Graphic: Evanka Williamson
From Mobb Deep’s The Infamous to Kelela’s Take Me Apart, here are 11 rap and R&B albums to get you through COVID-19 quarantine over the upcoming weeks.
Consuming music is a universal act, and it can set the scene for any sort of activity imaginable. Unfortunately, the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) has drastically reduced the number of things we can do outside of the comfort of our homes. People have been quarantined in their home now for more than a month. And it doesn’t seem like the end is coming song. Spring has officially sprung outside; and being outside to enjoy it could be life-threatening.
In times like these, talk of media of any kind can feel frivolous. More and more people are dying or being displaced every day and elected officials care more about reinflating the stock market than catering to the people they’re supposed to be serving. Anxiety is running high. Anything we can use to combat our own anxiousness is key to our survival; music is undoubtedly a part of that process.
Music isn’t just meant to pass the time or have fun. Music gives us comfort when we’re trapped in our own minds; it can make us feel less alone when we’re introverted or when we’re feeling introspective. Here are 11 albums to help you get through coronavirus quarantine over the coming weeks and months, featuring appearances from Mobb Deep, MF DOOM, Ari Lennox, and more.
Mobb Deep — The Infamous… (1995)
Released on April 25, 1995, Mobb Deep’s sophomore album, The Infamous, brought a winter chill to the middle of the spring season. Havoc and Prodigy depict the coldness of their surroundings with dead-eyed detail; in their world, gunshots make you levitate (“Shook Ones, Pt. II”) and there aren’t enough bottles to “Drink Away The Pain.” Havoc and Q-Tip’s beats echo off the project walls and wind tunnels they soundtrack as the “official Queensbridge murderers” wrote rhymes to cut through the stress.
Madvillain — Madvillainy (2004)
Any supervillain worth their salt values seclusion above all else. MF DOOM works best from the shadows — a relic of hip-hop’s golden age scorned and left for dead by the industry who rose in a new form. Madvillainy, his collaboration with the California loop digga Madlib, under the name Madvillain, is considered his most potent broadcast yet. The project was put together with the two rarely in the same room together and its results speak to the efforts of two creative wizards conjuring magic behind-the-scenes. Madvillainy is the result of two rap introverts trying their hands at extroversion.
Earl Sweatshirt — I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside (2015)
To call Earl Sweatshirt’s sophomore album from 2015 prescient would be an understatement. Aside from its on-the-nose title, I Don’t Like Shit sees the California rapper succumb to the darker side of his brain. He mulls over relationships lost and existential emptiness found while traversing through swampy beats fit for anyone ready to go over the mental threshold. Every word is pointed, every feature lands on the project’s jagged edges just right. The only disease Earl Sweatshirt was rallying against was contempt. I Don’t Like Shit is a moody album for moody times, on top of being a hell of a rap album.
Isaiah Rashad — The Sun’s Tirade (2016)
Where do you run when your professional life is just as stressful as your personal life? Isaiah Rashad attempts to answer this question across his debut studio album The Sun’s Tirade. The album details his mind’s darting conflicts. The label is breathing down his neck for an album; drugs and sex are calling his name. Even when he’s at his happiest, on a song like “Bday,” questions are still fogging his brain: “How you tell the truth in a room full of white people?” he asks confused but too high to care. Isaiah Rashad has seen the walls close in before and knows there’s no easy way out of fighting depression. The Sun’s Tirade gives listeners the comfort and stories necessary to keep it pushin’, no matter the cost.
Kelela — Take Me Apart (2017)
Kelela isn’t afraid to break herself down in order to build herself back up. Her debut studio album Take Me Apart finds strength in charting the end of one relationship and the blossoming of a new one against a backdrop of R&B and electronic music glitching into the night. No partner can provide the kind of love Kelela finds in herself throughout the record’s 53 minutes. She confides in herself (“Frontline”), succumbs to heartbreak (“Take Me Apart”), and is back in the swing of things (“LMK”) before we’ve even had a chance to blink. Her voice wafts above every emotion like a silk-lined spirit of deep red and purple. Losing yourself has never sounded as good as it does on Take Me Apart.
