least. The rest of the solo cuts are disposable filler, nothing too outright terrible — except maybe the super emo “Finish Line” — but nothing that’s serious album material either.
But what about the aforementioned guests? They’re all uniformly solid, playing off of Trippie in fun and inventive ways, like the Detroit posse cut and album closer “Captain Crunch,” which sees the city’s past (Icewear Vezzo), present (Sada Baby), and future (Babyface Ray) all together acting in harmonious camaraderie. Likewise, the moody and aggressive “Rich MF” has a Chicago-based tinge with an agitated Polo G and unflappable Lil Durk in the mix, as Trippie contemplates all the ways he’s a “motherfucker” on the chorus, whether he be a “rich” one or a “sexy” seducer of mamas. Ski Mask the Slump God reliably spazzes on his spot, dropping yet another DBZ reference on a project stuffed with them. And in an era where posthumous features are given out left and right, it feels refreshing to hear two unused verses from two departed talents — Juice Wrld and XXXTentacion, respectively — which were recorded for these specific tracks in mind. “Matt Hardy 999” has Juice and Trippie trading freestyled verses back and forth, with each new line somehow being more ridiculous than the last, and “Danny Phantom” — a retooling of previously released “Ghost Busters” — features one of X’s sunniest artistic contributions to date, ending with Trippie calling out to his fallen comrade with a pained cry. Regardless of how one feels about the late-Florida rapper, it’s an undeniably touching gesture from one friend to another; a moment where Trippie’s pain, for once, feels palpable.
Writer: Paul Attard Section: What Would Meek Do?
If nothing else, the descendants of Hank Williams who’ve made a go of recording careers have all attempted to stake their own territory. Sam Williams, son of “Bocephus” Hank Williams, Jr., and half-brother of both Holly Williams and Hank III, makes his major label debut with Glasshouse Children, an album that sounds like nothing else with his famous surname attached to it. That seems to have been Williams’ intention in recording the album, as he’s enlisted a small legion of producers for the project (Paul Moak, Sean McConnell, and Jaren Johnston of The Cadillac Three, to pick just three from the roster), and his collaborators including Dolly Parton, Dan Auerbach, Keith Urban, and Charlie Worsham. The result is an album that attempts to introduce Williams as a country-adjacent troubadour but that ultimately fails to present a coherent point-of-view or a distinctive identity. That isn’t to say that, on a song-by-song basis, Glasshouse Children isn’t worthwhile or that it fails to suggest greater promise for what Williams could produce. “Can’t Fool Your Own Blood” is a fantastic song about generational trauma that Williams sings with a bluesy, lived-in conviction, while the slickly produced “Kids,” which boasts Urban’s ace guitarwork, would immediately be one of the best things on any Adult Top 40 or AAA playlist. The issue is that they scarcely sound like the work of the same artist, but for Williams’ idiosyncratic singing. His breathy timbre and phrasing fall into a that current indie-pop style of singing that I’ll concede is decidedly not for me, wherein stretching the word “public” into “pub-a-lick,” which Williams does on “10-4,” adds not a damn thing to the meaning of the song he’s singing. His vocal performances largely hinge on affectations, in other words, that exist only to draw attention to themselves and are rarely, if ever, in service of his songs. That’s a shame because, as examples of moody Americana go, the songs here are all solid enough: “Happy All the Time” is elevated by Dolly Parton’s performance, while “The World: Alone” is a harrowing account of Williams’ grief following the unexpected death of his sister. The album certainly suggests that Williams has the songwriting chops — and, if he’d drop the affectated style and sing in his natural voice, the vocal chops, too — to forge a legacy all his own if he’d settle more definitively on what he’d like for that legacy to sound like.
Writer: Jonathan Keefe Section: Rooted & Restless