Young Thug’s “So Much Fun” is less fun than it could be

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Young Thug is an enigma. He’s an unexplainable, boundary-pusher changing the way we consider the limits of genre altogether.

Thug is not bound by the laws of nature. His voice is amorphous. Sometimes it’s a high-pitched squeal, but sometimes a low rapid-fire growl. We’re inclined to say he’s a rapper, but he’s more than that. Young Thug is a machine where one song goes in another completely different song will come out the other end. He can start a song rapping, then he might go a million different directions. He could end up singing, howling, gargling, sputtering or slithering.

In the Pixar movie, Inside Out, the avatars for Joy and Sadness get trapped briefly in the space of the brain reserved for abstract thought. As they try to escape to the main part of the brain, their forms devolve from CGI to polygons to 2D to shapes to lines.

Young Thug is that deconstruction, but for the last 15-20 years of rap music. He’s broken down rapping from words on a beat, to melodic flows, to bars that sound cool but mean nothing, to just pure noise.

For an artist who has never released an “album,” until now, Young Thug has been prolific. Since released the mixtape Tha Tour Pt. 1 with Rich Homie Quan and Birdman in 2014, he’s delivered five more mixtapes, a collaborative mixtape, a collaborative album, three EPs and an R&B project. Thug has given a lot of gifts, but because mixtapes and Eps are considered precursors to an album, we’ve been waiting on one.

Some of those mixtapes, Barter 6, My Name is Jeffrey and the third Slime Season are strong projects that present the potential for a superstar who can’t be confined. The expectation was set that when an actual album finally came out it would be a step above the rest of his discography. A debut album called HY!£UN35 (pronounced Hitunes) was hyped since 2013, a stage had been set.

The official debut album So Much Fun, released this weekend, is ultimately just another Young Thug project. Pointedly, that’s not a bad thing because most of his works are fantastic and strange like the rapper who made them.

As I said, Young Thug is undefinable, but so many rappers have tried to copy that undefinable sound for their own. So Much Fun is half collaborations and many of those collaborators are copycats. Proteges Gunna, Lil Baby, Lil Keed and Lil Duke are essentially little Young Thug clones. Juice WRLD and Lil Uzi Vert are just Thug clones who listened to much My Chemical Romance. It can feel like Young Thug invited his copycats to do half the work, but the listener can’t figure out what half is him. (Quavo, 21 Savage, J. Cole, and Travis Scott also appear on SMF)

So Much Fun is actually, well, fun. Go-to producer Wheezy is a great creative partner and shapes out most of the album. Thug’s work with melodies is ever-present and he conforms himself to every beat.

I keep thinking of Charli XCX when I think of an artist like Thug. (I had this thought over a year ago about Lil Yachty.) I appreciate artists like Young Thug, Charli and Yachty because they find wide appeals reenvisioning how pop, rap or both should sound, by breaking down the parts of the genre machine and creating something new and refreshing.

After her commercially-appealing, but somewhat bland album Sucker, Charli went on the path of working with out-there producers and collaborators to make amazing mixtapes like Pop 2 and Number 1 Angelthat sacrificed commercial appeal for sound-bending reimaginings of pop songs.

Ultimately, Thug could have made a greater push to the constructs he’s already deconstructed. Every song could have come out on any of the previous projects. Young Thug is weird, but I’m ready for the music he makes to get weirder. He has the ability to continue to break down the confines of genre and create something amazing.

4 out of 5

Best Track: “Surf” (featuring Gunna)

E-40’s “Bet You Didn’t Know That” is ridiculous and informative

E-40 is the most prolific rapper. Period. He does not only put out 30-track albums. He releases out multiple projects a year.

20-plus track albums are becoming the norm. When that happens, it is very easy to drift off in the middle. However, there are those moments where a track catches your full attention.

In the middle of 40 Water’s latest and 29th (29th!) album, Practice Makes Paper, there is one of those songs. Now, I wouldn’t say “Bet You Didn’t Know,” track 22 of 26, is great, nor would I say it’s terrible. But it is amazing and I just had to say something about it.

The beat by Issue is great has one of those obscure pop samples. My expectation was that E-40 was going to continue to just flex his resume of his 33-year career and his talents as a hustler, but how wrong I was.

