Not that long ago, major recording companies employed whole offices full of people whose whole purpose was to shape and mold rappers, to turn them into hitmakers. Maybe those people still exist. Maybe they’re up late at night, trying to figure out how to make Kid Ink happen. But the big labels, for the most part, have learned that they don’t know a thing. Their old strategies — fitting rappers into preexisting archetypes, making sure there’s a song for every preordained demographic on every album, overpaying for of-the-moment producers — have proven to be totally ineffective today. Meanwhile, J. Cole and Drake and Kendrick Lamar are selling piles and piles of digital files, thanks to three personal, inwardly-directed albums that don’t share one obvious radio single between the three of them. And that’s how you get a release week like this one, when two up-from-underground prospects, Earl Sweatshirt and Action Bronson, have dropped albums that completely reflect their weird-as-hell, wildly different respective aesthetics. Nobody is sending Earl Sweatshirt into the lab with Trey Songz, telling him that I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside needs a love song. And nobody is telling Action Bronson that Mr. Wonderful might be more approachable if he’d rethink a line like this: “My mother said I better win or else she’ll fuck me up / Ma, I did it! I love you, you lucky slut!” Even five years ago, America’s corporate pop machine would not be letting shit like this slide. These days, everyone’s just hoping their label will still be there next week, and some amazing things are getting through.
Earl Sweatshirt recently went public with his disgust at how his label bungled the release of I Don’t Like Shit. You have to feel for the kid. He put his entire soul into the album, producing nearly every track and saying all sorts of uncomfortably honest shit about his own attempts to acclimate himself to rap almost-stardom. The way he wanted things to go — a video appearing online with no information, with everything else to come later — shouldn’t have been that hard to manage. And yet that’s exactly the sort of thing a big, impersonal company can fuck up, especially when it’s not a high-priority type like Drake or Beyoncé making the requests. What Earl is feeling must be a high-level artist version of the feeling we feel when we hear that a technician will come to our place between 9 and 3 next Tuesday to fix the internet — that maddening, dehumanizing realization that you’re depending on big, impersonal forces to do what you need them to do and that those big, impersonal forces don’t give a fuck about you. Still, the album exists, in the form Earl wanted it to take, and that seems like a minor miracle.
Here, we have a 30-minute album with only a few guests, all of whom come from Earl’s immediate circle of friends. Even the Odd Future guys don’t get a showcase here. Earl’s major-label debut Doris felt like a dense and insular album back in 2013, but that one had a few actual famous people on it. This time around, the best guest verse belongs to either fellow up-and-comer Vince Staples or to Na’kel Smith, a pro skateboarder and childhood friend of Earl who’s barely ever even rapped on record before. (Smith’s verse on “DNA” is really, really great.) When those guests start showing up halfway through the album, though, even the sound of another voice feels like a slight break in the fog. Mostly, this sounds like Earl’s internal monologue; hearing it feels like eavesdropping. The album feels private — Earl talking about idling at home and trying to adjust while the other Odd Future guys are out on tour, or about his discomfort with all the kids who want to give him a pound or take a picture, despite knowing full well that these kids are directly responsible for his income.
Earl sounds pissed-off, disillusioned, depressed: “Mind in the trash right next to where my fuckin’ passion went.” He revels in his own mental funk, makes it a part of himself: “I’m only happy when there’s static in the air cuz the fair weather is fake to me.” He raps about tricky family situations, trying to do right by his mother even though his mother sent him away to reform school just as he was about to get famous: “Tryna pay my mama rent, figure that’s just what I owe her / I been trouble since I tumbled out that stroller.” There’s a lot of talk about doing too many drugs, about losing his center, and you can hear exhilaration and regret in equal measures in those lines. His beats are all lo-fi clanks and lurches, bass hitting like a heart-murmur. When Earl snarls out straight-up rap shit-talk, he finds fascinating and evocative ways to do it: “Niggas wanna fade me, bitches feel some type of way for me / 50s in my pocket falling out like fuckin’ baby teeth.” Mostly, though, he’s folding in on himself.
I can’t remember the last time I heard a rapper deliver an entire album sounding like he was curled up into a fetal position. But then, there’s no precedent for a rap career like Earl’s: A vicious young prodigy who got famous when he wasn’t even around to experience it and who has no idea how to adjust to life as a famous person now that he’s back. There’s no rapper who’s ever been more likely to give up the life completely, to go into Pynchon-style seclusion or to study to become a librarian or whatever. We’re lucky to have him around, and his label is lucky to have him on its roster.
Bronson, in a lot of ways, is Earl’s complete opposite. He loves the attention. Bronson is a good-times rapper, an outsized character who depicts himself as an even more outsized character. He’s the sort of weird cartoon a major-label boardroom could never hope to invent: A tatted-up, massively-bearded Albanian-American dirtbag chef who’s built like a bowling ball and who has somehow managed to remove most of the Ghostface associations from his free-associative adenoidal flow. He’s an American original. But that doesn’t make him the world’s mostly likely star.
