I'll be the first to admit I was late to the Dave East fan club.
For the past few years, everyone from my cousin Rey to Funkmaster Flex has been vouching for the Harlem spitter; first, after he signed a record deal with Nas and Mass Appeal, and then after he partnered with Def Jam. It wasn't until the release of his 2016 mixtape Kairi Chanel, released the day after his Def Jam signing was officially announced, that I pressed play and really sat with Dave's music. Unfortunately, for as many standout tracks are there are on Kairi Chanel ("Type of Time," "The Real is Back," "Bad Boy on Death Row"), there were also plenty of forgettable ones.
Shortly thereafter, I dove into Dave's discography and what I found was a combination of vivid storytelling, bars, and a few absolute bangers. What I did not find, however, was any kind of cohesive project.
When East's newly-released project, Paranoia: A True Story, was announced earlier this month, I was excited based solely on what the title suggests: a cohesive, honest body of work from a rising storyteller. However, I soon found out that Paranoia is "an EP"—not a debut album. Setting aside the fact that Paranoia is 13 tracks, which means it literally cannot be considered an EP, I initially assumed that the decision to not label the project as East's formal debut offering meant that his team and record label lacked confidence in the final product.
After several listens, I’m happy to write that Paranoia is even better than I expected. The project isn’t one cohesive story like the title would suggest, but the themes across Paranoia felt much more focused than any of East’s last few projects (an exception is the Chris Brown-assisted “Perfect,” which feels out of place here). It’s still the same Dave East, but darker in tone and production. Whereas Kairi Chanel didn’t feel like a project about his baby, Paranoia actually feels like paranoia.
For only eight tracks (excluding skits/interlude), there is a nice range of sounds here. Most of the production is handled by Joe Joe Beats, who provides East with a raw, boom bap backdrop that truly complements his style. There is additional production from 808 Mafia (“Paranoia”), Reazy Renegade (“Phone Jumpin”) and CashMoneyAP (“Found A Way”) as East has never shied away from trap beats. 808 Mafia set the tone with their dark, grimy and thumping intro.
The features, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. Nas' "feature" is him speaking on the intro and outro of “The Hated,” which is disappointing. Wiz delivers a typical verse, and French Montana does Harry Fraud's production justice—again. The Jazzy Amra interlude is well-sequenced before “Perfect,” but I would have preferred to hear East sing himself, rather than another dime a dozen Chris Brown hook. Jeezy has the project's best feature, with a memorable opening line, “I made a million a million times.”
The skits are a nice touch, with “The Hated (Skit),” being one of the funniest I’ve heard all year:
“Hol’ up, who this pulling up? Look like the East nigga, pshhh… Dave East! What’s up niggaaa!!!”
It’s disappointing to see that the project didn’t receive much promotion or build-up in its rollout because although Dave East fans will surely enjoy it, it's strong enough to draw in newer fans (such as myself). The lack of attention paid to this project, especially while fans are waiting for Dave's true debut album, could be detrimental to his momentum.
Paranoia might’ve been a very necessary step, though. The tone is more consistent than past projects, and a growth in focus is clear; exactly what East needs to deliver a debut that lives up to his Nas co-sign. East is working with No I.D. on the album, who recently pushed Hov and Vic Mensa to be more vulnerable and dig deeper on their recent albums, so after seeing East's growth on Paranoia, I'm even more excited for his debut.
For those fans who were expecting a formal debut, give Dave East a little more time. Paranoia is good (enough to hold you over), and you can’t rush greatness. For those who have never gotten into the hype behind Dave East, Paranoia is a great place to start.
The only thing you’ll be missing is that wonderful “LIIIIGHTTT-IIIIITTT” ad lib he used to do.
3 Standout Tracks
“The Hated” ft. Nas
Don’t expect any bars from Esco, but a lyrically focused East who—colder than usual—delivers tales of the hood over the grimy production is plenty to enjoy. If you weren’t locked in while listening yet, “They hated Jesus, hated Malcolm, hated Martin,” on the hook will do it.
“Phone Jumpin” ft. Wiz Khalifa
As if “Paranoia” and “The Hated” didn’t already set the tone, “Phone Jumpin" is just as dark and pairs uptempo production with East’s lyrical onslaught, making for a track that literally sounds like panic.
"Have You Ever"
The most soulful production on the album makes for the perfect outro. Preceded by a skit that features his daughter, East is still rapping about his crime-ridden past but seems more at ease. It’s as if, thanks to Kairi, the paranoia is finally wearing thin and he’s coming to terms with his life. Once again, he sounds more focused than ever.