Authorship is one of the facets of hip-hop that helps it resonate with fans. Now, some songs in the genre don’t call for personal content. If I’m at a party, I don’t expect the lyrics I hear to sound like a therapy session. And a lot of times, I can enjoy rap songs simply because the rhymes are clever and the beats sound nice. Yet, a lot of the music I and other hip-hop fans revere—the music that we live to—reflects what emcees have gone through and how they understand the world around them. Music that could only be penned by the artist listed on the song—this is the challenge that most great emcees need to meet, and Problem does just that on his new album Selfish.
Problem is from Compton, California, which is something you could probably guess without me confirming it. His hometown is as present in his music as a guest feature—from the accent you hear as Problem rhymes, to the slang he uses (his songs helped me learn that I should be alarmed if someone plans to have me “packed out”). Problem’s career dates back to 2008 and has included several mixtapes and EPs, but Selfish is his first solo full-length album.
The LP will serve as an introduction to some fans, but Selfish is more of a reinvention for Problem. Problem gained attention outside of California after he was featured on E-40’s 2012 song “Function.” In the eyes of fans like me, the E-40 feature and the solo songs that followed thereafter established Problem as an energetic, party-oriented rapper. I identified him by his signature adlib of “Whaaaat!!!” rather than his lyrical ability. Yet, Problem changed my view of him earlier this year when I heard Rosecrans, his collaborative album with the legendary DJ Quik.
As I listened to Rosecrans, I kept saying to myself, “Since when can Problem rap like THIS?!?!” The album is one of the best hip-hop releases this year and it made me anticipate what Problem would offer on his own. I wasn’t disappointed as I started listening to Selfish and heard the first song, “Mission Statement.” It has a menacing beat that matches the mood that Problem gives off in his rhymes. If you don’t understand a word he says on the song, you can probably still sense that he has something to prove. Problem’s delivery gives the song the same “I’ll show you” impression that you get when you watch Isaiah Thomas play basketball. He matches this energy with his rhymes as he says, “From industry woes to eye level with Glocks / [I] survive time after time like watches chasing a clock / Chachi, still standing, still 3-5-4 banging / ‘Til my number’s in the rafters, still 3-5-4 hanging.” The statement that Problem makes on the song is clear: he’s going to achieve greatness in hip-hop despite anything that gets in his way.
He channels this determination for the rest of the album as he shows his artistic growth. The following song “354” begins as the type of anthem I’d expect from Problem. Its drums and bass are reminiscent of the West Coast sound that became popular a few years ago due to the likes of DJ Mustard and League of Starz—a sound that helped Problem build his brand. You can tell Problem is right at home on the track because his flow and adlibs mesh with the beat seamlessly. But halfway through the song, it becomes less of an anthem and more of a head-nodder, as Problem explains how he navigates the rap game as well as the streets. He shifts his delivery and his rhyme patterns, drawing attention to the song’s substance rather than its sound. In the process, Problem makes “354” a microcosm of the reinvention he is making as an artist.
As Selfish continues, Problem reveals more about himself than he has on past efforts. One example is “Man Enough,” a song that is a confessional at certain points and a venting session at others. On the second verse, Problem explains that conflict with the mother of one of his daughters has kept him from being as present in his daughter’s life as he’d like to be. As you listen, you can discern that Problem is still working his way through the issue, which makes it that much more commendable that he decided to speak on it to all of his fans.
Problem ends the album with the title track, another introspective song that must have been hard to record. Here Problem reveals that he has convinced girls in his past to have abortions after he impregnated them. He says, “And to the girls I took down that abortion aisle / All that fussing, all that fighting, all that forcing, ‘ow!’ / I apologize even though that might mean nothing now.” As the song continues, Problem regrets the carelessness of his past actions and ponders whether it brought about another loss that he suffered down the line. You can feel the weight of his conscience as you listen to the song.
These cathartic moments are highlights on what is a diverse album. The 9th Wonder produced “Top Off” sounds like a sun-filled summer drive around LA, while “Living Good (R.I.P. Jen)” shows how quickly trouble can arrive once the sun goes down. With “Get On It,” Problem channels 2 Live Crew, while “Ghost of Rosecrans (Remix)” is reminiscent of the late, great Roger Troutman. Selfish is only 9 songs deep, so it doesn’t leave much time for listeners to become bored with it. The album’s sequencing could be better since “Get On It” seems out of place right after “Man Enough.” Yet, Selfish is still a testament to the new emcee Problem has become—just in time for the new listeners he most certainly deserves.
Notable Tracks: “354” | “Mission Statement” | “Selfish” | “Top Off”