Drake’s “Nothing was the Same”

In 2009, no one would have thought that Aubrey Drake Graham, an up-and-coming Canadian rapper and Degrassi star, would make it big. Nowadays, he’s all anyone’s talking about in the hip hop industry. After his So Far Gone mixtape and his lucrative 2010 debut Thank Me Later, Drake was climbing up the unpredictable ladder of success and fame. It wasn’t until several collaborations with fellow rappers, including Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, that Drake would become the next best thing in hip hop. Two years since his acclaimed sophomore record Take Care, Drake has become an international phenomenon, not just as a singer/rapper, but as a definitive paradigm in pop culture and for popularizing ubiquitous phrases (“YOLO,” to give an example). Despite the rapid growth in album sales and artistic recognition, Drake persists his career with a quiet yet determined attitude as he is surrounded by an overwhelming environment. Incidentally, this past week, Drake released his most personal and most unique album to date, Nothing was the Same.

Unlike his other albums, the guests on Nothing was the Same are minimal and mostly unprecedented, marking Drake’s voice and songwriting as dominant forces on the record. Although some would say that lack of collaboration can be destructive towards a popular artist (i.e. Mac Miller’s disappointing Blue Slide Park), Drake already contains a certain control on how to make an album both listenable and compelling without resorting to mediocrity. Plus, it’s kind of a break from his last two star-studded records, which ranged from Alicia Keys to Rihanna to Rick Ross.

On songs that don’t include featured artists, Drake comes into top form, both lyrically and musically. On the mystifying 6-minute opener “Tuscan Leather,” Drake vents his anxious feelings about fame, media attention, and glory over a glossy beat and a pipsqueak sample, made by rising producer Noah “40” Shebib, who created most of the soulful rhythms heard on “Nothing was the Same.” Much like other rappers, Drake mentions his ways with the ladies on “Furthest Thing” and “Connect.” But unlike certain rappers, he takes the subject matter to a personal level, talking about failed romances and his ambivalence towards falling in love. Occasionally, the 26-year-old Toronto rapper delves into monotonous territory, like on the ambient “Own It.” However, he manages to keep the album interesting on the passionate “Wu-Tang Forever” and funky highlight “Worst Behavior.” Additionally, his most popular solo single off Nothing was the Same, “Started from the Bottom,” has furthered his progression into dominating both hip hop music and pop culture, as the song’s title has become frequently used as an everyday expression among young teenagers.     

Prior to the release of Nothing was the Same, Drake distributed several songs  — “The Motion,” “Jodeci Freestyle,” “Girls Love Beyoncé,” “5 AM in Toronto” — that ended up not making the cut, but became viral Internet hits and held some significance towards Drake’s musical choices. These songs weren’t particularly personal nor did they ponder the captivating topics that Drake would mostly rap about in some of his biggest songs (“Over,” “Best I Ever Had,” “Headlines”). In fact, most of them were about Drake rapping with self-deprecating lyrics and tone. However, it was one way of showing how Drake is developing as an artist who can still make great music, regardless of the subject matter.

In addition to Nothing was the Same’s plethora of evocative songs, it also features one of Drake’s all-time best singles: the smooth, 80s contemporary radio smash “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” Drake repeatedly expresses his true love towards a woman in the alluring hook, “I got my eyes on you/You’re everything that I see/I want your hot love and emotion endlessly.” Though it sounds corny on print, Drake’s surprisingly spot-on falsetto and guest Majid Jordan’s crispy vocals drives “Hold On, We’re Going Home” as a romantic, sensuous ballad. While Drake’s themes on “Nothing was the Same” primarily focuses on love and fame, he also discusses his relationships with friends and family on the smoky, R&B-influenced “Too Much.”

