Monday, May 27, 2019

album review: '4REAL 4REAL' by yg

Believe me, it was not my plan to start liking YG's music.

Because for the first half of the 2010s, I didn't - he had some singles to start the decade and I still don't really like My Krazy Life. Not really a bad hip-hop album, but it was a project drilling into the bare bones in production courtesy of DJ Mustard at his peak and the content... and little else. I understand the everyman appeal, don't get me wrong, but it didn't nearly stand out as much as it could, and I'd argue that you could put any number of more capable MCs in the same spot with the same production and you'd probably get a better album.

But then Still Brazy came out in 2016, and YG took west-coast revivalism with more expanded production, a genuine sense of humor, and a blunt political angle that actually packed a wallop in a generally underwhelming year for mainstream hip-hop... which might be why that album didn't produce notable singles on the charts to my vast irritation. And thus I can't blame him that much when Stay Dangerous returned to a similar formula to My Krazy Life and actually got some singles success - the only problem was that it was lazier and generally worse, but it did make sense he'd be able to turn around a follow-up more quickly. Hell, it would have been released earlier than even this if it hadn't been for his friend Nipsey Hussle's tragic passing. And I'll be blunt, I didn't have high expectations, mostly because the production team hadn't changed much with singles like 'Go Loko' it looked like things were getting even worse... but hey, maybe it'd work out on 4REAL 4REAL?

So I'll say this: this is the second hip-hop album I've covered this year where the impact of Nipsey Hussle's passing has been felt across the project beyond just a delayed release. The first is ScHoolboy Q's CrasH Talk, a fascinating breakdown where he tried to cycle through arcs of grief and depression until he found something that would let him cope... and while I was trying to be more forgiving, I ultimately didn't think it really worked. YG, on the other hand, seems to have been just as shaken and heartbroken by Nipsey's death, but has chosen to try and elevate his sound to deliver the sort of maturity and composure that Nipsey would find admirable. And in a sense, it does mean that 4REAL 4REAL is a bit of a jarring listen, a little reminiscent of when Ludacris attempted more serious subject matter and maybe overplayed his hand on Theater Of The Mind, but to my surprise it hit more often than it missed and while it is flawed and likely not quite better than Still Brazy, it's absolutely an improvement and again a step back in the right direction.

Now granted, a big part of the impediment to this album is that YG is still a limited artist as an MC, just on a technical basis - his flows are clunky, he rhymes a lot of words and phrases with themselves, relies on repetition more than he should, and you can tell that maturity and trying to sell songs with heavier gravitas and a serious tone are a little outside of his wheelhouse. He's normally much more comfortable with songs like 'Stop Snitchin' and even 'Go Loko', which might suck and remain the worst song on the album mostly because of Tyga, but plays to a blunt, West Coast belligerence in all things gangsta from sex to shooting people that is YG's normal purview. But you can tell that while the album might start in that territory, it won't end there, and there's a commitment to detail in sketching an arc from beginning to end. YG might actively deny that he's not preaching like Ma$e to start off the album, but by 'Do Yo Dance' near the back half he says he's going to church like Ma$e - and sure, it's on a pretty disposable dance song, but when you pair that with how the album will shift from DJ Mustard-inspired bravado and minimalism to the more lush g-funk that fleshes out this album's second half, you can tell a shift has taken place. And even the flexing starts to change - across the first half of the album it's playing in the sort of gangsta gunplay and screwing of girls that's been YG's bread and butter, but by the time we get 'Keshia Had A Baby', you get the impression things are going to get more mature and restrained... 

