An hour and a half drive down from San Francisco, past yawning suburbs and into a pea soup haze of oaks and redwoods, sleeps the city of Santa Cruz. Akin to its granola Northern Cali neighbors in the East Bay, Santa Cruz is also a haven for waves, trees (these And those), eats, and free thought. An air of intimacy and community pervades as one walks past the quaint ‘50s/‘60s-era homes, each with its own compact lawn collage of plastic three-wheelers, overgrown flora, and sense of carefree. With this free flow of leftist leanings and Everyperson aesthetics, the city is a mix of the unique and the ubiquitous. Stroll down the city’s famed boardwalk and familiar sights, sounds, and smells from America’s ‘Old World’ abound: a wooden roller coaster, a carousel, carnival games, and saltwater taffy. Scroll through radio stations and bask in that same blend of candy shop pop, modern thug rock, and left-of-the-dial, grassroots hip hop. Indeed, Santa Cruz resembles numerous other American cities.
Santa Cruz’s history in hip-hop also parallels that of numerous others. From a groundbreaking radio station in the early ‘80s to crews breakin’ on the boardwalk for both personal and public entertainment, the story is a familiar one. However, being in proximity to major metropolises has offered Santa Cruz’s local talent a rare opportunity to use their hometown as a staging ground, feeding a steady stream of both over- (Kutmasta Kurt) and underground (the Earthlings) acts to bigger stages. In other words, the growing artist’s insistence on bringing in more than 55,000 potential fans is within reaching distance.
Derek “Proe” DeLong is one of Santa Cruz’s latest natives to step up to the challenge, boldly titling his sophomore album Perfect. A virtual solo effort—guest production is handed out on only three of the album’s 19 tracks, while collaborations on three other cuts amount to guitar embellishments and a background vocal—Proe exhibits considerable aptitude at rhyming and beat-making, talent that belies his barely-over-20 years of age.
With a calm and explicit flow, Proe speaks in a language familiar to headz. Over the Slug-ey drawl of guitars and ominous drum claps, he strides confidently on “The Prelude”, “Rock it with a middle finger up in the air and scream / ‘Fuck / Y’all.’” Despite the insipid call and response, Proe’s Geechie Suede enunciation is calm and poised, rightfully earning him credibility (as opposed to the pussyfootin’ mumble of 50 Cent). His drawn out vowels draw an understandable comparison with Eminem, and his frequent use of punchlines ground him in Em’s same crowd-pleasing cipher, but Proe exhibits subtlety at times; on “Robot” he inverts the catch phrase of yesterminute, “Ladies got dandruff, too / Brush your shoulders, daughter.” In the midst of the contemporary mainstream scene’s off-meter and slurred cadence of rapping, Proe seems an anachronism. However he pays his respects to the Golden Age, the era from whence his generation originates, by crafting the boogaloo flavored title track. The cut understandably gets compared to Urban Dance Squad’s “Deeper Shade of Soul” with its 120-plus bpm tempo and Proe’s double-time flow, calling to mind Kid’n Play doing the huckle-buck.
While style plays a key in Proe’s delivery, lyrical content veers between the bold and banal. On “Who the Fuck is Proe” (the title alone being a perfect illustration of one end of this spectrum) our artist in question sets himself apart from the set-trippin’ with sharpness: “It ain’t hard to be hard / It’s a dumb rapper’s instinct.” Better still, Proe slips keen observations under the door on “Sleeping With the Television On”, breathing “The TV is on / Cos even while sleeping we hate the stillness.” While the frame of reference is distinctly (sub)urban, the trials and tribulations of fear and insecurity are universal. In the second verse of the aforementioned “Robot”, he also demonstrates focus by maintaining his technology trope to critique, “We all programmed, so damn easy to play / A slow jam and a good fuck, and call it a day.” In just two lines, he transitions from computer to stereo to human, connecting his reference point to the listener. If only the entire song, in addition to most of Perfect, demonstrated such editing attention because Proe seems lost in a haze of his own ‘dro smoke.
On “The Break Down” Proe reduces verses to a laundry list of rants: “Myspace profile with artsy pictures and a fake name”; “Race to the nearest church so we can lie to God’s face”; “Pre-teens killing each other with steak knives”; “Beautifully tragic American sitcom.” Proe uses familiar cultural markers to speak upon the insecurities and boredom prevalent in modern society, however his approach is distinctly American in its overgeneralization. Like how American Beauty typified a toddler’s tantrum with its blunt and obvious images, Proe merely points and blames. Similarly, Proe fumbles when he attempts to describe his precious love on “Always Something New”, resorting to stock imagery: spider webs (love is sooo complicated!); “knee deep in this muck” (love sucks); “fallin’ into the trenches” (love is like work); “who’s he’s and who’s she’s” (love involves trust); “sex and cigarettes” (I heart sex!); “breakin’ up to makin’ up” (love is, like, unavoidable); “the thin line between…” (runteldat ting called luv 2 Mar’iiiiin!). Proe certainly writes best when he gets specific; “Cheers to the Late Night passin’ out / With the television on the Conan O’Brien” speaks volumes more with its identifiable imagery than an entire verse of clichés.
Luckily, Proe sounds perfect on the surface atop his catchy and familiar loop-based beats. The combination of his voice’s mature tone (his resonant tenor alone is like a laxative, in contrast to the shrill constipation of Lil’ Jon—what???—or the helium congestion of Lil’ Wayne) with the hot sounds of the underground read well on paper. Sample sources vary, from “The Last Train Home” rocking chorus guitars and echo chamber vocals in a vein similar to Edan’s psychedelic leanings, to “Sixty Six Seconds” shuffling like Harlem in the Autumn of ‘74. “Travelin’ Shoes and Sinner Blues” is representative of Proe’s fascination with gospel and blues as the track clip clops over wooden boxes and a blues harp loop (even the Suicide Girls reference doesn’t move the track that much farther from the Moby set), smoothly integrating a line from the acapella standard into the chorus. Jazz in both pop and modern idioms are spoken on “Fake Love” as Bing Crosby’s syrupy emceeing gives way to a piano-bass-snare stutter, à la the Sound Providers. Finally, rock plays a persistent role, from the electric prunish guitars of “Cages” to the overboard emo emoting on “Till it Breaks.”
However, while Proe’s references run deep, his mastery of them skirts the surface. The vocal tracks and the instrumental tracks sound separate, not integrated. Additionally, the tones are not balanced to create a sense of a whole. In this sense, “Last Train” sounds pastiche, not like the hash haze that muffles great psychedelic recordings. While amorphous bass lines and Garage Band-ish hi hats suggest resource issues, simple mistakes like indiscriminately pushing vocals to the fore reveal a not quite ready for primetime production sense. That Proe handily selects samples and crafts clever beats is an accomplishment, but time will hopefully guide his overall vision.
Perfect is an inaccurate title for this artist as a young man. The word “perfect” implies a sense of completion, of finality, yet Perfect is imbued with and driven by potential. Subsequently, Proe fills each track with text, commenting in detail about everything from the hypocrisies of modern society to the type of girl he likes, but he bursts the seams because no one cut can take this much… stuff. That the album drags well past an hour only dulls the effectiveness of the latter half, which coincidentally features several of the album’s most remarkable beats. In spite of the flaws, Proe demonstrates a professional’s ear on Perfect with his rhyme patterns and sample selection, making the album more promising than definitive.