Last year a young rapper from Virginia sent me his independent debut for review. Since the rating was significantly below average, I thought it would be fair to let him read the review before publication. Having done that, he asked me not to publish it as he was in the process of retooling the release. I haven’t heard from him since. Which is funny because on this 2005 recording the rapper in his early twenties alternatively flexed the verbiage of a future superstar debuting on a major label, and that of a returning legend. Apparently the “most critically acclaimed,” he was “leadin’ a New Era” (and he wasn’t “talkin’ fitted caps”) and already “hurtin’ the game with the first LP.”
Now far be it from RapReviews.com to tell aspiring rappers that it’s wrong to be ambitious. If creativity represents the artistic element in rap music, the love for the artform, then ambition is responsible for making things happen, an underestimated substitute when creativity may be lacking. Creativity and ambition are like yin and yang, they balance this rap universe. But some rappers have yet to realize that not every verse about impending success can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Confidence is something that you build, you don’t call it into existence at the snap of a finger. You can’t copy confidence, but that is exactly what the rapper seemed to do when he channeled Shawn Carter over and over. His diction, his breath control, his adlibs were all Jigga’s, there was just no denying it, even a fellow indie artist who helped put out the CD complimented him on having a technique ‘similar to Jay-Z‘ in the CD booklet. ‘And look what he did,‘ he added full of hope, displaying a naivity that is hard to comprehend.
We can only speculate as to why some people are so naive to think the cloning of personas and copying of styles is what will catapult a young rapper from Richmond “straight from the heart of the city to the top of the globe.” Yes, the music industry is known for producing more of the same, but how often are customers actually falling for the trick? “This shit is killin’ me / no more creativity,” complained our Jay-Z in the making, while letting his own creative juices run dry. Maybe on the local scene he was a breath of fresh air, but to the world he had absolutely nothing new to offer. It hardly gets any more delusional than some rookie paraphrasing Jay with “The game need me, homie, it’s that easy.” Just like it hardly gets any more hypocritical than the same rapper complaining, “They don’t create, they follow Jay,” only to constantly evoke the man himself.
Enter NYC’s Kukoo Da Baga Bonez. Oh he has ambition alright. He calls himself “Grindzilla” and the name of his solo debut, “Da Grustler,” is a combination of ‘grinder’ and ‘hustler.’ Some of his business endeavors include placing his music on the TV show _Unique Whips_ and licensing seven songs to FUEL TV, participating in parties and performances in Demonium ski and snowboard camps held in the Alps, starring in the independent film _The Last New Yorker_, and ‘working as a marketing consultant with agencies and companies looking to tap into the urban culture‘ and providing ‘a direct link to the street that many agencies and traditional brands just don’t currently have in place.’ (If you haven’t guessed, I’m quoting his promotional department now).
Contrary to our Virginia freshman, Kukoo Da Baga Bonez gets things done. His 12″ releases date back to 1996. In 2002 he put out a full-length with the artist World called “Insane Psycho Home.” He repeatedly worked with X-ecutioners Mista Sinista and Rob Swift and was even featured on DJ Krush’s “Zen” album (on “Whut’z Da Solution”). He has performed in Europe and Japan. Kukoo is on the move.
It comes as no surprise that “Da Grustler” reflects Kukoo’s cosmopolitan ways as he works with producers and DJ’s from New York, Chicago, Austria and Switzerland. After a short but sweet intro featuring DJ Takeonedoe cutting up Kukoo quotes over a nicely bouncing track, the ChicagoStreetz-produced “Politic” sets the tone with dramatic strings and speaker-thumping low end as Da Baga Bonez quickly gets his priorities straight, introducing himself as “not a backpacker, diamond-flashin’ tough-talkin’ gangsta rapper but a MC” that tells “all you sweet-scentin’ MC’s actin’ like hoes [to] give it a rest.” Recalling simpler times, he asks, “Whatever happened to just rappin’ / I’m bringin’ it back before cats started spazzin’ / Wouldn’t that be somethin’?”
