The Class of ’11: hip hop’s last great draft year

A decade on, the genre’s then-rookies have continued to have a lasting impact with several remaining in hip hop’s upper echelon.

When sports fans discuss the greatest draft classes of all time, there are a few that are a necessary inclusion on any list. Whether it be the ’96 NBA draft class, the ’83 NFL draft class or the ’03 NHL draft class, the best ones see a high volume of players go on to become all-time greats within their respective leagues.

In hip hop, while there’s no official “draft” per se, one can still apply that logic to the crop of new artists in a given year and look at the impact they’ve had since entering the game. When you take that into account, it’s clear to see that some of these “draft classes” are stronger than others, but none in recent memory are stronger than the class of 2011.

Now, due to the lack of an objective drafting process, selecting the rappers from this class is based solely on which artists had their breakthrough moments, either albums or singles, in 2011. When looking at these moments, the focus isn’t necessarily on mainstream success, but moments in which they gained considerable notoriety within their respective lanes in the genre.

For example, we can look at artists like Danny Brown who, while swimming in critical acclaim for the last decade or so, may not have the sales figures of a major label artist with a big budget. Regardless, he’s been one of hip hop’s most consistent artists of the last decade, with project after project finding their home on a multitude of album of the year lists, starting with 2011’s XXX. The project is incredibly unique and introspective, and while it wasn’t his debut, it was the first to put Brown in the spotlight, bringing him near-universal acclaim and showing his potential to become one of the genre’s all-time greats.

Similarly, Tyler, the Creator has found his way on many of those lists in recent years as well, following excellent releases like Flower Boy and IGOR. His emergence on the scene in 2011 came as the cockroach-eating shock rapper in the “Yonkers” video, which was one of hip hop’s biggest moments that year. The video went viral and, while his debut album Goblin wasn’t as well-received by critics as his 2009 mixtape Bastard was, it did help to build a cult-like following for the young artist and his group Odd Future. Ten years on, Tyler is now a Grammy winner and one of hip hop’s most prominent and adventurous figures, who’s become revered by both fans and critics alike for his development and experimental nature.

That growth and willingness to take risks is one of the ways that artists ensure longevity and continued success in the industry, and another 2011 draft pick who embodied that growth and progress was the late, great, Mac Miller. Now it’s arguable that 2010 would be Mac’s rookie season so to speak, with his first big mixtape K.I.D.S. dropping that year. However, Mac not only dropped a well-received mixtape in 2011 with Best Day Ever, but he also released his first platinum single “Donald Trump” as well as his debut album Blue Slide Park, which went on to debut at number one on the Billboard 200, the first independent debut to do so since 1995. From that point until his tragic passing in 2018, Miller grew from a traditional rapper to a multi-faceted, genre-blending artist whose creative output grew more and more unique with each subsequent release, becoming one of his generation’s most important voices.

Each generation of music has its defining artists in each genre – The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Prince, etc. and there aren’t many talents that define this generation of hip hop more than Kendrick Lamar. In 2011, Kendrick released his debut album Section.80 to heaps of praise from critics, gaining notability from fans and fellow artists alike, leading to his eventual signing with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath record label.

The album jump-started what has become one of hip hop’s most impressive and consistent discographies, with his next three albums all receiving platinum and multi-platinum certifications, massive critical acclaim, several Grammy wins and even a Pulitzer Prize. Kendrick has gone on to become an all-time great that many people consider to be a top 5-10 talent in the genre’s history, one of music’s most important voices today – proving himself to be the MVP of the 2011 draft class in the process.

This is no small feat, as the class includes not only the artists mentioned above but also acts like Future, Meek Mill, Big K.R.I.T., YG, 2 Chainz, A$AP Rocky, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, to name a few — all of whom have a presence that’s still felt today. It’s a group so absolutely stacked with talent that its impact is undeniable and hasn’t even come close to being duplicated since. 2011’s roster is one that represents a special time in hip hop, one that has gone on to shape the genre since.


Graphic by Taylor Reddam

Music Quickspins

QUICKSPINS: Justin Bieber – Justice

The Canadian pop icon’s latest is a solid outing held back by questionable decisions.

An album is only as good as the sum of its parts, and sometimes all it takes is one bad decision to derail an otherwise good project. Unfortunately, this is the case with Justin Bieber’s latest outing, Justice.

Justice is the Canadian artist’s sixth album and his second in a little over a year. While it is musically quite good, the album’s thematic framing is a massive misstep. The record presents itself to fit the theme of justice, yet Bieber never even mentions or sings about the concept.

