There's more to Sheck Wes than his energy, but there needs to be more to "Mudboy" than intriguing styles and backstory.
Sheck Wes recently found himself at the center of a debate that seem to periodically pop up in hip hop. In the second half of 2018, the young Harlem native's breakout single "Mo Bamba" has been the song that divides most rap fans into either hypebeasty populists or pseudo-intellectuals, neither of which is a particularly flattering designation. It had been debated plenty before DJs/electronic musicians A-Trak and Zedd got into it over "Mo Bamba" on Twitter, but their clash offers the best summary (and most entertainment value) of the lot. In some now-deleted tweets, A-Trak called Wes' single "the best song of the year," citing its ability to "engage people in the club." Zedd, climbing up on his high horse, said A-Trak had "lost his mind," and claimed that he "judges music by melody, chords, structure, lyrics," clearly implying that "Mo Bamba" lacks all of the above. Both guys, and the factions they represent, are holding the song to weird, irrelevant standards. So what if crowds go apeshit to it, so what if it's not as musically ambitious as "Stairway to Heaven" (though shout-out to the song's producers getting all technical and explaining the chord progression to Zedd).
Sheck's clearly noticed the debates sparked by "Mo Bamba." "People get lost in the energy and not my message," he recently told Pitchfork. "They just want the turnt shit, they don't like the sad music," he raps on "Never Lost," a change-of-pace track in the middle of his debut album, Mudboy. He has a point. Mudboy can be classified the saddest turn-up album of the year, with most of its songs highlighting Wes' volatile, livewire tendencies on the mic, but all of them displaying a dark underbelly. Sheck's got an interesting story and though the styles of hip-hop he favors aren't the most conducive to what most of us would consider "storytelling raps," he paints it with broad, chunky strokes that reveal an outline without dampening the power of his blunt impact. The result weaves together the alienation of Sheck's immigrant parents, the daily oppression faced by him and his clique, and the maturation forced onto him via a teenage stint in Senegal.
"It gets tragic where I live, everything is negative," he raps on "Live Sheck Wes," a mantra-as-song that's among the many deceptively turnt Mudboy cuts. This environment is not only responsible for the album's more depressive aspects, but also its energy and moments of unbridled joy. Any measure of success is a W in Sheck's column— growing up, he had to take them where he could get them. In other words, "If I made a hit then I'm the MVP." That's why "Chippi Chippi" is named for stress-induced smoking but sounds like a banger. Sheck's style is opportunistic and spartan, which seems to reflect his mentality and overall philosophy.
As an autobiography that grapples with also being a club anthem compilation, Mudboy is a pretty fascinating listen, mass appeal and highbrow musical concerns be damned. But just because Sheck Wes is an intriguing, captivating figure doesn't mean that he's making grade-A albums just yet. He arrived with his own distinctive style, which is always admirable, but it starts to plod over the course of 14 songs. At times, it seems like his emotive range is the only variable in his rapping ability— his delivery, cadence, and subject matter begin to stagnate after a while. At times, he's delightfully awkward on the mic, like when he offers a halting, sincere explanation for his frequent use of "BITCH!" as an ad-lib on "Gmail." But more often, he exudes a careless vibe that's not quite stoned enough to be based— for instance, all of the weight is taken out of the sequence "It's a grimy world, and n****s want shit/And they'll suffocate ya..." when he concludes it with, "Like so quick!" (How will they suffocate you? Like, oh my god, soooo quick). Freestyling works well for him when he fully commits to free-associative bursts, such as on "Chippi Chippi," but he could stand to either lean into that absurdity a little more, or else write with a bit more attention paid to tension-and-release.
For a debut album, Mudboy shows a hell of a lot of promise. Sheck Wes already sounds like no one else, has his own intricate world of lingo, and expertly balances substance and style, all of which is a lot to ask of a rookie. "Mo Bamba" reduced him to a caricature of crowd-pleasing, blunt-force zeitgeist, but his full-length shows there's much more to consider than his near-boundless energy. Although he currently rides a wave of hype and well-timed sound configuring, Sheck Wes seems intriguing and hungry enough to weather this initial "Mo Bamba" burst and continue crafting his style into something more substantive and timeless.