4 I Missed: Hip Hop from the 2018 Summer–Drake, Travis Scott, Pusha T, and The Carters

Given how I do not have the ability to post a review for every new album I listen to, much less every album that comes out, it is inevitable that albums just fall through the cracks for me. I do not really like that this happens though, and wish I could devote a review to everything that catches my eye (and ear), good or bad. However, life does not always work out that way, and a lot of times I find that the ship has long since sailed by the time I actually get around to writing some of my reviews. Thus, any writing I did do goes unpublished or unwritten at all, though the opinion remains firmly planted in my head, wanting to get out. Since I have begun think of my album reviews as being thorough but also in-the-moment marks of what I thought at the time, it seemed weird to publish reviews for an album a month later when there were other things coming out then, and when I did do that it was usually because I thought the album was not one people were necessarily “hyped” about (Between the Buried and Me and B.o.B. being main examples of this). The one time I violated this was literally my first review, so while I am still learning with each review about what I want to do, I certainly had zero to no idea about what I wanted then.

Nonetheless, I listen to a lot of music of a lot of styles, and especially considering how many I did not get to review in July and August, I thought I would make up for that a bit by starting to write shorter, combined reviews of a sort that look back at the albums released before or during my time on this blog, with a bit of distance of course, while also describing the experience as I hope I am able in reviews I have done to this point. I am hoping this will be a fun thing to keep me motivated to stay hard at work on writing in general, but I also hope that this will be entertaining to any readers out there as well. Actually, I might even make this more common for my reviews in general, unless on particular cases where an album needs an extended review (it is especially good or bad, has a lot in it and/or around it that needs to be discussed, etc.). Given how big this summer has been for interesting hip hop/rap releases (in more ways than one–and not all of them good), I thought there was no better place than to start here, with four of the biggest hip hop/rap albums of the summer that I did not write a review for until now. Also, I will put a video (if YouTube has one) of my favorite tracks for each album, regardless of if I like the album or not, just to give something else for people to check out if they are interested.

Daytona–Pusha T

220px-Daytona_by_Pusha_T

Though I reviewed every other project to come out of the Wyoming Sessions (or “Surgical Summer” releases, whatever one prefers), the one I did not ever cover was the first, Pusha T’s Daytona. Given that I actually found the Pusha T/Drake beef that occurred at the time pretty interesting, it is kind of odd to me that I never reviewed this one, and it is not as though the album was one that did not leave an impression on me by itself. The main reason I never got around to this one is simply timing. While I listened to Daytona not long after it released, I did so at around the same time that Ye by Kanye West released, followed quickly by Kids See Ghosts. Furthermore, I ended up writing a review over this Kanye West album soon afterward, since I wanted to write about this album given its unusual style in Kanye’s career and the fact that many people immediately wrote it off as a misstep, and Kids See Ghosts impressed me so much that I felt it warranted a review as soon as possible. Then, I ended up writing on some other albums, and, eventually, I had moved on from even thinking about going back and writing on Daytona, despite the fact that I had wanted to at one point.

Basically, I like this album a lot, even though I do not think it is without flaw. Pusha T is constantly dropping intense lyrical flows over pounding instrumentals, creating an effect so absorbing that it is hard to resist once one is exposed to it. From second one of “If You Know You Know” to the last second of “Infrared,” it is abundantly clear that Pusha T is going all in, performance-wise, with every bar. And these bars are not just impressively strung together into cohesive units, but meld together to become greater than they would be alone. In all honesty, my first listen to this album made me want to say “damn” just about every few seconds, almost without fail. A particular moment that continues to get me each time I hear it is in “Come Back Baby” when he raps “BMore burnt spoon, DC glass pipe, VA sent bales, ’bout that trap life,” with the undeniable swagger of someone who knows what he is doing and what he is rapping about (drugs and selling drugs, for this and most of the album). Couple all this with a relatively short runtime and minimalistic melodies that allow this constant pace and power to really hit hard without feeling dragged along, and Daytona seems like the perfect short album.

