Douglas Martin was also more of a Pepa guy than a Salt guy.
I. CHICAGO’S OLDEST YOUNG RAPPER
There is an inaccurate notion, repeated to the point of cliche, that hip-hop is a young person’s game. The truth is it’s still a young genre, with many of its first-wave participants still alive along with their memories of a time before the genre existed. Regardless of recent examples of the contrary (two of hip-hop’s very best releases of the year, Honor Killed the Samurai and We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, were made by rappers in their 40s), rap is not a country for old men, which is why Chicago’s Mick Jenkins opened a dis track for crosstown rival Vic Spencer with a dismissive quip: “Old-ass nigga.” (Adding to the comic cruelty, “Vic Spencer age” is one of the related Google searches when you look him up in the engine.)
The observation is not entirely off-base for Jenkins, a decade Spencer’s junior. But it betrays an increasingly relevant conversation point: At the age of 35, Vic Spencer is entering the prime of his career. He’s entering a new plateau, constantly mistaken for a new rapper even though he’s been entrenched in Chicago’s rap scene for years, collaborating with Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa well before either of them entered the realm of rap notoriety.
II. “I’M ACTUALLY KINDA GLAD Y’ALL SLEPT ON ME”
For years, Spencer had been toiling away in relative obscurity while the name value of his local peers, to varying degrees of skill and originality, were exploding. A very real feeling exists when you see others in your field advance past your station in recognition, especially when you feel your talent exceeds theirs, the chip on your shoulder grows and grows. While his level of discomfort grew, Spencer used the templates of influences he accrued from Sean Price and MF DOOM. He continued perfecting his craft, slowly but surely gaining an individual voice, articulating the frustration of being overlooked through his biting sarcasm, and his love for words. This all coalesced perfectly on last year’s The Cost of Victory. (His collaboration with Tree, aptly named VicTree, also contains some jewels.) His skill as a writer improved tremendously, carrying it over into a watershed 2016.
On the immensely replayable Who the Fuck is Chris Spencer??, Spencer’s deep rasp perfectly compliments the vocals of Chris Crack, whose voice could scratch metal. Walking over a trail of discarded Swisher Sweet tobacco, candy wrappers, and used condoms, Spencer and Crack effortlessly assail a variety of beats with the same humor and personality they both are increasingly being recognized for: Smashing other rappers’ girlfriends (and mothers), witnessing the violence of their native Chicago, and cracking jokes on other rappers through a thick haze of smoke. On “Marcus Miller,” Spencer offers a little insight on his perspective: “Got babies from a family of crack and ladies dressed up/A nigga stayed to himself, so he wouldn’t mess up.”
As a means to show fans what they’ve been missing, Spencer released dead. (The Catalog) in September, collecting both past highlights and unreleased bangers and further cementing himself not only as a supremely talented rapper, but a cult of personality. He’s at industry events, he blasts music from his headphones in the corner packing blunt wraps. He’s puffing weed in front of the CPD precinct on the corner of California and Ogden. He’s at your girl’s house, rinsing his balls in the sink. He’s on Michigan Avenue, watching horses crap on the street. He asserts himself as both the best and worst rapper in Chicago, as “the underrated assassin.” He’s old as shit like whiskey, old as shit like Diddy.
Spencer’s third project of 2016, St. Gregory, brings his talents up another notch, further highlighting his creative voice, his stylistic cues from his influences—the songs-in-miniature structure of DOOM’s best work, the deft wordplay of Price’s—and his desire to be a one of a kind talent in rap music to create what may be his best album yet.
III. VIC SPENCER IS DEAD, LONG LIVE VIC SPENCER
St. Gregory opens with an obituary. Unlike a great many self-eulogizing rap records, of which there are too many to list, “Vic Spencer is Dead” doesn’t delve into overt seriousness or mythology; the lightheartedness of Spencer looking outside of himself to survey his career is what makes the track an A+ album kickoff. He pays tribute to his heroes (“He was the best rapper, even Sean Price had told him before”), shows a reluctance for mainstream recognition (“He didn’t want the crown, he didn’t want to be down with your gang gang”), and, of course, showcases his mordant wit (“He didn’t want nothing but the worst for niggas”).
