After the Laughter: Metro Boomin’s Auteur Turn on Not All Heroes Wear Capes

Son Raw explores the bold artistic jump for the renowned producer.
By    November 7, 2018

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Son Raw wears a cloak.

Of all the accusations lobbed at southern hip-hop since the No Limit era, its disposability has been the stickiest. Fueled by hustler-turned rappers marketing their releases as product rather than art, and projects offering more music for your dollar instead of a curated experience, it’s been a challenge to escape preconceptions that the past decade’s trap boom has been on unceasing flow of mixtapes that get play for a week, only to be tossed aside. This of course, is completely unfair.

For one thing, a file dump of rap tracks has a quality all of its own, as classic mixtapes by Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane and Young Thug attest. For another, plenty of trap artists have put genuine effort into sequencing coherent, conceptually unified projects. At the end of a year where this more-is-more approach to tracklists collided with the streaming game’s hunger increasingly longer projects however, mainstream, A-list hip hop could seem relentlessly mercenary, a state of affairs Metro Boomin’ is out to fix.

Not All Heroes Wear Capes is Metro Boomin’s pivot towards branding himself as an auteur, after a half decade of cranking out hits behind the scenes, and few producers are more deserving of a shot. Having spent the past half decade distinguishing himself as one of the most idiosyncratic producers to emerge from the trap scenius, Metro’s beats were always darker and weirder than his peers’ output, and he shines brightest when given a full length project to work across (DS2, Savage Mode, Without Warning). Distilling the bombastic fanfare of Lex Luger era maximalism to an icy core and draining the euphoria out of hip hop’s molly era, Metro Boomin’s vision of trap kept all of the genre’s roughneck energy, but dropped the garish excess, helping the genre grow up.

This sense of ambition runs deep throughout the album’s interconnected suite of trap bangers. There’s live instrumentation! Sampled interludes! A paper-thin concept about saving Hip Hop! Thankfully, while rap probably doesn’t need saving, the string sections and electric guitars do nothing to dilute Metro’s sound, playing the background while the 808s do the heavy lifting.

Rap producers moving towards live instrumentation often sound like they have to prove they’re capable of “real music” and overcompensate, so it’s a relief to here Metro expand his palette without forgetting what made his sound so appealing in the first place. As for the samples, they’re mostly a flex: why else would you drop clearing fees on your interludes?

Which brings us to the rapping. Not All Heroes Wear Capes assembles a murderers row of Atlanta-based and Atlanta-affiliated artists, and how much you enjoy the record depends largely on how you feel about the melodic, pre-Soundcloud rap era mainstream. Travis Scott, whose own Astroworld operated in similarly woozy sonic territory, anchors 4 whole tracks and an interlude with his melodies. He’s featherweight as always, though only the grumpiest of old heads would insist he sounds bad over these beats.

On the other end of the rhythmic spectrum, 21 Savage’s deadpan is responsible for some of the album’s best moments, including the best whisper rap this side of yin yang twins. Gunna and Young Thug voice-meld into a single bizarre entity on Lesbian, which might just feature the hook of the year even if the rest of the song basically ignores the concept. Even a pair of dancehall and afro-swing indebted tracks by Wizkid and J Balvin acquit themselves nicely thanks to the production. The only notable omission is Future who, I mean… was he too stoned to pick up Metro’s calls or something?

Of course, if you’re looking for any sort of content, you won’t find it here. The topics are standard trap boilerplate, and 21’s 1 liners aside, the emcees are are more interested in exploring new melodies and cadences than saying anything of substance. Yet that just might be why Not All Heroes Wear Capes work: by sidestepping the dreaded curse of maturity while finding ways to push trap music’s audio formula forward, Metro Boomin and co. found a way to deliver Atlanta’s most interesting hour of music without losing sight of what works. It’s probably a bit too slight to be called the Trap Chronic, but more than enough to say Metro delivered a trap Soul Survivor.

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