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The Two Sides of Contemporary Hip-Hop

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lil uzi vert
Lil Uzi Vert, Eternal Atake (Generation Now/Atlantic)

The question of genre is a prevalent one in hip-hop: should it stick to its bare bones or incorporate other styles? A divide in contemporary hip-hop — roughly, between clean, spare, controlled aggression and gushy, aqueous soundscape — reflects divergent commercial interests, as streaming services and radio both exert pressure on the music. There’s no right answer, as the albums reviewed below demonstrate — although the audacity of Lil Uzi Vert, who somehow belongs to both categories, may provide resolution.

Lil Uzi Vert: Eternal Atake (Generation Now/Atlantic)

Lil Uzi Vert is the most legible of SoundCloud rappers. A gurgle-voiced alien, venting his messy feelings in garish hues, he nonetheless raps with clarity. Delayed for years by label complications, this album embraces a narrower, more aggressively straightforward rap style than his past releases, piling on breakneck verses like he has something to prove.

Uzi’s perversely synthetic style — an amalgamation of drill, singsong crooner rap, bleeding-heart balladry, and psychedelic soundscape befitting a space alien and unlike anyone else in rap — has often lapsed into a friendly cartoonishness, in part because it’s so original. Combining a contemporary party rapper’s goofiness with an emo singer’s confessional shows of emotion, his persona is overly specific.

Here, he excises the emo elements, the lilting melodies and whiny choruses, in favor of a faster, wordier, technique-flaunting delivery, as if convincing skeptics that he can spit bars. Yet his voice hasn’t changed; it’s the same phlegmy cackle. On “You Better Move” he ends each line in a falsetto squeal, jumping up octaves to accentuate the rhymes, while on “Pop” he literally exhausts himself, repeating “Balenci” 15 times at top speed before gasping for air.

The beats retain their rainbow-colored textures while trading obvious hooks for dissonant electronic jitters and whooshes; on “Celebration Station,” the bouncy keyboards and background sighs build to a rich swirl. The squishy synthesizers on “Chrome Heart Tags” glint like sunlight off the ocean, as Uzi bobs and weaves.

Rappers aiming to display their technical prowess often do so joylessly, but Uzi approaches this goal with his usual playfulness. Rather than limiting him, this freedom from his previous shtick stimulates his rhythmic imagination. His wordplay, too, has reached a new level of silliness: On paper, “Chopstick came with a large lo mein” may be a gun metaphor, but when rapped in his delighted groan, it’s a fabulous rhetorical inversion.

This album is a triumph of flow, moving in an energetic blur. Switching cadences at will, running exuberant circles around himself, Uzi demonstrates that the lurid SoundCloud rap aesthetic is compatible with classic rap virtues.

gunna
Gunna, Wunna (Young Stoner Life/300 Entertainment)

Gunna: Wunna (Young Stoner Life/300 Entertainment)

Famous for his inventive, pop-friendly collaborations with fellow Atlanta trap fixture Lil Baby, Gunna has streamlined trap into a perfectly smooth and fluffy sonic confection. This album reaches a level of chill previously unknown to hip-hop.

The danger with melodic rap is monotony; without clearly delineated boundaries between verse and chorus, never mind bridges and such, even the sweetest pitch-corrected warbler’s prettiest croon gets repetitive. Gunna goes further, actively cultivating the style’s atmospheric tendencies. Without dissolving into the oceanic ambience of, say, Travis Scott, this lustrous music coasts evenly, gleaming beneath endless layers of polish. It’s all one song — a winding, leisurely river of electronic melody.

The beats enrich a cheerful array of trap keyboard loops with echoing velvety bells and strings, while Gunna’s cushy mumble evokes a crawling electronic snail, leaving a trail of Auto-Tuned slime in his wake. The effect is beautiful but lacks tension; while the best songs fade in and out of consciousness, usually he just glides on one zonked, shimmering wavelength.

