Hip hop reviews

I become an art critic

Content warning: includes some, uh, mature language. Hey, I didn’t write the songs.

Foreword:

I got the idea for a less intellectual “fun” post after writing something very solemn which my sister (and loyal copyeditor) “[doesn’t] think anyone is going to want to read.”1 Well, too bad—I’m going to post it soon anyway. To mitigate some of the coming seriousness, though, here is something on the lighter side.

[Edit on 9/20/21: here is the more serious post I reference]

Introduction

My very unqualified sense is that art criticism tends to evolve into an arms race of highbrow intellectualism in which every last drop of quasi-plausible social and political meaning is squeezed out of each scene and song lyric. And, of course, this promotes the analysis and praise of complex, genre-defying, interesting music.

Not today. Instead, I am selecting what are, honest to God, my favorite hip hop songs. If you’re a hip hop fan, frequenter of r/hiphopheads, or music aficionado of any sort, you’re probably going to cringe at my incredibly normie-looking list. Well, cringe away and close the tab. Everyone else, buckle up and get ready for the yin to On Silence’s yang.

1. Tunnel Vision by Kodak Black

First and foremost, Tunnel Vision is just a really catchy song. If the lyrics kept their beat and rhyme scheme but were translated into Greek, I’d still listen to it. Honestly, I didn’t know any of what follows before looking up the lyrics just now.

Tunnel Vision is equal parts hilarious and dark. Why? Because its lyrics are absolute bullshit:

Lil' Kodak, they don't like to see you winnin'
They wanna see you in the penitentiary

My God, he live-streamed himself with an illegal gun around a young kid. Kodak, sounds like YOU wanna see you in the penitentiary. He also changed a lyric from “I get any girl I want, I don’t gotta rape” to

I get any girl I want, any girl I want

after being accused of rape (for which he’s currently awaiting trial).

My mama told me, "Boy, make good decisions"

Right now I gotta keep a tunnel vision

Reading the “Legal issues” section of his Wikipedia page, it sure doesn’t seem like he’s taking his mama’s advice to heart; this isn’t some kid who’s been busted a couple times for smoking weed and maybe stealing a bike.

But, before I waste more of your time on a rant about Kodak Black, back to the point: it’s a super catchy song by a pretty talented rapper (though not so great a person), and you should probably give it a listen.

2. Die Young by Roddy Ricch

Featuring Legends by Juice WRLD

With some artists, it’s nearly impossible to choose which songs to include on the list. Juice WRLD, Travis Scott, and Lil Skies all have at least three or four songs that could have made the cut. Roddy Ricch, not so much. But this song is top shelf.

The antithesis to Travis Scott’s techno-instrumentalled Sicko Mode and Butterfly Effect, Die Young is a stripped-down, no-bullshit rap song. Basic hip hop beat, simple chorus, plain instrumentals. Ricch’s vocals are distinctly melodic, bars rising and falling without breaking into outright song.

Now, I’m too White to actually know what the most of the lyrics mean, but according to Genius,

‘Die Young’ details Roddy’s fears and paranoia about being killed in the course of living what is a fairly dangerous life.

Apparently the lyrics and stripped-down style are no mistake. Ricch says that

The thing that inspired me making “Die Young” was that X [XXXTENTACION] had died that day…I wanted to make something to Speaker Knockerz, Lil Snoop. It’s a lot of people that was great that died at a young age, so I wanted to make something in remembrance of them but at the same time just making people well aware of what’s been going on… it was just me and the gang…just me in there going crazy.

I’ve never heard of Knockerz or Lil Snoop, but it’s worth quoting Juice WRLD’s Legends, which is at the top of my “honorable mentions” list:

What's the 27 Club? We ain't making it past 21
I been going through paranoia, so I always gotta keep a gun
Damn, that's the world we live in now
Yeah, hold on, just hear me out
They tell me I'ma be a legend, I don't want that title now
'Cause all the legends seem to die out, what the fuck is this 'bout?

Legends has a backstory strikingly similar to Die Young. From Genius:

“Legends” is a tribute song to late rappers XXXTENTACION and Lil Peep….As shown by the timeline of events, Juice created this entire song in just under a day.

The lines “They tell me I'ma be a legend, I don't want that title now \\ 'Cause all the legends seem to die out, what the fuck is this 'bout?” are particularly haunting in light of JUICE’s later passing.

The two songs’ lyrics are strikingly similar. From Die Young:

Ni**a was fightin' depression, sippin' syrup, I was movin' slow
I was down below, but still, I always kept my head up
Ni**a gotta get my bread up, I don't wanna die young
No, no, no

What the hell is going on with successful hip hop artists in their twenties getting depressed, abusing drugs, and dying? I, as a sheltered White suburbanite, have no idea what growing up in a poor neighborhood is like. And if things are bad for these successful, ultra-wealthy (“'Cause I keep 'bout ten racks bussin' out the jeans on me” = “I carry around $10k in cash”) artists, they must be much worse for some of their less fortunate peers.

