Kanye, J. Cole, and Mac Miller Bring Back the Ambitious Artistry Hip Hop Was Once Famous For


It's the biggest day in hip-hop since 2007, when Kanye West and 50 Cent, two of the genre's most viable commercial performers, went head-to-head on Sept. 11. West's Graduation and Fiddy's Curtis both propelled through the charts, charming record execs while leaving fans with something to be desired.

It's been a strange, serpentine road to get to June 18, 2013. West has purveyed enough controversy for a dozen divas, while 50 Cent's all but fallen off the map. Tuesday's anticipated clash between West's Yeezus, J. Cole's Born Sinner, and Mac Miller's Watching Movies with the Sound Off is music to the ears of an industry cranking out watered-down Drake verses, snare-heavy Lex Luger beats, and auto-tuned Future hooks.

But on a crammed Tuesday, three albums do exactly what hip-hop was intended to do back in the Golden Age: experiment, enthrall, and make a statement.

Each artist brings his own sense of innovation and his own unique backstory to make Tuesday's releases so special. Perhaps it's an auspice of where hip-hop's going in 2013; perhaps it's just a lucky day for heads who mumble about the genre's recently-vapid subject matter. Regardless, this is enough good music to power a summer.

Watching Movies with a grown-up

Stumbling into Tuesday with a whole lot to prove, Mac Miller's Watching Movies with the Sound Off was the most likely album to come off as hackneyed and industry-influenced. Unlike Cole and 'Ye, Miller was still struggling to garner respect as an artist, dwelling under the label of "frat rapper" that comes with making songs like these.

After a bout with codeine addiction, a poppy feature for the radio and a corny, if not entertaining reality show on MTV2, Miller moved to Los Angeles to hook up with the genre's new generation of creative weirdos. The result is surprisingly ambitious and exceedingly mature for someone who took off on a mixtape called K.I.D.S.

Watching Movies begins with "The Star Room," a self-reflecting song shrouded in woozy production and fluctuating vocal changes. “Haven’t picked a major label, think I’m blackballed/I still don’t got the heart to pick my phone up when my dad calls/Will he recognize his son when he hears my voice?/I put this music against my life, I think I fear the choice," he raps before moving on to "Avian," a drug-addled multisyllabic wander through Miller’s conscious.

Even the album's single, "S.D.S.," packs a punch, benefiting from the spacey production of Flying Lotus. "I'm so stubborn, I'd rather write my own history book/where the world don't give a fuck 'bout how you physically look," Mac raps.

"Matches" features him holding his own against critically acclaimed T.D.E. associate Ab-Soul, reminiscing in a way that avoids the played-out references to gym class and juice boxes that were so prevalent in Mac's earlier mixtapes. "I Am Who I Am" and "Objects in the Mirror" emerge as the back-to-back strongest songs on the album, featuring razor-sharp rhyming and introspective lyrics that make Miller seem like a hippy variant of Earl Sweatshirt. Miller outshines rising stars Action Bronson and ScHoolboy Q on consecutive tracks, all while swapping his lines of self-deprecation with funny ostentation.

Of course, there are flaws in the album, but perhaps that's what makes the project so ambitious. Miller is handily beaten by the guest verse of Jay Electronica in "Suplexes Inside of Complexes and Duplexes," and the album's title track, "Watching Movies," sounds like Mac's in over his head trying to make a club song.

Still, Watching Movies with the Sound Off is ambitious, and through improved rhyme-writing and collaborations with more acclaimed producers and artists, it looks like Mac's shaken that image of a white dude rapping in his suburban basement.

Born winner

People called Mac Miller crazy for releasing his album on this frenzied Tuesday. Yet the same has to be said about J. Cole, who puts out his sophomore effort, Born Sinner, the same day as Kanye West drops a mysterious 10-track experiment on the world. With an album title derived from a famous Biggie Smalls lyric, Cole doesn't shy away from the task of going against the greats: The Roc Nation repper name-drops Jay-Z and 2Pac within the first minute of "Villuminati," and samples B.I.G. and OutKast in the album's first two songs.

