CAN I KICK IT? NAS DROPS NASIR

After the longest dormant period of his career, Queens native and hip-hop hall-of-famer Nas released Nasir, his slimmest, lowest-concept album to date. It’s the fourth of five records produced by Kanye West, all seven songs long, all to be released before the end of June. It also arrived amid scandal with which both men have been involved. West started the promotion for all of these G.O.O.D. Music releases by returning to Twitter® and proclaiming his support for Donald Trump, while Kelis recently released statements claiming that Nas was physically abusive during their marriage (Nas was also previously accused of assaulting Carmen Bryan, the mother of his daughter, in 2006).

While West poked fun of the drama surrounding him on his album ye, Nas hasn’t addressed the allegations publically, and he doesn’t approach the subject on Nasir. Indeed, lyrically speaking, Nas brings precious little that could be considered fresh or poignant. The closest he gets is on “Simple Things” when he raps “Was loving women you’ll never see me/All you know’s my kids’ mothers, some celebrities/Damn, look at the jealousy.” Sure, the album’s length could be a contributing factor, but the project contains precious little of thematic design or narrative, two elements that have always been his strengths. It’s among his most diffused and ill-defined albums. His last album Life Is Good saw him trying to come to grips with middle age and explore new ground, but he often sounds clumsy and subdued here, even in his cadence.

When writing linear narratives or exploring his own biography, Nas has few peers. He’s often at his most potent when he explores abstractions or lofty theories, but within the running time of Nasir, most of those end up sounding like foil-hat conspiracy theories. The opener, “Not For Radio,” contains a cameo from Sean Combs talking trash and statements like “Fox News was started by a black dude.” It almost works in much the same way that a campy villain theme song from a low-budget movie works, but Nas’ verses are too pedestrian, both in writing and enforcement. On more than one occasion here, he plods along, almost sounding bored, as if he knows that half of his audience might not even believe half of the things he says.

Amid all of the G.O.O.D. Music releases, Kanye West has served as both a distraction and a sort of lightning rod for listens and reviews. That being said, Nasir is fairly consistent musically. At times, the music contains focus and energy that reflect a sort of deference that Kanye has for Nas that he has for few other living artists. Many of the samples used here are perfectly germane, the most notable (or perhaps just popular) of which comes on “Cops Shot The Kid,” which contains one of the most refreshing reworkings of a Slick Rick “Children’s Story” sample in quite some time.

There are flashes when Nas sounds like Nas, such as on the end of “Everything,” when he raps about buying back the land on which white men enslaved his ancestors, but then there are moments when he describes himself as a “chin-grabber, neck-choker, in-her-mouth-spitter, blouse-ripper, a**-grabber.” It’s hard to imagine any rapper being that stupid under the circumstances, but intentional or not, that makes for some uneasy listening. Like many other artists, of course, he has had similar failures in the past (“Oochie Wally”), but most of those were spectacular botches. With Nasir, however, Nas is something he’s rarely ever been: humdrum.

BEATS BY DRE PRESENTS MADE DEFIANT: THE MIXTAPE

As World Cup fever heats up, Beats by Dre has produced another short film entitled Made Defiant: The Mixtape. Renowned director Guy Ritchie brings his signature style, including a rugged narration (by Paul Anderson) and stylish jump cuts, to the world of football.

The film brings together contemporary original and remixed music and some of the sport’s most famous athletes to highlight the influence of the game on the humblest of world citizens. In this case, a young Russian named Andre is inspired to turn obstacle into opportunity. The music is from artists like Anderson .Paak, Enya, Jonah Christian, King Mez, and Ring The Alarm. Some of the footballers featured in the film are Harry Kane, Mesut Özil, Thierry Henry, Patrice Evra, Benjamin Mendy, Fyodor Smolov, Neymar, Eden Hazard, David DeGea. Even Serena Williams stops by for a cameo.

The Beats products that can be seen in the film are part of the brand’s Decade Collection, which includes Beats Studio3 Wireless over-ear headphones, Beats Solo3 on-ear headphones, BeatsX wireless earphones, Powerbeats3 Wireless earphones, and urBeats3 earphones.

Check out the film below.

