With the focus on rhymes and battling, the art of songwriting has never been on top of rap’s agenda. And when raps did come close to conventional songbook material, most of the time it was storytelling that did the trick. There are way too many exceptions to this rule for it to really be called such, but there’s definitely a huge amount of raps that are lost in space and time, built on nothing but the rapper’s desire to rhyme, and rhyme, and rhyme.
To some the concept of ‘songwriting’ may scream ‘pop’, but I’m talking about rap songwriting here. Not about rappers whose songwriting ability doesn’t stretch beyond the hook. I’m talking about Black Star’s “Respiration”, Black Rob’s “Whoa!”, Ice-T’s “New Jack Hustler”, Jay-Z’s “Girls, Girls, Girls”, Run-DMC’s “My Adidas”, Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.”, Nas’ “One Love”, EPMD’s “So Wat Cha Sayin'”, Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P.”, The Notorious BIG’s “Ten Crack Commandments”, to name but just a few. It’s a VERY wide range within which rap songwriting is possible.
In the end, coming up with a convicing, original song will not only confirm that you’ve got something to say, but also that you know how to say it. With a well written rap song you can make a lot more people relate to what you’re saying than with a lyrical excercise that will only get you props from insiders.
Especially newcomers often have a hard time coming up with concepts that work. Not new to the game but on a larger scale clearly a newcomer is Queens-based rapper Mike ‘Pizon’ Scala who makes his debut with this EP. It apparently serves him as some sort of timeout to determine the status of his development as an artist, to see how far he has come and how far he has yet to take it. From its title, “Growing Pains”, we can conclude that Pizon’s not content with himself just yet. He writes: ‘This record is called “Growing Pains” because I felt it represents my often times painful development as an artist. I am not yet where I want to be, but looking back at the progress I’ve made since I started, I know I’ve come a long way.’ Rap is not exactly known for realistic assessments and honesty, so Pizon definitely gets props for acknowledging how hard it is to live up to one’s ambitions.
But let’s see if it really is that bad. Going back to what I said about songs, Pizon seems to be aware of the importance of themed songs. He appropriately starts the EP off with “Who Am I?”, accompagnied by some vocal samples stating his name and a Prodigy line: No, you probably haven’t “heard of him,” but well, now you have. Over a solid groove with keyboards fading in and out, he tells the story of how he came to be the rapper and rap entrepreneur Pizon, from realizing that he has to support his single mother to the obstacles he has to overcome as a struggling artist:
“You gotta be assertive, and just know it’s a sure fact
that love comes with success, but the hate comes way before that
so kick your raw raps, don’t ask for nobody’s help
cause if they say one thing, chances are they mean something else
just be yourself, and don’t be concerned with the rest
take it from Pizon kid, I learned from the best”
But have ‘the best’ also taught him how to rap? One thing’s for sure, delivery is not his forte. He sounds strangely repressed, as if he’s reluctant to let the words escape out of his mouth. You kinda expect him to get the hiccups any minute. Pizon’s shortcomings on the mic become evident when he hooks up with other rappers. When Killah of Phantom Syndicate steps in with some rugged vocals, Pizon’s threats are reduced to almost a whisper. This jeopardizes both the menacing and comical effect his lyrics might have:
“They think cause I’m a cool cat, I can’t be street
You wanna hand me a defeat? In battle, I can’t be beat
Ain’t nothing fancy, we can slug it out on Delancey Street
or on a sandy beach while a bunch of pansies scream”
Still, he had me laughing out loud with the variation on the Prodigy line “I throw a TV at you crazy”, “I fling my CD at you crazy!” and this play on Nas: “If you cross the line you Got Yourself A Gun-fight / but just like I tell my hoes, all you need is One Mike”. “It’s On U” eventually wins thanks to Killah bringing in some of that good ole NY street savvy, all wrapped up into an addictive chorus and a hella nice beat that would be even nicer if the production of this CD could have been handled professionally all the way through.
Another guest that livens up the scene is Timid. He stars on “Step Up”, where he does a lengthy chorus, and finally “2’n the Mornin'”, an exceptionally dope track that’s over much too fast. Obviously the product of a nightly recording session, this track is so hypnotic it had me skipping backwards again and again. The laid-back and at the same time commanding voice of Timid carries Pizon all the way to a dope performance in the middle of the night. Too bad that despite Timid’s declaration “from Down South to NY / drunk, hungry and high / 2 in the morning, gonna rhyme till we die”, they fell asleep (or passed out) after only two minutes…
“Step Up” on the other hand is a clumsy-sounding attempt at a battle rap coming from someone who admits he isn’t a battle rapper. Again, the track scores Pizon a few extra points, with some violins vibrating in anticipation of the verbal violence that’s about to ensue but unfortunately doesn’t show up on my radar.
Coming back to the topic of songwriting, we should not forget that able songwriting does not yet make a good song. Pizon’s “Nevanevaland”, where he envisions a perfect world only to flip the sugar-coated cake upside down and conclude that we wouldn’t know good if we wouldn’t know bad, topping the whole thing with a great chorus, is a pain to listen to. The piercing keyboard sounds are just cheesy, and Pizon sounds like a clumsy high school student giving a speech rather than a rapper who is able to make people think.
Fittingly, we conclude with “Gimme Time”, which finds Pizon pleading for some more time but displaying so much confidence that you either think ‘This kid’ll be alright’ or ‘He’s too full of himself to ever get there’. We’ll see. Serving as an example, Pizon is one of the many, many rappers that are in the process of perfecting their craft. From perfection, meaning “10 out of 10 from RapReviews, the Source’s five mics” (as he puts it), he’s still a good amount of live shows, studio sessions and rehearsing of his raps away. Maybe he’ll get there – let’s give him some time.