JaJuan M. Morris-Guity
All the R&B and Hip-hop Records We Never Knew We Needed to Survive Quarantine
This article originally appeared on JaJuan's Medium and was republished with permission.
In spite of having to endure the brunt of one of the most harrowing and uncomfortable time periods in history, music has become a core source of solace for many of us during this time of uncertainty and trepidation. During a time where people aren’t sure where their next paychecks are coming from, whether or not they’ll be able to afford rent in coming months or if they’ll be able to turn up this summer as a bleak byproduct of social distancing, the outpour of quality R&B and Hip-Hop music that has come out during this difficult moment in history has presented a silver lining, managing to satiate our thirst for creativity and some form of artistic output.
In a world where “looking forward” to the weekends has essentially disappeared, many artists haven’t allowed this awkward moment to curtail their production and subsequent release of content. On the contrary, many have viewed this as an opportunity to boost the spirits and morale of their fans by showcasing their quality art, both old and new. Instead of gearing up for Happy Hour on Fridays or teaming up with ya homies for Saturday Night frolic, the newfound emergence of Verzuz battles on Instagram has taken their place. Because most of us have been cooped up in the crib, new music is one of the few things we’ve been able to anticipate with glee.
Although being excited about the release of new work from your favorite artists typically yields euphoria, the sensation we now gain from it is unparalleled. It’s a semblance of normalcy that reminds us of a time when things were much more simple. When planning to hit up concerts was a thing. When you could actually fathom going out on a Friday night. When you could enjoy the vibrations of live music flow through your body and soul. For many, these moments are what people lived for and now they’ve been stricken from them. In spite of how grim things may feel for music lovers across the board, many R&B and hip-hop artists have been holdin’ it down with their production of remarkable content that aims to quell our obvious shortcomings and entertain us through the storm. Below are some of the R&B and hip-hop records that deliver quality in the thick of this pandemic and deserve recognition. (These are in no particular order because as a collective, they all slap)
Leven Kali: "HIGHTIDE"
In a league with little to no shortage of artists that resemble in style, sound and some would say physical appearance, the release of Leven Kali’s sophomore full-length project distinguishes his brand and signature sound from the pack. At the age of 23 years young, Kali taps into a deeper level of emotional awareness than most would think possible so young. On a tracklist replete with soothing, acoustic cuts that perfectly suit a stroll on Santa Monica pier or an evening cruise down Palos Verdes Drive, the vibe of this record transports you into the lusher ambiances offered in most of Los Angeles. At times, it grabs a tight hold around visceral emotion of a very lovey-dovey nature with tracks like "MADE 4 U," "FIRE IN UR EYES," and "FOREVER." On the other side of the coin, it’s a bit more upbeat in tempo and tailored to the sultry, feel-good vibrations of chill time with tracks like "HOMEGIRL," "RICH GIRL" and "12345 (GET REAL)." For avid fans of contemporary R&B and Soul, this record is the drink of water many of us have desperately yearned for quite some time.
From a conceptual framework, Kali plays around with the new-aged chasm of being enamored by the theoretical idea of love and the after-effects that come with that but still being caught up with the trendy lifestyle of temporary flings and “situationships,” which on the surface, seems to be a typical route with that comes with being a modern male celebrity. His even mixture of tracks addressing both sides of the spectrum vindicate that like most individuals his age, he is figuring himself out. In an era where celebrities are extolled, perhaps more than ever before, this juxtaposition reminds us of his humanity and his inclination to be vulnerable (which seems to be a theme less-visited nowadays across the genre).
Overall, this record is certified heat and can be considered his formal entry into superstardom. Structurally, it’s coherent from top to bottom with not too many detours. Despite being so early in his career, his future feels promising if he continues to make magic. At a time rife with acute distress, the timing of this body of work couldn’t be any more precise. After such a sound release, it’ll be exciting to see how he blossoms further on his next project.
Personal Highlight: "HOME GIRL" (feat. Smino &Topaz Jones)
Russ: "SHAKE THE SNOW GLOBE" (Deluxe Version)
As an artist who writes, produces, engineers, and performs his own music while managing to go platinum with his debut album at 24 years of age, Russ hasn’t received as much credit as one would think. In fact, he has received severe hate that sticks out like a sore thumb. Between 2011 and 2014, this man dropped 11 free albums, launched his own label, and propelled his career before signing with Columbia Records. With all this under his belt, it’s baffling to understand where all this disdain comes from. Despite being ripped apart by alleged Hip-Hop stans, other artists/producers, and being skewered in various cultural blogs/publications for being corny, inconsistent, and Sicilian, Russ torches away all the scum and grime haters have thrown on his name for years by cultivating his magnum opus to date.
