Ryan Meaney is watching the Twins right now.
Winter in the Twin Cities is nothing to be trifled with. Winds whip the snow and salt making downtown Minneapolis a blur of hazy light. I-35 connecting Minneapolis to Saint Paul is a hectic gridlock of foggy exhaust and blaring horns as commuters maneuver the black ice. The Blue Line screeches and lurches down Hiawatha Avenue, packing in riders too anemic and frigid to look up from their scarfs. There’s a solemn beauty to it all; hard working Midwesterners shirking the subzero, inhumane temperatures to fulfill their responsibilities. They pack themselves tight and carry on, keeping the warmth in unbearable cold.
In his pilgrimage west to sunny Los Angeles, twenty-four year old Saint Paul native Bobby Raps is trying to keep that same mentality. On his latest project Mark, Raps purges the darkest recesses of his psyche in an all out vocal assault, ultimately delivering one of the strongest mixtapes of the year.
One would think with the last few years that Bobby Raps has had, there would be more room for positivity. 2014 saw the release of thestand4rd, the first and so far only album by the supergroup of the same name. Consisting of Raps, fellow MC Allan Kingdom, sleepy-eyed crooner Corbin, and producer Psymun, the group took a firm grasp of the Twin Cities hip-hop throne from legendary label Rhymesayers. It did not take long for the world to notice the surge of youthful talent coming from the Upper Midwest, as Raps continued to jettison into the mainstream with production and writing credits on The Weeknd’s “Sidewalks” featuring one Kendrick Lamar. A permanent move to the left coast saw Raps working closely with Shlohmo and the WeDitIt collective, and soon after signed a deal with Roc Nation.
All of this upward trajectory brings us to Mark, a record so cold and metallic you’d think Raps himself wasn’t one of the many considering him the next big thing. The tape channels Bobby’s most dim and painful memories and leaves them bare for all to see, making for an honest listen from a rapper who has never been afraid to tell it like it is. Album opener “Purgatory” sees Raps contemplating the afterlife of an addict, wondering if there is a place for those who seek numbing refuge at the bottom of a pill bottle. The harrowing image of a friend lying lifeless on a bed, Raps too late to save them, is only amplified by the shrieking synths underneath. If you came from seeing Bobby’s credits on a novelty rap tape about subpar, hamburger based boxed dinners, this will surely be an early wake up call.
What Raps does so incredibly well on Mark is utilize his voice. No two vocals sound the same, each track gaining its own imprint of what Bobby can do with his greatest instrument. From an autotuned falsetto to a low hanging growl, Raps runs the gamut of range that makes each track unpredictable and impossible to trace. “Pop a pill and get immortalized/ thought process override/ purify my poisoned mind,” he cries on “Desensitized,” begging the listener to take his wounded musings to heart.
Bobby’s vocals ride a codeine wave through layers of autotune and aching. Despite the robotic aesthetic, it is easy to sense the grief and longing Raps feels to gain a sense of self-preservation that he can’t seem to grasp. There’s a deep humanity in his voice here that only comes from a need to eradicate the mind of its demons.
Production is handled by a slew of young talent including Shlohmo, D33J, Wheezy, and Raps himself. The sounds on Mark vary as widely as the influences of the artist at the helm, each track bringing a different texture to the larger picture. “Back 2 Life” features Wheezy’s signature warped basslines that have made some of Young Thug’s standout tracks so great, while “Santa Barbara’s” sweeping strings evoke a horror movie at it’s most tense. Bobby even plays the role of highway rambler on “Highway Road (Interlude),” bringing campfire guitar into the mix along with backing vocals from frequent collaborator and fellow stand4rd member Corbin. Raps proves himself to be an apt composer and beat curator, mixing an eclectic group of voices and ideas to a track list that ceases to relent.
Mixtape standout “Nobody Cares” sees Bobby Raps come to terms with his move from his birth and artistic home of the Twin Cities to California, rapping, “Now I’m plagued by this paranoia/thought it would change out in California/until I realized it’s all the same.” It is a massively mature statement for an artist who is clearly wise beyond his years; Raps is done running from the anxieties and darkness that seem to follow him. He holds enough grief to fill all 10,000 lakes, and Mark is the work of coming to terms with this agony, fighting through the cold and gray just as any Minnesotan would.