Of the three rap LPs that populated the “New Releases” tab of your favorite streaming service — Logic’s Everyone, Brother Ali’s All The Beauty In This Whole Life, and Russ’s There’s Really A Wolf — there wasn’t one slouch on the lyrical level. Fans looking for a respite from so-called “mumble rap” should be mollified with all three more-than-serviceable offerings, but the clear winner of the weekend is newcomer Russ. While Ali’s soulful ruminations and Southern Baptist preacher’s intonations will feed your soul, and Logic’s densely-packed, rapid-fire flows will stimulate your mind, Russ does so many things so well that his debut album ensures that you’ll be returning to it more than either of the others — and finding something new every time.
Born Russ Vitale and hailing from Atlanta by way of New Jersey, the long-haired MC, producer, and singer/songwriter set himself apart from underground peers with a ridiculous work ethic and DIY attitude that led him to independently release eight mixtapes between the end of 2011 and the summer of 2014. More impressive still, is that he wrote, produced, recorded, mixed, mastered, and art-directed each project by his lonesome, on his laptop, under his own imprint, Diemon Records. The hard work paid off with a Columbia Records contract in 2016, and his first two singles to chart on the Billboard Top 100, “Losin Control” and “What They Want,” at 63 and 83 respectively. On tapes like Apollo 13 and Color Blind, Russ sharpened the tools that he would use to carve out his place in the rap game: His raspy, hardbody rap flow, and lilting, almost drunken singing voice. He builds on the foundation laid by Drake and capitalized on by Bryson Tiller, 6lack, and PartyNextDoor, but with more polish.
There’s Really A Wolf evokes the story of the boy who cried wolf, a fairy that warns children of the dangers of insincerity. The boy in the story, playing a practical joke, incites panic amongst the townspeople by running in from the forest, crying that there is a wolf on his heels, then laughing at the concern of his fellow citizens. The day soon comes when he really does come across a hungry wolf, but due to having earned a reputation as a trickster, the townspeople ignore his cries for help, and the wolf devours him. Fun story. By evoking the rather depressing moral story, Russ is letting us know a few things.
He’s very much concerned with authenticity; he wants us to believe in him as much as he believes in himself. “Act Now” demonstrates this best: “It took a lot of long nights just to get these days / And to be honest, I think I’m the best these days / You got now, but I think I’m the next these days.” Unlike similar artists, he’s not a one hit wonder or an overnight success; this took time, hard work, and dedication. He’s earned your trust and respect. “Pull The Trigger” tells us that he doesn’t believe in luck, that “life’s above fate.” It’s a more deterministic view than either of the other albums Wolf had to compete with; Logic’s album is framed through the eyes of a narrator entering purgatory and trying to bargain his way into heaven, while Ali’s sounds most like a Sunday sermon, and Russ’ Wolf is more in line with rap’s current preoccupation with self-made success.
There’s no pump fake here either; Russ is not the type to tell you that an album is coming when it’s not. Rap fans have become all too familiar with the Jay Electronicas and Cory Gunz of the game; rappers who generate tremendous levels of anticipation on the internet, only to get signed and vanish from public sight, only resurfacing to get off sixteen bars at a time on other rappers’ singles, and all the while promising, “soon.” They’re crying “wolf!” while Russ is snapping “I’m Here,” assertively laying out his philosophy and recapping his story so far over an eerie piano and pounding kick-snare combo that sounds like the pack on the hunt, hovering just outside the light of a sputtering campfire, waiting for the light to die.
The boasts are excellent — “I gave ’em what they want, now they losin’ control!” — but it’s the last two lines that best encapsulate his devil-may-care swagger: “Forgive me for being jaded to my race / But I been colorblind — that wasn’t just a mixtape.” Rap is a typically “Black” genre, and Ali, Russ, and Logic all look decidedly not-Black; Ali is albino, Logic is Black and white, and Russ is Sicilian Italian. All three handle their standout status in different ways on their recent releases; Logic often dwells on it, allowing it to become pretty tiresome by the fifth song in, and Brother Ali explains in-depth, which is important, but ultimately kind of a downer (and preaching to the choir besides), but Russ makes it a non-issue, taking the focus off of his ethnically ambiguous features and placing it squarely back onto his flow, his story, his wordplay, and the music. Also, it’s just a cool line by itself; Russ actually has the condition heterochromia, which gives him different colored irises, and literal colorblindness.
“Ride Slow” and “Don’t Lie” continue the theme of sincerity, as Russ spills his guts to a former paramour, telling her on the latter, “you’re the only girl I wanna get close to.” He’s been scarred, but he’s willing to let listeners see those scars as he confesses his own wrongdoing and eagerness to be the type who can put his womanizing aside. On “I Wanna Go Down With You,” he goes full piano-ballad R&B crooner, telling his girl that “(she) is all that (he) needs.” He basically bleeds himself dry over the keys, dropping the cool-guy rapper pretense and revealing the vulnerable, lovesick man that he is. Early single “Losin Control” appears on Wolf as well, fitting perfectly into the pocket of woozy, blissed out R&B that’s perfect for a late night emo cruise in your car by yourself. Nothing on All The Beauty… or Everybody ever really changes lanes away from “Bars, son!” which is cool if you like that sort of thing, but gets a little constrained when it comes to “situations where I would like to play this album.” Chalk up another one for Russ.
If there is any drawback to the album on the whole, it’s that it’s very long. In the same vein as his musical grandfather, Drake. There are twenty songs here, and they were all self-produced, leading to a lot of similar sounds being used, and a lot of similar subject matter being covered. With that said, though, while the album can feel like it drags around the middle, there’s nothing here that really sounds like dead weight, aside from “One More Shot,” with it’s weird digital horn sound and not-quite dancehall styling. If you are going to take this one out on a midnight spin, plan for a longer drive than usual, and make sure you don’t have work in the morning.
Russ has clearly been waiting a long time for this release. He says it on practically every song; “You doubted me, you didn’t believe in me. I told you the wolf was coming but no one listened.” All those years he tried to wake up the rap world have made Russ the hungriest of the bunch, so those townspeople better be on the lookout, and believe him the next time he cries, “Wolf!” Because he would know — he was the one on the hunt all along.