Russ is a rare breed: he reps Atlanta, but sounds—and looks—unlike anybody else coming out of the city; he’s D.I.Y. to the fullest, handling everything from the songwriting to production to engineering; and over the last couple years, he’s built up a rabid fanbase and picked up a pair of RIAA certifications without much help from the mainstream music press—and until last year, without a major label (in 2016, he signed a 50/50 deal with Columbia Records).
Even the traditional concept of a debut album feels somewhat irrelevant for Russ. While he released a total of 11 projects early on in his career, Russ’ buzz really started to build once he switched up his strategy and started dropping a new song every week on SoundCloud, including the Platinum-certified “What They Want” and “Losin’ Control” (the latter of which benefitted from the Kylie Jenner Snapchat bump). The approach paid off, but it was moreso to allow Russ to “go back to what I originally wanted to do in the first place, which is drop albums.”
Naturally, There’s Really A Wolf is written, produced, engineered, mixed and mastered by Russ himself. He’s also the only voice you hear on this album because in case you haven’t noticed, he doesn’t really do features. Russ has successfully managed to break the industry without really being a part of the industry. But what’s really hiding under that wolf’s clothing?
Three Standout Songs:
When you’ve been “in the shadows for so long,” there’s only one way to kickstart your debut album: by stunting on everyone who’s ever doubted you.
Over a punishing drum loop that’s decked with keys and Kanye-esque vocal samples, Russ pounds his chest and flashes his wrist in the face of ex-girlfriends, industry execs and rappers who are trapped in the club ’cause they can’t sell tickets.
Don’t get it twisted, though, the success hasn’t turned him into a premie: “Last June I was broke, this June I made a hundred / Before and after, didn’t change me, though I stayed a hundred.”
One thing you can't fault Russ for is thinking small: “I wanna give my mom the world without worrying ‘bout the cost,” he raps on “The Stakeout.” But he also understands the work required to turn that dream into a reality, the level of laser-like focus to the point where you don’t count the days, you make the days count.
Featuring a subtle guitar loop punctuated by off-kilter claps that spray that an assault rifle on burst mode, “The Stakeout” is galvanizing enough to get you on your grind, but meditative enough to make it feel like it’s made to motivate only you.
The most reflective song on the album, “Emergency” finds Russ savoring the view at the top of the mountain he’s spent the last decade climbing—and with a gorgeous blend of soulful keys and the iconic break beat from Cold Grits’ “It’s Your Thing,” what a spectacular view it is.
As someone who’s “always moving with a sense of urgency,” though, it isn’t long before Russ’ thoughts break out into an internal tug-of-war between music and family, the present and the future, the fleeting nature of success versus the ever-looming presence of failure.
Wherever the chips may fall, Russ will always “pick ’em up and bet on myself.” It’s got him this far.
There’s Really A Wolf is an album about love and loyalty, heartbreak and hustle, independent success and unshakeable self-belief. It’s taken him 11 projects to get to this point, but on his major label debut—and 12th project overall—Russ is planting his flag. “Guess I’m finally right here / Guess there’s no turning back,” he croons on “No Turning Back.”
Crafting an album all by yourself is no easy task, but Russ makes it look effortless. His flows are nimble, his vocals are soothing—an especially potent combination on cuts like “What They Want” and “Got This”—and though his production isn’t particularly innovative or distinctive, the beats shine brightest when they’re designed to rattle your trunk (“I’m Here,” “Do It Myself”).
Beyond the underdog bravado that fuels much of the album, There’s Really A Wolf isn’t afraid to show its softer side. On “Losin Control,” Russ steps into the shoes of his first girlfriend, who has trouble trusting a new lover by the way he mistreated and cheated on her. The very next song, “Scared,” finds Russ admitting his own insecurities in love after experiencing similar betrayal. It’s a tender and vulnerable subplot that highlights the karmic effect of heartbreak.
Unfortunately, that’s about as deep or insightful as There’s Really A Wolf gets. Too much of the album is weighed down by shallow songs about flexing on the competition (“Me You”) or macking on a girl ("Ride Slow"). Then there’s “One More Shot,” which replicates the drums from Drake’s “Find Your Love” and the horns from Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” into a track that’s not as interesting as either. At 20 songs, there’s plenty of fat that could’ve been trimmed.
As much progress as Russ has made, there’s still a way to go. “Only time will tell but I been feelin’ like it’s my time / How long you gonna keep your star player on the sidelines?” he raps on the album’s curtain closer, “MVP.”
There’s Really A Wolf contains a few catchy songs that could boost his stats as a successful singles artist (“Got This,” “Don’t Lie"), but as a full project, it lacks that bite that every All-Star needs; right now, Russ is more D’Angelo Russell than Russell Westbrook. But that hasn't stopped him so far.