CAN I KICK IT? G.O.O.D. JUNE PT. 3 – KIDS SEE GHOSTS

June of 2018 might see Kanye West’s music endeavors becoming as polarizing as the man himself. As he continues to executively (and sometimes directly) produce various G.O.O.D. Music projects, he has the internet lamenting aspects of each, all the while Pusha T made Drake look questionable for the first time in his career and saw ye become his 8th number one album on the Billboard charts. The third project to be produced and released by Kanye West is the long-awaited collaboration with Kid Cudi, a man that’s been viewed both as West’s protégé and contemporary (sometimes even antagonist). KIDS SEE GHOSTS a more fleshed-out, cathartic version of ye that finds Cudi playing something of an angel to some of Kanye West’s inner demons.

That seems like an odd notion on the surface, especially considering the history of mental health both men have experienced in the last few years. Much will be made of such things in most other reviews of this album, but suffice it to say, both artists seem to have arrived at a more resolved and peaceful place in both of their life journeys. “Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2),” starts with Kanye West saying “I don’t feel pain anymore/Guess what baby? I feel free.” On “Fire,” West raps, “I done proved to myself, back on that rulin’ myself.” On “4th Dimension,” Cudi raps, “The put the beams on, get your, get your dream on/But you don’t hear me though, drama: we let it go.” This isn’t necessarily the typical “f*** the world” attitude that can be seen on many hip-hop records, but rather a pair of men that influenced a generation of artists to bare their minds, souls, and troubles to the world arriving at a better place after all of the turmoil.

Indeed, KIDS SEE GHOSTS sonically finds Kanye and Cudi catching up and passing a wave of artists who were profoundly influenced by West’s 808’s & Heartbreak. The music sometimes feels disjointed and often intense, but the constant sampling and prayers offered up by Kanye on songs like “Cudi Montage” signify a sense of resolution that both men have found after all this time. And while neither has ever been the type to hold feelings or ideas in reserve, the album length seems to benefit both here more so than Kanye’s solo project. It’s true that a few aspects are a little distracting, like when both yell gunshot sound effects on “Feel The Love,” or when Kanye raps about accidental anal sex, but they also signify Kanye being himself again, basking in that grey area between creative power and absurdity. Indeed, he’s always seemed most comfortable standing atop the musical Grand Canyon at night, looking down into the abyss.

Lyrically, most of the catharsis comes from Cudi talking about leaving behind his scars, having heaven lift him up. “Pain in my eyes, in the time I find, I’m stronger than I ever was/Here we go again, God, shine your love on me, save me, please.” While it’s true that Life of Pablo was heavily influenced by gospel music, it’s also true that Kanye has not quite displayed any sense of justification in the eyes of his creator. It is interesting, and at times refreshing, to see Kid Cudi of all artists sing on a song called “Reborn” that talks about moving forward and having no stress. Add that to the ethereal title track featuring vocals from Yasiin Bey and Anthony Hamilton, and the project is, at the very least, an achievement for Cudi in that regard.

KIDS SEE GHOSTS is a stronger outing than ye, one that is sure to receive more critical acclaim. Whether it can supplant its predecessor atop the charts remains to be seen. Many thought that ye was a sign that this month of music wasn’t going to be as noteworthy as Kanye was making it out to be, but this album goes a long way to proving him correct. This might have upped the stakes and pressure on a Nas album higher than any other besides Illmatic.

 

CAN I KICK IT? STREAMS OF THOUGHT VOL. 1

Last December, Black Thought dropped what many consider to be the most epic on-air freestyle in history on Funkmaster Flex’s radio show. As astonishing as it was affirming, it proved that the 46-year old emcee from Philadelphia is still somehow improving his craft decades after many of his original contemporaries have faded into obscurity. In the world of hip-hop, that’s almost as remarkable as an athlete doing the same. In one sense, he’s not in a desperate position needing to appease fans with lengthy freestyles to prove that he’s still got it (The Roots are the house band of “The Tonight Show” and he acts in an HBO drama). After more than 30 years of rhyming, he doesn’t have to drop solo EPs to prove anything either. Streams of Thought Vol. 1 therefore, carries the spirit of that freestyle by serving as a highlight of what Tariq Trotter can do.

