“Murder On My Mind,” the biggest single by the Florida rapper YNW Melly, is an exercise in contrasts. He waxes about taking someone’s life as if the act were akin to making love, describing in exacting detail how he wakes up consumed with homicidal thoughts and how the scene would play out, over sombre piano chords. (The song’s ostensible and less popular companion, “Mind On My Murder,” finds him envisioning his own premature death.) The track is haunting in every sense of the word, and it’s precisely the juxtaposition of Melly’s soulful crooning with the bleak subject matter that makes his music so compelling.
His breakout mixtape, “I Am You,” from 2018, was filled with similar heartless but also heartfelt displays. One song, “Mama Cry,” is a jail-cell apology letter to his mother wherein he repents for the hurt he’s caused her in a cadence that resembles a sinister nursery rhyme. “Mama Cry” exists as a foil of sorts to the shameless “Virtual (Blue Balenciagas),” a gunplay fantasy set against a bright production that seems to twinkle like a ballerina jewelry box. When he threatens to “Up that .40, let that pistol sing a melody,” on the song’s hook, he drags the final note, giving the statement a melody of its own.
Riding the wave of his own viral momentum, Melly released another project, “We All Shine,” last Friday. He shared the release date with one of his stylistic progenitors, the Atlanta rapper Future, who put out his seventh album, “The WIZRD.” It’s a heavenly pairing for those who prefer their trap music suffused with anguish. Having made bedfellows of their demons, both rappers know the magic of transforming the voice into its own instrument, a medium to let those demons speak. Their singsong flows, trills, and warbles make pain come alive—a siren song calling out to those who revel in darkness.
Future has built his career on shrouding his hardest truths in the sounds that bring us pleasure; the distance between his best and worst days is in each melody. His voice sounds aged and crackly when it shifts from rich shit-talker to wounded troubadour, both of which he portrays with striking conviction. But, on “The WIZRD,” he often sounds jaded as he takes stock of his own myth. Here, the bittersweet part of his legacy—his star status and very public life, his alleged newfound sobriety in a sea of addicts—weighs the music down. If the idea was to introduce a new chapter of maturation, he seems burdened by the prospect. He’s indignant on one standout track, “Krazy But True”: “You need to pay me my respects / Your socks, rings, and your lean / The way you drop your mixtapes, your ad-libs and everything,” he sing-raps.
There will always be an addictive quality to Future’s syrupy flows, which have inspired so many rappers to replicate the duality of charming euphony attached to dreary subject matter. When Future wails, “I done got rich and it cursed me / Ever since I got successful, they envy / Tryna shake the devil, on promethazine,” on the melancholic opener, “Never Stop”—the whining in his melody emphasized on the end vowels—he conjures sympathy, empathy, and apathy all at once. But what this latest album is missing is the agony of regret. In a recent profile published in Rolling Stone, Future does seem guilt-ridden as he speaks of the power that he may have wielded recklessly: “Like, ‘Damn, what have I done? What have I done to other people? What I did to myself?’ ” he said, reflecting on having learned that the Chicago emo rapper Juice WRLD, with whom he released a collaborative mixtape last year, tried lean for the first time under the influence of his music. A palpable sense of regret only peeks through the new album in flashes, as on the contemplative “Temptation.” Instead, Future dresses his torment in couture and surrounds it with music that will drive you to the club long before it drives you to a therapist or to rehab.
The nineteen-year-old Melly, who has one of the more unique voices in rap at the moment, takes plenty from the gospel of Future, but, on “We All Shine,” he injects his own disarming levity into his blues. If Future is all about middle-of-the-night reflections, Melly muses in broad daylight. “We All Shine” (even the title is tinged with optimism) toys with melody in a way that casts Melly’s grimmest moments into the sun: singing isn’t just for bringing listeners into the depths of his struggles—it’s for everything. He sets murder and armed theft (as on the delighted “Robbery”) to lullaby-style tunes, and they sound much the same as his paranoid and heartsick love songs.
The contrast is as jarring as it is alluring, and he deploys it over and over again. “No Holidays,” which calls to mind another preëminent stylist, Young Thug, features Melly vocalizing over a rosy piano-driven production about all the celebrations he missed while he was locked up. On the bonus track, “Butter Pecan,” which was originally released in June, he juxtaposes the childlike innocence of apple juice with the escapist drug Molly. And, elsewhere, the remarkably self-aware single “Mixed Personalities” brings Kanye West (himself no stranger to the power of crooning) in on the apocalyptic fun. “She got me stressing, singing melodies,” West declares ironically on the song’s hook. True to Melly’s style, though, nothing about the song (nor its whimsical video) actually evokes the sense of trouble that its lyrics suggest.
Like Future, and maybe, in some ways, like West, too, Melly has found a way to make placid unravelling an art form unto itself. Their tales of a life touched by the streets are dipped in sugary inflections that all but guarantee a wider, poppier audience—often at the expense of the gravity of their own lyrics. Still, there is something to be said about an artist’s versatility, rap’s long history of transmuting hardships into palatable music, and how that legacy makes Future’s convictions and Melly’s aspirations feel like they’re in dialogue with each other. “The WIZRD” is the image of an artist searching for life after trauma. “We All Shine” reflects one who is still trying to outrun it.