Review Express: DJ Khaled, Desiigner, Lil Yachty

The last couple weeks have seen the release of some major projects from some of hip-hop’s biggest stars. Here are my thoughts on DJ Khaled, Desiigner, and Lil Yachty’s new records.

DJ Khaled | Major Key

1469758123_2e3b6182c2f8cc6633eb22f07d828238“Another one.” The most famous of all the DJ Khaled-isms. He shouts it out at the beginning of nearly all his songs, and it’s a proclamation of self-confidence: oh, this track is a huge hit? Just another one from DJ Khaled. He’s responsible for some of mainstream rap’s biggest posse cuts in the last decade, including “Out Here Grindin'”, which featured everyone from Rick Ross to Boosie Badazz, “I’m On One”, which included a star-making feature from a young Drake, and “All I Do Is Win”, which is absolutely inescapable at sporting events and has entered the upper echelon of hype-hop along Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard In Da Paint”. Khaled is a master networker, someone who manages to bring together the biggest names in hip hop and R&B onto a record that is ultimately a compilation.

Aside from networking and ad-libbing, it’s unclear exactly what it is that DJ Khaled does. He doesn’t really produce music anymore. Because of this, his releases feel dissonant and disjointed — he rarely tries to make a statement with his music. But after his establishment as an internet meme through his Snapchat escapades, Major Key is the biggest release Khaled has ever curated. The features list is absolutely bonkers: Kendrick Lamar, Gucci Mane, YG, Future, Jay-Z(!), Nas(!!!), and many, many more. But unfortunately, the songs themselves rarely deviate from the pop rap sound that we’ve been hearing for the length of Khaled’s career.

As expected, Major Key‘s songs are extremely hit-or-miss. There are clear highlights. The solo Drake cut “For Free” (shoutout K. Dot) is way better than pretty much everything on Views. Drake just seems way more self-assured than he has in a while, and ends up taking himself much less seriously than he did on his own record. That quality, like it always has, complements him well. “Do You Mind”, which is the most populated track on the record with features from Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, August Alsina, Jeremih, Future, & Rick Ross makes me nostalgic for the mid-2000s, when the boundary between hip hop and R&B was smaller than ever. Brown and Jeremih, in particular, lend their fantastic focal talents well to the track. Finally, the best pure hip-hop song is “Don’t Ever Play Yourself”, which rejuvenates some of the best pop rappers from the mid-2000s (Fabolous, Jadakiss, Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe) alongside a young man who is likely to fill that spot in upcoming years in Kent Jones.

There are bad tracks on this project as well, and a lot of them. Lead single “I Got The Keys”, featuring Jay-Z and Future, is obnoxious, and includes one of the worst hooks of Future’s career. “Jermaine’s Interlude”, a solo cut from J. Cole, makes him sound like he wants to be Anderson .Paak — and fails miserably. Finally, the single worst song on Major Key is the (ironically) unforgivable “Forgive Me Father”, which features Wiz Khalifa (ugh), Wale (ughhh), and Meghan Trainor (UGHHHHH). It’s just terrible — saturated gospel that might be interesting or inspiring to a midwestern 5th grader at best.

It’s clear that Major Key isn’t meant to be taken as a cohesive artistic statement, but that doesn’t forgive many of the really, really unnecessary filler on the album. DJ Khaled may have the networking skills of a label head, but his taste leaves a lot to be desired.

Desiigner | New English

DesiignerNewEnglishI got broads in Atlanta.” Those five words have catapulted Desiigner into pop superstardom. His song “Panda” — the best pure hip-hop banger of 2016, and possibly further — reached number one on Billboard’s charts, and he’s been the most high-profile member of XXL’s 2016 Freshman Class with his Timmy Turner freestyle. When Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo dropped, if people weren’t talking about album’s more incendiary lyrics, they were wondering this: who in the world is Desiigner? They all wanted to know who hip-hop’s next superstar was. In my review, I predicted his superstardom. But with New English, he’s disappointed me — and just about everyone else.

I never understood the “Future clone” accusations when “Panda” was at the peak of its popularity. I didn’t think that a black person with a low voice was automatically a copycat of another black man with a low voice. But on New English, the comparisons are inescapable. Tracks like “Roll Wit Me” and “Caliber” are indistinguishable from many of Future’s recent stretch of AutoTuned crooning. And as someone who’s never been a huge Future fan, that’s really disappointing, especially with Future’s over-saturation in the last couple years. Plus, many of the tracks here are short and underdeveloped, consisting of just a hook and a verse — just like “Panda” was.

And that’s too bad, because there are good ideas here. The beat on “Monstas & Villains”? Absolutely bonkers. It’s pure grand, orchestral trap. But the track is 37 seconds long. Like, what’s the point? The only real highlights on this thing are “Da Day”, which is super foreboding and intense, and “Overnight”, which would’ve fit right at home on Travis Scott’s Rodeo — only it would’ve been like the eighth-best song on that record. Desiigner has a number one hit, and that’s more than most rappers can say. But until he starts showing more consistency, the reality of being a one-hit wonder is inching closer and closer.

