Thursday, May 10, 2018

album review: 'SR3MM / swaecation / JXMTRO' by rae sremmurd

I know what all of you want me to do in this review. You're all waiting for the seething anger, the extended rant on the vapid nonsense that this duo passes off as party bangers, how both of their previous records have been among some of the worst hip-hop to be released in the 2010s...

And yet I can't do it this time. Look, I don't regret anything I said for either SremmLife 1 or 2 - they're both bad records crippled by grating lead performances, awful lyrics, and production that wants to substitute overweight murky lumps courtesy of Mike Will Made It for anything fun or with significant force - I've got nothing against party bangers, but when you can't match even mid-tier crunk from the 2000s, you have serious problems! But then 'Black Beatles' - unquestionably the best song Rae Sremmurd ever made - became a #1 hit, and then I started hearing Swae Lee refine his cracking, nasal delivery into something a little smoother, and Slim Jxmmi add a little more structure to his bars, and I came to the realization that I may have actually been a shade too hard on SremmLife 2 - it's still pretty bad, but there were improvements there that deserved more attention.

So okay, maybe the follow-up could rise to being passable, I told myself, maybe these kids had something in them... and instead of doubling down on a tight record of bangers, they decided a good idea was a triple album! Now I've said in the past that even double albums can be a dicey proposition, but three records from this duo - one from them together, and one each from them solo, called Swaecation and Jxmtro respectively - is the sort of overstuffed choice where I can count the number of times it's worked in the history of recorded music - outside of live albums and greatest hits collections - on two hands! Seriously, we've got Joanna Newsom, Smashing Pumpkins, Kamasi Washington, maybe the Magnetic Fields or Swans or Prince - it screams of overplaying their hand or at the very least misunderstanding their appeal for Rae Sremmurd to try this. And yet my Patrons wanted to put me through this, so fine: what did we get on SR3MM?

Folks, I need to be very blunt: if it wasn't for the fact that I have something of an infamous history with Rae Sremmurd on this channel, this would go on the Trailing Edge in a heartbeat. And that's the frustrating thing: when you have records as bad as the first two SremmLife albums were, they at least inspired an interesting conversation or had a certain amount of flair where even if I couldn't stand them, I get why people liked them. But trudging through the triple album of SR3MM and seeing the muted popular reception, I can't help but feel that even though the duo does improve a bit on a technical level, they've lost some of that exuberance and firepower to make even their bad music interesting, exacerbated by over-extending themselves over three discs. In short... yeah, this isn't good, but the reasons are very different, and say some bleak things about Rae Sremmurd's success long term.

And for starters, I'm going to change up my format when talking about this project, because anyone who has listened to this triple album front to back will emphatically agree it should not be bundled as one cohesive piece. To some extent, each individual disc stands alone in its tone and approach, and I'm going to treat it as such - so let's start with the duo's disc SR3MM, easily the most distinct of the three both in the best and the worst. One thing that becomes abundantly apparent is that Rae Sremmurd absolutely need each other for contrast on these tunes, if only to cultivate a feedback loop of vapid flexing that allows Slim Jxmmi's more competently structured flow to play off Swae Lee's more melodic singing - all of which has more autotune that it really should, but that's to be expected. But if this disc has any strengths in highlighting that chemistry as well as the best hooks by far - I mentioned my lyrical issues with both 'Close' and 'Powerglide' on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but especially the latter has some pretty sweet production and if it wasn't for Juicy J's verse would probably be close to the duo's best song - it's also prophetic in showing them at their worst. By far the weakest track here is 'Buckets' with Future - incredibly lazy hook, Future phoning in his verse against a lot of ugly, dissonant synths, some of the most amateurish rhyming on the entire album, but it at least shows Rae Sremmurd in a familiar, excruciating lane - what might prove to be more of a problem for the duo is a more competent track like 'Bedtime Stories' with The Weeknd with its bright, 90s-inspired keyboards and clapping percussion, but even though he just has the hook The Weeknd runs away with the song in terms of poise and quality in comparison to all the clumsy autotune assists. And that's when the production is good - from 'Buckets' to '42' to 'T'ed Up' many of these songs sound like the bass-boosted version of themselves that does nothing to accentuate the intensity of the hook, and then you get 'Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame' that brings in a guitar, but gives it no body against the chiptune elements around it, and Rae Sremmurd make more wrestling references on that song than that of rock artists!