Excuse my long-winded melancholic sermon. The song itself is excellent, and you should give it a listen.

3. Lucid Dreams by Juice WRLD

This is Juice’s breakout and most popular song, but it’ll always have a special place in my heart. Opening with a soft instrumental, we hear a woman loudly arguing in the background before Juice comes in with the chorus.

I still see your shadows in my room
Can't take back the love that I gave you
It's to the point where I love and I hate you
And I cannot change you, so I must replace you, oh
Easier said than done, I thought you were the one
Listenin' to my heart instead of my head
You found another one, but I am the better one
I won't let you forget me

Like the title “Lucid Dreams,” the lyrics are a paradoxical patchwork of heartbreak, love, and fury.

You were my everything
Thoughts of a wedding ring
Now I'm just better off dead (Uh, uh, uh)
I'll do it over again
I didn't want it to end
I watch it blow in the wind
I should've listened to my friends
Leave this shit in the past, but I want it to last
You were made outta plastic, fake
I was tangled up in your drastic ways
Who knew evil girls had the prettiest face?
You gave me a heart that was full of mistakes
I gave you my heart and you made heartbreak

We can feel the artist’s simultaneous bitter rage and heartbreak. His ex-lover is “made outta plastic, fake” and “evil,” but Juice would still “do it over again.” Does Juice regret the tragic relationship or not? Both it seems; as the song tells us, love and heartbreak aren’t logically coherent. They don’t have to make sense.

As much as the listener feels for Juice’s sorrow, one lyric conveys something dark and nefarious: “I won’t let you forget me.” Is he just venting after a tough breakup, is he going to try to win her back, or is he planning on something much worse? One of the former two options, we hope, but we all know that love and heartbreak make people do terrible things

As with the song’s title and lyrics, its instrumentals too are a sort of contradiction. A soft string instrumental opens, but is quickly joined by a pretty standard, heavy-bass hip hop beat which complement one another the whole song. Anyway, it’s a good song, and you should give it a listen.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Juice passed away last December after a long struggle with substance abuse. Rest in peace.

4. I by Lil Skies

Lil Skies’ I has striking similarities to Lucid Dreams: low key ominous opening instrumental, broken hearts and coping with self-destructive behavior. Most of all, both songs convey their artists’ incoherent emotions. Just like Juice, Skies says

I haven't been the same since I loved that ho
I haven't been the same since I lost my bro
I say I'm gonna change when I know I won’t

indicating that he really hasn’t gotten over the breakup. Even still, he insists (three times, in fact)

I don't need no one
I don't need no one
I don't need no one

Unlike Juice, though, Skies seems a bit more defiant in the face of loss. He admits that he had his heart broken, but defiance seems to outshine it. Not letting heartbreak get in the way of his hustle, Skies promises he’ll be

Comin' out bolder
Yeah, I'm comin' out bolder
I ride with my soldiers
Ride for my soldiers

Beyond their content, the lyrics’ rhythm and rhyme are pretty sweet. Just two syllables in each line are emphasized:

Life goes on, I can't take breaks
I need face, no, I need faith
In my mind, I can't escape
I climb these heights like I'm an ape

and Skies manages to keep up the rhyme and syllabic scheme the whole song without anything seeming forced. Anyway, it’s a good song, and you should give it a listen.

5 and 6. Butterfly Effect and Sicko Mode by Travis Scott

produced by Murda Beatz and Felix Leone et al.

Travis Scott isn’t a great rapper, but he is a great artist, at least with his producers who turn acoustic water into techno-electronic wine. I’m grouping these songs together because they’re so similar in character, the two best tracks on Scott’s triple-platinum and Grammy-nominated album Astroworld.Both are hype-up songs, with Scott alone and then Scott and Drake describing their inordinate endowments of money, sex, and drugs in colorful terms. The lyrics don’t make sense (to me anyway), and the autotune/techno-instrumentals are so strong that the songs’ quality seems more attributable to Murda, Leone, and the other dozen or so listed producers than Scott himself.

Despite all this, it would be disingenuous to pretend these songs weren’t among my favorites. Although Scott is “officially” a hip hop artist, these songs have a lot in common with those by “electronic but not dubstep and also a few lyrics” artists. Because of this, I put Butterfly Effect, Sicko Mode, and honorable mention Stargazing into the same category as Kodak Black’s Tunnel Vision: songs that would be great even if their lyrics were in French.

It’s barely worth trying to describe in English what the songs do so well, but at a meta level I think it’s something like this: both songs have so much going on—intense and complex beat, multiple layers of lyrics, reverberating echoes, variou instrumentals—that somehow coalesce into a coherent sound. If ever there was an antithesis to acapella, these songs would be it.

And unlike dubstep, which I frankly find annoying as hell, for one reason or another the sound is loud and intense without being overwhelming. If you don’t know what I mean, try listening to them while only concentrating on one part of the beat, and then another, and then the auto-tuned vocal echoes, and then the lyrics.

Anyway, they’re good songs and you should give them a listen.

