You gotta love how Bay Area rappers have a knack for putting what they’re about into words. Fremont’s Csteroc calls his new album “Gamblin’ & Grindin’,” and if you’re just remotely familiar with the Bay, you know exactly what he means by that. Like any businessman, Csteroc has his mind on success, and apparently he realizes that reaching a goal requires both hard work (the grinding part) and a bit of luck (the gambling part). There’s no success without taking certain risks, just like there is no success without any work ethic.
There are people who turn a deaf ear to such arguments. They would probably dismiss Csteroc right away as too materialistic. But if they actually paid attention, they would have the pleasure of meeting a young man taking responsibility, not just for himself, but for his family as well. On “Family Over Scrill,” the son of Vietnamese refugees vows to “make a fortune out of fame” for his family who “came to the States with no money,” but “stayed together, makin’ money.” While money remains an issue throughout “Gamblin’ & Grindin’,” it ultimately is but a means to Csteroc, who’s ready to “put my cash on the line / for the necessary reasons I’m leavin’ no one behind.”
Compared to 2003’s “In the East Bay,” “Gamblin’ & Grindin'” looks mighty professional, and production-wise it certainly is. The beats are uniformly Bay Area material, down-low, self-sustained, head-nod funk. The boy’s got slaps. Echoing guitar licks dominate Roc1’s “Come Ups,” a combination of chilling guitar chords and keyboard layers makes up Aliaz’ “Family Over Scrill,” Tony Slaps gets all cuddly and cosy with “Light Brown,” while E. Genius scores repeatedly, be it with the knocking “Gotta Get It,” the Sean T-like “Hustler,” the club-ready “Woe!” or the anthemic “It Don’t Stop…” The list goes on: Gooch’s sinister “Young Grindaz,” Paz’ skeletal “The Gamble” or D. Dela’s contemplative “Thought You Had Me” all reflect the Yay’s experience in putting together keyboard-based beats, a proven method that pays equal attention to the low end and the high end, which ultimately is the mark of professionalism in practically every production style.
But if the star of the show is supposed to be the rapper, then Csteroc puts on a clearly underwhelming performance. Even if you are able to appreciate how his flow goes against the grain, making it seem more like a rodeo than a horse race when he rides the beat, it’s very hard to ignore Csteroc’s lackluster lyrics. I consider myself a forgiving listener, but there’s no other way of putting it than that “Gamblin’ & Grindin'” insults my intelligence. The opening “Ya Never Met” has to be the single worst performance I ever had to endure during my career as a critic. It’s not even bad in a good way, it’s just plain bad, an accumulation of completely arbitrary content devoid of any rhyme or reason. Granted, he does rhyme, and he does attempt to reason, but there’s not one clear-cut, compelling argument being made, not one interesting incident being reported, not one joke being cracked, not one clever line being dropped. It’s actually a blessing for Csteroc that thousands of other rappers have already covered his subject matter, or else nobody would have a clue what he’s talking about, not even the “Young Grindaz” he supposedly spits for. How a genre that has produced so many skilled wordsmiths can sustain such an uninspired vocalist is beyond my imagination. In rap, we don’t just listen to a voice, we listen to what that voice says, and how. Oddly enough, ever so often you come across rappers who fail to grasp that basic premise.
The potent production backing him and the fact that “Gamblin’ & Grindin'” is an authentic record sounding exactly like you’d expect it to sound, get Csteroc over his lyrical deficiencies. We should also notice that “Light Brown” is a conceptual song where cognac is personified as a woman. Furthermore, he sounds a lot more comfortable when slowing down or speeding up, and he knows how to create an atmosphere with a melodic hook. But the fact remains that while this album may look and sound better than the previous one, it shows a rapper who wasn’t that advanced in the first place and who has actually regressed. As the soundtrack to Csteroc’s personal hustle, “Gamblin’ & Grindin'” is a luxury I would want to be able to afford myself, as somehing that’s supposed to be part of that hustle, it’s just a bad investment. In other words, while it’s cool for Csteroc to have this fairly professional sounding album to his credit, I don’t think it will make him much money. Sure, there’s no telling how far a little bit of gamblin’ and grindin’ can take a rapper. But if the product you’re selling is not even remotely useful, you might as well save your business plans and your four-leaf clovers for a more promising enterprise.