The term “finding yourself” usually evokes imagery of recent well-to-do college graduates, backpacking through Europe on mommy and daddy’s dime in search of some elusive sense of self-awareness. South Central Los Angeles doesn’t afford its residents the same opportunities for leisurely strolls toward adulthood. Devoid of empathy from outsiders and cold with the harsh realities of poverty and blight, the young men and women of South Central find themselves growing up extremely fast. Just staying afloat is difficult enough, but life, with its periods of great joy and confidence interrupted by various crises of faith, disappointments and confusion will usually lead us to ask one simple question: “Who am I?” On his debut album, Before I Awoke, Southern California native Co$$ aka CashusKing allows listeners to accompany him as he seeks his own answers, without sacrificing lyrical dexterity, charisma, or entertainment value.
The album’s intro “Risen” is a representation of the themes that seem to pop up often throughout the album: vivid descriptions of Co$$’s neighborhood, lamentations of lost loved ones, and, most frequently, questions about how God does and doesn’t factor into his life. J83’s production on “Risen,” featuring ethereal wailing from heaven paired with kicks and snares from D&D is the perfect backdrop for lyrics like: “My seeds will be the the future/my ancestors the former/so now’s the Golden Child/This little “g” from Killafornia/That G it stand for godly/No flesh and man can stop me/Get you popped fam/Try and you dying/Catching a homi’.”
CashusKing’s best quality is his ability to spit street tales without sounding cartoonish and inauthentic, while, often in the same song or couplet, speaking about existentialist and spiritual concepts. “Burn It Down” is upbeat sneer of a song that finds Co$$ Dollars delivering clear warnings to would be competitors, and “Pot Ash” is a somber and existential soliloquy about facing life after losing loved ones. Neither sounds phony. Both are executed extremely well by the emcee and producer. Other highlights include the cautiously agnostic “Scripture” and the Leimert Park representative’s entry onto the long list of Hip-Hop “where I’m from” anthems, “Khakis and Taylors.” On the latter, high-pitched synths evoke memories of the classic g-funk era, but the uptempo pace and loose-change-in-an-empty-can high-hats elevate the track from mere mimicry to true inspiration.
The level of lyricism remains consistently good, but isn’t always paired with the same quality of production. The intentionally distorted “10-4” sounds like the boss level of an 80s video game in the worst way possible, for example. When one takes in account the overly despondent vibe of the instrumentals, the LP maintains a consistent sound, but also manages to bleed together in monotony, given the album’s lengthy running time.
Barring a few missteps, Before I Awoke is spiritual without being preachy, substantive without being boring, and is bursting with clever, purpose-driven, expressions. Look for Co$$ to emerge as a unique voice among his talented peers by the time he wakes up.