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G-Eazy Struggles to Find Voice on ‘Dark’ LP

In Music
DARKEST BEFORE THE DAWN: Oakland based rhymesayer G-Eazy has shown great promise, but he will need to do more if he aims to be truly great.

DARKEST BEFORE THE DAWN: Oakland based rhymesayer G-Eazy has shown great promise, but he will need to do more if he aims to be truly great.

G-Eazy paid his dues. In the last seven years, the Oakland rapper shotgunned 11 projects at the Internet, starred in mega-popular music videos and established himself as a social media somebody—all before putting ink to a contract. His Web-based rise epitomizes the way recording artists get big nowadays. His proponents paint him as a reverent student of hip-hop history and a genuine wordsmith, who paired undeniable charisma with a single-minded work ethic to achieve success.

There is, of course, another narrative. The one about how G-Eazy—just like Macklemore and Vanilla Ice before him, and just like Eric Clapton and Elvis Presley before them—is simply another white guy repackaging an originally black art form for a predominantly pasty crowd. Detractors dismiss him as a polished practitioner for white families to compromise on. He’s safe enough for mom, but edgy enough for junior. With his greased hair, clean chin and fitted cuts, G-Eazy (born Gerald Earl Gillum) is as tamely dangerous as a boy-band bad boy.

Then again, it’s 2015, and questioning a rapper’s authenticity based on his skin color feels a bit disingenuous. We’ve already wrung our hands over this. At the turn of the century, Dr. Dre cosigned Eminem’s dizzy lunacy and the pale savant became the highest-selling rapper ever. Kanye and Drake came from the middle class. And a couple years back, the President kicked off the annual White House Correspondent’s Dinner by walking in to DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win.”

Hip-hop has long been more popular than rock & roll. Middle-class white boys grow up listening to it. Some try their hand at making it. And a few get good at it. But if hip-hop has expanded to include artists like G-Eazy, the real question is how and where does he fit within the genre. On Dec. 4, he submits his second full-length album, When It’s Dark Out, for our collective consideration.

The 26 year-old’s second major label LP kicks off with “Random,” a Drake-lite banger with baroque chorus blasts, regal, plodding horns and gut-punching kick-snare combos. Then comes the single “Me, Myself and I,” which rides an undulating, super-slow-mo melody into a hard candy EDM hook before exhaling into sneering bars smacked over double-dutching drums. Both tracks blurt the album’s thesis: He’s been grinding hard, and now he’s going to celebrate by consuming a bunch of nice things that won’t end up making him happy.

The theme is entertaining at times. But ultimately, just like the fast women and hard substances that populate the record’s 17 tracks, it isn’t really satiating.

The record’s bright spots include “Some Kind of Drug”—a bouncy, smoldering bedroom ode to truly bomb sex—and “Don’t Let Me Go,” which features a robo kazoo, druggy existentialism and a gale-force hook by GRACE, a gal with the pipes of a two-story tall organ. “Sad Boy,” confronts his fame-related melancholy and wrangles with superficial disatisfaction, substance abuse and his strained relationship with his up-and-down mother.

“Everything Will Be Okay” marks the most personal turn. The third verse unspools a crushing yarn about his mom leaving his dad for a lesbian lover—a woman whom Gillum eventually discovers, blue and overdosed, on the bathroom floor. He tries and fails to revive her. This intricate trauma seems ripe for further spelunking, but it’s one of few descents into the deeper recesses of what makes G-Eazy, G-Eazy.

And here is the crux of When It’s Dark Out’s failings. The title promises a deep dive into a morose mind, but it’s the same surface-level struggle rap he’s always made. It’s like expertly performed scales—technically impressive, but not terribly revealing of the human being behind the noise.

For someone who has released hours of himself talking, I wish I had a better of idea who he is. Too often, he plants songs in already exhausted soil documenting… ..his grind, greed or misbegotten evenings with nameless women. And there’s plenty of postmodern… fun to be had with those moth-balling tropes, but he takes them too seriously—boxing himself into tired creative territory. He either needs to exponentialize the extravagant debauchery or unfurl deeper reflections that could only come from his angle. Lyrically, he just has to do something to cultivate an identity beyond handsome, hardworking, well-moneyed white guy—if he wants to be remembered. If he wants to be profitable, he’s doing just fine.

Race and class matter less than ever in questions of who can make hip-hop, but just because you’re allowed through the door, doesn’t mean you can take a seat. G-Eazy is an industrious student of the genre, who has yet to submit anything worthy of tenure. Instead, he’s taken what others have done, wrapped it in his palatable package and sold it to a generation of musically omnivorous hipsters attracted to his accessible, but infrequently challenging sound.

When you profit from an art without adding much to it, diehards will dismiss you. If you’re eating, you got to bring something to the table.

One idea: Clean-cut white guys have just started to rap. But clean-cut white guys have been biting black sounds for as long as there has been black music. Yet despite hip-hop’s subsistence on sampling, these artists have been left mostly alone. This is where G-Eazy can grow sonically. If he is going to dress up like Elvis, why not scramble up some of The King’s old standards—or Johnny Cash’s gospel, or perhaps some of the Rolling Stones’ Chuck Berry imitations—into new beats?

His breakout and, in my opinion, best single, “Runaround Sue,” did this by modernizing Italian-American Dion Dimucci’s do-wop—a style with black origins. Music feels hollow without roots in a deeper culture and G-Eazy’s place in hip-hop (reluctant though he may be to admit it) is as the latest extension of an ancient, rarely confronted American tradition of white men practicing black art. He could zag away from the current trap/autotune glut and make a novel, nostalgic turn that few other rappers can. If he taps into his cultural predecessors, G-Eazy could make an honest, singular statement, expand hip-hop’s sonic palette and embrace the obvious: he is an outsider in his own genre. He should investigate the noises that come out of the elephant in the room. By highlighting that what he’s doing has been done before, he can do something new.

G-Eazy: ‘When It’s Dark Out’ plays on Dec 4 at RCA Records

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