• Albums,  Reviews

    Theophilus London, ‘Vibes’

    Theophilus London - VibesWhen Warner Bros. announced that Kanye West would executive-produce Theophilus London’s Vibes, it brought much-needed promotion to this Brooklyn sensualist who sings more than he raps, and who spends his off-days lounging at Cannes and taking in runway shows at Paris Fashion Week. He brings uncommonly varied cultural references to his pop raps – his 2009 collaboration with Machinedrum, This Charming Mixtape, featured cover art homage to Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model, and his 2011 major-label debut, Timez Are Weird These Days, included cameos from Sara Quin of Tegan & Sara and Holly Miranda. That range of sensibilities may attract a fellow dandy like West, but it may also explain why London has only had moderate success in the States. It’s hard to know what he really stands for other than good taste.

  • Albums,  Reviews

    Serengeti, ‘Kenny Dennis III’

    Serengeti - Kenny Dennis IIIWith Kenny Dennis III, David “Serengeti” Cohn continues to develop one of the quirkiest fictions in hip-hop. The storyline emerged on 2006’s Dennehy as a weird Chicago in-joke, just a few songs like “[Brian] Dennehy” and “Ozzie Guillen” speckled amidst an array of sketches — check the creepy drug dealer on “Meth” — and navel-gazing backpacker rhymes like “Critters.” It is now a lyrical meta-verse, with each installment adding details to this 70s pornstache-wearing sports fanatic, O’Douls guzzler, washed up early 90s rapper who once battled Shaquille O’Neal as a member of Tha Grimm Teachaz, and current occupant of a garage.

  • Albums,  Reviews

    Black Milk, ‘If There’s a Hell Below’

    Black Milk - If There's a Hell Below“If I have one fan rate me highly, I could never feel underrated,” raps Black Milk in his slightly stilted Midwestern accent on “What It’s Worth.” It’s one of many albatrosses the Detroit musician – no, really, he plays live drums and keyboards – has carried throughout his career. Another well-worn claim is that he’s a far better producer than rapper, but even his late mentor J Dilla was better at turning a clever hook than delivering an actual rhyme. (“Still won’t let you live out from the shadow of your hero,” he rues on “All Mighty” as he tries to cast another critic monkey off his back.) Unfortunately, all this chatter has led to the kind of polite applause that prevents us from fully appreciating Black Milk’s gifts. His 2008 breakthrough Tronic deserves to be ranked as a minor classic, half-decent raps or not.

  • Albums,  Reviews

    Drake, ‘Nothing Was the Same’

    Drake - Nothing Was the SameNothing Was the Same marks a tide-is-high moment for Aubrey Drake Graham. As he surveys the world from the vista of his achievements, he sums up what he once called “The Ride,” and what he calls on opener “Tuscan Leather” as “my mission to shift the culture.”

    But there are others nipping at his ability to define the contours of mainstream rap, chiefly Kendrick Lamar, and to a lesser extent Future, Macklemore and a few others. Perhaps it’s why Drake has no major guests on Nothing Was the Same, save for a growling Birdman adlib on “Language,” and a pair of imperious Jay-Z verses on “Pound Cake.” He wants vindication as a hip-hop god by his own merit.

  • Albums,  Reviews

    Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, ‘Piñata’

    Freddie Gibbs - PinataPiñata, the full-length collaboration between 21st-century gangster rapper Freddie Gibbs and 31st-century producer Madlib, lulls breezily between pro forma thuggery and Swisha Sweet insights, mixing progressive beats (sampled, not synthesized) with grizzled street raps (real talk, not fake Bawse boasts). But though this is well-trod ground, from the blaxploitation allusions to the Odd Future and TDE cameos (sorry, no Kendrick), there is innovation and illumination here, too. There is “Thuggin’,” wherein Gibbs chops over frail guitar licks looped and sped up into an Americanized spaghetti-gangster soundtrack, thanks to Madlib’s excavation of an arcane British library record, Rubba’s “Way Star” (h/t WhoSampled.com). There is “Deeper,” wherein Gibbs unravels a deeply metaphorical flip on Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and bemoans the decline of gangsta rap culture, “All for a nigga that ain’t got nothing that I ain’t got / Only difference is, he’s tryin’ to be a fuckin’ astronaut.”