Honestly, I would have to say that I loved this album more than any rap album I had heard for a while–at first. The moments hit hard time after time in Pusha T’s lyrics, propelled along by pounding sample-led melodies that turn an initial experience with the album into a special one. However, I cannot say that the album has held up as well as I would have hoped under intense scrutiny and repeat listens. In particular, the minimal production allows for thrills in Pusha T’s rapping, but a lot of this ends up being dazzle with not nearly enough substance to keep it strong. “The Games We Play” is a prime example of this from my first through to my third and fourth times through the album. Initially bars like the refrain which says “These are the games we play, we are the names they say. This is the drug money your ex-n—- claim he makes” sound great when one does not see it coming. However, this constant shimmer starts to lose its luster after a while. In fact, what I found was that I started to actually get annoyed by the background music, especially the twangy guitar string pluck that sounds off, seemingly, dozens of times. It was minimal to the point of becoming grating, turning a song I liked at first into one that is probably my least favorite on the record. I would honestly say that “Hard Piano” and “What Would Meek Do?” suffer the same flaws, only to a lesser degree as they held up better on repeat listens. Nevertheless, I do think the album still has substantial power as it stands going forward, as listening to it again for this review after not touching for a while gave me that same experience as the first listen did with only a slightly diminished return in the same places as before. Personally, I find that a testament to its enduring quality, at least for this relatively brief period of time.

Finally, for a while after listening to it the first time, I disliked the lyrics a lot as well, feeling they lacked substance despite all the talk of substances. Ultimately, it felt like the album boiled down to a million different ways to say “I used to sell drugs, and it was bad” and “I am conquering the rap game from people like Drake.” I still hold this opinion mostly, but do feel like this part of the album has actually warmed for me. After all, the lyrics of “Santeria” are not simply referencing some broad abstract, but specifically talk of how a specific person has died, and in a rather meaningful way by interpolating sadness, anger, but also a sort pragmatism at the reality of it all. And “Infrared” is a great track for firing shots towards Drake and his ilk, with clever lines everywhere that actually demonstrate his own points. It does not feel like a hollow attempt at trying to insult Drake, but a full-bodied retort of that style of rap. I cannot even say I completely agree with Pusha T’s perspective, but I can understand it and appreciate it here, which makes all the difference. In the end, I was greatly impressed by Daytona as a whole, even with it not holding up on repeated listens in an ideal way.

8/10

EVERYTHING IS LOVE–THE CARTERS

220px-The_Carters_-_Everything_Is_Love_(Official_Album_Cover)

Even before it seemed like the critical community and public alike noticed this over her public persona as a pop star, I thought Beyonce had some pretty decent music. I always thought Dangerously in LoveB-Day (especially B-Day), and I Am…Sasha Fierce were vastly overlooked at the time they released. saw here begin to get some credit in this regard, though her self-titled album and Lemonade really saw the breakthrough. Conversely, I can say that it took me a while to get into Jay-Z at the same level as seemingly the entire rest of the world, though I think a lot of that is because I was largely unfamiliar with his classic albums and songs until after my initial exposure to his music, “Run This Town,” “Empire State of Mind,” and “Young Forever,” which I thought were some of the most overplayed pop rap singles I had ever heard. Magna Carta Holy Grail and the Watch the Throne collaboration with Kanye West did little to change my mind, but I started to pay attention and look back after his brilliant 4:44 album from last year. Given that Lemonade and 4:44 were definitely connected projects (and both amazing projects at that), I really got excited like everyone else when EVERYTHING IS LOVE, possibly a conclusion to an unofficial “trilogy” of Carter family albums, came out, and possibly in the most epic way ever with the simultaneous release of the video for lead single “APES***.”

Still, I found myself mostly underwhelmed by what was delivered in this album, though this is mostly in comparison to what came before. Certainly, the high points of EVERYTHING IS LOVE are quite good, but the problem is that these all come very early and relatively late, leaving the middle four tracks of the album a relative dead zone of quality. Honestly, I get mostly bored after “APE***” and before “HEARD ABOUT US.” But, I am willing to take an album that is uninteresting but at least pleasant through the middle, than one which starts and finishes that way. Additionally, I do not think these songs are bad, they just feel like a major drop off considering the drama of the others. “BOSS” is the best of these four tracks, but honestly feels like a rehash of the same mood and sound of “SUMMER” from just two songs before it without adding much to the album by itself. Nonetheless, I would have less of a problem with this if it was not for how much of this middle section is more of that exact thing. Sure, the hip hop aggressiveness (mostly) led by Beyonce and supported by Jay-Z goes relatively well, “NICE,” “713,” and “FRIENDS” have this same tone, making it run stale by the end. Honestly, I only like “HEARD ABOUT US” as much as I do for its change of pace. It is smooth, poppy, but still fairly commanding out of both Beyonce and Jay-Z, keeping the narrative track while also making things interesting.