2018 seems to be becoming something of a response to the current hip-hop SoundCloud and downloadable single trend exploited by young, independent artists. Artists from The Weeknd to Kanye West have released projects 7 tracks or shorter, and SOTV1 follows suit. At only 5 tracks in length, the project itself will be considered an EP. Much like DAYTONA or YE, Black Thought’s first solo project is devoid of hooks, anything that sounds like an attempt at radio play, and largely of melody. Fans can expect bars, boom bap beats and samples unearthed from old crates, and little else. And that isn’t a bad thing. At 17 minutes in length, SOTV1 is something like the Cliffs Notes to Trotter’s skills, showcasing years of references and experiences layered into sententious, crisp narratives.

9th Wonder has been billed as the co-headliner here, and he mostly pieces together a collection of soulful loops and steady drum beats that allow him to fall back behind center stage, allowing Black Thought to lay down technical, hookless, and relentless rhymes. The most interesting sounds come on “Dostoyevsky” and “Making A Murderer,” the two tracks on the project that contain features. The former allows Thought’s taste for classic literature to create something like rhyming wanderlust.

Uh, I said Dostoyevsky meets Joe Pesci
Tired of staring at a glass half empty
Turning me from Dr. Sebi to cocking semi
It got me clutching my machete from the Serengeti already
Wild Style and Fab Five Freddy
I’m a stranger in Moscow, don’t ask how deadly is the ummah
Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah
To the Tripoli shores from the halls of Montezuma

Aside from a flat line from Styles P on “Making A Murderer” (“We all got f***ed but no pornos”), the guests acquit themselves well enough. In reality, however, they feel like intermissions. To be sure, they seem to indulge in the low-stakes rhyming exercises. After the aforementioned line, Styles P lays down a verse that shows an artist willing to write until the pen runs dry. Rapsody is allowed to throw down a proficient verse with a few lines like “I ain’t turn starboy in a weekend.” Both come across like Kobe Bryant playing basketball at Rucker Park. In the end, though, SOTV1 might be better without features.

The closing track “Thank You” suggests that Thought has managed relevancy in a fickle industry and an escape from the violence of his hometown both through hard work and divine favor. “For every lesson I received as I live and breathe/And all the blessings I believed in and been achieved.” Black Thought may or may not have many more personal mountains to climb, but his career has been like a journey through Yellowstone and out into the valley looking toward the Grand Tetons. He might be on his way to the posh retirement community that is Jackson Hole, but he’s given no indication that he’s uninterested in a few more grand vistas along the way.

CAN I KICK IT? PUSHA T RELEASES DAYTONA

If all of the forthcoming projects produced by Kanye West meet their release dates, then G.O.O.D. Music might just swallow all of hip-hop and perhaps even the entire music industry whole this summer. It’s been three years since Pusha T released Darkest Before Dawn, and quite a while since the rest of the artists with whom Kanye West has been working in Wyoming released as well (Nas, Kid Cudi). If DAYTONA is any indication of what’s to come, the masses might almost forget West’s recent social media statements.

Pusha’s new album, named after his favorite watch, represents the luxury an artist of his stature has at this point of his career in taking as much time as he needs to create a worthwhile project. In an age of radio singles, downloads, free SoundCloud releases, and viral videos, DAYTONA arrives as an antithesis, an exercise by a veteran that’s been in the game for more than two decades who no longer feels the pressure of making a name for himself or reaching a larger audience (“I’m too rare amongst all of this pink hair”). The album clocks in around 21 minutes at only 7 tracks long, but the deep production samples suggest months of crate-digging. There isn’t a shred of fat to be found here; no hooks, no clear radio single in sight. DAYTONA goes like the finest steak money can buy.

Some fans, undoubtedly, will feel shortchanged by less than ten tracks. The creative decisions do indeed leave little room for error with the album, but the finished product amounts to a statement from an artist continuing to reject what has become en vogue in the industry. Ultimately, Pusha T emerges triumphant, and any complaints will be most likely end up being similar to people complaining about the cover artwork (a photo published in 2006 of Whitney Houston’s bathroom) or to others complaining that he is still writing luxury drug raps. Pusha is a specialist, however, that writes such raps so well that most naysayers probably aren’t listening closely enough.

