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Review: Rae Sremmurd Dim the Fun, Along With the Lights, on ‘SremmLife 2’

Rae Sremmurd at 2016 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 2 - Day 1
INDIO, CA - APRIL 22: Swae Lee (L) and Slim Jimmy of Rae Sremmurd perform onstage during 2016 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Field on April 22 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Coachella)
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: August 12, 2016
Label: EarDrummers/Interscope

Last year, it was impossible to go anywhere — a nightclub, a rooftop barbecue, even the supermarket — without hearing the manically gleeful chants of Rae Sremmurd. The brothers Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi owned 2016 with a fistful of buoyant trap-pop anthems that sounded like an explosion of the Southern teenage id. Kendrick Lamar may have made the best album of the year, and Future may have dazzled the rap world’s influencers. But no one made an album as joyously effortless as SremmLife, the brothers’ vivid tribute to amassing paper and tossing it around at the strip club. Far from being a stolid ratio of chart singles and demo filler, Rae Sremmurd’s debut was a full-length winner — made whole by those aforementioned heavy-rotation radio smashes and bracingly honest breakdowns of male-female relationships like “My X” and “Safe Sex Pay Checks.” It may have been the most unexpected instant rap classic since Flockaveli.

Anyone, even a duo blessed with the guidance of Atlanta über-producer Mike WiLL Made-It, would find it difficult to follow up a platinum debut that not only yielded four Top 40 pop hits, but also turned the triple-platinum “No Type” into the clarion call of thirsty, hormonally charged bros around the globe. So while SremmLife coasted like a magnolia breeze, its sequel lumbers, weighted by the burden of expectations. The brothers’ hooks have grown convoluted and loquacious, lacking the GIF-ready appeal of their earlier slappers. Certainly, SremmLife 2 is a different beast. If Rae Sremmurd’s debut approximated a beatific red cups/red bottoms swag party, this follow-up is closer to a smoked-out, hot-boxed ride.

Mike WiLL, who produces most of the album, has shifted into darker territory, perhaps an inevitable response to Future and 808 Mafia’s dystopian game-changer, DS2. Tracks like “Shake It Fast” exude a whirlpool effect akin to Three 6 Mafia’s crunk nihilism — along with a typically debauched Juicy J cameo — while others like “Swang” meander charmingly with a dizzying and tipsy tilt. Amid Mike’s startling evolution, the brothers Rae clarify that they’re adults, and no longer resemble the Mississippi kids who cheered two years ago, “No flex! Zone!” Their trap boasts have taken on an air of menace, and choruses emerge uneasily, like offhand punctuation marks meant to hold the songs together. “Do Yoga” leads to “All my girls do yoga, hey!” “Over Here” turns into “Over here! World class bitches over here!”

Sometimes, their circuitous approach to generating hooks yields fantastic results. “Look Alive” finds Swae Lee crooning like an ’80s new-waver over Mike WiLL Made-It’s astringent keyboard rolls, and when he harmonizes, “I’m so far out of sight / Yeah, that sounds about right,” you can visualize a faint British lilt in his voice. Tellingly, he teeters between alienation (“Kill this club, not my vibe”) and finding the one girl who can make his night worthwhile (“Don’t think I’m here to judge / I’m a rock, you like a baby”). As Naomi Zeichner wrote in her Fader cover story on the group, it’s a marvelous example of “flipping that bleakness into something surprisingly tender.”

Another highlight is “Black Beatles,” where the duo join forces with Gucci Mane over a hazy synth-pop melody. Swae drops some vivid bars: “I’m a f**kin’ black beatle / Cream seats in the Regal / Rockin’ John Lennon lenses / Like to see ‘em spread-eagle.” Still, his resulting chorus hardly rolls off the tongue. “That girl is a real crowd pleaser / Small world, all her friends know me / Young bull living like an old geezer / Quick release the cash, watch it fall slow, leaves.”

So maybe Rae Sremmurd haven’t lost their sense of poptimism after all. But where Future found purpose and motivation from wading into a Xanax-and-codeine muck, Swae and Jxmmi’s modest aim to get lit over dank-kush beats yields decent results. The DJ Mustard-helmed “Set the Roof” has a paint-by-numbers quality that isn’t quite saved by Lil Jon’s antics. But the Martianz-produced “Came a Long Way” reverberates blissfully on a burnished New Age piano glissando that wouldn’t sound out of place on a George Winston album. The duo can’t quite summon the pathos required for this rags-to-riches track — “What a journey / All the broke s**t don’t concern me,” says Swae — but they snap and brag with aplomb, anyway. There are sensitively damaged odes to women they’ve loved and lost, like “Now That I Know” and “Take It or Leave It,” and Jxmmi shines on “Real Chill” when he brags he’s “Frank Lucas with a grill.”

There are pleasures to be found on SremmLife 2 once you adjust your expectations and realize that it’s not a “No Flex Zone” sequel. Instead, it charts a different but still familiar path: Every youth explosion is eventually tempered by the grind and hard-won rewards of grown-man work.