June 18th, 2013 was one of the most anticipated days for hip-hop fans in a long time. Three albums were to be released that day, and each came with huge expectations. From shortly past midnight on June 18th, people have been intensely debating the all-important question: which album is the best? After many close listens to each of the three albums, I’ve reached a final, definitive ranking.
Kanye West doesn’t make music for you, the ordinary, non-genius who has rational expectations and likes predictability. Kanye doesn’t settle into a comfort zone. Kanye just keeps pushing boundaries further and further, creating whatever it is that he wants to create, while still putting out some of the greatest music of this generation.
“Bound 2” and “Blood On The Leaves” are the two best songs of 2013 so far. They’re absolute masterpieces, on par with any great song Kanye’s made in his illustrious career. The old-school soul sampling and old-school Kanye rhyming on “Bound 2” is Kanye’s way of showing the world that he’s still able to make great songs that sound straight off of 2003’s College Dropout, but that he’s also come so much farther since then. Also, the random Charlie Wilson bridge in “Bound 2″ is amazing, because as The Gap Band and Snoop Dogg have proven, Charlie Wilson is always great. “Blood On The Leaves” is the manifestation of 808s Kanye, soul/piano sampling Kanye, and trap Kanye into a perfect union. Only Yeezy himself could combine “Strange Fruit” by Nina Simone and “R U Ready” by TNGHT into something so good.
“New Slaves” is Kanye at his angry activist best, and the fact that this song is so powerful even without any drums is a testament his great production. “Hold My Liquor” meshes the styles of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and drill superstar Chief Keef perfectly, and Kanye delivers a superb Keef-style hard, straightforward, one-basic-rhyme-throughout verse.
Those four tracks just mentioned are the only really GREAT tracks on the album. “On Sight”, “Black Skinhead”, and “Guilt Trip” are all merely very good, with “Guilt Trip” being the best of the three, as Kid Cudi miraculously didn’t ruin it even though his presence on the track wasn’t that necessary. I was disappointed that the album version of “Black Skinhead” was much more toned down than when Kanye performed it on Saturday Night Live, but this one’s still solid. “On Sight” was a cool opening track, and something that only Kanye could get away with.
Overall, all of the Daft Punk productions were a bit of a let down, including “I Am a God” which is in my opinion the worst song on the album. It baffled me that King L had the only full guest verse on the album and did the hook on “Send It Up”, and his lackluster effort combined with a bad Kanye verse made it a pretty bad song. Also not helping “Send It Up”: the atrocious Beenie Man sample. No song has ever needed more Beenie Man. Kanye has some great lines on “I’m In It” and Vernon kills it as always, but Agent Sasco/Assassin’s hyped-up, indiscernible screaming is too much for me to handle.
Yeezus is a damn good album, probably one of the best that’ll come out this year, but a 9.5 like Pitchfork gave it is probably too high. Yeezus definitely won the battle of June 18th, though.
For the last few years, I’ve heard many bros and biddies raving about this rapper Mac Miller. To put it kindly, I wasn’t a fan of his. My friends and I even titled our sort-of joke mixtape #blueslut4, satirizing how he sloppily announced the title of his debut album Blue Slide Park on YouTube. He really couldn’t rap well at all, he seemed unintelligent, and he looked content to settle in among the Asher Roths and Hoodie Allens in the awful frat-rap sphere. Besides the occasional song that had cool production, making it tolerable to listen to despite the subpar rapping (“Nikes On My Feet”, “Best Day Ever”), Miller’s output up through his first album, while commercially successful, wasn’t really anything to be taken artistically seriously.
But after going through and overcoming some drug problems and apparently realizing that he wanted more than to be a soulless frat-rap sensation, Miller stepped up his lyrical skills and artistic focus, brought in some of the best artists in hip-hop right now and made himself a really good album. When I first heard lead single “S.D.S.”, I was very surprised by how intricate his wordplay was, a huge step up from anything I’d ever heard from him before. “Let bygones be bygones, my mind strong as pythons/The day that I die on will turn me to an icon/Search the world for Zion or a shoulder I can cry on” is top-notch.
“S.D.S.” with Miller’s stellar rhyming and a trippy, whirling beat from Flying Lotus is clearly the best offering from the album, but the good news is that every other song is pretty good too. Every track from the opener “The Star Room” through “REMember” is just dope as hell. Can’t hate on none of that. Mac delivers solid verse after solid verse, taking himself more seriously without losing his natural wit. And none of the illustrious guests disappoint, the highlight being Mac and Action Bronson trading their respective goofy, endearing stylings on “Red Dot Music” over a beat produced by The Alchemist, who is always great. That song is probably the best moment for white dudes in hip-hop in a long time, and would be perfect if Loaded Lux didn’t spit that totally unnecessary spoken word garbage on the back minute and a half of the track.
