On the Berkeley rapper’s second album, he struggles with depression in stark, evocative terms, confirming his stature as one of the most intensely cathartic narrators out there.
Koran Streets is in mourning. His close collaborator and big-brother figure J.B. the Legend died a few years ago, and he’s still looking up to him, and for him. He sounds broken and also obviously onto something with his music—all the worse that he can’t share the epiphany. But therein lies his power. There’s a protective numbness to depression that Koran Streets avoids; when he’s emotionally collapsed he’s tender and self-aware, which he translates well as a rapper. His play-by-plays can be both detached and self-attuned.
Late 20s is the Berkeley rapper’s first long-player since his debut a couple years ago, and he remains saddled with the inertia of depression and the paralyzing effects of poverty. There’s a now-or-never urgency in his rapping, especially now that he’s had a glimpse of buzz and possible stability. Part of the appeal of Koran Streets’ hardly noticed debut, You.Know.I.Got.It (The Album), was his ability to boil down his pain. Late 20s doesn’t share that economy, but it continues Koran Streets’ streak as one of the most intensely cathartic narrators in rap.
That streak starts with his story, which is both tragic—as a child his body was horribly burned and many of his fingers amputated following a horrible accident—and inspiring: After spending most of his life as an actor, Koran Streets recently landed a pair of meaningful, well-received indie roles. He has also been to jail and back too many times. Not long ago his brother was shot during a carjacking. An ex-girlfriend had a miscarriage. A breakup left him struggling to pay the rent. He’s been making promises to his mother. Direly, he’s in his late 20s and playing catch-up.
So Late 20s feels pressing, even if it runs a bit too long and is full of distractions. The bulk of the album services diary-like brushstrokes with depressing commentary (“They say I’m dope but they don’t know that I sleep on the floor”) or inward, self-affirming nudges about self-doubt and staying motivated. The sense that Koran Streets is working on himself is present almost everywhere, even if it’s in the form of grasping for straws.
Koran Streets has been a Bay Area rapper since a child, but his recent tear has seen him back off his jumpy, rattling sound of a few years ago in favor of something slinkier. The production on tracks like “Return of the Mack” and “Rock the Party” is laid-back and funky, uplifting in both its breezy pace and sense of nostalgia. Most of the beats are languid and wistful, matching the mood. As a stylist Koran Streets has a shouty, chatty way of rapping. At his most emotional he sometimes crams too many syllables into a breathless line (the affective “Sincerely Yours”), but he’s usually punchy and sometimes locks into a mesmerizing purr of a flow (the first verse on “Fallin’ & Ballin’”).
Koran Streets also does something few rappers manage: He raps about rap without making it corny. He makes homage sound heartfelt, and he internalizes the music so completely that he can step outside of it and talk about it effectively. “Sucka MC’s” does little more than list Koran Streets’ favorite rappers with an admiring gaze and occasional note about their practicality: “Here comes the brand new flava in ya ear!/And when I heard that I thought I was Craig Mack/But late nights selling crack we would play that Jack.” 2Pac also looms large over his style—like when Koran Streets suddenly upshifts on “Fallin’ & Ballin’,” his rapping a sustained crescendo from his belly—as well as in his general raw-nerve oversharing.
Koran Streets doesn’t withhold anything, but there’s a moment early on that makes the listener complicit in the act of demanding more of him. “They say I never talk about these burns/Like what you want me to say?/You see my face?” he shouts, cutting off the conversation. But then he doubles down and tells the story in literal and emotional detail as if he had no choice. Late 20s leans on radical vulnerability, and sometimes that’s a meaningful end in itself.
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