When’s the last time you listened to something and just enjoyed it, unreservedly and without complication?
As my esteemed colleague Justin Charity explained, playing Damn. wasn’t unlike overhearing someone grunting through their fifth set of hex deadlifts at the gym. The album is impressive outright, because Kendrick Lamar cares more about his craft than anyone else on planet Earth does about theirs. By that token it’s an awfully dense head trip, and occasionally (don’t thin-slice and quote-tweet me, bro) a chore. But if you want to — and I’m not saying you have to, I’m just telling you about what I did last weekend — you can spend about half an hour listening to Rich Homie Quan sing about label advances drying up, as well as about everyone he’s ever met and how they’ve proceeded to disappoint him.
Back to the Basics, Rich Homie’s first major release since 2015 due to a horrendous label situation, dropped last Friday. It’s either an album, a mixtape, or a “visual project” — there have been six music videos thus far, all “Marc Diamond joints” — and which exactly it is does not matter. What does matter is that it’s a 34-minute return to form for Quan, all bootstraps, banana clips, stash houses, Levi’s 510s, and car doors that open upward, not out.
The paranoiac “Heart Cold” sounds, congruously, like the wailing of someone whose heart has been ripped out, stepped on a little, rescued, and put on ice in one of those red Coleman coolers. That cooler is also worse for wear and probably sitting on a patio between a grill and rusty dumbbells, definitely somewhere in Fulton County. It’s the second track on Back to the Basics, and fittingly, it uses Quan’s histrionic bent and ghoulish, but steel-toed rasp to usher us all into the living room, sit us down, and talk with his hands about how he’s been done dirty so many times he’s forgotten how to feel. And a little about Chicago’s less-fortunate ball club that’ll likely finish at the bottom of the AL this MLB season, too:
Quan is uncomplicated, but simplicity can be interesting. Explaining his rap handle to the Village Voice in 2013, he shared that there wasn’t some grand origin story: “I was always rich in spirit. And I’m the homie. And Quan, as in me. That’s my name.” Similarly, his lyrics aren’t really there to be strip-mined for meaning. Sometimes it’s just playful free association. Some things, like “ice box” and “White Sox,” are just fun to say together, and also happen to rhyme. He cinches words short, and others pop up in unexpected places. But his core idea — for most of Basics’ runtime it’s “y’all tried to cancel me” — is always carried across the finish line by crude vocal emotion. It sounds earned.
Quan hasn’t had the easiest go of things since the watershed Rich Gang: Tha Tour Part 1 tape (no, there was no Part 2; I get bummed out about this twice a week). Sure, his estranged counterpart Young Thug has seen a would-be all-time debut album shovelled into the ceaseless churn of the release cycle piece by sumptuous, electrifying piece, but Thugger’s also built consensus as the new David Bowie, and he’s a Calvin Klein model to boot. In addition to being shelved, Quan became something of a pariah in the same time frame. And with reason — an unassigned, leaked Rich Gang demo featured some rather rape-y lyrics:
Given the opportunity to rehab his image, not only did he brick the free throw (he offered a nonapology), but the ball bounded off the rim and into the basket on the opposite end of the floor (he doubled down and then caped for Bill Cosby in the same interview). In addition, Quan publicly denied rumors he might be gay with a shoddy, ill-founded, and frankly bizarre explanation. It was a cagey and deeply stupid two years.
But time away from the limelight has reformed him somewhat — or at the very least, it’s been some time since Quan last put his foot in his mouth. “I’ve gotten older,” Quan told XXL in a recent interview, in which he also expressed lofty Grammy aspirations. “[I’m] watching what I say because I know the previous years I’ve gotten in trouble.”
Quan’s re-centered himself, lopped off the dreads, and gotten back to picking out the Webbie fade while counting money from any one of the four platinum-selling singles he’s had a hand in (“Flex,” “My Nigga,” “$ave Dat Money,” “Lifestyle”). He was still recording during his sabbatical. More importantly, he was never broke — he cannot stress that enough. The results of his time in the lab are comprehensively entertaining romps through East Atlanta like “Word of Mouth.” The only disparaging thing I have to say about the song is that I feel personally disrespected by “breakfast for dinner” being positioned as a signifier of empty pockets — breakfast food is acceptable for every meal, damn it. And even then, I understand.
Basics, a preamble of sorts to Rich As in Spirit — the proper album due out sometime between now and the Second Coming — was also released just days shy of the two-year anniversary of Barter 6. This makes the urge to retcon a few things almost irresistible.
[Reaches all the way to the Pacific Northwest] It’s hard to argue against the idea that Damian Lillard is definitively the best point guard on his team, but on nights when C.J. McCollum turns the outcome of a game by ripping off solo 12–0 runs, there’s room to entertain other thoughts. Likewise, Young Thug (Lillard) is the franchise name, but Barter 6, while a classic, felt oddly roomy because it was missing something essential: Quan (McCollum). The words you might use to describe the shape of Thug’s piercing voice usually betray its pitch: he yelps, squawks, chirps, wheezes. The rest of his vocals are beyond description. Conversely, the steadier, more downcast Rich Homie croaks, croons, bellows, and laments. Thug’s manic highs, which were good, might’ve been great if Rich Homie’s groaning lows were there as a foil. For that matter, “Pull Up,” like “I Got You Babe” or “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” is a perfect duet.
Here is a thing that was true in August, and is just as true now:
Young Thug was one of two Atlanta upstarts spinning rap’s conventions on his middle finger three years back. Verses slink off of Quan’s tongue and aht (out) of the corners of his mouth. He stretches vowels flat; he hollows them out and deepens them to better carry his feelings. He bends around the corners of the production, and speeds over its bumps. Sometimes, like on the Zaytoven-assisted “Da Streetz,” a requiem for innocence he was never allowed to have, he gets airborne.
Basics, boasting a single feature in its 11 tracks (Cyko, by at least one account, a trusted friend) is a reminder that Rich Homie can stand on his own two. On “Word of Mouth,” Quan says he doesn’t care what you may think, but the passion with which he says it is such that he needs you to understand that. The sentiment isn’t overly serious, but it’s also extremely not a joke.
As he further adds on “Replay,” a heater placed third to last on the album that owes more than a little to New Orleans bounce, “I’m so content with the person I am / I can give a fuck what you think about me.” I don’t know about you, but I believe him.