Outside of a blink-and-you-miss-it at the end of Frank Ocean’s Blonde, the world wasn’t properly introduced to Sage Elsesser aka Navy Blue until his raw introduction on Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs single “The Mint”. Navy and Earl are part of a revolution in rap that includes others like MIKE, billy woods, and Standing on the Corner. They focus on bars and production, using vaudeville snippets and old gramophone speakers with static to relay their stories of struggle and survival. They aren’t flashy, they aren’t over-confident. They just live in the moment for each release.
On his third album in two years, Navy’s Reprise finds the NYC skateboarder, rapper, and producer delivering his strongest body of work to date; and that’s an actual feat of glory, as his output for 2020 was some of the best rap of the year. Navy’s focus on building atmosphere and mood takes precedence over rhyme schemes and weighty bass – not that those are present, they are and in abundance. Navy’s goal isn’t to distract, he draws us in with these tiny confessionals stitched together. He raps on highlight “HGTV” about his place on the stardom tree; “Skip lucidly, I couldn’t dream / I’m fallin’ too fast / too soon,” and none of it sounds like a man eager to be at the top of rap, simply being in rap is enough for him.
The elemental nature of Navy Blue’s words never feels strained, even if they fire off from underneath brooding and hazy layers. Its character driven, and he’s the character being driven. This approach has gained steam over the years, but Navy’s pushing this conscious underground hip-hop as lyrical therapy, “Code of Honor” shows this – “Had my wings clipped just to let me soar / Cold air creepin’ through the door / I’m in a Brownstone, I’m a metaphor / Found a better source to draw from / It’s not yours / its within me.” This is a man who has built a career from honesty, and Navy’s Reprise is his clearest and most honest work yet. – Tim Sentz
Young Dolph & Key Glock – Dum and Dummer 2
[Paper Route Empire]
Young Dolph and Key Glock share some remarkable similarities. Both are guttural MCs from Memphis with a penchant for talking about sex, stacks, and smoking. Hell, their names are even sorta similar. So, why do their team-ups feel so satisfying instead of redundant, as is the case when other kindred hip-hop spirits join forces? It might be the clear respect they have, for each other and their craft. On Dum and Dummer 2, Dolph and his protégé spill out impossibly precise flows, giving stories like the one about shooting dice at the casino with his nonagenarian grandmother the brazen confidence they deserve. And, despite having a fairly stuffed tracklist, the worst you can say about any song is that it’s disposable, but still fun. With their taste for head-nodding but experimental trap beats and hooks with more depth than some rapper’s verses, Dolph and Glock have success in the best possible way: by being themselves. – Brody Kenny
Backxwash – I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses
Backxwash’s I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and My Dresses opens with an exposition on the purpose and possible benefits of pain, the speaker’s voice bringing to mind a neurologist or doctor being interviewed on a talk show. “Wail of the Banshee” follows, including Backxwash’s opening line, “My mind’s stuck in a torture chamber.” The title track ensues, replete with grungy, serrated, lo-fi instrumentation and guest Ada Rook’s terrifyingly demonic snarl. The Zambian-born Backxwash follows with the politically charged lines, “Lost in addiction / exiled from my sisters / the colonies and their vision / robbing me of my diction.”
“Blood in the Water” is a nightmarish vision that obliquely melds references to what might be someone having a heart attack, what might be a drowning and/or an assault by a man on a woman, and what occurs as a gruesome death scene (the title phrase repeated over and over). “666 in Luxaxa” is an elaboration on the anticolonial stance of “Wail of the Banshees”: “They came up from the darkness / stole my people from me / now was the mission holy?” The project closes with “Burn to Ashes,” toward the end of which Backxwash growls, “Fuck all my enemies hard as I can / fuck all these papers who call me a man / when the time comes, it fades to black, I know where I’m at / I just light the fumes, boom, and spark it as I burn to ash.”
Throughout the 10-track, approximately 32-minute project, Backxwash expands on the desperation, rage, and cathartic expostulations of 2020’s God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out of It. Even when her lyrics are indecipherable, her explosive intensity is riveting. Her snarls, screams, and incendiary rants are as instrumental as they are lyrical – tonal and energetic as much as verbal transmissions. Backxwash is a talented rapper and gifted lyricist; her work, however, is ultimately textural and instinctively driven, a work of dark ambience that transcends convention and genre. – John Amen
Rx Papi – 100 Miles and Walk’in
Rx Papi raps like a guy in conversation at a loud party: at risk of being drowned out by the music yet trying to get it all out. He’s blunt and reflective all at once, mixing moments both stark and genuinely funny as if he hardly even notices the difference. By the time intro “A Man Apart (Intervention)” is over, he’s raced through more ideas than some rappers present across an entire album.
