Would it surprise you if I said the guy who wrote “Mo Bamba” — you know, that super-hard song that starts with the word “BITCH!” – was the next Nas?
This is Sheck Wes, and his debut album, Mudboy, is one of the best rap records of 2018. It’s a dark journey into the 20-year-old Harlem rapper’s world, full of crime and struggle, not unlike that of Nasir Jones’ Illmatic from two decades ago. There the similarities end, however, because Mudboy is a 2018 rap album, and where Nas had to deliver the most brutally poetic lines in rap, Wes doesn’t have to do as much, getting by on his high-energy delivery and the subterranean production he’s rapping over.
Nowadays, rap gets a lot of flak for not supplying much in terms of “intelligent lyricism.” One could make the case that this is due to its position as, basically, the pop music of today. Due to the declining state of pure pop music, which hitched itself 10 years ago to a boom in EDM and divas that has now gone bust, rappers have stepped in to fill the void with their own brand of hedonism. But this is just one explanation, and it’s not comprehensive. For more, we need to look at Travis Scott, whom Wes is opening for on his Astroworld: Wish You Were Here tour.
Scott’s early projects got terrible reviews. Anthony Fantano accused him of trend-hopping and Pitchfork, in their review of Rodeo, said he “cobbled together a composite identity to compensate for lacking his own.” They failed to realize that this was precisely the point. Scott compensates for a lack of lyricism by turning his albums into environments. He makes unconventional choices in production, like the multi-part structure of songs like “Sicko Mode,” and supplies appearances from hip-hop stars like Quavo and Drake, as well as unexpected guests like Kacy Hill, James Blake, and Matty Healy of The 1975 who expand the world he’s building. These explorations of a netherworld of sex, drugs, and carnival rides mark him more as something akin to a film director — or, in his parlance, a ringmaster — than a rapper alone.
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Sheck Wes, meanwhile, has done the same with less on Mudboy. His unconventional choices include singing in Wolof, the language of his Senegalese parents, and eschewing features (a brave move — even Nas put AZ on “Life’s a Bitch”), while building a sound environment but with a much more constrained palette. The beats on the album, from rookie producers like Redda, YungLunchBox, 16yrold, and Take A Daytrip, recall the dark, raw, experimental sound of Raider Klan circa 2011, an underground vibe that, for a mainstream rap debut, is groundbreaking.
And then there’s that word, “Bitch,” which he uses not as a slur, but as an energetic interjection. He explains on album track “Gmail” that “it’s the only word where I can feel and hear all my anger.” That expressiveness, that uncanny ability to convey emotion with a single word, is what sets Wes apart, even from “emo” rappers like the late Lil Peep and tourmate Trippie Redd. In a world that beats people into numbness, a performer that traffics in pure feeling is bound to gain an audience.
All of this — emotion and worldbuilding over specificity and storytelling — is a response to the way that hip-hop has permeated the mainstream. We no longer need the long-winded storytelling because we have been inundated with tales of hood exploits from Nas to Jay-Z to Kendrick Lamar (and really, where can you go after good kid, m.A.A.d city?). For Wes, it’s enough to say “It gets tragic where I live,” and we get the picture. You could call it minimalism, or just simplicity, but it gets the job done either way.
Travis Scott – Astroworld: Wish You Were Here Tour. With Sheck Wes, Gunna, and Trippie Redd. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, December 18, at Talking Stick Resort Arena, 201 East Jefferson Street; 602-379-7800; talkingstickresortarena.com. Tickets are $25 to $75 via Ticketmaster.