Tee Grizzley – “Activated”

Tee Grizzley’s debut album “Activated” is a near perfect, lifestyle album. Over the course of an hour, divided into 18 tracks, Grizzley provides a well-crafted album of G shit. He celebrates his newfound riches, reflects on his life before the success, and displays the pure ambition of an up and comer carving out a space for himself. For those not familiar with his sound, Tee is known for Midwestern/Southern drum kits, resounding bass kicks and piano key melodies, arranged together into hard hitting, bounce tracks or smooth, walking pace songs. Tee Grizzley makes “Activated” shine by taking this regional sound and applying universal appeal to it.

The appeal is Tee’s story, Grizzley himself. “Activated” listens like the story from a guest speaker, as well as one of his journal entries. Songs like I remember and Time are the obvious journal entries, reliving and processing a past life of poverty and incarceration. Bag is when Tee becomes a public speaker, telling the listener to continue their grind because victory is sweeter after struggle.

While the troubled part of his history makes appearances, it is balanced by the other lighthearted tracks. 2 Vaults and Jettski Grizzley are two of my favorite bangers. The first is a dark ode to being player, and the second is a vibrant ode to being player. When he doesn’t include features, Tee carries songs with his own flow, using quick, aggressive delivery for verses and autotune for choruses. On “Activated,” Tee shows true talent: making diverse solo tracks and standing on his own with features.

“Activated” is a regional-sounding album through and through, but his lyrics and production elevate it to nationwide appeal. The effect is an album that’s simultaneously personal and expositional, familiar and novel. “Activated” is one of the best albums of its sound, so it may not be everyone’s taste, but it’s a great kickoff for his album discography, and a great introduction to Tee Grizzley.

Childish Gambino – This Is America

“Wow.”

That’s what I said after watching Childish Gambino’s new music video: This Is America.

I first listened to the song on Spotify, and honestly, I thought it was just ok. Unfortunately, I believe it’s not meant to be heard that way; it’s only complete when listened to while watching the video.

Taken together, This Is America is a critique of our social and political environments. The lyrics in the song contrast wildly with the urgency felt after the depictions of violence and chaos. In the song, the lyrics are represented as being sung by us. We are Childish Gambino as he sings, dances and parties in a world falling apart.

However, the lyrics are so focused on nothing but adlibs and materialism that it becomes apparent we aren’t using music only for a chance to catch our breath, but we are avoiding reality, passively becoming part of the problem.

Furthermore, the video only has two images of innocence and refuge: the first is of the man who plays the guitar when you first hear it, and the second is of the choir as the camera pans over them. In both scenes, they are shot in cold blood, then followed by the refrain: This is America.

Childish Gambino is telling America that it doesn’t allow innocence and knowledge, man and nature to live in harmony. * In its place, a capitalistic message is offered as comfort and justification: get your money.

I believe This Is America is a frustration with this culture. It pushes us into one way of being, disallowing us to express ourselves in different ways. Per the video, America is about survival, and we cannot be anything other than violent and greedy.

Sadly, Gambino cannot save us. The end of the video shows him running from either 1) the mob of people chasing him or 2) they are all running from an unseen threat. As you can see, Gambino leaves us in the dark as to what brought us to the current state we are in. However, we do know what we are, and if we don’t like what we see in the mirror, the chaos and violence surrounding us, then it’s time to cut the adlibs off, and extend your hand to your neighbor.

Childish Gambino is not a rapper, or an artist I know well, but I look forward to seeing and hearing what he fuses into his next, and last album.

Rae Sremmurd – “SR3MM, Swaecation, JXMTRO”

After the release of Migos’ Culture II, I read an article about its “absurdly” long playtime. Per the article, album sales are a traditional way recording artists earn money, but streaming has completely altered that avenue. In response, “the industry” has said that 1500 streams of any song/s equate to one album sale. Therefore, if you listen to Stir Fry 1500 times, that’s one album sale for Migos. The article says a long track list, like Culture II’s 24 tracks, is only an attempt to provide singles capable of meeting the 15-stream threshold. They say this approach denies the fans of artistic vision, instead giving them trends.

On paper, Rae Sremmurd’s third album, SR3MM, looks like it might be the same thing. It’s a triple disc album: SR3MM is the duo Rae Sremmurd, JXMTRO is Slim Jxmmi’s solo debut, and Swaecation is Swae Lee’s solo debut. The totality of this project is 27 tracks at a playtime of 1 hr 41 min, and that’s where the similarities to Culture II ends.

Each disc is only 9 tracks long, and the playtime of 100 minutes equates into 30 minutes per disc. That is very accessible, very digestible, and very smart. It reduces the fatigue on the listener, and lets each artist, Rae Sremmurd, Slim Jxmmi, and Swae Lee, focus on their projects and their sound.

