Smoke DZA is known for being a prolific battle rapper, ghostwriter and collaborator, all of which are evident on his latest release: The Hustler’s Catalog 2.
Amongst the dense lyricism and extensive collaborations is the core aim to represent East Coast rap in new, multifaceted ways. Driven by a desire to move beyond the “weed rapper” label, DZA expands his East Coast heavy sound into new realms, and while this occasionally leaves us a little generically lost, the effort and care remains clear throughout.
The East Coast sound is brought to the fore immediately in Big Steppa through spacey production, slurred diction and a very slow flow. Everything is extremely deliberate, smooth and heavy, as DZA, Westside Gunn and Curren$y navigate atemporal, yet grounded and present, flows. Direct and indirect homages are abundant in every track, as DZA emphatically states “Big homie with the blueprint, I’m just handing it down” (Big Steppa)– demonstrating acute awareness of his place in hip hop lineage.
As DZA compliments the Biggie/Wu Tang/Nas inflected production of Peace through frank lyricism on mental illness, he pays homage to one of his biggest influences: Jay Z (“Jay said you can’t heal what you never reveal”, Peace). This theme of using the East Coast sound to discuss thorny issues is developed further in Ramadan, on which DZA, Nym Lo and Benny The Butcher use extended verse structures to discuss the downside of the hood and hip-hop realness aesthetics.
Overall, this half-hour album presents itself as a long and winding journey. What makes this journey varied, however, are ventures into sounds beyond the East Coast such as R&B (Grey Poupon and Take It Easy) and soul (Its Yours). Although DZA considers this technique to elevate the quality of his music (describing his rap as “Wine and cheese rap” on Grey Poupon), the overall cohesion of the album becomes fragmented, particularly in the latter half. In the final tracks, Smoke DZA spits relatively few bars and the authority of his voice become subsumed in the collaborators and colliding sound worlds; becoming somewhat of a guest artist on his own release.
If there was one word that best sums up The Hustler’s Catalog 2, it’s knowledge. It is clear that a lot of knowledge and thought has been ingrained into every sound, lyric, collaborator choice and idea. While this calculated approach mostly pays off, occasionally it deviates into ambiguous realms when too much experimentation is involved. That said, it’s great to see such overt appreciation of one of the defining sound worlds of hip hop history taken to new levels.