This is a jarring decision that sours the listening experience from the very beginning. When you press play on this LP, the first voice you hear is not Justin Bieber’s, but a sample of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his famous quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It’s an attempt to set the tone for this album, enforcing its supposed “theme,” yet it goes absolutely nowhere with it.

It’s hard to understand the reason why Bieber or anyone else who heard this album in advance thought it was acceptable for the 27-year-old pop star to use the speeches of an important historical figure to introduce love songs about his wife. It’s a bizarre and confounding choice that comes off very disingenuous.

In such a tumultuous time, one when many social justice movements are fighting against inequality, Bieber tacking Dr. King’s words onto a collection of love songs just comes off as lazy and borderline insensitive. With so much happening, if he really wanted to say something of substance, he could’ve done it for himself instead of relying on these quotes.

It’s a shame because this album had a lot of potential. While some of the songs miss the mark, the production is solid throughout and Bieber is at his most mature, both personally and vocally, singing of marital love and spirituality. While he isn’t some out-of-this-world vocalist, he knows what he can do within his range and it makes for quite a few captivating moments.

One of the bigger standouts is “Lonely,” which sees Bieber reflecting on his life growing up in the spotlight and all of the repercussions and downsides that came with it. It’s an incredibly human moment, and one that, despite his unique situation, is actually very relatable.

It’s moments like this, “Deserve You” or the excellent summer jam “Peaches” that make Justice’s missteps so frustrating. This isn’t a bad album, but it is bogged down by some outright terrible decisions.

Instead of framing this record as being something it’s not, Bieber should’ve embraced what it’s actually about. He’s so impassioned when singing about his faith or his wife, shifting the focus to a theme that isn’t present is an injustice to the great moments Bieber produced here.



Trial Track: “Peaches”

Music Quickspins

QUICKSPINS: Genesis Owusu – Smiling with No Teeth

The Ghanaian-Australian artist shines on his ambitious and musically kaleidoscopic debut.

Genesis Owusu is a musical tour-de-force, and he’s only just arrived. With his debut, Smiling with No Teeth, the Ghanaian-Australian artist has delivered an experimental opus with an insanely impressive and absolutely electrifying avant-garde nature.

It’s very rare for an artist this early in their career to have such a refined musical palette and dynamic vision, but Owusu has just that.

He’s got clear influences from all over the musical spectrum, from hip hop to new wave, jazz and funk to R&B and post-punk – even including some industrial elements. Smiling with No Teeth somehow brings all of these pre-existing contrasting influences together and creates a completely unique soundscape – a blend of all of these familiar elements, culminating in a remarkable collage of influences that somehow co-exist in perfect harmony.

He can easily go from channelling Prince on one track to channelling the visceral shouting of Death Grips’ MC Ride on the next. His music and vocal delivery are as fluid as can be, and his mastery of every style and genre in his repertoire is incredibly impressive and equally entrancing.

It helps that lyrically and thematically, this project is airtight throughout as well, exploring both the demons that plague Owusu as an individual and those that plague society as a whole. He manages to fit seemingly cathartic moments of commentary on mental health, racism and substance abuse, among other things, within often up-tempo tracks, like on the LP’s second track “The Other Black Dog.”

This juxtaposition of often upbeat instrumentation against the darkness that Owusu’s lyricism tends to highlight isn’t necessarily revolutionary, but it is an incredibly nuanced way to exemplify the album’s core concept.

Smiling with No Teeth may seem as random a title as any, but when you get to the root of the music, the title is an allegory for the thematic and stylistic nature of the music. A closed smile is often forced and used to hide feelings other than genuine happiness, which, in a way, is exactly what the lively nature of a good amount of this album’s soundscape represents: a veil of fun, with the lyrics’ true darkness hiding behind it.

This is an LP that not only checks every box but goes outside of these boxes and finds ways to achieve even more. It would be a magnificent body of work for any artist, but for a debut album, this is beyond spectacular.

To liken Genesis Owusu to a chameleon in that regard would be a disservice to exactly what he has accomplished here. It’s not he who adapts to the genres incorporated in his music, but it is him that forces the elements he takes from these genres to bend to his will and fit his sound. He’s not just impressive, his virtuosity at this stage in his career is practically unheard of, and if this album is any indication, he has the potential to become a generational talent.


Trial Track: “The Other Black Dog”



A decade of XO: House of Balloons at 10

The Weeknd has been on a historic run for a decade now, and his groundbreaking 2011 mixtape is its origin.

