Ignore the meme album title and awful cover pairing - let’s celebrate: this year, a producer’s album hit #1 on the Billboard charts, and impressively, did so without a hit single. (“No Complaints,” included here as a bonus track, was a minor hit at best, and was released more than a year prior anyway.) That’s pretty awesome if you’d ask me; most people couldn’t tell you the differences between a hip-hop producer and a rock producer are, and someone steps from behind the boards and claims the spotlight. Of course, he’s taken lessons from self-proclaimed ‘business, man’ Jay-Z who had retired for the mere sake of coming back to no one’s surprised; after a busy 2017 (with full-length projects with Gucci Mane, Big Sean, and Offset and 21 Savage), he changed his bio on Instagream in April this year to “Retired record producer/DJ.” But he’s also taken his time to release his debut album on top of that, slowly building up his brand: responsible for Migos’ biggest hit (“Bad and Boujee”) and distilling Future’s darkness into the smoothest sound and giving him some of his best songs (there’s too many to name here, but shout-outs to “My Collection,” “I Thought It Was a Drought,” “Mask Off” and “Purple Reign”). And that’s only scratching the surface. It got to the point that hearing “Metro Boomin want some mo’”, especially in places where you weren’t expecting it (“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”) was going to give you a rush. Were this not the Spotify era, we’d be demanding “Metro Boomin compilation when” (alongside Rihanna’s), which Not All Heroes Wear Capes more or less functions like (again, sans hits). In the last quarter of 2018, very few albums felt as important as this one should have.
Should have. For a producer who’s produced songs for a who’s who of modern artists (including the occasional non-rapper like Lana Del Rey), he mostly sticks to his guns on his debut album, which applies to both the sonics (there was no way any producer sampling Annie’s “Anthonio” - the Berlin Breakdown version - was going to be bad; that’s the ear-worming sample doing all the heavy-lifting on “Overdue”) and the features. I love most producer albums because of the revolving door of voices makes for a pretty versatile album, even if it’s also the easiest way to go about it. Except there isn’t a revolving door of voices here, and I really wish he had a female one to help break up the monotony (ie. Nicki Minaj, who he’s also produced for). Not to say that the young Swae Lee sounds anything like the lethargic 21 Savage or the more acrobatic Young Thug or the hooky autotune of Travis Scott, obviously. (Though Gunna does sound like Young Thug.) But he just keeps reusing the same features, and I’m left wondering why Future couldn’t show up (interestingly, Future - who made sure to drop at least 2 projects every year - had a comparatively quiet 2018, which also applies to Gucci Mane, who does appear here), and I spend most of “Only You” wondering why Drake wasn’t involved since it’s exactly the sort of song he’d rap/sing over. (I guess Drake had to keep all his verses to himself for a double album that he wanted to do mostly solo.)
21 Savage’s feature brings out the two main highlights here. The first is “Don’t Come Out the House” whose haunted playground keyboard and woody percussion knock aesthetic are a continuation of last year’s Without Warning (also released, erm, without warning, in Hallowe’en season), with 21 Savage bringing his voice into a menacing whisper during the verse only to knock you off your feet with one of the best moments on the album: “Y’all must thought that I was gon’ whisper the whole time.” After his work with Future, Metro Boomin brings out the best out of 21 Savage, turning the rapper’s practically trademark lethargy into something that can, at its best, kind of hypnotic and concerning.
The other is “10 Freaky Girls,” which is one of the few, genuine surprises here, notably for the cinematic horns that Metro Boomin weaves in between the rest of the song, which is more or less typical Metro Boomin and 21 Savage up to their usual tricks, to say nothing of the Whitney Houston sample at the start or the rain and harmonica at the end. The other surprises are also highlights: the purple-synth molecule bouncing in zero gravity on “Space Cadet” and the piano-led “Lesbian” that had me check the credits to see if Zaytoven was involved. (Zay isn’t, but Southside is.)
But as a whole, the album is frustratingly uneven, though maybe unsurprisingly so since Metro Boomin strikes me as the sort of producer that’s best for constructing your own playlists out of and since some of the songs here feel unearthed from years back (“Up To Something” certainly is, but the harmless “Only 1” feels like a leftover from Travis Scott’s Rodeo days, which Metro Boomin also had a hand in), and this is true despite conscious thought in sequencing Not All Heroes to play in one unit (ie. 21’s rapper tag appears at the end of “Overdue”). After the solid block of tracks from Gucci Mane’s “10 AM/Save the World” (lovely hand off between the twinkly keyboards to the strings in the background) to the aforementioned “Don’t Come Out the House,” we’re dropped into “Dreamcatcher,” a track that’s way too languid in motion and way too rote in sonics. And the last stretch of tracks are particularly unmemorable, although “Borrowed Love” does have the Wendy Rene sample that I’d commend Boomin for using if Wu-Tang Clan hadn’t gotten there first on “Tearz.”
Ultimately, it could definitely have done with some more tightening and some more inspired beats/features, and part of me can’t help but wonder if Metro Boomin released his debut album in 2015-2016. Back then, his beats felt like the gold standard for atmospheric trap rap, and the best of them seemed to have more edge befitting the vision of rappers like Rodeo-era Travis Scott and Future at the height of his powers. Doubtlessly, a better album. But that also makes me wonder what’s happened in the two years in between.