The art of storytelling is one of the principal pillars on which hip hop or rap music thrives. Rappers use the medium of storytelling to convey not only their musical compositions, but also document their experiences – real or observatory; their struggles, thoughts and dreams. As some have pointed out, rappers are historians documenting inner city struggles- of death, crime, social inequality, police brutality and incarceration- caused through their own proclivities or deliberate societal programmes.
With rap purists’ exhibiting chagrin at some of today’s rappers who have chosen melody over lyrical skills, it is always thrilling to hear a young rapper who embraces the old tenets of hip hop. One young rapper beholding the ethos of storytelling and boom bap rhythms is OTI. His EP, ‘Untold Story’ burrows heavily into these two pillars. From the opening track “Lost” to the closing track “Chief Season”, OTI’s performance vindicate the fact that, there are some young rappers who continue to hold true to the tenets of the genre.
On “Lost”, OTI discusses the unwritten code of life for street hustlers – don’t be too trusting of even your friends (“same ones who clown you and laugh/be the niggaz who be scheming/gon’ turn around and blast”). The harshness of (street) life coupled with its slim survival rates- odds stacked against the child of the street – means one has need to be vigilant and work harder every time (“keep pushing till your bank account filled with millions’). Pitching his epistles over sampled PnB Rock beat for “Fleek”, OTI goes further to speak about the drug dealing culture and its brutal outcomes. It appears his background as a resident of New York and a student of hip hop offers him a better perspective about the hustling culture.
“Don’t Need Nobody” samples “Let’s Escape” by J-Louis and Abraham Blue’. With the sampled song’s hairy hook breezing across, OTI scripts a story about a 19 year old teen, raised by a single mom who becomes a product of her environment. “Dudes like you are never trusting”, OTI relays her perspective on love and commitment. She juggles between school and stripping so she could ”feed them kids”. In order to survive the weight on her shoulder, she finds an escape in alcohol and sex. Whereas OTI speaks from the perspective of an observer, Copta, who’s featured on the song, wants her as a lover; a proposal she declines since love for her is more transactional than it is committal. Copta’s delivery is remarkably intense. His presence lingers on even after his voice had faded. In fact, I’m yet to hear a flaccid verse or performance from him.
“Don’t Need Nobody” and “Stacy”, the dusty bass and drum beat which sees OTI continue with his storytelling skills mirrors Nas’ “Another Black Girl Lost” and Biggie Smalls’ “I Got A Story To Tell’ respectively. He raps, on the latter song, about how he got set up and robbed by his peers who used “Stacy” as a conduit. (I think Stacy seems is the same girl he talks about on ‘Don’t Need Nobody’). Not only does the story sound like it is inspired by the Biggie track, OTI’s delivery and tone mirrors that of the legendary Poppa.
“Sweet Love” is a tale about losses and heart breaks. Featuring Copta and Kwame Nsiah, the three rappers share their experiences from three different angles: OTI lost his girl because he isn’t successful. Copta asks “so what you bringing to the table baby/ Break your back we go role play I’m a major act”), revealing how he and his ex are secret lovers . Kwame Nsiah also lost his girl after a two year ‘hiatus’: “The J Heightz featured “Fall” is built around “Reflections” by Forexing, and it’s a guide to living and winning.
The use of samples, late 80s/early 90s New York hip hop sounds and imagistic storytelling proves OTI’s credential as a student of hip hop, especially a fan of the earlier rappers who helped entrench the genre. Where there existed a glitch has to do with his tonal delivery especially on ‘’Stacy’. He sounds like a rapper who was rapping too many words too hurriedly. This observation notwithstanding, hip hop runs deep in his veins.
‘Untold Story’ provokes some questions about OTI and his art. Who is he making songs for? If he’s making music for fans of ‘real hip hop’, then he’s on the right path. But, if he is seeking to win over fans from other quarters, OTI will have to expand on his themes and incorporate a bit of melody into his music. After all, hip hop is a sponge- like genre- it welcomes every musical genre into its warm embrace.