Stalley (Savage Journey To The American Dream listening session)
Beats By Dr. Dre store
Monday, March 12
Better than: Buying a pair of $400 headphones.
Welcome to the Rick Ross and Stalley bobblehead show, in town for one night only. That, effectively, went down last night at Soho’s Beats By Dr. Dre store as Stalley, the Ohio-based rapper signed to Ross’s Maybach Music Group venture, hosted a listening session for his upcoming mixtape while standing on a small, cordoned-off stage. As each song was aired out, Stalley, face framed by baseball cap and beard, and Rozay, face cupped by less unruly beard, stood next to each other, smiled like they’d just gotten Groupon lobotomies, and bobbed their heads. Seeing the two of them in tandem was a quaint moment of hirsute hip-hop solidarity, but the dynamics of the night might be more damning of Ross’s attempts to position Stalley as a mainstream fixture.
In blunt terms, no one really listened.
Yes, it was a listening session, that most inherently flawed way of hearing new music; you’re basically suffering the ambience of the chattering industry classes while sometimes picking out a phrase or two from a less-than-optimized sound system (note to Dre: your store’s music system sounds slushy). But it also felt like a lost opportunity to help push Stalley’s cause. In introducing himself, the likable Stalley said that he was thankful to be able to play his album to “a one-on-one intimate setting.” He sounded sincere, and given his traits—he manages to shift into moments of introspection and cute lyrical phrasing within his verses—an intimate setting would have been the obvious arena in which to win people over. But there was nothing intimate about the set-up: it was a bunch of people plonked into a retail store, without chairs, without visual focus, and with a start time that went down nearly two hours late. Unsurprisingly, the stream towards the exit door was a constant, if not dominating, feature of the night.
To Stalley’s virtue, Savage Journey To The American Dream seemed to play out with a similar quality to his previous releases, not least last year’s excellent Lincoln Way Nights (Intelligent Trunk Muzik). The opening track, with its perky cha-cha-cha-patterned drums, had him distancing himself from the fantasy raps of his boss and proclaiming, “I ain’t never peeled a cap.” It was followed by the sort of song that Nas once excelled at attacking: chunky east coast production, melancholy piano loop, and a (sampled or hired) soul singer on the hook. (To this one, the bobble-head brothers added a small sway to their routine.)
Then came the song with Curren$y (the collaboration happened after, Stalley said, “the big homey Ross, he made some calls”). Then came the song that fused guitar loops with slow-rolling drum-machine beats. Then came the one produced by Chad Hugo in a vintage Neptunes manner. Then came the one with Wale and the spacey synths (to which Ross kept swaying while Stalley nodded his head up and down in a double-time style; Wale did not join the Bobble-Head Club).
And on it went. Stalley’s songs could have revealed him reciting a whole new rap language, but the set-up meant that ears were sadly attuned elsewhere. The industry is still in thrall with these sort of events, likely something to do with the relative critical immunity they offer (it’s hard to slate an album if you don’t really get to hear it) and the increasing branding opportunities but they’re usually against the artist’s best interests. This is especially so when it’s a rapper like Stalley who’s talented, controversy-free, and something akin to the purist’s pick of the M.M.G. massive. Why not let the music speak for itself?
Ross has shown a smart dedication to signing rappers who don’t just resemble (inferior) mini-versions of his own bulbous persona. He’s amassed a varied and interesting M.M.G. team that includes Meek Mill and Wale, who also put in appearances at the session. But Stalley’s success will require him to overcome the commercially-powerful drug-centric rapper stereotype that Ross himself has helped to maintain; a gimmick-less rapper like Stalley, whose bushy beard being about the extent of his quirky calling card, will test an audience’s trust and attention, whether online or in person. Tonight, he never had a chance to gain either. He could have done a roaring trade in real deal M.M.G. bobble-head dolls though.
Critical bias: All these people publicly wearing those hideous Beats By Dre headphones are just pulling off some sort of a mass prank, right?
Overheard: “That Five Percenter shit is signals, brainwaves, algorithms.”
Random notebook dump: Fruit punch is, apparently, the official drink of M.M.G. listening parties. Some people!