Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week's album is SremmLife 2, the sophomore album from Atlanta rap duo Rae Sremmurd.
I remember the first time I heard Swae & Jxmmi: I was an intern at HOT 97 in New York City, posted on telephone duty when an assistant to DJ Camilo pulled “No Flex Zone” from the record pool on his computer. They sound like Atlanta, they’re from Mississippi, their name is the production group (backwards) and it’s two Black brothers doing outlandish shit on a Mike WiLL beat that sounds like audible candy… the type of candy that’d piss moms off if you ate it before dinner. I asked the homie why he bestowed - burdened? - such an infectious gem upon me on a hot afternoon like that one, for surely I’d never remove those scratchy high-pitched yelps from my mind.
After that, “No Type” destroyed radio. Then “Throw Sum Mo” and two more singles from the SremmLifedebut: one of the best rap records in a year that brought us a revolutionary Kendrick, a saddened Earl, a paranoid Drake and several modes of Future. Swae Lee: the obvious crossover contender with the near-falsetto. Slim Jxmmi: the rager, the raucous one, the better rapper if you’re paying attention. Sremm’s staying power moved from the hallowed halls of viral vids to a mainstream craving the carefree Blackness they provide: a millennial upgrade to a present nostalgia, where Montell Jordan and Bell Biv Devoe continue to set kickbacks ablaze as the world continues to burn. Sremm’s rapid pop ascendance went relatively unquestioned; we were happy to have them, that’s why they went platinum. That tension makes SremmLife 2the pivotal moment of the duo’s career: we watch platinum groups disappear in six-month cycles now, so can the formula change up enough to remain consistent?
It’s clear from the industrial whirring of “Start a Party” that Mike WiLL’s team had this in mind: the stadium-status anthemic quality remains intact, with a layer of strange haze to complicate the happy-go-lucky quality of Sremm records. You hear it in the zany, offbeat melody of “By Chance,” which Swae meets with a goofy faux-British inflection, and the pensive piano behind “Came a Long Way” where Jxmmi sounds like he’s meditating from the VIP section. There’s the standard Mustard fare on “Set the Roof” where Lil Jon christens the post-crunk vibe essential to Sremm’s sound, but the best sonic choices show up on “Black Beatles” and “Look Alive” where synthpop bleeds all over the 808s, giving every groove an oddball quality that isn’t setting the party off, but the 2 a.m. moment where you’re between calling the Uber or choosin’ someone to walk home with.
The vocal formula stays intact for most of the album: Swae still commands most of the choruses (and tracks overall,) but Jxmmi gets a bit more playing time. They stick to what works, which may pose a problem down the line should the duo remain together as they hit their mid-20s. There’s already talk of a Swae Lee solo album - expected, since he sings almost all the hooks - but is that a new spin on the magic or the industry clawing them apart? It’s important to remember that neither brother is disposable from one another: Jxmmi can pick up the slack of a weaker Swae moment (see: “Real Chill,” also starring an insanely-fitting Kodak Black verse) but Swae’s hook can save the song (see: “Now That I Know,” the standard-issue breakup song with a little too Drake quality to it.) If the near-half-hour freestyle on Tim Westwood proved anything, it’s the group’s rap/pop flexibility that fares for infectious vocal moments and hilarious obscenity that remain quotable even if they aren’t the most refreshing trick. Plus, you get to hear Gucci Mane say their name with the s after the c, a classic trope in Gucci linguistics.
The aggregation of meme culture and Black Twitter isn’t as potent a shtick as the first time, but that comes with the sophomoric territory. Swae can present himself as the man that can do both, Jxmmi can remark how his college-educated lady should’ve been a stripper, and it’ll still work with the kids. While SremmLife 2is a solid follow-up with potential to age as well as its predecessor, the subject matter threatens is the very thing threatening their consistency moving forward. Mike WiLL discovered these boys and dropped them dead center into the industry, but we still know next to nothing of them. They allude to their struggle on “Came a Long Way,” but we still don’t know what Tupelo was truly like, what they left behind for the fame. The rags-to-riches narrative is tried-and-true, and will remain that way as long as there’s a “bottom” or “dirty” to lay claim to. We witnessed the first hit, we’re riding high, but what does the come down look like? We turn to them for happiness, but it’s an even grander proposition to turn to Sremm for triumph.
On my second run of this album, I learned that an officer killed a man in Milwaukee. My friends were awake, inhaling the embers of the riots in the night. I paused, then remembered Swae Lee had a hand in co-writing “Formation.” As of now, Rae Sremmurd still possesses the sauce to channel a revolutionary moment into a pop wave that connects on a genuine, youthful level. I’ll be here; it appears we’ll only need them more.