[Note: Tom has asked me to column-sit while he’s in Sweden and I’m totally going to observe the pretty lax practices he’s been exercising here lately regarding release dates and coverage date. I’m not doing it because I feel like he missed something (although, Rome Fortune’s Beautiful Pimp is definitely one of the best rap release of 2013, so please get on that, Tom!) but because this is not one to miss.]
Atlanta’s Mike Will Made It’s pop-landscaping aside, Chicago has become America’s primary wellspring of rap and R&B since we let Chief Keef rattle off a laundry list of shit he doesn’t like. Its biggest breakout star of this year is Chance The Rapper, who had a prodigious showing on his home turf last weekend at Lollapalooza and whose Acid Rap has not only received accolades in this column, but was the highest-placing rap entry on our Top 25 Albums Of 2013 So Far list — and, no doubt, had we waited a few weeks, another Chicagoan would have been right up there with him. But like Kanye has always done across the grander rap-sphere, Chance gave outsiders a broader view of what Chicago currently has to offer, sonically, on top of the already-reigning drill scene (e.g.: Keef, King Louie, Katie Got Bandz). Another Windy City resident showing the robustness of the city’s sound is rapper/singer and ’90s nostalgist Caleb James, who released his most recent mixtape The Jones last month.
The first real throwback moment on the tape comes in early with its second track, “No Go.” It nods to “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” the lead single from Diddy (née Puff Daddy)’s debut album, No Way Out, although the sample of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” feels a little bit more hyperactive here. Still, James keeps Puffy’s interpolations of “The Message” and “Break My Stride” by Matthew Wilder. There’s a demographic of people who know Bad Boy hits from the ’90s still go hard in the club, but James gives it a refresh while maintaining the homage, rapping with a spot-on combination of Puff’s nonchalance and Ma$e’s lisp-y molasses flow. But New York does not act as his main region of influence; Death Row in its prime-era provides influence for the most old-meets-new cut on the tape: “6 AM” employs Snoop Dogg (then Doggy Dogg)’s “Gin And Juice” as a skeleton for James’s solitary twerk song. And when we talk about twerking here, I don’t mean Miley Cyrus-frog costume-spastics, I mean something that might make one uncontrollably slap each butt cheek together. If other pieces sound familiar, that extra bit of ’90s-ephemera is a sound effect from Ini Kamoze’s “Here Come The Hotstepper.”
These are certainly the two most glaring examples of sentimentality on the tape. Elsewhere, James heavily utilizes R&B, and while with “I’m Gone” and “Ride With Me” prove he’s in no way a sanger, there’s a smoothness reminiscent of Jodeci on the first R&B track “Finesse” that helps him sell it throughout. But Future or Drake he is not, so while there are only a few bits of pseudo-crooning on the tape, you’re not seeking out more sing-songy tracks as you would upon hearing “Turn On The Lights.” But despite this lack of similarity to his contemporaries, the ’90s-gleaned elements of his work are not the same as those of boom-bap-hungry artists like Joey Bada$$ and his Pro Era crew. In fact, this is probably the last place an “old head” wants to tread — unless your ideal time capsule is packed with shiny suits and fully-buttoned up flannels.
You can download Caleb James’s The Jones for free here.