While there’s been little to no media fanfare surrounding its release, Chief Keef’s 4NEM is an album that demands your utmost attention. Honestly, this is something of an emergency — not just to those who’ve invested a considerable amount of time and energy into the Chicago rapper’s career, but to hip-hop fans of any inclination or proclivity. This isn’t to say that Keef’s sold out this time around; on the contrary, the vision on display here is so singular, so peculiar to a specific subset of intended listeners, that it may naturally turn some off from the sheer eccentricity of its disposition. But the degree to which this is an obstacle — which has always been the case with Sosa, at least since Almighty So — has never been less severe as it has on 4NEM, his most approachable release in terms of basic comprehension. Not in a strictly literal sense, mind you; his enunciations and utterances are intelligible, even lucid in a way that might seem a bit too professional. But, broadly speaking, there’s a clear-sightedness to the direction and structure of these tracks — the type that’s been sorely missing from Keef’s (admittedly legendary) independent run at the start of the previous decade.
Not only is 4NEM the first “proper” project Keef has dropped since 2017’s Dedication, but it’s his first “proper” sounding release in ages. The album’s cover art, a sandbox littered with jacks and plastic army figures fighting an undisclosed battle — call it Sosa’s Small Soldiers — confirms this to be a call to arms, a rallying cry after taking a few much-needed years off. Here, his delivery is focused, almost militant in its indifferent tone; he lobs his voice across these blaring beats (those booming horns and 808s on “Tuxedo”) like grenades into enemy territory, taking no prisoners in the process. “Hadouken,” with its looping Young Buck sample, is a banzai charge in the form of a drill song, with an unstoppable forward momentum that’s unfortunately almost halted by outdated transphobia (“you the type of n***a link up with a tranny”). The gonzo “The Talk” is equally as guttural, with hard-hitting hi-hats and a sinister synth line that sounds like a didgeridoo; imagine a 2012-era Lil Bibby beat, but polished ever-so-slightly and improved upon. “See Through” has this never-ending opening snare build-up that sounds like a drum march, led by Drill Sergeant Sosa training new recruits, barking at them “you don’t smoke or drink, boy, your fuckin’ pee see-through.” There’s an enthusiasm to his delivery that’s unmistakable; one can sense a certain amount of glee that’s evident in his cadence, bursting with confidence and perseverance. This isn’t the work of an industry veteran pumping out albums in order to fulfill contractual obligations — which very well could have been Keef’s fate had Finally Rich gone platinum — but an invigorating, exciting piece of art that could have only been authored by a talent uncensored by commercial success, one who’s been afforded the time and resources needed to continue developing his style and sound.
After all, where else can you listen to a remix of “Slob on My Knob,” with a final line that compares fellatio to cooking (“In the morning I need head, in the night make me soup”), where the following track is a Thot Breaker-esque anthem with a Cars reference and a funny double entendre involving a Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat Redeye and “red eyes”? (For the record, Sosa has both). Or where a plain-spoken piano ballad called “I Don’t Think They Love Me,” with lyrics like “I don’t think bitches love me,” is sandwiched between the menacing “Yes Sir” — where Keef over-emphasizes the ending “er” syllable of each line, which somehow allows him to rhyme “toaster” with “chauffeur” — and stream-of-conscious “Hurry B4 The Gate Close,” which jumps from different acronyms (“CBD” to “CPD,” “EBT” to PND”) to disparate definitions of the word “toast” (“‘So’ what ya eat?’ bitch, I ate toast”), to a disclosing of abstinence from pornography, all in a little under three minutes? The point being, a record like 4NEM is a rarity these days, if not flat-out the only one of its kind: there are zero trends chased, no hot features flaunted, little re-hashed from past efforts, and it carries a general disinterest with anything popular within contemporary music. Even saying it’s a “Chief Keef record” doesn’t do it justice, implying there’s an established paradigm for something this fresh and immediate; yet, considering how idiosyncratic this is, calling this an auteur project would still certainly fit the bill. Better yet, let’s name this as simply as possible: an all out-attack from General Glo, the highest-ranking officer in the Chi-raq Army, who, once again, honorably reports for duty.
It’s unclear what exactly drives Rick Ross to continue releasing albums. Nevertheless, here we are with another — his 11th(!) — the self-proclaimed Boss holding fast to a strict every-other-year output, sneaking this latest out during the closing days of 2021. A revealingly titled project, Richer Than I Ever Been is a victory lap type album for a career that’s largely just been that for several years now, though it’s becoming harder and harder to parse what’s even being celebrated at this point. Admittedly, this has always been the dynamic informing the Rossian persona to some degree or another, but its pleasures seem to dull with each passing album, Rozay increasingly unable to locate what originally made him such a thrilling performer.
