Dean Van Nguyen only knows the good fight.
The backdrop of C.Struggs’s stark new mixtape could barely be more distressing. Why Not Hustle 2 dropped April 20, while the Dallas rapper lay in a medically induced coma after suffering kidney failure. This terrible complication came just a few months after Struggs was diagnosed with a rare form of head and neck cancer. For three-and-a-half weeks he remained unconscious as loved ones updated his social media page for fans. Refreshing each feed, I hoped for the best but feared the worst. The artist who a couple years ago recorded “Go To Jesus,” a meditation on death and religion that put my soul in the freezer, was staring mortality in its glassy eyes. Thankfully, Struggs has returned and continues to fight the good fight.
Intensifying the pain of Struggs’ struggle for those 25 brutal days was the quality of a mixtape that so easily could have been his swansong. Why Not Hustle 2 chronicles what has long been a holy truth: this is one of the South’s most underrated right now. An emcee and lyricist in the tradition of UGK, Boosie and, particularly, Scarface (his next mixtape is even slated to be called Brad Jordan Jr), the Texan’s music is raw, spiritual, and slyly soulful.
Why Not Hustle 2 is the year’s most cutting blues album. Yet surprisingly, it finds bleakness not in the prospect of death, but in this doomed situation we call life itself. For Struggs, a 32-year-old whose spirit has already suffered the lacerations of growing up with a mother into drugs and losing the sight in one eye, existence is the real melee.
The tape rarely engages in mortality as directly as “Go To Jesus” (which appeared on the first Why Not Hustle). Instead, it finds Struggs poignantly reflecting on his life, his neighborhood, personal tragedy, and facing down cancer. On the opener and title track he admits spending days pondering his mistakes and his future over blunts before letting out a roar: “Fuck that cancer shit n***a, that shit ain’t stopping shit.” This shout of defiance is one of the few times the tape engages with disease. But then, what really else is there for him to say? Johnny Cash made record after record about facing death. Struggs has too much on his plate for it even to top of his list of stress triggers. The rest of the track sees him mourn fallen comrades, decry the trappings of the American system, and worry about authorities tapping his phone.
The most crucial cut might be “I Can Feel It,” and not because the hook makes Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” rap relevant again. Over synthesized introspection, Struggs spins a tale of roaches and rats, drug deals for the next meal, and a rap career to nurture. “Label calling asking questions about health and more,” he spits. “Go take a visit to the slums, visit how we living.” Why Not Hustle 2 feels like a double shot of reality.
Backing up Struggs is dependable batch of Southern trap beats, with subtle but effective flickers of instrumentation–a grubby organ loop here, a sour synth whistle there. All 20 tracks might be snappin’ ‘n’ trappin’ jams, but most have their own distinct components.
Take “Tell Dez Nicca,” which rolls out a rapturous choir and the kind of piano chords that 2Pac would have loved to spit over. Or “Want Me Dead” and its huge chorus courtesy of Corn220. In another universe, you could picture a commercially sensible R&B star recruited and Struggs riding it all the way to the Billboard charts. With so many different looks, this is a mixtape that bumps front to back without any sense of inertia.
Really, though, Why Not Hustle 2 is an exercise in straight-up incredible rapping. Struggs’ cast-in-fire larynx could melt metal. He raps with the intensity of a man who believes he could crumble the concrete barriers in front of him with the power of his voice alone. He raps as though it has greater meaning than just the words he recites off the page. He spits like a legendary soul singers once used their voice—a direct line to his own personal idea of spiritualism.
It’s crazy to hear Struggs talk to Gutta TV about his cancer treatment last March, almost nonchalantly revealing the gravity of the diagnoses before quickly pushing it aside. He admits, too, that he’s resisted the urge to record more introspective songs so he can hit fans with the hardened street rap they’ve come to expect. Because that’s what the strong do, right? Most of us who’ve watched someone in their lives fight a disease will recognize that defiance. Yet there’s a deep humanity beneath the beats and inside the chest cavity of this bulky behemoth. Why Not Hustle 2 is a reminder that art is the best way of encapsulating life.