Over the mournful sample which graces early album highlight “Vincente Fernandez,” Spencer fully releases the gritting of his teeth and the strain of years of bitterness, looking over a career of former friends, burned bridges, and adversity he’s had to survive to get to this stage in his life. “About five years ago, I was everybody’s buddy/Now I’m Chicago’s hated,” he ruefully spits. He envisions himself crushing meteors and observes hustlers with broke baby’s mothers, laments his reputation as a misogynist (“Damn, that’s the shit that’s gonna make y’all listen?”), laughs off people talking behind his back (“Gossip is a broke nigga’s sport, it’s hilarious”), and throwing a quick shot at Jenkins for good measure (“I’d rather grow almonds with that water”). If “Vic Spencer is Dead” is a collection of epitaphs, the successive piece is an assertion; for all the work he has done, he still has a lot left to do before his demise.
IV. THE “GONE FISHIN’” TRILOGY
For my money, the best episode of The Sopranos is “Funhouse.” It’s an artfully crafted tale of friendship, betrayal, and heartbreak viewed through the prism of a food-poisoning-induced fever dream starring a talking fish. Listening to the three parts of “Gone Fishin’” is reminiscent of this profound—and profoundly weird—hour of television, carrying all the hallmarks of its violence, symbolism, and humor.
But while “Funhouse” flits between the conscious and the subconscious, “Gone Fishin’” is entrenched firmly in a dream-like state, never deviating from its surreal imagery as it cycles between fishing rods, mops, blood, the color green, and the dark red hue of blood. The volume of discarded weapons and bodies rivals a season of The Walking Dead and there is a home interior made completely out of reptile skin, the latter a boast of material wealth so absurd it would make Ric Flair wince with jealousy. A murder conspiracy is introduced in the first two parts, sequenced in immediate succession early on in the album’s run, and resolved in ultraviolent fashion near its end, but not before the humorous button: “I’m gonna get me some pussy, Vic. Shut the fuck up.”
Those invested in dream logic, present company included, could tell you all about the symbolism in those items, but diving into a perceived version of Spencer’s psyche is far less interesting than following the madcap narrative of the songs. It would be like trying to explain why a greyhound in a letterman jacket and high-top Nike SBs is delivering a backbreaker to a lizard-person with emotionless yellow eyes on the album’s cover art.
V. “I JUST LEFT 71ST WEARING A GOLD CROWN”
Whether through wish fulfillment or handy comparison, Spencer has for the past number of years been referred to as Chicago’s Sean Price, but there’s a quality in his writing that doesn’t lend itself to precedent. There are intangibles at play in the construction of his verses on songs like “Rare VI Shit” and “Introducing LoopGod.” It’s in the way he navigates an off-kilter-but-dope-as-shit beat, the sort of intangible aesthetic difficult to explain with words. Sometimes you just know when an artist weaves their whole personality into a work, and there’s no way to break it down and articulate what makes them different. It’s in the DNA that makes us all different from each other; some artists know how to communicate it and some don’t. It helps when you can craft lines like, “On my business like Stringer Bell/Big cock’ll make a singer yell” and “I traded my Gucci belts for an uzi” and delivering them with a confidence that doesn’t render them rote.
Spencer has written many odes to the leaf which brings ease to many of our lives, but none better than “Kush Petals,” where in the first verse he admits to lying to his wife about his weed consumption and in the second, he assembles a semi-narrative where crooked cops who chief during their breaks take a day off from harassing him. “I know a secret about these niggas with the power,” he says on “CEO Cellphone Numbers” before nearly cackling, “Don’t make a nigga pull your shit!” He cops to making bad jokes in the middle of verses, turns what could be construed at face value a racist joke into keen observation when you think about it a little deeper: “You don’t think Chinese people get tired of rice?”
As hip-hop fans, we’ve seen the boundaries of the form expand every day, just as every genre of music invented before it. But as easily as those margins have been pushed, artists are working within the form so masterfully it’s hard to ignore. As the cliché goes, the cream always rises to the top. In the past year, Vic Spencer—who has been a great writer of rap verses for a long time—has found his voice in a big way, managing to imbue his individualism, confidence, and immaculate attention to detail into the fabric of his songs such that it’s hard to deny his greatness. If the stress he’s put on himself from being underappreciated results in music as superlative as the music he has released in 2016, let’s hope reaching the next level of his talent puts a little more pressure on his pen.