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Kamikaze begins with a disconcerting crescendo into a thunderous crash. Eminem's tenth studio album follows this trajectory over the course of its near 46-minute run time. What begins as a skirmish against his contemporaries turns into a portentous battle against a wide array of additional detractors. Em's on the defensive; looking to prove that the genre he's growing away from is wrong, and he is in the right.
Eminem's latest marks the start of a whimpering end of this exhausting summer for rap's elite. The last four months have been upholstered with releases from just about everyone in our culture that matters, with many of the year's most water cooler conversation moments coinciding with these. Since June, there have been 72 important projects unleashed to the public.
For the rising and established young elite, this period has been rife with experimentation to positive results. Teyana Taylor, although unhappy with the rollout, presented an intrepid opus with K.T.S.E. on June 23, traversing a vanload of experiences to connect her Janet Jackson influence to the new age. 03 Greedo proved himself an apt and hungry warlock on God Level, manipulating the properties of modern hip-hop to extrapolate new ways to enchant fans of the unfamiliar. And with ONEPOINTFIVE, Amine proved himself more than a jester with a mean sixteen, opting for a more visceral and heart-felt approach to lyricism.
For those in tune with the genre's ebb and flow, the elasticity in their music served them right. Travis Scott's long-awaited third studio album Astroworld scored the second largest opening week of the year, moving 537,000 album-equivalent units (270,000 in pure album sales). Its large, expansive, museum-like collection of influences contribute to a sonically diverse palette of sounds. Denzel Curry's Ta1300 is equally as adventurous as Astroworld, albeit on a smaller scale, with a smaller ring of collaborators and an equal testament to redefining the genre's standard of malleability.
But for the genre's iconoclasts, the summer has been torturous. Maybe the all-time heat records (according to the Washington Post) set across the world have been frying their brains more than their younger contemporaries, accounting for excessive anger, lackluster content, and just a general air of mediocrity permeating their endeavors. But, one thing's for certain; this summer has been an ardourous one for rap's paragons. Thank God that it's finally over.
Kanye's announcement of a slew of G.O.O.D Music albums kicked things off in April, letting the world know that the collective was looking to transform the summer into one for the books. Pusha T's Daytona, in all of its nostalgic, Mafioso bliss, served as the slew of releases', and the summer's, preface. With 'Ye at the helm, the beats were soul-crushingly hefty, filled with soulful samples, the oddest of zigs and zags, and an Akira-like futuristic, retro shtick. Paul Thompson, in his Pitchfork review of the album, said it "holds up as a near-airtight exercise in flair and focus."
But, it turns out, the preface was better than the actual product. One by one, G.O.O.D Music's experimental five-week program fell to the dogs. Kanye West released his eighth studio album ye on June 1. Comprised of seven tracks and only 23 minutes of run time, it's almost shocking how much of its heft (or lack of) goes into exploring 'Ye's mind. The rollout up until the album's release teased a politically aware album that would explore his Trumpian alliance as well as the mental health issues plaguing him. But aside from stinging punchlines and questionable moral ethics, all that ye did was confirm that, at 41, Kanye doesn't wear his age as well as 2 Chainz, a similarly slick rapper, albeit a year younger, that straddles the line of OG and man in charge much better than 'Ye can without throwing tantrums.
The machine kept on pushing. Kids See Ghosts, the joint album from the group of the same name comprised by Kanye West and Kid Cudi, was monumentally more successful. 'Ye had saved his best beats for the Cudi-assisted endeavor. Cudi, on the album, was mystifying with his fiery deliverance. Like a pastor at an urban church, the voice of God could be felt through his shrieking on "Freee" as well as the supporting vocals in other instances. Kanye's presence consisted of mostly bars that were in the same vein as ye: quick to draw a punch but lacking in substance. In the rearview, Cudi's presence was what made the project stick. 'Ye's contribution fell flat. But with the rapid pace of music to release this summer, the album's largely at the back of the average listener's mind.
