CAN I KICK IT? TEYANA TAYLOR KEEPS THAT SAME ENERGY

It’s finally over. The G.O.O.D. Music wave of projects executively produced by Kanye West has passed. While it will be interesting to see if any of these projects last, it is already apparent that Keep That Same Energy, the newest album from Teyana Talor, is the most fun and least-pressurized of the lot. DAYTONAyeKIDS SEE GHOSTS, and NASIR were all statement pieces about the place of each prospective artist’s place in the game or their own lives currently. Taylor’s album feels the least like a statement piece out of the group.

It’s interesting to see how Taylor thrives. She was introduced to the world on MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen, launched her music career with the lackluster “Google Me,” then reinvented herself with 90s nostalgia on her debut VII, which was released four years ago. The benefit of sporadically releasing music, it might be concluded, is that Teyana hasn’t been labeled with a certain identifiable sound. No expectations mean no restraints and K.T.S.E. contains songs entitled “3Way” and closes with “WTP” (an acronym that stands for “Work This P***y”). The music and samples feature a wide range of sounds, from classic soul ballad samples of the Delfonics and Billy Stewart to the kind of up-tempo, electric R&B that could be found at fashion shows. Indeed, it is the least trendy of any of the recent G.O.O.D. Music projects.

Taylor excels in the setting that Kanye creates for her. Her husky singing over the handsome funkiness of “Gonna Love Me” and “Issues/Hold On” show an artist that has grown exceedingly since the days of her 2014 hit “Maybe.” For the most part, she isn’t trying to find a perfect mix between R&B and rap here, but rather express a certain level of joy that is all too frequently missing from her contemporaries. You can hear it in her falsettos on “Gonna Love Me” and in the rhythm of her vocals on “Hurry.” Her confidence on “Rose In Harlem” comes as a surge of electricity to some of her earlier coolness that sounds like the kind of energy from which many of the younger generation of hip-hop artists are making a name for themselves.

K.T.S.E. is not a dramatic departure from VII, but it does suggest Taylor is capable of taking her career and music in multiple directions. Kanye does her voice and tastes justice with his production, and she does him favors by closing out the G.O.O.D. strongly.

RICH THE KID, SABER & MORE AT ADIDAS’ X18+ WC EVENT IN LA

While the world is aware that brands like to put in money and effort into their campaign events, it’s safe to say that as of late adidas has risen the bar, especially with what they’ve done out here in Los Angeles – their 747 event for basketball back in February being a prime example. Last week the sportswear giant went at it again for its soccer division to celebrate its latest innovation for the sport, coinciding of course with the 2018 World Cup. If you’ve been following us – and any other soccer-orientated platform for that matter – you’ll already be well aware of adidas Soccer’s X18+ silhouette, a slim and sleek, laceless offering that focuses on the power of speed. It’s been dubbed “the fastest and lightest laceless boot available.”

Highlighting its release, the X18+ Energy Mode event brought in crowds to experience a live customization of adidas soccer kits, enjoy the open bars and food courtesy of Sweet Chick, and to witness a live Tango League with an MVP to be chosen to win a trip to Russia to compete in the global Tango League final. Rolling up to the event, which took place at adidas’ The Base location in Los Angeles – yup, the same as where we hold our The Association game nights – we were set loose to enjoy all the aforementioned happenings and then some.

While soccer was very much the main focus of the day, adidas managed to mix in music and art with the beautiful game by inviting OG Graffiti legend Saber, who conducted a live art installment that saw him spray painting over a wall of soccer balls, each being handed out to the public along with a Saber signature. The main event, however, was when adidas brought out Queens-native Rich the Kid who got the crowd into a frenzy. To cap the night off, a squad of motorbike riders tore up the cement outside – from wheelies to donuts – all in a bid to create some near-deafening noise to celebrate the Tango League MVP winner: Melvyn Owen Perez Cortez – congrats, kid!

While we managed to enjoy ourselves at the event, if there’s a work opportunity, you know we’ll take it, so we asked adidas if they could sit us down with its soccer division’s merchandising manager Joseph Sleven to talk all things X18+, as well as his thoughts on the current landscape of soccer culture. Check out the interview below, as well as our official visual recap of the event throughout.


