Thursday, April 10, 2014

Actress Review

Actress, Ghettoville, Ninja Tune (www.ninjatune.net)


Actress is the stage name of British producer Darren J. Cunningham, who has been performing under that moniker for the past six years. His three previous albums offered an art-damaged mash-up of ambient, dance, minimalism, and experimental music. Actress has called Ghettoville “the bleached out and black tinted conclusion of the Actress image,” and it sounds like a funeral. The bubbly warmth that underpinned his earlier work is largely absent, replaced by bleak industrial soundscapes.

Actress’s music has always challenged listeners with its sparseness and occasional dissonant elements, but there was a warmth to his earlier albums that smoothed out the rougher edges. That warmth has been hammered out of Ghettoville. At times it seems as if Actress is daring listeners to try to make it until the end of the album. He starts things off with seven minutes of slow clanging (“Forgiven”), and then gives the listener five and a half minutes of static glitch (“Street Corp.”). It’s not until “Corner,” the third song on the album, that anything like a beat appears, and it is slow and mournful. Where Actress’s earlier work was grounded in throbbing pulses, Ghettoville is lethargic and murky, crawling along at a menacing pace.

Not everything here is static, distortion and clanging. Much of the album features Actress doing what he does best: deconstructing standard electronic music templates, and creating music that is experimental yet recognizable. “Rims” is built around a sinister bassline and some clicks and whistles that’s like two songbirds having a low-riding competition. “Gaze” is a house music song bleeding through the walls of an apartment. “Image” adds some clattering Detroit techno 808s into the mix. Actress is also pushing his sound forward, adding filtered vocals and offering fractured takes on hip-hop (“Rule”) and R&B (“Rap”). These songs capture what makes Actress such a vital and important part of contemporary electronic music. His songs are stripped down to the bare essential, and he uses sounds that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with music. He explores the patterns that emerge with repetition, avoiding big buildups or breakdowns. Everything feels carefully placed without a single extraneous click or blurb. At his best, his experimentation is grounded in beats so even at their weirdest the songs still bounce.

Unfortunately, the rhythm of the album is constantly interrupted by cacophonous dirges which makes it feel unsettled. Some of the songs stick around long after their musical point has been made, and the album itself is overlong. Just when “Ghettoville” settles into an off-kilter groove like “Rims,” it gets derailed by a buzzkill like “Contagious.”

While much of Ghettoville is up to Actress's usual high standards, it is an unfriendly and uneven album. It’s the soundtrack to urban decay and depression. It’s about exploring dark places and spending an uncomfortable amount of time in them. It is also a suicide note from a pseudonym, and like many suicides, there is a selfishness and lack of regard for others in Ghettoville. Actress isn’t thinking about how his music will sound to other people. He’s not concerned with bringing listener along. He’s not attempting to make an aesthetically pleasing album, or one that sets a consistent mood.  As a result, Ghettoville is a bit of a letdown. If this truly is Actress's last gasp, he's not going out with a bang but a whimper.

Originally posted on RapReviews

Friday, March 14, 2014

Female Rappers

There was an article last week on NPR titled "Where Did All the Female Rappers Go?"

I wrote a comment on the site, and there was a nice debate in the comments section.  Here's what I wrote:

I'm not going to deny that there is a lot of sexism towards and prejudice against female rappers, or that mainstream hip-hop has gotten cartoonishly sexist. However, Angel Haze's album was panned because it was not that good. Her lyrics, which were strong on her mixtapes, are reduced to overused flower metaphors, cliches, platitudes, and vague encouragements to overcome adversity. The album tries to mash together her fierce rapping with dance pop and it doesn't work. Haze is gifted, but "Dirty Gold" is not a good example of her talents - it's an example of the label trying to make her all things to all people and losing what is interesting about the artist in the process. And Kreayshawn is terrible as a rapper- there's a reason her album didn't sell.
You're right that Haze's album was rated lower than less lyrical rappers, but lyricism isn't the end-all, be-all in hip-hop,. That's like saying an artist is no good because their paintings aren't representational. Having a certain vibe can be just as powerful, even if the rapper isn't saying much lyrically. "Hard In the Paint" may be simplistic, but it works as a song a lot better than many so-called lyrical rap songs. Especially ones as chock full of cliche's as the ones on "Dirty Gold."
Haze is emblematic of the problem facing female rappers. It's not enough for them to be able to rap. They have to sing as well. They have to be street, but also sexy, rap as well as the boys but also be good-looking and have pop appeal. Meanwhile, a male rapper can be overweight, ugly, and do nothing but slur about getting drunk and partying with strippers and they get a million downloads.