The last three tracks, “Someone Like You”, “Aquarium”, and “Youforia” are a bit same-y, and have a little too much of Mac trying to sing, but they aren’t complete trash—rather, just a little to much fat on the bottom of the album that probably should’ve been trimmed off.
The bonus tracks were probably rightfully relegated to bonus track status, as “Goosebumpz” isn’t bad but not on par with the rest of the album, “OK” is way too different from the album and underwhelming overall from Mac and Tyler, The Creator, and “Claymation” is actually pretty dope but has a lame verse from Vinny Radio verse holding it back.
Overall, this is a hell of an album, and proves that young rappers can improve their writing and delivery and change up their styles for the better if they put in the work (Domo Genesis’ progress over the last few years is another great example of this) And it also can’t be lost that Miller’s production is really good, as the Larry Fisherman beats fit in seamlessly with the works of the more accomplished producers on the album, including huge names like Pharrell, Flying Lotus, The Alchemist, and Clams Casino. Yeezus may have won the battle of June 18th, but Watching Movies with the Sound Off is a valiant runner-up.
Like my experience with Mac Miller, I’ve always seen J. Cole as overrated, not close to being worthy of the praise bestowed on him by so many fans of hip-hop. Also, dude has to do something about those giant caterpillars chillin’ over his eyes. Honestly this album wasn’t as god-awful as I thought it would be, though. It’s just kinda “meh”, as Cole is serviceable but fairly boring. Nothing to love, nothing to hate.
Well, actually, two things to hate: “Land of the Snakes”, in which Cole smears slimy cat-poop all over the beat to OutKast’s classic “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1)”, and “Forbidden Fruit”, in which Cole smears slimy cat-poop all over the beat to A Tribe Called Quest’s classic “Electric Relaxation”. These are two beats that should never be rapped over by anyone else ever, because the original songs were too good. Cole’s simpleton bars aren’t ever topping the tales of Suzy Skrew and Sasha Thumper or “Bust off on your couch, now you got Siemens furniture”, and neither are anyone else’s. And if you really think you have to pull that crap, at least have the dignity to leave it on a mixtape instead of putting it on an album.
Wait, one more quick thing to hate: Cole’s stumbling bars on the opening track “Villuminati”, including him using a certain gay slur multiple times and then trying to sort-of apologize for it, but doing everything in the most uncomfortable way possible. Having such awkward and off-putting lyrics in the first verse of the first song is a rough way to start an album.
Okay, so onto the less-bad stuff. “Power Trip” is the best song on this album, as Cole isn’t terrible and Miguel is great as usual. “Chaining Day” and “Runaway” and “She Knows” aren’t the worst songs. The beats are mostly decent. Um, wow, there aren’t that many good things to talk about on here. I really thought there were more.
What hurts J. Cole a lot, as hip-hop critic BigGhostfase pointed out in his review of the album, is that Cole constantly comparing himself to legends like Jay-Z, Kanye, Nas, 2Pac, and Biggie only makes his averageness stand out even more. That brings us to “Let Nas Down”, which is just Cole being sad about his idol Nas saying that he didn’t like “Work Out” the lead single off of Cole’s debut album Sideline Story. It’s initially pretty pathetic, but Cole’s bars on this song are some of his best on the album. And legendary producer No ID delivers as he always does with a phenomenal beat, showing that, while Cole’s beats aren’t bad, he still isn’t close to the level of the top producers in the game. So yeah, “Let Nas Down” is one of the few solid tracks on the album, probably second best after “Power Trip”, but it doesn’t exactly leave Cole in the best light.
J. Cole is definitely getting better, but he’s not even up to being consistently good yet, let alone being the next great artist in hip-hop. And I still think Jay-Z doesn’t give two craps about Cole and is always like “Yeah Cole, I’ll get on your album, yeah man, oh sorry I’m too busy chillin’ with Beyonce, maybe next time Cole” and that’s really funny to me, but that also means that Cole’s going to have to do it mostly on his own. Cole’s already popular now so he’ll have ample time to figure it out, but if his competition keeps bringing the heat, the Ice King-like castle in this Cole World that he’s living in now may eventually melt away.