Early on in The Brick, Joell Ortiz ticks off his media accolades — XXL‘s Chairman Choice, The Source‘s Unsigned Hype. It’s almost enough to slap the chubby twenty-six-year-old Latin emcee from Brooklyn with a puffed-up review in hopes of getting checked on his next mixtape (“He rock shows and it’s money in the bag/ Kid got a 9.0 from Prefix mag”). But it’s actually a rare moment of industry pandering from an emcee obsessively uninterested in the trappings of success. “Yo, do me a favor?” he asks on the intro to “Hip Hop,” The Brick’s loving first single, “Accidentally step on your white sunglasses. We don’t wear these over here. This is hip-hop.”
Ortiz is signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment; he’s releasing The Brick on Koch as a taster for his official major-label debut. As such, it’s way too long (almost an hour), but the feel is exact and concentrated; hard, sample-heavy weighted beats, furling frustration, throwback lyrics-driven East Coast hip-hop.
Ortiz fashions himself as an educated (1,400 on his SATs) man of poverty (Brooklyn’s Cooper Projects is home), a critic with the cred and the wits to analyze his near-requisite ghetto story. “These little dudes out there glorifying the hustle, real funny to me,” he says on “Caught Up.” “It’s either one of two things. One: These little niggas is stupid. Or two: They not hustling.'” Fair enough.
So Ortiz is focused and intense and his articulation crisp and biting, but he’s perma-joyless. Far be it from me to disparage the A&R acumen of the West Coast don, but Ortiz is not mass-market material. Maybe Dre isn’t looking to Joell for hits; maybe he’s inspired by a dude truly on his grind. Ortiz is copping a well-rehearsed East Coast classicist posture — many have come before, many will follow — but there’s still a refreshing starkness to a competent emcee dedicated to a flash-free independent-hip-hop ethos. “This is Timberland boots unlaced, Champion hoodies, chicken wings and french fries, R.I.P. pieces on the handball courts,” Ortiz continues on “Hip Hop,” and you can almost smell the pissy stairwells. Charming, in its staid way.