Wednesday, October 4, 2017

album review: 'the hype' by hoodie allen

So let's get into territory that can be a touchy subject for hip-hop heads: pop rap. And i can already see some of you scoffing, but let's be real: there have been artists who have played for lighter and sillier material since hip-hop's inception, some who are even now held up among the greats or at the very least respected. But don't get me wrong, I get the stigma, because when people think of pop rap in the modern day, they tend to treat the music as utterly disposable songs by utterly disposable artists, and while they aren't often wrong, you could make the argument that some of these acts can actually flow better than the endless stream of utterly forgettable mumble rappers, or who might actually have a turn of phrase that's interesting or funny - something that an increasingly humorless mainstream hip-hop scene tends to ignore. But when you also factor in the subset of white pop rap artists who tend to be using hip-hop just as a vehicle to make bad comedy - Lil Dicky - it doesn't help a stereotype of sanitized, corny, and ultimately forgettable acts that you listen to briefly in college and ever again.

So where does Hoodie Allen fall in? Well, it's tough to say - you could definitely make the argument that his debut had its fair number of pop rap singles, blending in Drake and Ed Sheeran-esque vocals with loose bragging and plenty of stealing your girlfriend - a cliche I don't like regardless of genre - but unlike so many of his peers he had remained entirely independent, and his followup Happy Camper early last year grounded itself with a little more self-awareness and maturity, slightly groovier production, and a style that pulled more from Chance The Rapper than anything like Ed Sheeran. Now he could still slip towards corniness at spots and some of his production choices and collaborators are certainly dubious in my books, but he was on the right path, and considering he reached out himself for me to cover The Hype, I figured I might as well give it a chance - what did I find?

Well, I'm not really sure what I can say about this, because there's a part of me that feels like The Hype is three steps forward and two steps back - the rapping has only gotten better and his punchlines feel sharper and he got rid of the guest stars that annoyed me, but he did so by going back to the production reminiscent of his debut record with content to match, and while I'm certain that's probably what the majority of his audience would prefer, I'm not sure it clicks as well as I'd otherwise like. And while I'm not going to say I've 'grown out' of this style of hip-hop - overall I did enjoy this record - I'm starting to expect a little more out of Hoodie Allen than what I got with this, mostly because I know he's capable of getting there.

And I say that because for the most part I like him as a performer. As a rapper he's consistently able to string his bars and rhymes together well - although he does indulge hashtag rap more than I'd otherwise like, making me wish that more of his punchlines didn't feel like extended pop culture references than hard-hitting content - and unlike most rappers he's actually got halfway decent pipes as a singer, plenty capable of handling his hooks on songs like 'Sushi' and 'Know It All' and 'Believe' and 'Fakin' - hell, his hook is easily the best part of the latter song! And that's the thing: even if his content is lightweight - and it is, believe we'll get into this - his biggest strength is a knack for melody and making tunes that go down easy, a bit reminiscent of Logic's old taste for New York swagger but a little looser. Granted, the more I did listen through this record his delivery did feel a tad one-dimensional - generally agreeable but broadly sketched, and it's no surprise that Wale is a decent fit on the single trap-inspired track 'Fakin', or that he teams up with pop punk group State Champs to fuse in a few rap verses and it's surprisingly tolerable, if a little lacking in muscle.

That said, outside of those two outliers the production tends to fall towards a very modern brand of pop that can't help but feel a little sanitized: blocky beats in the low-end with clap percussion or trap snares, acoustic guitars, pianos or organ anchoring the melody, and maybe some hints of horns or synth if things are going to get feisty. But there is a part of me that not only thinks this feels oddly safe, but also that this is a bit of a regression for Hoodie Allen. He's a good enough rapper to ride more of the complex grooves that anchored Happy Camper, and here... while some of the bluesier tones on 'Know It All' or 'Something Dangerous' are likable and have a surprising amount of depth to them, it's leaning into retro-pop/soul tropes that can feel a little basic or interchangeable from song to song, lacking the sharper refinement and smoother basslines of the more hip-hop leaning side of the last record. I'd almost say it's Meghan Trainor-esque, especially with the tendency to drop into a hollowed-out bassy segment for the second verses, but thankfully he's got enough charisma and good tone to get back to the hooks...

But this is when we have to get to the content... and look, I've got a pretty high tolerance for corny punchlines and pop culture references, and while The Hype is stuffed nearly to the brim with them on every song including a few Tom Cruise and twenty one pilots ones that were cringeworthy, my issue runs deeper, namely that this record can feel pretty shallow as a whole. Let's face it, the majority of the tracks here focus on either flexing - which probably yields the best results with 'Believe' and the broad goofiness of 'Sushi' - or on relationships that with this tone can't help but feel paper thin. And sure, some of these little vignettes were played lighter, but it's almost like there aren't enough jokes or actual storytelling to fully flesh out the tracks, especially when we get a fair few breakup songs that really don't engage much with the emotions of the situation in content or delivery - which doesn't really help the love songs feel more sincere either. It all feels kind of flimsy - and granted, it's at least a consistent tone across the record, and if he's content to bounce from girl to girl, at least there are points where he's honest about it. But that's the thing, love songs like 'All For Me' or the desire to reconcile on 'Mad' feel remarkably clingy - and following the former song with 'Fakin' where he's taking the girl's phone is not a great lyrical or sequencing choice - and yet later on the record when the girl wants a rock of some time he flies her to Boulder, Colorado on 'Play The Field', or outright leaves her in an Urban Outfitters on the relationship sputtering out on 'Heartbreak'. But by doing this he makes it harder to buy into the love songs, and without a sense of consequences or any deeper narrative tying this together it becomes harder for me to care one way or the other, especially when within the song the story seems to change and he's still entirely too focused on stealing other guys' girlfriends.

But as a whole... again, as a rapper Hoodie Allen's technique is better than ever, and I like his voice - good hooks do redeem a lot of this project for me, and I can at least accept that it's trying to play lightweight here in bouncy pop rap. But at the same time I feel like Hoodie Allen is falling back into old tones and content that doesn't really do him a lot of favors or hold my interest for long. For what it's trying to do, it's agreeable enough, but again, I get the feeling a little more ambition could go a long way here to making these projects connect more deeply. As such, for me this is a light 6/10 and a recommendation, but really only for fans of this style of pop rap. It might have flair to it, but I can imagine as the hype fades, so will that color.

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