Shouts to Durham: Album Review

Posted on 19 June 2017

by Sammy Feldblum

By now, anyone who checks up on Runaway’s thoughts online has likely seen G Yamazawa’s video for North Cack, the lead single off his new album, Shouts to Durham. North Cack’s boom-bap kicks in like a hammer to the head, and soon a chopped-n-screwed chorus calls and responds to itself, dissecting the area’s culinary traditions. A chorus of G’s echoes back and forth, layering overtop himself like a fugue. The round format of the chorus is mimicked visually, the video a spinning 360° shot of G, dancer Native, and guest rappers J Gunn and Kane Smego pacing an anonymous field. The video apparently caught fire on Facebook, to the point that my parents emailed me about it. (“Sammy, have you seen this? G Yamazawa has bars, but my shit is more John Blaze than that.”)

Shouts goes far deeper than North Cack, though. G made his bones as a slam poet, which clearly allowed him to explore the contours of his voice and sharpen his delivery. That shows here; like his fellow Angeleno (G moved to L.A. years ago) Kendrick Lamar, Mr. Yamazam’s tone-shifts his voice up and down and leans into its nooks, giving the unsettling feeling that he is rapping from everywhere at once. His wise, seen-it-all microphone persona reinforces that impression.

So while G brushes off his slam cadence at times on this debut rap album, he demonstrates impressive range besides, from the heartfelt to the fuck-yourself, from the eloquent to more clipped flows for the album’s bangers. And bangers there are. Besides North Cack, “1990 (Interlude)” hits the listener straight in the chest. When G raps “made me wanna rule the world, and I feel I’m not far,” we’re right there with him (the deep, Slim Thug-ish Houston tone doesn’t hurt). Whas Good, featuring Tab One and Defacto Thezpian, is the most trapped-out song on the album; it sounds like being dapped up by a homie of yours and would work well on your next party playlist.

“Breathe,” with a now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t soft synth beat might work better for slowing down with your boo, even though G never seems quite as interested in courtship as in barring out like Toblerone. G does throw in a wooing chorus, but then brags about his metaphors in metaphor—the medium is the message! Mostly, each song becomes an opportunity to showcase a verbal dexterity and prowess beyond what’s typical on a debut album. G sprinkles punchlines throughout—he’s a clever dude—but most involve a twisty wordplay even when representing semi-standard shit-talk. On the ruminative “Sheep,” G asks, “What’s the point in writing rhymes if you don’t even grab the mic? // Said you working twice as hard, then how you only half as nice?” Or on “What It Is,” G raps, “I said fuck a slice, want the whole pie// but I wanna get high with the lowlifes.”

Even when kidding around, G has a deeply earnest streak. Other times, he’s positively heartfelt. On “Breathe,” he intones, “we all break but artists just wanna show you the wreckage.” On “Violence,” venting all the rage that he keeps at bay elsewhere, G seems to lose hope for a moment: “I know women that been raped, and men that been murdered//the government is run by men who lost their sense of purpose.” “Violence” is mesmerizing: G seems to be able, here and elsewhere, to stare steely-eyed at the dark truths of the world and emerge with, well, a sense of purpose, and with the sense that things might, in fact, one day be better.

By the time he gets to “Leather Seating,” the last song on the album, the audience feels like they know Yamazam—an Asian dude from Durham who, neither black nor white, doesn’t see in black and white. A poet who can’t help but cradle words in his hands, sifting through them, weaving them together and pulling them apart. A frustrated soul, tired of bullshit. And a striver who wants to be on top of the rap game.

The album’s final track, then, allows him to run through all those themes, deeply an emcee, but also offering us the chance to identify with the grandiosity and doubt. He is, in that sense, the latest in a lineage of North Carolina rappers who have an everyman charm about them: Phonte’s work-tired-and-look-hard family man, J Cole’s Fayettenam hero, even Petey Pablo’s pep-rally reminisces. G the rapper is just as complicated as G the person, it seems. And as the last notes fade, maybe the whole rap game will fade with it, and G will awake as his normal, unrecorded self. Who knows what comes tomorrow. “Is it all a dream?” G asks as the album fades out, “Is it all a lie? Or just a part of life?”

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Check out our full interview with G Yamazawa here.

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