The following is the second of a three part series about rap, R&B, and article-appropriate club music mutations in 2015. Links may be NSFW.
The second part of this incomplete guide to 2015’s rap and R&B is concerned with all things between Spring Break and Labor Day, sans Future’s run to DS2 that was touched on in part one, with appropriate strands included. There’s an awful lot of hand-wringing from rap fans about the genre and how good it is at what times. There’s the idea of analyzing it from the standpoint of how much America appreciated #BARS or how great the parties were or how ubiquitous its biggest celebrities are in the mainstream media. All of these are inextricably tied to what the music means to black culture, which while certainly a lens with which to view the subject matter of this piece, is one I will neither use or downplay for plainly obvious reasons. From the first three vantage points, this has been the best year for the genre for rap in over a decade. Incidentally, the same could be said for R&B. It was fuckin’ lit.
To go off of the the question regarding Thundercat that I ended the last piece with, can we even call Death Grips rap anymore? Not in the wannabe transcendent pose Kid Cudi is currently striking for by memorializing the death of a rock legend with an alternative rock move that couldn’t live up to Bush’s worst impulses on its best day, either. Jenny Death, the second half of Death Grips’ the powers that b album explore the the punk rock side of their essential 2011 mixtape, Exmilitary. They lived up to their potential as a rap group with 2012 releases The Money Store and No Love Deep Web and underachieved as electro trolls with Government Plates, Niggas On The Moon, and Fashion Week. Jenny Death succeeds with the adrenaline of 1-2 punch “I Break Mirrors With My Face In the United States” and “Inanimate Sensation” lay a foundation for an album worthy of earning an austere crash and burn of “On GP”. They’ve always failed as a conceptual art project, but Jenny Death is a return to form as Death Grips as a band. Too bad it far tethered to a much inferior album.
By the time Odd Future officially had broken up, it had been forgone conclusion for quite some time. Earl Sweatshirt hectored (Read: gave some brutally honest, sound advice to) the collective’s fans and the best and brightest of the group’s alumni dropped music. The tweet’s tone is in line his contemplative I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. In separate quarters, Tyler, The Creator’s awkward, endearing Cherry Bomb and The Internet’s structurally refined Ego Death are career bests. The latter is one of the year’s best albums.
Even associates of the one-time collective fared well this year. Vince Staples released his major label debut album, Summertime ‘06, to massive acclaim and swaths of critical unpacking. The album was a testament to No I.D., DJ Dahi, and Staples’ commitment to cohesion. Staples examines the less glamorous side of coming of age a gangbanger with the sharp tongue of an heir apparent to Pusha T’s throne of hip-hop’s espouser of inconvenient truths. It’s a throne Pusha seems to not be giving up for quite some time, even as he moves into his G.O.O.D. Music presidency. The backdrop flies close enough to cloud rap to get the point across without getting scanning as passé. It’s fitting that this was one of the most celebrated rap releases in a year where scene veterans Friendzone, Main Attrakionz, and Denzel Curry all served reminders that they were still devilishly viable.
Staples is fucking hilarious off record, but it’s his friend Mac Miller whose humor permeates into his music. A far cry from his frat rap genesis, Miller’s jokes are now a front for his nihilist streak. His September album GO:OD A.M. is the cautious optimism of a slow recovery from the epic nervous breakdown that helms his 2014 mixtape, Faces. It’s a conceptual orchestration of mixtape and album avoids beating listeners over the head with the self-importance the exercise risks. This doesn’t happen often enough.
Amidst the hullabaloo of late-March, early-April releases from the likes of Kendrick, Future, and Earl Sweatshirt; Action Bronson’s major label debut Mr. Wonderful got lost in the shuffle. The album was certainly overshadowed by negative reactions to his lyrical content and vague, yet straightforward threats made by Ghostface Killah. For all of boxes he had seemed to been stuffed into (Ghostface impersonator, joke rapper, food connoisseur), it’s his self-awareness and affinity for the late 70s that prevail on a whip-smart anti-album from rap’s most derided iconoclasts. It’s a wonder Atlantic released it.
After the initial rush of popular, acclaimed rap releases in 2015’s first quarter, the machine slowed its wheels considerably from an album standpoint. “Trap Queen” had taken the world by storm (Fetty Wap’s television debut was on April 12) “Classic Man” was getting ready to do so around the beginning of this period. A slew of albums and mixtapes, some behind big label hype and/or came and went. Releases from The-Dream, Trey Songz, Wale, Curren$y, Yelawolf, Jodeci, T-Pain, and Raekwon left a considerable amount to be desired. Human knuckleballs iLoveMakonnen and Young Thug delivered on mixtapes (a recurring theme for the latter), but none of this translated to great success beyond critics.
This void wasn’t filled by indie rap heavyweights, either. Even with Billy Woods releasing the very good Today, I Wrote Nothing, one of independent rap’s best labels, Mello Music Group had mixed results with their first half of the year before settling into a string of excellent albums. The Alchemist’s first release with Oh No wasn’t all it was cracked up to be either (but their Gangrene album in the summer was!) Any perceived void was filled with exuberance, longing, and real trap shit. Kehlani took the industry by storm with her now-GRAMMY nominated mixtape You Should Be Here.