Lil Yachty | Summer Songs 2

3141acdb7cfa4c9721748626d98062ce.1000x1000x1You either love him or you hate him. There hasn’t been anyone as polarizing as Lil Yachty within hip-hop in a few years. He’s only 18 years old. He sings more than he raps. His music has way more pop influence than he’d want you to believe. And he doesn’t take himself seriously — at all.

I’m one of the believers. Lil Boat, Yachty’s debut mixtape, is one of my very favorite releases of 2016. It’s infectious and filled with highlights from top to bottom. “Intro”, “Good Day”, “Minnesota (Remix)”, “One Night”, and “Out Late” are all delightful. Plus, Yachty has appeared on one of my favorite singles of the year, Big Baby D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli”. A reviewer that I really respect has described Lil Yachty’s music as “dreamy rap ballads that make me feel good”, and I think that’s about as apt of a statement regarding his music as I can imagine.

So just a few months after Lil Boat, we get Summer Songs 2, Yachty’s second mixtape. And to be honest, I really don’t have a lot to say about the record. It’s just not as fun as Lil Boat. There are flashes, like on “First Day Of Summer”, “King of Teens”, and “Life Goes On”, but none of it comes close to Lil Boat‘s greatness. Songs like “IDK” and “Shoot Out The Roof” are just so forgettable, which is a major disappointment from someone whose music is generally anything but. This is a good collection of songs for summer ’16, but forgive me if I put it on the back burner once September rolls around.

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Albums I Discovered in 2016

Every year, an increasingly gargantuan catalog of music is released spanning the entire spectrum of popular music. While I try to listen to everything, it’s honestly pretty impossible. Still, it’s hard to critically evaluate music without the context of albums from the past. So here are five albums that I discovered in 2016, from bona fide classics to completely unknown releases.

Blu | Below The Heavens

below20the20heavens20in20hell20happy20with20your20new20imag20below20the20heavensAhhhhh! This album!! It’s pretty much perfect, from front to back. Blu, a Los Angeles-based underground rapper, found his match in established producer Exile, who helped him create his personal life’s opus. Blu oozes charisma and brutal honesty, telling us stories about trying to make it as a rapper, convincing his family that he belongs in the game, and, surprisingly, his love life. Exile brings his signature stunning soul in production, with plenty of beautiful strings and muted percussion, making this album a great listen even when you take away Blu’s fantastic stories. Blu has never been able to match this effort (released back in 2007), but the fact that it exists puts him in underground rap’s upper echelon for the aughts.

Favorite song: “Blu Colla Workers”

Listen if you like: Logic, early Kanye West

Lewis | L’amour

lita117_highres_coverYou’re gonna need to sit down for Lewis’s full story, profiled in an excellent Maxim feature last year. In short, someone discovered this vinyl record at a flea shop in Alberta, leading the collector who purchased it to try to find the artist behind these tunes. If the music wasn’t any good, people wouldn’t try as hard, but on L’amour, Lewis gives us a collection of soft, heart-wrenchingly beautiful synth-folk tunes. The lyrics are mostly unintelligible, but Lewis tells more with his inflections, emotions, and song titles than he would with his lyrics anyway. Originally recorded and released in 1986, it has since been re-released on vinyl.

Favorite song: “Like To See You Again”

Listen if you like: Bob Dylan at his folkiest, Bon Iver

MF Doom | Mm.. Food

mmfood-4fe9a15a52659MF Doom is a deity in underground hip-hop. He competes with others on his label, Stone’s Throw Records, including impeccable producers Madlib and the late J. Dilla. But Doom is the most revered, and for good reason: he’s responsible for three of the best underground hip hop records of the aughts. His debut, Operation: Doomsday, and his collaboration with Madlib as Madvillain on Madvillainy are Doom’s best-known records, but my favorite is definitely Mm.. Food, an entire album dedicated to and viewed through the lens of — you guessed it — food. Doom handled most of the production on this record, along with the rapping, and takes his Dr. Doom-like character to horrifying heights in gluttony and greed. His sometimes hilarious, sometimes frightening, but always compelling rapping makes Mm.. Food (from 2004) my favorite Doom record.

Favorite song: “Potholderz”

Listen if you like: Earl Sweatshirt, comic books

The Avalanches | Since I Left You

1324535As a fan of creative sampling in hip-hop, I’ve always been a fan of the genre of plunderphonics, which stitches together samples from across genre lines to make a cohesive song — on paper. While the Dust Brothers (producers for the Beastie Boys, Beck) helped innovate this sound, many times it doesn’t really translate to a cohesive product. The Avalanches’ first and (for 16 years) only release is the pinnacle of plunderphonics as a genre. From the stunning title track that kicks the album off, to danceable singles “Frontier Psychiatrist” and “Electricity”, Since I Left You is a required listen for anyone who loves sampling.