Which isn’t to say that Ross’ technical prowess has diminished by any means, and Richer Than I Ever Been is at least a reminder that the Miami rapper/pretend kingpin is a skillful MC and a considerable headlining presence, but the songs here otherwise characterize him as disinterested and uninspired. Kicking off with a classic Ross stunt in the vein of the account balance sample on Mastermind or the Chris Rock adlibs on Rather You Than Me, opening track “Little Havana” trots out former cocaine magnate Willy Falcon to deliver a monologue thanking the artist for keeping his legacy alive by making reference to him in his music (and for that reason only!). Setting the tone for what’s to follow, the rest of “Little Havana” finds Ross buckling in for the usual ride, rattling off indicators of his hyperbolic wealth while occasionally pausing to reflect on the hardships that forged him and the friends who didn’t make it, The Dream casting his eight behind the song’s more melancholy undertones with a verse fixated on the existential dreadfulness of Kobe Bryant’s untimely death. Not far off from the mode he was in on Drake’s “Lemon Pepper Freestyle” last year, it seems that the mega-rich Ross has reached a point in his life where he is inclined toward introspection but remains very much confined to the world of the material, his best stabs at profundity arriving in the form of goofy lifestyle coachisms (“You gotta learn to use your mind / To help keep you out of certain situations”) that, while charming, don’t really mean anything. Not such an issue normally, but Richer Than I Ever Been attempts to circle back to weightier material time and again, most dubiously on the politically charged “Marathon” where Ross initially appears to be asking for violent revolution against the state before prescribing a contradictory brand of selfish individualism.
Similarly, the title track and “Hella Smoke” (which close out the album in that order) attempt to reassure the audience in the midst of tumultuous times, yet they more readily end up reminding us of the wildly different world this artist and unwelcome guest Wiz Khalifa (on the latter track, naturally) live in. Complaining about the hypocrisies of pop music decadence is, of course, a largely needless crusade to take up, especially in the context of an artistic pesona that so passionately embraces outsized fantasy, but Ross himself reads as unconvinced at this point, and his collaborators follow suit, not a fresh beat or feature in the bunch (most disappointingly the Jazmine Sullivan/21 Savage-featuring “Outlawz”, a totally okay song with production from Carnage, AraabMUZIK, and Infamous that somehow manages to eschew all of their personalities). Richer Than I Ever Been is perhaps an apt description of current-day Rick Ross, whose popularity has yet to significantly wane (and still turns in dependable features with some frequency), but it also implies a truth by omission, which is that the formidable rapper and label head is running low on ideas.
Roddy Ricch clearly thought he was in the big leagues — and why wouldn’t he? A little over two years ago, he had your favorite pop stars on the rope and begging for mercy. “The Box” dominated the Billboard charts for eleven weeks, blocking the likes of both Justin Beiber and Selena Gomez from the coveted number one position. It’s the type of hit that comes once in a lifetime for some artists, usually the perfect storm of being released at the right place during the right time, and with the right platform in mind; in other words, in this specific instance, it was a TikTok song that mainly got big because of online memes and a viral “eee-err” ad-lib fueling its long run at the top. But instead of using this goodwill to his advantage, or getting smart to his current situation, Roddy got bigheaded and thought he had the fanbase and talent to go silent for over a year. No singles, no promotion, nothing; he announced the release date for Live Life Fast a few days beforehand, believing the hype would naturally emerge. The dude worked with Kanye once and now truly believes he’s the new Ye. But how much excitement could ever really be drawn up for an act like Roddy? It’s a question that’s difficult to accurately gauge, as he’s had success before and continues to show promise, even as his music remains characteristically anonymous. If we were to take a vague guess, at least from the music here: not much.
