There are only so many options to choose from when a ticket to stardom is floating away right in front of you. You can try again and create a more commercial record. You can call it quits and try to survive in the underground. You can live in your own niche and be a cult hero. Or you can simply shrug it off because you’re the “emperor of Japan.” For Jewish, L.A.-based rapper Speak, this is the most logical conclusion. His brush with fame might as well not have happened considering the anonymity of it all. Three years ago he co-wrote the viral sensation “Gucci Gucci” for Bay Area white girl Kreayshawn, but the attention that was showered onto her eluded him and his debut mixtape failed to make considerable noise. With his latest album Gnarly Davidson vs. The Marlboro Men – a project over two years in the making – Speak crafts a giant playground to immerse himself in to take his mind off the sting.
Speak may not have had a real chance to make it in the big time, but he has the talent. Gnarly Davidson is chock full of the hypnotic hooks that made “Gucci Gucci” a hit. Speak isn’t going to win any rapper of the year awards: there are no technical flourishes or verbal pyrotechnics, yet he admittedly has an innate sense of rhythm and songwriting. Each line bends into the next, creating mini-hooks with every verse. He manages to push himself as far as he can without ever falling off beat. He slides into a doubletime pace on “Capsule”, a back-and-forth chorus on “ITT Tech”, and chops his vocals down on “Lost World” without ever stumbling.
It helps that he’s aided by beats that do most of the leg work. The production on Gnarly Davidson is outstanding and captures the futuristic feel of Los Angeles right now; lackadaisical ride-out music crossed with Low End Theory adventurism. Odd Future affiliates The Internet creates a wobbly psychedelic slow jam on “Web”. Album opener “Mouth” builds upon beat boxing and vocal sounds to make a skeletal banger. But it is newcomer MMAC who steals the show here, blowing out a vacuous trunk rattler in “Bulletproof Denali” and juxtaposing theme song kitsch with soul on lead single “Mazda Blue”. Speak rides all of these beats very well, finding the proper personality for each. The bearded rapper has a lot of charisma and the production here is expansive enough to give him the room he needs to further flourish. His punchlines, too, are all big swings: references to Dragon Ball Z, interpolations of Sublime songs and lots of sex jokes. Though clunkers exist, they’re carried in stride.
On the first track Speak raps that he isn’t “no flash in the pan shit” and admits that his “phone stopped ringing, guess I’ll keep singing.” But Gnarly Davidson vs. the Marlboro Men is a testament to never giving up and always following your passion; It’s clear that there’s nowhere else Speak would rather be but here.