Monthly Report: October 2014 Albums

1. Vince Staples - Hell Can Wait EP
I wasn't really checking for Vince Staples before since he was running with a bunch of artists I don't listen to like Earl Sweatshirt and Mac Miller. But the buzz around this record was pretty huge and I'm glad I checked it out, dude is really talented. In some ways his voice and his storytelling are closer to a classic west coast rap sensibility than a lot of the other guys coming out of L.A. these days, but No I.D. and the rest of the production team on here do a great job of placing him in a really modern context. Major labels trying to ease in new artists with EPs always seem to be timid and half-assed, and I don't even know what Def Jam's commercial expectations are for this kid to begin with, but against the odds they ended up with a really tight 23-minute record that feels as cohesive and complete as any album. Even the R&Bish cut, "Limos," totally fits the aesthetic of the rest of the EP. Most of these releases are on my running Spotify playlist of 2014 albums I've been listening to.

2. Tinashe - Aquarius
As great as "2 On" was, I kept hearing that her mixtapes were on a completely different tip and didn't really know what to expect from the album. But I'm really impressed by this, it really blurs the line between clubby mainstream stuff and artsy 'alt R&B' in a way that works better than if it strongly favored one end or the other of the spectrum. And she just has a great voice that cuts through the tracks in a way that makes for a nice contrast from if, say, Jhene Aiko was singing on these beats.

3. Boosie Bad Azz - Life After Deathrow
Back when Lil Boosie got out of jail (and before he 'officially' changed the name he's releasing music under), a little over 6 months ago, it was hard to really know how much differently his music or his career would be after 5 years away, and in a way that seemed to just not matter compared to the reality of him being a free man after it looked like he'd spend his life in prison. And then he spent the last few months doing live shows and dropping verses on remixes to mediocre radio songs, and it kinda felt like he was just getting his money up but not getting any close to releasing a mixtape or album. And then, this thing dropped out of the sky and it's really everything I hoped he was still capable of, the storytelling and emotional intensity and odd details, all in that one-of-a-kind voice. In fact the production is stronger than on most of his earlier stuff, and in some ways this succeeds where his many good-but-not-great mixtapes failed. Makes up for the disappointment of that new Remy Ma tape.

4. DJ Quik - The Midnight Life
Quik remaining this consistent, as both a rapper and a producer, after two decades is really inspiring. I don't know if I like this one as much as Blackout or The Book Of David, but it builds on the vibe of those albums really well, his sound getting more omnivorous and left field while his verses get more happily defiant about his place in the world and his survival against the odds.

5. Ex Hex - Rips
It's always good to hear something new from Mary Timony and this band is my favorite thing she's done in a while (a few years ago I caught a gig from her short-lived band Soft Power and this is much stronger than that). It's a really zippy little rock record, it's over in 35 minutes, but I think the second half is better than the first, "War Paint" is great. I also like how the last track is called "Outro" but it's a full-on song and a really solid closer.

6. DRGN King - Baltimore Crush
In the course of my work for the Mobtown Studios site, I wrote an article for their The BSide Sessions series about this Philly band DRGN King a few months ago. And I really dug both the songs they did for the session, which were as-yet-unreleased songs about the frontman' s experiences growing up in Baltimore, especially "Don't Trust The Sad Boys." So I was really excited for the album with the songs on it to come out, and even moreso when they nodded to Baltimore with the title.

7. DeJ Loaf - Sell Sole
"Try Me" took a while to grow on me, but it finally did around the time DeJ Loaf dropped this mixtape. Most of her music is not on that tough talk tip, which really helps in the sense that it fleshes her out into an interesting character and not just a street rap curio. The more polished stuff gives me some hope that she's got more hits in her.

8. Betty Who - Take Me When You Go
I liked her single "Somebody Loves You" a lot when I first heard it a year ago, but it lost its luster for me really quickly. And the EP she released earlier this year made me wonder if Betty Who was just another one of those pop singers who doesn't really have much of a star quality or hitmaking instinct but gets tons of critical love for evoking an idealized synth pop past via early Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. This album is good, though, there's a warmth and charm in her voice that I hear the more that I listen, and the opener "Just Like Me" kills me.

9. Jackson Browne - Standing In The Breach
In the last few months I've been listening to a ton of Jackson Browne, both because I saw him live and was putting together a deep album cuts playlist. I heard some of the songs from the new album for the first time at the concert, and they sound great here, glad he returned to spare tasteful production after some of the ill-fitting production choices he made in the '80s and '90s. There are weird semi-sequels to "Take It Easy" and "These Days" on Standing In The Breach that don't feel too much like desperate grabs at nostalgia but aren't really very good either. Aside from that, though, it's pretty solid.

10. T.I. - Paperwork
Another artist who I recently did a deep album cuts playlist for, and that exercise mostly reminded me of how great T.I. has used to be and rarely is anymore. Obviously "About The Money" is great and there are a few other tracks on that level, mostly I think this album has gotten a worse rep than it deserves. But the handful of really strained crossover tracks certainly detract from the whole.

Worst Album of the Month: Chief Keef - Back From The Dead 2
Chief Keef was a divisive figure from the jump, and in the two years since Finally Rich, I feel like people have further settled into these diametrically opposed attitudes about the guy. Some people see him as the talentless kid who just got dropped from Interscope because he hasn't had a song on the radio since the first one, and some people see him as this important figure in Chicago and in street rap in general that has continued to turn out quality work. I don't know, I've always just thought there were a hundred guys doing this kind of thing better to begin with, and he gets older and puts in more time in the game he seems to just get lazier and worse at everything. He started producing recently, and does 16 of the 20 tracks on this tape, but he can't rap on beat even when it's his beat, and they're all just drab lifeless versions of what other producers had been doing for him in the past. "Moral" is weird and counterintuitive enough to at least be interesting but the other 15 are just garbage. On "Cops" he sounds like he's trying to stretch his voice into some new shapes, but for the most part he's still rapping in that goofy vampire voice and I'm not sure why anyone gives a damn anymore. There's one Gucci Mane feature on here and even a subpar Gucci verse sounds godlike next to Keef.
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