Gladiator Russell Dro
On Young Dro’s new I Am Legend mixtape, we learn that Dro has cars the same color as the following things: whirlwind, sour apple, Jolly Rancher, Patron, Tropicana, Mars bar, tofu, your lipstick, high-tide ocean, Papa Smurf, Patron again, bell pepper, the nose on Rudolf, Tropicana again, cocaine, Superman, vanilla, and Ric Flair hair. That last one is, I’m pretty sure, the Dwight Howard Superman dunk of car-color similes. When, at one point, he simply describes a Rolls Royce as being purple, it’s almost shocking: purple like what? Grimace? Alice Walker? The second Stone Temple Pilots album? It’s the only time he can resist telling us. Dro mentions a few other car-colors on I Am Legend as well, but I’m not sure I heard all of them right. There’s one track where I think he’s talks about a car that’s “chalk white like Opie,” which is pretty funny if that’s what he actually says, and there’s another where I think I hear him comparing a car’s color to “rub-a-dub,” which I don’t even know what that means. Part of the problem is that Dro’s Georgia accent has somehow become even thicker and more impenetrable since Best Thang Smoking, his 2006 debut; when he revs his slurry-but-adaptable swallowed-consonant flow into a double-time end-run, I’m lucky to catch every third word. But then, that’s not really a problem unless you’re trying to make a list of of all the stuff he compares his cars to. I should also probably note that Dro devotes almost as much time to describing his jewelry’s color in equally loving detail. Point is that Dro is really, really into talking about the stuff he owns. When I reviewed Best Thang Smoking for Blender, I only had a chance to listen to the album once, in an Atlantic publicist’s office. And after one listen to the album, that near-absurd fixation on the material felt like a real character flaw. But Dro’s descriptions are so fond and vivid and hilarious that I gradually came to really like them. These days, I can only think of a few other rappers blessed with the ability to talk about their cars with such transparent joy. And there’s something almost inspirational about the way he works that basic style so hard on I Am Legend.
If there’s any time when Young Dro might want to maybe get all emo and talk about something other than what color cars he has, it’s now. Dro is, of course, a T.I. protege, and in 2006 being a T.I. protege was good enough to score a big hit (“Shoulder Lean”) with T.I. on it and a medium-sized hit (“Rubberband Banks”) without T.I. on it. And since Best Thang Smoking, he’s been working hard on developing the persona he introduced on that first album, a persona that mostly involves dressing in absolutely ridiculous peacocking-Carlton preppy clothes that not even Kanye would touch. (On an I Am Legend skit, Dro points out that he dresses that way for the ladies, then admits that he really does it for himself.) He’s also come pretty close to stealing a couple of high-profile posse-cut remixes away from T.I.; his verses on the “Top Back” and “We Fly High” remixes are textbook examples of a B-list rapper making the most of his allotted time and showing exactly why he should sometime be allowed to graduate to the A-list. All that’s on hold now that T.I. is on house arrest, awaiting trial on gun charges that could send him away for a long, long time. And even though T.I.’s got one of the most capable backup crews in rap (Dro, Alfamega, Big Kuntry, Macboney, sometimes B.G.), it’s tough to imagine any of them flourishing without his reflected glow. Usually when a rapper’s mentor and benefactor goes to prison, that rapper either disappears or does a bunch of songs about sad he is. But T.I. is almost a ghostly presence on I Am Legend. His voice only turns up on “5000 Ones,” the middling first single from the official DJ Drama album and the crappiest song here, and in sampled form on the pretty great “You Know About Me.” And on the rare occasions that Dro mentions Tip, he’s only talking about showing up at the club with him or whatever. There’s basically only one emotionally tender line on all of I Am Legend, the one on “Mac and Dro” about being in the cell crying blood with red eyes. Dro could be unloading his soul on us, but instead he’s decided to stay true to himself. And for Dro, staying true to one’s self involves letting us know what color car he drives.
Honestly, I’d rather get another hour of Dro talking entertaining bullshit than a forced friends-locked-up rant. As an aesthetic decision, it’s almost courageous; he never aims for cheap sympathy. And Dro is really good at talking about his cars, his punchlines so over-the-top they’re almost self-deprecating. Here, for example, is the hook on “How I Ride”: “This is how I ride / My car just died / The brain blowed out, doors committed suicide / The man in the trunk the only thing that’s alive / And that’s what I tell them when they be asking how I ride.” (Having a stereo so loud it sounds like there’s a man in the trunk is a particular preoccupation for Dro; at different points on I Am Legend, it’s both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.) More often than not, Dro’s lines are just enormously goofy and likable. He doesn’t traffic in punchlines so much as incongruous, funny imagery: “I pull up on a horse like howdy,” “I’m lyin’ ’round bumping Cyndi Lauper,” that sort of thing. I Am Legend isn’t one of these mixtapes that could potentially double as an album. As a continuous listen, it’s overlong and exhausting. There’s precious little stylistic variation in the uniformly capable midtempo Atlanta-funk beats. (For some reason, the only non-original beat he freestyles over is Fabolous’s “Breathe.”) The gratuitous rewinds and intrusive DJ drops are even more jarring the fifth time through than the first. But I’m just happy for the opportunity to hear Dro going off again. If nothing else, I Am Legend confirms that Dro won’t go away quietly no matter what happens to T.I. That’s good news.