Monthly Report: May 2015 Albums

1. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - Surf
Acid Rap has just sounded and better and better to me over the past two years, and in the long run-up to Surf, I really began to appreciate how far Chance The Rapper has taken himself out of the "search for the next major label rap star" sweepstakes that his initial success earmarked him for. How many rappers at the peak of their buzz would set aside any immediate solo project to play a supporting role in his trumpeter's album? How many rappers even have a trumpet player in their crew? Sidestepping traditional expectations really frees this album up to be anything it wants to be, and it wants to do a lot. This big bright moments like "Slip Slide" and "Sunday Candy" just pop up out of these weird atmospheric stretches, and Chance feels more like a narrator than a star of the story. There's a lot of unexpected big name guests on the album, but they're all woven into the album's unique aesthetic really beautifully, it reminds me of Diddy-Dirty Money's Last Train To Paris in that sense.

2. Rico Love - Turn The Lights On
I liked Rico Love's Discrete Luxury EP two years ago, it was a nice glimpse at what Rico Love could do as an artist and why he maybe didn't deserve to just toil behind the scenes as a songwriter and producer, and "They Don't Know" was a great radio hit. But I'm still kinda shocked at what a huge step up in quality the album is, the production is just really on point and there's a little more emotional depth in the songwriting here than the EP had. He still raps like Ma$e on the bridge of most songs, but it usually works in the context of the song and keeps guest rappers from jumping in and spoiling the vibe. It's got a little of that dirtbag vibe that people love so much in R&B these days, but it's also really polished and old-fashioned in some ways that makes for an interesting contrast.

3. Boosie Badazz - Touch Down 2 Cause Hell
'Album vs. mixtape' is the great 'A-side vs. B-side' debate of our time, and these days it's pretty common for major label rap albums to pale in comparison to the mixtape the released shortly before or after. So when Boosie's Atlantic debut was pushed back last year and he released Life After Deathrow, a pretty perfect mixtape, it just set a high bar for the album to clear. And while Touch Down isn't the blockbuster event album I was hoping for when Boosie came home a year ago, it's a pretty best case scenario for a major label album for him, and it's at or close to the quality of the mixtape. The intro, "All I Know," "Hip Hop Hooray," even "Black Heaven," are all really dope songs that don't feel redundant with anything from his old projects. And closing the album with Boosie accompanied by nothing but piano seems like a risky move, but "I'm Sorry" really works.

4. Mac McCaughan - Non-Believers
I pretty much worship Superchunk, and have enjoyed a lot of the music Mac McCaughan has made without the band, usually under the name Portastatic, over the years. So it's interesting to hear the nominal solo debut by a guy who I've already heard a dozen albums by. I kind of expected this to be like one of the autumnal later Portastatic albums, but it's kind of like the laid back '90s ones with lots of cheap drum machine tracks and jangly guitar tones. "Our Way Free" is by far the most immediate song on the album for me but the rest is growing on me.

5. Diamond Youth - Nothing Matters
Diamond Youth are a band with members from all over that are primarily based in Baltimore. I remember a few years ago Brian McTernan from Salad Days Studio telling me how he'd been recording EPs with them and they were blowing up just off of the EPs and not even worrying about doing an album. I was impressed with the EP stuff I'd heard, but I'm glad they finally made a full-length, it really sounds like refined their sound into something unique, it's pretty punk but there's this smooth crooning vibe to the vocals and some woozy surf rock riffs that give it a different dimension.

6. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell - The Traveling Kind
I've always like Emmylou Harris, mostly just knowing Wrecking Ball and various collaborations. And then, in January, I got the most amazing crash course in her career when I got a gig running the lyric teleprompter for a big Emmylou tribute concert in D.C. I got to spend 2 days sitting next to the stage, watching her and a bunch of other big musicians up close, playing her songs, it was filmed and I believe is going to be on PBS or on a DVD or something eventually, I highly recommend checking it out. One of Harris's longtime collaborators, Rodney Crowell, was of course in the house, and it turns out they had just made another album together.

7. Ciara - Jackie
Jackie is kind of a reverse Pinkprint: where Nicki Minaj delivered a heavy-hearted breakup album after everyone expected something different, Ciara fast tracked an album on the heels of her split with Future and "I Bet," but it's a total outlier. "I Bet" might be my least favorite single in Ciara's career, but the rest of the album is a pleasant surprise, basically dialing her sound back to the breezy dance pop of "1, 2 Step" with several Dr. Luke-produced tracks. R&B singers 'going pop' has been a divisive issue in the last few years, and sometimes the stigma is justified and sometimes it's kind of kneejerk and meaningless. But as much as I love "Promise" and the occasionally slow jam from Ciara, she was really born for these uptempo records. It's a shame that people seem to be hating on this album when it's so much more solid than her last couple.

8. Camp Lo - Ragtime Hightimes
Uptown Saturday Night is almost 20 years old and remains a wonderful, underrated and unique album in rap history. So I'm glad these guys are still periodically getting together with Ski Beatz and spitting inscrutable slanguistics over lush sample-driven tracks. They're never gonna top the debut but they've managed to keep sounding relatively fresh when not many rappers that were dope in 1997 can still do anything of value without completely reinventing themselves.

9. Snoop Dogg - Bush
I never thought Snoop Dogg and the Neptunes was really that hot a combination, so I didn't have any expectations about Snoop and Pharrell making a whole album together. And I mean, they made 10 songs that mostly sound like the merely okay "Let's Get Blown" instead of, say, the awesome "Signs," but it works as a collection of playful grooves in the same vein as G I R L. And revisiting Snoop's old albums recently highlighted what a weird, unique little record this is in his catalog.

10. Jeezy - Gangsta Party
I hope that the success of Future's recent mixtapes leads a trend towards short mixtapes. This new 10-song tape from Jeezy is really the perfect length (although it's a fine line -- Kevin Gates just dropped a mixtape that's only 7 tracks and I just kinda feels like not enough to leave much of an impression, especially since he had a great long one 6 months ago). I feel like Jeezy always takes a lot of shit for falling off when he's been pretty consistent, like he's been as big and as big as Rick Ross or better for the last 9 years, but it's only a bad thing for Jeezy because he was multi-platinum in '05. One of the stranger dynamics in Atlanta rap today is all the friends and proteges of Gucci Mane who now collaborate with his longtime enemies. Obviously T.I. and Young Thug just had a big hit together, but Gangsta Party is so extreme with it that it almost seems deliberate: Offset from Migos, Rich Homie Quan, Zaytoven, Bankroll Fresh, Peewee Longway, and Young Dolph are all on here. It sounds good, but it speaks to the weird way Jeezy has to embrace Gucci's influence to sound current in 2015.

Worst Album of the Month: A$AP Rocky - At. Long. Last. A$AP
I disliked his first album, but it at least had some functional radio jams and mildly daring aesthetic flourishes. This mostly just replaces the trendy edgy elements of the first album with baby boomer dad rock vibes from Danger Mouse and Mark Ronson. Rocky is still the blandest rapper alive and 'curating' guest verses from guys with actual personalities isn't as impressive as it's supposed to be.
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