One of the great things artists can do is capture the feeling of an environment. It's easy to name streets and neighborhoods—those things are tangible. But embodying the spirit of a specific place, especially during a particular time of year, is impressive. This ability has helped to distinguish hip-hop that comes from New York City and the tri-state area as a whole. The grime that comes with living in struggling communities during the winter is conveyed by many East Coast artists. This tradition is not just continued, it’s augmented by Aguardiente, the collaborative album from Big Ghost Ltd and CRIMEAPPLE.
Big Ghost goes by many names. The Hands of Zeus. Thor Molecules. Cocaine Biceps. But many people know him as the blogger whose articles read like transcripts of Ghostface Killah's barbershop visits. He's notorious for Drake album reviews that feature the most colorful takes on the rapper you'll find (I dare you not to laugh when Big Ghost calls Drake the "Kitten Whisperer"). But his work as a producer has taken center stage the past few years and, with Aguardiente as proof, it's time for the crowd around the stage to grow.
Several rappers have worked with Big Ghost for an entire project, but his latest collaboration with CRIMEAPPLE is a standout. CRIMEAPPLE is a New Jersey rapper of Colombian descent. His identity shapes his music, making his lyrics both foreign and familiar to me. I don't always understand the Spanish words he uses in his rhymes. But the scenes he describes play out vividly in my mind, reminding me of the things I observed while growing up in the Bronx.
A prime example is "Crime State of Mind," a nod to Nas' classic song "N.Y. State of Mind." Over a piano-driven beat, CRIME boasts about his current life in rap and his past life in the streets. He says, "But this ain't the pontiff, it's deposits / Give me the cell phone and the wallets. The object is profit / Anonymous robbers tasting your peach cobbler / Speak modest, or it's 'BLOCKA, BLOCKA,' gracias papa." CRIME's words here describe a life of danger, but his voice and attitude express the arrogance bred by such a life. Taking advantage of others is at the core of theft and drug dealing, and having the nerve to take part often means that you move with an ego.
This dark lifestyle described on "Crime State of Mind" is a theme throughout the album, but not in the sense of merely glorifying violence. Instead, CRIME adds nuance to the ways in which he looks at street life. On "Your Love," he speaks about a former friend that he feels betrayed by. He alludes to retaliation, but underneath the threat of violence is a tale about loyalty and trust. And the content of CRIME's verses is amplified by the song's slow, sorrowful beat.
Then there's "Another Round," a song that shows off CRIME's storytelling skills. He creates a tale of robbery that personifies brands of liquor as participants, bystanders and victims. Stella Artois is a store owner and Jack Daniels is a detective. Blue Moon is an escape car and St. Ides is an actual saint. This concept of using one vice to describe another one gives the song plenty of replay value. I keep listening back to catch all of the details.
The story on "Another Round" is one of many verses from CRIME that center upon, quite fittingly, crime. With this in mind, Aguardiente probably isn't the best listen for a sunny day. It's bona fide winter rap, from its topics to its sound. Big Ghost plays a big part in this, as his production on the album gives off a strong mafioso feel. It meshes well with the Narcos-esque persona that CRIME assumes, and the result is an album that's theatrical in many ways.
Now, much like a crime drama, the gloomy content and sound of Aguardiente may be a bit much for some listeners to get into. But nonetheless, the album shows what makes CRIMEAPPLE and Big Ghost notable talents. CRIME raps with an edge born from his background. His flow is polished and his punchlines are potent. Big Ghost proves to be a great partner for him, thanks to beats that fit into a family tree with work from Alchemist and Mobb Deep's Havoc. Together, CRIME and Big Ghost recreate the grit of where they come from. And this attachment to their past surroundings can make their work reach places they never imagined.
Notable Tracks: “Another Round” | “Casino” | “Crime State of Mind - Food Interlude” | “Romans”