So let’s ask another question: Beyond the hits, what else is there to Roddy Ricch? He has a great singing voice, but so does about every other popular rapper nowadays; you need something a little more than technical ability to draw attention the first time around, and whatever “it” is, it needs to be defined, crystalized, and improved upon by album number two. Well, it turns out he doesn’t have “it” in him anymore when it comes to making interesting music; he also doesn’t have a solid pen game this time around (most unintentionally hilarious line: “If I got the time, fuck her like a menace / Open up her tonsils like she at the dentist”) or much creativity either. The flows, tempos, and production decisions on Live Life Fast are all safe, predictable choices you’ve heard rehashed on any number of mainstream hip-hop releases from the past 12 months: you’ve got a substandard collection of slow jams (“rollercoastin” and “crash the party”) mixed with one-dimensional bangers (“25 million” and the poorly mixed “hibachi”) and whatever happens to be the flavor of the month at the time of release — in this instance, it’s Brooklyn drill (“murda one”) when a year ago it would have been a hazy, Travis Scott-inspired rager with a Quavo/Young Thug hook. There’s a semi-listenable melody at the heart of “thailand,” but it’s buried under lame one-liners and an unnecessary beat switch-up that’s trying way too hard to convince you of the track’s prestige. Roddy’s music has always lacked a defined personality, opting instead to remain stylistically incognito compared with his contemporaries; here, it only aims to please everyone, and ends up achieving zilch in the process. Maybe Roddy’s forever worried his flashy, ice-cold veneer might be exposed as lame posturing by doing anything different; if that’s so, then he’s mistaking mystery with ambiguity, thinking he’s being elusive when he’s simply just being a bore.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Neil Young again pairs with Crazy Horse for the 14th time on Barn, an album recorded on Young’s property during the pandemic. Opting for a more subdued approach this time out, the rock legend abandons his typical thematic throughlines and instead breezily drifts through thoughts, seemingly as they come to him. This stream-of-consciousness effect largely plays well on the record, albeit producing a couple of notable duds and wafting a vague lack of purpose.
Barn carries a loose, improvisational sound, which can likely be explained by Young only minimally preparing for recording. His method typically includes strumming out a melody and singing a few words once, at most, before the recording session, going in as fresh as he can. On a record as sparse as this one, the approach works shockingly well. A master of his craft, Young waxes on musings as disparate politics, the concept of waiting, and feelings of lost love, and in some ways, the artist is progressing in precisely the way one might expect based on his early output some 50 years ago. He still cares about the environment and the turning of the world around him, but he’s abandoned his cynicism to some degree, here continuing to litter morsels of hope for the future. In other ways, he’s the same old Neil, no big shifts to be found, with a slightly meandering three chords repeated across an 8-minute track. For those familiar — and honestly, who’s checking in to Barn that isn’t? — this isn’t an innately wrong-headed approach; the man plays to his sonic strengths. But for new listeners, whoever they are and however many in number they might be, this mode may present a learning curve, presenting a listening experience difficult to immediately connect with. Still, the record puts on full display the range of Young’s talents as an artist, with the occasional ripping guitar fills from Crazy Horse adding supplementary texture and character.
If there aren’t a lot of surprises to be found around the corners of Barn, at this point in Neil’s career, it’s not exactly an apocalyptic development. According to the demands of sheer longevity alone, it can be hard to connect with an audience when you’ve been making music for over half of a century, but Young regularly manages this feat, proving it again on his latest to a devoted fanbase. That he does so while also imbuing this record with a distinctive, impeccable vibe is especially impressive, even despite its valleys. If Barn isn’t saying or doing much that Neil hasn’t said and done before, it still lands with considerably more of an impact than your typical late-career album, and despite lacking a clear raison d’être, it’s an album that lends itself to easy relistens, its particular, pleasant languor likely to appeal for many years to come.
Fighting Demons, the second posthumous release from Juice WRLD, has been prepared and sequenced with one goal in mind: to make you feel bad. Really bad. Really, really bad. Specifically, it wants you to feel bad for its deceased lead artist, who was the bratty king of making his prepubescent audience feel bad, one who’s repeatedly heard rapping and singing here about how many Percs he pops a day to numb his pain, about how much lean he drinks to calm his growing anxieties — and about how he’s “already dead” on tracks released two years after his death. If Legends Never Die, Juice’s first posthumous album, was celebratory in spirit, this is a soul-crushing reckoning with the circumstances that surrounded his overdose. Logically, this was the only sensible direction to take: there was already no way one can listen to a song like “Rockstar In His Prime” — one thematically centered around jubilant prescription drugs abuse, bragging he’s “a rockstar in his prime” with a defeated resolve that suggests personal abdication — outside of this context unless they plead to pure ignorance. However, acknowledging these grim details — instead of blatantly ignoring them, which is what many others would have done to help boost sales — isn’t the same as addressing legitimate ethical concerns, so this is only being up-front with fans in a superficial way. It’s hoping that, after a long cry, you’ll find comfort and move on from this tragedy; that you’ll be so sad you’ll forget to ask any pressing questions after playing the final track.
