Wednesday, November 28, 2018

album review: 'dicaprio 2' by j.i.d.

I think my reaction to J.I.D. was pretty much the same as just about anyone who stumbled across him on hype alone, beginning with, 'okay, his voice is a little weird and pitchy but man he can flow', followed by 'my god, this guy's debut is seriously good', and of course followed by 'holy shit, J. Cole signed somebody to Dreamville who doesn't sound like him - and is actually quality!'

I kid - somewhat - but seriously, J.I.D. came right the hell out of nowhere for me and a lot of other people, and one of my biggest mistakes in 2017 was not reviewing his debut album The Never Story, mostly because it was a really damn good album but also because he's the sort of Atlanta rapper I don't feel gets enough attention - lyrical, but unconventional and offkilter in a way that reminded me of some of the old Dungeon Family crew, along with a fair bit of Lil Wayne, Kendrick, and Anderson .Paak. Now there were some moments that didn't quite click as strongly as I'd like from that debut, but given that the buzz for DiCaprio 2 was pretty high - a sequel to his breakthrough EP and following a string of pretty impressive guest verses, especially with Denzel Curry - I really was excited about this. So, what did we get from DiCaprio 2?

So this is an odd place to be in, because I've given DiCaprio 2 a lot of listens and I do feel like it's a solid follow-up to The Never Story - the rapping is sharp as hell, the guest verses are varied but fit within the project, the production is murky but I'd argue more consistent and polished than the last album, in a fair few ways I'd describe this as an improvement. So why do I feel cooler on this album than I want to be, because again, I can certainly feel that it's good, but I still think J.I.D. hasn't quite hit greatness yet, and pinning down why will likely be a bit of a struggle.

And I think the conversation has to start with J.I.D. because he'll be the point that'll make or break someone trying to get into this album, most distinctly his voice. Now as I said before, his off-kilter cadence and switch-ups don't bother me and I don't mind his higher-pitched, half-melodic timbre. But the first thing you'll notice, especially given some of the structure and flow of his rhymes, is that the Kendrick Lamar influence is shining through more starkly, specifically Kendrick's higher-pitched, oddly detached delivery that often foretells when he's going to spiral into a pileup of thorny weirdness that can be so potent to untangle. And this is where I can see why some folks who might get behind J.I.D.'s vocal timbre and off-kilter flow that can bounce across cadences, melodies and tempos damn near effortlessly: that tone doesn't always drive immediacy or firepower. Hell, when Kendrick uses that delivery, it's often to disorient the audience, and then later juxtapose with a more plainspoken or explosive rasp, which also tends to be my favourite tone from him. And with J.I.D.... see, opposite A$AP Ferg on 'Westbrook' he takes off the more bombastic swell with a level of intensity I really liked, and I certain appreciate how he inspired J. Cole to deliver one of the better verses I've heard from him this year, but he doesn't quite show the same range of vocal modulation or intensity, and that can make it a little harder to invest in his content. And if we're looking for more proof that in action, go to 'Hot Box' where Method Man takes his relentless exasperation at his dealer's incompetence with a solid verse, but then Joey Bada$$ almost seems to be emulating J.I.D. and he runs into the same problem!

Granted, a part of this might come in the production, which thankfully does not feel as barren or dusty as so much of what I've heard from Dreamville - there's a jagged, smoky fuzz which does a lot to accentuate how much J.I.D. will bend flows and tempos around sharp beats, washed out synths and samples, and the uncanny eerieness of it all. And while there are some beat switches I question - I could have done with more of the faster flows opening 'Slick Talk' - for the most part I can get into this production, even if I think a few tunes could use a bit more sizzling weirdness or bombast to crank up the momentum. And sure, some of that might not have been the point - 'Frequency Change' sets the scene with someone slumped on the couch watching a stream of fragmented TV programs - but I was getting into the warped melodic loop and heavier bass knock of '151 Rum', the piano-touched soul sampling of 'Off da Zoinkys', the more lush and jazzy arrangements of flutes around 'Tiiied', and that darker grind that crept behind the outro of 'Just da Other Day', which probably has the most distinctive hook on the entire album. On the other side... look, I know the late Mac Miller helped J. Cole with production on 'Skrawberries', and thus it gets awkward when I can say both that I can tell with that strings arrangement and touches of horns, and that I really don't like it - it sounds tinny, it doesn't compliment the song all that well, probably the song I like the least on the album.

But here's the rub: for as intentionally offkilter as this production can be in order to accent J.I.D.'s flow and voice, it creates the expectation that the content will fall in a similar lane... and if I'm looking for a place where J.I.D. just hasn't quite won me over yet, it's here. And this isn't about his technical skills - he's got an uncanny knack for stringing together rhymes in nifty ways with the exception of some of the more stilted lines on 'Tiiied' which at least has the excuse of being intentionally awkward - but more about his content. And I get the natural arc of a rapper on the come-up is the 'more money, more problems' sophomore release, and I'll at least give J.I.D. credit for being a bit more self-aware surrounding speaking against drug abuse of 'Off da Zoinkys' and shows of violence on the single verse of '151 Rum' - he's got a knack for enough brutally realistic detail to paint the scenes well. But it's looking for that extra bit of nuance in his bars to further flesh out the scene where I kept looking for J.I.D. to mirror his uncanny style... and I just didn't find much to make his wordplay sound more striking, or to hit upon any bigger ideas. Now there is some: I did like the third verse on 'Slick Talk', taking the 'married to the rap game' concept to its logical, hilarious, and telling extreme in how he might receive no credit for those he influences; and when you follow the method to his madness to the party aftermath on 'Just da Other Day', it's very telling how much he doesn't know how the seeds of his work will grow. But where we get into dicier territory is his material on women - and look, it's not as bad as J. Cole, and I appreciate how we get a song like 'Tiiied' where he and 6LACK show their frustration with the girl's refusal to show intimacy, but then Ella Mai comes back with her verse to show they might as well look in a mirror, a necessary flip to that perspective. But on the other side you get songs like his attempt to give props to the girls on the comeup on 'Workin Out' who want a piece of his success but he can't quite avoid describing them like venomous snakes. And then it gets worse on 'Skrawberries' which is trying to be a song supporting the relationship through tough times, but still feels uncomfortably stuffed with accusations and lines about after a few abortions her 'pussy's a haunted house', or how after he tries to elevate a girl who's a feminist who raps by calling her 'Feminem', he falls on the same 'natural beauty appreciation' lines that Kendrick hit against on 'Humble' and says he'll tell her like it is like Ron Burgundy - probably not the best icon for speaking on those topics to women given from what I remember from Anchorman, that's all I'm saying!

But at the end of the day... again, I think this is a good album, but it falls into a weird place for me where I was expecting greatness and yet less of this clicked than I was hoping. I'd argue J.I.D. has a ton of potential as a rapper and I like when he gets weirder and more cerebral, but the content often doesn't quite get there and perhaps a greater shot of challenging vibrancy in the production would push him in the right direction - ironic, because for as much as I've preferred J.I.D. to the rest of Dreamville's roster, it's very similar advice I'd give them too! So overall, I'm thinking a 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're already a fan, but you weren't wild about him before I'm not sure this'll change your mind. But if you're curious... yeah, I can see him sticking around, check this out.

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