Wale kicked open the national door for local hip-hop in 2008 when he inked a deal with Interscope and became the first D.C. rapper in many years to sign with a major record label. Wale eventually linked up with Maybach Music Group, churned out hit after hit, and is now one of hip-hop’s premiere artists. And it didn’t stop with Wale: Local rappers Fat Trel, Shy Glizzy, and Logic followed suit, achieving varying degrees of success in recent years. Up next is Lightshow, an aggressive lyricist who’s considered by many to be the most talented rapper of the new generation. In the rap world, the “next” title can be a heavy burden to carry, but Lightshow has repeatedly proved himself worthy of lofty expectations. His new album Life Sentence 3 increases the buzz by a few more decibels.
More than that, actually: Life Sentence 3 is a triumphant effort from Lightshow. He’s a master at spitting trap-heavy rhymes over ominous beats and continues to prove that nobody can tell D.C. ’hood stories better than he can.
Lightshow opens the album with “Before They Raid,” a blazing freestyle that showcases his verbal dexterity. Unlike many of his millennial contemporaries, Lightshow isn’t a product of social media or reality television—Lightshow has skills. Chris Beatz and Young Lan handle most of the production on Life Sentence 3, creating a haunting, cinematic soundscape in the process, but it’s Lightshow’s, er, show: He’s blessed with a razor sharp flow, and he knows how to use it effectively. He doesn’t overdose on auto-tune and nimbly changes his cadence—when necessary—to keep listeners interested. Most significantly: He has something worthwhile to say.
Lightshow wants you to recognize his growth as a musician. In a Kanye-esque fashion, he even tells you that in the album’s intro (“I don’t even identify as a fucking rapper no more/ I just feel like I’m an artist.”) He revisits themes from past projects—hustling, dodging bullets, and evading villainous law enforcement—but his subject matter is evolving. He’s still the same kid from 10th Place in Southeast, but he’s been on tour a few times and seen different things. His worldview is a little brighter and the overall vibe of Life Sentence 3 is more positive than his previous work. Take, for instance, “Now”—a refreshing celebration of his lifestyle as a young rap star—with a hook so infectious you’ll be singing it all day (“The police can’t chase us now/ Got cake I can fight my cases now”).
But Lightshow is truly at his best on “How We Lived,” where he vividly describes the harsh realities of street life while introspectively explaining the socio-economic reasons it’s so difficult to escape that environment (“When you lack education conditions hard as can be/ In the back of the classroom and can hardly see/ Because he ain’t got no healthcare and Mama’s on welfare”).
Meanwhile, guest appearances on Life Sentence 3 are kept to a minimum—a clever tactic to keep the spotlight on Lightshow’s own talent. He collaborates with Atlanta’s 21 Savage on “Need A Lighter,” where the two MCs heat up the mic as they toss potent verses back and forth with aplomb. But one of Life Sentence 3’s few low points is “Girls,” which features New York’s A$AP Ant. We don’t expect rappers to be politically correct, but this track quickly becomes bogged down with gratuitous misogyny—wasting a hard hitting beat by Young Lan.
Lightshow methodically built his career on strong mixtapes like the Yellow Tape White Chalk series, The Way I See It, If These Walls Could Talk, and Life Sentence 1 and 2, but he’s never scored the breakout single to catapult his career from local star to national sensation. He doesn’t deliver that song on Life Sentence 3, but what he does deliver is a mixtape of satisfying hip-hop. This is music to ride to, smoke to, and never even think about skipping a track.