DJ Mustard is best known for producing two radio-rap hits that stand out because of their considered use of just a few sounds and their animal brain-appealing, to-the-point minimalism: Tyga’s “Rack City” and 2 Chainz’s “I’m Different.” Many of the songs on Ketchup, the compilation mixtape from Mustard, nod to those hits (the polite piano “I’m Different” is all over these tracks, as is the ominous gurgle of “Rack City”), though it feels less like a producer out of ideas than a self-referential, worker-bee creative type who trying to stretch his stalwart formula as far as possible. That’s the appeal of these kind of utilitarian hip-hop styles: How much creative freedom can be found in such a confined space?
Mustard’s take on “ratchet music” turns out to be surprisingly flexible, as well as daring and experimental. He smuggles strange, shouldn’t-work-as-music sounds into spare radio-friendly clap rap: On “Intro,” a maudlin synth that could’ve come from David Bowie’s “Sense of Doubt” waddles around claps and clicks; “4G’s” is a trebly twinkle of MIDI strings; a Drexciya-like bubble of electronics is the foundation of “Take It To the Neck”; “Nothin’ Like Me” relocates Kool & the Gang’s “Summer Madness”-like breezy vibes to the strip club; “Don’t Trust Nobody” sounds like Vangelis’ Blade Runner score pulsing at half the speed.
Ratchet music is also exciting right now because it’s way harder for rappers to cheat when confronted with these kinds of beats. In sharp contrast to the maximalist, overcrowded Lex Luger trap sound, which enabled rappers to hide amid all the stormy stomp, the open space in Mustard’s beats exposes wack rappers. There’s an early-days-of-hip-hop vibe to Mustard’s production; back when a simple break would loop and loop and loop and MCs would each find a different way to weave their voice around the repetitive break. There’s a similar, sophisticated simplicity to Mustard’s ratchet loops. His production is also surprisingly sensitive to R&B, particularly those artists hovering around the mainstream’s bleeding edge, caught in a post-Weeknd, inside-out-The-Dream moment. Misogynist savant Ty $ on “Put This Thang On Ya,” and Michael Jackson-by-way-of-Chris Brown cipher Teeflii on “Fuck That Nigga,” make R&B sound as “hard” as hip-hop; this isn’t the normal mainstream “urban radio” situation where R&B just gets the lighter, more pleasant rap beats.
And there’s a place for female voices in here too, which trap music did not faciliate (it is not a surprise that trap music and brostep bent into one another eventually). On “Straight Ryder,” vocalist Candice does her own version of Tupac’s “Ambitionz as a Ridah.” It’s an automatic ride-or-die chick corrective (a nice pairing with Icona Pop’s ‘Pac flip “Girlfriend”) and an exercise in revealing some of the roots of Mustard’s sound. “Ambitionz” was founded on dramatic piano and loud splattering drums (the key elements to the Mustard style). The highlight of the tape is “LadyKilla,” featuring Cocc Pistol Cree. Since much of the rapping here is warmed-over pimp talk and “I’m gonna fuck your girl” inanity, hearing a female voice here is doubly refreshing, especially one this expressive: Cocc Pistol Cree cleverly threatens to “Slip a molly in his drink,” keeping the Ross “U.O.E.N.O.” response volley going.
Ketchup is a telling sampler of where ratchet music is right now and what it can do, particularly as an antidote to trap. Most importantly, it’s a testament to the fact that producer DJ Mustard knows when too little is actually just enough.