Given the rave-friendly production, it’s not weird that “OCEANSIDE” features a rapper named MDMA. Seriously, this is some futuristic turbo shit. “MIDNIGHT CLUB” is another endorphin-blaster, one that finds UnoTheActivist fitting perfectly in the pocket. So many tracks have a total beat-switch that it sounds like there are about 30 songs here, and that’s a few too many, especially with Fauni’s understated delivery. Still, given its unique and exciting sound, Time of My Life stands out among the endless number of rap releases this year. – Ethan Reis
Czarface & MF Doom – Super What?
Supergroup Czarface keeps 90s rap alive. Inspectah Deck’s still churning out the reliable raps he did for Wu-Tang, and 7L and Esoteric can spit pop culture references in clever rhymes for days on end. But let’s be real here, no shade to the collective, but the attention they’re receiving lately has a lot to do with the presence of MF DOOM on their latest collaboration album Super What? A follow-up to the average 2018 collaboration Czarface Meets Metal Face, Super What? does indeed correct a lot of the mistakes of that project, and DOOM’s bars are of a higher caliber.
There’s a black cloud looming over rap right now in the wake of DOOM’s passing, with many hoping to fill that void as quickly as possible. Super What? isn’t exactly the best project that DOOM ever did – this is a solid Czarface project, and the departed legend mostly just happens to be along for the ride, which is a shame on many levels. Although, on “Mando Calrissian”, he drops his lines with the same endearing flow that garnered him attention in the first place.
For their latest, Czarface tapped the right talent for name recognition but the collective has been delivering quality work for the better part of a decade to little fanfare. With this collaboration though, we are treated to some necessary nostalgia on “Break in the Action”, which is a throwback to the style of Madvillainy with its purposeful pacing and samples. It won’t compare to Take Me to Your Leader or Vaudeville Villain, but Super What? is the project DOOM fans needed right now. – Tim Sentz
Peewee Longway & Cassius Jay – Longway Sinatra 2
[MPA Bandcamp Music Group / EMPIRE]
“I nut quick when I’m anxious.” Leave it to Longway to give it to you straight. The perennially underrated, constantly geeked-up rapper from Atlanta delivers again. “Blue Benjamins”’ interpretation of “I Would Die 4 U” is perhaps even more absurd than State of the Art’s “Top of the Bank” (a fantastic track that reworks “Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay”). “Neighbors talkin’ crazy / Went and bought they house on Zillow.” And, like the great Sinatra, Longway can croon: see the “Live Like You Were Dying”-referencing “Skydiving” or the salsa trap of “Pink Salmon”. – Ethan Reis
Benny The Butcher & Harry Fraud – The Plugs I Met 2
[Black Soprano Family]
The Plugs I Met 2 may be named as a sequel, but is superb enough to reduce 2019’s first instalment to mere preamble. Things really kick into gear here thanks to Harry Fraud being in the producer’s chair throughout, presenting a unified sound in which Benny thrives. It’s a meeting that the Butcher compares to “When Tony Met Sosa” on the project’s opening track – and just like that legendary Scarface scene, no mercy is shown, no prisoners taken.
Supported by Fraud’s plush and decadent production, Benny’s tales of hood wars and drug trade misdeeds are raised to the glamorous heights of Hollywood mafiosos – but the blood spilled in these bars is all too real. “Live By It” finds him prideful about his ability to handle a firearm while others find “the power of havin’ a gun a big obstacle for them.” In “No Instructions”, he compares his knife skills, which he picked up in prison, to “Wesley in Blade.” His force is so undeniable throughout that when, on “Longevity”, he claims “My body language just as loud as my voice and they all catch it / All I do is look and that send them a small message,” there’s no reason to doubt the truth of it.
Of course, a life this cutthroat doesn’t leave a man without regrets, which he brings home to roost in the project’s penultimate track “Survivor’s Remorse”, which finds him scoffing “this supposed to be success / Then why the fuck I feel stressed out and guilty?” However, it’s short-lived, and for the victory lap closer “Thanksgiving” he’s right back on his throne, demanding appreciation, surrounded by bodies as he asserts: “Y’all n***as should tell me thank you / Somebody tell me thank you.” Who dares deny The Butcher? – Rob Hakimian
MIKE – Disco!
Most of MIKE’s releases have been brief, nearly all around the half hour mark. He says a lot in minimal time, but when he has a wider space to breathe, he fills it with just as many arresting bars and chill beats. There’s no aggression to be found in his voice – he doesn’t need that, he’s a confident individual who isn’t rapping just to kick up beefs or kick up streams. His latest, Disco!, is his longest in some time – and not a second is wasted.
“Remember we would sit out, showed me where they paid green / You flexing just to stick out, I flex because of great genes,” he snipes on the Solid Gold-infused “Crystal Ball”. MIKE pairs these off-kilter styles with his deadpan delivery on purpose. On “Endgame”, he speeds it up, but he’s keeping it effortlessly cool. There’s a very real and stripped-down feel to MIKE’s work, and Disco! finds him playing with a lot of the same elements the underground scene is exploiting with good measure.
The whole affair is short on features but big on ideas, with vast sound valleys for him to fill with his own production nuances. His outlook is more optimistic here too, something that previous albums weren’t necessarily missing, but they weren’t the focal point. As MIKE nestles comfortably in this rhythm he’s created for himself there’s no telling where he can go, and Disco! will be the best jumping off point for those who aren’t familiar yet. – Tim Sentz
McKinley Dixon – For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her
Cultural and generational trauma can foreshadow a precise ‘how’, ‘when’, and ‘why’ concerning one’s inevitable fate. To probe further into one’s history makes the reality of death that much more palpable. Biggie’s 1994 album Ready To Die is a prime example of what it sounds like to channel the imminence of one’s death into something obtainable and relatable.