It’s amazing to see how an unlikely rapper turn into one of the decade’s most popular and celebrated hip hop artists. Drake’s journey has led to many roads that include Grammy awards, rap feuds, and platinum records. But he’ll ultimately be remembered several years from now not just as that award-winning, record-selling rapper, but as an individual who helps bring humanistic and emotional issues into hip hop, instead of solely centering on wealth and fame.

Grade: A-
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Tuscan Leather,” “Started from the Bottom,” “Worst Behavior,” “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” “Too Much”             


Kanye West’s “Yeezus”

It’s been more than a week since hip hop icon Kanye West released his sixth studio album, Yeezus. Around the same time, Kanye’s daughter, aptly named “North” West, was born. Though the coincidence of his album release and his newborn’s birth have nothing to do with one another, there is some strange significance. West recorded his new album, Yeezus, sporadically between last summer and over a mere 15-day period in Paris this year, which indicates that West might’ve had some apprehension making music while caring for girlfriend Kim Kardashian. In addition, Yeezus was neither promoted commercially nor did it advertise a lead single, much like electronic duo Daft Punk for their recently acclaimed comeback record Random Access Memories. Interestingly, Daft Punk also became some of the many unconventional producers and guests on Yeezus, which included Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Chief Keef, Kid Cudi, TNGHT, Travis $cott, Frank Ocean, King L, and music mogul Rick Rubin. Although some rumored musicians, such as Skrillex and Odd Future, didn’t appear on Yeezus, the aforementioned guests and producers still make up an extraordinary group of experienced virtuosos, some of whom have worked with West in the past, particularly on 2010’s universally lauded My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. On Yeezus, West delves deeper into the musical darkness and lyrical genius that Twisted Fantasy brought forth in 2010. Early reports suggested that Yeezus would be his “darkest disc yet.” Fans were most likely worried about the troubling news of a Kanye West album much different from his other LPs, despite West’s widespread recognition, media gravitation, and mesmerizing artistic integrity. However, because Kanye is also a mastermind at making music and a persevering collaborator, Yeezus has trascended expectations as another great Kanye West record and one of this year’s best hip hop albums.

Moody, abrasive, and unrelentingly provocative, Yeezus is not only Kanye West’s best work to date, but also a haunting, modern example of racism, materialism, sexuality, pop culture, and the perils of fame. Musically, Yeezus incorporates a much more raw sound, using acid house synthesizers, industrial music, Jamaican dancehall, and experimental post-punk. Artistically, Kanye applied a much more minimal approach to create Yeezus, its album cover being a regular CD packaging with bright red tape on the exterior. Though it was a surprise to many, the cover represents Kanye’s raw emotion, which he successfully displays throughout the album’s 40-minute length. Lyrically, West comes off angrier, more explicit, and much more sexually perverse than before. On “New Slaves,” the first unofficial single off of Yeezus, West extrapolates racial tension and misogyny in both a vivid and controversial way. Yeezus’ lyrics and music became even more startling when West performed both “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” on the Saturday Night Live season finale. As Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter described when working on the album, Kanye was “rapping – even screaming primally,” especially on “Black Skinhead.” Fortunately, “Black Skinhead” is a powerful and breathtaking foot stomper,  encompassing tribal drums and those raw, primal screams Bangalter described.

The rest of Yeezus is equally as edgy and unlike anything Kanye has made before. Take the album’s third track, “I Am a God,” which, frankly, speaks for itself. It may be the most controversially titled Kanye song, but in a way, it’s a bit amusing, considering that Kanye has perhaps the biggest ego in the hip hop industry. It’s already enough that the rapper named his own album Yeezus,” comparing himself to the Biblical figure (a la John Lennon), and that the only official guest on the track listing is God. But what most mistake as shock value and blasphemy is actually Kanye’s own self-deprecation of being a celebrity, somebody who is bigger and better in modern day society, but is self-obsessed and dangerous. He even boasts his braggadocio on the classic line, “Hurry up with my damn crossants!” However, twice on the song we hear those primal screams again from “Black Skinhead,” only louder and scarier. These booming shrieks evoke Kanye’s illustration of a supreme celebrity, like himself, descending into madness. Maybe that explains his apprehension over the birth of his daughter, but it seems too odd to call it a “mid-life crisis” just yet because Kanye’s energy never wavers, both live and on Yeezus.

