Hello and welcome to a new edition of Champion Sound, a column that was mostly written before Kendrick decided to light a fire under the rap game and sit back to watch the sparks fly. Obviously, I’m talking about what might irritatingly be referred to as that verse from Big Sean’s ‘Control’, in which he flexes his newly toned rap biceps and lays down the gauntlet to, well, pretty much everyone. It’s a dis track that casts its net so wide that even those that aren’t mentioned feel bizarrely violated by their exclusion, clamouring to record response songs that have so far had less cultural impact than even the top YouTube comments on the original. Sorry Lupe, nobody cares what you think.
But whatever the standard of the replies or even the verse itself, Kendrick’s words will have an impact. It might take a few months before there’s any real evidence of that, but the beauty of rap is that everybody takes everything so personally, and a little rivalry is all it takes to put fire back into dormant bellies. ‘Control’ has little to do with what I love about Kendrick as a solo artist - it's all big picture rappity rap rather than inward-looking social commentary - but as a guest verse it’s perfectly timed at a point in his career that he’s pretty much untouchable. It’s not the verse of a ‘real rap’ bore grumbling about the new school, but of a rap fan who knows he won’t thrive unchallenged – Jay Z’s new album being a case in point. The hands-down best thing about Kendrick’s ‘Control’ verse, though, is that it’s probably Big Sean’s most significant song to date, and yet it features a line about trying to murder Big Sean.
Several other things happened as I put the finishing touches to this column. Gucci Mane released not one, not two, but three mixtapes in one day adding to at least six others that he’s released this year. That mightn’t be newsworthy except that most of them are very good. Also, Earl Sweatshirt has released one of the best albums of the year, but it came just too late to be done justice to here.
Instead, I want to talk about three albums that have been overlooked in recent months to varying degrees. Ka, Starlito and Billy Woods have no obvious connections as a trio, but they’re the kind of low-key emcees that are easy to ignore – too subtle perhaps, or too verbose. Give them time to win you over though, and they’re the guys who’ll have you researching slang terms and savoring every syllable. Below you'll also find a few recent highlights from the Livemixtapes homepage, so let's hurry this along...
Ka – The Night’s Gambit
Some rappers get your attention with a unique voice, but Ka isn’t one of them. Others may have the perfect cadence, or they might attack a verse so hard that staying neutral simply isn’t an option – he isn’t much like those guys either. No, Ka is a talker, a narrator and an articulator of life in his native Brownsville, New York. You’d say his style was throwback, only it’s delivered with a rare and poignant calm, letting his sentences roll off the tongue and be left to hang in the air – work out what he’s saying, and then look again for the double-entendre.
The Night’s Gambit is Ka’s third album in five years, each sounding more desperately sparse than the one before. This time there are barely two songs which could be said to have recognisable kick-snare drum patterns, and even then they’re muffled, reliable pacemakers to fit the album’s very definite mood, flitting between pensive and wistful and all shades in between. Rap music without drums shouldn’t work, and yet by stripping away supposedly key elements we’re able to get closer to Ka; there are no beats to put us in a rap frame of mind, so we’re faced with the essence of his art – the construction of rhymes, and our job to joyfully unpack them.
And what a pleasure it is, split over 11 darkly cinematic compositions – all of which are self-produced – Ka packs each song with nuanced quips and deadly wordplay. Album highlight ‘Peace Akhi’, for instance, is an ominous depiction of hood threats, led by its haunting chorus, “Pistol is the only piece I see, its war here but tell my nigga peace akhi.” It’s an album filled with these kind of ideas, breathing new life into mostly well-worn themes; “Did I mention I pay attention, not for protection”; “A man now, stand down, sick of bleeding – I’m into reading / Enough point work, joints hurt, and my shit’s receding.” We could quote along with Ka all day and that’s the beauty of his music, revealing deeper meanings and sadder truths the further you dare to dig.
Starlito – Cold Turkey
“It’s difficult starting over, that’s better than going backwards…anything’s better than going backwards” goes the hook to Starlito’s ‘No Rearview’, a standout track from his latest album Cold Turkey. It’s an idea that Lito has had to take to his heart – the former Cash Money-signed rapper was on the verge of breaking out in the mid-00s before being released from his contract after years of sitting in the reserves. Birdman’s loss is our gain, and since going independent Starlito’s music has evolved and settled somewhere between art and therapy – at his best, there are few emcees capable of plumbing the same soulful depths.
Cold Turkey follows a slew of mixtapes released over the past few years, in which the Nashville rapper’s world-weary drawl meets thoughtful contemplation. Like any emcee he embellishes details when necessary, but Lito’s great skill is foregoing the temptation to glamorize his life in favour of a cutting realism – some days he doesn’t even enjoy rap, and he’s not afraid of letting it show. Punchlines come fast and smart, on the album’s opener for instance, he quips: “It’s a long time since an artist was really about what they spit out their mouth / Yeah, niggas say they getting money, but they look like they sleep on the couch.”
Production hook-ups with regular collaborators Fate Eastwood and Lil’ Keis put the record in familiar territory, with low-slung, southern trunk-rattlers the order of the day. Features, too, are reliably handled by fellow step-brother Don Trip, Young Dolph, and the year’s breakout star Kevin Gates – the latter even gets a song all of his own on the dark and menacing ‘Luca Brasi Speaks’. It’s Lito though who makes Cold Turkey so essential, his throaty introspection a truly singular voice in a scene swamped with soundalike struggle rappers. Here’s an artist with no interest in empty rap boasts – he’ll tell you when he’s having fun, but more often than not his music is painted in a double coat of melancholy.
