Mikkey Halsted’s The Dark Room is not your everyday debut. The artist who has bounced from big label to big label finally delivers a hard-earned piece of art. Upon receiving his Master’s degree in Education, the Chicagoan signed to Cash Money Records, where he made a few features but never released a debut. From their he spent a few years with Jermaine Dupri before landing on his feet with the help of Kanye West, and iconic producer No I.D. The Dark Room demonstrates an intense hunger, not just to be successful but to educate and perfect his craft. It’s clear that his journey allowed him to embrace his style. Cash Money and Jermaine Dupri’s loss is easily a Hip Hop fan’s gain.
The introduction is rather an ambitious start to a first project. Mikkey doesn’t rely on over the top production to prove a point, or even a catchy hook, he just spits his version of the truth. Halsted’s ability to intertwine health-care, hood politics, and dope wordplay all within a cohesive narrative is impressive. Lines like “It’s not that you’re pro-slavery, it’s just that you are anti-hope” aren’t just catchy, but they leave a mark on the listener. Without a doubt, “Welcome to the Dark Room” is one of the dopest introductions to an album in quite some time. The album itself is really an album rooted in emceeing, and the introduction allows the listener to appreciate the gift Mikkey has above the production from the likes of No I.D. overwhelms you.
“Camera’s Ready” hears Mikkey comparing himself to Nat Turner within a catchy hook, and eccentric production. It’s clearly an effort that has commercial appeal, but not in the deliberate way that has plagued debut albums. He toes this line throughout the project. On cuts like, “Hustlaz Need Love 2” he executes it perfectly. Here, Mikkey, delivers a passionate narrative, that sounds like Killer Mike in his element, over top of a soulful vocal sample. Even the album’s lead single, “First Class” is more complex than most braggadocios cuts. There is a distinct commercial appeal to Dark Room but its depth or reach isn’t lost in this appeal. Whenever you think he may have overstepped, see “Get Money” the very next track refreshes the listener with content that reminds us all why Mikkey is special.
On “Niggaz Just Complain” Mikkey is clearly in his element. The title actually deceives the listener into thinking it’s a pseudo hustler’s anthem. Instead it ends up being one of the albums shining moments, because of its depth and complexity. Lyrics like “I’m a baking soda baby, a crack rock kid / From right around the corner where the Black Sox live / Where the dope lines move, where dem hustlers tip / Where the gangsters make the drug dealers tuck in their shit / Where the schools are underfunded and the teachers don’t teach / So, the block educates the ones the money don’t reach…” do an incredible job painting a picture and explain the song’s title. Mikkey doesn’t preach, he paints a vivid picture and lets the listener come to their own conclusion. His Master’s degree in Education is well used, and the track comes across like a well written lesson plan instead of a preachy run down of project woes.
The album highs overwhelm the weaker moments. Only on “Get Money “and “Soul of a Gangsta” does Mikkey seem to falter. “Get Money” is bluntly put average, but on an album filled with inventive narratives, “Get Money” seems out of place. This point is only highlighted when the next track is the incredible “Exorcist.” On “Soul of a Gangsta” all three artists including Mikkey can’t overcome a generic hook. Yet just like “Get Money,” “Soul of a Gangsta” is followed by an outstanding posse cut featuring the likes of Bun B, Crooked I and Killer Mike among other. The line up itself should be applauded, and the cut is executed perfectly. The only other complaint is the albums length. With 21 tracks (and an iTunes bonus), the album runs long. While few tracks disappoint, cutting it down by just a few would have given Mr. Halsted the opportunity to make his debut a true modern classic, and feeling more revised.
The Dark Room is crafted with extremely delicacy. Even the interludes serve a purpose and are carefully selected. Mikkey Halsted puts the time and effort that every debut should have, add in sick production and talent on the mic, we have one of Hip Hop’s rising stars. The man described by as many as Kanye West’s protégé proves that he stands in the shadow of no man.