Latto ‘777’ Review: Armed Pop-Rap
On Thursday evening, the big FX show Atlanta finally returned from a four-year hiatus, and the first two episodes of its third season were lively, surreal, atmospheric mini-masterpieces. Atlanta is so beyond all other TV shows that it’s not even fair to compare them. It’s like we all got used to enjoying Atlanta bite like Davidand the real Atlanta had to clear his throat and remind the world what it feels like to really get lost in a TV show. Then, hours after that first episode appeared on Hulu, show creator Donald Glover dropped his first rap verse in what feels like years, talking about slipping gums and having still look bummy on “Sunshine,” an album track from Atlanta rapper Latto. Donald Glover’s whole rap and bullshit side as Childish Gambino is decidedly a mixed bag, but his verse on “Sunshine” is sharp and assured. He looks like a star, probably because he is a star. But the most interesting thing about “Sunshine” is the fact that it exists – that Glover would make his triumphant return to rapping on this particular record.
Much has gone into “Sunshine,” a sweet, catchy track that plays with gospel in the manner of Chance The Rapper. The song has four different producers, including Kanye West’s longtime secret weapon, Mike Dean, and there’s also a completely locked-in Lil Wayne threatening Will Smith with someone. (“Sunshine” was released two days before the Oscars. Did Wayne to know? Or does he just associate the characters of Will Smith with beating people up?) It’s a real statement for a relatively new rapper like Latto to have Wayne and Glover on the same song, especially when that song doesn’t isn’t even a single. It’s a clear sign that the music industry believes in Latto. Someone hears money in her. Someone may not be wrong.
Latto is Columbus-born, Atlanta-raised Alyssa Stephens, who says she’s been rapping since she was eight years old. When she started, Latto made one of the biggest unforced errors of all time, taking the rap name Mulatto. She finally changed her name less than a year ago. Miraculously enough, the rebrand stuck, and it doesn’t seem like she took that much shit for it. As a teenager, Latto made her debut by winning the first season of The rap gamea lifelong rap competition reality show that I’ve never watched in my life, and turned down the So So Def contract that was supposed to be the show’s grand prize.
Latto started releasing mixtapes in 2016, the same year she won The rap game. She really started to take off in 2019, when she released the online hit “Bitch From Da Souf” and then the remix with Saweetie and Trina. This independently released song cracked the Hot 100 and landed Latto a deal with RCA. Latto’s debut album Queen of Da Souf, released in 2020, was not a huge success, but a few of its singles went platinum. Latto entered the round table of star rappers and became a XXL Freshman – the standard come-up for young rappers starting to make a splash in the industry.
As a rapper, Latto isn’t hugely distinct. She sounds a lot like a lot of established rappers, and she overcomes raunch and attitude. But she also has strong pop instincts and she knows how to play the game. Her songs are often less than two minutes long – just quick and efficient little delivery systems for hooks and grunts. She is particularly good at nostalgia. One of the tubes of Queen of Da Souf was “Muwop,” which featured Gucci Mane and used the beat from Gucci’s 2007 hit “Freaky Gurl.” old hits, but effectively remakes those hits, drawing inspiration from the nostalgia that those old hits evoke.
Last year, Latto supercharged this strategy. “Big Energy,” released in September, is by far Latto’s biggest hit, and one of the most cynical and obvious hit-hunting attempts I’ve heard in a long time. “Big Energy” samples the Tom Tom Club dance classic “Genius Of Love,” the same track Mariah Carey used in her 1995 hit “Fantasy,” and it also quotes “Fantasy” extensively. (As in: “Bad bitch, I could be your fantasy.”) The song is built around the phrase “big dick energy,” and you can practically hear an entire boardroom decide that a viral catchphrase from years ago three years should be the basis of a hit song right now. On top of that, one of the three producers of “Big Energy” is disgraced hitmaker Dr. Luke, who apparently makes too much money to drive too many people out of the business. From its glitzy video to its brilliant hooks, Latto’s “Big Energy” is pure product, and I should probably hate it. I do not know. (Admittedly, I hate it a little more now that I know Dr. Luke was involved.)
