May has been a month beautifully saturated with the sweet serenades of glorious hip-hop. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I would say its probably been the best month this year for downloading and bumping free releases. And I’m not just saying that because I had my birthday this past weekend. Mac Miller, Well$, Taylor Bennett, Skyblew, Pell; there has been a deluge of the new and the unique, and as a result, I’ve had a very tough time identifying just one release for download. Fortunately, when albums are free, there’s no preventing you from downloading as many as you damn well please.
On the purchasing front, there have been several decent albums, albeit nothing that has radically stood out as the definitive selection of the month. With that, forgive me if my “What to Buy” section seems to come up short. I will say that in choosing this month’s top recommendation, I have better clarified the actual purpose of this blog. Beyond simply digging through the internet’s crates of new music, I want to be sure to showcase the best of the obscure, the stuff that isn’t on a shelf in Target or Wal-Mart. Ultimately, this certain brand of underground hip-hop may fall off the mainstream radar but holds its own when it comes to quality and repeat value. This month’s recommendation for purchase, and future recommendations, will stay true to that theme.
Finally, as promised, there’s a second, separate post to accompany the monthly Best Listens section: the month’s “In Steady Curation”. This will be a monthly playlist of random tracks that are worth listening to, despite the fact that the album from which they hailed wasn’t as entirely solid. You can play from start to finish on Soundcloud, and get a feel for the month’s best music. Holler.
What to Buy:
J.Lately “Make. Believe.”
“Got my vision up in the clouds, tell ’em to book a flight.”
J. Lately is a Berkeley, California based artist that seems hellbent (or hella bent?) on enjoying himself and discovering the amazing adventures that surely await him in the vast worlds of hip-hop and life. He’s staying positive while navigating his trials and tribulations as someone who grew up in the perfect climate of the bay area. J. Lately rhymes about his love of barbecues, hanging out with awesome people, and smoking constant reefer. Yet he also delves into the many struggles derived from his endless pursuit to put out quality music. There’s no bars or specific tracks that necessarily define J. Lately as some visionary, rhymesayer who’s bending the boundaries of hip-hop’s expanse. His sound could be compared to a variety of hip-hop artists, including Atmosphere, People Under The Stairs, and the more obscure, southern duo Intellekt & Dirty Digits.
But at the end of the day, J. Lately ,simply put, knows how to make solid hip-hop music. Dude can rap and effortlessly collaborate with his featured emcees track after track. Through the consistent production, Lately’s laid back flow and diverse range of themes, he creates a vibe that seems to hail distinctly from “The Bay”. It sounds like it could be flooding your car’s speakers as you crossed a large bridge over a body of water either heading towards Oakland or a grove of Redwoods. More importantly, it’s a summer album through and through, and for that, it complements those sunny days, beach trips and moments spent gazing up at the clouds. Part of my enjoyment of the album, without a doubt, came from my own anticipation for warmer summer months and the euphoria that comes with being outdoors on a regular basis.
Ultimately, Lately stays true to his album’s title “Make. Believe.”, and expertly captures that theme from track to track. You’ll hear it across songs like “Destinations”, where he waxes poetic about his soon-to-be-had metaphorical and literal journeys through the rap game and beyond. It also comes through on his opening track “Make. Believe.”, where that optimistic yet grounded hope is delivered over a near nursery-school beat sample. Of course, there are certain Lately songs should be taken with a grain of salt. His challenges with his girl and his family, and post-college anxiety, complement the theme, but probably can come off as disingenuous at times. Nevertheless, if you’re hankering for adventurous travel, soul-searching, simple lounging, self-reflection or sheer enjoyment, I think you’ll find something special on “Make. Believe.”
And if there’s money left in the wallet:
- Skyzoo & Torae “Barrel Brothers”: The two NYC heavy hitters come together to put out an album that has virtually no filler and harks back to the golden days of New York hip-hop. The production features producers like Illmind, the Stuyvesants, and Khrysis, and the stand-out single “Blue Yankee Fitted”, is pretty damn awesome. Bottom line, these dudes can rap. Purchase it here.
- eMC “The Turning Point”: Super group eMC is back with an extremely brief, but beautifully put together album. Rotating between skits and tracks, each track bounces effortlessly back and forth between Wordsworth, Masta Ace, Punchline, and Stricklin. These emcees are veterans, and their hard-hitting content reflects their trials, tribulations and time-tested battle scars. For $6, I would say it’s worth copping. Purchase it here.
What To Download:
Mac Miller “Faces”
“Who put the spiders in my apple sauce, took the pins out my hand grenade?”
I’ll admit that Mac Miller’s new mixtape “Faces” is my first, real exposure to the Pittsburgh-based emcee. I’ve heard his guest spots on other tracks and albums, but never put in the effort to seek out his complete projects. So when “Faces” was blowing up the blogosphere with accolades, I figured I would download it to see what all of the fuss was about. After all, there must be something going on here, right?
From the opening tracks, Mac Miller establishes his sound as a refreshing blend of observation, humor, self-deprecation, and most importantly, solid rhyming. There are jokes, mockery, pointed references, bizarre conversations with himself and even a little bit of singing at one point. On tracks like “Uber”, he really establishes his dark humor and manages to ensure the joke’s on him, while on others he laughs about his life growing up in Pittsburgh and his quest to get cornrows as a child. He mocks himself on “Birthday Song”, and seems less interested in celebrating himself or the occasion than the comedy behind hosting birthday parties for people. Yet through his joking, Mac’s rapping is no laughing matter. The man can seriously rap. Track after track, all over a huge range of amazing production, Mac walks us through his world, that at times is dark and other times hilarious.
Ultimately, in “Faces”, he’s presenting his repertoire of personas, moods, and self-perceptions as a hip-hop artist in a world that is dominated by riches, swag and keeping it real. He of course has his “keeping it real” tracks, such as “Insomniak” featuring Rick Ross, Mac’s pointed way to remind listeners that he’s still got that streak of the hardcore, “I paid my dues”-running through his personality. But ultimately, Mac is painting a rich and colorful portrait of himself as an emcee. He’s both attracted to the allures of success while simultaneously repelled by it. He’s as content energetically performing in front of a massive crowd as he would be doing a ton of drugs and holing himself up in his basement recording songs by himself. It’s an interesting dichotomy, and from melancholy to exuberance, obsession to apathy, Mac is trying to figure out what he wants out of this whole rap game. Fortunately for us, his efforts to find that answer provide my favorite mixtape of the month.
And if there’s room in the hard drive:
- Well$, “Revenge of the African Booty Snatcher”: Well$ is a 21 year old North Carolina based emcee who has released a huge body of creative and unique work on his latest mixtape. He’s an excellent storyteller and seems to switch between old school boom rap to newer, forward-thinking ethereal tracks produced by DJs like DJ Dahi. It is a long tape, but there is something for everyone , guaranteed. Download it here.
- Pell, “Floating While Dreaming”: New Orleans singer/emcee Pell, is yet another reason why I’m growing increasingly concerned that there’s something in the water way down South. Beautifully put together, Pell is not afraid to show us his emotions and challenges, while simply killing it track after track. It really is a fantastic album that continues to hold pleasant and unexpected surprises even after several listens. Download it here.