Teenage rappers are a phenomenon almost as old as hip hop itself, and the most lucrative were those marketed to a teeny-boppers’ audience. If one looks back at some of the ’90s’ teen rap acts, however, manufactured stars such as Lil’ Bow Wow and Lil’ Romeo might in fact appear the products of years’ worth of trial and error. Some among their predecessors, such as Da Youngsta’s, Shyheim, and Illegal, were marketed at a hardcore hip hop base, and widespread success proved elusiveâ€”after all, why turn to a mere kid for ruminations on street life when one could just as easily listen to Nas and Scarface wax poetic?
A+ (not to be confused with A-Plus of Souls of Mischief fame) came from the same wave of East Coast teen rappers in the mid-90s mentored by established MCs. A Hempstead native, he was a green fourteen years old when his debut “The Latch-Key Child” saw light through Kedar Massenburg’s first label venture. “The Latch-Key Child” draws mostly from the early work of Mobb Deep and his other slightly older neighbors from the nearby boroughs, and it’s a surprisingly gritty listen even given a few concessions made to cater to a young audience. Check the excellent Smith Bros. production “Move On,” with a spooky Isley Brothers sample and insight miles beyond his years:
“He was only thirteen when he burst his spleen
The shot was fatal, he died right there up on the kitchen table
Blaow, it happened all alone in his house
Not a creature was stirrin’, not a roach or a mouse
And I was just with him, playin’ Sega
And buggin’ on the horn with some honeys like a couple of playas
And now he’s gone, I’m speakin’ on my man Kayshawn
Forever on my mind mentally as I kick my song
He used to talk about the box in the closet
Where his pops kept a Glock and all the safety deposits
Now he stressed, fiendin’ just to hold some heat
I guess it came from all the stories that he heard in the street
I can’t explain it, it’s ill how we used to feel
I used to tell him stop playin’ with that chrome-piece steel
He never listened, and now my man is missin’ in action
I blame it on the fools in the street that’s always blastin'”
“Move On” is a song of the content and quality that countless rappers have aspired toâ€”a deep, stirring rumination on death. It’s a stunning opener, and it makes a clear statement that A+ is no ordinary tween or even one of the “stick-up kids” his contemporaries Illegal claimed to be; rather, it places him as an heir apparent to the wide-eyed street poets of Queens and Brooklyn. In addition to the heavy contemplation and poignantly crafted profiles chronicled through his three verses, he sports a fairly complex rhyme scheme.
This, of course, provides a convenient lead-in to the elephant in A+’s room. If A+ did in fact construct the impeccably-penned, profoundly reflective lyrics and artful rhyme schemes of “The Latch-Key Child,” he was one of hip hop’s greatest unsung prodigies. “The Latch-Key Child” is an album of such rare introspection and comprehensive narratives that it would be impressive from a man of any age; that it came from a fourteen-year-old is borderline unbelievable. While I have no information to confirm my suspicions, I’d suggest that what’s more likely is A+ had a crew of veteran ghostwriters helping him with his fledgling craft. This should by no means cast A+ as a fraud; it’s hard to imagine that anyone his age could truly possess the wisdom or experience requisite for a literate mid-90s New York street record, and if ghostwriting is really as prevalent as some purport, it doesn’t place him on a different plane than most of his elders. In order to make him marketable to a wide audience, his verses are definitely doctored and refined with clean closers and cadences, which can probably be said of the majority of major label artists.
What can’t be debated, however, is the fact that A+ can seriously spit, and he possesses a delivery, breath control, and vocal presence that many seasoned MCs would kill for. The Buckwild production “Me and My Microphone” is a true gem, featuring an exuberant Q-Tip on the hook as A+ cleverly likens a mic to a beloved girlfriend. The beat, which would later be recycled on Nas’ “Getting Married,” is tastefully wistful, and the young MC makes good on an ambitious concept with a convincing performance. “Gusto” features a “Hell on Earth”-era Prodigy over a grimy Miladon production, and A+ manages to live up to his talented collaborator with an excellent verse. Best of all is the none-too-imaginatively titled AZ duet “A+Z,” on which the two rappers trade lines tag-team style over a trunk-rattling East Coast jewel:
“The realism must continue, where I live it’s like a battlefield
We all poor, but on my block it’s like a half a mil’
Surrounded by the most criminal type of elements
Blunts, stunts, gunshots, broken-down developments
It’s all illegal, young juveniles with the Desert Eagles
Street sweepers, heaters, soon-to-be retreaters
It’s routine, people seem to go through a cycle
So confused, to choose between the Bible or the rifle
Watch ’em stifle, yo me and son go’n escalate this
And get these papers, run some capers while they catch the vapors
Yeah son, don’t got no time for no chicken trickin’
It’s the lyrical addiction, ’cause me and AZ be politickin'”
That A+ can not only hold his own but perhaps even outdo his partner-in-rhyme speaks volumes to his abilities. The slick “Wanna Be Rich” and the stark “Hard Times,” a project record that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on “The Infamous” or “Doe or Die,” follow in suit.
The single “All I See” is aimed for a young and even female listenership but doesn’t undermine the rest of the album; in fact, it’s a rather likable track and a welcome display of versatility from the normally dark narrator. The party tracks “My Thing” and “Party Joint” complement as a pair of upbeat, feel-good highlights. Both feature clean, soulful production and have aged surprisingly well:
“My apparatus helps make me the baddest
Flash the cabbage, and watch these honeys try to take advantage
Can’t manage to get none, but check out my man son
Roll up on the dance floor and have fun
While my flock from the block rush ya spot
It’s undeniable, you know my joint knock like Roy Jones
Rippin’ microphones ’til this boy’s grown
Call up Kedar, set it up, get this spot blown”
Throw in the decent posse cut “Parkside Coalition” and the strong closer “Alpha 2 Omega” and you’ve got a tracklist thirteen deep without a dud in the bunch.
Could A+ have actually conceptualized “The Latch-Key Child” at age fourteen? Perhaps not, but I’d argue that that’s beside the point. Before Lil’ Bow Wow and Lil’ Romeo tore up the charts at the turn of the century, teenage rappers like A+ filled a niche. The tales of shoot-em-ups, lost homies, and punchline-driven braggadocio are far better than average, and are made all the more eerie coming from the mouths of babes. Inspectah Deck said it in self-pity on “C.R.E.A.M.,” but that doesn’t make it any less valid: “Life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough,” but the fact remains that for many folks it is, and rappers of A+’s ilk gave these “latch-key children” a voice. “The Latch-Key Child” finds A+ in great company via collaborators and producers. Far darker than Shyheim, Illegal, and Da Youngsta’s’ debuts, it’s a consistent, lasting listen and a delicious piece of mid-90s East Coast rap. Unfortunately, A+ would only release one more album in 1999, ending his career long before he even reached legal drinking age. Peep “The Latch-Key Child” if you appreciate well-done rap music regardless of the age or height of its source.