It’s generally believed that a good journalist is one who exercises objectivity. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a good journalist or even a journalist at all. But I was asked to review this album with an outsider’s ear, the ear of someone with an unbiased perspective, someone who hasn’t seen these songs performed on stages across a few states or had the better part of 2 years to digest them. Someone who doesn’t personally know Tha Ynoe. I’m up to the task, but if I’m to pretend that Ynoe and I aren’t friends, then my first question would obviously have to be: Who the fuck’s this piece of shit with the zipper on his head?
I get asked to review a fair amount of albums these days, and while I won’t deny that my ego certainly appreciates the notion, I don’t review most of them. Contrary to what my internet personality might have you rightfully believe; I’m not a dick. I don’t reject albums to be elusive or because I’m an elitist or even because I don’t like them. I reject most of them because I’m really not that good at listening to music, and the last thing I want is to hurt feelings or take a big shit in an otherwise clean pool of positive feedback just because my own inabilities prevent me from “getting” someone’s art. It’s not you, it’s me. I just don’t get a lot of albums. I get this album.
I get it, but that isn’t to suggest I can label it properly. Is it boom bap? Is it gangster rap? Is it underground? That’s a subgenre, right? Is it all of these things? Sure, and not really. It doesn’t matter. In the words of well-intentioned people I love making fun of: fuck labels, man. Labels are for medication and canned goods and things. I will say, however, that you’d be hard pressed to find an album of recent years more deserving of being labeled Hip Hop, and if you know Tha Ynoe (which I don’t), then you also know he’d have it no other way. Ynoe loves rap music and he loves being a rapper, he’s never told me this, I can just hear it. I can see it in the way his body trembles during performances as if he’s going into convulsions, as if he’s having a fucking seizure. That’s called intensity, and it’s an uncommon trait strictly reserved for savages, for ferocious beasts of the Earth. His voice is filled with anger, with pain and with hate, but it’s also filled with pride. Having something to prove is only a bad look if you’re unable to prove it. He wants your crown, he’d prefer to take your head with it, and he’s spent years carefully sharpening his blade, probably with a maniacal grin on his face.
Tapebaby begins with sounds I’ve not heard in a very long time, sounds that were once as familiar to me as my mother’s voice. They’re the sounds of my childhood obsession, the only one I had. The sounds are of a cassette tape being played, stopped, rewound (or fast-forwarded), and played again. I can literally feel the buttons on my index finger as the sounds exit my headphones and fill my ears, triggering old memories, some good and some bad – sometimes the good ones are the worst ones. I can feel the triangle and the double-triangle and the square, like a blind man reading braille. These buttons once ruled my life. They were at the beginning and end of every day and they had the power to change everything, at least for awhile. As important a role as these sounds played in my life – a role that ultimately shaped me into who I am – to my 9-year-old son they’re as foreign as the sounds of a block engine being taken apart by a mechanic. These sounds belong to a very distinct group of people from a very small window in time. We’re the tape generation. Our parents had records and 8-tracks, our children have mp3’s and streaming services. We had pencils we’d use to spin the reels of a cassette whenever the tape required tightening. Singles came in little cardboard sleeves and always had the instrumental on the B side. We could buy them for a dollar but most of the time we’d just steal them and spend the dollar on candy, unless we could steal that too. I saved a lot of dollars. We were bold and we were grimy, unsafe and uncared for. It was a beautiful time in history, and Tapebaby does a tremendous job capturing the tone of that time.
