Hip-hop has always had room for exaggerated characters; it’s always, to some degree, been about persona, ego and braggadocio, the individualistic combination of which has been sending rappers into other dimensions and beaming them back seemingly from space since even before ODB wailed his way out of speakers on 36 Chambers. It’s much more recently that this has been fore grounded to the degree it has today, though, yet another side-effect of a rap landscape that seems to feed upon web-buzz first and foremost.
It’s led to rumblings of discontent, here and there, muttering that these modern day up-and-comers need no talent to succeed, that rappers like RiFF RAFF and his internet-bred ilk are nothing more than carefully designed avatars to tick boxes first, make good music second. To those who believe this, I raise them “Bird On A Wire” and “Brain Freeze” and explain that, no, see, there is something there that goes beyond the admittedly striking image. Rappers still, generally speaking, need a little something more.
Trinidad Jame$’ mixtape Don’t Be S.A.F.E. is a mess, but it could ultimately serve to either prove me wrong or right, depending on how well it capitalizes on the buzz its single “All Gold Everything” has garnered so far, and as such is at least a worthy consideration in the conversation. He’s been the subject of some worryingly gushing write-ups seemingly on the basis of his tendency to wear animal print and his minimal approach on that break-out single. Upon listening to this guy further, though, you can’t help but feel that the minimalism is just laziness in disguise.
The aforementioned single cruises by on a simplistic three-note riff that sounds like a slowed down, cleaned up grime track and an admittedly insistent chorus, but that’s it: atop it Jame$ just drawls some placeholders about his jewelry and stumbles over forced current pop-culture references, (“shout out to the freshmen, on Instagram straight flexin’”). It’s a pattern that he follows across the duration of his ten-track debut tape, not saying much both figuratively and literally. There’s no depth to anything that he’s saying, plus he makes no real effort to stick any more than the bare minimum of words into his sparse bars.
Of course, sparseness when it comes to spitting can be a great tool when it’s used effectively, but you need something to back it up and pick up the slack; depth, for want of a better word. There are so few attempts here to step out of the current paradigm of molly, money and clothes, and so few attempts at any technically interesting rapping, that you the sense that Jame$ must have spent more time thinking about his outfit for the “All Gold Everything” video than the raps on his tape.
Which brings things back to the crux of the matter: when you take into account the lack of skill or charisma on Don’t Be S.A.F.E., it’s clear that the shine the guy is getting at the moment is down to something else. It’s certainly not his beats, which go just as far in demonstrating that whatever identity Trinidad Jame$ holds, it is not a musical one. Despite being only ten tracks long, the tape features a stab at everything, from wavy cloud rap right through Luger-esque thuds all the way to a glossy and thoroughly pointless EDM breakdown at one point.
To bring up RiFF RAFF again, in some ways it calls to mind his freewheeling BiRTH OF AN iCON mixtape, itself probably only like a third real gold: but at 16 tracks shorter, and of a generally lower musical standard, it feels less like the voracious output of an open-minded oddball and more like lazy, cynical clutching at straws, searching for an idea that sticks.
What his success so far comes down to then is, of course, image. He’s not very talented, but Trinidad Jame$ feels like a watershed figure in the discussion of this facet of modern rap music. If the tape does as well as it deserves to, maybe I’m right: maybe your average hip-hop head is still kind of (kind of) discerning. If it transcends like some people seem to think it will, then I guess I’m wrong. And may God have mercy on us all.