Written by: The Bro
More Of The Same
New York is the Mecca of rap. Not only is it the birthplace of the genre, it birthed many (if not most) of its greatest prophets. From Rakim to Nas to Jay-Z, the evolution and popularity of rap music once revolved around The Empire State. Yet since the fall of Curtis Jackson, there hasn’t been a dominant New York rapper consistently at the top of charts or barbershop banter. The days of break beats, soul loops, DJ Premier cuts and R&B hooks have faded, replaced by trap. Now, the sounds originated by Three Six Mafia, specifically Juicy J’s 808s and programmed drums, dominate.
So it’s no surprise that many fans long for a return to the sounds of their youth, or at least younger days. And if the Connor McGregor, Floyd Mayweather fight is the latest example of the Great White Hope, Dave East is the latest example of the Great New York Rapper Hope. Whereas the south and west coast have seen a consistent progression of major new rappers, from Game-to-Kendrick Lamar or Jeezy-to-Kevin Gates, New York has lagged behind. Sure there are standouts on the underground scene such as Ka (arguably the best lyricist in rap today) or Roc Marciano. But New York yearns for a standard bearer.
On his debut album, Paranoia: A True Story, Dave East stakes his claim. But is he successful? Largely, no. What made New York’s past MCs interesting, in part, was their unique approach to music. Wu Tang didn’t sound like Biggie. Nas’ monk-like demeanor was different from Busta Rhymes’ manic energy. Then there was the cool, calm and collected nature of the consummate hustler, Jay-Z. Or the street grime of Jadakiss and Styles P. Dave East is from Harlem, and while he doesn’t don the exaggerated swag of Dipset, he doesn’t particularly don his own style either. He’s more of a product of the times. He may not “mumble” like some of his peers, but he raps about Chanel as much if not more.
The album is littered with features, and the production largely eschews a particular mood in favor of the typical “banger” focus of rap today. Perhaps the most New York thing about the album is the second track, The Hated (Skit), which is most definitely a skit. At nearly four minutes long, it sucks the energy out of the album right out the gate, with a repetitive scene about jealousy and envy. You’ve probably heard a shorter version of it on late 90s/early aught rap albums. It’s a puzzling artistic decision and misfire, made even more transparent in an era where skits are often much better integrated into songs (not to mention shorter).
What follows is the actual song, The Hated. A ponderous storytelling track, with the only interesting aspect being the booming bassline. To make matters worse, the track features Nas…yet does not feature a Nas verse. It’s perhaps the worse fakeout since I bought Drag-On’s first album because DMX had two features, only to learn that only one had a verse. But at least there was one verse!
As if to further extend the 2000s era vibes, there’s even an interlude, Jazzy (Interlude), in which a singer laments “fukking you is all that I’ve been thinking about.” It almost feels like a parody. Perfect, the next track, sounds like something Meek Meel passed on. Ironically perhaps the best track on the album is a well executed “ladies” track mixed with some storytelling, My Dirty Little Secret.
Lyrically, Dave East is very much interested in high fashion, prescription pills, and Instagram. Sound familiar? What makes a rapper stand out, separates him from his peers. Nas’ introspective, “project window” view. DMX’s tortured soul. Ghostface’s vivid, abstract canvases. Who is Dave East, and what makes him stand out? From his image to his flow to his try-hard similes, he seems more like a cardboard cut out of a generic New York rapper than anything fresh or original. The track Found A Way sounds like something you may have heard a hundred times over the years, the “I was down but I made it” anthem. Nothing Dave East presents on the track elevates it beyond what it is on the surface. It feels like the perfect explanation for the album.
Perhaps Dave East can rebound in the future. Perhaps he needs better guidance, As Nas once said, it’s hard for the great to tell somebody how to be great. But more personal content and less features would be a start.