We don’t know who changed. Did we the critics suddenly find unturned warmth in this sort of lens-flare bravado or is Rick Ross just rapping better? The cataclysmic boasts on Rich Forever push his immortal drug kingpin character to the very limits of logic. Considering this is the guy whose career once looked like it was about to implode after it surfaced that he spent time working as a prison guard, it’s a near unprecedented comeback.“Thought I wouldn’t make it. Now I’m winning Timothy Tebow,” Ross posits in “Fuck ’Em” over an abdomen-shaking faux-step rumble. Ross is in his own universe right now. The rap-game is notoriously fickle when selecting their current rulers, but if this is truly Ross’ one weekend in the sun, he’s doing it with reckless aptitude. With each beat locked in competition to usurp the ferocity of the others and Ross bellowing his stop-starting hedonism snarl, everything starts to sound badass—even the throwaway lines. He’s probably the one person with the fierceness required to put John Legend on a street album. There’s no telling if God Forgives, I Don’t will clunk or if Ross’ inflamed nonsense will start to look hopelessly out of style in a few years, but at the very least, Rich Forever will widen your eyes. It’s just powerful music.
Mr. eXquire got people talking about Brooklyn primarily because “drunk driving on a Wednesday with three bitches in an MPV” is the sort of line rappers dream about owning. Merry eX-mas is basically a leftover serving of Lost in Translation, only the beats are darker and drippier, the demeanor is grimmer, and eXquire is angrier. He’s already calling back to his Translation lines like they’re cultural penetration is self-evident. But like most cast-offs, there’s no real obvious banger; it’s mainly a tape built to comfort those waiting for more eXquire. And there’s a particularly keyed-up Danny Brown verse that’ll make you think he lost his own tape. Still, it’s nice knowing eXquire will be an ongoing concern, as he’s the exact kind of hardheaded mixtape-guy Brooklyn has been missing.
The new year brought a ton of random mixtape releases, generally associated with a theme of, “Alright, 2012 is on.” The rap game then responded by disappearing for the next few weeks as we chewed through what we had. When that got boring, we either spun XXX again or went back to Unexpected Victory, a lush, bone-brittle throwback-rap pummeling. Raekwon has absolutely no need to release mixtapes. The man has been on a major label for almost his entire life, so he has nothing to gain, and arguably a little to lose. The man came up in a time where underground rap looked nothing like it does today. His name on a tape is almost uncanny, but it actually works out in his favor. As you’d probably expect, Unexpected Victory is basically a Raekwon record: soul samples, production values, and epoch-related guest spots. Mobb Deep, Busta Rhymes and CL Smooth all show up—certainly not a roster in everyone’s phonebook.
Yet there’s almost something boring about how Unexpected Victory works (a Wu-Tang lifer doing crime-raps over RZA-ish beats). It is Professional Rap Music from Raekwon without any embarrassment. But as the days pile on, it gets easier to listen to and that’s probably from the lack of competition. When nothing hip is clogging your path, soaking in traditionalism can feel mighty good.
The most digestible (and unsurprisingly) the best of the proposed Das Racist solo mixtapes, Heems’ effort establishes the Das Racist ringleader as a free agent when he needs to be, and also reveals the underrepresented chemistry between him, Kool AD, and even the do-nothing hype man Dap. Nehru Jackets keeps the zippy production of the original two soon-to-be-legendary DR tapes, and provides a surprisingly beatific bedrock for Heem’s irreverence. This is the man who once rapped “the worst rapper on this track, third coolest,” and he doesn’t have too much trouble getting by on style. His languid “yeaaaah!” on the top of “Alien Gonzalez” comes from the self-aware silliness of the highly bloggable instrumental. Honestly, if he could have cut it down to an EP, he might have had an early-year classic on his hands. But as it arrives, Nehru Jackets is 25 tracks and over an hour long. Heems simply isn’t even close to being the guy capable of keeping that interesting; when Kool AD finally shows up on “Kate Boosh,” you’ll remember why you fell in love in the first place. As a free download, though, it’s a worthy slab of unfiltered eccentricity. Heems and company are starting to develop a solid track record of scanting overhype qualms by being consistently interesting musicians.