Nothing happens in early January. It’s sad, but it’s true. In movies, January is where the big Hollywood studios throw every movie that apparently didn’t deserve a release date during the rest of the year. And in music, major and indie labels alike take a couple of weeks to shake off their holiday slumber, perhaps figuring that people would prefer to hang onto their iTunes gift cards for a few weeks. In the years I’ve been writing this column, the first couple of Tuesdays in January are the most weirdly desperate weeks of the year; you find yourself madly hoping for, like, a Dropkick Murphys album that you can have fun repping for. In some ways, 2015 is no exception; the release calendar is just about bare until Sleater-Kinney and the Decemberists and Belle And Sebastian all rumble back into action on 1/20. But 2015 is different in a very crucial way. On the first two Tuesdays of the year, we have a couple of great albums sneaking out, laughing at the odds and showing the world that things don’t have to be so goddam slow. We’ll get to next week when next week arrives. But today, on this most nothing-happening Tuesday, we are a lucky people. We are lucky because two kids from Mississippi have made the catchiest, dizziest, most inventive and energetic major-label pop-rap album in recent memory. You might not have guessed that the mid-’10s needed their own Kriss Kross. But they did, and now they have it.
Rae Sremmurd apparently hate the Kriss Kross komparison, but let’s ride with it for a minute. Kriss Kross, for those of you too young to remember, were two little kids from Atlanta, friends who had the backing of an Atlanta superproducer (Jermaine Dupri, only 19 when he discovered them). They dressed weird (baseball jerseys worn backwards), wore their hair in twists, and were slight and cute and charismatic in that fuck-you-grown-ups 13-year-old way. They hit huge in 1992 with a couple of ridiculously catchy singles, “Jump” and “Warm It Up,” and they went on to conquer the world with their album Totally Krossed Out, the sort of album you were practically legally obligated to own on cassette if you were in middle school in the early ’90s. (This was true even if you’d bought into Nevermind completely. Resistance was futile.) Rae Sremmurd, meanwhile, are two little grown-ups from Tupelo, Mississippi. They’re brothers who live in Atlanta now and have the backing of an Atlanta superproducer, Mike Will Made-It. They’re 20 and 21, older than Jermaine Dupri was when he discovered Kriss Kross, but they look way younger. They dress weird (mismatched stripes and flannels, a gas mask sometimes). They wear their hair in twists. They’re slight and cute and charismatic in that fuck-you-grown-ups 13-year-old way even if they’re not 13. (It’s a bit disorienting to hear them rapping about fucking, even though they’re adults, mostly because I’ve somehow convinced myself that they haven’t hit driving age yet. It’s one of those albums where the radio-edited version might be more of a fun listen than the cusses-intact edition.)
Like Kriss Kross, Rae Sremmurd have a truly terrible name. “Kriss Kross” was just dumb, though. “Rae Sremmurd” is apocalyptically bad. “Ear Drummers” would be a bad enough name. “Ear Drummers” spelled backwards is catastrophic. Somehow, though, Rae Sremmurd have overcome that self-imposed obstacle. They hit huge in 2014 with a couple of ridiculously catchy singles, “No Flex Zone” and “No Type.” If you’re not talking about Taylor Swift or the Frozen soundtrack, it seems impossible to capture the collective imagination of middle-school America these days. In a more perfect world, though, SremmLife would be the sort of album that the teenagers of America could not escape, the one that finds their way onto every kid’s phones even if the kids in question have already bought into FKA twigs or Girlpool or whatever. It’s a perfectly crafted, mercilessly winning piece of pop-rap fluff, and it will take over your world if you let it.
