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Logic Is the Keyser Söze of Hip-Hop

Who is he making music for? Is he even a bona fide nerd? Two Ringer writers ask the important questions about Def Jam’s resident nerdcore rapper.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

By Justin Charity and Rob Harvilla

Def Jam’s resident biracial nerdcore rapper, Logic, has a new album out Friday. It’s called Everybody, a boring title applied as a corrective to the album’s previously announced title, AfricAryaN, which was more provocative than a Logic album has any right to be.

Logic is an odd figure. He’s a nice kid who makes incredibly sincere music, rapped in a straightforward narrative style that seems increasingly quaint given the trap sensibilities that have overwhelmed most of mainstream hip-hop at this point. If hip-hop is a cafeteria, then Logic is sitting off somewhere by himself solving a Rubik’s Cube. Ringer staff writers Rob Harvilla and Justin Charity discuss Logic’s strange place in hip-hop, his nerd bona fides, and the surprisingly broad appeal of his music.

Justin Charity: My dearest colleague, Rob Harvilla, I hear you’re wildly excited for the new Logic album.

Rob Harvilla: Justin, I’ll get you for this.

Charity: We are brothers in arms.

Frankly, Logic is a tough sell in contemporary hip-hop’s climate, dominated as it is by trap drums and trap choruses. Logic tries his hand at that stuff, somewhat capably, but it’s not his lane; it’s not him. Logic is a virtuous schoolboy rapper whose modest popularity is notable for how remote it is, an odd footnote in the broader scheme of 2010s rap music. He’s a Def Jam rapper who doesn’t really fit the mold of other Def Jam rappers. He’s a frail, awkward nerd whose personal brand evokes comic books and calculus homework. J. Cole is the smoother, populist version of this shtick. Logic is a nerdcore extremist.

In a previous decade, Logic would have been a bitter backpacker with a career full of fruitless creative compromises ahead of him. As it stands now, however, he’s a decent college circuit rapper, and his albums sell well enough — his last album, The Incredible True Story, sold a bit more than 100,000 units, which is good math for a rapper these days — but doesn’t really have any hit records. His biggest singles, “Like Woah,” “Black SpiderMan,” and “Everybody,” are anywhere between one-fourth and one-tenth as popular as any random Lil Uzi Vert or Kodak Black song you can name off the top of your head.

And yet, if there’s anyone who loves Logic, it’s kids. In fact, I would go so far as to wager that there is not a single person over age 25 who would describe themselves as a Logic fan. This is a polar contrast with someone like Lil Yachty, a rapper seemingly concocted by 50-year-old rock journalists as a goofy guesstimation of what teens, with their Snapchat and their Rugrats and their Autotune, are like these days. Why do (the) kids (who love Logic) love Logic?

Harvilla: In my capacity as the oldest Ringer staffer that you’ll deign to even address, let me reiterate that I don’t care for being trolled like this. You know what the kids are really into? Shopkins. You know why? Because it hurts like hell when you accidentally step on them, and very young people enjoy watching their parents roll around howling on the floor, wounded and bewildered. The logic behind Logic is similar.

What I know about kids, having been one myself several American wars ago, is that they crave Realness, and loathe Pandering, and by and large are Huge Nerds. There is no statement about mass culture in 2017 — with our Marvel Expanded Universes, and burgeoning-superstar rappers who look like Gorillaz characters and sound like Muppet Babies — more condescending than “nerds are the cool kids now.” What that really means is “the cool kids have cravenly co-opted all the nerd shit.” Logic is reclaiming nerddom for actual nerds, awkwardness for the actually awkward. He is very obviously not an adult’s idea of what a teenager wants to hear. You couldn’t make this shit up; you wouldn’t dare. In even attempting to assess his appeal, the fact that I can’t answer your question is, in fact, the answer to your question.

Here he is on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon in 2015, celebrating the no. 3 Billboard debut of The Incredible True Story in a red space-camp jumpsuit, goading an audience member into holding his mic so he can rap whilst fiddling with, yes, a Rubik’s Cube. He looks, and acts, and “spits,” and projects to the hands-waving back rows like a huge goober. Can I confess that I find this person awfully appealing in his transcendent, not-at-all-market-tested gooberness?

His actual music, too: the classicist quirky-sample uplift (here complete with Roots backing), the earnest rappity-rapping — I agree that 10 years ago he’d be signed to Def Jux or Stones Throw, complaining about their poor distribution. In this brave new world, he gets to complain about Def Jam’s distribution! Now he gets to beam his weird, singular, ungainly self directly to his weird, singular, ungainly fans, who sense a kindred spirit who is not just pretending to be a kindred spirit. Does “He’s affable, and ambitious, and seems like an actual human being” suffice as an explanation?

My questions for you: Do you believe his personal brand is his true self, or is this just even more craven anti-marketing marketing? Have I fallen directly into the “He’s not like all those fake, pandering rappers” trap? Do you believe he is who he says he is? And is there anything you like about who he says he is?

