First impressions

October to December 2023

MIKE, Burning Desire

Brooklyn rapper Michael "MIKE" Bonema is a prolific performer — this is his second 2023 project following Faith Is a Rock, a collaboration with Wiki and The Alchemist highlighted by the standout single "Mayors a Cop." His tics have grown familiar, from his muddy, baritone flow and viscous diction to self-produced lo-fi loops, making it difficult to differentiate between his sundry projects. Burning Desire has a handful of WTF moments that abruptly shift the usual gears, particularly "African Sex Freak Fantasy," a number produced by North Carolina musician Gawd that's larded with distorted bass. Mostly, though, MIKE sticks to a well-established formula. Some of his beats are quite nice and buttery, like when he slows-and-chops Mary J. Blige's "Real Love" on "Real Love," and ends "They Don't Stop in the Rain" with the Notorious B.I.G.'s chorus on "Crush on You." His raps have a punched-in quality, a volley of bars that usually last around a minute or so, followed by a refrain to tie them together. (He compares his style to "a Sistine" on "Sixteens.") The technique, so common among rappers in the 2020s, yields some standout lines, like when he raps, "I couldn't cope with my feelings like Romeo" on "Snake Charm," which is produced by Laron. Near the final third of Burning Desire, MIKE invites Lila Ramani of Brooklyn band Crumb to sing solo on "Should Be!" The haunting number feels like a palate cleanser and leads to one of the album's strongest cuts, "What You Say You Are." As MIKE raps, "I'm Michael Myers with the dreads," he invokes the best aspects of his persona: A hungry striver full of Brooklyn swagger, trembling from the city's elements and overeager to share his troubles. Not coincidentally, "What You Say You Are" lasts over three minutes and feels like a hearty dish instead of the minute-long nibbles that define so much of Burning Desire. The guests include Earl Sweatshirt and Larry June — both of whom deliver solid cameos — as well as British musicians Klein, Venna, and Mark William Lewis; experimental vocalist Liv.e, rappers Niontay and El Cousteau, and others. The evocative album art was illustrated by Ghanaian movie-poster veteran D.A. Jasper. MIKE released Burning Desire on his 10k label. * (Recommended)

Shabazz Palaces, Robed in Rareness

"All I want to do is see the girls get a chance/All I want to do is see the bros getting bands," chants Ishmael Butler on the chorus for "Binoculars." To that end, the Seattle rapper and bandleader stocks the 24-minute Robed in Rareness with younger prospects of varying experience, from relative unknowns like Royce the Choice and O FINESS to his son and melodic rap veteran Lil Tracy. None of them add much. Instead, the project's success hinges on Butler's bejeweled production, which weds electronic funk with spooky, spacey tones. Only "Gel Bait," which sports an appearance from Geechi Suede of Camp Lo, brings much needed vocal aggression as the two complain about sundry opps and haters. This is Butler's second major project this year, following an enigmatic outing as Lavarr the Starr on Illusions Ago. That excursion turned Butler into a singer, a shift he has toyed with since Shabazz Palaces' excellent 2017 single "Shine a Light." By contrast, Robed in Rareness feels a bit slighter although it closes nicely with "Hustle Crossers." "Take me away from here," he pleads in a melodic voice. "I'm lost in a dream." Rapper/singer Porter Ray appears on "P Kicking G." Robed in Rareness was released on Sub Pop Records.

