Eminem should have picked a different title for The Marshall Mathers LP2. On its 2000 predecessor, he plumbed the ugly depths of the male ID with anguished ferocity, giving voice to blasphemous dreams of criminality and murder. He created a fictional character, “Stan,” that so vividly captured how we the audience – and hip-hop fans in particular – mistake complex rap lyrics for pure autobiography that it has become shorthand for a kind of perverse idolatry. Eminem tried to repeat that performance for many years afterward, or at least live up to it, by wearing us down with increasingly hammy shock tactics. It wasn’t until he repositioned himself as a man who employs self-help jargon to prove his decency in 2010’s Recovery that he found a credible follow-up.
On You’re Dead!, Steven “Flying Lotus” Ellison revisits the mysteries of the afterlife. His 2008 album Los Angeles concluded with “Auntie’s Harp” and “Auntie’s Lock/Infinitum,” tributes to his late great-aunt, the spiritual jazz harpist Alice Coltrane. A second version of “Auntie’s Lock” was included on 2010’s Cosmogramma. 2012’s Until the Quiet Comes explored the human capacity to alter consciousness through dream-like journeys, with the title holding a double-meaning: the moment when REM sleep settles into a deep slumber, and when the body is fully at eternal rest.
When 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.
With 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.
“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.
Nothing 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.”
Piñata, 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.”
In this post-Internet age of cross-platform synergy as condo down-payment survival, the Roots have flourished. There is the band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, an incredible sight for anyone who remembers how the Fugees swacked them back in 1995. There is the annual Roots picnic; the Starbucks-friendly Wise Up Ghost And Other Songs with Elvis Costello; the festival appearances with guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas shredding up “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” And yes, there is Questlove, the genial Paul Shaffer to Jimmy Fallon’s twee Letterman, and one of the new millennium’s great bon vivants, tweeting and posting selfies on Instagram about his celebrity friends (lots of Prince shout-outs) and his epicurean adventures with impressive gregariousness. His best-selling book, Mo Meta Blues, displays the same kind of intellectual curiosity as he weaves anecdotes about meeting Kiss and making viral videos with Dirty Projectors into an entertaining autobiographical tale. If only he could extend that same generosity and love of pop in all its cheesy shamelessness and gewgaw wonder to his band’s recordings and, more importantly, to the hip-hop culture that he claims fealty to, instead of frequently taking it out to the woodshed, most recently via his damningly titled “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” lectures for Vulture.com.
On All 6’s and 7’s, Tech N9ne claims he’s a “Cult Leader,” with a following of suburban delinquents that mimic his facepaint designs and his violent, operatic dirges. Promising a similar fate for hip-hop’s mainstream, he adds, “I’m gonna show these non-believers what mass lab-producing means.”
Lil Wayne could have made a much worse album than Tha Carter IV. Certainly, he seemed primed for a disaster. 2010’s widely derided Rebirth was a sophomoric pop-punk experiment. Its follow-up, the I Am Not A Human Being EP, marked a retreat to his modus operandi as a Dirty South rhyme animal, but it sounded rote and joyless, and he seemed distracted by a pending prison stint for weapons possession (which he completed early this year). After those relative failures – both went gold on Lil Wayne’s brand name and his unquenchable base of fans – Tha Carter IV seems less likely to draw the same excitement and interest as 2008’s Tha Carter III. And while teaser singles such as “John,” “6 Foot 7 Foot,” “How to Love” and “She Will” were decent, none of them equaled the classic minimalist attack of Volume III’s “A Milli” or the inexplicably popular pillow-hump ballad “Lollipop.”
Childish Gambino’s Camp is a bit of a mess. It veers wildly from poignant emotions to maudlin histrionics, often in the same song. On the album’s penultimate track, “That Power,” Childish Gambino encourages the Freaks and Geeks comparisons with a poem about serenading his childhood crush at the end of summer camp, that annual ritual of pubescent awkwardness, only to be mocked by her and her friends. It will have you recoiling in sympathetic embarrassment and reaching for the Kleenex at the same time. “I wish I could say this is a story about how I got on the bus a boy and got off a man, more cynical, hardened, mature and shit,” he says. “The truth is that I got on the bus a boy, and never got off the bus.”
For much of the decade, Chris Bridges has starred as an action figure in the Fast & Furious movie serials. Now Ludacris wants his old “number one spot” back. “I shot five movies the fans said “This album’s overdue/ And if you don’t put some music out these niggas gone be over you,’” he raps on “In My Life.” He’s using Burning Bridges as a diary, and every songs is about how the public views him, whether it’s the ex-girlfriends in “Good Lovin’,” or the haters in the club on “Money.” The tracks carries serious intentions and celebrity wattage, like country singer Jason Aldean on the title track, Miguel on “Good Lovin’,” and scandal-scarred CeeLo Green on “Problems.” Missing are the corny punch lines and goofy but lovable antics that defined him over a decade ago. Perhaps Burning Bridges is a po-faced attempt to convince himself and us of his relevance. “Somebody said I’m washed up,” he says on the “Intro.” “I told ‘em pass me the lotion.”