If you can make a better song than “LA Zoo”, please send it to me so I can tell you you’re wrong. A lot of rappers write lyrics that rhyme and then recite them over a beat. If you want to be a rapper, that’s really all you need to do. If you want to be a good rapper… an emcee… an artist… you need to do a lot more, and it has little to do with words that rhyme. Tha Ynoe does all of it. He knows exactly where to place emphasis, when to yell and when to whisper, when to come in and when to exit. He knows whether it would sound best for the intensity to build gradually or to instantly go from 1 to 10. He doesn’t waste precious drops in the beat with filler or ad libs. “Two things I hate; you emcees and police” is a great line regardless of how and when it’s rapped in a song, but placing it at the end of a four bar break in the beat, when the dam can no longer hold the intensity that’s been steadily building, transforms it from a great line into a powerful line. That’s not just rapping, that’s songwriting, and that kind of attention to detail makes all the difference between a great song and a boring song. Ynoe’s the kind of rapper who hears the rhyme scheme before he hears the rhymes, the cadence before the words. He constructs songs the way you’d expect from someone with a college degree in hip hop.
Though Tha Ynoe makes this rap shit look easy, this album is anything but easy-listening. The amount of honesty in his songs is uncomfortable as it is refreshing. Such honesty can be heard throughout, though probably most notably on the song Rollercoaster: “You don’t wanna be like me, I’m probably gonna die alone, and I ain’t got nothing going for me but a microphone.” Also, “Never spill the whisky any time that you’re pourin’ it up, if you can count your friends on one hand that’s more than enough.” Some lyrics might in fact be wrongfully reduced to hyperbole for shock-value, if only he wasn’t so goddamn convincing. “Have you ever seen a psycho doing 90 on the freeway, I kidnapped my son and now I’m on my way to TJ,” (Jameson). “I’m ready for that body bag, that’s why I got that zipper on my head,” (King Cobra). Jameson… King Cobra… you see the pattern. Since we’re quoting lyrics, I’m compelled to mention 2 of my favorite lines that fly a bit under the punchline radar. “Is 30 bits of silver enough to turn your back on me,” and “I’ll take my city with no pork in it.” In case any of that went over your head, what Ynoe’s basically saying is that he’s Jesus, and fuck cops.
A well-rounded rap album consists of more than clever punchlines and telling women, police officers, and other rappers to suck your dick – although, as far as I’m concerned, there’s wicked room for all of that. Great emcees are already few and far between, but good storytelling could very well be the key variable that turns a great emcee into an artist. The ability to build a solid and consistent narrative is as much an essential skill as freestyling. A good story track, especially when sequenced appropriately, has the power to change the tone of an album and the way an artist is received. It provides an explanation. It gives context. Hell, it damn near justifies all the wild shit you talk on the rest of the album: Of course this guy robs banks and punches bitches, listen to the kind of life he’s had! You gain people’s attention with bravado, but you win their hearts with a good story. The song Cheers speaks to a specific demographic of people who, ironically, tend to dislike one another despite having similar if not identical upbringings. Comprised of a single verse, this is a song about coming of age, and Ynoe’s friend and fellow On A High Note member Linoskiii even stepped out of the gym long enough to sing the hook. Cheers illustrates the daily activities of many inner city youth, including but not limited to ditching school, running from the police, stealing beer and spray paint from the store, smoking weed, fighting, going to house parties, and finally, visiting the graves of old friends who didn’t make it. Of the 10 monstrous tracks on Tapebaby – all of which appeal to a different sense – emotionally and nostalgically, Cheers is my favorite track. Truly powerful music makes you feel things you don’t want to feel, and this song literally makes me yearn for my chaotic teenage years and the friends I once had. Listening to this song, I’m not only reminded of the way I grew up, I’m reminded of the fact that there’s a whole world out there, a much bigger world, full of people who didn’t grow up the same way. Which brings me to what is perhaps the most tattoo-worthy lyric on this album: “We’re still not dead, it’s not our time yet.”
Tha Ynoe is many things but delusional is not one of them. He knows who he is and he’s not only willing to show you, he’s hellbent on ensuring you never forget him. He wears his heart on his sleeve, his passion in his eyes, and traces of a checkered past on his skin. He pours absolutely everything he has into his music and he lets it speak for itself. Tapebaby most definitely speaks for itself.