This album came out last year under the name Jae P. Since then Jae P has changed his stage name to Kobi Onyame, so as to avoid confusion with Mexican rapper Jae-P. The rapper/producer, whose real name is Kwame Barfour-Osei, was born in Ghana and spent his childhood between there and the U.K. He started up a hip-hop crew while at university in Ghana, and when he came back to Glasgow, he decided to start out on his own. “Unsigned and Hungry Vol. 1” is his debut release.
The first thing you’ll notice is that Kobi sounds a lot like fellow U.K. rapper Dizzee Rascal. The accent, the slang, the hiccuping flow, are all reminiscent of Dizzee. That’s as far as the similarities go, however. While Dizzee favors hard-edged beats and hard-edged rhymes (“I know killers, I know gangstas, and they never heard of you”), Kobi goes for a smoother sound and less grimy subject matter. It’s like Dizzee is the older brother who grew up on the streets, while Kobi is the son who got to go to university and is trying to make it legit.
The promo copy I got doesn’t list production credits, so I don’t know how much of it was done by Kobi and how much was done by other producers. There is a consistent sound to the album, with mellow samples backed by hard-hitting beats. While a lot of British rappers look to UK garage for inspiration, the tracks on “Unsigned and Hungry” all reference classic American hip-hop like Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Gangstarr. The beats are fat and jazzy, and perfectly match the positive, upbeat lyrics.
There’s no sex, drugs, or violence on this album. Most of the songs are love songs in some sense, dedicated either to a woman or to hip-hop. “Wonderful Dream” is a fantasy in which Kobi imagines himself as a successful rapper working with Pharrell. “You Don’t Even Know My Name” is a bittersweet love song where Kobi tries to work up the courage to talk to a woman he sees on the street every day, only to find out she’s married. The beat contrasts hard drums over an alto sax loop, creating a hybrid of old-school hip-hop and smooth jazz that’s much more successful than it sounds. Kobi’s self-effacing storytelling is effective, even when he drops clumsy lines like “I stay daydreaming about that kiss/thinking to myself you looking crisp/I would like to eat it like a dish/or meet you out for some fish.”
“I Call Her Music” compares music to a wife, and “You’re My Queen/King” takes a musical detour, with Kobi giving up the mic to John Freestone and Adele Sande for what is essentially a hip-hop soul song with a few verses by Kobi about lost love. He gets more serious on “Stop Look Listen,” a cautionary tale about the dangers of straying from the straight and narrow. While other rappers are making anthems about getting wasted, Kobi raps about the aftermath of a drunk driving accident. He gets back to love on “The Word,” bringing Adele Sande back for the hook. “Love by definition is God, and God by definition is Love,” he raps, sharing his spiritual outlook with the listener. Most rappers claim to be religious, but Kobi manages to mix his religious beliefs and his music in a way that is convincing but not preachy. He’s not praising God while peddling sex and violence, and he’s not evangelizing. He’s being true to himself, his beliefs, and his music, practicing what he preaches.
While there are some rough edges on “Unsigned and Hungry,” it sounds remarkably good for what is essentially a demo. The lyrics are positive, the beats are swinging, and it’s all done with an earnestness and sincerity that is hard to resist. Kobi’s not pretending to be a thug or a baller. He makes it clear that he’s struggling to balance music, which feeds his soul, and work, which pays his bills. He’s currently working on a new album, which will include reworkings of tracks on “Unsigned and Hungry.” With product this good, he shouldn’t be unsigned for long.