Although hailing from San Francisco, rapper-cum-producer Richie Cunning could easily be mistaken for an east coast emcee. He samples Nas and Guru, his flow is noticeably indebted to Method Man, and his boom bap production could seemingly be taken from a lost D.I.T.C. beat tape. It’s all the more impressive, then, that Cunning rarely sounds derivative, injecting enough comedy and charisma into the record to avoid pastiching his influences.
“Night Train,” Cunning’s debut album, is the kind of buoyant, nuanced record we critics at RapReviews dream of getting assigned among the many fledgling independent submissions we receive. It’s by no means superlative, but of the hundreds of albums and mixtapes that come out each month, it’s deserving of your timeâ€”a statement you won’t hear terribly often from this disciple of Sturgeon’s Law (viz. “90% of everything is crud”). Essentially a solitary labor of love, “Night Train” is entirely self-produced and features no guests, giving it an air of intimacy. Subject matter varies from clever braggadocio to humorous storytelling and rueful anecdotes about poverty. Cunning’s most valuable skill is his comical, often self-deprecating honesty. He never takes himself too seriously, threatening with a beat down one moment and declaring “matter of fact I don’t have no equipment, so when I’m done rippin I’m taking the mic wit me!” the next.
Cunning is at his best when given the room to convey this jocularity. On “One Dollar Wonder,” he stretches wisecracks about his extreme penury throughout an entire track, a potentially trite concept for less cunning writers (note: his puns > mine). He laments having to buy dime sacks in ten small payments, and uproariously alludes to neighboring legend Luniz, exclaiming “I got oneeee on it!” His flow is at its most Methodical, but there’s no surplus of excellent Johnny Blaze verses these days, I think. Elsewhere, on “Transfer Pt. II,” he flexes a quicker flow with equal deftness, a bite-sized interlude that bridges two more serious-minded tracks: “Smoke” and “The Cold.” The former track tonally recalls Blackstar’s “Respiration,” a plaintive reflection on his own underachievement over musing guitar strings. Whether the mood is low or high, though, Cunning is able to keep a solid momentum going; there are few outstanding tracks but rarely a moment of lassitude.
As you might infer from the mention song titles, “Night Train” is a loose concept album, the locomotive an apparent metaphor for life’s relentless forward trajectory, a ride people of all types share. Outro “Last Stop” is fittingly poignant in illustrating the analogy, mournful trumpets undercutting Cunning’s stoic, come-what-may attitude. Obscure albums of such sustained quality don’t come around terribly often, or else they’re so obfuscated I don’t hear them. Hopefully Cunning can accrue a broad enough following that his next album won’t go quite so unnoticed. He deserves it.