Hip-hop is picking up as June draws toward the end, giving hope for the rest of the summer. Whirlwind wordsmith Jarren Benton returns after his fine sequel to Slow Motion from last year and Vince Staples with his full length sophomore, in not an extremely remarkable week but one that will move us along at any rate.
Atlanta backpacker Jarren Benton releases his third studio album less than a year after his classic-qualifying independent LP Slow Motion Vol. 2, a glowing highlight of 2016. The new collection, The Mink Coat Killa LP, too comes on the vicious emcee’s indie label Benton Enterprise, LLC, and has the marks, if not all the marks, of a solid, non-major label, self issue – some challenging subject matter and complex wordplay, but Benton frequently falls back on his standard barbarous attitudes and feels all the way through the bonus tracks.
Two reoccurring themes cause some concern. The brutality and money-and/or-gifts-for-sex topics pop up more than once though they maybe shouldn’t at all. When the verbal violence and cold lovelessness are in the forms of Wu-like kung fu sound bites via “The God Intro” or the coined “money over b*tches” idea in “Designer Belts” or even the paying for sexual favors as a relationship centerpiece in “Again,” then there’s obviously a dedication to that overly hard toughness that is ultimately deleterious in overcompensating for fear and vulnerability with too much hardcore aggression and stoicism.
Frankly, the album follows a trend that rap album fans are well familiar with by now. The savage, sometimes adolescent tough guy talk rules in the top three fourths of the project only to get to a few recycled messages of weight in the bottom fourth but even after that, two rough-’em-up bonus tracks revert to low level beastliness. Benton brings up Flint, for the infamous water crisis of course, in “$30k Mink” and elsewhere and presents the thought of “overthrowing the government that rules with an iron fist” in “Ill N*gga.” Those are fleeting moments in their respective songs however.
The conscious ending quarter is good but doesn’t last long and should have distributed its intelligence in earlier parts. Benton strolls down memory lane in “Passenger Side” to show love to hip-hop greats who inspired him, he rejects personality flaws in “F*ck Everybody,” and “Mental Issues” ends it with some decompressing and venting with prescription medication being one of those questionable targets. Some might say this section ends as fast as it comes on and really rappers have hit on this conceptual terrain in the past. It’s still relevant though.
For as much of a gifted emcee Jarren Benton is at this time, his Mink Coat Killa LP is a default to and over-reliance on backpack typicality with very little innovation if any. The former Funk Volume artist has shed even more original funk from his nature and kept the volume of rap-ruthlessness at his regular high setting. As a backpacker, Benton is still unique enough, with a recognizable voice and for the fact that he does put consciousness next to his destructo-rhymes, though he rarely juxtaposes, blends or mixes them, quartering them off into their own sections instead. Mink Coat Killa is thus satisfactory, just barely, but now, in the prewriting phase, Benton must be smarter and more conscious of how brutish and obnoxious he has a tendency of getting so that the fresh, smart, conscious side of him in his verses doesn’t go from endangered to extinct. (3 out of 5 stars)
Long Beacher and Def Jammer Vince Staples’ debut LP, Summertime ’06, got sparkling reviews across the board in 2015 and his sophomore, Big Fish Theory, is eerily and quickly getting the same, thanks to the mainstream press’s obeisance to the commercial mastermind behind B.F.T. Remember that the album comes from Def Jam and Def Jam pretty much takes strict, direct orders from its owner, the corporately structured Universal Music Group. Vince may squeeze out a few okay lines here and there but he’s largely and regrettably an unoriginal instrument set to reconvey a few common contrived rap sentiments on Big Fish.
There is talk of experimental production in the album and it is accurate talk yet the LP mainly features a dancy, bouncy sonic-likeness. The topics on the other hand leave more to be desired. Vince makes inequality not a character issue or economic issue but rather a color and race issue with the race-baiting of “Crabs in a Bucket,” rapping about battling whites and talking black oppression briefly there; then it’s money and aspirations in “Big Fish,” the confusticating life where Vince crashes a sports car and charges a premium for the d*ck in “Love Can Be…,” and then the expectable trials and tribulations of love in “745.”