“Big Energy” has been gaining momentum for months and continues to climb the Hot 100. Right now the song sits at No. 11, and it is absolutely guaranteed to enter the top 10 next week. – not just because Latto’s album is out now but also because of the remix that arrived on Monday. Mariah Carey herself appeared on the “Big Energy” remix, singing a bit of “Fantasy” and hitting some whistle register notes. (DJ Khaled is there too. I don’t know why anyone would think Khaled would add anything to a remix in 2022, but we apparently still do.)
Mariah Carey has a vested interest here. Currently, Carey has 19 No. 1 hits, one shy of all-time champions The Beatles. If the “Big Energy” remix finds its way to the top of the Hot 100 — and lots of different types of record labels are sure trying to push the song there — then Mariah will finally catch up with the Beatles. This is what she very clearly wants. Maybe singing his old song on a remix spot would just technically give Mariah Carey her 20th top ranking, but that feat is still up in the air.
Is Latto a real star? The success of “Big Energy” would support the idea that she is, but I’m not sure. She is definitely an engaging presence. She can rap, and she can compose a song, but I don’t hear a ton of personality in her music. Maybe she doesn’t need so much personality. His new album 777 is a sharp and artful piece of pop-rap. It’s remarkably short, going through 13 songs in just half an hour, and every song is catchy. The production is crisp and clean, even though each track has multiple credited producers. (Mike Dean is involved in almost every song.) There are also a ton of big name guests on the album, not just Childish Gambino and Lil Wayne, but also Lil Durk, Kodak Black, Nardo Wick, 21 Savage.
As with “Big Energy,” Latto makes constant callbacks to older hits — a quote from Crime Mob’s crunk classic “Stilettos (Pumps)” on one track, a sample of Vanessa Carlton’s enduring pop vigil “A Thousand Miles ” on another. Latto’s favorite topics are slapping inferior rappers and being really good at sex, and she launches into some funnier lines on the latter topic. (“Slurp me like I’m soup” is lively, but I’ve heard tens of thousands of equally nasty punchlines about blowjobs, so fair play.) None of the tracks on the album are revelations, but all sound like potential singles. That’s the whole idea here. Latto tries to do shotsand she’s not above relying on the most conventional wisdom to achieve those successes.
More than most major label rap albums, 777 is the total product of a great brand. Every moment you can see the gears turning. Latto isn’t trying to hide those gears either; she already talks about the inevitable deluxe edition of the album in interviews. No one encourages us to think about 777 like a work of art, and there’s something oddly endearing about that. It’s the corollary of the Marvel movie: loathsome corporate entertainment ceases to be loathsome if it succeeds in entertaining. I think 777 is quite entertaining, in its low-stakes, low-commitment genre. Maybe I’m an easy mark.
1. 42 Dugg & EST Gee – “Free the Minnows”
Dugg and Gee have two of the best voices in rap, and they make perfect sense together. Everything Dugg says sounds like a hook, and everything Gee says has gravity. Sometimes that’s all you need.
2. Open Mike Eagle – “Multi-Game Arcade Cabinet” (Feat. RAP Ferreira, Still Rift., & Video Dave)
I love an indie-rap group tryout, where you can tell all these people were in the same place at the same time when the song was being recorded, where they were all trying to impress and outdo each other. But no one will top Open Mike Eagle anytime soon: “Put some dough, I watch when my plays fail / I think it’s Orson Welles dodging the voicemail.”
3. Trapland Pat – “Hellcat” (Feat. Eli Fross)
Rap has no shortage of characters right now, but Trapland Pat is a personageand there’s always room for a guy like that.
4. Sauce Walka, Voochie P and 44 Mike Deezy – “Basquiat”
Every time Sauce Walka releases a new track, I wish I could have been in the room when it was recorded. Recording studios are incredibly boring places, so that’s kind of a skill.
5. Russ Millions, Buni and YV – “Reggae & Calypso (Remix)” (Feat. CH, SwitchOTR, Gazo and Rose Real)
Once upon a time, every rap song that blew up got a remix with at least five different rappers on it. I miss it, and would like to commend UK Drilling for keeping the tradition alive. In a context like this, a great rapper can really stand out and make a name for themselves. “Reggae & Calypso” was already a great song, but the remix makes it a showcase for a bunch of rappers I don’t know yet. My favorite is Gazo, a French star who raps in his own language and has an incredibly cool and authoritative voice.