Album of the Week: Ricky Felix – High End Theory
An overlooked theme of Eastern Massachusetts rap in 2020 is the amount of producer-led collaboration featured all along the coast. From ALFii’s re-imagination of the Final Fantasy soundtrack, to RLouie’s slick transition from expansive engineer to versatile producer, to DJ WhySham’s recent foray into Social Justice Trap, things are starting to come together in a major way for BeanTown and beyond.
Continuing this exciting trend of musical collaboration is Van Buren’s household producer Ricky Felix, who’s come through with a nine-track posse tape that profoundly captures the brimming talent pool within an hour radius. Dorchester, Mattapan, and Brockton are all represented throughout, with Brooklyn native Jimi Tents making a brief appearance later on.
After a syrupy 40-second rumble reminiscent of how Maxo Kream used to begin his old mixtapes, Felix incidentally begins the first official track of High End Theory (“Bread Crumbs”) with a low-end bass. From there, his instrumentals creep into the depths of your stomach, churning slowly as if they were some kind of demented train skidding against the tracks with bloodcurdling friction. Felix’s hi-hats rattle with the same creaky harshness as an old wooden roller coaster. The drums work underneath the pavement as if they’re trying to reach something unholy.
This aesthetic provides the perfect backdrop for artists like Luke Bar$ and $ean Wire to rap about finding peace and love in the midst of insufferable chaos. Choruses on “Bread Crumbs” and “Phone Call” highlight the difficulties of mental and physical uneasiness, as well as love’s combative inclinations (Bar$ gets real sinister with his “should I blast myself” line). Very rarely do we see this much personal reflection on a non-solo album.
What makes Felix such a dynamic producer is his ability to juxtapose darkness with light. He uses the same 702 sample found on Mustard and Roddy Ricch’s “Ballin'” to add some sparkle to the album. The result is “Your Time,” a duet ballad fronted by the bubbly personas of Max Moody and Meech. When put together, the two crooners bring light and sensuality to these pulsating drums. In a way, the track continues this underlying dichotomy between self-acceptance and self-doubt, or connection and dissociation.
The backend of the project definitely feels more scattershot, though exquisitely so. Kadeem, Mattapan’s standout spitter, personalizes Felix’s dreamier components with multi-syllabic anecdotes about past and present journeys through his neighborhood (“Street Sweepers”). Saint Lyor tells his own abbreviated story about moving from Nigeria to America in hopes of furthering his creative process on “Saint Lyor’s Conversation.” The Van Buren collective as a whole performs a more exciting cypher than the entire 2020 XXL class (“Weird”). The mood is lighthearted, and acts as the perfect end-of-summer label cut that leaves listeners excited for what’s to come. If you’re not familiar with what’s going on in Eastern Mass, listen to this tape.
Some other songs
Kamaiyah and Capalow – “Gimme Dat”
Kamaiyah and Capalow’s new collaborative tape Oakland Nights is intoxicating for multiple reasons. The beats fit a mid-summer night drive, and both rappers balance each other out nicely thanks to apposing deliveries. Capalow is more of an eccentric shapeshifter, while Kamaiyah presents a vintage laid-back vibe that feels more steely in comparison.
On “Gimme Dat,” Cap’s singing is surprisingly infectious. I’ve heard Fetty Wap comparisons from multiple blogs, but here he sounds like a less baritone Ty Dolla $ign. The style suits him well. I’ll be bumping this all fall.
Black Kray (AKA SickBoyRari) and CityBoy – “Tyrese”
I love this new wave of minimal rap production where comprehensive synths and rippling bass are at the forefront of the mix. Songs like this one and BktheRula’s “Tweaking’ Together'” leave you on a cloud. Sometimes it’s nice when a beat doesn’t make you want to smash your head in. Producer Lincoln Minaj understands this very well. Ray and CityBoy take you on a stimulating ride without needing the proverbial drop.
Bandgang Lonnie Bands – “Houdini”
Lonnie continues his underrated 2020 (listen to The Scamily with Bandaging Javar) by appearing at the bank unannounced as if he were the greatest magician of all time. Based on their scamming mentality, these new crop of Detroit rappers may as well be regarded as the reincarnation of Houdini. Why not, right?
Thoughts on Rolling Stone’s new Top 500 Albums of All Time list
This list has created a lot of intended discourse across the Twitter-sphere. For me personally, I find it tough to even disagree with anything on here because nothing is really debatable. Every album they mention is great, no matter what order they’re in.
My one tweak of people’s conversations surrounding the list is how they refer to Lauryn Hill’s masterpiece The Miseducation of Luaryn Hill. Everyone keeps saying how Rolling Stone named it best rap album ever, but should we even consider it a rap album? I feel like this is the type of categorization that unjustly limits Black art, even if that’s not the intention. To me, it’s the equivalent of lumping Tyler, the Creator’s Igor into the “Best Rap Album” grouping at the Grammy’s when there’s clearly an emphasis on other genres of music.
Hill’s definitive solo album is important because it defied what a rapper should be in the public’s eye. There’s elements of soul, R&B, doo-wop, and a splash of reggae. Sure, there’s rap elements (“Lost Ones,” “Doo Wop”), but the majority of the album rarely confines itself to one aesthetic. Artists like Janelle Monae, Tyler, and Kanye have carved a similar path of boundlessness thanks to Hill. She wasn’t just a “rap star,” she’s a timeless superstar. You can’t really categorize her music or impact.