To start, can you summarize adidas’ new X18 Energy Mode pack for those that are still unfamiliar with the innovation?
Put it frankly, the thought process behind the design of the shoe was to build something for the fastest player possible, down to the look, down to the field, down to the weight. Everything about it is supposed to enable our most explosive – our fastest players – to perform at their top level.

So there’s obviously a lot of aspects when it comes to playing soccer in terms of product design. Why focus on speed for this release?
When we create the range, and when we look at our footwear, there’s any number of players that take part or participate in the game. So for us, the predator is that person who controls the game, they dictate the tempo, their touch, their field or class… everything they do can kind of permeate throughout the team. X players are extremely explosive with getting to the end of the pitch and putting the ball in the back of the net. Nemesis is for those agility players who are really unpredictable – they don’t really fit into a box. Maybe they’re floating around the field but they have these moments of magic that you can’t recreate. And then the Copa is the boot. It’s the soccer player… It’s almost your favorite player’s favorite boot. So everything within that portfolio speaks to different players of the game recognizing that no two players are the same.

Can you speak about the thoughts behind the X18+’s colorway and the overall aesthetics of the shoe?
Well, first and foremost it needed to look fast and speak specifically to that speed player. So you look at its sleek minimalistic design and all these elements which are kind of pulling back and giving it that almost movement visual – even when it’s stagnant it looks like it’s moving. That’s what we want for the speed silo. When we talk about the flash you have these iridescent parts at the branding, as well as on the sole of the shoe. When we talk about colorway, again when you’re on the field you want it to pop. You want something that really jumps out. So this blue is really shocking, it kind of jumps out at you and it really speaks to this silo because it’s like nothing else within the footwear family right now. When we talk about being fashion-forward, with bringing it on to the street or into the cage, the fact that it’s laceless for us is our top technology. We wanted that to be something that also lent itself to being worn with shorts or as you can see in the cage. It doesn’t just necessarily have performance tooling only. There’s a lot of, I would say, fashionable detailing in there, whether it be raises where there would be lasing, or for that speed look, we’ve given it that see-through aesthetic on the upper, or even the flash on the bottom. So a lot of things come from just thinking through the 365 of what our players’ day looks like.

Moving on from the X18+, with you coming from adidas, how aware are you with the way that soccer is going on a cultural standpoint, or what it looks like when it comes to say fashion, music, or art? Is that something that adidas is very much up to date with?
Absolutely. I think that’s really what they look at when they’re putting everything together. So even beyond cleats, take for instance jerseys, we look at that and recognize that these aren’t just specific to playing on the pitch. We’re looking at the hem line, looking at shoulder drop lines, the technology, and those tech details, or even call outs for that country specifically, those are things that we feel lives on the pitch as well as off the pitch. So it’s recognizing that again, soccer is 365 for people who live, breathe, eat, and sleep the sport. And beyond that, when you look at what we’re offering, it’s not just cleats, it’s not just performance jerseys. We have seasonal specialty product that is bespoke to Argentina or Mexico, but it’s really for the street specifically. Maybe not for an avid consumer, but somebody who recognizes that they are a casual fan of this club and that they can wear that shirt, they can wear the pants or the woven shorts, creating a whole offering across every federation, across every club that allows you to rep no matter the circumstances – after, before, or during a game. We’re looking at product holistically now through that lens of the entire year and day.

Last question: speaking of repping, with the World Cup underway, do you have a country that you’re rooting for?
For me specifically, I mean I would love to see Messi get one, right! But honestly, as a fan of the sport, I just want good games. I want to see just incredible moments, the ones that give you chills and that keep you wanting more, and I think when you put the best countries in the world together, you’re going to get those moments inevitably. So I’m just really looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds.

Images by Ben Higginbotham.

