J. Cole – “2014 Forest Hills Drive”

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “Fire Squad” “No Role Modelz”

J. Cole wrote “magnum opus” all over this album. This is the album he envisioned as leaving his mark on rap, his childhood-based album, his “Here’s what New York is like” album. It’s not that, but it’s at least a solid release, largely devoid of some of his clunky lyrics of the past.

Defense seems to be the strategy on “2014 Forest Hills Drive.” It’s J. Cole’s album to lose. This is probably the most apparent in the lack of credited guests. He dominates every song, and although other voices do drop in, they’re uncredited and not the big names you’d expect. The album’s overarching theme is childhood and youth, as earlier this year J. Cole bought the house he grew up in, after it was foreclosed on in 2003. He defends this, he defends New York City, he defends his own position in rap. But the most effective is his defense of race, one of the few areas where J. Cole has been distinguished as of late. He gives a Ferguson mention on the sprawling finale, “Note to Self,” reminiscent of him being one of the first entertainers to make a visit to the town. On “Fire Squad,” he raps about white people taking over rock and rap, and how he’ll try to crack a smile when Iggy wins big at the Grammy’s. And on “No Role Modelz,” he raps, “I came fast like 911 in a white neighborhood.” At the album’s best, it’s provocative and button-pushing, a step forward for someone still looking for his place, and certainly forgiveness for Nas.

At the album’s worst, though, it falls into blander hip-hop lyrics and beats. “A Tale of Two Citiez” is particularly clunky song, just a self-serving boastful sex song. There are others on the album, and even better tracks like “Fire Squad” fall victim to some cliche moments. The album doesn’t do enough to bring in some cliche elements into other more, progressive ideas. Most of the album has surprisingly melodic and dense music, but trashy lyrics don’t always fit against them, and it gets jarring. J. Cole’s clearly working on tightening up his ideas and sound, and he’s not there yet, so an album of this stature may have jumped the gun.

“2014 Forest Hills Drive” isn’t going to be remembered as being on the same level as the albums that inspired it. It has some worthy songs, some piercing lyrics and a lot of great music (even the intro has compelling music behind it), but it’s all a little too messy so far. J. Cole doesn’t have the experience to pull this album off yet – just listen to “Note to Self,” the nearly 15-minute, improvised finale, where he namedrops everyone who helped make the album, and continuously tells the listener they don’t need to sit through the credits. It’s a big idea – challenging the listener to keep going. But, it’s also supposed to be fun, and we’re not in on it. J. Cole is coming towards mastering the formula, but it hasn’t quite all come together yet. Challenging me to go on was bold; I gave it a few minutes before I stopped.

-By Andrew McNally

Tinashe – “Aquarius”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Bet” “2 On” “Bated Breath”

There are a number of goals an artist has to have going into a debut album, but maybe the most important is signifying your sound and immediately making it your own. Tinashe does this and more, with her hip-hop/R&B blend and smart lyrics coming together in one of the year’s biggest surprises.

“Aquarius” doesn’t subscribe to any genres. This is growing typical of the hybrid R&B/hip-hop genre that is melting together and becoming it’s own being, but this album is especially inclusive. Tinashe comes out of the gate brimming with confidence, knowing she can pull off any of the ideas that come up. And she does – from sultry R&B, to smooth vocal ballads to a straight DJ Mustard track (“2 On,” which you’ve heard a million times, but it still hasn’t gotten worn out). By the end of the second track, Tinashe has already established herself as a unique voice, unafraid to try things unheard of in older R&B.

That second track, “Bet,” firmly establishes the album’s foundation. The song, distinctly R&B, is also a collaboration with Blood Orange and ends with a very lengthy, ambient guitar solo. It’s the album’s second-longest track, and it takes its sweet time. The song announces for the album that Tinashe is in total control, flowing through different styles and dominating every track. Her vocals are strong and engaging, traditionally sultry in an untraditional format. “Bated Breath” is the album’s best vocal song (and the actual longest track), a seductive ballad in the album’s final act with Tinashe’s voice soaring over the music, and one that stops on a dime halfway through and re-crescendos with an engrossing coda. Compare this with the straight hip-hop of “2 On,” and you get a well-rounded singer. Her lyrics, too, are often smart and occasionally conceptual and subversive. The most notable track is “Pretend,” about trying your hardest to ignore problems in a relationship, even for a minute. A$ap Rocky drops in for a verse, as her deadbeat boyfriend. A$ap Rocky, Future and Schoolboy Q all contribute excellent verses on the album, and are all shown up by Tinashe.

