One can say at least this much for Eprhyme’s latest, Dopestylevsky: it ends well. “Better in the Dark” is served well by a squeaky tenor sax, a Darshan-sung hook that actually sticks in your head for a while, and a progression that goes from sounding like every other track on the disc to a weird, almost tentative electronic pastiche that comes really close to not working. Once you hear it explode in a rush of laptop beats and synths and violins in its final minute, however, you realize where it was all going, and you can’t help but sit back and admire it. It doesn’t matter that Eprhyme, for all his big words and smart rhymes, isn’t really saying much; it’s a fantastic little thing to listen to.
“Better in the Dark” stands out particularly because Eprhyme spends a lot of time not really saying much, so the sudden upgrade in production work is immediately noticeable. It’s clear that he’s an intelligent, articulate emcee who has a solid understanding of what makes a rhyme work. His rhymes, they work. The problem is that there is very little to find in those rhymes other than sound and rhythm. Where some emcees tell a story, some offer a viewpoint, and many use their medium of choice as a vehicle for excessive self-aggrandizement, Eprhyme doesn’t seem to do any of these things. Stanzas that could be stories are forgotten by the time the next verse hits.
Eprhyme’s a Hasidic Jew, but it doesn’t seem to inform his music in any terribly meaningful ways. So what does he stand for? What is he about?
“The flow it took a hold of my soul / And it won’t let go / Or so the story goes / But there’s more to these rhymes / Than hooks and punchlines / Something’s going on beyond your streetlights,” he raps in opener “Grind Thoroughly”, a track that sees him rhyming effectively with no drum track behind him. He obviously believes that his music is a means of conveying something deep, something that goes beyond the literal interpretations of the words themselves. “Music is a vehicle / I’ll see you at the pinnacle”, he says, closing out the song and opening the door to something truly special…or so we are led to think.
He rhymes around this idea for most of Dopestylevsky, actually, that his music is something special, that we should be transported to some higher plane when listening to his music (“Verbal holographic calligraphy,” he calls it in “Life Sentence”), but he rarely gets around to talking about anything other than himself for more than ten seconds at a time.
Penultimate track “Divine By Design” offers hints to something better: “Being a saint is a job with no thanks / It’s a war with no tanks / It’s the infinite failures that we face every day”, he raps, offering a story of perseverance through not just adversity, but also indifference. It’s a new take on the “struggles of being an artist” trope, and an investigation into the attempt to balance spirituality and artistry would be interesting. Unfortunately, that investigation never really materializes.
It’s obvious that Eprhyme’s faith informs his work, especially given that it’s that faith that brought him most of his press a couple of years ago when his debut album Waywordwonderwill was released. However, aside from a few tossed-off references to that faith, Eprhyme’s religion now appears to be his own music. Most of his most vivid imagery and poetic rhymes are devoted to where the music takes him, and, we assume, where it is supposed to take us.
Eventually, “Poppasong” reveals a clue to what’s really going on here: “2010 and I just graduated / 18 years old I never thought I would make it”. Eprhyme’s deep voice and accomplished technical skill belie his age. His voice allows him to sound like a wizened sage, even though he’s still at the age where he is assuming that the world revolves around him. While this may be an awfully presumptuous way to look at Eprhyme the artist, it’s clear that, at the very least, Dopestylevsky revolves around him at the expense of just about every other possible subject.
Throughout the album, Eprhyme demonstrates an impressive grasp of rhythm and rhyme, but his words are mere sounds that give us something to hold onto; they’re not meaningful, they’re not really about anything, they’re just there. To a point, there’s nothing wrong with this; Dopestylevsky is a perfectly pleasant hip-hop album that won’t get on anyone’s nerves. What it’s not, however, is the transcendental experience its author promises, nor does it even begin to live up to the literary figure referenced by its title. That title is merely a play on words, an inadvertently perfect representation of the album it adorns.