This cover makes my brain hurt
When I reviewed Rich Boy’s self-titled debut album for Pitchfork last year, I gave most of the credit for the album’s success to producer/label boss Polow Da Don. These days, though, that album still sounds pretty great and Polow’s twinkly thump feels less and less like its primary engine. The album’s beats are pretty undeniably great, though Polow didn’t actually have anything to do with some of the best moments (“Hustla Balla Gangsta Mack,” “And I Love You”). More to the point, it’s taken a minute to notice how strong a rapper Rich Boy is. That Alabama drawl is a total stumbling-block; it’s an accent so thick and uber-Southern that I’m still not entirely sure I understand everything he says. But even on a fired-up political rant like “Let’s Get This Paper,” what Rich Boy says is almost secondary to that accent, a remarkable instrument in its own right. Rich Boy pulls a lot of melodic mileage out of that voice, slathering it all over his beats rather than just riding over the top, and even when he’s talking about strippers or cars or whatever, he’s got this exhilarated passion that’s impossible to dismiss. Bigger Than the Mayor, Rich Boy’s new mixtape, hit the internet last week, and Polow doesn’t have a thing to do with it, but it’s still one of the strongest end-to-end rap full-lengths I’ve heard yet this year, so maybe it’s time to give this guy some credit.
The beats on Bigger Than the Mayor are still important, but they’re nothing like Polow’s glittery showpieces. I haven’t yet seen a tracklist for the mixtape with production credits, but Rich Boy’s said in interviews that he did the beats along with Zaytoven and Super Villain. These are slow, heavy tracks, and they sometimes sound like synthed-up updates of something the old Rap-A-Lot or No Limit production stables might’ve come up with. They’re low-budget as all hell and generally fairly utilitarian, but they work. Sometimes they’re genuinely gorgeous, as on “Haters Wish,” its dizzy synth-washes and rippling woodblocks on some deeply pleasant summer-breeze shit. And sometimes, as on “Po’d Up,” they’re straight-up unpretentious trunk-rattlers, beats that would’ve made great YoungBloodz album-tracks. These beats are mostly original, and the only one I recognize, Jackie Chain’s “Rollin’,” fits perfectly with everything else.
Rich Boy needs beats like this, tracks that hang lazily in the air. When he’s rapping over attempted-crossover rap&B on “Ghetto Queen” or amped-up gang-roar crunk shit on “The Cars,” he sounds pretty terrible. But when he’s in his comfort zone, when he can stretch that drawl underneath a track, the force of his natural charm shines through. The amped-up passion never leaves his voice, and these days he’s more comfortable hinting at what’s behind it. Take, for instance, “Chevy a Monsta,” which starts out with a sample of the Crypt Keeper cackle and immediately manifests itself as this goofily fun novelty-song about cars: “Oh my God, the Chevy a monsta / Freddy Krueger red, the paint job’ll haunt ya.” During the second verse, though, he starts talking about locked-up family members, and he sounds near tears, but he’s still rapping in the exact same voice he was using for his Young Dro-esque car metaphors. On a later track, he talks about sending pictures of his cars to his brother in prison. Whenever Rich Boy talks about the trappings of success, he sounds giddily excited rather than entitled, and every once in a while he offers some indication that he seems himself as a sort of conduit for all the people he knows that never made it and never will. Rich Boy, after all, comes from a state that’s never really produced a nationally relevant rapper other than himself. The intro, where he rants about being the king of Alabama, is kind of funny because why would anyone even want to dispute that?
Gucci Mane shows up on a few different tracks on Bigger Than the Mayor, and he raps in a marblemouthed drawl not too far removed from Rich Boy’s voice, but the contrasts between the two are instructive. I actually really like Gucci’s cartoonishly elongated flow, but he’s flat and breezy and glib, whereas Rich Boy always seems to think that everything he’s saying is the most important shit ever. There’s an urgency to Rich Boy that I don’t hear in too many other rappers these days. On “Let’s Get This Paper,” from the self-titled album, that urgency found its purest expression, Rich Boy ranting about systemic economic oppression and the only way he could think to fight it. More and more, the unpolished desperation of that song is becoming Rich Boy’s defining quality. That his Polow-free mixtape is nearly as cohesive and strong as his Polow-produced album says a whole lot about him.