There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Sometimes it seems weird that Tabi Bonney is still a local rapper. His breakout 2006 single “The Pocket” might be D.C.’s only legitimate local radio rap hit of the past decade. It was seeped in the language of the city despite an overall aesthetic that wouldn’t feel out of place on any city’s radio playlist. For a minute Bonney seemed primed to become D.C.’s breakout star, the rapper that would bring the city’s sounds to the rest of the world. Then the major labels swept in and signed…Wale. Though Bonney has made slight industry inroads in the years since—rotation on MTV Jams, a seemingly open invitation to ex-Jay-Z-business-partner-turned-faux-Warholian-hipster Dame Dash’s creative commune DD172, parallel careers as a video director and owner of his own clothing line—he mostly remains what he’s long been: an indie artist and a reliable fixture of the D.C. rap scene. With his third proper full-length, Fresh, the Togo-born, Langdon Park-repping MC does little to shift from that position but a whole lot to refine it. Almost everything he’s done since “The Pocket” rotates on the same axis as “The Pocket” yet seems to pull away from the commercial elements thereof. It’s a sound that floats in space. He’s a slithering vocalist who usually raps somewhere between a song and a Jay-Z power whisper. His production is sparse, simultaneously futuristic and retro with trance-like, ethereal synths filtered through old-school structures. The beats sometimes turn more spastic, echoing traces of go-go and Neptunes-style stop-and-go but landing somewhere unique. He calls on expected locals Wale and Kokayi for the triumphant, Afro-beat-tinged “Like a King,” and New Orleans stoner rapper du jour Curren$y turns up on “Radio,” which feels like Man Parrish-era electro viewed through a pinhole. It’s an occasionally ominous sound that’s mostly tempered by Bonney’s childlike whimsy (e.g., “This my slow jam/put peanut butter on it!”). Even on “Killer People,” whose subjects threaten to destroy all of Bonney’s hopes and dreams, the darkness is still punctuated by some lighthearted “haayys.” There’s an overriding old-guy-in-skinny-jeans vibe here—especially when Bonney delves into full-scale singing, like on the post-punk-tinged “Go Away”—but he usually sells it by simply being very likable and goddamn earnest. He’s comfortable in his own shoes, in a way that most rappers would kill to be. That might be his gift and his curse. The album’s centerpiece and lead single, “Nuthin But a Hero,” is a close-to-transcendent tale about the quest for stardom. It’s drenched in warm vibes and a backing string section, but it’s also so incredibly mellow and unapologetically Tabi-ish, that it’s hard to imagine it actually crossing over. But the man’s allowed to dream, isn’t he?