Friday, October 5, 2018

album review: 'ysiv' by logic

It's hard to believe it was just five years ago when I was openly praising a Logic album.

Hell, I think a lot of you remember my review of Under Pressure, his 2014 album that built on some pretty solid mixtape momentum and had some real significant weight to match Logic's flows and contemporary but distinctive boom bap production. I stand by that record as legitimately great, highlighting a rising talent who had great taste in production and a lot of ambition, which translated into his follow-up the next year The Incredible True Story which took his content into a space-themed concept record that couldn't quite stick the landing. And then he followed it two years later with Everybody that went for an even more ambitious and polarizing topic about being biracial in America that earned him even more backlash...

And yet it was that project that netted Logic his first massive smash hit, complete with guest appearances from Khalid and Alessia Cara he got a song with the title of the suicide hotline to break into the top 5. It hadn't been his first charting presence - the posse cut from Suicide Squad 'Sucker for Pain' gave him that, and it's important to note that his less conceptual, more mainstream mixtapes had a tendency to do very well on the Hot 100 - but the suicide hotline song set a narrative around Logic as an approachable, generally nonthreatening rapper who could flow his ass off but wound up speaking around platitudes that could feel misconceived or shallow... which yes, was something that had leaked into his songwriting on the albums, but I do remember when Logic had more to say and could stick the landing.

And I'll admit I had a bad feeling about this project in particular, coming hot on the heels of some particularly stupid comments that he made how he makes music for his 'fans', not hip-hop culture - a bit of a spicy statement and I guarantee it wasn't made with the Wu-Tang Clan in the room, even despite somehow getting a significant chunk of the members to contribute to a song on this album. But even calling the album YSIV was telling, an album follow-up to a series of mixtapes with four songs breaking the six minute mark and a lead-off single featuring Ryan Tedder's caterwauling on the hook. Suffice to say, I was not expecting this to be great or even good - was I wrong?

Well... it's honestly harder to evaluate this album than I was expecting - mostly because I liked it a little more than I expected. But that's the frustrating thing: YSIV has snippets of what I used to really like about Logic but also highlights a rapper in transition towards a sound and style that ultimately I think will distance me further from him. And as such, it's hard not to feel like YSIV is a transitional record trying desperately to balance the Logic of the past and future, and winds up feeling a little hollow as a result, even if I'd argue I'd probably like this album more than Everybody from last year.

And let me stress one thing before we go on: as an entertainer, I generally like Logic a decent bit. When he gets in a looser, more naturally charismatic lane he's got an expressiveness and charisma to balance against his flows that can be really compelling. And yes, as always while I can see the roots in his flow from Kendrick and J. Cole, I do think on a technical of pure skill, Logic is a good rapper, and I certainly think he handles his spoken word digressions on this project better than on Everybody - hell, even though he's gone through the story he's telling on 'Last Call' a number of times before, it's well-told enough to be something I can revisit. My larger problem with Logic comes more in structure and artistic instincts, in that he doesn't seem to have the impulse control to pump the brakes on what could be good ideas - and with the increased success and validation on his plate, that doesn't seem to be coming any time soon. A lot of critics have already ripped on Logic opening up his album with 'Thank You' which features an extended samples of his fans praising him from around the world, not just for the excess but also the placement to open up a record that can feel overlong, but for me the more exasperating impulse is once again trying to tie this album to the arc of The Incredible True Story - yes, you're tying up a plot threat but it's a reminder that said self-gratifying plot is still ongoing! 