In 2021, The Weeknd is inescapable. He’s one of the world’s biggest stars and a bona fide pop culture icon. Fresh off of an explosive Super Bowl halftime show just last month, his hit single “Blinding Lights” just became the only song to spend a whole year in Billboard’s top ten. You can’t go a day without hearing his music or seeing his face on a social feed or TV screen.

This is a stark contrast to where he was just a decade ago. In 2011, that inescapable name was just the moniker for Abel Tesfaye, a faceless, enigmatic artist from Toronto. Even as he made a home for himself on the front page of many popular music blogs, nobody knew his real name, nobody knew what he looked like, nobody knew who he was. All they knew was that he’d released House of Balloons, and that was enough.

House of Balloons, Tesfaye’s alternative R&B opus, was one of two projects to completely shift the tide of the genre at the time, the other being Frank Ocean’s nostalgia, ULTRA. It was unlike anything out at the time, defied almost all of popular R&B’s conventions, and changed everything.

Whereas a lot of the popular R&B music of the time was pop-tinged and upbeat, or fit into the genre’s more traditional, romantic and sensual slow jams, Tesfaye was operating in a lane completely his own. House of Balloons is dark and perpetually nihilistic, fueled by drugs and drenched in sadism, and presented a reality that was as far from R&B’s “norm” as possible.

Sonically, this album’s soundscape paired perfectly with the dark themes and content that Tesfaye presented in his lyrics. On top of that, it was just as far from any pre-existing norms and conventions within the genre. It was moody, atmospheric and borderline psychedelic at its darkest, matching Tesfaye’s despair and drug-addled party-laden lifestyle, and at its brightest feeling like the high that he’s chasing.

From the outset, this album strikes this balance. Its intro, “High for This,” is dark and eerie, with Tesfaye welcoming the listener to his lifestyle as the song crescendos to its booming, bass-heavy chorus. It sets the tone perfectly for the drugged-out odyssey that the listener is about to embark on.

And it proved to be just that. Every song on this album fits that journey without ever feeling like you’re hearing the same song twice. From the airy and ethereal “The Morning” to the bleak and depressing “Wicked Games” to the wildly experimental two-part track “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls,” every song here serves a purpose.

It’s for these reasons that House of Balloons has gone on to be as influential as it has. Everybody from Bryson Tiller, Lil Uzi Vert, and even Drake have been deeply influenced by this project and the other two mixtapes in Tesfaye’s trilogy. It was a game-changer and has remained one of his best projects to this day, a flawless collection of tracks that, after ten years, not only holds up but is a clear-cut classic.



Qi Yama finds beauty in all aspects of the process

The elusive Montreal artist sat down with us to discuss his impressive debut LP, and the road that led to it

Normally when one sees a rose wilting, they see nothing more than a once-beautiful flower decaying, watching its petals drop as it slowly loses life. In Qi Yama’s eyes, there’s much more beauty to it than meets the eye.

“People might look at it like, ‘that’s sad,’ but is it sad? Or is it beautiful?” he questions, with a hint of optimism. “The process is beautiful whatever the process is.”

That’s what wilting represents for Qi Yama, and why he’s chosen wilt as the title of his recently released and excellent debut.

It’s about recognizing the beauty in all aspects of the process, no matter what they are, and that realization has been an integral part of creating his debut project. It’s also what he’s proudest of — not the release, the reception or the impressive streaming numbers — but the journey that it took to get there.

“To be honest, I’m just proud that I’ve been on this journey and that I stuck to it, that I’m at a place where I feel like I’m finally figuring things out, not on a success scale, but on a personal scale, a human scale.” He adds humbly, “I’m finally figuring myself out and understanding myself. That’s my greatest accomplishment.”

It’s an admirable and understandable feeling for him to have, as this was a long journey. The mysterious Montreal musician has spent years cultivating a completely unique sound that blends lo-fi hip hop, atmospheric R&B and hazy bedroom pop — a craft he’s been perfecting for years leading up to wilt’s release.

In fact, a handful of tracks on the project were released for a short window of time several years ago, before being quickly removed from streaming services. This wasn’t due to the songs being unfinished — though they’ve since been touched up — it was a personal decision for Qi Yama.

“I needed to grow up a little bit, mature a little bit, see what this industry shit was all about,” he reflects, adding that it “needed to happen for me to actually be ready to truly put this out in the world and be like, okay, this could stay out there forever.”

It’s during this time that the ideas for this album were put on a grander scale, becoming a multi-dimensional multi-media experience. The album’s rollout now includes a mysterious world built around the artist’s mystique and music, through Instagram posts and music videos, all being brought together to tell one cohesive story.

