You have to be pretty damn sure of your abilities as an MC to make your album cover an homage to the Notorious B.I.G.‘s Ready to Die. It’s obvious, after listening to Awol One’s Self-Titled that he thinks he’s in Biggie’s league. Unfortunately, the comparison is especially poor, because Awol One just isn’t very good.
He’s got the kind of deep, raspy baritone that might remind you of Biggie for about two seconds—that is, before you notice the fact that his rhymes are consistently poor. He doesn’t really have any sort of flow. A good MC can rap with the agility of a welterweight boxer, weaving in and out of the beats and letting his words act as both melodic ballast and rhythmical counterpoint. Examine how someone like Jay-Z or Nas attacks a verse: even when their lyrics are uninteresting or derivative, the way they speak is almost unerringly musical. Ludacris is one of the least substantive rappers around, in terms of what he actually raps about, but he makes his tracks consistently interesting with his charismatic delivery and ingenious flow. Awol One doesn’t really seem to understand any of this, because most of his raps are delivered in a gruff monotone, with absolutely no heed given to the rhythmical collaboration that lies at the heart of good hip-hop.
There are a few surprising guest producers on the album, including Evidence (of Dilated Peoples), Kutmasta Kurt and Omid. I take it from this that Awol One has amassed something of a reputation in the underground rap world—but for the life of me I can’t figure out why. I really don’t want to sound overtly critical, but the fact is that Awol One sounds like a hip-hop Tom Waits. Tom Waits works well when singing ramshackle avant-folk, but imagine him fronting Jurassic 5 and you might have some idea of what Awol One sounds like. Scratch that—I’m pretty sure that if Tom Waits actually decided to make the unlikely jump to hip-hop it would still sound better than this.
The worst part is that he has the unsettling habit of singing most of his choruses. It doesn’t work for Eminem, and it certainly doesn’t work for Awol One. Take, for example, “Slide”, with the unlikely refrain of “Its so ugly / But you just want to stare at it”. I’ve listened to the track a few times now and I can’t really figure out what he’s referring to, but his cracked voice makes these preposterous words seem even less palatable. On that same song, he raps:
“Real people, well they do real things / People making their own decisions / First you focus on the 20/20 / Then you avoid collisions. / Look at yourself, look at your life / Humans, well they never live twice / So your image, play your scrimmage / But raps I spit like I’m rocking this shit.”
This is a good example of Awol’s lyrical milieu: lots of cliches, lots of generalizations, lots of awkwardly forced phrases, all with the goal of achieving a profundity which is sorely lacking. The rhymes themselves are poor, and it would be one thing if he were working in free verse, but trying to rhyme “life” with “twice” is just unforgivable.
There’s a part of me that feels really bad whenever I have to write such a negative review, but the fact remains that I would feel worse if I weren’t plainly honest. This isn’t Awol One’s first album, so you can’t really chalk it up to inexperience. Perhaps some people just weren’t meant to rock the mic. I know he loves hip-hop, I know it saved his life, but man, he needs to go to rap camp or something, ‘cause what he’s got now just ain’t doing it.
// Notes from the Road
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