“Addys” moves briskly, as Gunna’s chatter and the skittering drums generate a quietly nervous pulse, while on “Dollas On My Head,” Gunna, Young Thug, and a chorus of vocoded sprites join their voices in squeaky harmony. (This is most amusing when Gunna induces Thug to utter the curious line, “I got skeletons in my closet and they’re scared of me and shit.”) But this music is not designed for individual standout songs, as the album is swamped in vibes — mild ones.

Soothing, consistent to a fault, this is the rap equivalent of a chill-out room. The music was playing before you started the album, and will continue just as it is after you leave.

rmr
RMR, Drug Dealing Is a Lost Art (Cmnty/Warner)

RMR: Drug Dealing Is a Lost Art (Cmnty/Warner)

Rap-country fusion has been bubbling on the horizon for a while — as pop’s two most hedonistic genres, they pair well, at least in theory. On his first EP, RMR, who recently became a viral sensation, struggles to maintain this uneven synthesis.

RMR broke through with “Rascal,” a rewrite of Rascal Flatts’ “Bless the Broken Road.” “Rascal” is as inspirational a ballad as the original, and remains faithful to its melody and piano chords, but RMR sings in a needling pitch-corrected wail, and the new lyrics are about hustling, drug dealing, and other familiar rap themes. A marvelous stylistic juxtaposition, animated by the incongruence between these particular lyrics and the grandiose, sappy melody, “Rascal” is a country song with rap signifiers (as opposed, for example, to the country signifiers of Lil Nas X’s infamous rap song “Old Town Road”).

The rest of this EP attempts a more conventional pop-rap: morose party laments in the style of Drake or Future (who contributes a verse to “Dealer”), songs about throwing money around, heartbreak that ends with sobbing into a codeine bottle, that sort of thing. On these, RMR raps and sings in his natural voice, a wet, breathy mewl that conveys effort rather than sensitivity (careful listeners will hear echoes of Mike Posner).

The acoustic guitar and banjo loops arranged over trap drums are supposed to honor his country influences, but the gesture feels perfunctory rather than musically necessary. Since warnings about the tragic dangers of hedonism largely went out of fashion in hip-hop after the early ’10s, the rap elements have a belated quality. These songs are just as sentimental as “Rascal,” but in a less interesting way. RMR should write more power ballads — they’re his metier.

The streaming-era demand for “post-genre” music has instead produced music confined by genre all the more — a synthesis of different caricatures is still caricature.

city girls
City Girls, City on Lock (Quality Control)

City Girls: City on Lock (Quality Control)

City Girls’ brand of street rap crunches even harder than the competition, steeped in a kinetic delight that keeps them on their toes. On this album, Yung Miami and JT trade verses with businesslike dexterity.

The secret to their music is friendship: the creative bond between Yung Miami and JT enables their friendly, ruthless competition on the mic. While their songs mostly concern the usual themes, such as partying and their own brilliance, they also rap about their tribulations on the way to becoming successful rappers (JT spent much of last year in prison), so their hedonism feels earned and overdue. They present themselves as a fierce power duo, looking out for each other in a hostile world.

Like Cardi B or Megan Thee Stallion, they pair a crisp, classic trap aesthetic with feminist braggadocio, rapping quickly and methodically about how to declare one’s autonomy and convince men to give them money. Their precise verses and austere, drum-heavy beats reflect the strictness of their etiquette, as they explain how to properly conduct oneself as a City Girl (their last album was called Girl Code). This approach often sounds brittle and defensive, but thanks to their collaborative energy, it becomes a game. Their vocal interplay is particularly tight, as Yung Miami’s relaxed, rapid-fire cadence, savoring the tangy snap of each syllable, pairs nicely with JT’s blunter delivery.

On “Pussy Talk,” they establish a number of romantic rules that define sex as an exchange of commodities (“Ka-ching!”), over a muscular conglomeration of thumping, clicking drum machines. “That’s My Bitch” turns a standard boast track into an affirmation of friendship, as the drums hiss and slide; rather than listing their own positive qualities, they sing each other’s praises, as if to say, “I may be impressive, but watch out for my friend.”

Their aggression is sneakily generous: by boasting together in lockstep, they demonstrate solidarity. This album lands with stark, gleeful power.


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