Words By Patrick M.
The 4th quarter of 2007 has seen a customary surge in album releases by some of the biggest names in the rap game. While some of these records will be lauded while others panned, hip-hop fans would be remiss if in sorting through all the big names if they missed a hot release from a lesser known artist. Luckily, the crew at TSS is here to help.
St. Louis MC Rockwell Knuckles may not have the national recognition of a Nas, but to those who have heard his work on local mixtapes, the upcoming release of his first full-length album has created a similar sense of anticipation. Of course, there is a fundamental difference between the big name releases and this album. As Rockwell’s first full-length record, Northside Phenomenon, is the work of an artist that still has to prove his worth. Many an MC has withered under the burden of high expectations, failing to make the transition from mixtape don to legitimate album artist. Can Rocky deliver the goods?
The title track begins with a grimy beat perfect for driving around a decaying city (or the burbs if that’s your hood.) With the atmosphere set, Rocky’s first lines show that he is undaunted by the challenge of bringing the same level of high quality rhyming to his album as heard on mixtapes and the Pangea project,
“Thought process got me confidant/sippin hard liquor while I’m digging the ambiance./schizo in limbo/never fell from heaven cause hell finds me incom-pa-taunt.
As he says on the chorus, Rock came through to do damage, and he does so by building complicated rhymes, and packing in literary trickery to keep the listener’s mind whirring . Unfortunately the only damage done on the second track is to the listener’s eardrums. Rocky’s rhymes, which are still strong, fall prey to a beat that’s trying to do too much, as well as the decision to take up chunks of time having Rocky whisper “live-wire.” Happily, the production quickly gets back on track for the third and fourth tracks taking a mellower and simpiler tone. This allows Rocky the space to let his rhymes surface. When this happens, the diversity of his talents becomes evident. He can be thoughtful and introspective, as on “Tomorrow People,” a song about both his and our generation’s attempts to break through, or manic and paranoid as on “Reign’s Coming Down.” He switches up his flows as well, notably on “Top O’ the World,” where he spits in a machine gun manner that recalls Jay-Z’s “My First Song,”
The main themes of the album are Rocky’s belief in his own abilities and how, as someone with an artistic gift he deals with the struggles of achieving success, of coming from a difficult upbringing, and making others realize his talent. This is not exactly groundbreaking for any hip-hop album, especially a debut. That Rocky is still able to make this album stand out is a testament to his skills as a songwriter. He deftly intersperses his own story with themes and messages for people in similar situations. In case you haven’t noticed, the majority of the hip-hop fanbase falls into that category, young, broke, and trying to prove themselves. Rocky positions himself as their messenger and champion. From the chorus of “Life’s A Test,”
“People say life’s a test and that’s why life’s a mess/but that’s why they sent me here to get that stress off your chest/Saving the world isnt easy but I’ll do my best, and this is/Music you can build an army to/helpful hints on things you ought to do.”
In addition to making connections with his audience, Rocky’s storytelling skills and command of language make the struggles more pertinent and the pictures more vivid. The best example of this is the troubled romance story “Hello Morning,” which benefits from a beautiful trumpet backdrop.
“Good soul with a beautiful face/had a rough upbringing but she knew what it takes/to grow every day and own up to her mistakes/her heart’s a house of love, but she locked the gate/in the middle of the night, her heart starts to break/so I guess its no wonder why she got me wide awake (hey)/Baby girl, why you aint sleeping, and what you packing bags for are you leaving/she said I wasnt out late all weekend, and never thought at all, just a heathen/No, communication, she believes in/for that reason our relationship’s weekend.”
Rockwell Knuckles has the skills to be a hip-hop star on a national level. Whether or not he will achieve stardom depends on the breaks of those two great games, hip-hop and life. Still, even if Northside Phenomenon ends up the only album he ever records, he has done his city and neighborhood proud. He’s harnessed his talent into an impressive debut that should lead to increased exposure and critical acclaim.
Buy a physical copy on Amazon.