Published 21/11/2015 on ReeceListens
Maryland rapper Logic is back, only twelve months since dropping his debut studio album Under Pressure on Def Jam records. After developing a devout cult following over the his four Young Sinatra mixtapes, it’s not unreasonable to suggest the debut album underwhelmed. For longtime fans, the album felt a little too sanitised and disconnected from the earnest rapper they’d watch grow over the course of his indie career. Conversely for new fans, the album didn’t do anything captivating that stood out from the pack and whilst no one had much to complain about, Under Pressure was quickly lost in the wash-up of the heavyweight releases of 2014. With that in mind, it’s apparent The Incredible True Story operates as a bit of a ‘do-over’ for Logic – a chance to turn the narrative on his career while it’s still young. That idea is somewhat confirmed on the LP when a pilot from the future on one of the disc’s many skits refers to Logic’s second album as ‘the one that changed everything’. It’s a little presumptuous and a little cheeky, but it also indicates an understandable urgency to hit the reset afterUnder Pressure and reclaim some of Logic’s lost momentum . So, has he done it? In short, yes but no.
Listening to The Incredible True Story is an enjoyable experience, yet one consistently marred by a nagging thought that sticks with you throughout the entire album – I think I’ve heard this song before. Nothing on the album sounds all that original, in fact much of it feels like a direct duplication of popular rap songs from less than a decade back. It’s an issue that arises quite literally from the first bar on the album. The opening track ‘Contact’ bears startling similarities to ‘Amazing’ from Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak album. While ‘Amazing’ is listed as a sample, that’s truly a little misleading. The drums from ‘Amazing’ are directly transplanted into ‘Contact’ with little to no editing or deviation from the way we hear it on the original track, which means ‘Contact’ never at any point sounds all that different to the song it’s sampling. The Kanye comparison actually dogs most of this record – ‘City of Stars’ has notably drawn a fair bit of fire from critics for how reminiscent it is of ‘Flashing Lights’, a cut from West’s Graduation. On that very track, he wears his Kanye influence on his sleeve as he raps “Talib Kweli said it best back in the day, we just tryna get by/Two words, Mos Def, in my headphones”. Referencing one of Kanye’s most famous beats and a track off of his debut album on back-to-back bars is one thing, but it begins to border on obsessive when it comes on just one of the many songs on the project which errs a little too closely to its Kanye influence. It comes at a point in which Logic’s obsession with the Chicago-born rapper has already been well documented. Go back as far you as like – a Kanye sample on ‘We Get High’ from Young Sinatra: Undeniable, a freestyle over West’s ‘Good Friday’ on Welcome to Forever or ‘Everything I Am’, a leaked promo single for Under Pressure which uses vocal samples from partners-in-crime Jay Z and Kanye West and features Hit-Boy, the G.O.O.D. Music in-house producer behind the iconic ‘Paris’ on Watch the Throneand ‘Cold’ from Cruel Summer.
Without flogging a dead horse, ‘City of Stars’ just digs itself deeper into Problem City through the excessive sample of James Brown’s ‘Funk President’, otherwise known as that female ‘Hey!’ sample. That vocal clip is iconic and has shown up everywhere from RZA to Shaq to The Offspring, but its recently resurgence is unquestionable a by-product of its central role on ‘Runaway’ from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Sample and then subsequent appearances on ‘New God Flow’, ‘Live Fast, Die Young’ and ‘Clique’. The sample alone obviously isn’t an issue, but when it adds to a tapestry of unoriginal stylistic choices it doesn’t reflect well on Logic or the team of producers responsible for some of these tracks.
The problem borne out of Logic toeing the line between fair use of a sample and biting someone else’s track is that he loses the benefit of the doubt, especially when there’s a pattern of this problem across Logic’s small body of work. Under Pressure was a solid album, but it lost credibility in the eyes of a lot of people because of one track in particular. The similarities between Logic’s ‘Metropolis’ and ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’ from Kendrick Lamar’s iconic debut Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City run deep – not only do they both use the same sample of ‘Use Me’ by Bill Withers (seriously, the start of both tracks are identical) but both songs pair the sample with a layer of jazz and percussion. Both songs centre around a poisonous female character which serves as a metaphor throughout the album (Nikki and Sherane, respectively) and on top of that, the flow and themes on ‘Metropolis’ and ‘Sing About Me’ are very closely in line.
