With the release of his sophomore album Cottonwood 2, NLE Choppa has come through the other side of his identity crisis. It might be hard to remember for some but back in summer 2020, the Memphis-bred tough talker decided to rebrand as Awakened Choppa. An interesting pivot from the gangster rapper who went from “walking down opps” to putting out YouTube videos of him meditating and living off the land. Fans weren’t sure if it was a “bit” or if he was seriously going from gangster to gardener. Either way, the switch in lifestyle came as a surprise to most as NLE was becoming one of the biggest young artists online.

Fans fret not though. NLE’s holistic lifestyle didn’t last long, at least not in his music. On his second official album Cottonwood 2, NLE is back in the proverbial streets with plenty of gun bars to go around. He gets the tough talk started right away on intro track “Talk Different” where he raps just the same as good ‘ol NLE. Lines like “Let me talk my shit ’cause I talk different/Got hit with the stick, now he walk different” are simple reminders that he’s still very much the top shotta.

“Before I” is the album’s declaration song, and perhaps the strongest on the entire project. The first half of the beat is a relentless onslaught of Memphis bounce and then switches halfway through to a slower twang; a gear switch NLE handles seemingly without missing a breath. The bars are obviously hard, but he sprinkles in flashes of his wholesome self with the chorus chanting: “Before I bust a move, I gotta pray first, say a verse/Wash my hands before I touch the work.”

Say what you will about NLE’s lifestyle choices, whether you agree, disagree or are indifferent, his flow is unmatched on this album. The pockets get picked out of nowhere and he can hop around these intricate beats with ease. Most rappers who achieve this level of fluidity usually tackle the same type of beats or BPMs to stay on track. NLE, however, is picking beats as if it was Sway’s Five Fingers of Death. “Dope” with Fivio Foreign is a braggadocious bar fest where NLE hits double time and even triple time flows. “Stomp Em Out” is a pulsating head banger while “Cold Game” and “Disability Checks” are deep, dark and menacingly moody. All of which bodes well for NLE’s dexterity as a rapper.

What doesn’t bode well for NLE, however, is the album’s length. 22 songs for the regular release with an additional 9 tracks for the deluxe. No matter how good a dozen or so of these songs are, a run time of an hour and 40 minutes is far too much to digest. NLE raps well, but not uniquely enough on each song for a lot of them to stand out. Songs like “All I Know”, “Pretty Brown” and “Home” blend together almost identically, and by the time listeners get to the first half of the deluxe, the whole project becomes somewhat of a musical mirage. This could also be seen as a knock on NLE’s range of subject matter, which is fairly limited. Although he raps well, the topics don’t exactly cover much sophisticated ground, which gets masked on shorter projects, but when the album drags, it’s hard to get out of the lull.
Despite this ultra-marathon length tracklist, Choppa holds down a lot of the tracklist on his own. The pals he does tap in with give mixed performances throughout the project, both helping and hindering. 2Rare doesn’t add much to the otherwise perfect “Dot It Again” while Queen Naija delivers a show-stopping chorus on “On God” that’s sure to be a playlist earworm. Of course, in the current collaboration climate we live in, the more the artists on one track the more the song gets streamed.

With that said, the best collaboration on the album is featuring one of NLE’s obvious idols, Lil Wayne. “Ain’t Gonna Answer” is a neat homage track to Weezy with a subtle “Stuntin Like My Daddy” sample woven through a Hot Boys era New Orleans bounce beat.

After time runs out on the final track, it’s clear that Cottonwood 2 sounds great without saying very much. Listeners won’t know more about NLE’s life, story, or innermost musings after taking in the project, but he sounds great rapping about a bunch of illegal activities for an hour and 40 minutes. This album won’t go down as a modern day classic, nor will it slingshot NLE to the top of the charts, but it will give listeners a battery in their back for their next big gym session or block party.