Firstly, Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee couldn’t have more opposed sounds. For JXMTRO, Slim Jxmmi adopted the southern rap vibe. It’s a solid body of work, and Jxmmi sounds natural here. Business as usual is young boy swag with grown man pressures, trap beats and street wisdom. Mike WiLL Made it produced a majority of this disc, and Slim Jxmmi effortlessly fuses into the beats.

For Swaecation, Swae Lee chose a melodic vibe. His production choices are funk infused, ambient environments that work well with his use of auto tune. Swae gives us an assortment of songs here: Guatemala is a club banger, Heartbreak In Encino Hills is what you’d play laid up with someone, and What’s In Your Heart is alternative R&B.

Lastly, as a duo on SR3MM, the two sides come together. Swae Lee raps, and Slim Jxmmi sing-songs. After hearing their solo albums, the talent of mixing the two forces becomes apparent. Rae Sremmurd is potent because each member has their own wave, and each is made sharper by the other. Since hitting the scene with Mike WiLL in 2013, Rae Sremmurd has been a staple in hip-hop, and SR3MM solidifies their place. Now, with the release of their respective solo albums, Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee expand their territory. They’ve become a cornerstone of hip-hop for right now, and some time to come.

Halsey – Alone (Calvin Harris remix)

What I imagine boiling inside of me while listening to this song is hot, crashing waves, simultaneously yellow and blue, coming together and building pressure in a container too small to hold it all. The pressure finally bursts the container, and all you see of this violent rupture is a mad man who’s lost in the music, dancing it all away.

For people like me, the arid victory of principles over instincts creates the need for collective jubilation, for fiestas, for parties. The rules we live by are inherited, but when we party, we ourselves create the rules for the night. People like me are eccentrics. For one reason or another, we break away from society; sometimes to show individuality, sometimes to form tighter groups.

Sometimes I forget the mission we all have is: “to assure an operation of an order in which knowledge and innocence, man and nature are in harmony,” or something like that. This is usually during the day, when the rat race pits us against each other. But during the evening hours of a party, we “get drunk together, trade confidences, weep over the same troubles, discover that [we] are brothers….”

The case for celebrations and parties is a case for unity, individual or collective.  That’s a major component of what Huskii Boi is about. And all of this comes to mind when I listen to this song.

Saba- “CARE FOR ME”

What do you think it means when Saba says: “I don’t tell the truth so ya’ll will feel sorry for me, I don’t write this shit so ya’ll will feel God comin’, I don’t get down like that”? It reminds me of another set of lyrics from another artist, and I think this is what it means: “I give a damn if any fan recall my legacy, I’m tryna live life in the sight of God’s memory.” What I think Saba means is something isn’t being done for fame or rewards; something is being done because it fulfills a higher purpose. CARE FOR ME, the fourth album by Saba, is that kind of something.

CARE FOR ME is a heavy, very poetic listen. See, this album is dedicated to his late cousin, and Saba is actually, factually, lyrically gifted. On this album, Saba manages to speak to, about, and through his cousin, about life before and after his death. The higher purpose alluded to at the beginning of this review is closure on a life taken too soon, and growing older, without going crazy, despite a history like this.

Perhaps suggested by the grey tones on the album cover, CARE FOR ME is life as Saba sees it. He’s as honest as black and white. Every song is about something that’s happened in his life, his take on things, and you find him being vulnerable, but it doesn’t suggest weakness. Whether he’s talking about love in the social media age (a recurring theme in the hip-hop game), the honesty artists compromise, or the story of him and his late cousin, Saba is honest to himself, first and foremost.

It’s not all a personal affair, however. Keeping pace with the generation’s need to rage and mosh, “LIFE”, is a short, intense song about life in the crosshairs. Whether it be street beef, institutional prejudice or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, “LIFE” fills you up with so much energy to fight back you’ll be surprised that you ever thought you could disappear in the first place.

What effect does CARE FOR ME leave you with? On the penultimate song PROM / KING, Saba talks about the start of the friendship between he and his cousin, how they came up together, and how he learned he’d passed. Saba tells you this story with all clarity, and with all sincerity, all without tripping over his vocals, being redundant or losing focus. It makes you ask: how does anyone who has lost someone retread that story? And why? Remember the opening lines, and realize he’s told us why: “I got tired of running away, everyone leavin’, I write’em away.”

Saba is finding light at the end of the tunnel and gearing up to give us more. On the ultimate track, I believe speaking as his late-cousin, Saba closes with this: “I promise ya’ll I’m not a ghost, look there’s heaven all around me.” Saba’s not ready to disappear, and I don’t think he should.

