There’s a line from white boy favorite (as per the 2015 Sundance hit, Dope) Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, freestyle three years ago in Sway In The Morning, where he rapped, “I got n*ggas in reserve like I’m deep in Iraq / deepening rap / deeper than rap,” over the beat of Drake’s ‘Pound Cake’. Hiphop and rap culture consists of a multi-layered structure that offers a wealth of information and inspiration, allowing critical assessment from the triad of fame, wealth, and sex, to mapping a wider assembly that bridges the person and the elements surrounding him or her: that is, the cultural and socio-political markup of hiphop. Conscious rap is built on themes of the prevailing status quo that affects and challenges minorities, or sometimes, an individual dealing with these pressures. “Deeper than rap” connotes more than emotional depth, the theme that remarkably dominates 22-year-old producer and MC, Ninno (stylized as N I N N O) Rodriguez’s debut album, Third Culture Kid.
Rap’s reputation from the East Coast gangbanger’s diversion from the violence-riddled Reagan era has since become transcendent, with universities offering college courses not just on the social and political impact and relevance of rap and hiphop, but also as a literary form. This is a visceral focus of Third Culture Kid – that although its themes come from a local’s point of view, N I N N O’s stories are also universal: the idealism of youth, the realization of the disenfranchised artist, the hopefulness that is synonymous to living, and the struggles of being. It is part diaristic, part dramatic.
Sonically, the album’s production has several minimal, sometimes cloistered arrangements, thus feeling like they serve a secondary purpose. On the other hand, this could be intended. As a poet himself, it is not far-fetched to assume that he will opt for less fancy, non-theatrical, and ostentatious embellishments. His words are his weapon and armor, plain and simple. But when both beat and word perfectly complement each other, N I N N O’s presence is overwhelmingly palpable. Album opener ‘TCK’ is a hard-hitting number, with a rapid-fire staccato that hushes you up, as if announcing: “I’m here, listen to me. This is my story.” The album is, without a doubt, loaded with regional hiphop influences that aren’t skewed to fit some kind of local profile, but is nonetheless a playground for potential and imagination. There are notable moments in Third Culture Kid’s instrumentation reminiscent of bits of ‘90s NYC hiphop Wu-Tang Clan and The Notorious B.I.G., and UK grime and hiphop, a la Archy Marshall (formerly known as King Krule) and Kojey Radical, in songs like ‘Darkness Daresay’, ‘False Kings’, and ‘Simmer’. ‘Cult Leaders’ ostensibly echoes the California vibe, while ‘The Fall’ sounds Detroit. ‘Franklin Richards’, on the other hand, gives a vibe that Drake can easily jump on. ‘Kung Fu’, meanwhile, is an unexpected, boisterous, and distracting overturn. A touch excessive and curiously out of place, it is a toiling effort that seemed unnecessary, overshadowing what could’ve been nice homage to the album’s sole nod to the East. ‘Game (Interlude)’ almost sounded forced, and can do without its hook. It bore some unpleasant weight on the half-hearted dance track, ‘Game 3.0’, which featured synth-pop artist Somedaydream, although the artificial coyness of both tracks’ outro are some of my favorite moments in the record.
Lyrically rich and profound, N I N N O’s wordplay can be attributed to his spoken word background, which makes it interesting to pick over his verses, scattered allusions and direct references, clever bars, and personal remarks – mostly about himself and the allegorical ‘you’ and ‘them’. He performed a set in Fête de la Musique last year, which included a spoken word segment, the berth of his knowledge clearly apparent, where he referenced everything from Greek mythology to comic books, from Hannibal Lecter to Shazam, that you will believe him when he pronounced, “My lyrics? This is practice.” A song from that performance, entitled ‘Narcotics’, which is not included in the album, is an explosive, breathless narrative about battling the demons of addiction, with a verse and beat structure that left a lasting impression. Listeners are tend to be left with feeling like voyeuristic vultures forced to feed on his truths and anecdotes, not unwillingly, but because we are uncomfortable with the degree of reality he’s presenting. His conscious rapping doesn’t demand a quick, radical change, but deep, unhurried introspection.
On ‘Simmer’, he reflects on the transient state of things and the responsibilities that come with our choices and actions, because we are accountable to each other, ourselves included. N I N N O lashes out on ‘Cult Leaders’, which targets, well, cult leaders, specifically those with the propensity for false indoctrination. It continues to ‘False Kings (Hitsboii)’, now aimed at skeptics, non-believers, but more so, the phonies (though I think the Pitch Perfect reference could be executed better). ‘The Fall’ bids adieu with caution, and concludes with an impressive ending to Third Culture Kid’s catalog of film references.
‘Space Age’ is an atmospheric, offbeat emo-hop track featuring Lions and Acrobats’ frontman Icoy Rapadas, his voice tinted with fettered weariness and resignation. Characteristically vulnerable and self-preserving, it echoes Kid Cudi’s four-bar dispirited vocals in Kanye West’s ‘Guilt Trip’. ‘Darkness Daresay’ features fellow MC and Logiclub cohort Curtismith, both musing on their individual darkness and how they cope, over a ruminating piano work in the same vein as Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ‘Bibo no Aozora’. And although he introduced us to his persona on ‘TCK’, it is on the CRWN-produced ‘Franklin Richards’ where N I N N O consummates Third Culture Kid – a contemplation of his artistic process (“Got my mind flexin’ / two-and-a half haikus”, “I need something to challenge me / Before I question my identity”) and the circumstances (“Honestly, I feel the dichotomy in my vanity / That analogy is basically beauty versus barbarity”) that govern it.
For his first outing, it’s obvious that the framework itself carries an air of sophistication, not because it borrows heavily from the widely regarded style of Western contemporary hiphop, but how his lyrical content shows a degree of self-awareness, thriving in his sense of identity and his refusal to settle on mediocrity. N I N N O wears Third Culture Kid like his own heart on his sleeve; laying everything he’s got, not to beg for a charity audience or for spare, fleeting attention, but as the zip code of his home, for this man’s about to go places.