“Cohesiveness is the pinnacle of storytelling to me, you know?” Qi Yama explains. “If you’re gonna tell a really good story, it has to fit. Everything has to fit perfectly.”

He places a lot of importance on storytelling, both in his life and in music. In his eyes, it’s an integral tool used to bring people together.

“Storytelling is beautiful to me,” he states passionately. “It’s what connects people. It’s the way in which we learn about ourselves and others, the way in which we reflect our histories and our experiences.”

It’s in this process of writing and creating music, and sharing these experiences, that Qi Yama finds true peace. It’s a process that he loves, that he knows if he puts his all into, he gets it back.

“It’s almost like a journal — and not in the way of, I’m writing down my life here, here is my story,” he explains. “It’s like as I’m living life, I’m taking these experiences and ideas and stories, and I’m putting them into this album and it’s kind of like, as I work on the album, it works back on me.”

He hopes this is something that translates in his music, something that can be heard by the listener. Not only that, but he hopes the music can help them in their search for what they’re looking for as well.

“I just hope the listeners find whatever it is they’re looking for,” he says, adding that he hopes “it means something to them, really. I hope when they hear the stories, it reminds them of something in their life, because that’s what I think music is all about.”

His approach to music is to make it as personal to the listener as it is to him. His enigmatic nature and cryptic songwriting lends itself to listeners creating their own unique interpretations of his message.

“I’ve met people who, the music hit them so deeply, and they really wanted the story to be the way they interpreted it and I’m like, it is the way you interpret it.”

Interpretation is a concept that rests at the core of Qi Yama’s art. It’s his perception of the process, and the beauty in all of its aspects. It’s his emphasis on having an elusive presence and leaving his music open for listeners to interpret his art how they desire and create their own personal connections to it. It’s his own interpretations of success in the industry, and what it means to make it big.

“Being a famous artist could be a huge part of my journey, but life is definitely way bigger than that to me,” he explains. “Especially if I’m happy with my art. If I’m okay with my art and I have peers I respect who are okay with my art, then I’ll be completely okay with wherever I go.”


It’s time to give Hayley Williams her ‘FLOWERS’

Paramore’s music has soundtracked an unfathomable amount of moments throughout my lifetime, but the moments of consistent comfort that their music has brought me during the last year are indescribably important. It’s these moments that have also led me to realize that Hayley Williams is a genius, and one of the most important artists of the last 20 years.

While Paramore was an integral part of the emo/pop-punk boom of the mid-to-late 2000s, Williams is an outlier amongst her peers, and for all the right reasons. The singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is arguably the only artist to emerge from that scene and have maintained relevance for this long. She’s transcended her status as the emo/pop-punk poster girl and definitively cemented herself as an icon in modern pop culture.

Throughout the 16 years since Paramore’s debut, Williams has been an absolute trailblazer. She’s been an integral part of now-classic releases, brazenly explored several different genres and sounds, and has successfully ventured outside of music as well, all the while staying true to herself. She’s made a career out of experimenting, daring to be different and never letting herself be put into a box, and it’s made her one of the most eclectic and adventurous artists of her generation.

After Williams and Paramore released their moderately successful debut, 2005’s All We Know Is Falling, they’d garnered a pretty substantial buzz. They were full of potential and Williams was at the centre of that. This potential was quickly realized as their 2007 effort Riot! saw them break through, and cause a massive shift in the emo/pop-punk landscape.

Paramore’s impact was immediate and it was immense. The success of Riot! saw the group rapidly ascend to the top of the emo/pop-punk scene, alongside already-established acts like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy. More importantly, it made Hayley Williams a household name in a genre that was historically dominated by men, and placed her at the very top, where she stayed.

This was a monumental moment for the scene, and was only achievable for the band because of Williams’ ability to capture the listener. Through her universally-relatable lyrical content and phenomenal and riveting vocal performances, she was able to connect to listeners on what felt like a personal level.

Throughout their subsequent releases, the band saw various shifts in their lineup and with 2009’s Brand New Eyes and 2013’s Paramore, and slowly evolved to adopt a more eclectic alternative rock sound. They took their evolution even further with their magnificent 2017 new wave/synth-pop opus, After Laughter, and though these changes occurred, there was always one constant; Hayley Williams is the face, the heart and the soul of Paramore.

She’s what hooked listeners in. Yes, the music was fantastic, but her vulnerability and relatability made it connect, and in 2021, two projects into her solo career, that is a fact that is more apparent than ever. While 2020’s Petals for Armour was a good collection of songs, Williams’ latest release FLOWERS for VASES / descansos feels like her proper debut as a solo artist.

