In case you haven’t read any profiles or reviews of A$AP Rocky or one of his projects, let me catch you up to speed. People are falling over themselves to talk about how his rise to prominence is heralding an era of post-regionalism, wherein someone’s hometown no longer has any bearing on their sound. Of course, this is both an oversimplification of Rocky’s conceit and a mischaracterization of rap in 2013, but it does give us an opening to talk about what’s really happening: we’re diversifying. Aesthetic directions are becoming increasingly specific, increasingly varied, and (perhaps because of this reality) more important to a rapper trying to build a fan base. Simply ‘rapping better’ than your contemporaries is still important to segments of the rap-listening population, but it’s not going to gain you any traction on Tumblr. Add to this the fact that record labels are trying to sponsor and co-opt existing buzz rather than molding artists from square one, and suddenly creating a unique artistic point of view is a matter of life or death for aspiring rappers.
Connecticut’s Hayze seems to have some sense of this, but his The Smoker’s Section mixtape fails to either carve a definitive niche for himself or be captivating enough within any niche to command the listener’s attention. Ostensibly (and rather obviously), he’s your standard weed rapper, but within that world he grows increasingly confused over the tape’s brief (twenty-nine minute) running time. Opening number “Higher” has him casting himself as a cerebral twist on the smoked-out archetype, lamenting his uncle’s prison record all while he’s out there himself, “feeding his friends’ addictions.” This inner turmoil would be captivating, but it dissipates before the song’s finished, with a second verse that devolves into aphorisms and run-of-the-mill rap cliches, culminating with his insistence that he’s “balling and what have you.”
This confusion is pretty indicative of the tape as a whole. After “Higher”, we get a faux-90s revival track in “Creep Mode”, followed quickly by trap-lite number “Ridin’ N Smokin'”. The aesthetic inconsistency is matched by a lack of lyrical direction, as Hayze abandons the burning conscience of earlier on the tape and tries to paint himself as a calloused drug lord, without spinning any interesting stories of dealing. Even when he tries to mitigate the heartlessness by asking “Heaven to help” him when he “falls” (on “Fair Warning”), he trips on his own feet to backtrack, insisting to the faceless girl in the song that he won’t be spending any money on her, and the song falls completely flat. This isn’t because of some misplaced sense of moral outrage — if we’re being honest with ourselves, remorseless, cold, misogynistic themes keep popping up in rap because oftentimes they simply work. Rather, the song fails because it’s uninteresting and has been made countless times by countless rappers, often in superior fashion. So when he follows this with an equally hollow ode to another nameless woman on the outro, “Cloud 9”, we get the sense that Hayze is throwing darts at a wall to see what sticks.
Now, the massive caveat that this tape deserves is that, aside from the bland “Creep Slow” and the awful “Fair Warning”, Hayze clearly has the technical chops and sonic instincts to make interesting records. The aforementioned trap of “Ridin’ N Smokin'” is absolutely at odds with the rest of the project, but it’s a believable iteration of its intended style. To suggest that a rapper with uninspired lyricism but a serviceable and pliable (if not unique) voice won’t succeed would be naive — Hayze sounds like a rapper. The probably-Kendrick-biting “Smokers Section Interlude” is undoubtedly the highlight here, with a bright, warm bounce and playful flow that makes even his drier lyricism more palatable. Then there’s the double edged sword of “Life Is Hell”, where unlikely mentor Apathy shows up to inject some much-needed grit, but makes his protege look a bit lifeless in the process.
Ultimately, the tape’s deep identity crisis prevents the listener from drawing any interesting conclusions about Hayze as a person. The schizophrenic aesthetic choices are exacerbated by such a short running time, to the point where you might be able to convince someone that The Smoker’s Section is a collection of covers. The other glaring problem is Hayze’s refusal or inability to either dig deeper into his life, say vapid things in a more interesting way, or both. He shows hints of being able to craft sonically compelling music, and could find success if he nails down a more specific and interesting point of view, but as of now there’s no indication of that.