Sicko Mobb’s second mixtape, Super Saiyan Vol. 2, found them proving more than a happy accident in the midst of a dance craze with a well-written and expertly sequenced barrage of club-ready tracks. Dae Jones, Sasha Go Hard, Bodega Bamz, Maxo Kream, and Bankroll Fresh kept quality street rap from any shortage. Meanwhile, Fool’s Gold boss Nick Catchdubs’ found soil to till between the instrumental hip-hop album and the club DJ set. Murs and Snoop Dogg continued to release very good music into their OG period—Snoop enlisted Pharrell on what would be his best solo album in over a decade. April and May were a great to time to play catchup on these names between releases from Kendrick Lamar and that stretch where A$AP Rocky and The Social Experiment.
When At. Long. Live A$AP. hit the Internet, the discussion around it was shrouded in his embrace of psychedelic drugs and the January death of his business parter and close friend A$AP Yams. He finally did a song with UGK because that’s what power players on major labels get to do. The albums wasn’t bad, but his usual crowdsourcing and aesthetics had surely worn thin. With “Fuckin’ Problems” money, he was afforded the opportunity to live like an eccentric rich kid and ALLA is a document of this that is thoroughly entertaining in spurts (“Back Home”, “M’$”). I highly suspect whatever shortcomings the album had have a lot to do with Danger Mouse’s oversight and an overdose of little-known guitarist Joe West. It’s an album that fans and enthusiasts would be better making their own playlist by culling and sequencing tracks manually from the deluxe tracklist.
Donnie Trumpet’s album with The Social Experiment, Surf, was a de facto Chance The Rapper album that cashed in on the upside of Vic Mensa’s Kids These Days. Yet to compare the two bands would be to compare The Soulquarians to 311. The Social Experiment’s first album was a testament of everything that could go right and wrong with a stable of hyper-talented kids making an album together: An album with some of the year’s most peculiar songs is also a little too disjointed for its own good. Chancelor Bennett appears on most of the best songs and it’s more apparent that that he—not Raury—is the heir to André 3000’s throne.
From Surf, Bennett continued to have a stellar year. He announced that he was going to be a father. His headlining set at Pitchfork was widely lauded, as was his single “Angels”, that he performed with Saba on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”. Next, he’s going to be the first truly independent artist to perform on Saturday Night Live.
Elsewhere in Chicago, Treated Crew collaborated with TEKLIFE on an EP that their deceased leader, DJ Rashad, had envisioned: the equal partnership of rapping and footwork production. Even though hip-hop is one of footwork’s major touchstones, the straightforward meshing of the two genres has been messy. Mic Terror’s EP doesn’t fumble because he deftly shifts gears from emcee to house vocalist. Danny Brown would eschew the former on “Dubby,” a collaboration with DJ Spinn and DJ Rashad that was of the year’s best tracks.
In the middle of the year, the deaths of New York rap legend Sean Price and gifted Queens rapper Chinx Drugz passed. Even as Atlanta started to dominate the market, Sean Price continued to develop into one of the best rappers out at the time. Virtually everyone who remarked on his death emphasized Price’s character and humanity. Chinx was every bit as monumental: a rising star who appealed to New York’s rich tradition of gritty street rap. Brownville’s Ka could be a hero for those in mourning: a smoky-voiced veteran that hit another gear after hitting 40. His latest, Days with Dr. Yen Lo, is a team effort with Preservation that is inspired by The Manchurian Candidate. While it isn’t the best album inspired by a book this year (That would be Vakula’s A Voyage to Arcturus), it’s a proper follow-up to the nimble musings of 2013’s The Night’s Gambit. If it had not been previously established, Days with Dr. Yen Lo stakes Ka’s claim as one of hip-hop’s most imaginative writers.
In Ka’s trail, a flurry of gifted rappers released low stakes, yet highly enjoyable projects. Both step brothers (Don Trip and Starlito), Georgia Anne Muldrow, the Sauce Twinz, Boosie, Lucki Ecks, Boogie, Quelle Chris, Gunplay, and Kool Keith stand out among that crowd. For all of the Mello Music Group artists among those ranks, it should be noted that Oddisee’s early-May album The Good Fight started a hot streak that the label rode into the end of the year.
The victories in R&B this year were sustained. Miguel’s re-emergence as the world’s most breathtaking blowhards was a career best. The first half of Miguel’s Wildheart album ranks amongst the year’s best stretches and the sequencing benefits from eschewing the edition of “Coffee” with Wale’s Rap & Beta verse in favor of sensual purring with edges revealed strategically (“NWA”). The Foreign Exchange provided a happy ending for a summer that marked the failed return of a disco legend. Janet Jackson came out of hiding to release something the people she touched could properly geek out to. Leon Bridges and Babyface made music that was as vital as it was traditional. FKA twigs kept being FKA twigs. Kelela dropped a subtle reminder that she’s one of the genre’s heavyweights. Ty Dolla $ign emerged with a group of songs that functioned better as very good songs than a proper album. Def Jam collected a hot tax write off by unleashing Jeremih’s Late Nights into the ether, and while the rappers didn’t hold up their end of the bargain quite like they did on 2012’s classic Late Nights with Jeremih, the artist in question is more unbridled and breathtaking than ever.
Then there’s Erykah Badu. The analog girl concocted a “Hotline Bling”-inspired string of reinterpretations meant to communicate with the digital world. While it was an off the cuff project, the wealth of great R&B acts that contributed to this year would be amiss without something from her. There was room for a fake Drake and the real André 3000 in her refurbished odes to the telephone’s integral role in sex ballads of the last 50 years. Speaking of Drake…