The artist formerly known as Mad Skillz has managed a unique feat in maintaining relevance in hip-hop music for more than 15 years. Despite several near-breakthroughs and various high-profile associations, his career assumed a trajectory that never quite managed to rise into the radar of the mainstream. He has penned rhymes for superstars like Diddy, survived the anomaly that was his beef with Shaq, and he was part of Timbaland’s crew at the height of his late ‘90s dominance. Despite all that, the name Skillz has remained one known only to rap fans who search out music, not those who wait for music to find them.
That particular name-recognition quality is the essence of what has become known as “backpack” rap. Skillz’s credentials in said sub-genre are essentially incomparable, hence the title of his third album. After an acclaimed yet commercially unsuccessful major-label debut (1996’s From Where???) and a shelved Rawkus LP (2002’s I Ain’t Mad No More, repackaged in 2005 as Confessions of a Ghostwriter), Skillz, like many of his peers with dwindling mainstream appeal, turned to indie powerhouse Koch to minimize drama for the release of The Million Dollar Backpack.
In a traditional sense, Skillz possesses just about every quality that makes an emcee great. He has mastered an ever-changing, post-Blueprint flow and is an exceptionally strong lyricist. He possesses worlds of charisma, making him very capable of keeping an LP interesting throughout. Most of the songs on The Million Dollar Backpack address topics directly tied to his personal experience in hip-hop—from which he has drawn a great deal of insight—allowing his unique personality to shine.
The production on The Million Dollar Backpack, like most underground rap albums, is good but not great, with its greatest asset being the fact that it never outshines Skillz’s strong presence. Sonically, the album is varied if not ambitious. “Don’t Act Like You Don’t Know”, with its similar beat and Freeway cameo, sounds like “What We Do 2008”. “Crazy World” has a similar sound to several songs on OutKast’s Idlewild. ?uestlove also hooks up a Rising Down outtake for Skillz and Black Thought to trade verses over on “Hold Tight”. Skillz’s ability to adapt to different styles shows his emceeing versatility, and his charisma keeps the obviously derivative sounds from dragging some songs into copycat territory.
In a nice touch, Skillz has written short paragraphs about each track, detailing their creation, to precede their credits in the album’s liner notes—proof of his inspiration and refusal to put out a half-assed product. The Million Dollar Backpack is essentially what anyone should expect from an artist who has shown the type of consistency that has defined the rap career of Skillz. It’s a solid collection of songs, rich in skillful execution yet short on sonic innovation. In a sense, this is a true backpacker’s album. It’s about as non-polarizing as an LP can get, able to satisfy the converted, but likely to fail in significantly extending any sort of fan-base.