Abdu Ali, Invictos
Highlights: "Banjee Musick," "I'mma Leaf," "360"
RIYL: Baltimore Club; Death Comet Crew; Le1f
A bit of a cheat because Invictos was actually released towards the end of 2012. However, this debut from a quivering, confident Baltimore poet/vocalist/rapper (in that order) takes a little time to stick in your craw. Produced by frequent Issue collaborator Schwarz, it's a bugged-out blur of vogue beats, Waka Flocka ad-libs, Lyn Collins “Think” break contortions, and art-rap interludes (hear Quentin Crisp and Nina Simone weigh in on being an outsider). Mindblowing, cleverly curated stuff.
Mindless Behavior, All Around the World
Highlights: "Keep Her on the Low," "I'm Falling," "Forever"
RIYL: Chris Brown minus the listener guilt; Pretty Ricky; When boy bands ruled
Yeah, they are a boy band. But Mindless Behavior embrace the oft-silly specificity of hip-hop, and that goes a long way: Their knowing comparison to Menudo on "Keep Her on the Low" is a throat-clearing shout-out and a mission statement intent on moving them away from the "urban" tag; rap-dude "real talk" tempers their hook-packed, EDM-tinged pop of simple, gooey sentiment. They are also very good at in-the-midst-of-some-drama ballads. Even the usual underdogging poptimists aren't celebrating these guys. What's the deal?
Ola Playa, Slime Life
Highlights: "S.L.I.M.E.," "Lo Life," "I Be"
RIYL: Melody; Soulja Boy; Young Thug
Friend to Young Thug, Ola Playa provides some of the same post-snap, circus trap-beat rewards. However, Ola also nods to the self-loathing dope-boy frustration that used to be a crucial part of southern crack-rap. That makes him a stand-out right now. The main appeal is hearing Thug's almost pop-punk screech of a voice, and Ola's blunt, crackling frustration, on tracks together. This is very fun music about topics that aren't very much fun.
Rome Fortune, Beautiful Pimp
Highlights: "Ice Cream Man," "Balcony," "Help Wanted"
RIYL: Boards of Canada; Brian Eno; Dungeon Family
Before "UOENO" was at the forefront of a rare debate about hip-hop and rape, it was best known for the stunningly ambient beat from producer Childish Major. New ATL searcher Rome Fortune rides Major's synth-squeakers for most of an album here, along with contributions from similarly cloud-rap-in-the-shake-club producers C4, DJ Spinz, and others. “Ice Cream Man” fades in like Nicki's "Moment 4 Life" and then contorts into a trap waltz. A Telepopmusik sample on "Never Stray" lets Rome get halfway desperate for tried-and-true romance.
Slim Thug & Paul Wall, Welcome 2 Texas v. 2
Highlights: "I Come From Texas," "Holy Water Flow," "Steak N Shrimp G-Mix"
RIYL: 2004; DJ Screw; Old heads
Texas veterans still big enough to move all the rap music of the moment (Chief Keef, Drake, Trinidad Jame$) into their Swishahouse wheelhouse and hammer it into Houston slow-crawl. Slim Thug's cavernous drawl remains unmmatched, while Paul Wall, more reedy than usual because he's lost some weight — imagine grown up Bobby Hill as dope boy — casually hugs the corner of every beat put in front of his face. This is just a whole lot of fun. Low-stakes in all the right ways.