Review: Rae Sremmurd answers its critics on the thoughtful ‘SremmLife 2'
The twentysomething brothers of Rae Sremmurd spent much of the last two years endearing themselves to young hip-hop fans — and, not coincidentally, making enemies among members of the hip-hop establishment.
This duo from Tupelo, Miss., broke out with a string of high-energy singles, including “No Type” and “No Flex Zone,” that showcased Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee’s boundless charisma and intuitive flair for sticky catchphrases.
“Unlock the Swag,” from their 2015 debut, “SremmLife,” consists of little more than the two repeatedly shouting that title over a woozy, lurching beat by producer Mike Will Made It, who developed Rae Sremmurd as part of his Atlanta-based Ear Drummers crew. (Say the group’s name backwards — voila!)
Despite — or perhaps because of — that primal quality, “SremmLife” went platinum, “No Type” cracked the pop top 20 and the duo toured with Nicki Minaj. Swae Lee even ended up co-writing Beyoncé’s hit “Formation,” which she performed during the Super Bowl halftime show.
Yet rap purists, such as Ebro Darden of the powerful New York radio station Hot 97, viewed Rae Sremmurd’s runaway success with suspicion. The brothers were compared to Kris Kross (of early ’90s “Jump” fame) and said to lack the rhyming ability crucial to any serious career in hip-hop.
How did Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee answer these allegations? By unlocking more swag, of course.
“Old people always got something to say,” Slim Jxmmi said this month on “The Breakfast Club,” the popular hip-hop radio show, as he sat enveloped in a fluffy pink-fur jacket. “But ask ’em how this coat feel.”
At first, Rae Sremmurd seems to be sticking to that attitude on its follow-up album, “SremmLife 2.” The record, due Friday, opens with “Start a Party,” another rowdy banger whose title figures prominently in the lyrics — at least until Swae Lee promises to “show up in some leather pants” with some women “you ain’t even know existed.”
There’s also “Real Chill,” in which the same brother repeats some praise bestowed upon him by a club promoter (“Swae Lee, you off the chain”), and “Look Alive,” an invitation to “go crazy” that the duo recently performed with trademark exuberance on “The Tonight Show.” Throughout the album, the duo is still working with Mike Will Made It and his stable of producers, who provide Rae Sremmurd with infectious beats set at precisely the right shoulder-rocking tempo.
Yet “SremmLife 2” holds suggestions that the brothers’ critics got to them. In the middle of the album, Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi roll out three songs in a row with appearances by widely respected rap veterans: “Black Beatles,” featuring the eccentric — and hugely influential — Atlanta MC Gucci Mane; “Shake It Fast,” with Juicy J of the Oscar-winning Memphis group Three 6 Mafia; and “Set the Roof,” a bouncy collaboration with the lovably shouty crunk pioneer Lil Jon.
“Shake It Fast,” in particular, feels like a pointed message, a way to connect Rae Sremmurd’s tendency toward party music with an earlier version of that impulse, one now recognized as an important phase in hip-hop’s evolution.
The duo also turns surprisingly thoughtful, even introspective, in songs like the sensual “Now That I Know” and “Came a Long Way,” which recounts the brothers’ journey out of poverty as a melancholy piano figure loops into infinity behind them.
“If you from the bottom you know how I feel,” Slim Jxmmi raps, before insisting that, even amid the nonsense of fresh stardom, “I remain real.”
“SremmLife 2” closes with another celebration of the good life: “Woke up faded, still drunk from yesterday,” Slim Jxmmi boasts in “Just Like Us,” recalling an evening in which he and 100 friends were admitted to a club without being on the guest list.
But instead of a beat full of alpha-male bravado, here Mike Will Made It produces a delicate synth-pop track that gleams like his work with Miley Cyrus.
Does “Just Like Us” prove that Rae Sremmurd is seeking the approval of those who say the group’s music needs more complexity? Or are those folks merely being trolled? That you can’t tell means Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee are smarter than many thought.
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