It’s hard not to feel bad for Skillz; the man’s entire career looks like a study in missed opportunities and bizarre turns of fate. He signed with Rawkus at exactly the wrong moment. He never managed to turn Timbaland and Neptunes affiliations into actual hit songs. He got stuck in a weird mini-feud with Shaq, of all people, a couple of years ago and rode it for all it was worth. He changed his name from Mad Skillz to just Skillz for no apparent reason. He put out an album this year on an indie label I never heard of, and I didn’t even know about it until I Googled him just now. But things aren’t so bad for Skillz. As he never stops reminding us, he ghost-writes for other rappers, and there’s real money there. And every year, for about a week, he gets a whole lot of radio play.
The reason is the Rap Up, a mini-franchise he’s managed to make for himself. Ever year, around the end of the year, he does a song where he riffs on just about every event of the year. He’s been doing them since I think 2002, but he gave an interview with Allhiphop.com last month where he said he wouldn’t do it again, was bored with it, didn’t want to keep hearing about them. It’s makes sense that he wouldn’t want to do the same thing over and over, but it wasn’t good news; the Rap Ups are consistently and compulsively funny and quotable, the guy’s one real annual moment of glory.
So it’s hard to convey just how happy I was driving a rental car past Philadelphia yesterday, flipping through the radio, and the 05 Rap Up came on, easily the best yet, a ridiculously great seven-and-a-half minute marathon over the silky instrumental from Jamie Foxx’s “Unpredictable.” Skillz is funny, and he’s a good rapper, though not as good as some might have you believe, likable and easy but still kind of clumsy. But the thing that makes the Rap Ups great is his candor; he isn’t afraid to name names or call out famous and powerful rappers, a rarity in today’s landscape of ever-shifting beefs and short tempers. Only rappers directly beefing with each other ever say anything critical about other rappers, so it’s unbelievably refreshing to hear someone on the radio calling out big targets and having fun with it. Here’s Skillz on 50 Cent and Game: “How can two men go so hard and dis each other / Then at the press conference look like they about to kiss each other?” Or on Kanye’s telethon outburst: “We was all like, ‘Yeah, what he saying is true’ / But I’m like, ‘Ye, white people just started caring about you!'” Not even rap magazines get that critical these days.
Skillz has grown-man New York prejudices on full display even if he’s from Virginia, and it’s fun to quote him even when I don’t agree with him (“‘Oh, I think they like me’? No, I don’t like none of y’all”). And that’s the thing: it’s fine to disagree with someone, and it’s fine to talk a little bit of shit. Rappers are insanely protective of their images, like Lil Wayne threatening to throw a XXL writer off his bus while the dude was writing a cover story on him. If they’d show a little perspective, if they’d allow people to say bad things about them, it wouldn’t hurt them, and it would give the people who buy their records a better idea of who they actually are. And then maybe every single rapper interview wouldn’t read like every other rapper interview.
Until that happens, though, we only get merciless candor once a year. Skillz’s 05 Rap Up is all over the internet. Click around; it’s worth it.