Now we'll get more into conversations of structure in a bit, but it does bring to the forefront the big question of theme, namely Logic trying to solidify his popular legacy, especially coming off of his biggest hit representative of a facet of Logic's content given more emphasis than it arguably should have. And in a weird way you get the sense that Logic wants to tell other stories and venture into different territory beyond the self-esteem anthem that got him his hit, which leads to weird moments of tonal whiplash where following after 'One Day' with Ryan Tedder which is an even more plastic attempt to replicate the same sentiments you get 'Wu-Tang Forever', which features every surviving member of the clan plus a few affiliates spitting an average-to-solid verse. And while I enjoyed the novelty of it, it has the weird feeling of Logic wish fulfillment that hits awkwardly against all of the 'best rapper alive' posturing that creeps into other songs even if he tries to subvert it... and even that feels weird when he's asking for a Jay-Z verse on 'The Return' or returning Eminem's shoutout on 'ICONIC'. And that circles back to the question of what Logic's 'legacy' really is, especially as he paints himself as a student of the game and wears his influences so starkly - let's ask the question, what has he created that's unique beyond a few ideas that feel increasingly unrealized even as he calls back to them? And this is going to sound a little strange, so bear with me: I think Logic is at his most compelling and interesting when he's not talking about his career or place in hip-hop - he proved with 'Last Call' that talking about his comeup can still win me over, but he's always been at his best as a storyteller or painting a picture, especially on the bloody track 'Street Dreams II' which was intriguing as an extended metaphor and an album highlight for me. But the problem is how so much of this album keeps slipping back to Logic's obsession with his current story arc, and it leads to some frustrating contradictions. 'Thank You' opens up the album seemingly a love letter from fans but on 'The Glorious Five' he shoves them and his family asking for help aside; he disparages superficial shit but will then brag about the shoe deal he wants in the same song; you get aspirational self-esteem content with sadly not a lot in terms of distinctive wordplay, but then starts tacking on asterisks when we get songs like 'Legacy' where he speaks from the perspective of his family - including his now divorced wife - confronting him on his deathbed who just wanted more time with him. So you think he's just saying screw the hip-hop legacy... but why then are you highlighting all the hip-hop shoutouts and your success in that field, or is all of this just intended for the critics who call you out on these inconsistencies? Or let me put it like this: for as much as Logic wants to frame the success of his work on his fans and the larger world - on 'ICONIC' he sets it up so that 'everybody won' - but when it comes to the recipients of this success to paint an individualistic narrative with who gets the spoils - which I'm not against, but I am calling out the mixed messaging here.

And here's the frustrating thing: if you set aside the inconsistencies and how so many of the punchlines and wordplay feels kind of forgettable, there's a part of me that still really digs a fair amount of this album, because I like Logic's flows and the production from 6ix is really flattering to Logic's style. I'll freely admit part of this is because Logic's embrace of old school New York boom bap has always been the most naturally charming part of his persona in comparison with his utterly formulaic trap content, but I can't deny he picks some good production overall! Granted, the record doesn't exactly start strong - I'm not crazy about the blurry melodic tones and samples that get increasingly blaring over 'Everyone Dies' and 'The Return' - which then come back on 'Legacy' and 'ICONIC' and I've already talked about the sterile piano hook from Ryan Tedder on 'One Day' on Billboard BREAKDOWN - but by the time we actually get a solidly aggressive sample blend on 'Wu-Tang Forever' things start to pick up in the right direction, even if the next song is a slice of sunny, bassy pop-funk with Wale that has a surprising amount of bounce and Logic flowing faster than ever. Shame the slapdash sequencing places the forgettable pop rap bounce of 'Ordinary Day' right behind it for the Hailee Steinfeld feature that adds very little, and then we get the title track intended as a tribute to Mac Miller that doesn't feature much beyond the same sort of braggadocious content Logic usually delivers, even if I do like the Nas sample. Hell, I even kind of dug the west-coast inspired groove that propelled the weed rap of 'The Adventures Of Stoney Bob', and with the rounded pianos on 'Last Call', the album does end pretty well.

But here's the thing: I don't expect to hear more of this sound coming from Logic, because he's said this is his last 'Young Sinatra' project - we'll get more of the Bobby Tarantino forgettable trap nonsense because that's profitable, but the boom bap that he actually sounds good over is going to be consigned to history. And with that in mind, I'm not sure what's really about to pull me back to Logic or even this project all that much. Yeah, there are a few decent cuts, but it reflects an artist who doesn't have the clarity or focus to take his work in a direction that flatters him or requires he present a complete thought beyond his navel. And that's disappointing because I do think Logic has the talent and imagination to go in that direction if he actually commits... but that would probably be a venture that would spook the label backing him and as such we get a project that's trying to please too many people and winds up underwhelming. Not a complete misfire, mind you - there are enough decent cuts to push this to an extremely light 6/10 - but if you're approaching a Logic project the same way I do, I think this is the right stop to get off the train, because I'm not sure anyone is going to like where it's going from here.

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