Will Hagle convinced Metta World Peace to play for St. John’s.
It’s natural to devalue rappers who take themselves too seriously. Hip-Hop “Realness” matters, but humor has been an integral aspect of the genre since its earliest years. Not even the most enlightened and conscious of us wants to listen to music that discusses societal issues in a mechanized way. A rapper that can pry laughter out of bleak situations is preferable to one who simply reports the facts. That’s what separates the J. Coles and the Vince Staples of the world.
Vinnie Dewayne might not make jokes or layer ironic imagery the way Vince Staples does, but his straightforward storytelling style is uniquely interesting. This isn’t the boring lack of stimulation of J Cole (that’s a “Wet Dreamz” joke if you’re keeping score). The Portland rapper exists somewhere in between those two, revealing a lot of potential, but talent that could tilt towards either direction.
The thirteen tracks play less like a rap album than they do a well-soundtracked audiobook. Vinnie delivers calm and monotone observations about everyday life. Flashier flows might be more immediately captivating than Vinnie’s, but stylistic experimentation comes with the potential to detract from the message. Vinnie takes his thoughts and lays them bare in understandable terms over compelling but largely unprogressive beat choices.
Throughout The St. Johns Scholar, Vinnie litters worries and fears about the uncertainties involved with modern living. He frets over a decision to entrust a girl with his phone’s passcode; he struggles to translate the meaning behind all the liking and poking we do online. He writes about car accidents and hopelessly complex familial relationships. His qualms are universally relatable, and he’s able to communicate them clearly without ever once cracking a joke or digging deeper than surface level realness.
The thing that makes Vinnie unique is his constant overanalyzing—his tendency to filter life through a dark and doubt-ridden perspective. “Brick Walls” is about a friend who succumbed to drugs, but also Vinnie’s internal debate as to how to deal with that friend. “ENVY” is a scathing attack on his big brother, but also an emotional confrontation about what it means to be betrayed by your own flesh and blood. Every song is in some way about navigating the racial and economical oppression that exists in Portland and Chicago and everywhere in between.
Vinnie has spent time in both of those cities, and the album title is derived from the nickname he earned as a result of these variant geographical experiences. St. Johns is not the name of a school, but the neighborhood in North Portland where Vinnie grew up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. His scholarly pursuits took him to Chicago, where he attended Columbia College on a full ride. He’s since returned to his hometown, where he’s progressing towards becoming the first rapper not named Damian Lillard or Kanye to put the Northwest on the map.
The worldview he’s formed due to his life experiences make the overly serious aspects of his work more tolerable, his raw storytelling ability more commendable. There’s nothing in his words but cold, dark truth. When it works, as it does over the high-pitched sample loop on “Tomorrow,” it can be described the same way getting into a good college, being able to afford it, and finding a job after graduating can: hard as fuck. Exponentially harder than any MC who hides emotional pain behind punchlines rather than confronting it head on. It doesn’t always work, though. We’re not accustomed to the sincerity, because that’s not the approach that Vinnie’s contemporaries take. Vinnie’s straightforward style isn’t always as entertaining, but it’s a rare and powerful way of exposing life’s truths. There’s value in that, too.