Rap Round-Up: Rick Ross; Curren$y; Slum Village

Here’s a quick rundown on three hip-hop albums that have been spending some time in my stereo this week. All three are among the more interesting rap records I’ve heard this year, with the first being surprisingly killer; the second being rather charming in its own goofy way; and the third being an old-school manifesto (pun intended) that takes some time to grow on you, but gradually reveals its deep craft and affecting lyricism. As an aside, I was initially going to include Bun B’s new one here, too, but honestly, after the church organ on the first track, I pretty much lose interest with the rest of it.

Rick Ross – Teflon Don
It’s hard to imagine a more surprising mainstream rap album in 2010 than Teflon Don; part chart-topping summer blockbuster, part classic Def Jam-styled personal manifesto, Rick Ross’ latest find the rap heavyweight playing up his own foul-mouthed, thuggish persona long after less confident MCs would have begun tapering it off. But far from turning into schtick, Ross’ persona is only growing deeper: Yes, he’s still larger than life and completely full of himself, comparing himself to John Lennon mere seconds into the opening track and going on to demand his fans build a statue in his honor, but his hustlin’ anthems are offset here by songs rich in history and empathy; sure, he’s still hustlin’ for the sake of his own ego, but he makes a compelling case that he’s just as passionate about doing his parents proud, creating a good life for his offspring, and leaving behind a legacy that he can be proud of.

In other words, the more he inflates himself to cartoon-level proportions, the more humane and relatable Ross seems; it’s a contradiction, but Teflon Don is an album that celebrates rather than shuns complexity and paradox, making it one of the year’s most  accomplished and rewarding mainstream hip-hop offerings. That wouldn’t mean much were the album not also bangin’, but thankfully Ross brings the heat from the first note to the last: This is a luxuriously shiny, decked-out rap album, and from the opening strains of orchestral pomp to the high-profile guest spots for Jay-Z, Kanye, and T.I., it’s clear that this is an oversized record from an oversized entertainer. Yet as fun as the sleek, stylish singles are– and in the blazing, Illuminati-referencing Jay-Z hook-up “Free Mason” and the club-rockin’ first single “Super High,” he gives Big Boi a run for his money in the hot rap singles department– these songs are balanced out by the soulful pathos of Cee-Lo’s gospel backing in “Tears of Joy” and the sweet Erykah Badu hook in “Maybach Music”– moments where the noise and the hype are dialed down to make room for something that sounds astonishingly close to intimacy.

Curren$y – Pilot Talk
If ever there was a textbook example of stoner rap, it’s here: Everything about Louisiana rapper Curren$y’s new LP is thoroughly trippy, ranging from his languid, unaffected drawl to his positively stream-of-conscious flow, which encompasses the usual topics of girls, money, and ganja, but reaches its most deliriously delightful linguistic heights when the rapper trails off into sheer nonsense– as on the title song, a weird pot-dream of a song that finds our narrator launching battle-style assaults against King Kong, championing his own, clearly superior gift for swatting planes out of the sky. The tracks here are similarly trippy and a little weird, but never disarmingly so; as with the rapper’s nonsense lyrics, there’s a certain warmth here, a psych-rock haze that envelopes the listener in golden layers of synths, organs, and guitars. Some listeners might grow weary of Curren$y’s slacker lyrics, but it doesn’t seem like he cares much: He’s simply out to have a low-key, laid-back good time, something he provides for any listener who is able to enjoy the simple pleasures afforded by the luxurious, spaced-out Snoop Dog duet “Seat Change” and the terrifically funky, horn-driven anthem “The Day,” featuring spot-on contributions from Mos Def and Jay Electronica.

Slum Village – Villa Manifesto
They say that you can tell a lot about a man by the company that he keeps, and I think that might be particularly true of rappers. Just look at the guest list for Slum Village’s new album: On the third song along, you’ll see both A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife and De La Soul’s Posdnuos– two legends of alternative, socially-conscious hip-hop who have largely flown over the radar for the last several years– but also the name of J Dilla, the late, renowned DJ and Soulaquarian who used to be a central member of the Slum Village posse, and whose work provides many of the tracks on this record. That all sounds about right, as Villa Manifesto plays out like a primer in this kind of underground, jazz-based hip-hop, with the proceedings basically ignoring the boom-bap rhythms and glossy trends of modern hip-hop in favor of lush, soul-infused tracks; spartan, old-school beats; and, on songs like could-be-hit-single “Faster,” larger than life hooks that recall the pure R&B of guys like D’Angelo, only with more polish. The result is an impressively complete celebration of a culture and a history; it’s also an astonishingly real, gritty look at death, perseverance, and overcoming– as fine a tribute to Dilla as has yet been released.

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