Rockie Fresh cements his status as MMG's secret weapon on the impressive, if a bit uneven "The Night I Went To..."
Wale is most commonly thought of as The Untouchable Maybach Empire's black sheep-- the "Seinfeld"-loving, backpack blog rapper whose position among the rest of his hard-headed labelmates is perhaps best illustrated by the contrast between him and the squad's other DMV representative, Fat Trel. But Mr. Folarin's walked the MMG walk from time to time, notching verses on trap anthems like "Fuck Em," "Pandemonium," "Loyalty" and "No Hands" in his belt, showing that he's more than willing to pay homage at the temple of Rozay. In truth, Maybach's true prodigal offspring is Rockie Fresh, and never has that been more apparent than on his decidedly sensitive new tape, The Night I Went To...
Recorded during a national tour, Fresh's first solo project in nearly three years toys around with a ton of musical styles, from alt-R&B to nu-disco, chipmunk soul to moody Toronto wave. Nowhere else would you find Ed Sheeran singing a Jai Paul song or Rick Ross rapping over a beat as bright and cheerful as "Your Life." This creative restlessness is one of the 24-year-old's clear strengths, his other being his clear-eyed, honest storytelling ability. It just so happens that both are heavily reminiscent of a pre-808s Kanye West, which ends up being both a blessing and a curse for Rockie on TNIWT.
Perhaps due to the lack of rappers who have pursued the sprawling, baroque sound of Late Registration/Graduation, or more likely, the personal connection Rockie developed with that music when he (like many of us) was high school age, the best tracks on the tape are the ones most haunted by the Ghost of Kanye Past. "I Need," a gorgeous, Maverick Sabre-sampling cut that was first shared about a year and a half ago, recalls "I Wonder" in its cavernous depth and "Flashing Lights" in its deft blend of synths and strings. Even more striking is intro track "The Landing'"s resemblance to Graduation opener "Good Morning." The fact that Rockie and his producers push these past mere paint-by-numbers replications is remarkable; the fact that they're great songs in and of themselves is even more of an achievement. Even when he's revolving around that same education-based subject matter ("Teachers talkin' about potential that I don't apply," etc.), Fresh makes it his own.
Elsewhere, he comes through with some more original gems. The Rozay-assisted "Your Life," while perhaps not as immediately arresting as their recent collab "Thank You," has the two MCs finding slick pockets atop a somewhat unorthodox beat, making good on the hook's motto: "You know I'ma always do right, but rarely do I take advice." "December Rain" takes a Confessions-era Usher instrumental and makes it a canvas for the realest shit Rockie ever wrote, a screed against cancer, doubt, freeloaders, and trend-chasing. "Down To Roll" seems like it'll be another one of the many "If You're Making Songs That Sound Inspired By Drake's Last Album, It's Too Late" yawners we've heard in the past year until the double-time chorus hits and elevates it to become another one of Rockie's inventive compositions.
MMG sorely needs someone like Fresh to go where the rest of its decidedly macho artists won't, but perhaps due to its CEO's lack of experience in the realm of adventurously honest rap, TNIWT is too all-over-the-place to fully connect. The back-to-back Sheeran and Chris Brown features feel like unnecessary attempts to soup up the already-fantastic front end of the tape, the singers' squeaky-clean choirboy vocals not really lending themselves to Rockie's more down-to-earth style. Still, it's nothing compared to the second half's lack of personality. There, everything gets bogged down by subpar Boi-1da and PARTYNEXTDOOR beat imitations, as if the sun had set on the tape's bright, lively first half to reveal a flat, ice-covered nightscape. Rockie still shines through the dark with some flashes of brilliance, but it's harder to pay attention to his narrative when it's delivered in flows that we've been hearing ad nauseum since last February.
As a writer and musical mind, Rockie Fresh is Maybach's best hope at being remembered as something other than a luxury trap vanity label. His voracious appetite for other genres and desire to stay true to himself have yielded definite progression over the course of his career, and boiled down to an EP of its cuts that exemplify that, TNIWT would be the label's most impressive project in years. It's truly great that Rozay seems to give Fresh this much freedom to explore sounds and methods of storytelling, but it seems like his career would be best managed by someone who's better versed in alternative rap. As a boundary-pushing piece de resistance in Ricky's ensemble, Rockie excels at his job, but this tape begs for the opportunity to be something more than that.