How many rappers have the juice to get a Kendrick Lamar verse in 2016? Fifteen? Twenty at the most? In any case, it’s not a lot. (I’m aware that I’m writing this immediately after motherfucking Sia unveiled her own track with a Kendrick Lamar guest verse, so maybe it’s not that hard to get him on your song. Maybe more rappers aren’t getting Kendrick guest verses simply because they don’t want to be annihilated on their own songs. Still, the point stands.) On Friday, two different rappers released albums with Kendrick Lamar guest verses. They were both, more or less, surprise releases — one only announced a couple of weeks before, the other just a day. And they both came from moody, well-connected sing-rapping Southerners who both happen to be doing the best work of their respective careers right this minute. And other than that, the two of them don’t have a goddam thing in common. They’re almost opposites. They’re practically natural enemies.
The first of those rappers — the one you’ve probably already seen a whole lot more hype about — is Travis Scott. In this space a year ago, I went on at length about how fucking useless I thought Scott’s Rodeo album was. From where I was sitting, Scott’s connections were the only things he had going for him. He was getting A-list guest appearances and top-shelf production, but beyond all that flashiness, his music was about nothing. He was a nearly inept rapper who projected depth while rapping about fucking and getting high and partying. He was a pretentious hedonist, which is not a good thing to be.
All the same things are true of Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight, Scott’s new album. In fact, they may ring even more true. The guest appearances this time are more impressive, and he’s stapling them to songs that are just as vacuous, wasting the efforts of his more-talented guests on his own generically gooey it’s-lit anthems. Consider, for instance, opening track “The Ends,” on which we get a rare and heartbreakingly open-hearted André 3000 verse, about growing up during a time when kids are being murdered and about the trauma that comes with that, on a song that is otherwise about nothing. Just about every rapping guest on Birds, 21 Savage very much included, absolutely smokes Scott, often while rapping through Scott’s own robotized vocal filters. And yet Birds still works much better than I was expecting.
Maybe it’s a triumph of lowered expectations, since I expected nothing from Scott after Rodeo. But Scott has really developed his drunken neon late-night aesthetic, building a whole sonic universe out of it. He’s a total mimic, of course. He’s pulled his sound from Future and Young Thug and sponsor Kanye West and occasional collaborator Kid Cudi. (Cudi shows up twice on Birds, and Scott has called Cudi his favorite artist, which makes almost too much sense. Not only did Cudi invent Scott’s narcotized sing-rap style, he also played the same party-starter role in the original G.O.O.D. Music collective that Scott plays now.) But it’s best to think of him less as a rapper and more as a vibe curator. He’s taken in all these sounds floating through rap right now, and he’s pulled them in and synthesized them into something grand and symphonic. Nearly every track has at least a few producers, but the blurry walls of synth cohere into their own things. When those tracks hit the right way, I stop thinking about everything I don’t like about Scott’s whole persona and presentation. I just disappear into these giant glowing, pulsating things instead.
Scott is, of course, not rap’s first vibe-curator. Guys like Kanye West and A$AP Rocky have done similar things. But West always has a point of view, and Rocky at least sometimes has one. Scott never does. A typical lyric is something like this: “Leave the strip club, tragic / Two broads going at it / It’s lit!” (Another one that really bothers me: “Play no games like the NBA.” The NBA plays a lot of games. It’s the primary thing that the NBA does.) But in the right circumstance, none of this matters. When you play Birds loud, in a car, late at night, with windows open, you feel fucking invincible, and that’s what matters.
By contrast, you will never feel invincible when listening to Isaiah Rashad’s new album, The Sun’s Tirade. More likely, you will feel fragile and exceedingly human. That’s what Rashad is about. Rashad got his own Kendrick Lamar guest verse not from being famous enough to earn one but from being crewed up with Kendrick’s TDE crew. And while Texas native Scott might be nominally Southern, he never sounds Southern the way Rashad does. Rashad, who comes from Chattanooga, Tennessee, sounds quintessentially Southern. His music has the same casual, conversational slow creep that the South has traditionally brought into rap. And Rashad also sounds human in ways that Scott never does. He talks his share of shit, but his music also has doubt and sadness and wonder to it. And he doesn’t rap about partying. He raps about not partying. In interviews, he’s been talking about how he had to beat an addiction to alcohol and Xanax that almost cost him his place on the TDE roster. There’s a song on the new album called “AA.” So yeah: not exactly like Travis Scott.
