Wednesday, July 27, 2016

album review: 'no hard feelings' by dreezy

You know, I feel I've made the exasperated speech about why there aren't more women in hip-hop a half-dozen times and pretty much before I cover any artists in this vein, and frankly, I'm sick of making it. I'm also coming to the realization that a lot of promising female rappers are fighting their way through an industry that's cutting them no favours and that the only way we're going to see more of them is if more critics like me start giving attention. 

In other words, instead of giving any attention to another dime-a-dozen Gucci Mane project that's only going to give me a headache anyway, let's talk about Chicago MC Dreezy. I've actually mentioned her before a few times in the series, once when she dropped some authoritative bars on Common's Nobody's Smiling back in 2014, and once when she released her pop crossover song 'Body' with Jeremih earlier this year that actually had a bit of success on Billboard BREAKDOWN. What most of this told me is that while Dreezy could play to the mainstream pop charts, she was also a solid MC in her own right, not quite part of the drill scene but still capable of hard bars and good flows, certainly more than what I'd seen from DeJ Loaf out of Detroit. So I figured why not dig into her debut album under Interscope No Hard Feelings, which reportedly was pushing with some real narrative ambition and had guest appearances from Jeremih, Wale, T-Pain, and - unfortunately - Gucci Mane. Looks like I'm not going to be able to get away from this guy this week, but whatever - how's the album?

Honestly, I liked this more than I thought I would. Not a great or starmaking debut, but I bet if you put Dreezy up against over half of the current XXL Freshman list she'd run circles around them in terms of flows and bars, and yet she's also got production that would fit right in with the rest of the mainstream, or at least give Nicki Minaj some serious competition. And yet if you dig a little deeper into the lyrics and narrative of this record, you'll see the sort of promise that should attract a lot more attention - Dreezy might be starting with a pretty intimate or even conventional story, but the details show she has the capacity to go bigger.

But before we get into that, let's talk about Dreezy herself, who on first listen might seem to be downplaying in comparison with the harder and faster material she's known from her mixtapes. And while she definitely has some more aggressive, very well constructed flows on this record, I'd argue she's opting for more versatility than spitting, stepping into smoother R&B territory where she seems plenty capable of holding her own as a pretty good expressive singer. And thus of course the Nicki Minaj comparison is going to get made, and while you can see some similarities in their flows, Nicki's always played more towards flashier, more cartoonish excess in both hip-hop and pop, something in which Dreezy doesn't seem all that interested. She's more languid and confident, capable to striking hard but also with a slightly more measured hold on her bars, and that means we get far less wack lines or missteps in her delivery. And in another plus, her guest stars are all a solid fit - Jeremih is well-balanced on 'Body', Wale tries to seduce but is playfully batted aside on 'Afford My Love', and T-Pain of all people delivers a solid performance opposite her on 'Close To You', even if his content isn't particularly stellar - I mean, come on dude, feel the mood and use some subtlety. Hell, even Gucci Mane seems to be riding behind Dreezy on their team-up 'We Gon Ride' instead of dominating the track, and this is exactly what you want for a debut: compliment your main MC rather than overshadowing them or outright embarrassing yourself.

And believe it or not, that fits the narrative of this record as well, loose as it might be. The six skits roughly sketch out the story of how she catches her guy Jumal cheating, dumps him, runs into a new guy Sean who wins her over and for whom she has feelings, all amidst songs of her finding the fine line between flossing, smacking down her competition male or female, and trying to keep her heart safe as she gradually warms up to the new guy. And if I were going to find a significant weakness in the content, it'd come in the detail within the songs to flesh out more of the story. Don't get me wrong, I can appreciate how these songs could stand out as both R&B or hip-hop singles, from the flexing on 'Spazz', 'Bad Bitch', 'Don't Know Me', and the insane double time flow she uses on the closer 'Invincible' to the more relationship-driven songs like the balance she's trying to walk on 'See What You On' between her own alpha rap persona and her growing feelings for this guy, or where she makes use of Wale's stumbling performance to reassert herself on 'Afford My Love', or when she pushes the drunken entreaties away on 'Wasted', an easy standout here. But while the skits do string things together and the topics of the songs roughly fall into an arc, the actual detail telling the story can feel a bit thin, kept out in order to make the songs more single-ready so they can stand on their own... and honestly, I'm not sure that was needed, as the hooks are strong and Dreezy's got enough punchlines in a Drake-esque mold for it not to matter. It also probably could have cut down on some of the bloat - while this record does go down easy, the back half does drag a bit with tracks like 'Ready' that don't really contribute much. And then there's the ending - Jumal and Sean confront each other and there's a shootout - it's left ambiguous who actually dies - and then we have 'Break The News', which is a bit of an odd fit within the narrative as she feels neglected by Sean and considers going back to Jumal, even if the relationship was lousy. And it's a bit of an alarming moment because at that point one or both of them could be dead, and Dreezy's choice almost feels irrelevant, which undercuts some of the drama. Thankfully, the implication with that and 'Invincible' is that she winds up going her own way, which is probably for the best, but again, it's an oddly sloppy moment in the writing that could have been tightened up.

Thankfully, the production also does a fair amount of heavy lifting, and definitely shows the split in sound between her hometown of Chicago and her current residence in LA, as we get the rougher drill-like snares, low tides of synth and heavy bass opposite tracks that have a much stronger west-coast, borderline g-funk feel. Take the bright sparkles of synth around the thicker bass on 'Wasted' that develops some real gloss on the bridge, or the very distinctive g-funk synths and guitars on 'Afford My Love', even getting some sax from Terrace Martin to add to the smoother vibe on 'See What You On' and 'Close To You'. Now that's not saying that she doesn't have her hard side, like the oddly elegant dark low pianos against the warble of guitars and synth on 'Don't Know Me' or the sparse ominous tapping punch of 'Bad Bitch' or the warped hollow fragments against the bass on 'Spazz' - for as much as there are pop-friendly moments on this record like 'Body', the production definitely lends these tracks some heavier bite. And considering how melodic many of these hooks turn out to be, there are very few of the beats that I outright disliked, the two being the murky grind of bassy synth punctuated by high airhorn squeals and warping vocal fragments on 'We Gon Ride' and the borderline atonal hollow-warbles filling up the background of 'Ready' that just didn't flatter the vocal melody at all.

But at the end of the day... again, I was surprised by how much I liked this, because on the surface a lot of her content really isn't all that different from her male peers, especially when it comes to the more braggadocious material. But it's bragging done better, with good beats, well-structured bars, and enough of a narrative framework to support it and add context, and more importantly flesh out Dreezy's dramatic persona. Again, it can feel a little stretched and thin at points, and there's a part of me that wishes Dreezy would stick with more of the complex flows, but I don't mind the R&B touches and I just hope that Dreezy doesn't spread herself too thin, especially as Jhene Aiko can play in similar territory with sharper and more complex insight. But this is a potent debut from a promising artist nonetheless, netting a light 7/10 from me and definitely a recommendation if you're looking for a female MC that could play in the mainstream and kick the asses of so much of her competition. Let's just hope the rest of the world catches onto it.

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