At one point in the middle, in “Yeah Right,” which features Kendrick Lamar, the proverbial waters that our “big fish” swims get a bit deep, with Vince admitting his wariness of pretty girls, with heavy allegations against them, and the criteria that we judge other people’s success by there – well layered stuff for center-of-the-album material. Production-wise, Big Fish maintains its avant garde integrity to the end, but since this is your usual major-label release, the head-scratching oddball statements still pop up on occasion. It’s apparently cool to Vince and his crew to do the same thing again and again in “Samo,” one of his examples being to put his dudes through college, in business and with your mother as Staples so eloquently puts it, not really (*sarcasm alert*).
The rest unfolds nearly identically, with speech that might mean something but just sounds problematic. Vince Staples may drop the loaded line of “tell the one percent [and government] to suck a d*ck because we on now” in banger “Bagbak” but also thinks the next Bill Gates (his model for greatness?) could come from the ghetto of all places. In much the same way, there are notes of technical realism in “Rain Come Down” when Vince gabs on about “never needing a girl to love me” but it’s also just cold, heartless and un-engaging. The music has a good sum to offer but Vince and his casual, slightly dull spitting and his habit of making act-a-fool comments leave a Big Fish Theorythat would have been able to stick in the memory had it contained better messages and sharper vocal delivery. (2 out of 5 stars)
We here at SwurvRadio are not afraid to play hard ball with hard-to-learn rap acts that seem to do the same things over and over again but we’re also honest about where they’re going wrong and how they need to shape up because there’s always something substantial about them that leads us to review their projects in the first place. And being the benevolent sort we are, we only want to tell them and their fans the truth to see them think and hopefully grow. Why butter them up and mislead them, even if only to save face? Again and still, we must also bring up the positives in their features so before we begin to stall, let us start.
The best album of the week, Known Unknowns by NYC rapper Billy Woods, is the typical product one would expect from the alternative underground one from the East Coast and despite not blowing us away with flash, controversy or a bang in the production, all of Woods’ wordplay, clever metaphors and concepts, and interesting assorted music (mainly by producer Blockhead) give K.U. a leg up in the ratings. Smart, left-field art rap is put to use for political and social commentary, making subjects of police at a rap show, the people of porn, rapper rankings and surveillance among several other topics.
The production is lowkey yet quite marvelous for an artistic variety of beats, mixed flavors of music and new sample sources – Nirvana, a few others. Known Unknowns is a geek’s cup of tea though. Instead of all the nerdy scatterbrained thought processes, free-styling and random poetry slams and such, Woods might desire to give his messages – and he has many – directly, to the point and undressed for more effective results, but if you’re looking to spend a good chunk of time to really study lyrics, knock yourself out with this album for sure. (3 out of 5 stars)
As another new offering from the recently reborn DITC Studios set up by none other than NYC’s beloved Diggin’ In The Crates crew, Take It Back is also the latest LP from fine Golden Age duo Showbiz & AG. There hasn’t been a great deal of evolution in AG’s rapping, which still to this day promotes the basic essentials of emceeing, un-rushed, careful, and even though it’s honestly a delight to hear boombap of the smooth agreeable type from Showbiz’ pro hand, Take It Back truly and staunchly takes it back to the heyday of the group. It’s a time capsule, not really a step up.
In the first half, some gangster notes (believe it or not) dissolve later in and open up to friendlier topics of love, traveling and the world, with nice little stories and light wisdom scattered throughout. At the end of the day however, the album is nothing innovative or cutting edge for fans, just some pretty solid rapping from two legends looking to get back in the game after a five or so year hiatus, though they likely won’t get the same places they sat in in the late ‘80s and early to mid ‘90s. (2 out of 5 stars)
Seasoned Hartford, CT emcee Blacastan has done it again with producer Stu Bangas, releasing his second collaboration LP with the beatmaker, The Uncanny Adventures of Watson & Holmes, the sequel to their Watson & Holmes album from 2014. Blacastan is no doubt an accomplished rapper and member of Army of the Pharaohs and the Demigodz, with a sizable catalogue of solid releases, but despite that and despite the fierce upright wordplay in the bars topping Stu Bangas’ brutal boombap, there are obvious problems with this Uncanny set, and this is WITH Blacastan playing the rap version of the detective Holmes in one bright concept moment within the mix.
