In another life, Problem could have probably made a substantial living as a venture capitalist. Just a few years ago, news of a West Coast up and comer would likely be met with a yawn and an emoji shrug at best, but in 2014 stock in California Hip Hop has skyrocketed to surprising levels. The likes of Nipsey Hussle, Dom Kennedy, YG, TDE, and DJ Mustard are just a few names responsible for this long-awaited resurgence, and after years of putting in work in the underground scene, Compton native Problem is looking to tread the same path to household fame that his contemporaries have recently achieved. With nine mixtapes and an impressive EP to his credit, 354: Lift Off is arguably the most solid entry on his resume since 2013’s The Separation.
Problem’s main westside connection and longtime collaborator Bad Lucc, is featured heavily throughout the album. Rappers never like to be compared to other artists, but Lucc in his default state is akin to Mack 10 circa Based On A True Story days. “Lift Off” is a crowning example as Lucc blends an aggressive, alto delivery with pictorial images of Compton street life. But the most penetrating aspect of 354: Lift Off is how musically multifarious it is while still abstaining from a frenetic, wayward feel. Many of the tracks come in bundled packages of two and sometimes three, which is a risky move but works wonders on this particular tape. Problem enlists the help of rapper/actor/writer Childish Gambino for a remake of DJ Quik’s “Dollaz + Sense,” and despite the differences in their creative approaches, the collective revamp and do adequate justice to a Left Coast standard. In the waning minutes, the song shifts midway to “0 to 100,” and Problem sounds focused and determined, offering, “Kinda crazy right / Blowing Cool J, yeah I’m what the ladies like.”
Both “Everyday Is My Day” and “Hot Nigga” encompass the same sort of militant flow that has been the staple of Problem’s career output. But unlike some of his missteps in the past, Problem pays meticulous attention to the overall sonic package rather than merely a flurry of thumping rhymes. In particular, Problem pulls veteran moves on “Hot Nigga,” diversifying his flow when the beat fluctuations necessitates as much while simultaneously concocting a romping head banger in the process. Auto-tune is a sin in most fan’s books, but it works to Problem’s advantage on his reworking of Speaker Knockerz’ “Lonely” when the harmonizing with his trademark Compton lyricism. He also covers Disclosure’s “Latch” into a fusion of G-Funk and a pounding techno-centric baseline. Once again focused on the ultimate prize of achieving supreme musical moments rather than releasing a bevy of entertaining 16-bar recitals, Problem mostly plays off the original recording rather than trying to overtake it. It is because of moments like these that make 354: Lift Off such a well-rounded effort.
Problem’s hybrid of original recordings and freestyles make for an interesting blend undoubtedly. When he is playing the role of Ice Cube, jackin’ for beats, he is able to improve upon lavish instrumentals that could have been used for better purposes in their original state. It’s difficult to deny the appeal of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” but after so many radio spins the world over, it’s refreshing to hear another rapper flex on the poppy DJ Mustard imitation. This winning formula continues when Problem flips Migos’ “Fight Night” and Tinashe’s “2 On.” On the latter, he spits, “I heard they making a list about the West / If my name ain’t on it, they ain’t mentioning the best.”
But with so much music, hiccups are almost unavoidable. “Never Satisfied” is utterly unsatisfying as Problem compounds a throwaway chorus with scattered, offbeat rhymes. Similarly, on “Chachi Forever,” Problem takes on the task on rhyming over Wu-Tang’s beloved “Triumph” as the finale, which makes thematic sense given the quality of the tape, but his middling performance is a far cry from Inspectah Deck bombing atomically. Still, there is too much good on 354: Lift Off for the project to be deterred by a few misfirings. We have been spoiled in recent years with the tapes of Curren$y, Big K.R.I.T., and J. Cole among others in regards to how their mixtapes are sometimes indistinguishable from real albums; featuring mostly original content. With a blend of both worlds, 354: Lift Off is an entertaining listen. In spite of his namesake, the transition into a mainstream presence might be a simple task if he continues to release quality projects with wide-ranging appeal.