For almost four minutes, E-40 just lists out interesting facts you might not have known. I thought he was just introing his own song, but the verses just never came. He literally spat facts. That’s it. I thought the Lonely Island was going to show up, but this was a not parody song.

Here are the top three facts you can learn from E-40’s “Bet You Didn’t Know”:

  • Oatmeal can scrape the plaque off of your arteries
  • You could put your kid on your credit card to help your kids build they credit
  • A dolphin can beat a shark

I didn’t want to just share this song with everyone because it’s amazing that it exists. I wanted to make sure you learned something today.

E-40 is a national treasure and I hope he makes at least 29 more albums.

 

 

“The Lost Boy” by YBN Cordae

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“And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife/And you may ask yourself, “Well… how did I get here?” asked David Byrne on “Once in a Lifetime.” Life is dynamic. Fortunes can be made and reversed. We may arrive at points in our life where our surroundings are unrecognizable a year earlier.

The Lost Boy, the debut album by DMV-based rapper YBN Cordae does not sound a damn thing like Talking Heads, but it wrestles with that concept. I was there, now I’m here isn’t a new idea. Drake famously started from the bottom even though he was on a teen soap opera before he was a rap and pop phenomenon. Cordae doesn’t approach getting there like winning the race and gnashing his teeth into his gold medal.  He is catching his breath and looking back at the starting line.

YBN Cordae’s rise, while no one would say is meteoric, has happened fast. It does feel unexpected though because he isn’t the first YBN rapper to reach prominence. YBN Nahmir had a minor hit in 2017 with “Rubbin Off The Paint,” a fun, quick song about flexing guns.

There are a lot of rappers out there with acronyms and crew affiliations preceding their names: A$AP Rocky & Ferg, NBA Youngboy (Commercially known as Young Boy Never Broke Again due to an obvious copyright issue), NLE Choppa, YK Osiris, and ShooterGang Kony. These rappers are part of larger crews that are intended to create opportunities for all their members, but usually only one or two get the glory.  The other crew affiliates are relegated to an occasional guest verse.

That’s what makes YBN Cordae the surprising star of a crew with an interesting backstory. YBN all met while playing Grand Theft Auto V online. They would rap as they played. Like Brockhampton, they were all around the map but met online. Then they began to link up as a crew. There are roughly 20 members. From the jump, it had seemed that Alabama-raised Nahmir would be the sole star of YBN or at least have the sole hit. Then, Cordae started putting out tracks and videos and people paid attention.

He put out a track called “Kung Fu,” and people noticed the disparity between the two rappers. “Rubbing Off The Paint,” was based around its feathery beat and it was over rather quickly in one verse. “Kung Fu” was more bombastic and while Cordae could go for two or three.

Cordae became the face of YBN. A few weeks ago, he was named an XXL Freshman, one year after Nahmir receive the same accolade. He is in no way a big-time star like a Drake or a Travis Scott, but he’s getting name recognition and a real career off the ground.

The Lost Boy features many A-list guests including Meek Mill, Pusha T, Anderson .Paak and Chance The Rapper. (This morning I presumed I would be listening to and reflecting on Chance’s debut album The Big Day, however, it didn’t arrive until midday.) But The Lost Boy sounds like an album Chance would make but in a more succinct package.

Cordae’s album sounds like a distant cousin of Coloring Book. Much of the album has that kind of spirituality the Chicago rapper wraps himself in. Cordae reaches out to his cousins, parents and there’s even a skit in the middle called “Grandma’s House,” which is supposedly a recording of his family sings in response with their matriarch.

Home is a common theme on the project. The Chance collaboration “Bad Idea,” refers to the innocence of childhood, but also the traumas that could be seen on Cordae’s block. “Way Back Home,” with Ty Dolla $ign, however, is about the exhaustion of being on the road. On “We Gon Make It,” Meek Mill does his best Young Thug-impersonation on the hook, while the two rappers say how they’re going to make it up to their family.

