Joshua Lerner is Mighty Narrow.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t know exactly what to make of Rockie Fresh. A few weeks back, I caught his set at the Bottom Lounge here in Chicago, and I experienced a range of conflicting thoughts about the man and his music. I briefly met Rockie before the set and, unlike what you might expect from a man who had just been freshly minted as the newest member of the imposing Maybach Music Group, he seemed downright diminutive: soft-spoken, shifting, stiffly polite. “Keep it fresh,” he told me as we shook hands.
Not yet a week after it had become available online, Rockie’s Electric Highway had already been downloaded by more than 100,000 listeners, and his set that night featured many of the deliberate and droning songs from that well-received release. Rockie appeared alongside an entourage onstage, under a flood of purple and pink neon lights. The hooks were hypnotizing. Most of the music seemed awash in echo and drenched in electronic synth. This was not what I expected from a rapper repping MMG – a squad I had known for its drug-dealer chic narrative and generic hi-hat trap production.
Multiple listens through Electric Highway, and I’ve drawn a few more concrete conclusions about Rockie Fresh. It’s true, he is capable of the same clichéd conceits as his MMG counterparts. “Bad bitches roll with me, and my pockets never on empty,” he raps on “I’m Wit It,” which, along with “Roll Up Right Now” are the most cookie-cutter (and therefore radio playlist ready) from the recent release. Prada, Lambos, the flat and characterless depiction of women—Fresh is not immune to the mind-numbing materialism and chauvinism that characterize so much of today’s hip-hop narrative.
But unlike his new mentor Rick Ross, whose songs brim with the same tired references to Red Bottoms, Bar Mitzvahs, and, um, “Jewish” bank accounts, Rockie Fresh’s forays into generic rap are often the exception rather than the rule. The first two tracks on Highway set the tone for what is by and large a subtle and moody soundscape. Over the beautiful and sparse Lifted-produced “The Lights”, Rockie rhymes, “Anything is possible, just watch for the lights that glow.” The simplicity of that couplet is more or less what makes this young Chicago rapper so unique. Rather than brash and triumphant, he is wide-eyed, nearly in awe of his newfound success. This almost-innocence is partly what makes Rockie so refreshing as an artist. It’s a lot more fun to listen to a rapper on his way up than a boss putting the same old stories of empire on repeat.
What makes the listen even better are some of the idiosyncrasies that dot the track list. The Lunice-produced, “Superman OG” is a slowly evolving track peppered with finger snaps and the offbeat switch of a lighter flame. Live, its warbled background melody sounded like a pitch-shifted “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. The give-and-take between Rockie and Chicago’s Sasha Go Hard, with her bizarre and captivating cadence and sense of rhythm, makes “Show Me Sumthin” a standout. And when Rockie rhymes, “I rarely talk guns, my mind is more a weapon, I’m murderin’ these rappers, goin’ hard in every session” on “Barrel of a Gun,” he provides a gentle reminder for us in Chicago that killin’ rappers used to just be another way of saying an MC was good at his job.
The self-awareness and introspection of Rockie Fresh, not to mention his penchant for auto-tuned hooks and light production, has already yielded comparisons to Kid Cudi and 808s-era Kanye. But the mystique of those artists was in part due to how their songs carried the burden of self-loathing and alienation. Not so for Rockie. Despite the moodiness of his music, he doesn’t have that same kind of disaffection on which he can hang his hat.
It makes you wonder what kind of part he will play in the larger MMG cast? Ross runs the show, while Meek Mill’s prison backstory gives him the cred to be a street storyteller. Since his call-up to the entourage, Wale has staked his claim as the crew’s mid-tempo romance rapper, featuring crooner after R&B crooner on his hooks – though some may remember him as one of the most boisterous and nimble lyricists around in his mixtape days. It’s a shame what happened to Wale.
One can only hope that MMG status does not change Rockie Fresh, or turn him into just another trap rapper. That’s why this listener sees him as the MMG loner: cruising solo in the Delorean, still keen on rapping about Breaking Bad and building his ongoing Back to the Future motif. Still choosing beats heavy on the synth and light on the hi-hat. Still willing to keep it fresh.
ZIP: Rockie Fresh – Electric Highway (Left-Click)