Saturday, August 13, 2016

album review: 'sremmlife 2' by rae sremmurd

There's a lot that needs to be unpacked before I even start this review - and no, not just because I'm almost certain some of you will have seen what I said about Rae Sremmurd over eighteen months ago when I covered their debut album. To put it mildly, I wasn't kind to it - to put it bluntly, it was easily one of the worst records I had the misfortune of covering in 2015, a badly written, shoddily performed, disastrously produced slog that I disliked more with every listen - and that included going back to relisten to it for this review. But like with most atrocious music that gets popular, I had a lot more contempt for the attitudes surrounding the album and the critical pass it got, which has cascaded down further to the mostly lousy state of mainstream hip-hop in 2016, where lyrics have even been further marginalized in favour of bass-heavy clunkers and MCs who have nowhere near the charisma or flows to save them. Sure, Sremmlife was intended as dumb, over-the-top party music and was only intended to be judged on that standard - but on that standard it was bad dumb party music, with clunky flows, ugly tones, and some truly atrocious lyrics, none of which was given the tempo and impact to match its inspiration, either from trap or the equally stupid crunk music of the mid-2000s, which at least had energy and impact to match its mindless hedonism.

And yet, eighteen months later going into the sequel Sremmlife 2, I found myself unable to get all that angry or worked up about it. I think a fair bit of my anger was fueled by the fact that the mainstream and critical press had given Rae Sremmurd a pass, but it didn't look like that was happening for the follow-up. Despite some guest stars like Gucci Mane, Juicy J, up-and-coming and all around awful MC Kodak Black, and even Lil Jon of all people, none of their singles had cracked the Billboard Hot 100, and the album had been delayed to mid-August. And I have to admit, I was curious why: perhaps the waning star power of Mike Will Made It as a producer had further marginalized the group; perhaps hip-hop had moved so quickly to the next 'turnt up' rapper that Rae Sremmurd's emptiness had been prophetic... or perhaps we had another real turd coming and everyone was looking to clear out of the blast radius. Well, that wasn't going to stop me, so against all of my better judgement I checked out Sremmlife 2 - is it at least better than the first one?

Well yeah, it's 'better', I guess, in that 'tedious, incompetent, and occasionally unlistenable' is a step up from 'all-around atrocious', but none of that means I want to recommend this record, or will in any way get behind some of the more ridiculous critical appraisals of this record. And like with the last review, I'm going to try and frame this as a rebuttal to many of the people who are giving it a pass. Because again, I can't really get that angry at two kids who are trying to make fun music for dubious definitions of music or fun - but I can get a little pissed at the critics who are trying to defend this by saying how 'innovations in character, texture, and presentation are just as important as those in lyrical dexterity and punchlines' and 'maligning Rae Sremmurd for prioritizing the extra-lyrical portions of the genre reveals only how nostalgia leaves unfillable holes in people's hearts, and taste'. To put it another way, if you expect basic competency in structuring bars or content, you're a nostalgia-blinded hater without taste who can't appreciate the stylistic flourishes of Rae Sremmurd.

So for the purposes of this review, let's first establish that I'm not expecting depth in terms of lyrical content. This isn't Kendrick Lamar or Aesop Rock or Death Grips or Doomtree or Run The Jewels, and even while all of these artists have delivered hard-hitting bangers than can match content with experiments in style and delivery which proves you can have both and this is a non-excuse, let's only consider this record by terms of MCs who are looking to play to the more ignorant, nu-crunk side, who really have been around since the dawn of the genre. Even by that standard, I'm not impressed by these guys - there may have been a lot of terrible crunk back in the mid-2000s, but when it worked there was commanding presence in the vocals that let the MCs drive the beats. It's very telling that when both Juicy J and Lil Jon show up on this record they immediately attract more attention because there's enough bass in their voices to match the production, whereas Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi just don't have the same weight, no matter how much pitch correction is used. At their worst, their cackling nasal sneer doesn't even have the pretensions to melody that gave Young Thug the pass he barely deserved - hell, right from the very first track 'Start A Party' both of their voices keep cracking audibly and I'm supposed to like this, especially as they talk about drugging my girlfriend with lean? And it completely undercuts their party anthems for me as they squeal through the tracks - there's no punch to 'Shake It Fast' until Juicy J shows up and is pretty damn disgusting, or to 'Set The Roof', which only puts Lil Jon on the hook and then compresses his vocals - you know, because we want to hear more Rae Sremmurd! Probably the worst example is 'Over Here', where even by interjecting a pitch-shifted voice they can't give the sleazy elongation of syllables and outright sloppiness compelling - and on that note, one of the big vocal shifts on this record is Swae Lee piling on the autotune to croon his way through 'Look Alive', 'Came A Long Way', and 'Take It Or Leave It', with it being at its 'best' on the brighter 'Just Like Us' and at its absolute worst on 'Swang', where he goes into his gutless upper range and it sounds atrocious. And that's when they care at all, as we also have songs like 'By Chance' where it's clear everyone phoned it in that day..