It’s an excellent album, the first on which she’s played every single instrument, written every song and produced everything herself, making for an incredibly intimate piece of art. It’s a stripped-back, folksy and introspective album that sees the singer somberly working through the emotional toll that her divorce has taken on her.

That’s the thing that’s always set Williams apart from her peers: her vulnerability. She’s always presented her emotions earnestly and openly, and utilized her dynamic vocal range to evoke a range of emotions in the listener. It’s been ever present in her discography, regardless of the sound attached to it and the through line that makes the music so easy to connect with.

Even now, with her fanbase aging, the music is growing with them. It’s easy to see how the person who gave us “All I Wanted” grew older and matured, arriving at “No Use I Just Do.” The sentiments are similar, but she’s no longer delivering them with rage and fire, but rather sharing a subdued reflection and confessing those feelings.

Williams’ openness and relatability has been the essence of every single one of her releases so far, both solo and with Paramore. It’s her innate ability to convey such tangible emotion in a manner that feels more confessional and human than it does performative, that connects her to listeners. She’s there to share her experiences and comfort you, and while you may be the one listening to the music, you also feel heard. She’s still doing this today by giving us FLOWERS, so let’s return the favour and give Hayley hers as well.


Graphic by @ariannasivira


A gateway to classic rock: how Guitar Hero and Rock Band kept rock alive

I can still remember my first time playing a Guitar Hero game pretty well. I couldn’t have been more than 11 years old; I was at my childhood best friend’s house and after days of him talking about how fun it was, he finally booted up Guitar Hero II on his PlayStation 2. Little did I know that that one time playing would have had such a long-lasting impact on my life.

From the moment that I saw the stylized animated intro that featured the likes of in-game playable characters and rock stars Axel Steel and Judy Nails, I was completely immersed. As we scrolled through the menu, with a guitar strum indicating every confirmed selection we made, we got to the list of songs, and it’s a list that greatly impacted the music that we consumed through the years following.

A lot of people probably can’t confidently tell you where they first heard Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” or classics like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” or even Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing In The Name,” but I can — sitting on that couch, next to my best friend. We played and played, becoming acquainted with some phenomenal music as we tried our hardest to hit every note (well, as someone who hadn’t played yet and didn’t have the guitar peripheral, my “medium”-est).

Guitar Hero II and its successors, as well as the Rock Band series, may not have introduced me to classic rock, but they were definitely the catalyst in pushing my interest in the genre further. I think this is a pretty common feeling among people who are in my age group.

Obviously, a lot of the songs included in these games were staples in CHOM’s rotation, and as a kid in Montreal, that was a station I was familiar with through the adults in my life. But what made me really take interest in these songs, was the repeated listens that came with repeated attempts at perfecting them in these games. 

What started as a single gaming session with a friend soon turned into me being an avid player of the games that followed, which kept me diving into decades of some of the greatest music ever produced. As a kid who grew up primarily being a fan of hip hop as well as listening to a lot of the popular alternative, punk and emo acts of the time, these games were game-changers. I don’t know if I ever would’ve taken the plunge into the hundreds of albums I’ve listened to since that first time playing.

These two series are what piqued my interest in several of my favourite artists of all-time. From Black Sabbath to Nirvana to David Bowie, and many more, all of these artists have had a tremendous impact on me and the way I view and consume music. I mean, they’ve even impacted the way I dress, considering that I wear shirts that display some of these bands literally all the time.

This was the real beauty that these games held. Sure, they were polished and fun games, but beyond that, they opened the eyes of many kids/teens like myself to the fantastic music that came before us. They were a way of bridging a generational gap that existed within music, and they deserve a lot of credit for that.

It’s not unusual for a video game to leave an impact on someone who plays it, but the lasting impact that the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games have had in my life, and many others’, shouldn’t be overlooked. The games may have come and gone pretty quickly, peaking and tinkering off within a few years, but their impact outside of gaming can’t be understated, and can still be felt today.


Graphic by @the.beta.lab

Music Quickspins

QUICKSPINS: Viagra Boys – Welfare Jazz

The Stockholm post-punk outfit expands on their wildly eclectic sound, as their absurdist critiques become more focused on themselves.

Up to this point, Viagra Boys’ music has been characterized by its extremely satirical tone, walking a very thin line between critique and comedy, occasionally stumbling fully into the latter. It’s this obnoxious yet endearing approach to social commentary that made their debut album, Street Worms, such an intriguing listen, and it’s something they’ve doubled down on with Welfare Jazz.