Anyways, it led me to review two recent mixtapes by female artists.  The first was Chicago rapper/singer Tink's Winters Diary 2. 

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Brand New You're Retro

I've been enjoying a lot of the melodic punky music that has come out recently. The Joanna Gruesome record from last year is growing on me. I originally had issues with the noisy lo-finess of of it, but with better headphones the melodies come through much more clearly. They have a nice contrast between male and female vocals, loud punk elements and strong melodies.






I also like the new Bleeding Rainbow record. It is a little less punk, but still has that winning combination of loud guitars and female vocals.



I'm also really enjoying Solids' Blame Confusion, which is more grungy and less melodic.




What dawned on me in listening to them is that they all sound very early 90s. Joanna Gruesome could be on K Records. But since they are all in their twenties, them playing this music is sort of like if I had played classic rock as a kid. Or the Beatles. Which makes me feel old.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Angel Haze Review

I reviewed Angel Haze's new album Dirty Gold on RapReviews this week. It's posted below. I had a viscerally negative reaction to the album after listening to it for two weeks straight. Maybe I don't listen to enough pop music so the terribleness of it shocks me, or maybe I was just expecting more from Haze. She has been through legitimate shit and has legitimate talent, but this felt like so much other narcissistic, shallow, self-absorbed pop culture bullshit. Blech.

Diversity has become such a politically correct buzz word in recent years that it is easy to overlook why it is such an important issue. Done right, diversity allows for the inclusion of voices and ideas that would otherwise be overlooked. Diversity means including women and people of color in medical studies, so that issues that are specific to women and different ethnicities are addressed. It means designing buildings so people in wheelchairs can use them. It means designing products and programs that address the wants and needs of a range of customers and constituents, and not just the ones that are the most dominant. Diversity means getting a more accurate picture of what is really going on. Over the course of six mixtapes, Angel Haze has shown why there needs to be more diversity in rap, and what we are missing by having so few prominent female rappers. Haze is a fierce, skilled rapper who can shit-talk with the best of them but also drops rhymes about the struggles that women face. Her 2012 covers EP "Classicks" ended with a version of Eminem's "Cleaning Out My Closet" where she rapped about being sexually abused by multiple men for years. It is a perspective that you rarely get in pop music, let alone hip-hop.
"White Lilies/White Lies" is another example of the perspectives we miss because men dominate hip-hop. There are a thousand rap songs about strippers, but "White Lilies/White Lines" is one of the few that is from the point of view of strippers themselves. "Whose daughter is on the stage?" Haze asks over a brooding beat. "I know her by name." The song is a punch to the gut that will ensure that you never look at a stripper the same way again.
Ironically, it is Angel Haze's very diversity that ends up hurting her major label debut "Dirty Gold." Haze tries to walk the line between battle rapper, pop star, emo rapper, and motivational speaker. That's a lot to tackle in one album, and it is not surprising that it ends up a mess. Too many of Haze's raps are yelled, and they don't jibe with the pop production and softer elements in the music. It's like her label wanted her to be all things to all people all the time, and as a result she's not entirely successful at any of them.
It be easy to blame her label for all the problems with "Dirty Gold." Their attempts to make her next Rihanna certainly aren't helping her, and the fact that she leaked the album ahead of schedule suggests that Haze wasn't totally on board with the direction her label was taking her. While the pop/rap hybrid doesn't always work that well on "Dirty Gold," it's not what really stunts the album. The heartbreaking thing about "Dirty Gold" is how bad the lyrics often are. Haze has shown on her mixtapes that she is not afraid of tackling real problems and addressing things like abuse and her troubled upbringing with frankness and honesty. On "Dirty Gold" she defaults to overused flower metaphors, platitudes, and the kind of empowerment cheerleading that would make Oprah embarrassed. Her spoken word pieces are particularly painful, The album starts with her saying "I'm making it for people who just want to get lost." An interviewer says "That's interesting how music does that. It's like a trapdoor." "It locks you in," agrees Haze. It sounds like a pseudo celebrity doing a confessional on a reality show. Or this spoken intro from "Black Synagogue:"
"And the light, the light can make everything feel beautiful. It can make it feel safe, so safe that, like, in the night, we spend all of our time running away from our truths. And then we meet someone who tells us, 'God will always love you, no matter what you do. The only thing that will never stop loving you is God.' And because of all of our darkness, which at night I still run from, which at night we all still run from, we get stuck chasing light. That's a Black Synagogue."
There is a criticism of religion in there somewhere, but like a lot of her lyrics, it is frustratingly cliched and vague.
Songs that should be moving end up falling apart under the tortured prose and overworked metaphors. The aforementioned "Black Synagogue" is about Haze's disillusionment with religion after growing up in a cultish Christian sect. It comes off more like a temper tantrum than spiritual questioning. "Black Dahlia" is a message to her mother, who raised Haze in the sect. It should be a heart wrenching tear jerkier, but instead it feels like high school poetry. Natalia Kills does some spoken word in the song, telling her mother that she would rather have not been born if it would have made her mother's life better. However, she does it in a British valley girl accent that kills the gravitas of the moment (It doesn't help that Haze inadvertently titles the song after the name given to Elizabeth Short, the aspiring actress who was found mutilated and dismembered in an empty lot in Hollywood in 1947).
It's the endless string of cliches and empty platitudes that killed "Dirty Gold" for me. The love song "Planes Fly" (which could be about a woman) has any romances stamped out of it with clumsy, trite lyrics:
"I'm up in the air, still running from everything below
Yo, I'm not sure what this is but I've got jet fuel in my soul
Propellors tucked in my ribs
We'll fly
When the tunnel's got no light
And the light exposes this dull life
It's alright
When the good feels bad but the bad feels better"

