I was actually pretty stoked for this release. In 2009, Pill seemed like he was going to become one of my favorite rappers before he released a bit of a dud in 2010 with The Overdose. Wale released an album, Attention Please, that a lot of people disliked for some reason, but I thought he came off really official, and most of his mixtapes were equally quality. Meek Millz uses that Philly flow that Peedi Crakk’s been on for a while now and most of the Money Making Jam Boys use, so he just sounds hype whenever he gets on the microphone. And even though Rick Ross always comes across better if he’s interpreted as a cartoon character rather than a real person, he does usually sound really proper as a guest artist these days, so I figured surrounding himself with some better rappers would allow him to finally sound like the background kingpin he’s always imagined himself to be. Throw in features from J. Cole, Curren$y, Jadakiss, and CyHi da Prynce, plus production from Just Blaze, Lil’ Lody, Lex Luger, and more, and it just seemed like Self Made Vol. 1 had the formula for success.
Unfotunately, Self Made Vol. 1‘s origins as a mixtape are clear throughout nearly everything here. The album’s opening set is full of trunk rattling street jams, but the problem is all of the songs sound exactly the same, and the diverse array of talents on Maybach Music’s roster don’t find ways to make their styles mesh like, say, Wu-Tang Clan did. Not that those are the expected heights for this crew, but they never come across as a true group, just a bunch of goombas kicking verses for their godfather. Throughout the album, Pill is the particularly disappointing one — he doesn’t show many signs of the street conscious, Dungeon Family influence that seemed so evident on The Refill and The Prescription. He just continues down the path towards Generic Radio Gangster Rapper Z that he began to pave on The Overdose, his first tape for a major label. Meek Millz similarly says a whole lot of nothing throughout the tape, and anyone that’s heard the Money Making Jam Boys mixtape is probably just going to want to flip over to that instead whenever he comes on.
Their failures can’t rest entirely on their shoulders, since a lot of the production here — save the mid-album tempo changer “Rise” (which is practically a Curren$y song since he takes center stage and the beat feels tailored to him) and closing number “Running Rebels” — sound so uniform and unexciting. Just as the production feels formulaic and stale, so too do most of Ross’s choruses, which follow the Albert Anastasia/Ashes to Ashes formula of repeating righteously ignorant phrases focused around a name or item at a hefty, slow pace. Honestly, the only person who seems to come out of this looking better than when he went in is the least likely guy to even be appearing here, Wale. His lyrical swagger continues to shine through the change-up from go-go and soul-based production he used to make a living with, and nearly every verse he raps here is a highlight, even if he does mention Rick Ross saving his career a little too often. But one guy’s triumph is nowhere near enough to salvage the litany of disappointments most of Self Made Vol. 1 amounts to; if you’re car’s not outfitted with an outrageous stereo system that will maximize your pleasure, I can’t really recommend this outside the curio of Wale rapping over production normally reserved for guys like Gucci Mane.
Well, that, or those hip-hop fans who are drawn to beats first, lyrics second. Because although the raps from Pill, Ross, and Meek are fairly weak compared to their pasts, their voices are all suited to the songs they perform here, and the sound of Self Made Vol. 1, as has become a Maybach Music trademark, is quite ear-catching. To my ears, it’s an exhausting listen with all these guys trading the baton back and forth, but taking the songs out of context as individual numbers, most of them come off stronger than they do as part of a front-to-back listen. Ross definitely made a mistake by lifting “Pandemonium” and “Play Your Part” from his Ashes to Ashes mixtape to pad out the runtime here — I’ve never understood the purpose of charging listeners for songs they’ve already been given for free on another, fairly recent project — but at least they lend some diversity to the album’s sound (and in the former’s case, it comes off as one of the better posse cuts). I suppose in the end Self Made Vol. 1 is a pretty typical “pick your favorites and ditch the rest” sort of major label rap release, not really intended for straight forward listening. On that end, it succeeds about as well as it could given its rushed production schedule, but as the music stops one can’t help but be worried about Pill’s future, and whether these guys are going to continue trying this collaboration business or go back to doing solo projects. I’m hoping for the latter.