April 27, 2017

Luke Benjamin’s done a lot of shit to live this lifestyle.

The last two years of Rich Homie Quan’s life have been semi-tragedy; a descent from his perch atop the “Lifestyle” white leather jet to lonely wanderings of the rap world netherlands. It seems ages ago now, but circa 2013-2014, Quan was a tour-de-force of sticky hooks and Southern charisma, croaking through some of the most iconic records of those heady nascent days. The matzo-thin Atlantan (né Dequantes Devontay Lamar) was synonymous with club-shivering hits, a maestro over trap drums and Metro Boomin tags, all requisite bluster made novel and Actavis-coated baritone.

“Type Of Way” was the oxygen thin summit, a star-making taunt of a record, snarling through brags and material excess. Its chorus was lighter fluid for rapid fire bad decisions, open tabs, and “you up?” texts. One hundred thirty-five BPM’s of distilled flexing, custom Breitling glinting as he turns over four-line bridges and namechecks Sade. It was nothing but milestones and new crowns, label uncertainty be damned.

If “Type Of Way” was the individual peak, then Rich Gang: Tha Tour Pt. 1 was the creative zenith: RHQ teamed with the eccentricity of a still unfolding Young Thug, a light sprinkle of Birdman hand rubs, and the best London On Da Track production Drake’s unseen royalties can buy. Tha Tour is twenty tracks of abstract flair, scattered caterwauling, and really good rapping. The best duo since Outkast, Quan and Thug are partly rap deconstructionists, defined by their utter opposition to all hip-hop traditionalism, alien to boom-bap, occasionally not even verbal—just yelps and slurred melodies.  

“Lifestyle” is a synesthetic Matisse painting: bold non-representational color and aberrant individual vision, the hook mostly unintelligible except to a couple Rap Genius super-sleuths and Thug himself. That Tha Tour Pt. 1 will be remembered as one of the defining music moments of the 2010’s is inevitable, a lasting symbol of Atlanta’s influence on the popular music landscape.

From these heights Rich Homie Quan fell with melting wax wings. A trio of incidents knocked the Georgian rap prince from his ledge, splintering his reputation into more pieces than that egg-man from the nursery rhyme. The most devastating of these controversies involved the leak of an unreleased record from the Rich Gang recording sessions, on a track named “I Made It” Quan seems to boast about rape, rapping in a reprehensible four-line burst (Warning: this is a truly troubling thing to read): “I don’t want your ho, just want that cookie from her / She tried to resist so I took it from her / How are you gonna tell me no? / You must not know who I am.”

Rich Homie was subsequently, and rightfully, eviscerated for his misogynistic remarks across the web, and was variously accused of being a rape-apologist and perpetuating rape culture. The lyrics are absolutely irredeemable, and feed into a climate of toxic masculinity that blames and defames victims while excusing sexual violence in the name of youthful ignorance. These lines have inarguably affected Quan’s career, and in conjunction with a tangled label situation have sapped the heat from this once bright star. The rapper—who for an all-too-brief moment was one of the best alive—was left in a stasis of legal battles and non-apologies.

In response, RHQ dropped one more hit then disappeared into the ether, walking off to the buoyant “Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh),” a pop record so sugary and indulgent, one listen can give you a cavity. With that, the rapper who once promised to never stop going in, briefly did. Only lifting the moratorium (on going in) this past Friday, with the release of Back To Basics, a project that dwells extensively in clarity gleaned from being on the other side of a precipitous fall, just beginning the Sisyphean project of reclamation.

On the mixtape Quan leans heavily into recurrent motifs—paranoia, frustration, perseverance—lamenting missteps and working to make good on foregone promises. Back To The Basics is a more restrained version of Quan, wizened by the intervening time: all joy coming with a qualifier, every blessing with a curse, each success colored by fake friends and faker adoration. Contemporary Rich Homie is too well acquainted with the fickle nature of fame and fans to ever trust in fool’s gold again: his attention is now limited to finite checks and deep-rooted family, trust funds for his sons, and multi-story homes for real brothers.

It’s not as much a redemption story as a chronicling of tribulations, shifting priorities, and, yes, eventual maturity. The record opens all too poetically with the defiant, “They said I wouldn’t be shit / They thought it was over with,” a recognition of the mountains he’s already climbed and the battle back into mainstream consciousness still to come. He’s glimpsed the stratosphere and wants to take one small step back, quickly switching gears from the recalcitrant opener to “Heart Cold,” an over-vigilant elegy for fearful shooters, numb to lost friends and the everyday necessity of a pistol tucked into waistbands.

It’s as catchy as anything Quan’s ever written, heartbreakingly sticky, each bar on the hook as satisfying to say as the now iconic “Raindrop droptop,” a subtle reminder that there’s an alternate timeline where RHQ and not Migos is the one associated with cultural ubiquity. That the same hook also repurposes a Sixth Sense line is secondary, but speaks to Quan’s jagged-edged artistry even when the trap phone rings louder than his name.

As the thirty-four minutes of the tape rolls on, it becomes all too clear that Rich Homie Quan is still at the top of the class, despite the admission on “Da Streetz” that in his school days he never went. He drawls through narcotized balladry, asking for partial absolution on “Lord Forgive Me” only to promptly re-submerge into pools of rubber-banded hundreds and silk sheets. Rich Homie is keenly aware of both his faults and his formula, most virtuosic when his product is reduced to its most essential components, in effect a bricolage of brimful safes, condemned homes, and prayer over diamond encrusted crucifixes. The whole project contains only one feature, close confidant Cyko, sticking to the script of closing circles and waning trust.

There’s no arguing that listening to Quan now takes some moral bargaining, his explicitly sexual material especially taking on a troubling tenor, and I don’t begrudge anyone that is unwilling to commit to the temporary ethical abdication needed to enjoy this project. But if you can find it in yourself to give Rich Homie a second chance, you’ll be rewarded with eleven excellent rap songs. I won’t proffer a guess as to whether this will prove a re-coronation, and there’s more than a good chance that “BTB” is a hollow triumph, but musically it’s worth something. If nothing else, it’s tangible proof that rap music is better when Rich Homie Quan is still going in.

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