CAN I KICK IT? NAS DROPS NASIR

After the longest dormant period of his career, Queens native and hip-hop hall-of-famer Nas released Nasir, his slimmest, lowest-concept album to date. It’s the fourth of five records produced by Kanye West, all seven songs long, all to be released before the end of June. It also arrived amid scandal with which both men have been involved. West started the promotion for all of these G.O.O.D. Music releases by returning to Twitter® and proclaiming his support for Donald Trump, while Kelis recently released statements claiming that Nas was physically abusive during their marriage (Nas was also previously accused of assaulting Carmen Bryan, the mother of his daughter, in 2006).

While West poked fun of the drama surrounding him on his album ye, Nas hasn’t addressed the allegations publically, and he doesn’t approach the subject on Nasir. Indeed, lyrically speaking, Nas brings precious little that could be considered fresh or poignant. The closest he gets is on “Simple Things” when he raps “Was loving women you’ll never see me/All you know’s my kids’ mothers, some celebrities/Damn, look at the jealousy.” Sure, the album’s length could be a contributing factor, but the project contains precious little of thematic design or narrative, two elements that have always been his strengths. It’s among his most diffused and ill-defined albums. His last album Life Is Good saw him trying to come to grips with middle age and explore new ground, but he often sounds clumsy and subdued here, even in his cadence.

When writing linear narratives or exploring his own biography, Nas has few peers. He’s often at his most potent when he explores abstractions or lofty theories, but within the running time of Nasir, most of those end up sounding like foil-hat conspiracy theories. The opener, “Not For Radio,” contains a cameo from Sean Combs talking trash and statements like “Fox News was started by a black dude.” It almost works in much the same way that a campy villain theme song from a low-budget movie works, but Nas’ verses are too pedestrian, both in writing and enforcement. On more than one occasion here, he plods along, almost sounding bored, as if he knows that half of his audience might not even believe half of the things he says.

Amid all of the G.O.O.D. Music releases, Kanye West has served as both a distraction and a sort of lightning rod for listens and reviews. That being said, Nasir is fairly consistent musically. At times, the music contains focus and energy that reflect a sort of deference that Kanye has for Nas that he has for few other living artists. Many of the samples used here are perfectly germane, the most notable (or perhaps just popular) of which comes on “Cops Shot The Kid,” which contains one of the most refreshing reworkings of a Slick Rick “Children’s Story” sample in quite some time.

There are flashes when Nas sounds like Nas, such as on the end of “Everything,” when he raps about buying back the land on which white men enslaved his ancestors, but then there are moments when he describes himself as a “chin-grabber, neck-choker, in-her-mouth-spitter, blouse-ripper, a**-grabber.” It’s hard to imagine any rapper being that stupid under the circumstances, but intentional or not, that makes for some uneasy listening. Like many other artists, of course, he has had similar failures in the past (“Oochie Wally”), but most of those were spectacular botches. With Nasir, however, Nas is something he’s rarely ever been: humdrum.

BEATS BY DRE PRESENTS MADE DEFIANT: THE MIXTAPE

As World Cup fever heats up, Beats by Dre has produced another short film entitled Made Defiant: The Mixtape. Renowned director Guy Ritchie brings his signature style, including a rugged narration (by Paul Anderson) and stylish jump cuts, to the world of football.

The film brings together contemporary original and remixed music and some of the sport’s most famous athletes to highlight the influence of the game on the humblest of world citizens. In this case, a young Russian named Andre is inspired to turn obstacle into opportunity. The music is from artists like Anderson .Paak, Enya, Jonah Christian, King Mez, and Ring The Alarm. Some of the footballers featured in the film are Harry Kane, Mesut Özil, Thierry Henry, Patrice Evra, Benjamin Mendy, Fyodor Smolov, Neymar, Eden Hazard, David DeGea. Even Serena Williams stops by for a cameo.

The Beats products that can be seen in the film are part of the brand’s Decade Collection, which includes Beats Studio3 Wireless over-ear headphones, Beats Solo3 on-ear headphones, BeatsX wireless earphones, Powerbeats3 Wireless earphones, and urBeats3 earphones.

Check out the film below.

