“Everybody’s youth is a dream,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. “A form of chemical madness.” Some people’s more than others’, bub. “Chinchilla hella furry,” crows a dreamy, youthful gentleman named Swae Lee. “Catch me on a yacht eating curry.” Tender is the night, and gleefully rough-and-tumble are the polarizing, postpubescent rap stars who roam it.
It is tempting to underestimate the Atlanta duo Rae Sremmurd, and probably wise. Swae and his brother, Slim Jxmmy, are in their early 20s, and have been carded in a strip club probably 600 times apiece. They grew up mostly in Tupelo, Mississippi, but chose their new adopted hometown wisely — every hit single is a diabolically catchy misguided tour through the Georgia capital, which remains the most idiosyncratic (and important) city in 2010s hip-hop. Early Future’s demented Auto-Tune nursery rhymes. Young Thug’s dadaist yelps and confounding fashion sense. Gucci Mane’s droll profundity. Migos’s cheerfully relentless flair for gummy-earworm repetition. 2 Chainz’s barked punch lines and class-clown exuberance. Soulja Boy’s time-honored, ringtone- or Vine- or Snapchat-worthy flair for electrifying the kids and enraging the olds. (Yes, Soulja Boy is an elder statesman now. Deal with it.) It’s all there in “No Flex Zone,” Rae Sremmurd’s smash 2014 debut, with a braying, ridiculous hook — They knooooow better! They knooooow better! — that sounded ridiculous the first time you heard it on the radio, and absurdly perfect the next 10,000 times.
Swae and Jxmmy migrated to Atlanta at the behest of woozy superproducer Mike Will Made-It, who turned Future into a pop star and Miley Cyrus into an avant-garde disruptor; as perhaps you are aware by now, their group’s name is his record label, Ear Drummers, spelled backward. (After two years, I can finally type out “Rae Sremmurd” the first time, every time, with no mistakes. I’m proud of me.) Their debut full-length, January 2015’s SremmLife, was a gargantuan success, peeling off five Hot 100–cracking singles. (The ominous “No Type” has the most prestige; the fizzy, Nicki Minaj–assisted “Throw Some Mo” has the most appeal for drunk people, or babies.) In their chosen field, only Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Future had better years, and none of those guys seemed to have much fun having them.
Which makes SremmLife 2, out tomorrow, the rare justifiable hip-hop sequel, lacking the gravitas of Future’s DS2 but way preferable to The Blueprint 3. The early singles have been promising, especially “By Chance,” which builds on the duo’s cloudy, intoxicating formula — simple and eerie piano, asphalt-rattling bass, strategic bleating, lots of dead air that crackles with vigorous life — but adds a hilarious faux-menacing deadpan affect. “Need to see the Xan man / Do you know him by chance?” the hook daintily inquires, as though asking you to pass the Grey Poupon. It’s like they’re selling ice cream cones out of a Sherman tank.
The quickest, dirtiest way to denigrate all this is to say the words “Kris Kross.” Rae Sremmurd are a frivolous enterprise, not much inclined toward social commentary, or really commentary of any kind beyond, “I am young and rich and vastly enjoying myself.” (Counterpoint: Swae Lee wrote the “woman-empowerment shit” hook for Beyoncé’s “Formation,” still inarguably the best and most important song of 2016.) Parts of SremmLife have already aged quite poorly: The celebratory jam “Up Like Trump” lands quite differently 17 months later, and “This Could Be Us” betrays an ill-advised taste in ephemeral memes that persists on the sequel, which has “new phone, who dis” and “get you a man who can do both” jokes. (The “Do Yoga” line “Two girls, I’m comin’ on bof’ of ’em” is not a BOFA reference, but it has other problems.) These fellas rose to fame via buoyancy and playfulness above all, but their sophomore album will greet a world far less buoyant and playful than it was even a year and a half ago.
Which just means that adolescent, pop-centric escapism is not a lane that rap music can afford to shut down right now. Bow Wow’s retirement announcement this week, at the “ripe old age of 29,” triggered much robust internet scoffing, but if the real world gets much darker, you might well find yourself craving a “Let Me Hold You,” or an “Iesha,” or, sure, even a “Jump.” Rae Sremmurd are slightly too old now for the kiddie route, but not by much, and the fact that the grouchy rap cognoscenti still don’t take them seriously is a feature, not a bug. They still look like kids, albeit coated in tattoos and avant-garde high-fashion finery; it’s all you can do not to throw a couple Poké Balls at ’em. They may be our best hope for some top-shelf, childlike rap effervescence, now that Future has gone pitch dark and our actual future is darker still.
All of this makes you want to drink in SremmLife 2’s knuckleheadedness straight from the fire hydrant. Care for a C-plus Lil Jon shout-along called “Set the Roof”? Sure! (That’s “set the roof” as in “set the roof on fire”; get a load of dude’s shorts.) Yet another jittery pole-dancing anthem, this one with the anatomically unwise title “Shake It Fast,” that features Juicy J, long a master at turning the subtext into the text, announcing that he’s “’bout to swipe my Black Card between her ass”? Fine. “Do Yoga” is a blissed-out sun salutation worthy of Lil Yachty that neatly manages to conceal how gross it is. (That’s the not-BOFA one.) The record’s catchiest, most triumphant moment, “Just Like Us,” sneaks in at Track 14 with a lovely, ungarbled melody, marginally less yelping, and a stirring commencement/prom-night vibe: “It ain’t no more Daddy’s Little Girl / Don’t you feel like you can take on the world?” Well, no, actually, not at the moment, but OK, OK.
So the fun parts are fun, but the less-fun parts are the truly great parts. “Came a Long Way” is a sad-piano victory lap that doesn’t feel like one. “Look Alive” is Rae Sremmurd’s gloomiest turn yet, weighed down by alluring keyboard ooze, a melancholy faux-guitar wail, and spectral falsetto mewling, like shielding your eyes from a painful sunrise. And the fantastic “Black Beatles” is even better and no brighter, with a mesmerizing, chime-haunted goth-rock turn that recalls nothing so much as the Cure’s “Disintegration.” “She think she love me,” Swae raps, his yacht and chinchilla briefly out of reach. “I think she trollin’.” Even a healthy and reinvigorated Gucci Mane (“Came in with two girls / Look like strippers in their real clothes”) can’t dispel the exquisitely dour mood.
Should Gucci have tried harder? Should Rae Sremmurd have tried harder to dispel our own collectively dour mood? Another Bad Creation, Kris Kross, Bow Wow, and the like were never exactly album artists, and career longevity proved awfully hard to come by — Swae and Jxmmy are far ahead of the game already. But the cost is high, and deeply felt here. This is a worthy sequel that disappoints only in that it’s not as carefree and boneheaded as the moment seems to demand. It’s not perfect — 14 tracks and 55 minutes is way too long to indulge pleasures this juvenile — but pleasures abound, even if they’re not so juvenile anymore. It’s churlish to ask Swae and Jxmmy to suspend whatever modest growth they’re flaunting here, and insist that they confine themselves to rolling their own personal ATMs into Magic City and shouting corny catchphrases that enrapture even full-grown adults who should definitely knooooow better. But there’s something missing now, or an unsettling thing added: a no-flex zone punctured by a creeping dread that’s already consumed everyone around them. There is chemical madness aplenty on SremmLife 2. But the youthful dream is fading fast.