J. Cole – “KOD”

J. Cole’s new mixtape KOD is a great ‘tape. Sonically, he achieves meshing jazz into hip-hop, but it sometimes skews towards 2015’s “To Pimp A Butterfly.” Lyrically, KOD finds Cole lucid, and he explores a variety of flows here: triplet, sing-song, rapid fire, and old-school. In my opinion, this showcase makes him, and KOD, a champion hybrid of old school and new school.

J cole is young enough to hop on the new sounds, and sound natural. Sure, we can argue whether or not it’s his original wave, but he can still maneuver how he wants and be followed as heading towards the “next big thing.”

His nod to the old-school is his conscious effort to refine his hip-hop skills, lyricism and delivery. On the final track, he boasts: “I’ll be around forever cause my skills is tip top, to any amateur niggas that wanna get rocked, just remember what I told you when your shit flop, in five years you gon be on love and hip hop.” Unfortunately, he is one of the few who shows evidence of perfecting their craft.

Hip-hop is a chimera: industry and culture. The history of hip-hop includes cyphers, performances in which rappers take turns performing after another in an endless stream, and battles. Each of these, cyphers and battles, forces the rapper to have exceptional dexterity, and it’s this measure rappers should be held to. Style and substance don’t always go hand in hand, and some rappers make you compromise more than others.

Not J Cole. He can probably never be accused of slacking on a track. He can probably be found guilty of being holier than thou. KOD continues the trend of exceptional lyricism, and it evolves by not being self-righteous. This is best shown on the track FRIENDS. Here he talks about the emotional problems amongst his friends and the dangerous combination of childhood trauma and drug addiction. Then he speaks on it. However, he’s not talking to everyone doing it, just the ones he knows “This ain’t no trial if you desire go higher please, but fuck that now I’m older I love you cause you my friend, without the drugs I want you to be comfortable in your skin…and I done seen the combo take niggas off the deep end.” On the track before this he talks about witnessing his mother live with alcoholism. We understand that he simply doesn’t want to lose someone else to their demons.

I can’t get over how lucid KOD is. He’s not hyperactive or stretching truths. It’s a composed affair, offering glimpses into what is weighing on J Cole’s mind. He’s a rapper, chasing paper; a prophet, warning you of what’s to come; a peer, giving you music to ride to; J Cole, learning what he can change and what he has to live with.

Princess Nokia – “A Girl Cried Red”

One of the most interesting projects I’ve listened to this week has been Princess Nokia’s newest mixtape A Girl Cried Red. AppleMusic categorizes it as hip-hop/rap, and Spotify doesn’t list a genre. Truly, the lack of categorization is the most accurate description of A Girl Cried Red. The lyrics are introspective, emotional, and retrospective. This writing style is typical of rock music. Following up the rock leaning lyrics is the unorthodox production she’s chosen. Strumming guitars fill some tracks, and her chants are reminiscent of punk energy. What brings the sound back to hip-hop are the 808 drum kicks, and their pattern. How does this get categorized as hip-hop/rap?

First, a bit about Princess Nokia. She’s a 25-year-old rapper hailing from NYC, who also has a radio segment on AppleMusic called The Voices In My Head. She’s been releasing music since 2014 with her breakout project releasing in 2016, the mixtape 1992. Following critical acclaim, it was later expanded and rereleased as the album 1992 Deluxe. The image I had of Nokia following this project was of a tomboyish rapper who has flows for days and knows the classic NYC rap heritage. What I didn’t expect was the new direction within A Girl Cried Red.

I believe A Girl Cried Red is a new way to format hip-hop, a new way to use it. By adding sounds from rock, introspective lyrics, and energy from punk, hip-hop bends, but it doesn’t break. It allows the typically superficial genre to express her intimate personal thoughts. This is a big departure from the either-or dichotomy we currently have: either woke, “conscious” rap or shallow, materialistic rap. In this way, hip-hop becomes more than revolution and streams. In the hands of the creative, it’s an art form. A Girl Cried Red stands out amongst a field of triplet flows, ad-libs, and female rapper beef.

That leads me into the final thing I love surrounding this project. It seems to work within its own capacity. The promotion for it didn’t include boasts about being the best in the game or bringing anything new to the table. Suffice it to say, the music speaks for itself. All other conflict is unnecessary. This means A Girl Cried Red has life after the current trend has shifted since its existence isn’t purely a rejection of the current trends. This implies that the need for making this project was fulfilling an artistic vision, of giving fans a focused effort.

Princess Nokia has provided a sincere work, and in effect has created something people use to get through their days. She isn’t a mouthpiece for anyone else’s words, she doesn’t try to become your leader or do the most. This is a strong, humble mentality, and because she’s an artist, we see it manifested in original projects like A Girl Cried Red.