Summer is the best time of year to listen to hip-hop. From the upbeat and bouncy to the weird and paranoid, hip-hop just sounds better in the sunshine. The genre has been used to express relaxed vibes, party atmospheres, or broiling anger, all of which are synonymous with the sight of a blazing sun. Whatever mood you’re looking for this season, hip-hop can provide it.
That makes now the perfect time for the first edition of “Hip-Hop Matters” – PopMatters’ new monthly hip-hop roundup. Included in this list are new releases from both sides of the Atlantic ocean, including comebacks from cult legends, blockbuster releases by modern masters, and provocative new drops by young upstarts.
Though by no means exhaustive, these 12 albums represent the many contemporary styles of this wild and exhaustive genre.
The best tracks from these albums appear on our new Hip-Hop Matters Spotify playlist. We will continue to add great new hip-hop songs all month while featuring two tracks from each of these albums.
John Robinson – King JR (EveryDejuVu/Beatvision)
A founding member of New York jazz-rap crew Scienz of Life, the prolific John Robinson’s newest album is a colorful and optimistic delight. Featuring eclectic production by underground legend Blu, King JR is a smooth yet subtly urgent work, teeming with nerves but determined to stay positive in the face of difficult times. This dichotomy is summed up by the bouncy “Heavy Ghetto”, which bemoans gentrification, police violence, and Trump. Still, it tactfully acknowledges that “the next generation gonna be a problem in a good way”.
Blu’s production is also consistently excellent. Every track is memorably singular, from the anthemic “Heavy Ghetto”, to the musky jazz of “Better Music”, to the bluesy crackle of “Cotton”. There’s also some weirder, more out-there moments, highlighted by the industrial, Dalek-esque “Kingdom of Heaven”. King JR’s production matches Robinson’s ideological perspective – vibrant, bold, and determinedly positive.
Children of Zeus – Balance (First Word Records)
Children of Zeus’s 2018 album Travel was an underground hit in the UK, combining neo-soul, laid-back hip-hop, and nu-jazz to wondrous effect. Balance sees the Manchester duo gently expanding their palette, staying true to their origins while incorporating tasteful American influences on several key tracks. “The Most Humblest, Ever” flirts with bass-leaden trap, “Cali Dreams” oozes West Coast vibes, while “I Know” possesses a funky, almost Neptunes-like buoyancy.
In spite of these sun-scorched tones, there’s an intriguingly melancholic undercurrent to Balance. “No Love Song” is especially self-deprecating, “I Need You” wears its heart firmly on its sleeve, and “Cali Dreams” is revealed to exist in an imagined, idealized fantasy. Balance is a warm, tear-stained embrace of an album. Perfect listening on an evening walk home from the park – half-drunk and contemplating texting your ex.
Kool Keith – Keith’s Salon (Logistic Records)
The great enigma that is Kool Keith returned this month with his umpteenth album of dirty, surreal hip-hop. Another fascinating and libidinous journey down the plughole, Keith’s Salon is a surprisingly disciplined work from this most unruly of postmodern masters. Its 12 tracks are sharp and focused, aiming at celebrity culture with Keith’s usual wit and absurdist joie de vivre.
Featuring production work by techno duo Triple Parked, Keith’s Salon is bolstered by powerful and forward-thinking instrumentals. The icy minimalism of highlights like “Yachts” and “Extravagance” compliments Keith’s laconic flow, tilting between tranquil calm and growing menace. Keith’s whole body of work sits somewhere in this uneasy space. He’s a master of blending tones, constantly shifting our understanding of his myriad personas like a verbal tesseract. Keith’s Salon is a fine work and deserves not to get buried within its creator’s extensive canon.
Lloyd Banks – The Course of the Inevitable (Money By Any Means, INC.)
Lloyd Banks has forged an odd, stop-start solo career since the complicated demise of G-Unit, the legendary group he founded with 50 Cent and Tony Yayo. The Course of the Inevitable is his fourth solo album and his first since 2010’s H.F.M. 2. Since then, a lot has changed globally, and that album’s aesthetics seem to belong to a whole different era. His latest work is very much of the now, adopting the gritty, post-boom-bap soundscapes popularised by the in-vogue Griselda roster.
This is easily Banks’ darkest work, wholly ditching the party vibe of his previous albums in favor of murky, bass-heavy beats and introspective, aggressive lyrics. These are interspersed with golden era-esque string samples, along with a smattering of rolling trap drums. However, The Course of the Inevitable is primarily a work of the dark, edgy hip-hop present day. Highlights include the Freddie Gibbs-featuring “Empathy”, the sinister “Formaldehyde” (which features Griselda big boy Benny the Butcher), and the chilled, reflective “Crown”. The lightest and most poignant track on the album, “Crown”, features Banks’ deepest lyrics, specifically the “make it without leaving your soul/awareness is the key to control” chorus mantra. It’s the heart of The Course of the Inevitable – a rich, thoughtful album that was more than worth the 11-year wait.
Skyzoo – All the Brilliant Things (Mello Music Group)
A rich, likable, boom-bap gem, All the Brilliant Things marks a hugely welcome return from the Brooklyn veteran Skyzoo. The 38-year-old has carved out a prolific career, from his 9th Wonder-produced debut to collaborations with Pete Rock, Dr. Dre, Talib Kweli, and director Spike Lee. He’s yet to burst onto the mainstream. However, his skills and contributions to the genre are well-known amongst true heads. He’s the definition of an underground legend, and All the Brilliant Things further cements his formidable legacy.
Tonally, All the Brilliant Things shifts between jazzy and gritty with effortless aplomb, frequently blending the two into an irresistible combination. Skyzoo’s lyrics are complex and strong. “A Tour of the Neighborhood” tackles changing neighborhoods and gentrification (a recurrent theme across the album). “Humble Brag” lives up to its paradoxical title, and “What Money Taught Us” is wise and poignant. All the Brilliant Things is consistently excellent and will be a strong contender for the best hip-hop release of the year.
DatKid & Illinformed – Wakmo (High Focus Records)
From the other side of the ocean comes Bristol, UK rapper Datkid’s latest collaboration with producer Illinformed. Rising to underground fame as a member of the Split Prophets crew, Datkid’s newest album (his second this year, following April’s collaboration with Skinzmann Sleepless in Pinoe) drops on High Focus Records – perhaps the most respected (and certainly the most consistent) hip-hop label in the UK.
Wakmo is a tough and grim affair, defined by hard beats and a paranoid, dirty atmosphere. In terms of where it sits on the High Focus roster, it’s closer to the ugly aggression of Dirty Dike or the warped imagination of Strange U than the comparably upbeat, golden age vibe of Verb T or the Four Owls. It’s 20 tracks long, and nearly every track features guest stars. Quasi-posse cut “Fentanyl” is the highlight, featuring members of Split Prophets and numerous other like-minded underground stars. It adroitly sums up the tone of Wakmo – eerie, tough but undeniably entertaining.