A crime wave crashes against the East Coast rap shores with increasing force. Rap as shady as backyard deals, bargain basement lawyers, crooked officials and filed-off serial numbers. For an extended period, rap characters with depicted ties to the underworld would skip the part how they went from dirt poor to filthy rich and were busy showing off their status symbols like spoiled rich kids. Then came a phase when the genre turned into a cooking show with plenty of kitchenware piling up in rap verses, self-medication also came to the forefront while regional drug trade peculiarities slipped in and out of the public consciousness, but finally drug rap has come back to a more holistic vision of what it wants to say.
Rigz & Mooch and beatmaker Big Ghost Ltd aim for the big screen even with their late 2019 entry in the ‘fictional movie’ rap album genre, “The Only Way Out”. It’s evident the two rhyme slingers draw from real-life experience, but it’s also obvious that the rap world provides ample inspiration here. Repping Rochester, NY, especially Mooch can’t avoid the Westside Gunn comparison, while Rigz’ performance recalls types like Roc Marciano or Smoke DZA, albeit in smaller doses. Another point of reference would be Rae and Ghost, early on evoked by “Stuck (Intro)”, which unveils a Purple Tape-type set-up.
What saves the project from being a mere collage of vintage styles is the dilligence spent on individual songs. There’s no story told as such in “The Only Way Out,” although you could probably read some kind of arc into it. What you get are specifically themed chapters. The fact that gangsters need guns or drug dealers need to restock are discussed in “77B Savage” and “Re-Up”, respectively. “Sleep Wit It” gives each the opportunity to display his individual affection for money and guns.
While low on fresh insight, the first half of “The Only Way Out” helps introduce the characters, and in the case of “3AM” paints their environment as clear as a moonlit night. The rappers take you on a journey through a silent night that bustles with activity if you know where to look. The scenery passes you by with vivid impressions like “Two fiends fightin’, bet Calvin gon’ get his chin scarred / Eddie got crackhead strength, I know he hit hard”. The instrumentation matches the theme, the droning background recalling a sinister ‘graveyard shift’ type track from E-40’s “Revenue Retrievin'” series.
Other offerings lack that laser focus, often distracted by lengthy dialogue between tracks (not to mention Mooch’s irritating habit of shouting in the background of his own verses). The drumless “Custom Shit” signifies (premature) success through typical obsession with unnecessary luxury, “We Took Ya Licks” sees the rappers being rushed forward by muscular jazz rhythms. In the second half the duo makes time for reflection. “Summer School”, a trip down memory lane to their initial encounter, is a textbook example of personal storytelling, especially on Rigz’ part, Big Ghost standing by with a nostalgic sax-led beat.
In a world full of more or less random collaborations, Rigz and Mooch try their best to instill theirs with purpose. Their bond only strenghtens when they both accuse absent fathers in “Deadbeats”, and as far as rap history goes, it becomes fully clear who they strive to be when you listen to Rigz on “Fall Outs”:
“On ‘Immobilarity’, what Raekwon said, it was the illest:
Never underestimate the power of forgiveness
They livin’ proof, Rae shot at Face, now they greats
One of the best duos, international to the States
Push the brakes, to love someone, do you know what it takes?
The sacrifices in place? Nah, you niggas snakes
What you call it when they only support you to get supported
And would never want you to win unless they winnin’ off it”
By now it’s all been said and done before for those who practice traditional rap. As such, “The Only Way Out” follows established paths and confirms some of my personal prejudices against what is essentially retro East Coast gangsta rap (lack of charisma and pizzaz, rappers not feeling beats like they should be, content limited to shorties dreaming up a life of crime). There’s even an almost metaphysically cliché moment when the project closes with posse cut “Flag Day”. But on a whole you’re in for an enjoyable 50 minutes during which Rigz & Mooch, at least momentarily, drastically exceed my lowered expectations (especially Mooch has more to offer than the Westside Gunn similiarities that meet the eye). I gave this one a chance, and so should you.