Within one week, hip hop fans were inundated with brand new mixtapes from three underground talents. Each tape represents a challenge to the prevailing wisdom about their careers, past, present and future. Wale, despite signing with Maybach Music Group, is still rehabbing his career after his major label misstep Attention: Deficit. Big K.R.I.T. is coming off one of the year’s strongest mixtapes, Return of 4Eva, and expectations couldn’t be higher. And Detroit’s underground sensation Danny Brown released his latest effort on Fool’s Gold for free, blurring the already hazy album vs. mixtape distinction. So, how do the releases match up with expectations?
Wale – The Eleven One Eleven Theory
Despite a definite identity crisis, Wale’s latest presents at least three of his personalities in their best lights. Wale has always been at his best over beats drawn from soul and go-go, and while “Fuck You” might not have Cee-lo on the hook, it finds Wale as excited as ever; the same is true for soul-clapper “Lace Frontin.'” Always somewhat of a head scratcher, his Maybach affiliation appears in orchestral MPC romps like “ChainMusic” and “Bait.”
There are a few too many R&B/rap hybrids for my taste, but bonus track “That Way” is a summer slow jam for the ages. Wale’s sports fanaticism fuels “Pick Six,” “Varsity Blues,” and his take on “BMF,” “Barry Sanders,” while his Jay-Z fixation (“I be feelin’ like H.O.V.A. / when y’all was sleeping on him”) closes the tape. A bit of an outlier, “Ocean Drive” takes Wale from the go go to the dance hall and capitalizes on DC’s tropical trends. Overall, The Eleven One Eleven Theory suggests that Wale is re-energized and ready for this fall’s Ambition; now we just need to see which Wale will show up in November.
Big K.R.I.T. – Last King 2 (God’s Machine)
Return of 4Eva was a love song to the golden age of Southern hip hop; those expecting a sequel will be sorely disappointed. Last King 2 is just another mixtape, plagued by the hallmarks of the genre. The lyrical territory is a little too familiar (pimps and hos, grippin’ wood grain, on the corner, etc.) and the beats are a little too paint-by-number. For the most part, neither is handled with the finesse shown on Return of 4Eva.
Guest stars (too many to list here) dominate the tape, so while you get verses from southern legends Bun B, Pimp C, and Slim Thug, K.R.I.T. seems like an afterthought throughout the unfocused proceedings. Still, you could do worse for BBQ / driving music, and this feels like an odds-and-ends appetizer for the main course, next month’s Live from the Underground.
Danny Brown – XXX
This is outsider hip hop at its finest. Danny Brown has a polarizing flow that is urgent, manic and a bit off-putting. But with his hipster affectations, tales of drug dealing/abuse, and laugh out loud punchline raps, his talent in undeniable. The production is just as weird as Brown himself, somewhere between Lil B’s based beats and Odd Future’s spooky stalkers.
While it’s occasionally pornographic (“make Sarah Palin deep throat ’til she hiccup”) the title of XXX is a reference to 30, Brown’s age. He’s been hustling (rap and otherwise) for some time now, reportedly getting passed over by 50 Cent because of his skinny jeans. Whatever the reason, this iconoclastic rapper’s moment is now: a grown-up version of Lil B, Odd Future, and Kreayshawn for the WTF generation.