Nicholas J - One of a Kind
As explained with the review of Safari Al, there is a young crop of hip hop talent emerging in Wisconsin. Milo’s I wish my brother Rob was here served as an introduction not only to his talent, but also to Safari Al and Nicholas J through some guest verses. As it turns out, Nicholas J actually beat his friends to punch with a solo release a couple of years ago with his DEMOlition mixtape, but I imagine that like myself, One of a Kind will be your first introduction to the young artist.
It’s interesting to see the pieces come together as these mixtapes continue to drop. Milo’s music was obviously influenced by other awkward nerdy emcees that use unconventional phrasing like Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle. Safari Al showed himself to be as much as a soulful singer-songwriter as well emcee with a penchant for abstract imagery. Nicholas J rounds out the trio of friends and artists as the most traditional hip hop artist of the three. The mixtape opens strongly, with “Run of the Mil” slowly building momentum as introduces himself to his listeners and showcases his ability to rhyme quickly and cleverly as he declares his intentions to separate himself from the rest of the pack. “One of a Kind” gives us the first great hook of the mixtape, in which he rhymes “If you think you can define me, you probably crossed the line, you can’t mess with my mind, I am one of a kind.” While there is a great deal of promise being laid down, there are also a few hiccups along the way. “Do What You Feel,” built off a sample of “I Am Not A Robot” by Marina and the Diamonds is an attempt to step outside of the norm, but his interaction with the sung chorus is a very awkward, and the song in general comes across too cute for my tastes. Admittedly, I don’t really care for the source material, and Nicholas J’s interaction with rhyming and scatting over a sax solo hints at some more interesting possibilities, but the song doesn't come together coherently. This is followed by “Gupta’s Freestyle,” which features Nicholas J rhyming over a beatbox in a vaguely Middle Eastern/South Asian accent, while dropping some non-P.C. punch lines. I don’t get the impression that there were ill intentions behind this song, and I don’t know Nicholas J’s ethnic background, so I don't want to make any assumptions. The lesson here, though, is that if you’re going to use vocal style and humor to make political or social commentary, you need to make sure the song is focused and well developed so that the message cuts through the song and any jokes. Fortunately, things get right back on track with “Sax in the Back Seat,” which rocks a laid back jazzy beat reminiscent of Digable Planets. It also introduces us to AD the Architect, who has good chemistry with Nicholas J and gives us another young talent to keep an eye on. The appearance from Dana Coppa from KingHellBastard on "Make or Break" once again leaves me frustrated. Coppa can’t seem to shake throwing the word “bitch” into his rhymes so often that it makes it seem like he’s trying too much to sound hard and in turn makes him come across much more ignorant than he actually is. The intermission half way through the tape is probably the most awkward moment on the release and seems entirely unnecessary, as Nicholas J stops and explains what he's done and what he's trying to do on the rest of the mixtape. It really boils down to a case of showing and not telling. The good news is that the second half of the tape is very strong. “Brainstorm” sounds radio ready, with a sped-up Beatles sample and drums sounding like early Kanye, and rhymes that are as energetic and clever as can be. “Cool Kids” has Nicholas J and AD the Architect rhyming over some hyphy beats as they make some really nice observations about playing to trends. Things close strongly with the dreamy and introspective "Gone."
There are more ups and downs on Nicholas J’s One of a Kind than recent mixtapes from his pals, but the highs are very high, and the lows usually come from experimenting with styles that don’t come together well. If I cut out the parts I didn’t care for, I’d still have enough solid material to make for a great record. Nicholas J has a great command of different flows and rhyme schemes, drops some really clever lines, and is invested in making music with a positive message. I have a feeling that when Nicholas J figures it out and really hits his stride, we can expect a classic hip hop album from this guy. The future of Wisconsin hip hop is looking good these days.