In the eternal pissing contest that is hip-hop, you might think there isn’t much room for a gentle soul like ILoveMakonnen (sometimes “I Love Makonnen”). Hell, you might think there isn’t much room for Makonnen on Planet Earth, what with some of his recent mixtape material (i.e., the dappy call to arms of “Whip It” from Drink More Water 4) painting him as an unhinged sore thumb who would’ve given Ol’ Dirty Bastard a run for his money in the crazy stakes. But even with the heart-on-sleeve colorings of the ILoveMakonnen EP and its taste for the Atlantan dance floor, the L.A.-born MC has produced a statement that maintains the spiritual essence of rap while simultaneously pushing it beyond its hyper-masculine barriers. So even though the EP may not find him boasting about his death toll, the size of his gun, or the money he swagged last week, it somehow manages to stick to the fatalistic, antagonistic, and self-destructive individualism that spines through so much hip-hop.
Okay, so the rising synths and injured piano melody of opener “Too Much” don’t particularly resound with hostile pigheadedness. For the duration, Metro Boomin’s production sweeps from one downcast flourish to another, yet through the thick of his melancholic sequencing and heavy-hearted bass, Makonnen sings, “You’re always talking ‘bout these broads too much/ You’re steady keep confusing us too much/ You always keep losing us too much,” a chorus that emerges in the light of the succeeding tales of failed relationships and cycles of destructive behavior as a case of pained self-recrimination. From this early clue, it soon becomes clear that, despite the regret and hurt expressed in the plaintive vibes of “Tonight” and “Sarah,” there’s something inevitable and incurable about Makonnen’s tendency to sabotage his own love affairs, something that the repetition of defeatist lines like “We’re just not meant to be” (“Meant To Be”) implies he has no power or even desire to change.
Throughout the EP, this pattern of self-imposed romantic failure is repeated again and again. Amidst the phasing, liquid keys of “Tonight,” his indignation recounts how both he and a certain Rhianna are cheating on each other as if it were a matter of course, and in “Meant To Be,” the same mutual infidelity occurs with yet another woman (“‘Cause you were lovin’ someone else when I was looking at you/ And I was lovin’ someone else when you was looking at me”). And even in a swirled funeral of a track like “Sarah,” where no case of foul play is explicitly divulged by the mournful guitar pickings, the object of his affection is unsurprisingly inaccessible, serving mainly to remind him of the impossibility of a successful union. Therefore, in the end, it seems that, in much the same way gangsta rap testified to the certainty of violence and conflict of one kind, Makonnen and his emotive rapping testify to the certainty of violence and conflict of another.
Luckily, if there’s one person to translate hip-hop’s pessimistic fatalism like this, it’s Makonnen. Equipped with an impressively acute pop sensibility for a 24-year old who’s more or less still working out of his bedroom, he wraps the sliding, airy synth-phrase of “Club Goin’ Up On A Tuesday” in a level of melodic articulation that brings out the lovelorn, aestheticized gloominess of that one person in a nightclub who can’t resist glancing around its flesh market for a passing resemblance to a long-lost face. Even in “I Don’t Sell Molly No More” — the one episode of ILoveMakonnen that doesn’t confront or intersect with ruined boy-meets-girl trysts — his unhurried phrasing, staggered ascents of pace, and breathy intonation feel completely intuitive and logical, combining with Sonny Digital’s paranoid backdrop to reveal a dingy yet vivid musical space that’s every bit as addictive as the drugs he recalls selling.
And while this slide to narcotics could be seen as the EP’s strongest relation to the more traditional currents of rap, it’s actually Makonnen’s unflinching determination to be as emotionally raw and as open as possible that guarantees his fidelity to the genre at the very same time he kicks it further down the street. A friend and self-professed champion of Lil B, he revealed in a July interview that it was the BasedGod’s knack for following his artistic whim regardless of public perception that was a source of inspiration and strength for potentially sticky confessions like “Sarah,” which according to Makonnen himself is “so embarrassing but it’s like, I don’t care. That’s what I’ve learned from Lil B is like be [as] fucking embarrassing as possible.” And with this fearless dedication to feelings and views that might end up getting him elbowed out of the hip-hop brotherhood by dint of their rare sensitivity, following raps like the anxious presentiment of unfaithfulness that is “Exclusive” solidify his rep as a stubborn individualist, which ironically does more to guarantee his place within the group’s often macho borders than to jeopardize it.
This place is reinforced further still by the sense that, throughout ILoveMakonnen’s dance-rap sex wars, Makonnen is almost wearing his troubles and broken hearts with masochistic pride, affirming their unavoidability and his unwillingness to escape them in much the same way Biggie Smalls affirmed how he was Ready to Die. In “Exclusive,” the alarm-esque scratches, the tremored drops of bass, and the whines of synth underpin his self-directed warnings of “Why you chasing her?/ She ain’t exclusive news/ She only care about the money/ She don’t care about you,” which in refusing to offer a specific name generalizes his bleak view to all women and thereby dooms him to an endless train of frustration. With the starry-eyed pumping of “Tonight,” his voice exposes its aches and bruises almost to the point of bragging, and above the adulterous bleeping and heavy-set strings of “Meant To Be,” he admits to self-torture via the lyric, “I think about these girls all the time/ I wonder who they’re with and who’s on their mind.”
Yet even as typically self-destructive as Makonnen’s untypical lovesickness finally turns out to be, there’s nothing torturous about the EP. Sporting vocals that flow easily from grizzled rap to emotionally intelligent singing, crystalline production that recreates hormone-charged clubs, moonlit streets and lamp-shaded bedrooms, and lyrics that would appeal as much to stereotypically forlorn indie kids as to their sworn enemies, its seven tracks form what is easily one of the most alive and distinctive hip-hop records of the year. If Makonnen can build on the groundwork it represents, deepen his collaborations with the producers loitering around Atlanta, and stay true to his own voice, there’s no telling what kind of off-the-wall music he’ll be spitting out in a year’s time. Now if only he could find some inspiration for this music-to-come that doesn’t involve beating himself up again and again over girls.