Rap Needs More Artists Like Deante’ Hitchcock And His Earnest Album, ‘Once Upon A Time’

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Atlanta rapper Deante’ Hitchcock‘s second album, Once Upon A Time, offers a prime example of what rap needs more of. It’s got a clear, well-executed concept, head-nodding, instantly engaging production, and most importantly, the sort of earnest passion that denotes a serious artist who doesn’t take himself too seriously — i.e., one who’ll stick around and grow with the game long after “cooler” contemporaries have burned out or been exposed as lightweights.

There are some in my line of work for whom the above traits are ridiculous, deserving of derision and mockery. Just look at the reception to Chance The Rapper’s debut album, The Big Day, or the very existence of the term “dad rap.” The idea of maturity in hip-hop music would seem like anathema to an outsider, who might think the entire point of the genre was either aimless rebellion, ostentatious braggadocio, or mindless physical movement.

But from Deante Hitchcock’s 2020 debut album Better, the 30-year-old rapper always radiated self-possession and that above-mentioned maturity (I remarked about it in my review). He’s been likened to a combination of hometown hero T.I. and early benefactor J. Cole, and while there are those who might not consider that a good thing, there’s a reason both of those names ring bells in the wider hip-hop community. Commitment to craftsmanship and easygoing, relatable charisma shouldn’t be considered flaws.

In fact, the artists who’ve proven the most resilient have always had these qualities in abundance. In a genre where the average career peak only spans about five years and hitmakers can turn into has-beens seemingly overnight, the stalwarts who’ve outlasted rap fans’ minuscule attention spans and rapid attrition as hyperactive teens age into responsible adults tend to be those who are most passionate about the craft. The ones who can wrangle a concept, who make you root for them even when they don’t fit into the archetypes of the gangster, the pimp, the scumbag, or one of the other toxic molds rap marketing departments have come up with.

In other words, Deante’ Hitchcock should remind you of names like T.I. and J. Cole, as well as other Atlanta mainstays like Big Boi and Killer Mike, and deeply rooted grown-man rappers such as Common and Phonte Coleman. His peers are names like Denzel Curry and Big KRIT, who appears here on “Callin'” alongside Westside Boogie, another rapper who taps into his emotional growth and sharp-eyed environmental observations to flourish. And yes, he’s got the charm of an early Chance The Rapper, who despite being semi-written off by fans, deserves more respect for both his technical skills and business success.

Once Upon A Time, which tracks Hitchcock’s growth from club-crawling player to committed family man, is the prime example of why he belongs in such esteemed company. From the party-ready “Woah!” to the introspective “U Were Right I Was Wrong,” Hitchcock deconstructs and expands on what mid-2000s-era rap writers would have called the “for the ladies” track. While each song prescribes a different mood and premise, they are all unified by the context of the sort of song that would have represented a brief break in the gun talk to baldly — and occasionally, badly — appeal to any potential female fans.

That Hitchcock avoids dipping too deeply into the saccharine schmaltz of that subgenre of songs — save on “Drunk AF,” which sounds like something Chris Brown would have done around 2010 — is an impressive indicator of his talent and how earnestly he’s considered the subject matter.

When I interviewed Deante’ last summer, he said of this project, “If you look at the legends, the Drakes, the Jay-Z’s, the Waynes, all of them guys, the thing that separates them – because all of them are technically inclined, they’re skilled at what they do, all of them can rap their ass off, get crazy with it – but they also have songs that the world can sing. And I mean, being a rapper, a lot of people will hit me up and be like, ‘Bro, you be rapping your ass off.’ I’m very appreciative of that. Because that’s the skillset I’ve honed for years. But bro, I want hits.”

There are plenty of songs here that could be considered hits — “Zodiac,” “Thinking ‘Bout You,” “Late Night” — but the fact that the quieter, more thoughtful moments — “2 Special,” “Royal” — are just as sticky testify to the effort Hitchcock made, and the growth he’s experienced since Better. And that sort of authenticity and passion is just what hip-hop needs. With the genre being increasingly infiltrated by soulless AI creations, algorithmically-written bids for TikTok viral hits, and disaffected, cynical interests more focused on sucking the culture dry for profit, that there are artists like Hitchcock still making this kind of effort is heartening. The rap business needs more like him.

Once Upon A Time is out now on ByStorm Entertainment and RCA Records.