After four years of imprisonment for armed robbery, the former Bad Boy Records front man returns on indie stalwarts Duck Down.
Ah, Black Rob, he of the lost tribe of Bad Boy. Like many of his former labelmates, Rob showed a lot of promise early in his Bad Boy career before falling off the map completely for one reason or another by the time his sophomore album came around. Perhaps in Rob's case it can be attributed to a lack of marketing for 2005's The Black Rob Report, as he'd been charged with armed robbery in November of 2004, a probation violation that guaranteed he would be spending time behind bars.
The loss of Black Rob was no doubt the final in a series of major blows to the Bad Boy brand, who were soon turning towards novelty acts like Cassie and Yung Joc to revive them, but after five years Rob's back on the somewhat unlikely but well-suited Duck Down label to drop the album fans always saw in him. Black Rob Report and Life Story were made in true Bad Boy fashion -- skits, CD-stuffing track listing, gaudy shiny suit production alongside more hardcore sounding joints. But Black Rob is a gruff, poor man's Method Ma or 50 Cent, and while he got hits out of his stay with Bad Boy, one wouldn't be stretching to assume the production teams at Duck Down would be more appropriate for his vocals, especially after a long bid in jail.
And most of the time, that's pretty on the money. Whatever talent Rob had as a hit maker isn't really present anymore, but in its place is a super gritty street rapper who spits simplistic, straightforward bars about manhood and lighthearted gangsta rapping one would assume of which he means at least a little, considering his history. He's the guy on the corner with knowledge beyond his years, no fear to tell it like it is to either you or himself, and no interest in glamorizing the methods he uses to state his claims.
As such, some aren't going to be drawn into Rob's language. One of the better songs here is "Can't Make It in NY", but the allure is Rob's voice and things he decides to share with us, not necessarily the rhyme schemes or poetic devices he uses to share them. "I can't deny it / a vic is a vic / Ask dudes pimpin' them chicks, man / a trick is a trick / Man, some gon' bring home paper to eat wit / One learn how to do is sit back and peep shit / I was a student before I was a teacher", he raps, and I totally understand how someone could be underwhelmed by that sort of stuff on paper. It's pretty New York Street-Hop 101. But to actually hear it come out of Rob's mouth is a little different, and honestly feels more appropriate than if he were to go off on multi-syllabic tangents.
Unfortunately, this does mean the production often separates a good song from a bad one, since Rob is pretty consistent almost by default. "Boiling Water" and "Sand to the Beach" have verses with entertainment value, but their beats, particularly the latter (whose chorus is even less charming), are so grating it's going to be hard to fathom a lot of listeners sticking with them on their iPods. The Black Rob produced duo "This Is What It Is" and "Up North" don't suffer as much, but they are obviously the productions of a relative amateur.
Alternatively, "Showin' Up" is a beautiful beat that would have fit in fairly well on Saigon's Greatest Story Never Told with some upgraded drums, while "Can't Make It in NY", "Wanna Get Dough" and "Bumpin'" are nice, hardcore tracks. "Celebration" tries to switch things up with a sung hook and pretty token upbeat background, but Rob fails to disappoint as usual and Breyan Isaac sounds like he's having a great time, so it ends up passable despite all its template-like features. The only other feature on the LP is Duck Down's masthead, Sean Price, who appears on the album closer and drops a C+ verse as far as a Sean Price verses goes. People who've spent the whole album waiting for something resembling a clever punchline will be pleased to hear him take a turn, though.
Ultimately, Game Tested & Street Approved is all about tracks three through eight, with the rest of it meandering through various forms of decent and straight up awful. But for Rob to come back from jail with a relative success is really a win in my book. I certainly didn't expect him to sound as natural as always, even on a consistent label like Duck Down. Hearing him in such a concise, no bullshit setting is also a welcome change up from his older records, as it finally puts Rob front and center on his own record as things should be. It may have seemed as unlikely as pigs flying through the end of the last decade, but Rob seems to have a steady, productive career in hip-hop ahead of him, should he take hold of it.