From there he leaps right into, “I walk in this bitch like Mystikal!,” on the the thudding “Rush Hour”. The song also includes the perfect example of his stream-of-consciousness hilarity: “I got pulled over, they asked me for my name / I’m high as fuck, I told them John Wayne / I walk in this bitch like John Wayne / I don’t know shit about John Wayne / Chris Tucker said that shit in Rush Hour, that’s the only time I heard about him.” This is wedged between scar tissue from familial betrayal and tears shed from his mother refusing his dirty money. Moments later on “Terry” he’s refusing counselling amidst connect concerns. In Papi’s world, there’s no line between the deeply personal and the goofy, and the pace never lets up. It’s no wonder the sole guest he lets into his world here is Boldy James: he’s among the few currently beloved MCs who could keep up in his own unique way. Some of the strangest, most addicting hip hop offered this year thus far. – Chase McMullen
Mach-Hommy – Pray for Haiti
On Pray For Haiti, his best album to date, Mach-Hommy is in true form. He’s joined by Griselda powder-keg Westside Gunn, who never steals the show, but does add a certain amount of panache to the whole affair. This gives Mach the open space to do what he does best. He rhymes Flonase with Yoplait and OJ on “Folie A Deux”, but turns around on “The Stellar Ray Theory” to sing soulfully about the sun to some easy saxophone.
Westside Gunn’s influence on Mach’s work is indeed something to note, but Mach’s other influences on Pray for Haiti tell more about his mindset than anything. His reflections on his time with MF DOOM sets the stage, and the late iconic rapper’s masked persona was clearly influential to Mach’s prior mask-wearing preference, but the Villain inspired in other ways that can be felt in random instances, like the minimalist “Ten Boxes – Sin Eater”, where Mach raps over a simplistic collection of chimes and drumbeats with slight bass on the backend. It’s a wonderful homage to one of rap’s greatest voices. A lot of Mach’s delivery seems to also come from Jay-Z, and Griselda’s production sparkles like 90s boom-bap, a period where Hova dominated, so there are distanct echoes of Hard Knock Life or even The Blueprint. All of this just shows how much respect Mach has for the craft. – Tim Sentz
Tyler, the Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
If Flower Boy was Revolver and Igor was Sgt. Peppers, then Call Me If You Get Lost is The White Album. More tonally diverse and darker than its predecessors, while still no less psychedelic and brazen, Tyler, the Creator’s latest album functions as an attempt to sense if there is any limit to the rapper’s aesthetic interests. Characterized by wild sonic ideas and diverse instrumentation, at times the album’s breakneck speed can induce emotional whiplash. But Tyler’s interests are clearly conveying his creative ideas in their most distilled form – without any fat or filler. This also allows for the samples to stand out, like vignettes from a dream that allows the dreamer a brief glimpse, before it shifts and fades into something else. It’s visionary stuff, especially with Tyler slipping into the costume of his newest character, Baudelaire, unifying his two main obsessions (romanticism and disgust) into a form of vulgar poetry he’s still the best at. Like many great rap albums, Call Me If You Get Lost is going to grow in stature with time, revealing itself to those who pay attention to its detailed texture and varied moods. – John Wohlmacher
Young Nudy – DR. EV4L
Whether or not you enjoy Young Nudy’s southern drawl or street-heavy, vulgar verses, you have to admit he’s consistent. For the past five years, he’s been dropping one or two projects annually that rank among the best material that Atlanta trap rap has to offer. The tracks are verse-heavy with no capitulation to any kind of pop sound, and the production is cutting-edge. The bass thumps, the beat knocks, and slime goes in.
