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Rae Sremmurd Save Summer ’16 With SremmLife 2

Rap’s reigning party kings swerve left to win with a darker, weirder sound

Summer ’16 is practically over, and the critical ritual of ordaining the Song of the Summer feels locked in a standstill, as though the contest’s typically eager participants got distracted by the latest planetary crisis and wandered away. Some have even suggested that we pack it in and head home; we organize our memories using Songs of the Summer, but what do we even want to remember about this hot, messy, fearful few months, anyway? Of course, we all know the Song of the Summer is “One Dance,” whether we like it or not. It feels kind of anticlimactic, but at least it’s not Twenty One Pilots.

But life doesn’t have to be this way. Summer might be the season we’re accustomed to loading with meaning, but what kind of sicko loves summer past the age of 12? Summer is exhausting: the sweat that gathers as soon as you leave the shower, the optimistic plans you’ll only flake on so you can watch Netflix original series next to the A/C, the constant haze of steaming trash. You listen to the same stupid Marshmello remix on repeat all day because you just don’t have the energy to think about it any harder. Fuck that! Any self-respecting listener knows that the best season for new music is fall, the perfect time for late-night headphone strolls. And while there’s ample time for challengers to swoop in, there really isn’t any question: The Song of the Fall is “Black Beatles,” the best song on Rae Sremmurd’s excellent, expectation-defying SremmLife 2.

Besides, it’s ill-advised to wear leather pants in the summer, and on grimy album-opener “Start a Party,” the brothers Sremm — Tupelo-born Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi — do so in the most effective way possible: bringing the drugs to wherever you're wearing the leather pants. (“Tossed up a lotta motherfuckin’ money, she said, ‘Lemme guess, you’re a drug dealer’ / I said nah, I just brought a lotta money and a whole lotta drugs with me,” Swae Lee squawks on his verse.) It’s not a bright, raucous summer banger like the first SremmLife’s litany of hits; it’s darker, weirder, more suited for headphones than speakers. But the brothers’ irrepressible energy makes it feel just as electric.

SremmLife 2 doesn’t have the dancefloor-filling singles of its 2015 predecessor, and fans who say they want the old Sremm might have to skip ahead to mid-album pace-changers “Shake It Fast” and “Set the Roof” for that kind of dynamism. But by forgoing the obvious in favor of stranger, more anxious sounds, and by investing as much in verses as they do in hooks, Swae and Jxmmi have shrugged off the weight of expectations they’ve been saddled with since “No Flex Zone.” This isn’t just about Ebro, the Hot 97 personality who last year wrote off the duo as a novelty act manufactured by producer and label boss Mike Will — a minor beef that turned into an allegory about the clash of rap’s old and new guards. Of course, Swae Lee nabbing co-writing credits on Beyoncé's Lemonade rendered Ebro’s misinformed ghostwriting allegations even more moot, but the accusations were illustrative of an annoyingly persistent critical trend. There’s this tendency for critics to associate Rae Sremmurd with teen rap sensations like Kriss Kross: charming but prepackaged acts who leverage their youthful swagger for a limited burst of relevance. But Swae and Jxmmi are both, by now, in their 20s — young men who’ve proven that their songwriting chops more than match their stage presence. The brothers have a vision, and on SremmLife 2, it feels long-term.

Hell, you could even call SremmLife 2 tasteful — not the first descriptor you might have imagined based on the stripper anthems and meme-friendly lyrics of Rae Sremmurd’s debut. Singles that on first listen struck me as a bit lackluster, like “Look Alive,” are activated in the context of the full album, drifting in and out of focus but never losing momentum. Features are sparse and expertly selected: A newly free Gucci Mane sounds relaxed and confident on “Black Beatles,” and a newly locked-up Kodak Black maintains his status as 2016’s Rookie of the Year on “Real Chill.” And though the Ebro drama positioned the Sremmurd Bros as ahistorical antagonists, the inclusions of Lil Jon and Juicy J feel like nods to kindred eras of grimy party rap, minimally structured for maximal effect. The quick clip of Three 6’s “Lil Freak” at the end of “Shake It Fast” seals the deal.

Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi prove they can hold their own here, but it wouldn’t be right not to acknowledge Mike Will — not the group’s mastermind, but certainly its backbone. The producer might not have the inescapable radio presence he had four years ago, but his influence on the way rap sounds in 2016 cannot be understated. His immersive, detail-oriented work on tracks like “Black Beatles” and the gorgeous closer “Just Like Us” is even more impressive when considering his evolution: from No Pad, No Pencil–era Atlanta to national radio omnipresence, gradually reshaping the Lex Luger–driven trap landscape into something melodic and complicated but just as dark, prioritizing songwriting over bombast. We often talk about the ways rappers like Drake and Future have incorporated melody into rap, but producers are just as responsible. It’s hard to imagine a climate where guys like Metro Boomin can experiment and thrive without Mike Will.

Speaking, once more, of “Black Beatles,” I’ll leave you with a hot take: Is this song the new “March Madness”? By which I mean, the one rap song we all pretty much agree on — an emotional banger to unite a stadium in wailing harmony? I assure you I do not make these comparisons lightly, but goddamn, listen to the thing. It’s like a new-wave song refurbished with pop-punk melodies that remind me more of prime Jimmy Eat World with every listen (and I mean that as a compliment — “Sweetness” is a god dream), all contained in a glittering ballad about being Lennon and McCartney’s spiritual heirs. Swae Lee is hedonistic one moment, wistful the next, playing with melody and timing, controlling and releasing. It all feels calmly profound, like finding meaning somewhere it’s not supposed to exist.

I follow over 800 opinionated nerds on Twitter, and I’ve yet to see anyone resistant to the song’s glory. When does that ever happen?