Guilty Pleasure Gangster Rap

(My music column for this past week.)

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the romance of the crack dealing gangster went out of fashion at least two, three years ago. Maybe that’s why I haven’t heard much about Cassidy since 2005, when his catchiest song, “I’m a Hustla,” was mashed up with classic video game music in The Chrono Trigger Mixtape. But Cassidy, a talented rapper from Philadelphia who has never really managed to break into the poppy mainstream, he has kept busy these last few years. This week Cassidy released a new mixtape, as stubbornly hood as ever, titled Apply Pressure 2, hosted by DJ Thoro and Big Mike.

To my modern hip-hop sensibilities — turned by Lupe Fiasco, Kid Cudi, Kanye West, and T.I.’s post-prison work — Cass’s lyrics about coke and guns and murderous fights in grimy alleyways seem a bit crude, almost anachronistic. Ending your tracks with almost unidentifiably brief clips from Scarface seems so 2002. We’ve heard this before, after all, and why listen to “Do What You Gotta Do” (a classically produced track in the middle of the mixtape) when Lupe Fiasco’s “Gotta Eat” is so much more morally nuanced? Cassidy has been rapping about the same things his whole career; why not go with someone like T.I. who has actually learned something from his mistakes?

On the other hand, Cassidy has found his schtick and stuck with it — not something that can be said about plenty of more well known rappers, who abandon the authenticity of their freshman work upon achieving success. Hip-hop is best used to express the cultural experience of a particular group of people. In the case of Cassidy’s gangster rap, young, impoverished African American males from the inner city. Too often an artist will talk about real and troubling social issues in their early material, become rich and famous, and spend their later albums talking about expensive clothes, high end booze, nightclubs and mansions — in other words, the cultural experience of wealthy, popular hip-hop stars. It is a disappointing trend in the mythology of hip-hop success, but Cassidy doesn’t have this problem. Sure, I doubt that he actually still sells crack, if he ever did, and occasionally he’ll mention the millions he’s made, but for the most part he still talks about the very real pain, violence and struggle of a lower class forced into criminality.

So Cassidy may not be the freshest rapper around, but he is good at what he does. His wordplays are smart, his put downs are cutting, his braggadocio is charismatic, his flow is unrelenting and polished. Yeah, Cassidy has skill, and he proves it in the first song on the mixtape: an addictive eight minute long freestyle, no hook. The members of “Larsiny Family,” the collection of label compatriots that join Cass on most tracks, are all quite talented as well, especially Jag. Apply Pressure 2 is produced with that catchy, not-quite-pop style that made hip-hop such a force in the mid aughties; every track is fun and easy to listen to. In a couple tracks Cass throws his own verses over recent hits, like Jay-Z’s “On To The Next One.” Honestly I kind of prefer the Cassidy version.

Don’t take it too seriously, but this week treat yourself to some guilty-pleasure gangster rap. Cassidy’s new mixtape, Apply Pressure 2, can be downloaded for free at http://www.datpiff.com/Dj_Thoro_Big_Mike_Cassidy_Apply_Pressure_2.m96592.html.

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