CAN I KICK IT? G.O.O.D. JUNE PT. 3 – KIDS SEE GHOSTS

June of 2018 might see Kanye West’s music endeavors becoming as polarizing as the man himself. As he continues to executively (and sometimes directly) produce various G.O.O.D. Music projects, he has the internet lamenting aspects of each, all the while Pusha T made Drake look questionable for the first time in his career and saw ye become his 8th number one album on the Billboard charts. The third project to be produced and released by Kanye West is the long-awaited collaboration with Kid Cudi, a man that’s been viewed both as West’s protégé and contemporary (sometimes even antagonist). KIDS SEE GHOSTS a more fleshed-out, cathartic version of ye that finds Cudi playing something of an angel to some of Kanye West’s inner demons.

That seems like an odd notion on the surface, especially considering the history of mental health both men have experienced in the last few years. Much will be made of such things in most other reviews of this album, but suffice it to say, both artists seem to have arrived at a more resolved and peaceful place in both of their life journeys. “Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2),” starts with Kanye West saying “I don’t feel pain anymore/Guess what baby? I feel free.” On “Fire,” West raps, “I done proved to myself, back on that rulin’ myself.” On “4th Dimension,” Cudi raps, “The put the beams on, get your, get your dream on/But you don’t hear me though, drama: we let it go.” This isn’t necessarily the typical “f*** the world” attitude that can be seen on many hip-hop records, but rather a pair of men that influenced a generation of artists to bare their minds, souls, and troubles to the world arriving at a better place after all of the turmoil.

Indeed, KIDS SEE GHOSTS sonically finds Kanye and Cudi catching up and passing a wave of artists who were profoundly influenced by West’s 808’s & Heartbreak. The music sometimes feels disjointed and often intense, but the constant sampling and prayers offered up by Kanye on songs like “Cudi Montage” signify a sense of resolution that both men have found after all this time. And while neither has ever been the type to hold feelings or ideas in reserve, the album length seems to benefit both here more so than Kanye’s solo project. It’s true that a few aspects are a little distracting, like when both yell gunshot sound effects on “Feel The Love,” or when Kanye raps about accidental anal sex, but they also signify Kanye being himself again, basking in that grey area between creative power and absurdity. Indeed, he’s always seemed most comfortable standing atop the musical Grand Canyon at night, looking down into the abyss.

Lyrically, most of the catharsis comes from Cudi talking about leaving behind his scars, having heaven lift him up. “Pain in my eyes, in the time I find, I’m stronger than I ever was/Here we go again, God, shine your love on me, save me, please.” While it’s true that Life of Pablo was heavily influenced by gospel music, it’s also true that Kanye has not quite displayed any sense of justification in the eyes of his creator. It is interesting, and at times refreshing, to see Kid Cudi of all artists sing on a song called “Reborn” that talks about moving forward and having no stress. Add that to the ethereal title track featuring vocals from Yasiin Bey and Anthony Hamilton, and the project is, at the very least, an achievement for Cudi in that regard.

KIDS SEE GHOSTS is a stronger outing than ye, one that is sure to receive more critical acclaim. Whether it can supplant its predecessor atop the charts remains to be seen. Many thought that ye was a sign that this month of music wasn’t going to be as noteworthy as Kanye was making it out to be, but this album goes a long way to proving him correct. This might have upped the stakes and pressure on a Nas album higher than any other besides Illmatic.

 

CAN I KICK IT? STREAMS OF THOUGHT VOL. 1

Last December, Black Thought dropped what many consider to be the most epic on-air freestyle in history on Funkmaster Flex’s radio show. As astonishing as it was affirming, it proved that the 46-year old emcee from Philadelphia is still somehow improving his craft decades after many of his original contemporaries have faded into obscurity. In the world of hip-hop, that’s almost as remarkable as an athlete doing the same. In one sense, he’s not in a desperate position needing to appease fans with lengthy freestyles to prove that he’s still got it (The Roots are the house band of “The Tonight Show” and he acts in an HBO drama). After more than 30 years of rhyming, he doesn’t have to drop solo EPs to prove anything either. Streams of Thought Vol. 1 therefore, carries the spirit of that freestyle by serving as a highlight of what Tariq Trotter can do.

