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The best albums of the week, from Pop Smoke, Cloud Nothings, and more

When was the last Fourth of July weekend filled with this much collective dread? While it'll be short a Vanilla Ice concert, I have a sinking feeling that things will only get worse with the added temptation of a big holiday But don’t torture yourself through it — go outside (responsibly,) watch all the fireworks of varying legality, and throw on the Virgil-less Pop Smoke album to fill the even more excess down time for a holiday weekend.

Once again, I’ll direct your attention to another Bandcamp donation day, active until midnight PST. That alone has led to a number of new releases, including a one-day-only live album from PUP and an album recorded under lockdown by Cloud Nothings. Most of the releases below will be a part of the fundraising day, with some artists redirecting proceeds to charities of their choosing.

Pop Smoke — Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon

It’s hard to recall a more decisive rebuke to album artwork than Virgil Abloh’s copy-and-pasted Pop Smoke cover. Within an evening, the garish design, featuring one of the first pictures of the rapper to appear on a Google Image search, was struck from the record. Of course this was a distraction from the finished product, which provides more hints of the tragic potential lost from an overwhelming, maximalist presence in the Brooklyn drill scene. The posthumous album is treacherous space, looking to honor an artist’s legacy while major label exploitation pervades. It’s great to hear Pop again, crowded by high-profile features, but you can’t help but wonder how this would’ve been imagined if he was still in the room.

Cloud Nothings — The Black Hole Understands

After the back-to-back throttling classics of Attack on Memory and Here and Nowhere Else, Cloud Nothings have alternated between scaling back the velocity and doubling down. Their latest record, The Black Hole Understands, was recorded entirely in quarantine between two cities, and marks a shift toward the most melodic, hooky iteration of the project before it became a consistent full band lineup. You can’t quite hold down the best drummer in the game, which the band has in Jayson Gerycz, but their efforts are streamlined toward the closest approximation of high-charged pop they can offer.

Westside Gunn — Flygod Is an Awesome God II

The Buffalo MC’s enjoyed a breakout year of sorts, with April’s Pray For Paris, linking him up with some of his highest-profile collaborators like Tyler, The Creator, Joey Bada$$, and Freddie Gibbs. Just three months later, he’s back on short notice with a sequel to last year’s Flygod Is an Awesome God. It’s a comparatively sparse, reined-in effort, relying on familiar Griselda production and collaborators. Even as Westside Gunn’s crew becomes further ensconced in the orbit of hip-hop’s elite, he’s still one of the most prolific artists going.

Little Kid — Transfiguration Highway

The Toronto band occupies an eminently familiar space: warm indie folk, with sprawling character-driven narratives, and a handle on subverting Christian imagery. So what if the reference points are a little easy to situate, they carry a confident playfulness and grasp of songcraft that should slot them right in with peers like Saintseneca and Spencer Radcliffe, and, yeah, the guy who put out a 12-minute song today. Presented as a debut of sorts on Solitaire Recordings, this is the long-earned arrival of a band that’s been churning away with Bandcamp releases for the better part of a decade.

Willie Nelson — First Rose of Spring

70 albums. 70! Pour one out for the legend nearly matching an album-per-year output for his entire life. Much like Bob Dylan’s highly acclaimed return, there’s no reason why an artist in their seventh decade has any right to be this light, loose, and in command of their craft. You sense that it’s all he knows, continuing to make nearly an album a year at age 87. He still has wisened ruminations and generous attitude toward his own mortality.