Major Without a Deal
You might know Troy Ave as the New York rapper who’s made it his personal mission to “restore the feeling” of classic Big Apple hip-hop. Or the one hawking Aftermath-lite street rap 10 years ago. Or the one spooning out serviceable post-ATL coke rap three years ago. Or the one ridiculing “weirdo rappers” on social media last year. Or the one posting up lighthearted “keymixes” of other people’s songs and riding pop- and disco-fused singles to local radio rotation since then. Ave is all of these at once on his sophomore album, Major Without a Deal, and the success of it hinges on how well his interests jibe.
Major Without a Deal’s primary objective—wrestling street rap out from under the long shadows of Lex Luger, Mike WiLL Made-It, and Zaytoven—is an ambitious one. There are scores more tools a producer can use to signify menace than boorish trap drums and only so many words left to describe what your arm does when you’re cooking crack. Major Without a Deal is refreshingly disinterested in sounding like anything else on the radio these days, but where the album could have set about crafting a new vision for New York hip-hop it settles for winding the clock back to an older one.
Major Without a Deal is refreshingly disinterested in sounding like anything else on the radio these days, but where the album could have set about crafting a new vision for New York hip-hop it settles for winding the clock back to an older one.
The melodic lilt of Ave’s trigger-happy hustler’s tales recall the year where 50 bullied Ja for singing his raps but then realized Ja was onto something and followed suit. His raps are hard but unafraid to get silly. The production feels like it predates the Obama administration at times, a call back to days when Jadakiss asked us “Why?” and Papoose told Busta he had the five boroughs in the palm of his hand. There’s a thin line between the timelessness of boom bap and a dearth of fresh ideas, though, and Major Without a Deal straddles it.
At its best Major Without a Deal recaptures the rugged weariness of 2000s commercial rap deep cuts. “Taste of Revenge” and “Do Betta” set Ave loose telling tense stories of success and ruin in the outer boroughs. “Quarter Million” opens the album with cocky snark as Troy memorably threatens to sip cold Cristal over an enemy’s inevitable Cold Case Files episode, and “I’m Bout It” calls trap rappers’ street cred into question. The mood never holds for long, though. Just as soon as you begin to see Troy as a success at funneling his bullish media persona into gruff, nostalgic rap, he’s off trying something weirder and substantially less successful.
Major Without a Deal’s concept songs miss almost as much as they hit. “Fake Butt Busta” is a nod to the Instagram wristwear vigilante Fake Watch Busta and a crude anti-cosmetic surgery hot take that never quite lands. “Gimme That” stashes an excellent A$AP Ferg verse behind exasperating chants of “Just gimme that head” and “Sacrifice your bitch to me.” The frat humor is scaled back somewhat for the rags-to-riches jingle “Doo Doo,” but the song’s passable vocal performance is sunk by a cheeseball scat metaphor and acoustic guitar embellishments.
Troy spends a good third of this album singing, and more often than not it’s a test of will for the listener. “Young King” remixes Raphael Saadiq’s “Still Ray” without a care for hitting the right notes. “Anytime” undercuts its own menace as Ave flips Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” into a note that he stays strapped, while “Do Me No Favors” drowns capable verses from Fabolous and Jadakiss in a howling, out-of-tune chorus. Troy’s doing it for the lols, one would think, but these cuts seem better suited to living and dying on a SoundCloud than padding out a retail album.
Over the last two years Troy Ave’s built himself up to be New York’s next great hope and torn down sharper, stranger lyricists for taking too many chances in their art. It’s unfortunate, then, that so much of his next at-bat should be spent struggling to rise to those standards. On Major Without a Deal, Troy and his collaborators showcase a solid grasp on the sound of New York rap throughout history. But New York’s past can’t be its future. If Troy’s ever going to get that deal he’s looking for and push past local renown, he’ll need to bring his A-game. The city can’t afford to be average.
Craig Jenkins is a writer living in New York. Follow him @CraigSJ.