Throughout the album, he continues to push his vanity and musical influences over the edge. Some examples include the funky, acid house thrill ride opener “On Sight,” and the bleak, ambient “Hold My Liquor,” which features Atlanta rapper Chief Keef and Justin Vernon. The Bon Iver vocalist also stars on the overtly sexual track, “I’m in It,” alongside Jamaican musician Assassin. While both of their lyrics are incomprehensible, Kanye’s verses are wry and witty, but occasionally go into contentious territory especially on lines like “eatin’ Asian p***y, all I need was sweet and sour sauce.” Several female fans and non-Kanye West fans have described “I’m In It” as misogynistic and emotionally traumatizing. But really, misogyny is just the bizarre art of being a hip hop artist. The only difference with West is that you can’t take something like “I’m In It” too seriously.

The second half of Yeezus continues to stock up on complex lyrics, ingenious production, and a sound reminiscent of his previous albums. Kanye’s Auto-Tuned vocals on the 6-minute centerpiece “Blood on the Leaves” recall the Auto-Tuned songs and dark themes from his fourth record 808s and Heartbreak. The song also features unusually paired yet exemplary samples from R&B singer Nina Simone’s soulful “Strange Fruit” and trap duo TNGHT’s ardent “R U Ready.” “Guilt Trip” is another similar 808s track, comprising of video game synthesizers, Auto-Tune, and morose vocals from rapper Kid Cudi. “Send It Up” is another noisy, sexually graphic song that features raps from King L. Yeezus closer, “Bound 2,” sounds much like the Southern hip hop from his first three records, The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation, respectively. In addition to the sound, Kanye’s themes of family and unrequited love appear on “Bound 2,” as well as a repetitive Jackson 5-sounding sample and R&B singer Charlie Wilson’s exquisite vocals. It might not be a great outlier on Yeezus, but it reminds us of Kanye’s softer side and nostalgia.

Yeezus is definitely nothing anyone has listened to before, speaking on behalf of critics and Kanye’s fans. It extends the boundaries of hip hop and rap and carefully integrates various music genres, thanks to its exemplary collaborations. Despite the album’s meager amount of material (only 10 tracks), there’s a lot leftover, according to producer Rick Rubin. This could mean that nobody is really ready for what Kanye will unleash. All we know is that the new father will always keep us on our toes and that he keeps the virtue of unpredictability intact.

Grade: A
Recommended: Yes
Top Tracks: “On Sight,” “Black Skinhead,” “I Am A God,” “New Slaves”


Snoop Lion’s “Reincarnated”

When 41-year-old rapper Snoop Dogg publicly announced late last July his decision to change his beloved moniker to Snoop Lion, it seemed like an insincere gesture. He spent his entire music career making commercially successful records, performing in front of sold-out crowds, and producing radio chart-toppers “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and “Gin ‘n’ Juice.” So why bother changing the name of one of the most respected rappers in hip hop history? According to Snoop’s transformative documentary Reincarnated, he received the Snoop Lion title from a Rastafarian priest when venturing on a “spiritual journey” to Jamaica, as he was intrigued by the popular Rastarfari movement. After the trip, in a press conference, Snoop Dogg even proclaimed that he was the reincarnation of reggae icon Bob Marley. Though this bold statement seemed a bit too self-absorbed, it indicated that Snoop’s chameleonic transformation from rap to reggae might not be a publicity stint. It probably wasn’t even meant to intentionally insult or desecrate Marley’s image (similar to John Lennon’s infamous declaration of the Beatles being “better than Jesus”). As Snoop described in the trailer of Reincarnated, he’s “sick and tired of rapping” and feels that his experience in Jamaica motivated him to create a new path in life. This may be the most emotional point in Snoop’s life, considering his history of participating in gangs, drugs, violence, debauchery, arrests, and court trials. These feelings of pain and suffering have fortunately rendered into an optimistic attitude, resulting in his reggae debut, Reincarnated (the same name as the film). But for fans of Snoop Dogg’s clean cut raps, it may be hard to adjust to the Snoop Lion phase.