Cordae proves he’s a truly talented rapper as well. On “RNP,” Anderson .Paak and Cordae spit conversationally. Take A Daytrip who produced Lil Nas X’s “Panini” and Sheck Wes’ “Mo Bamba,” crafted “Broke as Fuck” in which the frantic beat feels acts as an accelerating treadmill and pushing Cordae to rap faster.

I was lucky delivered his new album later than expected. The Lost Boy was a pleasant surprise, but it’s more than just a filler for the 12 hours we waited to get The Big Day. It’s a promising debut for an artist given an unexpected opportunity to be a star.

Score: 4/5

Best Track: “RNP” (featuring Anderson .Paak)

“Brandon Banks” by Maxo Kream

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Is there still a place for storytellers and traditionalists in rap music? Songs are becoming shorter. Artists are putting out 20-plus song albums that begin to blend into each other after song five. Algorithms and streams are making it more profitable to churn out a bunch of repetitive, flashy two-minute hits than tell a story.  A rap song might not even be confined to rap anymore.

Alas, there may still be a place for traditionalists. In 2019, the two hottest new artists Charlotte’s DaBaby and Houston’s Megan Thee Stallion don’t make SoundCloud rap or singsong-rap. They just rap, that’s it. So maybe, we’re starting to stray back to old norms.

And there’s a place for storytellers too. While not exactly 2019’s hot new artist, Maxo Kream has released his major-label debut, Brandon Banks, this week. (Last year, he released his indie debut Punken. It turns out the term debut is open to interpretation.)

The title Brandon Banks is the name Maxo’s Nigerian-born father Emekwanem Ogugua Biosah used as a “scammer” as Maxo says before he ended up in prison.  (Maxo’s government name is Emekwanem Ogugua Biosah Jr.) The album’s cover is photos of their faces taped together. The album is the story of the senior Biosah going away, Maxo becoming the man of the house and turning to hustling to support himself and his family.

Maxo is a master storyteller using his husky voice and pitter-patter flow to pack a short story into a few verses. Each track is a vignette about Maxo’s life of crime with the Houston crips. “3 AM” is a play-by-play of a house robbery reminiscent of Kendrick’s “The Art of Peer Pressure” featuring Lamar’s labelmate ScHoolboy Q. The opener “Meet Again” plays as the letters Maxo and his father swapped while he was locked up.

While this is Maxo’s story, there is a cadre of major-label debut status guests including Q, Travis Scott, A$AP Ferg, and Megan Thee aforementioned Stallion. While the album is a story of growing up without a father, there are songs meant for the radio. On “She Live,” Megan and Maxo exchange what they’re looking for in a sexual partner. The Scott-featuring “The Relays,” sounds like a legitimate hit while La Flame doesn’t push too much of his auto-tuned tendencies on to Maxo’s own.

Brandon Banks is an eclectic display of Maxo’s technical and storytelling ability. Most of the tracks are grim tales of life in mostly-typical Houston style including “Bissonet,” “Brenda,” and “8 Figures.” There’s a moment near the end on “Dairy Ashford Bastard” where it almost sounds like we’re listening to Chance The Rapper.

Maxo Kream is a solid traditional rap storyteller in a time when Hip-Hop seems to be disintegrating into every other genre. Brandon Banks is the harrowing and detailed tale of fatherless men on the streets of Houston. That is a tale worth hearing in full.

Score: 4.5/5

Best Track: “8 Figures”

 

 

Song of the Summer and 49 other tracks

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Mid-July might be a little late in the game to provide you a playlist for your summer. There’s still enough beach weeks left to make use of these fifty songs spanning decades and genres.

Before I get to that…

It’s an ever-important song to ordain a song of the summer. It’s competitive this year because there hasn’t exactly been a “Call Me Maybe” or “Despacito” this go around. In the playlist below you’ll find the tracks from Drake, Zedd, Calvin Harris and Ella Mai that are contenders, but I knew my pick back in April.

It’s Cardi’s world and we just live in it. “I Like It” isn’t just the song of the summer. It could crack the top ten best songs of the year. A stand out from the eclectic Invasion of PrivacyCardi B embraces her latin roots with the help of Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and Colombian superstar J Balvin. The single is high energy supported by a sample of Pete Rodriguez’ boogaloo classic “I Like It Like That.”