Musically, Tinashe takes as many liberties as she does vocally. The album is mostly slow-moving, melodic and low-key R&B with club beats and ambient rhythms. But it is peppered with guitar, piano, and volume. Each track is it’s own entity, and they’re nearly all distinguishable from each other. “Pretend” excels on an unexpected, minimalistic beat that’s closer to a home recording than it is a radio cut. The album is also divided into pieces, split by five interludes and an outro. Most are little more than minute-long tracks serving to shake up the flow, although the interlude titled “Indigo Child” is itself a rather experimental and slightly haunting track, one that hits the album’s loudest volume.

The album’s only real fault is a slightly bloated running-time of 55:43. Its eighteen tracks do include the six interludes, so it is less daunting than it looks, but it does sag a bit in the midsection. It could do without a few tracks; it could stand to be a little tighter. Still, as it stands, “Aquarius” might be the year’s best debut, and is certainly one of the best hip-hop albums. In a world filled with young TV personalities trying to shed their former status and make it in music – namely Miley and Ariana Grande – Tinashe has quickly emerged as one of the stars (Tinashe, only 21, was known previously not for music but for roles in “The Polar Express” and “Two and a Half Men”). “Aquarius” is an instantly enjoyable and thorough album, one that doesn’t demand multiple listens, but slyly convinces them instead. Tinashe is in total control on her debut, and it’s relentless fun.

-By Andrew McNally

Wiz Khalifa – “Blacc Hollywood”

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Promises” “Stayin Out All Night”

The best hip-hop albums are either wide-ranging, embracing different emotions and musical styles (“Beyonce”), or are directly consistent, pulling all of their material from the personae of the people behind it (“Straight Outta Compton”). “Blacc Hollywood” is neither of these, and it isn’t a great hip-hop album because of it. Rather, “Blacc Hollywood” starts with a call, a semi-political, semi-social trumpeting of the new ‘Blacc Hollywood,’ before quickly diverging into inconsistent weed songs and rough-childhood ballads. “Blacc Hollywood” wants desperately to have a point, but it never does.

The biggest fault with “Blacc Hollywood” is the lack of any flow. Khalifa tries to embrace different influences with the pairing of ballad “Promises” and weed song “KK” close to the beginning, but it only comes off as two disagreeing songs that don’t fit at all. It isn’t laziness – it’s ambition and ideas, without knowing how to execute them. The ideas on “Blacc Hollywood” compete rather than complement. “House in the Hills,” a ballad about not wanting to raise his son in the world he was raised in, doesn’t sound complete with the vain club banger “We Dem Boyz” popping up three songs earlier. This early disconnect faults the album’s second half, which is more consistent but less noticeable.

Indeed, Khalifa’s writing on this album isn’t that remarkable. “We Dem Boyz” has been getting airplay since it’s release in February, but there’s really nothing to the song. It’s a glorified chorus with little change for 3:45. His personal songs are honest and gut-punching, but the others are often too predictable (look no further than “Ass Drop”). Later album track “Stayin Out All Night” is helped by a huge, fuzzy, banging beat, but it’s in the middle of a string of forgettable songs.

Some guest spots do help the album – Ty Dolla $ign shows up on two different tracks, as do fellow Taylor Gang rappers Juicy J, Chevy Woods and Project Pat. Curren$y shows up on the honest “House in the Hills,” and Nicki Minaj drops a spot on the largely excellent closer, “True Colors.” (Unfortunately, a proposed collaboration with Adele was never more than an idea – how weird would that be? Bring new meaning to “Rolling in the Deep”).

So “Blacc Hollywood” isn’t Khalifa at his best. He’s more treading water – fueling a fanbase with self-serving bangers and ballads without offering anything great or consistent. It doesn’t come to a point, and it doesn’t flow like a hip-hop album should. Khalifa sounds fine on his own, but there isn’t anything noteworthy going on around him. As confused as it is average, “Blacc Hollywood” deserves a spin or two at a house party, but little more than that.

-By Andrew McNally

Future – “Honest”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “My Momma” “Benz Friendz (Whatchutola)”

Future’s second album isn’t entirely filled with winners, but it’s certainly unpredictable. Future, aka Nayvadius Cash, uses some brooding and synthy music to create a dark atmosphere around his music. But at the same time, it’s rhythmic and full of catchy hip-hop beats and occasional meaty samples. It matches the lyrics, which alternate between dirty and explicit to nods to personal struggles.

