Ten years into his career, Logic is no longer a misfit white boy rapper with something to prove. Last year, he scored his first #1 LP with Everybody, an earnest yet heavy-handed meditation on race, religion, social issues, and much, much, much more. On the heels of that success, Logic forgoes his obvious opportunity to rebrand as Woke Rap’s next outspoken platitude generator (what happened to Macklemore, anyway?), instead presenting a solid, nostalgia-drenched flashback to late-Nineties boom-bap rap.
There’s a conspicuous difference here: Logic, unlike the “backpack rappers” of this movement, lives in a hip-hop climate of bold vulnerability, dominated by the likes of J. Cole and Drake. Add to that the fact that he’s astronomically richer than his idols, and an interesting experiment begins to take shape: what happens when an old-school rap devotee is launched into massive wealth, success, and popularity?
YSIV is a monument to Logic’s struggles in early life, the hustle that took him from Gaithersburg to Hollywood, and the boom-bap scene that laid the soundtrack. Longtime in-house producer 6ix and company fill the 76-minute runtime with a mixture of sampled classics and original production that evoke memories of early Kanye West and A Tribe Called Quest. The beats are A1 top to bottom, easily the most consistent element of the album. Logic taps Jaden Smith and fellow Maryland native Wale for features, as well as — hold onto your hats, Real Hip Hop fans — the entirety of the surviving Wu-Tang Clan on “Wu-Tang Forever.” The eight-minute track manages to mostly survive the mammoth pressure and hype brought on by its guests, as Logic opens with an aggressive, to-the-point verse before stepping aside to let the Wu-Tang Clan be the Wu-Tang Clan.
Overall, the album is largely faithful to the earlier mixtapes in its series and the era that it idolizes, both in sonic design and atmosphere. But in comparison to other popular music acts similarly based on revivalism, it misses a key ingredient. Logic invokes the same sepia-toned, vinyl-cracking nostalgia that artists like Anderson .Paak wield so powerfully, but fails to include anything artistically transformative of his own, making YSIV come across more as raving worship than thoughtful homage.
“Wu-Tang Forever” serves as a blueprint of Logic’s strengths and weaknesses, both because, well, it’s a Logic song, but also for the juxtaposition offered by arguably the most legendary group in rap. Logic can tap-dance on the beat like a pro athlete on an agility ladder, and YSIV has no shortage of these moments — what I call “The Logic Flow.” You know the one: a rapid-fire avalanche of syllables, sprinkled with even faster triplets, all spit with auctioneer-tier articulation. (In a parallel universe, I’d bet that would be his real job.) Whereas the Clan’s bars are marked by clever, sly delivery and butter-smooth effortlessness, Logic’s volleys of consonants — though exciting — are often starved of substance, leaving little to actually absorb. On 100 Miles and Running, Logic boasts, “I’m the motherfuckin’ man, ‘least I’m feelin’ like I am / Got the whole wide world in the palm of my hand / But don’t give a goddamn, I’m Sam I Am.” Now – I really don’t like to dwell on wack bars more than is necessary, but …what? …the hell?
Lopsided comparisons and lofty ambitions aside, YSIV isn’t all bad. In the moments Logic is able to stop trying to be the Malcolm Gladwell of breakbeats, forgetting his magnum opus pipe dreams and just laying down bars, the project shines. Logic’s defining trait as a lyricist is his ability to dissect and exploit the various rhythmic layers of a beat, and these skills are not absent here. The titular track samples Nas and AZ’s “Life’s A Bitch,” and despite running six minutes long, it’s a rare non-tedious moment in the project. The song also starts with the same words (“Visualizing and realizing my life …”) that kick off “Young Sinatra II,” a beloved cut from his original Young Sinatra mixtape released in 2011. It’s a fun callback for those who remember the line, as well as a clever transition from the early installments to YSIV: both share their roots, but this time around, the lyrics take a different direction from “my life,” because where Logic is in life is the biggest difference between the various installments.
