Album: Casual Presents Smash Rockwell
In the promotional write-up accompanying Casual’s new release, Casual Presents Smash Rockwell, a reflective Casual admits what he felt was a shortcoming of his last major release, 2001’s He Think He Raw – “I was rapping about all the negative stuff which turned a lot of people off ” – apparently, implying that this album will be more different, more positive. Although Smash Rockwell accomplishes that, there is no similar admission within its lyrics. But Cas has never been known for his modesty – in fact, that’s always been part of his act: cockiness to such an overstated degree that it becomes humorous. Cooler-than-thou statements are uttered in vastly creative ways over and over on this album, but only within the lens of an unspoken contract between him and you that all the bragging and all the posturing is really just in good fun, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. And if that’s not okay, if you don’t get the joke, then you should really have your ego reassessed, because this is album worth listening to.
The album does, as was intended, succeed in overcoming the shortcomings of He Think He Raw. Despite the quality of some of its singles, that last album suffered from several mainstream trappings of its day – hooks that sounded a little too shiny or slow to be interesting, a lack of cohesiveness resulting from varying, occasionally lackluster, production styles, and a tad too much concentration on style and storytelling over clever lyrics. Casual is at his best when he’s exploiting his cleverness, and the last album simply didn’t highlight it as much as this one does. On this one, vocal samples or rhymed refrains make the bulk of the choruses instead of sung or slow hooks, and the production here is awesome but understated, never threatening to outshine Cas’s vast lyrical repertoire. Given his cocky flow and a voice that just seems created to spit, Casual doesn’t have to do much to make himself sound good, but he clearly works hard at it anyway. Casual’s b-boy side comes through when you realize he’s constantly trying to improve, to elevate his art.
But this is not just b-boy/backpacker music, as Casual consistently adheres to gangsta/pimp posturing. On “Say That Then, ” the first track on the album (as well as it’s lead single), the opening refrain, “¬Ç√Ñ√≤You look like a pimp’/ say that then / told the dealer give me something I can lay back in / Common man wasn’t looking for no Maybach Benz / Still bring that real hip hop from way back when, ” precedes the first line of the next verse, “I’ma show you dudes how to rock. ” Cas shows us how “rocking ” is simply staying true to himself – he likes nice things, so he’ll rap about nice things, he likes the ladies, so he’ll rap some about the ladies, he likes making fools of people who step to him so he’ll rap about that, and he hates fronting, so keep it real or he’s going to steal your girl, and he’ll like that, too. But while there’s much posturing on “Say That Then, ” the next song, “Rap Game, ” concentrates on the difference in his approach compared with overhyped, overrated rappers who don’t match him in style or lyrics. He brings it; those others don’t. “The rap game is lifeless, ” but Cas and his rap fam keep it real by remaining independent and sticking to their roots, outside of the mainstream. The underdogs that Casual affiliates himself with survive and thrive by keeping hip-hop real to its roots, by paying your hip-hop dues, gaining respect, respecting the pioneers, and respecting the people who buy their music.
But style and attitude is empty without substance, and there is no song on the album that illustrates the seriousness with which Cas approaches the art of rhyming than “Styles, ” one of the more remarkable tracks on the album. Casual walks you through three writing styles – rhyming by one syllable, then two syllables, then four syllables, before combining them all into a “free association style ” that’s a mishmash of different syllable combinations – while explaining between verses how each of the styles have their own distinct place in the development of hip-hop. This is Cas making clear how the hip-hop he practices is professional poetry, how much concentration goes into it, and what it takes to internalize it.
While most songs on Smash Rockwell showcase the verbal dexterity of Casual alone, its few collaborations also reveal the overarching approach of giving listeners what they want while remaining true to the art. On the hometown ode “OAKTown, ” Cas lines up a few of Oakland’s finest, including Too $hort and E-Mac, to spit over a beat so nostalgic that it sounds like it was made with an old Casio keyboard. The guests on the album, and the production style, are signs of the respect Cas has for the past. A similar turn is made four songs later, as Cas hooks up with E-40 on “Nickel and Dime Gangsta ” to explain that attitude, not success, makes the kind of “Gangsta ” that earns their respect. On “Hierollers, ” a posse cut in the classic mold, Cas spits with Hiero brethren Tajai and Opio over a loop of 1980s video game samples (a production tactic that, for whatever reason, I just am not able to get tired of). “Bay vs. Bricks ” also offers a refreshingly old-school approach, as it is simply a friendly competition for bragging rights between Cas, representing the Bay Area, and the Outsidaz’ Young Zee, representing Newark.
Also somewhat nostalgic, and refreshing, is Casual’s understanding that hip-hop should remain fun, and there are a collection of tracks on the album that are simply fun and not much more. Cas knows how to rock a stage, move the dance floor, or make his audience laugh. “Smash Don’t Hurt ¬Ç√Ñ√≤Em ” is simply Cas bragging effectively about outslinging any possible competition that comes his way, and “Critical ” is more posturing and braggadocio over a Dan the Automator beat (and has one of the best punch-line on the album, “you need to stop and listen to some of them flows you kickin / you ain’t got issues, you got a whole subscription “). The Sugarhill-sampled “I’ll Hit That ” is mostly about Casual eyeing the womenfolk, and not much else.
Cas’s use of materialism is also evident of an older approach, reminiscent of when emcees bragged about wealth only when they didn’t have it. Casual only mentions evidence of any wealth – travel arrangements, good weed, good clothes, the ability to hire hit men, for example – when he’s ripping up a supposed challenger to his mic skills. When he’s addressing his audience, though, he clearly understands that bragging about real wealth would only serve to isolate his listeners. One of the songs on the album, “In the Whip, ” is essentially about living out of his car. “Single Mother ” – the most different track on the album – is an ode to single mothers and the everyday stress of poverty, a departure from the fun and games of the rest of the album. Rather than sound separate from the objectifications of women peppered throughout the album, the seriousness of this one song seems to show that this is the serious stuff, while those were just the jokes. On the last track, “Wakemup, ” Cas calls himself a “blue collar baller. ” Instead of exalting a code-of-the-streets set of values that could possibly prove self-defeating, Casual demonstrates how fun and rewarding it can be to clash with the expected norm. This isn’t a solution for the many problems facing the world today, but it could be an important part of a positive formula. And there definitely is a formula present here, albeit in the background: throughout the entirety of Smash Rockwell, Casual stays true to the independent-minded orthodoxy that his label, Hiero Imperium, so persuasively emphasizes through its business dealings. Elements such as giving its artists creative control, expanding its fan-base through word-of-mouth, quality recordings, and extensive touring, neglecting the importance of overhyped singles and videos, and staying true to a select number of mostly in-house producers (while also attracting some respected all-stars), are all part of a distinctly Garveyite, Black Nationalist/Capitalist business philosophy, one that has maintained an important place in America, through various manifestations and religions, for the better part of the past century. It is impossible to separate the Hieroglyphics crew, and Casual, from this philosophy, and to not hold Casual Presents Smash Rockwell up as a conscious product of that heritage.
And, it’s fun.