2018 seems to be becoming something of a response to the current hip-hop SoundCloud and downloadable single trend exploited by young, independent artists. Artists from The Weeknd to Kanye West have released projects 7 tracks or shorter, and SOTV1 follows suit. At only 5 tracks in length, the project itself will be considered an EP. Much like DAYTONA or YE, Black Thought’s first solo project is devoid of hooks, anything that sounds like an attempt at radio play, and largely of melody. Fans can expect bars, boom bap beats and samples unearthed from old crates, and little else. And that isn’t a bad thing. At 17 minutes in length, SOTV1 is something like the Cliffs Notes to Trotter’s skills, showcasing years of references and experiences layered into sententious, crisp narratives.

9th Wonder has been billed as the co-headliner here, and he mostly pieces together a collection of soulful loops and steady drum beats that allow him to fall back behind center stage, allowing Black Thought to lay down technical, hookless, and relentless rhymes. The most interesting sounds come on “Dostoyevsky” and “Making A Murderer,” the two tracks on the project that contain features. The former allows Thought’s taste for classic literature to create something like rhyming wanderlust.

Uh, I said Dostoyevsky meets Joe Pesci
Tired of staring at a glass half empty
Turning me from Dr. Sebi to cocking semi
It got me clutching my machete from the Serengeti already
Wild Style and Fab Five Freddy
I’m a stranger in Moscow, don’t ask how deadly is the ummah
Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah
To the Tripoli shores from the halls of Montezuma

Aside from a flat line from Styles P on “Making A Murderer” (“We all got f***ed but no pornos”), the guests acquit themselves well enough. In reality, however, they feel like intermissions. To be sure, they seem to indulge in the low-stakes rhyming exercises. After the aforementioned line, Styles P lays down a verse that shows an artist willing to write until the pen runs dry. Rapsody is allowed to throw down a proficient verse with a few lines like “I ain’t turn starboy in a weekend.” Both come across like Kobe Bryant playing basketball at Rucker Park. In the end, though, SOTV1 might be better without features.

The closing track “Thank You” suggests that Thought has managed relevancy in a fickle industry and an escape from the violence of his hometown both through hard work and divine favor. “For every lesson I received as I live and breathe/And all the blessings I believed in and been achieved.” Black Thought may or may not have many more personal mountains to climb, but his career has been like a journey through Yellowstone and out into the valley looking toward the Grand Tetons. He might be on his way to the posh retirement community that is Jackson Hole, but he’s given no indication that he’s uninterested in a few more grand vistas along the way.

CAN I KICK IT? PUSHA T RELEASES DAYTONA

If all of the forthcoming projects produced by Kanye West meet their release dates, then G.O.O.D. Music might just swallow all of hip-hop and perhaps even the entire music industry whole this summer. It’s been three years since Pusha T released Darkest Before Dawn, and quite a while since the rest of the artists with whom Kanye West has been working in Wyoming released as well (Nas, Kid Cudi). If DAYTONA is any indication of what’s to come, the masses might almost forget West’s recent social media statements.

Pusha’s new album, named after his favorite watch, represents the luxury an artist of his stature has at this point of his career in taking as much time as he needs to create a worthwhile project. In an age of radio singles, downloads, free SoundCloud releases, and viral videos, DAYTONA arrives as an antithesis, an exercise by a veteran that’s been in the game for more than two decades who no longer feels the pressure of making a name for himself or reaching a larger audience (“I’m too rare amongst all of this pink hair”). The album clocks in around 21 minutes at only 7 tracks long, but the deep production samples suggest months of crate-digging. There isn’t a shred of fat to be found here; no hooks, no clear radio single in sight. DAYTONA goes like the finest steak money can buy.

Some fans, undoubtedly, will feel shortchanged by less than ten tracks. The creative decisions do indeed leave little room for error with the album, but the finished product amounts to a statement from an artist continuing to reject what has become en vogue in the industry. Ultimately, Pusha T emerges triumphant, and any complaints will be most likely end up being similar to people complaining about the cover artwork (a photo published in 2006 of Whitney Houston’s bathroom) or to others complaining that he is still writing luxury drug raps. Pusha is a specialist, however, that writes such raps so well that most naysayers probably aren’t listening closely enough.

