A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article called “The Death of the So-Called ‘Struggle Rapper,’” where I argued that the term “struggle rapper” has outlived its usefulness—both as an insult to criticize the quality of aspiring rappers’ music, and as a dismissive label used to conflate the noble ambitions of young creatives with the aggressive strategies they sometimes use to pursue them.
I concluded this article by issuing an open invitation to musicians, pledging to “put my money where my mouth is” and listen to 45 seconds (or more) of whatever they sent me. I offered a significant caveat, stating that neither I—nor anyone else, really—is definitively qualified to act as a gatekeeper in the 2018 hip-hop landscape, but in spite of this disclaimer, my Twitter mentions were nonetheless filled with submissions from rappers seeking to take me up on my offer.
Wishing to make good on my promise, I felt that it would be insufficient to simply listen to these songs without also providing some honest feedback. To this end, I thought that the best way to carry forward the spirit of my original article would be to offer this feedback in the form of an editorial, thereby giving these aspiring musicians some additional exposure they may have otherwise had trouble accessing.
The music I was sent ranged from promising to terrible, polished to raw, and from meaningful to disposable, yet my hope is that this exercise of reviewing it publicly will give these respective artists—and any others who may read this article—something constructive to build on moving into the future.
Let’s get started.
Jamal Cristopher (@jamalcristopher) – “Come Back to California”
Beginning with a 25-second clip of the song “California Dreamin’” that fades out before the beat hits, this song does not do itself any favors by immediately drawing comparisons to one of the most universally beloved songs of all time. That said, when the song finally starts, it picks up a head of steam quickly with Jamal Cristopher dropping some clever bars over a menacing loop. “N----s love to hate, like it’ll provide ‘em income,” he sarcastically raps, eliciting some goodwill with his deadpan humor. Unfortunately, the song’s steam fades quickly, as the spare production and monotony eventually become too repetitive to hold my attention. The lyrics remain decent throughout, but the song could use a beat change-up around the 2:30-minute mark, and some more dynamic delivery to drive home its underlying emotions.
Blaze X Black (@blazeandblack) – “Whatever U Want”
A pop-leaning rap song with melodic production that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Swae Lee’s Swaecation, this song is a pleasant listen that could have used some snappier drums and a professionally sung chorus to elevate it to the next level. The lyrics, though not necessarily the main focus of the song, serve their function well enough, providing catchy refrains to sing along to while not overshadowing the melody.
Joe Renner (@joerenner206) – “Level Up”
On “Level Up,” Joe Renner proves himself to be a technically gifted rapper, with an aptitude for oscillating his flow, and a talent for crafting infectious choruses. With that being said, this song could have used the ear of a professional audio engineer: to advise Joe to increase the volume of his vocals in the final mix, and even more crucially, to polish the drums, which are in desperate need of reprogramming.
24kGoldn (@24kgoldn) – “Ballin’ Like Shareef”
I’m struggling to find a way to intellectualize my reaction to this song, so I’ll just save myself the trouble and call it what it is: a banger. With production that calls to mind some of the best work on the latest Playboi Carti album and a chorus that reminds me of some of Lil Uzi Vert’s most infectious output, I’m reasonably confident that “Ballin’ Like Shareef” is just a bit of exposure away from being a certifiable hit. I’d be surprised if this was the last time you heard of the name 24kGoldn.
B.Eveready (@BEveready) – "The Convo Different"
After listening to “The Convo Different” for just a few seconds, it’s apparent that B.Eveready has been honing his craft for several years. With a voice and delivery somewhat reminiscent of Skyzoo, he catches your ear with crafty variations in flow and the occasionally clever punchline, like “Find my iPhone notes in the Smithsonian.” In my opinion, he could do away with his Eminem-esque habit of packing extraneous rhyming syllables into his bars just to make them sound complicated, but he seems to be doing well enough without my advice.
Danny Onionz (@DannyOnionz) – "ET"
With a beat that samples The Alabama Shakes and a delivery that reminds me of MC Paul Barman, Danny Onionz seems to be searching for a very specific sound and, from what I can tell, is on the verge of finding it. Though he could probably benefit from consulting a professional audio engineer, “ET” doesn’t suffer from its unpolished sound because the song’s uncontrived rawness somehow plays into his overall aesthetic. If only it was fifteen years ago and Def Jux was still signing every over-enunciating rapper on the planet, he might have stood a fighting chance.
Mack Strong (@mackstrong3) — "Struggle" ft. Whitney Compton
If it seems like too much of a coincidence that Mack Strong sent me a completely unrelated song called “Struggle” in response to an article I wrote about struggle rappers, I don’t think it is. This song, despite its name, is not actually about Mack’s experiences as a rapper at all, but rather about the overarching concept of struggle in general. Although the song broadly discusses important issues—like the mistreatment of women and institutional racism—it’s just a little too heavy-handed for my personal tastes. Lyrics like “You could be whatever that you want to be / I hope you be yourself, never be a wannabe” are just a tad too saccharine to be genuinely inspiring. That said, making well-regarded conscious rap is a nearly impossible task, particularly if you don’t rely on platitudes as a crutch, so kudos to Mack for trying. On the brighter side of things, this song boasts a lush soundbed, complete with luxurious production and pretty vocal harmonies, showcasing an attention to sonic detail that is not always present on the releases of young artists.