Favorite song: “Since I Left You”

Listen if you like: J. Dilla, DJ Shadow, early Beck

Fashawn | Boy Meets World

cs1477943-02a-bigIn a lot of ways, Fashawn’s Boy Meets World is a sequel to Blu’s Below The Heavens. It’s produced by Exile — who managed to get even more soulful and pop-oriented in his production. It’s a very self-obsessed record. But it’s decidedly Fashawn’s show on Boy Meets World; it’s an ode to his childhood. According to “Samsonite Man”, Fashawn had no less than five father figures in his life, a rotating cast of characters that ranged from very supportive to deadbeats. The most distinct feature of this record is how casual all of it sounds. Fashawn managed to make a classic of a record and get signed to Nas’s label — all at the age of 21.

Favorite song: “Samsonite Man”

Listen if you like: Blu, Nas, old-school soul

REVIEW: Logic | Bobby Tarantino

In the first 24 hours after the release of his fifth mixtape, Bobby Tarantino, the project’s announcement garnered over 55,000 retweets and 75,000 likes. Similar to pop artists like Twenty-One Pilots and Imagine Dragons, Logic gets very little coverage in releasing his music, but after looking at his social media stats (nearly one million Twitter followers), it’s clear: Logic is one of the biggest rappers alive.

White kids love Logic. He’s mixed-race, but doesn’t say the N-word, so conservative moms are generally okay with their impressionable adolescent sons listening to him. He’s rarely violent, doesn’t use visceral imagery, and lives in his feelings and experiences as opposed to hedonistic fantasies of drugs and sex. In the right hands, this might be a breath of fresh air; the Exile-produced debuts of Blu (Below The Heavens) and Fashawn (Boy Meets World) are taken from similar perspectives. But those records were so soulful, so charismatic, and so musical that it’s difficult to live up to their greatness. Logic doesn’t need to be those guys, but that’s the only avenue through which I can see him live up to his reputation.

I didn’t really like The Incredible True Story, Logic’s studio debut, but I saw potential in singles like “Young Jesus” which saw him trade bars and generally fuck around over NYC-style production and a bed of self-confidence. On most tracks, Logic is a technically competent rapper, but he didn’t even need it here — his charisma led him to make a great single. Still, the album didn’t leave much of an impression on me, but it did make him far more popular. Now, Logic can’t be ignored.

So he drops Bobby Tarantino, just seven months removed from The Incredible True Story. It’s billed as being a muscular, tough return to form for Logic, which had me excited, as the previous album’s more braggadocious tracks were definitely the project’s highlights. Unfortunately, Logic manages to leave even less of an impression this time around, with unbelievably generic lyrics, production, and themes. At points when listening to the record, I actively had to make myself focus on the music; 6ix’s production is smooth, trap-influenced, and occasionally jazzy, but it never takes any risks.

In fact, being averse to risk-taking seems to be a recurring theme on Bobby Tarantino. Logic manages to check off a laundry list of stylistic cues from across hip-hop’s landscape. Do you appreciate Hopsin’s self-obsessed style, but want it to be less challenging? This record has it. Are the beats on Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late too experimental? This project turns it down a notch. Do you want a better lyricist and flow-creator than Big Sean — but not that much better? Bobby Tarantino is the mixtape for you. It doesn’t help that on top of being generic, the songs are redundant: on two separate occasions, Logic recycles hooks from a earlier in the album, and on another occasion, he just spits the same verse on the second as the first.

Bobby Tarantino has flashes of something that might be okay. Logic discusses his mixed-race background on “Slave”, bringing on a far more confrontational tone than we had heard earlier on the tape. I actually kind of like the full-on trap of “The Jam”, but that has more to do with my appreciation for Chicago bop and Atlanta Auto-Tune than Logic himself. Finally, the interlude “Studio Ambience At Night: Malibu” is actually pretty interesting, and sounds like it could be genuine. But these moments are few and far between, making the record’s brief 33-minute runtime seem twice as long.

I want to like Logic. I really do! He seems like a genuinely good guy, and appreciates his fans as much as any rapper in the game right now. He’s a classic success story, coming from the projects growing up and exploding in popularity seemingly overnight. But his music never breaks any new ground or innovates in any way. For someone to fail to innovate and still make great music means they have to be the very best, and Logic is far from the best in hip-hop. Maybe it’s the extreme non-specificity of Logic’s music that makes him so popular. Like a tumblr screencap, an Odyssey Online article, or the bands I mentioned earlier, he succeeds on being lowest common denominator. By straying away from specifics, Logic appeals to everyone.