However, before and after this somewhat weak area on the album is some of the most surprisingly banging music coupled with dramatic romanticism that avoids the trap of being cartoonish. And speaking of trap, we get a lot more of it than expected on Everything is Love, which helps in both regards. Probably the most upfront example is the single “APES***,” having a hard, pounding rhythm as well as Beyonce at her most forceful. It will be a while before I get over hearing former pop starlet Queen B say “He wants to give me that vitamin D” in a tone that sounds like a bark. However, this is the only example of this on the entire album, with most of the other songs playing a mid-tempo approach, even through more potent lyrical moments. For example, closing track “LOVEHAPPY” has a laid-back musical tone that lays the groundwork for the couple to be on top together, but with Jay-Z very much being humbled and Beyonce very much being empowered.

That actually gets me to the last piece of praise that, to me, raised it for being only “above average” and actually being pretty good: its conceptual nature. I mentioned before how EVERYTHING IS LOVE seems like a cap on the “Carter family trilogy,” and what I think this album does very well is truly wrap this story up. It started in Lemonade with Beyonce chronicling her feelings of being betrayed by the man she loves (Jay-Z) due to his affair with another woman. She still loves him and wants him to be there, but is also angry, fully in the “hell hath no fury like a women’s scorn” mode. 4:44 is a response album by Jay-Z, but not one denying the issues or undercutting them. Instead, he very openly admits to them, and seems to asking for forgiveness even while he categorizes the many problems that exist around him and his family that add difficulties of all kinds. What Everything Is Love does is address all of this in the idea of wrapping ideas up. “SUMMER” has Beyonce singing about “making love” and “[being] in each other’s arms,” while Jay-Z raps about finding love after a life based around the projects. This begins the album, and it ends with “LOVEHAPPY” where Jay-Z essentially says “I know I messed up, I’m sorry, and I hope we can move past it” to which Beyonce responds “we can move past it, but only on my terms.” The album begins with love and ends with love, but Beyonce affirms her status here as the one wronged who is offering forgiveness, but not offering it wholesale. Jay-Z better be sorry, because Beyonce is not one to trifle with (as Lemonade demonstrated so eloquently). “APES***” covers the fame and fan obsession they garner and how this effects their relationship, with “HEARD ABOUT US” and “BLACK EFFECT” also covering these. The rest (“BOSS,” “NICE,” “713,” and “FRIENDS”) are largely just narrative fluff to add more context to the relationship angle, but it works fine enough. I will say that the concept only works if you have an appreciation for what the previous albums set in place as a story, since otherwise what we get is just brag raps and loosely arranged love tracks. Still, I personally thought it was compelling, and liked it, even if it is the weak pillar of the three that make up this series.

7/10

Scorpion–Drake

220px-Scorpion_by_Drake

I implied it earlier in my review of Daytona when talking about “Infrared,” but I do not really think Drake is as bad as many people say. Clearly, Drake is utilizing a certain sound and style that is not completely original to himself (musically, he is incredibly indebted to the likes of Kid Cudi, lyrically he often does not write his own material, and his rap flow is largely derived from the likes of Lil’ Wayne and trap rappers), but the brand he has created for himself of the influences he takes from is very much his own. It is no coincidence that many cloud rap and emo rap artists in the current game are frequently compared to Drake: in the moody, emotive, cloudy sound that has become the zeigeist, Drake is the central figure who has stood on top for a remarkable period of time. And besides that, I just think his music is pretty alright most of the time. So Far Gone (the mixtape version) was a real sign to take notice of what this man was doing, and Take Care and Nothing Was the Same seemed like the fulfillment of the potential he originally came out with. But starting with Views in 2016, Drake has seemed like he is not quite putting out his best. Even the better parts of Views were drowned by the expansive nothingness that was the other 70 minutes. More Life tried for more of a background music appeal, something to put on while doing something else (which is my argument for why it being a “playlist” and not an album actually makes sense), and Drake’s downtempo approach lent itself well to the project, though the few moments where it seems like Drake tries to get the listeners attention really ruins the mood over this 82+ minute experience. So I was not necessarily looking forward to this album, yet another that runs over 80 minutes (almost 90 minutes, really) and which was being released after a relatively fast recording process that basically did not end until after the album was already released.

