In today’s climate where “bangers” are more valued than bars, Nick Grant’s rise is refreshingly old school.
In October 2015, the 28-year-old South Carolina MC wriggled his way onto Sway In The Morning and set the studio—occupied by Jeezy, Don Cannon and CyHi The Prynce, so no pressure—on fire with a face-scrunching freestyle. Snowman literally threw his hands in the air and rushed out of the room.
Since then, Grant’s rhyming skills have built him a budding fanbase (which includes André 3000 and Talib Kweli), plus a deal with Epic Records. He even linked up with his manager—Jason Geter, veteran music executive and T.I.’s Grand Hustle partner—by sending him a demo tape (remember those?) years prior. Just like the good old days.
That’s not to say Nick Grant’s music isn’t deserving of a record deal, though. Last February, the Walterboro native released the quietly impressive ’88, his first project under his government name that featured collaborations with Big K.R.I.T., Killer Mike and Young Dro. That was followed by A Seat at the Table Plus One, a four-song EP inspired by Solange’s critically acclaimed album.
Both of those, however, were just a warm up for Grant’s major label debut, Return of the Cool, which arrived somewhat out of the blue last Friday, January 13. The 11-track project includes guest spots from BJ The Chicago Kid, Miloh Smith and WatchTheDuck, as well as production from Karriem Riggins, DJ Khalil and Organized Noize.
As a respected rapper on the rise who’s better known for his hot rhymes than hit records, Return of the Cool is Nick Grant’s best chance to prove himself as a full-fledged artist. Can he seize the moment like he did on Sway In The Morning?
Three Standout Songs (Beyond the Singles "Get Up" and "The Sing Along"):
Nick Grant isn't particularly a fan of trap music’s chokehold on the game, which is ironic because Return of the Cool’s best moment is the token trap song. “Bouncin’” is an obvious departure from the album’s live instrumentation, but Mike & Keys and MyGuyMars’ menacing production only adds more bite to Grant’s bark. “Tell them n*ggas cool out / ‘Fore they hear that booyah / Party animal, it’s like when Meech brought the zoo out,” he snarls, slyly referencing the Black Mafia Family’s extravagant parties. Even when his personality switches up, Nick’s pen game remains A1.
“Gotta Be More” ft. BJ The Chicago Kid
BJ The Chicago Kid is by far the most recognizable—not to mention exciting—name on Return of the Cool’s tracklisting and his collaboration doesn’t disappoint. Over a funky skeletal beat from Karriem Riggins, Nick gets his Fred Hampton on and calls for change in both the hood and the White House: “A nation in debt and here we are begging for change / All for nothing another brother slained.” BJ, meanwhile, uses his soothing voice to simplify the message, because that what a great hook man does.
“Drug Lord Couture”
Nick Grant’s persona is far from that of Pusha T or Yo Gotti, but he embodies the dope boy lifestyle on the exquisitely titled “Drug Lord Couture.” “N*ggas that you admire acknowledge me, its prophecy / No shame cocaine white as the dress on the bride to be,” he spits over a sick bassline decorated with strings and keys. With his finger on the trigger, Nick also goes in on fake rappers, ghostwriters and snitches.
Nick Grant is one of the most thrilling rappers to watch in action. Unfortunately, Return of the Cool rarely excites.
Despite its live instrumentation and roster of revered producers like Organized Noize and Karriem Riggins, Return of the Cool sounds boring and bland. With the exception of "Bouncin'" and "Gotta Be More," the album fails to evoke those same emotions you get when hearing Nick freestyle—the twisted facial expressions, the transfixed head nodding. While it's understandable that a new artist would want to showcase his versatility on his major label debut, songs like "Get Up" and "All of You" feel like they're on the album to tick boxes—the throwback dancefloor anthem? Check. The R&B radio song? Yeah, throw one on there.
That’s not to say Nick watered down the ink in his pen, though. Lyrically, Return of the Cool is packed with both style and substance as Grant tells it like it is, then tells it how it could be (word to 3 Stacks). The album is peppered with crafty one-liners (“Two hundred on a car dash with a trunkful of Ye”), but rhymes that get a reaction during a radio freestyle don’t always have the same impact in a song. At times, you wish Nick would’ve sacrificed the punchlines for something a little more personal. Return of the Cool's main problem is that there's a lot of great rapping, but not a lot of great songs.
It’d be harsh to call Return of the Cool an opportunity wasted for Nick Grant because maybe the moment wasn’t there to seize in the first place. With little promotion and momentum behind the album, the lack of fanfare to its arrival is hardly surprising. Beyond the previously released “Get Up” and “The Sing Along,” Epic will be lucky to find a song that can extend its shelf life. Ultimately, another mixtape—with less commercial pressure and perhaps even more creative freedom—would have served Nick better than being rushed into releasing his major label debut.
For Nick Grant, this is a silver lining, though; a chance to find a sound that complements his well-honed craft. Cole, K.R.I.T. and other rappers of his ilk all developed a distinct aesthetic after a bit of trial-and-error. Maybe Nick’s next best move is to hunt down a producer—or a small team of producers—who can build the best canvas to bring the colors out of his accomplished pen.
Until then, Nick Grant will be endlessly entertaining to watch, but not necessarily to listen to.
By Andy James. You can follow him on Twitter.