Evidence — Weather Or Not (2018)
California rapper Evidence’s raps sound tailormade to be played on a rainy day. Weather Or Not, wades through puddles created by depression and anxiety searching for meaning. The production, courtesy of DJ Premier, Nottz, and Evidence himself, among others, mesh hard-hitting drums with the rush of a mind searching through its worst memories for absolution. Money will be spent (“Throw It All Away”) and loved ones lost will haunt the edges of our memories forever (“By My Side Too”), yet we press forward. Weather Or Not is a lesson in navigating the rain’s inevitable fall.
Noname — Room 25 (2018)
“Maybe this an album you listen to in your car / When you drivin home late at night, really questioning every God,” Noname raps effortlessly on “Self,” the opening track off of Room 25. Like its opening bars suggest, Room 25 finds the Chicago rapper contemplative and word-hungry, standing on the cusp of fame and wondering what matters most. Noname waxes about the modern music industry (“No name for people to call mall or colonize optimism” ), romance (“Empathy was only empathy only when you was into me” ), and the virtues of vegan food with clarity and conviction. Basking in your improvements at whatever pace they come is a recurring theme throughout Room 25; Noname is proud of herself and doesn’t care whether you are or not.
MIKE — War In My Pen (2018)
On War In My Pen, New York rapper MIKE fights for control of his peace of mind. The 21-year-old’s secret weapon has always been his concision with words, cutting to the point in ways both blunt and poetic. “I only think about revenge when I barely can eat,” he confesses on “October Baby” amid a flurry of crickets chirps, enveloping synths, and messages from his mother. A cyclone of bad thoughts is out to throw MIKE off his game at every turn. He fights back against the tide, finding solace in friendship and his ever-growing prowess with the pen and behind the boards. MIKE’s war against anxiety and loneliness rages on in his ability to make music naked enough to feel to.
Mavi — Let The Sun Talk (2019)
How can we hope to understand the outside world when we can barely understand ourselves? North Carolina rapper MAVI spends the length of his breakout project, 2019’s Let The Sun Talk, putting his energy first and encouraging others to do the same. MAVI manages to break down complicated thoughts on family relationships, Black liberation, and the strains of friendship in his own language. Nerve endings are sung by Honey Berry cigars (“Moonfire”) but through it all, MAVI manages to write the kind of songs “you gotta read, baby.” Letting the sun talk is getting your mind right, and MAVI invited fans the world over to listen to him sift through the contents of his brain.
Lucki — Freewave 3 (2019)
Chicago rapper Lucki begins his 2019 album Freewave 3 in love with a girl and with drugs. The album channels dark energy from its first seconds and continues to spiral down a hole of desperation. The relationship ends and the drugs become stronger; lust overtakes Lucki in an attempt to feel anything but pain. The album’s production meets halfway between skittering 808s and dreamy cloud rap, creating a frenetic atmosphere unafraid to show the light side of darkness. Freewave 3 showcases an artist trying to find clarity in a chaotic cloud of nihilistic excess.
Ari Lennox — Shea Butter Baby (2019)
Ari Lennox interacts with the outside world on her own terms. Her Instagram Live presence has primed her for a world where artists are searching for ways to connect with their fans from the comfort of their own home. Ari’s debut album Shea Butter Baby deals with all the intimacies and internal thoughts of modern romance. Ari sings about pining for contact (“BMO”) and attempting to let go of the past (“I Been”) with the same verve and sultry force she brings to singing about being alone in her new surroundings: “Leave some dishes in the sink, do some cartwheels / ‘cause my furniture ain’t came,” she sings on the aptly titled “New Apartment.” Life is messy and Shea Butter Baby reassures listeners that it’s okay to embrace the mess, publically or in private.
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Dylan “CineMasai” Green is a freelance writer and general geek at large whose work can be found on DJBooth, BET, and Complex, among other sites. He believes that Bow Wow walked so that we could all fly. You can follow him @CineMasai_