Reruns At The Drive In: Curren$y’s gritty reboot

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How does one measure consistency when it comes to greatness? It’s a question that comes into play in sports, music, even politics. Do you judge someone’s body of work by the highest peak they reach or the sum of their career? Curren$y has put together one of the greatest discographies of the new decade. The New Orleans native shadowed under the great Southern rap empires of No Limit and Cash Money and has combined their work ethic with 21st century internet distribution to create one of the strongest independent grinds in hip hop today. Through the dozens of projects that Curren$y has released in the past years, there hasn’t been a single bad one. He’s combined quality with quantity. But there also hasn’t been a truly great record, one that fans can point out to non Jet Lifers as the definitive Spitta Andretti project. And his new mixtape The Drive In Theater, while another fine entry in his career, isn’t going to win anyone over.

Some might think that this is a silly thing to argue about Curren$y’s music. From the get go he’s been a weed rapper who rarely spits about anything outside his zoned out sphere of influence. Rhymes about women and weed, planes and cars. JETS: Just Enjoy This Shit. But while that is true, it discounts the stylistic variety of his work. His flow may be what put him on the radar, but it’s his taste that has kept him interesting for so long. Very few have the ability to put together a cohesive record like Spitta. When he explores a new sound, he makes a whole project instead of just one song. Just last year, he made the dirty south thump of New Jet City (one of the best albums of the year) and rapped with Wiz Khalifa over African Jazz on the Live In Concert EP. The Drive In Theater has a beautiful cohesiveness to it as well. From the jazzy production to the movie skits to the album concept, this is a retro tinged affair. Thelonious Martin produced the bulk of the album and he said that 90’s legend Pete Rock was the main inspiration behind his work here. Thelonious is a frequent Curren$y collaborator and has scored a lot of retro sounding songs for several other rappers as well, and his work here isn’t bad. It’s just very familiar. The jazzy horn loops and open space on display here is Curren$y’s bread and butter, the type of beats that he rapped over on his breakthrough Pilot Talk albums four years ago. But when you release music as much as Curren$y does, you can’t afford to retread old terrain.

I feel like I’m coming off too harsh here because I like The Drive In Theater. It has earned a place in my car rotation and won’t be leaving anytime soon. Spitta has gotten better at rapping with every project and this tape is no exception. He’s never sounded sharper than he does here and lets you know it from the intro: “come at me and be upstaged, I’ve heard better raps read off page from my cousin, he in the fourth grade, so I don’t know how some of these suckers be getting paid.” He spits scenes with such clarity that it makes you wonder what the effects of marijuana on memory really are.  He has his enemies facetime with the fishes on “Godfather 4,” reminisces on trading jokes with millionaires during a wine tasting on “Vintage Vineyard,” and heats up some leftover hibachi steak and fried rice to go with his wake and bake session on “Hi Top Whites.” And like all Curren$y tapes, this one has it’s share of great guest verses. Action Bronson raps more classic Bronson raps on “Godfather 4” and Freddie Gibbs proves once again that he’s untouchable on the mic on “Grew Up In This.” Curren$y continues to prove that he’s the rap game Marc Gasol, an underrated cornerstone who makes everyone around him better. He’s made a cottage industry out of making older rap stars sound brand new and the project here is B-Real of Cypress Hill. “E.T.” showcases the incredible chemistry of the two MC’s, with B-Real’s agitated squeaking a perfect complement to Spitta’s laid back drawl. But Curren$y is more than a team player now, outshining his guests on several of the tracks.

My dissatisfaction with The Drive In Theater has less to do with what it is than what it isn’t. Before it felt that every Curren$y project was building to the next on but there’s no signs of progress here. Where are the hooks of New Jet City, the gloss of The Stoned Immaculate, the psychedelic dissonance of Covert Coup? As well as having a song named Godfather 4, the tape has excerpts from The Godfather movies at the end of tracks. While The Drive In Theater doesn’t come close to approaching the heights of Coppola’s masterpieces, there’s a thematic connection between Curren$y’s growth and Michael Corleone’s transformation. Both men tried to play the game the industry approved way but failed. Curren$y’s string of free releases were all leading to his studio debut of The Stoned Immaculate in 2012, but it bricked on the charts. Even a lead single featuring 2 Chainz didn’t help. Since then, Curren$y has been more reserved (by his standards) in his musical offerings, instead focusing on putting his label Jet Life on the map in unconventional ways. The Drive In Theater was released as a free mixtape but it was also packaged into a torrent bundle thanks to a specific deal between Jet Life and BitTorrent. Fans could download (for free) the album in both Mp3 quality and higher quality, get high resolution liner notes, and even get a video of Curren$y cruising around and pictures of his handwritten lyrics. This is a great idea in theory but it’s not so effective. The things he’s offering are fun fan items, but they don’t translate digitally. And with every new Jet Life release, it goes to show that label members Young Roddy, Trademark Da Skydiver, and Cornerboy P just aren’t compelling solo artists.

The frustration of all this is on the tape. Where before Spitta would revel in all of his cash, now he has a money migraine. When he chants “I could take 10 G’s and make 20 more 10 G’s with that” on “10 G’s,” it’s more of a fierce challenge than a humble brag. The larger in life drug kingpin persona has been exchanged with a calmer, ruthless figure that’s practically tragic. Less Scarface and more Michael Corleone. On “Hi Top Whites” he pines “I wish I could have stayed more but that ain’t what a nigga get paid for, that’s how it is, wish that I could say more.” The Drive In Theater is a good tape, but it points to a future where Jet Life may be running out of fuel. And while there’s no moral problem in failing to be legitimate like there is for the young Godfather, it would be a shame if Curren$y changed from expanding his empire to merely sustaining it.

 

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