Alabama is a depressing place. Full of historical ghosts and ill will, my grandmother, who was born in Birmingham, lived for 20 years in Detroit, and moved back to Birmingham on doctor’s orders, has nothing good to say about the state. If asked about Detroit, you’d think it was paradise. Touring civil rights landmarks in Birmingham and Mobile, Alabama, is a sobering and guilt-inducing experience. Actually seeing and feeling the cracks in the side of the 16th Street Baptist Church where they repaired the structure after the 1963 bombing that killed four young girls exemplified for me the sort of melancholic resilience of the city, the state, the region.
With history in mind, Southern rap is a curious musical beast, all about extravagance, dancing, and general wildin’ out amongst a decrepit background. There’s no irony in a rap artist with one record calling himself “Rich Boy”, and on his first single, already proclaiming his status as “young money”. It is all part of the culture of success through riches, pride in having something of your own, a classist slap in the face to the white folks on Secession Lane. There is something revolutionary in a young, black male making heaps of money and moving in to the house on the lake next to the white folks. As Pusha T says: “Make ‘em sick to their stomach how they s’posta be /... / Ocean in my backyard where its s’posta be / Funny how my neighbors don’t think its where I’m s’posta be / They think I’m cuter in jail”.
Which is why the massively successful “Throw Some D’s” is such a perfect Southern anthem. Legal or illegal means of achieving it aside, it’s about success, and the bright, candy-colored, drop-top evidence of it. On the last track of Rich Boy’s self-titled debut, “Let’s Get This Paper”, which sounds like a typical get-money club banger, producer Polow the Don (Fergie’s “London Bridge”; Ciara’s “Promise”; Young Buck’s “Get Buck”) and Rich Boy get serious about getting paper. “Money my motivator / My mouth my moneymaker”, Rich Boy raps before Polow expands on the idea, stating that there is a certain responsibility a young, black man has to his family when he gets money: “Our whole family tore up / You gettin’ the money for the people in your family who ain’t got none”. It’s a serious thought with definite anthropological and historical roots that, at the end of an album preceded by less subtle ideas about the relationship of money and man, is overshadowed.
Largely, Rich Boy is, in typically Southern fashion, an album about coming up and making the most of it. In similarly Southern fashion, Rich Boy’s biggest weakness lies in its overabundance of style, lack of substance, and the fact that it isn’t nearly as fun an album as it should and could be. Rich Boy is no charismatic star. He doesn’t have the suave charm of T.I., or the playful swagger of Lil’ Wayne. His only distinction is his marble-mouthed delivery that Northerners find so exotic and so full of assumed poverty-legitimacy (which is another subject for another day).
But Polow is the real star here. From “Boy Looka Here”, with its pounding synths and flamenco guitar, to the Neptunes-indebted futuristic-minimalism of “Touch That Ass”, he further elaborates on his cinematic, Dirty South sound. Largely discovered by Polow, Rich Boy is little more than a literal mouthpiece for Polow’s increasingly brilliant productions. Rich Boy’s deep Southern drawl often works as a perfectly decadent foil to Polow’s future-thump. But what becomes painfully obvious when listening to Rich Boy is the divide between the two artists. As much as Polow wants to take Rich Boy under his wing as a protégé and creative partner, Polow’s style seems to be progressing beyond Rich Boy’s.
Where Timbaland succeeds in is his ability to squeeze out an artist’s hidden strengths through his material, Polow unintentionally succeeds in squeezing out his own talents. His small verse on “Throw Some D’s” has become a small cultural phenomena, in large part to a certain reference to “every freak” having a picture of his male-specific appendage on their wall. While producers rapping is always a frightening thought, at the risk of jumping the gun based on a few small verses, Polow shows more charisma in that one verse than Rich Boy does on the entire album. Once Polow realizes that he can fill out his productions with as much melodic and lyrical finesse as others, it would come as no surprise if he branched out as an MC.
Surprisingly, newcomer producer Brian Kidd nearly steals Polow’s shine on his two contributions. “Get to Poppin”, which was strangely first attributed to Timbaland, is all heavy bongos and overwhelming Spanish vocal samples. “Hustla Balla Gangsta Mack” sounds like an outtake from Hell Hath No Fury, with staccato percussion, wavy chorus synths, and “Trill”-like dark undertones. But besides the singles and Kidd’s contributions, the record’s productions fail to help develop Rich Boy into an interesting or unique figure. This is all the more evident on the Andre 3000 and Pastor Troy-featuring “And I Love You”, where both utterly steal the track to the point that you can’t even remember Rich Boy rhyming on it.
Both as an artist and a persona, Rich Boy lives up to his name, with the best thing one can say about him is that he has a certain get-rich-quick innocence, a certain naive hunger to succeed. Too bad that success depends so much on his collaborators.