With DAYTONA, Pusha aligns himself with hip-hop legends, figuratively and lyrically. On the obdurate, no-nonsense “The Games We Play,” he compares himself to the likes of Ghostface and Raekwon (“To all of my young n****s, I am your Ghost and your Rae/This is my Purple Tape, save up for rainy days”), and later on “Infrared,” includes himself on a guest list that includes names like Jay-Z. Like the latter accomplished with American Gangster, Pusha has provided a highbrow appeal to tropes that wouldn’t be considered the shortest route to widespread appeal or the cutting edge of the genre. And after twenty years, there are few of his peers rapping at his level on “What Would Meek Do?” (“Angel on my shoulder, “what should we do?” (we do)/Devil on the other, “what would Meek do?”/Pop a wheelie, tell the judge to Akinyele/Middle fingers out the Ghost, screamin’ “Makaveli”).

Much will be made of “Infrared,” the album’s conclusion that seems to re-ignite Pusha’s beef with Drake and the Cash Money label. The song contains a Quentin Miller reference and at least one other shot at using ghostwriters, but the most scathing remarks are directed at Baby and Wayne. “Salute Ross ’cause the message was pure/He see what I see when you see Wayne on tour/Flash without the fire/Another multi-platinum rapper trapped and can’t retire.” It’s not just a diss track, but more of a declaration of Push’s own ability to navigate the rap game like he navigated the streets. “Only rapper that sold more dope than me was Eazy-E.” DAYTONA proves that King Push is still coming out on top.

 

 

CAN I KICK IT? KYLE RELEASES LIGHT OF MINE

“Look around. Look at life…You got so much more to appreciate.” So says Lil Yatchy, acting as California-native emcee and producer KYLE’s conscious on “iSpy,” the latter’s 2016 single that managed to break top ten positions on U.K. and U.S. charts. KYLE’s new album Light of Mine not only reflects this attitude but does so in a much more mature way that his previous two projects SMYLE and Beautiful Loser. Whereas KYLE has always crafted feel-good, upbeat genre-bending hip-hop music, he more fully acknowledges the not-so-fun aspects of life this time around. In the end, Light of Mine is not only an escape but also a call-to-action for the masses stuck in the doldrums of social media antagonism and negative news.

The album opener “Ups & Downs” is quite the introductory paragraph to the essay KYLE has written to support this thesis. In the last two years, the playful rapper from Ventura, California, has come a long way from the days of “Sex & Super Smash Bros.” He made the biggest hit of his career, but instead of being changed by the game, he seems determined to remain himself amid the pressure of expectation. Light of Mine doesn’t feature any video game soundbite samples or songs crafted around superhero double entendres, and a few notable features might seem to suggest otherwise on the surface, but the album is really a well-crafted argument against conformity. That conformity includes the en vogue tendency of many hip-hop artists to write songs about living one’s best life either accompanied by or amid drug overdoses, binge drinking, or treating life like a party. “Listen, please approach your early twenties with some caution/GPS my way back to myself, I thought I lost it.”

Light of Mine starts with the protagonist depressed and lost, and it’s not until the end of the album that he’s fully back to his old life-loving self. The penultimate track “Clouds” is the climax of the story here, where he remarks, “I’ve walked so many miles with my head aimed at the ground/I forgot the world and clouds (clouds, clouds, clouds, clouds)/If I could just look up, I’d see him lookin’ down/I know my grandpa’s proud.” It’s not that life’s difficulties and sadnesses are only of our own making, but their effects and lasting impact are largely just that.

It’s not that KYLE won’t smoke weed or drink alcohol (that’s the opposite of the truth). It’s not even that he’s beyond sadness or pessimism. However, Light of Mine is a reminder that the activities in which we participate and even the work we do don’t define us completely. Take “iMissMe,” for instance, where KYLE says, “Looking for myself, I found someone I’m not/Or someone I once was, someone I forgot (haha).” The music of the song is a danceable, new-age funk jam that whose lyrics show a person struggling just like everyone else choosing the light instead of the dark.

