Is there anything better than seeing a one-hit wonder become something more? One-hit wonders are becoming more and more of a rarity; anyone can find some kind of an audience in an increasingly fractured music landscape. But when Aminé’s “Caroline” video went viral last year, there was no real reason to believe that we were watching the birth of a major artist. “Caroline” was a feel-good story, a giddy burst of energy from the relative rap backwater of Portland, Oregon. (Portland’s greatest pre-Aminé rap export was probably Lifesavas, a backpacky group who released two albums on DJ Shadow’s Quannum label in the mid-’00s.)
“Caroline” was a triumph of DIY ingenuity, with Aminé getting an eventual 180 million YouTube views and landing just outside the Billboard top 10 with a video that’s mostly him and his friends excitedly jumping around, set to a song that he recorded on his laptop. Still, the song itself isn’t much. It’s a yelp of horniness from a kid who wants to stop talking and start fucking. It repeats its one verse twice. It’s a song that does its job and disappears. It’s fine. But it doesn’t exactly announce the artistic potential of the guy rapping it.
Last week, more than a year after the “Caroline” video first hit the internet, Aminé finally got around to releasing his debut album Good For You. And listening to it, I can’t help but be reminded of Rae Sremmurd’s debut album SremmLife, the last rap record that upended my expectations so completely.
The two albums aren’t really musically similar; Rae Sremmurd were making giddy Atlanta bubble-trap, while Aminé makes charged-up, vaguely emo sing-rap. He’s a distant stylistic descendent of Chance The Rapper with some of the same unrelentingly positive vibes that you might hear in, say, D.R.A.M. And compared to Rae Sremmurd, he’s even more of an underdog. Rae Sremmurd at least had two hits before the album landed, and they also had one of the most powerful rap producers working in their corner. Aminé had none of that. There are a few tracks from big producers on his album, but Aminé produced the lion’s share of it himself. He has no big connections. He got lucky with one big song, and he’s making the most of it. But both SremmLife and Good For You are ridiculously solid pop-rap albums, both exploding with hooks and joy and energy and melody and general good nature. Lots of people underestimated Rae Sremmurd, but they’re mainstays now. I hope the same thing happens with Aminé.
Before the album landed, there were a few indications that Aminé was more than he seemed to be. There was that “great scenes might be great, but I love your bloopers” line on “Caroline,” a moment of genuine sweetness amidst all the blowjob talk. There was the Tonight Show performance, shortly after the election, where he added a final verse, rapping with emotional fire about Donald Trump: “You could never make America great again / All you ever did was make this country hate again.” (Aminé’s parents are Ethiopian immigrants; you’d have to imagine that he’s feeling even rawer about this bullshit than the rest of us.) There was the self-directed video for the non-album track “REDMERCEDES,” where Aminé showed that he’s got serious sketch-comedy chops and that he’s perfectly willing to put on whiteface if it’ll make a point.
Still, none of that prepared me to hear an album where Offset and Nelly and Uncle Charlie Wilson and Girlpool all show up, where they all sound perfectly at home. Good For You is an album with its own aesthetic and point of view, and it’s broad and sunny and playful enough to make room for all these massively different voices without letting any of them snatch the spotlight away from Aminé himself.
Aminé is a fun-as-hell presence, and listening to Good For You feels like hanging out with him. As a rapper, he’s proudly immature. There are a lot of lines about blowjobs on Good For You, and most of them are pretty dumb: “Said she on a diet so she only eat bananas.” But lines like that take a backseat to the mellow, observant slice-of-life bits: “Daddy diabetic, so he eat his pancakes with agave,” “Sipping Stellas with my fellas, bumping nothing but Fela Kuti.” He raps about going to Costco specifically to get a smoothie, which seems like a lot of trouble but at least he’s making use of his membership. He raps about paying his sister’s college tuition the way other rappers rap about buying cars. And even when he’s angry, there’s cleverness in the way he expresses it: “The popo up in PO dirtier than BO / Bullies from the past act like I’m they fucking hero.”
Aminé sings at least as much as he raps. It’s not Drake-style singing, either; he howls and keens and emotes. As a producer, he’s warm and spacey and open-ended. His tracks float, and he floats with them. The guest producers adjust to fit his style. There’s one song on Good For You co-produced by, among others, Metro Boomin and Pharrell Williams, and there’s another from Disclosure’s Guy Lawrence. But listening to Good For You, you might not immediately pick out which of those tracks was which. (A hint: The Guy Lawrence beat is the one with the Dilla-style bassline.) The members of the LA punk duo Girlpool supply guitars and backing harmonies on “Hero” and “Beach Boy,” and that combination doesn’t feel forced at all; they sound like a bunch of kids excited to be making music together.
Really, none of the combinations are forced, not even when retro-soul singer Leon Bridges shows up to coo a bit on an outro. It’s a ridiculously fun and smooth and life-affirming record, and it sounds like the beginning of something. I’m not saying that Aminé is going to be a Beck-level star and that “Caroline” is going to become his “Loser.” But I am saying that you couldn’t be too shocked if that does happen. Good For You is more than good enough to be Aminé’s Mellow Gold.
1. Tee Grizzley – “Teetroit”
This is a movie tie-in and a history lesson, and it feels like neither. It feels urgent, primal, needed. It knocks, too.
2. Payroll Giovanni – “Payroll For President”
Hard-ass fundamentalist street-rap will never die as long as Detroit is still staring. Listen to the purpose in this guy’s voice. You could make a strong argument that Payroll Giovanni is the most underrated rapper in the world today.
3. Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire – “Bebop And Rocksteady” (Feat. Meyhem Lauren)
“Uppercut your scrawny ass right through the ceiling.” It’s poetry.
4. Action Bronson – “The Chairman’s Intent”
“Time crumbles when the jet black M5 rumbles.” It’s literature.
5. YG – “RNS” (Feat. YFN Lucci & Blac Youngsta)
A beautiful cross-country union of unpretentious rap hardheads, all of whom are talking a whole lot of shit and sounding good doing it.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
‘Sometimes ya gotta wonder about ‘Bitchassness’ and will there ever be a cure….” SMH pic.twitter.com/QawtWj3nvy
— ICE T (@FINALLEVEL) July 28, 2017