In 2006, Kenn Starr dropped his first album, Starr Status on Halftooth Records. To call it an indie release might be overgenerous; Halftooth folded after four years of relative ambiguity. Now, almost ten years later, Kenn Starr is back with Square One, his debut on Mello Music Group.
Square One is deeply personal, rooted in a bad romantic breakup and introspection layered over Kenn Starr’s individual standing in the rap game. He knows he’s a lyrical beast, but he doesn’t strive for the limelight so much as he opts to stay real and seek interpersonal experiences with his listeners. The album has an overarching spirituality to it, conveyed through Kenn Starr’s intelligent wordplay and metaphoric articulation. Flanked by a gang of underground producers, most notably Black Milk and Kev Brown, production is consistent and helps underscore the essence of the album. For lack of a better word, it’s mellow music.
Right out of the gate, Kenn Starr slathers the title track and with no chorus, just bars, he tells the listener, “To find competition you would have to dig a hole, open the ground / And make a dead rapper open his mouth.” Two songs later, on “Strangers,” he raps, “‘Cause I’m stressin’ hard don’t wanna be stressin’ ya’ll / So I withdraw like a credit or a debit card / Since I was eleven been 11 steps ahead of ya’ll / But real life don’t got nothing to do with having better bars.” His stream of consciousness is so elegant and precise, it often makes the song-writing seem effortless. And even when he speaks on personal issues, he remains endearing. Alongside Boog Brown on “Exodus,” Starr vents about an ex-thang: “I want no more drama / I need less of the stress / You can step to the exit / Ex to the next.” The use of “exodus” is a most clever play on words, invoking the “Ex to the next” theme of moving on and/or forward.
Yet for all the multiplicity, Kenn Starr is still at his best when he sticks to basic bar-for-bar rhyming. “Cigarettes & Whiskey,” like “Square One,” has no hook and unfolds marvelously from beginning to end, while his rhymes flow effortlessly like water. On the final track “Came to Deliver,” Starr raps alongside underground veterans Wordsworth and Supastition, with the three embodying an East Coast trio representing D.C. (Starr), New York (Wordsworth) and North Carolina (Supastition). Similarly, “Overdue” is an underground posse-cut featuring Kaimbr, Hassaan Mackey, and yU (Diamond District; The 1978ers). The culture of competition on these latter two collaborations brings out each guest’s A-game.
As previously mentioned, the production helps establish great cohesion. Track-sequencing isn’t always seamless, but the direction and vibe of the project are palpable throughout. Black Milk’s contributions are reminiscent of his earlier trends (Tronic). Kev Brown holds his own too, displaying noteworthy versatility on seven of the album’s thirteen beats. The 808s, boombap, and sample-heavy layering are the album’s prevailing modes of production.
Square One is an enormous testament to Kenn Starr’s lyrical prowess. He may not have the name recognition of today’s more popular rappers, but he doesn’t let that deter his confidence even slightly. Over the past nine years, he had been crafting an album to be as good, if not better than his debut. He succeeded. Square One is humble and personal, while still laden with intelligent braggadocio. Hopefully another nine years won’t pass before his next LP.