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Reflections of America in Rap

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run the jewels
Run the Jewels, RTJ$ (Jewel Runners/BMG)

To quote Public Enemy’s Chuck D, rap is “Black America’s CNN.” Throughout the genre’s history, this claim has been sometimes more and sometimes less true. Right now, it is indisputable — even as rap remains a genre as diverse and protean as the albums reviewed below.

Run the Jewels: RTJ$ (Jewel Runners/BMG)

Run the Jewels started as a one-off side project between alternative rappers Killer Mike and El-P. They had so much in common aesthetically and politically that the partnership soon became their main gig. Their fourth album, uncannily timed to address a moment they didn’t know was coming, reaches a new level of fiery density.

Mike came up through Atlanta’s Dirty South, while El-P has long been a fixture of New York alternative rap, but their respective styles share plenty: a delight in speed-rapping, a belief in hip-hop as a revolutionary force, a somewhat quaint vision of rappers as daring provocateurs, and an acute-left political consciousness. Although each of their albums has protested police brutality, mass incarceration, and climate change with ever-greater specificity, their jolly, male-bonded stoner braggadocio has often undermined their avenging rage. Elements of fantasy persist on this album too, as the opening, “Yankee and the Brave (Ep. 4),” imagines an action-movie scenario where they get stuck in a shootout with police before making their last-minute getaway. But they’ve never before captured the feeling of righteous frustration so precisely; they can’t believe they still have to protest this shit, and they can’t stop trading verses.

The interplay of their voices — Mike’s deep, buttery drawl and El-P’s sharper, more exasperated whine — contributes to the album’s needling urgency, as does El-P’s production, in which buzzing basslines and old-school noise hooks generate wrenching dissonance (especially when he turns crowd noise into harmonic splatter on “Goonies vs. E.T.”). The album peaks with “Walking in the Snow,” which describes the spectacle of state violence over screeching keyboards and rousing chants. When Mike wrote the line “You watch the cops choke out a man like me/until my voice goes from a shriek to a whisper, ‘I can’t breathe,’” he was referring to Eric Garner; now the song is about George Floyd as well.

Hectic and exhilarating, this album would have been a tonic no matter the state of the union. That’s one reason why they’re so mad: the struggle is forever.

drakeo the ruler
Drakeo the Ruler, Thank You for Using GTL (Stinc Team)

Drakeo the Ruler: Thank You For Using GTL (Stinc Team)

A calm, understated gangsta rap minimalist, Drakeo the Ruler has spent most of the last year in the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail, awaiting trial for conspiracy charges refiled by the District Attorney after he was cleared of attempted murder charges a year ago. This mixtape, recorded over the prison phone line, indicts the justice system.

Drakeo is a master of quiet: he raps in a contemplative murmur, slightly under his breath, as if working through his thoughts out loud. Producer JoogSZN’s skeletal keyboard loops exude hushed menace, conforming to trap’s standard template but carving out wide swaths of empty space: the record sounds ghostly, as Drakeo zigzags his way through the sonic maze with cautiously playful wit. Lyrically, he sticks to his favorite themes, boasting about his own brilliance and explaining the pleasures of shopping at Neiman Marcus, only occasionally mentioning prison or pleading his case. But the static of the prison phone line, often reducing his voice to a croak, makes it impossible to forget the circumstances of mixtape’s creation — as do automated interruptions from the phone service such as, “Thank you for using GTL” or “This call is being recorded.”

The music’s attenuation works conceptually, too; the gaunt electronic sound and the quaver in his voice evoke Drakeo’s targeting by the state in a fraudulent criminal justice system. Whether these songs would sound as harrowing out of context is ultimately a pointless question (for what it’s worth, his other mixtapes do), especially since he also uses the context to address another essential rap theme: the line between representation and life. The closer, “Fictional,” ends the record with a disclaimer that his lyrics, which have been used against him in court, are not biographical, offering this credo: “It might sound real but it’s fictional/I love that my imagination gets to you.”

Scary and surprisingly catchy, a triumph of form and imagination, Thank You For Using GTL lays hip-hop’s social conditions bare. If Drakeo is released, it may become less painful to hear, but it will remain deeply instructive on the system’s racist horror.

megan thee stallion
Megan Thee Stallion, Suga (1501 Certified/300)

Megan Thee Stallion: Suga (1501 Certified/300)

Megan Thee Stallion’s hardcore rap is both exciting and one-dimensional, so austere it can wear out fast. Here, she takes the edge off her spare sound, adding cushier hooks and guest features designed to bolster her pop potential.

Megan’s last album, Fever, set the standard for percussive starkness in contemporary rap: by stripping down to just the bare-bones hammering of the bass and drum machine while snarling her filthy sex rhymes, she fashioned a calisthenic music designed to exhibit bodily discipline and self-control. Aiming to expand her sound into a more generous party music, this album embraces Southern rap’s characteristic bass bounce; the rubbery keyboard hooks and blocky rhythm tracks parade by with delighted confidence.

In keeping with her project, the additional pop pleasure is not an incursion but a further demonstration of mastery. “Captain Hook,” the album’s main sex jam, augments the beat’s hardcore crunch with loud bass blasts and scraped metal-blade noises, while the 2Pac-sampling “B.I.T.C.H.” glides smoothly, with sparkly synthesizers and sighing backup vocals that perfectly complement Megan’s singsongy pep talk, as she tells a boyfriend how to improve his conduct. Most strikingly, with the final two songs, “Crying in the Car” and “What I Need,” she attempts the melodic, Auto-Tuned style of rapping that dominates hip-hop radio — and bends it to her own aggressive rhythm. Especially on “What I Need,” she jumps back and forth between Auto-Tune and her signature unadorned speed-rapping, as if to flaunt her facility with genre. The extra vocal polish is needling and sharp as her usual delivery: a stealth attack.

Despite this album’s range, it coheres well; whether sharp or sugary, everything just sounds like Megan Thee Stallion. She’s delighted to be in control.

polo
Polo G, The Goat (Columbia)

Polo G: The Goat (Columbia)

Caught between pop and drill modes, Polo G’s style contains contradictions, as the surface pleasure of winding melody lines is undercut by the gravity of his verses about poverty and dead friends. This album is a pristine exercise in gloom, although the songs pass in a blur.

Polo’s first album, last year’s Die A Legend, established his particular voice. Using drill’s simultaneously bleak and rich sonic palette, marked by piano loops ringing out through electronic mud, and his own forlornly tuneful delivery, he conjured a compelling melancholy that his lyrics link explicitly to depression and childhood deprivation (especially on his excellent radio hit “Pop Out”). His delivery is a variation on contemporary rap’s chattering melodic style, but darkened by heavy minor-key shadows, often similar in mood to Kevin Gates’s (admittedly sillier) street laments. On this album, he starts to recycle the tunes — where Die A Legend’s stark musical juxtapositions suited his earnest gravity, these songs all drift by at the same measured pace, performed in the same dazed cadence. In the service of flow — and of simulating a gushing outpouring of emotion — Polo often dispenses with verse/chorus boundaries, as is common in melodic rap; the chorus sustains the same verse melody, only identifiable by the lyrics he’s repeating. Hence, the murk takes over, and the songs are difficult to distinguish within themselves and from each other. The exceptions are in those beats that splash some color on his monochrome — for instance, “Don’t Believe the Hype,” whose guitar riff gleams brilliantly, and “Go Stupid,” whose rowdy piano coaxes him into having fun.

Catchy on the surface, the hooks don’t stick. Polo excels at suppressing pain through form, but this album is too formalized.


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