The school of ROC is now in session.
On the cover of their debut release, Tough Love, Young Chris and Lil’ Neefy sit in individual college-style desks, with Roc-A-Wear gear hanging from every inch of their bodies. The image evokes a feeling that these young recruits are freshmen eagerly sporting their school name, while getting schooled in “The ROC 101: Learning to become Roc-A-Fellas.” The Roc-A-Fella identity has been gradually shifting, now exuding a certain sense of maturity, dabbling in “grown men’s” business. The young, successful, street-bourgeois black male leadership and entrepreneurship that the Roc-A-Fella empire has become synonymous with in hip-hop is represented in the successes and conflicts surrounding its leaders Jay-Z, CEO Damon Dash, and more recently Kanye West. As two of the newer additions to the ROC, Tough Love shows the Young Gunz looking to become authentic Roc-A-Fellas.
The North Philly duo came fresh out the box last summer with the hit single “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” off of State Property’s Chain Gang Vol. II. The rebirth of the ’80s electrobeat sound was unheard of, and their nonchalant flows melting over the groove made for a single so bananas that they served up a remix-featuring fellow teen rapper Chingy. Their youthful ambivalence provided a welcomed lightheartedness that seemed to contrast with the grimier and darker moods of the typical Roc-A-Fella camp. With the impending retirement of Jay-Z, it seemed like a youth movement was soon taking over.
Yet besides the Just Blaze-produced throwback “Friday Night,” which is perfect for Friday night pre-parties, the playful immaturity soon disappears. The lukewarm follow-up single “No Better Love” featuring Rell pictures these thugs in love changing diapers while rocking matching powder blue velour suits and white nik-uhs with their wifeys. The trading of rhymes in their schoolyard style becomes influenced by the more grown-up Roc-A-Fella attitudes.
As some of the Roc-A-Fellas, like Jay and Dash, have hit their thirtysomethings, there has been a gradual change in their masculine aesthetics. Concerned with suits and “changing clothes,” defending rap on the O’Reilly Factor, expanding the empire beyond music to support local youth programming, these Roc-A-Fellas are renaissance men of sorts. The Young Gunz ditch their R-rated Nick Cannon appeal midway through Tough Love.
Spittin’ over dramatic cascading pianos and heavy guitar riffs (at times sounding straight from an generic ’80s movie soundtrack), the Young Gunz attempt to show a wider range of story telling that doesn’t just start and end at the clubs. Tracks like “Never Take Me Alive” (featuring Jay-Z) and “Time” tell the age-old tale reminiscent of the Menace to Society narrative about the aspirations of responsibility and moving their families out the hood to make right. The ever-lyrically-aggressive Freeway lends his usual no-holds-barred explosiveness on “Parade,” which sounds like a straight-to-video imitation of his mixtape banger “What We Do” at best. Yet the harder street sense seems to clash with the youthful naivete that helped propel “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” and the Young Gunz from mixtape obscurity.
Tough Love shows us the growing pains of walking the tight rope of being jiggy and street-hop, with the Young Gunz at times coming off looking awkward, like kids wearing their dads’ oversized suits instead. Despite their young ages, the Young Gunz show promise as they usher in a new generation of post-Jay Roc-A-Fella blueprints.