nocando-jimmy-the-burnoutWill Schube has a two-track mind.

James McCall wears many hats. He’s one of the best freestyle rappers on the planet. He’s a label head for Hellfyre Club,  quite possibly the most exciting label in otherground rap music. He’s the resident MC at the highly influential, Low End Theory Club in LA. He has a fantastic podcast with Passion of the Weiss head Jeff Weiss, and raps under the moniker Nocando. Nocando’s success in other musical avenues often threaten to overshadow his career as a rapper (the distinction between freestyle rapper and album rapper being important).

Running a label with some of the best rappers LA (or anywhere, for that matter) has to offer can be both intimidating and demoralizing, but upon the release of his second album, Jimmy the Burnout, Nocando has clearly stepped up his game to match his peers. The rise of Nocando’s Hellfyre Club label has coincided with his prominence in the underground rap community. Some of this has to do with the rappers he has surrounded himself with—Open Mike Eagle and Milo are two of the smartest rappers I’ve ever heard and Busdriver’s been doing this shit so long he serves as the collective’s father figure, offering both moral support and kicking serious ass when he takes a turn on the mic. However, Nocando’s subtle rise to prominence has more to do with his artistic development.

In 2010, Nocando released Jimmy The Lock, a solid first album clearly influenced by his past as a freestyle champion. One-liners turned from entertaining quips to all-encompassing barbs—taking attention away from overall songs in pursuit of something more immediate yet less gratifying. On Jimmy the Burnout, Nocando’s ability to ride a song is light years ahead of his debut. The songs on Burnout have depth and layers—Nocando is no longer relying entirely on wit to carry a track. Some of this has to do with the strength of the beats he chose to rap over. Earlier work tended to lean towards a Low End Theory vibe, eschewing high-end melody for guttural bass and pulsing percussion. On Burnout, Nocando’s versatility shines thanks to the diversity of the music accompanying his voice. “Break Even” takes a ragtime-influenced piano and blasts it with a plethora of horn-sounding synths that mirror Nocando’s infectious chorus of, “Ay man/I’m dying just to break even/I swear to God I hit the black before I leave here.” “Grown Man Work” finds Nocando tackling the Trap sensation with aplomb—adapting to the traditions of the genre and chopping his voice to the anti-speed of the thrashing beat.

This is part of what makes Nocando and Burnout, so good: his eyes and ears are so sharp, so focused on his surroundings, that he’s able to grab influence from any number of directions and shape it into something entirely his own. This speaks to the immense talent Nocando possess—not as a songwriter or performer, but as a rapper. His ability to craft words around a beat astounds again and again, and is part of what makes Burnout far and away the best thing he’s ever released—let alone one of the best early releases of 2014.

Burnout does have a few problems. The two skits are momentarily funny before quickly plummeting into something boring (it’s a good sign when a listener wants the artist to get back to the music). A few tracks swing and miss, although you can’t blame Nocando for trying his hand at new sub-genres of rap. On the slow burning, “Too Much To Ask”, Nocando veers into the pitched-down R & B so prevalent in today’s electronic/rap world. The genre is oversaturated as is—it would have been nice to see someone take a defiant stance by simply ignoring it. Nocando’s voice—always fairly loud and aggressive—overpowers the delicate undertones of the composition—his rapping is simply too much for the porcelain beat. The Mono/Poly remix of “Zero Hour” brings the record’s momentum to a screeching halt, although the previous skit may have done most of the work in stopping any sort of ecstatic push forward.

Nocando also has a tendency to get into his own way. Many of his tracks are accompanied by his own backing vocals, egging on or supplementing his raps. While this may have been a necessary tactic on previous releases, Jimmy the Burnout’s production value is strong enough to support Nocan’s flow without any support. Nocan’s early work was often supported by minimalistic beats, which have in turn been upgraded for something more full—often triumphant; the results are wonderful, but often times it sounds like Nocando doesn’t trust the music backing him enough to let it do its thing. These few slip-ups do little more than prove that Nocando is still developing his craft. The dude’s been on the scene so long, it’s hard to remember that this is only his 2nd solo full-length.

Burnout’s high peaks are interspersed strategically, such that any lull is immediately followed by a moment of pure joy. “Never Looked Better” manages to be candid, funny, and heartbreaking, while the smooth jazz of “Any Day Now” gives the album a really nice moment of relaxation. There’s no better moment on Burnout than “Hellfyre Club Anthem”, a victory lap during which Nocando looks over the small empire he’s created and assures his loyal listeners that success isn’t something to rest with, but to build upon. The beat is huge—soaring synths are backed by a piercing snare and a catchy (if not somewhat cliché) chorus of “If ya ever been an underdog/and put your money on a longshot/They only left you one option.”

While “Hellfyre Club Anthem” isn’t the album’s literal end, it sure feels like a postscript (although the nine-minute, Dam-Funk produced closer, “Lucid Dream” is absurdly funky). Nocando’s been around so long, it’s exciting to see him finally grow into the potential that he’s always displayed.

Jimmy the Burnout is so exciting because it presents more than the music within it. Its release coincides with Nocando’s ascension into a genuine power player within the LA community. His various projects have coalesced into something larger, and Burnout is the next logical next step. With a willingness to push harder and farther, it’s impossible to think of an LA rap scene in which Nocando and his Hellfyre cohorts aren’t on Mount Olympus.