Reincarnated isn’t necessarily the Bob Marley of reggae albums, but it’s certainly ambitious. Strengthened by Snoop’s crispy vocals and soulful tunes, the record is also fantastically produced by record producers Ariel Rechtshaid and Dre Skull, as well as Diplo and his electronic reggae side project Major Lazer. However, in terms of the thematic material, Reincarnated doesn’t offer anything truly inspiring and lacks in depth. More songs are written as plain pieces of music than as spoken-word poetry or adrenalized social commentary. Even the list of popular featured artists, which include Miley Cyrus, Akon, Busta Rhymes, Chris Brown, and Drake, makes Reincarnated look predictable and humdrum.

Notwithstanding Reincarnated‘s underwhelming appearance, it nevertheless incorporates some great tracks, including the catchy album opener “Rebel Way,” the vibrant “Here Comes the King,” and the Beirut-sampled, Drake-featured “No Guns Allowed.” Not only are each of these songs the most effectively produced, but the most lyrically powerful. On “No Guns Allowed,” Snoop and his daughter Cori B sing eloquently against the use of violence and about the necessity of peace; Snoop speaks and croons on “Rebel Way” with poise and extrapolates the idea of tranquility once more; “Here Comes the King” is probably the most hip-hop influenced song off of Reincarnated, which may (or may not) excite Snoop Dogg fans.

Unfortunately, the majority of Reincarnated is filled with frivolity and lethargy, gradually decreasing the album’s appeal. Some songs are way too simple and uninventive (“Lighters Up,” “Tired of Running,”), while others are just plain annoying (“La La La,” “Fruit Juice,” “Smoke the Weed”). Snoop trips up with awkward romanticism on “Torn Apart” and with complete mediocrity on “The Good Good.” Additionally, the electronic and pop influences on “Boulevard” and the Miley-Cyrus-featured “Ashtrays and Heartbreaks” are basic repetitions of recycled reggae. Though “Remedy,” which features a dull Busta Rhymes and a barely audible Chris Brown, reverberates some hip hop-styled rhythms, it doesn’t come close the lively appeal of “Here Comes the King.”

It’s hard to say what the future will hold for Snoop Lion and whether or not he will return as the beloved Snoop Dogg. Hip hop and rap have always been within his blood, but it has also led him to unhappiness and indecent behavior. Reggae is indeed a bold and beguiling new path for Snoop, but Reincarnated isn’t as impressive as you might think, despite his genuineness and artistic integrity. It’ll be even harder if he were to keep a hip hop career and a reggae persona simultaneously. But hopefully, whatever is bringing him down, Snoop will find a way.

Grade: B-
Recommended: No
Suggested Tracks: “Rebel Way,” “Here Comes the King,” “No Guns Allowed”                          

Kid Cudi’s “Indicud”

Around the release of Ohio rapper Kid Cudi’s sophomore effort Man on the Moon II, a friend asked me, “What does Kid Cudi have left to rap about?” Although I was (and still am) a fan of Cudi at that time, the question was seriously racking my brain. Even though both of Cudi’s first two albums were commercial successes (and critical, to a lesser extent), I wondered whether or not Cudi would be able to venture onto a third follow-up that would be just as lucrative and crowd-pleasing. Unfortunately, that’s when Cudi took a huge left turn. His third record, Indicud, is a lazy, inept, and disorienting album, weighed down by his lackluster rapping and monotonus rhythms. It’s more disappointing that the title of Cudi’s third record isn’t Man on the Moon III, marking a cutoff from what seemed like the end of a trilogy. Though his music is intentionally isolated and emotionally distant, this seems like a pretty deceptive and angsty move to do. Even with the huge successes of psychedelic rap songs like “Day ‘n’ Nite” and “Pursuit of Happiness,” as well as electro-rock jams, “Erase Me” and “Revofev,” Cudi’s lack of drive to continue developing new ideas has unfortunately led to the result of Indicud.

