Douglas Martin’s favorite letter is P!
I never realized how hard Sean Price’s voice is to describe until I sat down to write about this mixtape. It’s not exactly gravelly in the traditional sense, more like he gargled a bunch of gravel and immediately stepped into the vocal booth, the excess still rattling around his voicebox. He grunts, growls, and sometimes snorts, but never comes across as overly aggressive. A slight nasal quality is detectable, but he hardly sounds like Seth Rollins when he’s kicking bars. These little elements are all qualities that come together in one unmistakable voice, weaving through and stomping all over beats. There’s something to him recording a song called “Solomon Grundy,” and the album artwork depicting him as a diesel comic book character with tattered clothes, holding a blood-soaked microphone. If he couldn’t be mythologized as a Marvel or DC antihero, he would have to do it himself in rhyme.
Of course there are heads out there who will stump in favor of Price’s early solo work; classics like Monkey Bars and Jesus Price Superstar are legitimately top-shelf rap albums. But he kept improving as an MC over time, and at an alarming rate: Kimbo Price was an excellent mixtape from start to finish and the Alchemist-helmed beats on Mic Tyson feature not only some of the best beats he’s ever rapped over, but also what are easily his best turns on the mic. As good as he was, he found his stride around the time he started punching dudes through school buses. Songs in the Key of Price finds Ruck leveled up through the roof.
Abounds are the callbacks to Donkey Sean, the threats to punch your head off your neck. There’s that bricklaying delivery, the one that sounds like each word is a cinder block and each conjoining syllable is all stacking against the others into a 50-foot high wall. As most New York-based rappers of a certain age are wont to do, WWF legends, many of our first brushes with larger-than-life masculinity, are referenced. In an alternate universe, Price could have very well been tossing pencil-necked geeks against the ropes and making fun of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s kilt. (Shoutout to our other recently-departed hero, by the way.)
On Songs in the Key of Price, Sean is as stodgy a hip-hop traditionalist as he ever was, throwing the skinny jeaned vanguard of rappers under the bus — hilariously quipping that his flow is “wild tight like Westbrook’s jeans” — and affronting your machoness by comparing you to Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner. For rap nerds who always wanted P! to rhyme over “The Truth,” “Killah Hills 10304,” and “Dreams,” your fantasy booking wishes have been fulfilled. He also flips over a sample of Al Green’s “I Wish You Were Here” (aka the song sampled for Nas’ “Shootouts”) and Prodigy’s “Give ‘Em Hell” with the force of a hurricane. His wicked sense of humor is evident throughout, but is highlighted rapping over beatboxing on “Kurt Rambis,” where you practically hear him smirking when he drops the “dirt sandwich” line.
A long-running highlight of the Sean Price persona has been his affinity for the prominent black leaders throughout history (Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Coming to America’s King Jaffe Joffer), and throughout the mixtape he stresses the importance of people of color holding onto their heritage (“Never catch my daughter with a white doll baby / Black and I’m proud”). He promotes unity between races by shouting out Mac Miller, but still cracks wise: “Bigotry P, smack a white guy for nothing.” But he still realizes he’s “not one of those niggas that’s celebrated in February,” so he resigns himself to bullying bars with astonishing dexterity.
It would be easy to apply grandiosity to Songs in the Key of Price now that its author has passed away and has left the world short of yet another enormously talented MC who still had a lot left in his proverbial tank. We could call this mixtape “a masterpiece,” “Sean Price’s magnum opus,” but the thing about Price is that he never sought to drop the widespread critical consensus album, the record that went into the hip-hop-as-high-art canon. He was just really fucking great at rapping. He knew it, everybody who listened to him knew it, and all he had to do was prove it. And far more often than not, he did. Songs in the Key of Price is not going to change the face of rap as we see it now. It’s simply a solid hour of the best rapping you’ll hear this year. The best rapper you’ve never heard about may not gain a great number of posthumous fans, but those of us privy to his talent will lament the loss of our favorite beast.