10 Best Rap Releases of the Month: May 2018

Pusha T, Rae Sremmurd, Playboi Carti and more

Pusha T, Rae Sremmurd Credit: Matteo Prandoni/BFA/REX Shutterstock, Owen Kolasinski/BFA/REX Shutterstock

Rap Release of the Month: 
Pusha-T,
Daytona
"I predict snow/Al Roker," raps Pusha-T on this seven-track project's "If You Know You Know." But Daytona is more than just drug tales from a rapper who has specialized in coke rap since the dawn of the Aughts. As a master of metaphor and punchlines, he uses the trappings of rap life to illustrate a culture in crisis. "I won't let you ruin my dreams/Or Harvey Weinstein the kid/Good morning Matt Lauer, can I live?" he rhymes on "Hard Piano." On "What Would Meek Do?", he drops a reference to the 1996 sex rap "Put It in Your Mouth": "Pop a wheelie, tell the judge to Akinyele." Meanwhile, Kanye "poopy-dee scoop" West buttresses the lyrical fireworks with raw, minimalist loops; it sounds like he's still chasing the ghost of Pusha-T's Clipse classic Hell Hath No Fury, which is at least better motivation than arguing about MAGA on Twitter.

A$AP Rocky, Testing
Like much of his past work, A$AP Rocky's Testing is more interesting sonically than the rapping itself. That's clear from the project's first single, "A$AP Forever," which loops Moby's downtempo chestnut "Natural Blues" – itself a loop of early 20th century field recordings — into a stately, if unexpected, introduction to the record. There are shades of Scarface's "Money and the Power" and Jeru the Damaja on "Calldrops," which features a hissy, crackling tape of Kodak Black spitting a bar over the phone from prison. Southern screwed-and chopped techniques hang over the entire album like a skullcap, especially on "Hun43rd," where Rocky remembers a youth spent street hustling in Harlem. A spiritual godfather to alchemists like Travis Scott, Rocky's work often sounds like a spectacle without much meaning beyond its well-appointed surface, and his lyrical repertoire rarely strays from boasts asserting his brilliance. But that doesn't mean it isn't enjoyable, even if one suspects that he isn't a nice person in real life. "People really think I'm an asshole, I say anything/Truthfully, I say what I really think," he claims on "Tony Tone."

Blocboy JB, Simi
Blocboy JB emerged from Memphis and quickly rose to the top of the YouTube and SoundCloud netherworld with "Look Alive," a trap thumper that became a major streaming hit with help from rap's co-sign king Drake. Blocboy's subsequent Simi positions him firmly in a lineage of Memphis shit-talkers, right down to a Three 6 Mafia "yeah hoe" sample on "Left Hand." Vocally, he's neither as self-assured as Young Dolph nor as adept at hooks as Yo Gotti. He's easily outshined by Moneybagg Yo on the stereotype-peddling "Asian Bitch," which reads like a far less compelling Southern version of Jay Z's "Girls, Girls, Girls." But there are some screw-faced charms here, particularly on "Rover 2.0" with 21 Savage, and "Wait," where he floats off beat like Chief Keef. "You dance with the devil/I dance with Cinderallas," he boasts on the booty bounce-inducer "Mamacita."

DJ Jazzy Jeff, M3
The final chapter in DJ Jazzy Jeff's The Magnificent series revisits the neo-soul inflected sound he mined so well in the early Aughts. His collaborators throughout are the Trinity, a rap group consisting of Rhymefest – yes, the same Chicago rapper/activist making headlines for his beef with Kimye – Dayne Jordan and Uhmeer. While he weaves supple arrangements fleshed out by guest musicians like James Poyser and Stro Elliot (both longtime members of The Roots camp), the Trinity's conscious rhymes take the form of personal observations and inner desires. "My man Ricky got killed for selling his loosies/Black Cuban used to play the drums so beautifully/Now the music's gone but the block ain't silent/Every other day you hear the sounds of sirens," raps Rhymefest on "Wide Awake." Yet he and the rest of the Trinity avoid hectoring, instead delving into lush steppers' sounds, like the disco grooves of "2 Step" and "Skaters Paradise," that are made for family barbecues and smokers sessions.

Junglepussy, JP3
Junglepussy has an incredible voice. She spits in a low, intense rumble, with a matter-of-fact tone that hints she lives out every rhyme she spits, no matter how raunchy or outrageous. As a result, even when many of the songs on JP3 don't quite hang together, her sharp, cutting flow and disarmingly melodic singing voice remain magnetic. True to her name, these songs are exuberantly sexual – one track, "I Just Want It," has a chorus that goes, 'I just want the head." But Junglepussy can't be dismissed solely as a sex rapper; her ability to funk and grind hard on "I'm In Love" is too impressive for that. A particular highlight is "Long Way Home," a darkly sensuous number where she "feels the dick" alongside former Three 6 Mafia pioneer Gangsta Boo, another hard rhymer who evades easy categorization.