KYLE fittingly ends the album with “iSpy,” suggesting that KYLE has known for years exactly what he wanted to do with Light of Mine. This album isn’t quite made up of the nerd mantra hip-hop of which Beautiful Loser was comprised, nor is it the soundtrack to the happiest of young adult summers as was SMYLE. This album is more pensive and grown, but no less reassuring or enjoyable.

CAN I KICK IT? TEE GRIZZLEY GETS ACTIVATED

It is often the case that hip-hop is at its most interesting when artists are testifying; testifying of truth, of the way things are, of their achievements, of their innermost feelings. The most memorable moments in the genre seem to come at times like the end of “What More Can I Say?” when the beat breaks down and the listener only hear’s Jay’s voice saying those famous lines: “I’m supposed to be one on everybody’s list/We’ll see what happens when I no longer exist.” Detroit’s Tee Grizzley borrowed heavily from the most honest songs of Meek Mill on his breakthrough song, “First Day Out,” even using that midway turn from awe to brutalism.

While many rappers write about capitalism as a salve for trauma, Grizzley separates himself from other emcees for the way the specificity of his verses imbues his songs with a sense of empathy. Even his severe flexes (“Hit the Rollie store with the Rollie on”) are built on memories and shorthand for verses about around-the-way friends. Activated starts in precisely this way. Fans are encouraged to empathize from the opening track, when they find Grizzley mid-conversation rapping, “Look at the bottom, I had to make it/I had to.” It forecasts hard-won truth that rappers like him have had to learn by experience.

Tee has spent his short time in the spotlight trying to perfect a mix of transparency and commercial ambition. He was mostly successful on My Moment. On Activated, he further commits to the radio campaign, even going so far as to feature Chris Brown on two songs, apparently buying into the idea that a guest appearance from the singer guarantees a hit. On “F*** It Off,” Breezy delivers an aggressive, by-the-numbers hook that concludes, “You think I work this hard to f*** it off?” It’s by-the-number. It’s clean. It’s impersonal—words that wouldn’t normally describe Tee Grizzley.

But the radio sensibility on Activated often dilutes Grizzley’s rawness and technical gifts rather than amplify them. Grizzley’s plain-spoken delivery tends to convey a sense of catharsis when he decides to jam-pack his verses or spit off the top. But he’s cumbersome running into the high-stakes soundscapes that are present on his album. Clunky verses like, “While you n****s talking down, I’m up b****,” on “Too Lit.” On another track, “2 Vaults,” he raps, “Stacks big and green I call my pockets the new Hulk.” Grizzley isn’t completely out of his league within Activated’s cinematic scope—the staccato he uses to spit “Think s***/Sweet/You gon’/Bleed” punctuates a should-be banger in “Don’t Even Trip”—but he’s batting under .200 here.

The high-stakes production largely undoes Grizzley, too, save for the occasional exception, like the G-funk-infused “Low.” It doesn’t help his case that a lot of the hooks are barely above-competent half-mantras that sound like any rapper could have written them. “Bag” is well-intentioned, but the inspiration is lost in Grizzley’s auto-tuned singing. The same’s the case for “I Remember,” where Grizzley can’t quite emote, even while relaying his very real experiences with poverty.

But Activated mainly suffers because too much of it lacks photographic vision. That gift that earned him a Twitter shoutout from Jay-Z does pop up on the autobiographical album closer “On My Own,” where Grizzley walks us through stealing from his own friend, now deceased, to whom he can only offer, “Rest in peace.” Poverty is a vicious cycle that robs its victims of absolution, but Grizzley still tries to find a glimmer of solace by the end of the album when he raps lines like, “When I finally get married, can’t no other b**** f*** me.” He swears it with a laugh, which seems to undermine the sincerity that would be needed to balance out such a childish line. If the trauma can be vivid, so can the joy, but unfortunately, Tee Grizzley never offers that much of it.

