It’s just past the first quarter of 2018 and it feels like hip hop is in a fragmented place, with tons of variety but a lack of centralized power. It makes perfect sense that one of the most important albums in the genre this year, namely Black Panther: The Album, overseen by the mighty Kendrick Lamar, is a various-artists collection. But that just means that our table is set with a kaleidoscopic array of tasty bites. Here are some others that have me going back for seconds.
Invasion Of Privacy - Cardi B. I have no problem admitting I was wrong when I called Cardi B. a flash in the pan. I thought the phenomenon of Bodak Yellow would lead to an over-wrought, overlong mess, a naked attempt for streaming dominance with no concern for musical quality (it’s happened before, right Fetty?). Instead what we have here is a concise, heat-seeking album that mostly shows her surprising versatility while not straying too far from her strengths. The opening cut, Get Up 10 is a perfect origin story with a brittle beat that’s supremely catchy. Next, she holds her own with Migos on Drip, injecting some welcome color into their trademark sound. Be Careful is another highlight, marrying her tough rhymes to a slinky groove that finds her comfortable enough to sing a little.
Chance The Rapper threatens to take over Best Life with his sheer skill and exuberance but Cardi claws back her territory. Whether or not they were actually in the studio together, they make a great team, with his natural sunniness contrasting with her biting flow. I Like It adds some trap to familiar boogaloo for a killer party cut with a great guest spot from Bad Bunny, rapping in Spanish. This is the only explicit, if glancing, nod to part of her heritage (her father is Dominican, her mother is from Trinidad) but her inflections will be familiar to anyone who as spent time in one of NYC’s diverse neighborhoods.
Further collaborations with Kehlani, YG and SZA could have led to an overload but they all feel in support of her rather than an attempt at propping up a limited talent. Besides the fact that Money Bag is a retread, my only real complaint about this impressive debut is including Bodak Yellow and Bartier Cardi, both old songs with multi-millions of streams, which smacks of either laziness or music-biz chicanery. It interrupts the listening experience to have these overly familiar singles in the track list. Take’em out and you still have a 40 minute album that makes this outsized personality the unlikely queen of hip hop. Well done.
Fuerza Arara - Telmary If Cardi B. has a true affinity for Hispanic rap, she should invite this Cuban legend on her next project. Telmary Diaz has been pursuing her vision of Latin hip hop since the 90’s and shows no sign of losing her flair or intensity on this album. The grooves, drawing on a wealth of Afro-Caribbean and Yoruban flavors, are rich and beautifully produced, with the tuba-driven Como se Pone la Habana and the reggaefied Ibeyis being standouts. But really, the only knock on Fuerza Arara’ is that, at just over 30 minutes, it’s way too short. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a perfect place to start, however, and I envy you the journey through her past. Read up on some other exciting things happening in Cuban hip hip in this in-depth article from Topic.
Fever - Black Milk This Detroit-based producer and rapper, born Curtis Eugene Cross, has also been honing his craft for a while, gaining most of his reputation as a top-flight J Dilla disciple behind the boards. Through his own albums and many collaborations he’s continued to develop his rapping to the point where he’s now a true double-threat. Besides his conversational flow one thing that distinguishes him is his focus on storytelling and descriptions of an emotional landscape with a refreshing lack of braggadocio. Standout track Laugh Now, Cry Later (an inversion of Grace Jones’ advice) is a great place to start, but there’s not a bad track here. “They told me keep it pure, caught up in the allure, but, see, that’s not what I was looking for, wasn’t sure, I wanted more,” Black Milk raps on True Lies and throughout Fever he demonstrates the allure of keeping it pure. Catch it -and check him out live in the studio at New Sounds.
The Brown Tape - Ghostface Killah & Apollo Brown One of the minor tragedies of our sensationalist moment is that Martin Shkreli’s adventure with that million-dollar Wu-Tang Clan album got way more attention than Ghostface’s last album. Sour Soul, from 2015, was an album length collaboration with Toronto-based jazz insurrectionaries Bad Bad Not Good - and it sounded like a million bucks, landing on my Top 20 for that year. Now that Shkreli is behind bars I hope people don’t make the same mistake and miss out on this latest from the greatest living Wu Tang rapper. The album is named after producer Brown, another luminary straight outta Michigan, like Black Milk, but might also refer to the thick, crackle-infused beats he’s cooked up here. It’s almost as if Ghostface challenged him to use the most unplayable vinyl in his crates to build the tracks. However it went down, it sounds fantastic.
The Killah himself is in fine form, whether spitting furiously on Blood On The Cobblestones or waxing autobiographical on Rise Of The Ghostface Killah, which features his Clan brother RZA, who was probably looking greedily at Brown’s vinyl while recording his bars. Like Sour Soul, The Brown Tape is a short, sharp and shocking reminder of the strengths of one of the most venerable rappers still in the game, as well as a calling card for Brown’s grimy production skills. Don’t let pharma-bro Shkreli hog the spotlight again.
Golden Chariots - Joey Gallo, Cole Hicks and J Clyde Full disclosure: Producer J Clyde is one of my fellow writers for Off Your Radar, the weekly newsletter covering forgotten or overlooked albums. But it's through that relationship that I've come to admire his deep musical knowledge, and not just about hip hop, but all things sonic. While I've checked out and enjoyed some of his own stuff in the past, this collaboration with two Virginia-based rappers has a new sense of assurance and command. His use of samples is always on point and the rhythms are funky and unpretentious. Gallo has the smooth flow of a veteran and Cole (short for Nicole) contrasts nicely whether rapping or singing. This EP is a great introduction to three talents - hope to hear more soon.
Catch up with everything I’m tracking in this realm with this playlist: Of Note In 2018 (Hip Hop, R&B, and Reggae). What morsels am I missing?
You may also enjoy: