For the uninitiated, Smoke DZA, the second most high-profile member of Curren$y’s Jet Life crew, is not the type of rapper to blow you away with dense wordplay or tongue-twisting rhyme patterns. The most obvious comparison to make would perhaps be his New Orleans native mentor, particularly given the subject matter both rappers tend to focus on marijuana and withering put-downs. Their styles aren’t too similar, though–DZA’s flow is less languid than Curren$y’s, his weed talk less metaphorically sharp and focused on minutiae. This might make him a less intrinsically impressive emcee, but it doesn’t make him a worse one. It’s just that his strength lies elsewhere.
Smoke is a great character rapper, cruising by on his vast reserves of NY cool and mocking wit, bragging about how much more weed he buys than you, and how much that impresses your girl. He might not make you think all that much, but he will make you smile and nod your head. Which, is a skill not to be undervalued. Plus, he’s a rapper that has been steadily developing and gaining greater focus. His full-length releases have been demonstrating increasingly high levels of quality. It’s this burgeoning artistic consistency that contributes to the sense that Rugby Thompson, his full-length collaboration with fellow NY-native Harry Fraud, could prove to be a big moment for him.
The other major factor that contributes to this sense is this new partner of his. Over the past few months Harry Fraud’s audio-sample signature, (“la musica de Harry Fraud”), has become a signifier of high-quality beat making. His attention grabbing production is the main reason that songs like Action Bronson’s “Bird on a Wire” and Meyhem Lauren’s “Special Effects” are some of the more exciting hip-hop singles of recent memory. Here, it’s a pleasure to hear his beats effortlessly carry a 40-minute project without ever particularly losing any steam–the production being uniformly excellent. For sure, Fraud has his stylistic tropes, (hyperactive hi-hats, dramatic long-held chords, an ever-present lightness of touch), but these similarities help give the album its coherence. Still, there’s just the right amount of variation on display. Rugby Thompson‘s single track “New Jack” is calmly bombastic with a piano-led stomp. It demonstrates the general tone pretty well, but that’s before “Baleedat” and its cut up soul vocals offer up a drastic update of vintage Kanye beats. The jittery, twisted funk of “Kenny Powers” re-imagines the old-school squall of Public Enemy. These are only small nods to the past though–one of the greatest assets of Fraud’s production is how thrillingly current it sounds.
It’s the beats that make Rugby Thompson DZA’s most accomplished full-length thus far. Smoke stays resolutely in his lane, but it’s to his credit that he sounds perfectly comfortable and at home–especially given the fact that the beats he’s riding are a far cry from the soul samples that anchored last year’s excellent Rolling Stoned. The guest verses sound equally natural: fellow potheads Domo Genesis and ScHoolboy Q stop by for album highlight “Ashtray”– the colossal beat lending their boasts a degree of amusing grandiosity. Fellow New Yorkers A$AP Twelvy, Action Bronson and Meyhem Lauren, (plus the veteran Sean Price) all stop by and do their thing nicely adding to each track they appear on. Ultimately, it’s DZA and Fraud’s show and they both make remarkably good hosts. It’s a rewarding partnership, the former consolidating the quality of his output thus far, the latter offering a further glimpse of what looks already to be an extremely promising career.