The parallel breaks down, of course, when you consider that Atlanta rap has gone through centuries of evolution since 1992. When Kriss Kross made Totally Krossed Out, Atlanta was barely a blip on the national rap radar, and the duo’s closest peers were probably House Of Pain, if only because both groups had catchy and whiny and enormously successful hits about jumping. Rae Sremmurd, meanwhile, may not come from Atlanta, but they get to riff and build on a solid decade of the city’s rap history. D4L’s wormy dance-craze melodicism, Soulja Boy’s knowingly obnoxious teenage-sneer defiance, Travis Porter’s joyous gift for strip-club anthems, Future’s sideways blues groan, and Young Thug’s frantic gibbering cadence-play all manifest themselves, more than once, on SremmLife. From one angle, SremmLife is a mercenary record, a guided pop-rap missile that digs itself into your cerebral cortex with ruthless efficiency. It’s twice short and half strong — 11 songs in 45 minutes, or 10 songs in 40 if you delete the deeply unnecessary EDM-styled closing track “Safe Sex Pay Checks” from your iTunes immediately. Once that song is gone, it’s all killer and no filler, like some major-label A&R played bloodthirsty editor. But for all its weapons-grade catchiness, SremmLife is still a deeply weird album, these two kids yelling and chanting and bugging out, treating layered and symphonic Mike Will beats like they’re ringtone-rap playgrounds. “Unlock! The swag! The swag! On lock!”: That’s not much of a hook, but it’s somehow also the best hook. (It may also be “The swag! Unlock!” Doesn’t matter. Take the question to RapGenius, if you’re bored enough.)
As with any rap duo, there’s one who stands out and overshadows the other, just a bit. In this case, the stronger half Swae Lee, the younger and chirpier one. (Why is the younger one always the standout in brotherly rap duos?) Swae had a ridiculous ping-ponging energy. He throws his voice all over tracks, switching up cadences four or five times per verse. He yowls just about every chorus, fearless enough to use his terrible singing voice for all it’s worth. His “they knooooow better” refrain on “No Flex Zone” makes the song, and he even goes full falsetto on the “Come Get Her” intro. But he knows how to hold back, too, and the sleepy way he chants the nagging “No Type” chorus makes that song. (I also love how relatable his boasts are: “Cups with the ice, and we do this every night.” Hey, I put ice in my drinks every night, too!) Swae produces, too; he co-produced “No Type,” a very well-produced song, with Mike Will. And he instantly emerges as a possible solo star; he’s all over Mike Will’s Ransom mixtape, while Slim Jimmy, his brother, is not. For now, though, Swae is much better with his brother around. Swae’s voice is so high and so needly that he needs a counterbalance, and Slim Jimmy is that. He’s gruffer and hoarser, and there are moments where he’s just straight-up punk-rock barking. But Slim Jimmy’s not artless. He’s got a fluid technical delivery, and he knows when to deploy a double-time or a high-stepping Migos flow. Besides, if Jimmy wasn’t here, Swae wouldn’t be able to do choreographed dance steps in the video with anyone.
I know videos don’t count in album reviews, but do you know how refreshing it is to see choreographed dance steps in a circa-now rap video? It is so refreshing. They’ll just be hanging out at a party or a beach boardwalk, doing the things that you expect a rapper to do in a video right now, when, holy shit, suddenly they’re sliding across the floor together. It’s glorious. And that willingness to make with the old-school showmanship — as well as the sense of when to make with the old-school showmanship — make Rae Sremmurd special. They exist fully within the context of Atlanta’s endlessly fertile rap scene, but they do things rappers won’t do now. The “ooh-whoa-oh” backing vocals on “Come Get Her,” for example, are a beautifully executed pop-songcraft flourish, and they arrive at the exact right moment. And if SremmLife manages to retro-engineer weirder-than-thou underground Atlanta street-rap into flashily shameless pop music, that is an accomplishment worth celebrating. In early January, it’s more than that. It’s a fucking miracle.
Other albums of note out today:
• British techno producer Ghost Culture’s melodic self-titled debut.
• Låpsley’s Understudy EP.
• Pan American’s Sketch For Winter II: Rue Corridor EP.