[3 October 2006]
The phrase “weird New York rap crew” is unjustly associated with the Wu-Tang Clan. Yes, their body of work contains classic yet incredibly vague skits, beats built around oddly looped and filtered samples, albums under robot personas, urination on platinum plaques, dinosaur-filled videos, and songs about hanging out underwater. But all of these moves were entirely predictable, and anybody who was surprised by anything Ol’ Dirty (RIP) did was not paying attention. No disrespect to the Wu (knowledge equality, Ghost Dog), but their moves were variations on a theme; they took the New York sound and stretched it sonically and conceptually. The genius of The Diplomats was a large-scale abandonment of New York. Despite furiously representing Harlem, nothing was sacred for Cam’ron, Juelz Santana, and Jim Jones, and thus their hugely popular Dipset movement ran on lyrics which rhymed the same word with itself for eight lines straight, and the wholesale jacking of west coast and down south beats and styles. This was revolutionary at a time in New York rap when reaching out to artists or ideas outside the city only happened when it was commercially necessary. Instead of redressing two decades of tradition, Dipset shifted the paradigm.
With at least two albums under the belts of the three original members, History in the Making is the first release from the second generation of Dipset. J.R. Writer is a young veteran. He appeared early and often on many well-selling Diplomat mixtapes and has his own series of Writer’s Block solo mixtapes (now on part three). The tapes exemplify the Dipset sound: relentless, swagger-laden rhymes filled with borderline-stupid punch lines, all over the hot southern beats of the moment or the sped-up “chipmunk soul” and militaristic orchestral beats of the crew’s in-house producers. J.R. sounds extremely comfortable on the mic (a fact made pretty clear in a nine-minute freestyle on Writer’s Block 2), and this is true regardless of his beat choice.
History in the Making has all the same stuff that made his tapes as good as they are. Always versatile, Writer rattles through styles, bringing a good Cam’ron imitation on “Back Wit It”, rapping slow and intense on “Put You On”, and letting off a barrage of rapid-fire rhyme that sounds like updates of Rakim or Big Daddy Kane on “Zoolander”. Writer has his share of quotable lines (“I don’t care if your pops marry my mother / How dare you step brother?” from “Why Try”), but he knows how he raps is as important as what he says, a fact lost on a battle-obsessed, flow-deficient New York rap tradition. “That’s a Bet” is proof of Writer’s outside influence, as he holds his own in this regard next to Houston’s redundant (but still fly) Paul Wall.
But the strength of “That’s A Bet”, that Writer is really good at saying nothing, is the biggest weakness of his debut album. Complaining about rappers’ lack of content is the stalest of clichés, but it’s appropriate for an album which is mainly comprised of stale clichés. Writer is largely unconvincing when he’s not just flowing. “Grill Em” and “Riot Pump” are well-conceived treatises on how to intimidate people and destroy the club, respectively (“Tell the bartender ‘you’re dead!’ / That’s what I do”), but they don’t make compelling listens. His crime-talk is paper-thin. On “Byrd Call”, J.R. addresses “the hustlers/rock smugglers/strugglers,” but his attempt at an anthem fails as he gives no reason for them to listen. “The Heist” is the most half-assed story-rap ever. Even if he’s been influenced by sounds outside Harlem, it doesn’t sound like he’s been there. History in the Making sounds good, but the technical perfection that made his tapes cannot support an entire album.