The mystery surrounding Your Old Droog following the release of his self-titled EP in 2014 led to the rapper being perhaps the most hyped artist amongst underground hip hop nerds at the time. After being discovered on YouTube by the creative director of Mass Appeal magazine, Sacha Jenkins, the MC put out a seemingly commonplace 10-track EP on SoundCloud, but attracted an abrupt and unexpected amount of attention, courtesy of the buzz that arose from the Internet’s many obscure rap blogs. The reason such an ostensibly typical underground rap EP was built up to such an extent revolved around the MC’s enthusiastic and slightly left-field delivery that was so reminiscent of that of New York rap legend Nas — who is, coincidentally, the associate publisher of Mass Appeal magazine — that various rumours spread purporting Your Old Droog to be an anonymous alter ego of the veteran MC. Despite the fact that Droog revealed himself as being a Ukrainian immigrant in his mid-20s living in Coney Island shortly after the initial outbreak of Chinese whispers that suggested he was Nas, the rapper has seen continued exposure within the underground hip hop scene, even selling out his first show at the coveted Webster Hall in Manhattan. Even now, although Droog lacks the conversational edge to his delivery that distinguishes Nas from his peers, there is most definitely a clear influence from the legendary MC, which is hardly surprising given Droog’s childhood as a young, impressionable hip hop fanatic who had recently moved to New York, perhaps the most important city as relates to rap’s history and its associated culture. Although a lot remains ambiguous about Your Old Droog as a person, as a rapper, his debut album and the bevy of EPs released since then have continued to garner increasing attention amongst music critics, hip hop fans and fellow MCs. As for me personally, I have certainly been part of the hype surrounding Droog, particularly following the release of his Kinison EP in 2015, which displayed what I saw as a surprisingly refreshing meeting of a familiar, hardcore, East Coast flow with some self-aware, witty and generally entertaining bars. Indeed, considering this is a rapper who saw his rise to prominence come about as a result of his similarity to another MC, this EP conveyed an effort to create a more discernible identity for himself as an artist, and the outcome was largely successful. Now, in 2017, following the release of three EPs since Droog’s humble first effort in the form of a SoundCloud EP that unexpectedly amassed an astonishing amount of attention, Your Old Droog has dropped his sophomore record, PACKS. This album employs a more impressive list of producers and guest appearances than any of Droog’s previous releases, all of whom contribute significantly to the development of the rapper’s artistic scope, whilst never detracting the central focus from Droog himself. Ultimately, PACKS marks the next chapter of Your Old Droog’s career; one that encompasses the improvement that the artist has undergone across his last handful of releases. This, complemented by some fantastic production, has made for what is not solely a stand-out project in his discography to date, but also one of the most thrilling hip hop releases of 2017 thus far.
PACKS opens with one of the more serious cuts on the record, G.K.A.C., boasting one of Your Old Droog’s usual moody, gruff vocal performances married with some dynamic production and a story surrounding a mentally distraught black man who lets his uncontrollable malice towards police officers get the better of him, ultimately acting upon this hatred and engaging in a shoot-out with some cops. To first focus on the production, the track opens with a very well-incorporated piano sample atop a choppy, punctuated drumbeat, whilst the verses boast a swooping synthesizer buzz that seems to mimic the sound of a siren, certainly conveying a feeling of danger or emergency. Over the hook, as the voices in the black man’s head are telling him to murder a police officer, with Droog chanting, “Gotta kill a cop”, the vocals are accompanied solely by a solid drum pattern and some occasional gargles of synth and incomprehensible jumbles of voice samples, with the echo effect on the MC’s voice swirling around the mix, aptly imitating a feeling of insanity. Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the production is that, as the story is reaching its climax, with the police now retaliating against the man who open-fired on an officer, the instrumental takes a completely different turn, assuming a slight funk tinge with a smooth, walking bass line and a howling, chromatic synth. To top it all of, the cut ends with a spoken word excerpt from an obscure, posthumous Frank Zappa record, Civilization Phaze III, an album of the artist’s conceptual, avant-garde, musique concrète-inspired classical work that is seldom talked about. This isn’t the last time that a nod to Zappa will appear on PACKS either, as Help samples Help, I’m a Rock from The Mothers of Invention’s legendary debut album, Freak Out!, and I’m almost certain that I can