The old criticism of hip-hop music as pop’s most base, one-note form of expression must be extinct by now, right? Since the advent of the style, it’s slowly crept to mainstream status, virtually defining the mainstream for long stretches of the nineties and the oughts, and even the most hard-nosed “but it’s not real music!” types simply MUST have been exposed to some of the best the genre has to offer. Culturally, we’ve just breezed through a decade characterized by some of the most inventive, high-concept, and genius rap albums of all time – seriously, open up a new tab and google some “best of the decade” lists – and your mother absolutely knows who Cee-Lo is.
We all respect and love innovation in hip-hop. Game-changers, sonic architects, abstraction – we eat it up. It’s a victory lap, of course, to be able to point to something on wax as a musically rich, textured experience with varied and interesting subject matter and vocabulary; that, and the old cliche of “mainstream rap” being, too often, tasteless, tuneless, and lacking substance has always held at least a LITTLE bit of water. Unique, benchmark albums are terrific, no doubt – but what of the artists out there able to pare the genre down to its barest essentials without sacrificing quality? Given that hip-hop’s rich history can be pared down to two musical touchstones – beats and rhymes – there’s gotta be some love for guys less interested in reinventing the wheel than simply using the established wheel really, really well.
Curren$y is one of those guys. Bitter after logging some quality time with Lil’ Wayne’s Cash Money crew, he swore off the majors in favor of remaining a dedicated underground emcee making music on his own terms. His new album, the clever [amazon-product text=”Weekend At Burnies (buy)” tracking_id=”popblerdcom-20″ type=”text”]B0057RBMDU[/amazon-product], is distributed by Warner Brothers, but his spirit remains the same. Unconcerned with gimmicks, Curren$y contributes his rambling, languid flow to a host of Monsta Beatz tracks – and that’s it. Low-key synths, hints of G-funk, and the general feel of weed haze characterize the records sound, but Curren$y’s on point the entire time; they call him “Spitta”, and it’s easy to see why when he rides out the introductory “#Jetsgo” or the melodramatic narrative “She Don’t Want a Man”. The album’s biggest downfall, in fact, IS its remarkable consistency – in creating a solid song cycle that functions as a cohesive unit, its blissed-out G-funk runs together for much of its runtime, without making TOO huge of an impression. The celebratory jams – “You See It”, “This is the Life” – maintain the low-key vibe of the rest of the album, and Curren$y, as reliable of an emcee as ever, has a habit of not drawing attention to himself, even on his own record. Which is great to hear – his flow doesn’t rely on punchlines or gimmicks – but it helps the songs bleed together. Viewed as an experience, Weekend at Burnie’s is thoroughly pleasant, immaculately produced, and admirably chill – as a collection of individual tracks, the listener’d be hard-pressed to name immediate standouts after an initial spin. Still, Curren$y’s prolific profile shows no signs of stopping, and it’s nice to see someone out there making capital-A Albums, instead of another strung-together collection of would-be singles.
Random Axe’s [amazon-product text=debut LP (buy)” tracking_id=”popblerdcom-20″ type=”text”]B004ZNH70E[/amazon-product] goes straight for the old-fashioned beats-and-rhymes manifesto, too, with slightly more impressive results; the product of three underground heroes (Detroit’s Guilty Simpson and Black Milk, Brooklyn’s Sean Price) coming together for a rap summit, Random Axe finds Guilty and Sean P trading verses over Black Milk productions, and the simple equation yields results.
It’s simpler times with Random Axe, as superlative first track proper “Random Call” immediately signals. “No love-letter rhymes or raps about chicks,” Price declares over Black Milk’s piano-and-backing-vox-laced beat, and he remains true to his word. Over the course of 40 exciting minutes, Price and Guilty deliver, and the simple pleasure of hearing two perfectly solid rhymers doing what they do with confidence and bluster takes center stage. Meanwhile, Black Milk provides some of his best beats – his more soulful tendencies sound great tempered with the electronic flourishes that he’s been known to dabble in, and the results are tuneful and exuberant – without resorting to overkill, keeping the tracks brief (“The Karate Kid” and “Never Back Down” are short, clipped, one-verse showcases for each primary emcee, and neither one even thinks about skirting the one-minute mark) and even varying the established beat near the end of the track, just to shake it up a bit. As a result, the album stays exciting and never gets old – the guests are limited and only briefly showcased before returning to the winning formula, and Milk (a fine rapper in his own right, as terrific solo titles Album of the Year and Tronic can ably attest to) even stops by to kick in a verse on “Everybody Nobody Somebody”. What’s here is brief, bare-bones, and exciting – a gift-wrapped offering for rap fans just looking for some good music.
Grade, Weekend at Burnie’s: B
Grade, Random Axe: A