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It’s a World of Embattled Men on Metro Boomin’s ‘Heroes & Villains’

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Heroes & Villainsis the second solo showcase from Metro Boomin — third if you count his impressive 2013 mixtape, 19 & Boomin. It finds the St. Louis-to-Atlanta musician cementing himself as one of a handful of rap superproducers to emerge in the past decade. Fans will debate whether it’s a sign of genuine artistic innovation or just that he’s a bigger brand than ATL Jacob, Wheezy, Murda Beatz, and countless other aficionados who are better known to Genius than the general public. Success settles a lot of arguments: His 2018 debut, Not All Heroes Wear Capes, topped the Billboard charts.

As a helpmate to Atlanta stars like Future (“Mask Off”), 21 Savage (“X”), and Migos (“Bad & Boujee”), Metro Boomin earned a reputation for glossy synths and skittering percussion programmed into inhumanly complicated effects. His use of crazy “drums” distinguishes his work from the vibe-y, computerized washes that define so much of contemporary mainstream rap. He knows how to elicit good vocal performances: Travis Scott, Drake, and even Post Malone have recorded some of their strongest work with him. Heroes & Villains signifies his growing ambition. The album arrives with a six-minute short film that resembles Matt Reeves’ The Batman, including Lakeith Stanfield as a maniacal villain driving a flame-spewing fire truck, and Morgan Freeman in his familiar “God” role as philosophical adviser to the hero Young Metro.

Freeman also adds his distinct vocal timbre to Heroes & Villains itself. That’s him intoning at the beginning of “On Time,” “You know what they say. If Young Metro don’t trust you, motherfucker, you better run.” (Metro first utilized Freeman on 2020’s Savage Mode II, a pairing between himself and 21 Savage.) “On Time” also gives a platform to John Legend in raise-the-rafters mode as he wails, “They pray for the day that I lose it/But God gave me the power to use it.” There are similarities between Metro’s Heroes & Villains and DJ Khaled’s far weaker album GOD DID from earlier this year. Both share an ethos of “blessings” manifested in generational wealth, a prosperity gospel that Kanye West perfected in his aughts and early 2010s discography. Indeed, Jay-Z’s memorable line about living “long enough to see yourself become a villain” from West’s “So Appalled” circulates through “Superhero (Heroes & Villains).”

It would be wrong to assume that Metro is signaling tacit support for the troubled, horrifyingly antisemitic West. Heroes & Villains is simply a DC Extended Universe-style action spectacular full of mock-operatic pretensions, all the way down to a clip of Homelander’s voice from Amazon TV series The Boys on “Superhero (Heroes & Villains).” Still, academic theorists will find deeper themes if they listen closely enough. Illicit substances evoke pain and pleasure, as Travis Scott reveals on “Raindrops (Insane).” “Pill pop the pain/This purple rain,” he harmonizes, adding, “I mix up the jazz, I rhythm and blues it.” Future echoes E-40 and the Click’s classic character Captain Save a Ho on “I Can’t Save You (Interlude).” Women’s voices are virtually nonexistent, although male descriptions of their bodies are plentiful. The Weeknd and 21 Savage’s inspired “Creepin’” cover of Mario Winans’ R&B hit “I Don’t Wanna Know” may offer a momentary oasis of emotional sensitivity. But it’s not enough.

Still, Heroes & Villains is entertaining enough as a man’s, man’s, man’s world. It’s better conceptualized and executed than Only Heroes Wear Capes, even if 21 Savage can’t quite match the ASMR pleasures of that album’s “Don’t Come Out the House.” Instead, he grumbles on “Niagara Falls,” “Mike Vick, number 7, I’m a dog,” a funny reference to the NFL star’s calamitous Atlanta playing days.

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The album closer, Gunna’s “All the Money,” inadvertently turns into a stark reminder of how mainstream rap remains in crisis. Gunna and Young Thug are currently in prison on RICO charges, with a trial scheduled for next year. Migos co-founder Takeoff, who appears on “Lock on Me,” was murdered on Nov. 1. 21 Savage is still dealing with his immigration case. Scott continues to weather the legal fallout from his disastrous 2021 Astroworld festival.

As Gunna murmurs, “This time around, we want all the money,” it sounds heartbreaking. Despite Metro’s noble intentions, there are greater, villainous forces in the world that just can’t be bought off.

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