Don't Stop In The Rain

Don't Stop In The Rain
The incredible cover of MIKE's Burning Desire, painted by Ghanaian movie poster artist D.A. Jasper.

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"The Big Three"

As of this Tuesday, the Number One song in the country is Drake and J. Cole's "First Person Shooter." I'm writing about this not because it's Cole's first chart-topper, or because it's Drake's 13th, but because of one specific J. Cole lyric on the track. "Love when they argue the hardest MC/Is it K-Dot? Is it Aubrey? Or me?/We the big three like we started a league," he raps, about a minute after Drake repeatedly asks "Who the G.O.A.T.?" A "Best Rapper Alive" ranking consisting of these three, and then a steep drop-off, is not an uncommon opinion to encounter online. I could spend the next 10 minutes doing some advanced Twitter searches to provide worthy examples, but if you really need me to prove the existence of a type of guy (or hip hop aggregation account) for whom Drake, Kendrick, and Cole are the only choices for modern-day Rap Mount Rushmore, I applaud your commitment to avoiding social media.

Regardless of my opinion of each respective artist's music, what's weird to me is how long this has been a consensus take, or at least one that nobody would bat an eye at. These guys are between 36 and 38, have been releasing music since at least 2007, and all moved into this type of prestige conversation by 2013 at the latest. It's only intensified since Kanye, who also used to occupy this space, flamed out over the past five years.

Drake, Kendrick, and Cole's longevity is admirable and extremely rare. I think back to how quickly rappers like 50 Cent, T.I., Lil Wayne, and Gucci Mane rose and fell in stature during my childhood. Without exception, they were all bogged down by legal issues, but even without court cases and/or jail time, it's hard to imagine any one of them carving out new lanes or riding new waves for a full decade. An even more extreme illustration is early hip hop—look at the tectonic shifts that happened between the debuts of Run-DMC (1984), LL Cool J (1985), Rakim (1987), and Big Daddy Kane (1988) in the span of just four years. Inevitably, things evolve more quickly in a genre's early days, then smooth out, diversify, and dig back into the past as the years go on, but I think we're experiencing extremes of—not stagnation writ large—but stratified stagnation.

Pop hierarchy is so baked into the fabric of culture that it's harder than ever to meaningfully shift. Look at other genres. Taylor Swift has an almost identical timeline as the three aforementioned rappers, albeit on a larger scale. Metal might be the most blatant—of Billboard's Top Ten Hard Rock albums from last year, only one is by a band that formed after the year 2000, and that's a greatest hits compilation from 2017 (Five Finger Death Punch's A Decade of Destruction). It's easier than ever to record and distribute music, but harder than ever to break into the upper echelon.

MIKE's Burning Desire

MIKE is a New York-based rapper and producer who I've been following since 2017's May God Bless Your Hustle, which stood out for its homespun, off-kilter sound and MIKE's patient, deliberate rapping. Around that time, he developed a friendship with Earl Sweatshirt, who he called "my favorite rapper for a very long time," and they seemed to develop a symbiotic relationship, with Earl acting as an unofficial mentor and MIKE's work in turn influencing Earl's left-of-center trajectory that started with 2018's Some Rap Songs. MIKE has dropped good-to-great full-lengths at a consistent pace since then, but his last two feel like real level-up moments. Beware of the Monkey arrived last December; Burning Desire got here just last Friday.

BotM was MIKE absolutely nailing what he does best—a brief runtime, warm sounds, insular tracklist, self-production. Burning Desire feels like an opus. At 51 minutes, it's MIKE's longest album, but despite its 25 tracks, it couldn't be further from the stream-baiting fodder that's come to bog down the discographies of many major label artists. It's eclectic—see how the glitchy jazz of "Zap!" butts up against the aggressive bombast of the GAWD-produced "African Sex Freak Fantasy"—but songs also often flow into each other, a sample speeding up or slowing down from one track to the next. It's got a larger, more prestigious guest list (Earl, Liv.e, Larry June, etc.), but this doesn't detract from intimate moments like MIKE's solo run between the songs "Zombie" and "Set the Mood."

MIKE has a unique sound that could also be considered a barrier of entry, and Burning Desire is a classic example of an artist doing nothing to smooth out those kinks but still coming across as more immediately accessible than past work. Maybe it's the rest of hip hop moving closer to MIKE's orbit, as has been the case with Earl; maybe it's MIKE growing as an artist. It's probably both.

