Adjacent to Philly’s sprawling Temple University campus and the gated windows of its brick-and-mortar off-campus housing is the more indigent sections of Philly; the 3/4 houses, sketchy and super-dusty corner stores that don’t appear to actually sell anything, the enveloping unease of urban poverty and unfriendly faces. This is the Philly you know from Jay-Z’s wholesale usurpation of their rhyme style and swag in the late 90s when he drafted Freeway, Beanie Sigel, Young Gunz, and State Property to Roc-A-Fella during the label imprint’s peak. It’s the Philly you know from Meek Mill videos and songs, from Philly Swain, Reed Dollaz, Tech 9, E Ness, Bill Collector, and Rosenburg Raw batles. It’s the Philly that Gillie Da Kid showed off during the advent of 2006/2007′s Weezymania to call Wayne’s street cred and bonafides into question.
That is not the Philly that you will get on Rone’s The First Story. And that’s definitely for the better. Rone’s Philly is more of a mix of the area’s rep for having incredibly technical rappers and a rich musical legacy like, more directly, the educated chops and open-mindedness of a group like the legendary Roots crew. Initially coming into the public eye as a part of Charles Hamilton’s sad gradual downward spiral (i.e. the “white kid battles Charles Hamilton” vid of Worldstar fame), he built on that initial notoriety from 2009 to now as one of the most talented battlers in Grindtime and King of the Dot. Renowned for a spitfire take on Philly’s famous sing-song flow and a cutting wit befitting his background at Penn State, he was the definition of “different”; he didn’t pretend to be a thug or particularly violent in his rhymes or presentation, he didn’t try to hide who he naturally was as a white kid going to a good college, and he rarely, if ever, took the easy route in dissecting his opponents in the ring. So it’s no surprise that on his first full-length he delivers something slightly different from what even those familiar with him would expect.
And what would you expect from Rone? Asher Roth. There, I said it. In all fairness, it’s been said in rap battles before and there is definitely a surface parallel there. Where the follow-through drifts from expectations is that, unlike Asher, Rone has his own voice – high, pinched, and naturally fluid like a woodwind instrument – and it often sounds like he’s actually enjoying himself. Tracks like “Little White Lies” are seemingly delivered through a constant wink and grin, reinforcing that he doesn’t have any pretensions toward acting too-cool on the LP or as an artist.
The other thing is, dude has much better instincts regarding productions choices. Whereas Asher peaked on a shrewd reinterpretation of a Weezer track, The First Story is incredibly musical without falling on some Jason Mraz-style fratboy cliches. Every track contains a healthy dose of live instrumentation and singing (Rone handling most of the heavy lifting on “Giving My Love Away” and the in-the-round crooning of “Against the Wall” sounding reminiscent of Lou Rawls), creating a sound that’s at-once similar to recent Roots albums and singular in an era of hyper-digital hip-hop production. Everything’s petty warm, well-worn, and natural, with the notable exception “Little White Lies”, a curveball that sounds an awful lot like early Le Tigre. Even the synthy knock of “Come Home To Me” has some tastefully layered guitars supporting it, indicating the level of thought and insight that went into the music on the album, which is honestly some of the most inspired stuff you will hear from any battle rapper.
No slouch in the booth either, Rone combines a well-crafted 12-track album with his extant talent on the mic to drop a debut LP that doesn’t need to be evaluated on a battle rapper or freshman curve. It’s as quality as it is readily marketable, although obviously not being beholden to the limitations of underground hip-hop is easy when you produce a work with absolutely nothing to do with the backpacker traps and blog-baiting of modern underground rap.
A/V proof? We got that. Check below for the album stream via Soundcloud, the first visual from The First Story (“Giving My Love”), bonus vid “Rock Paper Scissors”, and links to Rone info, updates, and music.