As a rapper, Kukoo Da Baga Bonez offers a certain ruggedness that is largely missing from hip-hop these days, that has been replaced by musical extravagance from high-maintenance producers and fancy multi-syllable rhyme schemes. He has a point when he states, “I create hardcore lyrics, combine it with beats that be club bangers, jeep thumpers, block ringers / I even perfect flows on tracks with R&B singers.” He intends to drop “somethin’ worth peepin’ and coppin'” while still being “down for the cause like Sonny Carson” and “master[ing] techniques to work the system like Cochran.” He also manages to write these lyrics without too many obscenities or an overabundance of violence.
However, lyrically and delivery-wise he doesn’t really live up to the MC ideal he projects. His rhymes run the gamut from unkept promises (“I got that good stuff to think about, intelligent hood stuff”) to forced imagery (“I’m allergic to sea food, stay in your shell, big fish, your stench makes me sick”). Listening to “Da Grustler,” it becomes clear that boasting and battling are not his fortÃ©, and yet these are the album’s main ingredients.
Small adjustments improve the overall impression quickly. The chopped flow on “Who’s Da Hungriest” set to an underground string section provided by Shakim makes his content seem more complex than it really is. “Get it Right” is slightly on the experimental side with producer Final Cut marrying dominant staccato key stabs with a minimalistic rhythm section, interesting enough to make you forget about logically unsound lines like “Spit them lyrics that turn intelligent people into retards” and “I don’t waste time like foreplay.”
Quotables are rare, and they tend to work to the rapper’s detriment because what he says and how he says it just doesn’t match up. To cite one example, he is simply NOT “the fiercest flowin’ cat the industry tries to neglect.” Nevertheless, vocally Kukoo’s tone is authorative, in the vein of various Wu-Tang second tiers. He can adjust his flow, and he especially knows how to shape hooks by injecting them with melody. If it weren’t for the championing of lyrical content, you would think “Come Wit Lyrics” is a track by any current New York heavyweight, with its anthemic, hard-hitting slow motion beat by Lil Stone and its catchy chorus:
“You got to come with lyrics
so people feel it
If you got a hot beat, then kill it
cause that’s what we diggin’
We don’t want that grumpy feelin’
in clubs, just women
Hip-Hop stopped dope flows and spittin’
cause that’s what we feelin'”
Other solid tracks include the suspenseful yet funky “Predators Creep,” the club-ready “U Know,” and the graceful, melodically multi-layered “Str8t Flow,” all produced by Switzerland-based producer Lil Stone. And if you search high and low, you may even come across noteworthy display of penmanship like the following sequence from “Game Iz Locked”:
I thought you were Clint Eastwood but turned out to be Sheena Easton
had nothin’ to say in our face-to-face meetin’
just coppin’ pleas for no reason
Pssh… Man, I’m leavin’
You ain’t even worth the energy I would give for your beatin’
or the time of doctors tryin’ to stop your bleedin’
I got studio time in the evenin’
that’s more important than have you stressed out, reachin’
seekin’ for forgiveness cause you’re leavin'”
All things considered, Kukoo has to be complimented for taking time off from his busy schedule and putting together a cohesive CD with artwork by none other than George DuBose of Cold Chillin’ fame. At the same time the result is not fully up to international rap standards. When he tells criminals who feel confessional to leave their stories off wax (“Story Off Wax”), he needs to realize that because he left his own stories off wax, “Da Grustler” isn’t as personal as it could and should be. The excellent “Predators Creep,” a collection of incidents where he tries not to end up a victim, serves as an example that street stories don’t always have to be told from the same perspective and with the same outcome.
Since Kukoo is not about making things up, he may think his repertoire is limited. But with his experience his raps should be filled with real life events in no time. The struggle, the grind, the hustle is a reality for most of us, but we don’t all have the ability to come up with intriguing human interest stories. Rappers should, though. As a representation of “Kuk International,” “Da Grustler” lacks a good amount of sights and sounds that other US rappers have yet to discover that Kukoo should have acquainted himself with over the years. You just expect a little bit more from someone who claims, “Got all the culture’s secrets / hip-hop I’m a geek with” and who apparently knows that “it’s so simple / to construct somethin’ to stimulate the mental.”