You don't have to be a Tech N9ne superfan (or "Technician") to appreciate All 6's and 7's. The Kansas City vet has power-packed this album with guests, from Lil Wayne and T-Pain on the raunchy "F*ck Food" to Twista, Yelawolf and Busta Rhymes on the whirlwind cipher session "Worldwide Choppers." Throughout, he rips through sex jams ("Pornographic" with E-40 and Snoop Dogg), broken relationships ("If I Could") and showcases for his impressive double-time flow. In fact, it's a bit too much at an hour and a half, but that's nothing a bit of careful editing and the fast-forward button can't solve.
Big Sean's major label debut follows three volumes of Finally Famous mixtapes and his first radio hit "My Last" (thanks to an assist from Chris Brown). His victory lap builds momentum with lyrical exercises ("So Much More" and "High") and help from executive producer No I.D. and mentor Kanye West (who appears on "Marvin & Chardonnay"). Sean's best track, a rewrite of the popular mixtape cut "Memories" (for "Memories (Part II)"), gives voice to a winningly sensitive personality sometimes lost amid Finally Famous's slick pop-rap environs.
Originally released in 2009 as an Internet download, Blu's Her Favorite Colo(u)r is a collage of movie snippets, Curtis Mayfield loops and occasional raps. The L.A. rapper indulges himself on sleepy beats like "When(terlude)", taking a page from Madlib and frequent collaborator Exile. His few lucid moments, including "Amnesia" and "Since," remind us what an incredible lyricist he is. "Nobody knows my mental like me/ Open my window let you people get a peep," he says on "Vanity." Hopefully this meandering bedroom studio exercise fuels him to greater heights.
Random Axe don't have hooks, melodies, and definitely no Auto-Tuned vocals. Black Milk, Guilty Simpson and Sean Price rely on pure beats and trash talk, and for the most part, they keep this cipher session buoyant with "The Hex" and "Monster Babies." A few years ago, this one-off all-star project would be just business as usual. But now, Random Axe's defiantly basic sound seems vital and necessary in an era when even no-name blog rappers use gimmicks for fame. As Sean Price puts it on "Random Call," "You can call me one-dimensional/ But ain't too much talkin' when this slug get into you."
Forget Eminem's self-help talk on Recovery. For Hell: The Sequel, he's brought back his gleefully evil (and disturbingly homophobic) Slim Shady persona. When he sings, "We know you ain't really like that ... You're breaking my heart" on "The Reunion," he may be addressing the fans who hoped he'd finally reformed. Royce da 5'9" plays the bad man licking off gun shots, but spends as much time marveling at how he "hit the lottery" after a decade in the mixtape trenches. Meanwhile, pompous beats from Em, Mr. Porter and others nearly drown this impressively raunchy episode in bombast.
Northwest collective Shabazz Palaces explores Afro surrealism on Black Up. "New off the spaceship/ Dipped in punctuation," claims Palaceer Lazaro on "Recollections of the Wraith" as he praises his band's dread bass and dub wallops, and dances over beats as beguiling as his rhymes. "It's a feeling," he says on "Are You ... Can You ... Were You?" Shabazz Palaces' willful experiments are too esoteric for pop consumption, but that may the point, if his volleys against "corny" rappers on "Yeah You" are any indication. For the rest of us, delving into Black Up's riddles is its own reward.
"26 with a twist and a face like a child," says Grieves on "No Matter What." He sings and rhymes as if he's reciting poetry, but don't dismiss him as just another Rhymesayers emo rapper. Grieves has a disarming honesty about his problems, whether it's becoming a man, dabbling in substances or falling in and out of love, and he's a sympathetic narrator on Together/Apart. His charisma shines even though producer Budo makes some pedestrian beats; the ballad "Against the Bottom" sounds like a Jason Mraz outtake. It's just as well; at heart, Grieves is a romantic.
Curren$y's utopia of candy-painted cars and pliant women has grown familiar after the Pilot Talk series and mixtapes like Covert Coup. But the formula still works for now. On Weekend at Burnie's, he flips rhymes with the efficiency of a joystick, twisting familiar riffs on Dayton tire rims and Cannabis Cup competitions into floating worlds like "Televised" and "#Jetsgo." Monsta Beatz, whose production approximates Ski Beatz's winning Pilot Talk sound but can't match his musicality, adds sleepily synthesized grooves to Curren$y's game-spitting performances.
"This life is all about material things," rhymes Mac Miller on "Put It On." Miller uses the same kind of ambient, yearning beats as his mentor Wiz Khalifa, and he relies heavily on sung choruses for On and On and Beyond. But he seems like a better lyricist than Wiz, too, and quicker to call out critics on "Live Free," claiming "Everybody knows I got haters like Maino." His saucy attitude may seem presumptuous -- this is only his first retail EP after a few mix tapes -- but it might distinguish him amid hundreds of blog rappers patiently waiting for celebrity.
Few expect or want Pete Rock and Smif-N-Wessun to reinvent themselves. The promise of Monumental is that the Chocolate Boy Wonder and the Originoo Gunn Clappaz will blend their iconic sounds, and at times they succeed marvelously. On "Fire," the duo breathe a tale of D-boys (and corny pop rappers) swayed by the devil while Pete weaves a hallucinatory beat; for "Do It," Pete samples wholesale from Babe Ruth's classic B-Boy break "The Mexican." "Roses" is a bit of a departure from the gun talk, as Tek and Steele pay homage to their native Brooklyn.
If you follow rap blogs, then you've probably already downloaded Big K.R.I.T.'s acclaimed mixtapes, 2010's K.R.I.T. Wuz Here and 2011's Return Of 4eva. The Mississippi rapper specializes in Dirty South revivalism, paying frequent tribute to '90s heroes like UGK and OutKast with bluesy reality rap. This EP includes five gems from those mixtapes, including a remix of his "Country Shit" single and "The Vent," wherein he proves he can mine deeper emotions than the thrills of Southern-flavored capitalism. If you don't know K.R.I.T., R4: The Prequel is a good way to get familiar.