Tag Archives: rap

Little Simz – GREY Area

17 Mar

There’s a pocket of quiet British rap that’s well worth paying attention to and Grey Area might be the best thing to come from it yet. Little Simz is a very talented rapper and she throws a varied assortment of ideas at you over the course of this album. The cartoon effects over the hard beat and strong rapping in “Offence” and the Eastern-tinged beat of “101FM” are particular standouts.

Unfortunately, I feel that this is not the album to really transcend the limitations of the subgenre. Like the contemporaneous Kate Tempest’s work, the album is very impressive to listen to in the moment but a little forgettable after. I feel it just lacks the few real moments of honesty and personal truth that would have drastically elevated it. It could even use some moments of cleverness. It’s just a little too freewheeling where it would have benefited from drilling down into a couple of points that it developed.

There’s a lot of strong music in the album though. The storytelling of “Sherbet Sunset” and the groove of “Selfish” and beat of “Pressure” are all excellent. Little Simz is already a brilliant rapper going from strength to strength and GREY Area is well worth your time.

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Higher Brothers – Five Stars

11 Mar

It’s an exciting period for rap and Higher Brothers are one of the most exciting things in an exciting period. This Chinese rap group is talented and raw and innovative. Songs like “Flexing So Hard” and “Sunshine” have some of the most interesting flows that I’ve ever heard. The choppiness is novel and their free-switching between languages endlessly novel. These songs and “Gong Xi Fa Cai” are them at their best.

Unfortunately, the album as a whole is a little inconsistent. “Do It Like Me” and “No More” are not particularly good. The big name guests of ScHoolboy Q and Soulja Boy just don’t do that much. Q is forgettable and Soulja Boy is anaemic. However, “16 Hours” and “Open It Up” are bangers and “One Punch Man” is quite interesting. 

Whatever quibbles can be found with the album, this is simply the bleeding edge of rap and so music as a whole and if you’re at all interested in seeing where things are going then you should be listening to Higher Brothers. Also, they’re just a ton of fun to listen to.

@murthynikhil

J. Cole – Middle Child

20 Feb

This song is easily one of the best of the new year. First things first, it’s a good beat and a good flow. That opening feels like trumpets before a war and the song itself is a salvo.

What’s shocking though is the positivity. His lines on Drake giving him a watch as a gift are strong and rejecting manufactured beef are interesting in the genre famous for war being mutually beneficial. The game seems to be turning away from the aggression that once codified it and it’s a fascinating development to watch.

I also appreciate him talking about bringing your people up with you. I appreciate him sending love to the new rappers and sending love to the OGs. Generational strife almost always feels like both sides are out of touch. J. Cole stepping away from that, despite the many calling for him to kill trap or take the torch or whatever other narrative du jour is floating around, is heartening to see.

The contradictions here are interesting. He claims all love, but there are still shots at Kanye and Drake here. The lines are barely subliminals. This makes some sense as he criticizing actions like theirs, but this seems to be swallowing your beef and having it too. Also, look at the refrain “Niggas been countin’ me out / I’m countin’ my bullets, I’m loadin’ my clips / I’m writin’ down names, I’m makin’ a list / I’m checkin’ it twice and I’m gettin’ ’em hit.” It’s this aggression that makes the song though. This isn’t a call for ahimsa, it’s a militant call for love.

On that note, the hook is amazing. The drawn out “feel” with the sung notes is excellent. It lets him put a lot of emotion into very few words. That said, the words of the hook are extremely clever. I love the image from contrasting a pistol in the hand and money in the palm. Playing the drink in his hand giving him something to feel against his foot on their neck is similarly strong. Also, the hook just gives the song a swagger. It’s a boastful song for something meant to bring people together and that’s why I love it.

The corniness is a bit of a sour note though. His advice to the young rappers is painfully cliche when it comes to specifics. Also, is he really Jay-Z’s younger brother? It made sense when Kanye took that epithet in 2007, but J. Cole really feels like Jay’s grandson. He’s always made a habit of giving himself titles that I don’t feel he’s fully earned and it comes off as grasping.

This is the song that makes the case for him though. This is really strong rap and uniquely J. Cole’s. I hope we see a lot more like this from him soon.

@murthynikhil

Monthly Playlist: Jan. 2019

31 Jan

As we finish up the first month of the new year, Top Five Records is proud to start what we hope will become a long-standing tradition: a quick, five-song list of the month’s best songs. We’re just thirty-one days into 2019, but we’ve already enjoyed some great music. So, without further ado, here is the inaugural Monthly Playlist – enjoy!

5. “Sex Rich” – CRYSTAL

CRYSTAL is a Scottish punk / grunge act that has been gaining a solid fanbase over the past few years – and for good reason. The band elicits the best parts of 90s alternative mainstays like Nirvana and Pearl Jam – from vocalist Anna Shields’ gauzy vocals to guitarist Blair Crichton’s jagged, heavy riffs – without sounding like a rip-off tribute act. “Sex Rich” is perhaps the best introduction to CRYSTAL. The slight menace in Shields’ opening lines builds to a grungy wall-of-sound that occasionally breaks for some muddy, hard-hitting riffs. Have a listen, and keep an eye on this band.

