Tuesday, January 6, 2015

album review: 'sremmlife' by rae sremmurd

One of the things I've always tried to do, as a music critic, is ascertain what is the purpose of the albums I review. I look for themes, ideas, or at least artistic intentions, and it's one of the main reasons I tend to be kinder than most to pop records. After all, most shallow pop music only has a limited purpose, and if it accomplishes that purpose, it's hard to argue it doesn't succeed at least partially. You might not get great pop music - I said a while back in my Special Comment defending pop that making a truly great pop song that will stand the test of time is often just as difficult as any other brand of music - but it'll pass the low bar. It's one of the reasons I can enjoy crunk or hair metal - sure, they aren't trying to be anything but dumb party music, but there's a scale of quality even there.

And sure, some of my rationale for this is pure populism - like it or not, as much as I might enjoy two-and-a-half hour experimental rock records with 34 minute songs or half-improvised acid and post-punk performance art pieces, the mainstream public's enjoyment of music is a lot narrower - they'll listen to a pop song for a season and odds are unless it really sticks with them, they'll forget it in a few months. And with attention spans getting shorter and shorter, that window of relevance for pop acts is always getting smaller - forget Andy Warhol saying everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes, try six seconds

Which takes us to Rae Sremmurd, a Mississippi-based hip-hop duo that made a big smash into 2014 with two hits: 'No Flex Zone' and 'No Type'. And from those singles alone and the fact that Mike Will Made It was supposedly their executive producer, I was dreading this album. Not only was this album being released in the dumping ground of early January, I got the impression any attempts at lyricism were going to be pitched right out the window when paired with one of my least favourite producers in modern hip-hop. But I had to be fair - hell, this could be the record that manages to surprise me and win me over for Mike Will Made It, right?

Yeah, let's get real here - the majority of you know my preferences with music, hip-hop especially, and I suspect a whole bunch of you just want me to tear this record to shreds. Well, you're going to get your wish, because Sremmlife is goddamn atrocious from top to bottom, an absolute waste of my time that would be better suited relistening to Sleater-Kinney or Doomtree in preparation for their upcoming releases - or hell, listening to any of the absolute worst albums I covered last year. But there's going to be a lot of people making excuses for these guys and their brand of 'hip-hop', and with this review, I'm going to explain why many of those excuses don't fly.

First off, let me start by saying that I get that this sort of music is intended for parties and is not intended to be deep or lyrical - and you know, that's fine, there's a place for that sort of music. Andrew WK and Lil Jon built their entire careers out of that sort of music. But there's not being deep and conscious and then there's plain incompetence behind the microphone, which is where I'd deposit Rae Sremmurd. From a technical rapping ability, these guys can't write rhymes or maintain a solid flow to save their lives. Repetition of words to fill up space, rhyming words with themselves when they bother to rhyme at all, dropping the flow entirely when they need to fill up bars, and barely able to ride the leaden, clunky beats. To put it another way, I shouldn't feel like I can write better rhymes and rap better than these guys can, and the most I ever rap is when I want to screw around at karaoke! You can have competent rappers who make party music that is better structured and written than this - Kid Ink, Big K.R.I.T., T.I., Ludacris, Lil Wayne when he was in his prime, hell, I'll even put Flo Rida and Rick Ross and Pitbull on the list here! 

It doesn't help that as rappers, Rae Sremmurd have some of the least appealing voices you'll hear. Nasal, barely able to keep a note, the more immediately grating vocals come from Swae Lee, who sounds like he's barely out of high school and has a bad head cold to boot. Slim Jimmy is better - barely - but he sounds like he's trying to do a Yo Gotti or Jeezy impression with his rougher delivery and has nowhere near the gravitas to pull it off. What's worse is that they're clearly trying sound imposing or like they're hot shit, and they have nowhere near the charisma, presence, or power to make it remotely believable. They can't sing - period - and the drizzle of autotune over all of it makes them look like Future-wannabes. It's actively grating to listen through, and when I'm stuck hoping for a Big Sean guest verse to save the song - and really, he does drop the best verse here - you're heading into deep trouble. And what's all the more infuriating is that they actually did manage to get Nicki Minaj on this album - and then only put her on the chorus. What a waste.