However, as much as this approach is used by frontman Sebastian Murphy as a means to assess and sarcastically deride the social world and its shortcomings, he’s begun to look inward, and begin assessing his own. Many tracks on Welfare Jazz see Murphy reflecting on himself and his relationships, satirizing his own actions and his behaviours, and he does so from the outset.

The album begins with the fantastic “Ain’t Nice,” a song that sees Murphy painting himself as a short-fused and opportunistic asshole, essentially telling his partner it’s his way or the highway. The song’s refrain has him repeatedly, almost boastfully, growling that he and his behaviour “ain’t nice!” over an insanely infectious bass groove. The latter half sees the song devolving into a perfectly chaotic mess of Murphy’s raspy chants, horns, drums, bass and synth sounds creating a mosaic of aggression.

This unpredictable sonic collage is something that the band has also somehow made a part of their signature sound. They often fuse the more “traditional” post-punk and new wave aspects of their music with jazzy horn sections that often play like misplaced solos, thrown into the mix with heavy basslines and synth leads. As chaotic as it sounds, it often comes together seamlessly, as evidenced by the album’s instrumental-heavy cuts, such as “6 Shooter.”

This wide array of sounds and musical influences gets built upon even further as the album draws to a close.  On the final two tracks, the band successfully add elements of country music to their genre-blending gumbo with the aptly titled “To the Country” and the Amy Taylor-assisted cover of John Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves.” Both tracks look at possible futures for Murphy’s relationship, though the forced southern drawls and almost mocking tone leave the latter feeling slightly insincere.

As a whole, it’s Viagra Boys’ unabashed approach to experimentation in their music that makes the band, and Welfare Jazz, so special. They create without seemingly any pressure to fit into any convention and always appear comfortable in the chaos, and they’re better for it.


Rating: 8.5/10

Trial Track: “Ain’t Nice”



Underrated Albums of 2020, Vol. 3: MIKE – weight of the world

The Bronx-bred lyricist presents us with an extremely cerebral album dealing with depression, grief and the emotional aftermath of losing his mother.

Carrying the weight of the world on one’s shoulders can be a crushing burden, but since his teenage years, MIKE has been doing just that. Born Michael Jordan Bonema, the 22-year-old lyricist is a pioneer in the underground lo-fi hip hop scene, all the while delivering some of its most emotionally resonant, introspective and prolific works to date.

With weight of the world, MIKE delivers yet another extremely personal, transparent and cerebral experience that continues this trend. As always, the Bronx-born MC wears his heart on his sleeve, exploring his anxieties, depression and the emotional toll that the loss of his mother has taken on him.

It’s this emotional weight that MIKE carries with him that he masterfully conveys through his lyrics, crafting immensely impressive verses that are as intriguingly poetic and abstract as they are emotionally impactful. In just a few words, he’s able to effectively encapsulate some of his most visceral feelings and agonizing memories in ways so visual that it plays like a movie scene for the listener. This is exemplified on “222,” as MIKE rifles through his dealings with substance abuse and depression, his relationship with his brother and the moment that his mother died, “Walked her out the Earth, just me, a couple nurses.”

This lyrical prowess is perfectly complemented by the work that MIKE does behind the boards, handling the majority of the album’s production under his producer pseudonym, dj blackpower. In doing so, he creates a soundscape that’s as scattered and dense as the thoughts he’s put to paper in his verses. The murky lo-fi instrumentals, mostly comprised of chopped-up soul samples and irregular drum patterns, are deliberately messy enough to match the emotion within his lyrics while still creating a comfortable enough pocket for MIKE to sound his best in.

And while this isn’t his best project per se, as a writer and rapper, he is absolutely at his best. His writing is sharp, and his delivery is more confident than ever, even when he’s teetering on sounding monotone. From the exchanging verses with Earl Sweatshirt on the album’s closer “allstar,” to his personal reflections on songs like “no, no” and “trail of tears,” MIKE showcases that within his sadness and pain, his growth has been the light at the end of the tunnel.

On his 2019 magnum opus tears of joy (released shortly after his mother’s passing), we heard verses that played like the reflective diary entries of an emotionally distressed, grieving son. weight of the world sees that son, still sorrowful and grieving, finding solace in his music and further confidence in his abilities. It’s as hopeful as it is harrowing, a true testament to MIKE’s growth as a lyricist and producer, and one of the best and most unjustly overlooked albums of last year.



Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter II, 15 years later

Taking a look back at the hip hop behemoth’s fifth studio album — his last before becoming a pop culture juggernaut — and his magnum opus.

