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Neutral Milk Hotel - On Avery Island Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the oft-overshadowed debut from indie rock icons, a smaller and more intimate look into the mercurial world of Jeff Mangum.
In the mid-’90s, Jeff Mangum moved into a haunted closet in Denver where he had dreams of women in fur coats drinking champagne, yelling at him to get out of their house. During a snowy Colorado winter, the Louisiana-born songwriter and his childhood friend Robert Schneider set about recording what would become Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut album. They worked feverishly, going out to smoke cigarettes when they hit a roadblock, until, in May of 1995, they had a finished record. The North Carolina indie label Merge scooped up the young band and quietly released On Avery Island the following March.

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YBN Nahmir/YBN Cordae/YBN Almighty Jay - YBN: The Mixtape Music Album Reviews

Primarily showcasing its three core members, the YBN Collective’s first full-length captures the rough-around-the-edges charm of a group still figuring out exactly who and what it wants to be.

The formation and rise of the YBN Collective is reminiscent of that of another rap group of young URL-to-IRL friends, Odd Future. The latter spawned from MySpace in the late 2000s, while YBN connected on XBox Live four years ago as a gaming collective. Each broke through thanks to standout singles by their de facto frontmen (“Yonkers” by Tyler, the Creator and “Rubbin Off the Paint” by YBN Nahmir) that grabbed our attention with their abrasive lyrics and catchy songwriting. Both collectives started out the gate extremely young—the oldest member of YBN is still barely of drinking age—meaning that they were (and in the case of YBN, still are) loud, brash and susceptible to obnoxious behavior. Still, as was the case with the adolescent Tyler, Earl, and Hodgy, the YBN crew’s mixture of talent and recklessness gives their art an irresistibly dangerous feel. The question now is whether they can funnel that appeal into consistently good music.

Which brings us to YBN: The Mixtape, their first compilation as a collective. Though YBN consists of 10 members spanning four different states, The Mixtape is wisely credited to its three best-known talents: Nahmir, YBN Almighty Jay, and YBN Cordae. Cordae stands out as the most gifted with the pen (if we’re still drawing from the Odd Future comparison, he’s Earl), while Nahmir and Jay are more in line with the trap stylings that currently dominate hip-hop. The songs on YBN that highlight Cordae’s lyrical ability are the most interesting, pairing his straightforward introspective delivery with heavy, 808-driven production. But he’s featured here the least, which is indicative of the project’s weaknesses. There’s plenty to like on YBN that illustrates the group’s star potential, but it’s also bloated from unnecessary guest appearances and filler. It earns its mixtape title.

The intro, which begins with Nahmir checking in on Jay, harks back to their gaming days, when they’d discuss life through their headsets as they looted and blew up cars on “Grand Theft Auto V.” Dramatic piano chords and a pulsing synth line seep in as both rappers reminisce about their humble beginnings on the street, with Nahmir offering the most poignant line (“I used to be broke and I ain’t know the feelin’/The storm hit my house and I ain’t had no ceilin’”) in his carbonated growl. Though Cordae is the most prolific punch-line dropper of the gang (“Old Niggas,” his viral response to J. Cole’s steady shaming of younger rappers, is full of them), Nahmir has a knack for sprinkling in nuggets of profundity that manage to paint vivid pictures of his upbringing in only a few strokes. And he excels at crafting earworm hooks, like on the solo track “Feel Like,” which is clumsy and off kilter until his sing-songy chorus—“2-4, bitch I feel like Kobe”—snaps everything into place.

Almighty Jay, meanwhile, is boisterous and sloppy in his delivery, which makes him the polar opposite of Cordae, whose flow is polished and calculated. On “Target,” one of his three solo songs on the project (he’s only featured on two of the other 20 tracks), he uses it to spin a tale of getting pulled over by a “redneck-ass cop,” who discovers he’s intoxicated. “He said, ‘What in tarnation,’ hit the gas, I’m car racing,” he raps in a twang. It’s cheeky storytelling that serves as a nice change of pace to the album's braggadocio. Later, on the melodic “Pain Away,” the project’s only true soft moment, Cordae and Nahmir lament about the innocence they lost on way to stardom. Nahmir blends his introspection with boasts of women and jewelry, while Cordae paints a full picture with his pain: “I witnessed my mother she crying/And that fucked my mental, feeling revengeful.”

Even here the production is erected on thudding kicks and a monstrous low end. Hardly ever do the songs on The Mixtape not slap, a fact that’s wildy satisfying at times—like on the springy hustler anthem “2 Tone Drip” or the moody opener “Porsches in the Rain”—but also gets tiring toward the album’s back half, when the stuttering hi-hats start to taste sickly. For whatever reason, the most generic beats tend to serve as the backdrops of the songs with features, like the boilerplate keyboard melody on the Wiz Khalifa-assisted “Cake” or the overblown bass on “Man Down,” a messy misstep with a Chris Brown hook that sounds like it was held over from 2013. The Gucci Mane-featuring “New Drip” fares better at first, with candy Casio chords that recall the playful refrains of Atlanta snap group D4L. But a vintage Guwop verse is nearly wasted by the fact that the instrumental never changes and becomes tiresome by the time he drops his first brick reference.

A lack of finesse can be expected from such a fresh-faced group. But by the final three songs, which are the ones that racked up millions of views on YouTube and put YBN on the map, you’re convinced of the group’s ability to craft hits. Strangely enough, it’s “Chopsticks” by Almighty Jay, the YBN member roughest around the edges, that still sounds most convincing. “YBN, bitch, come get with the movement,” he raps in a slurry drone over bright synth chords. If YBN can tighten up the quality control, the rest of the industry will do well to heed his advice.


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