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Tyga, ‘Careless World: Rise of the Last King’ (Young Money/Cash Money/Universal)

SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: February 21, 2012
Label: Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Republic

Typically, the path to rap stardom only runs in one direction: First you have the streets, then you have the charts. Tyga is the rare exception to this rule. The Los Angeles rapper — and, crucially, the cousin of Gym Class Heroes frontman Travie McCoy — crossed over from pop. His 2008 debut, No Introduction, was released on Pete Wentz’s Decaydance imprint and produced a very minor (and completely insufferable) pop hit with the Harry Nilsson-sampling “Coconut Juice.” Which might’ve been forgotten as a mere hiccup of industry nepotism had it not landed at the exact moment when the rap world was inexplicably obsessed with mall rock. So instead, Lil Wayne enlisted Tyga for his Young Money imprint.

The allegiance injected the overly tattooed young rapper directly into a hip-hop world that was previously indifferent to him. He shed the pop sheen of his first album, hit the mixtape circuit, and carved out a reasonably successful new career as an intuitive, if detached, purveyor of the type of bouncy party jams that ruled rap radio in the mid-2000s (and later dominated his hometown’s YouTube-fueled jerkin’ dance circuit). “Rack City,” the lead single from his sophomore effort Careless World: Rise of the Last King, is his biggest hit to date and his best display of the above instincts. Rapped in a repetitive and almost whispered flow that both embeds itself in your brain and carefully conceals Tyga’s weaknesses, the track is a true triumph of mediocrity.

As a whole, though, Careless World is simply mediocre. Tyga wallows in the sort of joyless, affected seriousness that he hinted at on his Black Thoughts mixtape series — “Take a look around, the city on fire / It’s all taking place in the middle of my mind / I stand in my middle ’cause death right beside,” he rambles on the album’s opening bars. In doing so, he draws heavily from his labelmate and the leading master of affected seriousness, Drake, overstuffing syllables into every bar and putting that damned dramatic strain on the last of each.

To his credit, Tyga possesses a slightly better grasp of rhythm than Drake, but he lacks the refinement and sensitivity essential to Drake’s appeal. He raps without ideas and awkwardly forces emotions: “Trying to forget someone you love / Like trying to remember someone you never knew / Think about it, I dream about it.” And while Drake’s producers (Noah “40” Shebib and others) have created a genuinely graceful, foggy aesthetic to complement his #humblebrags, Tyga’s mostly unknown team impose a tacky elegance, one seemingly cribbed from Coldplay intros and Playstation RPG soundtracks.

The derivativeness shouldn’t come as a complete surprise — Tyga has never his own rap style, exactly. In fact, his chameleonic adaptability is probably his greatest strength, giving his tapes the slightly charming feel of a well-executed karaoke night. He does take the Drake mask off long enough on Careless to execute a welcome imitation of early-’00s coke-rap darlings the Clipse on “Lil’ Homie,” helped in part by a beat and classically fragile falsetto hook from Pharrell, Clipse’s main collaborator.

Strangely, though, he’s less interested in mimicking his own success. Despite the “Rack City” breakthrough, very little of Careless offers that stunted energy. Only the Wayne-assisted second single “Faded” and the Nicki Minaj collab “Muthafucka Up” even attempt to; “Make It Nasty,” a seemingly natural “Rack City” successor (and rising YouTube hit) with its slinky clap-and-synth production, appears only as an iTunes bonus track.

But burying the fun underneath an album of grueling sobriety has become an increasingly common move in hip-hop of late — even Drake’s own ironically Tyga-esque single “The Motto” was given the same bonus-track treatment on Take Care. As traditional rap hits like “Rack City” (i.e., those without cloying Bruno Mars hooks or tacky Black Eyed Peas/Far East Movement electro moves) have lost a considerable amount of traction on pop radio, there’s been a conscious shift toward producing and promoting serious album-oriented hip-hop stars. This can be a great model for the rapper who is actually capable of making a full-length statement, but Tyga is clearly not that rapper. He’s a hitmaker, and he’s trapped in a world where the value of hits is rapidly diminishing. Maybe it’s time to give his cousin a call.