I wish I could say, “even though I had a bad feeling about this album going in, I was shocked to find it was amazing,” but I would be lying. In fact, this album was worse than I expected. Really, I thought Views was just below average, More Life was slightly above average, and even his collaboration with Future, What a Time to Be Alive, my least favorite Drake-related project until now, was bad but not that much worse than Views. However, everything Drake has released had its moments of being really good, and I overall thought they were remarkable for their own reasons. Still, while some moments on Scorpion actually hit as intended, there are even more misses in the past, misses that miss by so much they fly off and become painful to experience. With so many options to choose from, it is actually hard to choose a specific moment that I hated more than the others. Instead, it is really important to note that the whole thing is just not good. Still, I feel like there is grounds for looking deep than this when considering the project’s intent of having a rap half and an R&B half. It could also be stated that there is an aggressive, braggadocios half and a more sensitive, romantic half, which, as a concept for a rapper like Drake who has dabbled in both extensively, could work very well. But concept is not enough if the songs are not there to back it up, and the songs are certainly not holding this album together.

In the first half, we get a lot of what sounds like Thank Me Later and If You’re Reading This Its Too Late Drake, with literally every song being about Drake’s status and how “the haters are trying to bring him down, but fail.” Considering the context of this album–following his complete defeat at the hands of Pusha T in their beef from earlier this year–a lot of this bragging sounds very awkward and forced. But just to be clear, not much of what Drake delivers on Disc 1 would ever sound good anyway. Multiple bars are groan-inducingly bad, such as his early brag in “Survival” (the opening track by the way) of “my Mount Rushmore is me with four different expressions, who’s givin’ out this much return on investment?” Drake really buys the idea that just stuffing an album full of twice as many half-baked songs will result in a full project, when the reality is that all of it is still half-baked, i.e. Scorpion. The production is, quite literally, the only saving grace, though it at least makes the music listenable more often than not. “God’s Plan” is the highlight here since it so heavily indebts itself to the production, though Drake himself is no better a rapper nor saying anything more profound here than everywhere else. Basically, by the end of track 2, “Nonstop,” with its deadpan, energy-devoid flow and okay backing production, Disc 1 has shown just about everything it has to offer, making the rest almost completely irrelevant. Sure Drake, you are “God’s chosen rapper,” but other than just saying that a thousand times you are not exactly giving us anything divine here.

But after that, we get to Disc 2, and I was expecting an uptick in the quality. “In My Feelings” and “Nice For What” were the tracks I liked the most coming in, and gave me hope. Unfortunately, these singles are all this side had to offer, and “In My Feelings” was a well that ran dry really fast. Even before the meme started I was sick of the song, which made it hard for me to really enjoy the meme since it meant I had to hear “In My Feelings” over and over again. Even worse, Disc 2 is basically nothing but songs that sound exactly the same as “In My Feelings.” I will even admit that “Nice For What” is pretty similar to “In My Feelings,” but stands out as a highlight thanks to the energetic female vocal sample in the background that pumps up the production and even Drake’s voice to a peak of the whole album. Also, I will grant that this side is far more “sensitive” and “romantic” than disc 1, but in the most shallow way possible. It feels more like Drake is trying to emotionally manipulate me rather than actually appeal to anything real. Further, I felt warned once again that I was in for a rough ride by the very first track, “Peak” on this disc, when the horrible opening bar “Treat you like princess; rest in heaven, Diana. Piquing my interest; she got peak like Montana.”

Overall, this was an album I dreaded writing a full review for, since I did not want to go track-by-track and diagnose every problem. In the end, every problem is the same problem: there is nothing here for me to latch onto except some decent production and the occasional standout. But I feel the same as I have after every overly long Drake album of the past few years, as every good moment is drowned out by the overwhelming number of bad moments. Every good bar has thirty bad ones; every okay track has ten bad ones. Is this the worst Drake will ever get in his basically emotionless style that is on Scorpion? I do not know, but I hope so. There is still space to go downward from here, but right now, if not ever before, Drake really is at the bottom of his musical output.

