The biggest problem with mixtapes in 2008 is that there are too many of them and not nearly enough new ideas to go around. The formula for most mixtapes is fairly simple: pick whatever beats you like, put your verses over them, and put it out. Because they’re being sold on such a roots level, rappers can get away without paying sample royalties, and the only goal is to write the best you can – half the work has been done already.
This approach is a good one in and of itself, but because of the over-exposure of the mixtape game, it makes them seem redundant. So when “I Am Legend” uses this same method of production, it’s hard to blame listeners for yawning. Unless you’re an incredible lyricist, it’s just not going to separate you from the crowd. What it does allow is for the rapper to show his skills with a clean slate, so to speak, and it doesn’t take long for Reef to make his case with “Squeeze”:
“So I squeeze…
And I bleed and I breathe and I’m down on my knees
Thinkin’ “Lord, just let me in”
When I leave when I squeeze
When I bleed, when I breathe and I’m down on my knees
Just begging you, “please…”
“Save me father”
My father ain’t raise me, father
It made me harder, made me smarter
Made me a martyr, made me feel pain
Never harbored, it just increased
It is in me, so it’s either your motherfucking face or let this pen bleed”
But while the Lost Cauze is definitely good, he’s not great. Perhaps it’s not fair to expect greatness, but that what it takes to separate from the overcrowded hip hop underground. He has consistently good imagery and is fairly clever – lines like “my last girl had a baby, I guess that makes me a motherfucker” make it pointedly clear that he’s a cut above the average MC,
If there’s one thing that makes this mixtape a little different, it’s the rarity of the beats. Usually, mixtapes see rappers rapping over the hottest mainstream beats of the moment, whereas Reef mines the underground here. Obscure beats from Evidence, Big Daddy Kane and Drama are more popular here than the odd Jay-Z (“Roc Boys”) jack. This helps lend “I Am Legend” a less polished, more intense vibe than usually seen, and it fits Reef’s carefully paced raps perfectly. There seem to be some original beats here (or at least, beats that are too obscure for me to recognize it), but unfortunately, the samples are usually more compelling.
Reef might not be the best or most original rapper out, but he’s very good at what he does – and operates completely within his comfort zone. That’s something of a humble skill, but it’s an underrated one, and Reef never feels out of place here (except perhaps the bouncy “Afghan Green,” which seems a little too light-hearted for him). He sticks with the familiar topics of his biography and skills, drugs, women and contemplations of gangsterisms. It allows his basic lyrical skill to shine through, and they’re strong enough to hold up to a few listens – even if that’s not enough to make him stand out from the rest of the crowd.