These same existential thoughts weigh heavy within the mind of rising Virginia rapper McKinley Dixon throughout his newest album For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her. Dixon’s pain is explored to a compelling degree that will have many listening with intense attentiveness. Amidst releasing two records back in 2018, Dixon lost his best friend to sudden tragedy. It was a death that stuck like bludgeoning “Brass knuckles with shards of broken home to the dome,” as he describes on “make a poet Black”. His friend’s passing was a blow so bone-crushing that the presence of death and dying transpires what is merely uttered, resulting in a hip-hop record that is physically touching to the heart as it is to the ears. – Kyle Kohner
Curren$y – Collection Agency
[Jet Life Recordings]
Talk about the little stoner that could. When you got into Curren$y likely entirely depends on your age: perhaps you’ve been following ever since his unheralded Cash Money days, more likely you clocked in around the PilotTalk era, maybe a Wiz Khalifa collaboration wafted your way, or perhaps still you hopped in during any of his truly numerous mixtapes. As someone who enjoyed his torrential pace around 2011, it’s no real surprise that he’s still going, as steady as ever. What is somewhat more surprising – even a genuine mystery – is as to how he’s managed to make essentially the same narrative truly interesting for more than a decade. One supposes that’s what supreme (however faded) focus alongside pure charm does, but the reliable Collection Agency proves that Spitta Andretti has more than enough gas left in his papers. – Chase McMullen
AKAI SOLO & Navy Blue – True Sky
[Break All Records]
The real showstopper for the joint project True Sky is Akai Solo, the Brooklyn rapper who’s been popping up on projects here and there for the last handful of years. He had a strong presence on Armand Hammer’s “Parables”, delivering the trailing outro hook. This network of underground and gritty rappers is nothing short of enticing, and Akai is bringing something refreshing to the table thanks to his die-hard work ethic.
He raps like he talks, with purpose and conviction, and Navy Blue‘s production surrounds him with the necessary tools to emphasize these characteristics. Navy’s got a solid resume when it comes to production value, all of his releases have flair that you don’t find elsewhere – and all of it has this raw and unfiltered sound to it that paves the way for static and hiss guardrails. On “Willing”, the producer drops Akai into some 70s glam that will drive the underground clubs they frequent into a flurry of dancing and grinding. Akai, just like Navy, is still pretty new to the game, but every track on True Sky shows purpose and promise, with barely any traces of the naivety others have shown so early on. – Tim Sentz
Planet Asia & DirtyDiggs – Block Shaman
[T.C.F. Music Group]
With Block Shaman, Planet Asia offers some of his most fluid and focused lyrics since Anchovies, his 2017 collaboration with producer Apollo Brown. “My mind is made up / I need some get-back for what they did to Breonna Taylor,” Asia snarls on the opener, “Reverse Witchcraft”, the track unfolding as a revisionist and Black-empowerment manifesto.
On “The Coastguards”, “Spin the Block”, and “Marble Pie”, Asia and producer DirtyDiggs feature samples of African voices chanting and/or singing. While these clips serve to align the project with African stylistics and implicitly contrast pre- and postcolonialism, most of Asia’s lyrics revolve around the contemporary American experience.
“Tuning My Instrument” is perhaps the album’s lyrical and musical highpoint. Asia muses, “From a man to a god this is evolution / we evolve with the planet and stars / and break down mathematics / man landed on Mars / this is super-galactic.” Guest Styliztik Jones, whose album Everybody Eat was also produced by Diggs earlier this year, offers a hook-y chorus. Diggs inventively employs sounds that range from horn flourishes to synth-y accents that could’ve been borrowed from a B-sci-fi flick.
Blending the prerequisite “machismo” raps with political and cultural commentaries, Asia often brings to mind Ice-T’s proto-intensity and the timbre of Coolio, whose name and 1995 hit “Gangsta’s Paradise” are mentioned on “That Old Feeling”. His various guests contribute distinct lyrics and vocal tones while Diggs “serves the song,” leaning toward understated touches and elegant minimalism. – John Amen
Lil Durk – The Voice (Deluxe)
The best of times, the worst of times – perhaps no major figure in music can better represent (and relate) to these words than Lil Durk. He’s been on a seemingly endless come up – and been a street favorite – for years now, but ever since popping in on Drake’s “Laugh Now Cry Later”, the Chicago mainstay has truly ascended to a place among the biggest hip hop stars on the planet. In the same breath, he lost his signee and friend King Von (whom The Voice is largely dedicated to). No sooner had he released Voice of the Heroes alongside Lil Baby, and his brother was killed. It’s been no easy road.
The Voice may have arrived in 2020, but its counterpart, the ‘Deluxe’ version, in reality an entirely new album in its own right, dropped in early ‘21. It’s certainly a strange trend, but alongside ‘Deluxes’ as second offerings from the likes of G Herbo and Eminem, they seem to find the artists relatively freed from expectations, able to fully commit to whatever they like. The Voice (Deluxe) is, if anything, an even grimmer affair than its predecessor, and certainly more consistent, finding a justifiably paranoid, mourning Durk putting (as he himself says) every ounce of his pain into his music. It’s a seething, sinewy mess of an artist on top of the game feeling he has nothing to lose. – Chase McMullen