Nasir was supposed to be the mesmerizing storytelling opus performing as a tell-all; mainly, exploring the allegations of domestic abuse levied at him by ex-wife Kelis. But from the opening line of the album, it was clear that Nas was bored. His lazy, slapdash manner of exploring both common and obscure problematic social events was starkly different than the wide-eyed Afrocentric passion extrapolated from the pits of his 1994 debut album Illmatic. He and Kanye didn't match either; from top to the bottom, the album was a wasted opportunity. So, as mediocre music does, its moment passed in the blink of an eye.
Drake may be in his early thirties, but he's already on the precipice of entering OG territory. The bare-faced ladies' man that rapped breathlessly and scrupulously on Comeback Season in 2007 is now rap's biggest star, leading the genre's fascination with newer artists whom he frequently passes the torch to while extrapolating their fanbases' interest. Scorpion, his fifth sudio album, released at the height of summer on June 29 and, with it, an enormous variety of sounds and influences. 25 tracks, 89 minutes – a B-grade horror film on Netflix is less than that. Across the album, you could hear the wide net cast upon finding new sounds. On the Tay Keith-produced "Nonstop," Drake tried his hardest to emulate 21 Savage's menacing growl. "Nice for What" and "In My Feelings" mixed vanilla-Drake's high energy with New Orelans Bounce. "I'm Upset" added an un-Drake-like darkness to an imaginary diss with the production of OOGIE MANE, the in-house producer of new-age rap collective Working On Dying led by 13-year-old artist Matt Ox.
The problem with Scorpion was that it was just too much. Of the 25 tracks, ten were, at most, replay-worthy. The filler was obnoxious, even if he was discussing the "hidden child" that Pusha T exposed the diss track "The Story of Adidon." While Drake struck success with "In My Feelings," thanks to internet comedian Shiggy's viral dance, his numerous attempts to pander to new audiences unknowingly exposed his seniority. It felt as if he was frantically grasping for footholds to secure himself in a game he could be falling out of touch with.
Nicki Minaj's Queen hit shelves on August 10, contradictory to reports that it would have been pushed back to August 17 to clear a sample from Tracy Chapman. She was embroiled in controversy surrounding a verbal assault on writer Wanna Thompson after the latter voiced a personal sentiment about Minaj's declining artistic merit. When Queen released, Thompson's sentiment was seemingly confirmed (Nicki denied contacting Wanna despite visual proof). Lyrically, Nicki covered common ground: bitches being her offspring, how other hoes couldn't compare to her accolades, pretty much what she's been talking about since the late 2000s. The bevy of beats utilized contained next to no surprises. "Rich Sex" was New York in its most bombastic, murky form. The Ariana Grande collaboration, "Bed," was empty pop in the vein of Kid Ink (not necessarily similar sonically, but atmospherically identical). While it had its bright spots, most notably the extremely playful "Barbie Dreams," it missed the mark. Her spot at the top of rap's pyramid meant that fans wanted to see growth. But what they got was more of the same.
With Kamikaze now in hindsight, amidst the tidal wave of criticism washing to shore, it's time to put a wrap on this summer for our elites. From 'Ye to Em, the struggle to create with the same vigor as decades past has been apparent. When Nicki Minaj lashed out (and continues to) at Travis Scott for utilizing album bundles to sell more units than her (a practice she's proven to do as well) and Eminem devotes precious album time to attack new-age rap conventions when, instead, they should both be focusing on their own work, the sting of aging makes itself apparent. No one likes to get older; accepting it makes it easier for everyone, though. If anything, this summer proves that successfully aging in the world of hip-hop is extremely hard to do.
There are still a few more weeks until summer's officially over on September 21. But, currently, none of the big timers are scheduled to release anything. The YBN collective and Russ Vitale will be releasing projects on September 7; Lil Pump and Young Dolph will be dropping on September 14. These projects will, undoubtedly, showcase the changing nature of rap's next age. Our paragons should sit back and kick their feet up. Let the next cast occupy the cozy months. After what we've seen this summer, it looks like our heroes need a break.
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