I’ve seen the massively bearded, dependably sincere Ohio rapper Stalley live twice. The first was about five months ago at the University of Virginia, where he opened for Kendrick Lamar. Booked alongside a like-minded rapper and playing to an amped-up crowd of college kids in a location that doesn’t exactly get a whole ton of rap shows, Stalley was a fun an engaging presence. He didn’t seem like he needed to turn himself into a self-promotional human megaphone even though he was performing to a bunch of people who probably didn’t recognize him. Instead, he just did a calm, breezy set, kicking out songs like he was confident the audience could get on his wavelength, which it did. The second time was last month, doing a quick set at the Fader Fort during SXSW, immediately before his Maybach Music label boss Rick Ross sauntered out for the triumphantly annihilating surprise set that everyone knew was coming. In front of a drunk and excited crowd that was mostly just impatient to see Ross, Stalley pretty much went out there to die, and he made no real impression. While he was onstage, I was talking to a pretty prominent rapper who could be considered one of Stalley’s peers, and I mentioned that I liked Stalley. “I don’t know,” the guy sniffed. “That shit kinda boring to me.” I’m telling both of these stories for a reason: Stalley, see, is a fresh and engaging rap voice, but he really needs the right context to shine. That tension is all over Savage Journey To The American Dream, his new mixtape and the first thing he’s released since coming to some prominence.
I’m picking Savage Journey as my Mixtape Of The Week, but I should clarify up front that I have some serious issues with it. Stalley first broke out with last year’s tape Lincoln Way Nights: Intelligent Trunk Music, and that album worked because it had some sharp and specific things to say about what it’s like to grow up as a proud, thoughtful black guy in the small-town Midwest. “She Hates The Bass” was an interesting example; on that track, Stalley tried to convince a skeptical girlfriend that all the bass rumbling out of his car’s stereo was a form of cultural expression. And even on brag-rap tracks like “Slapp” and “Hercules,” he came off humble and incisive, an amiable voice over producer Rashad’s sunny jazz-laced tracks. But on Savage Journey, that plainspoken specificity is mostly gone, replaced with all-purpose Lupe Fiasco-style intelligent-rapper boilerplate. It’s a problem that a whole lot of quote-unquote conscious rappers have: He spends more time telling us how smart he is than showing us that intelligence in action. Plenty of his lyrics are almost completely meaningless. (Do haters really call Stalley “the example of a perfect stigma”? It seems unlikely, somehow.) And when he’s trying to talk tough, he can sometimes seem completely silly: “When I get to throwing shells like Mario Kart / I’ma either hit ya head or go straight to your heart.” He should at least specify that he’s throwing the red Mario Kart shells. The green ones don’t scare me at all.
But even though pieces of it grate on me, Savage Journey still turns out to be a relentlessly pleasant listen. Stalley recruited the Block Beattaz, the Huntsville, Alabama beatmaking crew who consistently do such great work with G-Side, to produce almost every track on the mixtape. And he’s a good fit for them. Their bass-heavy zone-outs snatch gorgeous pieces of melody from shards of smooth jazz or cutout-bin pop, adding up to an expansive canvas that still bumps dependably hard. And Stalley’s delivery flits in and out of these beats with a confident calm, riding the uplift of those beats like a kite on a sunny spring day. Even when he’s not saying anything compelling, the simple grain of his voice, as it exists on these tracks, makes Savage Journey compulsively listenable.
There are other, smaller pleasures to be had here. “BCGMMG (Remix)” gives us a chance to hear Ross and Meek Mill tearing up a thundering Block Beattaz track, and both of them absolutely go in; it’s a clear sign that more A-list rappers need to enlist these guys’ services. Lead single “Everything New” gives us a vintage Neptunes beat from Chad Hugo, and Stalley attacks it like a pro. The interstitial skits, with Kermit the Frog blathering about the American Dream, are pretty fun. And even if the tape doesn’t really show us Stalley’s full potential, it’s still a perfectly solid effort. I wouldn’t even be harping on it if I didn’t know this guy was capable of more.
Download Savage Journey To The American Dream for free here.