“Treat the album like a mixtape!” Gucci Mane exhorts in a throwaway moment on this year’s Writing on the Wall tape with DJ Drama. Like a lot of what Gucci says, it’s a little hard to follow—doesn’t the other way around make more sense? But the distinction between the two has undoubtedly shrunk from the semantic to the purely theoretical, as the ambitions of Internet-savvy underground rappers have grown and major-label budgets have further dwindled. Playboy Tre . . . Freddie Gibbs . . . P. Dukes . . . Max Minelli . . . Pill . . . more and more unsigned rappers have loaded up their “mixtapes” with more and more full songs, original beats, and unifying concepts, resulting in some of the year’s most satisfying, replayable rap releases: Playboy Tre’s Liquor Store Mascot, in particular, is a hilarious, heartrending missive from everyone’s salty drunk uncle.
Pill, a member of Killer Mike’s Grind Time Rap Gang, might be the most compelling of the bunch. His breakout song, “Trap Goin’ Ham,” was a grimly spare drug-rap anthem that focused relentlessly on the minutiae of the trade—he made it sound remarkably similar to working the morning rush at a corner deli. His voice is fantastic: a spit-slicked, hungry rasp that recalls a baby Juvenile. Even more so than his early ’09 tape 4180: The Prescription, Pill’s sequel, 4075: The Refill, which came out in mid-November, presents itself as a “full-length,” a unified progression of songs thoughtfully assembled and packaged complete with legit-album signifiers like liner notes and album credits. Thankfully, Pill and his DJ have done a fantastic job: The tape’s original beats are impeccably hard, from the crypt-keeper harpsichord of “Hear Somebody Comin’ ” to the child-soldier choirs and circling bongos of “Glass” to the pitch-black Freddie Gibbs collaboration “Run Up to Me,” with record-scratches deep as knife scars.
Like Killer Mike, Pill projects a fire-in-the-belly, street-preacher righteousness even when he’s threatening to kill your baby mama and dump her in the lake. He colors diligently within the lines of the template provided by his heroes—2Pac, Scarface, Andre 3000—but does so with a passion that elevates his music above mimicry. When he does a ghetto-children lament on “Pain in They Eyes,” he lays into it: “What do you say to three kids and a single mother/Daddy locked up and they livin’ with his little brother?” he demands, investing the question with a palpable urgency. Even when he’s spitting fly-sounding nonsense—”Knock the pussy out, yell ‘Bonzai!’/Bozo, I’m fly, polo, my ho, Manolo/Blunted in the futuristic ride, Han Solo”—he sounds deadly serious. And yet, he doesn’t forget to be funny: “I bet you didn’t think I’d do this one,” he cackles, before hopping on the beat for Destiny’s Child’s “Jumpin’ Jumpin’.” Touché.
Things only slow down when Pill stops to salute his heroes. Tribute songs in hip-hop are too often deadly dull—unless they come carrying personal heat (like Raekwon’s tears-inducing ode to ODB on Cuban Linx II’s “Ason Jones”), they usually only serve to drain momentum. 4075 has three such tracks in a row: one to Biggie, one to Pac, and one to, well, “Music.” The Biggie tribute, mercifully, just consists of Pill rapping his ass off over “Kick in the Door,” which is never a bad thing, but things get uncomfortably maudlin when he starts regaling us with his first memories of hearing 2Pac over the beat to “Keep Ya Head Up.”
This unceasing reverence is Pill’s only visible flaw, and it infects the otherwise-vital music of his compatriots as well. The attitude seems like a reaction to the blog-baiting, Nah Right–spamming tactics of upstarts like Charles Hamilton, who buried his own career in backlash before it began. Guys like Gibbs and Pill tread more carefully, making a show of their unshowiness. Release one solid mixtape instead of 13. Establish relationships with regional rap blogs. Build slowly, work consistently, turn out high-quality product, and try not to piss off anyone influential in the process. These are dues-payers, committed genre artists constitutionally incapable of taking the sort of foolish risks that might lead to pop stardom.
It’s hard, then, to not get itchy for a little ruckus-starting from time to time. Gucci Mane, who has taken a much more unstable, upward-trajectory path with his mixtapes, at least had the decency to fling a gob of well-deserved mud into Jay-Z’s self-satisfied mug this year. A big part of keeping rap vital demands slaying the father, but these dudes treat it more like Children of Men—a world where possibilities for new birth are precluded. It’s not like Pill doesn’t know from a good provocation: The “Trap Goin’ Ham” video was delivered with an accompanying manifesto (“We hope this video shocks your conscience”) for maximum impact. No one’s pleading for Pill to release his own version of “300 Bars and Runnin’,” and, in many ways, the quiet substance of Pill’s approach—keep your head down and release good music—is a refreshing tonic to pointless, manufactured shit-starting, which often masks a void of imagination. But when Pill stops genuflecting, he’s plenty good enough to keep us company all by himself.