Album Review: PnB Rock - TrapStar Turnt PopStar
Reviewed by: Carter Fife
It has been two years since Philadelphia native PnB Rock released his debut album ‘Catch These Vibes’, and since then his career has only gained more traction. After earning a highly-coveted spot on XXL’s 2017 Freshman list among artists like Playboi Carti, Madeintyo, and XXXTentacion, PnB Rock (né Rakim Allen) earned two platinum singles, worked alongside a broad host of artists, and even appeared on Pornhub’s Valentines Day album. Although earlier this year Allen was arrested on drug and stolen firearm charges, that did not stop him from releasing his newest project ‘Trapstar Turnt Popstar’ in early May.
'TrapStar Turnt PopStar’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts for Allen, as he has been witness to the appropriation of his sound over the past few years in the commercial music scene. Though Allen is not the originator of his hip-hop synthesis of autotuned R&B crooning and rap, he is still an important figure in hip-hop that helped popularize it. From releasing mixtapes on Soundcloud five years ago to being signed to Atlantic in 2015, PnB Rock's sound hasn’t changed too much, which may or not be a key shortcoming in the reception of his album.
For better or for worse, there is nothing ground-breaking in PnB Rock’s newest project, and perhaps it was meant to be this way. Like Allen indicates in the title, his style has become the mainstream, and he doesn’t need to change anything to be profitable when the spotlight is on him. ‘TrapStar Turn PopStar’ is a double album that begins with ‘Dreamin’ on the ’TrapStar’ side. This track is a quintessential PnB cut laced with pitch-corrected singing, vocal effects, and punchy kicks and snares. On the track, he sing-raps about his rise to fame and the benefits of his new lifestyle.
The following track ‘I Need More’ is much more of a club anthem about love and romance, with the 808s and hi-hats doing most of the leg work for the beat. This project does have a slight deviation from Allen’s past music as Allen sings (or at least, sing-raps) much more frequently than past records. The next few songs follow the same formula as the previously mentioned songs, though save for the Tee Grizzley feature on ‘Go to Mars’, there aren’t too many memorable moments. That is not to say that the music is bad, but instead, the music is painfully inoffensive. ‘MIDDLE CHILD’ contains one of the tamest XXXTentacion features yet, though things start to turn around with ‘F**k Up the City’ featuring Quavo and production from Mally Mall. Woodwinds in trap beats may have been a trend that died years ago, but Mally Mall refuses to be dated and delivers a really well-produced track that compliments the talents of both PnB Rock and Quavo. One memorable line comes from Quavo himself when he raps “I used to trap in my Concords, Now I’m doing shows in my Tom Fords’. Quavo’s juxtaposition doesn’t stop there, as one cannot help but note the difference between him and PnB Rock when they trade rhymes so effortlessly.
‘Nowadays’ is another example of PnB Rock delivering a forgettable performance, but the instrumental is incredibly catchy. The 808’s and claps provide a bouncy quality that makes the track definitely enjoyable, and although it is not something that I would put on when offered the AUX cable, I wouldn’t feel compelled to tell my friends to skip this if I heard it either. Before beginning the ‘PopStar’ side of the double album, PnB Rock concludes the first half of the album with a remix of ‘Now Or Never’ by Craig Xen, It is a genuinely sweet moment where Allen sings about a friend’s passing, and the second act of the song shows him playing to his strengths. His bars are delivered well, and although his singing ability leaves something to be desired, he hits some high notes and goes for it.
Although advertised as a divergence from ’TrapStar’, ‘PopStar’ is more-or-less the same PnB Rock that colonised the first half of this eighteen track double album, though with a few more poppy-singing performances. The first song, ‘Swervin’, features Diplo on production, but though it is more of a stripped-down and chill track, PnB Rock does not fit well on the beat. ‘Swervin’ sounds like it could have been a Katy Perry reference track, especially with the booming 808’s and choppy distorted vocal sounds in the background. While not without its shortcomings, it is a memorable debut to ‘PopStar’, and a unique combination of the two genres. The overly saccharine pop-flavored hip-hop doesn’t stop there.
'I Like Girls’ featuring Lil Skies is not as poppy as the last track, but it is definitely more of a memorable and enjoyable track than many of those in the first half of the album. Though the phrase “I like girls who like girls” is not the lyrical equivalent of reinventing the wheel, it is catchy and fun to rap along to. Hitmaka's lurchy 808’s make the hi-hats and kicks stand out well, and Lil Skies’ feature was well done. PnB and Skies sound great together, and what’s not to like about a Swae Lee shout out?
The rest of the record is pretty drab and though ‘ABCD (Friend Zone)’ was an actually enjoyable and memorable moment, it felt strange ending on such a soft note. The track features PnB sing-rapping in a cadence that very closely mirrors that of Ty Dolla $ign or Choker, with ambient pads and nice sounding hi-hats that don’t dominate the track. It is the kind of song that you could either play driving along the PCH, or at the club with your friends. It is a perfectly fun and summery song to kick off your vacation playlist.
PnB Rock’s newest album adheres pretty strictly to the aural boundaries already laid out him by his past 4 years of music, which for many people might be a positive thing. Allen’s rapping ability paired with his unique brand of autotuned-vocals is a pretty close example of the old adage ‘If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it’, but at this point in his career I cannot help but be disappointed that PnB Rock shows little to no signs of branching out, experimenting, or being willing to take creative risks. 'TrapStar Turnt PopStar’ has its moments in the sun, but for the most part, almost every track comes off as formulaic and uninspired, though that is likely a symptom of the massive influx of artists that have started to make music just like this over the past few years. In addition to this, PnB’s influences are clear and easy to spot, but there are many moments where his music sounds much more like mimicry of a Birds-era Travis Scott, a Nav, or a PartyNextDoor. There is already a heavy over-saturation of artists making music just like this in mainstream pop and hip-hop, so unless Allen decides to become more inventive and original with his melodies, flows, instrumentals or lyrics, his career might hit a wall sooner rather than later. Though I enjoyed certain moments of the music on this album, I can’t help but walk away feeling unsatisfied.