“Maybe you should call women hoes / And talk about drinkin’ liquor / How your money long / Make your ego look bigger / How you tote the steel / And ain’t scared to pull the trigger / And forget being creative / Just end every line with n—.”
This comes at almost exactly the halfway point on Stitch Early’s latest set, “The Great Compromise” — “Com,” which is the sixth of 12 tracks. If there’s one way to sum up the difference between this and 2014’s “All Rise,” it’s that very passage. For one, it’s probably the only time you’d ever have to censor a Stitch Early song on pop radio.
But also, it’s indicative of the evolution of the rapper born Lorenzo Nichols. “The Great Compromise” is dark. Consciously darker, in fact, than anything else he’s ever put on record. He’s always erred toward conceptuality throughout his releases and this is no different. Yet here, the music goes to places you just never really thought he’d travel while the lyrics address the complexities attached to one’s struggle with faith. It’s not entirely surprising, considering how he can be identified as a faith-based artist, but the length to which he goes in order to unearth a level of struggle that isn’t easy to address is impressive, if not unequivocally admirable.
Tracks like the aforementioned satan-inspired “Com” prove as much. At 91 seconds, it only really serves as a bridge to the decidedly sunny “Mos Def,” but it’s cutting in the way it condemns played-out stereotypes that have, for too long, plagued mainstream hip-hop in the modern day. It’s also a bold move from an artist who isn’t historically in the business of pillory.
Perhaps more dour is the atmospheric “Cordless,” which receives help from Andrew Bromhal, of Silent Old Mtns. fame, on the track’s hook and makeshift bridge. Musically, it recalls pre-“Encore” Eminem, the way the beat drives forward with a simple-yet-ragged snare drum. Even the refrain — “They think that they can break you/Remember they ain’t make you” — has a Marshall Mathers singsong vibe to it. It’s a rare turn into dour colors from an artist that typically thrives under brightness.
None of this, however, is to say that such shine isn’t occasionally present here. Single “Wave” is a different kind of accessible for Nichols, whose pop-hop takes a Southern, more roots turn. Lyrically, he’s as good as he’s ever been, but instead of the African drums and faux horns that appeared on a song like “Free,” “Wave” kicks up the cadence’s speed and the hook provides a new blend of bounce for the North Carolina native. As the production fades throughout the track’s final 25 seconds and Nichols is left to fill the space with an a cappella flow, it ostensibly announces his arrival as a next-level wordsmith.
Also more ebullient is the aforementioned “Mos Def,” which is perhaps the set’s most infectious moment. Flanked by a beat that slithers more than it slides, the MC knows his way around a chorus with the “M-O-S-D-E-F-inately” being his most lasting concoction to date. Plus, whenever the drums silence themselves, allowing Nichols to groove with only some synths and a bass line, he sounds more hungry than he’s ever sounded. It’s an energy that’s been added to his arsenal only recently and it’s decidedly delicious.
If you still aren’t sure, check the inspiring “Benchwarmers/Sleep,” which feels more New York-inspired than the rest of what’s here. Beginning with a minute-and-a-half monologue on the value of unconditional support, it ultimately blossoms into a beat that wouldn’t be out of place on a Talib Kweli mixtape. It’s a sharp contrast from opener “Higher,” which echoes production values that highlight Atlanta-infused ethos and might even make someone like Future smile.
Yet let there be no mistake that Stitch Early winds up with the last laugh. Because with “The Great Compromise,” the process of evolution is front and center, and while so many artists strive to continually grow, very rarely do they pull it off with as much competence and fearlessness as this guy does here. It kind of even makes you wonder where he might go for album No. 3, whenever that comes around.
For now, though, we have these dozen tracks. And with them, Lorenzo Nichols need not worry about compromising anything for a long, long time.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***