Dave East is the streets of New York personified – even his musical alias is a nod to his hometown: East Harlem. His music, then, is a sonic demonstration that the raw energy of traditional East Coast hip-hop can manifest successfully in this era, without pandering unnecessarily to other, currently more popular, sub-genres.
East has been around for a minute: Since 2010, he’s been releasing tape after tape. However, in the early years, these tapes didn’t resonate; East had to rely on the streets for a while to keep his money up. Nevertheless, things came together in 2014 when his distinctive East Coast flow reached the ears of his idol – Nas, who hastily signed Dave to his Mass Appeal imprint. It’s not hard to see why, East’s lucid street tales on tracks like ‘In Some Shit Pt 1’ share a very similar descriptive blueprint to Nas’ ‘One Love’, promising a new candidate to snatch the hip-hop crown from the South, bringing it back to its spiritual home: New York.
‘Black Rose’, East’s first tape on Mass Appeal, was fundamentally an exhibition of his versatility, influenced by the dark, raw lyricism of New York hip-hop (and even 50 Cent’s lazy, melodic hooks). East flitted seamlessly between Trap and Boom Bap production, blessing both sounds with his unique energy. His second tape, ‘Hate Me Now’ (a firm nod towards Nas’ sophomore LP), expanded on this sound. However, this time around, the star-studded East Coast features added further fuel to East’s fire, eager to prove himself with his effortless street bravado.
This year, East is back again. ‘Kairi Chanel’ named after East’s daughter, marks his third project with Mass Appeal and is certainly his most refined work to date. Dave encapsulates his East Coast heritage in a manner that is accessible to a broad array of rap fans in 2016, whilst continuing to finesse a style entirely his own.
What truly shines in this tape is East’s artistic development: While ‘Black Rose’ and ‘Hate Me Now’ were an exhibition of his versatility, ‘Kairi Chanel’ finds East drawing on all the elements of his eclectic soundboard, reducing them to a tightly focused, unique, yet undeniably familiar set of tracks. Cuts like Cardo’s exquisitely produced ‘Type Of Time’ combine southern bass with East Coast, wistful piano riffs, providing the perfect platform for Dave’s Mac-11 flow: “Niggers tellin’ me that I’m goin’ nuts / Ask your bitch cuz she was holdin’ those” is just one of many quotables. Similarly, ‘Don Pablo’ is the perfect contemporary iteration of 50’s blasé hooks and verses. East’s flow is melodic and perpetual, each bar finishing on the same syllable as the last. In fact, the flow becomes so uniform and infectious, that his verses serve as a layer of instrumentation in their own right, without ever sacrificing articulacy.
It should be noted, however, that Nas and East’s daughter, Kairi, have a profound influence on shaping the tone of this project – influence that often manifests in the same space. On the opener, ‘It Was Written’ (a further nod to Nas’ seminal project) we find East paying homage to his idol. However, on his opening bars East raps, “You got a daughter ‘bout to come stop making thug records / I brought that money back fast I had the plug flexin’.” The reason for East’s dismissal of this remark is clear, these “thug records” are not merely a part of his identity – they put food on the table for his offspring and this is what energises East. Moreover,’“Slow Down’ is essentially 2016’s iteration of Nas’ ‘I Can’. Cuts concerning adolescent education have been omitted from Dave’s projects thus far, however, fatherhood has surely inspired bars such as the following: “Get a job, buy some shoes / Then hit them parties downtown where them wild niggers can’t get inside.” That said, East’s most subtle, yet triumphant homage to Nas’ appears on ‘Keisha’, the eloquence exhibited by East as he details an anecdote regarding a girl who robbed him is surely charged by Nas’ unforgettable ‘Undying Love.’
However, the dizziest, and certainly the most creative, heights of Dave’s storytelling arise on ‘Don’t Shoot.’ East elucidates his harrowing encounters with the police chronologically in three stages, delineating each phase with a modification in the pitch of his vocals. The poignancy is palpable when he raps, “I guess with this hoody on I’m a murderer / I’m just tryna buy my momma some new furniture.” The track ends with a fictionalised state of affairs: The utterance of “Please don’t shoot me sir / I just had a daughter” is immediately followed by a gunshot – signalling the end of his life. This is undeniably the most expressive hip-hop track concerning police brutality in 2016.
On a lighter note, it seems as though when East links up with one of his New York compatriots, his energy goes off the fucking Richter scale. ‘S.D.E.’ featuring fellow Harlemite, Cam’ron, finds East firing off a blazing 16; each syllable that smacks the snare is like a hook from Mike Tyson. Cam does his job too, providing a welcome touch of nostalgia to ‘Kairi Chanel’.
All in all, this project is visceral, intelligent, and exactly what we needed from Dave East. Despite a rather awkward R&B crossover track (the Fabolous assisted ‘Eyes On Me’), it appears we have found an artist who can carve out a place for gritty East Coast hip-hop in this era. So, I believe Dave East when he says: “You said you wanted the real back / Well here it come” (“The Real Is Back”).