ALL: First Impressions

Boldy James & Conductor Williams, Across the Tracks

Across the Tracks is Boldy James’ second release this year. The first, Penalty of Leadership, found the Detroit rapper collaborating with Nicolas Craven as he explored the consequences of a near-fatal car accident. The project sounded revelatory as James subtly pushed beyond his comfort zone of street pharmaceuticals and male power dynamics. Across the Tracks finds him reverting to form. He calls himself “Brick James” on “The Ol’ Switcheroo,” and claims on “Off-White Lumberjacks” that he’s “been trapping through The Wire just like Wee-Bey.” It’s an environment where “good writing” — to use an oft-abused music critic cliché — consists of illustrating a drug hustler’s lifestyle in colorful language, not thematic exposition or narrative tension. A sole example of the latter is “Flying Trapeze Act,” where James tells a story about being criminally investigated: “Tightroping in the street, this shit is death defying/When your man’s a witness in your case testifying.” Conductor Williams offers fantastic loops, as always, but it’s unclear whether James truly elevates them or simply settles into the beats like comfortable shoes. The 26-minute excursion feels too easy, like lightwork. Near Mint released Across the Tracks.

Your Old Droog, Movie

In an interview with Variety, Your Old Droog said that if he was a movie director, he’d be “Tarantino, or maybe [Martin] Scorsese.” It’s a sentiment he repeats on the title track of his new album. “We’re all actors in God’s drama,” he raps while shouting out “Brian DePalma/Spielberg, Scorsese, and QT.” Claiming the bards of bro cinema as your spirit animals is a trope of the male-dominated rap space. To his credit, Droog aspires to the quieter, substantive moments of their work instead of their highly stylized violence. On “How Do You Do It,” he hearkens to his impoverished youthful self as he admires the Brooklyn drug dealers and their bank rolls. He raps about having to attend ESL classes as a Ukrainian immigrant while classmates harassed him for being “Russian” on “Mantra.” “So when I said I’m Puerto Rican, I was trying to survive,” he explains. These moments as well as “Grandmother’s Lessons,” his tribute to a now-deceased family member who survived the Holocaust, are balanced with his well-established “nutty bars.” “I’m the first Ukrainian cat to baffle your skull,” he brags on “Mercury Thermometers.” Movie isn’t quite a God-tier film, but it’s a solid excursion with quality production from Conductor Williams, Harry Fraud, Ohbliv, and others. “DBZ,” a pairing with Method Man and Denzel Curry that’s produced by Madlib, is one of the year’s better loosies. Just Blaze produces the album’s intro, “Success & Power,” inspiring Droog to rap, “Why you standin’ there with your face screwed up?/Don’t talk about Jews, that’s how Ye screwed up.” A “bonus” track, “Care Plan,” features Yasiin Bey. The New York label Nature Sounds released Movie.

ShrapKnel & Controller 7, Nobody Planning to Leave

Nobody Planning to Leave is a collaboration between ShrapKnel — Brooklyn rappers Curly Castro and PremRock — and producer Controller 7, who’s best-known for his work with Sole (Bottle of Humans) and Sage Francis (A Healthy Distrust). Controller 7’s frequent beat switches on tracks like “LIVE Element,” where he shifts from a psych-funk groove to a sleepy jazz blues, turns the album into a kind of fragmented tapestry, and a 45-minute scroll where titles like “Deep Space 9 Millie Pulled a Pistol” are more of a cryptic sensibility than a thematic title. PremRock gives one of his better performances, and his droll delivery makes “Human Form” a standout. Curly Castro has a punchy voice that jumps off the aux, but his verses sound like he’s doomscrolling through tweets. Every line he writes references a musician, a pop-culture artifact, or a subterranean icon like Atoms Family. One of the better examples comes on “Illusions of P,” where he charges, “Follow Puffy off a cliff until you finally make it BIG.” Guest appearances include ELUCID, who offers a fine cameo on “Uru Metal,” as well as Open Mike Eagle, Onry Ozzborn, Wrecking Crew colleague Lungs//LoneSword, Breezly Brewin from Juggaknots, and D-Styles. Backwoodz Studioz released Nobody Planning to Leave.

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.

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