Because of this, the degree to which this project pushes this dour tone is, at times, overwhelming; there’s a dejected, melancholic vibe that permeates every aspect of the overall experience, making this less a collection of unreleased material and more a eulogy in the form of music. The lethargic “Go Hard” stops before it ever properly starts, with a discouraged vocal delivery spitting out a weak chorus and a half-formed verse; Juice sounds like he’s well past simply going through the motions and is now on life-support, a living corpse who’s been forced by a record label to keep going past his breaking point. Equally as crestfallen are “From My Window” and “My Life In A Nutshell,” the latter of which features Juice wailing away about how they “know me for my talent, my talent / But don’t know how my pain feels,” which are the type of lyrics, selected with this intent in mind, that never let you forget the sole reason for this album’s existence: to place the blame for his untimely end not on anyone with actual authority in his life, but on listeners who turned a blind eye and ignored his many cries for help. Again, it wants you to feel bad, but ultimately to what end? So we can all throw a quick little pity party and feel absolved of our sins? So those condolences can be doled out with no further examination on the complexities of Juice WRLD as a person? An outside ear would be rather hard-pressed to think of him as anything other than a junkie with what’s been selected for the final cut here, as there’s little to no levity offered to counterbalance these reductionist criticisms. Besides childishly pointing fingers, Fighting Demons’ biggest failing is how it begs for easy sympathy when it should ask for empathy, for basic understanding and human compassion. Instead, it provides easy, shallow answers to complex questions — ones it never had an interest in honestly contemplating in the first place.
Just exactly Who Is Nardo Wick? The presented question — which happens to be the title of the Jacksonville rapper’s solid-enough debut album — is a curt, straight-to-the-point opening statement of intent; it’s “upfront” to a degree that’s practically candid. The cover art, which is a black-and-white photo of Wick solemnly standing in front of a house, with two friends in the near background, reflects this attitude persuasively; he’s also wearing a wife-beater, a pair of jeans, and what looks like some Air Force Ones. Yet, it’s one that, aesthetically, is in line with Wick’s music, or it at least all comes together to create something of an aesthetic for him to convincingly embody this early in his career. Stylistically, he’s closest to the archetypal likes of 50 Cent and 21 Savage, two authoritative MCs before him who also heavily relied on their vocal presences and personalities to make up for verbal deficiencies: he raps with a deadening, blunted cadence; he grumbles death threats through his teeth with a monotone flow, saying a lot with usually very little. He emulates the former on “Alley Cat,” dripping with 2000s-era misogyny at every turn (he insults a lover for “talkin’ ’bout all them n***s she fucked,” when three songs later on “Baby Wyd?” he brags about how “when I put it in your stomach, you be screamin’, tryna take it”) and truly embodies the latter on “Wicked Witch,” dropping designer brand-names over a foreboding Metro Boomin beat, one that would have been right at home on Savage Mode.
There’s a simplicity to Wick’s music in the way he communicates and expresses himself, often only through short, monosyllabic words: on “Alright” he builds a hook around repeating the phrase “alright, alright,” then slightly re-directs his flow on the post-chorus by changing his wording to “alright, ok.” “Chop Chop” has an epizeuxis chorus that consists of him muttering “chop-chop” 16 times in a row, with a volley of “chop”-related puns and utterances following shortly after (“Chopstick make a n***a chop, chop, chop”). “Power,” the most menacing track here, is similarly structured around benumbing vocal and lyrical reiterations — he has, among other things, “power,” “rank,” “status,” “killers,” “guns,” “stripes,” “points,” “bank,” “guap,” and “racks” — that make up the majority of the song’s length, with a brief verse sandwiched in the middle. It’s a one-dimensional approach to songwriting — stretched especially thin at 18 tracks — that only really works for a premiere this low-key in scope, one which gestures toward some minor fulcrum of potential whenever deviation occurs in this formula. The longest cut — a regional smorgasbord of Florida, Chicago, and Atlanta flavor — is a star-studded remix to “Who Want Smoke,” where an animated Lil Durk and conceited G Herbo are unable to outshine Wick on his own turf; try as they must, nothing can top that infamous stomping refrain, followed by “what the fuck was that?” a few times over, before closing out with a deadpan meta-response (“that’s how I step on ni***s”). All things considered, that’s about as good as these types of introductions can ever hope to get.