Summer on Smash? A Mid-Season Look at What Albums You May Have Missed

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It’s about halfway through the summer, the heat is settling in and BBQ playlists are just about set. At this point last year, we were still recovering from a huge release weekend (Astroworld, Swimming and Stay Dangerous) and had found stability after the barrage of takes surrounding Kanye’s five albums in five weeks campaign. Some people were still even playing songs on Scorpion.

This year doesn’t feel quite as momentous as that, at least so far. Releases from Brockhampton, Vince Staples and J̶i̶d̶e̶n̶n̶a̶ could potentially bring some more hype toward the end of the season, but those could very well become back to school classics.

In my research around this summer’s hip hop releases, a lot of the lukewarm feeling comes from some notable disappointments. Even with such a large fanbase, Chance the Rapper’s The Big Day fell short upon release and already seems to have lost listeners’ attention. The album lost the #1 album spot to NF, an artist’s whose top image on Google is a picture of Logic.

After some initial hype, Nas’ Lost Tapes sequel was even more disappointing. Maybe this shouldn’t have been a surprise, it was a B-Sides album after NASIR… J Cole and Dreamville’s put out the Revenge of the Dreamers III project. However, the project gained more traction as a testament to collaboration than it did musically.

And Iggy Azalea released an album that people ignored because of a seven-foot pig.

To be fair, there have been a few releases that met the hype. The J Balvin and Bad Bunny collab, Oasis, further solidified the Puerto Rican trap takeover in the contiguous United States. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib wowed on Bandana. The album saw Madlib further his production masterclass, and Gibbs continue his hot streak after two fire albums in 2018.

After running through all the big releases this summer, I got a chance to go back and listen to the lesser-hyped projects, and this is where the brighter projects really shined. For the rest of this piece, I’ll focus on three that have immediately jumped into heavy rotation after just a few listens.

YBN CORDAE — THE LOST BOY

Somewhat overshadowed by The Big Day, it’s release date partner, YBN Cordae’s own debut album is a fantastic showcase for him. His talent shouldn’t come as a surprise to those that have been paying attention.

Cordae came onto the scene after releasing a response to J Cole’s 2017 “diss” track 1985. Cole’s track was taken by many young rappers as a belittling of a new generation of hip-hop artists. Cole quickly went back on this, striking up a friendship with Lil Pump and eventually featuring much of said new generation on the latest Dreamville album.

After a Lift Yourself-inspired response from SmokePurpp, many fans may have been fatigued and ignored Cordae’s response. If they did check it out, they would have heard a very well-written, honest and biting response to Cole’s (at times) condescending track. Cordae’s solid flow and technique were spotlighted on the track, and his responses to Cole were tight. Please don’t complain without a plan and You want us to be separate and make a contest / Rapping to stay up out the streets, shouldn’t mind that were some of his key points. Throughout the song, he makes fun of J Cole and “old heads” while dealing out sharp jabs and defenses of the new generation.

Ironically, what really stands out listening to the song after his debut album are his shout outs to Mos Def and Talib Kweli. As much as he pokes fun at old heads, his music and approach to hip hop is as classic as it comes. The beats are rarely overwhelming, and repeatedly give Cordae chances to showcase his lyricism.

He brings in very strong collaborations throughout the album as well, including a bar-swapping song with Anderson Paak, a verse from Chance the Rapper that rivals almost anything on Chance’s own project and yet another flawless Pusha T verse (an early favorite for best features of the year).

The subject matter is classic as well, but not stale. Like many debut albums before, he details much of his life story up to that point. Included in these stories are a tale becoming all too common, a struggle with prescription drug dependency. He raps about family, making it out of poverty and continues his quest to prove that this generation of rappers still has something relevant to say.

BURNA BOY — AFRICAN GIANT

I’m still getting through all the highlights of this album, as its one of the longer projects in this showcase, but I need to promote Secret.

I’m not often turned on to new songs on the radio, but when I heard the hook on this song, I couldn’t stop playing it. I thought I was just about done with talking about Jeremih in any music-related writing after he was kicked off his own tour with Teyana Taylor. It has the perfect amount of the Afro-fusion sound that Burna Boy is known for.

Burna Boy is not a debuting his sound, he has developed a strong following in his home country of Nigeria and was starting to develop a name for himself abroad with his last album, Outside. He’s already had a few high-profile features this year, including an appearance on Dave’s fantastic Psychodrama album and Beyonce’s Lion King soundtrack.

The rest of the album continues with Burna Boy’s afro-fusion sound and brings a great summer vibe to a season that has lacked songs of that vain. He brings in his own set of big features on the album including Future and YG. He also has a song with Zlatan which is only a disappointment when you realize who Zlatan isn’t. None of these artists ever overshadow him, though, as Burna Boy grabs your attention and doesn’t let it go over 19 tracks (something many artists are struggling to do).

MAXO KREAM — BRANDON BANKS

This was the first album that stood out to me out of these smaller releases. After hearing his name in the past, I was re-introduced to Maxo Kream on Kenny Beats’ The Cave. There are a lot of parallels between this release and The Lost Boy. Brandon Banks was also overshadowed by some bigger and (upon reflection) weaker releases that weekend (Lion King: The Gift and The Lost Tapes II). While this is only his second album (and his first major label release), Kream also exhibited a very mature authorship with Brandon Banks.

Kream doesn’t have the old school flow that Cordae has (he would qualify as a trap artist) but he raps about his come up in Houston with mature hindsight. He doesn’t glorify his drug-dealing past, often reflecting on those he’s lost and those he impacted. The intro, Meet Again, speaks to a friend who was sent to jail, wanting to talk to him about what’s happening on the outside. The “narrative” of the album centers around his relationship with his father. The relationship starts strict, as his Nigerian father comes back into his life, and ends on his father’s confession of pride and desire to teach from his own mistakes.

Houston is a noticeable influence on the album, from the trap sounds to features from some of the city’s biggest stars, Travis Scott (it feels weird hearing a generic Travis feature after Astroworld) and Megan Thee Stallion. He also has hip hop stalwarts Schoolboy Q and ASAP Ferg on the album. Q’s verse might be his best since Blank Face, rivaling anything on Crash Talk.

Brandon Banks is one of the most mature trap albums I’ve ever heard. The second half of the album includes Brenda, a song about the cyclical nature of missing parents. Brenda is followed by Brothers, which features a great verse from KCG Josh, who seems to be Kream’s actual brother. It’s a really good song that adds to the Maxo portrait this album paints throughout.

These artists represent a redeeming quality in a summer missing many big-name releases. All these rappers deserve a look after impressive albums. In a way, they saved the summer. I mentioned earlier that there still could be some projects to amplify the year, but while we lie in wait, take this time to rehash on the projects you overlooked!

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