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Desiigner’s New English: A Trap Rap Stumble

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There are two ways of looking at Brooklyn trap rapper Desiigner’s breakout project, New English.

On one hand, Desiigner is 19 years old, and this is the first full length project he’s ever put together. From that point of view, it’s easy to forgive the roughness that New English suffers.

From Tupac to Young Thug, nearly all celebrated rappers have an early project or two that show growing pains just as often they show potential. Luckily for most MCs, they get to release these projects while still in the shadows of relative obscurity. Fortunately and unfortunately for Desiigner, the third song he ever released went #1, earned well over a million sales, and got him a deal with Kanye West’s GOOD Music imprint. Thus, his evolution as an artist has been placed under much greater scrutiny than the trajectories of his contemporaries, and that’s not really fair. On the other hand, GOOD Music is one of the most powerful and creative mainstream hip-hop labels out there. Most rappers work on their debut mixtapes with their friends in a closet that they sort of soundproofed; Desiigner, meanwhile, has the opportunity to collaborate with dozens of the most talented big name rappers, producers, and engineers out there. From this perspective, it becomes harder to understand why New English is such an unpolished piece of work.

The first two thirds of the tape are where most of the problems lie.

Here, songs just sort of crash into each other hell, even calling a lot of these cuts “songs” is a bit of a stretch considering they seem to start and stop completely arbitrarily. “Monstas & Villains,” for instance, may have an imposing title, but all it is is a four-measure loop repeated for an unconfident 30 seconds before slamming into an even shorter interlude track. If Desiigner and exec producer Mike Dean weren’t enthusiastic enough about the song to let it play for more than half a minute, then why did they include it at all? And why is a 24second interlude track placed right after an incredibly brief song that was effectively already an interlude? The mixing and mastering is terrible throughout the project, but it’s especially egregious on these first 8 or 9 tracks. The extremely compressed bassline on “Shooters” is a distorted mess that smothers the entire track, while Desiigner’s vocals on “Make It Out” are so mixed so loud that you can barely hear the instrumental behind it. And getting the tape to play at a consistent volume is your job, so be ready to adjust your speakers between nearly every song.

There are some nice vocal performances to be heard early on, to be sure. Desiigner’s spacey melodies during the bridge sections of “Caliber” are incredibly catchy, and his downright demonic delivery on the aforementioned “Make It Out” is magnetic.

Once New English hits its second interlude, things start shaping up a bit despite the continually iffy mix. “Interlude 2” is a beautiful instrumental a weird bit of astral ambience with icy bass and piano melodies and haunting choral samples that leads perfectly into the 7minute epic, “Da Day.” This track features a great foil in Milly.CTD, whose bars and delivery are far more traditional than the wild ATL-inspired sound Desiigner deals in. The back-and-forth between these two disparate sounds is fantastic and the grimy production becomes even filthier when a beat switch kicks the tempo into high gear and introduces a circular synth lead that sounds like it was dredged up from the depths of hell. It’s worth noting, too, that it sounds like Desiigner recorded his vocals in one take; as such, they take the sort of ferocious quality you’d hear in a live performance, and his exhaustion as the track draws to a close can be readily heard. From there we get “Jet,” which has a nice verse from Pusha T, but finds Desiigner leaning on the exact same melody Future uses on Rick Ross’s “D.O.P.E.” Considering how often the Brooklyn sensation is compared to Fewtch, blatantly reusing one of his phrases is not a good look. Also, someone must’ve bumped into the boards as this track was being mastered, because it has an inexplicably quiet, distant feel to it despite trying to be a menacing banger.

But rounding the tape out are three legitimately great tracks that I have no issue with whatsoever. “Overnight” is an (intentionally) spacey piece of trap balladry. Autotune and flanger douse Desiigner’s vocals, letting him blissfully float over the stellar instrumental (that he co-produced with Mike Dean!) and croon about his sudden success. It’s one of the simplest, most low-energy moments on the album, but also probably my favorite. Desiigner may not be an ambitious songwriter, but he is (at times) a good one; any of his (many) detractors who think of him as a vapid, fleeting phenomenon ought to listen to “Overnight” and weep.

The last two tracks are already spoken for “ Zombie Walk” and “Panda” have been absolutely viral for about six months now. They’re simple and repetitive, sure, but they’re fun as hell Desiigner’s strangely syncopated hook on the former is ear-grabbing as can be while the latter might be the most ubiquitous rap anthem of the last couple years. Is New English mostly a huge mess of a project? Yes. Are most of the songs incredibly derivative? Indeed. Should Desiigner be written off as a result? Not a chance. Again, very few artists in the history of popular music have had a platinumselling song before they’ve put out a single project. He absolutely should’ve spent more time developing the tape and getting support from his GOOD Music cohorts, but those are the kinds of mistakes that fans and critics should afford any young artist to make.

At the very least, Desiigner will be able to make a couple more high-profile projects, and I’m perfectly fine waiting to listen to those before rendering a definitive verdict.