In this week’s album roundup, I'll answer all the above questions as we reckon belatedly with some of the summer’s biggest releases, a few of which are better than you might have heard.
Chance the Rapper –The Big Day
Having fruitlessly scoured indifferent reviews from former Chano admirers for any significant musical objections to this 77-minute celebration of newly wedded bliss (though I’ve got too much self-respect to seek the answer on Twitter or YouTube), I’m left with the assumption that a lot of people who feel uncomfortable calling gospel and/or grandmas corny are super-eager to tell you they’re too cool for love songs. Yes, it’s too long (especially with four and a half minutes of skit) and Chance’s taste in white backing vocalists is, to use a technical term, wack (excepting Randy Newman, of course, whose short pause between “you can get over anything” and “almost” is a stroke of sly genius). But if those are crimes against rap, you tell me who’s not guilty? The first 10 or so minutes is as summery and lush a stretch of music as I’ve heard in 2019, and the old-school goof of a bachelor party that interrupts it is the first of a string of slick curveballs to follow. Chance’s rhyming is, if anything, more nimble than on Coloring Book, and both his boasts (“I made the three more famous than Steph”) and roasts (“Side chicks make they Kool-Aid with Splenda”) are genial and winning. But yeah, the dude loves his wife and he likes to rap about it. You totally got him there, asshole. GO
Beyoncé –The Lion King: The Gift
“Beyoncé Goes to Africa” is a tantalizing concept, promising far more majestic cross-cultural revelations than the earthly delights gathered here, their recognizable groove an indication of how subtly Afrobeats has already immigrated into U.S. pop. But trim away the 13 dialogue snippets intended to whip up Disney synergy and juice the album’s chart position with extra Spotify plays and you’ve got 14 solid-at-worst tracks stretching a little over 45 minutes. (Actually, you don’t have to—I’ve done it for you below.) As always, the queen’s generosity and self-interest are inseparable: She exposes her hivelings to a broader expanse of culture while also branding its artifacts as subsidiaries within the global reach of Beycorp, Inc. And she could’ve taken a cue from Kendrick’s Black Panther soundtrack and ceded more ground to her guests: the Nigerian artists on “Don’t Jealous Me” and Tierra Whack’s showcase “My Power” don’t require regal supervision. But the most transcendent moments here are indeed Bey’s, particularly her summit with the Malian great Oumou Sangaré on “Mood 4 Eva.” GO
YBN Cordae –The Lost Boy
Confessing to an anxiety-fueled pill habit he kept hidden so he wouldn’t get clowned on, turning to prayer rather than self-pity, leaving a house that wasn’t a home, this kid is the kind of searcher you don’t hear much from in any branch of pop these days. His churchy moments are less extravagant than Chance’s, whose yelpy aplomb throws the youthful assurance of Cordae’s flow into relief on “Big Idea,” which also contributes the sharpest gospel-soul touch (with help from Donny and Roberta’s “Be Real Black for Me”) to an album that swells with them. The groove here looks back toward community, tradition, a sense of continuity, maybe just some kind of coherence—all elements a lost boy might crave. And if it sometimes seems to prop up the rhymes of the talented but ordinary MC at the center of it all, you can understand why producers want to help him out. Any decent folks would. GO
E-40 –Practice Makes Paper
Rap’s a game hardly known for quality control, but even so no one floods the market with product like Earl Stevens. In the past 10 years the Bay Area vet has released 15 albums, more than a full waking day of music, and that’s not counting a pair of Too Short full-length collabs and another with B Real and who knows what else I might have overlooked. Not only haven’t I listened to it all, I don’t even remember what I did listen to. So what’s another 26 tracks in 85 minutes between friends? He stacks feature on top of feature without shame (who wants to party alone?) and stretches out lines like “Ho, I'm a mogul, your dude is a hobo“ and “Money longer than the end of them action-packed movie credits” with his good-natured Silly Putty flow over that same ol’ clicky snare and same ol’ sneakily melodic synth bass. You’ll find nothing you can’t live without here, plenty you’ll like, and at least one track you’ll love. Mine happens to the servicey "Bet You Didn't Know," which provides info both useful (“in California you can vote if ain't on parole no more”) and dubious (“a dolphin can beat a shark”).
NF –The Search
Chance who? Chicago’s favorite son was kept from the top of the charts last month by a white Michigan kid with a yammery flow, suicidal tendencies, and multiple personalities, and if you think you’ve heard this all before—well, you have, actually, just not quite so blandly. This not-a-Christian-rapper-just-a- rapper-who’s-a-Christian (you know the drill) is as morose as Juice WRLD and, if we’re to believe his “I don’t do drugs/I’m addicted to the pain though,” without the xanny to blame. The home stretch of titles goes “Options” → “WHY” → “Thinking” → “Trauma.” “Time” sounds like Coldplay writing a Post Malone song. Millions of depressed teens who think Eminem’s a washed-up jerk and Logic’s probably a narc have to settle for this. NO