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Nef the Pharaoh - The Big Chang Theory Music Album Reviews

The Bay Area rapper continues to make waves with an album of pop ‘n’ snap party records bookended by two more heartfelt cuts.

Nef the Pharaoh takes the weight of his hometown on his shoulders and struts like he’s not got a care in the world. Here’s a rising star who makes Vallejo street rap that pays homage to regional deities like Mac Dre and E-40 while simultaneously honoring Michael Jackson. Braggadocio is Neffy’s first language. He’ll drop silky raps for love interests on one song, nod 1990s-era Cash Money Records on the next, and can carry a hook that really sticks. He makes music for hedonists and lyrical purists alike, a creative writer who almost exclusively deals in music that could set off the club at any time.

Nef inked a deal with E-40’s Sick Wid It label a couple years back, solidifying what has become a very fruitful mentor-student relationship. Under 40’s guidance, Nef’s ethos was fully crystallized on last year’s The Chang Project and carries over here on The Big Chang Theory. The album begins with the heartfelt “Victim,” a surprise shot to the solar plexus and a highlight of art created in the wake of Black Lives Matter. Nef’s words and delivery are hopeless as he shakes his head at police brutality while admitting he’ll raise his son to hate cops with equal vigor. “Baby we got melanin, that’s why they hunt you,” he tells his kid. You’ll hear more trenchant analyses on race relations, but few will be as moving as hearing that the system has eroded a 23-year-old man to beyond repair—and that the cycle will likely impact his son, too.

Positioning “Victim” as the opening track gives it maximum impact, but Nef brings back personal issues again at the other end of the record. Rapping over the kind of piano chords 2Pac used to when he wanted to say something deep, closer “That Was God” offers a prayer. He gives thanks that no friends have been killed in 24-hours—such stark gratitude, but the melody of the hook is so simplistic, it captures the wide-eyed appreciation of faith that’s within Nef’s chest.

In between these moments of reflection are a grip of Bay Area party records, the kind of pop ‘n’ snap beats that the region has leaned on for decades without ever feeling worn out. “Boostin” updates JAY-Z’s “Girls Girls Girls” with Nef paying tribute to women in different area codes. “Big Boss Chang” is a Rick Ross-style declaration of his kingpin status, but Nef approaches the trope in his own way. Unlike Ross, he acknowledges the hyperreality of the claim (”This shit sound like a motherfuckin’ movie, goddamn”) before calling himself a young Evel Knievel (because he stunts so hard), and referring to knives as “Wesley Snipes” (Blade, you see). When it comes to trash-talking, there are few modern rappers that are better.

The only slight disappointment here is that The Big Chang Theory isn’t quite as strong as last year’s The Chang Project. That record felt like wall-to-wall potential singles. Even The Big Chang Theory’s flagship cut “86” isn’t quite as fluid and catchy as some of Neffy’s most bouncing moments. Culling the penultimate track “Totally Different” and its soft hook and wishy-washy beat would have helped the project’s batting average. But across both albums, Nef is the rare rapper who whose music feels free—free of narrative cohesion, outside interference, or any sense of pressure.

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