File next to: Nirvana; Genres: Grunge, punk

4. “Landslide” – Beirut

If you love cinematic pop, you’ve likely been a fan of Beirut for years. “Postcards from Italy”, the band’s break-out track from their debut album in 2006, showcased the best parts of their sound: a folksy take on world music that somehow elicited images of cobbled European villages or cafés in old-town Ankara. “Landslide”, from the band’s upcoming fifth album Gallipoli, continuous this vibe. Zach Condon’s signature sweeping vocals tether the combination of percussion and staccato organ notes to create a lush, uplifting sound. Gallipoli is out on February 1, 2019.

File next to: Grizzly Bear; Genres: Indie, folk

3. “Pure Water” – Mustard feat. Migos

There’s plenty to love about this new track from Mustard and Migos. A hypnotically uneven beat provides the foundation for taut verses that perfectly exemplify why Migos currently rule the rap scene. All three Migos have a flow so unique that it goes beyond the lyrics as an instrument in itself – a feat so inimitable that it is now known ubiquitously as the Migos flow. On “Pure Water”, Offset, Quavo and Takeoff excel in shooting words with precision between the ebbs and flows of a beat, and Mustard provides them the perfect fodder.

File next to: Future; Genres: Trap rap

2. “Juice” – Lizzo

Since her debut in 2013, Lizzo’s music has been known for her gratuitous mix of soul and funk with the beat elements of mainstream of hip-hop. “Juice” is no different – a fun and exuberant take on the phrase “Why should boys have all the fun?” with some great lines that hinge on Lizzo’s self-confidence (“No, I’m not a snack at all / Look, baby, I’m the whole damn meal”). As a mark of her rising star, Lizzo performed this very song this week on Ellen. If that isn’t a testament to the song’s perfect dance sensibilities, we don’t know what is. Lizzo’s third album Cuz I Love You will be out on April 19, 2019.

File next to: Janelle Monae; Genres: Funk, hip-hop

1. “CHARLIE” – MALFNKTION feat. Shayan Roy

Mumbai-based electro-hip-hop act MALFNKTION is one of the most reliable beatmakers in Indian hip-hop. Older tracks like “Rani” (from 2015’s Hindustani Rascal EP) showcased his ability to merge desi elements such as old-world filmi samples onto an ever-changing landscape of beats. Recently, though, he’s really stepped it up a notch – and Shayan Roy, who you may know as the youthful Bengali lad in many Buzzfeed India videos, deserves much of the credit for it.

On “CHARLIE”, Roy’s fluid, swaggering flow meshes perfectly with the maddening beats – complete with an electronic horn section – that MALFNKTION puts together. With his lyrical dexterity and pop culture references, Roy evokes Childish Gambino, and we hear bits of Iggy Azalea’s melodic braggadocio here too. Simply put, we can’t recommend this track enough.

Bonus: If you liked this one, be sure to check out this duo’s other collaboration, “Vincent Chase Slippin”.

File next to: Childish Gambino, Iggy Azalea; Genres: Hip-hop, electronic

Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs

26 Dec

Earl Sweatshirt has already staked out his space as one of the most interesting of rappers and Some Rap Songs takes him even further into the left field. It’s a fascinating, muted listen. It’s rough and jagged and made with found sounds. It’s uncompromising and extremely rewarding for it.

The first song “Shattered Dreams” has the strong elongation of the dreams of the chorus which continues into “Red Water”. It’s an album that moves perfectly from song to song but seamless would be the wrong word to use. It’s too ragged for that. Instead they fit together like a jigsaw, asymmetric and bitten, but still inextricable when interlocked.

The whole thing is underpinned by Earl’s strong flow. His voice is immediately recognizable. It’s almost a monotone but he gets so much done with it. He’s just compelling to listen to.

His beats are uniformly submerged and complement him well. “Cold Summers” in particular has an intriguing, textured beat that Earl dances around instead of flowing into. It’s thought-provoking and off-kilter and then “nowhere2go” continues the same thought seamlessly.

“The Mint” has a short and simple beat that loops over and over again and that’s all the song needs. It’s minimal and intelligent and gives Earl lots of space to work with. Similarly, the rough-chopped beat of “The Bends” is endlessly gripping while being slightly dissonant. It’s another fascinating moment in an album that’s full of them.

Earl just has the gift of drawing you in. Something like “Cold Summers” pulls you in like a riptide and doesn’t let you go and then he does it again in “December 24”. His rapping is just so deep and dark. It doesn’t give you any chance to surface.

It ends with a jazz interlude in “Riot!” that’s very fresh and that ends with a quick distortion. It’s a very cool, very unexpected moment in an album already defined by those traits. This is the most interesting album of an always interesting rapper and something you should be listening to.

