Max Bell own titles and busts nines at his rivals
Before most had heard of Sage the Gemini, there was Iamsu. In fact, it was Su who brought Sage into the HBK Gang fold. However, given the popularity of Sage’s singles “Gas Pedal” and “Red Nose,” many have probably been too busy “filming” their yiking Vines to seek out Su’s music. That’s not to say Sage has entirely overshadowed his compatriot or left him in the lurch. His aforementioned platinum and gold singles, staples on radio playlists and in clubs from the Bay to L.A., have undoubtedly played a major role in the added interest paid to all of HBK. Thus, Sage does deserve some of the attention. (His recent solo debut Remember Me combines lighthearted slaps with just enough self-seriousness to keep the album entertaining at nearly every turn.) Still, many seem to forget Su’s features on hits such as LoveRance’s “Up!” and E-40’s “Function” (and Sage’s “Gas Pedal). Numbers aside, Su is (or at least should be) the accepted architect of the Bay revival. He laid the foundation after the hyphy fallout. Now that those outside of the 510 have taken notice, the figurative and literal weight of NorCal rests largely on his shoulders.
Released on the heels of his steady proliferation of above par gratis releases (see Kilt I or II) and the prelusive Camo EP, Sincerely Yours is Su’s official solo debut. Touting your record as “concept album” has become de rigueur of late (see Kendrick and Y.G.) and Su has followed suit. Purportedly written as a letter to a fan, the “concept” here seems purposefully loose, one that enables Su to cover anything and everything without being forced to adhere to a firm narrative. There are zero songs like Eminem’s “Stan,” and any attempts to do so would’ve felt disingenuous. With his debut, Su ultimately offers an upgraded version of his previous efforts. The raucousness remains, yet there is a new sense of cohesion, a crystallization of influences into a singular whole. Though there are a few missteps, Su has deftly managed to represent for himself and his city without sacrificing his authenticity.
While Su works with a number of producers here, he hasn’t forsaken the sound he and his Invasion cohorts have honed these past few years. No matter who’s behind the boards, their hyphy meets jerk hybrid remains the backbone of the album, the rubbery bass lines and smattering of kicks, claps, and hi-hats rattling and clacking like the rails of Richmond bound BART cars. These are the characteristics that have led many to question whether DJ Mustard has cribbed “the ratchet sound” from Su and co or vice versa, but the differences are readily discernible.
Mustard’s brand of ratchet is inflected with G-funk, whereas Su sticks closer to the sounds’ southern roots. His reverence for the bottom of the map is evident from the jump. Su borrows from Pimp C’s “Big Pimpin’” verse on the swirling, syrupy “Intro.” The southern fried guitar combined with the banging island percussion on “Stop Signs” is direct from Big Boi and 3 Stacks. The spoken word outros, both on “Stop Signs” and elsewhere, are a clear homage to Dungeon Family member Big Rube. And the beginning of “Interlude II” sounds suited for vibrating strip club walls. Whether Su was even old enough to have visited Master P’s Richmond record store in the early ‘90s is neither here nor there. Su has spent all his cash at Atlanta’s Magic City and spent time in New Orleans; he name checks Wayne’s 500 Degreez and he’s already collaborated with Juvenile — his reverence and record are 100 grand.
Single “Only That Real” and “I Love My Squad” are two of the more traditional sounding Su songs. The former writhes to simple synth chords, backed by skittering hi-hats and minimal yet no less banging drums. Su raps and sings his engaging avowals of authenticity with auto-tune, a tool he utilizes heavily throughout. So it goes when your formative years featured a heavy T-Pain radio presence and a Kanye in full 808s and Heartbreaks mode. 2Chainz remains your favorite uncle, dropping dirty jokes with punch lines that occasionally connect. He is incorrigible and hilarious and he knows it. Sage continues to prove he’s capable of wielding his sonorous croak over the most energetic tracks, dropping a surplus of hilarious ‘90s references (e.g. N’Sync, WWF wrestlers, and Nickelodeon cartoon Rocket Power).
“I Love My Squad” appears to be Su’s answer to Y.G.’s “My Nigga.” The parallels are there both in production and content. There’s a pervasive sense of portent to both, and both bare the ratchet sonic hallmarks. However, “My Nigga” is a more effective anthem. It hits harder and features several rappers. Su, on the other hand, is the only voice on the murky and menacing “I Love My Squad.” As a rule, a song about your “squad” should generally include said squad. That said, it’s a good song that still merits replays at high volumes in residential neighborhoods.
The two songs mentioned above notwithstanding, there are a number of successful attempts to elevate and expound upon Su’s typical production. The strings on the title track make it feel more fully fleshed out, in addition to giving it a strange and beautiful balance of the gritty and the regal. And “Back on Your Mind” sounds as though Su found a way to bridge the gap between the bounce of ‘90s Bay rap his sound, the twinkling keys perhaps the best they’ve ever been.
The album also often straddles the ever-diminishing line between hip-hop and R&B. Su sings on many of the songs, and it’s not difficult to imagine an R&B singer taking over hook duties. For further evidence, see the aforementioned atmospheric “Intro,” which sounds fit for it that forever-forthcoming Shlohmo and Jeremih project.
However, there are places where the admirable attempts to innovate fall flat. The grinding guitar on “Interlude II,” while good in theory, is middling in practice. And “Ascension,” which shifts from mellow to cacophonous to expansive, sounds like a mix of half-baked beats thrown together. Here Su’s auto-tune croon is belabored, and does more damage than anything.
In terms of delivery, Su plays with his cadence and delivery with abandon. It’s exiting, and there’s no telling where or when the shift will come (e.g. Su’s quick shift to double time on “What You Bout”). Lyrically there’s nothing revolutionary about Sincerely Yours. Su ranks among the most competent of rappers at reworking the same tropes – women, weed, crew love, hard work, and the value of the turn up. However, there are moments where Su shows he’s capable of much more.
The first verse on sunny and melodic yet percussive “Problems,” which might be the best song on the album, is the most poignant and conceptually rich. Su laments the fact that schools rarely teach about African kings and queens before praying for peace in the hood. While these sentiments give way to boasts of first class flights, Su is explicitly self-aware. He knows he’s culpable. Once he’s done reveling in his successes, there’s no doubt that Su will be able to figuratively “hug the whole hood.”
When not on the mic, Su’s done a decent job of selecting his features, often favoring former collaborators (e.g. Sage and Kool Johon). However, Steezy and Wiz Khalifa were unnecessary additions. The former feels like a friend brought along for the ride, running to catch up to Su and the beat on “Problems.” And Khalifa, aside from his grating voice and poor delivery, is far from a “poet” on “What You ‘Bout.”
The best and most appropriate features come on “T.W.D.Y.” Here Too $hort and E-40 give Su the co-sign to end all co-signs. Nothing short of the ghost of Mac Dre would elevate this exchange, the implicit passing of the torch from the elder statesmen who shouldered the load for decades to the up and comer who should’ve graced the XXL Freshman cover. Neither $hort or 40 is at their best, but with their exhaustive outputs and time in the game, they are easily the last of the real.
Overall, Sincerely Yours is a compact letter of intent. In just over 45 minutes, Su proves he’s still committed to crafting turn up anthems while challenging himself to make them as sonically rich as possible. More importantly, he displays the potential to be one of the best to ever rep the Bay, one who might be able to balance the sybaritic with the socially conscious. If his career is anything like either 40 or $hort, it will only be a matter of time until he has the keys to the city of Richmond.