The first quarter of 2016 saw releases from a surprising number of A-listers, but the real story is probably Boosie Badazz. The cult hero from Louisiana is already three records deep this year, and the kidney cancer that surgeons addressed in December seems far in the rearview. His Thug Talk, featured here, ranks alongside Life After Deathrow as his best work since coming home from Angola two years ago. He’s joined by Kendrick Lamar and Young Thug, who some would say are diametrically opposed, but who share space on a short list of the genre’s greatest technicians. We also take a look at outstanding records from both coasts, the midwest, and an international collaboration in this month’s edition of 1st of the Month.
Kendrick Lamar, untitled unmastered (Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope)
O.D., Kendrick Lamar’s frenetic breakout mixtape from 2010, doesn’t come to a climax so much as it fades out. On “Heaven & Hell,” Tommy Black’s breezy flip of Bobby Lyle’s “Believe” swallows the Compton rapper’s vocals just as things are starting to look up after an abstract string of demons: “Unemployment, racism/ Burning buildings, AIDS victims, cancer killing, no cure.” untitled unmastered, his latest offering--which was either precipitated by a LeBron James tweet or pulled LeBron James into its promotional cycle, either of which is a pretty good story--picks up after the five-year interlude between O.D. and now.
When Kendrick’s voice fades in, you scramble to catch up. To Pimp a Butterfly, his already-bronzed sophomore blockbuster from last March, was in spots tangled and overwrought, but generally dealt in pointed messages and concrete social criticism. But untitled is an exercise in form; Kendrick plays with cadence, with his inflection, darting in and out of each beat’s pocket on a whim. Sometimes (tracks 2, 5, and 7, especially) the effect is hypnotic. Butterfly gestured at jazz, but untitled embodies it. (And employs it: Thundercat is once again a major creative force, playing on six of eight songs.)
The happy irony is that this stylistic breakthrough leads to Kendrick’s best writing since good kid, m.A.A.d. city. But it’s more reminiscent of O.D.’s scattered, fractured style: “I’m sick and tired of being tired/ Can’t pick a side, the Gemini/ Prophesize if we live or not/ Promise mama not to feel no lie.” That circles a thesis, or at least a theme, but where his commercial releases demand clarity and capital-p purpose, here he lets the song unfurl naturally, and the finished version is better for it.
Of course, there’s something disingenuous about a project that goes to great lengths to draw attention to how off-the-cuff it is. The presentation makes untitled feel more staid than it otherwise would, and the dates affixed to each song read as calculated, and even defensive. Fortunately, the music is often so good as to render those complaints irrelevant; “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.” and “untitled 07 | 2014-2016” both count among the best things he’s done since signing to Aftermath.
Young Thug,Slime Season 3 (300 / Atlantic)
Some of the songs on Slime Season 3 are as much as two years old, but they still sound like they’re from some distant future where Jolly Ranchers and Apple Watches are the only currency. Where the first installment of Young Thug’s preposterously good mixtape serious was a patchwork collection of leaked tracks--and where the second was a breathless vocal exercise--the third might as well be one of those old white-label samplers for radio DJs. With the exception of the long-awaited “Free Offset” (retitled here as “Problem”), it’s not hard to imagine Lyor Cohen holding onto these tracks just in case more recent studio sessions didn’t yield bigger singles for Thug’s retail debut; the fact that they see release here is likely a good sign for the Atlanta savant’s commercial prospects.
SS3 doesn’t have much in the way of thematic or emotional arcs--what the tracks have in common is that they’re sticky and, as has been the rule with Thug since 2013, vocally inventive at nearly every turn. The hook on “Digits” threatens to careen off course at any second; “Slime Shit” puts an every-bar “Hey!” ad-lib front-and-center in the mix. London on da Track, who has been Thug’s most reliable collaborator, handles half of the material here, though the most memorable beat comes courtesy of Mike WiLL Made It on “With Them.”
Boosie Badazz, Thug Talk (self-released)
Earlier this year, I spent about an hour on the phone with Boosie, and he spoke at length and in great detail about his “legal situation” (a euphemism; he was imprisoned and nearly killed by a racist Louisiana justice system), and about his plans to bring sports leagues, arts programs, and safety generally back to the youth of his native Baton Rouge. The topic that sent him into a rage? Taxes. In short, he was and is furious that politicians and bureaucrats who couldn’t be more removed from his community have the right to take a third of his money and redistribute it as they see fit. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, the argument makes sense: why trust these people to decide anything at all?
That might seem tangential to Boosie’s latest effort, but it isn’t. Thug Talk is the best of the three albums he’s released in the first three months of 2016, and it’s also the most impenetrable. It opens with a monologue: “A lot of people won’t understand Thug Talk.” There’s the maximalist menace of Boosie’s middle period (“Finish U,” “What You Know About Me”) and there’s a different, more contemplative menace (“Thug Talk,” “No Surrender No Retreat”) that he’s perfected more recently. The Z-Ro-featuring “Go Away” is a heartbreaking plea to self to stay out of trouble.
Open Mike Eagle & Paul White, Hella Personal Film Festival (Mello Music Group)
About four minutes into Hella Personal Film Festival, Open Mike Eagle’s full-length collaboration with producer Paul White, he raps, “I’m trying to re-live days that I couldn’t grab/ I looked up what Lena Dunham said, and I shouldn’t have.” I could point that out and move on--to the wildly fun “Check to Check” or to the sad and astute “Smiling (Quirky Race Doc)”--but I won’t, because Mike said “I looked up what Lena Dunham said and I shouldn’t have.” We could talk about how that illustrates his skepticism/fatigue of our pop culture and the channels through which we consume it, but we won’t, becauseGirls is on.
Guante & Katrah-Quey, POST-POST-RACE (self-released)
Guante is a rapper from Minneapolis, but he’s also an educator, community organizer, and two-time National Poetry Slam champion. If you’re the kind of person whose eyes glaze over at that bio, bear with me--he gets that, but he’s funny, sharp, and subversive enough to hook you, too. POST-POST-RACE is his collaboration with the producer Katrah-Quey, and it has songs called “How to Explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist” and “Our Relationship is a Slowly Gentrifying Neighborhood.” But not only is Guante not didactic, he does something nearly impossible within the confines of a song: he hashes out nuanced debates about complex subjects without lecturing or grandstanding. Check opener “White People on Twitter,” and specifically the turn in the middle--”White people on Twitter are my fan base.”
Kamaiyah, A Good Night in the Ghetto (self-released)
Oakland (and the rest of the Bay, really) has always been a hotbed for eccentric, undeniable hip-hop, but its national exports are few and far between. This year, though, there could be two breakout stars from the region: Nef the Pharaoh, and Kamaiyah, whose “How Does It Feel” can already be pencilled in as one of 2016’s signature songs. Like that single, A Good Night in the Ghetto puts money problems in plain terms, then laughs at them and buys cheap champagne and oversized furs. As introductions go, "It's Kamaiyah/ Please retire" is nearly peerless.
Westside Gunn, Flygod (Griselda)
The first thing you need to know about Westside Gunn is that he’s from Buffalo, which actually places him closer to Toronto than to New York City. But the second thing you need to know about Westside Gunn is that he’s more New York than nearly any New York rapper to come out since Marcberg. He raps--in a high-pitched sneer--about guns and sneakers with equal regard, taunting “your WCW” and all the other things you hold dear. Flygod is the kind of album that has songs called “Shower Shoe Lords” and “Mr. T,” and it’s the best genre movie you’ll catch all year.