With DAYTONA, Pusha aligns himself with hip-hop legends, figuratively and lyrically. On the obdurate, no-nonsense “The Games We Play,” he compares himself to the likes of Ghostface and Raekwon (“To all of my young n****s, I am your Ghost and your Rae/This is my Purple Tape, save up for rainy days”), and later on “Infrared,” includes himself on a guest list that includes names like Jay-Z. Like the latter accomplished with American Gangster, Pusha has provided a highbrow appeal to tropes that wouldn’t be considered the shortest route to widespread appeal or the cutting edge of the genre. And after twenty years, there are few of his peers rapping at his level on “What Would Meek Do?” (“Angel on my shoulder, “what should we do?” (we do)/Devil on the other, “what would Meek do?”/Pop a wheelie, tell the judge to Akinyele/Middle fingers out the Ghost, screamin’ “Makaveli”).

Much will be made of “Infrared,” the album’s conclusion that seems to re-ignite Pusha’s beef with Drake and the Cash Money label. The song contains a Quentin Miller reference and at least one other shot at using ghostwriters, but the most scathing remarks are directed at Baby and Wayne. “Salute Ross ’cause the message was pure/He see what I see when you see Wayne on tour/Flash without the fire/Another multi-platinum rapper trapped and can’t retire.” It’s not just a diss track, but more of a declaration of Push’s own ability to navigate the rap game like he navigated the streets. “Only rapper that sold more dope than me was Eazy-E.” DAYTONA proves that King Push is still coming out on top.

 

 

CAN I KICK IT? KYLE RELEASES LIGHT OF MINE

“Look around. Look at life…You got so much more to appreciate.” So says Lil Yatchy, acting as California-native emcee and producer KYLE’s conscious on “iSpy,” the latter’s 2016 single that managed to break top ten positions on U.K. and U.S. charts. KYLE’s new album Light of Mine not only reflects this attitude but does so in a much more mature way that his previous two projects SMYLE and Beautiful Loser. Whereas KYLE has always crafted feel-good, upbeat genre-bending hip-hop music, he more fully acknowledges the not-so-fun aspects of life this time around. In the end, Light of Mine is not only an escape but also a call-to-action for the masses stuck in the doldrums of social media antagonism and negative news.

The album opener “Ups & Downs” is quite the introductory paragraph to the essay KYLE has written to support this thesis. In the last two years, the playful rapper from Ventura, California, has come a long way from the days of “Sex & Super Smash Bros.” He made the biggest hit of his career, but instead of being changed by the game, he seems determined to remain himself amid the pressure of expectation. Light of Mine doesn’t feature any video game soundbite samples or songs crafted around superhero double entendres, and a few notable features might seem to suggest otherwise on the surface, but the album is really a well-crafted argument against conformity. That conformity includes the en vogue tendency of many hip-hop artists to write songs about living one’s best life either accompanied by or amid drug overdoses, binge drinking, or treating life like a party. “Listen, please approach your early twenties with some caution/GPS my way back to myself, I thought I lost it.”

Light of Mine starts with the protagonist depressed and lost, and it’s not until the end of the album that he’s fully back to his old life-loving self. The penultimate track “Clouds” is the climax of the story here, where he remarks, “I’ve walked so many miles with my head aimed at the ground/I forgot the world and clouds (clouds, clouds, clouds, clouds)/If I could just look up, I’d see him lookin’ down/I know my grandpa’s proud.” It’s not that life’s difficulties and sadnesses are only of our own making, but their effects and lasting impact are largely just that.

It’s not that KYLE won’t smoke weed or drink alcohol (that’s the opposite of the truth). It’s not even that he’s beyond sadness or pessimism. However, Light of Mine is a reminder that the activities in which we participate and even the work we do don’t define us completely. Take “iMissMe,” for instance, where KYLE says, “Looking for myself, I found someone I’m not/Or someone I once was, someone I forgot (haha).” The music of the song is a danceable, new-age funk jam that whose lyrics show a person struggling just like everyone else choosing the light instead of the dark.

KYLE fittingly ends the album with “iSpy,” suggesting that KYLE has known for years exactly what he wanted to do with Light of Mine. This album isn’t quite made up of the nerd mantra hip-hop of which Beautiful Loser was comprised, nor is it the soundtrack to the happiest of young adult summers as was SMYLE. This album is more pensive and grown, but no less reassuring or enjoyable.

CAN I KICK IT? TEE GRIZZLEY GETS ACTIVATED

It is often the case that hip-hop is at its most interesting when artists are testifying; testifying of truth, of the way things are, of their achievements, of their innermost feelings. The most memorable moments in the genre seem to come at times like the end of “What More Can I Say?” when the beat breaks down and the listener only hear’s Jay’s voice saying those famous lines: “I’m supposed to be one on everybody’s list/We’ll see what happens when I no longer exist.” Detroit’s Tee Grizzley borrowed heavily from the most honest songs of Meek Mill on his breakthrough song, “First Day Out,” even using that midway turn from awe to brutalism.

