Review: “i am > i was” by 21 Savage

Popularized largely as the result of his work with producer Metro Boomin in the later part of the decade, 21 Savage is one of the Atlanta trap scene’s up and coming stars, and he comes out swinging for the fences on his December release.  This is a guy who wants to prove that he’s not just a fad or free loader riding on the capes of his contemporaries.  For the most part, his sophomore album i am > i was succeeds at this goal, solidifying him for the time being as one of the stronger members in the mainstream trap scene.

My favorite aspect of 21 Savage’s sound is his singular voice.  It’s hard, but also strangely soothing.  Unlike other comparable artists like Future or Travis Scott, he rarely employs auto-tune in his music, or he does so more sparingly; he sounds much more natural than most for the style of music that he makes.  He is cool and confident; he sounds streetwise, but above all real.  21 and his producers recognizes this strength and capitalizes on it.

Opening track “a lot” is the perfect intro and example of this.  It’s smooth and easy, with laid back beats and a melodic soul sample that carries the listener effortlessly into the record; it’s the type of song you would hear cruising with the top down on a breezy day.  Although the lyrics are stereotypically hip-hop (how much money you got / how much money you got / how much money you got) in a braggadocios sense, it’s not distracting because it’s not anything you wouldn’t expect.  If you’re listening to 21, you’re probably there because you like rap, and are used to these tropes.  The trend continues throughout the rest of the album, in the sense that the lyrics do not break into any new territory and sometimes border on cliché, but it’s ultimately okay because that’s not why anyone listens to 21 Savage anyway.

Where the record succeeds is in providing hot trap anthems to soundtrack your parties and car rides.  Taken at face value this may denote a weak album, but that’s not what I’m trying to say.  Sometimes you just want a solid album to have fun with and turn up to with your friends, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  i am > i was is just that.  It illustrates the growth of an artist over time in terms of providing a more fully developed image, which establishes him as a star to keep an eye on as his career develops.

Rating: 6.0 (Solid)

For info on how we score albums see Our Rating Scale

“Lou Reed 2000” by Lee Scott Reviewed by Ian Miller

Hailing from Runcorn, England, rapper/producer Lee Scott’s new record Lou Reed 2000 is a lo-fi stinger. On early album highlight “TITLE TRACK,” Lee samples Lou Reed interview clips in which Lee answers the questions himself. “You seem very withdrawn . . .” says the interviewer, to which Lee disdainfully spits, “Cause I don’t like talking, I’m depressed / one-word answers, Lou Reed talking to the press.” This line might be laughable in the voice of a less mature rapper, but Lee’s deep, ghoulish sneer combined with the easy, hard-hitting beat make it sound like a threat. The track is underlined with jazz chords that call to mind King Krule, an aesthetic that is kept throughout the record’s concise 30 minute runtime. The message is here from the beginning: Lee is sad, but he’s also tough as nails.

Lou Reed 2000 is full of these types of punchlines. “ROCKET FUEL” finds Lee musing on the ins and outs of his day-to-day over a familiar beat while he sardonically raps, “Corner shop survivalist / fingering your pie n’ chips.” This sounds like a guy who wants to be taken seriously, who has his chops, but at the same time does not want to be taken too seriously. He plays the depressed thug character in a way that sounds authentic, but at the same time seems to imply that it is a character. Lee’s having fun on these tracks even when the lyrics would not necessarily suggest it.

The result is an extremely entertaining listen. “Something’s always got to give, and it’s usually me health / I’m in a league of my own, losing to myself,” closes off the final verse of “ROCKET FUEL,” while a dreary keyboard lead brings it to a close. It sounds like something you’d listen to on a rainy Saturday afternoon, considering going outside and doing something, but the sounds of the record make you want to stay in-doors, and that somehow makes you feel cool. It’s a very specific mood.

Speaking of which, mood is easily the biggest strength of the record. Sonically, it is consistent the whole way through without being repetitive, which is pretty remarkable given that most of the songs have a similar tempo and arrangement. Instead, it builds up the world around the listener, enveloping them in Lee’s (usually unpleasant) consciousness. Lines like, “They say everybody has a dream, well I don’t / I just wake up sometime mid-afternoon and think to meself I should get a scran in soon,” capture a sense of apathy (and maybe buried longing) that seems more rooted in blues and jazz traditions than the emo-rap of today. This is also supported by the chord choices and sparse vocal melodies that appear occasionally throughout the record. The blunt lyrics being contextualized in this sonic atmosphere adds to the authenticity of the message.

Lou Reed 2000 is a wonderfully immersive record that does not ask too much from its listeners. It’s possible to just enjoy this for the music alone and the sound of Lee’s voice, without needing to digest the lyrics. It is a versatile album that is perfect for listening on your own, or in the car with your friends on the way to Taco Bell at night. To anyone who is a fan of lo-fi or jazz rap, this is a record for you.

Rating: 6.8/10 (Solid)

EDIT: The original published version of this review included misquoted lyrics; this mistake has been corrected.

For info on how we score albums, see Our Rating Scale

Metro Boomin – “NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES” Reviewed by Ian Miller

 

For those not in the know, Metro Boomin is one of the most in-demand producers in hip-hop music at the current moment.  He is behind many of the biggest trap hits of the past five-ish years, including Future’s “Mask Off,” “Bank Account” by 21 Savage, “Congratulations” by Post Malone, and Kodack Black’s “Tunnel Vision.”  His solo debut, NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES dropped a few months ago, in which he expands his sonic vision over the course of a full length record.