Here’s Isaiah Rashad talking about his own mortality: “Gotta consider my liver, my nigga / Gotta get rid of my kidney, my nigga.” Here he is, contemplating the weirdness of holding down a rap career in 2016: “How do you tell the truth to a crowd of white people?” Here he is, in a few brief and devastating strokes, describing his father: “My dad did call me yesterday / And he cried and cried into my phone / ‘Bout the love that can’t that he forgot / Since he left his family all alone.” Rashad isn’t a confessional rapper, and he is not above doing things like telling a girl to stop blowing him because his mom is on the phone. But listening to The Sun’s Tirade, we hear a restless mind at work, figuring things out.
On 2014’s Cilvia Demo, Rashad’s last album, he was all promise. I loved the idea of a Southern rapper existing within the TDE world, adapting his own native inflections to the label’s house sound. It didn’t quite gel, but it didn’t have to gel. Rashad was all unfocused potential, the way all the TDE rappers have been when they first started out. The Sun’s Tirade is the sound of that potential starting to be realized. The sound is the lush, organic thump that was the TDE house sound before Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q branched out and found their own sounds. And the new album reminds me, more than anything else, of Kendrick Lamar’s Section 80 — the moment it started to click for that guy, when it first became apparent that he was something special. If I’m right, if that’s where Isaiah Rashad is at now, there are some special things coming down the line from that guy.
There’s a moment on The Sun’s Tirade where Rashad basically explains his own sound, what he’s going for: “Mix that Boosie with that boom-bap.” That’s a nice, economical description of what he’s doing. But the next thing he says, immediately afterward, rings even more true: “You rap like you need money, like you don’t love this.” He could be talking about Travis Scott. He could be right. But Travis Scott, like Isaiah Rashad, still made a very good album, one that I did not necessarily expect from him. And though The Sun’s Tirade is a better album, on almost any level, than Birds In The Trap, I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself listening to Birds In The Trap more often.
1. Nicki Minaj – “The Pinkprint Freestyle”
Young M.A.’s “Ooouuu” is turning out to be this year’s “A Milli”: The amazing beat that generates about a thousand freestyles, even though nobody has an prayer of outdoing what the original rapper did on the original track. And while everyone talks about who had the best freestyle, certain people were always going to win. And so Nicki over “Ooouuu” is like Jay-Z’s “A Milli” freestyle. She’s the superstar who wins just by showing up, trying hard, and trusting her own charisma.
2. Action Bronson – “Descendant Of The Stars (Traveling The Stars Theme)”
Action Bronson is on the same drugs that Hammer was on. Turn the camera on: He’s like a fucking monster out the Amazon. Also, we need more funky Alchemist piano loops in our lives.
3. Nef The Pharaoh – “The Lick”
There is at least some chance that I’m enjoying Nef’s hyphy revival more than I enjoyed actual hyphy while it was happening.
4. Gucci Mane – “Last Time” (Feat. Travis Scott)
Gucci’s enunciation continues to kill me: “The last time I drunk some lean I was out of my mind / Tried to give me 20 years and that’s a whole lot of time.” These are serious sentiments, and you probably shouldn’t sound so fucking playful when you’re expressing them. And yet.
5. Dej Loaf – “Snakes”
I’m waiting for Dej Loaf to stop being vulnerable and start being tough again, but she does vulnerable very well.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
clinton: that's all behind me, the expansion of the prison system. i'm on a new wave now
travis scott: that's real pic.twitter.com/L7APct13nq
— Safy-Hallan Farah (@SafyHallanFarah) September 5, 2016