The only way I can compel myself to start this review is by starting where the album starts. As the album progresses, we’ll find that Rashad is the star — his use of 808s is particularly masterful, like that prolonged thump near the end of the intro — but for two tracks, Stalley definitely appears to be the star of his own show. Rashad is every bit his equal even in these moments, though. The way he works horns and samples into “Slapp” is one of the most basically joyous moments hip-hop has given us in 2011. But it’s also these two tracks that most totally live up to the album’s subtitle, Intelligent Trunk Music. The beats bang, and on the surface, it feels like Stalley is just rapping about his sound system and cars.
In fact, a lot of the songs on here will give you that feeling. But it’s a sort of interesting thing Stalley does here, in that the emphasis always seems to be on his trunk, yet it’s most often actually on something else. “She Hates the Bass”, for example, is, on its surface, a song about women disliking automobile sub-woofers, but on a thematic level, it speaks more to the fact Stalley is now in a position where he doesn’t need to cater to women to satisfy them. He has the stability and confidence to be his own man, regardless of their requests. The right woman will come to him.
Maybe it’s because a lot of the most publicized rap records these days reach for grander statements — see Rick Ross, Lil’ Wayne, Jay-Z, and Kanye. among others — but Lincoln Way Nights is refreshing in its modesty, similar to Curren$y’s first Pilot Talk installment. Essentially, the reasons some folks deride the work coming out of Damon Dash’s dojo and the Creative Control group are the same reasons I’m drawn to them. On a skills level, they consistently, subtly approach bigger life concepts through mere descriptions of their hobbies and day-to-day activities. In doing this, they not only seem to be more relatable and real than a Notorious B.I.G., Nas, or Jay, but they also seem to be more guarded from the typical expectations of a hip-hop release.
Not once on Lincoln Way Nights, not even the weaker second half, does Stalley feel like a guy that’s trying to live up to a mentor or supposed standard of rap. He is just doing him with his homie super-producer Rashad, spitting that Ohio-loving goodness about his subs and the positive things they inspire him to do with his life. Sometimes he’ll veer off the thematic conceit without any real warning, though, like “Assassin” or “The Sound of Silence”. On these tracks, he essentially performs the role of Generic But Very Relatable, Understandable, and Enjoyable Rapper, with the latter featuring a somewhat perplexing appearance from John Mayer.
I will agree with a growing mass of detractors, though, when it comes to the notion that Stalley may not be able to carry a full LP for himself. He starts the album with a lot of verses that won’t light a fire under your ass but won’t come close to boring either. But once it eclipses the obvious spotlight moment of “She Hates the Bass”, Stalley delivers a string of tracks that feel repetitive before “Monkey Ish” storms on the scene to do some typical but satisfying berating of whack-ass MCs. It’s this second half that reminds me of MadStalley, his mixtape of raps over Madlib’s jazz compositions and Blue Note remixes. On that tape, despite the universally strong production, Stalley was unable to capture attention for more than bars at a time, and the struggles once again creep up throughout the second half of this LP.
It’s a shame because if one were to judge him solely on his verse from Curren$y’s “Address”, one might assume Stalley is one of New York’s most promising up-and-coming bearded MCs. But after giving Lincoln Way Nights some thorough listens, it’s hard to say how much farther he goes from here. No doubt Stalley is a good rapper, and his connections are going to be carrying him for at least a few years. But whether he can convince someone to care about him — and only him — for an entire longplayer remains to be seen. For now, thank God he has Rashad, Ski, and Damon Dash’s rolodex on his side.