But hey, everyone including myself was pegging Swae Lee as the member of Rae Sremmurd who has evolved the most in the past few years, so what about his solo disc Swaecation? Well, like with SR3MM he's overtaken by his guest star Young Thug on 'Offshore', even despite not really saying much, but 'not really saying much' might as well be the tagline for both solo discs, this one especially. Now don't get me wrong, I don't mind the somewhat slinky, 80s-inspired synthesizers that add some slick groove to 'Touchscreen Navigation' and 'Lost Angels' and 'Hurt To Look', but minus his brother Swae Lee is left struggling to fill time against languid, guitar-accented tropical production that's too desaturated to punch and too lethargic to get interesting! Of course it doesn't help matters that most of these songs have him trying to take some guy's girl, but every layer of autotune and faded guitar sounds like a bargain barrel of what Frank Ocean did better two years ago, and there's no convincing verve or intensity to help Swae Lee feel like more than a pale shadow of his obvious influences. At best, I can see this disc capturing a sort of half-drunk realization of stark loneliness, but even that's not enough to make these songs not feel like pale facsimiles of more developed tracks, across the board - hell, 'Guatemala' is brazen in how much it's a weaker copy of 'Unforgettable'!

So fine, Swae Lee delivered a listless bore of a solo project, what about his brother Slim Jxmmi, who nobody expected would succeed? Well, here's the thing: that statement is only half-right, because I was expecting to dislike JXMTRO a fair bit more than I do. Many folks have given Swae Lee credit for evolving as a more expressive performer, but Slim Jxmmi has become a better rapper, at least on a technical level. And while there are flubbed rhymes all over this project, there are less outright embarrassing lines and he can at least bring a little more intensity - although more often than not he sounds like he's out of breath or his voice is dying mid-flow - and it helps this is one of the more streamlined releases. But like with Swae Lee he's shown up by his guest stars - Riff 3x against the gurgling ugliness of 'Juggling Biddies', Pharrell on 'Chanel' once he gets away from that oddly flamboyant falsetto that didn't flatter anything, and especially Zoe Kravitz on 'Anti-Social Smokers Club', who shows up with more charisma than what is shown on over half this triple album! And if there's a disc where the production has not evolved and sounds cheaper than ever, it's JXMTRO - the horribly mixed pianos on 'Players Club', the gross-sounding synths against the overblown bass on 'Cap', the really cheap trap percussion all over the disc where the bass beats are too heavy and rarely provide enough groove, and even the bizarre choice to bring in guitars beneath the trap on 'Changed Up' and 'Keep God First'. And these two songs are where Slim Jxmmi tries to add a little more meat to his bars - he's more nakedly antagonistic on people encroaching on his space on his record, but he tries to add some context why he's hustling for that money... and yet it's so basic and lacking in the detail he tries to infuse into his flexing that it's hard not to feel like he's out of his depth, lost for contrast or spark without Swae Lee.

But here's the ugly truth: even together Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi don't have enough content to fill an EP, shallow or otherwise, they rarely even bring the intensity and energy to distract from it - the yowling off-key shouts of previous records may have been annoying to me, but there was a sense of urgency that could have made the empty flexing somewhat fun; never worked for me, but I see where it could have worked for some. But this... cut it down to a single record and not feel like a cheap, undercooked attempt to troll for streams and I'm not sure it would have been good, but it could have been passable. But the solo discs leave both artists sounding lost and painfully aware of their limitations, and yet together they're either let down or shown up by their guest stars or crippled by ugly production. And when you have to sit through over an hour and a half of this... again, the anger's gone, as it's hard not to feel like this overextension into peak trap means their fifteen minutes are about up. So for me... the first disc gets a light 4/10, both solo discs get 3/10, and that rounds out to this getting a strong 3/10 overall. Even if you're a fan, I can imagine you'll think this is too much, so I'd pick the cuts that work from each and just walk away - probably for the best.

No comments:

Post a Comment