As Battle Rap slowly inches away from a niche interest and further into mainstream consciousness, the age-old debate remains of how successfully an emcee can parlay punchline driven freestyles and pre-written combative bars into the more palatable songs and albums that fuel careers. The likes of Jin the MC, Eminem and Supernatural serve as examples to members of Smack URL, King of the Dot Entertainment and other leagues of how a post-Battle Rap career looks. Somewhere in the mix is 2007 Scribble Jam champ, Nocando, who flipped a successful run in the Battle Rap circuit into a solo career accented by co-hosting the Shots Fired podcast and his regular presence as a resident at the famed Low End Theory club among other things.
The contrast between formerly being a fixture in what is perceived as an obscure nook of Battle Rap and the more accessible avenues of podcasting and the L.A. club scene essentially plays out on wax on Nocando’s latest, Jimmy The Burnout. Production that varies between minimalist and Trap-inspired is merged with Nocando’s atypical rhyme cadence (at times he purposely goes off-beat by not ending his couplets on the downbeat of a typical 4/4 time signature only to return) to create a project that rewards those who take time to actively listen and engage with it.
Take “Little Green Monsters” for instance. The track is an exercise in minimalism, as it’s comprised of three main elements: a pair of clanging chimes, some dirty, 808 bass and a buzzing synth. On one hand Nocando is talking about subjects any millennial can relate to—the need to “get it together” and a loss of innocence. But there are also some dark and random moments sprinkled in—everything from having his blackness questioned (“Suburban niggas used to call me Oreo”) to abortion references and his own observation that he’s just “another dick, and this Rap game is a glory hole.” Suffice it to say, these aren’t things that peacefully coexist on the typical, Top 40 Rap song.
Whether it was intentionally created as such or not, the end result is production elements of mainstream Rap music often stigmatized for being vapid, merged with nuanced and autobiographical lyrics. The boast on “Grown Man Work,” where Nocando rhymes, “Feel like Osaka adopted us / Porn stars talk to us about modern politics, and how Barack Obama stopped the apocalypse,” could easily be autobiographical. The same can be said for the bars dedicated to a cousin locked up in Chino on “3rd World Hustle” or the former flame on “Never Looked Better.” The randomness of Nocando’s flow is an acquired taste to be sure. His pace of words varies, but anyone who has enjoyed the likes of Saafir or Organized Konfusion can attest that such variance isn’t exactly a damning characteristic. The album provides an oddly effective mix of highbrow talk—discussing mutual disarmament with an adult actress—and the usual topics rappers brag about, all done over off-kilter production. In theory none of this should work, but it does…quite well in fact.
Jimmy The Burnout shapes up to be rewarding despite bouts of perceived inaccessibility. Despite the varying rhyme patterns and eclectic production, it’s not the type of Nerd Rap that emcees generally opt for when they decide to start rapping to other rappers instead of fans. That doesn’t mean you won’t get a tongue-in-cheek skit by Eric Andre that links gyrating club goers and economic theory. For the most part, listeners will find relatable themes woven into the warped production. It’s a satisfying mix for listeners willing to take the time to delve into it.