Max Bell is second cousins twice removed with Lil Dap.

Dismiss the teen renaissance of dense and dusty, jazz-inflected rap songs and you denounce Doom and Dilla. They’re the perennial link between the boom-bap of old and most contemporary iterations, their influence over high school rap fans as strong as it was when Tyler and Earl emerged from the ether. 17-year-old A-F-R-O is the latest to precociously connect the dots.

Winner of R.A. the Rugged Man’s “Definition of a Rap Flow” contest, the Fullerton, CA native landed an appearance on The Queen Latifah show on the strength of two heavily circulated YouTube freestyles last year. After dispelling a lingering “freestyle or written” debate on national television, he released three EPs. The most promising is January’s Modest World, bookended by the aptly titled A-F-R-O Doom and A-F-R-O Loves Dilla.

Translating freestyles to songs has always been difficult for the spontaneously prolific (e.g. Supernatural, Juice). Yet A-F-R-O seems adept at writing rhymes that retain their relevance outside of the cypher. R.A. described him as “Chubb Rock meets Biggie on steroids.” Really, he’s Gift of Gab with a penchant for villainous darts and glazed loops. For a modern analogue, think of him as a less blunted, more vocally animated and aggressive Chester Watson.

On the Doom and Dilla tapes, most similes and metaphors revolve around A-F-R-O’s self-avowed lyrical supremacy. Each song is rap as hypnosis. Cohesion and entrancement come not from theme or narrative but deftly stacked blocks of language. But on Modest World there’s more. Over laid-back suites that clip to smooth saxophones and laconic loops from Buena Park producer Pulse Reaction, A-F-R-O delves into everything from suicide to a recent car crash that left him with eight broken ribs and two broken bones in his spine. Like most freestyles, they aren’t perfect. Still, they’re poignantly penned steps in the right direction.

Of late, A-F-R-O was heading to New York to work with DJ Premier before his studio is replaced by luxury condos for people who think Gang Starr is misspelled. While he’s yet to excise all his influences, the results could be great. At the very least, they’ll be more of the same with (hopefully) better production. And if the renaissance remains, I’ll take A-F-R-O over the de facto leader of today’s Group Home any day.

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