Lew Salem (@LewSalem) – "Gravity (Dance On Me)" ft. Agent P
Despite audio quality that is a little rough around the edges, this bouncy, GoldLink-inspired cut will undoubtedly creep up on you, causing you to nod your head before you even realize you’re doing it. While the lyrics consist mostly of trivial ruminations on dancing, the chorus exists at the perfect intersection between catchy and grating, creating an undeniable earworm that could very well burrow itself into your head for days on end. If Lew can work on sharpening the finishing touches, he might have something here.
SADAO (@sadaomusic) – “Link In Bio” ft. rockits
Described by SADAO on Twitter as a “troll song” about the struggle rap phenomenon, "Link In Bio" comes complete with hazy, Clams Casino-style production and hilariously repetitive lyrics that somehow get stuck in your head. Bringing to mind the best work of Lil B, this song repeats a refrain of “Link in my bio” over and over again, while ad-libs like “For the culture!” feature prominently in the background, causing me to laugh out loud at the entertainingly accurate nature of the parody. The lines, “Check out my track (check it out!) / Check out my tape (it’s in the bio!) / I fuck with the movement / Yo let’s create (I fuck with you!)” might be funnier than any bars Lil Dicky has ever written.
K-KiD (@K_KiDofTopNotch) – “Legend”
Another song that requires a bit of polish around the edges, there are moments here where K-KiD seems poised and ready to be an artist and others where he seems to lack direction entirely. Evidently inspired by J. Cole, K-KiD should work on sharpening his lyrical focus and riding the pocket of the beat, both of which are skills Cole excels at. The production is refreshingly lush, but the song could have benefited from more time spent on audio engineering and the employment of a professional singer to sing the melody on the bridge.
The Prophet Najee (@TheProphetNajee) – “Facing Undertaker”
With confident brags like “Best dressed back in high school off Goodwill clothing” punctuated by Najee’s vibrant delivery, “Facing Undertaker” offers evidence of a promising young rapper at the tail end of his search for a voice. One of the primary things Najee has going for him, however, is the natural timbre of his voice, which is infinitely listenable in a way that can’t be affected or learned. Not to be outdone, the production is also great, home to a haunting vocal sample and the gritty distortion sound that is so endlessly sought after in the current rap landscape.
Caulfied (@KillaCaulfield) – “No Fucks Given”
According to Caulfield, “No Fucks Given” is the single off a concept EP he is releasing that seeks to explore the five stages of grief. If I didn’t know ahead of time that this song was meant to represent the second stage of grief—anger—I may have been less inclined to look kindly on the song’s completely unnecessary shots at Lil Pump, but as it stands, these disses fit well into the song’s lyrical theme of aggressive overcompensation. “No Fucks Given” mostly works as a song on its own merits, but I do find myself wondering whether its conceptual context is evident to any of the listeners who didn’t receive the same email I did explaining it directly. Artistic ambition is inarguably important for young rappers, but in this particular case, I’d say that it may have been a good idea for Caulfield to pause for a moment to make sure his listeners were on the same page as he was.
Antoine Haywood (@antoinehaywood) – “The Weary Blues”
A heavily concept-driven song inspired by the suicidal ideations of the characters of Langston Hughes poems, I’m not sure whether "The Weary Blues" is a record I’d personally send to a blogger to form their first impression of my music, but Antoine executes this concept artfully, writing emotionally charged lyrics that match the mind-frames of the characters who inspired him. The song’s chorus could use some work and the verses could stand to be re-recorded to sharpen transitions between lines, but the song’s outro is beautiful and there’s a literary quality to Antoine’s writing that is worth exploring further.
restrictEd (@restrictEd313) – “Parades” ft. Black Milk & Buddy1231
The danger of paying a well-known artist like Black Milk for a feature is that he is almost certainly going to outshine you on your own song. Not only does he out-rap both restrictEd and fellow guest feature artist Buddy1231, his draw is so large that it also makes you want to fast forward through their parts in anticipation of his verse. It’s a bit of a shame because the first two verses are also good, packed with introspective lyrics and intricate flows that showcase these two rappers’ respective abilities on the mic. The song is ultimately held back by a need for better audio engineering, as both the vocals and the drums get drowned out in the final mix.
ekke (@ItsEkke) – “Labour Day"
While I thought we’d left gratuitous sex skits on rap albums in the ‘90s, this song begins with a sample of a woman moaning that is vaguely reminiscent of that era. The song gets better as it goes along, with the second verse outshining the first, and Ekke’s confident delivery and dynamic variations in flow keeping things interesting. The clear star on this song, however, is the production, as the composition morphs several times to embody different moods on the verses, pre-chorus, chorus, and bridge.
Keep Right (@KeepRightX) – “The Maze”
With a beat that sounds like it was ripped from a YouTube video entitled “J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League Type Beat,” this song never quite takes off because the instrument and drum sounds don’t provide the necessary depth to feel authentic. For his part, Keep Right raps confidently on beat, but has a hard time keeping things interesting with an uninspired chorus that continuously interrupts the song’s momentum. Going forward, Keep Right should build on his strengths by investing in some quality VSTs and focusing on more dynamic songwriting.