Like Maybach Music labelmate Wale, Stalley’s experienced an odd and ever-transitional rise to what counts for relevance in hip-hop’s modern, internet-dominated culture. Originally that dude from Ohio with the Freeway beard, most came to know him from video campaigns on popular hip-hop blogs that led to linking up with Curren$y and Dame Dash back in 2009 when the DD172 project seemed more like rapper heaven than another Dame Dash cash for gold scheme. But when the fantasy surrounding DD172 began to crumble behind the (marijuana-laced) clouds of rhetoric and Ski Beatz-fueled dopeness, Stalley quickly found the unlikeliest of homes under the umbrella of Rick Ross’ Maybach imprint.
At that point, it would’ve been easy to count the man out. Pill was much more suited for a roster that featured Rick Ross, Meek Mill and a half dozen trap rap production heavyweights, after all, but his time with the group was short-lived and shockingly underwhelming. Stalley’s sparse appearances since the signing have felt oddly comfortable, however, finding odd comfort zones and interesting corner pockets within his new sonic homefronts that made for understated if not easily overlooked forays into harder edged territory.
Savage Journey to the American Dream, Stalley’s first full-length project since last year’s wonderful Lincoln Way Nights, is notable both for its risks and its hallmarks. Stalley is still very much the MC his fans have grown to appreciate, neither fully adherent to a given rhyme scheme or ignorant to the benefits of having one. At times he raps like a street poet turned rapper while at others that script is flipped, lending an unpredictability to his cadences that have come to define the Stalley experience. His time under Ross’ wing seems to have enhanced this ability as he’s certainly adapted some of Ross’ techniques for feeling like both a very good and very unintriguing rapper all at once.
The key to his appeal lies within the earnestness with which every word drips out of his mouth, bathed in suds of struggle and desperation. If you’re able to ignore that, much of Stalley could be lost on you from the jump, but Save Journey is certainly an attempt to allow that trait to more easily sink into mainstream ears. What’s really interesting about Savage Journey, after all — especially if you’re of the mold that considers Stalley a fairly reliable entertainer — is the choice of production. Block Beattaz handled ten of the 14 tracks on this mixtape, and if you haven’t been following the sounds of Alabama (or at least G-Side) fairly closely, there’s a very good chance you have no idea who or what that is.
Assuming this isn’t another fleeting collaboration with more nationally buzzed-about artists (they also produced three tracks on Freddie Gibbs’ Str8 Killa EP) Savage Journey is a great look for both them and Stalley. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that sees Block Beattaz toning down their exclusive brand of dreamy trap rap in favor of some more boom bap-related aesthetics while Stalley mostly abandons the exceptionally palatable yet somewhat out of vogue jazz atmospheres he’s called home most of his career.
Both artists seem to have found a sense of adventure in each other, and while neither perhaps reach the apexes of their potential they don’t find time to indulge in their less interesting tendencies either. The result is a mixtape that’s both surprising and comfortable for fans of the two camps, yet also extremely inviting to strangers to the newness this tape oozes with. Hip-hop may be a genre renowned for bending rules but it’s actually somewhat rare for a risk to be taken and pay off, so kudos to these guys for making it work.
That the collaboration between Block Beattaz and Stalley being so successful isn’t the only newsworthy item on Savage Journey Chad Hugo also makes a rare appearance separate from Pharrell Williams on “Everything New”, and much like Pharrell’s solo productions over the past two years he makes what made their dynamic as a duo abundantly clear without disappointing what one would expect from a Hugo solo. There are also a pair of Soundtrakk productions, who returns from 1st & 15th exile to add a surprisingly faithful change of tone to the other guys, and the Rich Forever lowlight “Party Heart”, which appears here as an endgame bonus track and speaks significantly to the weight of clever tracklisting and sonic cohesion, feeling much more at home here than it did as the clear outcast of Ross’ winter-stealing freebie.
But this review wouldn’t be ending properly if it didn’t reemphasize how effortlessly Stalley adopts more mainstream tropes such as chauvinism and machismo into his well-worn ghetto philosophizer persona. Savage Journey doesn’t have the sort of face-grabbing tracks that crept up throughout his last project — no clear summer banger like “Slapp” or “She Hates the Bass”. But what it lacks in clear highlights it makes up for in cohesion and shock, a pair of qualifiers that have become increasingly hard to combine when talking about major label rap.