I realize I'm being much harder on Haze than I usually am on male rappers, especially since she can actually rap and is rapping about suicide, self-doubt, love, and other topics not usually heard in the Hot 100. Maybe I am inadvertently playing into the double standard that often goes hand in hand with diversity, in which members of minority groups are held to much higher standards than the majority. There's also the fact that it is harder to rap about real issues than it is to rap about nothing. I'll put up with Ty Dolla $ign rapping about his two bitches in the club, but when a rapper tries to put down some real talk, I expect them to step their game up. I'm also not Haze's target demographic. No doubt her songs would hit much harder if I were a young woman and not a middle-aged man who happens to hate pop music. There have been a number of positive reviews written online about "Dirty Gold," so the record is definitely connecting with some people. It is certainly the type of album that wants to be cathartic to listeners.
I can live with the fact that Haze is going for a pop sound that I'm not a fan of. I can deal with the cheesy power ballads and the EDM beats. What really disappoints me with "Dirty Gold" is how shallow it is. You take a woman who can rap, sing, and could offer some much-needed counter programming to what mainstream hip-hop usually delivers. Instead, she's going for Nikki Minaj meets Eminem meets Rihanna on the Tyra show. It feels like a major missed opportunity. Hip-hop deserves to have more albums by female rappers, and we deserve better albums than "Dirty Gold."

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Against Me!



I will admit to being one of those people who never paid attention to Florida punk band Against Me! until their lead singer changed from Tom Gabel to Laura Jane Grace. Laura's gender transition is the big story that follows the band around. Like Chaz Bono and Lara Wachowski, Laura's become a poster girl for transgender rights. It's a good story, and one that has catapulted a fairly successful punk band into a much larger spotlight. Their new album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, would be a strong album if all the members had boring and unremarkable backstories.

My impression of Against Me! was that they belonged to that strain somewhat cheesy, anthemic, Warped Tour-ready alt-punk that the kids loved and that left me cold. Songs like "I Was a Teenage Anarchist" sound to me closer to Kings of Leon than Bad Brains. "Stop" sounds like a Franz Ferdinand  cover.  Their new album is still anthemic rock, but they seem to be less concerned with chasing commercial success. That and Laura has a whole new mess of stuff to sing about.

The title track is a powerful song about her experiences being transgender.

"Your tells are so obvious
Shoulders too broad for a girl
Keeps you reminded
Helps you remember where you come from

You want them to notice
The ragged ends of your summer dress
You want them to see you
Like they see any other girl
They just see a faggot
They hold their breath not to catch the sick."

Later she sings "You know it's obvious but we can't choose how we're made."

The rest of the album isn't always as strong as that opening track. The cheesy alt-rock of their earlier work seeps in during the latter half. I still like it, and I like how Laura is incorporating her experience into punk. One of music's greatest gifts is it's ability to allow us to understand and empathize with people different from us. Most of us will never know what it is like being trans, but Against Me! give is a window into that world. 



Saturday, February 22, 2014

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

I wrote about the Macklemore backlash on RapReviews this week. 

In the wake of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's stratospheric rise to success this year, a considerable backlash has inevitably raised its head on the internet. The backlash got especially heavy in the wake of the MTV Video Awards in August and the Grammys at the end of January. The duo have been accused of being corny, of not being "real hip-hop," of stealing the limelight from African-American rappers and gay rappers, and of being pandering white hipsters. People have every right to not like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's music. It's not surprising people are getting sick of them given how ubiquitous their music is. Even a powerful song like "Same Love" gets old after the thousandth listen. However, the backlash has gotten ridiculous, and it's now open season on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. It's gotten to the point where Macklemore could donate all of his money to the poor and people would criticize him as having a white messiah complex or being self-righteous or thinking he's too good for money. A lot of the criticism of the duo rests on faulty arguments, so it's worth looking at what people are saying about them and what the truth of of the matter actually is. First things first: the Grammys are not an accurate reflection of the state of music. They are and always have been an establishment award show that reflects the tastes of older people in the record industry, and they are almost always a joke. Who can forget Jethro Tull beating Metallica for best Hard Rock/Metal album in 1988?  Eminem has won most of the best hip-hop album awards, even for his albums that weren't that great, because he's a known entity to the voters. I, along with Macklemore, was disappointed that Kendrick Lamar didn't win best hip-hop album, but it's not like that invalidates Kendrick or even represents what people who actually care about music think.
Some critics say that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis make music for people who don't like hip-hop. While "The Heist" is definitely a crossover success, it's popular among  hip-hop heads as well. "The Heist" has a 74 on Metacritic, and the low scores are from rock critics. Hip-hop outlets like XXL, Hip Hop DX and this site all gave "The Heist" very positive reviews, and it made several RapReviews year-end lists. Pop fans may love Macklemore, but so do hip-hop fans.
Another argument, raised by Jon Caramanica of the New York Times and Kenzo Shibata on The Learned Fangirl, is that Macklemore is the Pat Boone of hip-hop, a milquetoast white performer taming the music down and acting as a gentrifying force for a legion of white rappers set to invade. There are two big problems with this argument. The first is that Macklemore is not the first or most successful white rapper. He comes from an indie rap scene that is full of white MCs. From El-P to Aesop Rock to Brother Ali to Edan to Cage, there has been no shortage of rappers of European descent in indie rap. That's not to mention the Beastie Boys, Bubba Sparxx, and Paul Wall, white rappers with mainstream success. The elephant in the room is Eminem, who is one of the most successful rappers of the past fifteen years, who also happens to be one of the best, who also happens to have won multiple Grammys, who also has crossover hits, and who also has issues tanning. And that's just America. There are thriving hip-hop scenes with mostly white MCs in Australia and Europe. Jon Caramanica is probably right that Macklemore is a template that your average white kid who was not raised on the streets of Detroit can follow to incorporate rapping into the white, college-educated, middle class experience. I can guarantee that the next few years will see a slew of releases by white MCs who are either doing hipster rap or trying to do a pop-rap crossover. Whether that will lead to African-Americans being driven out of hip-hop is highly unlikely.