Songtradr & Bandcamp

Another week, another round of media layoffs. After being acquired by B2B (business-to-business) music licensing company Songtradr a few weeks ago, Bandcamp laid off half of its employees this week. In just the past year, we've seen similar stories at Okayplayer, PAPER, NPR, VICE, MTV, and other music-focused outlets, but this one feels more devastating. Not only has Bandcamp Daily been one of my favorite places to write for and read, not only did the layoffs disproportionally target members of Bandcamp's long-beleaguered union, but Bandcamp, unlike those other shuttered/gutted outlets, is much more than a bastion of music journalism.

Since it debuted in 2007, Bandcamp has become the leader in online independent music distribution, a place whose artist-friendly reputation runs directly counter to the streaming service model that Spotify, Apple, and other companies have made the industry standard. Losing another place to read about music (and for myself and other writers, to pitch about music) stings, but I'm growing numb to that pain. Losing what often feels like the one beacon of hope in the uncaring, brutal sea that is the modern music industry... that's devastating.

I'm not going to go too in-depth on the surrounding details of the Bandcamp layoffs or their widespread ramifications—if you want to get a better big-picture look at this, read Philip Sherburne and Miranda Reinert's respective essays on the subject—but I would like to tie this into the other two topics I've touched on.

I think we have the streaming model to thank for the stratified stagnation that allows three rappers rapidly approaching middle age to deliver increasingly diminishing returns and yet suffer no dips in popularity. Both in compensation and visibility, Spotify tilts the playing field towards established artists. 90% of the royalties Spotify pays out goes to the top 0.8% of artists, and via algorithmic recommendation and playlist placement, it disproportionately favors those same artists. This, in turn, influences a music press climate in which you're more likely to get a job as a "Taylor Swift Reporter" than a writer or editor whose job it is to discover and report on up-and-coming artists.

MIKE is an artist who first gained traction on Bandcamp. Admittedly, it's not the preferred platform of most rappers (note how most of the indie rock/metal/jazz/other songs I embed on here are Bandcamp links, and most hip hop songs are YouTube links), but there's still a thriving ecosystem of underground/alternative hip hop that has flourished there for years. Several of my personal Top 10 picks for "Best Rapper Alive," including MIKE, billy woods, Noname, Roc Marciano, and ZelooperZ, are all active on the platform. Most of these names are too niche to make a dent in the general consensus, but in a less rigidly stratified system in which major labels were more willing to take chances and press was more freely given to those under the radar, who knows what their ceiling would be?

Hip hop is teeming with exciting scenes and subgenres, as it has been since its inception. Anyone who's ever told you otherwise is lazy and/or a fool. The only meaningful fluctuation in quality that happens year-to-year is on the charts, in ticket sales, and in "Best Rapper Alive" conversations—are new names breaking in, or is the old guard just being rewarded for resting on their laurels? Admittedly, my list of favorites skews on the older side too (sue me, I'm 32), but there are people like Pitchfork's Alphonse Pierre and No Bells' Mano Sundaresan out there who you can follow for much more finger-on-the-pulse recommendations. A post-Bandcamp world (god forbid) is going to require listeners to show more initiative to resist the lethargically alluring creep of mediocre mega-artists.

"Like the game, they don't stop when it rains" - vocal sample on MIKE's "THEY DON'T STOP IN THE RAIN"

Plug 2

I've been struggling to square my lifelong enthusiasm for sampling with the rash of gimmick/stunt samples that currently plagues popular music. In her latest column for The FADER, Nadine Smith went deep on venture capital's role in this recent phenomenon. Fascinating stuff, and yet another reminder that VC firms see music not as art but as a wet sponge they'll continue wringing out until it's dry!

BOI (Best of Inbox) #5

The Callous Daoboys Feat. Pulses. - "Designer Shroud of Turin"

The most batshit band in the world is back, baby. The ATL post-hardcore collective released the three-song God Smiles Upon The Callous Daoboys EP today, and sure enough, it's the most brash and brazen thing I've heard all year! "Designer Shroud of Turin" is just showing off, incorporating pulverizing breakdowns, stupidly catchy hooks, weirdo-jazz sax and keys, and a random Bossa Nova break? Never change, y'all. PS - check out my interview with frontman Carson Pace from last year.

Enumclaw - "Lost and Found"

I fucking love Enumclaw. It's why I needed to interview the band the second I heard them; it's basically why I applied for a job at the bar where I currently work. The Tacoma, Washington band just released a collection of B-sides produced and engineered by goddamn Chaz Bear (AKA Toro Y Moi), and while "Fuck Love, I Just Bought a New Truck" is an all-timer of a song title, the moodier "Lost and Found" is my favorite of the bunch. The way frontman Aramis Johnson sullenly chuckles his way through the second verse makes me miss trudging home through Pacific Northwest drizzle-fog.

