Few rappers with a steady stream of albums, mixtapes and hot singles have been as consistently disappointing as Ace Hood. Since he first appeared on the national scene as “the guy before Lil’ Wayne” for DJ Khaled’s “Out Here Grindin’” epic, Ace Hood has delivered strikeouts at a much higher rate than most guys with his instant mic charisma allow themselves, and as recently as the “Bugatti” premier it was easy to look at Ace as a man who would be forever bound to anchoring posse cuts as a means to an end. But the mixtape series leading up to his third album, We the Best/Young Money/Maybach Music “all hands on deck” project Trials & Tribulations, has actually been pretty fascinating to watch. As Ace Hood’s come to face an increasing number of hardships culminating in the death of his infant daughter in 2011, his lyrics have opened to reveal there’s much more to the man born Antoine McCollister than first meets the eye.
For example, from the opening track Hood’s verses are riddled with biblical language and allusions. He wears his religion on his chest in the way more overtly Christian rappers such as LeCrae do, which immediately feels like one of the more brave moves a nominally “gangsta” rapper has pulled in a while. His deep appreciation for his mother - and calcified hate for an absentee father - is also constantly present, including most of his guests’ mothers. Ace Hood here creates a picture that twists around the myth of, say, Pusha T in interesting ways, as his love of family and religion appears to stem not from cold-hearted survivalism but a more romantic, sensational need to find the light somewhere. And the world of Trials & Tribulations is certainly quite dark, with the only real light shining through courtesy of mid-section slog combo “The Come Up” and “Rider”; these two distractions bring to mind Rick Ross’ “Maybach Music Pt. 2” all too strongly and turn “Ambitionz as a Ridah” into a sexual come on, respectively. They’re both mistakes and ought be quickly dismissed.
The amazing thing is, that’s it, unless Betty Wright going all Southern Baptist about a mother’s love on album-closer “Mama” is just a little too aggressive for you. Everything else about Trials & Tribulations makes this the album Meek Mill’s Dreams & Nightmares was supposed to be, a shred look behind the façade of pop-gangsterism to the core of what drives a human being to be okay with playing that cartoon. At one point he even pens a verse to what I can’t help but imagine is a younger self, dropping lines in the third verse of “Hope” like “Who’s to say I can’t be an Obama? / A Tiger Words worth ‘bout a billion dollars? / Everybody wanna sell a little coke / ‘Cause it’s cool to them niggas you know / Nobody wanna be another judge / Young niggas only looking for the plug”. Couched in typical drug rap language are subtle metaphors for the way communities are too afraid to correct their own actions out of fear of economics, politics or what have you, and the stopgap measures taken to short-term stem the problems of poverty, miseducation and so on.
The quick, astute ways Ace Hood addresses larger problems without the sort of overbearing, parenting attitude of more “conscious” style rappers makes his forays into honesty—the death of his grandmother, his mother’s drug addictions, “looked my daughter in her eyes right before she died” - heartbreaking if not for the breathless way Ace Hood powers through them in search of some symbol of masculinity—a gun, a ho, a vehicle—before his admission of tears becomes what we remember him for. The guy’s always had a gift with delivery, and now that it’s married to the Maybach thunder train and some highly affecting, dramatic subject matter he’s putting that to good use with well-crafted verses that bring to mind the sleek professionalism that made T.I.‘s King such an infectious gangsta-pop record. There’s no “My Love” here, but that’s not what Ace Hood’s for. Ace Hood’s for “Bugatti”.
It’s fair to decry “Bugatti” as a Future and Rick Ross song that just so happens to be an Ace Hood vehicle, but why throw shade at anyone involved with the track? “Bugatti” is the kind of shit those monoliths in Kanye West’s “Power” video listen to when they’re not on set. This is the song Walter White was listening to whenever he was driving to that Denny’s with the assault rifle in his trunk. That and it’s remix are within 15 minutes of each other on the Deluxe edition isn’t a mistake, it’s a blessing in 808 form. Taken in the context of the album, it’s much less of a celebration too, more of a middle finger. Sandwiching the “How I’m Raised” / “My Bible” / “Mama” trio just makes it feel like even more of an emotional discharge; “Bugatti” is the rare flaunting of Jay-Z-like wealth that feels earnest.
Ask me anything about Ace Hood prior to Trials & Tribulations, I’d tell you he’s a rare talent who’ll probably never be worth listening to for an hour. Now? I’m not sure there’s anything worth listening to more, from the mainstream lane, released so far in 2013. I’m not sure anything better is on the horizon. Ace Hood came out of nowhere to deliver the most well rounded, engaging gangsta rap album on a major label in some time; it’ll be a shame if most folks manage to shrug it off.