Back $ellin Crack Mixtape
(Green Ova Undergrounds; 2011)
By Brent Ables | 25 January 2012
This feels like a gift. Released on Christmas Day, Back $ellin Crack is the second Squadda B solo mixtape to come out in the last twelve months, and something like the thirteenth Green Ova project in as much time. Like all proper gifts, it’s entirely gratuitous; anyone with a taste for these guys’ sound will likely have been sated—more like engorged, really—by the crew’s 2011 output: 808s & Dark Grapes II and The Tape Hiss Hooligan were two of the best albums of last year, and that was still only a sampling of what they had to offer. In his role as either rapper or producer (or both), Squadda has been involved with most, if not all of these releases. His sound, in a very real way, is the Green Ova sound. Back $ellin Crack is an invitingly Green-sounding album. And since more qualified colleagues have already written eloquently about that sound at length, I’m not going to make a go at it here. I just want to talk briefly about Squadda B himself.
One way to understand Squadda’s appeal as a rapper is through his effortless, even unconscious synthesis of qualities whose dynamic opposition helps weave the very fabric of underground hip-hop. He is, at once, Bossalini and Fooliyone: wiser than his age and pedigree (10th grade dropout, crack slinger) might suggest, and yet representative of the same narrow-minded perspectives on women and wealth as many of his less thoughtful peers. He brags, but doesn’t seem to just make shit up like many rappers; he fronts, but is somehow endearing even when he’s way out of his depth. (One thinks of him telling Pusha T and Malice to step aside on last year’s Blackberry Ku$h.) More distinctively, Squadda isn’t afraid to drop the front and talk to you candidly about the insecurities that result from finding an audience, as in “Rapgame”: “Wonder if they think I’m lying about the shit I spit / Can I at least get a chance to start lying about shit?”
Above all, for me at least, there is something deeply organic about Squadda’s music. When he rhymes about making money, it doesn’t feel like another obligatory rap boast but a joyous celebration of the newfound success that is genuinely reshaping this guy’s world: “2011 changed my life / Got something bigger than these words I throw at this mic,” goes the first verse of “Still Cloudstakin,” before he goes on to lament his mother’s doubts about the source of his new cash. And when he rhymes about “bitches,” disrespectful as it often is, it at least feels like he’s talking about real people instead of status symbols. In short, what Squadda B’s music shows is that even the most tired rap tropes still allow for genuine expression when they grow from the right soil. True, this palpable authenticity might just be a result of Squadda’s status as a relative newcomer to the rap scene, one who is still building his public persona; nevertheless, it’s a true joy to hear the work of the construction.
At the level of content, then, the appeal of Back $ellin Crack is pretty undeniable. At the formal level, though, it’s a different story. And this is something of a recurring problem even with Squadda’s best work. I loved 808s & Dark Grapes II more than any other rap album released last year, but as beautiful as the production was, as uplifting and insightful as the lyrics could be, Squadda B’s verses just didn’t demonstrate him to be a technically skilled emcee, and his performances on this tape don’t do much to correct that impression. His enunciation is sloppy, I mean; his language unimaginative; his cadence repetitive. (And that thing where he draws out the last syllable of the bar, sometimes via overdub? He does that way too much.) I get that technical proficiency isn’t exactly the #1 criterion for great rap these days: Kanye West can’t sing to save his life, but that didn’t stop him from doing it all over My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), nor did it really detract from that album’s Greatness. And because the music and overall unity of content and form is so splendid on 808s & Dark Grapes II, it was similarly easy to ignore Squadda’s technical shortcomings on that album. For me, at least, it’s a little more difficult here.
Take, as an illustration of the problem, the difference between a track like “Down” and one like “Say That 2 Say This.” The former is the best thing on the album—pure fire. Blistering guest appearances by Danny Brown and Shady Blaze coax Squadda into delivering one of his most energetic, impassioned verses on the album. And if he’s ultimately upstaged by D. Brown, well, hey: the guy’s one of the most ferocious emcees working today; cut Squadda a break. “Say That 2 Say This,” by contrast, finds Squadda alone, spitting out the increasingly irritating title refrain ad nauseum and delivering nearly every line in the same tired singsongy rhythm. This tends to be a general rule for the album: the group cuts benefit enormously from the chemistry that is an integral part of the Green Ova boys’ success, while the energy on the solo tracks tends to falter, largely because of Squadda’s lackluster rhyming.
It’s likely that Squadda B’s technical limitations wouldn’t matter so much if Back $ellin Crack had the inspired beats of 808s or The Tape Hiss Hooligan, but I just don’t think that is the case. “Down” and the epic, two-part “Hail Squadda” boast invitingly sinister backdrops and the poignant “Rapgame” has a lush, funky groove courtesy of the Block Beattaz, but nothing here is on the level of “Bitin’ and Shakin’” or “Perfect Skies.” And there are a few truly bewildering sample choices: the main riff from “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” is sampled for the imaginatively named “Van Halen,” and…is that really Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” on “Cream Soda”? Huh. I’m not saying that the production here is anything to find fault with, just that it isn’t the kind of next-level shit that’s going to make the album worthwhile in its own right.
But lest I appear to be focusing unduly on its faults, I should emphasize in closing that Back $ellin Crack is totally worthwhile, whatever its shortcomings. It’s enjoyable, moving, and occasionally captivating. If, like me, you’ve loved Squadda’s other stuff, you’ll probably like this just fine; if you’re new to Green Ova, this isn’t a bad place to start listening. And to be sure, the technical shortcomings that currently mar Squadda’s delivery will, in all likelihood, be corrected with time and experience. I mean, shit, the guy’s only twenty years old. In the meantime, though, it seems fair to predict that Squadda will likely keep doing his very best work with MondreM.A.N. in Main Attrakionz, the “best duo ever”—which, for all the talent and promise of its individual members, is perhaps best as a duo for the time being.