The debut album from the Queens crew is fiery and kinetic, mining the history of New York rap without coming up with much of anything new.
The Queens rap crew World’s Fair pride themselves on showcasing cultural diversity. The group’s members claim Puerto Rican, Dominican, Filipino, Jamaican, Jewish and Haitian heritages, a makeup that, along with the crew’s name, implicitly promises a global array of voices and perspectives. But while on paper World’s Fair have all the makings of a vibrant melting pot, in execution it’s more like a fondue, a homogenous porridge where the most interesting ingredients get buried and the dominant flavor note is always “New York.”
The crew’s regional roots aren’t the selling point they were five years ago, when they released their debut mixtape Bastards of the Party against the backdrop of a “New New York” hip-hop renaissance that’s since fizzled out. World’s Fair weren’t as overtly traditionalist as some of the more prominent acts from that movement (Joey Badass), nor were they as mold-shattering as the more exciting ones (Action Bronson, Flatbush Zombies, or A$AP Mob, to the extent they were ever really part of that scene). Their belated full-length debut New Lows finds them in the same stasis many of New York hip-hop’s true believers have been locked in for most of the new millennium: trying to grow something new from the seeds of some of the genre’s greatest music ever, with little to show for it.
Sometimes they get by on sheer perspiration. New Lows plays out as a kinetic tour of the city’s bodegas, subway stops, and underground dice games, with adrenalized production designed to keep the crew firing fast. “Elvis’ Flowers (On My Grave)” spikes its breakbeats with jungle BPMs, while the booming drums of “Win4” bring to life the song’s accounts of how shit can hit the fan even on a routine trip to the corner store. The wilder the production, the more lasting the high: The tweaked-out synths of “Dundas Street West” bring out the most hyped-up performances from the group (as well as guest Freaky Franz, the rap alias of Turnstile bassist Franz Lyons). “Birdman,” meanwhile, charts the inhospitable middle ground between gnarly UK grime and the scorched-earth noise of vintage Def Jux.
So, at its best, New Lows re-energizes some familiar sounds. But the crew’s producers can only carry so much weight, and they can’t disguise how little World’s Fairs rappers bring to the table. It’s a trap too many New York traditionalists fall into: They rap forcefully but with little nuance or personality. While rappers around the rest of the country swing for the fences with daring deliveries—not just rhyming but belting, serenading, and exploring—most of World’s Fair’s primary lyricists default to the city’s usual hard-spitting preset, rapping as if smacking a camera lens in an imagined music video. It’s a rigid, outdated notion of hard, and with each verse they run it a little further in the ground.
With such a full bench, you’d expect that at least one of the rappers in World’s Fair would rise to the challenge to standout. The big selling point of a rap crew is more bang for your buck: You get to hear a multitude of ideas and personas. But compared to a collective like Brockhampton, where each member brings his own set of convictions, anxieties, and passions, World’s Fair’s rappers are largely interchangeable, distinguishable mostly by the pitch of their voice. In a sense, they’ve been failed by their shared muse: They spend so much of New Lows riding for their city, its heritage, and its way of life that they forget to say all that much about themselves.
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