Sorry I’m Late, the debut album from Baltimore emcee John Regan, is, on the surface, your typical underground Rap album. It takes a “me vs. the world,” anti-mainstream stance, professing to be “real” Hip Hop in an era of pretenders. But while it features those familiar themes and doesn’t push any new boundaries, it also manages to be much more. It manages to be a portrait of someone that loves Rap music dearly, but knows full well that love and enthusiasm are not always enough and that all the underground support and cosigns don’t put food on the table. The 24 year-old emcees portrayal of the conflicts, sacrifices, and compromises that go into pursuing one’s dream are extremely revealing. As an aural representation of what it takes to both do what you love and take care of the people you love Sorry I’m Late succeeds totally.
Opener “Sorry I’m Late” sets the stage musically for much of the album with its heavy drums and ringing guitar lines. Frequently on Sorry I’m Late, on cuts like “Yesterday” and “She Loves Me…Not”, the soaring guitars are given the most prominent place in the mix, overshadowing the beat. Sonically it works wonderfully, even when the arrangements are a bit over the top or a little rote the instruments still sound great, recorded for maximum warmth and clarity. “Breath of Fresh Air” follows closely to that template but with more edge to it. Regan matches the songs intensity, placing himself in direct opposition to the mainstream: “Tell me, why is everybody so hard for? Music’s so hardcore / So what’s he gonna do for an encore / If everybody’s shooting each other there’s none left / Reputations created in one breath / Photoshoot done with a screw-face / But kid is a two-face/In real life softer than toothpaste.” This a common underground claim, that mainstream emcees are often less real than their lesser known counterparts, but Regan backs it up by keeping his daily life in the forefront of his music, reminding listeners that he has more in common with them then he does with chart topping rappers, regardless if they share the same profession.
“Nobody’s Somebody” is both an anomaly and a standout because of its minimalist production, care of Nottz and 88-Keys. Over just a marshal beat, soaring, wordless background vocals, and throbbing bass Regan spits lyrics further affirming his outsider status, “On the outside of the industry just peeking in/I would act cool but jealousy was deep within.” And Nottz’s guest verse almost matches up to his production work on the track: “Everybody want respect / Nobody takin’ the walk / Somebody tell these nobody’s please / The real boom-bap is back / The real active / Long as I’m walkin’ and breathin’ / Hip Hop is attractive.”
Despite the fact that Regan is travelling some well worn territory (industry struggles, family strife, self-doubt) it doesn’t feel like you’ve heard it all before. For example “All I Got To Give”, a piano and strings driven track again produced by YZ, could have easily ended up overly maudlin but Regan avoids clichéd sentimentality through his dedication to keep his lyrics specific and grounded in his real life: “It was hard losin’ my grams / She nurtured all the roots of this man / You understand, she was the glue to the fam / It crushed my heart in that hospital seeing her cry / Holding my hand telling me she was scared to die / I couldn’t take it at the wake / The straight face she had gave me the shivers / Made me want to crawl into that coffin with her.”
Regan’s willingness to acknowledge that while Rap is what drives him it’s not always what comes first allows the listener a fuller understanding of the trials of the working musician, who while devoted to his art nevertheless must also hold down a steady job. On “9:57 Interlude” the emcee admits “When the rents due gotta put away the pencil / Put the rhymes aside because my nine-to-five / Will feed my family faster than an instrumental / Faster than potential / And that’s deep but my daughter can’t sleep on these scribbled on sheets of paper.” The track was once again produced by YZ who along with John Regan stands as the star of Sorry I’m Late. The little known producer won’t stay that way for long if this album gets into the ears of enough people.
The record isn’t going to shock anyone, it doesn’t set out to push music into new areas but that’s no great slight against it. It carves out its own space in previously explored territories. Also, Sorry I’m Late can at times be a trying listen because the world that Regan inhabits is a high-stress, low reward one, commercially and financially at least. One could argue that the record could use some lighter spots, some fun tracks, but that would blunt its ability to effectively serve as realistic document. In a just world Regan will be rewarded for his efforts on this album and have many reasons to celebrate on his sophomore record.