Thomas Johnson has twice the bread, it’s like he had two buns.
The rags-to-riches hero is one of rap’s signature archetypes, but you’re going to hear it far more often from the mogul bouncing in a drop-top than the graduate sleeping in his van. Poverty is generally acknowledged in retrospect, reflected on in 20/20 through YSL shades. Old Man Saxon believes that nowadays rap is defined by three traits: apathy, consumerism, and comparison. Peacocking. He believes that there’s a disconnect between the journey and the destination, that a story shouldn’t be predicated on it’s end. Each day can be a battle, and with each struggle comes important but small victories. No need to embellish. As he has it, “There’s beauty in the mundane.”
Saxon, real name Saxon Kincy, prefers the romance of the good fight. For him, working overtime to afford that extra Happy Meal is as compelling as Rick Ross’s collection of cars and concubines. In 2013, he quit testing video games for a living to become a rapper. He was homeless within a year. He would park his home (a 2001 Ford Explorer) along Hollywood Blvd., at either a gym to escape the heat or a park to scribble down lyrics. The sun acted as his alarm clock, and his t-shirts worked as curtains. He moonlighted as a dishwasher, which was dope because they allowed him a free meal or two per shift. His debut four-track effort, The Perils, articulates this time in his life, his real life rags-to-moderate-financial-comfort story. It’s uplifting in its moments most deprived of hope, and compelling in ways only a trifling existence can be.
The Perils is sequenced wonderfully. The four tracks are loosely spun around a day for Saxon, his morning rituals to the sweet, sweet release that comes with closing your eyes and shutting out the world. They consist of the tangibles and intangibles of a 20-something under the poverty line: aspirations and anxieties, work and routines and more anxieties. In a quarter-hour Saxon glosses the tedium of being alive and tired and restless. Youthful but stagnant. A prayer and coffee begin his days, so when he pleas for a sign from above on “Breakfast”—for divine intervention to throw him a frickin’ bone—the magnitude of each daily battle sinks in.
Soon comes the need to relieve and numb as he does on the cloud-rap sunbeam “O.G. Ghost.” It’s a would-be moment of levity that instead stands as a testament to Saxon’s frustration; “Imma get blazed/Imma just say some shit that I shouldn’t.” The titular track, with its dusty vinyl pops and melancholy sax, sounds like a case of the Mondays. “Breakfast” acts as the mies-en-scene and “O.G. Ghost” as the relief, but “The Perils” is the devastating emotional centrepiece. It’s an open-ended existential crisis crammed into four minutes. Saxon raps like he’s full of doubt and Ambien, fighting to keep his eyes open, stoked to return to a home he’s not even particularly fond of.
Besides “Rose Garden” wherein he recreates The Pharcyde’s classic “Drop” video, Toronto MC Shad’s best visuals are for “The Old Prince Still Lives At Home” wherein he recreates the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s classic theme song. While aesthetically he rehashes the tale of how a flat-topped Will Smith glows up, “The Old Prince” tells a contradictory tale: “I live at home still, not paying phone bills/Hydro, or rent, and my mom makes most meals/So it’s so ill, I don’t need no scrill.” He’s a funny poor man’s rapper: unafraid—proud, even—to address his monetary woes. At one point in time, he’s a brilliant mouthpiece for the casual nature of millennial ennui. To my knowledge, Shad was never homeless.
Old Man Saxon was. Demure and defeated, Saxon makes for an equally endearing protagonist. He’s a sharp writer whose steady drawl is riddled with shrewd turns of phrase. He’s able to nimbly jump around, like on opener “Breakfast.” When he does, he raps like Shad did. Self-deprecating humor, a sharp wit, and a bro-next-door demeanor are traits shared by the two. Hearing Saxon confess to being a “Mac addict pursuing a tax-bracket,” reminds me of Shad when he rapped that he was “student slash rapper so [he’s] dealing with no sleep.”
They both grumble like the guys you’d want to chat with at a party, chums who are probably more entertaining than their surroundings without the ostentatiousness to demand attention. But Saxon’s delivery diverges from his spiritual predecessor’s because he laces it with a dejection diametrically opposed to Shad’s effervescence. He sounds like his spirit has been pulverized by the world.
The best moments on the EP come when he slows to a turtle’s pace. Not that he sounds relaxed; fatigue is so wholly engrained in The Perils that even its most laid-back moments sound as if they followed a fifteen hour shift. It really isn’t until the EP’s final act that Saxon finds himself able to unwind, even if it comes in the form of mere pipe-dreams.
As a whole, the EP doesn’t seem like a depressing collection of soul-crushing musings; if you can’t see a silver lining, make one up. To that effect, The Perils is anchored by its last and best song. “Sunday Saxon” feels like a day—or at least a few minutes—of rest. The touching video portrays him as a human headed tortoise living under a tree, playing a Puff the Magic Dragon-esque imaginary friend to a spurned young man. It’s a touching piece of imagination, absurd enough to separate itself from a distressing reality. It’s slow and vulnerable and unconcerned and very, very chill. For a moment, Saxon seems capable of brushing everything off; “They say if he get fly we’ll promptly have shot him down/Well, fuck ‘em. All.”
The Perils is characterized by tacit acknowledgement of disheartening minutiae, but it’s defined by optimism that fuels you to get out of bed every morning. To keep your head up when all prospects are garbage is brave. He admits that he hasn’t slept in weeks, but it works out because life’s constant terrors have negated the hiccups. Glass half full. He can envision success for himself a year or two down the road. However small, that’s something.
Shad briefly became the host of Q. I assume he moved out of his mom’s place. Saxon Kincy became the professor of Rap at the Musician’s Institute of Los Angeles. He gave a TED Talk recently, and is now the father of a young daughter he can support. Being alive is an exhaustive exercise in moral fortitude. Weeks can turn to months and before you know it, a year of your life has homogenized into a torturous blur of commonplace drudgery chasing a competitive wage and maybe dental insurance if you’re lucky. 80 hour work weeks you can’t recall can crush your spirit. You can’t wait to return home as soon as you leave. You can’t remember what you had for breakfast, if you had breakfast. Hell, maybe you even live in your car. You anticipate tomorrow, today. You deal with the present. And it’s gonna be fine. One day you’ll get to proper and it’ll work out. Ain’t nothing to worry about.