Published Sep 13, 2019Impressive as elaborate lyricism can often be, there's also something to be said for simplicity. No MC in recent memory has made that case more effectively than Johnny Venus, one half of the hotly touted, flagrantly eccentric rising Atlanta hip-hop duo EarthGang.
On "This Side," a key track from the pair's major label debut Mirrorland (freshly released on beloved rapper J. Cole's imprint, Dreamville) Venus will stop listeners in their tracks with his pared-down and precise set of rhymes, the kind that's so directly on point you'll wonder why you didn't think of them yourself. "Let's go to the lake / Let's jump in it naked," he spits wistfully over a shimmering synth riff straight out of the afterlife, before creatively bending the pronunciation of two more words into that rhyme scheme: "We can escape / We can leave this place." The directness of those lines drives home the young rapper's desire for a reprieve, before he bemoans the recent deaths of contemporaries like Nipsey Hussle (which is valid) and XXXTentacion (not so much).
Doctur Dot, Venus's partner in rhyme, holds his own on that psychedelically melancholy track with lines about insomnia and cracking "a joke to hide the pain," a refreshingly candid take on mental health that he one-ups on the equally impressive "Top Down." That summery, catchy song's surface is juxtaposed with Dot's deep lines about workaholism, before he spits with touching sincerity: "How's your mental? How do you cope with what you been through?" Over the minimalist instrumental on "Avenue," Venus laudably touches on the too-often overlooked ubiquity of junk food in impoverished and marginalized communities: "I been eatin' diabetes and Cheetos for dinner."
These strong elements — along with the visceral, rattling drum fills on "Stuck," and the palpable paranoia on "Swivel" — make Mirrorland a must-listen, despite its myriad flaws. Prime examples: the dull and plodding T-Pain assisted "Tequila," the grating, Young Thug-assisted "Proud of You," and the eye-roll inducing potty humour on "LaLa Challenge." These missteps mar an otherwise strong major label debut.
Listeners should also ignore the plethora of comparisons between EarthGang and iconic elder Atlanta duo OutKast. While these rising MCs were clearly influenced by the ATLiens — from their Andre 3000-esque attire, to their ambitious introspection and occasional odes to the Georgia metropolis they call home — EarthGang instead have a distinctive sound all their own, one that never comes close to the high-water mark of 'Kast's indelibly funky heyday.
That said, if they can trim flab like "LaLa Challenge" on their next LP, EarthGang's otherwise lean and careening style has the potential to reach the acclaim earned by their label head J. Cole — even if the stratospheric success of Stankonia remains out of reach for now. (Dreamville Records/Interscope)