Rae Sremmurd mature while adding new sounds to their repertoire on "SremmLife 2."
When Rae Sremmurd emerged with "No Flex Zone" about two and a half years ago, they sounded like the newest and youngest thing on the block. Mike Will Made It, fresh off high-profile executive production jobs on Future's Honest and Miley Cyrus' Bangerz, supplied them with his most bare-bones beats yet, matching their utilitarian rapping style and creating a full-on "less is more" package. Although Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi were 19 and 20, respectively, at the time of the song's release, their squeaky voices sounded like they could've belonged to tweens (garnering them a Kriss Kross comparison that died out as soon as they showed that they weren't one-trick ponies). To a certain side of the rap world, "No Flex Zone" was exciting and new, hence its chart performance and freestyles by everyone from Lil Kim to Pusha T; to another, it was pop-rap tripe that didn't deserve critical praise. In a now-infamous interview with Complex staff members who named Sremmurd's debut album the third best project of 2015, Hot 97 personality Ebro Darden was incredulous that people could view the album on the same level as Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, or even less ambitious projects by Drake and The Weeknd, citing a lack of "bars" as his main concern. Raising eyebrows, rubbing industry veterans the wrong way-- Rae Sremmurd checked all of the "zeitgeist" boxes upon their debut.
Just months after those Ebro shots though, Swae and Jxmmi no longer seem like hip hop's foremost trailblazing weirdos. Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert, among hordes of other day-glo Soundcloud warblers, have usurped the "most loved by teens, most hated by grown men" throne from the brothers Sremmurd, doing so with an entirely new sound composed of unhinged, half-sung vocals (more indebted to Young Thug and iLoveMakonnen than Swae) and airy beats that crib elements from chillwave, cloud rap, and '80s synthpop. Not only that though, Rae Sremmurd's recent accomplishments have legitimized them in more traditional fashion. Swae notched a co-writing credit on Beyoncé's huge single "Formation," and the boys fired back directly at Ebro's allegations of ghostwriting with an inspired, 20-minute-long Tim Westwood freestyle. Neither is over the age of 22, but just about 30 months after the world first heard of them, Rae Sremmurd's polarizing newness has quickly become last year's model in the ever-accelerating hype cycle.
The challenge on Sremmlife 2 then, is to progress beyond the hitmaking formula that was potent back in 2014. Were it dropping just months after the first SremmLife, this album could get by on stylistically similar tracks, as Uzi and Yachty have shown by rapid-releasing projects while their waves are still cresting. That isn't the case here, especially after the release date was pushed back-- if the new singles featured Swae and Jxmmi youthfully squawking some short phrases over spare trap beats, they'd sound outdated, part of the same era that gave us "U Guessed It" and "Tuesday."
The three tracks we heard before SremmLife 2 dropped-- "By Chance," "Look Alive," and "Do Yoga"-- are far removed from "No Flex Zone" and "No Type." All three are decidedly muted in comparison, with hooks muttered under the breath or crooned, but never shouted. Mike Will supplies more melodic backdrops, with the lush synth arrangement of "Look Alive" especially standing out in relation to the duo's first two singles, which, if written out in music notation, mostly consisted of a two-chord stab ("No Type") and a four-note keyboard pattern ("No Flex Zone"), respectively. Lest we forget, SremmLife wasn't all minimal trap, as the sunny, piano-led pop-rap of "This Could Be Us," and the fizzy electronica of "Safe Sex Pay Checks" provided some nice alternatives, but the deluxe edition of SremmLife 2 contains even more experimentation.
In a surprising move for the duo and their producer, several tracks on here actually seem to take their cues from the aforementioned younger wave of new artists. Much like Lil Uzi's mentor Don Cannon, Mike Will has jumped into a bubblegum sound headfirst, with tracks like "Take It Or Leave It" and "Just Like Us" even making his production work on Bangerz seem heavy in comparison. We've seen a glossier, '80s-influenced sound popping up on projects not only by those neon-haired warblers, but also on more street-oriented tapes like Kodak Black's Lil BIG Pac and PnB Rock's RnB 3, and under Mike's direction, he melds the best of both worlds, making Sremm's sound more grounded than that of Uzi or Yachty, but more melodic and playful than Kodak or PnB. The latin flavor of "Take It Or Leave It" directly echoes Kodak's "Today," and "Just Like Us" has almost the exact same melodic structure as PnB's "Fall In Love," but yet again proving themselves to be excellent songwriters, Swae, Jxmmi, and Mike make the songs their own with unique musical twists and turns.
Despite the younger influence, Swae and Jxmmi both seem older and wiser for the most part here. One now calls himself "Uncle Jxmmi," and the other drops the bar "Young bul livin' like an old geezer." Aside from the purely humorous sense, they've moved beyond strictly focusing on the turn-up, now including the comedown in their artistic scope. "She wanna ride, I just want some time when I'm fried," Swae sings, sounding exhausted, "She bad as fuck, but I know she would bury me alive." "Came A Long Way" is the most somber-sounding thing they've ever released, with a rolling piano riff underscoring lyrics about coming "a long way from the 'Sip." It's not like Rae Sremmurd are now above lyrics like "I don't do drugs, nah, I don't do drugs/I'm the motherfuckin' drugs, do me," but they're saying them in lower voices over more melancholy beats-- parts of SremmLife 2 are like a teenage goth phase that reflects a desire for seriousness and maturity more than actual sadness.
I've really only talked about half of the album, and while the rest of it isn't bad, it's mostly a retread of SremmLife with improved rapping. "Start A Party" and "Real Chill" kick things off with an adrenaline shot that soon fades into the album's more gratifying, druggy haze on "By Chance"; "Shake It Fast" and "Set The Roof" both enlist party-starters of yesteryear, but besides an A+ Juicy J verse, you'd be better off partying to anything him, DJ Mustard, or Lil Jon made in their heydays; late-album bookends "Over Here," "Patti Cake, and "Pole Code" seem empty and uninspired next to the starry-eyed "Just Like Us." If I had to guess, most of the tracks I just mentioned date back closer to the first album, and considering that SremmLife 2's delay has been chalked up to the more experimental joints "Do Yoga" and "Black Beatles," I think this party-starting, more youthful half of the album would've functioned better as a stopgap EP or mixtape in between albums.
On SremmLife 2, Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi strike an interesting balance between young and old, ecstatic and forlorn, rap and pop. They're the perfect outlet for Mike Will's less trappy endeavors, as their albums don't require him to cross over as much as Bangerz did, but offer him a broader palette than say, a Gucci Mane project. Their best new work shows their deft ability to dabble in modern trends without sounding awkward or out-of-place, but they always have that original blueprint to fall back on, for better or worse. SremmLife 2 is the sound of your mid- to early 20s, when you've still got one foot in teen hedonism but are starting to question your motives, as well as those of others. Like most of us in that age group, Swae and Jxmmi sound a little all-over-the-place, a little shallow at times, but confident in whatever they do.