I, like many others, had a pretty gloomy 2016. I’m glad to be rid of it, but musically, the year put up quite the fight in its final month. As an owner of two ears, I can rightly exclaim my disappointment with four of the five following albums
4 Your Eyez Only by J. Cole (Dec. 9)
If J. Cole has offered anything to the world of hip-hop, it’s the understanding that there’s a difference between a good emcee and a good hip-hop artist. He’s nothing if not a passionate storyteller, this time focusing his entire album on the murder of James McMillan, Jr., a drug dealer and friend of the North Carolina rapper. But even in doing so, Jermaine Cole offers little in the way of personality or levity, mistaking tedium for dreariness. In some ways, 4 Your Eyez Only improves on the soporific 2014 Forest Hills Drive, but there’s a reason that album, as J. Cole fans will constantly remind the world, achieved double-platinum RIAA status without a single feature: literally any other rapper on the planet would have been too high-energy for J. Cole. If 4 Your Eyez Only achieves the same feat, it’ll have been for the same exact reason.
Do What Thou Wilt. by Ab-Soul (Dec. 9)
Following the breakout success of his 2012 thunderclap Control System, Ab-Soul hit something of a slump, following the gritty snarls of his sophomore album with the rounded edges of These Days…, a decidedly more mainstream offering. Do What Thou Wilt. falls somewhere in between the two projects, Ab-Soul having rediscovered his penchant for exploring heady notions with an eerie growl. He’s as opaque and unpredictable as he’s ever been, changing subjects on a whim and breaking the constructs of flow—the album standout “Threatening Nature” has Ab-Soul “Servin’ serpents with sermons with curse words,” all through the frame of what often sounds like casual conversation. It’s this willingness to experiment, for better or worse, that defines Ab-Soul. Much like fellow Black Hippy member Schoolboy Q’s album Blank Face LP, Do What Thou Wilt. displays an unwillingness to dishonestly lurk in the mainstream. Ab-Soul never belonged there, and it’s emboldening to have him back.
Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ by Kid Cudi (Dec. 16)
Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven marked a low-point in the profoundly mediocre career of Kid Cudi. By default, Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ had to be better; the question was how much better it would be. The answer is not much. Listening to this album, it’s almost hard to fathom that anyone with a shred of musical integrity could produce something this dissonant, this poorly-mixed, and this, ironically, passionless. Sometimes artists become lazy or completely flop while experimenting. This is neither: Cudi has an admirable work ethic, and to classify this album as a swing and a miss is to assume Cudi was talented enough to make to home plate in the first place. Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ is a testament to how some of the worst musical acts can make a name for themselves. Attention up-and-coming artists: Can you not hit a note to save your life? Do you only have access to the cheapest of beat-making programs? Are you determined to show the world your art even though the world has been through enough suffering already? Kid Cudi may be your hero, because not even André 3000 nor Pharrell (each of whom appear on this thing twice) could save this landfill of an album. I wish Scott Mescudi the best of luck in his demon slayin’, but may it, for the future, be through another art form.
Peace Trail by Neil Young (Dec. 9)
Neil Young’s career trajectory mimics that of filmmaker Woody Allen’s in some way. They both have their classic works, be they Young’s Harvest or Allen’s Annie Hall, but did anyone really listen to Harvest and think, “What Neil Young really needs to do is release 33 more albums over the span of 44 years”? Yes, Peace Trail is Neil Young’s 37th studio album, and it’s as bold and inventive as one might expect any artist’s 37th album to be. I would accuse Peace Trail of being cutting room leftovers, but it’s clear that Neil Young doesn’t believe in leftovers, instead giving his fans a poorly-mixed redundancy in a career that’s already bloated with redundancies. “Keep me searching for a heart of gold / And I’m getting old” Young sings on his iconic 1971 single “Heart of Gold.” He may have been getting old in 1971, but in 2016, his shtick was beyond dead.
Stoney by Post Malone (Dec. 9)
Neil Young can, at the very least, only be accused of crafting redundancies; Post Malone is a redundancy. Stoney does little to justify Malone’s place in the music industry, because every single musical aesthetic he attempts has been done before or better. Whether it’s the dull autotuned crooning of the single “White Iverson”—an August 2015 single released on a December 2016 album, in case it wasn’t clear enough how starved this guy was for content—or the generic brag rhymes of “Patient,” Post Malone’s immensely apathetic Stoney emblemizes the “fuck you, pay me” attitude of his tired songwriting. If anything, Stoney is actually a testament to Kanye West’s talent, namely his ability to find even the most microbial nugget of value in some of music’s least-inspiring artists; Stoney being as bad as it is only makes West’s Malone-featured “Fade” even more impressive. If that was the plan all along, then I suppose I played right into their hands.