Thursday, June 23, 2016

album review: 'still brazy' by yg

It's kind of amazing how much hip-hop has mutated over the past two years, isn't it?

Because if you look at the current hip-hop sound, it's in a weird place: a little more organic and melodic, drenched in autotune and trap hi-hats, and sitting in a weird place where any rapper with the slightest amount of buzz online or on Vine can blow up, especially in the mainstream. And yet if you go back just two years, while those trap trends were there, it was a very different sound that was dominant, minimalist and more touching a bass-heavy West Coast sound driven most by the LA producer DJ Mustard. 

Now let's be clear, his star has faded a lot, but if you want to find the rapper at the epicenter of his sound, look no further than YG, who released his debut album My Krazy Life that year. Before then he was most well-known for the oh-so-charming 'Toot It And Boot It' from back in 2010, but YG took his ground-level Compton gangsta rap to new heights working with DJ Mustard's stripped down synths and production. And I'll admit I was very hard on that record, but for good reason - he got shown up by a significant chunk of his big name guest stars, his own content was inconsistent and rarely treading new ground, and even if it was, doing the bare minimum in production didn't elevate the record to anything all that special for me. I can appreciate the street-level gangsta's view in Compton, but again, it really did feel like he was doing the bare minimum.

And then something happened. I'm not sure what it was, but the YG features I started hearing were getting measurably stronger in terms of flow, content, and even subtext. And given he ditched DJ Mustard completely for his sophomore album Still Brazy, I had to hope that maybe he could pull off a stronger release - was I right?

Actually, yeah, he did. The funny thing is that a lot of this album operates on the same fundamental formula that didn't really click for me on My Krazy Life, and while it doesn't totally connect all the way across here, this is a stronger record across the board, with more layered and interesting production, better flows, and slightly stronger writing. I wouldn't call it a great hip-hop record - YG isn't exactly rewriting the book when it comes to west coast hip-hop, but for what the album is and what it's trying to be, I can't deny that a significant chunk of it works.

So how did all of that turn out? Well, the big place where we need to start is the production, and it's important to note how just a small change can make for a much more dynamic and interesting listen. See, as much as DJ Mustard had a formula and a defined sound - and admittedly a catchy one - a lot of his material started sounding the same because of simplistic melodies and a lack of greater layering for something a little more interesting. That's definitely not the case here, as YG's producers give him a selection of beats that rely on a similar principle - heavy bass, sparse percussion, glossy keys - but there's a little more to flesh them out and that extra bit makes a big difference. Take the opening track 'Don't Come to L.A.' - the little piano trill, the thicker bass, seems standard, but when you add in guitar warbles, slightly more complex drums, hollow vocal effects and shrill synths, you get a more fleshed out track that stands out a lot more and captures a lot more of that g-funk sound that's been iconic of West Coast hip-hop. And it's amazing how much of a difference that makes in giving these tracks a more distinctive instrumental identity - the bass melody that hits off a kooky plucked guitar line on 'Who Shot Me' that eventually picks up a filthy drum line; the incredibly slick funky bass, slightly grittier percussion, and shrill synth that curls around 'Twist My Fingaz'; the wiry bass that builds to the sandy clap, horn accent on 'Gimmie Got Shot'; the layered synth tones bouncing off the gurgling beat of 'Bool, Balm, and Bollective'; the bass melody on 'Blacks & Browns', and especially the much rougher percussion and darker synths of 'Police Get Away Wit Murder'. I'm not going to say all the production choices work for me - 'Why You Always Hatin' feels a little too sparse, even with the low ominous synth on the hook, the fragmented melody on 'She Wish She Was' feels a little too dinky and choppy to work well, even with the piano, and while I get the paranoid vibe of the title track, it feels a tad too compressed in the percussion. But hell, there are even tracks where the mix strips back like the bass, piano, and sparse hi-hat of 'FDT' and it still manages to have ominous presence - granted, a lot of that has to do with the content, but we'll come back to that.

