DENA, "Bad Timing"
Bulgarian rapper and singer DENA is a faux-naive chanteuse, like Nico if she were raised on the conversational, occasionally bleating bombast of M.I.A. In 2014 and hip-hop's anything-goes mindset, viewing DENA as an "outsider" makes no sense at all, even if her introspective rattling, "skillz"-be-damned spitting probably troubles the genre's gatekeepers. What DENA has is a quiet pop ambition, R&B melodicism, and a whole lot of singer-songwriter-type sincerity mixed with wizened real talk. Ex. "Don't worry I ain't gonna even tell your girlfriend/ Because no matter what I'm going to say its going to hurt her/ Don't worry I'll open up the window later/ When you leave my room because I want to forget your flavor/ And in the day time, when I walk around the city, I'll tell myself that life without you can be easy."
Dreezy, "Mind Games"
Schizo, the new mixtape from Chicago's Dreezy is self-aware and has all the peaks and valleys of a romance mixtape. For example, think of fellow Chicago MC Tink's "Your Secrets" sentiment "it sounds lame but he's heaven sent" being mined for 16 tracks; the mixtape toys with the tension between reasonable real talk and following one's feelings wherever they might take you. On "Mind Games," beachy piano plinks along while Dreezy tries to talk sense into some dude whose either too much of a wimp to tell her how he really feels or an obnoxious student of Neil Strauss' The Game, contriving coy disinterest: "Attracted to you sexually but inspired intellectually/ You scared to take a chance with me/ Just let it flow/ Don't know what you're exes did to you but just let it go/ I told you that I fucked with and then I let it show/ Don't even say we can't happen because you never know."
Issue, "Livin' On a Dream"
This retrolicious humble-mumble rap from Issue, off his very special Liquid Wisdom, captures the sad-sack propulsion of "Crockett's Theme" by way of producer William Sneddon's beat. The track features free associative vocals that suggest Ricardo Tubbs talking to the hallucinated lady of his dreams, while passed out on a pissy bathroom floor after dancing his pain away to Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me." (He quips: "Lady friend, how are you? / I hope you're cool / I'm so cool.") It sounds like something slapped together for a film-school thesis remake of Drive, or Drake's "Hold On, We're Going Home" but with art-rap's clueless confidence instead of Drake's codependent trainwreck shtick.
Kendrick Lamar, "m.A.A.d. city (James Blake Remix)"
This deceptively pleasant James Blake remix of Kendrick Lamar's furious "m.A.A.d city" is strange and promising: A baseball-game organ shimmies around, tripping over its own sub-Dilla, quasi-Phillip Jeck sample slicing. The song is doused with the effects-heavy lurch that made Ace Hood's "Bugatti" so huge, while also actually kind of sounding like the intro to the Alan Parsons Projects' "Sirius" (a.k.a. the song that the Chicago Bulls once rushed on cour to). Listen closely and you'll hear Kendrick's arch hook hiding in the background, though it works mostly as background vocals. This weird-as-hell remix lasts just two minutes and, truthfully, the artists involved are what makes the track worthy of comment. But hey, James Blake, the frustrating king of good-taste-electronica deserves some points for getting all weird and discordant.
ScHoolboy Q, "Hell Of a Night"
ScHoolboy Q's "Hell of a Night" sneers at drunk-as-fuck fistpumping fare like Macklemore's "Can't Hold Us" and Zedd's "Clarity," giving listeners just enough of those tracks' cheap cathartic tricks to keep them listening. While listening to this one, imagine an EDM tent full of people waiting for a drop that Q's got not interested in giving them. Meanwhile, the synth-percussion rattling all around the hook and Q's throaty hook conjures comparisons to Linkin Park. Ultimately, "Hell of a Night" never really goes anywhere, weighed down by Q's drug-ingesting lyrics, a haunting wordless hum in the background, and cruel trap skitters where the dubstep drops are supposed to be. Points go to Q for making a party song darker than Kanye West's "Hell of a Night."