It’s an old professional wrestling promo — that’s where that passage comes from. It eventually gives way to a soliloquy from Ric Flair, screaming about “the toughest guy in studio wrestling I’ve ever seen in my life.” The scene comes from a time when the production of pro wrestling was so small, you could hear individual shouts from fans watching on as these beefed-up super heroes spatted off taunts and challenges to their dancing partners. Call it cheesy if you want, but anyone who’s even remotely a fan of the stuff can attest: It’s a pretty great sequence.
It also appears on Retro/Ricole Barnes’ latest LP, “Mr. Sunrise,” during the outro of “Out Here Causing Trouble,” a menacing four-and-a-half minutes of aggressively dark hip-hop that’s as confident as it is memorable. Even PassPort Sport’s verse flows with antagonism and arrogance, resulting in a flow that vaguely echoes 1990s-era Chicago-scene speed and an attitude as crass as Juvenile in his dirtiest moments. It results in something you can’t not listen to, if only to see how far these guys are willing to take it.
Yet that’s what makes both Retro/Ricole (as an artist) and “Mr. Sunshine” (as an album) an inspiring listen. The guy’s flow is hungry like a man who needs the genre more than it needs him. The production recalls a time in hip-hop where simplicity could be affecting without a touch of gimmick or synthesizers. The tone is sometimes confrontational and almost always alive. And the attitude? It’s so oversized that even if he’s not selling a million records, you better be damn sure he believes he should be.
That much is understood right from the jump. “Up” smashes you in the face no less than one second into it, accentuated by a funky processed keyboard line riff that gives the track a fun edge. Once he comes around to talking about beefin’ with Kanye West and the backbeat drops away ever so slightly, it harkens back to the beginnings of rap music, complete with conga sounds and hand claps that were most prevalent back when the art was still fun and pure.
“Spooning” keeps the groove’s tempo up, even if it’s slightly bogged down by a silly refrain about cuddling. In an era when rap music has been explicitly sexual, somewhat sexist and unforgivingly misogynistic, Retro/Ricole earns himself a tiny number of points for saluting the snuggle, even if that soft heart hardens elsewhere. Like, for instance, on “Camera Lenses,” which is “dedicated to all the girls that live in my lap.” Maybe it’s just a product of the times, but a hook centered around Facebook likes suggests both Retro and Ricole can do better.
All is forgiven with a track like “1-5 Live,” however, where after dropping the fact (yet again) that numbers don’t lie, Barnes seamlessly offers a nod to Jay-Z’s 2001 classic kiss off, “Takeover,” in a manner that’s surprising and welcome. On top of some hauntingly sparse production, it puts the MC’s ability to switch flows on centerstage and that showcase serves him well. It’s a marriage that has all the potential in the world to find a home in heaven.
But as for where Retro/Ricole resides now … well, that’s actually the most praiseworthy aspect of these 11 tracks: He’s not afraid to call Frederick home, even going as far as namedropping Fort Detrick in one instance. “Down” invites Cubs The Poet to offer up a poem, a cappella, and instead of being dismissed as corny, it comes off as a nice display of unity. “Maryland 02” takes Barnes back to the year he graduated high school on top of a thundering beat that warps in and out of psychedelia. And the snare drum that serves as connecting tissue between “SpellCheck” and the title track adds flare to his feeling as he declares, “The love of my city is unconditional.”
And with “Mr. Sunrise,” there’s no reason Retro/Ricole Barnes’ city shouldn’t love him back. Swift wordplay. Adaptive flows. An original approach. Nods to hip-hop’s history. This guy has everything anyone could ever ask of not just a rap artist, but a musical mind. Sure, he gets a little lazy sometimes with the girls and the hashtags and the consistent red-faced vocabulary, but at the core of all this is a true artist. A true artist who is ready to take the next step. A true artist who is devoted to his craft.
He’s got all the cards. Now do yourself a favor and listen as he deals.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***