And at this point, should I even bother to talk about content? Every single song on this album falls into the same mold: luxury porn, intoxication, stealing other guy's girlfriends, and swag. And putting aside the asinine emptiness of it all, what's most striking is the inconsistencies: they ask a girl why they'd ever leave her and then go on how they rotate girls like nothing; they try to define a 'no flex zone' and then spend the entire song flexing - apparently the rules don't apply to them - dissing girls for not being serious or sticking with them when they plainly have no respect for any women, saying they don't have a 'type' when they follow it a line later with 'bad bitches is the only thing that I like' - which clearly shows they do have a type beyond the grammatical errors and objectification. I mean, if you're going to be shallow assholes, at least be consistent at it! And what's worse is that there's no struggle or story here - none of the overblown Mafiaso fantasy of Rick Ross, no attempt at a gangsta vibe like YG, nothing but artless bragging and treating women like disposable things they can buy. There's an entire song from these two idolizing Donald Trump, one of the most flagrantly contemptible businessmen on the planet - and you can't tell me for a second there's self-awareness here. It's not even so hyperbolic it's funny like in a Riff Raff vein or so weird or based it's fascinating like with Lil B - it's just artless vapid greed, that's it. It's probably the reason the pop rap 'Safe Sex Pay Checks' is the best song on the album for me - sure, it's a dumb, formulaic dance song with plenty of the same bragging, but at least they're trying to party and have fun instead of say, 'I have all of these gaudy brands and will steal your girlfriend and there's nothing you can do about it' - why would anyone want to listen to that?

Now some of you are saying, 'Mark, you've given similar material a pass before, what moral high ground do you have to stand on here?' And you know, that's true - go back to the mid-2000s and there was some crunk music that I did like that was just as shallow. Want to know the difference there? Production that didn't blow ass! I've never liked Mike Will Made It's material, and here's a prime example of why: dank, eerie, trying way too hard to be dark and neglecting a good tune or melody that just feels completely out of place with shallow material that desperately needs something to make these feel fun. Saw what you will about how shallow most crunk music was, at least it had energy and presence and at least it was willing to bring in meatier, thicker synths beyond just the bassline. And more than that, it was populist - Lil Jon had his call-and-responses and infectious energy and a voice that could match his production. Rae Sremmurd's voices might match their production, but without populism or energetic melodies, the songs feel way too dark and bleak to make me want to get up and dance or party or feel anything but repulsed. The pseudo-gothic choir on 'Unlock The Swag', the oily chintzy synth on 'No Flex Zone', that ear-splitting high synth on the atrocious 'My X', the sloppy chiptune on 'Up Like Trump', the keyboard line on 'Throw Sum Mo' that sounds like it was played on a muted Casio from the late 80s, the farty layers of synth on 'Yno', and abuse of pitch shifting and pitch correction in a desperate attempt to make the tracks feel imposing that fails miserably. And when you dig deeper to the melodies, they're either shoved to the back of the mix or they're so saturated with minor chord progressions to make the songs just feel creepy and sleazy in the least attractive way possible. But I think the largest issue is the tempo - if you're going to go darker with your sound or intend this for partying, why would you want material this slow? Hell, that's probably my biggest consistent issue with Mike Will Made It, who can at least fill up a textured mix but with all of his biggest songs the tempo feels way too sluggish, almost demand you be drunk off your ass and pounding lean for it to be danceable at all.

And look, some of you are saying, 'Look, the reason this music exists is just in dumb fragments for the Vine, which is the only reason these guys are popular' - and maybe so, but these aren't just six second fragments, they're fully fleshed out songs - most of which actually run long! And as long-form songs that the artists are plainly taking seriously with the darker sound, they don't deliver. And sure, it's dumb ignorant material, but there's a way of doing that stuff so its infectious and fun - Lil Jon understood this, hell, even Soulja Boy and LMFAO understood this! But here, the content is shallow at best and offensive at worst, the instrumentation either underwhelms or is aggressively infuriating, and again, when your best-constructed rap verse on the album is from Big Sean, you've got problems. And this isn't me being a hip-hop purist or someone who hates pop music, but when it's this incompetent, badly produced, lacking in good melodies, or any sense that I would want to party with these guys. The last time I heard an album this bad was '#willpower' by will.i.am, and at least that album had more ideas than this dreck. For me, I'm thinking a 2/10 and no way in the Nine Hells I'm recommending this. But if you want a record with songs designed to soundtrack bad Worldstar videos, to made fun of by white hipster douchebags on Vine, or to soundtrack a bad ripoff of that painful Project X movie, Rae Sremmurd delivers. 

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