Every time a rapper ascends from humbler places to stardom — from the production credits on Roc-A-Fella albums, from the word-drunk Los Angeles underground, from the Degrassi cast — it feels like an unlikely underdog triumph. But even among stories like those, Rae Sremmurd’s ascent has been dizzy and unpredictable. Just a few years ago, the Brown brothers were homeless in Tupelo, Mississippi — squatting in an abandoned house after their mother kicked them out, getting their music out into the world by throwing illegal parties.
When they did finally come up, releasing a string of hits and a better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be debut album, they were still readily dismissed. On the internet, I saw the phrase “Kriss Kross” thrown around a lot, and I could understand that. The Brown brothers were adults, but they looked younger than their years. They were cute, energetic, working a chirpy and excitable variation on Atlanta strip-club rap. Like Kriss Kross, they were aligned with a moment-defining producer — Mike Will Made-It, in their case — and it was possible to imagine them as producer’s tools, as vehicles for Mike Will’s ideas. During a contentious on-air discussion with some Complex writers, the Hot 97 host Ebro outright said that Mike Will was writing the group’s lyrics, something that wasn’t true. This was less than three years ago.
What a difference a little bit of time makes. Rae Sremmurd are still charismatic young guys making accessible party-up versions of Atlanta rap, but it becomes more apparent every day that their early success was no fluke. They’ve grown deeper into their own sound, leaning into Mike Will’s decaying synthpop melodies and scuzzed-up bass-lurches. They’ve made a #1 single, and they’ve soundtracked thousands upon thousands of people making videos in which they’ve stood as still as possible. Swae Lee, in particular, has grown into an airy melodic polymath, co-writing Beyoncé’s “Formation” and becoming an agile and idiosyncratic hook-singer. And now they’ve gone all the way overboard into serious-artist territory, releasing a full-on triple album.
But then, the magic of Sr3mm, Rae Sremmurd’s shockingly listenable new opus, is that they’ve gotten to this point without ever adapting serious-artist poses. Sr3mm might be the least ambitious triple album in history, and that’s what makes it work. The album plays around with the idea that this is the band’s definitive artistic statement. Its cover art references OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, another overlong album from an Atlanta-based rap group whose seams were starting to show. But even though Swae Lee, the André 3000 of his group, has moved into the messy-growth phase of his artistic life, he’s still rooted in the endorphin-rush sound of those first few hits. They’ve made sure their solo-artist statements still sound like Rae Sremmurd records.
Now: Three Rae Sremmurd albums is too many Rae Sremmurd albums. When the project was first announced, I was reasonably certain that it would never happen, that cooler heads would prevail. It seemed obvious that a two-hour block of Sremmurd tracks would be too much for anyone. And it is. I can get through all of Sr3mm in one sitting, but not without my brain starting to wander. Not all of these songs need to be here. Still, Rae Sremmurd had the discipline, and the love of symmetry, to keep Sr3mm shorter than Culture II, the similarly overblown album that Migos released a couple of months ago. And where the acute uniformity of Culture II kept that Migos album feeling like a chore, the basic idea behind Sr3mm keeps it a lot more interesting.
If I had to guess, I’d say that the album came from Swae Lee’s desire to explore his own sound while still staying rooted in his group, with his brother. It’s a novel approach to what happens when a rap duo hits the inevitable stage where one rapper suddenly seems a lot more famous than the other. Consider: Everything great about French Montana’s massive hit “Unforgettable” came directly from Swae; French was an afterthought on his own song. If Swae is generating hits for other rappers, singing in that airy, weirdly melodically inventive falsetto of his, then it follows that he’d want to do the same for himself.
Still, Swaecation, the third of the album dedicated to Swae solo tracks, is easily the least interesting stretch. On other people’s tracks, that voice feels like a light gust of cool wind. But on his own, forced to carry the album himself, Swae merely comes off as a Muppet Babies version of the Weeknd, or like a Post Malone who isn’t ostentatiously white, his robotized voice evaporating over those Afrobeats-accented tracks. But even though Swaecation never grabs me, it remains pleasant. It passes over like a shimmering cloud, only leaving a few traces of vapor and a fleeting feeling of refreshment.