And nowhere is that more apparent than the content, where apparently I'm supposed to give these guys a pass because of their style and enthusiasm. Well, since the latter is considerably damped compared to the first SremmLife, and the former makes me think we could weaponize these vocals against ISIS, the content is open season! Let's start by saying that these guys can barely stay on topic or message - if they're not throwing out some of the most bewilderingly awful punchlines between dropping rhymes, rhyming words with themselves, or dropping the mix out to disregard the flow entirely, they sure as hell aren't bothering with making sense. Again, right on the first song we have Swae Lee saying the girls he screws - which again includes your chick - are dying, and that's the sort of thing for which you'd ask an explanation! Go to the next track and Slim Jxmmi is talking about big diamonds in his mouth as he burps, which is such a non sequiteur that it immediately renders everything on the song irrelevant - including Kodak Black's verse, but we were doing that already. Or then on 'Look Alive', where Swae Lee is taking his girl shopping before breakfast, which I do not understand, and that he's going to rock her 'like a baby', which is all sorts of creepy! 

Now I could go on here listing the myriad awful lines... so I will, because on 'Black Beatles', Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane try to compare themselves to the Beatles and 'living like a geezer' - because the Beatles are old, get it? Then there's 'Shake It Fast', where Swae Lee says he's afraid of pot and drops a 'new phone who dis', all the while Juicy J tries to pay for strippers by swiping his card in her ass while he assures her the cameras are off - why don't I remotely believe you? Then there's 'Set The Roof' where during the prechorus they show exasperation the waiter screwed up their order three times only for the final line of 'now let's fill up her head and see if she chokes'. Oh yeah, the casual disregard for women of all types runs rampant here and even by hip-hop standards it's pretty pathetic, between the 'My X' reprise of 'Now That I Know' where he already has a side bitch ready to replace her to the girls he's stretching out, front and back, on 'Do Yoga'. But if we're looking for two songs to capture this record's content in a nutshell, they're 'Over Here' - with the failed Charlie Sheen punchline from Slim Jxmmi to the bungled Superman reference from Swae Lee, it's clear they roughly have an idea what they want to say, but not only is there zero subtext beyond mindless hedonism, the text barely even connects! That's why I find all of the claims of greater emotional depth on this record completely bogus, because if you're relying on barely connected subtext when the text doesn't even work, you've got no legs to stand on. Want more proof? The other song is 'Came A Long Way', which if I'm being charitable seems to be showing them wanting recognition for their come-up - but the problem is that the actual text doesn't tell any of that story, just all the more bragging about sex, drugs, and money that without even distinctive brand names becomes unbelievably tedious!

But I'm probably missing the point here, right? As long as the beats and melodies are good with solid production, nobody is going to care about anything these guys say? Well, I could refer you to the list of MCs who have great, hard-hitting production and something to say again, but that's missing the point that a lot of the production here just isn't very interesting, or go in directions that don't help the vibe. A prime example is 'Set The Roof' - forget the compression on his vocals, the most hard-hitting beat you could get to back up Lil Jon is a collaboration between Mike Will Made It and DJ Mustard, something that might have been interesting in early 2014 and already sounds stale and completely lacking in muscle? And that's before we get into production that's trying to sound way too creepy for its own good with blended theremins and chilly synths against your standard trap snares, like 'Real Chill' or 'Set The Roof', or the half-assembled walls of synth on 'Take It Or Leave It', or that hideous blended tone on 'Do Yoga'. I'd say this record tries for a little more grit like on 'Start A Party' or 'Over Here', but then whatever synth you get is either one-note or clashes terribly with the uglier vibe - and again, I don't know why you want that on party songs! Now to the production's credit, there are a few beats that did come together: 'Look Alive' actually sounds pretty lush before that too-thin synth dropped on the hook, and both 'Shake It Fast' and 'Now That I Know' could have actually connected if the keyboards weren't chopped to ribbons and barely on-key. Hell, I actually really liked the pseudo-darkwave vibe of the low roil on 'Black Beatles' - the production probably stands out the most, even if Mike Will Made It felt the need to add audio watermarks to the beginning and end of the track, or the pretty synth line that led to a more tropical vibe on 'Just Like Us', which was more in a major key and actually fit with the content better. And even though the blurry pianos driving 'Came A Long Way' sounded like they were imported from an alternative metal ballad in 2002, they fit the melancholy of the content and actually worked for me!

But folks... okay, let me let you all in on a little secret: while there will be people who will genuinely like this music and make excuses to the end of the world about the delivery and content - and keep in mind if it's your thing, i don't agree but I do get it - a fair number of people giving stuff like this and its descendants infecting mainstream radio a pass are doing it because they're terrified of being branded as 'out-of-touch' or 'irrelevant'. They make excuses to high heavens in order to justify issues that if the artist was less popular they'd delight in exposing - and I don't have these concerns, because this is garbage. Horribly written, terribly performed, and with production that only connects to a larger 'turn up' vibe in fragments, I can only hope that the rest of the public follows with current patterns and continues to aggressively ignore it. But otherwise, it's a solid 2/10 and no way in the Nine Hells can I recommend this. Folks, hip-hop might not be having a good year overall, but when you have Flatbush Zombies, Denzel Curry, SchoolBoy Q, DJ Khaled, YG, even Drake and Gucci Mane dropping better party jams, there's no excuse for this.

1 comment:

  1. I would love to know what you think of their song "Black Beetles because it has now become Rae Sremmurd's first #1 single!