Evan Nabavian first saw the man in the cape.
My favorite kind of R&B is the kind that borrows liberally from hip-hop. Obvious bias there when you consider that I eat out of a Boot Camp Clikk lunchbox, but hear me out. Just as rappers relinquish some thuggery and soften up for the single, R&B singers know to get on their hip-hop shit for a broader appeal. Sure, “Novacane” and “Adorn” fit perfect when you’re mooning after your company’s fat booty intern, but I always come back to the joints that are indebted to rap. There’s a sweet spot between rap and R&B that just makes everyone happy. It’s why “Poison” by Bell Biv DeVoe always brings the house down.
Salaam Remi knows this better than anyone except maybe Puff Daddy and Teddy Riley. His new artist Mack Wilds’ album sounds like a passion project that combines fun-loving pop R&B with a core of New York rap nostalgia – appearances include DJ Premier, Havoc, Pete Rock, and Bink!. ‘Nostalgia’ might actually be an understatement. New York: A Love Story is a 90s wet dream that pours its heart out over the city’s legacy.
Mack Wilds is better known as Michael Lee from The Wire, though it might be the other way around soon. On the first track, we learn that Mack is from Staten Island as he croons over a glossy, orchestrated rendition of “Wu-Tang Clan Aint Nuthing Ta F’ Wit” with constant Wu references and a Method Man feature for posterity. It sets the tone with little subtlety and introduces us to Mack as an R&B cat in the vein of 112 and Usher circa 2002. The heaviest thing he’ll sing about is a breakup and his performance is more about moving girls’ asses than his vocal range.
What happens next is akin to a broadway musical about rap’s golden age in the best possible way. Popcorn love songs follow young romance through city streets. “Own It” and “MaGic!!!!” are as catchy as your dirtiest guilty pleasure and their marriage of raw beats and grandiose strings hits a rarefied strata of cool. “Keepin’ It Real” features perhaps DJ Premier’s smoothest work ever, even with its scratches and cuts. “Henny” gives Mobb Deep’s “The Learning (Burn)” the R&B look you never knew it needed. You find yourself wanting to pass them records so that they can reinvent them (psst, “Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers”). The high point is a hard knocking cover of Michael Jackson’s “Remember The Time” that recalls the Trackmasters’ remix “You Rock My World.” Head-nodding is inevitable.
Do you have to appreciate the reference to Jay Z’s “You, Me, Him And Her” to enjoy New York: A Love Story? I don’t think so. I bet a lot of Ashanti fans didn’t recognize every joint she sourced from Biggie. Same thing with “Stutter” by Joe and its Pharcyde sample.
The thing to remember is that the classic rap references aren’t there to move units at Fat Beats. They’re there because they’re rocket fuel for sexy R&B and they really work. New York: A Love Story is just as obvious about its nostalgia as any of the indie rappers we tear down for living in the past, but instead of a polemic about tradition, Mack Wilds gives us a vibrant love letter to the New York that once was.
As a bonus, here’s my R&B classics mix. “Wait a Minute” and “Formal Invite” by Ray J belong on here, but they’re not on Spotify.
Stream: Mack Wilds — New York: A Love Story (Left-Click)