On 100 Miles and Running, Logic unleashes a fully-automatic stream of blisteringly fast bars on par with Busta Rhymes’ dizzying verse from “Look At Me Now.” The impressive technical stunt is delivered raw, even with commentary (“… in one breath, alright? …no editing. … Y’all ready?”) and the two previous takes he fumbles before finally nailing the segment. The look-what-I-can-do lyrical gymnastics and the informal, recorded-in-a-closet feel cultivate the rough-around-the-edges vibe of the original Young Sinatra mixtapes, as well as the roots of boom-bap culture as a whole.
Here’s the unfortunate state of Logic’s recent discography: he can rap. He can rap very well. He can rip an acrobatic flow over almost anything, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue with that. Yet his obsession with validating his own legacy leads him to violate an unspoken law of 2018’s rap landscape: if you’re going to spit more than two verses, it had better be an absolutely soul-shaking, mind-tearing lyrical epiphany. Logic just doesn’t have this caliber of nuance in his arsenal, at least not by current hip-hop’s standards, where the bar for an introspective magnum opus sits near To Pimp A Butterfly heights, somewhere in the stratosphere.
Some of this is probably Kendrick’s fault, simply for shaking up the rap game so violently with good kid, m.A.A.d. City that every album afterwards would only exist in pale comparison, and every Socially Conscious Rapper was convinced they had to step up to the plate next. (I’m looking at you, 4 Your Eyez Only.) If you’re skateboarding with Tony Hawk, and he just did a 360 double backflip up a staircase or whatever, you’ll now feel obligated to throw down the coolest trick you can imagine. Unfortunately, this mostly causes other skaters to overextend themselves trying to compete, and results in a lot of busted ankles. (Are we all still following this metaphor? Awesome.)
Logic’s legacy — or rather what Logic thinks is Logic’s legacy — will always haunt him and his music. As a fan since late 2009 (that’s right, folks, Real Fan alert), I’ve seen him drop mixtapes for 1,000 Likes on SoundCloud and release studio albums intended for a worldwide audience. This benefit of time and perspective has taught me that Logic shines the brightest when he stops trying so hard. His devotion to the old-school and whatever “real rap” means anymore are symptoms of his desperate need to cement the spot in hip-hop history he thinks he deserves. His obsession with legacy eclipses all other subject matter, and his insistence on its validity distracts him from actually establishing one.
On the ever-so-subtly titled “Legacy,” for example, he spends five (five!!!) verses going back and forth about whether becoming a rap legend is worth the time it takes away from his family. The opening track, “Thank You,” is a hefty seven minutes long, and only the first two minutes have any rapping in them — because the last five are devoted to voicemails from fans all over the globe, each raving about how he changed their lives. And on the other end of the runtime, YSIV concludes with “Last Call,” an exhausting ten-minute outro that lifts all the audacity and fanfare from its namesake (Kanye’s closer on College Dropout) despite having earned none of it. The reference is no accident or secret — Logic clearly sees YSIV as his own triumphant classic, and “Last Call” as the definitive exclamation point at the end — in the same way Kanye’s “Last Call” actually was. Unfortunately, this simply is not the case: Logic just doesn’t have anything to say that anyone needs to hear about for six verses — and then another three minutes of rhymeless conversation. (Who do you think you are, Morgan Freeman?)
YSIV comes up short of what it could have been by misunderstanding its lane. The album averages 3.5 verses per song (yeah, I did the math), and that statistic alone paints the picture of its flaws. Some rappers drop bars that require a dictionary, thesaurus and world history textbook on hand to follow along. Some rappers drop bars that rhyme ten things with Gucci. Neither of these are intrinsically “superior” or “legitimate” or whatever, and you don’t have to occupy either extreme to make art that connects with people. Logic’s discography is not completely void of depth, nor is it without its corny or braggadocious bars, but he excels most when he raps naturally, without trying to force his way to either end of the spectrum. His suicide hotline awareness hit “1-800-273-8255” was about as nuanced as a Hallmark card, and just as catchy. But it nonetheless connected with millions of fans, introduced him to millions more, and skyrocketed the hotline’s call rates. Logic hasn’t quite harnessed the same magnetism since, but the brand is strong, modern fandom is fanatic, and connections to and through art are doggedly persistent. In today’s musical landscape, what is said or meant is dominated by what is heard when the audience really wants to hear it. So maybe people won’t care if Logic really doesn’t have shit to say this time around.
5.5 / 10