Anyone with an ear to the mixtape circuit or You Tube trends should be well aware by now that the West Coast is experiencing a renaissance the likes of which few could have expected. Whether it’s the New Aftermath sound of Top Dawg Entertainment or the trunk-rattling chord experiments of DJ Mustard and League of Starz, West Coast artists are grabbing more ears than they have since the world briefly flirted with pretending to understand what made hyphy interesting. Unfortunately, this review isn’t about any of the artists leading that charge, even if a few of them appear early in the proceedings. Andre Nickatina is one of the many California rappers who maintains a loyal international fan base that grew up on and to his music, but if Andre Nickatina is any indication, the man hasn’t had what used to make him magic in a long while.
The first thing one notices about Nickatina, from Dre Dog to present day, is that voice. 20 years removed from his debut, The New Jim Jones, his inimitable baritone has barely been altered. But there was a time when it wasn’t enough for Nickatina to simply sound cool. He changed his name to imply an addictive quality for a reason. Namely, the deftness with which he could twist complex syllables into simple stories, the way he could barely rap about anything and make it sound just as substantive as “Train With No Love”. Unfortunately this man barely exists on Andre Nickatina for a variety of reasons, most of them likely chalked up to little more than the open of this paragraph: it’s been 20 years since Dre Dog helped put the Bay Area on the rap map, and his lyric sheet has run mighty thin.
Initially, this doesn’t seem to be the case. “Break Bread” isn’t a great song, but then one could argue the Andre Nickatina experience was only ever so often about “great” songs. Rather, with a pounding low-rider beat and locomotive momentum, it’s a classic example of a fairly plain song being elevated to repetition status just because Nickatina’s anchoring it. It’s a beautifully nostalgic moment for someone who hasn’t thought to listen to an album of his in years, even as the Traxamillion beat and Richie Rich feature struggle to avoid the age-related pitfalls lurking in waiting. Just around the corner, in fact, as the Krayzie Bone-featuring, Nico D-produced “Ho’Lat” can’t help but be a real let down after hearing Krayzie tear up features on A$AP Ferg, Freddie Gibbs and Chip tha Ripper tracks recently.
From then on, Andre Nickatina quickly becomes one of those albums from a fan favorite that finds fleeting strides throughout its 57-minute runtime, but ultimately feels like an artist making music for little other than being known for making music. A song like “Deep”, for example, sounds like an IAmSu! appreciation session in the way a string quartet tribute to Coldplay approximates without any hope of capturing what draws people to that artist. Most of the time, the production at best merely lies there and lets Nickatina work. Arguably this was their job in the mid-’90s, too, but the results felt more alive then.
As easy as it would be to blame Andre Nickatina‘s failures on the collaborators Nickatina brought to the table, it’s hard not to notice how hard it is to notice Nickatina saying anything interesting. While featured artists Problem and 100s are helping lead the new West through the surge in relevance rap mags predicted the Game’s Black Wall Street would fuel a decade ago, Andre Nickatina is an album by a man from another era that merely nods at what currently makes his peers so compelling. He is not an E-40, constantly pillowing into silly puddy and conforming himself to the champions of new eras. As always, Andre Nickatina is the thing for everyone around him to attach to and build from, at times to an absurd degree as beats and features disappoint beneath the shadow of the all-star.
Sadly, Nickatina is experiencing the same twilight a Vince Carter or Steve Nash is experiencing in their final years. Every few minutes one gets eager to consider them the same player they always were, and then reality has a funny way of turning fans to fools, gods to mortals. As such, only diehards need come here to celebrate 20 years of chocolate thai raps.