StalleyHonest Cowboy (Mixtape Review)  DX Consensus: “EP Worthy”

There comes a time when the latest buzzing, blue collar, “grind until I make it” rapper becomes a glaring paradox: he makes it. When he makes it with perhaps the most puissant posse in the industry, that paradox becomes much tougher to shake. It’s what Ohio product Stalley faces on the heels of dropping his debut LP for Maybach Music Group. After all, how can an emcee that thrives off of DIY hustle survive with label mates that boast about spending six figures every night?

It begins with honesty—something that’s lost far too often in the culture of free, Internet mixtapes. “My raps tell a lot about where I been…where I came from,” Stalley spits on the intro track of his 2011 tape, Lincoln Way Nights (Intelligent Trunk Music). He’s not lying: while Stalley lacks the braggadocio of Rick Ross and the charisma of Wale, he compensates with a penchant for storytelling and a vow to keep it real. That vow is the premise for Honest Cowboy, Stalley’s fifth mixtape and second in as many years for MMG. With a title derived from fascination with his father’s work on a ranch and a poignant black-and-white vlog series to hype the project, Honest Cowboy was expected to be another breath of fresh air in a summer full of them for Hip Hop. For the most part, it doesn’t disappoint.

Honest Cowboy kicks off with “Spaceships & Woodgrain,” a woozy song about night cruisin’ that invokes Pharcyde and Outkast in its first verse. Backed by twinkling keys and rolling bass, the intro track sounds like it could’ve been dropped two decades ago.

“I pilot the Apollo, roll through the projects / Gold on my neck, that’s the code of respect,” he raps as spacey guitar kicks in. That momentum carries into the mixtape’s second song and lead single, “Swangin,’” a six-minute shout to codeine and candy paint. Stalley’s love for old school whips is no secret, and with the help of Scarface, he’s able to kick vivid lyrics that exceed his years and his hometown.

“Uncle Bun and Scarface, the reason why my car laced / With a detachable Alpine face, fifteens and loud bass,” Stalley says. It’s not often you find a five-verse cut on anything these days, let alone a free mixtape.

There are moments when Stalley thematically takes a step back, such as when he raps about stacking bills (“Samson”) or the tried and true cliché that his mistress is Mary Jane (“The Highest”). But it’s tough to ignore the lyrical intensity and Stalley’s improved pen game. Stalley’s at his best when he’s able to be observational, and it becomes apparent just how much a dose of maturity has helped his songwriting.

You can make a strong argument that Stalley outshines ScHoolboy Q on “NineteenEighty7.” The pair form a cinematic West Coast duo that rolls down Sunset Boulevard over a sax and creeping keys. Meanwhile, Stalley displays further versatility on “Raise Your Weapons” and “Long Way Down”—two consecutive sociopolitically-jarring standouts. On the former, Stalley raps about discrimination over his tattoos and his Muslim faith, leading a charge for respect from those that won’t listen. Forget “Intelligent Trunk Music.” This is just intelligent music, plain and simple.

At 30 years old, Stalley has the insight of a veteran and the enthusiasm of a rookie. Honest Cowboy, despite its brevity, is his most complete project to date, showing that while his blue collar subject matter might be behind him, that’s not what makes him a respectable emcee. It’s the honesty, something we can only hope rides with him for a while as he grips that Maybach woodgrain.