The beauty of “I Like It” is that it continues a trend seen with “Despacito.” Pop music is becoming increasingly global. Cardi dominated the second half of that summer with “Bodak Yellow.” Now, she’s back this time with essentially a combination of “Bodak” and “Despacito.”

While current U.S. foreign policy under the Trump administration rejects globalization, two summers in a row, the U.S. charts embrace it.

***

Besides “I Like It,” here are 49 other tracks spanning from classic rock, indie, house, pop, funk and rap to play at your cook-out, pool party or beach day. (See a Spotify playlist here.)

I Actually Went to a Harry Styles Show

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Harry Styles [Photo: Nick Dye]
I went to a Harry Styles concert. I did not lose a bet. I was not dragged into it by someone. I chose to go on my own volition. I regret nothing.

Styles’ self-titled album is fantastic, one of the most underrated albums of 2017. As a former member of the biggest boy band since *NSYNC and the best one until BROCKHAMPTON, you would expect his album would be some Bieber-esque piece of easy pop music.

On the contrary, Harry Styles was a classic rock album in the mold of Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Elton John. None of the ten tracks sound like they belong on the Billboard charts from the last 40 years.

A few weeks ago, I decided to buy cheap seats at the Capital One Arena and take in the Styles experience. My friend Cole and I had talked about the album over the past year so he came up from Durham, NC to see Harry.

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Kacey Musgraves [Photo: Nick Dye]
The opener for Styles was Kacey Musgraves, whose new album Golden Hour, as reported on this blog, is one of the best albums of this year. Musgraves went on at 8 PM, walking up to the Beatles’ “Because.” The excitement for Musgraves was higher than expected, yet not even a quarter of the noise level reserved for the young Brit.

Musgraves was supported by a six-piece band of Nashville sessions and touring veterans. She played tracks off Hour plus “Follow Your Arrow,” from her debut album in honor of Pride. Musgraves hit the heartstrings with a powerfully-still rendition of “Rainbow.” She concluded with the funky “High Horse,” which included a disco-ball in the shape of a saddle.

Naively, I expected that the crowd would be more mature than a One Direction show based off the album. The large ring-like display lowered to hide the stage during set up for Styles. The screen presented an animated-suited version of Styles playing with a rubix cube. At that moment, we received a preview of a fraction of the screams we would endure.

It was at this point that I realized that I was, in fact, at a Harry Styles show. I often repeated this fact to Cole over the sounds of screaming. About 45 minutes after Musgraves set concluded, the lights went down and animated Styles figured out his rubix cube.

If and when I go deaf, I can pinpoint this as the moment my hearing took a turn for the worse. Now, Beatlemania preceded me by about 30 years, but the pandemonium as the screen raised and Styles appeared is the closest I’ll ever get to witnessing it.

The show began with “Only Angel,” which I predicted to Cole would be the opener based on it’s minute long intro and one of the few high energy tracks from the album. Styles wore a plaid suit, which looked comical on him, but way less comical than it would on nearly anyone else.

Sometimes, Styles appeared to be the reboot of Mick Jagger. He walked the stage with the same egotistical strut and hip shaking. Like Jagger, he was relishing the adoration the crowd poured on him. He was supported by a gender-equal four-piece band.

The large ring display over head displayed the Brit for those of us up in the nosebleeds. In the pit before the stage, fans gleefully bounced and pranced around with one another. An audience member in a banana suit who caught the attention of both Musgraves and Styles.

For the next hour and forty-five minutes, thousands of screaming people lost their mind at Styles every move. It was strange to watch people lose their minds at a 24-year-old, but it did make everyone more comfortable singing along. I did not feel embarrassed to know every word from the album. (I mean, I am now embarassed writing this, but at the time I was not.)

The set began with a string of five tracks from the debut album simmering down from “Angel.” He threw in a few One Direction tracks including the one I know. He covered Ariana Grande’s “Just A Little Bit of Your Heart,” which he wrote for her great 2014 album My Everything. (I had no idea Styles wrote his own songs, let alone for Grande.)

Near the end of his set, Styles played two songs with his guitarist on small stage near the back of the crowd. As he trekked down the middle of the crowd, he was expectedly swarmed by screaming fans emerging at the small stage with a bouquet of roses. (Of course someone was prepared to give him flowers.)