“Honest” could almost be described as “moody,” because of it’s seemingly inherent dark nature, but the title wouldn’t be right. The album is deceiving. Although it has many honest moments (hence the title), Future creates a unique and well-rounded atmosphere, one that’s human, with qualities both good and bad. The music’s dark but palpable nature not only reflects that, but it’s consistent throughout the album.

Future’s rapping remains the best part of his music, often frantic and unpredictable. He has a knack for dropping words in at select moments and creating his own vocal rhythms alternate to the music. It contributes to the trippy feel, with sometimes competing rhythms. Lyrically, Future is in complete control. He switches from explicit, like on opener “Look Ahead,” and on single “Move That Dope,” to tales of divorce settlements and upbringings (the affecting “I Won” and the personal “My Momma”).

He also has some A-list guest stars, who drop in for some inconsistent but sometimes great spots – Andre 3000 drops in on one the album’s best songs, “Benz Friends (Whatchutola),” and Wiz Khalifa guests on one of the most honest songs, “My Momma.” Drake and Kanye both show up, the former providing a memorable but short spot on an interlude, the latter contributing the album’s deepest story, “I Won.” Elsewhere, Pharrell, Casino and Pusha T are largely wasted on the overlong and tepid “Move That Dope,” but even securing their spots cements Future’s stance in the future of hip-hop. The only time the album sags is it’s midpoint, with a couple straight songs without guest spots, but it’s saved by the rich solo track “Covered in Money” and the collaboration with Andre 3000.

*One small issue I want to address with the album is that “Look Ahead” samples Amadou & Mariam’s “Dougou Badia,” and the duo seems to be getting no credit for their sample. I usually don’t pick up on things like this, but the sample is used as the whole basis of the song. They might have chosen not to get credit, I have no idea, I just want to put credit where credit is due because I defend Amadou & Mariam at all costs. Otherwise, “Honest” is a great album that creates a whole world without getting stuck in it, and helps to prove that Future’s name is well-chosen – he seems to be ahead of everyone else right now.

-By Andrew McNally

Iggy Azalea – “The New Classic”

(Photo Credit: NME)

Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Walk the Line” “Fuck Love”

So let’s get this out of the way: it’s tough to tell who Iggy Azalea is, and who she’s trying to be. The white, Australian-born young woman channels Southern and Western American hip-hop in her music. Azalea has, for a while, been attempting to adopt a heavy rap persona. But it often feels forced, as it should for a persona whose very basis is this questionable.

“The New Classic” is not a consistent album. Opener “Walk the Line” is almost a call to arms, with Azalea’s vigorous and incendiary rapping. But it’s a momentum that isn’t kept up. A majority of the album is hybrid trap music and dance-pop, often midtempo tracks that range from great to dull. “New Bitch” has a surprisingly personal and reflective rhythm, even if the lyrics don’t match. But it’s followed by “Work,” a song very similar in tone but frustratingly less interesting. “Fuck Love” is an ending as intense as the opener, serving as strong bookends for the album, but what’s in between is wildly inconsistent.

Azalea is a talented rapper, accurately channeling her southern influences. Usually she’s forceful and dominating, but she’s introspective when she needs to be. It usually fits the music, which defies genres on some songs. “Fancy,” with Charli XCX, is almost a straight dance-pop song, where tracks like “Change Your Life” (with T.I.), is a cross between trap music and traditional hip-hop. “Goddess” is a straightforward song, but one that builds to an unexpectedly big climax.

But these crossovers don’t really fit with each other, and these better songs are bogged down with some overlong songs and some tepid ideas. The album’s inconsistency is it’s biggest fault, and one that keeps it from living up to it’s title. And knowing Azalea’s past and her attempted image, it doesn’t feel real, even if it occasionally sounds like it should. “The New Classic” marks Azalea as a talented force in hip-hop, but it also questions what exactly her placement should be.

-By Andrew McNally

Supastition – “Honest Living EP”

(Photo Credit: bandcamp)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Honest Living” “Two Weeks Notice”

One of the criticisms of hip-hop that’s arisen over the past couple years is a disconnect with the audience. Drake said something recently – and accurately – about Jay-Z not being able to go four bars without referencing fine art. Jay-Z and Kanye may be at the top, but their tales of luxury and fine living have become off-putting. That’s what makes rappers like Supastition so important. “Honest Living” is dedicated to and directly inspired by the working class. The EP’s inspiration comes from North Carolina becoming the first state to eliminate federal unemployment benefits last year (come on, North Carolina, how evil do you have to be?). As the state’s economy crumbled further, Supastition himself was looking for work, documented in this release. “Honest Living” is a cohesive EP, about the pain felt through North Carolina and the discord felt between the comfortably rich and the poor that have been hurt by the state.

