To call Rich As in Spirit a “debut” anything would be awkward considering how long Rich Homie Quan has been around, famously Goin’ In. The album, released Friday, rides the inextinguishable force of Quan’s self-belief; his croaky voice has soot and wear on it. But the project isn’t close to being his first—he has, by rough estimation, released a billion hours of music, although Rich As in Spirit is the first album distributed by a major label. But to note, it has been 10 years since “Stay Down” and five since “Type of Way” hit the streets like a meteor.
It’s easy to forget just how ridiculous and sweaty and liturgical it got when “Type of Way” arrived in 2013. Drake, long before he could make video games a thing, but by then a full-fledged tastemaker, told MTV it was the song of the summer, and it was. The song, about material excess and the envy it surely breeds, seemed to emanate from everywhere—out of the windows of passing cars, multiple times a night anywhere drinking and dancing were both permitted, locker rooms included. Quan had boasted his way into the top 10, and the song positioned him as Atlanta’s next superstar. It also spawned a strangely intimate relationship with Mark Dantonio and the Michigan State football team.
After that was 2013’s “My Nigga,” on which Quan celebrated friendship with YG and Young Jeezy by interpolating Wayne’s flow from Da Drought 3 cut “Ride 4 My Niggas (The Sky Is the Limit).” It wasn’t his most innovative moment, but what Quan’s contribution lacked in originality it more than made up for with emotional intensity.
Then “Lifestyle” happened, a perfect, luxurious moment of synthesis of Quan’s prosperity gospel and a chorus completely unknowable to everyone except God and Young Thug; whomever at your lyrics database of choice is definitely lying. Thug’s star continued to rise after that, his mush-mouthed savant rap and accidentally high-concept innovation became ever more attractive. Quan, after “Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh),” briefly stopped Goin’ In, watching not just Thug—with whom he is now on “wishing the best” terms—but almost all of his contemporaries eclipse him. And he is mostly fine with, though still kind of fucked up about his current state of affairs.
Back to the Basics came out just last year, and was excellent, if ultimately overlooked. Last April’s project revealed the same old Quan, just re-energized and wizened by two years spent talking over conference tables to lawyers and label executives, fading from mainstream consciousness. Rich As in Spirit demonstrates that Quan, but for circumstance and timing, could have been rich in star power and relevancy, too. What if this, his “debut,” had happened even just three years ago?
“4rm Me to U” is the fourth-to-last song on Rich As in Spirit—and Quan’s favorite, according to a recent Billboard interview. Over somber guitar noodling that sounds like beer dried on the floor the morning after, Quan complains about all the ungrateful houseguests that left a mess:
I do this shit for gang gang, gave all of my niggas chains
And right now I swear I feel just like a slave owner
All these nigga takin’ swag, hell yeah the homie mad
Come to think about it, they ain’t ever pay homage
In an episode of Viceland’s The Therapist, in which he accepted that “rapper” is undoubtedly the name of his profession, Quan said that he sees himself as more of a narrator. It’s a concise description of his style, which is something like Boston Brand flagging wildly on the shoal between life and death. He’s eager at times—like on “No No No”—to change anything past or present, despite being painfully limited in his power to do so. The label situation happened. Both the VH1 Hip-Hop Honors Biggie Tribute Snafu, and the subsequent extremely extra Change.org petition to have him banned from hip-hop happened.
Quan turned formative years of privation into a rap career that could have been over as recently as May, when he was detained at a police checkpoint in Wadley, Georgia, for a stolen gun (which was never tied to him) and weed possession. In the time since, he’s had a long conversation with himself, bought a Bentley (“Fuck Wit Me”), and decided he’s back to getting money (“Never Fold”). Not that he seems particularly overjoyed about it on wax. Quan is aggrieved, yet more often, he’s anguished, focusing less on the success than on the tribulations success arrived in spite of. Quan mulls over the pitfalls of his journey on “Reflecting,” which opens a solid, delightful album that is perhaps a few songs too long. His concerns are most often personal:
I didn’t know I would be successful, now I’m famous and shit
Umbrella for the pain, I can’t get no rain on these kicks
They black ballin’ niggas, I don’t want my name on that list
Fuck the problem, I don’t got time to explain to no nigga
It may not jibe to call Rich a debut, but by way of re-introduction, there is a lot of story left to tell. It’s a 19-song purge.
On “Long Enough,” he raps about sharing a room with his brother, swiping his EBT card at the corner store, and maybe—although this is subtext—checks from T.I.G. that were conspicuously short. On “Same Year,” self-described “stadium music,” Quan raps through a series of past misfortunes; mixing business with non-professional relationships, getting 15 months for a burglary charge when he was 21. “The Author” explicitly states that the stories here are true and not made up, and also neatly illustrates what it was that made Quan so undeniable in the first place. He reshapes his flow as he raps about passing out CDs on the street, smoking weed by the cafeteria, and buying the house he grew up in; each part could easily be the hook. The most lavish-sounding song may be “Think About It,” which also gets the album’s lone feature from Rick Ross, who talks about showering his girl with gifts and keeping her off Instagram. Quan recalls the image of his cousin stretching coke in the kitchen of his childhood home and losing his uncle to AIDS.
Needless to say, Quan is still Quan—perhaps the most Quan he, or anyone else, has ever been. The thought of the event this album could have been in 2015 is as inescapable as the thought of how different the rap landscape would look had Rich Gang stayed together, or who’s “winning” the breakup. Thug is going by “Sex” now which, on the back of Beautiful Thugger Girls, is either a move of illimitable marketing genius, or a master troll.
Look at the cover of Rich As in Spirit. Quan is sitting, I think, fingers clasped to show his pinky ring, and the chunkiness of his watch, Gucci shirt open so that you can see every chain as he stares directly at you. Like the cover for Back to the Basics, it’s not exactly begging to be looked at. The music then, has to speak for itself, and it absolutely does, if you’re willing to listen.