My first impression of Stalley was not pleasant. His verse on “Party Heart” from Rick Ross’s Rich Forever mixtape felt annoying at best, but the atrocious hook and cheesy instrumental culminated into an odd mental scene of three black rappers trying to mob at Chuck E. Cheese.
That reaction, in retrospect, certainly came on too strong, but I really enjoyed Rich Forever, and that track was exactly opposite to the clinically insane delusions of grandeur that came before it. Regardless, spending some time with Savage Journey to the American Dream has provided some substantial opinions about the Ohio native that clear the air from past transgressions.
As a former college basketball prospect who changed his focus to introspective rap, Stalley garners a slew of comparisons to J. Cole. The main difference, however, is in their approaches to rapping. Whereas J. Cole prefers to self-loathe and clings to humble beginnings for comfort, Stalley seems to search for what lies down the long and winding road of life. He does occasionally get emotional, but stifles away tears to keep his view clear.
For the moment, he seems intent on finding “The American Dream,” that intangible glue of life, liberty and happiness that possibly bind us citizens together. The mixtape opens with an audible clip show of people describing the Dream from a personal view; the last person claims to be on a “savage journey to find out,” and leads into the mixtape proper. If the mixtape needed to portray such a savage journey, well, that never really happened.
Stalley still provides a decent collection of songs though. He provides the standard come-up story on the hearty, bluesy “Petrin Hill Peonies”: “I rose through the rubble, never crumbled/held my head and stayed humble,” and peruses the essentials on “Cold”: “I was just ignoring it, five speed, flooring it/The dream, I was exploring it,” sounding really confident on a beat that sounds like it was made for a Sega Genesis video game. When he gets into the pocket, or rhymes comfortably about topics that suit him, Stalley does his best.
It’s easy to tell when he’s in the pocket because the lyrical quality drops sharply whe tries to venture out of it. He tries too hard to philosophize on “Seen It All” resulting in weird lines like “I mean you only as hot as the weather/And it gets cold in November/So when the seasons change, people change” that force him to double up on the end of words to keep within rhythm, and the mediocre hook prevents some of the slightly better lines from being heard after I delete the song. Also, his attempt at a love song, “Home to You,” probably wouldn’t swoon any ladies with his surprisingly hungry rhyme scheme.
Rapping out the pocket seems even more treacherous for Stalley considering his membership on the MMG roster. As a relatively new label, any immediate success for their clan as a whole depends on record sales, of which they tend to lack. Even Rick Ross, the best and most known rapper on the label, only struck gold with Teflon Don. Likewise, Meek Mill and Wale keep getting pushed to the top of the MMG roster for their keen ability to spit at a consistent level about consistent topics (although Wale has retooled his style).
Rapping in the pocket provides sustainability and a steady climb in appeal and fanbase. Yes, Stalley is more than capable of producing ignorant-goon type songs like the Ross-assisted “Hell’s Angels,” but only out of pocket, causing him to rap against the hard-working ethics he discussed in previous songs.
Savage Journey still deserves a listen or two though, if not for the inherently dope MMG-aided songs such as “BCGMMC (Remix)” and the gorgeous piano coda on “Live at Blossom”, then at least for the chance to hear an entire Stalley project. Although Stalley has already dropped Lincoln Way Nights, his first solo album, this mixtape marks the beginning of his new career, and executive adjustments from Ross will soon follow. If that turns out to be a “savage journey,” then hopefully it only keeps him in the pocket and doesn’t remove his role as the only introspective MMG affiliate.