The first time that I ever heard Lil Wayne was one of the most pivotal and life-changing moments I’ve ever experienced as a music fan, and I remember it vividly. It was late 2004, I was nine years old and Birdman’s “Neck of the Woods” music video was playing on BET. As it began, I had no idea who either artist was, but as soon as Wayne started rapping that opening verse, I was instantly hooked.

I spent the rest of that afternoon eagerly waiting for the video to play again. I was so intrigued by his raspy voice, his charismatic and dynamic flow, that his lyrics were echoing through my head, and I couldn’t wait to hear more. Fast forward almost a year, and my wish came true, as the video for “Fireman,” the first single off of his then-upcoming fifth studio album Tha Carter II had released.

Wayne displayed an energy that I had never seen a rapper have before that video and it was unmatched in my eyes. His extremely unique cadence and flow, as well as the abundance of swagger and confidence he exuded, made him incredibly captivating to watch. From that day forward, I knew whatever CD this song would end up on, whatever he did next, I needed to hear it.

When I finally got my hands on Tha Carter II soon after its Dec. 6, 2005 release date, it blew by every expectation I had for it and has remained one of my favourite albums of all-time ever since. The LP is a near 78-minute, 22 track masterpiece that sees Wayne exploring a multitude of sounds, proclaiming to be the “Best Rapper Alive,” and showcasing exactly why he deserves that title.

This was an era where both Jay-Z and Eminem were on hiatus, and Wayne’s label Cash Money Records had lost pretty much their entire roster of artists. Even if that was a detriment to the label, it served Wayne extremely well, as all of their resources were put behind him, and Wayne put the label on his back and carried them to a level of success they’d not yet seen.

From the outset, Wayne lets the listener know who he’s representing, proclaiming that it’s “Cash Money, Young Money, motherfuck the other side” on the album’s Heatmakerz-produced opener “Tha Mobb.” It’s an intro that sees the New Orleans rapper immediately going for the jugular, asserting his dominance as he aggressively tackles the thudding bass of the instrumental, establishing three things: he’s here, he’s hungry and he’s gunning for the top.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword, and in that case, Carter II-era Wayne’s pen could defeat Excalibur. Throughout this album, Wayne exercises every skill in his arsenal, knowing that he is the sharpest he’s ever been. Evolving past the simple, catchy raps that made early-era Cash Money albums popular, his writing is clever, it’s layered, and it’s perfectly delivered as he adapts his flow to any beat thrown his way.

The production on this album is significant for more than just its diversity though, as it’s the first Wayne album, both solo and as a part of the Hot Boys, that doesn’t have a single Mannie Fresh instrumental. This was a real departure from the sound fans had grown accustomed to and it could’ve easily affected the appeal of Wayne’s music at the time. Instead, he was able to deliver something that garnered him a level of acclaim and respect he hadn’t yet seen.

This is largely due to Wayne’s adaptability to this album’s sonic diversity, as he’s always on point, no matter what the instrumental backdrop of the track may be. His braggadocious tales of drug dealing are superbly scored by the triumphant trap instrumental of “Money on My Mind,” which remains one of the best songs he’s ever made. The crackling and soulful Isley Brothers sample on “Receipt” is perfectly complemented by his raspy yet buttery smooth delivery, as he showcases his softer, more romantic side.

Moments like the Kurupt-assisted “Lock And Load,” the bouncy “I’m a D-Boy,” and the  dub-influenced “Mo Fire” also stand out as highlights, but nothing on this album is as perfect as “Hustler Muzik.” As far as Wayne’s singles go, not one of them holds a candle to it. The track is smooth and introspective and showcases the many facets of his personality: the boastful hip hop star, the young street veteran, and fatherless child, still affected by his dad’s absence. It’s the quintessential Lil Wayne song, potentially his best, and one of the best songs in the history of his genre. It’s that good.

The same can be said for Tha Carter II as a whole. It’s just that good. Its impact can’t be understated, and neither can the excellence of Wayne’s work on here. This album symbolized a turning point in Wayne’s career, both artistically and commercially. In taking risks musically and making an album devoid of any of the trappings of mainstream hip hop at the time, Wayne managed to both come completely into his own and became a superstar in the process.

Music Quickspins

QUICKSPIN: Aesop Rock – Spirit World Field Guide

The alternative hip hop pioneer takes listeners on an eccentric and surreal tour of a new realm on his latest LP.

At this point in his career, Aesop Rock is in a league of his own. The verbose wordsmith’s catalogue is one of hip hop’s most consistent, and his vocabulary is quite literally the most expansive the genre has ever seen. On top of that, his abilities as a producer have improved with every release, resulting in him being absolutely brilliant behind the boards as well.