On DR. EV4L the formula continues, with Nudy serving up his dark style that is not without its humor (Dr. Evil is, after all, an Austin Powers reference). The second half of this album is particularly strong, with standouts in the banging single “2Face” and the autobiographical “Colombian Necktie”. And, if the rumors are true, another full-length from Nudy entirely produced by Pi’erre Bourne is just around the corner. – Ethan Reis
Conway the Machine – La Maquina
[Griselda / Drumwork / EMPIRE]
More than any among the leading trio of Griselda, Conway has been waiting for his moment. Yes, 2017’s G.O.A.T was undeniably strong, and last year’s (admittedly brief) linkup with The Alchemist, LuLu, was has most consistent work to date, but he’s never quite enjoyed as big of a moment in the spotlight to the extent of his brethren. With Westside Gunn seeming to more and more favor his role as a curator, and Benny the Butcher sliding into a role he seems comfortable with, 2021 is the Machine’s for the taking. La Maquina proves his most varied effort yet, finding time for essential Griselda moments and a heater of a single alongside none other than Ludacris and J.I.D, as well. If his Shady Records debut, God Don’t Make Mistakes, ever materializes, his claims of being the year’s MVP may just bear weight. Whatever happens, this was surely one for the books. – Chase McMullen
Lloyd Banks – The Course of the Inevitable
[Money By Any Means]
The Course of The Inevitable begins with a song called “Propane” and the literal sounds of gas ready to be lit – Lloyd Banks making it extremely clear that, no matter how long he’s been gone, he’s back cooking with gas and firing on all cylinders this time around. His cutthroat attitude hasn’t gone either; “Kill a n***a, set up his GoFundMe and stеal it” is just one of the ways he emphasises that his money-chasing drive is strong as ever.
It’s this desire for power and wealth that drives a lot of the first half of The Course of The Inevitable. Banks’ voice – now 40 years old – is even more fantastically weathered, perfectly attuned to playing the paranoid top dog of a self-made empire who has to sleep with one eye open to keep all corners protected. Backed with beats that emphasise the grey and grim reality of the hustle, he takes up the mantle of the heartless thug; “Won’t be no empathy ’cause you going through it, gotta be strong / It’s always easier for you to do wrong,” he asserts on the Freddie Gibbs featuring “Empathy”.
However, as the album reaches its mid-point, cracks of humanity start to appear amidst the gangster facade. Over a contemplative beat, “Crown” finds him filled with regretful reflections, sending out the lesson “Word to the young, wild and reckless, hope you live to be old… Some friends, you gotta leave on the road.” The funeral bounce of “Break Me Down” sees him reflecting on losing grandmothers and aunts, witnessing murders (“the realest shit I ever saw”), and “returning from neighborhood wars tallying who went missing,” then cracking slightly as he admits “Sometime the pain hurt so bad things can get blurry.” It’s a hurt that’s revisited just a few tracks later on stand-out “Pain Pressure Paranoia” where, over a physical beat from Phill Jvckson, he raps “Losin’ a father feels like a .50 cal / Then losin’ a grandmother, damn, it hit me now.”
By the time we reach the final stretch of The Course of The Inevitable, Banks seems to have undergone a spiritual revolution of sorts. We’re treated to the nostalgic “Drop 5”, where a wistful violin-imbued backing from Fruition Beats underscores Banks’ wishes; “Here’s to the slower life, two to three kids, a home, a wife.” Shortly later, on the angelic “Smoke and Mirrors”, all that’s left of that wild youth are the aches and pains, his priorities completely changed “And I’m a father, the thought of it makes me proud / My biggest fear is lettin’ one of my babies down.” He underlines this very point on the closing track “C O T I”, explaining the album’s title in the process: “The streets don’t show love and gettin’ to it don’t make you a boss / There’s no remorse, the turns of the inevitable course.”
Banks may have been largely absent for the last decade, but The Course of The Inevitable provides the full story of his last 10 years of growth. This 67 minutes is an exploration of personal evolution, visceral in both its imagery and its honesty, and a re-introduction to Lloyd Banks as a man, a father and a force to be reckoned with. – Rob Hakimian
Armand Hammer & The Alchemist – Haram
‘Compromise’ isn’t a word in billy woods‘ or Elucid’s vocabulary. As Armand Hammer, they peel back the rotting facade of our society as if their lives depend on it. For Haram, in a first, they linked up with a sole producer: none other than essentially the best in the game for the past few years, The Alchemist.
As ever, Uncle Al adapts to the needs at hand, providing a surprisingly stark, blunt set of beats, grim and deceptively layered. The heresy on display here only begins with the title and its sinful album cover, with the pair of rappers attacking the harshest sides of American culture, bringing to light just the sort of truths most are uncomfortable in the presence of. Drifting seamlessly between the direct and the abstract, the harshly true and the surreal, this is hip hop as fucked as the moment we’re all stuck in. – Chase McMullen