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Welcome to FACT’s new-and-improved Rap Round-up.

Originally conceived to shine a light on the wealth of free music that crops up daily on SoundCloud, Datpiff, Livemixtapes and beyond, FACT’s Mixtape Round-up has seen its share of tweaks and changes over the last two years.

In 2015, we’ll be presenting a Rap Round-up every other Thursday (the week’s best free mixes will be posted every Friday). Along with mixtapes, we’ll be featuring the albums (free and otherwise) that need to be a part of the rap conversation but might not be covered otherwise.

We’re back after taking a few weeks off (watch FACT TV’s SXSW interviews with many of the rappers often featured here) with an expanded edition of the Rap Round-up that features a resurgent Future; bop stars Sicko Mobb; a fair share of R&B crooners; and a double-blast of Awful Records.

Sicko Mobb
Super Saiyan Vol. 2

Chicago’s bop sound — ultra-melodic Autotuned vocals surrounded by fast, chattering beats — received a massive bump when young duo Sicko Mobb dropped Super Saiyan Vol. 1 at the close of 2013. The duo’s subsequent major label deal was touted as evidence that bop was soon to break out of the Illinois state lines, but sadly few other acts have managed to capture the imagination since. It’s down to Sicko Mobb yet again then to rekindle our excitement then, and thankfully with Super Saiyan Vol. 2, they do almost everything right.

Trav and Ceno’s new status is illustrated by (mercifully short) appearances from Rick Ross and DJ Khaled — two larger-than-life figures who’d plaster their mugs on a milk carton if they thought it’d result in “street hype” to a new demographic — but thankfully that doesn’t derail the duo’s ragged, unique sound. For the most part, the tape plays as a direct followup to its predecessor with chiming, ear-worm melodies and jubilant party-ready lyrics that are to a car stereo system what a bag of weed is to five Backwoods.

Even so, Sicko Mobb aren’t the same kids they were back in December 2013; Super Saiyan Vol. 2 is touted as being a more personal record than its predecessor, which means that stand-out party cuts like ‘Fiesta’, ‘Lamborghini Girl’ and ‘In My Maserati’ have been somewhat nudged out in favor of minor-key jams like ‘Trending Topic’ and ‘All This Fame’. That’s not a negative — Trav and Ceno are still having fun (see ‘Drugs in Me’ and ‘Band Up’) but they’ve been forced to mature quickly, and in public. What that means for Super Saiyan Vol. 3 we’re not sure (and if we’re to believe their recent interview at SXSW, it’s due to drop shortly), but if they continue down this path we’re all ears. Until then, we can just enjoy one of the most enjoyable tapes of the year so far.

56 Nights

It feels almost awful to say it, but since parting ways with Ciara, Future has sounded revitalized in almost every way. Let’s face it: Honest was a massive disappointment. It wasn’t as arresting as his run of mixtapes and it wasn’t anywhere near as catchy and enjoyable as Pluto; it just sort of existed, like a starfish or a vat of cardboard pulp. It would have been easy to lose hope at this point, but with the following Monster and Beast Mode tapes, the Dungeon Family rapper sounded thirsty again and managed to bring back a little of the excitement we had back in the Free Bricks and Astronaut Status days.

56 Nights is better still, and is anchored by a suite of suitably eerie beats from storied production outfit 808 Mafia’s Southside and Tarentino. Future rises to the occasion, showing us quickly and without fanfare why he’s been so crucial to the Atlanta sound, informing the likes of Migos and Quan. With the restrained, slithering ‘Now’ he sounds menacing and unpredictable and over widescreen cuts like ‘March Madness’ (a clear standout) he’s as convincing and larger-than-life as he was on ‘Tony Montana’ and ‘Same Damn Time’. Honestly, the only negative here is that, at the time of writing, we still don’t have access to a NoDJ version.

Drink More Water 5

Makonnen delivers his first full-length effort since breaking through last summer, continuing his Drink More Water series with an uneven collection of warbly wobblers and Atlanta rap crossovers. The former fare better: he bleeds emotion over the music box melody and block-rocking beats of ‘Slow It Down’, paints with his own palette on ‘Other Guys’ and the heartbroken ‘Leave U 4 Myself’, and shines as a melodramatic piano man on ‘Get Loose With Me’.

When other rappers show up, the results are mixed. Gucci sounds as pasted-in as you’d expect on ‘Cash Cash’, and neither Fredo Santana nor Yung Gleesh seem comfortable on ‘Dodging 12’ (which is a shame, with Makonnen’s “I get everybody high in your middle school” boast and cop-taunting hook). Unsurprisingly, the exceptions to this rule are the tracks that feature similarly left-field talent Rome Fortune: ‘No Ma’am’ is a perfect mix of trapping and earnestness, and ‘trUe thang’ (which first appeared on Rome Fortune and CeeJ’s lolU tape) is a pitch-perfect ballad.

