If you’re in any American city, try scouting out some turf that provides an aerial perspective of the streets. Climb to the top of some shitty building and feel young. It’s the dead of summer; you might scorch your hands on the rusted handle of a fire escape — step over some hot bricks or something. Once in position, look down and take in the visual situation: wavy blurs of heat hovering above the skyline, a busted-up grill in the corner, cars driving around all over the place. Breathe deeply. At that moment, I bet that you’ll feel your ears bumpin’: an up-beat clap, that “ay, ay, ay,” and a synth blip bouncing, bouncing right into your skull… forever. You’ll then slowly begin to realize that the entire city is one giant DJ Mustard beat.
10 summers is a “proper” announcement of “The Mustard Dynasty” of production, dropping at a climactic point where his “trademark” sound is indisputably dominant, if not completely definitive, in 2014. I say “proper” because the producer’s dominance is not some isolated, egoist quote; instead, the album is evidence of true work that is essentially a sonic victory lap running circles around “the game,” the radio, and basically all popular avenues for mass music input. But with six summer billboard hits, full production credits on YG’s My Krazy Life, and a shadowy, readymade pop song (designed in a lab by Europeans) constantly paying homage to the Mustard brand, why more? Well, the album accomplishes quite a few goals: (1) it’s a self-aware crowning ceremony that gives lots of people exactly what they want; (2) it’s a work ethic-defining, neurotic “practice” game aimed at enhancing Mustard’s already razor sharp craft; and (3) it’s a public challenge nonchalantly asserting “BTW, I’m gonna be in charge for the next 10 summers.” Within the record’s exact, minimal, immensely effective 40 minutes, it might accomplish all of the above.
First, a brief discussion of how essential DJ Mustard is to the future of hip-hop: he’s been cultivating a completely necessary, contemporary beat-philosophy that promotes embodying an attitude, a “less talk/more work” attitude, that challenges a lot of space-filling chatter that’s been an issue for modern hip-hop. 10 summers swaps out any angsty, chip-on-your-shoulder concerns in favor of ratchet, a sound that pretty much avoids anything but an intentional, high-minded lightness — a nearly democratic, completely functional devotion to the club or party. Such devotion yields a track with the explicit utility of delivering a state of mind, an attitude that’s synonymous with certain kinds of experiences. There’s a reason why you’re probably still playing Cruel Summer cut “Mercy” in your car during hype moments; it’s mainly because Kanye managed to (barely) hang up the oppressive brutality of his personality for a minute to deliver a bonafide night-ride hit. But, completely unlike Cruel Summer, 10 Summers doesn’t come across as some manic, wild, sloppy manifesto that splices together a bunch of odd verses with frankenstein beats and moods. The album’s message and vibe is crystal clear: this shit is on the radio. During the skit in “Tinashe Checks In,” a disgruntled man flips through station after station, each one playing a different platinum Mustard track. It’s important to realize that this kind of mass appeal is not a product of penning muscle-flexing, ego-pumping manifestos; rather, it’s a result of technically knowing what works.
Mustard’s smart, easygoing design is inclusive, which is what popular culture demands. Although Mustard’s flirted with West Coast regionalism on YG’s My Krazy Life, on 10 Summers he’s carved out a borderless space that avoids the geographic jingoism that often hijacks rap tracks. On “Throw Your Hood Up,” we have RJ shouting out West Coast, East Coast, Midwest, and Southern boroughs alike, recognizing that the album is occupying clubs everywhere, both a testament to the universalism of Mustard’s craft and a transcendental celebration of hip-hop culture at large. Similarly, Mustard’s sound flat-out ignores any continuum/dialectical progression of beat development — the trappy pomp and circumstance of Mike Will Made It, the down-tempo introspection of Noah Shabib, the grab-all productions of the Beyoncé/Jay Z/Kanye axis, etc. Instead, he updates the early-2000s swag of Lil Jon & the Ying Yang Twins into modern tomes like Tyga’s “Rack City,” 2 Chainz’s “I’m Different,” or YG’s “My Nigga” — all tracks that tons of people seem to genuinely like. The result is an indictment of barriers in hip-hop, an ownership of mass-appeal, as Mustard makes it clear that his beats don’t give a fuck about historicism, regionalism, or even individual emotionalism.