Released as his 14th studio full-length record, and third major-label record, Russ demonstrates his versatility with a wide-ranging soundscape of solid tracks that run the gamut, in terms of subject matter and sonic range. Relative to his older records, this one feels most complete. On what feels like his most cohesive tracklist from beginning to end, the hybrid of incisive lyrics mixed with the raw emotion is what qualifies it as a blissful listen. Aside from those who have been able to master this specialty which includes Drake and Andre 3000, there aren’t many artists who have been able to channel this blend. Through his sentimental crooning coupled with his uncompromising ability to spit with soul-stirring control, Russ deepens his allure by showing that he is more attuned to his emotions than most rappers are capable of or willing to confront on a record. Also, there are spurts of inspiration that pop up through the record with tracks like "A LOT MORE," "FOOT ON THE GAS," and "MOMMA," which are crammed with enough genuine pep talk and motivational rhetoric to help you through these difficult times.
In spite of his keen awareness of emotion and introspection on this record, he still finds space to dish out a healthy dose of braggadocio and s**t talk, which isn’t the most far-fetched for a modern-day rapper (or any rapper for that matter). A prime instance of this is on his track: "Guess What" feat. Rick Ross, which is probably the catchiest track on the entire record:
Money every Friday, indie catalog, I’m versatile,
My throwaways are hits for you, one day I might be merciful
Shootin’ for the stars, I never hesitate, I’m first to pull
Ya’ll be with the common folk, I’m at the private terminal
Despite priding himself on seclusion and isolating himself from other artists for most of his career, he seems to have had a major change of heart with this record. Although he embraces a fresh take with the idea of collaboration of this record, the feature list is sparingly exclusive with appearances from Devin The Dude, Ty Dolla $ign, Boogie, Rick Ross, BIA, Kiana Ledé, Bugus and Benny The Butcher. For the most part, each feature adds a meaningful flare and doesn’t feel gratuitous. As for instrumentals, Russ continues his signature trend of brash, lo-fi, pop-speaker beats that compliment his unapologetic flow. Also, it feels like he experiments a bit with sampling old school tracks a bit, which deviate from his typical style of crafting a beat from total scratch. All in all, the most-hated rapper and DIY legend steps out of his comfort zone on what feels like his best single project to date and affirms that he could care less about what people think of him. He’s staying true to himself, catering to his fans, and focusing on living his best. There’s not much else to it.
Personal Highlight: "A LOT MORE"
Chris Brown & Young Thug: "Slime & B"
For die-hard fans of the contemporary soundscape of R&B and Hip-Hop, this supreme alliance may have come as a surprise but as the adage goes: it always hits the best when you don’t see it coming. This duo executes on delivering 47 minutes of fire tracks bursting with color. There’s a synergy on this record that isn’t contrived and feels like it stems from a true rapport between these two forces. As artists who have has their fair share of dabbling in collaborative tapes, this is by far their best stab at it to date respectively. Released on May 5th in the brunt of Quarantine, the impact of this record is a bit thwarted because of its evident goal of being your go-to record for those turnt summer nights you won’t remember with the people you won’t forget. Nonetheless, it’s a vibe with certain tracks that should be able to hold relevance for awhile.
Relative to the steaming ambition of rapper-singer projects of the past, there’s absolutely nothing profound about this mixtape. It’s dipped and polished in hedonism and luxuriance, evading anything beyond the surface. But this trope isn’t to a fault. It’s actually pretty lit. It’s not being deceptive. Everything it desires to achieve is on the table and it does just that. Considering the tracklist, most of it is actually dope. Most of the record plays as if Thug and Brown were having a legit party in the studio. There’s a litany of tracks on this project that are perfect for any given Friday night lituation: "Go Crazy," "City Girls," "I Got Time," "Big Slimes." All of these will be on rotation for at least the next couple of summers.
The instrumentals on this record are bombastic, very in your face, and designed to be played loud, which has seemed to be a trend for both Thug and Brown in recent years. There are a plethora of producers on tape but some of the more notable ones include Murda Beatz, T-Minus, The Audibles, Turbo, and Wheezy. They all come together to deliver something enjoyable and easily digestible. Albeit little to minimal effort was made to create this record, they manage to mesh two very distinctive brands together, providing a notable moment for their fans, akin to the culture as a whole. Despite coming out of nowhere, this unexpected release comes as a pleasant surprise.
