So the story goes, Weekend Money rarely begin a set without a mantra-like chant of “let’s Freddie Merk this shit.” The British singer is an inspirational figure for the Brooklyn duo, but his presence on their new record goes beyond simple homage. He is part of a conflict that plays out across the album’s 15 tracks. In a spoken sample Mercury describes music as something special and otherworldly, something that consumes an artist’s entire life. “If I didn’t do this,” he says of writing songs, “I wouldn’t have anything to do.” A product of the conscious rap movement, Weekend Money’s Ne$$ sees a very different role for music. “This shit is therapy … it ain’t just art … [or] rap for rap’s sake,” says the MC, “I got better shit to do with my time than that.” Freddie Merkury is an attempt to resolve this conflict, to make music that is truly artistic but nevertheless firmly anchored in life.
The life the record clings to is Ne$$’s own. “Writing rhymes is my exorcism,” the MC explains on “Demons,” and his bars are often simply mirrors for the streets as he knows them. “Hol’ Up,” set to a demonic, driving Baghdaddy soundtrack, sees Ne$$ roll out armed with a “Motorola flip” on a crusade against police “Gestapo” and their lurking Imapalas. Punning on the idea of being “dressed to kill, fresh to death,” “Camo” finds Ne$$ lacing up for a war on the streets. “Bat Phone,” Baghdaddy pushing the trap vibe into even more aggressive territory, reads like an itemised bill of Ne$$’s undercover work line. “Nostrand,” the high point of the album’s trap core, oscillates between the “trap house” and the car interior. Hot Sugar’s co-production too, echoing the complex scene changes in the in the lyrics, shifts between sonic flares whose double-time pop and fizz collide over the verses and a grinding low-end hum that joyrides through the chorus.
And yet, right from the record’s opening track, “UUUGH,” this record is so much more than merely trap rap. Once the ferocious reports of “killing” and “slinging” on the streets are over and Baghdaddy’s overloaded beat comes to a halt, Ne$$ goes in a cappella and we hear another voice. The rapper turns “resident trap analyst.” Watching life from a distance, his painter’s gaze is fixed sternly on other rappers and their “back and forth chat-chattering.” It is this distance, art drawn back just slightly from life, that frees the duo to experiment their way to many of the album’s finest moments.
“Clockworkin’,” for instance, starts with Ne$$’s own round-the-clock grind, as he raps about “copping and flipping … packs” and “trapping 24/7.” But this material is so heavily stylised by Baghdaddy’s production, so utterly defamiliarised by Ne$$’s overpowering references to Bill Haley’s 1954 hit that a humorous tension emerges between life and the music that describes it. Of course, the duo’s reflexivity also produces far more sombre results. “Trapper Keeper” begins as a bleak portrait of “trappers in the trap, … out here in the rain, sleet, hail, snow.” With a well-pitched guest verse that brings the track in off the streets, Fat Tony then examines a home fractured by a father selling grams to support his family. But it is Ne$$, returning to the mic, who really shifts registers. Stepping back, taking a wider view and struggling with Hamlet’s “to be or not to be,” he asks with Tupac, “is there a heaven for a G?”
Pursuing a line of writing that began with “Open” on 2012’s Naked City EP, “Maliah” offers a sensitive meditation on love. This track too operates at a fascinating distance and, backing off from the immediacy of sex, it instead ruminates on the pain of being a “writer not a lover.” As if to prove his point, with Baghdaddy’s repeating keys hook forming a counterfoil, Ne$$ delicately unfolds a series of beautifully pregnant images. One image in particular forms the centre of the track’s emotional circuit. “Shit been on my mind / on my head like a crown of thorns / crucify my love / like after the Romans give Judas coins.” The rest of the MC’s bars emanate from this one complex thought and it is at moments like this, where the structure of an entire track seems to flow from one powerful motif, that the duo show just the extent of their talent.
This record is both complex and simple at the same time, full of imagery that operates well above the street level where its all too real stories are recounted. But as such it is also a perfect response to the problem that Weekend Money set out to solve. Somewhere between Freddie Mercury and the trapper, between the study and the streets, Ne$$ and Baghdaddy find a way to make rap music that is both artistic and authentic. And this is no small achievement.