While many rappers write about capitalism as a salve for trauma, Grizzley separates himself from other emcees for the way the specificity of his verses imbues his songs with a sense of empathy. Even his severe flexes (“Hit the Rollie store with the Rollie on”) are built on memories and shorthand for verses about around-the-way friends. Activated starts in precisely this way. Fans are encouraged to empathize from the opening track, when they find Grizzley mid-conversation rapping, “Look at the bottom, I had to make it/I had to.” It forecasts hard-won truth that rappers like him have had to learn by experience.

Tee has spent his short time in the spotlight trying to perfect a mix of transparency and commercial ambition. He was mostly successful on My Moment. On Activated, he further commits to the radio campaign, even going so far as to feature Chris Brown on two songs, apparently buying into the idea that a guest appearance from the singer guarantees a hit. On “F*** It Off,” Breezy delivers an aggressive, by-the-numbers hook that concludes, “You think I work this hard to f*** it off?” It’s by-the-number. It’s clean. It’s impersonal—words that wouldn’t normally describe Tee Grizzley.

But the radio sensibility on Activated often dilutes Grizzley’s rawness and technical gifts rather than amplify them. Grizzley’s plain-spoken delivery tends to convey a sense of catharsis when he decides to jam-pack his verses or spit off the top. But he’s cumbersome running into the high-stakes soundscapes that are present on his album. Clunky verses like, “While you n****s talking down, I’m up b****,” on “Too Lit.” On another track, “2 Vaults,” he raps, “Stacks big and green I call my pockets the new Hulk.” Grizzley isn’t completely out of his league within Activated’s cinematic scope—the staccato he uses to spit “Think s***/Sweet/You gon’/Bleed” punctuates a should-be banger in “Don’t Even Trip”—but he’s batting under .200 here.

The high-stakes production largely undoes Grizzley, too, save for the occasional exception, like the G-funk-infused “Low.” It doesn’t help his case that a lot of the hooks are barely above-competent half-mantras that sound like any rapper could have written them. “Bag” is well-intentioned, but the inspiration is lost in Grizzley’s auto-tuned singing. The same’s the case for “I Remember,” where Grizzley can’t quite emote, even while relaying his very real experiences with poverty.

But Activated mainly suffers because too much of it lacks photographic vision. That gift that earned him a Twitter shoutout from Jay-Z does pop up on the autobiographical album closer “On My Own,” where Grizzley walks us through stealing from his own friend, now deceased, to whom he can only offer, “Rest in peace.” Poverty is a vicious cycle that robs its victims of absolution, but Grizzley still tries to find a glimmer of solace by the end of the album when he raps lines like, “When I finally get married, can’t no other b**** f*** me.” He swears it with a laugh, which seems to undermine the sincerity that would be needed to balance out such a childish line. If the trauma can be vivid, so can the joy, but unfortunately, Tee Grizzley never offers that much of it.

CAN I KICK IT? ROYCE GETS PERSONAL WITH BOOK OF RYAN

The last six years have been quite the journey for Royce Da 5’9″. Since getting sober around that time, the Detroit hip-hop veteran has taken fans on a personal quest from surface-level raps about his genitals and firearms to the deepest parts of his memory, psyche, and even his soul. It’s not the emo-rap you’d expect from some other hip-hop artists, but rather the musings of a grown man completely comfortable with himself and his career.

It would be a stretch to say that Royce was inspired by the likes of Phonte with this album, but it’s interesting to see different emcees taking their music in similar directions. Much like No News Is Good NewsBook of Ryan features a very mature rhyme writer that just as interested in what’s going on inside himself as what’s going on in the outside world. What makes Book of Ryan one of his (if not the) strongest albums is the fact that Royce is able to give both ample attention.