Charity: Oh man, what if Logic is secretly cool as shit? What if Logic is the Keyser Söze of contemporary hip-hop?

I found this year-old video from when Logic launched his own video game streaming channel on YouTube.

In the clip, he’s playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which I, too, play obsessively. Logic says he’s beaten the game three times (as of April 28, 2016, when the video was published). So here you have Logic, an ostensibly busy rapper with a dozen more profitable things he could be doing for Def Jam instead, committing himself to video game streaming as next-level hip-hop marketing. Sounds nerdy enough, right?

But here’s the thing — in the video clip, Logic equips the main character Snake, a mercenary, with a signature Metal Gear item called stealth camouflage. This equipment renders the player invisible to enemies even at point-blank range. It’s not cheating, exactly, but it is cheap. The game even punishes you for using stealth camouflage by diminishing your mission completion rank. I say all that to say this: Real nerds don’t stoop to stealth camouflage. That ain’t real hip-hop. (Here I should note that anyone who zoned out just now as I mused about Metal Gear Solid for a solid 10 sentences is most certainly not built to withstand a Logic album.)

Logic did recently hire an orchestra to serenade his unsuspecting wife with the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme song. But how nerdy is this bedroom maneuver, really? Ladies love Larry David, and anyway, I imagine Cam’ron and Juju must have done this for one another at some point in the past 10 years.

Harvilla: The last Metal Gear game I played was Metal Gear Solid 2; I still remember the part where you stagger around naked as people yell confusing things at you. I’m getting a similar feeling here.

I must also confess that I loved the Curb Your Enthusiasm serenade thing. This was to celebrate his wife’s 25th birthday! Note that he’s wearing a Seinfeld T-shirt. Note the half-rapper/half-doofus gesture with which he cues the orchestra. (In the trailer for his new album, Everybody, he is filmed conducting a studio orchestra while wearing a Jurassic Park hat.) This dude is very endearing and totally bewildering. I leave the explication of his social-media presence to the experts. Let’s get to the bars.

Here is “City of Stars,” a climactic moment on The Incredible True Story. (Don’t worry, this has nothing to do with La La Land.) We’re in Mopey Space-R&B Fantasia territory here, very 808s & Heartbreak. It takes him four and a half minutes to start rapping. Whereupon:

And so forth. This is a very “Def Jam rapper” conceit to me: Just enough institutional support to loudly protest that he’s unsupported, and just enough success and fan interest to glumly insist that he’s underestimated and misunderstood. After the interlude of his 2016 mixtape Bobby Tarantino, which included a very Big Sean–like song called “Flexicution,” Logic means to use Everybody to directly address his biraciality and his uneasy status in the larger hip-hop firmament. The album’s infamous working title was AfricAryaN, a hilariously terrible idea he definitely didn’t get from an old person, inspiring a singular mixture of derision and revulsion. The actual title is much better! Who doesn’t love everybody?

The early singles have an epic, profoundly earnest scope: This means to be both a capital-A Album and a capital-S Statement. “Everybody” has a “Magnets, how do they work?” moment, but instead of magnets, it’s white privilege. (“In my blood is the slave and the master!”) “Black SpiderMan” carries the thread more lushly and triumphantly — “I’m just as white as that Mona Lisa / I’m just as black as my cousin Keisha” — and evokes Donald Glover, an important nerd-rapper antecedent, in both word and sentiment. It’s I don’t truly belong anywhere morphing into I belong everywhere. And just for variety, there is the sweeping and morose “1–800–273–8255,” which is the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

Do you roll your eyes at stuff like this, the visionquest seriousness of it? Is it just another craven tactic, disguised as a frank and vulnerable personal journey? Struggling with his identity sure seems to be a crucial aspect of this dude’s brand. How believable is this? And here’s maybe a better question, which may be related and may not be: How big is this record going to be, exactly?

Charity: Given J. Cole’s running commercial success, I’d guess that Logic’s album would do big numbers in a purely hypothetical world where J. Cole doesn’t already exist, and doesn’t already make superior versions of Logic records, with better samples, better beats, and better choruses. This is such a crass assessment, I know, but listen — there is no great Logic hook. Remember when Miguel came through with “Power Trip” and saved J. Cole’s career after Sideline Story? Logic needs that. He raps fast and dextrous enough, but his songs rarely achieve the sort of liftoff that elevates good rappers into being great musicians. J. Cole isn’t the most subtle rapper himself, but he’s even locked down the black-dad-white-mom narrative dynamic to a degree that renders Logic redundant. (This is Drake’s backstory, too, but he leans on it less frequently than J. Cole and Logic do.)

Logic is the last of an endangered breed: the middle-class schoolboy rapper with a heart of gold. For whatever it’s worth, I doubt he even cares whether he ever goes platinum.