This is on full display on Spirit World Field Guide, as Aesop’s pen is as sharp as it’s ever been, and his production is even sharper. The instrumentals on this record are extremely layered and eclectic, oozing with a fanciful and futuristic personality that perfectly matches Aesop’s idiosyncratic cadence and flow. This is an impressive feat, especially considering that his work on both ends keep this project unwaveringly captivating through the entirety of its runtime, despite its length.

This is because, in handling all aspects of its creation, Aesop has done more than just make an album – he’s built a world akin to those found in sci-fi and fantasy novels. As a result, the LP plays like a neurotically narrated film with the eccentric and otherworldly production serving as its score.

From Spirit World Field Guide’s intro to its closing moments, Aesop takes on the role of tour guide, accompanying the listener and giving his own insights as they explore this new realm. While his stellar storytelling is delivered through a more outward and observational scope than usual, Aesop’s staple introspection, self-deprecation and anxiety-riddled lyrics are still here, as this is as much an internal journey as it is external.

Even when dissecting the world around him, Aesop sees a reflection of himself in the spirit world, and in inspecting it, he also places his own mortality under a microscope. He’s aging and feeling disconnected and he’s dealing with the pains that come along with it, though he never outright says it, as his musings are perfectly woven into the world and stories he’s crafted.

This is Spirit World Field Guide’s biggest strength. These recurring instances of emotion and introspection, hidden beneath layers of lyrical complexity, are what make the project as engrossing as it is. Yes, Aesop’s impeccable writing and fantastic production are the draw here, but it’s his very relatable reflections on the human condition, hidden within these elements, that make the album so resonant.


Rating: 9/10

Trial Track: Button Masher

Music Quickspins

QUICKSPINS: THEY. – The Amanda Tape

THEY.’s latest album is sonically pleasant but the duo’s generic approach leaves a lot to be desired.

Like most genres, contemporary R&B has certain conventions and stylistic staples that have helped to shape the genre into what it is today. While these conventions work as a solid foundation for an artist’s music, adhering to them too much can be a risk, as that formulaic approach can lead to the music feeling redundant. Unfortunately, this is a problem that plagues Los Angeles-based R&B duo THEY.’s latest effort, The Amanda Tape.

The group, comprised of singer-songwriter Drew Love and producer Dante Jones, has aimed to create a focused and concise body of work, exploring relationships and the complications that come with them. Throughout the project’s 33-minute runtime, Love shares his personal musings and anecdotes pertaining to his experience with relationships, over instrumentals that Jones has carefully crafted to fit his voice.

At its best, this album perfectly showcases the duo’s chemistry and highlights the perfect marriage between Love’s airy yet soulful vocal delivery and Jones’ ‘90s and 2000s-infused production style. At its worst, it teeters the line between just fine and boringly generic. While there isn’t a song on here that stands out as terrible or far worse than the rest, there aren’t really any that clearly shine as the best of the bunch; it’s all very middle-of-the-pack.

The only moment on this record that comes remotely close to standing out is “Losing Focus,” and that’s mainly due to the fantastic contribution from D.C. rapper Wale. His verse on this record is incredibly poetic, witty and full of personality, and it serves as a reminder of just how at home his flow and delivery are when laid over smooth, laid-back R&B production.

Outside of that, this LP feels very formulaic and pretty generic, even if it is mostly enjoyable. Whether it be the vocal contributions or the production on a given track, there isn’t much here that couldn’t be found elsewhere, and it causes this album to lack its own unique personality.

While Jones’ production is consistently quite good, it doesn’t showcase any real individual flare. It mostly feels like he’s crafted instrumental collages from successful elements from ‘90s-2010s R&B. Aspects like the very Jagged Edge-esque acoustic strings on the Tinashe-assisted “Play Fight” or the Neptunes-inspired elements present on “Mood Swings” and “Losing Focus” are all very enjoyable throwbacks but they lack originality.

This is an issue when it comes to Love’s vocals too. While he has a great singing voice, and his presence is felt on every song here, his vocal style and delivery on this project aren’t very distinguishable from his contemporaries. It doesn’t take away from how great his singing is, it just doesn’t feel as captivating as it could, and that’s a sentiment that applies to the album as a whole.

Overall, The Amanda Tape is an enjoyable listen, but it’s bogged down by the musical influences that THEY. clearly wear on their sleeves. While they’re not mimicking or ripping off any one artist, the music presented on this LP lacks individuality and feels more like a synthesis of their favourite artists. Still, it’s a solid listen and a solid foundation for where the duo can go next.


Rating: 6/10

Trial Track: “Losing Focus” feat. Wale

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