Royce Da 5’9″ has always been a skilled rapper, but the last few years have seen him rap about becoming more reclusive and anti-industry (see “Dumb,” where Royce raps, “Welcome to the Grammy’s where your likeness is used/For promos, hypeness and views, okay, I hope that you knowin’/That if you voted, you might as well not voted for no one/They knew when they made that category where that trophy was goin’”). As his songs travel further inward, his storytelling abilities have seen to grow in equal measure. Almost every track contains some kind of memory or anecdote, but never the same ones over multiple songs. The fan-favorite “Boblo Boat” is a reflection on good times during the coming-of-age periods in Royce and J. Cole’s lives. It’s the kind of song that seems tailor-made for Jermaine, but Royce outdoes him with lines like “I came across my identity on the Bob-Lo boat/That’s where I lost my virginity, no condom, though/That’s when paranoia hit me like when superstition does/Left my inhibitions I guess where my supervision was.” The same reminiscing can be seen on songs like “Life is Fair,” where Royce raps, “Summertime were the funnest times/Momma used to had to say come inside like a hunnid times/Flat booty, big titty b*****s just on they grind/My n***a Moody used to say they was built like the number nine.”

It’s not just the past with that Royce is concerned, however. On “Outside,” he raps about the present–about the concerns and fears he has now. The song features a verse dedicated to his oldest son, who recently dropped out of college to pursue a career in music. “You just ain’t the n***a you friends is, it’s scientific/Not my opinion so you know you genetically predisposed/To more than just eating soul food, so I’m afraid of you to try to risk it/You in a gene pool with a lot of sick fish/And I’m the sickest of them all, alcoholics die when they stop from the symptoms of withdrawal.” Book of Ryan is honest not so much in the way a Catholic confession is, but, as hinted at in the skit “Who Are You,” in the way a biographical novel is.

That novel, of course, needs a setting, and Royce not only vividly paints the picture of Detroit over the last 30 years, but also the plight of the average black man and hip-hop artist. “So many men shopping the women’s section, it ain’t no ladies left/These n****s crazy? Yes/They playin’ crazy like the Chappelle sketch, Wayne Brady ep/I’m what you get when Freeway Rick and Cocaine 80’s met.” The first full track on the album is titled “Woke,” and Royce starts the song off by rapping, “This one’s for those of you just ain’t woke yet, hotep/You rich but you broke n***a just don’t know yet, hotep/These rappers ain’t woke yet, security back ’em, hotep/Hotep, come to Detroit with that, oh yes, that’s a toe tag” (“hotep” is an Egyptian phrase that means “to be at peace”).

In case any old Royce fans might get concerned with the album’s content or style, the veteran manages to pack in plenty of hard-hitting punchlines, such as on “Caterpillar,” which includes a classic Eminem feature, or on “Summer On Lock,” featuring solid verses from Jadakiss and Pusha T. He is still just as comfortable staring the genre in the face and saying “Outrap Me,” as he is looking lookin at his children in the back seat of his car and asking them how they feel.

Even for listeners that don’t consider themselves Royce Da 5’9″ fans, Book of Ryan is worth multiple listens. The complexity, storytelling, and skill of a sober and mature Royce means that not only do audiences get a glimpse into his mind, but makes it seem as though he’s gotten a glimpse into theirs.

CAN I KICK IT? JANELLE MONÁE DIRTY COMPUTER

Janelle Monáe’s newest album, Dirty Computer, sounds like liberation. Above all, for herself, the self-declared pansexual black woman that has starred in hit big-budget movies and made news at award shows. It’s been ten years since she started making music, so this latest project exudes a confidence and even a level of happiness that seems to have been amassed during that time, finally reaching a point of lush pop eruption. Dirty Computer can and should be seen as a statement piece, but it’s also a fun experience to which fans won’t help but be able to dance. Monáe sounds freer here than she has up to this point in her music.

The “emotion picture” that accompanies the album is nearly 50 minutes of social commentary, which would have conventional wisdom suggest that this album would be dark and deeply emotional, something more akin to Frank Ocean’s last album. The video depicts a surveillance state where queer people and people of color are hunted down for noncompliance. Police stop them while they drive and beat them and arrest them at their own parties. But Monáe’s love for her musical influences is far stronger than the nods her director makes. Keith Haring, David Bowie, and Prince ooze out this album like playful sexuality in the “Make Me Feel” video. The entire thing is gleeful and youthful in the traditional sense. The songwriting is precise, even if it isn’t always perfect. The reckless and joyful “Screwed” is a refreshing embodiment of the devil-may-care nihilism occasionally experienced by minorities (in the case of the Dirty Computer emotion picture, queer people of color living in a surveillance state). Whatever one’s personal views are of the current state of affairs in the world and the plight of others, it’s difficult to not feel the funk and technical prowess of such an impressive bassline on an album that already bows to George Clinton and Chic.

