Grafh needed a bit of buzz going into the summer, so he is offering us “The Preview.” To his credit, he certainly knows how to get the streets talking, with an intro provided by Kay Slay and production from grime master The Alchemist. The Queens-bred emcee has already gained significant momentum through the mixtape circuit and tours with the Lyricist Lounge, so in reality this record is more of a culmination of practice than anything else. The bonus DVD tacked on gives it even more of an official feel, especially since this is easily the most complete and focused work that he has put out to date.
Grafh has clearly picked up some terrible habits from his tours through the mixtape underground, because his topics of discussion range from “I’m the shit” to “I’m packing heat,” and hardly anything else. This is all well and good, and I really can’t complain about that. After all, Mobb Deep’s The Infamousâ€¦ is one of my favorite records. A certain amount of trash-talking and gun-toting is to be accepted, and even expected, in a listener’s mind. After countless years of gangsta swagger on wax, though, the same things begin to be repeated in the same ways. Short of a Biggie-esque detailed shootout tale, or a clever line that inspires some sort of thought, we all have heard it all by now. Grafh cannot see outside of his own tailored vision of what will move units or get the streets talking to craft a rhyme that moves beyond shallow and meaningless aims. It isn’t completely without value, as he is obviously not simply reciting lines that have already been spoken. Within this bubble of manufactured gunfire and ferocious masochism, there is an artist who is unique in his own right. He occasionally says smile-worthy things like “who needs a silencer when a bag of potatoes cost me a buck fifty.” The difficulty is that Grafh creates this persona within the mindset in which he stubbornly refuses to say anything even remotely sympathetic or human. On the majority of the twelve tracks of “The Preview,” he is a constructed, synthetic thug in the mold of a cartoonish movie villain, an endless loop of references to inflicting pain. The permanent sneer stapled to his face will be visible through listening to his words.
The incessant gangsta posturing is quite disappointing, because Grafh has a vicious flow. It’s no mistake that he has risen to such heights of popularity without an official release, because technically speaking, this guy can flat out rap. His rhymes are bogged down significantly by the subject matter, but his extensive freestyling experience has developed in him a superior sense of rhyme structure. The potential he has is daunting, all it will take is a realization of the necessity for something more diverse. In the DVD he discusses his ability to rhyme like 50 Cent or like Kanye West, which is a reason he claims to be more talented than the rest. On “The Preview,” unfortunately, he is 100% thug. Even when he mentions witnessing a friend’s death, he does so with words that are devoid of emotion, and he moves past these scattered memories swiftly. In his numerous discussions with the camera on the DVD, his conversations are clear and personable, and he seems to have genuine charisma. If this were more perceptible in his rhymes here, the record would have fared far better.
The production, handled mostly by Levelz, Scram Jones, and Develop, suffers the same fate as the rhymes. Each track is constructed well, and works on its own, but the collection as a whole resembles itself far too closely. Standouts include Develop’s “I Ain’t Playin’,” a slightly shrill but effective production geared to the clubs with a distinctive electronic tinge. The deceptively empty boom-bap of the Dame Grease beat for “Get That Bread” fares quite well also, and “Stab Somebody” is worthwhile because of a frenetically catchy beat from Levelz. Sadly, most of the music relies on sweeping sounds that are not pointed or distinctive enough to be notable. Even the usually reliable Alchemist dulls the edginess of his typical production a bit. The result of all of this is that the music that backs Grafh is nearly as uniform as the rhymes he lays over it.
The bonus DVD is pretty much exactly what one might expect. There are a couple of music videos, cameos from industry bigwigs touting Grafh’s talents, and some down-time spent with him and his crew. It is a free disc tacked on to the end of an album, so any complaints are ultimately empty. The movie actually gives more of an insight to Grafh as an artist than the record does, and there is a freestyle session towards the end that is positively ridiculous.
The song titles on “The Preview” say it all. Amongst others, he tells us to “Rep Ya Set,” keep “Heat Cocked,” “Stab Somebody,” and “Get Shot Boy.” From such a naturally gifted artist, this is a crying shame. There are two alternate routes that would have worked far better. Complete diversification of the subject matter would, if nothing else, provide far more initial interest. Whether or not Grafh can express sentiments and non-violent ideas through rapping, an attempt at this would have been intriguing. If he had chosen to stick with the themes within, but crafted stories and actually provided insight, this would have been far more riveting as well. Since he is still developing as a recording artist, neither happened, and the result is a murky, vague, violent trip through no place in particular. When his official “Autografh” arrives, it will hopefully have a more creatively charged voice. Until then, he is just another latent but potentially great rapper.