Ab-Soul, Gambino, Smoke DZA, J Cole: 2016 Just Keeps On Giving

Being December, most people already have their best of lists and top tens of the year set in stone. But 2016 is the year that just keeps on giving as all hell broke loose in the last week, especially for hip-hop fans. The release of no less than four absolutely cracking albums from Childish Gambino, Smoke DZA and Pete Rock, J. Cole and Ab-Soul all filling our stockings with early Christmas gifts.

Childish GambinoAwaken, My Love!

Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino threw everyone a curve ball two weeks ago when he dropped his slick AF LP Awaken, My Love! No one believed him when said he was going to ditch hip-hop, but as the psychedelic yearning melodies revealed to us in single Me and Your Mama which were expanded upon throughout his entire release. It’s already drawn comparisons to Tame Impala and Radiohead but I think that takes a little a bit away from what Glover has achieved himself on this album. The level of production is sublime, really sublime. Second single Redbone pulsates with electro synth that transcends both the artist and listener to unfamiliar places. From the ambient and uplifting high end to the downright funky on the low end, you find yourself engulfed in the album. California blips and bops all over the shop and Riot sort of feels like a poor man’s James Brown interpretation resulting in the album being a little disjointed, but don’t let that take away from the record. Baby Boy drips with soul and although some might call cringe-worthy the hook in Stand Tall is as catchy and bumpy as anything. Despite the commercial success commercial success of his last two attempts at hip-hop records, this album is one Gambino can really claim as his first real crack at making something his own. Many will love it and many will hate it. I did have a sceptical predisposition but I think this is pretty fucking good album.

Smoke DZA & Pete RockDon’t Smoke Rock

It may have been a little overshadowed by the former, but Smoke DZA teamed up with beatmaker Pete Rock to drop a stomper of an album on the same day, Don’t Smoke Rock. With names like BJ The Chicago Kid, Dom Kennedy and Wale appearing on a record, it melds old-school beat architecture with new-wave ideas and flows. Black Car Superhero featuring Rick Ross bangs like the classics of the 90s and Royce Da 5’9”, along with DZA, impressively hold it down on the skinless Hold The Drums. The most refreshing part about this album is that Smoke DZA has managed to escape the weed smoking bravado stereotype on this LP. A topic he has done to death, this album has more substance and punch, making it a really engaging listen. I do realise my own hypocrisy as I point to the awesome collaboration with Mac Miller on the album closer Until Then, which kicks off with a quote from classic stoner movie Friday, but the flow on the album closer is undeniable.

J. Cole4 Your Eyez Only

The entirely solo 10 track follow up project to 2014’s Forest Hills Drive has been eagerly anticipated; with rumours of potential collaborations throwing around names like Kanye, Kendrick and Wale how could it not be? But 4 Your Eyez Only is once again a J. Cole only affair.

The intense intro tune For Whom The Bell Tolls immediately shapes the album as a product of a hopeless and self-depreciating headspace, also showing us Jermaine putting his pipes to the test. The 31 year-old continues to pick away at select heart-strings in Change. A message of self-realisation converted into a cry for a switch in community attitudes over a funky beat with the help of Ari Lennox (signed to Cole’s label) on the melodic bridge.

Both She’s Mine tracks, Part 1 and Part 2, consolidate Cole’s mind state as his spoken word delves into his own life and love in comparison to everyone else over stripped back classical keys. So given the album context you can understand why a track like Foldin’ Clothes was included, but you can’t help but giggle to yourself at the cheesy lyrics. Sometimes its grounding to be relatable, and sometimes it’s just plain boring. “Raisin brand in my bowl with bananas and some almond milk / I never thought I’d see the day I’m drinking almond milk.”….. nah.

Ab-SoulDo What Thou Wilt

We already had some insight into what to expect from the TDE member’s fourth studio album Do What Thou Wilt, with the release of singles Huey Knew, Braille featuring Bas and D.R.U.G.S, and last week we received the whole damn thing.

Straight off the bat, the often slept-on Black Hippy trash talker calls a (Raw) Backwards on all rappers over an ambient and building beat which fills you with the same real intensity as playing the James Bond: Golden Eye on your ‘Tendo ’64.  The kind of intensity the album really feeds off as sometimes it can lyrically go begging.
There is no denying the production on this record and  the West-Coast rappers ability to create a party, which was oh so evident in all three singles. Threatening Nature (leaked a few days ago) also boasts a crisp drum line which leaves room for Soulo to make his mark vocally. On Beat The Case///Straight Cooked featuring ScHoolboy Q, the track really shines toward the end, when the beat switches up to a synthy boom bap and Ab-Soul really lays down some bars with some substance beyond his high-life living.

Even in Now You Know, Ab-Soul shows glimpses of his ability to spit verses with wistful clarity but as many of the numbers on this LP do it leaves quite a bit to the imagination. The stabby snares cutting in and fading out periodically will make a crowd bounce but to release a 16-track piece of work there needs to be a level of cohesion which I cannot seem to grasp on this record. He is definitely not a dude to be slept on, this album will be big but I expected more.

Let’s hope this roll keeps on keeping on into 2017.