Lord Narf

Lord Narf’s SICK was nearly lost in the shuffle thanks to Awful’s release-it-whenever anti-scheduling (it dropped the same day as Father’s higher-profile Who’s Gonna Get Fucked First?), but it deserves your attention. Awful’s lone female rapper (aside from Abra’s turn on ‘Gurl’) shows the same versatility that she flashed on last year’s For The Funky across nine drug-dazed tracks.

Narf lives up to the EP’s title with songs that are heavy with claustrophobia and paranoia (her green is so good it makes your ‘Face Fall Off’, she can’t breathe, you’re killing her, and so on). Slug Christ contributes to the grim mood with a handful of productions (‘Spaceship Navigation’, ‘Can’t Breathe’, ‘Sleep’), but despite the woozy vibes, Narf stays loose and effortlessly switches up her flows.

Standout ‘ShowEmUrButt’ (produced by Bay Area weirdo ISSUE) is eerie, metallic and grimy, with the same sex-positive, no-fucks-given attitude of her Awful crewmates: “Show ’em your butt like you don’t give a fuck / pull up your skirt and just show ’em your butt,” she sneers. “I ain’t really got shit to, shit to say,” she claims on the outro, “I’m just glad that you’re listening to me.” We’re definitely listening.

The Iron Way

After last year’s NPR Tiny Desk concert, the music world at large seems ready to embrace T-Pain as more than an Autotuned punchline in a bedazzled top hat. The rest of us, however, already knew that T-Pain was one of the best R&B men around, if a little corny, and have eagerly been awaiting the next phase of his career.

That phase kicks off with The Iron Way, a scattershot collection with its share of good, bad and ugly tracks. First, the good: we’ve always been more interested in T-Pain the Sanga than T-Pain the Rapper, and his R&B jams to not disappoint: ‘Another Level’, ‘Sun Goes Down’ and The-Dream-assisted ‘Let Ya Hair Down’ finger-snap their way into the bedroom, while ‘Hashtag’ is better than its social media concept.

Unfortunately, the tape is overloaded with refreshed references (“I’m rich, bitch”? Still?) and watered-down soundalikes that ape his more contemporary contemporaries. ‘Booty Butt Ass’ is his entry in the crowded ass-anthem marketplace (with a peak Pain breakdown), but do we need more ‘Baby Got Back’ references when ‘Anaconda’ is still on the radio? He claims on ‘Heartbeat’ that he “ain’t frozen in time” but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Archibald Slim
The Other Special Guest

The second Awful appearance in the round-up comes from the always-prolific Archibald Slim, who releases full-length projects at the rate that most rappers drop singles. Still, despite his prodigious output, the rapper-producer doesn’t yet have the public profile of some of his Awful contemporaries, a fact he knowingly jokes about with the project’s title.

As the Soundcloud says, “You can only stay sleep for so long,” and The Other Special Guest is another opportunity for rap fans of all stripes to wake the fuck up: Slim’s dusty, throwback beats and deceptively intense flow demands attention as he unspools true-to-life tales and wisdom. And while he can do it all on his own, his projects with Stalin Majesty and RichPoSlim have shown has good he is in juxtaposition. For some of that, check out the short-but-sweet ‘He Say/She Say’ (with Lord Narf) and the OutKastesque ‘FWM II’ (with Pyramid Quince).

K Major
Category V

If K Major’s latest tape Category V reminds of The-Dream, it’s probably intentional. The young crooner is one of the few artists to ink a deal with Terius Nash and his production partner Tricky Stewart’s Contra Paris label (or clothing line – you decide) so if anyone’s got permission to bite, it’s K Major. Thankfully, aside from a few vocal familiar vocal affectations, Major’s no swagger jacker, and Category V is an encouragingly diverse selection of tunes.

The singer’s secret weapon is his HPG associates; the majority of the tape is handled by C Note, DJ Spinz, Childish Major and other Hoodrich affiliates, and that elevates what otherwise might be forgettable songs. Major’s a solid vocalist, but the faded, synth-heavy ATL production gives Category V a lush, neon-drenched post-Drake sheen that’s hard not to fall for. Those of you who weren’t fussed with the dusty, street-rap influenced If you’re Reading This… would do well to check this out.

The Sixth Man

This time last year Que was the name on everyone’s lips. ‘O.G. Bobby Johnson’ was a ubiquitous club hit and ‘Jungle Fever’ wasn’t far behind, but since then – despite a solid run of tapes and collaborations – the Atlanta rapper hasn’t been able to capitalize on the hype. The Sixth Man comes after some of the dust has settled and is way better than it should be. Que sounds confident over a slim (the tape’s an economic 10 tracks) set of minimal beats and he’s not the same rapper we were asking Who is Que? of a year ago. There’s an air of cynicism here: “I’m done with the fuckin’ games,” Que raps on ‘Games’, and while he’s supposedly talking about “ungrateful bitches” it’s hard not to see another meaning.

Elsewhere Que reminds favorably of his biggest hit on ‘Digg It’ and tries his hand at ratchet on ‘Emotions’ – it’s solid work, and while Que might not have the larger-than-life personality of some of his peers, he’s a reliable presence with a great ear for beats. The Sixth Man shouldn’t be ignored.

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