Hip-hop is a culture of words — the great artists are those who verbally paint transcendent portraits, or flip vocal cartwheels through the subtleties of language. The melodies and chords can become complementary, a sturdy frame for the gaudy lyrical canvas. There’s nothing wrong with this imbalance. The listener just knows to prioritize words over musical structure. The other end of the spectrum, when an artist strives to pair lush instrumentation with rap, requires a lot of the emcee. When the instrumental is intriguing, the rapper has to work even harder to maintain the ear of the listener. With more than a “backing track” in the background, the rapper steps to the mic as a bandleader of sorts, leading a digitized ensemble while maintaining the focus on himself.
Wara from the NBHD is up for the challenge on his new project Kidnapped, which dropped this past summer. The production, courtesy of Wara himself, is driven by “those stupid-ass piano chords,” as a bully refers to them on the title track “Get In.” Behind the steady movement on the keys is a driving but thoughtful set of instrumentals. Somehow, Wara managed to capture the vibrancy of a James Brown studio session on layered line-in instruments. His drum tones alone sound like a master drummer is providing the backbone to the session — no 808s in this ATL artist’s sound. From the horn stabs on “Raw” to the guitar licks on “Hot Boy,” Wara leaves the listener imagining how exciting the album would be to hear in person, with Wara leading a crew of master musicians on-stage. A Pharrell-like attention to the exact sonic effect of each and every sound, coupled with a genuinely expert ear for how to craft a balanced instrumental, ensures that even if Wara was weak on the mic, Kidnapped would be intriguing enough for a couple listens.
Of course, Wara is no slouch when he steps to the mic either. He is not overshadowed by the impressive “band” behind him, instead using the space they contain to tell a real-talk story of battling inner demons and external pressures in the neighborhood. In interviews, he has described the main character of the project as a young man named Piano Lessons, who is trying to “maintain his composure while in the meantime being on the block posted.” Each track feels like a different chapter in the story, describing a separate side of the young man’s life. While he is no insane rappity-rapper, his lyrics, which definitely fall on the “verbal portraiture” side of lyricism, rarely lack the bite to keep the head nodding. He asserts his buoyant machismo with a vocal bounce on “Piano Lessons,” gives voice to the character’s brother’s insecurities selling drugs on “Slangin’,” and growls his pain on “Scrilla” with unvarying sincerity.
Making good use of the tools in his hip-hop toolbox, Wara leaves nothing on the table over the course of Kidnapped. His storytelling, which remains compelling from beginning to end, is woven expertly with engaging arrangement and production that demonstrates an attentive ear to musicianship. Someone get this man a band and put him on stages across the country; only a concert hall could do Kidnapped‘s vibrant piano strokes and swelling synths’ justice.
Sidenote: Wara could definitely use a new designer for his cover artwork. Though chilling, the image has deterred music seekers from pressing download on certain sites. Don’t make the same mistake.
4.5 out of 5
You can purchase Kidnapped on Amazon.