Although the album is wholly produced by Boomin, he does not lend a verse anywhere on the record.  The vocals are provided by the usual suspects; 21 Savage, Travis Scott, Young Thug, and Swae Lee (and others) all appear at various points throughout the album, giving it vocal variety and a collaborative feel that works mostly to its benefit.  Album opener “10AM/Save The World,” (with Gucci Mane) kicks things off slowly, with Boomin’s trademark dark production and cautionary beats.  Moody strings and piano chords set an ominous tone, and the gorgeous orchestra swells in the outro set an ominous and epic tone straight from the beginning.

This moody vibe continues for the next several tracks, as on the Travis Scott auto-tune crooner “Overdue,” and the dynamic “Don’t Come Out The House,” as 21 Savage alternates between a whispered and mono-tone delivery with his signature trap flow.  Elsewhere, Swae Lee provides melody, as everyone offers the usual swag-trap punchlines.

The strength and weakness of the record is how Metro Boomin uses the artists that he helped break into the mainstream to his benefit, bending them and contorting their voice to suit his needs.  At a run-time of 44 minutes, NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES does not overstay its welcome.  The songs often flow seamlessly into each other, giving it a cohesive feel.  Nowhere does it feel disjointed; it is clearly Boomin’s project.  He is the visionary behind the release, and his presence is felt strongly throughout.  The vocalists are simply along for the ride, and it’s fun to listen to what they bring to the table.  They are there to pay homage to Metro, giving him shout outs on several tracks.  It feels like a posse album similar in some ways to Kanye’s Cruel Summer (2012), which was a collaborative release from the artists on his label.  Everyone on here sounds like they’re having fun, and when the artist is having fun, the listener usually is too.

But, this is also what holds this record back from standing out over other mainstream trap releases in recent memory.  The features have a certain vapid quality to them, and while this is prevalent in a lot of trap music, it comes through in the fact that this is not their own record.  This album is a good example of what it’s trying to do, which is make a moody trap banger that exemplifies the sound that Metro Boomin has helped define.  If you’re in the mood for this sound it will hit the spot, but does little to merit listening in a different context.

Rating: 6.2/10 (It’s solid)

For info on our rating scale see https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/

Our Favorite Musical Moments of 2018

 

This week is our year in review week at Not a Sound and we wanted to try celebrating a few things that don’t get celebrated enough. Both of our editors are musicians and/or songwriters outside of the blog and are passionate about the creative craft that goes into making good music. With that in mind, we thought it would be fun to do a pair of columns celebrating the craft of music rather than just the whole finished product. In the last article we basically just wanted to geek out about a few of our favorite lyrics from releases in 2018. In this one we want to share some of favorite musical moments from 2018. We hope you enjoy these songs as much as we do!

The Offensively Heavy Chorus Riff in “Whispers Among Us” by Rolo Tomassi

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On an album that is definitely not your father’s metal album, Rolo Tomassi pull off incredible cinematic moments, beautiful jazz sections, and lush synth washes, but it was not the most experimental moment on the album that first caught my attention, rather it was exactly what I came for: an obscenely heavy riff. Usually when a band tries to out-heavy themselves it comes off somewhat comical, satisfying, but in a way that makes you think “oh I can’t believe they did that.” The chorus of “Whispers Among Us” manages the incredibly difficult task of landing a riff that is unthinkably heavy, but contextualized in a way that it isn’t in the least bit comical. Instead it hits like a falling building, catching the listener unsuspecting and burying them before they know what hit them.

The Classic, Disney-esque Strings in “Window” by Noname

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Though Noname’s newest offering is led primarily by her talented lyricism, it is also an album full of creative arrangement choices. Perhaps one of the most ear-catching is the introduction to “Window”, which features a beautiful, cinematic string section that can only be prepared to the opening of a fairy-tale or a classic Disney movie.

The Transitions From “On Watch II” to “E.D.” to “The Author” on Slow Mass’s “On Watch”

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Slow Mass’s newest record might be the most underrated album of 2018, due in large part to their mastery of dynamic movement both in songs and between them. One of the most incredible moments on the album comes as the interlude “On Watch II” crescendos into the frenetic “E.D.”, which is more than doubly as heavy as anything previous on the album, which itself fizzles out after only a minute into the reserved track “The Author.” It happens so quickly and from so out of left field that it almost demands you replay it to make sure you didn’t imagine it.

The Jarring Beat Changes on “SICKO MODE” by Travis Scott feat. Drake

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“Sicko Mode” is the best song off 2018’s Astroworld.  In an album full of hits, it stands above the others as the main attraction.  Between the multiple beat changes and catchy (if uncomplicated) flows from Scott and Drake, the song feels like a thrilling rollercoaster, the kind where you’re ready to ride again as soon as you get off.

The Rock n’ Roll Ecstasy of “Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)” by KIDS SEE GHOSTS

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To those only marginally familiar with their careers, it may seem unlikely that Kanye West and Kid Cudi created one of the most explosive rock jams of the year.  But indeed – it happened.  The crushing guitar chords and booming drums clash gorgeously with Kanye’s yelpy singing, while Cudi’s bass-heavy voice sounds like it could swallow up the world.  Add in the gorgeous harmonies provided by Ty Dolla $ign during the breaks, and you have the type of song that you’ll be turning up to max volume over and over again.

The Psychedelic Mirage of “Nowhere2go” by Earl Sweatshirt

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The first single off of Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs is a beautiful hallucination of sound.  There is so much going on, so much to unpack during its 1:53 run time. Earl raps over a disorienting yet infectious beat, as layer upon layer of melodic samples whirl around him.  It is gorgeous and exhilarating, the type of song that begs to be longer.  The sounds themselves are so beautiful that it is easy to forget that Earl is actually saying words here; his voice sounds like just another instrument in the mix.