Billy Woods – Dour Candy
Listening to Billy Woods’ music is hugely rewarding, but his uncompromising use of references doesn’t make it easy to love – you have to work at it, like malt whiskey or Wire magazine. After a 10+ year career in hip hop he may have released his magnum opus last year with History Will Absolve Me, a characteristically challenging blend of international politics, social commentary and American sports that donned Robert Mugabe on its album sleeve. Dour Candy, then, is the difficult follow-up that – although still crammed with references – looks within and dials back to stories mostly relating to Woods’ own life.
Teaming up with Blockhead for the entire album, Woods has been laced with what may be the most instantly likeable beats he’s ever worked with. Songs like ‘Central Park’ and ‘Tinseltown’ are even positively pretty, rubbing up against Billy’s rough way with words and typically forceful delivery. There’s not a whole lot of positivity in these narratives, but he cleverly updates standard rap themes with new sentiments. On ‘Gilgamesh’, for instance, Woods receives an unexpected visit from an old girlfriend who wants to hook up, but only as sad system-cleansing goodbye before she goes off to marry somebody else. ‘One Thousand One Nights’ takes a similarly grim and unromantic view of no-strings sex, while drug dealing is also presented without glorification throughout.
Summing up the tone of the album, Woods recently told Noisey: “When my publicist calls me, when I even have a publicist, they’re not like, ‘You’re going to Greece!’ They’re more like, ‘So, Pitchfork is not going to run it…Did you send our check?’” Ironically, Dour Candy is the first Woods project to be reviewed at Pitchfork, but it’s a nice brief for the lifestyle that he describes on this record so evocatively.
Shy Glizzy – Law 2
Shy Glizzy has at least three exceptional qualities – two of them are his sideburns, and the other is his voice. His nasal, sing-rap vocals can sound almost absurd in their squawkishness, matched by sometimes chirpy, often lopsided synths lifted from ATLien trap. And yet there’s an edge to his delivery that tells you he’s not playing around. The hooks on Law 2 are blunt and to-the-point, like built-for-purpose mantras for the kids in his hometown DC – “I got money problems, I got money problems / One of these niggas gonna make me rob ‘em / I can’t do what I want and I feel fuckin’ awful.” Glizzy songs are often threatening and direct, but with just enough self-doubt and the odd goofy rhyme too – “been going hard / since Pokemon cards”
But for all Glizzy’s thug-headed tough talk, it’s his more sympathetic songs that really elevate his tapes. Like ‘I Wish’ from last year’s Fxck Rap release, Law 2’s best moments come when the rapper façade slips. ‘Free the Gang’, for instance, laments the loss of friends who have been lost to the prison system, while ‘Some Ones’ is a rare narrative track in which a single mother goes to work at a strip club so she can feed her kids. It’s a grim story, and when neatly contrasted with Metro Boomin’s jovial synth work it’s one of Glizzy’s best cuts to date.
Spark Master Tape – The #SWOUP Serengeti
Hiding behind a mystery persona and one-dimensional pitched-down vocals, Spark Master Tape is difficult to love. But try as I might, it's hard to be cynical about a release that’s as straight-up fun as The #SWOUP Serengeti. The production palette is varied and dynamic, one minute whipping up a rave-ready blend of gunshots and 808s, before leading with swooping cinematic strings the next. There’s also a strong dancehall influence, a tonne of oddball samples, and – most obviously – cues taken from Houston rap. The vocals might be gimmicky for some, but taken as a faceless exercise in hip hop production its execution is hard to fault.
Jonwayne – Marion Morrison Mixtape
The Marion Morrison Mixtape is the third and final installment in Jonwayne’s tape series for Stones Throw, and it finds the LA rapper / producer in the form of his career. With a mixture of his own beats and loans from the likes of Madlib, Dilla and Premier, Wayne raps himself dizzy with curveball boasts and roundabout insults – making a point to pause for breath halfway through a tongue-twisting version of Pusha T’s ‘Number on the Boards’. He occupies an interesting position in Los Angeles’ creatively rich underground, straddling the line between golden era wistfulness and twisted future rap for the Low End Theory crowd. Jonwayne is happy enough rocking over both - effective with the simplest of piano loops or leading us into weirder territory with fellow west coast experimenters FlyLo, Jeremiah Jae and Zeroh in tow. His upcoming full-length could be something special.
Vince Staples and Larry Fisherman – Stolen Youth
For those who’ve been following Vince Staples’ moves over the past few years, his show-stealing turns on Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. More unexpected is the about-turn made by his co-pilot here Larry Fisherman – better known as Mac Miller – whose stylistic reinvention this year has not gone unnoticed. Sitting in the producer’s chair this time, he laces Staples with beats that fit somewhere between Odd Future and Curren$y's Jet Life and it’s a good fit for them both. Staples meanwhile is developing fast, and if he can continue to rap like he does on ‘Guns & Roses’ and the Schoolboy Q-featuring ‘Back Sellin’ Crack’ it won't be long before he outgrows some of his famous friends.