There’s the simple matter of song construction, something that’s never much appealed to Bronson. Mixtapes were perfect for him; he could yammer on for a couple of minutes, often over an unlicensed and hugely recognizable loop, and then move onto the next topic. And on Mr. Wonderful, he more or less treats his major-label debut album like it’s a mixtape. The sonics are cleaner, certainly, and A-list producers like Mark Ronson and Noah “40” Shebib are on board. But Bronson is just as likely to go in for three minutes with no chorus, and just as likely to kick beautifully ridiculous bravado: “I’ll resurrect Freaky Tah to do my ad-libs / Overseas, I probably got mad kids.” He stops the Ronson-produced opening track “Brand New Car” short a couple of times when he loses his train of thought, and it’s just as calculated and contrived, in its way, as guitar feedback on a major-label rock album. But it’s a signal, too: Ronson is not going to clean up his act just because his checks have a logo on them now.
If anything, Bronson is likely to use his major-label recording budget to chase even more fantastical, absurd dreams. For instance: Bronson has apparently always wanted to be the lead singer of a ’70s blues-funk band, and he devotes an insane percentage of Mr. Wonderful to becoming exactly that. Songs like “City Boy Blues” and “A Light In The Attic” are crammed with studio musicians, all vamping wildly. They’ve got very little rapping, and they contain nearly as many jazz-fusion piano solos as all of To Pimp A Butterfly. Bronson sings all over the album. He can’t sing at all, and he does not let that stop him. And it works anyway, because he sings with in-on-the-joke confidence and conviction. That’s awesome. Biz Markie couldn’t sing either, and his atonal howling is responsible fore more than a few classics. Bronson is carrying that who-gives-a-fuck flippant charisma into another century, and its sheer unlikely panache is a beautiful thing to witness.
As it happens, while I was working on this column, Earl and Bronson put out a new song together: The deeply funky Alchemist-produced “Warlord Leather.”
It’s a breezy piece of tossed-off trash talk, and Bronson, for what it’s worth, wins it. I can only remember those guys jumping on a song together one other time, on Domo Genesis’ great posse cut “Elimination Chamber,” and Bronson won that one, too. That doesn’t really mean anything. Bronson was built to show other rappers up in collaborative situations; his one-liners work best in quick bursts. Earl needs to disappear into his own world to be at his best. But it’s an amazing thing to listen to these two goofballs exchanging dense, near-impenetrable punchlines and to realize that we now live in a world where both of them got to release major-label albums on the same day. People with money were willing to take bets on both of these guys finding rap stardom. This moment may not last long, and we should appreciate its glory before it disappears. Remember that the next time you complain about the state of rap as it exists in 2015.
Father – “Back In The ‘A’ Freestyle/On Me”
The first quarter of 2015 has been so fucking packed that I haven’t even really had a chance to talk about Awful Records figurehead Father coming back with the meditative low-tech shock-rap opus Who’s Gonna Get Fucked First? yet. (It would be Mixtape Of The Week, easy, if that still existed.) Father and his Awful crew have so much going on that they deserve their own column: The sleepy hooks, the totally sui generis murk-rap aesthetic, the squelchingly specific sex-talk, the whole little world they’ve created. This song, more than any other, encapsulates everything they do right: A dizzy synthetic haze that lurches along and, before, you know what’s happening, comes into sharp focus as the catchiest piece of snap music you’ve heard in recent memory. Father sells it all with low-key, underhanded ease, making it all sound like something you could do, even though you totally couldn’t.
Gunplay – “Tell ‘Em Daddy”
Where has this version of Gunplay been? The hard-huffing monster who puts every ounce of energy into his rapping if only to prevent himself from pistol-whipping any more accountants? Because damn, it’s good to have him back. Here, Gunplay booms out self-aggrandizing mythology like he was the Swamp Thing version of “Broken Language”-era Smoothe Da Hustler: “I’m the truth and that’s the truth / I’m the screw that just went loose / I’m the liquor in your liver, I’m the pistol in the booth.”
Vic Spencer – “Lecture With The Dead”
I haven’t paid Chicago’s Vic Spencer much attention, mostly because I’m annoyed that he has almost the exact same name as Chicago’s Vic Mensa. But “Lecture With The Dead” shows him to be his own thing, a wizened and conflicted tough guy. He’s got more in common with fellow Chicagoan Tree than with the smart, slippery, house-addled rapper whose name is way too close to his own, and a song like this has an impressive heft to it.
Rapsody – “The Man”
This North Carolina rapper was the only person to get a whole guest verse on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, and this is a good time to get acquainted with the Beauty And The Beast EP she released last year, so this video couldn’t come at a better time. Here, she’s given us a finely observed character portrait about a little kid forced to step up and provide for his family when his dad splits, and its somber futility says a whole lot. Gorgeous Fender Rhodes tinkles on that beat, too.
Mayalino – “Kilo Champ” (Feat. Pusha T & Scarface)
If you convince Pusha T and Scarface to rap on your song, I will listen to your song 100 out of 100 times, so credit Houston’s Mayalino with figuring that out. Credit him, too, for hanging with a couple of legends without sounding hopelessly outmatched. Here, everyone goes in hard over a stormy synthetic stomp with some John Carpenter eeriness to it, and that is pretty much all I want from music.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
When that new Kendrick comes on: pic.twitter.com/g9Il2LUgdX
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) March 20, 2015