Sheck’s raw and unruly debut is a force to be reckoned with, a coming-of-age album from an über-hyped prospect that actually delivers on its promise.
For some time, rapping has stood alongside the wicked jump shot as one of the only legitimate hood escape hatches, and Sheck Wes tried his hand at both. Two year ago, he even skipped an important high school basketball game to pose in Kanye’s Yeezy Season 3 show at Madison Square Garden. His longtime friendship with NBA rookie Mo Bamba led to his breakout hit, which is still his most popular song to date. “Mo Bamba”—a song freestyled in 20 minutes and uploaded to SoundCloud days later without warning (and without Sheck’s knowledge) by co-producer 16yrold—ignited such buzz that Travis Scott and Kanye West signed him to a dual deal with Cactus Jack and G.O.O.D. Music, respectively. The song’s eerie melody and unruly energy serve as proper lead-ins to his full-length debut, MUDBOY. His hoop dreams have been forced to take a backseat now that his rap dreams are within reach.
MUDBOY delivers mosh raps with a cold, steely New York edge. The lo-fi and booming songs antagonize your senses and disrupt your day. Interspersed among the rowdy tracks are stories of Sheck’s trials as a “mudboy,” which he’s described as a process of toiling through grime to become a man. It’s its own coming-of-age album and the rare project from an über-hyped rap prospect that actually delivers on its promise.
Born to Senegalese parents, Sheck Wes split his childhood between Harlem and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has likened being in Milwaukee to being in prison and equated returning to New York with autonomy, and that pursuit of freedom is imbued and sometimes documented in his music. On the cusp of fame, Sheck’s mother shipped him to the motherland to study Islam, a pilgrimage he initially saw as a banishment and betrayal but now credits with a spiritual awakening. MUDBOY drinks all of this in, oscillating between autobiography and thrashing tribal chants. He bridges the gap between the DIY SoundCloud aesthetic and the Harlem youth subcultures he was tempered in.
Sheck collapses the space between “post-regional” rap and hyper-local rap with assists from Harlem producer Lunchbox and Miami producer Redda. Beats have trace elements of sounds near and far. They’re largely nightmarish alternatives to Pi’erre Bourne’s carnival attractions, forcing their way into your ear with the ugly, bass-boosted distortion of Ronny J (who has cranked up the wattage for Lil Pump, Smokepurpp, and Denzel Curry). Some sound extremely localized to NYC, others wouldn’t be out of place on Travis Scott’s Astroworld.
It’s somewhat ironic that Sheck Wes is signed to Scott’s Cactus Jack imprint because he’s almost the anti-Travis Scott. Where Scott is rigid in his raps and backed by a cabal of industry leaders, Sheck is unfastened and going it alone. This intuition extends to his ad-libs, chief among them “bitch,” which pops up frequently and at random, standing as a raw bearing of his emotions. “Why I say bitch so much? Let me explain it: It’s the only word where I can feel and hear all my anger,” he says on “Gmail.” Every utterance of the word—and MUDBOY by extension—feels like spontaneous combustion. His process is one of fluidity and recklessness, in sound and rhythm. Through him, you can hear the Harlem jigginess in his flows, the seismic hums of Kid Cudi, and the loose, informal ramblings of Lil B.
Like Playboi Carti, Sheck Wes was modeling before most had heard his raps, and both put an emphasis on form over function and style over structure. The inclination is to immediately hear Sheck’s songs as slapdash and superficial, owed largely to their lack of text, but doing so misses the point. Taken at face value, his rhymes are simple, but directness is the appeal, a force that delivers huge blows. To write it off as unremarkable is to risk looking like Zedd, being schooled on music theory by “Mo Bamba” co-producers Take a Day Trip after he took a shot at the song. It isn’t basic; it’s straightforward by design. Sheck has spoken openly about people getting “lost in the energy” in his music and missing the message. But as he put it recently: “I’m talking about some shit!”
Inside many of these amped-up jams are tales of self-discovery hiding in plain sight. “They just want the turnt shit/They don’t like the sad music,” Sheck laments on “WESPN.” But he sneaks in poignance anyway. “It gets tragic where I live, everything is negative/Hold the roaches in the crib, elevator full of piss/Everybody grew up tough, bunch of diamonds in the rough/Police ain’t never give a fuck, they just want us in them cuffs,” he raps on “Live Sheck Wes,” as clear and concise an indictment of big-city politics as any in rap. “Never Lost” recounts his month’s long exile to Senegal and all he learned in its aftermath. Later, on “Jiggy on the Shits,” this becomes a key part of his origin story, as he finesses his way back to America. “I turned a couple years into a couple months/I took my plan, and now I’m writing history,” he raps, adding in some Wolof—the native language of Senegal—for good measure. His writing is striking.
While MUDBOY is a strong and holistic statement from an upstart rapper, with the early-album run from “Live Sheck Wes” through “Chippi Chippi” being particularly stunning, these songs feel like underscores for the colossal “Mo Bamba.” It is not only the centerpiece but also a pure representation of what being a “mudboy” means: the fraternities immigrant kids find on the fringes of urban centers, the sense of community fostered in the New York underground, finding your escape hatch—be it balling or rapping—and pushing your way out the hood so that everyone you knew can share in that win. The song is in celebration of putting the city on and a rallying cry for those who might come after, following in his footsteps. That’s the essence carried within MUDBOY: the toil produces a man and a man clears a path for the next.
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