Ciggie Smalls: Logic comes to terms with his nicotine addiction.
Ciggie Smalls: Logic comes to terms with his nicotine addiction. Credit: Ryan Jay

Since he signed to Def Jam Recordings last year, Maryland rapper Logic kept fans in a state of suspense, leaving them hanging on his every word in anticipation of his debut album, Under Pressure. The finished product justifies the wait. Under Pressure is Logic’s chance to share the precious details of his life, a life that wasn’t supposed to include the release of an album on hip-hop’s most storied record label. The 24-year-old beat the odds, and Under Pressure is an account of the obstacles he hurdled along the way to achieving the unlikely.

Logic has always been open about his tumultuous upbringing in Gaithersburg, revealing a turbulent home life and a family of drug-addled parents and drug-dealing siblings. Under Pressure finds him arranging the grim specifics of his early years into a narrative aided by the robotic female voice of a virtual tour guide, like the one on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1993 album, Midnight Marauders. (The co-narrator names ATCQ, along with Outkast, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Quentin Tarantino, as sources of inspiration for the album.)

The upbeat intro segues into “Soul Food,” where pained violins give way to hard-hitting percussion. The haunting crawl of “Gang Related,” where the rapper provides a harrowing account of what he witnessed growing up, is wrought with paranoia. “Living life like this/Gotta paint a picture when I write like this/Tales from my hood not a sight like this/Where they up to no good in the night like this,” he rhymes in his signature staccato flow. More alarming than the violence he recalls is how detached he sounds from it all, as if it became routine to him at an early age.

Under Pressure also details Logic’s dependence on Nikki, the focus of his affection. She’s mentioned on the hypnotic “Never Enough,” where the rapper escapes stress through celebration, and takes an even larger role on “Metropolis,” where she and Logic discuss Tarantino films until the song fades out. It’s on the stripped-down “Nikki,” though, that Logic finally reveals that his unhealthy obsession isn’t a human being: “Man you’re everything I crave/You’re the only thing I let in that would put me in the grave/I’m a king, you’re my Coretta/But lately I been feeling like a slave for the nicotine.”

One of the album’s major thrusts deals with how vices can control people, and Logic’s disclosure of Nikki’s true identity reveals that he’s not above that kind of weakness. His life story would be incomplete without references to his own flaws, and his willingness as a narrator to own up draws his audience closer. The buildup to Logic’s big revelation about Nikki is engaging, but the payoff falls a little flat; this metaphorical approach, after all, has been employed many times before.

The album’s standout is its nine-minute title track. Sentimental strings are layered over an aggressive snare-and-kick combination as Logic recites verses from the perspectives of his sister and father, and provides actual voicemails from his family members between each verse. The final verse is a cathartic open letter to his family, apologizing for his absence while confronting his doubts and fears about the path he’s chosen. Logic’s under pressure to succeed (hence, clearly, the album’s title) from forces within his own family just as much as he is from those outside of it, and this is ultimately what drives him.

Under Pressure is a deeply personal look at Logic’s semi-realization of the American dream. Though the album drags toward the end of the Nikki saga, it proves that Logic is well-equipped to piece together his most painful memories and turn them into a gripping story of triumph. As the computerized co-narrator says at the end of “I’m Gone,” “Making a single before your album is like putting together a trailer for a movie you have yet to shoot.” In an era of disposable music, it’s encouraging to see a new artist committed to making a great album—not just a good song.