We’ve got two Kanye albums coming in two weeks, but before we jump into the jampacked June, let’s take a look back at May. Pusha T cut the ribbon for GOOD Fridays, Wale laid a blueprint for established artists seeking a new label, and Rae Sremmurd released their long-awaited SR3MM album. There was a little something for everyone as vets like Royce Da 5’9 and Zaytoven delivered, but Lil Baby and Tee Grizzley also set it off for young, hungry rappers everywhere. Conway dropped an EP that sounds like classic hip-hop as traditionalists love it, while Playboi Carti made a project that subverts the core tenets of the genre. Like most months, hip-hop represented in myriad fashion. There’s been a lot to like this May, but here are the hip-hop releases to love.
Pusha T, Daytona
You knew this would be here, huh? Pusha T’s King Push had been anticipated for years, and it finally came — by the name of Daytona, with polarizing album art.
The album that Diddy heralded as an “instant classic” kicked off 2018’s GOOD Fridays in grand fashion, with Pusha sounding as masterful as ever with his slick, emphatic mic presence. Pusha heard fans’ “he only raps about coke” criticisms, and emphatically said, “so what?” On “The Games We Play,” he lets us know that the album is made for “mud-made-monsters,” and depicts a world where “you laugh a little louder, the DJ say your name a little prouder / and we don’t need a globe to show you the world is ours.” Push sticks to that script on the succinctly-sequenced offering, rhyming with his trademark flair for the dramatic while revisiting his drug-dealing past.
Pusha’s ominous delivery and cinematic lyricism took us from the album cover’s coke-spotted bathroom and into the trough, where braggadocious lyricism is his product and there’s no alphabet agency in the world that can stop it. The seven-song album is scored by Kanye, who expertly weaves new school arrangements and 808s with his crispy drums and soaring soul samples like “Come Back Baby.” Push told us, “he don’t sing hooks,” on his last album, and on this one he decided to let Kanye’s production handle the chorus duties. Daytona is a testament to the duo’s chemistry, and a strong bet to be the favorite of many come December.
Tee Grizzley, Activated
Like Aaron Williams said in his review, Detroit’s latest lyrical hope released an album that separated him from the pack of so-called gangster rappers stuck in a Datpiff rut. On the aptly-titled Activated, The husky rhymer proved that Jay-Z’s shoutout wasn’t in vain, and that his “First Day Out” smash was no fluke. Grizzley actually borrowed some of his artistic approach from his “First Day Out” remix co-pilot Meek Mill, by delving into how his rough circumstances led him toward the life he lived.
On “Robbin,” he melodically goes into some of his trauma and how it’s hardened him to newcomers in his life with exploitative intentions. He’s equally reflective on “Remember.” Once he shows us where he came from, he spent the rest of the project telling you who he is now over charged production, with gritty tracks like “Connect” and “Time” with Young Jeezy, where he spits, “draco go through an elephant and kill whoever’s hit.” The album is dominated by such coarse imagery, but Grizzley’s knack for melody makes it easier to digest.
Rae Sremmurd, SR3MM
Forget Pusha T, Rae Sremmurd pulled the best chess move of 2018 on the game. After hearing the fan speculation about both of them needing to go solo, they did just that — and attached those debut pieces to their latest duo project, SR3MM. Their triple album proves, unsurprisingly, that the young duo makes the best music together — but Slim Jxmmi having the stronger solo album wasn’t anticipated.
Swaecation was Swae Lee’s attempt at a summer-friendly, melodically driven R&B album, it was bogged down by monotony and songwriting that needed a little more workshopping. Jxmtro showed the relatively unheralded Slim Jxmmy bursting out of the gate, dispensing all the energy that he’s known for into a frenetic collection of tracks such as “Brxnks Truck” and “Anti-Social Smokers Club.” There’s no need for them to be pit against each other, however. All three albums had their highs, and SR3MM could serve as a playlist for any number of summer functions, especially the tracks “Close,” “Guatemala,” and “T’d Up.”
Playboi Carti, Die Lit
Playboi Carti’s Die Lit may one day be seen as a project that transcended genre with its adlib-heavy lyrics, but for now, it still fits in the arena of hip-hop. And in that realm, the 19-track album properly executes what Playboi Carti set out to do: Craft a fun, energetic set of bangers ripe to be sung-along and danced to all summer. Aside from the reflective “R.I.P. Fredo” tribute to Fredo Santana, the project resides in party-starter mode, with booming 808s and sputtering hi-hats anchoring deep, entrancing synths such as on “Home” and the tone-setting “Long Time-Intro.”
Though Playboi used to rhyme like his favorite rapper Curren$y, he’s shifted his format in recent years to a more loose approach, focused on infectious ad-libs and social media-caption worthy phrases. Carti brought a range of collaborators along for the lituation, from Nicki Minaj on “Poke It Out” to Travis Scott and Lil Uzi Vert. He’s learned that while his rambunctious mic presence may be fun, it can wear after a while (such as his eponymous mixtape), and extensive features are basically a mandate.
