The opening track, of this album, “The Problem vs. the Hustla”, is a head-spinner. It pits Cassidy in a freestyle battle against… well, against himself, split into the personas described in the title. It makes perfect sense on some level — after all, Cassidy established his street cred in a famous and epic freestyle battle against Philly rapper Freeway. This track is hot enough, with some great lines and some ill delivery. But the fact that it is a studio construct, and that there’s no difference in style or delivery between Cassidy the Problem and Cassidy the Hustla, pretty much sums up the record right there: he is a very good thug rapper who wants to do something more ambitious, but can’t figure out exactly how to do this. At least not yet.
There are songs here that celebrate drug dealing (“Crack”, “On the Grind”), and songs that aim to uplift the black race in America (“The Message”). There are songs that sound just like tons of other songs out there (“Kick It Wit You”) and songs that sound like nothing else out there (“Six Minutes”, “Bellybutton”). There are ridiculous rhymes that drop your jaw (“I got shit on lock like I’m constipated/ You would get abominated/ I ain’t lyricist of the year, but I was nominated”) and lazy tropes that make you wonder why we paid attention in the first place. So there’s something for everyone.
This tension is fascinating, like it has always been. It’s the good old set-up/knock-down: get the heads bobbing with the hardcore, then hit ’em with some knowledge, then repeat. I’m not sure that Cassidy’s take on things is as skillful as T.I.’s, for example, or as soulful as Trick Daddy’s; but it’s pretty well done nonetheless. Most of the hard tracks are frontloaded, and they’re relentlessly tough-sounding and thuggish, from the heavy bounce of the title track through “A.M. to P.M.” “Crack” has some go-go flavor, and is pretty clear-minded about how much money can be made from selling drugs as well as how dangerous it is to live that life.
Then there is a smooth section, alternating love/sex songs with crunk-ish dance tunes like “C-Bonics” and “Get ‘Em”. We get a lot of guests here, from the slightly boring (Nas and Quan on “Can’t Fade Me”) to the extremely awesome (Raekwon on “So Long”). This is where your patience will be tested, the lowlight being the Mario collab on “Kick It Wit You”. But if you’re able to switch mental gears, there’s some great stuff here, including Swizz Beatz’ amazing acoustic guitar hook on “Bellybutton”. (Swizz is the executive producer here, and helms most of the best tracks. This guy needs more love for the way he continues to grow with everything new he does.) This hook is so good that even the weirdest lines sound kind of hott: “I’m the kid from the telly with R. Kelly, man/ And I’m a ass-, I’m a titty-, I’m a belly-man/ I played ’em low like when I’m sitting on Pirellis, man/ I’m blowin’ up so they be blowin’ up my celly, man.” I can’t think of any other hip-hop song this year with such a haunting chord structure, it’s definitely a track worth searching out.
The last part of the record consists of two semi-prog rap songs, neither of which you’d necessarily be expecting. “Six Minutes” is exactly that, a six-minute song with lengthy guest shots from Lil’ Wayne and Fabolous, just like an old-school posse cut. All three of these young guns acquit themselves nobly, but the real news here is the completely batshit sample from the Buoys’ “Castles”, a crazy string-section triplets thing that renders it difficult, and crucial. (Neo the Matrix, from Ruff Ryders, is the other great producer here, killing it here and elsewhere in a manner that means we should pay him some attention pronto.) It’s like the Moody Blues with rapping on top, and it sounds really great in the whip. And then we get an even longer tune, “The Message”, with a lot of guest spoken interjections from Dr. Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, lessons about black history, and speculation that black celebrities are being targeted by police. It hums right along, courtesy of a great Syl Johnson sample (“Is It Because I’m Black”) and Cassidy’s measured cadence.
Some might think Cassidy hurts his arguments by playing all sides of the fence, but I would refer them to the original American rapper, Walt Whitman, and that dope line about contradicting oneself and containing multitudes. Cassidy is no Walt Whitman yet, but he might get there eventually, especially if he keeps trying to push the flow forward in his own weird visionary way. This is what I’m hoping happens. If he backslides and just goes for the cheddar, that will be a wiser business move, but a loss to American music.