Fall is now upon us…apparently. I’m writing from Oakland where Indian summer (do we have a better phrase for this yet?) has decided to rear its head a little late. It’s hot out and I’m not quite ready to turn down those summer jams. And it’s not because we’re all trying to help Nelly out with his tax issues. OK, that obviously doesn’t help, but when the weather is warm, I’m feeling less inclined to embrace that fall has come into full swing.
But here we are. Unlike film or television, the new music release cycle is less bound by seasons and with the advent of the surprise release, a long anticipated release can come at anytime. But in a year where we’ve already had a new Beyonce album, a new Drake album, a new Kanye release, a new Rihanna, Gucci Mane’s first post-prison release, and two new Frank Ocean releases, what are the exciting releases for the rest of 2016? More immediately, (i.e. in about 11 days) we have Danny Brown’s first album with Warp records, Atrocity Exhibition. Brown is one of the most exciting rappers in recent years, so expectations are high with this one. There’s the second album by Tinashe, whose 2015 mixtape Amethyst gave a promising preview of what she’s capable of. There are rumblings of new albums by Freddie Gibbs, Mike Will Made It, D△WN, and Run the Jewels. And those are just label releases! So while I’m getting dragged out of summer, kicking and screaming, at least there’s some good music to cushion the landing.
The best hip-hop releases of September 2016
Young Thug – No, My Name is JEFFERY
My affection for Young Thug is not a secret around these parts. He has undoubtedly changed the landscape of contemporary rap and has quickly become one of the most consistently rewarding risk takers in hip-hop today. Young Thug is a rapper who excels in playing off of different dynamics. Whether the masculine and the feminine, or light and dark, or the playful and the solemn, his best songs are a careful balancing act that can often feel like they teeter out of control, only to swerve back in the other direction. Barter 6 was most certainly a turning point: a cohesive and reflective album that was tightly edited and was his most mature release. Since then, Young Thug’s albums have gotten a bit less messy, a little less uneven as he’s shrugged off the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink method of his earlier tapes. No, My Name is JEFFERY is perhaps Young Thug’s best since Barter 6 and it is certainly his most self-reflective. The title has Thug reclaiming his birth name and each track title is named after an idol, ranging from Wyclef Jean and Kanye West, to Gucci Mane and even Harambe, but these are red herrings. The songs don’t make their title their subject matter, rather they’re more like honorifics and touchstones for different aspects of Thug’s—excuse me, Jeffery’s life.
If there is a running subject matter, it is a romantic one. References to Thug’s fiancee Jerrika run throughout the album. An early highlight is “Wyclef Jean,” with its reggae-inflected guitar, but it’s also unabashed with his affection for Jerrika: “she know she got a nigga bad.” Similar sentiments turn up in “Harambe,” where Thug admits to a violent side but ends with an exuberant exclamation of “I just wanna have a baby by you, girl.” While not exactly Shakespeare, the sentiments are so touchingly laid bare, it’s hard to fault them. Like Barter 6, No, My Name is JEFFERY is polished and inches closer to a pop album than previous output. That’s not to say that this isn’t without Thug’s trademark vocal acrobatics, exemplified in songs like “RiRi” and “Guwop,” but JEFFERY is further illustration that Thug has a keen ear for melody and song structure. Whether Thug actually does shed the moniker and becomes Jeffery is yet to be seen, but either way he has left an indelible mark now and surely for years to come.
Vince Staples – Prima Donna
Prima Donna comes after Vince Staples’ highly acclaimed Summertime ‘06, and while it would be easy to call the seven-track EP a placeholder or stopgap before the next proper album, it would be dismissive to what a powerful EP Prima Donna truly is. Summertime ‘06 was by and large a rumination on his hometown of Long Beach, while Prima Donna widens the scope and has Staples reflecting on his place in America, a precarious place for young Black men. On the blues-inspired “Smile,” Staples tears into the American Dream, an idea that often fails to reach Black America. “Smile” drips with disappointment and Staples’ critical voice has never been sharper as he spits lines like, “I left the street where I’ve grown / To chase the yellow brick road / I heard they paved it with gold I turned around and seen they pissed on it.” The tracks on Prima Donna are by and large heavy-hitters; potent uppercuts that showcase Staples’ considerable skill as an MC and writer. Throughout Prima Donna are also recordings of a solo Staples, without accompanying music and with a more despondent air. One recording has Staples repeating the phrase “sometimes I feel like giving up,” and it’s incredibly profound moment of vulnerability, illustrating the depths of fear and despair that face Black men in America.
Princess Nokia – 1992
1992 is an assured and smart release by an artist I admit to not following very closely. Princess Nokia hails from Harlem and 1992 is an ode to her early stomping grounds and as the title suggests, her childhood years. The release is an exquisite balance of old school New York hip-hop and a contemporary globalized pop, the type best exemplified by the likes of Nguzunguzu and Fatima Al Qadiri. It’s bombastic and a fun platform for Princess Nokia’s outsized personality and flow. The best tracks on 1992 are unapologetic odes to women of color. My favorite track, “Brujas” has Nokia showing love to her diasporic background (“I’m that Blackorican bruja / Straight out from the Yoruba / And my people come from Africa-diaspora Cuba”), owning her family history and heritage in a track that is empowering and self-possessed. Elsewhere, Nokia shines a light on other women, using hair as an example of the power and independence of women of color, while also being a critique at those who fetishize and exploit these same women (see: “Mine”). “Tomboy” lifts up girls who reject over-feminization while also embracing different body shapes (see Nokia’s repetition of “my little titties and my fat belly,” a reclamation of what others may view as flaws). On 1992, Princess Nokia has crafted a release that is a love letter to her home, to the women that populate it, and to herself; a fun and wildly empowering album for girls who need more anthems.
Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai
This past August, The New York Post posted an incredibly inflammatory cover story on Kaseem Ryan, also known as rapper Ka. The article attempted to “out” Ryan as a firefighter (something that isn’t actually a secret and Ryan hardly shies away from talking about it) while also painting him as anti-cop. While no one would ever point to The New York Post as a bastion of good journalism, this story was blatantly geared to rile people up. It was sloppy at best and rode on the incredibly tired idea that all rappers are thugs and gangsters. If there was a silver lining, it was the heartening moment seeing so many musicians coming out to defend Ka, hardly a household name but arguably one of the most underrated rappers in the game right now. With 2013’s A Knight’s Gambit and the near flawless collaboration with Preservation Days as Dr. Yen Lo, it is criminal how under the radar Ka is. Honor Killed the Samurai is just as astonishing. Ka is a measured rapper. He favors sharply honed rhymes to hook-driven bangers. Ka acknowledges the hard work involved in crafting songs, stating “behold my labor” on “Just.” Honor Killed the Samurai mines the image of the samurai, hardly a new inspiration in hip-hop, but here it sounds fresh and Ka wholly embodies the figure of a grizzled veteran, with somber stories behind the scars and cautionary tales for the young turks. While listening to Honor Killed the Samurai, it was hard to shake visions from Kurosawa films, the image of Toshiro Mifune as a world weary veteran who understands the toll violence and anger takes on a man. Ka similarly has watched neighborhoods crumble and change, neglect plaguing neighborhoods only to see gentrification and greed irreparably alter the population and landscape (see: “$” with its powerful use of a sample stating: “but it was soon patent to every observing mind that the ways of wealth were not the ways of honor”). If there is any justice to that New York Post article, it’s that this will be the moment that propels Ka to greater recognition and respect.