Despite the stone-faced stereotype of stoic masculinity that has plagued hip-hop since its inception, there is almost no rapper who doesn’t have at least some fun finding rhymes and rhythms and clever puns to dazzle an audience. It’s pretty much the first incentive anyone has when they pick up that mic or pen to “bust some rhymes” — even the legion of Jay-Z-inspired ex-hustlers who insist they’re only in it for the cash (news flash: If you’re in it for the money only, consider pursuing some other craft that pays significantly better).
So, what happens when a rapper stops having fun rapping? Well, historically, we’ve gotten rushed, sloppy albums jam-packed with vindictive missives and rote, by-the-numbers obligation fillers from veterans who felt that they had too much to prove to “the haters” or corporate sales targets to meet; in the end, both result in the same thing: Albums that are slogs to get through, that feel more like homework than entertainment. However, maybe the worst is when a rapper feels overly committed to the message and not its delivery; instead of an enjoyable collection of art, such projects are usually overstuffed, ham-fisted lectures delivered by the worst sort of math or history teacher — the kind who think they’re cool, but really aren’t.
Fortunately for Logic, his latest effort, YSIV, could have — should have, by all rights — fallen into any of the above traps but doesn’t. For all its flaws, that’s its saving grace. Logic, bless him, never gives the sense that he isn’t having fun on this album, despite the fact that his previous effort, Everybody, really did get too bogged down in its own stilted concept to give him the room to stretch his lyrical muscles. I couldn’t blame him if he came out all fire and vengeance for this new release, intent on clapping back at critics and haters who collectively shrugged at what he thought would be his magnum opus. Instead, he strips away all the pretense and goes back to basics on YSIV. By getting back to rapping for the joy of rapping, he delivers his finest retail album yet, finally giving eager album listeners a dose of Mixtape Logic — the one “everybody” liked to begin with.
Of course, half the fun of rap is doing it for an audience and Logic, perhaps more than any other rapper, owes his station to his loyal fans, old and new. He pays them back to open the album as “Thank You” opens with the conclusion of the interlude sketches from his prior album and ends with dozens of voicemail shout-outs from fans all over the world. It’s telling and self-aware; he’s closing the door on his past and its overwrought concepts, but he’s not hiding from it or seeking to cover it up. He knows he’s grown, and he’s sharing that growth with his loyal supporters, which is with they f*ck with him in the first place, when you get down to brass tacks. They’re growing up with him.
There eventually comes a point in any growth process where you take stock of your progress and maybe you start feeling yourself a little. That’s where Logic is on most of YSIV. There’s a confidence that allows him to skip easily from the boastful yet expansive, forceful raps on triumphant “Everybody Dies” to the reflective self-effacing on “The Glorious Five” and nostalgic reminisces of “Last Call.” On “The Glorious Five,” he switches gears like a high-end sports car, traipsing leisurely along one moment, the next, all-out sprinting with the cadence of a Tommy gun. It’s one of his gifts as a rapper, this chameleonic ability to transform his style and delivery based on the beat, and while it’s caused him criticism in the past, it’s one of the highlights of this collection.
For instance, few rappers could sidle up to producer 6ix’s pitch-perfect approximation of a classic RZA soundscape alongside the full Wu-Tang Clan and sound like a member of the band, but Logic does, holding his own with a legendary rap crew whose influence is palpable in his flows. Likewise, Logic finally pairs with similarly overlooked and regularly maligned fellow DMV-er Wale on “100 Miles And Running” (cheekily named after Wale’s groundbreaking 2007 mixtape with Nick Catchdubs) over classic hip-hop sample from Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” and both rappers go absolutely crazy, juggling wordplay like playing catch with letter blocks.
Ironically, the biggest misstep on the album is the one it takes away from traditional hip-hop into pop-leading radio reach “One Day” with Ryan Tedder. It and its fellow “Ordinary Day” with Hailee Steinfeld feel weirdly out of place on an album so awash with mid-90s rap influences. Because Logic feels so compelled to earnestly lean into songs’ concepts, these two sappy tracks stick out all the more harshly, becoming even sillier in comparison to the sincere displays of “Mixtape Logic” doing what he wants. It’s become kind of obvious now that given his druthers, Logic would be a nonstop, all hip-hop wordplay machine, but meeting certain commercial standards has probably resulted in the more “corny” moments that have defined his career til now. It’s a good thing, then — for him and for the fans — that he’s reached the point where he and his label should feel confident letting him rap for the fun of it, because that’s not only when he’s at his best, he’s got an audience that will go with him, finding the joy in raw, unfiltered beats and rhymes.
YSIV is out now via Def Jam Recordings. Get it here