If rap is your thing, you will sooner than later be confronted with things you know next to nothing about. Either you’re too young, you have trouble understanding the dialect or the language, or you are simply far removed from the rapper’s point of view, don’t share the same experiences and interests. While some listeners are easily frustrated by this lack of understanding on their part, others are fascinated by the unknown. That we tend to be intrigued by information new to us has been the mainspring of fiction and fact-reporting ever since man first opened his mouth to relate an event or to make one up. That being said, although rap often goes over my head, I’m always willing to listen. More than that, I’m willing to understand. I only ask that it shouldn’t be completely up to me. The rapper should make an effort to make himself understood. Vocally and logically.

That’s why I can relate to Oakland’s Ronin only to a limited extent. Ronin likes to rap about cars, a topic I couldn’t even contribute to in small talk. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that Ronin sounds like he has a chronic cold and raps with the inexperienced eagerness of an amateur. It’s like MC Paul Barman or RapReviews running gag Pimp Tea doing their best E-40 impression. It just doesn’t sound right. And we’re not dealing with an Ivy League nerd here. This rhythmically challenged rapper is from East Oakland, one of the most prestigious stomping grounds for indie rappers. But instead of taking small steps like a Too $hort used to, he takes a clue from his album title and stumbles forward without any real sense for putting words to music. He usually times the rhymes right, but spits everything in between in total disregard of what we refer to as flow, the typical problem of a rookie.

Often, when I come across a rapper I have a hard time understanding, it’s EITHER due to the subject matter OR the delivery. In this case it’s BOTH. The potential audience that might get something out of this CD can be narrowed down to either those who know Ronin personally and are familiar with his speech patterns, or those who are able to interpret abbrevitions like GSR, IHE, HID, HFP, AGX, CHP, E36, EXL, HKS, VTEC, SRT, TRD, HFP, GTR, SHO, DET, JDM, or DTM. Don’t count on me getting even these abbreviations right, because at one point, Ronin just lists them back to back, on the aptly named “Line ‘Em Up,” where he even reserves a line for dummies like myself: “Man, y’all stupid, why don’t y’all go to college? / Don’t you know us race monkeys got our own high-tech street jargon?” Well, I know now!

To Ronin’s credit, his subject matter does vary a bit, and even when he talks about cars, it’s not the same old bragfest about chrome rims, woodgrain interior and plasma TVs. I can’t really tell if he’s entirely driven by the need for speed, if he advocates reckless driving, but he does plead for patience with the younger generation on “Gimme”:

“This is for my riders too young to be licensed
to drive, but still sidin’ in the East Bay nights
They like to feel the rush and the high of joyridin’
that’s a East Oakland juvenile delinquent’s right
The right to be wild, the right to act bad
the right not to care about them police speed traps”

Just like Ronin considers it his right to wax rhetorically about originality. On “Different” he asks, “How am I gonna be an individual if I rap like anyone else / and how am I gonna be independent without bein’ real with myself?” These are worthwhile considerations, but most people would probably agree that “Different” is too kind a word for Ronin. At least he gives the matter some thought, citing a rather unlikely source: “Like Kool Keith ‘I see robots’ danglin’ on puppet strings.” He surprises with further insight, rapping, “Expendability, that’s the current record company pitch / I heard LL spit but couldn’t tell if it was Scrappy or Flip.” I like that. Maybe he should start writing reviews?

There’s no telling what could’ve been without the gobbledygook about cars. We might have learned more about Ronin when he felt his “American dream held back by a bad credit report,” or when bipolar disorder got his “priorities mixed up and pushed back like a heroin addict sleeve,” as he rather eloquently reports on “Who’s Who,” an unflinching look back. That’s right, Ronin shows promise, considerable promise given his utter and complete amateur status. He even gets socio-political on “Si Gung”:

“If 40 or 50 G’s keeps you locked down in a prison
then why can’t they spend about 20K on education
and drop another 10 K for down payment on the house
then give you a couple 100 for a little bucket to roll around
Instead of 40 or 50 G’s gettin’ spent annually
they could flip just 30 as a one-time investment fee
What they don’t see is that a decrease in prison guards
will compliment an increase in architects and carpenters
But ever since the start these corporations been a part
of a plan to give certain folks the upper hand
and guess what – them folks ain’t us
They like it when your ass take drugs all night
they get hype to see your ass get drugged out in a fight
While you in the streets scrappin’
they in they suites laughin'”

Ro knows, “We’re the last breed you see featured in The Source.” For once, I can’t blame The Source and I doubt that Ronin and his folks really are “the only ones you hear on your boulevard,” even if we zoom directly in on East Oakland. Were it only for the beats, then “Faster & Faster” might have a chance, because producer DirtyRice is no stranger to da fonk and laid down a simple but sufficient foundation to get trunks to rattle. Were it only for the lyrics Ronin might even be more interesting than some professional rappers, but his actual performance can only lead to the following rating:

Ronin :: Faster & Faster
3Overall Score