The LP is very little besides weak gangster rap, smothering murder raps and immature barbaric sex rhymes, all in the backpack style of vocalism of course. The lyrics never leave behind those rough coarse textures giving us no deep mission, meaning or message at any point to learn from. Stu and Blacastan both have considerable histories in the music and TUAWH is a decent lesson in intricate advanced rhyme composition but it’s dragging its heels in the past in failing to move forward with greater, useful subject matter. (1 out of 5 stars)
Since there are two legends (Wise Intelligent and Kool G Rap) releasing albums this week, each with vastly different moral character, this start to June 2017 presents a very good seminar on the dignity-divisions that still exist in the rap music game today. If the veterans aren’t even on the same page as far as scruples and decency are concerned, how can the majority of new artists coming up now be expected to start a movement for more substance, principles and values in the lyrics? A discussion is in order but that’s far from all it will take for a change. Caught in between the two, rising Brooklyn emcee Latasha Alcindor is the middle of the debate with material that favors the artistic and progressive side of the aisle in her latest project. Overall it’s been a solid week.
Game of Death by Gensu Dean & Wise Intelligent (Mello Music Group)
If February’s BlueKluxKlan wasn’t enough of PRT’s Wise Intelligent for you then you’re in luck because he and alternative producer Gensu Dean just dropped a joint album, Game of Death, on respected label Mello Music Group to boot. This is no doubt the main attraction this June 2nd, with Wise upholding black culture and showing great concern for the health and integrity of hip-hop music on it, as he exposes the escalating phenomenon of wack, bad-influence rappers pushed by the mainstream system. And he does it to Dean’s professionally crafted joints of psych rock, folk, soul and electronica plus enhancing backup sound bites.
Not only an attack on the shady industry model, G.O.D. has a love component by Wise that buffers the criticism and rebuke. Despite lesser rappers’ cowardice, Wise has love for all rappers, even the sucker rappers (can’t really call them sucker MC’s because a lot of them aren’t technically emcees to begin with), since they are the offshoot and result of foundation-laying by him and other Golden Age greats. Also “Ooh Wee (Shakiyla Pt.4)” has Wise depicting sex not lewdly or raunchily but as intimate love-making with his spirit-mate, as involved and meaningful, not simply as f*cking. In a nutshell, GOD succeeds because of neat quick spitting on useful important topics over artistic musical beats. (4 out of 5 stars)
Brooklyn artist and rapper Latasha Alcindor, found in workshop, concert, and music by Sammus, Radamiz and others, issues her retail debut during an upswing in her career and at a time when the feminine spark is still very much needed in hip-hop. Teen Night at Empire has all the verve, spunk, strength, spirit, flyness, vocal fashion and yes even fight (the good kind) that Alcindor has developed a reputation for over the last few years in her songs. This new output of emotions and charging resolve is distinct for ‘90s throwback loops atop most prominently then crystal clear, ambient chords later in, no doubt from the greatest that modern studio mastering and expert craftsmanship have to offer. Latasha speaks on typical emcee fare – braggadocio, memories, etc. – but what she has to say in this set are things not extremely dire to talk about, mainly common notes and thoughts from her own life important to her above all else. Teen Nite is still a creative piece though, original LA yet influenced by the greats with some nice creativity on the production end. (3 out of 5 stars)
There’s not much more to say about Queens Golden-Ager Kool G Rap at this point, especially with a new LP (his fifth solo one, eighth overall) of banal mafioso rap. The gangster emcee from the legendary Juice Crew with Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Roxanne Shanté, Masta Ace and Craig G (and the rest) is hiding his desire for big money numbers, fame and celebrity in the Return of the Don album with talk about his music not being gangster rap but “reality” rap (*denial*) and one of his guests saying he’ll leave the teaching to KRS-One, plus he’s literally hiding behind a sizable number of big, equally gangster guest-rappers on it. It’s simply nothing more than violent brutal street rap that’s sometimes women-hating and women-using and never deeply intelligent or intellectual outside of the rhyming and spitting craft. More than some skillfully conceived wordplay recited expertly is the only attribute worth studying here – even producer MoSS’s nothing-new boombap compositions are hardly exciting – so the music and the lowdown dirty pastimes and preoccupations do a lot of damage to the dangerously distinguished don on Return. (1 out of 5 stars)