@murthynikhil

Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy

23 Dec

Chances are, you’ve heard Cardi B rap at some point this year. Maybe you’ve heard her chart-topping hits, “Bodak Yellow” or “I Like It”. Maybe you’ve heard her guest spot on Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You”, or her collaboration with Bruno Mars on “Finesse”, or her verse on Migos’ “MotorSport”. The point is, she was everywhere this year, and for good reason: Invasion of Privacy is the best debut album of 2018.

Part of Cardi’s allure is her stranger-than-fiction, modern-day origin story. At 19, Cardi B (born Belcalis Almanzar in the Bronx) was fired from her humdrum job in a supermarket, and turned to stripping to help pay her way through school. The stripping job led to a buzzy social media persona, which landed a spot on a VH1 reality TV show, which in turn opened up an opportunity in rap. This extraordinary series of events, combined with her livewire personality, have created a brand so strong that sometimes it’s unbelievable to think that Cardi’s been a rapper for only two years.

Of course, as anyone with fifteen minutes of fame can tell you, brand alone is never enough. On Invasion of Privacy, Cardi B pairs this outsize brand with a gift for great beats, amazing delivery, self-confidence and playful wordplay. The result is a fun and surprisingly repeatable album.

Let’s get the famous tracks out of the way first. Unless you’ve been living under a rock this year, you’ve heard “Bodak Yellow” and its numerous instant-classic lines (“I don’t dance now / I make money move”, “These expensive, these is red bottoms / These is bloody shoes”). With its mystical lilt, gunfire flow and inimitable accent, this is essentially Cardi B’s warning shot to the world: “Lil bitch, you can’t fuck with me, if you wanted to”.

The other ubiquitous Cardi B hit, “I Like It”, switches it up with a Bronx take on a classic Latin American vibe. In between the infectious earworm of a chorus, Cardi B lists out some of her favorite things, like a garish, contemporary Maria von Trapp. Any two-bit rapper can list their choice luxury goods – Balenciaga and what-have-you – but Cardi takes it a step further by listing out her favorite power plays: “I like texts from my exes when they want a second chance / I like proving niggas wrong, I do what they say I can’t”. True wealth is power, and Cardi – the self-confident stripper, the viral social media sensation, the reality TV star – is all power.

At all points of her chameleon career, fascinated eyes have fallen on Cardi’s body – and she knows what works best. On “Money Bag”, she gives herself the best compliments: “With them pretty ass twins, you look like Beyonce”, she brags in third-person, following it up later with “I’m like a walkin’ wishlist”. It’s a breath of fresh air from other female rappers whose brags seem to focus solely on bedroom performance (lookin’ at you, Nicki).

All braggadocio aside, however, the best moment of Invasion of Privacy lies perhaps on the stripped-back “Get Up 10”. At over 800 words long and with hardly a repeating line, this is Cardi’s life story told through a raw and passionate voice. From the opening couplet (“Look, they gave a bitch two options: strippin’ or lose / Used to dance in a club right across from my school”) to the chorus (“Knock me down nine times, I get up ten”), Cardi paints her remarkable backstory in equal swathes of motivation, humor and outright defiance.

In his 2008 book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000-hour rule: once you put in 10,000 hours of practice into anything, you suddenly start to notice incredible results. Even though Invasion is a debut, Cardi knocks it out of the park because she’s clever enough to laterally combine bits and pieces of her past into that magic number. She’s already got 10,000 hours of sheer self-confidence, of succeeding under long odds, of monetizing popularity in the digital age. If “Bodak” was the warning shot for Cardi, then Invasion is the warning shot for her entire career. We’re going to be hearing much more from Cardi for sure.

Best songs: “Bodak Yellow”, “I Like It”, “Get Up 10”

88Rising – Head In The Clouds

19 Dec

88rising is my pick for the most exciting label around right now. There’s a lot of talent in East Asia and some truly excellent music is coming out of the area. Some people have already seen some amount of crossover appeal and Head In The Clouds is a solid attempt at expanding that reach.

A good amount of the album is quite good. Most of the music with the headliners of Higher Brothers, Rich Brian and Keith Ape are quite good. “Disrespectin” is a really interesting cut with a fascinating trap / world beat, a great chorus from AUGUST 08 and excellent rapping from DZ and Maswei that mixes Chinese and English. The polylinguism is one of the coolest things about the album. Many of the artists are fully capable of smooth transitions from one language to another and it makes for quite impressive listening. Keith Ape switches both language and flow on a dime in “Japan 88”, although unfortunately the chorus and beat both drag a little too long in that song.

Unfortunately, past the main attractions, the music is largely a little weak. Some of the guests, like BlocBoy JB do nothing and I’m not into “La Cienega”. Even “Midsummer Madness” is just unlistenable due to the terribly trite chorus and beat. The rapping is solid in parts, but not solid enough to save the song and it’s actually bad in the rest.

However, much of the music is excellent. “Nothing Wrong” is solid Higher Brothers and “Lover Boy 88” is quite fun with some excellent crooning. It’s not a flawless album, but it is a very worthwhile look at some really interesting music coming from contemporary East Asia.

@murthynikhil

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