All of this detracts from the rest of the album and overshadows what should be uninhibited high points. I really enjoyed ‘I Am the Greatest’, an absolute stomper of a track and one of the best ‘in the moment of glory’ rap songs of the year. The sample of ‘Fine for Now’ by Grizzly Bear works well as does the vocal sample of Muhammed Ali, which helps gives the track an important feel before Logic even drops his first bar. And when he finally enters the track, Logic doesn’t pull any punches. He booms “Fuck ’em all, I never love ’em , I’m way up” like he’s just kicked in the door and fears no comers. It’s nothing new to see the self-proclaimed Young Sinatra radiating with confidence but this time around, on ‘I Am the Greatest’ and The Incredible True Story as a whole, Logic finally has some material credentials to back it up his boasts. Whether it be boasts about his album sales (debuted #4 on the Billboard 100, if you were wondering) to a more subtle brag about an imprisoned friend watching him perform on Fallon and Kimmel, Logic’s chest-beating is bigger and better than it’s ever been as his profile continues to rise.
However, it’s even impossible to listen to ‘I Am the Greatest’ without that ugly problem rearing its head again – haven’t I already heard this? Line up ‘I Am the Greatest’ with Oddisee’s ‘Tangible Dream’ and you can’t help but grimace. Both tracks flip the same sample in practically the same way. This alone wouldn’t be that big a deal – just this month Miike Snow released the wonderful ‘Heart is Full’ which flips Marlena Shaw’s ‘Waiting for Charlie to Come Home’ in an eerie similar manner to Apollo Brown on ‘The Cook Up’, and I could still thoroughly enjoy that. But I’m hearing ‘I Am the Greatest after the problematic ‘Contact’ and ‘City of Stars’ with ‘Metropolis’ still fresh in my mind, on top of that. Maybe its a coincidence he and Oddisee flipped the sample in such a similar way or maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal if it were an isolated incident and there was a very unique sound I could generally ascribe to Logic. But that’s not the case. I was able to just pen 800 words about the uncomfortably overt influences on Logic’s work and I haven’t even written ‘J. Cole’ or ‘Drake’ once yet, both of whom can also be heard as a huge influence on the album’s direction and sound (‘Never Been’ is shamelessly Cole in the verses and Drake on the hook). At this point, more than a few points have to be dedicated for lack of creativity.
But if you’re able to shift aside the above discussion and view the album in a vacuum, The Incredible True Story is a rewarding listen. To begin with, the production is very crisp. The instrumentals are of a very high quality in terms of both the sound and the personnel producing it, with the likes of DJ Khalil, DJ Dahi and Stefan Ponce all roped in to contribute. Logic himself also takes on a larger role behind the boards, marking a welcome return after his small role on Under Pressure where he produced the excellent title track. On The Incredible True Story, a number of the album’s highlights have Logic’s production fingerprints all over them. Catch his work on ‘Lord Willin’, ‘Like Woah’ or ‘Fade Away’ for examples of his producer acumen. In particular, his usage of drums are brilliant – they’re as good a replication of late 90’s boom-bap hip-hop as you’ll see in the game today, and seeing an artist with a major label budget really dig in and embrace that sound is refreshing.
Logic’s lyricism and flow also remains a cut above the pack. Whilst scrutiny over his laundry list of overused phrases is justified (drink every time you hear ‘the come up’ if you think being comatose makes for good summer), there’s a reason outlets were making Nas comparisons when he signed to Def Jam. ‘Young Jesus’ with Young Lenbo is a nice track to check out if you’re looking for a quick guide to Logic. He shows off that impressively slippery flow as he opens “Take a trip inside my mind like you was off to Venice/It’s me and B-I-G-L-eN-B-O cooking chemists” and although he brings the usual palette of overused cliches, Logic executes well. You can tick them off as you go like a bingo card – Teen pregnancy equating to a ‘life sentence’? Check. Rap beef doubling to also mean the meat which accompanies fruit and veg? Check. Logic even throws in a ‘back and forth like tennis’ simile for a good measure. To his credit, ‘in my chamber like the Senate’ got a smile out of me and he interpolates A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Excursion’ with far more grace and subtlety than most of his other efforts at paying homage on the album.