It is difficult to separate Dirty Computer from the larger narrative of resistance across the arts today. This album is certainly a personal one, probably Monáe’s most personal record to date, but there is an inherent distancing that takes place while listening to this album. With songs largely speaking to “we” and “us” (i.e., very specific minorities) instead of  “I” (i.e., Monáe), even when that “we” includes the “I,”it’s hard for the audience en masse to completely relate with the auteur. This all-encompassing “we” is part of Monáe’s goal, however. “I want young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you,” Monáe told Rolling Stone. “This album is for you. Be proud.”

Not everyone will necessarily feel as much empathy for the social plight of the likes of Janelle Monáe, but one of Dirty Computer‘s strengths is that you don’t have to. There is much here to enjoy musically. Her Prince acolyte status is often accompanied by songwriting that crafts choruses that could slide into Taylor Swift songs, a feat that will surely provide the album with widespread likeability. Even individuals who don’t appreciate artistic agendas or socio-political aggrandization can enjoy listening to this album, which makes puts Monáe in a different artist class than many of her peers.

CAN I KICK IT? J. COLE RELEASES KOD

There is a sort of mystique that surrounds J. Cole that seems present in few other hip-hop artists. He is not quite considered the rhyme titan that is Kendrick Lamar or the hit juggernaut that is Drake, and yet he is revered by fellow musicians, hip-hop veterans, and fans alike as something of a torchbearer and a standard for other artists. To be sure, his level of creative control and independence is something more artists should strive for, especially considering that the rap game has traditionally been one of money and respect. He has accomplished much on his own that far too many artists of similar creative prowess and rhyme talent have not, so there is something to be said about Cole’s ability to navigate the musical landscape of our time on his own. However, with that much freedom and with the flashes that he has shown at times as a wordsmith, it’s hard to hear an album like KOD and not be slightly disappointed.

Yes, the title track of J. Cole’s new album broke records for the most number of streams on the first day of its release. Yes, plenty of buzz has accompanied the release of this album and plenty of praise has been heaped upon it by other musical acts, and it certainly isn’t without merit. However, there are times when Cole reverts to shallow materialism or hook repetition which leave the listener feeling unsatisfied. Take “ATM” for example, where Jermaine begins the track by rapping “Count it up, count it up, count it up, count it” six times before half-yelling, “I know that it’s difficult/I’m stackin’ this paper, it’s sort of habitual/I blow the residual/And f****n” yo b***h like its part of my ritual.” Those aren’t exactly the lyrics of a man who has built a career on humble brags and apparent wokeness.

The production is much more minimal than his last project here, mostly to keep the focus on Cole’s rapping. That’s not a bad decision in and of itself, but the rhymes often seem reduced also. On “Motiv8,” the chorus literally consists of the following:

Motivate (motivate), motivate (motivate)
Motivate (motivate), motivate (mo-)
Motivate (motivate), motivate (motivate)
Motivate (motivate), moti-get money
Motivate (motivate), motivate (motivate)
Motivate (motivate), motivate (mo-)
Motivate (motivate), motivate (motivate)
Motivate (motivate), moti-get money

This kind of songwriting shows up all over KOD though, and at 12 tracks long minus an interlude and intro, that doesn’t leave as much room for rhyme writing or storytelling, which have traditionally been part of what has endeared him to fans. Listening to J. Cole usually involves listening to strong doses of absolutist arguments, but the anti-addiction arguments filling up KOD are simple, obvious, and often self-righteous. The sentiment might be more powerful if it wasn’t so in-your-face, but the album cover itself states that this album is meant to discourage the kind of addictive behavior that is spawned from the use of social media, drugs, or a trap lifestyle. In the end, the album comes off like a step-father telling his wife’s teenaged kids that they should do something because he said so.

Judging by the populous’ reaction to the album, however, fans seem not to mind this kind of chorus writing. Some may even prefer it as it makes songs easy to remember and perhaps easier to vibe out to, which seems like a great concern to a newer generation of hip-hop fans. Indeed, there are a few songs here that can be considered bangers to many. Coming from an artist that exudes a lack of concern for radio play or trendiness, however, KOD comes off too simple and lackluster.