This is a weird week for mixtapes. The big news is obviously Black Bar Mitzvah, the new Rick Ross tape, and he’d had a spot reserved in this space ever since I first saw the ridiculous image of Ross’s face inside a Star Of David. But Black Bar Mitzvah turns out to be a total underthought mess, Ross leaving pretty-good verses on a bunch of current radio hits and then letting the rest of those radio hits play out unmolested. If anything, the tape does a nice job spotlighting how many good Kanye West songs there are right now, how many big radio songs already don’t have Rick Ross on them. That’s not a great thing for Rick Ross to be pointing out! Also, the relentlessly clever Tulsa, Oklahoma rapper TKO Capone released Tropical Swaggin Duh, one of my favorite full-lengths in any genre last year, and he’s now followed it up with Duck Season Part 1, a massive data-dump of a mixtape that spreads 40 songs out over nearly three hours. Seriously, this thing is the size of a box set, basically, and I haven’t had enough time to listen to the whole thing, let alone process it all. I really like O Capone as a rapper, but I’m not sure I like anyone that much. And this is only Part 1! But right in between those two poles — massive indolence and unfiltered content-spew — we’ve got two gifted and promising underground rappers teaming up for a low-risk, high-reward tape that builds on both of their strengths and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Guess which of those tapes won.
As far as I know, Deniro Farrar and Shady Blaze still haven’t met each other. They definitely hadn’t met when they started making Kill Or Be Killed. But they were peers anyway, standouts in a Bandcamp-based stoner-rap underground that’s been proliferating at a scary rate over the last couple of years. Shady already has one Mixtape Of The Week under his belt. He’s a junior member of Main Attrakionz’ Green Ova crew, but I probably enjoy him more than either of the two core M.A. dudes. He’s from Oakland, but his twisty, singsong mile-a-minute flow is pure mid-’90s midwest. Meanwhile, Deniro, from North Carolina, is a more hardnosed slow-drawler; he slurs heavy, impactful struggle-rap couplets with real intensity. Even though the tape itself is a product of audio files being emailed across the country, they’ve got a palpable on-track chemistry, their two very different voices doing a nice job balancing each other out. Neither one says anything particularly memorable on Kill Or Be Killed, but the simple interplay of both of those voices and deliveries is a pleasure.
Aesthetically, Kill Or Be Killed is a very of-the-moment mixtape. Its sounds swing back and forth between eerie SpaceGhostPurrp-ish Memphis horrorcrunk and expansively fluttery Main Attrakionz zone-outs. Its guests are all people very much in the current blog-rap rotation: Main Attrakionz, Haleek Maul, Boldy James, Tree, ST 2 Lettaz. But the tape nails its marks, doing those sounds in smart and clean way, finding room for those guests so that they make sense on their songs. And on “Cold Blood,” my favorite track on the tape, producer Ryan Hemsworth takes internet-rap’s fascination with vintage horror-movie scores to its natural conclusion, building a rap beat out of Goblin’s theme to Dario Argento’s Suspiria. He’s not the first to do it; after I got all excited on Twitter, someone pointed out that RJD2 did the same thing for Cage years ago. But I somehow never heard that one, and that Hemsworth beat feels like something I’ve been waiting for for years without even knowing it. The song might’ve been better if Shady and Deniro were rapping about witches, but I can forgive that.
So yes: A fashionable internet-rap mixtape, and things like that always seem vaguely suspicious and market-tested. But the tape works because Shady, Deniro, and their collaborators understand why these songs and ideas are cool at this moment, how those sounds can build on each other. There’s nothing revolutionary about Kill Or Be Killed, but it’s a deeply pleasant listen — two guys who know exactly what they’re doing realizing that they sound better together than they do on their own.
Pay what you want to download Kill Or Be Killed here.