Ever since the Beastie Boys put out "Licensed to Ill" in 1987, people have been afraid that white folks were going to steal hip-hop from African-Americans in the same way whites "stole" rock n' roll from them thirty years earlier. There's several problems with this claim. For one thing, white co-option of rock music happened in a time before the Civil Rights Act, when segregation was legal, and when black music was called "race music." While there is still a lot of deep-rooted racial segregation and discrimination in the U.S., we've come a long way from the days when you would not hear black artists on "white" stations.
Secondly, in many ways hip-hop won. It has become the de facto music of youth culture. Rock music, which had been dominant since the 60s, has become a marginalized, outdated genre. Pop music is more likely to incorporate hip-hop production elements as it is to incorporate rock guitars. A young kid nowadays interested in making music is more likely to pick up a laptop or turntables than a guitar. Hip-hop slang has gone mainstream; even country musicians are using it. White sorority girls belt along to Rick Ross and Jay Z songs. Madonna, a 50-year-old white woman, came to the Grammy's WEARING A GRILL. Mainstream "white" culture has gone much more hip-hop than hip-hop has gone "white." Macklemore isn't an example of a white person co-opting hip-hop; he's an example of how hip-hop has influenced mainstream culture. Twenty years ago Macklemore and Ryan Lewis would probably have picked up guitars and formed a grunge band. Nowadays it's more natural for them to pick up a mic and drum machine.
What also gets lost in the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis hate is the fact that they put out their album by themselves. While the music establishment certainly embraced them and their ability to move units, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were not the result of sinister machinations of the record industry to have white people take over rap. They were two dudes who worked for years before making it big. The other artists they were competing against in the Grammys all had major label support. Macklemore was also not the only rapper nominated for a Grammy whose music has crossover elements. Drake and Kendrick both have pop and R&B elements in their music, as do a lot of mainstream hip-hop artists. There are commercial considerations at work: it's hard to sell a million downloads of a dude rappity-rapping. A lot of this crossing over is due to how completely hip-hop has saturated into mainstream culture. There isn't the division between hip-hop and R&B or pop music like there was twenty years ago. Kids today aren't as segregated in their listening habits as Gen Xers were, and the music they make reflects their diverse tastes.
Some gay rights activists complain that Macklemore is stealing music from gay rappers, and he's acting like a gay savior. I know Madonna and Lady Gaga both have gay detractors who resent them acting like great straight saviors. But those artists, like Macklemore, have done a lot for gay rights by bringing gay people into the forefront of mainstream culture. Macklemore is this only artist I know of who has a hit song supporting gay marriage, and one of the few artists I can think of in any genre to have a hit song that was explicitly pro-gay. That's a big deal.
Hip-Hop is a large and diverse genre. It's not a zero-sum game. It's not like a straight white rapper getting popular means that the quota for hip-hop has been filled for the year so all projects by black and gay rappers have to be shelved. The mainstream success of Jay Z, Kanye, Drake and Nikki Minaj is proof of that. You have artists like Migos, DJ Mustard, and Chief Keef making music that speaks directly to young African-Americans, and you have artists like Chance the Rapper pushing the genre forward. Rap is doing fine, with or without Macklemore. If anything, he can act as a trojan horse for black and gay artists to penetrate part of the market that hasn't been receptive to hip-hop before. There are a whole bunch of people who didn't know they were hip-hop fans before "The Heist." Many of them will continue to explore the genre. Some of them will check out Kendrick Lamar because of Macklemore's clumsy apology on Instagram.
People have every right to be tired of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, to not be into their take on hip-hop music, and to never want to hear "The Heist" again. But creating a narrative where Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are using their white privilege to take over and ruin hip-hop sells both Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and hip-hop short. This music is big enough for different kinds of artists and different approaches. If anything, Macklemore deserves credit for challenging the dominant party rap cliches and opening up hip-hop to new topics and new audiences.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Rival Dealer Review

