The debut studio album from Baltimore rapper King Los showcases its creator’s potential but loses its way after a spectacular start.
The first issue in reviewing King Los’ album God, Money, War is figuring out what exactly it is. It appears to be a studio debut but Los himself has branded it a “prelude” to his real first effort due for later this year or early 2016. However Los want to define it, there’s some definite buzz around the rapper who’s been diligently putting out music on the outskirts of the mainstream since the mid-2000s. However, just like the uncertainty over what we should call the record, it’s not clear exactly what the Los wants G,M,W to be. It’s starts out as a bold statement about his environment and the frustrations then drifts into more generic territory.
Los is from Baltimore, scene of some of the most serious racial strife in 21st century America following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25 year old black man who died in police custody. From the outset, of G,M,W, Los does not shy away from addressing the violence and poverty that plagues his community and has been thrust into the international spotlight by the recent riots.
The first track on G,M,W is also probably the best. War is a relentless description of the dark realities of life in the Baltimore streets made famous by the HBO show The Wire. There’s a sombre tone to the song but also a pragmatism towards the way life is with lines such as “fuck your right and wrong, the shit I been on is do or die/ If I do, I die, If I don’t I die, that’s suicide/ Got the devil with a gun against my brain like choose a side/ Cause it’s a war goin on.” Los offers the listener a glimpse of life where the cycle of criminality, imprisonment and death is seemingly unbreakable, with the players involved merely concerned with daily survival. Los is undoubtedly a talented lyricist and he shows his versatility to the full on War. It’s a genuinely great track that combines thought-provoking subject matter with his impressive rhyming ability.
The next four songs delve into similar personal material with Los exploring the impact of growing up without a father on Black Blood. The track also features an appearance from another up and coming voice in hip hop in the shape of Isaiah Rashad. The bouncy beat and piano loops are at odds with the fairly grim subject matter. “They killed my pop when I was just sixteen/ They took my innocence away from me,” Los sings. Los switches the perspective on the track Lil Black boy, delivering a heartfelt dedication to his own son.
It’s on the seventh track, Glory to the Lord, that things start to go downhill. For a start, it’s a sudden and unexpected shift in tone. Los goes from mourning his father to a sudden upbeat description of splashing cash in the club. “I got a rollie on my wrist/I got my homies getting rich,” Los boasts on Glory. In fairness perhaps having shown us the worst times he now feels will understand why he feels justified in revelling in the good. Hip hop has always switched between describing hardship and celebrating escaping it. But Glory just isn’t a great song. It’s also the moment the album starts moving towards less original and less interesting territory. True, street realism is hardly new ground for hip hop either and lighter doesn’t necessarily mean worse but when Los switches to a party vibe he loses something of his appeal.
Los’ decision to opt for more commercially appealing efforts is understandable. Lyricism wins over devout hip hop fans and critics but it doesn’t necessarily pay. Most mainstream rap records will feature a few tracks aimed at securing radio play according to a few tried and trusted formulas; the romantic slow number with an r’n’b star on the hook, the poppin’ bottles in the club track to dance to, the aggressive hype song that can slip into gym playlists. G,M,W makes an attempt at all of these. The problem is they’re not particularly interesting even for what they are. It’s not necessarily the content. Confidence, with it’s poppy hook sung by Chrishan the Prince, is essentially a pretty positive message about self esteem and resilience in the face of adversity. But it’s also fairly uninspired and feels like it could have appeared on countless other rappers records. It’s actually one of the better songs on the second half of G,M,W but overall it’s not a stand out.
Can’t Fade Us is clearly supposed to be the club banger with its verses celebrating ostentatious balling out and its sing-a-long chorus. The track has all the right ingredients for success in the lane its aiming for. It’s produced by DJ Mustard, currently one of the most in demand hit-makers in hip hop. It also features Ty Dolla $ign on the hook, who’s featured on a number of big commercial hit in the last couple of years. But Los is at his least interesting when he’s going for flash and it doesn’t really work. Other rappers can do party songs far better and it just clashes strangely with the tone of the album’s first half. Blame it on the Money goes for a similar vibe and it’s easily the worst song on the album.
The last half of the album isn’t without a few decent moments. Balance is Good is at least interesting, although it does have a very clear Kendrick Lamar influence. Slave sees a return to the themes of the first half of G,M,W but musically it’s not quite on the same level.
While G,M,W fails to sustain the heights it hits early on, it does demonstrate Los’ considerable potential. It’s far from a classic but it hints at far better things to come. G,M,W successfully introduced Los’ to a far bigger audience who will now be curiosly awaiting his “full” debut. Hopefully by the time its ready, Los will have a clearer direction and deliver more material like War. If he does he may well become a force to be reckoned with. Whether he will evolve to become a major act or not is uncertain but he’s definitely earned a shot with God, Money, War.