June’s two finest albums epitomise hip-hop’s creative purple patch in the face of the pop malaise


In the first of a new series of music reviews, Robert Blair takes a look at the hip-hop scene in June

AS IS typically the case, June saw the music world inundated with new releases that attracted a substantial amount of hype and pre-emptive fanfare. 

Spanning everything from the aesthetically-focused dance pop of Lorde, Dua Lipa and Halsey to long awaited returns from acclaimed indie stalwarts such as Fleet Foxes, Alt-J and Phoenix, there has been no shortage of intriguing albums for consumers of all tastes to wade into as the summer months finally emerge.

While many of the aforementioned projects have caused ripples in the industry and received favourable reviews from a litany of esteemed publications, what they all blatantly lacked is a palpable sense of excitement and discovery as one track segued to the next. 

For example, a prominent artist such as Lorde may take monetary forays into uncharted areas with an unorthodox lyrical flourish or off-kilter instrumentation on her new album ‘Melodrama’ but listeners remain safe in the knowledge that this deviation from accepted pop tropes is fleeting at best.

Whether it’s a case of bowing to major label pressure or the fact that her name is now recognised as a valuable commodity, her status as a contrarian and renegade in the pop world is all but refuted on a new album that gives off the illusion of non-conformity as opposed to actually breaking from the norm.

In contrast to an album that was discussed in lofty, pre-emptive terms as a turning point in music, the world of hip-hop has resiliently provided two surprise watershed moments within the space of a month.

The world of hip-hop has resiliently provided two surprise watershed moments within the space of a month.

Both emanate from the always creatively fertile area of California, Brockhampton’s ‘Saturation’ and Vince Staples’ sophomore LP ‘Big Fish Theory’ are not only fantastic albums in their own right but indicative of a sea change in the genre’s direction as a whole.

For many years, hip-hop as an entity was governed by a very strict set of credos that few artists could flout without negative repercussions for their careers. Credibility and a perceived toughness or overt masculinity were commonly seen as necessary attributes for acceptance among its elite, with any sign of weakness quickly latched on to by rivals and utilised as verbal ammunition. 

As this focus on braggadocio continued to run rampant, the parameters of what it meant to be a hip-hop artist continued to narrow for anyone that didn’t find a way to the public consciousness as the structures and production techniques of the 1990s and early 2000s remained extremely prevalent.

It is the eradication and complete dismissal of these two particular traits that ensure that June’s finest hip-hop releases will go down in the genre’s canon as releases that will resonate for years to come.

In the case of Brockhampton’s fantastic new collection ‘Saturation’, it is a body of work from an ambitious young collective that smashes through many of the artform’s well established taboos. In lieu of an emphasis on hubris and showboating, this 17-track opus espouses the importance of recognising your self-worth and accepting that everyone faces their own trials and tribulations.

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Led by the enigmatic Kevin Abstract, his candidness about his sexuality is a true breath of fresh air in a culture that has held longstanding prejudices against the LGBT community that goes all the way to its most recognisable ambassadors. 

Although the Texas native is by no means the first talented artist in hip-hop to be openly gay; other notable examples include Cakez Da Killa, Mykki Blanco and Zebra Katz to name a few, he has managed to do so while evading the somewhat pejorative ‘queer-rap’ tag that has been so hastily attributed to them by critics the world over. 

Abstract’s boundary-smashing persona aside, what ultimately makes this debut full-length from Matt Champion, Merlyn Wood, Dom Mclennon, Joba et al so essential is the quality and originality of the music. As versatile as any group since the controversy magnets that were Odd Future, the record ranges from unhinged and abrasive on tracks such as ‘Heat’ and ‘Star’ to wondrously introspective on the heartrending ‘Milk’ and ‘Fake’.

Coyly describing themselves as an “American boyband” rather than an archetypal hip-hop crew, Abstract has previously said in interviews that he wishes to simultaneously be viewed alongside stars such as Lorde and Justin Bieber while being revered among hip-hop’s elite. 

Judging by what’s on offer within this record, the group would unquestionably have the intangible ability to create songs that transcend hip-hop and bleed into the mainstream, but they are instead intent on making music by their own rules.

In the case of Brockhampton’s fantastic new collection ‘Saturation’, it is a body of work from an ambitious young collective that smashes through many of the artform’s well established taboos.

In this respect, they are spiritually twinned with groups such as Scotland’s own Young Fathers who resolutely view themselves as pop and rock but make music that refuses to yield to the homogenous sound of the modern radio. 

What’s more, it’s telling that the group is not only a product of social networking, but met on popular fan site and forum Kanyetothe. In a similar way that the often lambasted figure did in the humbler yet still self-assured early days of his career, Brockhampton has thrown hip-hop’s manifesto into the fire with a brazenness that we rarely see in pop or rock these days.

In a different but no less impactful manner, Vince Staples’ newest album has accomplished the very same thing in its incredible execution. Often viewed as the west coast rap scene’s second best MC behind Kendrick Lamar and often compared to the TDE lynchpin on account of his stark, socially conscious lyricism, his second LP ‘Big Fish Theory’ has allowed him to transcend these tags in order to become a sonic firebrand in his own right.

Drawing from a wide spectrum of musical influences that fall foul of the traditional crate from which hip-hop producers dig, the album is a rich and engrossing infusion of everything from The Streets to Squarepusher and Aphex Twin that is pulled together by his enigmatic delivery. 

Recent years have seen the Long Beach MC provide us with a series of well-received projects such as the politically charged ‘Hell Can Wait’, his debut full length ‘Summertime 06’ and recent EP ‘Primadonna’, but none of these appeared to be the rapper’s full, unencumbered vision. 

This feeling lingered because of Staples’ well publicised refusal to pay homage to hip-hop’s past and dismissal of the golden age that marked him out as a man who could well be a pioneer.

Now we have his most all-encompassing work to date in front of us and it makes for a thoughtful, considered and revolutionary project that will now be seen as his metamorphosis from a brash young upstart at the nascent of his career to an artist that is careering towards a brave new world in hip-hop. 

Although the sheer scope of what he’s accomplished is clear throughout its duration, it is present most clearly on tracks such as the vivid opener ‘Crabs In A Bucket’, the disorienting dance grooves of ‘Love Can Be…’ and the bombastic ‘Yeah Right’. 

Featuring Blur’s Damon Albarn and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver to name a few of its notable guest stars, Big Fish Theory’s sound is otherworldly and miles apart from anything else that you’ll encounter this year.

All we can hope is that the stellar example that these two standouts from hip-hop’s new breed are setting in terms of finding your own niche is heeded by the intersecting worlds of rock and pop.

Given how much attention they have garnered since their release and the fact that both artists’ initial streaming numbers have been in the millions since its release, there is no conceivable reason why other musicians shouldn’t follow suit and break free from the label’s hive mind in order to produce something that is authentic to them. 

It’s all well and good to pay homage to your heroes or maintain a passing respect for what preceded you but no artist that’s ever truly been heralded as great has reached that lofty status by towing the well-trodden lines that run through musical history.

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