Friday, January 10, 2014

album review: 'my own lane' by kid ink

So believe it or not, I do read a lot of other people's reviews of music - not because I'm looking to parrot someone else's opinion or seek validation in critical consensus, but because I'm always curious where and why my points of view might clash with others'. And the fact that there is critical disagreement isn't a bad thing either - people have differing opinions, and civil debate and discussion is always appreciated.

And nowhere on the internet is that sort of debate and discussion more intense than when it comes to hip-hop, particularly acts that sit on the borderline between underground and mainstream success. Now I'll admit that pop-rap isn't always my thing, but there are ways of doing it well, I have a higher tolerance for pop than most, and I was willing to keep an open mind when I dug into the independently released debut album from LA rapper Kid Ink Up & Away. I mean, it's early January, nothing much comes out this time of year, and I wanted to make sure I did my research. And besides, it couldn't be that bad, right?

Well, it wasn't. Look, Kid Ink's Up & Away isn't great, but it's okay and has a couple decent club bangers on it that I did like. Part of my issues with it come in Kid Ink's choice of hip-hop 'sound': the nebulous subgenre of 'cloud rap', which is characterized by ethereal sounds, odd samples, and futuristic beats. Kid Ink sticks with an accessible form of the genre in instrumentation and subject matter, and while cloud rap has more of a focus on melodies, I found the instrumentation to be a little cluttered and the production a little too slick. Most of that masks the bigger problem with Kid Ink as a rapper - namely, that he's not all that interesting. His flow is a blend of Drake and Chris Brown, and he has neither Drake's wordplay or emotional heft or Chris Brown's singing voice. The best word to describe him coming off of Up & Away is inoffensive - it's not something special or all that memorable, but some of the grander melodies are enjoyable enough and there's some occasionally good wordplay. So, what happened with his follow-up and major label debut, My Own Lane?

Well, this album is actually pretty damn good. And believe me, I'm as surprised as you probably are - an early January major-label release from a pop rapper featuring two Chris Brown collaborations? That screams mediocre record to me, but I ended up liking a lot more of Kid Ink's My Own Lane than I thought I would. Frankly, this record is exactly what I was hoping B.o.B.'s most recent album Underground Luxury could have been, but hey, I'll take good music regardless of the source.

So what went right here? Well, we can start with the instrumentation and production, which did pretty much exactly what it needed to do with a major label pop rap release - it cleaned up the clutter in the production, added some heavier beats, and fused it all with the crisp melody lines that were the best part of Kid Ink's work in the past. And man, some of the hooks on this album just work. The horn-driven hook in 'The Movement' (even if it does seem to be taking a few pages from Macklemore), the 80s gothic synths in 'Main Chick' and the phenomenal 'Rollin', and the oddly gorgeous guitar effects on 'No Miracles'. Even on the hooks I don't like as much, Kid Ink's producers make the smart choice to keep things upbeat, radio-friendly, and not all that dreary. Even though most of the 'cloud rap' sound has been left behind in favour of something more mainstream, Kid Ink brings the best elements of that scene to the table with a refocus on melody-driven hooks. There are points where trap instrumentation starts to come in, and frankly, the dourness of the instrumentation are easily the low points on this record, with the worst being the album closer 'More Than A King', for more reasons than one.

So let's talk about Kid Ink himself, who was arguably the least interesting thing about Up & Away, and it seemed like the label agreed with that assessment and overloaded this guy with guest stars - who he frankly doesn't need. You can tell that Pusha T (arguably the biggest rap 'name' on this album) feels he doesn't have to try, and Kid Ink blows him off the table on their collaboration 'Murda', and he does much the same with Tyga. For once Chris Brown is actually decent on the hooks of his two songs, mostly because they're not nearly as explicit and avoid the wordplay that tends to make him insufferable. But for me the big standouts were King Los on 'No Option', who has great rap interplay with Kid Ink and a definite name to watch, and Elle Varner, whose raw passion on 'No Miracles' was striking, memorable, and really potent.

But what about Kid Ink himself? My previous problem with him is that he didn't really do a lot to stand out or have much of an unique personality - and I'm happy to say that this record took a number of steps to alleviating that problem. For one, Kid Ink is not someone who's bragging or trying to denigrate his audience, which wins big points for me (that's the other reason why 'More Than A King doesn't work, because it's bland trap-inspired brag rap that just doesn't work). His strengths are more rooted in populism and fun and bringing people together to get drunk and screw - and honestly, the combination of those two things makes him stand out. Yeah, I'm not going to deny that he's clearly looking for sex anywhere he can find it, but he doesn't really come across as lecherous or leering - mostly because I don't think he has the emotional range to sound like that. Pusha T definitely does lecherous and that was the other reason his verse on 'Murda' sounded so out-of-place, while Kid Ink sounds more bemused and surprised and just willing to take it as it comes, and that makes him more likable. On the other hand, his lack of range can work against him - the ballad 'Tattoo of My Name' tries to make Kid Ink talking his girl into getting a tattoo of his name on her chest as something romantic or sweet, but it really comes as egotistical and not all that attractive.

But the greatest strength of Kid Ink is a solid understanding of this album's scope. He's looking to make an album of relaxed, fun party bangers - and with that in mind, he worked on making those types of songs the best he possibly could. This is where the big improvements to his rhyming and flow pay big dividends, because Kid Ink is a solid technical rapper and his punchlines have an effortlessness that trusts the audience to follow along. Yeah, there are a few flubs, but not enough to seriously slow this album's momentum, which is a great hidden strength. You can tell Kid Ink worked hard on constructing solid lyrics that have a surprising amount of wit, but he makes it sound easy. He's likely capable of saying more - which means this album never really rises into becoming something really special - but there's nothing wrong with good-time partying and Kid Ink handles it with flair and style.

In the end, you shouldn't ignore My Own Lane by Kid Ink, because it's a lot of fun. Energetic instrumentation, some great wordplay, some solid guest performances, and Kid Ink delivering better rhymes with a populist spirit than so many rappers way too hard to convince me they're superior. Is this album lightweight and poppy? Well yeah, but Kid Ink does it damn well and My Own Lane works really well in that vein. It's a strong 7/10 and a definite recommendation, especially for the songs 'The Movement', 'No Miracles', and 'Rollin'.

My only regret is that the record label decided to dump this record in early January where it'll likely be forgotten by most - because really, it shouldn't be. 

1 comment:

  1. Would love to talk more. Here's my review