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birthday tape lead

Rockie wants you to know, he’s an artist, not just a rapper.

Press play on Chicago upstart Rockie Fresh‘s inaugural MMG track, the “You A Lie Remix” he put together with label boss Rick Ross, and you’ll breathe a deep sigh of frustration. Yes, the song is good, the beat is impeccable, the somewhat monotonous chorus makes way for a climactic verse from Ross, and the 2-Chainz ad-libs make for a decent listening experience. So why the frustration? Because it seems as if this is the formula that every artist signed to Rick Ross’ Atlantic Records imprint has used, and other than Wale, commercial success hasn’t always been the endgame for the not-so-scientific scheme. Yes Ross’ collaborations with Meek Mill (I’m A Boss, Believe It) and Stalley (Shop Remix) have generated a considerable amount of buzz, but with Dreams And Nightmares sales numbers coming to a screeching halt at just over 300,000 records sold towards the end of 2012, and Stalley’s failed launches, Rockie’s “You A Lie Remix”, despite being an enjoyable song, seemed to be a pre-cursor to the mediocre commercial success all of MMG’s post-Wale signings have experienced.

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Thankfully, this year the Chicago native has taken his time carving out his own lane and distancing himself from the cliche images that scroll through the majority of listeners minds when the words Maybach Music Group are uttered. With the critically acclaimed Electric Highway still in his fans’ rotation, in celebration of his 22nd birthday, Rockie has given fans 6 more tracks to enjoy, in mixtape form, with The Birthday Tape. Featuring guest verses from his co-horts Rick Ross and Gunplay, the short but sweet project is a much more straight forward dose of the rapper’s talents, which are plentiful. Opening the project up with the celebratory “Top Of The World”, its clear Rockie feels confident about his company’s outlook for 2013 and beyond, claiming “Young Superman OG, MMG the hottest since the R-O-C”, before finishing the song reminding listeners how blessed he feels to be in his position at such a young age.

The tricky part about putting together a project as short as The Birthday Tape is there isn’t much room to waste time with filler tracks. Each song has to be straight to the point, and the direction has to be established rather quickly, otherwise the entire effort will be seen as a waste. Mr. Fresh dodges this potential pitfall with ease, approaching the next two tracks with very clear agendas. On “Life Round Here”, he did what every Chicago rapper must do at this point, which is address the atrocities that occur in the notoriously dangerous city on the daily, reporting while adding a personal perspective, with the air of a young Jay-Z rapping on “Renegade”.

Youngin’ on the block with his 30 shot
Visions in his head of when he seen his little brother got
Feelin’ like he could go and die in this very spot
At a very young age, his eyes done seen a lot.

It didn’t take long for us to come across the cliche Rick Ross feature, as he opens up the Lunice-produced “Panera Bread”. However, the guest verse tastefully sets the stage for Rockie’s longer-than-usual verse, during which he sidesteps not making the XXL Freshman List and criticisms that he’s not lyrical enough. In an attempt to prove his point, on the next track, the self-proclaimed Superman OG steps into crossover mode and toys with auto-tune as he belts out the vocals to “Nothing Wrong With That”, which has the makings of a top 40 hit, and could have a remix coming, unless we’re reading too deeply into his muffled lyrics in the waning moments of the song.

Before getting to the outro, we’re treated to a solid Gunplay verse on “Rollin'”, as the labelmates rap about the lifestyle, which of course include opening bars such as follows from Gunplay, “Roll up with no tint, my old school is so mint/Score like I own the gym, your team so oh-for-ten/All my hoes be OPM, they let me f*ck, they don’t pay rent”. “Kush Do” shouldn’t go un-mentioned, the smoothly put together ballad about the sincere thoughts of an extremely high rapper. Its a nice transition from the super-charged intensity of “Rollin'”, but also seems to be a reference to “Nothing Wrong With That”, which on paper seems to be slightly repetitive, but sonically, is not a mis-step by any means.

The Birthday Tape does what most quick-hit projects from up-and-coming rappers fail to do. Rather than just throw filler tracks on proverbial wax and release it to the public, one of Atlantic Records’ youngest stars chose to concentrate on accomplishing what Driving 88 and Electric Highway may have failed to. Though both projects have been well-recieved by critics and fans alike, not everyone worth convincing is going to connect with every record. Releasing TBT within months of his MMG debut, Fresh makes sure there is now something for everybody in his catalog, which will bode well for him when he begins asking fans to purchase his music, rather than just download it. Well done.

-Khari Nixon (@KingVanGogh)