Featuring Heems, Danny Brown, and Wiki, the young New York MC 's first official album feels like a graduation, with bars and beats that feel both fresh and lived-in.
“Bangladesh” [ft. Heems]—
Your Old DroogVia
In June of 2014, a rapper by the name of Your Old Droog uploaded an eponymous 10-track EP to Soundcloud. Intentionally mysterious, with no photos, videos, or any identifying information, it quickly generated buzz in the rap nerd blogosphere. When he “came out,” he did it in a profile in The New Yorker, and when he sold out the Studio at Webster Hall for his first-ever show, it got written up in The New York Times.
So what powered the hype machine? It’s quite simple, really: Your Old Droog sounds a lot like Nas. At times, his fine sandpaper growl sounds similar enough to be unsettling. And before he revealed himself to The New Yorker, plenty of people were convinced that the 20-something Ukrainian immigrant from Coney Island actually was Nas. Once your brain makes the connection, it’s difficult to disassociate, even if the content of his lyrics (self-deprecating cornball humor) and favorite poetic device (punchlines laden with pop-culture references) don’t resemble anything that Nas has released in the last 20 years. But it’s ever-looming, especially for anyone intimately familiar with the Illmatic one’s oeuvre.
In the years that followed, Droog dropped a couple EPs (the rock-obsessed Kinison and The Nicest) and a collaborative project with Wiki, What Happened to Fire? But as the first collection of songs in his short career packaged and marketed as an “album,” his latest LP Packs feels like a graduation as it connects verses and beats from various collaborators to make a coherent statement. He taps comedian Anthony Jeselnik to provide radio-style interludes throughout; his dry, sardonic wit cements the generally absurdist tone of the LP. And while he’s stacked the deck with features—Heems, Danny Brown, Wiki, Edan, and Chris Crack all contribute verses—he’s never overshadowed. No one would've ever confused Your Old Droog with Nas if the bars weren’t hard.
Packs uses beats from a handful of producers—RTNC, 88-Keys, Edan, the Alchemist, and ID Labs’ E. Dan.—but the palette of sounds is relatively minimal. On the standout track “Bangladesh,” Droog and RTNC freak an ill Bansuri loop over a simple boom-bap drum beat. Most of the productions are sparse, but colored by thoughtful flourishes: Harp strings, record scratches, distorted vocals and explosions, even a Frank Zappa sample, removed from the context of his posthumous bizarro opus Civilization Phaze III. He’s riding a nostalgic sonic wave currently being surfed by NYC contemporaries Roc Marciano, Action Bronson, and Joey Bada$$, rappers doing their best to embody the spirit of New York hip-hop without getting stuck in its past. And if there’s any underlying ethos of the city’s hip-hop scene, it’s the merit-based hierarchy that rewards lyrical skill above nearly all else, whether it be sex appeal, skin color, or “gangsta” status. The beats always take a backseat to the bars.
Droog’s punchline-driven style evokes the vicious jabs wielded by Big L, were he less concerned with trapping and more into watching “Seinfeld.” He’s wholly unafraid to be corny; On “Rapman” he plays the part of “a hero with a cape and a mixtape” with a straight face, earnestly out to save the rap game from whack rappers. “Yo I’m sick of sycophants who want to make their idols proud,” he declares. “I want my hero to hear me and shit his pants.”
But much like his buddy Wiki, Droog venerates the art of rap storytelling, weaving colorful street tales of hood characters that make up his perspective of New York City. Each of the three verses on “You Can Do It! (Give Up)” tells instantly recognizable stories of people with failed dreams of stardom: The hoop dreamer, the washed up model/actress, the struggle rapper. His tone is dry but empathetic, the hook evincing a perpetual motivational struggle, the drive to succeed (“You can do it!”) competing with self-defeating loathing (“Give up!”).
And of all the characters in Droog’s raps, New York looms the largest. His rhymes are full of borough references (Funkmaster Flex night, nubuck Timberlands, bodega loosies), and while he doesn’t front as a gangster, he’s unquestionably hood; when his first EP dropped in 2014 he told Rolling Stone he paid for the studio sessions with winnings from playing cee-lo. Packs is a record by, of, and for New York City, espousing the romantic notion it will never change, no matter how much the world does.