Rap made respectful with ‘All You Can Do’

MusicReviewAlbum: “All You Can Do”
Artist: Watsky
Genre: Alternative hip-hop
Label: Steel Wool Media, Welk Music Group
Release Date: Aug. 12, 2014
Rating: 4/5

With recent stirrings in the black community regarding the appropriateness of Iggy Azalea’s participation in hip-hop, a common complaint wasn’t the mimicry in musical style, but rather the artist “trying black culture on for size” — disrespectfully appropriating language and aesthetics to fake an identity and background that is not her own. Last week, rapper Watsky showed in his new album, “All You Can Do,” that the disrespectful forgery of speech patterns and fashions is not a requirement to successfully create hip-hop music.

Originally a spoken word poet, George Watsky — known in the music industry simply by his last name — has taken the powerful emotion in his poems and skillfully combined them with music. His transition to hip-hop wasn’t marked by shoehorning stereotypical phrases into the lyrics. His poetry has remained authentic to his natural way of speaking and involves metaphors relevant to his own background. Watsky is who he says he is, and he has stayed true to his 2011 viral breakout video titled “Pale Kid Raps Fast,” a political rap describing himself as a far-from-fly kid with rolled-up jeans and a Huffy bike.

“All You Can Do” takes the already-lyrical poetry of Watsky and brings his words to life through unconventional musical backing. Carefully constructed, the album repeats musical motifs amongst the tracks to make a complete development of sound.

The opening titular track starts with a slow string recording, a theme reappearing several times throughout the album. Track 11, “Hand Over Hand,” mimics the same chord structure as the intro, and the intro melody repeats in exactitude to round out the album as a circular, interconnected work.

There is a strong country-inspired feel to many of the songs, influenced by Watsky’s skill as a harmonica player. Track two, “Stand For Something,” begins with that unconventional Western flavor, then quickly transitions into a fast-paced, plucky track carried swiftly along by triplet rhythms and quirky percussive rim shots. The track after that uses a similar reliance of lyrical triplets, and the string motif introduced in the album opener make yet another appearance. This sets the mood for the rest of the album and gives listeners a good sense of what to expect later.

The strongest songwriting is showcased in the anthemic single “Whoa Whoa Whoa.” There is a fire burning behind Watsky’s rapid lyrics, but a subdued restraint keeps his rhythms light, natural and consistent. He gives his quick-spitted 16th-note bars room to breathe by half-time cuts, triple-meter sections. While the notes in catchy melody of the verses and chorus don’t change much, the song continues to develop through different rhythmic sampling of the same elements.

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The lyrics on “Whoa Whoa Whoa” establish Watsky as a force to be reckoned with. “When I walk in, I’m the king of the room,” he raps — and while he isn’t the best, he is someone to watch closely.

Toward the end, the album begins to falter under the weight of clunky politicized lyrics. Track 15, “Sarajevo” is overwrought with predictably inflammatory religious imagery and politicization. His message of being kind to one another is lost under the pretension of lyrics such as, “Don’t say that all is lost/Escape this holocaust/My God, Allah, my darling, star and crescent and my cross.” It seems as though the music in the track is a slight afterthought, and the lyrics would stand alone better as a poem — but even then, a weak poem at that.

The last track takes a cue from “Sarajevo,” and the lyrics are spoken as a poem on top of repetitive musical backing. It stretches out and develops into the same melody, introduced in the opening of the album.

“All You Can Do” is not a perfect album, but it has a lot of thought put into it. The featured vocalists are strong, and the music is meant to slowly develop over the length of the work. It authentically represents Watsky’s sound aesthetic and persona without spotlighting him as a special snowflake. If anything, its multidimensional showcasing of the breadth of hip-hop makes it worth a listen on its own.