Although “Two Weeks Notice” starts with a a snarky bit of a businessman talking about golf, this EP isn’t exactly ‘angry,’ even though it easily could be. It instead has an aura of passive and informational aggression. Supastition wants to teach listeners, in a way that anger would not allow. He wants to teach listeners what it’s like “living in areas they won’t even deliver pizza to,” as he says in the song “Honest Living.” The EP retains a consistent, relaxed tone, even if the lyrics are thematically heavy and rightly emotional.

Rap that tells stories and has a serious sense of purpose like that on “Honest Living EP” is usually less focused on the skill and impressiveness of the rapper and more focused on the lyrics, but Supastition is an exceptional rapper. It might almost go unnoticed, with how important the lyrics themselves are. But he’s clear and concise, a no-frills artist. The EP’s producer, previous collaborator Croup, acts as the same. The EP is perfectly produced, filled with simple beats and no theatrics.

“Honest Living EP” is an inspired and honest work. There is no boasting, no violence, no NY vs. LA, and no Tom Ford namedrops. It is a vintage, down-to-earth release about economic struggles in North Carolina. Simple music for complex lyrics, and a cohesive EP from a man just trying to make a living. While there’s nothing wrong with big-shot hip-hop royalty, it’s so far removed from what rap used to be. “Honest Living EP” goes back to an old school sound, with lyrics of honest struggles.

The album can be streamed and downloaded for free on bandcamp, but doesn’t it deserve a few bucks?

-By Andrew McNally

Lakutis – “3 Seashells”

(Photo Credit: bandcamp)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “What the Fuck” “Too Ill For the Law”

Is “3 Seashells” a mixtape, or a debut album? It’s been billed as both. It’s the first full-length work dropped by Lakutis, and it has the cohesiveness of an album. But it has two >15 second skits, the longest track is only 3:06, and it was dropped on a Thursday mid-afternoon. So it’s both, or it’s neither, or it’s whatever it is. And that’s exactly what it should be.

This album/mixtape is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Lakutis. It’s short; not a single song overstays it’s welcome. And it’s diverse. Lakutis is known for being involved in Brooklyn’s Greedhead Records (started by Heems – Lakutis is on the Das Racist track “Booty in the Air”), but he’s in the hardcore scene too, and it comes through in the most subtle ways. Each song seems to have a rapidity to get to the end, like hardcore groups. And there’s a certain dark tone running throughout the album, especially towards the album’s second half.

This album’s (arguable) best song, “Too Ill For the Law,” was actually #6 on my subjective list of the best songs of 2013, one of the only four hip-hop songs (which also included kitty’s “R.R.E.A.M,” from her EP that he shows up on). For someone with so little material, Lakutis has the energy and confidence of a seasoned rapper. Throughout this album, Lakutis proves himself a better, more inventive and quicker rapper than nearly anyone out there today. “What the Fuck” directly channels old school rap, when it was just starting to get profane. “Black Swann” has more of a frightening vibe to it, pairing with the screaming at the end of “Skeleton”. And “Too Ill For the Law” has a verse done entirely in thirds. It’s a bold, bold verse, and it’s downright perfect.

“3 Seashells” has been awaited for quite some time, and Lakutis proves himself to be one of the most formidable underground rappers working today. The almost unassuming man formally known as Aleksey Weintraub might not seem like it, but whether it’s the simplest of rhymes or a complex triplets rhythm, Lakutis is simply one of the best out there right now. Get on it, people.

-By Andrew McNally

(Side note: I once had the pleasure of meeting Lakutis at a Heems show in a museum, but he looked like he was so turnt that he could barely see. Got on stage and did a perfect verse. What a hero).

Beyonce – “Beyonce”

(Photo Credit: thisisrnb)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Mine” “Flawless”

Long live the queen. Beyonce caused an internet explosion the other night by nonchalantly dropping sixteen new songs (and videos) on iTunes, with no promotion or even any announcements. How no one knew it was going to happen is still astounding. Magazines and websites have taken down their year-end lists and re-tooled them accordingly. She is in no way the first to do it, Death Grips did the exact same just a few weeks back (also with video – and there’s was free), but this album is different. Its lack of a title and unannounced release back up the album’s theme of self-confidence and self-realization. At sixteen songs and a few minutes past an hour, it doesn’t always keep the listener interested, but it’s diverse sonically and consistent thematically.

