There’s a reason certain rappers appear in all the GOAT lists – the likes of Nas, Jay, Biggie, Pac, Cube, Chuck D, Rakim etc. You could say one or the other is better at this, or better at that, but at the end of the day, it’s their voice that immediately identifies one from the other. It’s their instrument. The way they rap is potentially more crucial than how they rap, as Guru famously said – it’s mostly the voice. It’s why I often struggle with a Westside Gunn, Trae the Truth, and even Kendrick Lamar (sacrilege I know). The voice needs to captivate and command your ears to follow it on a journey. A whiney screech or irritating tone can make or break the listening experience. This is why I have never been able to get into New York emcee Dave East. His tone isn’t so much gruff as hoarse and scratchy, it’s jarring and distracting on any beat. So why have I chosen this to review? Well, there’s been no Dave East coverage on RapReviews and this is an EP, so if I was to ever get over my previous dislike of his material, at least I’ve not wasted too much time listening to this. Dave East has also been championed by pretty much everyone in New York at this point – he’s worked with Nas, Method Man, Mary J Blige – all your favorites. His mixtapes seem to be well regarded if not listed as classics, but the main identifying feature of his music that I’ve noticed is his excellent connections.

Being on the 2016 XXL Freshmen list opened up more ears to Dave, but the song “Handsome” blew up by being a Worldstar Hip Hop exclusive benefiting from that website’s large audience. His relentless work ethic stems from his days as a college basketball player – he’s worked with pretty much anyone who’s anyone in hip-hop. His most acclaimed project, 2020’s “Karma 3” (a “mixtape”) had guest features on three-quarters of the songs. Yet, the mixtape circuit is where Dave East has excelled, with streaming numbers showing that listeners stick with the full mixtapes, veering away from individual singles.

Aside from the divisive voice, there’s still nothing particularly noteworthy about a Dave East performance. It’s the curse of New York, whereby no matter how much money and endorsements are fed to listeners, the talent of a Maino, a Mysonne, or a Mistah FAB, simply doesn’t stack up to the standard set by the generation before. They all can spit, and they all have enough presence to sit alongside great emcees on a track, but they are never the star attraction. Nas signed Dave East to his Mass Appeal label in 2014, just as Dave was about to give up on a career in rap, and it’s been onwards and upwards since. “HDIGH”, which stands for How Did I Get Here? is the latest album from Dave, but it feels more in line with his traditional mixtape output. The first track “Unbelieveable” with Method Man is a strong start, taking some shots at posers that define their image via social media.

By repeatedly listening to songs like “1000 Miles”, I’ll admit my ears grew more accustomed to the New Yorker’s unorthodox style. There’s still nothing remarkable about Dave’s bars, nor his flow, but he does possess a certain level of charm that can carry you through a verse. When coupled with beats that sit somewhere between throwaway Kay Slay freestyle instrumentals and Hit-Boy’s output with Nas, it never drops below decent, but when New York’s given you steak for so many years, cheeseburgers often don’t stack up.

“Deeper Than Love” is my favorite moment, with Dave sharing mic duties with Musiq Soulchild. This is where his gruffness feels most suitable, particularly when you see just how much women admire Dave’s attractiveness. Anthony Hamilton replicates this soulful side on “John Lennon” even if the concept of the track is ludicrous – Dave East compares his fame and potential demise to that of John Lennon. I’d love to hear more of Dave East on this lighter vibe as it’s effective, with his style the perfect foil for a singer. The sort of soundtrack you’d include on a late-night drive through the city. The formula is attempted again on “No Cocaine” but the autotune completely undoes what is a catchy production.

The aforementioned Trae the Truth actually joins forces with Dave on “Crash Out” for a busy song all about not burning yourself out. With so many artists boasting about their hustling acumen and lack of sleep, it’s an admirable attempt at something different, but it will rely heavily on whether you can tolerate both artists’ deliveries. There’s a neat Griselda punchline (“I’m on the Westside with a gun, got me feeling like Conway”) that leads into a Benny the Butcher collaboration that, again, benefits from being so damn smooth.

When I think about it, I’ve actually enjoyed more of this Dave East album than I thought I would. The formula I found Dave works best with is something he does lean into more, and I could have done with more of it. When it comes to straight-up spitting bars, I’m still not convinced this is up to the standard of labelmates Fashawn or Boldy James, but maybe that’s my own expectations assigning unrealistic targets for an artist that’s perfectly capable of representing New York hip-hop. “HDIGH” touches on some interesting areas of introspection and self-reflection and shows where Dave East’s strengths lie, but it’s still not the finished article. Now we know how he got here, it will be interesting to see where Dave goes next.

Dave East - HDIGH
6.5Overall Score