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[Photo: Nick Dye]
Styles returned to the stage to close the set. He concluded with the single “Sign of the Times,” which Cole said is “low-key anthem.” (Unfortunately, he didn’t fly as he did in the music video.) Afterwards, Styles descended into a trap door in the stage.

He returned maybe four minutes later. The encore began with the best song from the album, the somber “From The Dining Table.” To my excitement, he performed a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” He officially concluded with the fast and furious “Kiwi.

By the end of the night, Cole and I were exhausted. The screaming and standing drained all our energy. Harry Styles has a bright future as a performer. “I’m excited for him to keep making more music,” said Cole. Hopefully, more adults will start to take him seriously and come to the shows, instead of those just taking their kids.

For now, we really did this with a full basketball arena of screaming children. We went to a Harry Styles show.

 

World’s Most Profitable Couple’s Therapy

The Carters – Everything is Love (8/10)

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[Roc Nation/Ivy Park/UMG]
“Nobody wins when the family feuds,” Jay-Z rapped on, well, “Family Feud” from 2017’s 4:44.

That statement makes plenty of sense for the traditional nuclear family. For The Carters, everyone else won when the family feuded.

First, Beyonce released Lemonade, a genius-level-work following a decades-long career of pop and R&B smashes. The audio-visual masterpiece aired her husband’s dirty laundry, while also addressing the plight of black women in America.

Then, a year later Jay-Z releases 4:44, his best record since 2007’s American Gangster. Jay accepted his role as an elder statesman. He faced himself as a man, husband and father by admitting his mistakes.

Now, America’s true first couple have renewed their marriage. On Saturday afternoon, they surprised us with their first collaborative album, Everything is Love. It’s a victory lap about rediscovering love and releasing two platinum albums while doing it. While Lemonade was anguish and 4:44 was an apology, Everything is Love is resolution and strength.

“What’s better than one billionaire? Two,” Jay raps later on “Family Feud.”

The Carters are rich beyond imagination. They don’t flex. They’re that rich. Everything almost feels like a throwaway. Bey and Jay could just spend a few nights in the studio while Blue, Rumi and Sir slept and churn this out for the hell of it.

This isn’t Beyonce featuring Jay-Z or Jay-Z featuring Beyonce. This is what marriage should be, an equal partnership. While Jay-Z will never, and should never, be a singer, Beyonce proves to be a real force rapping. It’s a beautiful thing to conquer the charts, and the world, with your spouse.

Everything manipulates a few storylines in the Jay-Z/Beyonce universe. Obviously, the Carters have concluded three years of public marital strife. With Everything, we get a joyous resolution.

The timing of this record heats up two of Jay’s cold wars. Kanye West was the last person to collaborate on an album with him. In 2016, Kanye took shots at Jay-Z at a Saint Pablo show. Everything was released in the middle of Kanye’s five-week five-album rollout.

The latest album in this marathon is Nas’ NASIR, which came out less than 24 hours before the collaboration. Nas and Jay had one of the most aggressive beefs in rap history in 2001. There was a legitimate concern it could come to a Biggie-Tupac-style conclusion. While the two have resolved their differences, Everything mutes NASIR‘s hype.

Lastly, the couple attacks the music and entertainment industry as a whole. On “Apeshit,” Jay takes shots at the Super Bowl and the Grammys claiming he doesn’t need commercial approval. On “Nice,” Bey does the same to Spotify as Lemonade can do real numbers on Tidal. (The album was released on Spotify and Apple Music on Monday. Spotify has not put the album on the new releases page.)

Everything is Love is momentous. It takes us into the Carters’ world where hard work pays off and the riches are bountiful. Not only is this album a testament to their work ethic, but the hardships of marriage. They let us witness them work through something which tears families apart. Many couples wouldn’t forgive each other. The American royals have taken stock of their marriage and it’s worth the challenge.

While they’re world famous, Jay-Z and Beyonce have had a private marriage. This album is prideful of how strong their bond has become. Ultimately, if love cannot make it through the ringer, it may not be love at all.

Best Track: “LOVEHAPPY”