PopMatters’ monthly hip-hop column is back! Summer’s creeping around the corner, and it’s the season when this genre really comes alive. It works in winter – head down, trudging through the rainy city streets – but it’s in the bright, airy summer months when rap music really hits home. This April saw numerous killer releases from some of the best in the game. As always, this column looks a little more left field, meaning that bigger (and frankly less interesting) albums from the likes of Jack Harlow, Rae Sremmurd, and G Herbo are not included. Instead, we hope you enjoy this tour through the best that modern underground rap has to offer.
El Michels Affair & Black Thought – Glorious Game [Big Crown Records]
Glorious Game is Roots member Black Thought’s second successive collaborative album, following last year’s triumphant Cheat Codes with Danger Mouse. This one’s a more mellow, overtly-sunny affair, using El Michels Affair’s live funk/soul backing as an easy-going bedrock for Black Thought’s charismatic raps. Given the consistent quality, there are no clear standout cuts, though the KIRBY-featuring title track is an irresistibly funky and chilled-out number that deserves to be on everyone’s summer playlists. Here’s hoping Black Thought continues these intuitive collaborative releases.
Lloyd Banks – The Course of the Inevitable 3: Pieces of My Pain [Money By Any Means Inc. / EMPIRE]
Who could have predicted that former G-Unit member Lloyd Banks would have such a fruitful resurgence? The Course of the Inevitable 3: Pieces of My Pain concludes this trilogy in a confident style. These 16 tracks are insular and introspective – as colorless and unashamedly poignant as its album cover. The tone is one of melancholic precision – gritty boom-bap overlaid by a lifetime of hazy memories. Banks takes us on a straight-faced guide through his compelling psyche, from the powerful “Voices” to the startlingly sweet “Daddy’s Little Girl”. A wise and masterful collection, one that never strains to impress.
Fly Anakin – Skinemaxxx (Side A) [Lex]
Though it doesn’t quite hit the vibrant heights of last year’s brilliant Frank, Fly Anakin’s latest Skinemaxxx (Side A) stands tall as an easy-going gem of modern experimental rap. Built on a bedrock of synthetic, Muzak-esque textures (several tracks feature wiling-out sax samples), Anakin’s stop-start flow is as expressive as ever, particularly on the Pink Siifu-featuring standout “Affirmations”. A slender but compelling mini-album that’s as sedate as it is unusual.
Avelino – GOD SAVE THE STREETS [More Music / OddChild Music]
Avelino has remarkably never released an official debut album. However, his latest mixtape is an absolute stunner. The Londoner’s voice is laden with pathos, reeling off powerful street tales that are almost novelistic in their character-driven detail – check out his and Wretch 32’s observations on “VICIOUS CYCLE / A WORD FROM WRETCH 32”. He and his production team never succumb to the bleak misery of many similar UK rappers, however, and balance out the harsh lyrics with colorful, American-influenced production (“TWIN FLAME”, “SIN CITY”). A brilliant, if slight, release that showcases the best of contemporary UK rap.
Mike Shabb and Nicholas Craven – Shadow Moses [Independent]
Likely to be among the year’s best rap EPs, Shadow Moses is an all-Canadian team-up of the highest order. There’s not an ounce of fat on the bones of these smoky six tracks, which each inveigle your headspace with sensual skill. Craven’s production stands out, ranging from the downbeat funk of “Play For Keeps” to the crackling, drumless “Save the Joker” to “Respectfully’s” DJ Krush-esque moody textures. Craven is becoming something of a name to watch, and this collaboration with the effortless, mercurial Shabb is another feather in his growing cap.
Kill Bill: The Rapper – FULLMETAL KAIJU [EXOSOCIETY]
For an album so clearly of the internet era (the anime references, warped sense of humor), FULLMETAL KAIJU is a surprisingly accessible release. I was personally unfamiliar with Kill Bill: The Rapper prior to this album, but FULLMETAL KAIJU appears to display an experienced artist in total control of their vision. The production is often jazzy (“Wails”, “False Swipe”), sometimes more confrontational (“ALL DUNGEONS NO DOORS”, “Scales”), but is consistently held together by its creator’s intricate rhymes and harsh, Tyler the Creator-esque voice. This writer is completely won over by Kill Bill: The Rapper and excited for whatever comes next.
MC Yallah – Yallah Beibe [Hakuna Kulala]
This month’s column has been a bit Western-centric, so let’s take a sojourn to East Africa. The Kenya-born, Uganda-raised MC Yallah has come up with a total barnburner with Yallah Beibe. A wild middle ground between rap, Afrobeats, and industrial, these 12 tracks are a thrilling ride through a futuristic, global vision of rap music. Flicking between Luganda, Luo, Kiswahili, and English, Yallah’s dextrous flow puts most Western MCs to shame, as does the unpredictable production. The dark “No One Seems to Bother” (featuring a member of Kenyan metallers Duma) is one of the boldest and most memorable tracks you’ll hear all year. An absolutely essential listen for all open-minded English-speaking listeners.
Madlib x Meyhem Lauren x DJ Muggs – Champagne For Breakfast [Soul Assassins]
When you see those three names collaborating, there’s only going to be one result. Champagne For Breakfast is exactly what it says on the tin – two elite beatsmiths providing for a modern underground legend. These 15 cuts feature no pretensions grand ambitions or high falutin goals beyond that of consistent and authoritative rap entertainment. There are some genuine contenders for beats of the year here: the hard-as-nails “Big Money” and the light-on-its-feet “Wild Salmon”. Lauren’s husky, flex-heavy raps never waver, highlighted by the life-affirming “Evolution”. A no-frills collection of the highest order.
Willie the Kid & V Don – Blue Notes 2 [Serious Soundz / The Fly LLC]
It’s been five years since Willie The Kid and V Don put out the first installment of Blue Notes, but it’s been worth the wait. Willie’s raps are of the modern gangsta/coke variety, full of brags, criminality, and surprise moments of nuance and depth. Highlight “Seeing Is Believing” fulfills the latter criteria, providing the album with something of an emotional center. Mostly, though, we’re treated to brash criminality on the likes of “Daily Operations” – one of many cuts to use V Don’s elegant production to build the atmosphere of smoky, cinematic flair. Blue Notes 2 isn’t exactly original, but damn, it’s fun.