Firstly, 38 Spesh isn’t spitting on this project, which is a disappointment I’ve now come to terms with. It took a few weeks, but after some tearful evenings and sleepless nights, I’ve pulled myself together. But how are you going to tout an album as “Art of Words” and have Spesh produce it? Granted, a Grafh album is not to be sniffed at, regardless of who produces it, but his name has always held an association with the mid-noughties when New York relinquished its dominance over hip-hop, as it struggled to produce the superstar talent it seemingly effortlessly pumped out in the 1990s. Grafh was a regular on websites like Hip Hop Game and Spine Magazine almost twenty years ago, touted as one of the next wave of New York emcees to take the torch forward, alongside the likes of Joell Ortiz, Saigon, and Red Cafe.
“Art of Words” frequently threatens to impress, with Grafh reminding listeners he is a wordsmith capable of strong verses, as opposed to just another forgotten New York rapper. In that respect, he proves to be an underrated entity straddling the line between a composed veteran and a hungry hustler.
The first track is not what I expected, with Grafh singing over a soulful Spesh production. It’s smooth, and the different flows are playful despite a bleak premise. The hook is darkly comic (“Life’s like catching a cab in the city, when you’re black”) and hints at what’s to come. Giggs’ presence on “Maggie Simpson” is jarring, but I’ve never been a fan of his deep tone. Speaking of divisive rappers, Dave East (who I eventually enjoyed last year) pulls up on “Every Day” for a straightforward trade-off, immediately stealing the spotlight with deep-cut references like Sporty Thievz and Earl Manigault. Either I’ve slept on Dave East’s bars, or he’s sprinkling more of these historical metaphors into his recent output, and I’m here for it.
Bun B drops by for “Life Is Beautiful” but considering his dominant presence, the track loses its momentum and suffers from the weakest instrumental; it’s not surprising it’s two verses and promptly faded out. “Art of Words” is initally a mixed bag, but it’s grown on me over the last few weeks. The last two tracks prove it’s hard not to recommend. “36 Chambers” is upfront about the influence of Wu-Tang, with Spesh throwing in a sweet little piano sample. It also is a great demonstration of Grafh at his most precise.
“My BM (baby mama) thinking I’m well rich
She thinks I’m selfish, because I sell fish
And she want to take XL trips and sail ships
We don’t see seashells, we sell shellfish
When the ship sails, everything I sell ships
I got her bagging up until every fingernail rips
This fine wine, this isn’t Zinfandel bitch
I’m just a hustler with a sales pitch
And a Chanel itch, you look pathetic, helpless
You aint put the work in but took the credit – Elvis
I crack your helmets
It’s white under green, yeah I match the Celtics
Nine strapped to pelvis”
Grafh’s not really been an emcee that’s ever made me turn my head, but there are enough examples of an emcee finding their lane. The 38 Spesh beats can be quite hit-and-miss, but “Rain Falls”, “Dirty Work” and “36 Chambers” are all dope and actually feel like songs, “Dirty Work” is probably my favorite of the bunch, and not just because it features a 38 Spesh verse. It actually follows a theme, rather than random musings, emphasizing a metaphor I never thought would ring so true, Grafh admits that the style of hip-hop that he, Spesh, and their contemporaries pump out regularly, is necessary because not everybody can make music for the clubs. It’s self-aware, potentially self-deprecative, but it’s a rare admittance that this style of rap is here to balance out the fun, party-driven material that’s inevitably more popular. Granted, Spesh teases the listener with eight bars of humiliation, but the hook is the one bit of songwriting here that refuses to leave my ear, weeks after first hearing it. Anytime I do the laundry, I find myself humming ‘somebody gotta do the dirty work’, no lie.
The creative use of the English language certainly drives the artful approach to wordplay, and Grafh’s paintbrushes deliver solid imagery over Spesh’s canvas, but these aren’t exactly masterpieces you’d hang in your house. It’s mixtape rap, but it’s done well, yet it says a lot that the high-profile guest features add little and proves Grafh continues to be underrated in this space.