Burial, Rival Dealer

Originally published on RapReviews.com

British producer Burial came on the scene in the mid-2000s, making dubstep that channeled urban loneliness. His critically acclaimed 2008 album "Untrue" combined dubstep's shuffling beats and wobbling bass with filtered vocal samples that evoked a sense of yearning and romantic longing. It was the soundtrack for walking home alone from a club at 2am feeling disconnected from the rest of the world.

Burial hasn't released an album since "Untrue," but he has been busy putting out EPs. In 2012 he released "Kindred" and "Truant/Rough Sleeper." On those EPs he experimented with longer running times and more complex arrangements. He also started moving away from the confines of dubstep, exploring 90s rave and abstract compositions.

"Rival Dealer" is yet another leap forward for Burial. He completely abandons any semblance of dubstep, replacing it with 90s-influenced techno and house. The title track has a driving beat that references the late-80s dance/R&B of Soul II Soul and C+C Music Factory. It is aggressive and confident, which is a change from Burial's previous music. He samples Gavin DeGraw's "More Than Anyone," repeating the line "I'm going to love you more than anyone." The completely changes at the five minute mark, becoming a haze of static bass while samples of "this is who I am" and Lord Finesse declaring "You know my motherfucking style!" play. Seven and a half minutes in, everything goes silent, replace by ambient synthesizers and sample of a woman talking about looking at the night sky.
"Hiders" is the shortest song on the EP, but still manages to switch moods and tempos in its four minute running time. It's a song that conveys feelings of joy, empowerment, and overcoming obstacles, albeit in Burial's own skewed way. A triumphant piano plays over heavily filtered vocals. An 80s synth drum beat finally kicks in at the 2:40 mark, and barely sticks around for a minute before the song devolves into ambient noise and silence. It's a gorgeous, triumphant piece of music.


"Hiders" blurs into "Come Down To Us," one of Burial's most ambitious and explicit songs to date. Its 13 minutes are mostly built around a pretty synthesizer melody, again with heavily filtered vocals telling the listener "tonight you feel alive." The song starts and stops several times, adding new elements. Like "Hiders," the song feels joyful and empowering, the kind of song that might be playing in your head after you stand up to a bully, break up with a partner who was dragging you down, or come out to your family.


Burial makes the theme of coming out explicit by ending the song with part of director Lana Wachowski's 2012 speech to the Human Rights Campaign about being transgender (Wachowski is probably best known for making the "Matrix" trilogy with her brother back when she was Larry and they were the Wachowski Brothers; Her speech about what it was like growing up transgender and why she decided to transition makes a powerful argument for trans rights).

In a text to a British DJ, Burial explained "I wanted the tunes to be anti-bullying tunes that could maybe help someone to believe in themselves, to not be afraid, and to not give up, and to know that someone out there cares and is looking out for them." That's a lofty goal, and the EP largely succeeds. It is a moving piece, and transcends the confines of dance music. However, as good as "Rival Dealer" is, I personally hope that Burial starts to move away from these long-form epic tracks. He's released six songs that are all over the 10-minute mark, and I think he's taken the concept of a longer, more intricate track about as far as he can. There is a frustrating formlessness to "Rival Dealer" and "Come Down to Us" that takes away from impact of those songs. Burial has been moving farther and farther away from the physical joys of dance music into a more cerebral space. This more cerebral music is interesting and challenging, but it is missing some of immediacy of his earlier work. "Hiders" hints at one direction Burial could go in: making dance music that could get asses moving but also give you something to think about. That isn't to diminish "Rival Dealers;" but I do hope his next release sees him going shorter rather than longer.

Migos

Migos Young Rich N***s  Originally published on RapReviews


"Versace," the breakout hit by Atlanta trio Migos, could easily be a parody song meant to make fun of how stupid rap has gotten in the twenty-teens. The hook is just the word "Versace" repeated eighteen times in a row, and lyrically it doesn't get deeper than "shoes and shirt Versace/Your bitch want in my pockets/She ask me why my drawers silk/I told that bitch ‘Versace'." The video, which features the rappers hanging out in a mansion showing off their Versace clothes and jewelry with a bunch of finger-sucking models and a panther, wouldn't need too much to be a Lonely Island bit. It was one of the stupidest songs of 2013. It was also a hit that earned the trio a remix with a verse by Drake.

I was so put off by "Versace" that I wrote off Migos and avoided listening to "YRN." Then the mixtape ended up on a bunch of best of 2013 lists by people whose opinion I respect. I decided to give it another listen to see if there was some hidden genius in Migos that I was missing. After listening to "YRN" for a week straight, I think I understand the appeal.

One thing I have to say about the Migos right off the bat: when Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset aren't just repeating the same word, chirping like a bird, or using white pop stars' names as drug slang, they can actually kind of rap. In true Southern style, they rap in triple-time, dropping verses that are kept strictly to sex, drugs,  luxury brands, and occasionally giving shout-outs to dead homies ("R.I.P.").  Their flow alternates between chanting and sing-songy, adding a catchiness to the songs that works well with the melodic production. They may not have much substance, but they have an excess of style. They aren't going to give Earl Sweatshirt a challenge in the lyricism department, but they are a lot more fun to listen to.

