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The right voice can make even the most generic boasts sound not just convincing but compelling. That’s the lasting impression left by Rod Wave’s third studio album SoulFly after a few listens. Content-wise, the project leaves a lot to the imagination; Rod doesn’t reveal much about himself, his circumstances, or his worldview… but he sounds absolutely great singing his ghetto blues.
There’s oddly little biographical information out there about the trapsoul crooner from St. Petersburg, Florida, which would seem to run counter to the intense fervor he apparently inspires in fans. He doesn’t do interviews and he maintains a relatively low-key social media profile, mostly tweeting the sort of one-line platitudes you’d read on an office poster with a photo of a chimp in a suit.
Yet, his last album, Pray 4 Love, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 with relatively little promotion from either Rod or his label. SoulFly is reportedly on track to exceed that accomplishment, even though the rollout started with Rod goading his label, threatening to withhold the project unless some kind of dispute involving his pay was sorted out. It apparently was; the rest of the rollout proceeded without a hitch, with Rod dropping two singles, “Street Runner” and “Tombstone,” before dropping the album itself.
Even the music is atypical of most chart-toppers today; aside from one feature from Polo G on the new album, Rod seemingly avoids collaborating with bigger names to expand his fanbase. To date, his highest-profile collaborators appear to be Lil Durk, Lil Baby, and Yo Gotti, the latter duo only being added to the deluxe re-release of Pray 4 Love four months later. He’s an iconoclast in a music landscape where iconoclasts — especially commercially successful ones — are quickly becoming an endangered species.
So what gives? How does a rapper who barely promotes his work, who doesn’t work with other artists, and who doesn’t dazzle with pyrotechnic displays of lyrical wizardry end up fronting the XXL Freshman cover and topping the Billboard charts? After playing back SoulFly multiple times and wrenching my critical brain for something that explains it, there’s only one possibility: That damn voice.
It’s the sort of voice honed in a Baptist pulpit, mellowed by handles of whiskey, and put through its paces by the demands of turning dry missives like “I play the game that was taught to me / I fry the beef that was brought to me” into soulful, blues-inspired croons. It’s a warm, inviting tenor, shot through with just enough vibrato to suggest emotional turmoil, along with a sprinkling of grit, like a pinch of pepper flakes in a salt shaker.
It allows him to convincingly sell hustler narratives and their resulting trauma without getting into the authentic details that you usually need to make them work. To his credit, there are enough true-life tales that undergird the framework of those narratives to hold them up, even when you scratch the surface. On “Pillz And Billz,” he details watching “my cousin smoke crack his whole fuckin’ life,” lamenting, “Fentanyl hit the street and he OD’d the same night.” There are enough truthful moments underlying the boasts that the boasts feel earned.
If these attributes don’t necessarily make Rod Wave a singular artist — his sole guest on SoulFly, Polo G, convincingly uses similar methods in his own work — Rod has the fortuitous timing to exist at a time when he can just be the artist he is, without bothering with courting the algorithms or resorting to attention-grabbing social media shenanigans.
It’s impressive that there are still artists who can do it with just a voice. While there’s not a tremendous amount of true introspection or innovation on SoulFly, there is, however, a supreme level of self-assurance and technical craftsmanship. What Rod lacks in wit he makes up in emotion, and where his stories lack detail, he imbues them with a powerful sincerity that makes them read just as truthfully, resonating as deeply as an impressionist portrait. Maybe at a time when cryptocurrency is the future and math runs just about every aspect of our day-to-day lives, what people really want — really need — is music with some soul
SoulFly is out now on Alamo Records. Get it here.