California rhymer Nieve (pronounced “naïve”) tends to dwell in the deeply reflective and dramatic, making his notably laidback latest “Playback” a treat. After gaining an overseas following in 2007 with “Away with Words,” a full-length collaboration with producer Cook, he joined a collective of Japanese-distributed rappers collaborating with soul-minded producers including Cradle and Incise. “Playback” finds him evoking the relaxed vibes of his home state while also providing the introspective and motivational material of earlier efforts over a range of strong production by Incise, SoulChef, and Cook Classics among others.

The title track opens the LP with a highlight, a charming production reminiscent of a twinkling music box with lush female vocals. “California” featuring Tunji is also a standout, an expertly-engineered arrangement of smooth synths and vocals celebrating the West Coast lifestyle, and he discusses relationships over fresh beats on “Just Go,” “There for Me,” and “Ride for Me.” “Doin’ That Today” is clean, catchy, and funky, pushing positive vibes both lyrically and musically.

Nieve returns to the heavy philosophizing of past works on “Still You Gotta Rise,” an appropriately dramatic yet largely effective number built around a serious piano part and sweeping violins. “Troubles of the Past” is a far more upbeat and lighthearted take, pledging not to let old problems impede future progress. Noah King and A-Dub appear on “Life’s So Hard,” a melancholy yet lively track capturing a frustrated yet optimistic sentiment subsequently echoed on “You Never Know.”

The production throughout “Playback” is excellent. Per usual there’s a heavy dose of soul in the beats, and most are steeped in rich keyboard arrangements, clever drum patterns, and whimsical use of vocal bites and electronica. Female vocalists and guitar solos add deeper elements of soul to numerous tracks.

Nieve’s biggest problem is a lyrical ambiguity that tends to plague even his most inspirational material. Even the most heartfelt tracks are hardly personal, and the listener comes away feeling that he knows little about the rapper himself despite an entire solo manifesto with few guests. What his lyrics do best is cultivate moods, as on the brilliant “Blue Magic,” making his narratives seem theoretical in nature. His stony, deadpan delivery leaves hardly any room for humor, making the forced “Stacy’s Mom”-esque tales on “Straight to Yo Mama” fall flat. Even if he can come across as too serious, though, his contemplative nature yields many more hits than misses, such as the dreamy “First Day,” taking the listener through a first day of school that doesn’t sound quite sincere yet hits home nonetheless.

“Playback” is extremely deep, but so smooth that even the headiest tracks can double for the most laidback of afternoon listening. Nieve does a lot of things well—he has sound technique, a recognizable, impassioned delivery, works with excellent producers, and has cultivated a unique, successful style—making “Playback” a consistent pleasure.

Nieve :: Playback
7.5Overall Score