The production is well-executed Southern trap rap. Gucci Maine collaborator Zaytoven produced six songs on the tape, including "Versace." The rest of the tracks are handled by Migos' childhood friend Juvie, Stack Boy Twuan, Phenom Da Don, Dun Deal, C4, Mercy, EA, and MPC Cartel. The beats are all mostly built around the synths, rolling hi-hats, and snap beats typical of Southern rap, but a little tweaked. The songs manage to hit hard but also be catchy, and the producers throw in trance and ambient influences on some of the songs. They know how effective minimalism can be, when to go all out and when to hold back.

How well you like the Migos depends on how much you can embrace their use of repetition. Most of the hooks on "YRN" are built around the group repeating the same word or phrase over and over again. It simultaneously drove me crazy and got in my head. I found myself cruising around chanting "Hannah Montana! Hannah Montana! Hannah Montana! I got molly, I got white, I got molly, I got white, and I been trapping trapping trapping trapping all damn night!" At their best, Migos are having so much fun that I forget just how the dumb what they're saying is. Then after the third song in a row, Quavo's unrelenting chanting becomes too much and I listen to something else.

Migos biggest issue might be that album-length mixtapes aren't the best way to showcase their talent. They don't have eighteen songs worth of material. They have maybe five songs worth of material, spread out over eighteen tracks. They are the musical equivalent of a fried Twinkie: totally devoid of nutritional value yet really satisfying in small doses. Taken in bites, "YRN" is a good time, but it is way more Migos than anyone should ingest in a single serving. I found myself alternating between hating it and loving it, then hating myself for loving it. That's a lot of conflicting emotions for uncomplicated music.

Ranting About Macklemore

Kenzo Shibata's article "Macklemore, the Peter Frampton of Hip-Hop" inspired me to write a ranty comment, which I've published below. I'm working on an editorial for rapreviews on the same subject. 

I have a couple issues with your argument.
#1. While Macklemore was embraced by the record industry when they realized he could make them money, he’s an independent artist. He and Ryan Lewis put that album out by themselves. He’s not part of the system trying to water rap down, man.
#2. Le1f, while gay and a rapper, doesn’t make amazing music, and certainly doesn’t make the kind of music that could be expected to resonate with tens of millions of people. I love Big Freedia but she’s not about to go mainstream either. It’s also not a zero sum game -just because a straight guy had the first pro-gay rap hit doesn’t mean that there can’t be a gay rapper with a hit as well. If any thing Brother Ali should be mad because he was white and pro-gay before it was cool.
#3. I love PE and NWA, but they haven’t been relevant for twenty years. The kind of hyper political rap that PE made was basically only made by PE. Most “golden era” hip-hop was about being a good MC. Even the Native Tongue groups like De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest weren’t that political. The idea of rap music as the African-American answer to punk rock is largely projection by people outside of hip-hop who want it to be something it never really was.
4. If Macklemore is Framptom, than mainstream hip-hop is Warrant and Poison. it’s become a self-parody where every other song is about strippers or getting drunk in the club or having sex with strippers while getting drunk in the club. There are outliers in the underground and indie scenes, but most rappers are heavily invested in rapping about partying. Even rappers criticizing rapping about partying, like Kanye, rap about partying. Which isn’t to knock Migos or Juicy J or whoever, but shit isn’t exactly deep. kind of like early rock n’ roll, which were mostly thinly veiled songs about sex. Or early punk, which was mostly songs about getting high and trying to get laid.
5. Maybe Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are popular because they are “safe,” but it doesn’t hurt that they every other word out of their mouth isn’t the n word or bitch. I love Kendrick Lamar and I think his album is amazing, but my wife will not let me play it in the house because she can’t deal with the language. And not because she is safe and middlebrow, but because she doesn’t like the fact that so much of rap is full of really offensive language. And not offensive because it’s challenging the system, unless using racial and sexual slurs is somehow anti-establishment now.
What hip-hop needs is more artists operating outside of the major label system, more artists challenging the bullshit that mainstream rap is delivering, and more artists who are able to take the genre in new directions and to new audiences. I don’t love Macklemore, but he is not hip-hop’s problem. Hip-hop is hip-hop’s problem. To paraphrase d. boon, hip hop is whatever we want it to be, and that can include white hipsters rapping about gay marriage and thrift stores.

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