[Editor's Note: “The Blender” is a new series dedicated to highlighting notable new releases in the mixtape world.]
Blockbuster rap albums belong to the summer just as surely as FX-stuffed action flicks. Leaving your retailer of choice with a much-hyped rap release in hand, you scan the back of a jewel case, quickly assess the roster of featured guests, then cue up the CD player and prepare to push both bass and AC to their limits. For cinema-goers, summer '11 has provided no shortage of spandex-clad warriors and explosive fight scenes, but the rap game's superheroes have been uncharacteristically coy: Lil Wayne's fourth Carter album has been delayed for months, the Jay-Z/Kanye collabo finally hits stores next week after a half-year's worth of bait and switch, and Drake passed on giving the season a high-profile closer when he pushed his Take Care from mid-September to late October. If, in desperate search for a suitable soundtrack, we've turned to Khaled-produced posse cuts and Tyler, the Creator singles, who will accuse us?
The mixtape game hasn't been immune from this unseasonable rap sleepiness, but the month of July did find a few rappers self-releasing long, ambitious, and widely downloaded street albums—certainly nothing on par with the major-label flagships mentioned above, but albums that could qualify as minor events in their own right. Ced Hughes's One Day We'll Wake Up earned props across the rap blogosphere: Largely self-produced, but running 25 tracks in all and featuring songs by Röyksopp and the Neptunes' Chad Hugo, the VA-based rapper's project splits the difference between DIY charm and blockbuster spectacle. Hughes's production aesthetic is spare but expressive, a homespun and minimalist variation on the type of blissed-out soul cuts that Kanye West was making for Common circa Be. His flow isn't showy or technical, but Hughes is still highly engaging on the mic, combining the incisive intelligence of indie rap with a shameless appreciation for pop-culture minutiae. There's a great track called “Hot Dogs and Toupes” where Hughes boasts that “in this rap race my code name is Centipede/A hundred legs running on you Earthworm Jims” before making an even weirder joke about his ride's rims and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
Elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic, Maryland's Phil Ade dropped his first mixtape—the smooth, hook-laden A Different World—since signing to Raheem Devaughn's 368 music group. Ade's famous friends (Devaughn, Mac Miller, and 9th Wonder) give the set a slight boost in star power, but what makes the mixtape a standout is the chemistry between Ade and Sunny Norway, the oddly named producer who handles the majority of the tracks. “Monte Carlo Dreams” lifts some choice guitar riffs and Kansas-like harmonies from D.C. indie rockers U.S. Royalty, providing a suitably energetic backdrop for some of Ade's most confident rapping. Equally impressive is “Cloud 9,” an abstract, nearly ambient, piano-driven production that has Ade sharing the spotlight with R&B songstress Tracie-Josephine and Chicago's GLC, whose deep bass tones make an effective counterpoint to the delicate track. Ade doesn't match the more seasoned Hughes in either personality or flow, but the overall professionalism with which A Different World is constructed makes it a rewarding and replay-able summer diversion all the same.
Even so, when it comes to fusing rap swagger and pop sugar, no one does it quite as skillfully as the Young Money crew. Lil Wayne and Cory Gunz, the duo responsible for Wayne's excellent “6 Foot 7 Foot,” both made strong showings this month, with Wayne offering a contritely titled holdover, Sorry 4 the Wait, and Gunz putting forward a 70-minute marathon of a mixtape called Son of a Gun. Gunz is only the latest to emerge from the Young Money stable of stars; between his MTV reality show and now this scorching street album, he stands a solid chance of following Wayne, Drake, and Nicki Minaj to superstardom. But where Drake has found his footing in downtempo R&B and Nicki in pop (respectively, “Marvin's Room” and “Super Bass” are their two best and most fully realized singles to date), the Gunz presented here seems most comfortable when the beats are hard and the flows are quick. It's on tracks like the suitably titled “Speed” that Gunz impresses most. When he flirts with horrorcore on “Outta My Mind,” moving through transcription-defying verses that suggest a certain paranoia about his own celebrity (“Been watching MTV my whole life/Now MTV's watchin' me”) and an eerie, sing-song chorus, he sounds like the Eminem of the Slim Shady LP. The album's production, courtesy of Dot N Pro, is merely adequate, providing appropriately quick tempos but little coloration. That only becomes a problem on slower tracks, where Gunz has to sell listeners on his persona, which is less developed than his chops.
Which is about the size of the gulf that Gunz will have to cross if he wants, like Lil Wayne, to take hard-hitting rap to the top of the charts. There's no doubt that Wayne is one of the most skilled MCs alive, but he's a star because he embraces his weirdness, jumping from non sequitur to somehow-less-sequitur in rhyme and exaggerating his oddball affectations to cartoonish effect. The downside to Wayne's bizarre creative process, which involves constantly seeking new directions in which his manic energy can be channeled, is that it can result in misfires so hideous that they nearly overshadow his genius. Wayne's last two albums, the mediocre I Am Not a Human Being and the unlistenable Rebirth, were great disappointments, especially coming off the success of Tha Carter III. Additionally, two of the three singles from Tha Cater IV, “John” and “How to Love,” have been received tepidly, adding to the pile of evidence suggesting that Wayne is in a full-on slump.
In that context, Sorry 4 the Wait has to do more than give fans something, anything, to listen to. It also has to vindicate our hunch that a long-withheld Lil Wayne album is actually something to get excited about. If Sorry 4 the Wait succeeds in that endeavor, and I think it mostly does, it's because it foregrounds Wayne's acrobatic flow and deranged sense of humor with a heavy dose of freestyles. Freestyling is absolutely what Wayne does best: He's notoriously reluctant to write, and at the core of every great Lil Wayne song are at least a dozen brilliant one-liners. But when it comes time to translate good verses into something resembling a pop song, Wayne's liable to fail, either because his ideas are half-baked or because it's so obvious that he's more interested in amusing himself than his fans. Listening to Wayne sound sleazy but still kind of sweet as he does graphic sex-rap over the track from “Marvin's Room,” muses on his time in jail over “Rolling in the Deep,” or generously dropping shout-outs over “Run the World (Girls),” one thing becomes clear: Whatever problems with inconsistency or overreach Wayne has suffered of late, it has nothing to do with deteriorating skills as an MC. He's still rap's wildest, wickedest wit, and Tha Carter IV is still very much an event worth getting worked up about.