The Last Poets, Understand What Black Is
Birthed in the throes of the Black Power movement, this collective began as young firebrands, recording albums full of angry proto-rap poems that influenced subsequent generations. But that was decades ago. Now a trio – Umar Bin Hassan, Abiodun Oyewole and percussionist Donn Babatunde – the Last Poets' collaboration with the British dub musicians Nostalgia 77 and Prince Fatty is an autumnal reggae suite full of gathered wisdom and historical anecdotes. Oyewole's title track is reminiscent of earlier classics like "Black Is," but it sounds like a calm explanation instead of a fiery assertion of self-pride. Hassan pays tribute to the late funk genius Prince on "North East West South," and Oyewole lodges an attack on American imperialism over the dread vibes of "Rain of Terror." The two remaining Last Poets may have created a more leisurely work than their early-Seventies peak, but Oyewole's sandpapery baritone and Hassan's crackling, exclamatory tenor still command attention.

Lil Baby, Harder Than Ever
Thanks to the full backing of ascendant rap empire Quality Control, this Atlanta rapper is enjoying a buzz that threatens to supersede his musical talent. But he has a decent voice, and his first major project weaves capably between wavy AutoTuned boasts and gruff chest-thumping raps. It's a zone anyone familiar with a certain strain of streaming-friendly street rap will recognize, and he works it with aplomb – even Drake, who appears on "Yes Indeed," seems to adopt Lil Baby's run-on-sentence flow. Solid production from a host of producers keeps Baby's project from disappearing down a content hole, like the watery, out-of-tune synths and rolling trap drums of Turbo the Great and Swiss producer OZ's "Bank," or the neon synth-pop of Quay Global's "Cash." There's not much struggle here – just notes on ascending from the trap house to the corner office – though Lil Baby occasionally remembers his D-boy days on "Southside," and, on "Right Now," recalls "I've been having nightmares about going back to jail so I wake up/ Drinking all this lean popping Adderall so I can't stay up."

Playboi Carti, Die Lit
Playboi Carti repeats phrases with an incantatory command over beats that mimic Japanese video game composers, resulting in songs that feel oddly yet infectiously rhythmic. It's a style template that blossomed on last year's self-titled album. Die Lit is more of the same as the Atlanta rapper strikes the repetitive chords with audible glee. He's not in danger of wearing us out yet, although at 19 tracks Die Lit is better at establishing a dopamine-pumping red-eyed gamer vibe than coalescing into a concise body of work. "Long Time (Intro)" sounds like an 8-bit melody emanating from a broken cartridge as Carti chants, "I ain't felt like this in a long time." Skepta's hard spitting nearly overwhelms "Lean 4 Real," while Young Thug's atonal crooning adds visceral intensity to the hallucinatory keyboard stabs of "Choppa Don't Miss." Despite a plethora of cameos including Nicki Minaj and Lil Uzi Vert, no one upstages Carti, who looms above it all, pleasantly lost in his own Mushroom Kingdom.

Rae Sremmurd, Sr3mm
This three-album opus from the Mississippi duo nods to Outkast's groundbreaking Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, as well as more recent data dumps like Drake's Views, Migos' Culture II and Chris Brown's Heartbreak on a Full Moon. Set one, which the pair recorded together, replicates the Xan-ed out sounds of their impressive SremmLife 2, but with less success, although tracks like "Buckets" confirm that they're one of the best at writing hooks you'll want to repeat a few hundred times. The real prize here is the second disc, Swae Lee's Swaecation, which finds him fully indulging the tropical-pop voice he has developed on French Montana's "Unforgettable" and Jhene Aiko's "Sativa." "Winter's over, let the sun in," Swae sings on the song-of-the-summer bid "Lost Angels," while on the standout "Heartbreak in Encino Hills," producers Mally Mall and Scorp Dezel layer gauzy steel guitars as he plumbs deep into his feelings. Meanwhile, Swae's brother Slim Jxmmi showcases his style on Jxmtro, which offers elbow-waving trap chants ("I'm gonna fuck with the strippers tonight," he crows on "Players Club") for the Magic City crowd.

Royce Da 5'9", Book of Ryan
On "Dumb," a track from Book of Ryan, Royce Da 5'9" asserts that "there ain't no middle class" in the rap industry. Yet the 40-year-old Detroit rapper's third Billboard Top 25 album – and second project this year, following March's superior Prhyme 2 project with DJ Premier – is proof that he represents a silent minority still keenly interested in rap traditionalism. Ironically, Book of Ryan doesn't truly click until Royce stops spitting cipher bars and declaiming his veteran status and begins reflecting on a troubled past that includes a family history of substance abuse and his public struggle with alcoholism in the early Aughts. "I'm proud to say I'm an addict who inherited your pain," he sings to his father on "Cocaine" in a nakedly pained voice, no AutoTune. Tracks like "Boblo Boat" with J Cole and "Life Is Fair" reveal that Royce's pathos runs deeper than mere complaints about his stable but unheralded status in rap's hierarchy.