hear an incredibly brief excerpt from obscure American singer-songwriter Rodriguez’s track Only Good for Conversation worked into the mix, which came as a pleasant surprise. Utilising such strange samples is admirable in itself, but beyond this, they effectively reflect the general wackiness of much of the rest of the track, which features some seemingly arbitrary bursts of industrial noise along with some weird wah guitar incidentals, not to mention the almost free-form instrumental breakdown that occurs during the keyboard solo at the end of the cut. Whilst this track doesn’t feature some of Droog’s best bars on the record, the rapper, along with Wiki and Edan on their respective verses, ride this bizarre, eclectic beat really well, with Wiki’s verse in particular standing out to me as being one of the most buoyant and energetic guest verses on the entire record. Of course, one cannot talk about the features on PACKS without mentioning Grandma Hips, which boasts a guest verse from one of experimental hip hop’s most outlandish and eccentric rappers, Danny Brown. Although the smooth, somewhat jazzy beat that reeks of classic East Coast hip hop is a completely different world when compared to the freakish and sometimes disturbing instrumental featured on Brown’s record from last year, Atrocity Exhibition, the MC’s verse is as entertaining as I’ve come to expect from him. What’s more, the fact that Droog’s composed but scratchy delivery is so different to Brown’s bonkers performance makes for a nice change of pace on the record. Ultimately, on PACKS, not only does Droog seem to be maturing more as a performer, but the diverse host of producers he employs on the record come through with some of the most interesting and generally enjoyable beats to feature on a Your Old Droog project thus far, and this only furthers the definitive identity that the MC has been working towards on his last handful of releases.
Whilst my personal enjoyment of PACKS largely arises from Your Old Droog’s fierce and rough vocal delivery and the impressive instrumentals, there are certainly some of the most remarkable lyrical moments of the rapper’s career thus far on this record. Upon my first listen of the album, White Rappers (A Good Guest) stood out as a result of the fact that it is seemingly in response to Lord Jamar’s infamous assertion that “white rappers […] are guests in the house of hip hop”, with the intro sample being of the interview in which the Brand Nubian member expounded this. Droog denounces those that purport hip hop to be an exclusively black genre of music, instead endorsing the idea that, “What matters is the beats and if the MC goes in / It’s not about the colour […] of your skin”. Outside of the main topic of this song, Droog delivers some witty bars of braggadocio, such as, “Made a vigil for the mourn, you still can’t hold a candle / To what I did on wax before ever signing contracts”, and one that genuinely made me chuckle upon first hearing it was, “Not one of your fans got cash, makes sense though / Bums gravitate towards hot trash”. Perhaps one of the less upfront lyrical highlights, despite its sardonic title, however, is featured on You Can Do It! (Give Up), with each of its three verses following three separate individuals’ strifes in life that saw them fail to fulfil their grand aspirations. Indeed, as was also displayed earlier on in the tracklisting with G.K.A.C., Droog tries his hand at a more serious, story-based approach to the lyrics on some of these tracks more than ever before, and he proves himself to be just as capable of captivating the listener with some sombre and thoughtful observations on myriad fictional and real situations as he is at splitting their sides with his witty and light-hearted swagger.
All things considered, PACKS displays Your Old Droog’s appreciation for East Coast hip hop’s culture and associated customs, whilst also distinguishing him, along with the likes of Joey Bada$$, The Underachievers and Action Bronson, as an artist who is progressing past these sensibilities as a means of establishing his own unique place within New York’s hip hop environment. This being said, however, Droog displays such a keen awareness of New York’s hip hop history that his sound has an instantly recognisable air of professionalism and experience to it, whilst nevertheless sounding both fresh and discernible from a large amount of other up-and-coming rappers coming out of Droog’s home area in recent years. In this regard, PACKS conveys the artist’s far-reaching appeal more than any other project of his thus far in his discography, and it’s honestly a wonder he isn’t already more well-known. Nonetheless, this record will undoubtedly further fortify the Droog’s position as one of the most poised and talented rappers working in the underground circuit currently, with its great successes largely arising from the fact that it blends a mindful nostalgia of East Coast rap music with a willingness to incorporate some left-field ideas, making for an album that is both familiar and refreshing.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10