ALBUM: I Love Makonnen EP
Rap's progression has looked like devolution to some who cling fondly to the golden age. Deconstructionist artists like Future and Chief Keef can sound frustratingly foreign to those who've grown to count showboating lyricism as the sole blueprint for quality music, and as the traditional cues for what constituted skill fade away, some have come to dismiss modern rap outright. On first listen to out-of-the-blue sensation iLoveMakonnen, it's easy to recognize where the contrast lies between his work and prescribed standards of rap and R&B. His rapid rise, ensured by Drake through a remix to "Tuesday" and signing to OVO Sound, will confound some people. His is a nakedly unforgiving sound, decidedly unpolished and tinged with what can feel like an amateurish approach. It can be polarizing, and whether or not you enjoy iLoveMakonnen depends a lot on your age, relationship with irony, and receptiveness to the non-traditional.
There's clear resemblance here to Lil B, whose anti-quality control, flood-the-market approach surely inspired the bajillion-some albums and self-directed videos iLoveMakonnen features on his blog. The visuals have shades of Odd Future's internet collage aesthetic, and the somber rap&B lyricism is reminiscent of Drake. But when iLoveMakonnen sings that he "made it on [his] own, [he] made [his] own style" on "Club Going Up On A Tuesday", he's completely right. There are comparisons, but no direct line, that can be drawn between his style and anyone else's. Much of this has to do with the fact that iLoveMakonnen's massive back catalogue is largely underground DIY music, more aligned with post-shoegaze electronic artists than club music. He's incorporated the sort of trap tropes that float around material like "I Don't Sell Molly No More" in past works, but rarely did he make music that aimed for tightly constructed rap or R&B. Much of his self-produced beats prior to I Love Makonnen EP or "Drink More Water 4" didn't even feature bass or drums, and his vocals would be buried in the mix deep enough to be considered atmospherics more than lead singing. "I Love Makonnen EP" is one of his first forays into more straight-ahead R&B, with production handled by some of his hometown of Atlanta's top producers, such as Metro Boomin, Sonny Digital, and 808 Mafia. The transition works fairly well, showcasing that he had a handle on the sound even when he worked at its margins.
Anyone unfamiliar or intolerant of his brand of post-ironic DIY music may find the graduation from Youtube to sold-out stages and Miley Cyrus co-signs to be trying. It remains a not totally professional sound, retaining much of the clunkiness of his based approach by not including auto-tune or lyrical rewrites. iLoveMakonnen's interesting backstory (much of his music was made alone while under house arrest for the accidental death of his friend) and positive-minded philosophies add a lot the character presented in the music that helps improve the listening experience, and the fact that top-tier beatmakers are gravitating towards underground fringe artists is good for both sides. The beats on the EP are uniformly excellent, which helps carry much of the vocal valleys, but there's plenty of left-field earworm hooks here, delivered with a pointedly inconsistent singing-in-the-shower aesthetic. It's hard to tell at this point if this will stand the test of time, but it's exciting to be in the midst of a potentially new direction for pop music.
"I think about Atlanta, and how we're changing your mind."