Andre Nickatina - Andre Nickatina | Album Review | By Volume

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Andre Nickatina

Andre Nickatina

Nostalgic sure, but not nearly enough.

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Author: on October 10, 2013
Fillmoe Empire Distribution
September 24, 2013

It’s difficult to experience Andre Nickatina divorced of the context in which I discovered him; he’s a soundtrack to my youth, like many Bay Area kids who graduated from high school in the 2000’s. I was thrilled to learn he had a new album — not a mixtape — and for better or worse: Nickatina is back with more of the same in his self-titled release.

A key part of the rap star archetype involves an ostentatious persona, with whom the music develops a reciprocal symbiosis such that both ego and the musical content enhance one another. With Nickatina, the persona is the main event. A sort of tautological, I’m-hot-cuz-I’m-fly dullness undercuts each superlative metaphor, but he’s remarkably consistent. It gets to the point where, as with Riff Raff, the caricature becomes authentic. Before he began promoting this new album and booking more shows, I used to point out to friends how amazing Nickatina’s twitter feed is. He’s like Heloise in the Hood, doling out uncouth realness on ratchet women and vaguely-emo, lone-wolf masculinity; still, he’s not afraid to show his sensitive side with a choice Soundgarden lyric or maybe a Disney reference. Best, he ends most nuggets with “… Fillmoe,” a reference to his San Francisco milieu.

His flow is aggressively distinctive, and if you’ve got love for Nicky it will take you back to his younger days. Those younger days, however, were marked with superior production and tighter flows. Known to recycle rhymes, he has an impromptu kind of delivery, accomplished in part by the sense that not a lot of effort went into his rhyming. Many of the tracks on this new album seem like works in progress rushed to production, with a looping beat droning ad infinitum until the song’s sudden end. That’s only a problem when said song is bad however; “Candy Paint” featuring 100’s and Mac Mall is Nickatina in Platonic form, succeeding where many other Bay Area efforts have failed to pay appropriate homage to Mac Dre et al while also reliving the flossy, unpretentious coolness of last decade’s Hyphy Movement. There’s no variety in the arrangement, but the beat is fun and fascinating and the flow is relentless.  Though not the first time Nickatina has included a single, sophisticated instrumental alongside less-polished full songs, “Peppermint” is his best — the kind of timeless aplomb that will blow some young DJ Shadow’s mind twenty years from now.

Pretending the album is leaner by putting aside the irreconcilably bad tracks doesn’t help much either, though many of them are interesting, in the same way that semi-pro paintings at restaurants joyfully command attention without actually appealing to taste. Often, there’s one clear element that needs revision, which makes me wonder about the rate of sycophancy among his crew. On “Call The Dealer”, a monster beat (a slick hip-hop bounce with chopped vocals) carries a lovely ode to cocaine (“Super D-Boy, kilos in the fast lane / There’s no rehab when addicted to the money, mayne“) but often must pause in an odd free time for Nickatina’s excitable, overcrowded bars to finish — like a patient Taylor Swift waiting on Ye. Parts of it are so corny that I’m not sure if it’s trying for some sort of twisted iconographic irony, the way black metal songs might somehow make use of haunting choirs of children: “P-p-pick the phone up, tell the dealer fall through / everybody got one, what about you?

When the album’s strong, it’s remarkably strong, especially for an indie rap artist who hasn’t changed his game ever. Andre Nickatina’s authenticity usually charms his way out of a stretched rhyme, recycled verse, or odd metaphor. The solid single, which first surfaced earlier this year, is “Jelly” featuring Problem. It’s contemporary, consistent, and laced with Cali steez. While some elements of contemporary trap have definitely influenced the producers with whom he worked, that’s not always a good thing; a few sections have such grating high-frequency tones that I have to wonder if people over forty like Nickatina himself  would hear them at all. Many of the hooks are simply weird, crowded verses that I was surprised to hear repeated later because they didn’t seem to work the first time. But there are some standout tracks that deserve recognition; “S.G.B.” is inventive and fun, like a West Coast (early) Mike Jones, while “Timex Ticker” is an ostensibly solid song, though I personally don’t go nuts for the sad, lonely rapper motif. It does make it strange listening to the album in a single shot though, as the production is so much better on “Timex Ticker” in particular, it offsets the rest of Andre Nickatina.

Nickatina has a harsh narrative voice that occupies a dark, terrifying realm of coke deals, blaring bullets and broken minds, but is never abrasive or overtly political. He was able to do with “A-Yo For Yay-o” in 2002 what a thousand Common or Immortal Technique songs simply can’t: depicting the moral ambiguity of the drug trade without condescending. Gangsta rap especially, can be a more difficult and subtle artform than more conscious varieties of hip-hop, in the way that a novel can provide more interesting social commentary than a manifesto. The gangsta rapper is the anti-preacher, the negative space-in-art upon which our conscience-laden positivism dances with a sideways hat and fingers configured into the shape of a gun. One of the reasons why the songwriting in Lorde’s hit single “Royals” is so impossibly great is that it evades with astounding precision the charge that rap is aspirational. Our culture mistakes fantasy for desire, but the two are only related when one is repressed into the other. Gangsta rap is intrinsically fantastic, even when packaged as a diary of the streets; it should neither preach nor condemn because there is no judgment in fantasy. This is not to say that politically problematic content is no big deal, though I probably feel that way deep down. It’s simply keeping this unique paternalism in check, an earnest reminder that we don’t worry that Italian-American youth will drop out of school after watching The Godfather series.

It could be argued by a braver man than me that Andre Nickatina is an unintentional hipster gangster. Keeping that in mind is crucial context for any night spent with Nickatina or any of the artists with whom he shares the studio, with perhaps the exception of Messy Marv –whose performance steals the show on their collaboration. Eschewing the Hyphy Movement (before talking about molly was ordinary, Top40 stuff) in favor of celebrating a drug people stopped talking about in public nearly fifteen years prior, Nickatina has always marched to the beat of his own drum samples. If his long braids weren’t so important to his image, he’d likely wear a fedora around town without the slightest bit of irony. He has always overtly strived for a sort of aspirational classicism: he references Mae West, Billie Holiday and Eddie Murphy’s purple suit from Raw and you can tell his most gangster of daydreams occur in black and white. Not much has changed, which is as comforting as it is disappointing at times. His character is still static, but when he occasionally experiments with his flow or tone (“Butta P-Khan”), it’s as welcome as a  joke in church. Overall, a solid effort from a hometown hero, but if only enough to leave us wanting something more.

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