Oakland Spurs: Rating GQ’s Excellent “Rated Oakland” Album
I think I'm getting old. Three drinks automatically means a hangover, I can't eat McDonalds after 11 PM without getting heartburn, and I have no problem staying at home on a Friday to watch Netflix. It's carried over to my sports watching too. Back when I was a younger NBA fan I hated the Spurs. I wanted dunks, crazy three pointers, and a whole lot of flash- when I was a kid "swag" wasn't a word yet- and the Spurs were the complete opposite. I'd would've sooner watched paint dry. This year, however, I couldn't get enough (after my Wizards were out at least). They are the antithesis of what the league is now. They aren't about hipster glasses and big dunks, they play smart, team-oriented basketball. They are all steak, very little sizzle and it works. Where I used to hate it, their fundamental, team oriented play left me in awe. It was so refreshing to see a team get back to basics like that.
"Okay, so, what's your point?" Well, it's the perfect analogy for GQ's new, Rated Oakland album...and not just because he's a former basketball player...but totally that too).
I've written about it a few times these times the past few weeks, but I'll say it again. Lately, I have been looking for something different. My search has taken me from EDM to contemporary bluegrass, and while I have found some gems (word to Glass Animals) only few projects have really stood out.
If I have learned two things in my time as a rap writer, it's that nothing in this industry is guaranteed unless it's actually happened and artists need to have a unique hook, something different to stand out among the sea of submissions and SoundCloud links. I am always on the lookout for that new, unique edge but, like the Spurs, GQ gets his unique hook from being so traditional. Where others test the sonic limits of hip-hop, Quentin Thomas, gets back to basics and, in the age of synth and swag, that is a different kind of originality and is also the strength of Rated Oakland.
In my search, I forgot how good, basic, no-frills hip-hop can be, and it took GQ to remind me of what it's like to get goosebumps from a traditional yet perfectly executed hip-hop cut. Normally, I am a more beat oriented person (and I will get to the production in a minute) but with Rated Oakland, it's all about GQ. From storytelling to witty one liners he has it all; in fact, he has some of the best wordplay around. Line's like "Only hiding so long like Theo with his earring" (Another Road--a zillion points for the "Cosby Show" reference) or "I quit ballin', still travel I'm movin' like Howard" (Last Breath II), are not overly complicated, but have more depth and density than your typical one liners. You really have to listen close to catch them all. "You know I'm nice as fuck, shit a Duke fan signed me" (Last Breath II) sounds more fit for a rap battle than an album.
Just as easily as he will leave you with a Deandre Jordan face after a potent one liner, he will make you think, or share something about himself with some equally engaging and introspective bars. Of course, the way the bars are presented helps. GQ's flow is so natural and effortless, but it also has this fine layer of grit (in a good way) thanks to a subtle bite in his flow. It's like a good whiskey, smooth, but with some burn. It gives his lines an extra kick, because the presentation is perfect. GQ's unique edge is how fundamentally and technically sound he is. When you are this good, you don't need bells and whistles. What engines this is his pure skill, gracing a diverse palate of beats with some dense bars and a steady flow. Aside from a few minor things (sometimes the hooks don't totally work) this project is flawless. It's very hard to find something to complain about when hip-hop is done right, and GQ does it right. As a producer, you couldn't ask for a better artist to paint your canvas, and as lucky as he is to have The Soul Council's production, they are just as lucky to have him. Speaking of the Soul Council, they do some of their best work on this project
If Darwin were still alive, he would be a hip-hop head. These days, it's evolve or die, especially for an indie label. You can't depend on one artist, or one sound to carry you. Just look at TDE and Strange. Between Isiah Rashad or Mursday, both have added another dimension to their lineup and it has ensured both will remain pillars of the fast growing indie scene. I love soul beats more than anything else, which is why Jamla is one of my favorite labels around. Soul beats are like chicken and mashed potatoes; comfort food I could eat everyday if I had to...but I don't want to. Sometimes Jamla's albums feel a bit formulaic, where it is soul beat after soul beat, all with a similar sound and style. It's not the worst thing in the world, but, I have been waiting for a Jamla project different than all the others, that shows the range I know they are capable of. On GQ's "Rated Oakland", The Soul Council delivers. There is more diversity and more edge on Rated Oakland than any other Jamla project to date. The beats are still sample based, but the way they are utilized, and the tone the set, is vastly different form any other project. Their is a darker vibe to songs like "Trap" to match the signature soul sound found on efforts like "With Me" and I love the way the beats can switch up with no warning - see "Come On Home" - it really helps keep you on your toes and engaged. Making the Oakland emcee feel right at home, there is even some west coast seasoning on "Cooler" and "Falls Down"; the diversity in the production really allows Q to shine. It was exactly what I was waiting for.
Today it's all about being new and unique, but Another Road shows that sometimes, the freshest sounds come from getting back to basics. If you are fan of hip-hop with no frills and a nice little punch, this is for you. Rated Oakland is easily one of the most consistent, complete projects of the year and is the best Jamla project since Rapsody's Idea Of Beautifu.
If getting old means good basketball and, more importantly, good rap, maybe it's not all bad.
Rating: 4.5 Spins
Best Songs: Last Breath II (be sure to listen the original Last Breath first), Nice Guy and Trap.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is "College Dropout", but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]