Russ has made a wildly successful independent career crafting sleek, vertically-integrated hip-hop in which the New Jersey-born, Georgia-raised artist produces, engineers, and masters all of his tracks, in addition to rapping and singing the hooks. If you were unaware of his one-man band status you’ll surely be up to speed by the end of There’s Really a Wolf, his debut solo LP because that’s essentially the album’s sole thesis statement.
Though gifted in all facets of music making, the 20 tracks that comprise his record are daunting for everyone but perhaps his most ardent fans. In his quest to prove his self-sufficiency, Russ has made an album that has plenty of nice melodies, resonant bars, and infectious beats but still feels oddly lonely, particularly on the rap-focused tracks.
The defiant “Do It Myself” is the best of Russ’ origin story tracks; it’s his “Started From the Bottom”. The beat is icy and muscular, and Russ is never afraid to mince words when discussing artists that he feels can’t match his work ethic. “I got businesses galore, I just opened up my store / ‘Bout to see the world on tour, y’all do too much, I just record,” he raps on the second verse.
Album opener “I’m Here” is equally successful. For the uninitiated, it works as the Cliffs Notes of his ascent and the entire proceeding has the feel of an early Roc-a-Fella track, thanks in part to the chilly two-bar piano loop that repeats through the song’s one massive verse. Russ has a clear knack for capturing the totality of his come-up, alternating between boasts (“Now I can’t go to the mall, ’cause I’ll probably get mauled / And I lied, I wasn’t busy, I’m just ignorin’ your call”) and reflections on the price of success (“Now they gon’ write about me, like they were right about me / Some people lookin’ like they wanna snatch the white up out me”).
But success feels different when it’s celebrated solo, and there are simply too many tracks where Russ’ strong ear for melody and uncluttered production can’t make up for the repetitiousness. “Family & Friends” is about being able to provide for the people who have been in his corner, but it rings hollow without any other voices, and the production isn’t any more ebullient than on more cocky tracks like “Got This”. Russ certainly pulled himself up by his bootstraps, but some of his best tracks have been collaborations with rappers like Bas and Rexx Life Raj, and there are moments where it would be nice to have somebody else reveling with him.
When Russ isn’t finger-wagging at the doubters and proving his devotion to the game he’s showcasing a softer side of his skill set on R&B-oriented songs like “Losin Control”, “Scared”, and “Cherry Hill”. The latter is one of the album’s best blends of his talents, as he balances his naturally high singing voice with muddy bass. The lyrics are minimalist, but the sense of waywardness is palpable. “Losin Control” is his highest-charting single to date, and it’s one of the most cohesive, tightly-wound narratives on all of There’s Really a Wolf. It’s the story of an early failed relationship from his teenage years, and is one of the album’s best-sequenced moments, with “Scared” coming immediately after and serving as a perspective-flipping coda.
He’s a perfectly capable singer whose rap background gives him the ability to ride beats and find pockets in the instrumentals that few pure R&B singers possess. Such is the case on the hook of “Emergency”, a track that refreshingly swaps out drum samples for live percussion, or on the piano ballad “I Wanna Go Down With You”.
Russ has more tools as an MC than J. Cole, another artist who has famously eschewed features, but Cole has used the extra leeway on his records to show sides of his personality that are occasionally corny or trite but almost always unique and worth hearing. Still, while There’s Really a Wolf is rather solitary and a few tracks too long there’s more than enough proof here of its stars prodigious talent. Hopefully, now that he’s told his origin story and proven his chops as a five-tool musician he can open himself up both thematically and to more collaboration and craft an album as diverse as his skill set.