Beyond the kinda-annoying way he spells his first name, there’s nothing immediately attention-grabbing about the Brooklyn rapper Maffew Ragazino. He’s simply a solid, workmanlike NY rapper who, stylistically, sounds like he’s stuck in 1995. (And this is an association he wants you to make. He does have a song called “1995,” after all.) New York has hordes of rappers like this, and many of them are insufferable — guys who clog up RSS feeds and continue to loudly and bitterly complain about “ringtone rap” even though ringtone rap isn’t a thing anymore. But with his new mixtape Rhyme Pays, Ragazino has effectively catapulted himself past nearly all of his peers. And he’s done it in the most unshowy way possible: By crafting a sturdy, focused rap record that puts his talents in the best possible light.
Ragazino first came to my attention when he guested on Dr. Lecter, the excellent debut album from fellow NY rapper Action Bronson. Like Ragazino, Bronson is a throwbacky regional type who doesn’t seem remotely interested in keeping up with the different stylistic directions that rap has gone in the last 15 years or so. But Bronson is also a ball of furious energy and irrepressible personality, a gigantic red-bearded white dude with oblique punchlines for days and lyrics about food that are vivid enough to actually make you hungry. He’s a star. Ragazino isn’t like that. He’s a background player, a character actor. On his tracks with frequent collaborator Bronson, he plays a sort of ballast, a matter-of-fact street-level foil to Bronson’s bugged-out cartoon character. When Bronson turns up on the Rhyme Pays track “Jordan Vs. Bird,” he immediately becomes the center of attention. And after listening to Rhyme Pays a bunch of times, I couldn’t tell you too much about Ragazino’s specific personality quirks. I can tell you, however, that his mixtape has sent me into deep-headnod trances a few times.
A huge part of that is the production. Ragazino has an excellent ear for beats, and even though he stays firmly within the NY-throwback tradition throughout Rhyme Pays, he still covers some serious aesthetic ground. Hard-as-fuck opener “Blaxploitation” is a vicious chop of ’70s-style soul, with horn stabs and drum-rolls that land hard. “St. Maffew” has a gospel sample that screams nearly as hard as the one on Killer Mike’s deathless “God In The Building.” “City Of God” is perfectly executed ’90s-style robo-reggae, the type of track that Barrington Levy would’ve murdered once upon a time. “Ashes On My Block” is a jazzy, downbeat lilt. All of it is gorgeously mastered, a rarity in the NY mixtape world, and none of it sounds like a halfassed knockoff. The music on the tape never gets boring; it keeps moving, and Ragazino keeps moving with it.
As a rapper, Ragazino is an unfussy head-down type, a descendant of NY workhorses like AZ. But he quietly tries out a bunch of different approaches on the tape, and he does them all well. “Ashes On My Block” is a heartfelt crack-era childhood memoir. “Jordan Vs. Bird” and “Bridget Fonda” bring a free-associative brag-rap lyrical style that has echoes of Cam’ron: “Crown-holder in Calcutta and Serbia / Persian murderers, schizophrenia disturbia / Douse niggas in bourbon, set ‘em ablaze / If I ain’t on the cover, fuckin’ right I’m on the 98th page.” “Black Sheep” is a fun old-school throwdown, with Ragazino quoting ancient hits and showing a sense of actual joy that’s rare among East Coast blog-rappers. He’s not a stylistic experimenter, but he brings a certain dedication to everything he does. Rhyme Pays won’t change your life or anything, but it’s a truly solid listen, and it announces Ragazino of someone worth our attention.
Rhyme Pays is up for free download right here.