Status Ain't Hood

Behold, In Nick Grant, What J. Cole Hath Wrought

A rapper emerges. He’s from some small country town in the Southeast, but he has no accent to speak of. He raps under his government name, or some variation on it. He’s young and good-looking, but more importantly, he pledges fealty to the classic coastal rap of the mid-’90s. He makes a couple of mixtapes and finds himself under the tutelage of a seasoned industry veteran. And when he makes his major-label debut, it’s almost studiously inoffensive, an extended valentine to the old-timer rap music that the rapper might just be old enough to remember experiencing firsthand. When all that happened with J. Cole, a star was born. So now there’s a roadmap, and that brings us to Nick Grant, a rapper who followed that roadmap with exacting precision.

Grant comes from South Carolina, not North, though he actually carries fewer traces of twang and regional sound than even Cole did. His rainmaker is Jason Geter, Grand Hustle co-founder and longtime business partner of T.I. He can rap, just like Cole could, and his doofy overworked metaphors fly headlong into corniness, just as Cole’s so often did, just as they sometimes still do. Grant hasn’t yet made an impact the way Cole did when he first came out, but there are industry forces clearly amassed behind him. And Grant’s new album, Return Of The Cool, almost posits itself as a weapon in rap’s ongoing culture war, the one that’s currently pitting rap classicists against the new wave of bubble-trap kids coming out of nowhere to take over. Grant never explicitly mentions those kids. He never even subs them, the way Cole has been doing lately. But the whole album seems structured and conceived as a rebuke to that stuff, a piece of rap-music tastefulness full of slick surfaces and workmanlike professionalism.

It’s not bad. Not exactly, anyway. Grant is a fluid and malleable rapper, one who can adapt ’90s-style flows without making it feel effortful. (He sounds vaguely like Andre 3000 from time to time, which is cool.) He likes working with scratchy-voiced R&B singers like BJ The Chicago Kid and rapping over tracks that nod toward shiny-tux ’70s soul. Even his best shot at club play — the single “Get Up,” produced by the Alabama dance duo WatchTheDuck — is built on a shuffling James Brown-style drum loop. There is also a “go! go! go!” chant, the sort of thing that went out of style around the time In Living Color went off the air. The whole thing is anachronistic to just a goofy degree. And if you grew up with those sounds, as I did, then there’s something oddly comforting in hearing a kid who can recreate that style, pleasantly enough, without making it sound like hard work. It’s the Leon Bridges principle, except applied to rap.

But that Leon Bridges principle doesn’t work with rap the way it does with old-timey soul music. Rap is too lyrically dense, too dependent on its moment. And Grant’s lyrics are full of absolute clunkers. When he tries to be sexy: “Baby girl, throw it back like it’s West Coast time.” When he tries to be threatening: “Kids slide up on you like pajamas with the feet in ‘em.” When he tries to be cool: “’80s baby, wavy, you’ll think I’m hailing a taxi.” (He then rhymes “taxi” with “Max B,” naturally.) And when he tries for profundity: “I’m Dr. King on the balcony, what a canceled dream / Money’s the root of evil that destroyed the family trees” — words that transmit the idea of meaning without ever quite meaning anything.

A lot of this is corny, but none of it is objectionable. The album fades nicely into the background, and it sustains a mood even as it swings from boudoir jam to uptempo party-anthem attempt. The album’s final song is called “Luxury Vintage Rap,” and that title doubles as a statement of intent. If that’s the sound he’s going for, it’s one that’s mostly achieved. And Grant certainly could get better. It finally happened with Cole, whose recent album 4 Your Eyez Only is a moving and worthwhile endeavor. (It also appears to be Cole’s least commercially successful record in years. So it goes.) But I can’t figure out why anyone would listen to Nick Grant, at least at this point in his evolution, when Migos are out there. And if you’re a rap traditionalist looking for ways to argue that your style is aesthetically superior, you’re going to need to find someone with a whole lot more personality than Nick Grant. Or Mick Jenkins. Or Logic. Or any of the other rappers who have emerged in Cole’s wake. Rappers can’t define themselves by what they’re not. They have to become something.


1. Problem – “Did It For The Culture”
Problem, from Compton, has been solid for years, but he’s mostly done his best work with collaborators like Iamsu! and DJ Quik, people who know how to deploy his energy. But on this absolutely harrowing real-talk story-rap, he emerges as a scarily potent voice on his own, keeping you hanging on every word without altering his swagger.

2. Hoodrich Pablo Juan & Playboi Carti – “Servin & Swervin”
There’s something in the cheap, tingly menace of a song like this that reminds me of prime No Limit. I love Atlanta trap music, but I wish more of it had this level of intensity.

3. G Herbo – “Blackin’ Out” (Feat. Lil Bibby)
For the life of me, I just cannot understand why Herb and Bibby don’t just form a group together. They always sound better as a duo than either one does on his own, and they clearly love competing on the same tracks. If anyone understands one grizzled young Chicago rap hardass, its another grizzled young Chicago rap hardass.

4. Clyde Carson – “Bring All Your Friends” (Feat. Mozzy)
Even a decade-plus after the hyphy wave, Bay Area party-rap is still defined by rupture, by cluttered beats and rip-through-your-eardrum rap yelpers. So it’s striking and fun to hear someone taking that sound and making something this smooth out of it.

5. Cuz – “Pots N Pans” (Feat. Killer Mike)
You will never catch me complaining about Run The Jewels, but it’s still deeply refreshing to hear Killer Kill from the Ville rap over something other than El-P’s noise-bombs. Cuz is a Mike protege, formerly known as Grind Time Rap Gang affiliate SL Jones, and he’s given us a perfectly solid track. But the song really crackles to life when Mike rolls through, breathlessly relating stories of his drug-dealing childhood in a flow that never settles down.