But there are problems that drag down all the good, aside from my issues with the sampling. The album carries a storyline, for some reason. Complying with the overall future-space theme, a surprisingly large amount of time on the album goes to establishing a plotline. It tracks Quentin Thomas (voiced by Steve Blum) and William Kai (Kevin Randolf) who are two pilots in the distant future aboard a spaceship in a world where with “like ten people left in existence”, as we’re told on ‘White People’ . The story plays out almost exclusively through skits spaced between tracks and has next to no connection to the album’s sound or lyrical content. Unfortunately, the skits are very uneven and it’s never entirely clear what purpose they’re supposed to serve. ‘White People’, the first entirely spoken word skit on the album, splits time between Kai and his comrade joking about using condoms in a sparsely populated world and an intense transmission by a soon-to-be-deceased pilot on a mysterious ship. We hear the voice of ‘Captain Christopher Smith’, voiced by Will Poulter, issuing a terror-filled final transmission on a ship and warns the protagonists ‘do not come knocking’. So they opt not to and leave. Then the album throws into Logic’s ‘Like Woah’ with no real explanation as to what happened or why we heard that. The rest of the album rolls on without any trackback to Captain Smith or the mysterious terror that claimed his crew and the precious 45 seconds of skit space ultimately amounts to nothing in terms of the story or my listening experience.
This weird disconnect persists throughout the album. ‘The Cube’ is a meaningless thirty seconds of Kai and Quentin talking about a Rubix cube, punctuated by Kai boasting “I get so much pussy with this motherfucker, it’s amazing – bitches love the Rubix cube” with no hint of irony. ‘Babel’ finally introduces us into something remotely purposeful. With Earth uninhabitable after ‘the fall’, the pilots are heading to a planet called Paradise with hopes of settling the remaining human population of five million. Quentin, the serious and calm head of the two, vocalises his concern that humanity will repeat their environmentally irresponsible behaviour on their next home. The skit may be a little ham-fisted and has the subtly of a sledgehammer, but some substantive narrative is welcome after the maddeningly dumb skits that came before. The last scene ‘Lucidity’ is a bit of a throwaway – Quentin expresses a long-harboured desire to make music, referencing laws on their ship which prohibit people ‘do[ing] anything outside the cause’, relegating them to ‘watch[ing] the same movies and listen to the same music’. This one’s a little clearer to decipher – a thinly-veiled reference to label politics, supported by a semi-swipe on ‘City of Stars’ at Def Jam. By this stage though, we’ve burned through 40 minutes in which I’ve got no investment in the characters of stories – why would I care about any of this now?
Logic’s attempt at a narrative comes across as muddled. It’s never clear what I’m exactly supposed to take these skits as – are they there to convey a concept and plot which greatly enhances my listening experience in true concept album fashion, or are these skits supposed to humour and entertain the listener between tracks? On one hand, the concept almost certainly has to be meaningful. The album’s presentation and promotion is transfixed on the spaceman theme and so much time on the album is dedicated to giving the different characters airtime for it all to mean nothing. But on the other hand, there’s too fleeting a connection between the skits and music to really feel engrossed in it and far too much time in the skits are wasted on stupid jokes which don’t advance our understanding of the characters, plot or world. By the album’s close, all we really know about Kai is that he loves Rubix cubes, unprotected sex and when he given the choice to speak to any mind in human history,he chooses Big Sean (sorry for the spoiler). I could forgive the mixed messages if these skits were at least funny. After all, Kanye West (who else?) conceptually tied his first two albums together with a bunch of skits that were light on plot and heavy on humour to great effect. But the difference between ‘The Cube’ on The Incredible Story and ‘Workout Plan’ on The College Dropout is the former is juvenile; the vulgar joke essentially that Kai pulls so many women over the dorky Rubix cube – hilarious! ‘Workout Plan’, like so many other skits on West’s earlier work, is a piercing satirical take on the world around West. No one needs The Incredible True Story to be an engrossing conceptual experience but given Logic seemed set on trying it, it’s disappointing to see that element of the album fall flat.
On the whole, The Incredible True Story is really a good album, even if this piece disproportionate focuses on the negative. That arises largely because the issues with the album are a little more difficult to step out and require some explanation, whereas what is good comes rather intuitively. Is it a problem that the beat on ‘I Am the Greatest’ is near indistinguishable from ‘Tangible Dream’? Absolutely. Does that problem stop me from loving the track, just as I loved ‘Tangible Dream’ when it was released? Not really. The Incredible True Story is an enjoyable album in spite of those issues and in spite of a clunky and unenjoyable narrative. The fact I managed to enjoy the album with all this in mind is a testament to Logic as a rapper and the production team behind the album.