Zaytoven, Trap Holizay
Zaytoven is a trap music legend, but so much of his legacy has been tied to his collaborations with Gucci Mane and other artists like Future and Migos. Zay is stepping out to make a name on his own with his Trap Holizay album. He collaborates with a who’s who of his past collaborators on this album, speaking to the amount of esteem he holds in hip-hop. Why do they respect him? Because he masterfully infuses his church-trained musical gift into the modern trap sound, displaying the musicality of the subgenre with his “bandleader sensibility,” as Aaron Williams credited.
Tracks like “Go Get The Money” are at the core of the album, with murky, filtered synth tones typical of today’s trap replaced by whimsical triangles that belie Rick Ross, Pusha T, Yo Gotti and T.I.’s at-times gruff bars. Without dropping a bar, Zay is undoubtedly holding the keys to the kingdom on Trap Holizay, which highlights his status as a true producer, not just a beatmaker. Don’t wait til the oft-rumored collaboration with Jay-Z come out before you get familiar.
Royce Da 5’9, Book Of Ryan
Royce Da 5’9 really took it there and referenced the Bible for his Book Of Ryan album title. He didn’t use his seventh album to wax on about his biblical lyrical supremacy, however, he dug deep for his most introspective album ever. Anyone who’s still a skeptic about his ability to craft songs needs to take a listen to this project, where reflection takes precedence over reveling in his own gifts. The album comes on the heels of his Prhyme 2 collaboration with DJ Premier, and Royce decided to spread his wings a bit production wise. Boasting production from Boi-1da, DJ Khalil, and Illmind, Royce linked with a bevy of talented producers to craft a soundscape defined by soulful, bass-heavy beats such as “Boblo Boat” with J. Cole.
Royce touched on his gripes with the music industry, the impotence of the modern political system, and his well-publicized battle with alcoholism. While most people use their debut album to shed light on who they are, it seems Royce decided to live a little more and then testify on his rollercoaster ride through life.
Wale played his recent free agency the right way. After news came out in February that he was no longer with Atlantic Records, he refused to spend his time griping on social media, he put his pen to pad and used his craft as an outlet. The DC rapper first released an It’s Complicated EP in March, and another Self Promotion project earlier this month. The music was good enough to help him a deal with Warner Bros. Records.
Though Self Promotion is just four songs, it shows that his penmanship has only improved throughout the years. Anchored by his standout “Salary Kaep” track, which shows him echoing his MMG comrade Rick Ross’ pro-Blackness, the four tracks show off Wale’s versatility. “Body Body Body” is a summery track ripe for a Friday night playlist, while “Cassius’” production sounds like a modern rendition of the inspirational Wale-Ross-Meek Mill ballads that were all the rage in the early 2010s. Maybe he’ll get the guys together for a remix? Even if he doesn’t, Wale promoted himself well on his latest EP.
Kyle, Light Of Mine
Best known for his “iSpy” hit, Kyle has built a following that up with similarly cheerful tracks that accentuate the joys of life. Such is the case on Light Of Mine, an optimistic, melody-driven album that serves as a refreshing alternative to the bluster that can wear old after say, an hour-long trap playlist. There’s the effortlessly smooth “Coming, Going” featuring Take 6, and the funky “iMissMe” collaboration with Khalid. That isn’t to say Kyle can’t excel on his own though, as buttery, introspective tracks like “Shiptrip” and “Games” attest to. As much as I rue needless comparison, Light Of Mine may have nudged Kyle into the spotlight with Lil Yachty as hip-hop’s bright side.
Conway and Sonnyjim, Death By Misadventure
Conway has been holding it down for Buffalo for years, and 2018 is no exception. The gruff rhymer has built a cult fanbase alongside his Griselda partner Westside Gunn and Benny with projects like Death By Misadventure, which is actually a collaboration with British rapper/producer Sonnyjim. Sonny provides a score that ideally suits Conway, with soulful, bass-heavy production like “Begulas” and “Cristal and Cereal.” Roc Marciano provides his avant-garde grit to the proceedings on “Kevlar Tux,” which is the most sinister moment on the short tracklist (that consists of just three full songs). Conway has been a roll which doesn’t look to be stopping as the weather heats up — perhaps he’ll be right back here in coming months.
Lil Baby, Harder Than Ever
QC is largely known as the Migos’ and Lil Yachty’s label, but Lil Baby is staking his claim to be mentioned in that group with Harder Than Ever. The young ATLien has noted that he just now started taking rap seriously, but now he’s going harder than ever to prove he should be taken seriously as an artist. The album is full of 808-based bangers in which Lil Baby uses his easygoing, melodic flow to reflect on his Atlanta upbringing, do some flashy bragging, and feed the streets the trunk rattlers they want this summer. His “Yes Indeed” collaboration with Drake is typical of what to expect on the album, with boomin’ 808s and easygoing, easily-recitable lyrics.