This album is a little tough to classify. It’s pop, it’s R&B, it’s hip-hop. But unlike most genre-mixes like this, “Beyonce” has a mission statement, bringing lessons about mixing fun and family with a feminist touch. Beyonce has been married since ’08, and she sings a message about being independent within a marriage. There’s tracks about partying, tracks about a strong, independent composure and still, on “Drunk On Love,” lines about remedial marriage chores like doing the dishes. “Beyonce” is devoted to teaching feminism as an internal motivator, teaching that it is as much about self-confidence as it is equality. The album’s lyrics don’t always hold up, but when she is upfront (especially in the album’s latter half), they’re very strong.

There’s only five guest spots across sixteen songs on the album, cementing the album as a Beyonce effort – she’s front and center (as if we were unsure of it at all). Frank Ocean’s majestic talent is again wasted in a meaningless role, as it was on John Mayer’s recent album. But Drake shines in the very respectful song “Mine,” where he takes both a rhythmic background and a strong forefront in his verses. The other three guest spots hardly constitute as “guest spots” – Jay-Z gets a verse in “Drunk On Love,” as song about their marriage, Blue Ivy Carter’s voice is mysteriously droned in a finale song about Blue Ivy Carter, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gets sampled reading her poem, “We Should All Be Feminists” on “Flawless.”

So Beyonce establishes herself as the queen we already saw her is. The promotion works, the well-placed guest spots work, and her lyrical narrative is largely strong. Is the music actually good? Yes. Of course it is. Bey raps on “Drunk On Love,” and raps well. She boasts “I sneezed on a beat and the beat got sicker” on “Yonce.” She’s alternately sweet, on “Superpower,” booming on “Rocket,” pained on “No Angel,” and funky on the Pharrell-produced “Blow.” In other words, she’s human. She has a bunch of inconsistent and complementing emotions, that come through in a set of consistent beliefs. She believes in herself; she believes in all of us. “Beyonce” isn’t so much an album as it is a reflection of Beyonce as a person. Which is probably why the nameless album has been dubbed “Beyonce.” In a world filled with celebrity feuds, drama and boasts, Beyonce and Jay-Z have established themselves as the power couple – rich, powerful, respectfully boastful, and talented, while remaining focused on family and marriage. But Jay-Z’s 2013 contribution was a forgettable release, while “Beyonce” is not. It’s doubtful that they’re competing at all, but if they are, then Beyonce is winning.

-By Andrew McNally

Childish Gambino – “Because the Internet”

(Photo Credit: hiphopwired)

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “I. the worst guys” “IV. sweatpants”

I’ll be upfront and say that I’ve never really gotten onboard with Childish Gambino. “You See Me” is one of my favorite hip-hop songs ever, but I find most of his other work a mix of tepid and unbelievable. Gambino is the alter ego of Donald Glover – Community’s Troy Barnes, founding member of Derrick Comedy and writer of 30 Rock’s classic “Funcooker” episode. Glover will always be Barnes to me – the endearingly naive manchild/football star. But Childish Gambino is more than a Wu Tang-generated name, it’s a whole persona. Gambino is moody and stubborn on this album, and it’s impossible to tell if it is sincerely reflecting Glover, or if it just fits into a crazy narrative.

The album is split into five parts, although the first two don’t really have any strong narrative structure. Each song is prefaced by Roman numerals, restarting at each section, which gets confusing. The first section is just two seemingly unrelated songs, “crawl” and “WORLDSTAR.” The former is dull, and the latter features some incredibly lazy rapping. The second section also seems to have no arc, although features some of the better songs (including my two key tracks, the first of which features Chance the Rapper). The third bit is a concise and slightly disturbing look at regretting throwing a party and wanting everyone to leave. It’s a cold and alienating bit, in both good and bad ways. Finally, the last two bits are much longer and more experimental, dishing out on the ironic alienation of the internet. It’s the most concise and interesting part, although it does feature a lot of clunky internet lingo like “GPOY” pretty frequently. Still, the tone of the last few songs is hauntingly engaging.