But it’s Slim Jxmmi, the less-famous half of the group, who turns out to be the real surprise. Jxmmi isn’t a monster rapper or anything; within the context of Rae Sremmurd, he’s always been just as capably fired-up as Swae, just without the sneaky melodic sophistication. I can’t say that Jxmtro, Jxmmi’s solo third of the album, is a revelation, but it’s definitely a welcome eyebrow-raiser. Jxmmi keeps things low-stakes, hitting hook after hook and making sure his boasts are attainably relatable: “I’ma go fuck with the strippers tonight,” “Rich nigga, still eat Ramen.” The result is a much more low-key version of the Speakerboxxx/The Love Below situation — the one where the less-heralded member of the group stays within his lane and thrives, while his wilder partner tries shooting off in different directions and overextends himself. (By now, we’re all in agreement that The Love Below sucks, right?)
Of course, things still work best when the two rappers are together, Jxmmi’s hoarse bark offsetting Swae’s silky drawl, the chemistry jumping out of the speakers. The part of the album where the two rappers are together is simply called Sr3mmM, so it’s tempting to see that as the real album and Swaecation and Jxmtro simply as bonus-disc add-ons. On a song like “Close,” it becomes pretty apparent that Swae can try out all his high-singing ideas within the context of the group while keeping things brisk and exciting. Sr3mm also continues the group’s evolution, with the beats, from Mike Will and his associates, getting deeper and stranger with their minor-key synth hooks and off-kilter drum programming.
The album’s guests get great moments, too. Future, on “Buckets,” is scratchy and intense, his thousand-yard-stare nihilism all the darker when he’s surrounded by the brightness of the Sremmurd kids. Young Thug, on “Offshore,” gets a couple of minutes to outclass Swae at his own wispy-crooning game and to passionately coo about slapping Donald Trump in his motherfucking face. On “Anti-Social Smokers Club,” Zoë Kravitz shows a whole lot of swagger and snap, making a way more charismatic rapper than anyone could’ve guessed. It’s immediately the greatest-ever performance from a Kravitz on an event-rap album, easily outclassing the moment that Lenny Kravitz rhymed “guns and roses” with “friends and foe-ses” on The Blueprint 2.
Sr3mm still stands as a misguided experiment, a too-long indulgence from a group that thrives on concision and immediacy. And right now, it’s not doing particularly well, with the way-less-hyped new Leon Bridges album outselling it. (That would be way more damning if SremmLife 2 hadn’t started out looking like a flop, too, before “Black Beatles” caught on.) And it’s being a bit swallowed up in all the blockbuster stories erupting around it — Kanye West’s demented Trump embrace, Donald Glover’s final-form emergence, the big Drake and J. Cole and Post Malone albums all coming out around the same time. Still, the end result is better than anyone could’ve hoped — a collection of fun, breezy, low-impact rap songs that, even at an hour and 41 minutes, never quite outstays its welcome. In its own way, that’s an underdog triumph, too.
1. Valee – “Womp Womp” (Feat. Jeremih)
The catchiest piece of horny silliness I’ve heard in ages. Valee raps like a very fancy young English princeling who has converted his ancestral palace into an Atlanta strip club. Jeremih raps like Valee. The beat sounds like a slinky. Everybody wins. (Also, the very idea of bagging anyone at a Walmart is just impressive. Walmarts are miserable!)
2. BlocBoy JB – “No Chorus Pt. 11″
BlocBoy’s Simi mixtape is destined to be one of the year’s most overlooked rap records, but goddam is it fun. The latest installment in BlocBoy’s neverending “No Chorus” series is exactly the kind of thing that might make you want to do the “Shoot” dance down an entire city block, as BlocBoy does in the video.
3. Playboi Carti – “Love Hurts” (Feat. Travis Scott)
I would like to crawl inside this beat, roll out a sleeping bag, and just live inside there for a couple of days. Carti and Scott aren’t great rappers, exactly, but they are fucking amazing at ad-libs. Those background whoaaas hit me right in the soul.
4. OMB Peezy – “Soulja Life Mentality”
Peezy already had that Boosie-esque forceful nasality in his voice. And now he’s got a sense of purpose to match. “They throw me down in handcuffs cuz I wouldn’t pull my pants up.”
5. Daz Dillinger – “True To The Game Pt. 2″
It’s not going to solve anything or heal anything, and it’s even a bit more simplistic than the situation demands. But there is still something so primally cathartic in hearing a West Coast rap relic hijacking an old Ice Cube beat and going all the way in on Kanye West.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
This looks like a rap beef that went to arbitration pic.twitter.com/QtYZ1FOohx
— Arkansas Fred (@ArkansasFred) May 4, 2018