No one is ever going to accuse Rae Sremmurd of lacking ambition. It’s not so much that the duo announced that their third album was made in the image of Outkast’s 2003 album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, although that in itself obviously constitutes fighting talk: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below went 11 times platinum in the US alone, won three Grammys and so dominated pop music on release that the only thing that could depose its first single Hey Ya! from the top of the US chart was its follow-up, The Way You Move. It’s more that the Brown brothers and their producer Mike Will Made-It have suggested that it’s an improvement on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. In addition to two solo albums, Swae Lee’s Swaecation and Slim Jxmmi’s Jmxtro, it also features a collaborative effort: “Outkast fans, we still waiting on that, the next project with both of them together,” said their producer, clearly no great fan of Outkast’s admittedly flawed but undoubtedly collaborative 2006 follow-up Idlewild.
Rae Sremmurd divide up along roughly Outkast-ish lines, with Swae Lee in the Andre 3000 role as a kind of romantic, psychedelic star-child, as given to crooning as he is to rapping – the cover of SR3MM features him with a rose between his teeth and arms filled with cuddly toys – and Slim Jxmmi the keeper of the hip-hop flame in Big Boi mode. The music on Swaecation accordingly tends towards the spacey and lovelorn – waves crash, guitars jangle, everything is drenched in echo and Lost Angels sounds not unlike the hazy, hypnagogic synthpop of Washed Out – and the words follow suit: “Colours burst and all I see are shapes, sun goes away and that’s when I call your name.” Jmxtro, meanwhile cleaves to a more straightforward, sparse trap blueprint, and the lyrical concerns are noticeably more earthy: “I’mma go fuck with the strippers tonight.”
The problem with the Outkast comparison is that Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was one of those rare occasions when an artist maxes out the capacity of two CDs without longueurs or recourse to filler – it had to be two-and-a-half hours long to accommodate the duo’s multiplicity of musical ideas, which stirred everything from trad jazz to drum’n’bass to 60s sunshine pop into the mix. Once Rae Sremmurd have established their two distinct personas, they’re set: their respective albums continue in the vein the opening tracks establish without really throwing any curveballs (a bizarre appearance by Pharrell Williams notwithstanding, singing in an eerie, alien falsetto on Jmxtro’s Chanel).
That isn’t to say that what’s here isn’t good: it’s frequently very good indeed. The emo future-R&B songs on Swaecation are lush with melodies, while Jmxto’s Mike Will Made-It authored beats are impressively tough, not least the electrifying Brxnks Truck and the swooping bassline of Keep God First. It’s just that the grandness of the presentation slightly oversells the contents. Neither of the albums are as epic a statement as the concept suggests, and the best tracks from each could happily live side by side on a single album.
A similar desire for grandiosity also slightly undermines the collaborative album SR3MM. Brevity is currently having a moment in hip-hop – hotly-tipped Chicago rapper Valee’s tracks frequently clock in at under two minutes – and it’s certainly Rae Sremmund’s friend: good with tunes, but not big on lyrical depth or spellbinding storytelling, their music works best when it hits you with its hooks, then scarpers quickly. Take Close: concise and taut, based around a sinister keyboard figure and blessed with a surprisingly relaxed verse from Travis Scott, it is teeming with ideas. When it hangs around for five minutes – as on Bedtime Stories or Up in My Cocina – their talent is spread thin, and things become too repetitious for their own good. The former in particular is a really great track, complete with a guest appearance by the Weeknd, that loses its force the longer it lasts. Still, at least album highlight Powerglide justifies its five-minute length, by dint of being equipped with a fantastic, propulsive sample sourced from Side 2 Side, a 2009 single by Three 6 Mafia (whose Juicy J makes a cameo appearance) and a chorus so brilliant and addictive it’s impossible to hear it enough times.
It’s followed by Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, a track in the mode of the Mannequin Challenge-soundtracking 2016 hit Black Beatles, the bragging undercut by oddly mournful music, a vague hint of hurt in the lyrics about the way Rae Sremmurd were initially received: “I’m feeling pain, but I don’t know how to show it … put a little hit on the charts and they know it.”
Mocked from the start as shallow, an accusation that’s never quite left them no matter how many platinum singles they make, you can understand why Rae Sremmund might want to make an ostentatious artistic statement. The result is a decent triple album, but it would have been better yet boiled down to an eclectic single album, the best solo tracks sitting alongside the group efforts: not so much reining ambitions in as realising less is sometimes more.