Unlike his first two albums, Indicud is solely produced by Cudi, though with some help from WZRD collaborator Dot da Genius on drums. Fellow producer Hit-Boy, who supplied the enticing beats of prior Cudi songs, only co-produced one song off Indicud. Despite the lack of collaborative production, this album is filled with great artists, but some not seeming like they belong on a hip hop album. Although the list of recognizable rappers, such as ASAP Rocky, King Chip, Too $hort, Kendrick Lamar, and RZA, are credible, their appearances don’t create a lasting impression. The artists that don’t fit in on the album are unfortunately featured on the worst songs: “Red Eye” features Haim, an indie-pop trio with great composition but zero chemistry with Cudi whatsoever; “Young Lady” features the alt-rock newcomer Father John Misty, whose sampled “Hollywood Cemetery Forever Sings” would be better left in its original version; the preposterously 9-minute “Afterwards (Bring Yo Friends)” features singer Michael Bolton. Michael. Bolton. Let that sink in. No matter the amount of effort that was put into this album, Cudi fails on almost every level on Indicud.

Understanding that Cudi is considered a self-described “lonely stoner,” it makes sense that he tends to explore and philosophize the concepts of life, loneliness, bitterness, and dreams in his music. However outside his own little world, he’s gained a popular cult following of high school and college kids, several collaborations with Kanye West and other Roc-A-Fella artists, and a charming role in the recently-cancelled HBO show How to Make it In America. Unfortunately, barely any of these aspects are seen in Indicud. Grittier, gloomier, and overly nonchalant, Cudi instead fluffs Indicud with 70 minutes of basic crap. Even from listening to snippets of the album on iTunes is disappointing. The only song that, thankfully, is worth hearing on Indicud is its first lead single “Just What I Am.” Given its decent vocals from Cudi and rapper King Chip and its airy electronic sound, “Just What I Am” is Indicud‘s sole standout. Basically everything else though is a faceplant. Going back to the aforementioned question, I once again asked myself, “What does Kid Cudi have left to rap about?” After listening to Indicud, I’d have to say that he has stuff to rap about, but the question is whether or not he’s willing to share it with the world or if he’s just tired of rapping.

Grade: D-
Recommended: No
Suggested Tracks: “Just What I Am”

Tyler, The Creator’s “Wolf”

Let’s just forget for a moment that LA hip hop collective Odd Future are labeled as nihilistic, skateboarding, donut-eating hipsters. Sure, they may rap about drugs, violence, and sex, but they define modern rap music at its most lurid and enhanced. Odd Future surfaced virally around the Internet in 2009, when leader Tyler, The Creator released his unconventionally genius mixtape Bastard. Later, more and more Odd Future artists, such as Hodgy Beats, Left Brain, Earl Sweatshirt, and mainstream R&B crooner Frank Ocean, rose from the unprecedented underground into explosive stardom. Though the hip hop group keeps a low-key reputation with the media, they contain defining attributes, with their trendy clothing and local fanbase, that has determined several famous LA hip hop groups like NWA. However, the most credited member out of the entire Odd Future collective is the aforementioned Tyler, The Creator, who just released his third record, entitled Wolf.

