Somehow building up one of the most dedicated fanbases in the hip-hop world, Russ’ (technically sixteenth?!) studio album’s success means I’m talking about SANTIAGO and not Quavo’s tribute to his fallen bandmate and nephew this week. Mostly taking the melodic route on this one, Russ takes another deep dive into his emotions but ultimately ends up sounding desensitized to it all while delivering another helping of bland production, sleepy energy and a sprinkling of bizarre lyrical moments. Although the features liven things up from time to time and Russ himself can certainly find a hard-hitting rhythmic pocket when he wants to, the overall air of the project makes it one of the year’s most boring listens.
After a brief intro – featuring farm animal noises, for whatever reason – previews what’s about to come with a slow and vibe-heavy melody as Russ gets into his melodic headspace, “Smooth” somehow manages to make a rap song with a French accordion in the background boring. When he’s rapping, Russ sounds just like a J. Cole who never escaped his 4 Your Eyez Only mode. It’s distracting, but it’s better than when he adds melody. A rapper needs to have a cool voice, but Russ’ natural tone is incredibly awkward, nasal and whiny, and the NAV-esque rhyme schemes he uses don’t help matters much as he shoehorns in phrases that don’t roll off the tongue. His instrumentals, like the slow strums of “Fraud” or the watery synths of “No More,” are often extremely low-key, leaving the listener with almost nothing to pay attention to. The former brings Justin Nozuka back from the dead for a decent appearance singing the chorus, but Russ tries to do a Kendrick Lamar-style verse repeating the first couple words in the line throughout, something that only works when you actually have something to say. Instead, Russ delivers thoughts that every human has had in their lifetime: questioning who he is if he has doubts, anxieties, a desire to be accepted and the like without elaborating. For someone who frequently rails against “mumble rappers,” Russ sounds pretty awful with an Auto-Tune filter on “No More” as well. The melody is catchier than most here, but Russ is against just doing some non-specific complaining about how everything is getting him down.
Based on the subject matter that we’ve received so far, you can probably guess exactly what you’re going to hear on tracks with titles like “Empty” and “Enough.” The former has more of a fiery hip-hop beat with chopped-up vocal samples, but Russ’ meandering and downtrodden chorus sucks the energy out of it quickly with a “nowhere I go escapes the sadness.” I have to imagine that if you relate to Russ, you want to hear something a little more meaningful and a little less universal. He’s equally monotone on “Enough,” even as he’s speeding through some impressive flows and talking about personal content. It’s just an endless list of the same kind of internal rhyme scheme, which would be impressive if the person delivering it had even a tiny sense of showmanship. The funny part is that Russ can do these things, something that he demonstrates on “I Love You Boy.” With some extended verses that feature Russ really getting into the specifics behind the traumas and his familial background that led to the stories he’s telling, he seems to be extending an olive branch to his younger self. The dynamic guitar trulls in the background and the eerie vocal sample in the back add to the picture of Russ’ in-depth self-analysis.
When it comes to Russ’ nasal vocals, you can imagine that they don’t mix well with the orchestral backdrop of “Adventure.” With some cliché concepts scattered throughout – we’re not lost, we’re on an adventure – and high notes that he shouldn’t be hitting, the Genius annotation for Russ’ TED talk-esque faux-inspirational rambling simply reads “Russ.” That’s about all you need to know. Bibi Bourelly is featured on three songs on the album’s back end, and she really picks things up – it’s nice to hear a real singer on some of these spacey, conscious hip-hop beats. Over a nice bassline and a beachside vibe, she drops a catchy chorus on “Oasis” that might make you a little more amenable to Russ overenunciating while calling himself a “f**king loserrr” and talking about being a Redditor. While you’d never be able to tell, it actually seems like the whole project is a concept album about a book called The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Santiago being its main character and “Fatima,” the title of the next track, his love interest. A truly dead-eyed love song with Russ’ usual boring melodies, awful high notes and empty space, the profession of his love really doesn’t sound believable.
Bourelly gets even more soulful on “Distracted,” and Russ proves that he should have been staying in his lower register this whole time – he actually sounds pretty good as a bed of support underneath her, singing along. With a waltz tempo, Russ emotes about missing someone far away. Bourelly’s final appearance is the least successful on “Tunnel Vision,” a typical work hard and follow your dreams anthem that uses the sweet spots in her voice less and backs her up with a washed-out gospel choir, but she still sounds good. Finally, you have to give closer “The Wind” credit for having a memorable melody – it’s the one that infiltrated its way into my brain – but it’s probably for the wrong reasons. The way Russ enunciates the title (“The weeeeeeeeend….”) is one of those things that’s so bad it’s good. Or maybe it’s just bad.
Sixteen albums in and releasing music all the time, you’d think that Russ would have some kind of a better idea of who he is as an artist or how to stand out from the pack, but he mostly just takes the most boring cliches of other, more successful artists and dulls them down even further. Even the album art makes me want to forget this one.
Favourite Tracks: Distracted, I Love You Boy, Oasis
Least Favourite Track: Smooth