The more agitated this world gets, the more the professionally rapping part of its populace calms down. There was a time when rap music was essentially disorderly conduct in audio form, drawing attention with volume, insolence, provocation and antagonism. We say this without the slightest hint of disparagement as political rap and street rap of the ’80s and ’90s were responsible for a considerable number of the genre’s finest hours. Later variants such as hyphy, crunk, trap, drill and certain strains of underground hip-hop made sure that tradition wasn’t lost, albeit, in comparison, often sonically monochrome and vocally monotone.
Over time, however, the overall tone of rap became less obtrusive (with the help of the West Coast, the Southern US and the introduction of instrumentation associated with jazz and classical music). The tracks as well as the raps changed. From superstars to cult favorites, there’s a lineage of casual vocalists that becomes increasingly representative of rap music.
Larry June fits the description, riding a larger wave yet still in his own lane. June operates out of the Bay Area, and one way you can tell is that he invites Andre ‘Herm’ Lewis, legendary community activist who has asssisted local kids with realizing their music dreams since the early ’90s. Embracing the bonds in San Francisco’s Hunters Point neighborhood across generations, “Spaceships on the Blade” marks the fourth time Uncle Herm opens up a Larry June project.
And so Herm happens to be part of a brilliant transition from the intro to the first song, orchestrated by Jake One, who equips “Private Valet” with the kind of classy backdrop Larry June’s content and demeanor crave for. Positioning himself in today’s crowded market, Larry finds himself in the familiar spot where the rhyme writer tries to humanize the ends-justify-the-means hustler. As much as he is attracted by lavishness, he is aware of the price tags, both in the literal and the figurative sense: “We don’t glamorize the game, we tryina do better / Still spendin’ five G’s on these cashmere sweaters”, he says later in the album. In “Private Valet”, the player talk is tempered by a refrain reminding us of how cold the game is, simultaneously serving as a clue as to why the album’s lead keeps his cool. Or, in his words, his composure.
Larry June raps like most of what he says is self-evident anyway – if he raps at all, because frequently on “Spaceships on the Blade” he’s in the mood to sing. He doesn’t get carried away doing it, primarily concerned with finding a measured flow devoted to the music rather than the vocalist. He also finds an equally modest duet partner in Syd (The Kid) for “For Tonight”, one of several romantic or relationship-related offerings.
Even though Larry June sits firmly in the corner of rap artists that sound just really, really relaxed, sometimes detatched even, he’s mindful to adjust his voice, at times almost rapping under his breath, also a couple of times pitching the vocals down. His natural (so to speak) rap voice has that seasoned quality to it, bleak but somehow intimate. It works especially well on a cut like the down-to-earth “Appreciate it All”, where producer Turbo’s cold clanks echo sober observations like “Been knew I had to break the cycle when I had my son” and “How the fuck you go hate on me, I showed niggas better ways / Showed niggas how to make it out the game / You know, money come and go, but knowledge, nigga, go remain”.
The backdrop of an album like “Spaceships on the Blade” is, to quote from “In My Pockets”, “drop-top vehicles and pretty-ass women”. But there’s more to it. Not necessarily this time around as this one is rather short on advice or analysis. Still June is quite good at planting small but crucial doses of medicine in soothing music, see “Another Day Pt. 2”:
“Another day in, it coulda been my last
Made a lotta money but I blew through it fast
I lost a lotta friends and it hurt me bad
Sometimes I wonder how I still spit on these tracks”
Since 2014, when he got more widely noticed for the first time, Larry June has been steadily expanding his audience with a steady stream of output with a keen eye on the aesthetics of his act. If at any time you acquaint yourself with Larry June, there’s an entire sea of Larry June tunes to delve into (this August 2022 release alone adds 20 more). If you like what you hear, you probably won’t be disappointed by the rest of it. At the same time it’s hard to determine what might be the artistic peak for Larry June. Lest we forget the rich legacy of rapping players who had so much things to say.
Larry June (who spent his later teen years in Vallejo) is well aware of the heritage he has to measure up to (listen for the Mac Dre inflections in “I’m Him” and “In My Pockets”). Maybe he’s just trying his best under the current circumstances. Where rap doesn’t hit you over the head as it once did. A relative lack of lyrical substance aside, you won’t embarrass yourself bumping “Spaceships on the Blade”.