I was on my back in a hotel room when I got a message from Thesis telling me his crew was dropping an album soon. He asked if he could send it to me beforehand and I didn’t have the heart to tell him how horribly backed up I am with photos to edit and articles I’ve already committed to writing. There’s also the fact that I’m an overly documented fanboy of everything he makes and I’m flattered every time he even partially gives a shit about my opinions, so I thanked him and told him to send it over. The album sat in my inbox for two days before life granted me a window of free time large enough to give it the attention I knew it deserved. I wanted to approach it the way I assume a real journalist would. That is to say, I wanted to headphones it from start to finish without interruption. I’d then listen to it a few more times throughout my daily routine the way most people listen to music – in the car, at the gym, in the office, etc. Only then would I attempt to provide commentary. That’s how I wanted to do it, but that’s not how I did it. I found myself in WordPress clicking the “Create a New Post” link before the second track had even ended. I stopped myself, and at this point I have listened to the album all the way through, but I can’t wait any longer to write about it and, frankly, I don’t need to hear any more. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to find an album that doesn’t need to grow on you before you can appreciate it. You already know it’ll be just as good several years into the future as it is right now. English Class Project’s No Free Lunch is one of those albums.
If you’ve been paying attention, you might’ve noticed that hip hop is in a weird place right now. Some would actually call it a bad place, but my rap palate is refined enough that I’ll just call it a weird place. I like weird shit. Hell, I like bad shit. This album is neither. This is superlative rap music, hip hop of the highest order. It isn’t experimental because it doesn’t need to be. It isn’t edgy or artsy or annoyingly postmodern. By the same token, it isn’t hardcore or preachy or political. Nobody’s trying to save hip hop or the whales. This is just 20 tracks of mastery composed by a group of seasoned emcees, each at the top of his game. In a world overtaken by trap beats, minimalist deliveries and evolving slang I’m rapidly becoming too old to understand, any attempt at this sort of album by rappers of a lesser caliber would fall (and has fallen) critically short, resulting in little more than a play-it-safe struggle to revive a dead sound and reclaim a throne that nobody really wants to sit in anymore. These guys make that throne look as enticing as anyone ever has, and I do mean anyone.
If I were to make a checklist of everything I like most in a rap album, I’d be a fucking nerd. But I’d be forced to check that list until I’d sufficiently wrecked that list when analyzing No Free Lunch. A skit intro, an outro that breaks down the making of the skit intro, breakbeats, record scratches, steezy cadences and colorful adlibs, hooks that are as catchy as the punchlines are clever, bonus tracks… it’s all in there. The sequencing is flawless. Each track compliments the last and opens the door for the next. Just when the tone gets heavy, when you’re reminded that life can be hard, that we’re all stumbling mindlessly through this unforgiving maze of self doubt and missed marks… boom – it’s all blunts, bitches and “fuck a wack rapper” again, and not a moment too soon. Fuck a wack rapper indeed. The beats go from jazzy to boom-bap, old school to new, with a perfect blend of horns, bass, and several other sounds and instruments I can neither describe nor identify because I don’t really know shit about music, I just know when it works. The point is, it all just works, and there’s truly something here for everyone.
As mentioned, this is an album that doesn’t need to grow on you. It doesn’t need to grow on you, but it still will. I’ve listened to nothing but No Free Lunch since I started writing this article 4 days ago and my love for it has only increased. I catch something new every time I listen to it. Different parts stand out; the way he pronounced that word… the drop in the beat right there… that thing he did with his voice just then… the way he made those words rhyme even though they technically don’t. I’m a sucker for all that type of shit. It’s the technical subtleties, the stuff between the lines and under the surface that often goes unnoticed but ultimately makes the difference between a grade A rapper and someone who can write a rap. The ability to shift between styles on a song by song basis and alter your delivery to fit a certain tempo or vibe a beat suggests is a master level skill. This whole album is a showcase of expertise and anyone taking notes should consider this an advanced course on how to rap.
The problem with having talented friends is that you always sound like you’re singing their praises simply because they’re your friends. On the other hand, you also run the risk of appearing to befriend people just because they’re talented. The truth is that I don’t like people nearly enough to successfully pull off the whole false admiration thing in hopes of their achievements somehow coming across as my own. But albums like this make it a hell of a lot easier to be proud of our scene – whether that’s the LA rap scene, the underground hip hop scene, or just a small but very relevant corner of an all-encompassing culture, held together with internet-glue, that relatively few people even know exists. No Free Lunch is a bold lettered sign I can proudly hold up to my non-rap friends and acquaintances outside of the scene that says, “See? I told you I hang out with real rappers.”
The lunch isn’t free, but the album is. Download it below. If you enjoy it, support these guys by going to their live shows and buying their merch. At the very least, share this album with anyone you think might also enjoy it.