CAN I KICK IT? ROYCE GETS PERSONAL WITH BOOK OF RYAN

The last six years have been quite the journey for Royce Da 5’9″. Since getting sober around that time, the Detroit hip-hop veteran has taken fans on a personal quest from surface-level raps about his genitals and firearms to the deepest parts of his memory, psyche, and even his soul. It’s not the emo-rap you’d expect from some other hip-hop artists, but rather the musings of a grown man completely comfortable with himself and his career.

It would be a stretch to say that Royce was inspired by the likes of Phonte with this album, but it’s interesting to see different emcees taking their music in similar directions. Much like No News Is Good NewsBook of Ryan features a very mature rhyme writer that just as interested in what’s going on inside himself as what’s going on in the outside world. What makes Book of Ryan one of his (if not the) strongest albums is the fact that Royce is able to give both ample attention.

Royce Da 5’9″ has always been a skilled rapper, but the last few years have seen him rap about becoming more reclusive and anti-industry (see “Dumb,” where Royce raps, “Welcome to the Grammy’s where your likeness is used/For promos, hypeness and views, okay, I hope that you knowin’/That if you voted, you might as well not voted for no one/They knew when they made that category where that trophy was goin’”). As his songs travel further inward, his storytelling abilities have seen to grow in equal measure. Almost every track contains some kind of memory or anecdote, but never the same ones over multiple songs. The fan-favorite “Boblo Boat” is a reflection on good times during the coming-of-age periods in Royce and J. Cole’s lives. It’s the kind of song that seems tailor-made for Jermaine, but Royce outdoes him with lines like “I came across my identity on the Bob-Lo boat/That’s where I lost my virginity, no condom, though/That’s when paranoia hit me like when superstition does/Left my inhibitions I guess where my supervision was.” The same reminiscing can be seen on songs like “Life is Fair,” where Royce raps, “Summertime were the funnest times/Momma used to had to say come inside like a hunnid times/Flat booty, big titty b*****s just on they grind/My n***a Moody used to say they was built like the number nine.”

It’s not just the past with that Royce is concerned, however. On “Outside,” he raps about the present–about the concerns and fears he has now. The song features a verse dedicated to his oldest son, who recently dropped out of college to pursue a career in music. “You just ain’t the n***a you friends is, it’s scientific/Not my opinion so you know you genetically predisposed/To more than just eating soul food, so I’m afraid of you to try to risk it/You in a gene pool with a lot of sick fish/And I’m the sickest of them all, alcoholics die when they stop from the symptoms of withdrawal.” Book of Ryan is honest not so much in the way a Catholic confession is, but, as hinted at in the skit “Who Are You,” in the way a biographical novel is.

That novel, of course, needs a setting, and Royce not only vividly paints the picture of Detroit over the last 30 years, but also the plight of the average black man and hip-hop artist. “So many men shopping the women’s section, it ain’t no ladies left/These n****s crazy? Yes/They playin’ crazy like the Chappelle sketch, Wayne Brady ep/I’m what you get when Freeway Rick and Cocaine 80’s met.” The first full track on the album is titled “Woke,” and Royce starts the song off by rapping, “This one’s for those of you just ain’t woke yet, hotep/You rich but you broke n***a just don’t know yet, hotep/These rappers ain’t woke yet, security back ’em, hotep/Hotep, come to Detroit with that, oh yes, that’s a toe tag” (“hotep” is an Egyptian phrase that means “to be at peace”).

In case any old Royce fans might get concerned with the album’s content or style, the veteran manages to pack in plenty of hard-hitting punchlines, such as on “Caterpillar,” which includes a classic Eminem feature, or on “Summer On Lock,” featuring solid verses from Jadakiss and Pusha T. He is still just as comfortable staring the genre in the face and saying “Outrap Me,” as he is looking lookin at his children in the back seat of his car and asking them how they feel.

Even for listeners that don’t consider themselves Royce Da 5’9″ fans, Book of Ryan is worth multiple listens. The complexity, storytelling, and skill of a sober and mature Royce means that not only do audiences get a glimpse into his mind, but makes it seem as though he’s gotten a glimpse into theirs.