It would not be outlandish to claim that Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar is the greatest eighties baby ever to pick up a microphone. His flow effortlessly glides through different vocal registers, the rhythmic patterns of his verses skittering frantically around each other. His language is vivid and abstract, his narrative perspective subtly shifting. He even often layers two or three differently pitched takes on top of one other, allowing himself to find a tonal Netherworld seldom reached by other rappers. He can switch his register at a split second’s notice, from trembling melancholy to gangster exuberance.
For the past decade, Flying Lotus has recklessly yet purposefully swerved across musical lanes, integrating elements of jazz, neo-soul, trip-hop, and electronic into a distinctively hip-hop aesthetic. A devout disciple of renowned Detroit hip-hop producer J Dilla and great-nephew of cultish jazz experimentalist Alice Coltrane, wife to jazz giant John Coltrane, Lotus (government name: Steven Ellison) is a human musical depository, the type who heedlessly devours stacks of records, regurgitating them into quirky mp3s. He effortlessly glides among genres, with his signature skittish percussion often standing as the sole landmark in his romping musical explorations.
In his 2010 release, “Cosmogramma,” Ellison let himself ascend almost too far into this cacophonous, cluttered sonic stratosphere, often absconding completely from melodic concerns for the sake of exposing his technical savvy. At this point, he has arguably transcended the title of hip-hop producer, and for that matter all other measures of genre. If “Cosmogramma” was Lotus’ technical tour de force, then his latest release “Until the Quiet Comes” is the scaling down of his sample attention deficit disorder for the sake of a more pared down, melodically digestible offering.
Detroit rapper Big Sean began his rise to stardom the old-fashioned way, stalking Kanye West’s 2007 “Graduation” publicity stop at a local radio station. An auspicious hallway rendez-vous turned into Big (government name: Sean Anderson) rabidly freestyling for 10 minutes as he accompanied Mr. West from the studio to his idling limo. Two years later, Sean’s run-in with Mr.West landed him a deal with the mogul’s Def Jam-affiliated G.O.O.D. Music label. In the meantime, Sean built his name on a series of viral mixtapes and a rigorous string of tours across college campuses. In many circles, he’s credited with inventing the “Supa Dupa flow,” a stripped-down simile/metaphor construction in which the poetic “like” and “as” are replaced by two juxtaposed images, their similarities inferred by a single pause. In the aptly titled “Supa Dupa,” Sean raps: “Used to be bottom—scuba/So I’m on the grind—skateboard or scooter.” Never reticent, Sean even filed faux-beefs with several more popular artists who supposedly borrowed his technique: Drake, T.I., and Ludacris, among others.
Fast forward to 2012, and after a strong feature on Kanye West’s smash single “Mercy” and the release of his stellar mixtape “Detroit,” Sean has arrived in a unique position. He has built a cult following on the strength of his innuendo-smothered witticisms, but also parlayed it into a strong crossover buzz—recently collaborating with Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown and Justin Bieber—with little compromise on style or delivery. And while his latest work draws on the same themes of his past tapes, “Detroit” showcases Sean’s artistry that was largely dormant in his earlier work.