Westside Gunn, And Then You Pray for Me

And Then You Pray for Me is positioned as a sequel to Pray for Paris, which marked a high point for modern rap's high-fashion pretensions. Unfortunately, times have changed since the glory years of Virgil Abloh (RIP) and Ye. Westside Gunn is very aware of a decline in fervor surrounding his Griselda brand. He complains on "Babylon Bis," "It seems like everybody hate West lately.” He invites AA Rashid and Keisha Plum to pointedly remind us that this is a genius at work. The former proclaims on "Flygod Did, “You are now listening to an audible, finely crafted garment." Stove God Cooks is less subtle as he harmonizes on "House of Glory," “Broke nigga, why you mad?" At least Griselda still has Daupe! customers. Part of the reason why folks have grown weary of Westside Gunn’s products is that, after dozens of mixtapes and albums, nearly all modeled after the grimy new golden era template he unveiled with 2016's Flygod, he seems to have little new to say. Lyrically, Westside remains the type of dude that catcalls on "Chloe," “C’mere, bitch! Let me change your life!” A subsequent confession that “You’re the prettiest when I nut on you bitch," illustrates a worldview that feels quite narrow despite his well-chronicled lust for Rick Owens shoes and Balenciaga coats. And Then You Pray for Me makes a more convincing argument for Westside Gunn's compositional abilities. By toggling between "drumless" boom-bap and the kind of punch-drunk trap beats that once flourished on DatPiff, he retains his ability to surprise the listener as DJ Holiday, Trap-a-Holics, and DJ Drama help suffuse the album in mid-Aughts Southern thug nostalgia. (“Return of the boom-bap with two million on the wrist!” yells Drama on “Suicide in Selfridges.”) The machinations are enough to sustain another hour of Griselda street heroics, and a handful of legitimate dazzlers like "Kitchen Lights" stand out. The lengthy guest list includes Travis Scott, JID (who delivers a strong verse on "Mamas Prime Time"), Giggs, Ty Dolla $ign, Rick Ross, EST Gee, Denzel Curry, and Boldy James. Longtime fam Benny the Butcher and Conway the Machine, and Griselda artists Estee Nack and Rome Streetz drop in as well. In a nice touch, Westside Gunn turns over the closing title track to rising rap singer KayCyy. The production team includes Daringer, Conductor Williams, Tay Keith, Miguel the Plug and, in a high-profile appearance, the RZA on "House of Glory." And Then You Pray for Me is distributed by EMPIRE.

All Up in the Biz

Biz Markie died at the age of 57 in 2021, and his unsurprising — Biz had been sick for years — yet still tragically young demise remains fresh among the hip-hop community. When All Up in the Biz: The Life and Rhymes of Biz Markie shows Rakim struggling to contain his tears, it's like watching your father cry. There are less fraught magic moments, too, like when Masta Ace freestyles to a puppet version of Biz and apologizes for making "Me and the Biz" with Marley Marl without getting Biz's blessing first. (A commentator's observation that Marley Marl was "the original Dr. Dre" seems ironic given that both Marley and Dre have faced accusations of not giving collaborators proper credit.) Director Sacha Jenkins floats between a biography dense with history of the early 80s rap scene and Biz's lengthy, ultimately unsuccessful hospital battle against diabetes. The latter segments are illustrated with puppets and humans a la The Muppets. Jenkins also utilizes fanciful, childlike illustrations of Biz's adventures from Hectah Arias. At one point, All Up in the Biz posits that Biz "stopped making records" after the historic lawsuit surrounding his sample of Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" for 1991's "Alone Again." But that wasn't the case: Biz remained active throughout the 90s as he slowly transitioned into a corporate events DJ and guest on children's shows like Yo Gabba Gabba. His collaborations with Beastie Boys' Grand Royal empire also kept him in the public eye. To be fair, though, "Studda Step" can't compare to classics like "Make the Music with Your Mouth, Biz" and "Vapors." As Jazzy Jeff — whose frequent appearances in rap docs is turning him into the hip-hop Henry Rollins — says, “The gift and the curse of being around for a long period of time is there’s a period when all your shit is on the radio, and then there’s a period when it’s not.” Jenkins and Mass Appeal produced All Up in the Biz as part of their ongoing content deal with Paramount. * (Recommended)