Personal Highlight: "Go Crazy"
DVSN: "A Muse In Her Feelings"
As esoteric and in-the-cut as the camp of OVO Sound (aside from Aubrey Graham) may feel at times, when it is time to release a project, their track record shows that they prefer to take their time to come correct and deliver something masterful. OVO’s flagship and Canadian R&B duo of singer Daniel Daley and producer Nineteen85 come together for their third studio project to put us deep in our feelings once again. On this track, their sound is at the forefront of the future for R&B, in terms of lyrical content and production. While they remain dedicated to their specialty of providing tracks suited for affection and intimate embrace with tracks like "For Us," "Between Us" and… "Again," this record is drenched in a multitude of influences. From Jersey Club to Go-Go to Dancehall to Trap, their sound is eclectic, experimental and far removed from a single dimension. Despite undergoing a task that seems unattainable on a single record, this record accomplishes its goal of channeling the transient nature of courting and relations during today’s age.
Illustrated on their tracklist, they’ve split their collection of songs into four specific vibes, which is a refreshing concept and very much worthy of recognition. Whether or not they execute on these phases is totally subjective and up to how one perceives it based on personal experience. As far as the sequencing of this record goes, it plays well from track to track, making it one of those records you can play straight through without interruption. For some transitions, this was deliberate on the part of the duo as some songs go from one to the next in a seamless fashion. As for features on this record, most of them contribute to its quality and as one would expect: rather diverse. Some noteworthy collabs on here include PARTYNEXTDOOR, Ty Dolla $ign, Buju Banton, Popcaan, and Snoh Aalegra. They each make a substantial impact on their tracks, as well as, the project as a whole. Overall, this record is a sprawling compilation that the duo manages to place in a neatly delivered package. If encapsulating most of their influences was their mission, they’ve surpassed this goal with flying colors. For a group that hasn’t released a project since 2017, they surely made up for their hiatus with this release.
Personal Highlight: "For Us"
Justin Bieber: Changes
Many artists who jumpstart their careers as child pop stars very seldom evolve nor reach their full potential, as most fade into a distant memory or total oblivion after their initial surge. However, this underwhelming reality simply cannot be said for Justin Bieber. Even when it felt like he might have been on his way out: he released more timeless hits. After inevitably growing up and reaching the apex of his status as a childhood star, instead of disappearing like many others have in the past, his brand and sound evolved with him. In fact, his career might be one of the outliers to evade this tragic narrative in recent history. Virtually over the last 11 years, he’s never really been down and out for the count. Since Usher discovered him back in 09', his brand has been synonymous with pop culture and music not only in America but across the entire globe. Over his longevity in the industry, some have even deemed him worthy enough of being a top contender in possibly being the “prince of pop.”
From a personal point of view, I can’t vividly recall a decent portion of my life before hearing Biebs on the radio or young people craving about him. To a degree, I feel like I’ve grown up with him. Now to see him still at the top of his game is kind of surreal. Released on February 14th, "Changes" captures Bieber at his most mature and vulnerable as he reaches the frontier of his next chapter in life, rife with newfound duties such as being a married man. On this record, it is very apparent that Justin is “coming of age” as he comes to terms with his imperfections. He is open and willing to share his self-realization, which ascends his vulnerability to a level he has never shown before. He is introspective and declares what values matter most to him, especially on tracks like "Changes" and "Confirmation."
Just in case you forgot or failed to recognize, Bieber delineates that he is officially grown, exhibiting that he is still far from perfect but more tactful in his approach to life. From a sonic standpoint, most tracks have some form of fusion between R&B/Soul and Pop that establish moods as one traverses the record. Not everything on this tracklist is outstanding but some of its highlights include "Habitual," "Intentions," "Take It Out On Me," "E.T.A.," "Changes" and "Confirmation." All in all, this record is a worthwhile listen that will yield good vibes and positive energy, which is what we all desperately need at the moment. Now that he has been able to launch such a massive shift in his image, It’ll be intriguing to see how things pan out from here.
Personal Highlight: "Confirmation"
Drake — "Dark Lane Demo Tapes"
Kehlani — "It Was Good Until It Wasn’t"
Steve Lacy — "Apollo XXI"
Childish Gambino — "3.15.20"