Skillz - Million Dollar Backpack

Posted July 23, 2008
Tags: Skillz,

Skillz’ professional troubles began on the fateful day of February 13, 1996. Leading up to...

Million Dollar Backpack Album Review

Skillz’ professional troubles began on the fateful day of February 13, 1996. Leading up to the release of his debut album, From Where???, all signs pointed to his success. The starry-eyed emcee had placed second in a national freestyling competition and won a coveted multi-record deal with Atlantic Records. Unfortunately, Atlantic pegged the aforementioned date for its release, leaving it to compete with The Fugees’ The Score and Tupac’s All Eyez On Me, which were set to drop the very same day. From Where??? crumbled under the competition and tanked faster than a concrete sailboat. Since that day, Skillz’ career has continued to be dictated by the success of other rappers.

For the past decade, Skillz has made his living ghostwriting for artists like Diddy, Foxy Brown, and Ma$e. To make a baseball analogy, ghostwriters are the Victor Contes of the rap industry, infusing their “performance-enhancing” lyrics into the mouths of otherwise vapid artists. While the practice may be a necessary evil for teen pop sensations, it is hip-hop’s dirtiest little secret. Verbal self-expression is the foundation of rap; when fans catch wind that one man’s words aren’t actually his own, heads start to roll. Sure, Skillz has maintained some degree of relevancy with his hilariously accurate year-end “rap ups” and his forgettable sophomore effort, Confessions of a Ghostwriter, but when it comes down to paying the bills, he has resigned himself to the role of a starving artist betraying his craft to make a buck.

Skillz’ third album, Million Dollar Backpack, finds him finally over the bitterness he has so long retained for his tainted past. Instead of dwelling on the skeletons in his closet, he sticks to the familiar staples of East Coast backpack rap: introspection, braggadocio, social commentary, and girls. The self-reflective tracks that give brutally honest glimpses into his complex psyche are his best. So Far So Good, the album’s lead single and one of this summer’s better cuts, is an earnest account of the successes and failures he has faced throughout his career. Usef Dinero might as well be 9th Wonder on the boards, and guest Common is his typical self. Where I’ve Been has the same charm.

When it comes to the art of the brag, Skillz is more hit or miss. Don’t Act Like You Don’t Know, an up-tempo battle track featuring Freeway, showcases the two rappers deftly weaving back and forth with clever punch lines and angry jabs at the less-capable. But then he gives us songs like Sick, an unintentionally self-deprecating track about how much longer Skillz has been sick than other rappers (but not how much sicker). We get it, dude; you’re old. On the social commentary side, Crazy World, a lighthearted rap-musical straight out of Idlewild territory, may be the most original track on the CD, but it sounds terribly out of place on an otherwise safe album.

When it comes to the ladies, Skillz falls flat on his face. My Phone, a laundry list of all the celebrities he has scored digits from over the years, is one of the weakest (and weirdest) tracks on the album. Listeners won’t give a damn about his bloated contact list or his creepy late-night texts. Preaching To The Choir, a love ballad with vague religious undertones, exposes the Achilles' heel in his lyricism: storytelling. Skillz may be a master of metaphors when he has the whole world at the tip of his pen, but when he is confined to a single storyline or topic (e.g. cell phones), he rhymes are like Dr. Seuss. Tracks like Be Alright, a day-in-the-life song evocative of Ice Cube’s It Was a Good Day, and Hip-Hop Died, a cynical assessment of the industry, should never have made the album. C’mon, Skillz, if you aren’t going to put in the lyrical effort, at least get a ghostwriter to do it.

Fortunately for Skillz, hip-hop fans will view Million Dollar Backpack as his untainted rebirth into the vocal world of rap. Unfortunately for Skillz, hip-hop fans will view Million Dollar Backpack as his untainted rebirth into the vocal world of rap. Skillz has spent the past decade making other rappers better. It should therefore come as no surprise that the three best cuts off the album are the three collabos. When he flies solo, he’s inconsistent at best and mind-numbingly ordinary at worst. Some listeners may theorize that ghostwriting for mainstream acts has caused his lyrical prowess to deteriorate over the years. Well, Skillz, you had it coming.

DJBooth Rating - 3 Spins

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Posted July 23, 2008
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