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You could call the pressure felt by rappers to deliver hugely on their debut albums the Illmatic effect. A first record isn’t just a collection of songs but a mission statement, and often the instant pinnacle of a career (that will quickly wind down creatively, followed either by endless Mountain Dew endorsements or $100 guest verses sold to European fanboys on Twitter). This weight, increased by the current pace of rap distribution—freebie mixtapes, daily blog leaks—has created an extended adolescence for young rappers, and a weird nomenclatural loophole: When I make an album that is important enough to be my debut, it will be my debut.
After nearly a decade on D.C.’s underground circuit—and close to a dozen releases, including mixtapes, EPs, instrumental efforts, and a full-length with DMV flag-waving supergroup Diamond District—producer/rapper Oddisee has finally pulled the trigger and dropped his “first” solo album, People Hear What They See.
In a testament to his wisdom, the debut album that Oddisee has called his debut album is appropriately album-oriented. He’s stitched it together with a Curtis Mayfield worldview, an ability to look at society’s ills with a realist’s eye and an optimist’s heart. He bolsters that perspective with uniformly triumphant production—a sonic cohesion that’s absent on many of his earlier releases. Even when the world around him is dark, Oddisee’s sound is bright, all uptempo b-boy breaks wrapped in a joyous plod. He’s clearly a student of boom-bap sample geniuses like DJ Premier and Pete Rock, but it’d be reductive to lump him in with that conversation. Oddisee can flip a four-bar loop with the best of them, but at the moment he seems more interested in fleshing out his beats with an explorative musicality. A lot of the samples are rebuilt entirely: Take “Let It Go,” which loosely reimagines Isaac Hayes’ Shaft theme from scratch, right down to the wah-wah guitar.
The precedent for this approach, oddly enough, lies not in Northeast true-school hip-hop but with gangsta-leaning rapper/producers like DJ Quik and UGK’s Pimp C—artists who didn’t just see their parents’ record collections and local radio stations as smorgasbords of sound sources but as musical blueprints. Quik had Zapp, Pimp had The Meters, and now Oddisee mines the many sounds that dominated ’70s and ’80s D.C. The jittery upbeat swing of proto-go-go, the jubilant horns of Afrobeat, the twinkling Rhodes of spiritual-jazz fusionists. His beats serve as something of a cultural topography, an intergenerational reconstruction of musical memories.
As a rapper, Oddisee (born Amir Mohamed el Khalifa) isn’t quite so realized. He’s a thoughtful writer and adaptable enough when shifting in and out of his D.C.-rap-in-the-age-after-Wale cadences, but his presence often comes off as disaffected. Sometimes he gets buried in the ornateness of his own beats; elsewhere, he manages to compensate with the instinctive understanding of having created them. Either way, he always lands just shy of actual vocal engagement. But that’s common territory among rapper/producers, from J Dilla to Dr. Dre. The perpetual glow of a drum machine doesn’t breed the sort of charisma and energy necessary to become a traditional rap star.
Stardom doesn’t seem to be what Oddisee’s aiming for, anyway. People Hear What They See is an aggressively insular record, almost completely out of step with anything else dominating contemporary hip-hop. It probably won’t resonate beyond Oddisee’s core audience, but to that core of an audience it will almost certainly resonate. And, hey, it’s only his debut.