Gambino is a product of the internet age. He released the album online and promoted it online, as many others are doing. Wikipedia’s entry for the album even has the cover as a .gif instead of a .jpg. The messages about how the internet is becoming our universal language are all true and convincing, especially coming from someone of the right age. Without the original online Derrick Comedy sketches, he would’ve never been noticed by 30 Rock in the first place. The album just feels inconsistent. At points, Gambino’s rapping is urgent and frustrated, at other points it’s sluggish and too apathetic. The ideas and the experimentation are largely successful, and this ranks as one of the more original releases of the year. It just feels forced coming from the man who uttered the phrase “It touched my butt’s mouth” in the Community season 5 trailer that came out one week later. “Because the Internet” is a zeitgeist for my generation, about the headlong dive into the technological era. But it’s less experimental than Kanye’s “Yeezus,” less moody than Earl Sweatshirt’s “Doris,” and less online based than Death Grips’ “Government Plates.” Had those albums not come out within the last few months, “Because the Internet” might be a more important release. Surely, though, Glover will be back before we know it. I’ll be glued to my TV when Community comes back on.

If you like this, try: Earl Sweatshirt’s “Doris.” Though not one of the most memorable rap releases of the year, it’s one of the most consistent, and a deep look into a disturbed man.

-By Andrew McNally

Death Grips – “Government Plates”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “You might think he loves you for your money but I know what he really loves you for it’s your brand new leopard skin pillbox hat”  “Birds”

Let me say that I was one of the many people complaining that last year’s album “The Money Store” felt too conventional. Sure, it had some of the best songs the band has recorded, and it still felt like genuine Death Grips, but there was that worry that signing to a major label had influenced the band to gravitate towards more radio-friendly hip-hop. Well, we were proven wrong later that year by “No Love Deep Web,” as the band leaked the album online just to spite EMI (and the famously explicit cover image). Well “Government Plates” is the most experimental album they’ve done yet – but it goes in the other direction. For the first time, MC Ride and Zach Hill take a back seat to Flatlander. The music is the focus on this album, and while it’s still urgent and shocking, it doesn’t exactly feel necessary.

My favorite Death Grips song is “Blood Creepin’,” the last song on their original (and perfect) mixtape “Ex-Military,” pretty much because it’s their loudest song. MC Ride’s scream-rapping over Flatlander’s alternately pretty and distorted synth is just a pure assault on the ears. There’s no assaulting on this album. MC Ride is barely present on some songs. It’s all about the experimentation, and Flatlander does a decent job staying abrasive without ever treading into EDM or anything, but the band could’ve pushed a little farther. The opener, whose title is taken from Bob Dylan’s “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat” is so drenched in a synth rhythm that it’s impossible not to dance, with your mouth on the floor. But the next song, “Anne Bonny,” just doesn’t live up. For the first time, the album feels centered around a few songs instead of a cohesive effort. The pre-released “Birds” is certainly a stand out, subtle but the most experimental song on the album. And they end strong, with the winding “Whatever I Want (F**k Who’s Watching).” But the songs in between should be better. They’re never bad – they’re just sort of there.

The best example of how different this album is would be the song “Big House.” The song starts with a loopy, 80’s synth rhythm. Despite being under two and a half minutes, MC Ride doesn’t show up until the :52 mark. There’s a lot more music on this album, as the group further continues to question what it means to be a hip-hop band. It was inevitable that they would investigate the other side of the spectrum. MC Ride and Zach Hill being less of a presence on this album feels very intentional, because it’s just as challenging as anything they’ve done before. While it’s not challenging on the ears, it shakes the very foundations of hip-hop by having the frontman often take a backseat, and to have songs drop senses of rhythm for experimentation.

That said, I’m really not on board with the lack of Zach Hill on this album. He’s barely present. He’s easily one of the best drummers working today, and he could’ve done some very original work on this album, but there’s so little percussion.

It has yet to be announced if this is an actual Death Grips album or if this is the soundtrack they’ve allegedly been working on for Zach Hill’s film. Frankly, it could go either way. It almost feels like a soundtrack – it’s got a slight disconnect amongst the songs, with a strong beginning and end – but it’s a good listen no matter which it is. I can’t say Death Grips fans will love it on first listen, and I didn’t. But it might grow after some revisits. It’s just as different as everything they’ve done prior to now – they’re making the same statements. It isn’t quite as enjoyable, but it’s certainly not bad. They’re not songs you’ll be singing to yourself, they’re not songs that EMI would approve of, and they’re head-scratchers. And really, that what Death Grips is striving to be. The album doesn’t play out like it hopes to, and it’s more unmemorable than memorable. It’s still Death Grips, though, and by this point, I don’t think I could live without them.