Okayplayer’s Future

On September 29,'s editorial staff revealed on social media that they had been laid off without warning. (Full disclosure: I wrote a story for Okayplayer earlier this year.) The ensuing dialogue around their collective dismissal led to fears that Okayplayer was "dead," so to speak; or that it may turn into a "zombie site" — to borrow a phrase from journalist Jeff Weiss — that only posts AI-generated content and the occasional advertiser-friendly article. Then, on October 4, the site's owners posted a statement from Okaymedia CEO Isha Sesay on Twitter/X. "For many years Okayplayer has been a mainstay for lovers of black culture," Sesay wrote. "So it is with tremendous sadness that the growing challenges within the digital media space and the ways in which content is being consumed today have brought us to the point of having to say goodbye to some of our friends and colleagues." That same day, its social media accounts began posting banal fodder about sundry pop events. Last week brought a handful of new articles, including an essay on Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron and an interview with Anthony Hamilton. (Those pieces may have been edited before the September 29 layoffs.) The intrigue surrounding Okayplayer comes amid a dearth of sites that cover hip-hop with journalistic integrity. Many of its onetime peers are either shells of their former selves (, focused on rap drama (, and/or overly solicitous of celebrities ( Meanwhile, young fans seem content with following ad hoc accounts that traffic in sensationalism or waiting for a mainstream outlet like Pitchfork or the New York Times to take notice of trends. Okayplayer has had its ups-and-downs since Questlove originally formed the company in 1999 to spotlight the Roots' adventures and his "Soulquarians" friends like Mos Def, Common, and Erykah Badu. However, recent years also brought increasing acclaim as the editorial staff generated sharply written essays, interviews, and news items. Okaymedia wouldn't be the first music media company to jettison staff for cheaper talent: the Fader, for example, is notorious for periodically downsizing its bylines. Meanwhile, Okaymedia figurehead Questlove has yet to comment on the matter, even as he promotes his various projects. His silence speaks worrying volumes.

Welcome to Rap City

Broadcast on BET over three nights — the first episode was shown on October 10 prior to the 2023 BET Hip-Hop Awards — Welcome to Rap City explores the history of the much-missed video program. The filmmakers acknowledge that Rap City debuted in 1989 after BET tried to offload rap videos onto its secondary program, Video Vibrations, instead of giving them equal attention on its flagship program, Video Soul. But they downplay how BET only created Video Vibrations' memorable "Rap Week" and then Rap City in response to MTV's groundbreaking Yo! MTV Raps, which debuted in 1988 and made people loudly question why the biggest Black-owned cable station in the country didn't embrace the genre. (Meanwhile, a tacitly displayed photo of BET founder Robert Johnson with President George H.W. Bush nods to Johnson's politically conservative background.) Initially, Rap City's production values were noticeably poorer than Yo! MTV Raps, although they yielded a homespun charm with riotously funny host Chris "The Mayor" Thomas; and, later, smoothed-out host Prince DaJour. The program's main value, as one person notes, is that "they showed everything," thanks to broadcasting two hours every weekday while Yo! MTV Raps stuck to six hourly shows. (Doctor Dré and Ed Lover handled Yo! MTV Raps' weekday afternoon segments, while Fab 5 Freddy hosted the main Friday night showcase.) It didn't truly hit its stride until 1994 and after Yo! MTV Raps was inexplicably canceled, Joe Clair and Big Lez joined as hosts, and BET increased the show's budget, allowing the program to travel beyond the East Coast. The filmmakers make much of Clair's 1997 interview with the Notorious B.I.G. in Los Angeles, which became the rapper's last filmed television appearance. (The interview didn't air until a week after Biggie was murdered.) But all in all, Welcome to Rap City has way too many talking heads. With due respect to Debra Lee and Stephen G. Hill, no one needs to see a phalanx of television and music executives congratulating themselves. Fans want vintage clips of "WRAP Radio," "The Basement" ciphers, Chris Thomas doing his arm-bounce dance, Big Lez flexing and flirting, Joe Clair's lovably bad freestyles, and Big Tigger disarming guests with his infectious goofiness. By centering the backroom machinations that led to Rap City's rise and fall, Welcome to Rap City underplays the earthy appeal that made the program so special. A handful of rap stars appear, including Ludacris, T.I., Eve, and Trina. Given Rap City's massive impact, it feels like there should be many more. Former The Source editor Selwyn Seyfu Hinds adds important historical context. Welcome to Rap City is directed by Rahman Ali Bugg and marks a collaboration between BET Media Group and Mass Appeal.

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