Migos – Culture III (Universal)
Whatever you think of them and their influence on the genre, Migos are pretty much the definitive sound of modern hip-hop. The flashy, Auto-Tuned trap style they helped popularize has become staggeringly popular despite certain fans of the genre calling it formulaic and empty. Migos member Offset has taken credit for popularising this style and has even claimed that his group made it the norm for rappers to “get away with saying nothing as long as the cadence and flow are good”.
Statements like this will do nothing to quell the haters. It’s certainly true that the bars on Culture III are rarely anything special. There’s little focus on narrative, ideology, or anything in the way of substance. However, the Georgia trio more than make up for this lack of weight with buckets of charisma and style. The lead single “Straightenin” features virtuosic flows, “Birthday’s” Auto-Tuned rhymes are infectious, and appearances from the now-deceased Juice WRLD and Pop Smoke make for blockbuster cameos. The album’s too long, and certain tracks are repetitive; however, Migos’ oddly-hypnotic trap makes Culture III a shining example of contemporary hip-hop.
HRSMN – The Last Ride (Fat Beats)
A true underground supergroup, HRSMN are Canibus, Killah Priest, Kurupt, and Ras Kass. The Last Ride is only the long-standing group’s second official album, following 2003’s The Horsemen Project and 2014’s Historic EP. Its creators are stellar examples of woke 1990s underground hip-hop, famous (particularly Canibus and Killah Priest) for their mystical and sometimes conspiratorial lyrics. What an appropriate time period for The Last Ride to land in then, given the confused and disjointed social and cultural fabric we currently find ourselves trapped within.
HRSMN don’t offer any answers to our current malaise. However, a combination of theological and mythological references, weighty, dramatic instrumentals, and aggressive delivery makes The Last Ride a viscerally apocalyptic thrill ride. “Centaurs” see the quartet imagine themselves as “horsemen” here to herald the end of the world, while “Apocalips Now” utilizes an ominous tolling bell and lyrics featuring “terrible visions”, “four plagues” and “angels, aliens, and agents”. It’s a heady brew of cod-mysticism and spit-flecked rhymes, occasionally compelling in spite of itself but sometimes also genuinely hard-hitting.
Kojaque – Town’s Dead (Soft Boy Records/Different Records)
The contemporary king of Irish indie hip-hop, Kojaque has (along with the label he co-founded Soft Boy Records) successfully forged his own brand and aesthetic within this most crowded genre. The Kojaque and Soft Boy sound is defined by eclectic production, featuring string arrangements, colorful adornments, and jazzy beats. His lyrics are often sociopolitically conscious, and on Town’s Dead, he sets himself in that long-line of Joycean Dubliners committed to observing the crepuscular underbelly of the Irish capital.
While Town’s Dead invites comparisons to numerous modern rappers ranging from Slowthai to Loyle Carner, it retains Kojaque’s distinct auteurist stamp. His voice is relentlessly charismatic, and his storytelling is immaculate. “Black Sheep Pt. 1” is enthralling and devastating, “Sex ‘N Drugs” showcases his commanding singing voice and “Casio” is smart, deep, and self-aware. Kojaque has the potential to become a heavyweight player in the hip-hop world, and Town’s Dead feels a bit like a gauntlet being thrown down.
Tyler, The Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost (Columbia)
Potentially, its creators’ masterpiece – Call Me If You Get Lost is a fully-formed, kaleidoscopic work of modern hip-hop brilliance. It’s the album that Tyler, The Creator has been working towards his whole career, combining the neo-soul inflections of Igor with the harder-edged, provocative hip-hop that defined his early years. Featuring a litany of high-profile guest stars, including Pharell Williams, Lil’ Wayne, and Ty Dolla Sign, Call Me If You Get Lost is Tyler at his most fantastically indulgent.
The variety on show here is simply staggering. Everything gets thrown at the wall, and basically, all of it sticks. Highlights include the romantic and serene “WUSYANAME”, the bouncy anthem “JUGGERNAUT”, the ominous, self-reflective “MANIFESTO” and the jazzy “HOT WIND BLOWS”. All 16 tracks flow into and merge, yet simultaneously each feels unique and singular. There’s something of the versatile, virtuoso confidence of OutKast about Call Me If You Get Lost – which is about the highest possible praise that can be given to a hip-hop album.
MIKE – Disco! (10k)
Disco! is a vibrant summer acid trip of an album. The analog pianos, warped, Dilla-esque beats, and MIKE’s laconic yet commanding drawl all add up to a warm and woozy atmosphere. The New York rapper first broke through in 2017 and has released six full-lengths in that time, all of consistent quality. He’s a proud experimentalist, utilizing obscure samples, layered instrumentation, and a liberal attitude to beats or lack thereof. He’s sort of like Earl Sweatshirt’s weird New York cousin.
Tracks like “Evil Eye” and “Crystal Ball” are relatively straightforward, using linear if off-kilter beats. The jazzy, heartfelt “Aww (Zaza)” is also easy to get a handle on, as is the simple “World Market (Mo’ Money)”. However, the most compelling tracks are easily the more out-there ones. The tabla drums and volume drops of “Frogville (MK Ultra)” are compellingly bold, the minimal techno synths of “Sandra” are lush and aqueous, and “Ghoulish” is an almost-beatless murky fever dream. MIKE’s experimentalism is consistently strong but never over-cranked and adds up to a quite brilliant modern underground hip-hop album.
Ski Mask the Slump God – Sin City the Mixtape (Republic Records)
If Migos popularized “saying nothing as long as the cadence and flow are good”, then Ski Mask the Slump God has mastered this maxim. The kinetic, aggressive Floridan possesses incredible verbal dexterity, with the ability to spin punchlines and putdowns out of seemingly thin air. There’s rarely much of a narrative or message to his music, but his verbal abilities are so complete and engaging that they obliterate any such concerns.
Sin City the Mixtape relies equally as much on its creator’s voice as it does on the brash, violent production that has made Ski Mask so popular (and equally disliked in certain corners). “The Matrix” is the tape’s biggest rager, utilizing minimalist drums and speaker-blowing bass stabs beneath the loose, verbose flows. There’s also the excellent “Merlin’s Staff” – a crunk party track with real swagger and charisma. Surrendering yourself to Sin City the Mixtape’s OTT-bravado might be one of the most fun decisions you’ll make this summer.