The debut from versatile Compton rapper offers a perspective that is close enough to suffer turbulence but removed enough to avoid succumbing to it.
When Buddy first moved out of his parents’ house in Compton, he landed at an apartment in Santa Monica at the corner of Ocean and Montana. The intersection inspired the title of the collaborative EP he released with producer Kaytranada last year—five tracks as warm and breezy as their beachside namesake. For some, that was their introduction to the singer-rapper, but it was picking up in medias res. Buddy’s story really begins at Harlan and Alondra, the cross streets of his childhood home and, now, his debut album.
Harlan & Alondra positions Buddy as a tour guide whose depiction of Los Angeles is as much marked by the city’s rich political and musical history as it is his own personal experiences. We learn of his triumphs and his losses, his ambitions and his politics. (It takes less than three minutes for him to hurl his own “fuck Donald Trump.”) But unlike many of his more prominent regional peers, he’s no street rapper; his perspective is largely that of a bystander, close enough to suffer the turbulence but removed enough to avoid succumbing to it.
On the charged lead single “Black,” he comes alive, replacing his normally laid-back glide with a blistering flow. It’s one of the few songs where he seems truly fired up. More often though, listening to Buddy is like hearing an old soul trapped in a young body. There’s wisdom underscoring his lyrics and classic elements in his production choices. He summons the ghost of Nate Dogg on the hydraulic “Trouble on Central,” exaggerating the contrast between the easygoing rhythm of G-funk and the suffocating reality of poverty. Elsewhere, the funky bass groove of “The Blue” draws to mind old heads in roller skating rinks, a love song hidden among Buddy’s ambitions. Snoop Dogg’s apt but brief appearance bridges the gap between the way the elder rapper smoothed the edges of West Coast hip-hop nearly three decades ago and the way younger continues that tradition. “Speechless,” which immediately follows, is a fitting counterpart. Buddy blends seductive soul with raunchy rap come-ons.
At a time when such an attribute almost seems like a requirement that’s overdone, seamlessly slipping between singing and rapping is still one of Buddy’s strongest assets. His good vibe music is rooted in a deeper and more spiritual place, so when he does break out his silken vocals or dip in and out of melody, it sticks just a little more. Even sharing a track with current it-man Ty Dolla $ign on the mellow celebration of “Hey Up There,” he’s able to hold his own. Conversely, when he leans into rapping, he achieves an emotive style of delivery that injects his words with extra resonance.
Still, Buddy is at his best when he lets himself be carefree. The Khalid-assisted “Trippin” allows a slippery sort of levity much like the drug-induced highs it portrays. The 2016 earworm “Shine” also makes an appearance at the end of the album, all lighthearted aspiration and resilient optimism. But “Find Me 2” settles in like the album’s true closing piece. Over the haze of minimalist production and blunt smoke, he reminisces about how far he’s come—a journey that started with him signing a largely fruitless deal with Pharrell in 2011—and looks towards a hopeful future. In these final moments, a sense of gratitude relieves the album of its own tension. Pensive but at peace, Buddy offers an exhale: “Lord willin’ we won’t die tonight/We gon’ fly tonight,” he croons, concluding to walk by faith and not by sight.
As the West Coast continues its rap renaissance—led by the likes of rap prophet Kendrick Lamar, energetic quartet SOB x RBE, gritty rhymer Mozzy and the tragic darling 03 Greedo—Buddy emerges as one of the region’s most versatile artists. Like a bluesman who still believes things get better, he offsets their often weighty revelations masked in revelry with something that feels more soothing. Part conversation and part confessional, Harlan & Alondra is an alternative take on one of pop culture’s most fabled cities. Buddy drops the top and extends an invitation to ride with him, reminding us along the way that though it may not always be sunny by the beach, it’s always worthwhile.
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