Where many artists find truth in formalism, Harlem rapper Sheck Wes tends to view rules as suggestions and guidelines as indicators of boundaries. He has no use for boundaries.
Just look at the Blue Chips-inspired video to his intensely viral mega-hit, “Mo Bamba.” Given a duffle bag of dollar bills by college scouts, the implicit agreement is to keep their backstreet dealings discreet. Instead, the injured Sheck dances in his leg cast while making it rain all over the hood, adamantly refusing to follow the established rules of collegiate athletics or the backroom, under-the-table “gentlemen’s agreements” that have come to dominate the sport. Likewise, the song “Mo Bamba” rails against the formalistic rules of rap. There’s more shouting than straight rhyming, and as much ad-libbing as both. The beat is a battering ram — one Sheck rose right through the closed gates of establishment hip-hop and into LeBron James’ living room. It’s a slap in the face to purists and a clarion call to the rowdy, rule-breaking rabble Sheck Wes suddenly finds himself leading on his Travis Scott-funded debut album, Mudboy.
In the weeks leading up to Mudboy‘s release, Sheck talked about it incessantly, but never explained exactly what it meant. He continued to break unwritten rules of album promo; his debut is co-signed, like Sheck himself by both Kanye West and Travis Scott through their GOOD Music and Cactus Jack labels, respectively, but neither of them appear on the album. In fact, no guests appear on the album, unlike with many viral-to-major artists’ debut releases.
It was a hint that Sheck Wes, a veteran of New York fashion scene as much as the AAU basketball circuit, wasn’t going to adhere to formality. In that way he reminds of past creative delinquents like Jean-Michel Basquiat. He knows the rules well, which is exactly what allows him to break them so readily — and get away with it, because he knows which ones to break, why, and how to make them work in his favor.
For instance, an unwritten rule of the rap simile is that the rapper in question says a thing they’re like, then says how they’re like that thing. “I’m like a brain and a voicebox, I speak my mind,” Jay-Z once quipped. Sheck only observes the first half of this truism, totally ignoring the explanation half. “I’m like the fucking Green Goblin” he screams on “Mo Bamba.” That’s the end of the line. He never actually bothers to explain how he’s like the fucking Green Goblin from Spider-Man lore. Does he fly around on a jet-powered glider? Does he toss pumpkin shaped bombs around or throw blondes off bridges? He never says; the impact is in the mystery of it all. There’s a logic behind it, but Sheck isn’t interested in laying it out for you. He’s too busy shouting his way to the next boisterous flex.
In fact, the one time he does endeavor to explain himself is on the cyberpunk video game boss level-influenced “Gmail.” He takes the time out to explain his near incessant use of his favorite ad-lib, the shouted “Bitch” that punctuates particularly expressive lines throughout the project. Ironically, he breaks rap rules again, ending the verse with the promise to elaborate: “Why I say bitch so much? Let me explain it.” But then, he drops out the beat, reverts to a simple explanatory tone in his normal speaking voice in what’s almost a mid-song interlude: It’s the only word… Where I can feel and hear all my anger. It don’t got nothin’ to do with, like, bitches.” It’s jarring and hilarious and shockingly confessional and it’s just so one hundred percent Sheck Wes; Harlem kid, son of immigrants, into the streets, into basketball, into fashion. It’s a celebration of his own multifaceted personality.
Which, to be honest, is still kind of needed in rap. While the narrative of rappers as stoic, hypermasculine, one-dimensional automatons was dated when it was coined way back in the eighties, there’s still little denying that even the most vulnerable and versatile of rhymers can get stuck in a single mode. At the very least, that well-rounded individuality that marks many of them in one-to-one conversation often gets lost in the growling, grumbling tunes that get milled out these days. Sheck Wes, for all his bluster on big singles like “Chippi Chippi” and “Live Sheck Wes Die Sheck,” he isn’t afraid to pull back the curtain and break his own rule about explaining himself on tracks like the aggressively percussive “Wanted”:
“Where we from, they don’t give, so we don’t got shit
They leave us young niggas with no options
They leave us young niggas with the robbin’
But I was Robin Hood (Hood), when I was robbin'”
There’s always a reason behind his Mudboy antics. He wasn’t given attention, so he acted out. He acted out, so his mom sent him to live with family in Senegal. “They just want the turnt shit,” as he says on “WESPN,” so he makes turnt up anthems even though “Sheck Wes been in a sad state.” There’s a coiling, balanced sort of internal logic to Mudboy and the raps on it, even if Sheck doesn’t care to always slow it down and show it to you. But when he does, the sonic turmoil he espouses makes perfect sense. The way it resonates makes sense too; who didn’t (or doesn’t) feel occasionally neglected and angry as a teen, which Sheck still is? Viewed in that light, the general sense of unpolished, impulsive, incompleteness to some of his songs — the album starts to sag a little at the midway point, as many recent rap debuts have tended to — feels more like a creative choice than just wandering in the wilderness. That could be a mirage and Sheck could be just as tentative as some of his artistic peers, but because the bones of his charismatic delivery and worldview hold up so well, it reads like artistic self-assuredness.
Which can be a gift and a curse, depending on where he goes from here. Fans will possibly expect a higher level of polish and sheen on future efforts; if his bare-bones approach is indeed built-in, it might read like a lack of growth down the line. On the other hand, he could go even more avant-garde, ripping up more pages from the rulebook and trusting those fans to see what he’s aiming for now that they’ve seen his game plan. I’m banking on the latter because there’s no way this Mudboy is going to be following anyone else’s rules anytime soon.
Mudboy is out now via Cactus Jack Records/ G.O.O.D. Music/ Interscope Records. Get it here.