Friend of a Friend - "Always on Time"

This duo ambitiously describes their sound as "Portishead, M83, The Kills & Jose Gonzalez had a baby in the desert during the end of your favorite movie," and while "Always on Time" doesn't show the full scope of those listed influences, the whole climactic desert scene thing is readily apparent. The slo-mo arpeggiating synths and goth'd out vocals suggest a less sexy, more melancholic Drive soundtrack, and the way this thing builds is entrancing, piling on layers until you just know the credits are about to roll. Friend of a Friend says a new album is due "early 2024."

Kacey Johansing - "Not the Same"

Kacey Johansing is a veteran member of the L.A. folk scene, touring member of Hand Habits and Fruit Bats, and co-runner of Night Bloom Records alongside Real Estate's Alex Bleeker. "Not the Same," a single off of her newly released album Year Away, is a stunning bit of Laurel Canyon songcraft, from its mellotron backbone to its The Hissing of Summer Lawns reference to the harmonized sax and guitar leads of its coda.

Kassa Overall - "2 Sentimental"

Earlier this year, my friend and fellow former HotNewHipHop editor Danny Schwartz invited me out to a Kassa Overall show in Brooklyn. I'd heard a few of his songs but was unprepared for a live experience that left the drummer in me stunned. Dude shreds on the kit. Overall's new standalone single is light on the virtuoso stick work, but in its skillful reworking of Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" and its reminder of musicians' day-to-day struggles, "2 Sentimental" makes for an invigorating listen. Bonus points for the "Git Up, Git Out" reference.

Kirin J Callinan - "Eternally Hateful"

I recognized this Australian's name when I saw it in my inbox and as bad as it sounds, I was kind of shocked that he hadn't been cancelled yet. Upon Googling, it seems Callinan's never been accused of anything worse than obscene exposure at an awards show red carpet after a journalist asked him to lift his kilt (which, whatever, fine), but I associate him with that whole Alex Cameron circa-2017 wave of provocateurs who seemed to be daring everyone to be offended. The dude released an album called Embracism in 2013, for christ's sake. But onto the music: "Eternally Hateful," the first Callinan song I've heard in years, is fun as hell! It's a new wave banger that reminds me of Mac DeMarco's underrated beginnings on Rock and Roll Night Club (albeit much more hi-fi), and it's from an album that might already exist out there somewhere. I don't know. If anything's for certain, Callinan is a weird guy.

Leonov - "Procession"

From the hypnotic intersection of post-rock and doom metal comes Norway's Leonov, whose new single "Procession" blends nimble musicianship and no-frills song structure to head-spinning effect. It's devastatingly pretty, but as soon as the post-chorus riff kicks in, I'm doing my Nasty Riff Stank Face? I don't know how they pull this off. I've only skimmed their first two albums, but this seems like a massive step forward from the more standard, slow-paced doom of Leonov's past. Procession is out 11/24.

Lilts - "Too Late"

Look, I know the blooming foliage in the artwork suggests Spring, but Lilts' debut EP has Fall written all over it. The duo, comprised of Wild Pink's John Ross and fellow NYC musician Laura Wolf, make the type of swooning dream pop that I've always associated with this season for some reason. With Wolf's lilting voice (perhaps the source of the project's name?), Cranberries/Sundays comparisons are inevitable, but "Too Late" intriguingly pairs it with a jagged undercurrent you won't find in either band's music. The whole EP is very much worth your time.

Mortuary Drape - "Rattle Breath"

Traditional black metal has a lot of untapped camp value. You've got people putting on KISS makeup, acting self-consciously evil, and treating audio fidelity like a mortal enemy—the dime-store supervillain comparisons write themselves. Longstanding Italian institution Mortuary Drape are one of the few bands who seem to understand that, at least on their latest single. "Rattle Breath" directly echoes the goth-classical stabs of "Night on Bald Mountain," and between its twangy bass tone, ghoulish vocal delivery, and general Halloween-y vibe, it's a ton of fun. If there's anyone out there who has never quite gotten black metal, try listening to this with a nonjudgemental sense of humor. Mortuary Drape's Black Mirror is out 11/03.

Veeze - "Rich No Duh"

Detroit's Veeze has one of my favorite albums of the year in Ganger, the infectious June release that feels like a culmination of so much great Michigan rap of the past five years. I recently caught him in New York, and that shit was packed with people rapping every word. Veeze has officially arrived, so now he's done what every recent success should: release a deluxe version of his album. The Marc Boomin and Nard Beatz-produced "Rich No Duh" is my favorite of the bunch, mostly because the punchlines had me laughing out loud: "All my money blue, think it's sad, need a hug"; "Earl Sweatshirt, I don't want no haircut"; "I made a new handshake for me and the bank teller." Hell yeah, Veeze.

All Inbox Infinity picks are available in playlist form via Apple Music and Spotify.

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Jamie Larson