"Villuminati" ruminates over the racism, sexism and homophobia that pervade 21st-century hip-hop, while "Land of the Snakes" touches on everything from past sexual escapades to avoiding the coke game. “Now if you only had one wish, is it devious?/'Cause you already know who your genie is," Cole raps. Even the radio-friendly "Power Trip" with scorching-hot crooner Miguel takes a double-meaning, with Cole using a metaphor to rap on his passion for hip-hop while discussing female love interests.

A choir belts "Trouble," the fierce attack on fame and the frivolous women that accompany it, while "Runaway" looks into institutionalized racism over sprawling keys and minimalized guitars: "Wise words from an indecent man/Made me reflect on the times when we was three-fifths of them/In chains and powerless/Brave souls reduced to cowardice.”

"Forbidden Fruit" sees Cole doing what everyone in the genre simultaneously fears and desires: linking up with the talented Kendrick Lamar. Though Lamar only takes the hook, Cole certainly holds the song down on his own, rapping sharply over samples of Ronnie Foster and Madlib. "I'mma drop the album the same day as Kanye/Just to show the boy's the man now like Wanyá," he boasts.

Cole boldly goes into the allusions and realities of racism again on "Chaining Day," noting, "This chain that I bought/You mix greed, pain and fame, this is heinous result.” He then goes into a powerful one-two of "Crooked Smile" and "Let Nas Down." Already facing mammoth expectations because of the collaboration with T.L.C., Cole delivers, shaking off the physical imperfections of women and praising internal beauty instead. It's corny, sure, but in an age when we call her Big Booty because "she got a big booty," Cole's trenchant, honest rapping seems refreshing.

Not a Yeezy listen

The most ambitious of the three albums, and the most rewarding listen of the year perhaps, is Yeezus, Kanye West's experimental sixth LP that features a melange of influences and samples. With no album art, few features and only 10 tracks, Kanye's marketing for Yeezus was bold. His rhymes and production match that and then some.

"On Sight" kicks off with screeching synth and enough treble to scratch your eardrums. Mixing the aesthetics of 808s and Heartbreak with the motivated delivery of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West holds nothing back on the intro. He keeps momentum going with "Black Skinhead," a song of sociopolitical undertones and satanic guitar riffs. "If I don't get ran out by Catholics/Here come some conservative Baptists/Claiming I'm overreacting/Like them black kids in Chiraq, bitch!," he raps. It's hardly palatable, giving the listener a level of thrill and discomfort with West's loud lyrics and the album's even louder production. But that's exactly what makes it so interesting. There are no cop-outs here, no radio filler, or scaling back of West's wild tongue.

Kanye keeps pushing the envelop with "I'm a God" before using "New Slaves" to explore racism and self-perception: "My momma was raised in an era when/clean water was only served to the fairer skin." West would sell a million records saying just about anything, but subject matter of this intensity and pertinence is exciting for fans of any genre.

Like Tuesday's other two projects, Yeezus isn't perfect. "Hold My Liquor" is drowned out by a whiny auto-tune chorus, but the album bounces right back with "I'm in It," a Justin Vernon-assisted track with bellowing chants and zipping synths, and "Blood on the Leaves," a darker, more focused cousin of 808s with Nina Simone interpolations. It's loud, in your face, and it makes a hell of an impact.

"Bound 2" emerges as the tenth and final track, a soulful escape from the dark industrial mood Kanye establishes throughout the album. But even "Bound," an easier listen, never fully escapes from the project's dark story: "Maybe we could still make it to the church steps ... After all these long-ass verses."

Kanye, Cole, and Mac Miller all step out of the box and put themselves out there on a day when bank rolls get fatter and record labels are king. After a long year, this is what hip-hop needed: good music that sells without compromising artistic merit. Perhaps summer's meant for easy living, but these three albums are far from easy listens. And that's what makes you want to listen again and again.