It’s the first music round up of the year, featuring a pair of hype-y hip hop releases!
J.U.S – GOD GOKU JAY-Z
Genre: Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “Kash Doll Type Beat (featuring Bruiser Wolf and Danny Brown),” “Twilight,” “Have Mercy (featuring Danny Brown)”
REIGN SUPREME felt important in the moment. Dropped on Twitch after a marathon run of PERSONA 5 to a room of around 1,000 people, Danny Brown gleefully talked over and hyped up unreleased music featuring ZelooperZ, Fat Ray,Tha Kushman, and a litany of other Detroit-based MCs who made up the loose collective Bruiser Brigade. And then it all just… went away! It exists in the form of fan uploads to SoundCloud and YouTube, and even, for whatever reason, scored a 7.4 on Pitchfork, but it was a fleeting livestream event and among the most immediate examples of Twitch intersecting with indie music in a way that was exciting and visceral.
The promise of Twitch and its relevance to musicians has, of course, only grown since REIGN SUPREME dropped, but the promise of Bruiser Brigade started and stopped at the end of that stream—even the record label of the same name, which released a couple of solid ZelooperZ releases last year, was firmly under the radar in spite of Brown’s mainstream appeal and aura. All this mythmaking feels like it culminates with J.U.S’ GOD GOKU JAY-Z, wherein Bruiser Brigade Records seems to have taken on some kind of more mainstream and official relaunch, and Brown’s celebrity status (he appears on three verses here) could, in theory, help carry its varied and developmental roster.
And what a coming-out party it is. The promise of variety that existed on REIGN SUPREME is all over GOD GOKU JAY-Z, with plenty of Bruiser Brigade members showing up and production from mainstays Black Noi$e and Skywlkr. J.U.S is a decidedly focused guide amidst the big personalities and bigger beats. Opening track “Table Service” finds Skywlkr’s see-sawing beat eventually catching up to J.U.S’ ice cold verses, and even Brown’s comical and decidedly memorable verses feel like they, too, are playing a bit of catch-up to our narrator. And if ever there was a way to establish yourself and your label as a heavy, interpolating the chorus of Jay-Z’s “Dead Presidents” (“PPP”) and flipping a Destiny’s Child song (“Destiny”) would do the trick. GOD GOKU JAY-Z works because, like REIGN SUPREME, it’s a tight fusion of everything the label could have to offer, while still putting the focus on J.U.S. Could Bruiser Brigade Records be the next Griselda? [CJ Simonson]
Kid Cudi – MAN ON THE MOON III: THE CHOSEN
Genre: Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “Heaven on Earth,” “Elsie’s Baby Boy,” “Tequila Shots”
Kid Cudi is a tough artist to review in 2021. Beloved eternally by many for the first two installments of the MAN ON THE MOON trilogy, Cudi’s legend status was cemented by brooding, emotional, and spacey albums that gave a raw voice to feelings a generation struggled to express. At the same time, the announcement of a Cudi album between the conception of his rock side project WZRD and 2018’s surprise gem KIDS SEE GHOSTS was met with widespread apathy, even a groan, as successive efforts grew more inessential. To return to the series that earned Cudi nearly all his musical and cultural cache a decade on is either a bold assertion that he has returned to form, or a last-gasp attempt to convince young people his music still holds appeal.
While the album certainly lets Cudi’s legacy do a lot of the heavy lifting, MAN ON THE MOON III: THE CHOSEN is a pleasant surprise, and the closest thing to fulfilling the promise of the trilogy that one could reasonably expect from an artist a decade removed from the related works. The first two installments of MAN ON THE MOON were special for three reasons, which MOTMIII retains with varying degrees of success. The first was the melancholic, psychedelic soundscapes; tracks like “Soundtrack to My Life,” “Day N Nite,” “Mojo So Dope,” and “MANIAC” were perfect in theme, evocative and unique amongst Cudi’s contemporaries. Attributable as much to longtime producer Dot Da Genius as Cudi himself, we can trace some of the most impactful styles and albums of recent years, from Kanye West’s 808S AND HEARTBREAK to Travis Scott’s opus ASTROWORLD. MOTMIII sports production descended from these entrancing highs, but now that Travis Scott is in McDonald’s ads and every white kid with MIDI and a dream of meeting rappers can throw together a halfway decent psychedelic trap beat, the impact has lessened. There are standouts, like the catchy whistles on the anthemic “She Knows This,” or fascinating lullaby-turned-trap-beat on “Heaven on Earth,” but the passage of time made Cudi a stylistic follower rather than leader. This is not to say the production is a weak spot, far from it, but it is not a standout quality, lacking the influence and immersiveness of the originals.
The second strength is Cudi’s frank expressions of depression and waywardness, themes rarely explored in rap music in 2010. Cudi should not be mistaken for a nuanced or particularly talented writer, but his willingness to lay bare his emotional struggle and confusion was liberating and relatable for an audience of mostly young males without the emotional intelligence or confidence to examine themselves. Today, this sort of soul-bearing, melody-driven “emo-rap” is a genre unto itself. Such emotional screeds are present on MOTMIII, but the overall tone of the album is less morose. This is an inarguable positive, and feels like an honest reflection of Cudi in 2020. Because of his work in film and television and his profile as an artist, another helping of teenage emotional venting would’ve felt inauthentic. Instead, we get nods to that relatable, uncertain headspace, scaffolded by a palpable calm and contentedness that feels more appropriate.
Cudi’s voice is the final and most identifying strength of his best work. Those intoxicating hums still hold weight today, and his willingness to experiment makes for one of the great, immediately recognizable voices in rap music. It’s still a strength in MOTMIII, though the back-half suffers from some monotony as Cudi stays in a narrower vocal range. Highlights include sticky, cascading lines where Cudi contracts and stretches syllables on “Dive” and “Tequila Shots,” the latter featuring beautiful refrains where he cuts the beat down and stretches the last word of each line in arresting fashion. A pair of stylistic outliers in “Show Out” and “Elsie’s Baby Boy (flashback)” hit opposing ends of the quality spectrum; the former forces Cudi onto a drill beat, drowning his voice in processing to keep up with the diamond-hard bars from Skepta and Pop Smoke, a concession to commercial appeal that doesn’t pan out. The latter is a strong showcase for his ability to shift between the clean and husky ends of his singing voice, which, coupled with his signature hums, makes for a very pleasant track.
Cudi’s catalog left a wide margin for the possible quality of MOTMIII. Thankfully, my complaints are minor, relegated to bloat and some collaborations which lack chemistry. While it may lack the staying power of the first two installments, MOTMIII is one of Cudi’s better albums and a relief to those of us who thought we might never hear a worthwhile Cudi solo project again. [Corey Guen]