Many may criticize this sort of celebration of the “common” aspects of hip-hop. I foresee many a music writer blasting how every track on 10 Summers sounds “virtually the same” or “doesn’t experiment.” Every track is about 95 BPM, literally every single track, to the point where occasionally you can barely tell one song from the next. Tracks like “Low Low,” “Ghetto Tales,” and “Giuseppe” are virtually indistinguishable, and all 12 tracks begin with his brand tag, that eye-roll-inducing “Mustard on the beat, hoe.” Nevertheless, the minimalism of Mustard’s craft — a characteristic I find to be satisfying and effective — is laid out threadbare and repetitive on the album, as if he’s outlined a self-imposed ethos that demands absolutely no experimentation, no deviation from what works. Mustard himself has stated that this sort of simplicity gives rappers room to say what they want to say; yet, throughout the album, it’s not like the rappers are saying much. Given his goals, I think that’s a good thing. There are tons of memorable hooks and verses all over 10 Summers — Big Sean gives his first stomach-able verse of 2014 on “Facedown;” Lil Wayne is finally back in his appropriate beat environment; and there are tons of lesser-known guests who help keep the vibe rolling along. All of these moments fly by and come across as natural and effortless, even “formal” in the platonic sense. It seems like Mustard demands a certain lightness, or “basic-ness,” in all his MC collaborators. In fact, earlier this year, even Drake gave a laid back verse on YG’s “Who Do You Love;” somehow Mustard’s vibe was able to coax the Toronto rapper to deliver a fantastic, tightly-packaged party drop instead of his typical meandering, self-referential goose-bumpy thing.
Yes, Mustard’s beat-making hones in on the more standardized sonic materials of the genre. You have the attack of a clap or snap, occasionally mirrored by the drop of mid-range kick; and, of course, there’s the synth-bump low-end, the heavier sub-drop, the on-the-up-beat “ay,” and the minor-key repeating melody (either a reverb-y piano, strings, or some gently altered synth). Yet, his beats don’t want to be different. They definitely don’t grab for some “God-level,” “American Icon” status of past hip-hop royalty. Instead, they’re functionally relevant and embodied in the spaces where hip-hop happens — the radio, the club, etc. Standout track “Facedown” pushes the formula to 2.0: Mustard lets the bass synth get wild and growl a bit; Boosie Badazz delivers a strange, addicting hook; and then there’s the 1-2-3 punch of verses from Lil Wayne, Big Sean, and YG. Likewise, “No Reason” sounds about as marketably “classic” as it can get. The track reads like some beautiful shoe, basically the same model as the previous design, with a brand logo shining bright as platinum. People are still lined up trying to grip it.
Despite what capitalist or Marxist ideologues will argue, here, Mustard’s success or downfall shouldn’t be economic. Yes, 10 summers is easy to criticize because it’s the product of some serious, wonky market-industry forces. You can hear it all over the record. Conversely, the record shouldn’t necessarily be loved just because the producer is “on top” right now. Instead, it should be lauded based on an analysis of his production’s design, its form and function, its craft, and the ability of his brand to deliver that “luxury experience” that’s intertwined with the whole of hip-hop. Mustard’s aesthetic cohesion and commitment to identity is so strong it becomes authentic in itself — a product that exists with or without you; and, it’s not the design’s fault if you’re “just not into it,” because plenty are. Given that 10 Summers is a producer’s record, Mustard is not necessarily subject to the complications and mythologies involved in reviewing a “Rap Icon” record (see: Drake, Kanye West). Rather, there’s a certain pragmatism evident throughout the record; what we have is a designed experience, as utilitarian as wearing a brand as social armor when you go out at night. Such, the review emphasizes whether or not the “app” is working properly. It works, well; all 10 Summers demands is that you nod your head to that 95 BPM.
As Mustard said in an interview with Dazed, “That’s the joys of no sleep. I stay up all night, all day; I don’t need to be going to a club. I’m in the club right now — somebody’s playing my record. You know why? ‘Cos I’m in here.” He’s in the studio so much so that after six separate Billboard hits this summer, he’s dropped the full album for free through Google Play, with eyes set on the next nine summers. Clearly, the dude doesn’t sleep, so don’t sleep on him.