2/10

ASTROWORLD–Travis Scott

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My experience and knowledge of Travis Scott was not just limited a few months ago, it was non-existent. To be honest, I had largely overlooked the current trap music style in rap, hearing of it more than hearing it. As a result, artists had actually managed to pass me by entirely that had already established a reputation in the industry for their talent and potential, with Travis Scott seeming like the person at the top of the pile now that ASTROWORLD has not just been critically acclaimed beyond almost anything trap music had experienced previous (save for the previous The Carter’s album in some cases and Cardi B), but a degree of commercial success that instantly made dark horse Travis Scott into an instant success above anything he had managed before (which is saying a lot; its not as though he was underground rap or anything). Still, my acknowledgement of Travis Scott’s success is far from me saying I like the album personally. Furthermore, I actually did not like the album on first listen, thinking it dragged a lot in places early, middle, and late, with lyrics that seemed very amateurish and juvenile. Actually, the one good thing I had to say was the music could often be extremely absorbing and compelling, to the point that I almost wished the album was instrumentals only.

At that time, I was thinking a 5 or 6 on ASTROWORLD, but my oh my, how time has built up my opinion of this one. After a second listen, I definitely warmed up to many of the earlier tracks like “STARGAZING” and “SICKO MODE,” but still felt the album overall was not worthy of the praise it was getting. However, those and other songs like “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD,” “NO BYSTANDERS,” “SKELETONS,” and “HOUSTONFORNICATION” lingered in my head, drawing me incessantly back to the album. What I discovered was that I had, right under my nose, been given something I had wanted for a little while to come out of the current trends of rap music: an album that is neo-psychedelic, crazy and ambitious in concept, yet grounded in solid musical execution. Kids See Ghosts definitely fulfilled some of what I wanted, but ASTROWORLD is just wild enough that even with some of its less mature moments I cannot help but love it. I am not the type to get too pumped by a bro-chant, but the “NO BYSTANDERS” refrain of “F*** the club up! F*** the club up, b****!” is so freaking badass coming in as an abrasive attack after the grandiose beauty of “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD” that it even gets to me.

What really stands out on the album is just how beautiful the production is when it hits its peak while also being relentlessly hard-hitting when it wants to be as well. Honestly, though my opinion is still that rap and hip hop music is as much about what is being said as how it is being said, ASTROWORLD is the best argument I have heard yet for the supposedly backing melodies having as much to say as the lyrics in rap. From the beginning of “STARGAZING” we are being transported to a different, warped, drug-addled frame of mind, that is only reinforced by the opening line “Psychedelics got me going crazy.” It even feels like the album undulates between hazy depression and manic bursts of color, until the bottom comes out later and things sober up a bit on “WHO? WHAT!,” “BUTTERFLY EFFECT,” and “HOUSTONFORNICATION” before closing off with the smooth, jazzy “COFFEE BEAN” that wraps everything back around, making the process of ASTROWORLD feel continuous and unending. I definitely think there is more territory to explore here thanks to that track, and look forward to it.

All that being said, though, the album does struggle in terms of lyrics and Travis Scott’s delivery, both of which leave a lot to be desired. “NC-17” is probably the worst offender of this, with not-so-great lines like “Hangin’ with the gang, gets your fangs wet” being among the more clever lines here, with all the others being different versions of “we are going to have sex with lots of girls.” I will say that, contextually, the song works as part of the delirium at work on ASTROWORLD as well as musically still having a great hook that keeps it interesting. Plus, the song hangs around for a very brief time, being an episode in a longer series that ultimately just contributes to the overall picture being painted, not hanging around the center. That is what I really appreciate most about ASTROWORLD too; in a scene that is all about what songs can appeal to the lowest common denominator and possibly catch on radio or streaming playlists, ASTROWORLD is a work concerned more with its elaborate construction and consistantly building this larger work to be greater and greater than the sum of its parts. Following the period where Drake’s new album set a new standard in throwing out whatever random material is trendy and broadly appealing, an artist like Travis Scott has emerged with something that is very much from the same place as other trap artists (talking about depression, drugs, the titular “trap,” and sexual exploits that seem more sensationalized than anything else) yet also appeals to higher standard of musical quality. It is using the language of trap rap, mixing it with psychedelic ideas, and making something unique and interesting out of it. While I might not be the biggest fan of trap and the components of that type of music, I can appreciate an artist making something good out of any sort of base. And I honestly believe that, like with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he has made an album that will popularly be a beloved one for a while, and might be a sign of great things to come from him and others like him.

9/10

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