And to his credit, YG definitely stepped up his game as well, in terms of both his bars and a slightly more expressive delivery. I would hesitate to call him a great rapper - he tends to rhyme words with themselves or push the rhyme farther than I'd prefer, but in all honesty it's far more rare than on his debut, and his flows have improved immeasurably. More than ever I hear a lot of oldschool Snoop Dogg flow on songs like 'Twist My Fingaz' and 'Gimmie Got Shot', although there's a hint of Kendrick on the title track that i definitely liked - and those are compliments! Where I think YG can struggle a bit is conveying a little more intense anger - he gets confusion, frustration, and plenty of chill vibes, but there are songs here where I think he could benefit from coming a little harder, especially when you put him alongside his guest stars like AD on 'Don't Come To LA'. But that's arguably another area where YG thrives - he really doesn't get shown up on this record like on My Krazy Life, as he steps with a fair bit more confidence and personality. Granted, when Lil Wayne drizzles autotune all over an otherwise decent verse on 'I Got A Question' it's not difficult, but the only times where I feel YG faces real competition is from Drake on the flexing of 'Why You Always Hatin', a song where he's more out of his comfort zone than Drake anyway, and from Jose Moses on 'She Wish She Was', which is a lousy song anyway! And his camaraderie with both Nipsey Hussle on 'FDT' and Sadboy Loko on 'Blacks And Browns' gives both tracks a fair amount of weight.

And here's where I feel YG did step his game up - content. And what I find fascinating are the attitudes that YG approaches what one would otherwise consider some pretty standard gangsta rap topics: more money more problems, getting hassled by the cops, repping for his hometown, getting shot, you get the picture. What gets interesting is that YG has kept much of his street-level mentality despite his success, and he almost seems distinctly uncomfortable flossing or playing to luxury rap cliches - of the many rappers who have said they don't change when they get famous, for YG I might actually believe it. It helps he's a bit more of a storyteller as well, flipping the standard 'guy coming for a handout' track with a few levels of retaliation both ways. It also helps that his framing has gotten sharper too, as you can tell YG is distinctly haunted by his rough past, and how getting shot and survived has inspired more paranoia than anything else as he tries to keep a little more level, even if nobody really believes it. Of course, he still hasn't managed to make any tracks dealing with women connect all that well, as I found the excuses of 'I Got A Question' more than a little hollow, and 'She Wishes She Was' is a complete mess of double standards with zero self-awareness - yeah, I get there are girls who play guys that you wish acted more like ladies, but it's not like you're holding yourselves to a better standard, and the entire track just gets ugly. 

That being said, I do think YG at least is trying to break away from his rougher past or at least accept more of the responsibilities, which adds significantly more weight to the trio of political songs that end out the record. The one that'll get the most attention is 'FDT' - which stands for 'Fuck Donald Trump' and is a pretty blistering indictment of the Republican nominee. And while I definitely dug the catharsis and getting the Crip Nipsey Hussle on the track has a certain symbolism in and of itself, but what I found more interesting is how YG then focuses more on standing with Mexican immigrants, which leads straight into 'Blacks And Browns' and the analogous racial profiling both races experience. I won't say it's particularly nuanced - although YG and Sadboy Loko get through pretty detailed lists of systemic racism and poverty in both of their communities and don't pull punches on the steps they themselves can take - but this sort of blunt honesty does connect when its delivered well, and rounding it out with 'Police Get Away Wit Murder' is a potent way to end the record. And sure, the Illuminati line doesn't really connect but I did really appreciate a small connection YG made at the end of the second verse, highlighting how people can get years in prison for gun charges - which are all the more frequent given the easy access to guns - but if they're going to get shot when unarmed in the streets, they need something to protect themselves... which yeah, only exacerbates the larger problem, but with no justice for police who kill unarmed black men, what are they supposed to do? It's a no win situation - still brazy indeed.

In short, I liked this album a fair bit, and a bit more than I expected. Part of this is YG refining a west coast gangsta sound into something with a little more spice and colour, but part of it is sharper writing overall, showing an MC who I probably underestimated when I covered him two years ago. As such, for me this record is a solid 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if you like west coast hip-hop with a g-funk sound. Again, I wouldn't call this a great record, but YG's well on his way to getting there, and that's definitely promising.

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