“Who you wanna be? Drug dealer? Demon? Rap nigga? You tryna save the culture? You gotta pick one.”
Those are the words of Mr Lee at the intro of Pusha T‘s second solo album, King Push: Darkest Before Dawn, and it points to an unassailable truth: that no matter how great you are, at some point, the validity of your purpose comes into question in your mind. Or how else do you explain a man that has been in rapping for almost twenty years trying to “redefine” his purpose in the game? This is why Solomon David, arguably the richest man that has ever lived, towards the end of his life, started questioning the meaning of life, and his purpose in it. This this is why you see accomplished child, teenage or youthful prodigies turn into something else for direction much later in life. This truth might also be the reason why Jay Z, between 2009 and 2010, dropped the eternal gems: “‘Hov on that new shit, niggas like how come? Niggas want my old shit, buy my old album (On To The Next One; Jay Z ft. Swizz Beatz)
“Dark Knight feeling, die to be a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain/ Went from the favourite to the most hated, but would you rather be underpaid or overrated?” (So Appalled; Kanye West ft. Jay Z, Pusha T, CyHi Da Prynce, Swizz Beatz)
It’s not surprising to see that the content of his music – and lifestyle as far as we can see – has changed between that time and his subsequent bodies of work. Man has to constantly evolve, or he goes extinct. The idea of stability, though desired, is antithetical to the existence of man. Things have to change, and so does man and his craft.
If we follow the evolution of MI‘s music from the very beginning to where it is now, we can see the embodiment of this ideal. M went from being the shocking lyrical newcomer in Talk About It and Illegal Music 1 to a musical mastermind in MI 2, Hip Hop OG in Illegal Music 2, and a street “chairman” in The Chairman album. I loved all those variations of MI. From The Finale, however, things begin to take a dramatic turn. Don’t get me wrong, Finale was a really good tape – probably even MI’s most sonically coherent body of work ever – but, in it, the usually happy, flexible, melodramatic MI kind of morphs into a dark, dreary big brother, foretelling some impending gloom in the game, and trying to whip the “youngins” into shape, first by telling them to think outside the box and break the rules, and much later, to fix up their lives.
Rendezvous, I imagine, was supposed to be a buffer for the incoming dreariness that is “Yxng Dxnzl: A Study on Self Worth”, but even that in itself falls short. For example, the gloomiest song in MI 2, in my opinion, was “Wild West”, but if you put that track in “Rendezvous”, it doesn’t sound so dark anymore. It just sounds emotionally charged, nothing more.
Enter, Yxng Dxnzl
This new MI, for all its faults, cannot be accused of a lack of originality, or deliberateness. In fact, I assume that Yxng Dxnzl is a pseudonym for this new person who aims to target a very specific crowd: Those struggling to find meaning in themselves, and what they do. A Study On Self Worth is not throw-away party music, I even doubt that any of the songs can ever be club material, heck, they aren’t even “vibes” material, just a backpack full of practical inspiration and advice, delivered over soft beats and sublime flow.
The song titles seem like post-it notes that you put up on your wall for inspiration when you need them. I mean, “Do You Know Who You Are? Take Some Time and Meditate On You,” “I Believe In Me, You Should Too, Believe In You,” “Another Thing! Do Not Be a Groupie”? If it got anymore preachy, I’d only listen to it on Sunday mornings. Delving deeper though, you begin to see the basis. From the hummingbird that doesn’t know that she’s free, the “bad bitch” still in a shell of herself – second-guessing herself, to the self-evaluation of the man himself, Yxng Dxnzl, like a black hole, constantly draws you into itself with every successive listen. At first listen, it might sound boring, bland and too dark, but please listen again, and again. It speaks to you.
One thing I vote against, though, is the severe lack of variety. I think MI traded lots of musicality and variety for the overall mood of the project and being someone that enjoys variety, that was a turn off for me. But I guess that’s the curse of specificity and deliberateness, which the project scores very high on – It digs deep into a small area, instead of spanning wide and scratching the surface.
In a couple of years, we might be able to talk about the cultural impact of the album. My prediction is that: it will not be one of the greats, but it will open a door for people to make great albums and songs on the theme it explores. Yxng Dxnzl is not a Jesus, it is John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness with a loud voice warning of what is to come, and breaking a door down so that others can come in. And come in, they will.
In a world (or industry) where women are constantly trodden on, the black skin isn’t celebrated enough, mental health is underrated and people struggle to find meaning in themselves to the point that they turn to things or people that pull them further down into the depths, Dxnzl highlights these issues, and in his own way, starts a conversation about them. Leaving my beloved happy, melodramatic MI aside, I understand that there’s no other way to do this. How do you make music about an issue that doesn’t sound like the issue you’re talking about? How do you write a happy song about depression, disloyalty, lack of confidence and cultural repression? Someone had to do it, Dxnzl took up the mantle. As far as my “unassailable truth” about purpose goes, I feel like MI has contended with that question, and is, perhaps, still contending with it, and he’s calling on others to do the same.
“Fate and irony, that ain’t faulting me, cos once my self-esteem was low as low can be/ Then I caught a glimpse of older me, Yxng Dnzl is come set the culture free”
Yxng Dxnzl: A Study On Self Worth isn’t the body of work you go to vibe to, it is the album you turn to on gloomy days, searching frantically through its cornucopia of sounds, lyrics and cuts, hoping to find yourself.
Ultimately, Yxng Dxnzl is not the MI that we want, but he is the MI that we need.
Smish is a writer and sound engineer. He tweets via @Smish001.
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