Wednesday, March 12, 2014

album review: 'young money: rise of an empire' by young money

I should really be less surprised this album exists than I am.

Because honestly, I thought the 'Young Money' posse was effectively over, at least to the extent that any rap posse breaks up or rebrands itself. And I thought this happened last year with the new rap supergroup Rich Gang which released an compilation album that went nowhere. And thus, that was a sign we as a culture accepted Drake as the one mostly consistent break-out success and consigned everyone else to popular irrelevance, including Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne who both did not have good years in 2013.

Turns out I was mistaken in that regard, because Rich Gang as a supergroup is more of the project of Cash Money Records, which is owned by long-time rapper Birdman and has been around since the 90s. Young Money as a group and as a label is owned by Lil Wayne - and all of the artists with him are also co-signed to Cash Money so there's a ton of overlap. What this means is that Young Money as a group never really went away as its own entity - and thus it makes a fair amount of sense that Lil Wayne is reinvesting some energy into the project.

And let say something I don't really like to admit: Young Money is probably one of the few hip-hop supergroups that has produced multiple high-charting stars. Between Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj, and to a lesser extent Tyga, they've launched some pretty successful careers, and with the round of additional rappers finally getting launch albums through Young Money, it looks like Lil Wayne is set on recreating that success for the rest of the posse. Now I'm far from a multi-million dollar businessman, but if I were in Lil Wayne's shoes, I'd be more concerned with making sure my existing success stories remain success stories, because with maybe the exception of Drake, everything put out by Young Money, including from its flagship artists, has been wildly uneven in quality, especially from Lil Wayne himself!

In other words, I wasn't looking forward to another compilation album from the ever-growing Young Money ensemble, especially when there are guest stars called in from outside the label (doesn't that really defeat the purpose?). That being said, the last time they did this was in 2009 and it wasn't terrible, so how did it go this time?

Well, to judge this album, it makes a certain amount of sense to first think why this record was made. In the past, label compilations like this are done for three reasons: reassert the dominance of the old talent, produce some interesting interplay between artists who wouldn't normally collaborate, and finally showcase your new up-and-coming artists. And on that scale, I'd have a hard time saying this album succeeds at any of these goals, and thus Young Money: Rise of An Empire ends up being a lot worse and more forgettable than it should be. And it's really kind of infuriating to watch rappers who can be a lot better squander their talent on an unfocused load of bad brag rap that does say or do anything we haven't heard time and time again.

So to start, let's look at the new talent. The new artist getting the biggest push seems to be Euro, the only rapper other than the big three to get a solo track all to himself - and man, I'm not impressed. While he has energy and occasionally gets some good momentum, his writing is sloppy, his flow is incredibly inconsistent and he has nothing all that new or special to say. And the infuriating fact is that I can say the same thing about most of the rest of Young Money: Lil Twist is only distinctive in his obnoxiously nasal brand of psychopathy, Mack Maine has more flavour to his rhymes when he bothers to make them at all and his references are poorly structured, Flow's over-the-top violent fantasies would be more compelling if he wasn't indicted for attempted murder, and Gudda Gudda exists and doesn't do much else. Honestly, if I were looking at the 'new' talent here, the ones that should be getting the most attention are Cory Gunz, who can at least spit with some decent rhymes and a solid flow on 'Bang', and Jae Millz, who can do a decent Killer Mike impression on his two verses. Either way, neither of these guys are A-list talent or have enough original content to fill an album, but stacked against their competition, I guess they stand out.

So what about our A-listers? Well, to get Tyga out of the way quickly, he's passable and only really embarrasses himself on the hook of 'Senile' - although would it kill him to sound like he's actually trying? Either way, he's inoffensive - and honestly, that mostly the same terminology I'd use to describe Lil Wayne on this album. Sure, there are some disgusting references - 'We Alright' has him dismissing women based on the smell of their vaginas and 'Senile' has him inserting a shoehorn... well, there, but he sounds like he's trying more than on previous verses. What bothered me about his work is that outside of calling out the future Tha Carter V and his 'retirement' (yeah, sure), he's not really doing much on this record in terms of colourful or interesting wordplay he hasn't done before. And as for Nicki Minaj... look, I get emasculating guys who aren't at your standard is part of your thing, but if you mention on your track that you're raping them, you're stepping into questionable territory, regardless of the subtext, mostly because the song isn't framed as trying to shock. And the sad fact is that the rhymes aren't nearly good enough to justify the hyperbole. It's a bit worrying that the best song on the album easily is from Drake with 'Trophies', his only appearance on a song that was a leftover from Nothing Was The Same, where his rhymes are passable but the most interesting part comes up in the hook, where he talks about how there are plenty of accolades for personal success but none for giving back, or helping a friend - or contributing a song to a label compilation that barely rises above a mixtape. He honestly sounds a little embarrassed to be here, as his career has effectively eclipsed that of his mentor, and his production shows it.

That's the other big problem with this record: the instrumentation and production on this album is either boring or nauseating. Drake's track isn't just the best because it has something more to say, but because it's easily the best produced on this record, with the only other standout coming from the PJ Norton-produced track 'You Already Know'. Outside of that, we get trap instrumentation that sounds way too clean and sterile to have any impact, with eerie futuristic synths, lumpy 808s, hi-hats, and no melodies that remotely stick in the brain. I'll give Euro credit for a marginally better synth line on his solo track 'Induction Speech', but it certainly doesn't outweigh the minimalist skin-crawlingly off-key instrumentation of 'Senile' or 'Back It Up'. It's actively unpleasant to listen to and does nothing to help the mood of the songs - all it does is make them memorable in the worst possible way.

In the end, I don't know what to make of this record, as it has maybe one good song courtesy of Drake that feels like it shouldn't even be on this record. Outside of that, there's very little here that's worth recommending at all. I'll reiterate what I said earlier: maybe Lil Wayne should concentrate on making sure his established artists remain established, because I'm seeing a pretty shallow bench from this album. And even with that, if he doesn't hire on better producers, even his established acts are in for a lot of trouble. As for this, I feel giving it a 4/10 is plenty generous, and it's not recommended. Honestly, the only thing it made me want to do is go back to listen to Drake's album, because despite all of my issues with Nothing Was The Same, it was better than this.

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