The debut album was once the ultimate proving ground and great equalizer for rappers. Hot singles could carry you for a while, but a weak MC would be exposed across a dozen tracks if their rhymes couldn’t hold up. Changes in the industry and hip-hop’s stylistic shifts have made the inaugural LP more of a rarity, but it now means that an artist going down that road better have something to say. In the case of Cleveland’s Kipp Stone, he gives us a no bullshit thesis statement that cuts through the noise and demands your attention on the very first line of his first full-length.
“A humble man’s story with some music to it,” he says on the first line of 'Dirty Face Angel', the title track from his debut album premiering right here on Clash.
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Stone has been making music for a few years, dropping a handful of impressive singles like the bruising '30FTALL' and the now seasonally appropriate 'Late Xmas' EP. 'Dirty Face Angel' is an expansion of the themes on those tracks and fulfils the promise Stone has shown early in his career as a sharp-eyed documentarian of street life. The songs are both introspective and externally observant; Stone sees the lack of opportunity and grievous injustices that have forced people around him into no-win situations.
“I know a dealer with a heart of gold/The trap the only place he calls home/All he wanted was something he could belong to/Imagine being defined by one wrong move,” he raps on the title track, painting a grim portrait of life for so many who grew up disadvantaged.
On 'Shoebox', he plays the hustler role for a fatalistic love song in which his ill-gotten earnings are the object of his affection.
“I just risked my life for you, drug money/Just to throw you out the coupe, drug money/Think they’re starting to get suspicious, drug money/But we love taking pictures, drug money,” Stone raps.
On 'Dirty Face Angel', Stone identifies himself as from the hood, not necessarily “street,” a distinction that’s key to his ability to capture what’s going on around him. He’s close to the action, but not in the centre of it.
“It’s definitely a different scenario between a ‘street dude’ and a ‘hood dude.’ A street dude is somebody out here moving around, you know, doing whatever, selling dope, pimping, robbing, whatever,” he explains. “And a dude from the hood might just be a dude on the block who’s cool with all the people doing that, but doesn’t necessarily get involved. And just to be from the hood—to be a street dude…it’s like a gamble, your life is on the line everyday, your freedom is on the line everyday. You’ve got to do what you do to survive.”
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It’s like a gamble, your life is on the line everyday...
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Stone says that when he was growing up his family tried to shelter him and that he had people in his neighbourhood looking out for him, but even with those watchful eyes he’s still had some terrifyingly close calls, including a near-miss that could have been fatal the first time he went work on music in Chicago.
“Probably I would say the day before we left for the first time to go to Chicago there was a drive-by outside of my house,” he says. “Like, it was on the very next house too, right next to my house. They pulled up at 3:00 and let off a bunch of shots and skirted out of there right when I’d pulled out to go to Chicago.”
For vividly recounting these dangerous stories, Stone cites Eminem, Nipsey Hussle, and Schoolboy Q as inspirations. He also showcases has a wizened, gravelly pragmatism that recalls veteran street corner poets like Scarface and Beanie Siegel. Musically, Dirty Faced Angel is lush and melodic; the beats are soulful without being overdone and the more minimalist tracks are still infectious.
'Celebration' has a gritty gospel feel like Coloring Book-era Chance the Rapper without the sold out stadium and late-night show polish. The single 'Vacation' is heady and dreamlike, punctuated by stern voicemails that offer more context for the track’s weary narrator. '7 Dayz' is distinctly trappier, and at the end Stone is careful not to overstate his position as both an observer and a confidant. “I don’t want to tell you how to live,” he raps repeatedly on the song’s extended outro.
Though he allows himself to stunt on occasion (he dubs himself “the modern day Imhotep” on 'We Back'), Stone shows a commitment to writing honest, incisive lyrics with the discipline and judiciousness of a veteran news reporter. In a 2015 interview with XXL he said he “would want to be the next big cult classic,” and while that’s still a goal for him musically, he also prides himself on being a fair and standup individual.
“I pride myself on doing square business, being respectful, respecting people…What people think about me is really important to me, so I don’t want anybody to look at me and have to look at me in a negative light,” he says. “It will happen sometimes, but if I can be a square dude then that’s what means the most to me for real.”
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I don’t want anybody to look at me and have to look at me in a negative light...
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In Cleveland rap, there isn’t a negative light so much as a perceived lack of wattage entirely, and Stone is part of a nascent movement of MCs who are looking to get eyes on a city that hasn’t gotten much national (or international) hip-hop exposure since Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. The Midwest has become a hotbed for talent over the last couple years. In typical fashion, he doesn’t waste time feeling slighted by rap pundits, focusing instead on the importance of simply putting in the work.
“If everybody played their part in Cleveland and everybody just did what they know how to do then we could be a problem,” said Stone. “We definitely could be a problem, ‘cause we’ve got some really talented people, and everybody’s kind of got to just do it and believe in what they’re doing.”
In the meantime, Stone continues to set his own goals that, like his impressive debut record, are a blend of his massive talent and incredible humility.
“One thing is to make one of the most beautiful rap albums in history, like beautiful sonically. That’s one of my big goals,” he explains. “But like I said, for the most part it’s just all about respect. It’s not about the money or nothing else, it’s all about respect.“
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Words: Grant Rindner
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