Being an employee of Definitive Jux is a double-edged sword when it comes to recording your own music. On one hand, it’s a huge plus, as you’ve got access to some of the finest talent of indie hip-hop today, and any affiliation with the Def Jux crew helps to get your name out there. On the other hand, letting it get out that you work at 451 Greenwich also means that the stakes are raised, the microscopes are out, and any missteps or failures will take place on a much larger scale.
Cue the sigh of relief for Drake, because his self-released debut, Equation Dirty, hits right about where one might expect. Some tracks sound at times as if he was a bit hesitant to pull out the stops and really get dirty, but the varied source material, as well as the dense and slightly abstract production, point toward the originality of much of Def Jux’s catalog. It doesn’t reach the heights of I Phantom or Fantastic Damage, but there is some undeniable talent and a lot of hot beats on display throughout this record.
Much of Drake’s allure lies in his skill at handling contrasting elements, as the placid mixes seamlessly with the belligerent on many tracks. The presence of horns and a flute sample lend a mellow after-hours feel to “Late Night Drinker,” but the volatile beat pours the vodka into the fire, hinting at a not-so-happy ending come morning. “NM2” hums along with an ambient vibe before the beat steps in about a third of the way through and fractures the surface tension, knocking the ambient elements into an erratic orbit in a sequence quite indicative of Drake’s style.
He also nabs himself a few emcees, remixing “Inner City Hustle” (which originally appeared on the Embedded Studios compilation The Bedford Files) with Aesop Rock and L.I.F.E. Long, replacing the plucky bass of the original with a dirty, bottom-heavy beat that better suits the subject matter as Aesop and Long spit the vocal hook: “Sliding through the jungle, where everybody mumbles / I keep to myself and walk that inner-city shuffle / through these concrete streets we creep / sightseeing, vibing to beats / on dusty paths who knows who we’ll meet.” Snappy hi-hats and growling bass power rapper Bisc One through “By Myself” as he extols the virtues of solitary life on one of the standout tracks. The stuttering drums provides a foundation for a piano and horns that sound lifted from a ’50s romance film, a description that looks absolutely terrible in print but sounds fantastic on the record.
Many of the tracks on Dirty would be relaxing if not for the jagged beats, but the fact that they still manage to sound smooth speaks to Drake’s strengths. He samples liberally from a wide variety of records, which keeps the beats fresh, but the actual snare hits and cymbals all seem straight out of the 808; a dirty snap or an echoing kick drum here and there could punch up some of the rhythms. Occasionally, the record sounds less like an album and more like a beat sampler, but for all I know, that’s the intent. He’s got some room to grow, but emcees would be wise to pounce on this kid before he’s too busy to throw them a beat, and Def Jux should probably start considering a promotion.