[Editor’s Note: “The Blender” is a new series dedicated to highlighting notable new releases in the mixtape world.]
A rhymer no less gifted than T.S. Eliot once said that April is the cruelest month, and the first couple weeks’ worth of rap releases seem to bear him out. Not only did rap fans receive word that Weezy’s latest Carter joint would be shelved for at least another two months, but the mixtape game is looking sadly stagnant after a dynamite run of March offerings. If I wanted to wait for music (or, God forbid, pay for it), I wouldn’t be listening to mixtapes to begin with. I like mixtapes because they’re all about instant gratification: no endlessly pushed back street dates, no pesky copyright lawyers standing between that unsigned MC and the hot Bo1da track he or she was somehow destined to rhyme over.
And in that spirit, we start this edition of “The Blender” by going straight for the “most anticipated”—that is, the most aggressively marketed—mixtape to drop in the last couple weeks. Fabolous landed a surprisingly solid hit with last year’s “You Be Killin’ Em” (from his There Is No Competition 2 EP), but the single’s unexpected ascent on the rap-radio charts came at a bad time for the NYC rapper, who, pursuant to Def Jam’s characteristically sluggish release schedule, wasn’t planning to push an album until late this year. The minor viral offensive launched on behalf of The S.O.U.L. Tape is pretty clearly an attempt to maximize his exposure, and being that the holdover album has been downloaded nearly 200,000 times in the last week, I’d say the campaign has paid off. The mixtape itself? It’s not so clearly a success.
For a mid-tier MC like Fab, a mixtape needs to show some new dimension, some new skill, something to convince us that we’ve been underrating him up until now. But if I learned anything about Fabolous from The S.O.U.L. Tape, it’s that he really likes blowjobs. Totally understandable. But The S.O.U.L. Tape suggests a full-on oral-sex obsession, with seemingly every other song containing a clunky line about getting head. One of the first lines on the opening track, “Pain,” goes: “If you’re cool with being taken down or given up/Your lifestyles a blowjob/Your way of living sucks.” Zing? On “Rolling Papers & Riesling”: “After the head, I tell’ em that I gotta leave/Because I’m try’na stay sucka free.” Okay, noted. On “Look at Her,” which reworks “You Be Killin’ Em” into a ghastly Ne-Yo-assisted ballad: “Girl you be killin’ that/She do it with no hands/And I be feelin’ that.” At which point I really have to ask what the hell is going on. I just hope for her/their sake that he reciprocates.
Only a couple tracks on The S.O.U.L. Tape raise the bar on the fans-only fare comprising most of its runtime. “Y’all Don’t Hear Me Tho,” which features a solid verse from up-and-comer Red Cafe, and “Mo Brooklyn, Mo Harlem, Mo Southside,” are both high points, though both are also distinguished more by their production than by anything Fabolous says or does. They blend the chilled-out soul that Drake is popularizing with noirish, Wu-Tang-influenced instrumentation, and the result is two tracks with far more personality than their fairly forgettable leading man.
In fact, expensive production has been a recurring trend with April’s most talked-about mixtapes, with Tyga and Sinatti Pop both dropping street albums notable for their glossy, studio-polished sound. Tyga, now a Grammy nominee thanks to his sleepy cameo on Chris Brown’s “Deuces,” released Black Thoughts 2, a respectable entry in the fast-expanding canon of Young Money pop-rap efforts: Imagine a slicker and less solipsistic retread of Drake’s So Far Gone and you’re not too far from the mark. Tyga sometimes raps with the same grating, sing-songy style as Whiz Khalifa, but in places his flows are genuinely tuneful, and those moments suggest that a ubiquitous radio hit can’t be too far off for the young Vietnamese-Jamaican MC. “Reminded” uses a grainy sample of Adele’s “Someone Like You” to great effect, with Tyga dropping some tight, catchy verses around her looped confession: “I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited/But I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t fight it.” As is often the case with Adele herself, you’ll have to look past some of Tyga’s lyrics to really enjoy the track: “Love is like art/Heartbroken on the canvas” is the caliber of over-emotive clunker he’s liable to let loose, but if you can do so, it’s a fairly satisfying slow jam. And it’s much better than the tape’s abysmal single, “Lap Dance,” with a chorus consisting of the mantra-like repetition of “Ass so fat/I need a lap dance.”
Oddly enough, Adele also shows up on Sinatti Pop’s The Making Of, an entirely self-produced mixtape that shows off the PA-based rapper’s impressive stylistic breadth. The track is called “Hometown,” and it’s a heart-tugging arena-rap ballad, a (slightly) more tasteful variant on the confessional rap theatrics that Lupe Fiasco attempted on his misguided Lasers. The sample from Adele’s “Hometown Glory” is mixed in with strings, electric guitar, and big, clattering bells. It’s not exactly good, but it’s still impressive to see a young, independent producer pull off a number on that scale. Fortunately, The Making Of contains a number of substantially better tracks: “Everybody Know My Name” is both hard-hitting and catchy, while “Welcome to the Showcase” makes good on its title by putting Sinatti Pop’s nimble flow front and center. The production angle hews to a something-for-everyone aesthetic, balancing synth-driven Top 40 rap, club tracks, and more aggressive beats. If I were scouting for a major rap label, I’d be doing my damnedest to get this guy on my roster, if only to take advantage of his skills behind the switchboard.
Curren$y’s latest mixtape, Covert Coup, exists in a sonic space much further removed from the commercial rap establishment, and it’s yet another great example of why the NOLA-based rapper is one of the most exciting young MCs in the game. The relentless pace at which Curren$y puts out music should, at some point, start to interfere with the quality of the material, but whatever the stoner savant is lacing with has imbued him with a workaholic’s drive and a veteran’s consistency. Both of last year’s Pilot Talk LPs were triumphant collabos with producer Ski Beatz, and this year Curren$y has promised both a Pilot Talk III and a release for his new Warner Bros. imprint called Muscle Car Chronicles. As an interim offering, Covert Coup is predictably strong. The album is produced entirely by the Alchemist, who ends up matching Curren$y’s style just as well as Ski. One of the odd (but awesome) things about Curren$y is how his laidback, perma-baked flow works so well against the type of complex arrangement which should, by all rights, upstage him. But whether it’s the spiraling hard-rock guitar lines on “Life Instructions” or the spacey, future-funk on “The Type,” Curren$y always keeps himself in focus while rarely accelerating his delivery. And so one of the hottest winning streaks in rap continues.
At the other end of the spectrum: There’s really no reason why a loving God should allow both Waka Flocka Flame and A-Mafia to drop mixtapes in the span of two weeks, but sadly the lack of strong April rap releases has left a power vacuum in which even MCs as clumsy and inept as these two can generate considerable buzz. I don’t care who you get the tip from, if someone tells you that either Benjamin Flocka or What the Streets Made Me is hot, you’re better off just not knowing. This pesky sense of journalistic integrity makes me feel guilty about panning anything that I haven’t heard all the way through, but in both cases it was all I could do to weather the first three or four tracks.
Far less bleak but still a resounding disappointment was Atlanta upstart Donnis’s Southern Lights. Donnis has done some solid work in the last couple years, and toured with everyone from Erykah Badu to Bruno Mars, but this hotly anticipated release falls flat on most counts, from the drowsy production to Donnis’s verses, which are tame on even the hardest hitting tracks. I’m not ready to write the guy off yet, but when the best part about your tape is a guest spot from CyHi Da Prynce, it’s time to switch up your game.