Well, to a point. That song still does play out as a morality tale of a gold digger who didn't stick by the father who had her baby so when her new partner cheats she can't go back, not helped by Rose Gold playing the Greek chorus to hammer in that point, but you can tell it was a step towards trying heavier subject matter that missed the shot to go deeper, and it does show YG's underrated penchant for detail in his storytelling. Granted, a few songs later we have 'Play Too Much' where YG gets played and airs out everything in furious detail - and then followed by 'Do Not Disturb' where Kamaiyah and G-Eazy are bashing exes in nasty detail and preceded the asshole pimp side of 'I Was On The Block' with a homophobic slur - on the advice of Kanye of all people, so he's not progressive by any means, but when he gives Day Sulan damn near the entire song on 'Her Story' which damn near surpasses most of the album, you can tell he's trying. What caught more of my interest was 'Heart 2 Heart', where YG - helped along by an equally detailed Meek Mill verse - seems a fair bit more sympathetic to his friend who is down on his luck, where two albums ago he'd have left the guy in the dust, and that's a bit of compassion that you can tell is anchored in 'My Last Words', a heartfelt moment where the crowd noise that opened the album comes full circle and he laments the loss of his old friend. The language is clumsy, but sincere, and that gives the attempts at conscious content more genuine weight than they probably would earn on their own.

But that's the dichotomy with this album and it exposes more than ever my frustration with YG: his attempts at making more interesting music both in lyrics and production might be hamfisted and he might be steered astray, but he can try, and when he sticks with that West Coast, g-funk inflected sound, I'd argue he gets pretty close to nailing it. Yeah, 'Do Yo Dance' might be 'Twist Ya Fingaz' part two in cadence and lyrical references, but with those bright keys, the textured bounce, and liquid bass groove, it's hard for me to complain for what it's trying to do, especially if you're picking up Ty Dolla $ign and Kamaiyah along the way. Similar case for the bitterness of 'Play Too Much' - even if he's exasperated at getting played, the piano and bassy synth interplay make it hard to stay too mad for long - it keeps things loose and lightens the tension to highlight how disposable this relationship was. Hell, while it might not have the texture of vintage message songs of the 90s, you can hear the influence in the cooing R&B backdrop and pulsating low-end behind 'Heart 2 Heart', and the pianos and spare beat of 'Keshia Had A Baby' - although interestingly it switches up for the lush strings behind the dense trap knock of 'Her Story', as the elegance might mirror 'Bottle Story' even if the content does not. But then you have cuts like the increasingly bare 'In The Dark' and 'I Was On The Block' that barely has anything close to melody outside of DJ Mustard's bass and percussion, or even the cheap keys and pickups of 'Stop Snitchin', and while that is a sound in which YG has found success before, the tones and grooves are so much more appealing when pulling from g-funk that it only makes those pieces pale in comparison, both in production and content! Certainly better than the guitar-driven disaster of 'Go Loko' with the horns desperately trying to add a Latin flavour on the outro in the clumsiest way possible, but this opens up the question if this album might be mirroring the lyrical arc, moving from its most bare and basic to the richer tones and content that flatter him more and show more effort. But my issue with that comes in how there's a way to do the blunt and basic with some flair, even in composition - 'Stop Snitchin' comes to mind with the urgency in the melody - that if this album was willing to push that side, it could do it better than 'Go Loko' or 'I Was On The Block' or even 'In The Dark', which feel more gimmicky than genuinely menacing.

But as a whole... yes, this was absolutely a swing for the better coming off of Stay Dangerous, and it does finish strong... but as much as I want to give YG credit for reaching for tones and grooves and content that aims higher, that's only about half the album in comparison with songs that are just as basic and underwhelming as ever, and while there is growth, it can feel like a reach and less natural in comparison with the conscious moments that clicked from Still Brazy. Granted, I'm not surprised moments feel like a reach - Nipsey's passing has clearly inspired YG to try harder, and I respect that; I just wish it was a little more consistent and he stuck the landing a bit more, which is why I'm still giving this a strong 6/10 and a recommendation - again, that ending really did save it. For YG, I'm happy he's back on course, and even with the very real problems here, I think he just managed to stick the landing. 

No comments:

Post a Comment