Aminé: Limbo review – making a refusal to evolve sound effortless

He raps charismatically, he sings his own hooks, he writes dedications to his mum without making you throw up: everything Aminé’s doing, he’s doing well, despite being relatively unchallenging

★★★★☆

Limbo lives up to its title in ways you don’t quite appreciate the first time around. According to its creator, the Portland-born, 26-year-old rapper Aminé, it’s best described as his “sophomore-ish” album. That’s a rather peculiar way of referring to your second studio album when your last “record”, in his case, 2018’s OnePointFive, had a title that suggested it was a placeholder between your debut album and its impending sequel, but was heralded by a comical video expressly telling fans it wilfully defied categorisation: “Mixtapes are albums and albums are mixtapes,” he quipped in a conversation with two doppelgängers in the short ad, posted to Twitter. “Niggas call they albums mixtapes ’cause if it flops, it’s an EP.” Nominally an album, Limbo’s meaning finds further clarification in the music. It appears that Aminé is enjoying a kind of happy stasis, stuck in an artistic limbo of his own volition.

Woodlawn, its second track, could be the calm inverse of his fun, booming 2018 hit Reel It In: both led by a quirky flute sample, both carried by a puffed-out-chest swagger, both barely reaching into a three-minute runtime. You are thus prepared for recycled material, no new developments, scant in the way of progression. For the most part, you get exactly what you expect. Virtually every 808 beat has been processed to approximate a rough, distorted crunch – the snares and handclaps crisp as if they’ve been fried in shallow oil, the bass notes low and grimy and pneumatic and all the rest. Can’t Decide cranks out the very marginally flamenco-tinged, all-purpose Spanish acoustic guitar phrasing that nearly every big pop and rap tune seems to have poached to corner the Latin market. And he continues to sing nifty, hooky toplines and melodies that sink into your brain without your consent. It’s nothing he’s not done before.

But who needs to evolve when you have confidence and charisma like this? “It’s my year,” he exclaims on Shimmy – and, oddly, you almost believe him. If you sense an unmistakable whiff of canny, pop-cognisant manoeuvring wafting about, that’s because there is. Easy, for example, offers the kind of unblemished R&B that runs thick like honey, intended to be pleasant on the ear rather than abrasive or modern, the kind suppled by Daniel Caesar (who makes an uncredited appearance on My Reality), HER or Ella Mai. Compensating’s natural home should be somewhere, mid-table or higher, in the Top 20, afforded a characteristically playful feature from Young Thug. And if you’re going to contribute to the world’s increasing store of trap-styled hip-hop-pop numbers, you might as well come up with stern, speaker-quaking stuff like Riri, slowed to a snail’s pace and, in effect, snatching away any trace of the usual, crazed braggadocio from a subgenre not known for fast, stealthy bpms.

Indeed, it takes some confidence to deliberately drown out guest spots from Vince Staples and Slowthai on the same track, as he does on Pressure In My Palms, two edgy, distinctive voices in rap relegated to briefer-than-brief cameos; in a matter of seconds, the beat changes and the mood switches from tough and threatening to breezily effortless and self-possessed, while an R&B vocal cries in the background. Limbo runs like clockwork, the sound of someone in charge and in complete control; even his gloats are pretty inspired. “A lot of y’all fake flex, nigga, that is not your necklace,” he hisses on Shimmy, “and that whip ain’t yours, nigga, that’s the IRS’s”. It’s a legitimately funny moment, loaded with the sort of inarguable authority of a CEO. However, Limbo can feel a little too smug, a little too good to be true, inasmuch as it could be thought of as more professional than personal, flawless without feeling.

Does it suffer from a lack of depth? Almost. It is standard practice among rappers to dedicate at least one album track to their beloved old mum and Aminé predictably follows suit on Mama. Yet, far from being cloying or formulaic, it benefits from an affecting, revealing specificity and a lightness of touch, particularly when he applauds her “twenty-plus years at the Post Office … working graveyard shifts”; it helps that there’s an airy, wickedly catchy tune to ensure you’re not reaching for the sick bag. Elsewhere, on following track Becky, he admonishes day-to-day, depressingly unsurprising systemic racism, but smartly reframes the polemic, shot through with an undercurrent of resentment and weary resignation. As opposed to simply condemning murderous law enforcement, he zeroes in on the negatives of dating a white woman: “Your friends clench their purse, lock their doors when I’m around,” he sighs, a line more telling for its mundanity and, consequently, much more damning. You’d expect him to channel the anger and pain into fired-up raps, but instead he sings in a reedy falsetto, later joined by massed voices – thankfully, a couple voices short of a cheesy, all-out choir – amplifying the narked tone: “I’ve had enough,” they sing.

Of course, you might add that the latter is hardly anything new in rap or Aminé’s work for that matter, which might well be true. “Bury me before I’m a burden,” he huffs on Burden, “don’t bury me ’til niggas is certain”, the type of thing you’ve heard all before. Fetus’s variation of the old “letter to an unborn/future child” theme isn’t, however, or, if you have, you’ve probably not heard it tackled this sensitively or thoughtfully: while he would like to have children, he wonders aloud “what kinda nigga am I if I bring ’em in this world?”. It’s one point during Limbo that quietly gestures towards a way for Aminé out of his comfortable creative stasis – a flash of face-forward reflection beyond simply writing bangers about being the best in the game. Who knows? Maybe that’s yet to come? In any case, he certainly makes refusing to break new ground sound positively desirable.

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