7. Red Roses by Lil Skies

Skies’ number two song straddles the line between the simple lyricism of Die Young and the techno-instrumentalism of Travis Scott’s album Astroworld. And, in an objective sense, I don’t think it’s very good. Of all the songs in this post, this one’s vocals might be the laziest—a sort of half-hearted mumbling antithetical to those of acclaimed artists like Kendrick and Eminem. The beat is neither simple enough to be cool nor complex enough to be interesting.

The lyrics are pretty run-of-the-mill “I’m cool and a good rapper and get lots of women and have a bright future but also smoke weed all the time.” As an example:

I roll up the mary jane, no, they can't feel my pain
I'm still trapping every day, I think I'm stuck in my ways
If you looking for a handout, get the fuck out my face
I don't care about no friends because they all were just fake
In my inbox like I owe you, I got this by myself

You’d think with a name like “Red Roses” there would be some deep or hidden meaning behind it all.

Girl, you know I got a cold heart
If I would give it to you, would you tear that shit apart?
Red roses on my grave, bury me with art
And with some Backwoods and a lighter just so I could spark

But, nope. At least Skies is straight about it. According to him,

A red rose is just beautiful. You see red roses on graves. It was just something I could relate to. “Bury me with art” is just, “Bury me with my shit. Bury me with the shit that I like, that I was very into, that’s all I want. And with some Backwoods and a lighter just so I could spark when I go to heaven.

Well, fair enough; the man likes flowers and weed.

All that said, it’s a damn good song. Why? I have no idea—it just sounds good! I’m sure there is some artistic/psychological/neurological reason why some songs sound good and others do not, but that’s above my pay grade. This is exactly the type of song I’d expect to be neglected by mainstream or highbrow art critics. Skies is never going to win a Grammy, but Red Roses’ “objective” unremarkableness doesn’t negate its subjective aesthetic value.

8. Clueless by Calboy

Up there alongside Roddy Ricch’s Die Young as one of my favorite simple, lyrical rap songs, Clueless is a hidden gem. Hidden enough, in fact, that I can’t rely on Genius to translate the lyrics for me, perhaps because it’s only the fourth most popular song on there with the same name.

Its parallels with Die Young extend beyond my taste in music. Both songs reflect their artists’ rise from rags to riches without being excessively boastful, and both are distinctly melodic. The beat is simple, the solo rappers on both tracks are patently talented, and the lyrics are mildly cryptic to naive White fans but ultimately sensible.

Speaking of lyrics, this is not one of those songs that would be just as good in French:

Clueless
I never knew about love
I never knew about love, oh
Clueless
They never knew who he was
They never knew who he was, oh

The chorus will stick in your head, but Calboy neatly explicates what he means in the verses:

I never knew about love
I never knew I'd be aching
They never knew who he was (Was)
They never knew 'bout the base (Base)…

Heard the Bible say love all your neighbors (Love all your neighbors)
40 kiss 'em, goodnight, see you later
Body peek out the water like gator
Got a new Gucci suit and some gators…

They never knew what we did
You never knew what was done
Mama ain't know we had drugs (Drugs)
Grandma ain't know we had guns…

They never knew I was savage
They never know how I'm coming, ayy
They never knew that I popped at them ni**as for fucking around with my brother

In other words, I think, Calboy was misunderstood at both a deep and superficial level. Apparently growing up in poverty, he watched two of his friends die from violence and drugs, so this song is likely as genuine as Tunnel Vision is bullshit.

Some might gripe with Clueless's reliance on autotune, but I don’t mind. For one thing, autotune won’t make you a good artist any more than wearing an olympic-caliber swimsuit will make you a good swimmer. For another, it’s an artistic tool just like any other, and for some reason beyond my conscious comprehension this song just happens to make it work.


Conclusion

It was surprisingly hard to articulate why I enjoy each one of these songs, and I frankly got a bit tired of the task. Sooner or later, though, more song reviews will be on the way—there are just too many masterpieces to stop here for good.

Between the time that my music career ended with a whimper in middle school (my trumpet is in a closet somewhere), and my discovery of Spotify about two years ago, I wasn’t much of a music guy. I heard songs on the radio, and that was about it.

I didn’t know what I was missing. The $5 I spend on Spotify every month is probably the single greatest ‘value per dollar’ purchase in my life. There are a lot of problems with the modern music industry, but juicing consumers for cash isn’t one of them.

Let me break my promise not to intellectualize this post and observe the absolute absurdity of modern, internet-enabled access to music. For almost all of human history, music was scarce, requiring real effort to produce. Now, we live amid an all you can eat buffet, serving up everything from the most mundane catchy pop hits to the most niche underground tracks of every sub-genre. Perhaps one of the more under-appreciated virtues of the modern digital age is the democratization and proliferation of inexpensive, near-infinite music access to everyone with a smartphone.

So, if you happen to be reading this and don’t think of yourself as a “music person” either, let me encourage you to give it a try. The buffet table is waiting, and there’s something for everyone.

1

I appreciate the honesty