After 2010’s eccentric Goblin, Tyler, the Creator became an iconic zeitgeist in both music and pop culture, though he’s not necessarily considered mainstream yet. Don’t let his irreverent and pervasive lyrics deceive you, Tyler has talent. Whether or not it’s a half-baked talent, Tyler attains an engaging personality that brings you into his outlandish stories about women, family, depression, and utter alienation. On Wolf, Tyler has improved on both his lyrical and musical styling. The thing about Tyler is that he’s not like any other rapper; he creates his own genre of rap music, an odd assortment of devilishly vulgar rhymes mixed with buzzy synths and old-school beats. Plus no rapper would make a hysterically ingenious album cover (make that three, although not all are hysterical).

Tyler hits a few home runs on Wolf: On the piano-driven title track opener, Tyler doesn’t let us into his world just yet, a delayed gratification that keeps the interest of listening to the rest of the album. The 2-minute song leaves us with a symphony of electronic and orchestral instruments, a few mumbled lines, and Tyler talking to himself in two different personas, much like in his previous album openers for Bastard and Goblin. On “Colossus,” Tyler describes his annoyance and his sympathy for his fans, who obsess and attempt to relate to his childhood story. He reiterates the general consensus of his fans’ messages (“Went to Six Flags, six fags came up to me and said “Ayo, can we get a pic?”) while contemplating his reaction (“Now, I’m like ‘Fuck, I don’t want to be an asshole'”). Tyler demonstrates one of the many complexities of being a celebrity and a voice for kids who aspire to be like him. He not only expresses this distress, but anxiety as well, which authentically shows his emotional side. Tyler takes a few twists and turns in Wolf, with the 7-minute, 3-parter “PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer,” which maintains a consistent tone while containing some eccentricity and idiosyncrasy. Tyler’s most lyrically inviting track is the organ-filled, Pharrell-featured ballad “IFHY.” It’s the 22-year-old rapper at his most emotionally challenged. Tyler’s infatuation over a girl embodies the love/hate dynamic of a relationship: (“I fucking hate you/But I love you/I’m keeping my emotions bubbled/You’re good at being perfect/We’re good at being troubled”). It’s usually a rare thing to see Tyler in this state, given his bold, uncaring, and brutally straightforward attitude in real life. That’s why Wolf is great with moments like these.

Occasionally, Tyler sings and raps on a few mediocre and uninspiring tracks (“Domo23,” “Parking Lot,” “Pigs,” “Trashwang,” “Tamale”) that are either intentionally obscene, lacking in spark, or describing the ruckus and sociopathic actions of his Odd Future posse. Other Wolf tunes are indifferent but worth listening to, due to their lyrical and thematic significance (“Cowboy,” “Answer,” “Awkward,” “48”). It’s surprising to see that the acclaimed Odd Future member Frank Ocean’s feature on the tedious “Slater” doesn’t seem fitting, unlike on the effervescent Goblin track “She.”  However, Tyler manages to boldly blend different elements of his music, especially by adding R&B singers Coco O and Erykah Badu on the contemporary jazz jingle “Treehome95.” Although there’s little rapping, “Treehome95” is enough to be deduced as a fun addition to the intensely themed Wolf. The album closer is “Lone,” a bluesy anthem that puts Tyler again in a state of introspection and isolation.

While Tyler, the Creator’s Bastard and Goblin were much more thematically violent, Wolf encompasses an unpredictable collection of both jazz-type hip hop tunes that prevails through vivid rapping and intense storytelling. Wolf discusses Tyler’s emotional well-being, his repressed childhood, and the nightmare of fame. Even though Wolf was delayed for a year, we can still expect a lot more from Tyler, other than from his Jackass-styled Adult Swim show Loiter Squad. Though the 22-year old rapper squanders through life with his friends, fans, and the media with an antagonistic behavior, he still is able to juxtapose different sides of himself in an incredibly poetic albeit pervasive way. Maybe this is why he stands out from the Odd Future crowd, because not only is he the most famous or eccentric out of all of them, but he is the most honest and endearing, even if it involves rhyming about obscene things.

Grade: B+
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Wolf,” “Colossus,” “PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer,” “IFHY,” “Treehome95,” “Lone”